About The Author
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was born in Jamshedpur, India, and studied politics and philosophy at Presidency College and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught literature and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Bard College, and the University at Albany. His earlier novels The Gabriel Club and The Storyteller of Marrakesh have been published in eleven languages in sixteen countries.
His new novel, The Watch, is one of the first artistic responses to the current war in Aghanistan. The plot is based on Sophocles' classic tragedy Antigone: in the aftermath of a fraught and bloody battle conducted amidst a fierce sandstorm, the troops at an isolated base in Kandahar spot a figure clad in black. A young woman whose legs have been lost her, hauls herself onto the battlefield on a rudimentary cart and demands the return of her brother's body so that she can bury him in the traditional manner. The Americans refuse, having earmarked the corpse for a PR exercise aimed at deterring insurgents, but she remains outside for hours and then days.
Her haunting presence elicits the sympathy of some of the soldiers on the base, while others remain suspicious of her motives. But for all them it becomes a time to reflect on why they are there: their personal reasons and their military mission.
Shortlisted for the 2012 Royal Society of LIterature Ondaatje Prize, this deeply affecting novel takes an unflinching look at the realities of combat in the treacherous terrain of the Afghan mountains and of the NATO presence there, making for a powerful contemporary novel of a war that has repercussions for us all.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Joydeep discusses the role played by novelists in reflecting the real world, the importance of cultural insight in a conflict such as the one in Afghanistan and the differences in the Pashtun and American concepts of 'honour'.
Author photo © Malcolm Moore
Questions & Answers
Do you feel that writers of fiction have an important role to play in revealing truths about contemporary society?
Absolutely. It's a source of growing distress for me that contemporary writers of literary fiction appear to have determinedly turned their backs on the real world - war, economic distress, political misdirection, the return of colonialism under the guise of globalisation - in favour of books that either wallow in a mythical past - the recent trend in Edwardiana being only a case in point - or they restrict themselves to narrow genres under the guise of "writing only about what one knows best", thereby leading to a plethora of novels situated in academia, for instance, where the sinecured writers no doubt diligently collect salaried cheques.
The Watch transplants much of the plot of Sophocles' Antigone to the present conflict in Afghanistan. Did you consider other classic tragedies as a suitable framework?
As a matter of fact, I'm considering ways in which I can transplant one of the other Theban plays into a possible prequel for The Watch, set in the mountains north of Kandahar province and dealing with the life of the Pashtun protagonist, the Antigone figure.
How did you go about making the descriptions of battle so authentic? Have you been able to spend any time in the region?
I'm Indian, and there are enough similarities in topography and culture between Indian and Afghanistan that made it easier for me to visualize the stage for The Watch. As for authenticity of the descriptions of battle, I've long been a student of military history and was able to draw upon on a considerable amount of research to work out a credible fiction.
A captured Taliban fighter, just sixteen-years-old, says: "To permit you to terrorize our land is a matter of shame, a dishonor greater than death", and a number of the American troops also describe their actions as a matter of honour. Is this all either side has left?
The Pashtun concept of honour is as intrinsic to their culture as the classical Greek concept of kleos was to the Homeric Greeks. As for the US military, it's useful to remember that the present leadership of the American armed forces operates under the very long shadow of the Vietnam War, where their honour was sullied in significant ways that make its restoration almost a matter of necessity. More irony, then, that they've managed to lose every "small war" they've fought since the Vietnam debacle, and in Afghanistan, especially, seem bent on repeating the very mistakes that doomed them in South-East Asia.
'The Lieutenant's Journal' suggests that he is writing it because of his father's words, that he would "need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate". Which of your characters, presuming they were to survive, do you think would best be able reassimilate into civilian life?
I'd like to pin my hopes on the African-American First Sergeant, but I've spoken to enough veterans of these wars to know that reassimilation is always a very long shot.
At one point a number of soldiers approach their Captain, trying to persuade him to release Antigone's brother's body to her for burial, but he is insistent that their mission is military rather than humanitarian. Is he right?
An interesting question, to which there are two strictly military (as opposed to moral) responses, really. Under the more orthodox application of the COIN [Counterinsurgency] doctrine by General Stanley McChrystal, which combined counterinsurgency with very restrictive rules of engagement in order to "win hearts and minds", the Captain is wrong. Under the version of COIN applied by McChrystal's successor in Afghanistan, David Petraeus - ironically, the author of the US Army's COIN doctrine - the Captain is probably right. I say probably because I've yet to meet a line officer who can exactly enunciate what COIN is and how it can be best applied in the Afghan context.
The figure of the Doctor is distinct from most of the other characters: he is articulate, curious about the local culture and more willing to question the wisdom of the American presence. Does he represent an idealism that originally persuaded many to sign up or is he more of symbol of naivety?
A bit of both, really, though in his case both idealism and naivety have been tempered by his years of service. The medic is representative of the kind of officer - and there are many in the US military today - who've realized that a doctrine of war predicated purely on technical superiority, and without significant cultural training, is doomed to failure.
Are you at all optimistic about Afghanistan's future once NATO troops are withdrawn, bearing in mind the promise of a continued American presence of some kind?
I'd rather not be drawn into answering this question because it's exactly what the novel demands of the reader.