I have often wondered about how jaded a reader I have become in the past decade or so. Fiction seems incapable of engaging my mind anymore, which groans “ been there, done that ”, even at the best-formed twists and turns. And nonfiction is oh, ever so opinionated!
It was after decades that I got a book in my hands which I felt compelled to read cover to cover, in two two hour sittings, separated by the necessity of my six-hour beauty sleep. The Beckoning Isle by Abhay Narayan Sapru, part of a four-book set I gifted myself for my birthday, reached serendipitously just a day prior and turned out to be amongst the best gifts ever. I am always sceptical of the reviews and review ratings but this short but extremely gripping saga of one of the forgotten wars that the Indian Army has fought, probably forgotten even as it was fought, the Sri Lankan war, vindicated them in my eyes. Probably because it is so seamlessly woven together fact and fiction, two bete noires of a jaded reader, separately, but holding immense charm adding up to more than the sum, when brought together.
The story follows the lives of two protagonists, soldiers both, one in uniform and heart, the other just in heart but equally good. Tracing the destinies, of Harry, short for Hariharan, son of a special forces colonel himself who traces his father’s footsteps and Shiva an unlikely but brilliant soldier who joins the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the story moves through numerous twists and turns when the two are pitted against each other. The story ends in the final showdown where one dies leaving the other to tell the tale, the storyteller being the thinly disguised author himself. Abhay is breathtaking in his rendition of a tragic ( and not only because it was so bloody) war between an oxymoronically named Indian Peacekeeping Force and Sri Lankan Tamils. His narrative is gripping from the first page and never lets the slack down till the last one. The amazing part is the felicity with which he describes soldiering, with all its feisty, almost childish view of the bloody game war, to the highest perspective where involvement of politicians and intelligence agencies skewes realities and confuses lines. There are no holds barred, no moralities cherished and no delusions of heroism harboured, just an honest soldier’s honest tale, one we all love telling over rum and paani. Abhay tells it as it happened.
For me personally, it was a day to relive all memories, feelings, perceptions, joy and sadness that I had felt in my own 19-month stint in the Emerald Island. It was uncanny how close I could feel to Harry as he related his experiences, with even one of my battalion posts in Mannar described in the book. In those four hours, the blood, gore and grime, faces of comrades lost and friends made, of the thrill of adrenaline rush that only hunting while being hunted can give, of the best and the worst of human behaviour that I witnessed, all came gushing back. One more exorcism ritual maybe.
I wish the best to this book, which comes across as a thrilling chase by a shark, not just skimming the surface like a seagull nor plodding deep waters like a whale. The masterstroke lies in the imagery interwoven in the theme. In Shiva, rechristened Silvam by the LTTE, being killed by the son of the Indian Army officer who had trained him. Symbolises the real tragedy of the War. My respect to the author for the soldier like regard he pays to the Tamil soldier. He was amongst the finest and one can only feel sad to have fought on opposing sides.