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On The Reservation

Monday, January 12, 2015

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Cork O’ Connor is an unusual private eye—he is part Native American, used to be the sheriff of his town, runs a burger joint and takes up cases as and when something comes up. He has a cop-like thoroughness to his investigation, but does not dismiss traditions rites as mumbo-jumbo.

William Kent Krueger’s Windigo Island is the fourteenth in the Cork O’Connor series, and has all the nail-biting suspense and action of a good thriller. Cork lives around the Native American Reservation, which the locals call ‘rez’ and is a peaceable sort. Against the backdrop of an island on Lake Superior that is rumoured to be home to a mythical beast, the mystery of one dead and one missing girl unravels. Rez lore has it that if anyone hears the Windigo monster calling their name, it means their days are numbered.

When the books open, a bunch of boys discover the body of a teenage girl called Carrie Verga. She had disappeared along with her Ojibwe friend Mariah Arceneaux and after some cursory questioning the local cops had ignored the case, since teens from the Reservation were always running off in search of better opportunities. Most of them were hit hard by the racial discrimination in the outside world and returned on their own; or were never found.

Mariah’s crippled mother, Louise requests her grandfather a native clairvoyant Henry Meloux for help in tracing her daughter, and he summons his disciple Cork to do the job.  Cork is prevailed upon by his daughter Jenny to take up the case and search for Mariah.  Jenny leaves her own adopted child Wooboo behind to assist her father.

What they discover is a shocking flesh trade ring that is the best kept secret on the reserve. For years, young Native girls have been forced into prostitution, brutalised by the pimps and killed off if they rebel or outlive their utility. The cops conveniently look the other way, and locals pretend nothing is wrong. Cork is up against a particularly vicious villain, whose inhuman nature has also made him fearless.

There are not too many Native American characters in mainstream American fiction (or movies), so through the medium of a cop thriller, Krueger also tells the story of the neglect, exploitation and abuse of the Native population that has led to poverty, alcoholism and a self-destructive frustration.

Krueger has not just created interesting and sympathetic characters, but has also vividly described the beauty of the region, and also laid bare the ugliness that lies just beneath the surface.
Windigo Island
By William Kent Krueger
Publisher: Atria Books
Pages: 339 pages

Excerpt from Windigo Island
Fear is who we are.

Cork’s old friend Henry Meloux had told him that. Though not quite in that way. And it was only part of what the ancient Ojibwe Mide had said. These were his exact words: In every human being, there are two wolves constantly fighting. One is fear, and the other is love. When Cork had asked which of the wolves won the battle, Meloux’s answer had been: The one you feed. Always the one you feed.

In his own life, Cork had known more than his share of fear. He carried scars from multiple gunshot wounds and was scarred, too, in ways that never showed on skin. He’d lost his wife to violence, lost friends in the same manner. More than once, men whose hearts were black holes of hate had targeted his children, and he’d come close to losing them as well. In all this, fear had sometimes been the wolf he’d fed. But as Meloux had wisely observed, love also shaped the human spirit, and it was this element of his being that Cork had consciously done his best to feed. In far more ways than fear, this wolf had shaped the man he was.

There were different kinds of fear, Cork knew, and some had nothing to do with violence. They were sought out purposely, sought for the sake of excitement, an adrenalin rush—a roller coaster ride, for example, or a ghost story. When he finally spoke with the three boys, he understood it was the desire for this kind of fear that had brought them to the cursed place the Anishinaabeg called Windigo Island.

When they set out that moonlit night, this was what the boys knew, what all the local kids knew: On Windigo Island, death came in the dark. It came in the form of an awful spirit, a cannibal beast with an insatiable craving for human flesh.

Readers Recommendation
By Vidhya Sridhar

26th November, 2008. The day resonates in every Mumbaikar’s heart as a day of shame. A day when security was breached blatantly by the Pakistani LeT terror group comandeered by Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi , that took us hostage in our own homes,  in the full public gaze of an impotent administration. More than 160 people died in these attacks.

 All this in the face of  voyueristic media glare for  a full three days before honour was restored by our brave Armed Forces.

The Army, the National Security Guard and the MARCOS (Marine Commando Force, the special operations unit of the Indian Navy) were pressed into action.

