Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Fidayeen He Wrote

A couple of days ago I got an email from a young lady whom I'll call ZA. This is what she wanted to know:

Mr. Purkayastha, 

I'm ZA, in my first year doing undergraduate degree in Sociology in ******** College, New Delhi. As part of the first project assigned to us, we were asked to do a book review on any fiction/non-fiction and sociologically analyse it. I chose Fidayeen, which I found to be super interesting. I feel it's a book that must be read by more people, especially in the present context. 

My question of clarification is very much simple, sir. It is, "What made you write Fidayeen? Or what was the context that led you to its writing?" 
I hope my polite inquiry is genuine, as it's not easy and takes a lot of courage to write on a topic so controversial.

Expecting your reply soon, as the deadline to submit the project is very much near.

Best Regards
BA(Hons) Sociology, ****** College, New Delhi

As some of you may or may not remember, I wrote this book:

And as it happens I got an award for it:

I thought you might also like to know what made me tick when I wrote this. If you don’t, then don’t read further.

This is how I replied (slightly edited to remove identifiable information and spoilers):

Hi, Ms A.

I’m glad you liked the book. I’ve not much idea what a “sociological analysis” is, but I’ll be waiting eagerly to read your review.

You ask what made me write it. Now, I think you’ll understand well enough from reading it that I’m not a “nationalist” or a conventional “patriot”; I do not believe that everything a country does is fine only because one happens to have been born in it. Especially in regard to Kashmir, I’ve found the situation very troubling on many levels.

Back in 1989 – this will likely have been long before you were born – I was a student in Lucknow when the Kashmir rebellion broke out. Within a matter of weeks, the Kashmir valley had virtually gone out of control. My classmates pulled a publicity stunt of signing letters in their blood and sending it to the prime minister of the day – I think it was just after Vishwanath Pratap Singh had taken office – pledging to “give their blood for Kashmir”. It was an absurd publicity stunt, and of course not one of them ever actually joined the army.

It was around the same time that a friend of my uncle’s, who was at that time a lieutenant colonel in the army (he had earlier fought in Sri Lanka and been wounded by an LTTE grenade) was posted to Kashmir and saw some combat there. I recall meeting him in 1991 or 2 when I was home on holiday and so was he. He showed me photos of his deployment to Kashmir, including pictures of combat, and gave me detailed descriptions of some battles. You remember the battle in the village where Mushtaq and the others are in the house, and then one of them was hiding in a pipe in the field? That’s an almost exact retelling of one of the episodes he’d told me about. He also told me that the army actually did mistreat Kashmiris very badly, and that most of the allegations about the army murdering civilians and torturing prisoners were based on fact.

So at that time I was already deeply interested in Kashmir. I was also not ignorant of military and militant matters – there was an insurgency on in this state at that time, under the terrorist Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) which has now been virtually wiped out but was then very strong. In 2001 I was 50 metres from an HNLC attack in which five people were killed. My first book, Rainbow’s End, was a fictional account of the HNLC insurgency. So I already had a good idea of how it feels like to live in the middle of terrorism and civil conflict.

Around this time I also read several books on Kashmiri insurgency, especially Manoj Joshi’s Lost Rebellion, which is a detailed history of the Kashmiri rebellion from the start in 1989 to the late 90s, and Death of Dreams by Aditya Sinha, which is the authorised biography of the militant leader turned politician Firdous Syed Baba. Both these books gave me a detailed historical and personal insight into the whole Kashmir conflict which I might otherwise not have got, including the machinations on both the Indian and Pakistani sides.

Around that time, the mid 2000s, the first fidayeen attacks started in Kashmir, targeting army and CRPF or BSF camps. This was, of course, not a new tactic; the Japanese used kamikaze attacks in World War II and I’d read a lot about them. Also, suicidal mass attacks had been carried out by the Chechens in Russia in 2001 in Moscow and 2004 in Beslan. But the idea of a small force of two or three men penetrating a military establishment was new to India then. And it was fascinating.

Right at this point I’d like to say something: just as I do not consider kamikaze pilots cowards, I do not consider fidayeen attackers cowards. In fact, and this is without taking into account their aims, I consider them extremely brave people. Unlike those who pack explosives into a car and set them off in marketplaces, fidayeen attackers quite literally sacrifice their lives for what they believe in. And this, obviously, raised the question of why they should do this. What would make a normal human being give up his hopes and dreams and his family to go off on an enterprise which would inevitably result in his death? What is in this belief system that makes them feel that their lives are less important than fulfilling whatever mission it is that they are on?

At this point I was not planning to write any book on fidayeen. However, I was reading on them, all I could, and I kept newspaper clippings and website bookmarks which threw any light on them at all that I found. This was alongside other things I read up on, and to this day I read up on multiple topics that I find fascinating, on which I might or might not write something in future.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with It’s now gone, but in the period I’m talking about – approximately 2003-7 – it was extremely popular, not as much as Facebook is today, but still very important as the first great social network. I met and became friends with several Pakistanis there, some of whom were extreme religious fundamentalists. They gave me a good deal of insight into their thinking, though I was only vaguely planning a book at that point and I had nothing concrete in mind.

