TOKYO: A legless Afghan woman pushing herself in a cart appears outside a remote US military outpost after a desperate, dusty firefight, demanding the body of her brother - one of the attackers - to take home for burial.
Her presence sparks fierce debate in “The Watch,” a novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, as the soldiers take turns telling the story as they try to determine if she herself is a terrorist, someone come to destroy them, or exactly what she says.
The Indian-born Roy-Bhattacharya spoke with Reuters about writing, the current state of literary fiction, and his novel, which was inspired by the Greek myth of Antigone, who tried to recover her brother's body in the face of laws forbidding even mourning him since he was considered a traitor.
Q: What got this book going?
A: “What got it going was my own frustration with the fact that literary fiction appears to have stopped dealing with the real world. So you have book after book coming out where it essentially deals with, I don't know, family issues this, that and the other ... I come from India, so in terms of what is known as collateral damage, we get little to nothing about what is actually happening on the ground in Afghanistan, much less than what is happening on the ground in Iraq. And I began this book with the intention of lending a face and a voice to those statistics.
“It was only after I'd written the first draft and started talking to American soldiers who had been there, that I realized that they themselves felt they were fighting this forgotten war.
Everyone paid lip service - and I've been told this repeatedly - no one wanted to listen to them. So it became equally important to me to tell their side of the story. One of the reasons I framed the book as I have is that I wanted to get out of the way entirely as an author and give agency to each one of the characters in the book and have them tell the story in the first person, passing it along like a baton.
“More than anything else, I wanted to write a book that would squarely involve the civilian reader in the kind of decision making and moral quandaries that are the soldiers' fate. Once you've read the book and you come to the penultimate page, you've really gone the whole emotional arc of identifying with the Pashtun girl to apprehending what's going to happen to the soldiers that you now know so well.”
Q: Were some of the points of view more difficult for you to write than others? Did some resonate more?
A: “Well, certainly the medic's point of view resonated because I think he was the one who was the most sensitive and made it a point to read up on Afghan culture. The medic is representative of somebody who actually steps out of the shell of his training and tries to see the other point of view.
“The captain was a difficult feat to pull off because I had to be someone who was completely middle of the road, completely strait-laced, completely resistant to breaking what in the military is called the chain of command.”
Q: You said you started talking to service members after you wrote the first draft. Why at that point?
A: “I had become very impatient with the fact that literary fiction just seems to have settled into this very comfortable groove. You have your sinecured job teaching writing, which I believe is a complete racket, and it's very parochial and you never go out of your comfort zone. I think of the writers of the 19th century and the real impact they had on the society - Dickens's novels leading to real changes in child labour laws, and so on. I don't have a background in literature, I've been an inveterate reader from the time I was a child; my background is in the social sciences. And if I'm to write fiction there's absolutely no reason why I can't imagine something based on my own research ... When Stefenie Mayer writes vampire novels, is she a vampire? It's just this kind of self-imposed limitations on the part of contemporary writers that I don't understand.”
Q: So what should fiction be doing?
A: “I think fiction should be addressing the real world and imaginatively bringing people out of their despair, in a way. Fiction should be to a certain extent activist, but it should
certainly be engaging, in the sense of the French word “engagement,” with the world we live in today. Trying to bring about changes. The pen being mightier than the sword - doesn't that sound like such an anachronism today when you look at literary fiction? It's like a parlour game. I believe in the pen being mightier than the sword and I think we need to go back to doing that, because the alternative is just pure entertainment.
“It depends on the writer. It can be entertaining, but at the same time, it must address issues. It must address moral issues. Dickens isn't exactly a difficult read, but you can feel the urgency of the issues he addresses.”