Monday, 27 June 2011

“Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security”, by Ahmed Rashid – A Few Observations

I recently re-read Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos” which was released sometime in the middle of 2008. A masterpiece by an expert who has very peers in his field, Descent into Chaos is relevant and useful for someone who wants to understand the Af-Pak conundrum, even three years after its publication. Rather that write a detailed review of this excellent book which has been reviewed so many times by so many clever writers, I propose to make a few observations:

1. After the caveat that Hamid Karzai is a good friend, Rashid has nothing but praise for Karzai who hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations created when he took over power. The number of times Rashid criticizes Karzai can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I found the near total absence of criticism of Karzai to be the biggest drawback in this book.

2. Rashid devotes extensive space to explain how the US administration under George Bush flagrantly breached the Geneva Convention as it set up detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and other places and carried out renditions of suspected Islamic fundamentalists. I wonder if Rashid would continue to feel so strongly about the use of torture in light of the fact that information gleaned from suspects through the use of intensive interrogation techniques helped locate Bin Laden. The fact of the matter is that torture does work at times and those who are against the use of torture should be willing to say that States should not resort to torture even if it may work.

3. Rashid describes Nawaz Sharif thus: ‘A businessman from Lahore whose family had prospered enormously under the Zia regime was a dour, unintelligent politician who had been promoted and patronized by the military.’ I find this description very interesting. I’ve never heard anyone else call Sharif unintelligent. Mind you, I have no reason to think Rashid has got it wrong.

4. Rashid has only praise for Benazir Bhutto, even more than he has for Karzai. There is a vague mention of the corruption charges against Bhutto, but Rashid tells us that ‘There is little doubt that Bhutto and Karzai working together would have formed a team committed to combat extremism.

5. Asif Zardari is depicted as a wise man who, unfortunately and for no fault of his own, happens to be corrupt.

I guess when one is Pakistani and is close to most of the big players in that region, one is bound to have a few sacred cows in one’s backpack. I realise that my observations above may give the impression that I did not like ‘Descent into Chaos’. Far from it, I really liked the book and Rashid’s pithy style of writing.

Rashid concludes by saying that (remember this is mid-2008): ‘The American people have elected a new President who is largely committed to change and improving the world we live in. Obama has generated enormous expectations in the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In order to live upto those expectations, he has to help deliver a long-lasting peace and stabilization program in the region.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed – A Book Review

'Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips and says, "the job is not that hard you see, you just .....................'

The opening sentence of Mirza Waheed’s novel gave me the feeling that I was reading one of those Soviet era books set in the years following the October revolution and that ‘Kadian’ was possibly the abbreviation of an Armenian name. But no, Captain Kadian is employed by the Indian army, has been deployed in Kashmir for a three-year tour of duty and is responsible for most of the unnamed Protagonist’s nightmares. Though ‘Kadian’ is not a common Indian name, Wikipedia informs me that there exists a Jat clan called Kadian and we are told by the author that Captain Kadian is ‘young, handsome, north Indian. A Punjabi perhaps, a Jat probably.’ A humble Gujjar lad, the Protagonist is a collaborator who runs dirty errands for the cruel Captain Kadian, who the Protagonist hates and fears in equal measure.

I began to hate The Collaborator even before I crossed the first twenty pages. Set against the backdrop of the insurgency in Kashmir in the early 1990s, The Collaborator depicts the Indian army as extremely ruthless and cruel. There are mentions of large scale massacres and mass-rapes where all women in a village are raped. I do know that truth is the first casualty in any war and that there have been human rights abuses by Indian security forces, but I felt that the ‘allegations’ in The Collaborator are over the top. More importantly, it shows the Indian army as overwhelmingly strong, powerful and successful in fighting the insurgency, practically killing insurgents at will. No sooner do a number of Kashmiri boys trained in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir cross over into India than the Indian army crunches into action and kills off most of those crossing over at a time of the army’s choosing. In fact the author goes to the extent of telling us, through Captain Kadian, that the Border Security force (BSF) is even tougher and nastier than the Indian army. There is one instance where the BSF’s intelligence unit, the G-Branch, is shown as giving the army a lesson in mountain warfare when some militants were holed out in a few caves and the army didn’t know how to clear them out!

