This interview was published on Isahitya
Sami Ahmad Khan book ‘Red Jihad-Battle for South Asia’ , an action packed thriller is just released. ‘Red Jihad-Battle for South Asia is his first novel. Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College and Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He then completed his masters in English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is a PhD Scholar at JNU, where he is working on Science Fiction and Techno-culture Studies. Currently, Sami is on a Fulbright Fellowship at The University of Iowa, USA. He has engaged in film production, teaching, theatre and writing. His short stories, plays and articles have been published in magazines and academic journals.
The book takes you to 2014 when Pakistan has transitioned into a full-fledged democracy and is reconciling with India. However, there are forces working against this fragile peace. A Pakistani jihadi leader, Yaseer Basheer, travels to the Red Corridor and enlists the support of an Indian Naxalite commander, Agyaat. Their plan is to unleash Pralay, Indias experimental intercontinental ballistic missile, on the subcontinent. As the missile changes course en route, it hits Pakistan and causes collateral damage. In response, Pakistan unleashes war on India. The battle for South Asia turns murkier as an Indo-Pak war threatens to embroil many other countries in the endgame. Have India and Pakistan sparked off the mother of all wars?
Here Sami Ahmad talks about how his book came into shape and the apprehensions attached with writing on such a sensitive topic.
(Interviewed by Harshita Srivastava)
Q. How does it feel to have that ‘author tag’ with your name?
Sami : It feels good, of course, but nothing uniquely ultra-special. After all, every one of us has at least one book in our hearts. I just got blessed with an opportunity to write it.
Q. You’ve always been related to literature for a long period. Was writing books in your mind since long or was it something that came all of sudden?
Sami : I loved reading since I was a kid. Writing was the next organic extension. I began with poems and short stories. When the germs of this book started to proliferate in the depths of my mind, I realized it was time to move to novels, though it was a gradual rather than a sudden shift.
Q. Being a debut author, what hardships you had to face while writing as well as getting your book published?
Sami : Any writer, debut or experienced, always faces hardships, even if they’re only (!) literary decisions (for example, which words to use and where) or intellectual doubts (the theme and its treatment, for example). For me, the process of writing, re-writing, and polishing the drafts of the manuscript were just as challenging as finding a publisher who was willing to take chances with not only a debut writer, but also one speaking on an atypical topic in an unconventional manner, and one who was not writing on the ‘proven’ formula of love, romance and relationships. I am grateful to my publisher (Rupa) and Mr. Kapish Mehra, who encourage and hone new voices and newer forms of literature, for having faith in a greenhorn such as me.
Q. Tell us something about your book .
Sami : It is a thriller set a few years in the future. Jihadis join hands with the Naxalites and try to destabilize a (relatively) stable South Asia. The book depicts how South Asia, specifically India, reacts to such threats of terror and how decisions are made at the top levels of bureaucracy, military and political executive, and how exactly they affect the soldier holding the gun or a civilian fleeing the dogs of war. It is, however, a piece of utter fiction, though ripped out of newspaper headlines (with which I have taken extreme liberties) and extrapolated to its slightly more masaledaar form, and should be treated as such.
Q. How did you come up with such an intriguing title of the book?
Sami : Not only are the words ‘red’ and ‘jihad’ symbolic, they also represent how mass-media portrays the existence of religious fundamentalism and political extremism in contemporary discourses- both amounting to the same terror, the same insecurity, and the same loss of life felt amongst those who suffer. Red Jihad united these opposites and was thus the perfect title for what happens in the book.
Q. Weren’t you apprehensive of the fact that you are writing on a very sensitive topic that might bring your book wrong publicity?
Sami : Yes, I was aware (and afraid) that it might be misconstrued, but since Red Jihad is nothing but a figment of my imagination, is a work of fiction, and has its heart in the right place (it indicts none but the scourge of terrorism, violence, and hypocrisy etc), I was not too worried, for the underlying leitmotif in this book is peace, universal brotherhood and a shared, unified existence for all humanity.
Q. Is there any message you would like to give through your novel?
Sami : I believe in the reader extracting his or her own message through the text, rather than being spoon-fed the reasons the author chose to write the book. The reader does not need that. Though yes, if I were to give a message, it would be, a la Benjamin Franklin, this – ‘we (humanity, as a whole) must all hang together, or rest assured, we will all hang separately’. And that the only way ahead for us all is via peace, tolerance and mutual cooperation. Violence can never be a solution to anything. Ever. Parochialism can only lead to bloodshed, nothing else.
Q. Is there any particular age group you are targeting?
Sami : Rather than targeting any age group, I tried to target a worldview present in us all. The outlook that makes us read newspapers, take part in campaigns against social evils, and feel responsible for the world we live in. A worldview that is interested in ‘what if’ and capable of believing in ‘if only’. To top it all, a worldview that believes, to quote Faiz, that “Aur bhi gham hai zamane main mohabbat ke siva”. I did not want to write a campus romance or a novel pertaining to the angst of another IIT-IIM graduate. There are others better equipped to do so. I wanted a topic that was much more sinister, and much more in need of addressing; a topic that could tear us apart, or unite us as brothers. In terror, I found that synthesis of emotions, of raw anger, pure hatred, blind faith, hidden sensitivity and brutal directness.
Q. What kind of reviews have you got for your book till now? Did you expect this?
Sami : Only online reviews are out till now and they’ve been quite good. It is quite encouraging. Though I am happy with whatever reviews or criticism that I may get. After all, I need to learn a lot more about writing.
Q. What prompted you to write a book on terrorism and who has been your source of inspiration all this while?
Sami : For evil to triumph, it is enough that good men do nothing (attributed to Burke). I have no delusions of a grandiose, heroic, nobility, but I think as a citizen of this world, I can do my bit in trying to end this cycle of bloodshed and parochialism by writing about it. In the same breath, I say this: Red Jihad is a work of fiction and was written by fictionalizing events in a manner in which I thought made them more interesting to the reader. If I had wanted to solemnly sermonize, I would have tried my hand at non-fiction. Red Jihad has all the action that a thriller might have, but I simultaneously tried to mete out an impartial and balanced treatment of the subject under consideration. As for the inspiration, my parents, my friends, and my muse, have been the inspirations behind this project. No, they did not inspire terror in me, but supported me and helped me finish this novel.
Q. What are your favourite works and who do you think have been authors who changed the literary scenario of India?
Sami : I am a huge fan of science fiction. Douglas Adams, Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, etc, not to mention the fantasy-fiction of JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling, are texts I swear by. I also think there are so many good, very good, writers who have sprung up in India over the last two or three decades and are conscious of bridging the gap between the so called ‘high’ literature and popular fiction. Our future looks quite bright.
Q. And finally, any advice or suggestion you would like to give to aspiring authors and readers?
Sami : The clichéd motto of ‘follow your heart’ does work. True story. Keep thinking about anything and everything, pen down your thoughts and just do it. Don’t worry about the form or content or the result. Pouring one’s heart out via the mind is what matters. The means is as important as the end. And it works!
Thank you Sir, it was pleasure talking to you
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