Often, the hallmark of a good story is when it connects with you. For me, the story of Major Archana in Minnie Vaid’s novel, Fateh, felt personal. Major Archana and her journey from being an Army wife to wearing the olive green uniform herself, with all the trials and tribulations in between, is a story similar to what I have witnessed from close quarters.
Fateh is a work of fiction, inspired by a true story. It is written simply, lucidly with no theatrics or over-dramatisation which makes the book an easy read and the story, evocative.
The book opens with its protagonist, Major Archana, in the Army Recruitment Training Centre in Secunderabad, as she leads a group of 23 trainees on a 30-km cross-country night run.
The introductory pages build up Archana’s character in this backdrop—she is an officer diligent in her work, with a calm facade that effectively shields her thoughts. Her stoicism does not let her put her guard down even for her feisty 14-year-old daughter who she is raising alone, and who, Archana realises, is a spitting image of the person she used to be almost two decades ago.
The story goes on a flashback at this point, travelling all the way to Haryana, where Archana was born and raised. Despite being from a conservative family and society where girls were not encouraged to pursue higher studies, she negotiated her way through school and college, and then joined the National Cadet Corps where the first seed of aspiration, to join the Indian Army, took root.
Everything is perfect about Archana—so much so that the reader is almost left seeking for a little chip somewhere, a minor flaw perhaps, that will make her seem more human. It is a danger often threatening a writer’s protagonist—you want your reader to revere your character so much that it risks losing the connect of being raw and real.
What does seem more realistic is when Archana’s parents—supportive of their daughter until this point—bow to societal expectations and rudely cut short her dreams by fixing her marriage to Laxman Deswal, an Army officer. Fortunately for her, she finds an unexpected ally in her husband, someone who supports her ambition to continue her studies from her parental home, as he serves in a non-family field area posting.
Archana’s story is not uncommon among families in the defence forces. Living apart for weeks and months altogether because of the nature of their work is a given among soldiers’ families. But Archana’s story connects to a wider audience because it has elements common to a larger base. For instance, the burden of expectations and compromises that a newly wed woman is suddenly expected to shoulder, and that too with ease, is a social conditioning that most of us are aware of.
And so Archana slowly begins to make peace with her new life. There are moments of longing and tenderness, like when the couple write long letters to each other, or talk for hours on the red mobile phone that he gifts her, until a fateful day when her call to her husband goes unanswered.
What works for the book is the suddenness of the events that unfold. It surprises, almost blindsides the reader, just as it comes as a rude shock to the protagonist. It is how life is. No theatrics, no over-dramatisation.
It works for me, personally, because all that Archana goes through—losing her husband when she is pregnant and just at the throes of a new life, being mistreated by family when she needed their support the most—is what someone I know went through in reality. But as the title of the book denotes, (fateh means victory) the story turns, and the character, when she hits rock bottom, finds the courage to rise to every challenge. It’s a journey of self-discovery. And when finally, after a year long separation from her newborn, Archana wears the olive green uniform herself, you, as a reader, feel vindicated. Sometimes dreams do come true, just not how we’d imagine or expect.
There are moments of poignancy, too—like when Archana reads a letter of invitation to deliver a talk to the Veer Nari (widows whose husbands in the Army have been martyred). Or when, as a new mother and a cadet in the Officers Training Academy (OTA), she pines for her baby who she had to leave behind with her parents. Despite it all, her perfection remains a sustained flaw — the protagonist is raised to a pedestal.
Overall, at 126 pages, Fateh is a short and good read. Opinions could be divided over the ending of the book, on how Archana gets her closure. But what is a book if it doesn’t make us think?
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur