Nikhil Alva’s book enchanting eye-opener to Mizoram’s turbulent past

Alva’s prose is ironically matter-of-fact and non-judgemental

Every half century or so, a cyclic ecological phenomenon sees the whole of Mizoram (and many parts of the northeast and Myanmar) awash with the flowering of the mautak (bamboo species). Old-timers say that when the mautak flowers, mautam (bamboo death) follows close behind, bringing with it untold misery, death and destruction.

On the face of it, TV producer and entrepreneur Nikhil Alva’s impressive debut novel―If I Have To Be A Soldier―is a love story―boy meets girl, falls in love, but they are forced to separate over a misunderstanding. But simplifying this story to just that is akin to saying James Cameron’s Titanic is merely the story of Jack and Rose. For it isn’t love, or the bamboo, that blossom here―Alva adds to it the heft of history. Looming in the background, nay foreground, is history, politics, even geography, as a series of events unwrap to take potshots at the star-crossed lovers and the world around them.

Delhi-bred, Kannadiga-born Nikhil, the son of Congress leader Margaret Alva―who was in news for his social media makeover of Rahul Gandhi―dextrously positions his tale in the salubrious environs of the Mizo hills. But the timing isn’t all that breezy. The year is 1966, the mau (bamboo) has blossomed, and tam (death) is not far behind. Greater Mizoram is burning, with the Mizo National Front (MNF) calling for independence and prime minister Indira Gandhi swearing to crush the armed rebellion by sending in Delhi’s military might.

In the massacre and mayhem that follow―including the shocking instance of India bombing its own citizens in Aizawl on March 5, 1966―loyalties are tested and resolves are broken, as Alva’s fictional hero Sammy, a captain in the Army, finds himself on the run with dreaded MNF commander ‘Che’ Sena he was supposed to interrogate. Only, Sena is his childhood friend-turned-foe (and insurgent) and the brother of the love of his life.

As inculcated doctrines of a national narrative, jingoism and military discipline stare in the face of cultural identity, human bonding and, above all, love; 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 this is Alva’s first book, it ticks all the right boxes. The book is also an enchanting eye-opener into the rich tapestry of the Mizo way of life and history.

Alva’s prose is ironically matter-of-fact and non-judgemental, letting the reader form their opinions.

The scale of the story is grandly visual, and it is no accident considering that Alva initially wrote it as a screenplay, before he felt “only a novel could do justice”. The action, and the bodycount, is relentless, especially once Sammy and Sena go on the run, offering possibilities for a web series if not a twin-part movie. Throw in the human element of love and loss, and this becomes a screen wannabe. The story of India’s secret war in Mizoram, and how its stoic populace met it with dignity and resilience, is a tale that needs to be told.


Author: Nikhil J. Alva

Publisher: HarperCollins India

Price: Rs499; pages: 318