Decorated Indian Naval veteran, Manan Bhatt makes continues his literary journey with his latest book, Balakot Air Strike: How India Avenged Pulwama published by Garuda Prakashan Pvt. Ltd. The author had previously written the book Kargil Yuddha - Gujarat Na shahido.
Q. Sir, you became a published author after writing Kargil Yuddha - Gujarat Na shahido and Balakot Air Strike: How India Avenged Pulwama following your illustrious naval career. That must have been a great story. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey from being a young naval officer to penning down two books?
Ans: When I joined The Indian Navy in the year 1997, I was a young boy of Seventeen. The Navy gave me an ocean of opportunities and provided a platform to grow. The Navy being a thoroughly professional force, thrusts upon the skills and empowerment of every individual.
My service during OP Talwar, Kargil War, OP Parakram and OP Ocean Shield provided me with the most essential Operational Deployment experience. Service onboard Frigate and Corvette class Warships, appointments in IHQ and DRDO, tenure with the Indian Navy’s elite Commando Force – MARCOS, foreign assignments were challenging but provided with the much desired exposure.
My first independent write-up during service was a draft of a citation for a MARCOS colleague of mine who had shown exceptional bravery during an operational deployment. The service writing has a discipline in it. I knew that I had that flair for creative writing within me. However, it remained a distant dream as the patience required for serious writing wasn’t still quite there. In the year 2012, I hung-up my boots and retired as a Petty Officer from INS Valsura.
In the year 2016, a neatly drafted press-note of mine on the ‘Hanumanthappa’ incident at Siachen prompted the Editor-in-Chief of a century old newspaper to ask me to write a weekly column for them. I began my research and writings on Kargil War later in the same year, which appeared in the daily’s midweek edition continuously for two and a half years. Since then, my writing journey has remained unstoppable.
At present, I write OP-EDs as strategic and defence analyst for Mumbai Samachar, the oldest surviving newspaper in the entire Asia.
Q. What inspired you to write Kargil Yuddha - Gujarat Na shahido and Balakot Air Strike: How India Avenged Pulwama? Secondly, what do these books touch upon? How do you feel these books if read in succession will add to a reader’s knowledge about the Indian Armed Forces?
Ans: My Inpirations for my first book – ‘Kargil Yuddha – Gujarat Na Shahido’
I visited Kargil War memorial at Dras, sometime in the year 2016. The awe-inspiring narration of the Kargil war by Havildar Mohammad Zakir of J&K light infantry at the memorial struck a chord with me. I felt as if our Kargil martyrs were waving toward us from the nearby hills and raising their regimental slogans and shouting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai.’
It became my calling to write about the Kargil War. I was focused on war stories of Kargil War martyrs from Gujarat. I had to start from scratch as nothing was known about those war heroes. I met their families; they too had no knowledge about the valour of their loved ones at the Battlefront.
I decided to search for their colleagues who have fought in the war alongside those Martyrs. Many ex-soldiers were reluctant to share their side of the story. After a lot of persuasion, war stories started to roll and one after another heroic tale began to emerge. These revelations filled my heart with immense pride and gratitude.
As a keen reader of India’s military History, I knew that I was witness to something which was unknown till date and magnanimous in scale. By the time I completed my series on Kargil, the Surgical Strikes happened. Thus began my new series for the newspaper; “Surgical Strike – A Recap.”
Three years later, Pulwama happened.
My recent book - ‘Balakot Air Strike – How India Avenged Pulwama’
There was this video of a Pulwama attack survivor CRPF Jawan feeding his lunch to a paraplegic Kashmiri boy with his own hands in a street of volatile downtown Srinagar.
Pulwama terror attack had resulted in him losing his brothers in arms still the survivor Jawan had not lost his humanity. These uniformed men despite being at the receiving end of abuses, stone pelting, arson, hand grenades and heinous terror attacks like Pulwama have still remained humane to the core.
This single event stirred a lot of emotions in me. I knew that I had to tell their stories to the people. Being an ex-Soldier myself, I took it as my National calling to bring to the fore, the tales of valour and sacrifices of fellow soldiers.
This book is my homage to the fallen CRPF men of Pulwama.
Most of us believe that as there are no survivors from the ill-fated CRPF bus, what is there to write about?
Let me tell you, each one of the martyred souls from the heinous Pulwama terror attack had left their marks on the sands of time.
I went out in a quest to know more about them and particularly about their last journey. I met with the families of the martyred CRPF Jawans and listened to the details from their last phone calls, some recorded videos, and calls came in handy. I met with the injured and the eye-witnesses from other CRPF buses.
Through a video message of Head Constable Sukhjinder Singh that he sent moments prior to the blast, I was able to recreate the seat wise position of the martyred Jawans from the ill-fated bus.
These were clear signs that the story of this last journey of my fallen CRPF brothers is destined to be told by me.
