Book Review: ‘An Unnecessary Women’ by Rabih Alameddine.


“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed”

The prodigal finally returns. It has been ages since I posted on my blog (reasons which themselves may form a part of a future blogpost). Let me celebrate my return with a book review; Rabhih Aameddine’s “An Unnecessary Women” which I just finished reading.

The Unnecessary Women of the novel is Aaliya Sobhi, a 72-year-old resident of civil war ravaged Beirut who stays in her large apartment alone. Her working life is spent in a bookstore which the shop owner maintains not because of his commitment to either art or profit but because of the snob value associated with owning a book store, his passport to the world of the pseudo intellectuals and dilettante. Post retirement from the bookshop, Aaliya spends her time translating works of fiction into Arabic. At the beginning of each year she selects a book to translate (though for some unexplained reason she never translates French or English fiction despite enjoying these works greatly). Last year she translated WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and this year she contemplates translating Chilean Roberto Bolano’s mammoth 2666. She has so far translated 57 volumes but strangely they do not land up at any publishers’ desk. Instead they are neatly stacked in boxes to be stored in her unused maid’s room at the back of her apartment.

Like all other novels this novel too has other characters which just aid the flow of the (Aliya’s) story; Aaliya’s mother, who on the death of her father remarries, her greedy avaricious step brothers, her impotent husband (whom she is married at the age of 16 but with whom she develops no emotional bonding; she refers to him as ‘the impotent insect’) and who finally divorces her. Then there are her neighbors in the apartment, women without husbands, who meet every day for coffee and whom she scorns and calls the ‘witches’. There is Ahmed, the young boy who volunteers to help her in the book store so that he could just read and his transformation from a shy guy to a master torturer post Black September. Aaliya’s closest confidant is Hannah who imagines herself as being engaged to her husband’s brother, a young lieutenant whom she meets in a taxi. Her happiness is based on this delusion and it is the shattering of this delusion that finally destroys her.

Two other main characters in the novel stand out; one is literature and the other is Beirut. It is these two which keep Aaliya company. Aaliya lives amidst books; it Tolstoy, Conrad, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Borges, Chopin and their ink who crowd around her, keep her company and speak to her through their works. Beirut forms the backdrop of the novel, the war ravaged city coming alive in all its hues, hopes and despairs. It is the “Elizabeth Taylor of cities; insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart and forever drama-laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”

Aaliya lives in her mind and it is the story of her reminiscences and memories, but they are not ‘her memories’ alone, expressed in ‘her’ words. Her reminiscences and memories express themselves through the prism of ‘philosophy’ and ‘art’. There are times when you feel despairingly nonplussed.  Aaliya thoughts are ‘written’ but are not ‘revealed’ for it is the Conrad, Faulkner and their ilk who oracularly ‘speak’ for and through her. A book of internal monologues here the ‘cast’ is the ‘plot’ and the ‘plot’ ‘cast’.   It is an intriguing piece of work; enigmatic and inscrutable which defies categorization.  It is a work that needs to be experienced. Go experience it. You will come out richer in the end.


Book Review: ‘The Collaborator’ by Mirza Waheed


‘India, my dear is a colossus with countless arms and limbs and tongues and claws and hands and mouth and everything else..Even if you have these small ulcers festering in various places and crevices, they don’t matter to it; it uses one of its many hands or claws to scratch at the sore, soothing the irritation and waits until the ulcer dies down on its own, or just plucks it off and throws it away.’ 

These days I have been reading mostly fiction; much to do with my physical and mental state, tired and exhausted with the Delhi chill getting the better of me. In the course of these reads, the first to be reviewed here for my blog is Mirza Waheed’s debut novel ‘The Collaborator’.

