Friday, September 26, 2014

The Meadow by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

The Meadow
(Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott Clark)
(Penguin Books)

There are some books which keep you awake even as the clock strikes 2 a.m. and you just cannot let go as the novel takes alarming twists and turns and you compulsively turn the pages, your eyes sprinting over the words since the characters are out to save the world from the bad guys. However, this is true about non-fiction only very rarely, which though interesting, are not spell binding. The Meadow, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, thankfully is a glowing exception to this rule.

The thick novel (500+ pages) is a moving tale of five kidnapped tourists in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, two decades back, and is a spine chilling account of how that place became the target of sinister designs of terror groups in Pakistan and how Indian security forces turned the paradise into wanton killing fields.

The books starts off by painting the lifestyle and background of all the people involved in the evolving tragedy in the summer of 1995:
Don Hutchings and his wife Jane Schelly from Spokane, USA;
Keith Mangan and his wife Juliet from Middlesborough, England;
Paul Wells and his girl friend Catherine Moseley from Blackburn, England;
Dirk Hasert and his girl friend Anne Hennig from Germany;
John Childs, the engineer from Connecticut, USA who managed to escape;
Hans Christian OstrØ from Oslo, Norway, the ebullient Indophile who was brutally beheaded by his captors.

The book has a difficult task at hand. The amount of research that has gone into writing it is monumental. All the parties to this sordid crime would try to distance themselves from it; some were killed in the meantime, some still in harness in sensitive governmental posts, others under threat. It meanders through the labyrinthine structure of the Indian security forces with internecine animosity between the various branches of the apparatus: the army, the secret service, the various intelligence services as also the state police.

The tale unravels in the dusty villages of Pakistan, from where its many terrorist organizations pick up their cadre, typically driven by hunger and untold sufferings. With the Soviets in full retreat from Afghanistan, the mujahideen had become unemployed and irrelevant. The terror set up in the AfPak border had to come up with some new area of interest to keep their cadre reined in. Kashmir was the obvious choice with local militancy rearing its head due to New Delhi’s alleged rigging the 1987 state elections. Supported overtly by the ISI and tacitly by the military establishment, it took little time for the establishment at Binori Town, Lahore to cobble together a team to launch an offensive against unsuspecting and non military targets in Indian Kashmir.

In such a scenario, heavily armed terrorists, having been brainwashed in the madrassas of Pakistan  crossed over the LOC, and in early July of 1987 kidnapped half a dozen foreigners who had landed in Kashmir for trekking and sight seeing but were lulled into a false sense of security by  the tourist police and other tourism officials. What unfolded over the next six months is a bone chilling account of killings and counter killings and finally you reach a stage in the investigation where you have lost your bearings. Unbelievable and totally mind boggling skeletons start tumbling out from the cupboard of almost every party to the abduction except the victims.

The story telling is lucid, fast paced and at places intensely emotional where the helplessness of the families of the victims is portrayed. This book is a starting point for every person who wants to understand the realpolitik and the distorted truths of a place once called “Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”(If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here).