By Madiha Akhtar
A remote location, an isolated hotel, 12 strangers, no connection with the outside world and one murder: this is the premise of Shari Lapena’s latest thriller, An Unwanted Guest.
Lapena is a Canadian novelist known for her two bestselling mysteries, The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. Her latest book, in which she skilfully blends psychological thrills with a locked-room mystery, is full of chilling suspense, intriguing clues, mind games, complex characters and plot twists that will keep readers guessing till the end.
The story starts with a group of 10 guests who arrive for a weekend getaway at Mitchell’s Inn, a quiet, cosy and remote hotel nestled in the picturesque Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The inn is owned by James, who runs this family business with his young son, Bradley. The old-fashioned architecture of the hotel takes readers back to the 19th century with gorgeous guest rooms, plush armchairs, roaring fireplaces, grand staircases, a library full of mystery novels and no WiFi or internet.
Among the guests is a pair of best friends: Gwen Delaney, who works in a corporate organisation and Riley Shuter, a war correspondent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from Afghanistan. Gwen thinks the quiet atmosphere of the inn is perfect for her friend and may help Riley find relief from the tortured past, even if for a few brief days. There is David Paley, a top criminal attorney looking for an escape from his stressful job and his dark past. Handsome heir Matthew Hutchinson and his beautiful fiancée Dana Hart want to spend some time alone with each other away from the madness generated by their upcoming wedding. Another couple, Ian Beeton and Lauren Day, very much in love, are also there to enjoy each other’s company and strengthen their relationship. Beverly Sullivan is a middle-aged wife taking time off from children, the house and work to get her marriage to Henry back on track. Last of all is Candice White, an aging author looking to complete the book that will finally give her career the kind of acclaim she’s always wanted.
Because of a violent snowstorm that begins as the guests arrive, the staff is extremely limited. James is managing the kitchen while Bradley checks the guests in and tends the bar. The first night at the inn is lively and filled with laughter. After getting drinks and enjoying a small buffet, some of the guests make their way to the expansive library. As they peruse the various titles, Gwen remarks, “I love a good murder mystery.”
Ironic, since she will be part of one herself.
The dream vacation turns into a nightmare when Dana’s dead body is discovered the next day at the foot of the hotel’s grand staircase. At first, everyone thinks it might have been an unfortunate stumble, but David is sceptical and he soon finds out that this is no accident.
Somebody murdered Dana. The police can’t be called since the blizzard has disrupted telephone lines and mobile signals as well as blocked the roads, so the morbid decision is made to leave Dana’s body where it is and cover it with a sheet.
When Candice, who had isolated herself in her room to write, is the second person found dead, fear escalates to sheer panic. Led by David, the remaining guests begin to probe for the killer, but realisation soon sets in that the murderer might not be an unknown entity hiding in the shadows, but one of them — as Henry says, “It feels like they are playing at something, some sort of parlour game or murder mystery evening with the lights out. Only no one’s having fun.”
Tensions run high, accusations are hurled and suspicions are voiced. In a bid to uncover motive, the guests begin to seek out each other’s pasts and deepest secrets. Each character has a story to tell, a secret to hide and, as their personal histories begin to unfold, readers are given the opportunity to pick up clues that might point towards the killer.
An Unwanted Guest is a pretty quick read and, clichéd as it may sound, I finished it in one sitting. The twisting whodunnit is surprising and gratifying, and Lapena’s writing is impressive; she knows exactly how to hook the reader and keep the story moving. The claustrophobic setting, the unexpected deaths and the limited number of suspects are all classic ingredients reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where 10 strangers with apparently little in common are lured to an island mansion. However, this is intentional as Lapena wanted to pay homage to Christie: during a scene when Bradley says he prefers putting out books instead of flowers for guests, Lauren replies, “I found the old Agatha Christie on my bedside table.” Moreover, in an interview with a readers’ blog, Lapena shared that the backdrop of her novel was inspired by the old-school ambient glamour of a Christie novel.
Beginning the book, I was worried I would lose track and become confused because of the quick succession in which she introduces the guests at the inn, but Lapena draws each character with care, allowing readers to remember them. It is also a good idea to pay attention to every detail of the story because while there are a few obvious clues, the truth relies on a heap of complex backstory which is explained in a meandering monologue by Lauren at the end of the novel. Admittedly, the plot does kind of fizzle out near the end because of some lazy and irregular writing, but the author makes up for it with a shocking reveal on the last page that I never saw coming — which is exactly what one expects from a murder mystery.