It is a deeply disturbing and melancholy work; a work of anger, if I may say so. The main protagonist of the novel is an unnamed 19 year old who grows up in the Gujjar ‘forgotten last village before the border’, Nowgam, during the 90’s. Growing up with his friends in the village, ‘Hussain’, (who sings Muhammad Rafi songs and is the official entertainer of the group), ‘Mohammad’ (the master craftsman of the cricket bat and stumps), ‘Gul Khan’, (the debonair) and ‘Ashfaq’ (the classic melancholic, the brooding thinker), they form the ‘famous five’. Then there is his father, the proud ‘long serving’ village headman, Noor the shop owner, Compounder Chechi, Gul’s older brother Farooq ‘Hero’ Khan, his love interest Asma and Khadim Hussain, the Islamist. Their world is turned upside down with the stirrings of insurgency in Kashmir and the arrival of the Indian security forces in the area to check infiltration and carry out counter insurgency operations. All four of his friends leave for Pakistan surreptitiously to train as ‘freedom fighters’ leaving him with a dilemma. Missing and worrying constantly about his friends, especially Hussain, he has half an urge to join them by crossing over but finally decides to stay back and not abandon his suffering parents. Post an Indian army crackdown all residents of Nowgam leave with only his family (father and mother), staying back in the ‘ghost village’.

The protagonist is employed by the heavy drinking Captain Kadian of the Indian Army to go down in the valley near the village to collect the ID cards and weapons of the dead militants who are killed crossing over the Line of Control (LOC) to be used for PR purposes. The corpses are left to rot close to the LOC as ‘dead meat’ which also serve to spite the Pakistanis who can see them from their posts across the LOC. ‘Look, look you back stabbing bastards, here is your fucking Jihad in a hideous heap, look at it and squirm.’ Ruffling through the corpses he continuously dreads that he may find one of his friend’s body in the heap. The stench of the rotting bodies strewn in the valley where he played cricket with his friends, numbs his senses and fills him with an impotent fury at his own helplessness.

A feeling of profound hopelessness pervades the entire novel where human deaths are reduced to statistics and ruthless power of the gun is all that counts, whether it is the ‘crackdown’ by the army or the cutting of the nose and ears of Shaban Khatana by the ‘jihadis’ or ‘freedom fighters’ (choose your pick, whichever side you are on), accusing him of being an army informer. Caught in a situation not of their own making, the line between the so called ‘oppressors’ and the ‘victim’ gets blurred, each consigned to play their part as the despairing situation demands. While the protagonist seethes with a staccato impotent rage at the happenings around him, Captain Kadian drowns himself in drinks and listens to Muhammad Rafi in the solitary confines of his room counting days and waiting for his ‘stint’ to end from this ‘blighted place’, so that he can go back and be with his father.

Issues of identity are also raised though fleetingly, with the Gujjars condemned as not being ‘Islamic’ and ‘Kashmiri’ enough by the valley people. Did they not side with the Indians during 1947 and were their ‘nominal’ Barelvi religious ways Islamic enough? ‘These Kafir Gujjars, they don’t even know their namaz’ was the taunt thrown at us, reminisces the protagonist. One is then forced to think as to what kind of dominant Kashmiri identity is sought to be created and will it have any place for diversity? Will Kashmir be a place where cinemas would be burnt and women harassed for dressing so called inappropriately and wearing nail polishes? And then there is irony; to escape the crackdowns of the Indian Army, residents of Nowgam flee to India. ‘The situation was almost laughable – people from my village were fleeing to escape the wrath of the Indian Security Forces and were doing that by running away to India itself, for what was Jammu, or any part of the plains beyond the mountains of Kashmir, but India? India!’ the protagonist questions.

The novel raises some serious questions if not overtly but covertly; questions about geo political games being played on the grievances, emotional vulnerability and the woolly aspirations of Kashmiris. While Pakistan uses them as cannon fodder to get even with the larger more powerful India, the latter uses all wits at its end to defend its territorial integrity, as any nation state would do. One is also forced to think as to what kind of state India wants to be for its citizens and also what kind of Kashmir, Kashmiris want for themselves? Will India live up to its constitutional principles and ensure ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ to all its citizens? Will the much fabled ‘Kashmiriat’ finally triumph over the rabid Islamization sought to be imposed from across the border? Will the western neighbour ever change its policy of war through proxy over the bodies of Kashmiris? Will the residents of Nowgam finally return and will the protagonist’s mother who lost her voice ever speak again? I am still searching for answers.