Q. How do you feel these books, if read in succession, will add to a reader’s knowledge about the Indian Armed Forces?
Ans: Both my books are the result of my groundwork and ode to my service in the I.N. When I write about the forces, I write from a really strong point of view of ‘being there and doing that.’ Therefore, the eternal bond that I share with the Armed Forces shows up in all my writings.
This earthly feeling will strengthen the readers’ emotional connect with the armed forces besides giving them a clear on-ground know-how about the weapon systems that are being used and challenges being faced by the men on ground while executing life defying missions for the country.
Q. Secondly, what do these books touch upon? How do you feel these books if read in succession will add to a reader’s knowledge about the Indian Armed Forces?
Ans: I interview the men on ground, the infantry, the CRPF Jawans, the pilots. I approach every topic from an Indian Soldier’s perspective. As I am emotionally touched by the subject, I never claim to be totally objective.
For the benefit of the young reader, I try to imbibe the services core values, morale of a soldier whilst narrating my stories. I also touch upon some prima-facie information about weapons, aircrafts, warships etc., and weave them into the storyline.
The narration of Dog fight between the MiG-21 of Wing Commander Abhi and the enemy F-16 in my Book ‘Balakot… is so vivid that the reader would feel as if they are themselves seated in the cockpit of the jet.
This very interest of the reader would one day inspire them to join the forces. And for those who are already in the forces, they would be inspired to do extraordinary things for the Nation.
Q. Who in your mind are the core readers for the books? And, how do you feel that they further add to the plethora of existing Indian military literature in a meaningful way?
Ans: Every young man and woman aspiring to join the forces or having interest in the military is the core reader for my books. Besides, every man serving and retired would find his own story somewhere between the lines. Even those long retired would find themselves in the middle of the happenings with a strong feel of déjà-vu.
This Veteran Soldier’s writing is different in a way that it fills the void between the analytical military writings from a senior officer’s point of view and books on defence which are written by journalists. I report directly from the lion’s mouth.
Q. Could you tell our readers about the research which went into writing both books? What was your process and how did your contemporaries and juniors respond to the finished products?
Ans: For my research on Kargil, I had to search for and contact every recent retiree from the regiments who fought at Kargil in the year 1999. Only a few of the retirees were ready to share their stories. The toughest part was to verify those stories, which I was able to do with the help of war diaries of some of the senior people from their battalions.
For the Pulwama part of the Balakot… book, I met and talked to a lot of CRPF men who were part of that ill-fated convoy. I met with the families of the martyred CRPF Jawans from the bus. The NIA charge sheet on Pulwama terror attack, a leaked dossier on Balakot terror camp and other investigative reports were also studied. In addition, to put things into perspective, I went through a lot of books also some documentaries on suicide terrorism and the terror tanzims.
The air strikes and the Wg Cdr Abhi saga have been recreated with the help of available open source information. I went through books on Air Force operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wars to World War-II.
My batchmates and juniors who have read my books are giving rave reviews and are all praise for the work done. The senior and superior officers have been very encouraging and those who have read gave BZ to the Books.
Q. What did you learn during the writing process? What surprised you the most during your extensive writing journey? Could you tell us about some of the key challenges you faced when writing the books? Did you experience writer’s block, if so, how did you overcome it? Lastly, how did you successfully publish your manuscripts?
Ans: A naval veteran writing about IAF Air Strikes, the entire experience was indeed a learning curve. I have remained faithful to the facts that emerged out of the information, sparing matters that could endanger National Security.
I have a habit of digging deep for my writing. My Kargil book has a surprise revelation about the empowered squads of 2 Rajputana Rifles under extraordinary leadership of Col. M B Ravindranath, a fact unknown to the entire nation.
We all are aware that the ill-fated Pulwama bus unfortunately has no survivors. But, I was able to recreate the seating arrangements from inside the bus and map the last journey of the Pulwama martyrs, moment by moment, minute by minute. Thus, I was able to pay homage to them. The entire last journey of the Pulwama martyrs and Abhi’s dogfight are the biggest surprises from the book for me.
Yes, the writer’s block comes once in a while. It also spares me quality time to spend with my family which my busy professional schedules besides writing don’t give me. I am so forgetful that sometimes, I forget about the block and start to write.
I sent Balakot.. manuscript to ten publishers some of them regretted, some didn’t even revert. Thankfully, one publishing agent after going through the rushes of the book, advised me to work upon characterization etc. I also referred my manuscript to Four General officers from the tri-services.
They advised some drastic changes to the book that included removing two major chapters that consisted around seventy pages of sheer research. I reworked the manuscript for next six months, and submitted it to the Garuda Publications who accepted the same after their panel of experts reviewed and Okayed the work.
Q. What can you share about your books which are not written in the blurb or synopsis? Are there any particular chapters from your books which you would like to share or highlight? If so, what do the chapters specifically deal with and why does it stand out for you?
