‘History sometimes can be a cruel companion of soldiers’, says Bhaavna Arora in her novel ‘Mistress of Honour’. History, and also love, as one would see on reading this story of ‘bullets and hearts dancing together’, as Shobhaa De puts it. Bhaavna’s book is inspired by real stories from the armed forces. The novel then is as much about love between a man and a woman as it is about duty towards the country. The Prologue begins how ‘They could have had a love story like anybody else’ and ends up making the reader eager for one with a difference.
Potnis, a captain in the Indian Army, meets Pansy during Operation Blue star in the Golden Temple. Coincidences and planned meetings with the help of an endearing Shamsher, Potnis’s junior, make sparks of passion end up in marriage. Through many wars and little peace-time, their daughter Rihana herself grows up to be a young woman ready to be swept off her feet by Advik, a school-mate who conquers her heart first and then the skies as an Indian Air Force Pilot. ‘Mistress of Honour’ is their story; of soldiers who ‘commit to the uniform even before wearing it’ and their wives who live through, with heart-breaking courage, the consequences of this country-first loyalty.
I am not sure if this is indeed a different love story, but that it is written around the Armed Forces certainly makes for novelty. For a reader like me who grew up among friends and family who served in the army, parts of ‘Mistress of Honour’ were a delightful trip to the days of admiring Gentlemen Cadets shyly from behind girly eyes. The three aspects which worked for me – the camaraderie between Potnis and Shamsher, the peeps within the walls of the NDA and Bhaavna’s over-arching aim to show the universal conflict of home versus duty; a conflict alive since epics on war came into being.
The Triple Shot
Lt. Shamsher, the Sikh who stormed into the Golden Temple because ‘duty is religion’, is a wonderfully created character. He gives the book a compassionate heart, a vein of humour and also shares with Potnis a friendship that is both entertaining and touching to see. Whisky, the Labrador bitch ‘is the only woman who sleeps with me’ but he leaves no code unused to make Potnis meet Pansy and then make Potnis propose to Pansy. He calls a turd a turd and through his “humour in uniform” he keeps the soldiers’ spirits high. Whoever this character is inspired from would be some man to meet!
I also enjoyed Advik’s NDA life and times, enough to wish the book had more of it and not just a few chapters which, to be honest, seem digressive to the plot at the stage at which they come. The Academy is not just the place which made Advik realize ‘the true meaning of friendship … the real meaning of words like courage, grit and comradeship’. Other skills included practical application of science over breakfast (to use bread to absorb porridge and thus eat more), surviving seniors’ punishments, finding a comrade in the training team ‘sleeping alongside another cadet on enemy territory’ and also suffering the stigma attached to being AWL – Absent Without Leave.
And finally, the undying theme of Home versus the World, Duty versus Love, forever fascinating to me. A ‘promotion with another star’ meant a higher rank in the Army to the man, but could equally mean another child to a woman longing for it. Potnis, first time stupid in love, ‘felt like a lover but acted like a soldier’. His courtship with Pansy describes his state of mind in comic imagery drawn from the war-front, juxtaposing love with duty and symbolic of how the war enters their love-nest and even their daughter’s, testing times and faiths and taking lives. Because, after all, a soldier’s first love remains his country and he gives up on his life and love so that others can have theirs. The book has its share of heroes and martyrs, and the women of courage who sign up for it.
Be that as it may, the hero of ‘Mistress of Honour’ was clearly intended to be the Armed Forces.
And it is this which also swings the book another way. Somewhere along the line Bhaavna’s love for this institution and her intent to generate pride for the men in olive green runneth over into excess. So much so that the main story of the novel itself starts seeming second to her aim of informing us about the inspiring Indian Army. Let me tell you how.
Army, the information, and the aggrandizement
I usually enjoy moments in a novel where the author, in the garb of a narrator or without it, makes an appearance. It makes for great dives beneath the surface. In the ‘Mistress of Honour’, however, Bhaavna’s voice bordered on interference. The moment the story goes on a steamroll, the author’s views on life in general and the army in particular begin. The clutch of the novel breaks, especially so when the reader is being given a fact file on weapons or nuggets out of India’s war history. There seemed to be a dual narrative – one of fiction and the other of information.
For instance, how JCOs are treated, what is Special Force, why night-firing is more dangerous, the linguistic expectations from Intelligence Officers, prioritizing of air tickets, facts about terrorist organisations and how the SSB interview is designed. I can’t question the author’s know-how, but I can its purpose in the book. It did nothing by way of forwarding the plot or adding to characterization.
While I appreciated her bold stance in saying how ‘the internal politics of the country had turned the army into political pawns for reasons best known to powers that be’ and even a candid expression naming a neighbouring country, what did spoil the reading experience was some sweeping generalisations and sermonizing. How ‘a companionship forged by pegs of whisky was more powerful than any other that could be forged through caste, religion or sex’, how ‘children like Rihana very rarely cause their family any worry’, how it is ‘every boy’s dream’ to play with real toys – guns and planes and how ‘an army wife quickly realizes that her husband’s duty is first to the country.’
The result of all these? Two.
One, the Indian Army ‘the most hospitable organization in India’ seems so aggrandized that it defeats the very purpose which Bhaavna set out with. ‘A soldier’s wife … unlike other wives, she had to stand by her husband for a cause bigger than … domestic disputes’ and says the grandmother, ‘some men who are not in uniform are not worth it.’
Two, the book, thanks to the narratorial voice, failed to fuse some of the most crucial chapters of Indian war history into its fictional narrative, and collaterally the characters into the times of turmoil they were placed in. There was too much outside noise to transport the reader into the book's world.
Apart from the aforementioned reasons, the use of language is to blame. The most ‘intense missions’ lack in intensity and scenes of love in emotion, making me wonder if this is done in keeping with how a soldier is meant to speak or act. It read mechanical, especially because, apart from Shamsher, all characters speak the same. Facts are repeated (and ‘school’ six times in one para!) and truisms like ‘the life of an army officer’s wife is a tough one’ many times over. Sadly, nothing so grave that a good editor couldn’t have fixed!
There is a lacuna which some readers may find too wide to ignore. Strong women characters, let alone women in uniform, are missing in the book. Bhaavna says ‘there is always a woman at the beginning of all great things’, but apart from the privilege of procreating, sacrificing their husbands to their duties and accepting themselves as second in the scene of things, none in the book broke free from what convention demands of them, over two generations. And this is why the glorification of army wives in the title seemed like a glorification of what they “are meant to do”, in a very male-dominated book. The concluding paragraph of the novel shows us Rihana’s wish for her son – ‘I’ll prepare my son if he wants to join the forces … I pray that he finds a beautiful girl … I’ll prepare his girl to bear great sacrifices.’ The woman is still not donning the uniform.
In the end, ‘Mistress of Honour’ seemed like many real life characters and stories fictionalized and somehow put together by an author who seemed to be narrating more to herself, as if reminiscing from her real life, than to a reader. It made me waver between ‘The Triple Shot’ and the rest of it, much like a pendulum. The book will be an entertaining read for many (big thanks to Shamsher!) and it may even inspire us to appreciate our Armed Forces by telling us much about them.
But I want to see Bhaavna Arora create a woman in olive green in her next. She has the stories. She has the wherewithal. And I hope that she, unlike Rihana, is thinking about it already.
As for ‘Mistress of Honour’, I can only give it half-a-salute.
'Mistress of Honour' by Bhaavna Arora is a Penguin Books publication, 2015.
[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]