Urnabhih: A Mauryan Tale of Espionage, Adventure and Seduction


He is the ruler who is the protector of the orphaned, refuge of the refugees, guide to the afflicted, protector of the frightened, the support of the unsteady, the friend, the relative, the master, the benefactor, the teacher, father, mother, brother to all.’

-Chanakya Rajnitishastra

I was just back from a hectic but highly enjoyable tour when I picked up ‘Urnabhih’ by Sumedha V Ojha. Let me concede at the outset that I do not read much fiction, especially English fiction. My fiction reading is mostly confined to reading Hindi fiction, a language which comes naturally to me and with which I am comfortable. However, since the author Sumedha V Ojha is a close friend (more like an elder sister) I was both curious and anxious to read her work. In the last couple of years my readings have been mostly confined to the dark and gory world of terrorism and security studies so I was quiet sceptical as to how much I would enjoy reading a work of fiction.

As I started reading all my scepticisms dissolved. The book is simply unputdownable. Aptly titled, ‘Urnabhih’ (spider’s web) the novel is a historical fiction set in the ‘early’ empire building phase of the Mauryan times. The newly enthroned Chandragupta Maurya after overthrowing the Nandas is in the process of consolidating his empire with the help of his mentor and Guru, Acharya Chanakya.

Misrakesi, the main protagonist of the novel is a ‘ganika’ from Ujjaini who arrives in Patliputra to avenge the death of her sister Sukesi, but instead ends up working for the state as a spy under the Nagrik Suraksha Parishad. She has a caring but arrogant Chief in Pushyamitra Sunga who later becomes her lover and husband. Together Misrakesi and Pushyamitra prevent the assassination of the Samrat, solve the mystery of counterfeit currencies flooding the fledgling Mauryan Empire and upstage the brilliant Maha Amatya of Kaikeya Rajya to incorporate it into the Mauryan Empire of Chakravartin Chandragupta Maurya. Thus is fulfilled Acharya Chanakya’s desire of facilitating the political unity of Jambudweep (the name of ancient India). The soul of the novel is drawn from the writings of the period (especially Chanakya) and depicts the challenges to as well as responses of the newly established Mauryan dynasty very realistically. Acharya Chanakya is the main ‘sutradhaar’ of the novel. In the novel his presence in person is few and far between, but his ‘invisible’ presence looms large and carries the story forward. He plots, plans, cajoles, intrigues and blesses wherever needed.

The book is Sumedha’s labour of love for the Mauryan period and it shows. Apart from the taut and racy storyline, what really struck me is the deep research done by her on all facets of the Mauryan period in which the novel is set. Classifying it as a work of fiction would be simplistic and would overlook the deep insights that this book provides of Mauryan history, anthropology and sociology. Flipping through the pages of this brilliant work, the reader is transported to the Mauryan period; its dress, food, architecture and social stratifications, moorings and differentiations. ‘Urnabhih’ not only ‘tells’ a story but also makes you ‘see’ Patliputra and Kekayi. I have read very few novels where the settings of the period have as much prominence as the story itself.

One thing which struck me greatly is the status of women and the freedom (including sexual) enjoyed by them in ancient India. An orphan ‘ganika’ from a different kingdom with her wits and hard work could rise in the social hierarchy to nobility. The essence of a complete life symbolized by the important balance between ‘Arth’, ‘Kaam’, ‘Dharam’ and ‘Moksh’, somehow seems to have been lost to modern India under the pernicious purinitical influence of later Islamic and Victorian morals. Not having this book in your personal collection makes it poorer. It is a novel which needs to be bought, read and preserved.

