Nikhil J. Alva’s debut novel ‘If I Have To Be A Soldier’ expertly weaves history and fiction

The Air Force bombers zoomed in low, dropping bombs and strafing anything in sight in the thickly populated town. Hutments, market areas, alleyways and buildings groaned to the ground in a plume of fire and smoke, even as terrified locals ran helter-skelter for dear life. Hundreds of innocent natives, including women and children, were killed, many trapped under the rubble of buildings. The people could only watch as their homes, livelihoods, places of work and worship, all went down in a hailstorm of fire power from above.

If the above description sounds like a terrible episode from, say, the Second World War, or a slice of timeline from a tinpot dictator’s banana republic from deep within the African continent, well, think again. It is a true incident from a less-talked-about part of India’s contemporary history, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered the armed forces to crush the rebellion of the people of present-day Mizoram who called for independence.

Unthinkable in a modern society, you might say. Yet, considering the increasing narrative of muscled-up governments and chest-thumping leaderships around the world, not exactly implausible still, even in the 21st century — that is very much the contemporary relevance and urgency of Nikhil J. Alva’s just-released debut novel, If I Have To Be A Soldier. The paperback weaves history and fiction to come up with a potboiler that is easily a page-turner as well as a stark reminder of the unsavoury blood-soaked foundations on which our much-prided Union is built on.

It was exactly 58 years ago, on March 1, 1966, that Mizo leader and former Indian Army soldier Laldenga (Mizoram and most of northeast was then part of the state of Assam) declared independence from India, declaring the existence of the independent state of ‘Greater Mizoram’. Indira Gandhi, who had just taken over as premier and wanting to show off, especially to the syndicate of entrenched male Congress party leaders that she had mettle, ordered India’s defence forces to crush the secession. The result was a series of massacres and mayhem that did not stop with India bombing its own citizens five days later, on March 5 (The Mizo insurgency came to a close only with a peace accord in the mid-eighties, and Laldenga becoming the first chief minister of the federated state).

Author Alva’s fictional characters Sammy, an Indian soldier forced to return to the land he grew up and the dark past he thought he had left behind, and ‘Che’ Sena, Sammy’s childhood friend-turned-insurgent, give a human face to the travails that visited these hill regions in the mid-sixties that is very much a part of India, yet, often ignored with the collective ‘northeast’ terminology. As inculcated doctrines of a national narrative, jingoism and military discipline stare at identity, friendship and, above all, love, in the face, often there are no victors, only victims. That is the reality the Sammy-Sena combine has to come to terms with when they get swept away in the great power play in motion, even as it forces them to confront demons both personal and the political, along the way.

Considering that it is his first book, Alva surely does impress with his descriptive prowess and free-flowing prose, and the way he has packed in enough action across 300-odd pages. This book is equally a fast-paced airport read as it is an eye-opening vista into the multiple layers of Mizo life and history.

The author, who is the son of Congress veteran Margaret Alva who was also instrumental in the recent social media makeover of Rahul Gandhi, is a well-known TV filmmaker. This eye for the visual comes through not only with the way he brings the landscape and culture of Greater Mizoram to light, but also in the not-stopping-for-breath speed with which the story progresses, once Sammy and Sena go on the run.

Alva himself says he first wrote a screenplay on these characters and the backdrop, but then “decided that only a novel could do justice to them”. He thought right as he successfully manages to give life and heft of history to the characters he created. And knowing his background in TV, who knows, it is a tale perfect for the plucking for an OTT series. What say, Mr Alva?

If I Have To Be A Soldier

By Nikhil J. Alva

HarperCollins Publishers India

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 318