The narrative jumps from the hurried pace of life of a young Army officer flushing out pirates aboard a ship to a balmy autumn evening in Mumbai and back again to a firefight in a luxury hotel that mirrors the worst terror attack on Indian soil. In Tanushree Podder’s No Margin for Error — A Tale of Bravery and Brotherhood set in the Indian Army (Roli Books), the ruptured timeline swings between exhilarating action and languid afternoons spent in regimental libraries, between tough training and fun dinner nights, between love and loss. The story told in economical but graphic prose shepherds you through the lives of Captain Neel Dutta and Major Sam Fernandes, who go on to form an extraordinary bond that defies even death.
Podder, who quit the rigours of a corporate job to pen 20 non-fiction books — the intrigues of the Mughal court in Nur Jahan’s Daughter and Escape from Harem, Saddam Hussein in Death Of A Dictator, the interpretation of dreams in Dreams: A Mystic World and the key to good health in You Are What You Eat, says, via telephone, “I was schooled across India and graduated from Lady Keane College, Shillong. It translated into a love for travel writing,” something that happened in plenty when she followed her Army-officer husband on his postings. “Then, I turned to writing fiction and No Margin for Error is my ninth novel.”
Podder was drawn to writing about the Army after she accompanied her husband to his reunion. “I saw seasoned soldiers once again live out their carefree cadet days. I wanted to tell their stories. Despite the years, they were still the same, their camaraderie transcended ranks.”
Which is how Podder ended up writing a trilogy although she didn’t plan for one when she started her first book Boots, Belts, Berets that tracks the lives of five cadets at the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasala, in the 1970s. On the Double, followed the five into the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. The books can be read independently, and the latter was set in the 1990s.
Boots, Belts, Berets is now being adapted by Viacom18 Studio’s digital content arm, Tipping Point, as a 14-part web series. Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Studios, which has had hits such as Andhadhun, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Drishyam and Queen, among others, says that Tipping Point seeks out narratives such as Boots, Belts, Berets that are missing in the mainstream. The web series will release next year.
Says Podder, “Three production houses were keen on these stories, which I feel is a result of a new-found interest in the armed forces. Although I am not involved in the screenplay, I hope all angles of life in the forces are explored, especially the perspective of the families.”
This is something that Podder explores in detail in No Margin for Error. “I wanted to show that your average soldier or officer often has a flawed backstory, emotions, stress… something he struggles to smoothen out even as he is constantly adjusting to an ever-changing environment, swinging between snatches of old-world romance and chaotic conflicts fought with technology-driven weapons,” she says.
The novel, replete with military language and lore, also opens up a little-known world often hidden behind pruned hedges and well-laid out cantonment roads. “I had written the story post 26/11 and the hero’s character is based on the late Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. Some of the incidents were from my husband’s career in the artillery. For the sections on the Special Forces, the High Altitude Warfare School, the naval operations and the hotel in which the climax is staged, I had to do plenty of research.”
The chapters change with the speed of a bullet; only one survives to tell the tale in a moving climax. And that’s what perhaps keeps you riveted to the story till the end.