The face of terror unveiled

Jan 10, 2011, 09:33 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Journalist Rommel Rodrigues recreates a compelling account of 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab, tracing the terror trail from a village in Pakistan to the rooms of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a chat with Mid Day, the writer tells us how he joined the pieces

Journalist Rommel Rodrigues recreates a compelling account of 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab, tracing the terror trail from a village in Pakistan to the rooms of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a chat with Mid Day,  the writer tells us how he joined the pieces

Rommel Rodrigues' account of the violent life of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab in Kasab: The Face of 26/11, has the potential to fly off bookshelves. And, perhaps create a stir on the other side of the border too. After all, the subject of his book is the man who captured the collective imagination of the subcontinent; the lone survivor among the 10 terrorists who brought the nation to a standstill with their assault on Mumbai's iconic landmarks and its people, for nearly 60 hours.

Illustration/ Jishu

Rommel's gripping
narrative follows Kasab's beginnings in a dusty village in Pakistan to his eventual capture in Mumbai.
We speak to Rodrigues, a journalist with the New Indian Express, on his latest book. How much of a challenge was it to document the life of an individual who remains the centre of an unending debate for two years? How different is your chronicle?

It wasn't difficult. My starting point was the confession videos of Kasab's questioning (at Nair Hospital, where he  was taken after being caught on November 26, 2008), which soon appeared on several video-sharing websites.

I began my career as a journalist in 1993, around the time the serial blasts occurred in Mumbai. Covering them left a lasting impression on me.

The brazenness of the 26/11 attacks was the kind one watches in Hollywood films. It intrigued me to no end. We all had a general idea about these terrorists, their motive and so on, yet we weren't aware of the goings-on on the other side of the divide.

I wanted to live their lives -- it was going to be a tedious process. My research took me through thousands of newspapers from Pakistan and across the globe. Though the book was based on secondhand information, every fact has been validated by my sources and experts. The back and forth took time.

What immediate roadblocks did you face at the onset? At any point, did you feel as if your research had hit a dead end?
Two months after the attacks, in January 2009, I began my research. What repeatedly confused me was the amount of information floating around, which was a departure from the factual details that I needed for my research.

I had to sift through heaps of it to reach the truth, and steer clear of the numerous hypotheses. I went back to the drawing board and omitted information on over half a dozen occasions. I started the book at Chapter 1 and continued writing it as fiction. The names, places and people from Pakistan are factually correct as I validated each fact. After reading this account objectively, it's up to the reader to decide.

Why delve into Kasab's roots?
I wanted to recreate the mood and the landscape of Kasab's origins. Okara, near Lahore, was a vibrant district in undivided India. It was run by a loose government of local leaders. I tried to establish the ground realities of the region, its lifestyle, trading practices, heritage and culture -- all of which were similar to any north Indian town or village. I wanted to draw a parallel. Today, localisation and progress may have reached these parts, yet the core remains intrinsically the same.

What went through your mind as the pieces of the plan behind the attacks fell into place? How did you re-live the saga?
I have a confession to make --the most painful part of following the 26/11 attacks was the coverage of hospitals, the pain, the suffering and the gory sights. The hangover was huge. After meeting the victims whose lives had changed forever, their pain was etched in my mind. Instead of compiling a series of events around the attacks, I wanted to relive those moments.

I dedicated this book to the survivors of 26/11, since their pain was part of me. It was important to separate emotion and fact without disturbing the flow.

What opinion did you form of the Pakistani media in the course of your research?
They are friendly and non-partisan. After having read several publications of their mainstream media, I can safely say that they also covered the trial in an objective manner.

It must have played on your mind that you were handling a sensitive issue; what did you tell yourself throughout the process?
I had to stick to the facts. The book wasn't going to accommodate someone else's thinking. My research was based on two aspects -- my intrigue and the fact that Kasab, being the lone terrorist alive, would be my main source of information.

Are you satisfied with the final product?
I detailed too much, at every stage, and for each character, so I decided to cut the flab. Editing my first draft was tedious. Penguin India did a fantastic edit, apart from a legal edit too. In the process, certain facts were neutralised for the convenience of the readers. I was satisfied with the final version. A senior legal expert who edited my draft said the book was able to translate the victims' pain and yet state facts. Such feedback was reassuring.

Did you feel that your book might get lost amidst countless accounts and narratives?
Most of what was published was compilations of newspaper cuttings. In fact, plenty of initial reports that emerged were factually incorrect. Mine was to be an all round, 360-degree spin to every fact. I have enough data for another book -- on how money enters terrorism; it's a huge dossier on the Afghan link. A tempting proposition!

Kasab: The Face of 26/11
Published: by Penguin India will be available from January end in all leading bookstores

An exclusive extract

Chapter 17
The small toilet stank offensively. Ajmal, his precious cargo on his back, decided to first empty his bladder, which he did with difficulty as the space was cramped and his haversack large. Then he looked at his watch - almost 9.50 pm. 'Almost time,' he thought. Unzipping his haversack, he reached in and retrieved his AK-57.

Holding the gun in his left hand, he reached in again and pulled out a fully loaded 30-round detachable box magazine. With a hard grip, he checked the magazine catch near the trigger guard on the rifle and attached the magazine with a faint click.

Checking the selector switch, a thin piece of metal that protrudes from the side of the received, which was in the down position, he grasped the bolt catch to pull it down and complete the cocking mechanism.

The gun was ready to do its work. Nobody paid any attention to him, as people were in a hurry to get in or out.

DISCLAIMER: mid-day and its affiliates shall have no liability for any views, thoughts and comments expressed on this article.

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