The Watch

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

First Sentence:     One.

Back of the book:

Following a desperate night-long battle, a group of beleaguered soldiers in an isolated base in Kandahar are faced with a lone woman demanding the return of her brother’s body. Is she a spy, a black widow, a lunatic, or what she claims to be: a grieving sister intent on burying her brother according to local rites? As she persists, single-minded in her mission, the camp’s tense, claustrophobic atmosphere comes to the boil as the men argue about what to do next.

The Watch takes an age-old story – the myth of Antigone – and hurls it into present-day Afghanistan. The result is an unputdownable, deeply affecting novel that brilliantly exposes the realities of war. It is also our most powerful expression to date of the nature and futility of this very contemporary conflict.

Quotes from the book:

I turn my head and look back at the mountains as at a lover. The slopes are a serene blue, as if sculpted out of the sky itself. The highest ridges now glow silver in the sunlight, now golden. Such beauty exists only in paradise.

“It’s my nightmare scenario. 360 degree catastrafuck.”

So I began writing this journal for you, Dad. You said I would need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate.

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A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry

First Sentence: The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.

I was given a copy of this book on World Book Night earlier this year. A lot of people who like the same sort of books I like have been raving about it and I’ve always meant to read it, so after I got a free copy I felt the time was right. This is a BIG book, primarily concerned with the lives of Dina Dalal who sets up a sewing factory in her rented flat, Omprakash and Ishvar Darji; an uncle and nephew tailor team trying to get by, and Maneck Kohlah; a university student from a small village who comes to the ‘city by the sea’ to study refrigeration. These four lives are about to intersect with each other in increasingly life-altering ways. Set in the 1970’s during a time of political turmoil after a state of ‘Emergency’ has been declared by the government, this is really a novel about India itself, and in that way I think it succeeds admirably. This book, like India, has everything; colour, joy, poverty, hope, love, passion, tragedy, violence and laughter, and even though it is a long book it never feels too long, each page being a pleasure to read. It put me in mind of the parts I enjoyed most in Shantaram, and unlike that book it didn’t feel like it should have been about half the length. Above all else though this book seems to be about our ability to endure and to keep going on in the face of the most horrific adversity, which is summed up nicely in one brief snippet: “How was it that his heart kept beating instead of bursting, his sanity intact instead of shattered like a dropped mirror?”. Surely all this misery piled on misery must reach breaking point at some stage? Can anything stay balanced forever in a world where no pain is ever really forgotten?

[…] nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

For Dina, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck, life will never be the same again after fate throws them together one day in 1970’s India…

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Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

First Sentence: The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?

Before deciding to read this book it’s good to know that it is part of a trilogy and parts two and three of The Ibis Trilogy, as it is known, have yet to be published. What I’m saying is if you’re the type of person who needs closure in a story maybe you should wait a few years and read them all together, because on its own this book offers little in the way of closure. It is, however, incredibly engrossing. The Ibis is the ship Deeti has the vision of at the beginning of the book and eventually she will go on board this ship (after being rescued from her opium-addicted husband’s funeral pyre by the low-caste Kalua, who will accompany her on her journey). Also joining her on this voyage in the ‘Black Water’ will be; Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French Botanist; Neel, a bankrupt raja who loses his family and everything he owns; Jodu, the son of Paulette’s wet-nurse, and many others. And that’s not even mentioning Serang Ali (leader of the deck hands [or laskars as they are known]), Ah Fatt (dishevelled Chinese opium addict), Zachary Reid (Mulatto son of a Maryland freedwoman) or any of the others already on the Ibis.  Set against the backdrop of the opium wars, opium  itself is practically seeping through every page of this epic. There is one scene which sums it up beautifully, as Deeti ponders an opium seed:

She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.

She then puts the seed in her mouth and says to Kalua:

Here[…], taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.

Opium has, in one way or another, led them all to this place, and when all these characters are thrust together on the same ship we just know a special tale is about to unfold. Their previous lives are insignificant now that the Ibis is their home:

[…]all the old ties were immaterial now that the sea had washed away their past[…]

Yet again Deeti sums it up best when she finally lays eyes on the ship and realises:

[…] her new self, her new life, had been gestating all this while in the belly of this creature, this vessel was the Mother-Father of her new family[…] an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come.

This is the beginning of something epic…

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