However, as I progressed, I got to know the Protagonist better, and even his fears and dreams, I started appreciating The Collaborator better. The Protagonist, who remains unnamed till the end, does not appear to support Azadi in any serious manner. True, he is petrified of the Indian army and the black cat commandoes who carry out the occasional cordon and search operation and dawn raids. He admires the Kashmiri insurgents who are always shown as inferior in strength to the Indian army, whose soldiers are very shown to be very fit and strong. He is fearful of the ruthless and cruel Pathans, Afghans, Arabs and Chechens who have contempt for Kashmiris’ fighting abilities. He gets bugged when a militant group broke up video rental shops, torched cinemas, dragged frightened little girls out of school, checked their hands for nail polish and sent them home in knee-length burqas. We hear that Gujjars are not trusted by other Kashmiris, though some of them do become insurgents. Slowly we get to know that the Protagonist’s father, the village sarpanch, had fought the tribal raiders from Pakistan just after independence. The sarpanch is liked by the villagers who saved him from the insurgents’ wrath.

After all his friends cross the Loc and go to Pakistan and he is the only teenager left behind in the village, the Protagonist too tries to follow then over the LoC. As he proceeds towards his rendezvous with the guide who is to take him across, he thinks thus of Pakistan: ‘A place of which I had an obscure vision, an image, as being the country where we boys went to become militants and which supported us and welcomed us with open arms, and where they were all Muslims and were in fact sending their own sons to fight alongside us, but a place I did not really know. It was, now I understand, and still is, a khayal, just an idea.’ The Protagonist does not make it across since he is turned away by the guide, with a gentle reminder of his father’s past fighting tribal raiders and accepting government grants.

Captain Kadian uses the Protagonist for a dirty chore. The chore itself is unrealistic (I would rather not reveal what it is and play spoil sport) and descriptions of Captain Kadian’s operations are equally unrealistic, as explained earlier. The soldiers are there in strength in the Protagonist’s village since it is very close to the LoC. Around there, ‘the Indians kill just about everyone. Who will know and object, leave along protest, in this remote, cut-off wilderness? You know, sometimes I wonder – because for Kashmir, there is always an Indian and a Pakistani version of everything – what if they have their own pasture of dead boys on the other side of the border? Their own stash of the infiltration residue? Young men who lost their lives while learning to walk the perilous path to freedom. Treachery is a word everyone should learn.’ One hears an old man tell the Protagonist of elite Makara soldiers who even eat people, old people mostly. The Protagonist seems to believe every word he hears. Later when the Protagonist’s friends leave him behind and cross the LoC, the village is at the receiving end of the army’s raids. Curfew is imposed for days at a stretch.

Kashmir has a new governor, a man very stern and ruthless, who is described as ‘the former leader of the demolition gangs and their bulldozers (who ran over the one-room tenements and lavatories of the poorest of poor squatters in India’s capital because their haphazard slum-clusters had no storm-water drains), the clinical undertaker of forced, compulsory vasectomies.....’ Though not mentioned by name, it is very obvious that the reference is to Jagmohan Malhotra who was the governor of Jammu & Kashmir from 1984 to 1989 and then for a few months in 1990. I found this implicit reference to Jagmohan a bit confusing since in the beginning of the novel, there is a reference to a dead militant’s watch which keeps ticking and shows the date as ‘16 April 1993’. The blurb on one of the side flaps of this book says ‘It is Kashmir in the early 1990s......’ From May 1990 to March 1993, Girish Chandra Saxena was the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir and not Jagmohan, but hey, this is fiction and one shouldn’t nitpick, right?

Towards the end of the novel, one hears of the insurgents torturing the guide and his family who they (wrongly) suspect of having helped the Indian army. By that time, the villagers have had enough of searches and curfews. They all pack up and leave, all except the Protagonist and his parents. Where do the villagers escape to, with all their cattle and other belongings? Do they cross the LoC in the middle of the winter? I was half-expecting them to, since they had nowhere else to go. But no, to escape from the Indian army, they flee to ‘India’! By this stage, I had started liking the Collaborator.

A lot of the information that is conveyed to the reader by the Protagonist is hearsay. A man is snatched from the Protagonist’s village by black-cat commandoes who turn up in LMG-mounted gypsies. The Protagonist tells us that from a distance, the commandoes looked like a ‘pack of animals’. After the snatched man is returned to the village, theories abound. One theory is that he was not harmed at all since he readily divulged all that he knew. Another theory is that ‘he was tortured day and night by Kashmiri Pandit police officers, bent on revenge after their tragic exodus from the valley...... Another theory was that ‘he was made to pee on an electric heater while they threw ice-cold water over him; they pierced a red-hot knitting needle through his...... Finally the Protagonist goes to visit the victim one afternoon and without being asked, the victim lifts up his kurta and shows the area above his groin which has small, etched black pits all over the pubic area.

