Saturday, July 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Oblivion / Author: Ikram Sehgal

Thanks to the lovely Nefer & Haya for the launch Invite

Published in Daily Times / Jul 21, 2012
Under the title: So You Think You Can Escape?
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

'In this game there are no second chances. You either win or you die.’

The man who penned these words 41 years ago was busy planning his escape from an Indian POW camp that was not really supposed to exist. Today, as a defence analyst who owns a successful business empire, he sits amiably on a stage flanked by officers from his old command, some well-known personalities from the media, and at least one fiery cricketer-turned-politician who aspires for the premiership. (See Pix Here)

The extraordinary tale of a Pakistani army captain adrift in enemy territory who went knocking at the US Consulate gate and the American Marine Sergeant on duty who saved the day (part of it anyway) appeared in print a few years ago. That, however, was not the end of the captain’s ordeal. What happened in the interval before Sgt Frank Adair stepped on the stage and after Ikram Sehgal became an escapee from Panagarh prison camp and ended up as the object of a nationwide manhunt is equally extraordinary.

The author spent 99 days in captivity. On the 100th day, he escaped. He was the first prisoner to do so from an Indian POW camp. His wrenching account of the prison break, reproduced in Escape to Oblivion was written in the intermission taken during an 84-day grilling session by the HQ ISSC-Inter Services Screening Committee, in Dacca 1971. The details were purposely kept from the public because of that little thing called the Official Secrets Act, among other things.

Ikram, who heard the laments of a splintering nation, describes himself as a living witness to the direct interference of Indians in the internal affairs of Pakistan (a ‘no-no’ at any time). He remembers life as a detainee in the backdrop of a particularly gruesome chapter from our history. Years after the event, his tone remains guarded. As he returns to the scene of the crime, he finds memory lane teeming with angry ghosts and remnants of faded hopes. While his crisp narrative resurrects the debacle, the spectre of a parallel war that raged on within the captive men rises unbidden. There is some insight into the workings of RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) — the Indian intelligence agency and its special brand of interrogation tactics these prisoners were unprepared for.

Escaping from Panagarh was not easy and the writer narrates how their vigilant captors would check for tunnelling. “They had probably read the same books that we had,” Ikram wryly observes. The Pakistani prisoners somehow manage to find moments of levity during the recurring flashes of danger. Upon seeing Sikhs they exchange Sikh jokes. When they go around telling one particularly observant guard how they would not dream of escaping when he is on guard, they mean it.

Ikram releases the hitherto unknown cases of ingenuity and derring-do from their tragic confines as he thumbs through his old survival guide. To fear is human, he announces calmly. “The meaning of fear is often lost in the wholesome embrace of the word courage.” “We eulogise courage,” he continues, “and deride fear, forgetting in our enthusiasm that courage is actually the control of, and is drawn out of fear.”

As the leading star of a prison break, he confronts the numerous barriers to escape. "Only those who can think of doing the impossible can achieve the impossible.” As a ‘destitute optimist’ he roams through the streets of Calcutta — an 80 percent communist city, occasionally slipping into Yoda mode; “a fugitive has usually nothing left except hope. His hope can lay a solid foundation, for even an inkling of hope can snowball into an avalanche.”

The Indians, according to the book, were “not sparing any expense in ‘not interfering’ in Pakistan’s internal affairs.” “Pakistanis for them were dreaded creatures,” observes Ikram, who skirts the edges of horror without sending readers down the inevitable chasm of darkness waiting at the end of every 1971 saga. By his own admission, the local intelligence-walas remained unsatisfied by the circumstances of his escape. The traditional hero’s welcome got lost in that suspicion.

Imran Khan, the keynote speaker at the book launch, though discomfited by the role our favourite ‘agencies’ played in the young Captain’s lengthy ‘debriefing’, thought that Ikram was lucky to be picked up then. Had this taken place now, Khan quipped, you would have simply become a ‘missing person’.

The passage of time does not make these excursions into the past any less unsettling. “I could have done without this experience,” Mr Sehgal confessed at the launch. But he is glad at having gone through with it nonetheless. Nevertheless, where he unearths darkness in the hearts of men, he also strives to show humanity. This winding road to freedom ripples with dramatic tension and eerie twists. Throughout his ordeal, Ikram remains magnanimous. The few good men he encountered during his incarceration, even when they happen to be his captors, earn his gratitude. Escape from Oblivion is a sleek little book whose spirited core is forever bound with an acute sense of sorrow. The Urdu version of the book is available under the name Azadi (freedom).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

MUSINGS: A Younger, Happier Pakistan (1963) seen through the eyes of Bill Spence

Received some wonderful Images through email today. Thank you Bakhtiar Khalid. They were taken by one Bill Spence(born August 12, 1940 in Iowa City, Iowa). He was with a US Army Security Agency in the early sixties and snapped his way through Peshawer (the same), Badaber Station (Bases were called Stations back then) Lahore, Rawalpindi, Kaghan Valley, KhyberPass, Kohat, Darra Adem Khel, Pak-Afghan border....all the way to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Images Posted on my Facebook Page Here


