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Novels are excellent spaces to conduct thought experiments. You can follow a thought through without any real damage and the results might surprise you. Sami Ahmad Khan’s debut thriller Red Jihad rests on an interesting premise: what if the jihadis and the Maoists were to join hands.
Red Jihad is the story of India’s secret missile programme hijacked by a group of insurgents created when the jihadi militants led by Basheer join hands with the Maoists led by Agyaat. The location of the missile development, behind the cover of hills away from the prying eye of the international satellites in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, makes it difficult for the Indian defence systems to penetrate the location easily and weed out the insurgents. This is classic drama: the very reasons that made a space safe also make it difficult to access by those who wish to safeguard it. India’s defence reliance then shifts to whether the missile technology is complex enough not to allow the insurgents to replicate it and whether the computer aided systems will be able to prevent the insurgents from gaining control on the missile. All this happens a day before the Prime Minister has to leave for an important conference to win more rights for the nation. The Army Chief then does something unheard of in parliamentary democracy. A review should not give out the story so let me stop here and sketch some of the salient features of the novel.
Khan read Literature at Delhi and is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is a Fulbrighter and has engaged in film production, teaching, theatre and writing. His research on defence and missile systems is thorough and a delight to read. The plot moves from one high point to another lending a force and pace to the book. Red Jihad ushers in a kind of writing in Indian English that has been missing: the genre thriller. Yet, this thriller does not have one lead protagonist — a hero who we wish to trample over wrong and win. Red Jihad has at least four or five linked but unrelated individuals: the Indian premier, the Army Chief, the Pakistan premier, Lt Gen Chowdhary who eventually restore the system but then more surprises await the reader.
What the book does well is sketch and shows us, from India’s red corridor to Pakistan’s fractured internal politics, how systems fail and create strong and equipped dissidents. It also shows us how rogue elements from other neighbouring counties take advantage of our internal rivalries. It posits that it is human communication and lack of stereotypes that can bridge the gaps. For example, the Indian Army Chief calls his Pakistan counterpart to assure him that an attack was not intentional but a systemic mistake or the Pakistan premier calls his Indian counterpart to announce that the nation has gone nuclear ready – a reference to or inspired by the Cuban Missile Crises.
What Khan needs to explore more is not to use dialogue to further the pro- or anti-nation theories and not extend his bandwidth too much. Thrillers are best when they deliver a series of hard blows. Still, Khan might have started a genre that will lead many youngsters to learn the English language the way an earlier generation learnt it: through our own Robert Ludlums and Fredrick Forsyths.
Amandeep Sandhu, author of Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour from Rupa Publications