The only complaint I have is that the novel did not answer the question as to why Misrakesi’s sister Sukesi committed suicide. What prompted her to do so? What was the mission she had with Siddharthak? While a follow up of this novel is coming soon, now that I am hooked, I would also like to read the precursor to this novel detailing Sukesi’s mission with Siddharthak. Sumedha, are you listening?

Book Review: Fighting to the End, The Pakistani Army’s Way of War

Fighting to the end

 “Pakistan is international migraine” – Madeline Albright

It is a popular saying that while other countries have armies, in Pakistan the army has a country. Dr. Christine Fair, in this scholarly and well researched masterpiece of Pakistan’s defense literature brings out the strategic culture of the Pakistan army. Since the Pakistan army is the most organized and powerful institution in Pakistan, this strategic culture is the dominant strategic culture in Pakistan.  The book organized into eleven chapters deals with every aspect of this strategic culture; its genesis and evolution, ideological underpinnings, instrumentalities of operationalization, its regional and international ramifications as well as the foreign policy rhetoric and choices pursued by the state.

Dr Fair begins by describing Pakistan as an insecure state which views India as ‘its eternal foe that not only seeks to dominate Pakistan but to destroy it’. The genesis and the evolution of this strategic culture can be traced to the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the subsequent events that followed. For Pakistan the process of partition was unfair with a ‘moth eaten’ Pakistan created in 1947. Territories like Junagarh, Hyderabad and Kashmir were denied to Pakistan by Indian perfidy and British conspiracy. Constant references are made to the award of seven Muslim majority tehsils in Punjab by Radcliff (insistence of Mountbatten influenced by Nehru), especially of Gurdaspur which allowed India land route to Kashmir thereby facilitating its ‘occupation’.

Dr. Fair argues that Pakistan’s fear of India though couched in terms of security are not so. It is ideological. Pakistani army sees itself as the defender of Pakistan’s ideological frontier i.e. the two nation theory and its Islamic identity vis-à-vis ‘Hindu’ India. It believes that Pakistan is equal to India and seeks parity with the latter despite being much smaller geographically, demographically and economically. The conflict with India is defined in ideolological and civilizational terms making it incumbent upon the Pakistani army to resist what it perceives as Indian hegemony in the region and also India’s global rise. Interestingly, because of this victory and defeat at the hands of Indians is seen differently by the Pakistani army. Even after an outright defeat as in 1971, Pakistani army considered itself victorious because it survived to fight/challenge India another day. Defeat for the Pakistan army would thus be the day it accepts the status quo and Indian supremacy. It is this belief which propels Pakistan to take calculated risks for changing the status quo periodically but regularly. Apart from initiating three regular wars with India and the Kargil misadventure, Pakistan has constantly supported insurgencies in India (Naga, Mizo, Sikh) and waged proxy war in Kashmir. Interestingly while the American’s were training Pakistanis in guerrilla warfare to suppress and defeat insurgencies in the 1950’s, the then Pakistani defense literature was glorifying Vietnamese resistance and also ‘interested in understanding how Pakistan could wage one’. Operation Gibraltar in 1965 and Kargil intrusion in 1999 bear testimony to this thinking.

Pakistan has pursued a policy of strategic depth to limit Indian and Russian (also erstwhile Soviet) influence in Afghanistan.  Unlike the generally held view that the concept of strategic depth was enunciated by General Aslam Beg, Dr. Fair posits that this idea of strategic depth in Afghanistan is a colonial legacy which was carried forward by the successor state of Pakistan, even though it did not possess the resources of the Raj. To facilitate covert operations against the Doud government of Afghanistan, training camps were established by Bhutto to train Afghan Mujahedeen as early as 1973. This also explodes another oft repeated myth by the Pakistanis that the Mujahedeen were created by the US to further its own geo-political interests in Afghanistan.

