A book based on Antigone gets published every year (so it seems). For that most mundane of reasons, or maybe a more nuanced one (too long for this review), Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was our 15th anniversary book club selection – an honor indeed. We held the review session at an offsite retreat in Monterey, California. By and large, Desibookers liked the book and called it an easy, fast read, engaging, and the characters relatable. As for me, I had a niggling dissatisfaction with the book. I could not pin down why, till the moderator asked each one of us – “who was your favorite character?”. While everybody else listed a (different) favorite character, I was much chastised for ducking the question by saying I had none. I thought Isma was weak, Aneeka was motivated by being a drama queen, Parvaiz, was living a jihadist nightmare and not a dream, Eamonn – duplicit and going after both sisters… and so on. Stereotypes. Caricatures.
Well, that brings me to The Watch.
Soon after, I happened to be tooling around at the local library and read the back cover of this book based on Antigone. It too was about middle east war (Afghanistan). And written by a South Asian too (Roy-Bhattacharya). Tripe, I thought dismissively. Then I read the first few pages, brought it home and read it in one day without pausing for breath or sustenance. Yeah. That’s how much it got to me. The front quote from Sophocles, Antigone in the book:
I know that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
Every chapter in The Watch is organized so that central event is lead up to and narrated in the voice of each major character – Chapter one starts in Antigone’s (Nizam) voice setting up the death scene in remote Kandahar outpost. Thereafter, every chapter is in the voice of various US military personnel including a medic. We are allowed to get into each one’s head and learn their backstory. Along the way we learn how the military deals with having a Sikh, a Muslim, a Christian and a non-believer as an integral part of the unit. We learn how growing up in different geographies in America affects how we think. Even the opposing viewpoint to Nizam’s is presented in the form of the translator who it turns out is from a different part of the middle east than Antigone and so we learn from the incident of the black turban as well as the name Nizam (a man’s name in one case and a woman’s in another) that the medic, and others who have studied books know more than those who are informed only by life experiences.
It sets up the tension that is central for Sophocles: Divine Law vs. Human Law.
The purity of emotion that comes from Divine Law (represented by Antigone) is what touches us emotionally but leads to chaos with its apparent irrationality; Human Law strives to preserve law and order and fails in the face of acts of the very humans it seeks to protect.
I ached with every character in The Watch no matter which side they were on. I loved how every one was right and how every one was wrong; their strength. I found no weakness – each was driven by what they believed. Shit Happens so when faced with calamity, I learned, I must hang on to that shred of humanity remaining in each one of us when all else is lost.
Finally I understood why Antigone in death is happier than others in life. I could see myself standing in Nizam’s non-existent (you have to read the book to understand the teaser) shoes.
The Watch is incredibly nuanced and complex. Yet, even if you skip through the detailed lives of its individual characters, you will get the ride of your life. I recommend The Watch.
Finally, I did ask myself if this was a case of pity love (remember my dissatisfaction with the other Antigone tale – Home fire). And probably this review came about to justify to myself that Home fire did really not touch my heart because of a lack of depth in each of its characters.
Happy New Year 2019 and I wish you find peace within and without.