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Book Review

Book Review: Saeed Naqvi's play 'The Muslim Vanishes' is a fable for our time

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
Saeed Naqvi’s play, a tragi-comedy in four scenes, is a riveting narrative about the state of affairs in the country. Othering, nostalgia, betrayal, insecurity, alienation and lament are themes that run throughout the play.

F ascism does not announce its arrival by ringing the doorbell loudly. It creeps in slowly, almost silently, until one day one wakes up to realise that the world around has changed irretrievably. Sometimes, in quiet moments, it can feel cacophonous. As it was for the Jews who found themselves in the middle of the Holocaust. And it can be overwhelming. In moments after that, one is at a loss to make sense of reality. And how to fight the state terror. It is also easy to slip into a reverie to avoid the real world. But the real world keeps knocking on the imagination until bits of it fall inside the dream.

Something of the sort happened to the veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi, who fell into a reverie and dictated a whole play The Muslim Vanishes to his secretary. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who woke up from an opium-induced dream to compose the poem ‘Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment’.

“He could not complete the poem as he was rudely awakened by a person who came from Porlock and knocked on his door. He woke up and cursed the [intruder]. Imagine, had he continued his reverie…,” Naqvi told Frontline over phone. When asked why some of the characters in his play looked like imitations of personalities from real life, Naqvi admitted that his intention behind writing the play was to provoke, but the names were slightly altered as he was “willing to wound yet afraid to strike”.

Naqvi’s play does well to provoke, as much as to protest against the current state of affairs in the country. The tragi-comedy set in four scenes is riveting in a disturbing way. It can leave the reader both amused as well as upset.

The play begins in a brightly lit studio of channel Insight Today TV, where the breaking news of the day is about 200 million Muslims of the country having vanished, along with their cultural inheritance—language, poems, songs, foods, monuments and even their dead dug up from the graves. The fact that many of them seem to have moved to Kashmir complicates the narrative further.

The befuddled newsmakers and politicians grapple with this new reality. They do not take long to realise that all the wealth left behind by the Muslims is now up for grabs. But someone else has beaten them to the game. Members of the lower castes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Dalit community have staked a claim to their properties. The crafty upper castes, who are also socialists, try to delay the elections because the ‘savarnas’ would surely be defeated by the numerically stronger ‘avarnas’; the former are willing to do anything to avoid having a Dalit Prime Minister. Their disgust for Dalits and OBCs compels them to consider inviting the Muslims back, to restore the inequality in society!

Throughout the play, the lower castes are depicted as aggressive, uncivil and referred to with disdain. Whether this is the author’s impression or that of the characters is not clear. But since Naqvi understands well the process of otherisation as described by the public intellectual Edward Said, one hopes it is the latter.

Otherisation

In the introduction to his previous book, Being the Other: The Muslim in India, Naqvi explains: “The Oxford Dictionary defines the ‘Other’ as ‘that which is distinct from, different from, or opposite to something or oneself’. In the late twentieth century, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said analysed this phenomenon. From this issued his seminal work, Orientalism, on the ‘affiliation of knowledge and power’. This is how the West created an image of the East as the ‘Other’. The supremacist ideology of imperialism is structured on this platform. Looked at through this lens, it helps us see how, in India, an entire community, which comprises over 14 per cent of the total population, has come to be seen as the Other, as something exotic, backward, uncivilised, even dangerous.”

Themes of othering, nostalgia, sense of betrayal, insecurity, alienation and lament run throughout the play as they do through the book Being the Other .

As political psychologist Ashis Nandy says in advance praise for the book, “This sardonic, intellectually challenging play, with sections written in verse, is a marvellous invocation of the Indic civilisation, with its unimaginably plural, multicultural and multiethnic legacy, now suddenly threatened by a new form of politics of hate, suspicion and fear in a Muslim-less India. Though the author calls it a fable, the tone is that of a light-hearted farce, in which characters like Amir Khusro, Tulsidas and Kabir have roles. Yet, none can miss the underlying feeling of hurt and the sense of betrayal of a proud Indian and a proud Muslim.”

The book has come at the right time, with elections to five Assemblies, including in the most populous State of Uttar Pradesh, under way, a time when television debates on prime time could not be shriller. Hindutva, hypernationalism and welfarism are the three key ingredients of a deadly cocktail that ensured the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh. Any political party that seeks to dislodge it must have any two of the three ingredients, said Prashant Kishor, the modern-day Chanakya while talking to a TV anchor.

That may or may not be so. But Naqvi presents his own set of two interlocking triangles that need to be addressed if the frenzy of hate that has been stoked since Partition has to subside. One triangle is the caste pyramid. The other one is composed of three sides: India–Pakistan, New Delhi–Srinagar, and Hindu–Muslim, all contributing to one complex set of issues. Touch any one side of this triangle, he says, and the other two are instantly affected. In other words, only a holistic approach can bring an end to the tragedy.

Ending the impasse

In the play, he provides us the recipe for ending this impasse that threatens to engulf us all. An 11-member grand jury comprising the cultural founding fathers of the nation is set up in a special court; they are Amir Khusro Dehlavi, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, Salbeg, Raskhan, Mohsin Kakorvi, Sant Kabir, Munshi Channulal Dilgeer, an anonymous representative of Guru Nanak Maharaj, Tulsidas and Ustad Allaudin Khan. They provide a historical context to the present situation, try to show how the syncretic way of life was real and why it is impossible to rid India of its Muslim influences if it must continue to exist.

Amir Khusro says, “…what has gone unstated is the disruption of a thousand years of cultural commerce, civilisational sharing and a way of life in which all communities have participated. We, who have come from another world [points to the sky], find the current situation seeped in hate quite incomprehensible. I am a God-fearing Muslim, but I have written poetry in Sanskrit devoted to Lord Ram.” He mentions the works of Salbeg, who was a devotee of Jagannath; Rahim, who wrote devotional songs about Ram in Sanskrit; and Mohsin Kakorvi, whose songs invoked the images of Kashi, Mathura and Vrindavan to underscore his point.

Whether the jury is able to arrive at a solution and whether the reader will agree to the remedy is a moot question. But as much as anyone would like to believe that the political dispensation of the day would rejoice at a Muslim-free Bharat, the reality might turn out to be to the contrary.

If you plan to pick up this book, be sure to suspend your disbelief. Even though it is a lament for the fast disappearing world of a syncretic India in which the otherisation of Muslims had not begun, the television studio contemporises the narrative with references to the Sachar Committee report (on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India), the lynchings of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan by cow vigilantes, the flogging of Dalit men in Gujarat’s Una, and the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted in the Parliament House attack case), reminding us that what we are reading is not fiction. Is it an attempt at magical realism? Perhaps, but the fantasy definitely is a crash course in the history and the syncretic culture of Hindustan.

The play is sprinkled with facts that Indians urgently need reminding of. For instance, it says, “The great pilgrimage of Sabarimala is incomplete without devotees visiting the shrine of Vavar Swami, a Muslim devotee of Lord Ayyappa.” With regard to the First War of Independence of 1857, it says that when Hindus and Muslims joined hands, “In the British House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli chastised the colonial authority in India which, he complained, had violated the golden principle of ‘Divide et Impera’ (divide and rule) on which British power in India rested. Disraeli’s anger, that the policy of Divide and Rule had been neglected, confirms the fact that Hindus and Muslims fought side by side against the British in 1857. It therefore became British policy to keep the communities divided. That was where the seeds for separation were sown, leading to Partition in 1947.”

Without a sense of history, it is impossible to move forward.

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