Captain Kadian trusts the Protagonist sufficiently enough to give him a pistol. The Protagonist hates Captain Kadian enough to want to use it on Captain Kadian. Does the Protagonist summon enough courage to do so? Do please read this extremely interesting book, written in exquisite prose, to find out. Exaggerations notwithstanding, it is a very good read.

The Author of The Collaborator Mirza Waheed spent his childhood in Srinagar, read English Literature at the University of Delhi and later worked as a journalist in Delhi for four years. Since 2001, he has been living in London where he works for the BBC's Urdu Service as an editor.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Book Review: “Absolute Khushwant”

I am a hardcore fan of Khushwant Singh’s writings and think he is the best Indian writer alive today. I picked up Absolute Khushwant in order to know more about Khushwant the human being. A simple book of 189 pages, it appears to have been dictated by 95 year old Khushwant Singh to Humra Quraishi over a few days. The narration is rambling and there are repetitions, but this book is the closest thing to Khushwant Singh’s autobiography.

Absolute Khushwant doesn’t hold many surprises. Khushwant Singh is not a reticent man and people who follow his writings would be aware of his views of topics ranging from the Emergency to Indira Gandhi to Operation Blue Star to the BJP. Khushwant Singh doesn’t hold back on his personal life either. He talks of his first love, how he visited a prostitute for the first time, his unhappy marriage (which was not an arranged one), how he had courted his wife-to-be etc.

I knew that Khushwant Singh was not a prude and I was not disappointed. “If you ask me what’s more important, sex or romance, it’s sex. Romance is just a gloss, some sort of sheen that wears off, and it loses its lustre very soon. I’ve never really had the time or the inclination for romance. Romantic interludes take up a lot of time and are a sheer waste of energy, for the end result isn’t very much. Sex is definitely more important, though sex with the same person can get boring after a while..... When it comes to sex, I don’t think looks matter much.

The Partition of India left Khushwant Singh badly wounded. Khushwant Singh feels that Partition was inevitable since Hindus and Muslims had not integrated. They did not inter-marry, did not share food or living quarters. No, Khushwant Singh does not say that they were/are two separate nations, but that would be the logical conclusion to his argument. But Khushwant Singh also suggests that Partition could have been avoided if Jawaharlal Nehru hadn’t been so keen to become independent India’s Prime Minister. According to Khushwant Singh, “having accepted the Cabinet mission plan to hand over power to a united India, he (Nehru) reneged on his undertaking when he (Nehru) realized Jinnah might end up becoming Prime Minister." Khushwant Singh thinks Nehru was the second best Prime Minister India has ever had. He admires Nehru’s secularism and atheism, but doesn’t seem to have liked him much. He tells us that Nehru had vision and charisma, but was instinctively anti-American and pro-Soviet. Nehru was impatient with people and had favourites. Like Indira, Nehru can be accused of nepotism.

Khushwant Singh liked Sanjay Gandhi, despite the damage he did to India’s democracy, something Khushwant Singh acknowledges. However, since “Sanjay was always extremely courteous towards me” Khushwant Singh continues to like him. I found Khushwant Singh’s honesty in this regard extremely refreshing.

Khushwant Singh tells us that Nirad C. Chaudhuri is the most knowledgeable person he has ever known.

Khushwant Singh also believes Manmohan Singh is the best PM we have ever had. To illustrate his point, Khushwant Singh has this anecdote about how Manmohan Singh’s son-in-law came to borrow some money during Manmohan Singh’s election campaign. The amount borrowed was just two lakhs, to hire taxis that were needed for the election campaign. “They didn’t even have that much to spare. I gave the money in cash. Only days after he had lost the election, Manmohan Singh called me himself and asked for an appointment. He came to see me with a packet. ‘I haven’t used the money,’ he said and handed me the packet with all the cash I had given his son-in-law. That kind of thing, no politician would do.” Here I find myself unable to agree with Khushwant Singh. If Manmohan Singh is incapable of effectively utilising for his campaign two lakh rupees given to him legitimately by a supporter, does it suggest a capable politician or a timid bureaucrat who his afraid of taking risks and independent decisions?

I read this rambling account in one go, in around three hours' time. Absolute Khushwant is a must-read for every fan of Khushwant Singh’s writings.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Other Charlie

On 31 May 2011, I had posted a short story Charlie. For those who liked it and for those who didn’t, I’d like to bring to your notice the existence of another Charlie on Epic India. The other Charlie was written first and has a different plot and ends differently (and has fewer characters too), though the initial few paragraphs are rather similar. Please do take a look and let me know which "Charlie" you like better (or dislike less)