In his novel The Watch, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya transplants the story of Antigone to an isolated American outpost in a desert in Afghanistan.
The novel opens with Nizam, a young burqa-clad Afghan girl whose family was killed by an American drone as they were returning from a wedding. Although she survived the attack, Nizam lost both her legs. With makeshift bandages wrapped around her stumps, she drives a cart to the isolated American outpost to request her brother’s body for burial. As the lone survivor of her family, she is responsible for ensuring his burial according to her religious traditions.
She is told her brother was a Taliban insurgent and responsible for the recent attack on the outpost. She denies her brother was a Taliban and says his attack was retaliation for the death of her family by the Americans. She is told his body will not be returned to her. She insists it is her right to bury him. She is told to go home. She refuses to budge. She is offered food. She declines. She waits in her cart, fiercely determined to get her way. The young girl’s presence outside the camp thrusts the soldiers into an unsettling moral quandary. After all, there are no guidelines for handling a courageous, defiant young girl who doggedly insists on retrieving her brother’s body to give him a proper burial. And so begins a two-day standoff with both sides firmly entrenched in their positions.
Through a series of first person narratives, we circle back to the same event—Nizam’s arrival at the outpost—but each time we see it through a different set of lenses. The majority of voices are those of the American soldiers. The characters are believable and portrayed with sympathy. The dialogue is realistic. Each narrator is given a unique identity and struggles with personal demons. Some want to do the civilized thing, the humane thing. But all are depicted as pawns in a situation that is decidedly uncivilized and inhumane.
Roy-Bhattacharya gives us a haunting taste of life on the outpost. The personal narratives include the characters’ back stories and provide access to their thoughts. We witness their trauma as they are attacked by insurgents and lose some of their comrades. We feel their panic. We taste their fear of living on the edge with fingers ever-ready on the trigger. We are with them as they experience a sand storm so strong it invades their eyes, nose, ears, food, drinks, and the air they breathe while it reduces visibility to a bare minimum. We sense their frustration as they struggle to comprehend a situation that isn’t in the rule book. We hear their doubts about the war as they question their presence and the efficacy of their mission. We feel their exhaustion. We witness their snatches of sleep and dreams of back home. We awaken with them as they jolt back to a reality they would prefer to forget. We experience abrupt shifts in time as sights and sounds trigger memories of home and loved ones.
Roy-Bhattacharya does not take sides in the conflict. Instead, he lets those embroiled in its tentacles speak their reality. The result is a riveting anti-war novel that captures the essence of war in all its ubiquitous horror, insanity, and anguish. The image of a young, disabled girl in a cart, willing to risk death to honor her brother, haunts the soldiers as it does the reader. Although Nizam’s narrative is restricted to the opening chapter, her presence hovers over every page of the book, testifying to the horror of war and to the senseless destruction of human life.
In war, even the winners—if there are any—will lose.
Highly recommended, but because of its graphic language, its intense and emotionally-charged situations, this may not be for everyone.