Ans: My favorite chapter from the Balakot… book is of course the dogfight one. The chapters where the air duel is narrated; form the most significant part of my book. I want the reader to feel the pull of ‘g’ force and the rush of an afterburner. I don’t remember such vivid narration of Air combat ever appearing in an Indian war story.
I am appending some paragraphs below:
“He had to initiate a counter maneuver and as he pulled his jet upwards, he felt the effect of ‘g’ that pinned him to his ejection seat. He turned his head sideways to keep the IAF fighters in sight and also kept monitoring the airspeed indicator as his speed began to decline rapidly.
The PAF Jet started to judder, but just prior to stalling, the experienced pilot rammed the aileron wheel and the rudder hard left in a coordinated movement as he turned in a steep ‘Wingover’ and his nose began to drop. The defensive invader now dived and plunged into the clouds in his endeavor to deceive the IAF jets while he recovered from the ‘Wingover’ maneuver.
The ‘Wingover’ gave the F-16 pilot a few microseconds to pick an Indian Fighter to pursue. Approaching from a superior height, he closed in quickly and launched an AMRAAM missile towards the AVENGER-I.”
Q. Other than your books what other books from the genre would you recommend be added to a young defence service officers reading list? Could you elaborate on your reasons for those recommendations?
My reading list from the military genre:
- Mutiny Of The Innocents by Leading Telegraphist BC Dutt
- Surrender at Dacca – Birth of a Nation by Lt. Gen JFR Jacob
- War Despatches: Indo-Pak Conflict, 1965 by Lt. Gen Harbaksh Singh
- Operation X: The Untold Story of India's Covert Naval War in East Pakistan by Capt. M.N.R. Samant and Sandeep Unnithan.
- Airpower at 18,000 : The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War by Benjamin Lambeth
- The Maharajas Paltans – A history of the Indian State forces (Two Part Book)
Q. Why is reading important for our military and/or the nation at large, and how has writing made you a more analytical thinker and writer?
Ans: By reading, one learns through others’ experiences, to me, it seems a better way to function for the military. It is proven beyond doubt that extracurricular reading habits work wonders for the development of one’s professional wisdom. Deep reading promotes empathy and emotional intelligence besides the earned Knowledge gives wings to an individual. India as a well read nation could go on to become a well informed nation.
Once, I had developed a distinctive point of view and was able to critically think and analyze things from my own perspective. I knew that my writing abilities had arrived. Maturity did arrive with more and more reading and writing. Next step is refining the information and being able to put things into perspective.
Q. Are you of the opinion that military veterans should be encouraged to write about their unique service experiences or share their professional views in the form of a book? How do you feel this will empower the next generation of military professionals and policy makers?
Ans: India’s military literature would be richer, once more and more veterans come forward and take the pains of penning down their service experiences. Even the armed forces and our policy makers are in great need of advice from books on a range of subjects from our intellectual veterans. It is of utmost importance that one analyses his experiences of service and puts them on paper, which would eventually work as a guiding light for generations to come.
Our honorable PM has put special emphasis upon indigenisation of our military doctrines during the recently concluded commanders’ conference. Therefore, I believe that if there is any time ripe for literary contribution from our intellectual veterans, it is now.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you like to give a veteran who has a story to tell however does not know how to formulate it in the form of a book, how would you recommend they go about the journey?
Ans: I believe, one should read a lot of contemporary books on the relevant subject that would give a rough Idea about basic formulation of a story.
If one has a story to tell, that has to be a different one than something that has already been told. As a Soldier-writer, I don’t choose my subject keeping in mind the interest of the readers. But, one subject has struck a chord within me; I ensure that I write in such a way that would keep the reader glued to it. Writing a book is like giving birth to a child, it passes through a lot of motions and emotions. A burning desire to tell a story, honed with the correct mindset and a lot of patience results in the birth of a book.
About the Author
Veteran Manan Bhatt is the author of "Balakot Air Strike: How India Avenged Pulwama", published by Garuda Prakashan. Kargil Yuddha - Gujarat Na shahido was his first book. He is a Veteran of Indian Navy.
A Graduate of Saurashtra University, having served onboard Frigates & Corvettes with 15 years’ service under his belt that includes service during Operation Talwar (Kargil War) and Operation Parakram also assignments at the Integrated Headquarters of Defence and DRDO.
He has also served very closely with the Indian Navy’s elite Commando Force – MARCOS. He has also served foreign assignments in Russia, USA and other friendly Nations. He is an expert in the field of Nuclear Biological and Chemical Warfare and Defence Including Fire and Safety.
He is continuously striving for rehabilitation and resettlement of widows of soldiers, children and families of martyred soldiers, disabled ex-servicemen and ex-servicemen. He lives in Rajkot, Gujarat.
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