What I can definitely see coming, however, is a film made on this gripping book, just like Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
An Unwanted Guest
By Shari Lapena
Pulwama: In the Aftermath
By Imran Yawer
The Pulwama terror attack which claimed the lives of more than 40 CRPF troops was the deadliest to have occurred in Kashmir in terms of casualties. The Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) or Army of Mohammed, claimed responsibility for the attack while Adil Ahmed, a young man from Pulwama who joined JEM in 2018, was identified as the perpetrator. This brutal attack has ratcheted up the already tense relations between India and Pakistan, leading many to wonder what the cross-border implications of the attack will be on the two countries.
Interestingly enough, even before the forensic evaluation of the scene of the crime was completed, the Indian Government embarked on a diplomatic and economic offensive against Pakistan. The Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi was summoned to the Indian Foreign Office for a strongly worded demarche. Concomitantly, the ambassadors of foreign countries were briefed on the attack and on Pakistan’s purported role by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. New Delhi also revoked Pakistan’s MFN status and pledged to launch an all-out effort to isolate Pakistan, an effort that has already been initiated by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, who on February 16, 2019, declared that custom duties on all imports from Pakistan would be raised to 200 percent. India is further expected to seek Pakistan’s blacklisting in the upcoming FATF meeting, and according to reports, Indian agencies are already busy with preparing a dossier to establish Pakistan’s culpability in the recent Pulwama attack.
Pakistan’s response to these allegations by India has been an outright rejection of any involvement in the attack. The Foreign Office released a statement expressly condemning such ‘acts of violence anywhere in the world’ and dismissed all such inferences made ‘by elements in the Indian media and government that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.’
Insurgency in Kashmir, which once was attributed to links across the border has morphed into a homegrown movement for liberation, at the vanguard of which are the new generation of Kashmiri youth; educated and enlightened. These young liberators are challenging the military might of the Indian establishment and their struggle is garnering popular support from within, which has had a dispiriting effect on the Indian security forces, who despite overwhelming presence in the region have not been able to weaken the will of the Kashmiris.
The surge in violence in Kashmir is rooted in decades of violence, repression and discrimination against the Kashmiri people. According to the UN, the ‘excessive use of force, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, detention of families and children, as well as enforced disappearances’ is tantamount to a gross and consistent violation of human rights. All evidence suggests that by resorting to hardline policies in Kashmir, India has failed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Kashmiri people. Against such a backdrop, pointing a finger at Pakistan for bloodshed and violence in Kashmir is both vile and risible. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014, had vowed to undertake a hard line policy in its dealings with Pakistan and to crackdown on the separatist movement in Kashmir.
As such, the Modi Administration, like its predecessors has been unable to recognise discontent and disenfranchisement among the Kashmiris against Indian policies, and their disproportionate use of force, in a trend that will continue unless India brings sanity and rationality in its Kashmir policy. With general elections in India only a few months away, the Indian Prime Minister would need to project an image of tough leadership in regard to national security matters. As the situation currently stands, he is already under pressure from hard line groups for a decisive retaliation against Pakistan, much in the pattern of the ‘surgical strikes’ India claimed to have carried out against Pakistan, following the 2016 attack on an Indian army base in which 19 soldiers were killed; claims that have been denied by Pakistan.
Meanwhile, according to media reports from February 15, 2019, the US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, assured his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval of US’ cooperation “to work together to ensure that Pakistan ceased to be a safe haven for JEM and terrorist groups that targeted India, the US and others in the region.” It was further reported that in a telephone call, Bolton had assured Doval of US’ support for India’s right “to defend itself against cross-border attacks.” On February 16, 2019, Modi stated that the “country understood the anger simmering within the soldiers,” and gave free reign to the military to respond to acts of violence in kind.
