It takes either extreme cockiness or unsnubbable ambition to attempt a magnum opus on ancient Greece when all you know to begin with is the smattering of lore and legend that you picked up as a schoolkid from comic books. But Aniruddha Bahal has plenty of both. In fact, you could say Bahal’s new novel, The Emissary: A Tale of Love, Vendetta and War, set in Greece during Alexander’s reign, is the result of a snub that misfired. This was in 2002, when Bahal met the grandmaster of put-downs, Sir Vidia Naipaul. Discovering that Bahal had read no history so far, Naipaul ticked off the young writer, suggesting that writers of fiction had to make history compulsory reading. Bahal returned home to do just that: attracted vaguely to the heroes of ancient Greece, Bahal picked up a bunch of books on ancient Greek history. And being a man who revels in taking risks, he instantly decided to write a historical fiction of that time. Eight years later, Bahal is not only out with a breathless, 456-page saga of match-fixings in chariot races, battles and gory deaths told in the voice of Alexander’s emissary, Seleucus, but is also planning a 500-page sequel—as soon as he finishes the novel he’s writing in between—about Iraq!
It’s this trademark combination of cheekiness and a hide so thick that he’s impervious to any humiliation that has made Bahal what he is today—a former salesman of automated office equipment who broke into journalism to become the King of Sting, famously exposing among other things, match-fixing in cricket and corruption in defence deals, Operation West End that brought a government to its knees, no less, toppling a defence minister and several high-placed army officials.
In between the investigative stories, a wacky Tony B show on Channel V where he posed ludicrous questions to celebrities, poker-faced, and fighting the slew of legal cases that followed Operation West End (in the last ten years, Bahal spent on average one day a week in courts and that’s not counting the time spent conferring with his lawyers), Bahal also gatecrashed into another exclusive club: writing a low-brow thriller, Bunker 13, that catapulted him into the privileged ranks of Indian writers published abroad for a massive advance.
There’s also the daredevilry. He likes danger, and not just skydiving and bungee jumping. In his undercover investigations, Bahal confesses, “I enjoy the danger: the sense of will I get caught out today?” It’s the same “will-I-get-caught-out” flirting with danger that seems to impel him into undertaking books of such breathcatching impudence—ranging from romance to thriller to ancient Greece to contemporary Iraq—all the time ignoring the wealth of documentation he already has about contemporary India. So when is he going to write about us for ourselves? “It’s true that I engage with India through my journalism and not my fiction,” Bahal says, “but it’s the economics—there’s simply no money in writing for Indian readers alone”.
And yet, as Bahal admits, “there’s so much material in my head about India that it has to come out in my books. I will eventually get bored with Iraq and ancient Greece and come back to India.”
Naipaul ticked Bahal off by suggesting that writers of fiction must make history their compulsory reading.
Bahal has always been a story-teller. As a ‘cantonment kid’ in Allahabad, he entertained his schoolfriends with elaborate war games, drawing up detailed route maps, inspired by the World War II Commando comics he devoured by the hundreds. After working briefly as a salesman in Calcutta, Bahal opened his own gift shop, selling brass ‘exports stuff’. He also took a year off to write his first novel, The Mirror Cracked, what he calls his ‘campus novel’. But despite his perseverance in getting it published (Rupa, 1991), it sank without a trace. Bahal had no option but to resume his business. Then one day, he says, he was in Delhi’s Connaught Place on business, saw the India Today board and walked in and got a job. Others tell the story a little differently—Bahal had, in fact, unleashed his famous energy in landing himself a job as a journalist, doing endless rounds of the magazine’s office until the editor finally relented.
He used the Bahal Effect in his subsequent reporting days in Outlook as well. “I was very pushy,” he recalls. “I used to keep sending Vinod (Mehta) and Tarun (Tejpal) ideas. They’d refuse one, I’d send another. But how much can they keep on refusing? They eventually gave up in disgust, and said: ‘Go and bloody do it.’” In comparison, he says, breaking into the literary world was “a cakewalk”. Having met UK literary agent Gillon Aitken in the course of his work, he sent him the manuscript of a novel he’d already written, Night Out, about a single night in the life of a young man in Delhi. But Aitkin turned it down, politely writing back that if he ever wrote anything else, he’d be glad to take a look. Bahal being Bahal, almost instantly sent him the first three chapters of Bunker 13, which also he had almost finished by that time. “If he had not liked Bunker, I’d have kept sending him manuscript after manuscript—how many could he refuse?” says the irrepressible Bahal.
“There’s something about agents,” muses Bahal, who is by now something of an authority in figuring out what (strategy) works with who. “They’ll never sign you on just because they like you. They’ll only take you on if they think they can make money out of you, even if it’s only a $1,000.” As it happened, Aitkin’s business instinct didn’t lie. Bunker 13 sold the world over for advances amounting to $4,00,000. Bahal is not above taking a boyish pride that his advance was much bigger than Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
If Bunker 13 lingers in public memory for having won the Bad Sex Award, its author is largely responsible. Far from being abashed, Bahal took a free trip to London to receive the prize and claimed in various newspaper interviews that he was honoured to receive the award. But was that only a front, considering how restrained he has become in The Emissary when it comes to sex? Bahal is quick to deny any toning down. “There’s less sex here because it’s ancient Greece, but you’ll see plenty of it in my next Iraq book.”
In Bahal’s words, “It’s a life full of demonic energy”. He’s talking about Alexander’s extraordinary conquest of the world but to me it seems an apt description of Bahal as well.