Fighting the stereotype

Print edition : February 22, 2013

London-based Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam reading her novel 'Good Muslim'. It easily enters the category of the soul-searching national narratives in English produced in recent years in the subcontinent. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Pakistani author Mohamed Hanif. His novel 'A Case of Exploding Mangoes' exposes the disastrous interventions of Ronal Reagan's United States in the politics of the subcontinent that brings religion and arms together in order to fight the Soviet Afghanistan and in the process also creates the Taliban. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mohsin Hamid. His novel 'Reluctant Fundamentalist', is a monologic novel like Albert Camus' 'The Fall'. Photo: REUTERS

About novels that deal directly or obliquely with Muslim life and ultimately about life in general but yet have something specific about them that connects them to a great literary tradition.

MORE by coincidence than by choice, many of the novels I have been reading of late deal directly or obliquely with Muslim life. Not that they have only a community dimension; they are all ultimately about life in general, its pains and pleasures, hopes and conflicts, as are perhaps all works of art and yet have something specific about them that connects them to a great literary tradition that goes back to that sea of stories, the Arabian Nights, the exciting dastans and the deeply philosophical and marvellous poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Bulle Shah, Baba Farid, Ghalib, Mir, and others. In my recent reading, it began with My Father’s Notebook, a monumental and intensely poetic work of fiction by the Dutch-Iranian novelist Kader Abdolah, the story of a deaf-mute, Aga Akbar, an illegitimate child of a Persian noble, who creates a rudimentary sign language to get by in the world but is depressed to find that it cannot articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts. His uncle advises him to go to a cave in the saffron mountains and copy a 3,000-year-old cuneiform inscription there, a command from the first Persian king. Aga fills his notebook with those signs. His political dissident son, Ishmael, who moves to the Netherlands, tries to translate the notebook, and in the course of this attempt tells us his story and also his father’s and ultimately ends up narrating the whole history of modern Iran from the first railways to the rule of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini.

It turns out to be a poignant tale of the troubled voyage of a culture to modernity. Kader Abdolah (b. 1954) himself had moved to the Netherlands as a political refugee from Iran at the age of 34 as he, as a leftist, found himself at war with both the regimes, of the Shah as well as of Khomeini. He had already written an illegal journal and published two books clandestinely in Iran before seeking asylum in the Netherlands where he authored three novels and two collections of short stories.

Many more novels followed, quite a few of them written in the wake of 9/11, in an attempt to understand the crises faced by the community and the many contradictions that defined its very contours. Mohamed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a novel in the tradition of Salman Rushdie’s Shame (where Raza Hyder is a thinly veiled depiction of the insecure, paranoid and heartless Zia-ul-Haq), is a grim comedy based on the death of General Zia told from the point of view of Ali Shigri, a junior officer of the Pakistan Air Force seeking to avenge the death of his father probably managed by Zia and made out to be a suicide. The novel exposes the disastrous interventions of Ronald Reagan’s United States in the politics of the subcontinent that brings religion and arms together in order to fight the Soviet Afghanistan and in the process also creates the Taliban. (Hanif’s second, perhaps structurally more interesting, novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is more about the plight of the minorities in Pakistan, dealing with the traumatic life of Alice, a Christian Dalit nurse.)

Yet another novel was Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, a monologic novel like Albert Camus’ The Fall in which Changez (Urdu for Genghis) narrates his life’s tale to a nervous stranger from America in a single evening in a Lahore cafe.

The protagonist speaks of his love affair with an American woman, his abandonment of America, his meeting with Erica during a business tour to Greece and his being smitten by her, only to find that she was mourning the demise of Chris, her childhood friend who died of lung cancer. Their sexual encounter comes to naught as she is temporarily frigid though she is made to overcome the condition later by fantasising Changez as Chris. But this only leads to their estrangement and her madness. He looks for her during an offshore assignment in Chile—where she was supposed to have been—but finds her “missing” as per the records; in Chile he also realises how as an analyst for the consultancy firm Underwoood Samson, he has degenerated into the hired servant of the U.S. that had been controlling and manipulating the politics of his homeland.