Pakistan’s response to these allegations by India has been an outright rejection of any involvement in the attack. The Foreign Office released a statement expressly condemning such ‘acts of violence anywhere in the world’ and dismissed all such inferences made ‘by elements in the Indian media and government that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations
Although, JEM has been classified a proscribed organization in Pakistan, India claims that the group and its leader, Masood Azhar, were openly active in Pakistan, raising money, recruiting, and training. India has further attributed several similar terrorist activities to the group, including a 2001, raid on its parliament in New Delhi, and demands that Pakistan should take ‘immediate and verifiable action’ to stop the activities of these militants. In response, Pakistan has vehemently rejected these insinuations as ‘part of New Delhi’s known rhetoric and tactics” to divert global attention from their human rights violations. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has called for an end to such ‘tit for tat’ accusations, in favour of the resumption of dialogue. In fact, since assuming office, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has repeatedly focused on dialogue with the promise to take two steps forward for every one step taken by India, in order to forge friendly ties; an effort that has been stonewalled by the Modi administration on grounds that India saw no constructive approach from Pakistan.
The terrorist attack in Pulwama has been rightly condemned by the international community, including Pakistan. At the same time, there has also been a growing realization that the reinvigoration of insurgency in Kashmir is home based and home grown, in popular reaction to India’s ‘muscular policies’ in the form of atrocities by Indian security forces on helpless protestors. The option for peace in Kashmir is only achievable if India desists from pursuing its hardline policies against hapless Kashmiris and if it works in tandem with Pakistan to find a solution that brings harmony to a region that has long been plagued by instability and conflict.
The old practices of blaming and intimidation have proven ineffective for India in the past, suggesting the need for an alternative strategy that does not rest on the need for one-upping the other but on collective efforts geared towards sustainable peace in the region.
For its part, Pakistan also needs to exercise greater insight and control on the clandestine activities of non-state actors that operate from within the country to malign the State with their unacceptable actions. Just days before the Pulwama attack, Jaish ul-Adl, a Salafi jihadist terrorist organization based in the Sistan and Baluchistan Province of Iran, carried out a car bomb attack against Iranian revolutionary guards, killing 27 of them. The brutality of the attack by an organization that has allegedly sought shelter in Pakistan, prompted the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to warn that ‘unless Pakistan did more to crack down on Jaish al-Adl, Iran would take action it deemed appropriate’.
While the State of Pakistan or its agencies may not be involved in carrying out or supporting activities detrimental to peace and stability in the region, the buck does not stop there. We need to get up from our languorous slumber and exercise greater vigilance. The evolutionary trends in terrorism have already outwitted even the most resourceful countries. In South Asia, its burgeoning existence is a painful reality. ‘No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism, often perpetrated from outside’. Today, Iran seethes with anger, India grits its teeth and the world is looking for foot prints in Pakistan, in such times, we should not be found cuddling the neighbour’s sheep.
(Daily Times, Lahore)
Pulwama Reveals Limits to Muscular Policies
The fedayeen attack in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, on Thursday killing 44 paramilitary personnel and injuring scores of others should be properly understood.
At the most obvious level, the country is paying a very heavy price for the Modi government’s Kashmir policies — riveted on relentless state suppression of an alienated people — and its muscular, one-dimensional approach toward Pakistan — giving a ‘free hand’ to the security establishment to pay back in the same coin.
The Modi government’s hardline policy has proved not only futile but may increasingly become counterproductive. Indeed, the crisis in J&K has deepened in the past 3-4 years while the security tsars don’t even have a back channel to Pakistan anymore.
In all probability, the Jaish-e-Mohammed led by Masood Azhar continues to enjoy the patronage of Pakistani security establishment. But Islamabad has swiftly responded that “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.”
But the bottom line is that the massacre in Pulwama could have been foretold. Pakistan’s internal security situation has significantly improved and cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan has tapered off. This creates a sense of triumphalism and an ‘itch’ to settle scores, as it were.
Nonetheless, one striking thing must be noted — the timing. The campaign for the 2019 parliamentary poll is gathering momentum. To be sure, the attack casts the government and PM Modi in very poor light.
Our ruling elite is hard-pressed to be seen reacting strongly and decisively. The dilemma is palpable. On the one hand, disconnect between the authorities and the people of J&K is almost unbridgeable today. On the other hand, any ratcheting up of tensions with Pakistan is inextricably linked to regional security and stability.
Significantly, the crisis has erupted just four days before the next round of talks between the US and the Taliban in Islamabad on February 18 and the final hearing on the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged R&AW operative, at the International Court of Justice at the Hague on the same day. Is it a mere coincidence?
