Another book from Afghanistan. Well, creative interpretation of reality happens when reality becomes more dramatic than fiction. And Afghanistan has been offering plenty of creative release to a lot of people, with the starkness of its realities.
An Afghan Winter
It’s one thing to spin off a fictional story set against a historical backdrop but quite another to fictionalize life in a contemporary war zone. You see, it leaves little scope for imagination to run wild. But author Rajesh Talwar makes it harder on himself by donning a reporter’s cap to give a unique if not a factual perspective on war ravaged Afghanistan in his latest book “An Afghan Winter” unraveling as he does, a murder mystery that keeps one turning the pages.
For an American in Afghanistan there is no dearth of enemies, the potentials ranging from the Al Qaeda, Taliban, the army, vested interests and mercenaries, to the scores of innocent civilians who are dismissed off as collateral damage by both the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ marauders.
So, here’s the plot: Anzan Safri is an Indo-Tibetan journalist based in Dubai who lands up in Kabul, Afghanistan to train local journalists. Unwittingly, however, he finds himself embroiled in a surreal murder of an American army officer and sets about to find the killer(s).
Anzan’s friend and US Army officer, Michael, has been murdered in a bomb attack. There are three potential suspects – the Englishman Greg West who worked with Micahel in the ammunitions depot; the German Kurt Kainzer, a pedophile who ran a charity as a front; and the Iranian head of a media organization, Mansour Hashimi. The heterogeneity of these gentlemen itself should be an indication of the kind of people that populate current day Kabul.
The protagonist’s keen deductive instincts and easy-going nature bring him into contact with many mundane yet interesting characters. There are characters that give the feel of the connectedness of the sub-continent and there are the perfunctory love-interests, who, if it were a movie, would be considered eye-candy.
As he investigates, Anzan travels north and south of the country, risking his own life through undulating and unapologetic terrain where if bombs or landmines laid out by terrorists do not kill you, then you could get killed by so much as just sneezing as you pass by the automatic weapons of moving American convoys.
But then, it’s not the quaint whodunit that keeps you riveted – it’s the stories of ordinary Afghans, their frailties, strengths and complexities as they struggle to lead a life of quiet dignity in the face of foreign occupying forces, fundamentalists, mercenaries, and unscrupulous westerners, that tug at your heart.
What you don’t get is hyperbole and overstatement that fiction writers may sometimes fall victim to. With brevity as his essential style, Talwar manages an almost objective reportage of scenes as if coming straight from a reporter’s notes. What you get is – although not highly sophisticated – a fast-paced narrative with contemporary relevance and a political dimension.
Although fictional, Talwar’s characters seem as real as the actual locations and situations described. Much as you sense the third world squalor in a surviving city like Kabul, you get a feel of the made-for-foreigners-only opulence in its hotels and restaurants, the sights, sounds and smells of local bazaars as also the warm hospitality of the tradition-bound Afghans.
But then, the author has had the advantage of getting a ringside view of the country as a war zone veteran and United Nations staff member who spent years working in Afghanistan.
Having studied at Delhi University and Nottingham, he practiced law for many years and has worked for the United Nations in Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan.
If you have ever watched images of Afghanistan on television and wondered who those faceless people are that live through all that death and destruction, and their dynamics with the people who cause that destruction, and those who bring those images to you, read An Afghan Winter. It tells you the stories behind at least some of those faces.
[An Afghan Winter is available for sale online at Amazon.com and other channels.]