THRILLER THAT DOESN'T THRILL

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By ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
  • Published 1.08.08
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CALLING SEHMAT: A NOVEL By Harinder S. Sikka,
Konark, Rs 400

Harinder S. Sikka is a prolific writer. He has also served in the Indian navy for 14 long years. An extremely courageous man, Sikka went to Kargil to record his first-hand experiences of the war between India and Pakistan that took place way back in the late-Nineties. The idea behind Sikka’s current work was, according to the author, conceived amidst the fire and the fury on the battlefield. It took Sikka eight long years to give the idea a more concrete shape. The resulting novel, all of its 200-odd pages, shows that Sikka had embarked on the project with a few objectives in his mind.

The first purpose, going by the Foreword, is to dismantle the standard stereotype of the average Kashmiri. Stereotyping is, in fact, the commonest mode of mutual identification among communities in the tense ambience of divisive politics. In its crudest form, social scientists call this process, ‘Essentialization’. Thus the people of Kashmir, who are predominantly Muslim by faith, are usually essentialized as anti-Indian and pro-Pakistan in their sentiments. Sikka also sets himself the complex and difficult task of glorifying the unsung heroes of Kashmir. He does this through the character of Sehmat Khan, the protagonist of his novel, which is set against the backdrop of the war in Bangladesh in 1971.

Now, the second objective. Once again, the Foreword is illuminating in this context. It offers valuable assistance by bringing to light an underlying purpose that is evident in some of the chapters of this book.

Sikka, it can be argued, aims at projecting the mettle of the Indian navy, which “lacked the fire power as also (the) confidence of the bureaucracy” while confronting the naval force of the adversary. Chapter 17, in particular, chronicles the battle on the seas in vivid detail, to show the strategic superiority as well as the spirit of sacrifice of the Indian navy.

As regards the third objective, it has not been explicitly spelt out. But it informs the narrative style and characterization in such a manner that it is difficult to miss. The reader should not forget that the protagonist here is a woman and a Muslim. These dual markers are of considerable importance. They feed into the protagonist’s marginalized identity the image of a passive, conservative and timid individual. Sikka, however, should be credited with trying hard to break through this social stereotype as well. It is a pity that he does not quite succeed in his endeavour in every single instance.

Sikka’s fourth goal, quite evidently, is to write a spy thriller that will excite and enthral its audience. And it is in this respect that Sikka’s novel fails miserably. Since the author’s intentions in this work are obviously noble, the reader would have been only too glad to praise the novel in a wholehearted manner. But there are numerous purple patches. A much too formal prose style with staid dialogues, a dishearteningly predictable storyline and some banal moments of suspense do nothing to keep up the reader’s attention or interest. A thriller that does not thrill is as appalling as a winter that does not chill.