SAND, sweat and inner turmoil are recurring themes in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s latest novel, The Watch. Set in an isolated American garrison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, The Watch unfolds the story of Nizam — a Pashtun girl — who parks herself outside a military base. Nizam is there for only one reason — to take back the body of her brother who was killed in battle at the base a few days ago.
Combat Outpost Tarsandan, located in a mountainous and remote part of the province, is attacked by men perceived to be Taliban. The US forces suffer heavy casualties, including the death of a much-loved and respected lieutenant. After a fierce firefight the attackers are killed and their bodies dragged and dumped outside the base, except for Nizam’s brother’s. The US military plans to transport his body to Kabul and showcase the rotting corpse as part of their anti-Taliban propaganda.
Not willing to let that happen, Nizam sits in a trolley outside the outpost, demanding her brother’s body. The unarmed, legless Pashtun girl wants to give him a proper burial and refuses to leave in spite of being ordered to.
Nizam’s presence and conviction triggers a bizarre stand-off with the battle-hardened men inside the garrison. They do not know what to do with her and her presence makes the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere in the camp come to a boil as rank and file argue about what to do next.
She goes on to explain that her brother was not a Taliban, but a mujahiddin — a proud Pashtun who hated the invading forces as much as he despised the Taliban. Though he attacked the garrison, he was also fighting the Taliban.
Enter Masood, a local Afghan interpreter who joins the garrison and is in complete awe of the visitors. He is convinced the Americans are going to bring peace to his country. As one character says, “Dude, we didn’t sign up to save your country. Most of us signed up to get a regular pay check and avoid working at the local super mart for the rest of our lives.” Soon the soldiers begin to dwell on their purpose in Afghanistan.
Roy-Bhattacharya evokes the futility of war and the failure of an imperial adventure gone terribly wrong. The landscape is just as brutal as the war, and the author minces no words in an interview with the publisher as to what drew him to write about Afghanistan, given that he has never set foot in the country: “Afghanistan is at the heart of Asia, and when Afghanistan suffers, Asia bleeds. It’s a wildly beautiful country, with a wildly beautiful people, and one of the last places in the world that appears to have successfully held its own against misguided outside influences.” He goes onto add, “What’s not to love?’
Although the Indian-born American author has never served in the military, he deftly uses his imagination as a tool and through the lives of several soldiers, tells us how the Afghan mission is lurching from one disaster to the next.
The US troops soon realise that, compared to the ultra corrupt government in Kabul, Nizam’s request for her brother’s body is untainted by any ulterior motive. Her need is simple and she has no interest in compromising with those who have killed her family. She rejects their every overture — be it offerings of food or offers of treatment for her amputated legs.
By doing so, Nizam becomes a microcosm of rejection by the Pashtuns of the material temptations offered by the West. She sees no problems with her way of life and wants nothing to change.
The Watch (NOVEL) By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya Alfred A. Knopf, Canada ISBN 978-0-307-40223-3 290pp. CAD$29.95