29 May 2013

The Indus Intercept by Aruna Gill

Fact and fiction overlap 

This book left me with two very strong feelings. One was sadness, tinged with despair, for the people of Balochistan. The second was awe at the amount of information the author had managed to pack into this thriller without weighing it down or reducing its pace. This part of the world has much that is unique and fascinating. It was host to one of the world’s earliest civilizations, which produced a script that has never been deciphered. It has harsh terrain and a location that has made it one of the most politically vulnerable for centuries. The people are highly emotional and the culture produced a precious store of poetry, folktales and music, but today the literacy rate is abysmally low.  In the current context, an area of vast natural resources, it is a region whose people feel betrayed by their government. The author has explored these various aspects minutely. Couched as they are in adventure and drama, the quality of detail and narrative skill serves to make the place vividly authentic in the reader’s eye. The characterization is also strong; the people in this book are still with me.
As a work of spy fiction written by an Indian and based in Pakistan, I was impressed by the neutral tone which allows a balanced portrayal of a number of negative characters. The arch villain, however – a real and rather controversial person (for details, go read the book!) – appears only in silhouette. Other shadowy characters display amusing but lifelike traits, as in this conversation between a CIA agent and his boss:
“Good. Good. Any ideas?”
“It appears to be in the Indus Valley script.”
“The Indus Valley script, huh. So, when can you get me a translation?”
“The Indus Valley script has never been deciphered.” Fred rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Never been deciphered? You telling me there’s some shithead with a towel wrapped around his head sitting in a cave writing instructions in a language no one else can read? Red Rock’s voice rose till it cracked, an octave above his normal tone. 
I met Aruna Gill earlier this month. It was at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, where we both studied, a few years apart – a school which has produced many well-known writers, including Arundhati Roy. 
Of the four writers displaying their books in this photograph, it’s an odd coincidence that two of us had based our most recent work in neighbouring provinces of Pakistan. Aruna told me that she had never been to Balochistan. It was her fascination for the Indus Valley civilization that led her to read about precursor sites around Mehrgarh. And learning about the troubles in that area prompted her to keep reading and asking, and eventually base her book there instead of writing the story set in an ancient civilization she had originally planned. It also led her to the understanding that insurgencies arising from the grievances of peoples neglected by their governments have similarities across culture and continent. She intends to base her next book in such an area in India.