Nizam, a crippled Afghani woman, arrives at an American military base looking
for her brother Yusuf’s body, she sets off a chain of events that tests the
convictions of the soldiers. As they speculate over whether she’s a Trojan
horse, a spy sent by the Taliban, or whether she is simply what she says she is
-- a sister who wants to bury her brother’s body -- Nizam holds her ground,
refusing to leave without Yusuf’s body. Meanwhile, the war, or rather, the
waiting and watching that characterizes the war in Afghanistan, is taking its
toll on the soldiers. In many ways, The
Watch is a classic anti-war narrative. Bhattacharya takes great pains to
paint a realistic portrayal of war, the camaraderie between the men, and the
emotional support that they so badly need from one another.
At the heart of the narrative is Nizam and the dilemma her presence elicits. When Nizam is told that she cannot give Yusuf a Muslim burial until he has been properly identified, she argues with Masood, the Tajik translator, for the right to her brother’s body.
“Yusuf must be given a proper burial. That’s why I’m here. It is my right.”
“Our business with him is not finished.”
“He is dead. What business can you possibly have with him?”
“He was a terrorist, a Talib, and a bad saray.”
“That isn’t true! My brother was a Pashtun hero, a Mujahid, and a freedom fighter. He fought the Talib. And he died fighting the Amrikâyi invaders. He was a brave man.”
Nizam’s strength of character both impresses and terrifies the soldiers. She mystifies them and at the same time, causes them to ask themselves what they would do in her position. This last issue becomes especially important in the novel as the Lieutenant, the First Sergeant, the Medic and various other soldiers take a stand against their Captain who refuses to release Yusuf’s body to Nizam.
The whole novel is an examination of that one particular incident from the perspectives of all those involved. The non-linear narrative depicts the chaos of war. We wade through soldiers’ nightmares, hopes, and aspirations for the future. Their daydreams and nightmares of home often crash into the conditions of their present. These transitions are so smooth that they are at times disorienting, and it takes a while for reality to settle back in, both for the reader and for the characters.
The novel is also a retelling of Antigone -- a Greek tragedy about a young woman sentenced to death for burying her slain brother who was considered a traitor. Lt. Nick Frobenius constantly quotes from the book, to the chagrin and the mystification of his men and many of us who may not be familiar with the story. During one conversation, Frobenius’ compares the current American leadership to the Creons. The puzzled Second Lieutenant asks him to explain and Frobenius rolls out a response that is as caustic as it is idealistic:
Creon was the king of Thebes in ancient Greece. He was a tyrant and a dictator, but even he had nothing on these clowns. They’re all suit and no soul. I tell you, man, the military is the only institution left in America with any conception of honor -- or any of the virtues that once made the good old U.S. of A the place the whole damn world looked up to. Think courage, endurance, integrity judgment, justice, loyalty, discipline, knowledge. The rest of them -- the civilian leadership, especially -- are just a pile of crap. They’ve absolutely no vision. The politicians are shameless: all they care about is power.
Bhattacharya’s portrayal of American soldiers is unflinching -- some are war pigs raring to take home Talibani trophies; others, like Lieutenant Frobenius, are reluctant warriors. But all of them struggle to reconcile the ground reality of war in Afghanistan with the mission they were given back in training. It’s harder to tell the good guys from the bad when you can no longer tell if you are one of the good guys or not. It is also an examination of the more delicate issue: if Americans are viewed, as ‘invaders’ then aren’t the resistance ‘freedom fighters’?
But everyone has their tragedies, their own personal demons. The crippled Afghani woman is not the only one who has lost a family member. American soldiers battle Afghani dust storms, Taliban fire, and civilian mistrust. They also battle to save their own failing marriages, lost loves, dying parents, brothers, and comrades. In war, death and loss visits everyone.
Anisha Sridhar is a writer and current graduate student at NYU. She blogs at www.anishasridhar.wordpress.com.
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