The instruments used by Pakistan to seek strategic parity with India and to resist its rise has been to seek alliances and court international benefactors like United States, China and Saudi Arabia, nurture non-state actors and use terror as an instrument of state policy. Though the USA has been the largest largess provider for the Pakistani state, in Pakistani defense literature USA is portrayed as a perfidious ally. Pakistan constantly harps on the USA failure to overtly support Pakistan despite being an ally in the 1965 and the 1971 war with India, the sanctions imposed under Pressler Amendments (incidentally the passing of this amendment was hailed as a victory for Pakistani diplomacy) and turning its back on Pakistan after Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. No reference however is made of the differing geo-political objectives of the two nations. While Pakistan purportedly became an ally of the US to challenge communism, its goals remained purely India centric. Failure to get active US support in its conflicts with India has been a constant sore point with the Pakistanis. In contrast to the USA, China is projected as an all weather friend. Chinese failures to support Pakistan’s objectives and goals are generally glossed over.

With the overt nuclearization of the subcontinent, Pakistan has pursued a policy of Jihad under the nuclear umbrella against its adversaries. It has supported terrorism against India from its soil and sought to undermine US strategic interests in the region. The possession on nuclear weapons has facilitated nuclear risk taking by Pakistan. By keeping its nuclear doctrine ambiguous and not defining its nuclear threshold it has achieved its twin objectives of deterring India from escalating the conflict as well as drawn international actors like the USA into limiting the conflict. It also rightly believes that being a nuclear power restrains USA from completely abandoning Pakistan.

The question then remains is can the strategic culture of the Pakistani army be changed? Scholars have argued that with the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan, this narrative would be challenged. Some (Ahmed Rashid, Raphel) have argued that a grand bargain with India through the resolution of the Kashmir dispute (to Pakistan’s satisfaction) may facilitate such a change. Dr Fair appears to take a pessimistic view and does not foresee any change happening in the near or distant future.  Dismissing the grand bargain theory she describes Pakistan as a ‘purely greedy state’ which is defined by Charles Glaser as a state ‘fundamentally unsatisfied with the status quo, desiring additional territory even when it is not desired for security.’ Any appeasement of this ‘greedy state’ might aggravate the problem rather than solving it. She further argues that even if Pakistan undergoes a permanent democratic transition it does not obviously follow that ‘civilians will abandon the persistent revisionism with respect to India. This is because of the deep presence of army’s strategic culture, based on the ideology of Islam and two nation theory, within Pakistan’s civil society, political culture and bureaucracies’. A case in point is the Abbotabad attack by USA, which provided the civilians an opportunity to assert some control over the army, instead they chose to rally around the latter. Some scholars argue that the India centric doctrine of the Pakistani army has now changed and it has acknowledged internal threats as the main challenge. While Pakistani army may at times acknowledge internal threats but it successfully ‘externalizes’ those threats to the enemies (India) of Pakistan, who are held responsible for creating and aggravating these threats. This in turn brings the conventional focus back to India for the army and also buttresses its role as the premium institution in the country which can manage these threats.

One interesting and novel fact brought out by Dr. Fair is the changing recruitment pattern of the army. Her research shows that in 1972 the army officers came from only few districts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), but by 2005 practically all districts of Pakistan were producing officers. Her field work suggests that many of these officers do not share the ‘core values’ of the Punjabi dominated strategic culture of the Pakistani army with the same intensity. How this changes the nature of the discourse of this strategic culture in future remains to be seen.

The book provides important policy prescriptions for both India and United States. She argues that USA should stop ‘attempting to transform the Pakistani army or Pakistan for that matter. It is unlikely that the United States can offer Pakistan any incentive that would be so valuable to Pakistan and its security interests that the army would abandon the varied tools it has developed to manage its security competition with India, much less consider a durable rapprochement.’ The realities for India are starker. ‘The Pakistan army will continue to weaken India by any means possible, even though such means are inherently risky. In the army’s eye, any other course will spell true defeat.’ It is time that the Indian policy planners stop being wooly eyed about Pakistan and face facts.

This book is a must read for all policy planners in India and the United States. This would help them shed many of their illusions and accept realities howsoever uncomfortable.

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