A former diplomat in Afghanistan offers a light read about heavy issues.
Farishta, Patricia McArdle, Riverhead Books, Rs.499.
The motivations for picking up a work of genre fiction — whether romance or crime or sci-fi — are self-evident. Outside these categories, why a book grabs you can be considerably more complicated, but quite often, it’s the topicality of the story, and the suggestion that the book will offer deeper insights than the daily news into some tortuous situation of the times.
Farishta, the debut novel by retired US diplomat Patricia McArdle, fits into this category. It is a first-person account of protagonist Angela Morgan’s life in the US diplomatic corps, with special reference to her posting in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, in early 2005.
We know that Western diplomats are regularly taught the local language and sent to conflict zones like Afghanistan. However, unlike soldiers whose purpose in such situations is relatively clear, diplomats seem to inhabit a greyer area. We often wonder: how is their life structured, what do they hope to accomplish in a year?
McArdle, writing from personal experience, offers some answers. Like her protagonist, she was an American diplomat in Mazar based in a British PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) unit; she too introduced solar cookers to the women of Afghanistan as a way of solving the difficulty of fuel being scarce; and presumably she also had to negotiate her way through an ambiguously defined job.
Reading Farishta, you sense that the hierarchy of responsibilities between soldiers and diplomats is imperfectly defined — as is the precise role that foreign missions can play in the restructuring of the country. These sections, dealing with the frictions and chasms of understanding between diplomats and soldiers are written from an obvious knowledge base.
We first meet McArdle’s protagonist Morgan at a tragic turning point that will forever shape her life — her husband, also a US diplomat, is killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing of the US embassy. Adding to the tragedy, Morgan loses her unborn child.
She decides to stay in her profession but the spark has gone and is never quite regained. Some 20 years on, at age 47, she still suffers from post-traumatic stress. But given that her career is flat-lining its way to a dead-end, she is pressured into taking a last-ditch diplomatic assignment in Afghanistan that might revive it.
Initially, the many plot-threads hold out the promise of mystery and tension. Such as when Morgan disguises herself beneath a burka and goes off on clandestine jaunts to refugee camps, or the issue that Morgan is a fluent Dari speaker but asked to conceal the fact. The army suspects that some of their translators may be deliberately mis-translating information to assist their enemies, and want evidence.
However, these various sub-plots are insufficiently developed, with summary resolutions. The workman-like prose seems to have taken a leaf out of military efficiency — the focus is on getting the job done.
There is a potentially interesting romance brewing between Morgan and Mark Davies, a considerably younger British major. However, on an emotional register as well, the story is episodic, a recounting of facts and incidents that feels a bit forced.
What rings true about the narrative are the “memoir” aspects of the story, drawn from the author’s own experiences. Such as the challenges faced by a lone woman in two powerful male-dominated worlds in a war zone: the all-male society within the army quarters, as well as the patriarchal culture outside.
You appreciate that Morgan doesn’t just mark time till a better posting comes along but wants to be of worth in both these worlds. “Farishta” is the Dari word for Angela’s name, translated as “angel”. Despite the weight of the subject matter, the book is a light read. It opens a door into a world that you read about in the news everyday — you get to peep, but you aren’t really taken inside.