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Guest Post #7: Chimera - A Review by Mihir Shah

Saurav Jha @SJha1618

Updated: June 3, 2014, 4:37 PM IST
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First-time novelist Vivek Ahuja's book, Chimera, boasts a genesis as unconventional as the subject it explores. It began, not as an aspiring novelist's solitary effort at penning his first masterpiece, but as a military enthusiast's casual attempt to write a fictitious scenario involving an India-China conflict on an internet forum. I watched with great interest as the story grew from that attempt, with dozens of enthusiastic readers offering critiques, advice, brickbats, and wish-lists to the author as he posted each new chapter, always at a pace that seemed excruciatingly slow to his readers. So when I found out that the series of posts were going to be collated, edited, and published in the form of a novel, I was keen on laying my hands on a copy as soon as it came out.

One of the first things I noticed as I began reading Chimera was that it was in sore need of a professional editor. There are several typos and grammatical errors, the flow of events could have been better, and conversations between characters feel contrived at times. As it is, an undertaking of this magnitude requires extensive research on part of its creator and demands every bit of creative energy he can muster. The additional burden imposed by tasks like editing and publishing is only bound to distract him from where his efforts ought to lie. One can't help but imagine how a good editor would have transformed Chimera from a book directed primarily towards military techno-geeks into a more lucid read that reached out to a much wider audience.

However, once the reader sees past these imperfections and delves deeper into the novel, its strengths quickly come to the fore. It is evident that Ahuja's knowledge of the geography of the theater -- from the plains of Aksai Chin to the heavily forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh -- is exhaustive. His understanding of military organisation, the weaponry employed by both sides, the operational considerations of war in the mountains, and military tactics is equally profound. And when this deep insight is used to paint a vivid portrait of war, the outcome is simply stunning. Ahuja's masterful narratives of the Chinese strategy of executing a flanking maneuver through Bhutan to bypass and surround Indian defences in Tawang, of the systematic dismemberment and destruction of the Chinese air defence network, of the ultimate denouement of a war of this scale − the unleashing of nuclear weapons, bear ample testimony to that. The action itself is no less thrilling; I would be lying if I said I didn't do a little fist pump every time an Indian fighter plane smacked down its Chinese counterpart, or hold my breath as an Indian patrol walked into an ambush that was going to end very badly.

As thorough as the description of the military action is, it serves to highlight another shortcoming of the book − the treatment of the events leading up to the conflict. The basic premise is that minor incidents between two militaries deployed eyeball to eyeball, compounded by mistakes by aggressive local commanders, escalate to the point where one side lashes out and precipitates a war that neither wants. Given how events have played out on the border recently, that is a perfectly valid build-up to the conflict. And yet, the transition from a precarious peace punctuated by local clashes to total war is abrupt to the point of being inexplicable. That abruptness robs the storyline of what could have been a wonderful instrument to fully explore the motivations and behaviour of the actors on either side. Instead, the reader is left with the feeling that Ahuja got bored halfway through what was a promising build-up and decided to get on with the war sooner rather than later. That, more than anything else, does great injustice to a book that describes the battles that follow in rich detail.




What I really like about Chimera is that for the most part, Ahuja eschews the temptation to present the conflict as the classic battle between the good and evil. Instead, he approaches the subject as a relatively unbiased observer would − portraying India and China as two countries with differing strategic goals whose actions put them at loggerheads with each other. The depiction of the characters too is in line with this perspective. Competent and incompetent leaders abound on both sides, as do military commanders both bold and cautious. All this goes a long way towards providing a very realistic setting for the war that inevitably breaks out.

The rich detail, the refusal to stick to a formulaic plotline, and the depth in which the subject is explored makes Chimera a must-read, for not just the war aficionado, but also for anyone with a passing interest in the India-China relationship. Military fiction in the Indian context is about as rare as book genres get, so when a book of this sort is published, one can only hope that it doesn't turn out to be a damp squib. I'm glad to say that Chimera does not disappoint on that front.

Chimera is available for sale in India on Pothi.com and in the United States on Amazon.com

For updates follow Saurav Jha on twitter @SJha1618
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First Published: June 3, 2014, 4:37 PM IST

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