The Pakistani PM Imran Khan is personally mediating between the US officials and Taliban leadership. To be sure, what is unfolding will be of momentous consequence for President Trump personally, whose decision to bring the ‘endless war’ in Afghanistan to an end is directly related to his own bid for re-election in 2020.
Fundamentally, though, the Pulwama attack has been directed at the paramilitary forces — not the Indian Army. It aimed to hit our security tsars below the belt and expose them as inept and vacuous people.
The ICJ hearing on February 18 provides the backdrop to the Pulwama attack. At the Hague, India is having to defend itself against the Pakistani allegations of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan will leave no stone unturned to level charges that India has been undertaking covert operations to destabilise it. There seems to be a message in all this for the Indian security establishment.
Of course, in the final analysis, the buck stops at Modi’s desk. The sensible thing should have been to follow up the BJP’s tie-up with PDP to form a coalition government in Srinagar with political initiatives to create synergy for a peace process in the Valley.
Similarly, nothing would have been lost by engaging Pakistan in talks. Good statecraft dictates that a country engages its adversaries on core issues of differences and disputes instead of resorting to meaningless theatrics to impress the uninformed public gallery.
Arguably, conditions were propitious to open a new page in our relations with Pakistan. The election of Imran Khan and the overture made by him (as well as army chief Qamar Bajwa) did open a window of opportunity.
But our security establishment, with its entrenched zero sum mindset, preferred to quibble and look for alibis not to engage with Imran Khan — that he is a mere rubber stamp of the military, that he hobnobs with Islamist groups, that he is a bird of passage and so on. Modi could have — and should have — asserted.
At the end of the day, the conclusion becomes unavoidable that an India-Pakistan moratorium on muscle-flexing is badly needed. This ancient ruckus must be laid to rest — and the shenanigans that go on below the radar must be ended conclusively. It involves statecraft to rein in hawks from crowding the skies. Of course, the easy thing to do is always to whip up jingoism.
With the Afghan power calculus shifting, a new beginning is possible. There is food for thought that Masood Azhar, who has a chequered past leading all the way to Kandahar, has surged in the Valley after an absence of 20 years.
And the Pulwama attack took place just 4 days before serious talks are beginning in Islamabad, finally, to rehabilitate the Taliban as a mainstream political force and India will be defending its own reputation at the Hague. We must read the tea leaves correctly.
Meanwhile, in political terms, in the face of the infinite tragedy in Pulwama, the government must make the effort to evolve a consensus opinion in the country to address the crisis in J&K, which is undeniably the root cause of terrorism.
But that may be too much to expect from the Modi government, whose focus is on vilifying political opponents and harassing them, or systematically polarising the national opinion.
Punitive action must begin at home
By Sanjiv Krishan Sood
The deaths of more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in an attack by a suicide bomber in South Kashmir on February 14 has led to shrill calls for retribution against Pakistan by self-proclaimed defence experts on social media, panelists on TV news channels and the anchors moderating these sessions. Since the attack – the second-most deadly strike in the history of the Central Reserve Police Force – senior government functionaries have also been mechanically trotting out statements, as they always do, promising that the sacrifice of India’s jawans will not be in vain.
But if any action needs to be taken, it must first start in India. There is absolutely no doubt that the political leadership and policy makers in New Delhi, and police and security officials on the ground – all of whom allowed this massive tragedy to happen under their watch – are guilty of criminal negligence.
What is worse is that they refuse to learn from previous mistakes, allowing such tragic losses of life to recur with alarming regularity. Those responsible for the huge failure of intelligence that led to the Pulwama tragedy must therefore be sacked for their incompetence. This will be a lesson to all.
There are several failures that contributed to the success of the suicide attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Kashmir.
First, why did the government allow such a large body of troops – nearly 2,500 men – to travel together in a large convoy of 80 vehicles? The troops were stranded in Jammu for two days prior to this because bad weather had led to the closure of the National Highway. But once the weather improved, instead of transporting all of them via road, they should have been airlifted into the Valley.
This is typical of the disconnect between decision makers in Delhi and troops on the ground. What kind of leaders are those who do not act proactively to alleviate the hardships of the specialised paramilitary forces they command? I believe these leaders are not up to the task entrusted to them and must be sacked.
