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The Watch

Losing Afghanistan

The Watch

by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Hogarth Press, June 2012

What would provoke an Indian-born scholar of German philosophy, American political science, and English literature, born to a Hindu family, to take on a study of Islam so thoroughly that he would not only spend months at a time researching Muslim societies in the Middle East and North Africa but would then set out to write a series of novels in those settings? This is a staggering commitment of one’s life.

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya last visited Buffalo in February 2011 as a speaker in the “Babel Extra” series. He read from and discussed The Storyteller of Marrakech and continued with passages from his then-unfinished novel The Watch, holding his audience spellbound for almost two hours. And he mentioned that there were two more novels involving an Islamic setting to come.

The Watch is the lead title in Random House’s trans-Atlantic revival of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s storied Hogarth Press. It is set in and outside of a United States military combat outpost in Afghanistan. Nizam, a legless young woman, has propelled herself for miles on a wheeled cart to ask that she be allowed to bury her brother, who was killed in an attack on the base during a fierce sandstorm. Captain Connolly, CO of the base, refuses, saying that his orders are that the man’s body is to be shown on television as a demonstration of American success against the Taliban. But Nizam argues that he was not of the Taliban, that he was fighting as an act of revenge for the killing of most of his family by a Predator drone; in the same attack she lost her legs.

Roy-Bhattacharya has deliberately employed parallels to Sophocles’ Antigone, with the interesting twist that the Ismene character is a male interpreter from Afghanistan. After the opening chapter, told in the voice of Nizam/Antigone, each succeeding chapter, except for one told by Masood, the interpreter, is presented from the point-of-view of one of the American officers or NCOs. We thus see the suffering, doubts, and convictions of people with diverse ethical visions and very different cultural histories. Included are many representations of “ordinary” soldiers’ attitudes as the chapters’ narrators deal with them.

At 7pm on June 21, at Talking Leaves on Main Street, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will read from The Watch, after a short reading from an Iraq War memoir by Buffalo area native Brian Castner.

Of the many servicemen he met, Roy-Bhattacharya has said, “Their openness astonished me; their modesty humbled me. Any corporate institution the size of the US Army is, by nature, impersonal, but these were some of the finest individuals I’ve ever met. They’re not the reason Americans are losing the war.” When he read from The Storyteller of Marrakech last year at Hallwalls, he told us that two of the officers flew in to New York City to participate at the launch of that novel as an expression of their friendship with the author. More members of the US military were involved in proof-reading The Watch. Lt. Nick Frobenius is a composite of two officers with whom he became very close. Frobenius, in his dreams and memories, reveals that he performed in Antigone in college; and he passes the following judgment on his Captain, Evan Connolly:

[He] is the perfect midlevel officer, cramped but shipshape—of limited imagination and initiative—whose strategic thinking goes no further than the Hescos that surround “his” base. His kind carry out their orders blandly, climb the chain of command speedily, and end up perpetuating the mistakes of the generals they replace. Because of them, the rest of us are condemned to be saddled with all of the servitude and none of the grandeur that accompanies the discipline of military service. And these are the men who command us against the Pashtuns, men born to the gun and the sword. Dear Lord.

Frobenius is a deeply conflicted character, who enlisted as a true believer in American ideals, and, as such, best represents the dispassionate views being presented by Roy-Bhattacharya. But as stated above, there is no doubt that “Americans are losing the war.” Roy-Bhattacharya has said:

The Soviet experiment has terminated in disarray, and the American one is fast approaching the time of its own reckoning, despite its triumphalist assertions to the contrary. I believe we will soon see a turning away from the sort of rationalistic determinism that has driven the project of Western enlightenment, towards a new quest for meaning. We’re on the brink of a time of troubles, and without sounding overly millenarian, the renewed search for a renewed community may well begin precisely in those places where the idea of community still resounds.

Roy-Bhattacharya demonstrates not only deep knowledge of the political circumstances of the war in Afghanistan, of the intricacies of problematical American policies; he also has a sensitivity to the nuances of various American regionalisms, as represented, for example, in flashbacks to scenes in the lives of the narrators back at home, in differences of dialect, and in musical tastes (especially noteworthy is the gap between blues and hip-hop in First Sergeant Whalen’s Louisiana). We also witness a wide spectrum of human sympathies—and lack thereof.

Roy-Bhattacharya presently lives in the Hudson Valley and has lived primarily in the United States for some time. He says that he works on more than one novel at once and has, in addition to the current plan for the Islamic series, written 2,500 pages of a novel set in mid-20th-century Germany. Many have wondered if he will ever write one set in his homeland, but in that regard he has said, “To me a writer has no nationality and his identity, to the degree that it isn’t subsumed by his writing, lies within the page.” After teaching literature, political science, and philosophy at the State University in Albany, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bard College, he is presently concentrating on full-time writing.

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