It’s not that the author is a television journalist who has crossed the floor. It’s not that Kashmir is seldom used as a backdrop for novels. It’s not even that the thriller is a little explored genre in Indian writing in English. The Srinagar Conspiracy is a compulsive page turner because it’s that felicitous meeting point between fact and fiction – faction.
Although the book has been marketed as a thriller, the entirely fictional plot pertaining to bombing planes could just as easily have been left out without much impact on the rest of the book. It would still have read like a thriller, but that’s because Chandra, in crossing over from television to writing, unconsciously carries the baggage of his stock in trade. He views life as scenes from a camera lens, making his narration not only crisp and incisive, but utterly visual as well.
Unlike many first time authors, out to prove their superior writing skills, Chandra’s prose is as natural as speech – no laboured metaphors here. And, expectedly for a television journalist, he knows what makes a good story, so that although the real-life events chosen for the book are a trifle idiosyncratic, strung together, they make compelling reading.
Anyone who knows Kashmir well usually picks up a book on the subject with as much trepidation as expectation, because while writing about Kashmir from the outside, a glaring error or three are inevitable. Much of this stems from what is called taxi-driver journalism: ask your taxi-driver a few questions about politics, your houseboat owner about conditions in the Valley, and write your report. Chandra is much too hard-working to fall into this trap; besides his genuine love for Kashmir is palpable: he has obviously spent hours talking to a cross-section of people. The result is that there are none of the wince-inducing gaffes that pepper other books.
Having been a news journalist in television, Chandra edits his copy in the same way as his news clips are edited: one long shot of Afghanistan, zoom in to militant-in-the-making, pan to Srinagar, cut for piece to cam, pan to New Delhi. It’s a novel way of writing, but it makes for interesting reading.
Where there is a television journalist, can news be far behind? Even the choice of subject – Kashmir – says something about the author, because he is known to have been on the Kashmir beat for those years when militancy was at its peak. Chandra’s device of detailing the lives of two fictional friends with the backdrop of the violence of the Valley in the background works well. That is partly because some facts have been painted into the book: the fictional Habib’s whipping in the police station has been juxtaposed against the authentic thrashing of Hamid Sheikh in identical circumstances.
Some of the most lucid scenes in the book are set in Afghanistan, breeding ground of the battle hardened merceneries that flit across the Valley. It’s also where Chandra’s imagination works overtime, because every mercenery from Afghanistan is portrayed as a merciless, almost psychopathic figure, while the bunch from Kashmir are more human and possess the honour that is said to exist among thieves. It’s a common enough portrayal in the media, and perhaps inevitable that Chandra should subscribe to that theory, except that one wonders whether the truth isn’t more complex than that.
Somewhat tongue in cheek, one of the characters in the book is none other than Chandra himself, going by the name of Varun. The details are the same: Varun has studied in Oxford and works for a television news channel. Dragging Varun into the book was a master-stroke, for through him, the reader gets a tantalising glimpse of life in a television production house.
When Vikram A Chandra decides to write his next book, it will have a more measured tempo. After all the media attention this one received.