Among the attendees at Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's talks and signings to promote his new book, The Watch (June), will be U.S. servicepeople, some of whom he got to know while writing the novel. "I'm trying my best to make sure every audience I address will have vets in them," he said.
In The Watch, an Afghan woman who lost her legs to a bomb rolls herself on a cart across rough terrain to reach an American military base in Kandahar. She demands the return of her brother's body, intent on burying him according to local traditions after his death during a fierce nighttime battle. Some of the soldiers believe she is the grief-stricken sibling she claims to be, while others fear she is a spy or a suicide bomber. Her steadfast presence escalates the already edgy atmosphere at the stark outpost and, as the soldiers argue about what to do next, tensions reach a breaking point.
The Watch grew in part out of Roy-Bhattacharya's desire to illuminate the tragically high human cost of war. Research yielded the surprising fact that, while there have been many nonfiction accounts of contemporary conflicts, including that in Afghanistan, it's not a subject that creative writers have explored. The first chapter, originally written as an independent short story, was submitted to the New Yorker and rejected. "Essentially the message was that it was going to be too disturbing for their readership," recalled Roy-Bhattacharya. That got his "dander up." He turned out a first draft of The Watch in about 10 weeks, motivated by "my need to give voice to the voiceless, the statistics, the collateral damage that we no longer even hear about."
Born in India, Roy-Bhattacharya has lived in Eastern Europe and elsewhere and currently resides in Rhinebeck, N.Y. His novels include The Storyteller of Marrakesh, and he previously taught at Bard College and the State University of New York at Albany. Roy-Bhattacharya drew on his background in political science and philosophy for The Watch, which is loosely based on the Greek myth of Antigone, who attempts to secure a proper burial for her brother, deemed a traitor, even though it means risking her life.
During the second phase of writing The Watch, Roy-Bhattacharya spoke with U.S. military personnel for their perspective. "To my surprise I realized as much as the victims of war are voiceless, the people we send to wage war seem equally voiceless," he explained. One of the people to whom the novel is dedicated, an army officer who served in Kandahar, "told me he was very grateful that someone was finally talking about them." Roy-Bhattacharya is planning a novel centering on some of the soldiers from The Watch after they return Stateside.
The responsibility of fiction is to take readers "into the hearts and souls of the characters," said Roy-Bhattacharya. "After going through these personal, enormously wrenching encounters with the American soldiers, I wanted to make absolutely sure I was giving 100% fidelity to their voices. Every character for me represents not just a point of view but in so many cases the people I now know."