The second failure is that of intelligence. A wireless signal dated February 8 is being touted as proof that intelligence received about a possible improvised explosive device blast had been shared with the Central Reserve Police Force. But that was a general signal addressed to everyone in the Valley to be cautious against such a blast. This cannot be called “intelligence”. Perhaps intelligence agencies could do a better job by being more specific. Unfortunately, such agencies have started treating basic information as intelligence. They appear to have forgotten the art of collating and analysing information received from different sources.
Intelligence agencies have a few questions to answer. For one, the assembly of such a large quantity of explosives and the purchase or requisition of the vehicle that became the moving bomb would have taken some time, and have also left some footprints for intelligence personnel to identify. Why were these not spotted? Similarly, there would have been contact between the suicide bomber and his handler. Why were these not intercepted?
The third failure if that of operational negligence, which is related to training. Before any armed forces personnel convoy proceeds in the Valley, a road opening party or ROP, which leads the convoy, sanitises the route. The job of this team is to ensure that the road is clear of any threats, including from small arms fire.
It is not clear whether the car used by the suicide bomber came from the same direction of the convoy or the opposite direction. Either way, the road opening party failed in its task. If the car was travelling in the direction of the convoy, how was it allowed to overtake several vehicles of the convoy and ram into one of them? Reports also suggested that the explosives-laden vehicle was stationary on the road for a few minutes before the convoy reached the spot where the attack took place. If that was the case, how did that not attract any suspicion from the road opening party?
Additionally, news reports quoted an Inspector General of the Central Reserve Police Force who suggested that the explosion was accompanied by firing. If true, this is an even bigger failure on the part of the road opening party. This implies that the troops did not dominate the road effectively. It also speaks poorly of the officer supervising the road opening party. Had he been doing his job properly, he would have ensured that his team was alert, ensuring that there would have been a chance – however remote – of preventing the tragedy.
All this reflects poorly on the training of the troops deployed with the road opening party. This brings us to the matter of training of troops, a growing cause of concern. It is a fact that training of the central paramilitary forces has suffered over the years. Continuous deployment of troops, absence of any reserves – including training companies – and a large intake of troops around 2013-2014 to fill vacancies as well as to aid expansion has played havoc with training systems. But that is not all. The attitude of Indian Police Service officers who lead the force – who do not assign any priority to training – is also to blame.
When I served with the Border Security Force, I recall that the post of Inspector General (Training) – responsible for formulating training policies for troops – was used mainly as a parking slot for officers on the verge of retirement or wanting a posting to Delhi for personal reasons. Merit was rarely a consideration for filling up this important post. It is possible that the same attitude plagues the training position in the Central Reserve Police Force.
The fourth failure is that of the Centre’s Kashmir policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday that security forces had been given a free hand to punish those responsible for the attack. The question is: why did it take this massive tragedy for him to realise the seriousness of the situation in Kashmir? It is well known that South Kashmir is the hotbed of militancy. Then, what prevented security forces from operating proactively there? Even if one might concede that the previous government in Jammu and Kashmir was somewhat sympathetic to militants, the state has been governed by the Centre since the government collapsed in June. What has then prevented the government from operating proactively?
In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, several voices – official and unofficial – blamed Pakistan for the tragedy. The narrative is that militants carried out this operation in “despair”. This is an immature understanding of the situation. While the role of Pakistan in fomenting trouble in Kashmir is beyond a doubt, it cannot be said that it is the only reason. Pakistan is exploiting the weaknesses of India’s Kashmir policy to the hilt. This is why New Delhi needs to urgently address its policies on Kashmir.
Additionally, militants do not operate out of despair. They operate whenever they find that security forces have let down their guard. They attack security forces at their weakest point after meticulous planning and preparation. This is why security forces in Kashmir cannot afford to let their guard down even for a moment. It is for their commanders to ensure this through adequate training and continuous supervision.
Finally, the fifth failure is the attitude of India towards its paramilitary soldiers. They are treated as second-class soldiers and are poorly paid and under equipped as compared to their counterparts in the Army. They are even deprived of pension of the kind Army personnel are entitled to. The lack of proper equipment such as bulletproof vehicles and jackets also seriously compromises their efficiency and morale. All this must change.