It’s an old story: Antigone decides to bury her dead brother and break the city’s law; for her contravention she is immured in a cave. And soSophocles’ Antigone mesmerized its Grecian audiences—so much that he was made a general in Athens’s battle against Samos.
It’s a new story: Nizam pushes a cart across miles and mountains to recover and bury her dead brother and rescue him from the American militarymen who think him a Taliban figure; during her struggle she is left in a desolate stretch of the desert. And so Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch calls forth the old story in a different guise, bringing to life lieutenants and captains on the battlefront.
But of course Nizam is not quite Antigone, nor is Masood, the interpreter, exactly Ismene. In the new story, Creon is generalized from a lone figure to the entire military-industrial complex. The soldiers struggle to support the system into which they were indoctrinated, and their all-too-human experiences overwhelm their dispassionate training. As they watch Nizam, they worry for her, and realize they cannot see things in the black-and-white, allegorical terms they’re supposed to.
“He walks over to Masood and says: Please convey to her that our business with him is not finished.
She replies: He is dead. What business can you possibly have with a dead man?
Tell her that her brother was a terrorist, a Talib, and a bad man.
That isn’t true! My brother was a Pashtun, a Muhajid, and a freedom fighter. He fought the Talib. And he died fighting the Amrikâyi invaders. He was a man of courage.”
Good and bad are hard labels to affix, and even harder when all you know are us and them.
“The decade-long war in Afghanistan is America’s longest war, Britain’s most expensive war since World War II, and NATO’s first major war outside Europe,” Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya writes, before detailing the casualties per Western country. Where are the statistics on the local people who died? The Pashtuns, the Talibs, the many other peoples who live oceans and deserts away from the United States? How are they recognized in our media, if at all?
Sometimes, the chorus in Greek plays would come onstage by walking down the steps of the amphitheaters, as if they had up until then been a part of the audience. In the same vein, the American men speak from their homeland as well as the theater of war. Their past memories mix with the present moment; the First Sergeant moves in his thoughts between his family in Louisiana and his platoon in Afghanistan. If they can call themselves part of the audience, then should we readers call ourselves part of the chorus?
“It's about as cogent an analysis as anything you'll find about where we are today,” the Lieutenant says to the Captain of Antigone, handing him the play to read. I felt within Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s pages a carefully attuned mind examining and analyzing all sides of the Afghanistani debate, an attitude found less frequently in fiction than in drama. It is a relief to hear it again in this novel, as the boundaries blur between good and bad, between new and old, between audience and actors, between them and us.
image credit: boston.com/bigpicture/