"A performer, teacher, recording artist and a hammered dulcimer player from New York. Spence began playing the hammered dulcimer after hearing Howie Mitchell at the 1969 Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburgh, New York. He made his first dulcimer following a plan in Mitchell's book. The only hammered dulcimer recordings available at the time were by Mitchell and another player, Chet Parker on the Folkways label. Spence developed his own style, working out tunes he heard on recordings of other instruments. Spence graduated from the University of Iowa in 1962, with a degree in Communications. He worked for the Army Security Agency until 1965, and then at the State University of New York at Albany as an audio-visual and computer graphics specialist until retiring in 1998. He currently lives in Voorheesville, New York. "

Saturday, July 7, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Grimoire: Lichgates / Author S.M. Boyce

Published in Daily Times / 7 July 2012

Under the Title; The Realm Next Door
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Many thanks to S.M. Boyce for the review copy.

S M Boyce’s debut novel calls upon captivating magical backdrops to reach for those glimmering shards of whimsy, lying forgotten in the dark recesses of imagination. Seven years in the making The Grimoire: Lichgates is a heady brew that cheerfully vaults into the fantasy genre.

20-year-old Kara Magari’s hike comes to a dramatic close when she stumbles upon Ourea, the realm next door where conniving rulers, diabolical shape-shifters, conflicted humanoids and mysterious muses lurk in the shadows, and dragon sightings do not trigger alarm bells. Boyce’s sweeping epic fantasy adventure is carried on the wings of its supernatural soul suffused with mystical sensibilities. The Grimoire — a book of wisdom at the centre of this transformative experience — dictates (to an extent), the destiny of the ‘Chosen One’, and offers useful insight about Kara’s shiny new environs. Though Grimoires are generally ‘text books of sorcery & magic’, here they come with some bonus features; this one takes questions, like Google, but with an agenda.

The more beguiling aspects of Kara’s new discovery are offset by an inherent cruelty of her surroundings. Draped in sumptuous colours and exotic shades, the story is fuelled by feverish energy that stops every now and then to cradle the fragility of hope, of death and loss, of tyranny and oppression, of freedom and choice, quietly arranging casual run-ins with philosophical debates triggered by Ourea’s messy geopolitics. While the narrative gleefully tests the edges of these treacherous waters, the limelight remains on its characters evolution, their fractured relationships, a carry-bag of personalised demons and individual destinies.

Ourea, far from being a refuge, with its unique flora and fauna and other ‘creatures of interest’ brings its own set of challenges. Readers will be thrown headlong with the heroine through an inoffensive looking lichgate into a churning pool of court intrigues, intense demons, warring factions, and millennia old divides. The experience leaves both a little winded. The single thread that takes its heroine away from home and her troubled past and ties her to Ourea devolves into a multi-arc fantasy where clashing ideologies and vicious power games abound and a Vagabond, who has command over the Grimoire has not been seen in a thousand years.

The outlines are a bit blurry in the beginning. The lavish scale of the adventure brings with it a soaring sense of anticipation but the wait to build proper rapport with the lead can slow the momentum. Lichgates is a YA (young adult) novel infused with a robust narrative arc and a rich core that can be mined in further books. That said, the macabre triad of politics, fantasy and romance at times seems to be a little precariously perched on a pillar of neat resolutions.

Misfits will accompany Kara with funny sounding names weighed down by a difficult past, on a parallel march to self-discovery. She will be introduced to unsettling customs that put an interesting spin on the ‘controlling parents’ scenario. There are moments of levity during this high-octane ride through Ourea’s scattered kingdoms that at times remind one of an intergalactic symposium ala ‘the final frontier’.

Though this is not a satire per se, Ourea’s violent undertones and political underpinnings that tether this paranormal fantasy to the real world form a subtle frame of reference. One of its ‘kingdoms’ does not take kindly to women in positions of power. That females are meant to embody ‘art, beauty and spirituality of their nation’ would make an independent minded girl in Kara’s position choke, with good reason. There is much to admire about Kara, but for all her fiery nature and famed sarcasm, her silent monologue and snappy comebacks sometimes fall short of expectations and could perhaps do with a dose of extra ‘snappy’.


The conflict at the heart of the tale makes room for plenty of action sequences, and magical tricks, and flying beasts. Yet the story tries to stay inside its designated territory (Young Adult) despite random references to violence. The book wends its way through avenues of light and shadow, leaving an enchanted trail of expectation in its wake. What lies beyond lichgate number one is simply the tip of the magical iceberg. The final passages end on closure (of sorts) and a cliffhanger (of sorts). Book one promises to deliver the next round of ‘shock and awe’ moments as it sets the stage for a looming showdown. The Grimoire: Lichgates is part of a trilogy brimming with potential. The good news is that the legions of fans do not have to wait long for book two. Treason will be out by Fall 2012.

Publisher: CreateSpace (March, 2012)

Pages: 408

Category: YA Lit


Image courtesy of: http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1319205633l/12900806.jpg

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