On the whole “Proxy War” marks an important debut from an original writer
September 2021 had some disquieting news for India. First came the drug bust of the century as the DRI (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) seized a consignment of heroin weighing 3,000 kg worth Rs 21,000 crores from Gujarat’s Mundra Port. Then came breaking news: “30 kg of drug seized along LOC in Uri.” And October brought news which threw the TV channels into a tizzy: “Star son arrested on cruise on charges of possessing drugs.” All this lent salience and a sense of urgency to the debut novel of Sudip Talukdar; Proxy war: The Counter Moves; pitched as a tribute to the men of Indian Army.
The novel begins on a decidedly Enid-Blyton note with teenage friends Avinash (Avi) and Karan making a foray into an abandoned mill. Soon the mood darkens and the author shifts gears. The teens witness a murder and are hunted to within an inch of their lives. Avi makes a providential escape while Karan takes two bullets in his abdomen, before being rescued by Avi’s uncle, Major Rudra Pratap. More carnage is in store as the goons manage to snuff out the life of Karan’s mother, Achala.
The plot thickens. There is a plethora of incidents and characters, so much so that it becomes a tad difficult for the reader to keep a grip on the proceedings. Avi is abducted and released in the nick of time. A saboteur, Pappu Popat, is unmasked, the Buland Awaz Party, led by Acharyaji, makes political moves, and a nefarious NGO, headed by Kantaben, hatches a conspiracy. In the midst of all this, Major Pratap saves an army man Hameed, who served with him in counter-terror operations, from goons.
In an unrelated case, the Major has to face a Court of Inquiry and, though he is ultimately acquitted, the hazards of professional Army life are exquisitely detailed and brought to the fore. The narrative now moves to its central point as an evil Indian character, Shamsher Singh, strikes a deal with the enemy, Brig. Basheer Ali from Karachi, to supply heroin to the Indian Army and ruin them to zombies. A frightening scenario, not entirely implausible!
The Indian Army is not one to take things lying down. It hits back and how! The author has not finished with his bag of tricks and surprises, and comes up with “Blackmail” and “Fake Votes” (no spoilers here—they are the headings of chapters). There is also a surprising development, which exposes the deep links and interplay between politics and the mafiosi. Ultimately, the good guys win and the evil are eliminated. The denouement does not throw up surprises, red herrings are exposed and identities revealed.
Like all novels, “Proxy War” has its strengths and shortcomings. On the plus of the ledger, there are some significant entries. As a debutant novelist, to churn out an edge-of-the-seat thriller, which keeps the reader invested and interested till the end, is no mean feat. This page-turner also exhibits a strong visual sense, which brings the scenes alive to the reader and imprints themselves in her mind’s eye.
There are two significant flaws that will, no doubt, be smoothed out by experience and practice. One is that the author rides his hobby horses, which do not form part of the organic whole and stick out like sore thumbs. Examples are references to military scenes in films and the introduction of military men, living or dead. More damaging is the fact that “Proxy War” reads more like a screenplay than a novel. One feels the curtain going up on a scene and then descending. The novel would, however, make a great film.
On the whole, “Proxy War” marks an important debut from an original writer. One looks forward to more from this talented author.
Title: Proxy War: The Counter Moves
Author: Sudip Talukdar
Price: Rs 299
(The reviewer is a former Secretary, Government of India)