Publishers’ claims on book jackets or back covers are often more about marketing hype, therefore discounted. But Rommel Rodrigues’ Kasab: The Face of 26/11 is indeed what the publishers claim: “a chilling recreation of the violent life of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab”, the lone survivor of the jihadi team that attacked multiple targets in Mumbai. It is as accurate and authentic as the portraits of absconding crime suspects drawn by police sketch artists. That is, as good as the sources of information. In this instance, Rodrigues depends extensively on information in the public domain — from the video of his questioning in hospital and the chargesheet filed in the Mumbai courts to the dossiers exchanged between India and Pakistan.
With the exception of the investigation of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, criminal investigations into high-profile cases have been neither impeccably professional nor seem fair.
Despite the pressures of being in the international glare, the prosecution of Kasab had its botched-up patches. Moreover, the public frenzy and outrage (partly whipped up by media’s jingoistic populism) seem to have only exacerbated Indo-Pakistan diplomatic exchanges, especially informaton about terror.
The truth about 26/11 is therefore in shades of grey as against the black and white versions doled out by India, Pakistan and the jihadi groups. Rodrigues, who has been a journalist in Mumbai since 1993 and has had his share of covering terror, could have taken with a pinch of salt the Indian line while documenting “what goes into the making of a deranged fidayeen jihadi, whose mission is to kill and get killed”. It is not as if he threw journalistic rigour to winds. What makes the book sound credible is the author’s effort “to corroborate the information” he had intended to use by relying on his “sources in Pakistan, most of whom are in the media”.
The book can be divided into three parts: Kasab’s life before LeT, his recruitment and training, and his role in 26/11. Though Kasab’s humble origins are known to readers, this book breathes life into the portrayal of his pre-jihadi life. Kasab comes across as a naive, semi-literate, petty criminal.
The most exciting part of the book relates to the vivid narration of his recruitment, indoctrination and training as a terrorist. So much so that the writer employs dialogue in direct quote, even descriptions of the way it was delivered. For instance, writing about the Jamaat’s hub being abuzz with activity on a Christmas Day, the book says, “Several learned men were flocking around a stout man who was delivering a passionate speech in a high-pitched voice. ‘We should try and make contacts with our brothers in Jammu and Kashmir. didn’t you read how Yasin Malik... was fuming against the Indian security forces when our mujahideen brothers — may Allah grant them peace — were shot...? he squawked.”
The third part recounts the chilling 26/11 terrorist strike in great detail. Here the writer is at his best. He knew his city, was around when the attacks were mounted, and soaked himself in the blow-by-blow media coverage. All that comes through in the racy narrative.
When it comes to backgrounders, the assembly line becomes evident, like in the slightly modified description of Nariman House (eg., “open to anyone who wanted a place to pray, eat kosher food or celebrate Jewish holidays”, “The Holtzbergs operated a synagogue and taught Torah classes. The rabbi also conducted weddings for local Jewish couples,” courtesy a CNN report which was a source for a Wiki entry).
Nitpicking apart, while the “how-it-all-happened” part of the story is written in an engaging manner, the writer does not explore the “why-it-all-happened” part sufficiently. What is LeT’s gameplan? Where does the terror strike fit into their overall strategy? What was the immediate provocation to meticulously plan and spectacularly execute this mammoth operation? What have been the consequences? Maybe these questions were beyond the author’s brief, but without answers to these questions the context of the book is somewhat lost.
Of late, Indian journalists have been putting together books on events they had reported on. It ranges from the Kargil war to stock market scams to cricket controversies. This is a welcome trend. However, Indian journalists have a long way to go when it comes to the rigour needed to make a book racy and yet credible.
On the whole, the book provides a fairly cogent picture. Full marks to the author for his painstaking research and commitment to make the story accessible to lay readers.
— The author teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.