‘Black Tornado’ was the name of the operation launched by the National Security Guard  and its strike force -51 Special Action Group, to rescue civilians trapped in the three sieges—attacks on the Taj Palace Hotel, Nariman House and the Oberoi Hotel. The operation also aimed at neutralising the terrorists responsible for the attacks.

If the iconic Gabbar were to ask “Kitney aadmi they?” shamefacedly one would have to answer, “Just 10”.  So, how did it come to pass that 10 Lashkar fidayeen from across the border could enter Mumbai through the sea route undetected and unleash mayhem in a city of millions, in just a few hours.

This book is important in that it traces the trajectory of their arrival and the meticulous reconnaissance trips before D-Day by the LeT operatives.
David Coleman Headly, his covert operations in India and the vital link in the story and how several intelligence alerts, including his own wife’s testimony, prior to the attack, were missed,  in piecing the jigsaw puzzle together, form an interesting angle.

New facts are still coming to light on this issue.  A couple of weeks ago, the media was  agog with definite revelations  on the gaps in information sharing  of  the US,  Britain and Indian agencies on  vital intelligence clues prior to the attack, in being responsible for the occurrence.

Then like a slap on the face of India, came the news of Lakhvi’s acquittal by the Pakistani courts.

The extraordinary thing is that this book launched before these news reports became public, already had shocking details of several such lapses. Did you know for example that a couple of months prior to the attack, on positive alerts, security was stepped up at the Taj and later withdrawn? Or that a coded message with the word ‘Leopold’ was intercepted much in advance of the attacks on Leopold Cafe?

This book seeks to answer several important questions. Was the attack as random and easy as it looked or was there an intense back story to the final culmination in its deadliness?

The cold-blooded conversations between the snipers and their Pakistan-based handlers offer some chilling insights into the psychology of the operatives.

Why was The Oberoi, (the defender’s delight, as the author calls it at one point), and not the Trident, chosen by the enemy snipers who were holed up inside, shooting ? What was the vantage point it offered? What was the mystery of such precision in their decisions?

How far did the minute- by-minute media broadcast of the operation and the VVIP sound bytes compromise the operation?  Why was a sensitive operation such as this allowed to descend into a public spectacle?

This book is also enlightening in that it pieces together previously unknown information while the actual search and rescue operations were on at the Taj, Nariman House and the Oberoi. Unnithan has made this possible through numerous interviews with the actual men in action.

There are interesting peeps into the lives of  each of these heroes in uniform, for example, the brave Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s (Unni, for short), who lost his life during the operation, leading to  a severe moral blow to the forces.

Captain Mohit Dhingra, of the NSG, pays tribute to his hero and martyr, by sporting the touching tattoo above his chest  that reads ‘Unni’.

Numerous news reports have been read, studied, analysed, debated ad nauseum in the years that have passed since the attack.  To the casual reader , the actions of several men in action may have seemed foolhardy.

It takes a book like this to highlight the plight of these men working often in an information vacuum, with outdated weapons, improvising while on the move, within the constraints of time and speed.

Short staffing of cadres coupled with lack of adequate supplies of weapons and ammunition, pose  a severe threat to their preparedness.

With jute sacks, gloves are cut out and stitched, even while coping with a life-and-death situation, in the middle of the attack,  so that the commandos don’t graze their hands while sliding down the lines on being  be air dropped into a direct line of fire.

The book showcases in various episodes the nobility of these selfless men, eager to be at the forefront of the action. Ironically, the frivolousness and human frailty of a hostage willing to be rescued but  ‘not without her big bag of jewels’ stands out in stark contrast.

This book is also an interesting reality check on the defence preparedness of our forces and local police, what with their Boer-War era weapons that jam at the crucial moment.

The quick-response disaster management team, the NSG still remains by and large, staffed with personnel loaned from the army, on deputation.

In the absence of a permanent structure, the book laments, past mistakes are likely to be repeated.

The book leaves one with chilling questions. Have we learnt lessons from this tragedy? How far improved is our defence preparedness today? Or are we still sitting ducks, easy game for another 26/11 style attack?
Black Tornado
By Sandeep Unnithan
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 224

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