Then, around 2007, I wrote a story which I posted on – another wonderful site which is now gone. It was only a little story, and it was about a boy called Ali in Kashmir who was lame and sitting in a park when he was approached by the narrator. The narrator gets friendly with Ali, asks him questions, and Ali tells him that his sister is engaged to a militant who visits her in the evenings. At the end of the story it’s revealed that the narrator is an Indian intelligence agent and that the whole idea was to lay a trap for the militant. The story wasn’t much but it got a lot of favourable comment from readers, who asked for more stories on Kashmir. I then wrote another one of a small group of militants coming at night into a village because the mother of one of their members lived there. She hadn’t seen him for years but they could only spend a couple of hours before they had to go again. This too was very popular with the readers and it told me that I was capable of, at the least, writing a book on Kashmir. And that was the point when I seriously started thinking about it.

Right away, I realised that the story was much more than just the fidayeen. They had a context in which they operated, the situation in Kashmir; they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s pointless to just blame them on Pakistan. It was India which created the situation in which they could appear, and if the source was Pakistan, it was still India’s fault for creating the circumstances under which Pakistan could take advantage of the situation. The context, then, included India and the Kashmiri people, and the people included, in turn, the Kashmiri militants. They, strangely enough, did not conduct fidayeen operations, giving their lives for the cause – their cause – while the foreign militants did. This was also very interesting, and required a lot more plot development, including tracing the different psychologies of the two groups. At that point the idea of contrasting two militants – Mushtaq and Abu Hassan – was born.

I did not, of course, choose one or the other of them as “good” or “evil”. I do not believe anyone is fully good or fully evil. I consider them both victims, as I do the Kashmiri people and the Indian soldiers who were sent to fight for it. My own thoughts about Kashmir are really irrelevant to the topic, because I am not Kashmiri, but if you want to know what I think it’s that the state should be given independence from both India and Pakistan. In one small part I mentioned a Kashmiri whose house Raja Bhattacharya was searching and who lectured him on Kashmir. That’s more or less what I think, but as I said it’s not relevant.

Nor was I ever going to write a stupid action book like the Cobra series. I detest action books, movies, and the shallow effort that goes into them. What I wanted, basically, was a fictionalised history of a facet of the Kashmiri insurgency, a little like what the Kenyan writer Meja Mwangi did in Carcase For Hounds about the Mau Mau revolution. I was only unsure if I was up to it.

At this time I wrote the first few chapters of Fidayeen and let it lie for a while. In the meantime I wrote another book – The Call Of The Khokkosh – which has nothing to do with militancy in any form. I may not ever have returned to Fidayeen because I had a bit of a writer’s block on it. My friend Sujay Panyadi (whom I mentioned in the dedication) kept nagging me to finish it, but I didn’t really think I would. I felt I couldn’t do it justice, and assumed that it probably would never get published anyway.

But then the Mumbai attacks of 2008 happened. I know Mumbai very well – it is my favourite Indian city – and also I suddenly found that I knew more about what was going on, due to my research, than the talking heads in the television studios. And afterwards I went right back to the book. I rewrote the chapters I’d written and started again from the start, and the more I wrote the easier it became to go on. At that time an ex classmate of mine who was then a major in the army was visiting town and he told me all about the Indian Army’s counter-terrorist protocols in Kashmir, which I’ve also described. In fact all the research fell into place.

Putting myself into the heads of Sabira, Nausheen, Mushtaq and Abu Hassan, Loveleen or Raja Bhattacharya was no problem at all. I’ve never had any trouble putting myself into the point of view of people with whom I have otherwise nothing in common. I have written stories from the points of view, among others, of a Nazi concentration camp commander, a murderous Zionist settler in Occupied Palestine, at least three separate ISIS men (one of those stories is a novella length detective story) and Moby Dick (the whale). Once I’d done the research, knew what the background information was like, the story itself came easily.

In the end I finished writing the whole book in less than a month – 25 or 26 days I think – and then discovered that I couldn’t find a publisher to save my life. I’ve talked about that on the blog article you read, I think – it was only in 2015 that a publisher could be found brave enough to take it on. I was on the verge of just putting the whole thing online at that point. Now I am researching for a planned sequel called The Black Flag which will bring back ... (names deleted to avoid spoilers) ... and other survivors of the first book, and which will revolve around ISIS trying to infiltrate the Kashmiri insurgency. I will almost certainly be writing it next year. Publication, though, I don’t know.

I hope this account of mine is helpful...As far as your comment about “courage” goes, I don’t think I am particularly courageous. It was a topic that needed to be written on. Someone had to do it. I did. That’s the way I think of it. As such, I’ve been attacked many times over the years for my opinions, including death threats, and if those didn’t shut me up criticism of this won’t.

If you have additional questions I’d be glad to answer them.


[If she sends me the review I'll let you know.]


  1. Wow, that book really had a long gestation period.

    I'm glad you shared this!

  2. You probably gave that poor girl way more than she bargained for. :) Thanks for sharing those insights, though. I do love to hear how a writer's mind works, because I don't have a clue how my own does.

  3. I am sure she was fascinated and honored by your response. It is a gift of yours, to be able to put yourself into the minds of people with whom you, otherwise, have nothing in common. And also to put yourself into characters with whom you have much in common.


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