It was waiting to be written. Now it has been. A thriller set in Kashmir. With proper Ludlumesque title (The Srinagar Conspiracy, The Matarese Circle, The Aquitaine Progression), authored by a man who has extensively covered the insurgency: Vikram Chandra (of NDTV, not Red Earth and Pouring Rain, fame). So. Well, I finished it in one sitting. The no-frills language helped. So did the pace which never flags, except for a couple of chapters Chandra chucks in to do the building-up-of-character stuff. The basic plotline of the novel - tracing the lives of two Kashmiri friends, one Hindu and the other Muslim, one in the Army and the other transforming from an apolitical youth into a feared JKLF militant - resonates with all your fond memories of those epic Hindi movies about two brothers/friends whom circumstances have forced to become sworn enemies. The characters are simply drawn yet made of something stronger than cardboard, and in Jalauddin, the sadistic mujahideen, Chandra has managed to create a satisfyingly fearsome villain. Good genre stuff.
Where the novel works best is in the expert weaving of fiction into historical fact. The life-defining experience for Habib, one of Chandra's two protagonists, is the poll campaign of Mohammed Yusuf Shah, Muslim United Front candidate in the Amirakadal constituency in the mid '80s, who would later recreate himself as Syed Salahuddin, chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Yasin Malik, Mast Gul, Farooq Abdullah make guest appearances. Habib is the man who plots and executes the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping, while his friend-enemy Major Vijay Kaul infiltrates militant groups at Chrar-e-Sharif posing as an isi major. And the Kauls are old friends of the Raina family who were butchered by the militants in one of the worst - but now forgotten - atrocities in the Valley.
There are some nice touches too. Spattered with the blood of a National Conference politician he has just killed, Habib wipes his face and finds to his disgust that he has deposited some of the blood in his mouth. Jalauddin, whose technique of choice is to slice up his victims, has to amputate the leg of a wounded comrade: "all he felt was the familiar thickening and swelling in his loins at the sight of someone in pain". Indeed, Chandra displays a sure sense of his craft by merely hinting at the horrors of torture, leaving the details to the reader's imagination. Far more effective than piling on the gore.
The novel falters in its last pages, when Chandra chickens out of the blockbuster climax the story's been building up to. The twist in the tail is hardly Ruth Rendell stuff, given the violently crimson herrings Chandra's been shoving in your face in preceding chapters. When the first chapter hints at a mujahideen plot to assassinate Clinton during his visit to India, the reader sits up. Hey, he thinks, this guy is thinking big, as the better thriller writers have always done. But after 250 pages of raising the ante, Chandra withdraws from the game, cashing in on a low-octane climax.
The story's logic moves inexorably towards a grand set piece: Habib and Vijay in a final heroic confrontation that would blow Jalauddin away in satisfyingly horrific manner. Instead, Chandra does the literary equivalent of setting out for Kashmir and then getting off the train at Pathankot. If only he was a bit more ambitious! I went to bed feeling let down, yet satisfied with Chandra's unpretentious genre competence. Nice.