Anjum Hasan’s History’s Angel is a novel that is both of and for the moment. It seems strange how a book so obsessed with the past succeeds in capturing the present zeitgeist so routinely, but Hasan’s latest, no matter how you look at it, belongs squarely to the now. While op-eds and TV news channels debate about what it means to be Muslim in India, History’s Angel uses the expanse of fiction to show us how Indian Muslims are pigeonholed and made to feel like fugitives in their own land. They cannot distance themselves from stories of hate that monopolise our headlines. They often cannot simply follow the news. Now, more than ever, Muslims are the news.
Alif Mohammad, the novel’s protagonist, teaches history in a Daryaganj school. “He loves the idea of ideas,” Hasan writes. “Every free moment he subjects to a historical test. This is now but how was it back then? Or that was then but how does it matter now?” Alif lives in his head more than in the world, and it is here that Hasan often leaves us. We encounter the indifference of the world and state through Alif’s thoughts. For Alif, history is prism and crutch, and though it is exasperating to see how he sometimes uses the extravagances of the past to escape the urgent alarm of the present, his reveries are instructive: “Each new feeling or thought, shape or movement, word or colour emerges from what already exists.” The past is comfortable, because “it reveals how everything is provisional”.
There is something noble about Alif’s approach to teaching. He wants to inculcate in his students “the axiom that everything is not moods and feelings, passions and prejudices, that facts ought to have a greater claim on us”. Things go south for Alif after he twists the ear of a nine-year-old during a school trip to Humayun’s tomb. The boy, who seems to deliberately confuse Humayun and Hanuman, asks Alif, “Are you a dirty Musalla?” For Alif’s principal, Mrs. Rawat, this provocation does not justify the punishment. She wants Alif gone. “He is bringing too much Muslim history into [her] school,” she feels.
Even though Alif is staunchly secular—“Faith should not mean being blind to the historical moment and its demands”—he finds it hard to weather the storm of communal suspicion Rawat sucks him into. Alif is beaten down with the stick of Muslim identity, but even other characters, who exist mostly on the periphery of Hasan’s novel, are hobbled and targeted because of their faith. Hatred is everywhere.
Ahmad, the help in Alif’s parental home, tells him he has dreams of the Babri Masjid: “I should have been there facing up to those vandals, putting my forehead on the walls of that mosque so that they’d have to kill me first to get to it.” Echoing fears that measures like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act would cost Muslims their statehood, Mir, Alif’s journalist cousin, says, “Less than a hundred years ago we were writers with pens of fire, we were brilliant socialists—think Faiz, think Manto— dreaming of world revolution. Now all we can come up with is: no concentration camps for us hopefully because they could never fit us all in.” Hasan’s characters are regularly forced to think of themselves as a people.
- In History’s Angel, we encounter the indifference of the world and state through the thoughts of Alif, Anjum Hasan’s protagonist.
- Alif is beaten down with the stick of Muslim identity, but even other characters are hobbled and targeted because of their faith.
- Alif’s passion for history gives Hasan opportunities to ask pressing questions: How did we come to find ourselves at this precipice?
- Alif’s belief that “there is no such thing as a Muslim history of India” is often challenged by the bigotry of those around him.
The shadows of yesterday
Alif’s passion for history gives Hasan many opportunities to ask pressing questions: How did we come to find ourselves at this precipice? Where do we go from here? Alif wants to ask Nehru, “Why did you let the Muslims go? […] Why Partition?” Though Alif finds some of his answers in the abstract, they also, perniciously, cloud the several realities he inhabits. Partition once comes up during dinner, and he explains to his teenage son a hard-boiled truth, “We separated so as to not kill each other and we then started killing each other in earnest. Or one side wants to decimate the other. It’s come to that.”
“Hasan shows us how we come to feel at home in imperfect places and how that sense of home simultaneously bolsters and crushes our spirit.”
Almost everyone in the book seems preoccupied with history. When Alif and his wife try and rent a home in Noida, they are humiliated by a Hindu landlord who browbeats them with his version of the past: “When the Muslims came […] they broke down our temples and with those stones, exactly those stones, built mosques. Why?” Alif’s belief that “there is no such thing as a Muslim history of India” is often challenged by the bigotry of those around him, but their opposition only underscores the weight of his claim. “You try separating Muslims from Hindus in this way when you go into the past of this country and all you find are entanglements.” Hindus and Muslims, we find, are inextricably linked.
History’s Angel is a discomfiting read, but it can also feel a touch frustrating. The narrative, one feels, is sometimes held hostage by the book’s intent. There are moments when Alif’s predilections seem to distract us from his desperation: the ordeal he suffers at school, his doomed desire for a woman he once yearned for in his youth. Hasan’s segues, at times, feel like interruptions. Though the plot inches forward at a languid pace, the wait for narrative progress can, on occasion, feel too long. Hasan is a careful writer. Her transitions are almost always seamless, but the heart wants more story, less insight.
In the end, however, History’s Angel deserves its place in the canon of great Delhi novels. In Hasan’s book, the “often smoggy, often small-hearted city” makes brittle the many lives it touches. Despite Alif’s lament—“nothing is straight in this city”—his love for Delhi and its storied history allows him and us the understanding of how spaces shape our hope and belonging. Hasan shows us how we come to feel at home in imperfect places and how that sense of home simultaneously bolsters and crushes our spirit. Hasan describes Delhi as “the city on which the apocalypse descends every day and the city where the apocalypse is always awaited”. Many of us will perhaps find this state of purgatory familiar.