Monday, June 01, 2020

Self - Congratulatory Tome fails to Inspire

Unbroken: The Brussels Terror Attack Survivor written by Nidhi Chaphekar, a former flight attendant with Jet Airways and a victim of the worst terror attack in Belgian history tells of her harrowing ordeal in her own words. On 22nd March, 2016, twin blasts went off at the main terminal of Zaventem International Airport and another explosion hit the Maelbeek metro station.
Chaphekar caught in the thick of things, found herself in shock and in severe pain. There was blood on her person, clothes had been ripped apart by the blast, her shoe had melted into her foot, and there was thick smoke everywhere. Worst of all, there was no feeling in her legs. Helped by a uniformed official, she made it to an airport chair.

Seated like this, Chaphekar was photographed by Ketevan Kardava, a journalist, who posted the photo online where it promptly went viral and this particular victim went on to become the face that symbolized the horror which had unfolded on that fateful day. When the stretchers came and she was taken to the hospital after a prolonged wait, the full extent of her injuries became apparent. There were shards of metal lodged deep in many parts of her body, including her eye. Severe burn injuries were present on her face, chest, hands and she would need grafts from her thighs to fix these in addition to multiple surgeries to restore her legs. Chaphekar was put in a medically induced coma for the painful procedures that needed to be done immediately and even after, she endured unimaginable pain.

Zaventem International Airport after the blast.
Chaphekar narrates the story of her journey to reclaim her health and independence in detail. It is very inspiring no doubt and the message that is hammered home every few pages on the power of positive thinking, confidence and belief in God is also an important one. Yet, the story is not quite as motivational as it could have been nor is it very good in terms of craft. Chaphekar herself admits that she is not a writer but that is only one of the problems.

Told in an extremely self – congratulatory tone, Chaphekar constantly attributes her own grit and character for her survival. There is no doubt that her struggle was a remarkable one and she clearly had the mental toughness to cope, but the insistence on keeping the spotlight solely on her virtues is unsettling. Chaphekar neglects to sketch in fuller details about the attack itself. They were coordinated and triggered by three suicide bombers (two of whom were brothers) and the Islamic State claimed it was behind this incident. Thirty two people died in the bombings or succumbed to injuries afterwards, and over three hundred were injured. There is precious little coverage about any of these things in the book barring token commiserations and passing mentions. These omissions come across as incomplete and insensitive. Many among the dead and other survivors may have had her positivity and toughness but not her privilege or luck. Regarding the terrorists, Chaphekar refers to them only cursorily and mentions counselling and rehabilitation as opposed to more severe punishment. This rings hollow.

This is a good story and Chaphekar has the right to narrate it any way she wants, but it does not quite work the way it was intended to.

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

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