After 9/11, when all the Pakistanis are under the shadow of suspicion, he grows a beard just to express his solidarity with his people and finds how during the stand-off between India and Pakistan after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 America uses Pakistan as a pawn. He loses his job, comes back to Lahore to become a professor of economics in a local university and becomes a bitter critic of U.S. policies. That is when he meets the American in the cafe. The novel ends abruptly when the American reaches into his pocket for something with a metallic glint: it could be a business card-holder or a pistol; the reader is left to reach his/her own conclusion as to whether the American had come to kill him or was just a casual business visitor.

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy the Terrorist tells the story of Jamal, who stabs a police inspector and is beaten to death. Just before death he says, “My name is Jimmy the terrorist.” It is then found that he was the son of Rafiq Ansari, a scholar from Rasoolpur Mohalla, a Muslim neighbourhood in a Hindu town, who had become rich by marrying Shaistha, the daughter of a wealthy man. The Hindu revivalists are active in the mohalla and were behind the new-found affluence of the Hanuman temple there. They promote communal hatred in the whole place and become even stronger after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This, combined with his frustrated relationship with Shaistha, turns him into an angry mullah wearing religion on his sleeve. Jamal is also sad to see how his community is being marginalised in the whole of Uttar Pradesh and becomes Jimmy, the “Terrorist”. The novel is a deft analysis of the growing marginalisation and ghettoisation of even the more privileged among Muslims in the face of the increasingly aggressive Hindu revivalism that turns them into willing martyrs.

There were many other novels that followed, some of them set outside the subcontinent, like H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy, a meditation on the collective identity of the immigrant Muslims in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 that completely transforms the happy life of three young, talented, music-oriented Muslim immigrants who had come to America in search of wealth and popularity; Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets—a ‘return of the native’ story that deals with the change of demeanour and attitude that comes over Imtiaz Raina who leaves England to bury his father in the family plot near Lahore; Roopa Farooki’s The Flying Man which follows the fortunes of Maqil, a great charmer, gambler and survivor born in Lahore, who can adapt to any situation and belong anywhere; or Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, an elegy for a lost pattern of life that presents the unforgettable character, Ustad Ramzi, a great wrestler and trainer, the head of a pahalwan clan committed to the values of the akhara who develops a very unique, non-physical, relationship with the courtesan Gohar Jan.

(Among the books, there were too entertainers dealing with the Taliban like The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murarai and Far from My Father’s House by Jill McGivering, that mostly confirmed the stereotype.)

I will not dwell here on the works of Orhan Pamuk, especially The Snow, which shows a deep understanding of the contradictory positions within Islam—where even the burkha becomes a site of struggle rather than a simple symbol of oppression, devotion or liberation—or with the works of Najib Mahfouz, Amin Maalouf, Alaa al Aswany, Taha Hussein, Tawfiq al Hakim, Khalid Hosseini, Ismail Kadare, Nadim Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and many other favourites from the subcontinent as well as outside it as it is not my intention here to construct a false category called the “Muslim novel”, but only to point to some works that challenge the simple popular assumptions and misunderstandings about Muslim positions and interrogate the stereotypes manufactured by the media.

Set in Bangladesh

It is in this context that a novel like Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, the London-based Bangladeshi writer, a social anthropologist by training, assumes special significance. The novel that follows her first one, A Golden Age, is as much about forgiveness and survival as about religious fanaticism and political violence.

It is set in Bangladesh in the years that followed the War of Liberation when the young post-colonial nation was trying to define itself and was caught unawares in a tyrannical dictatorship following years of uncertainty after ‘Bangabandhu’ Mujibur Rahman’s death. It is an intense work of searing beauty that pursues the destinies of individuals as also of a nation caught in the throes of political and religious conflict. Poetic, engaging, disturbing and meditative, it is also about sisterhood and parenthood, service and sacrifice, guilt and poverty. The novel can be read from a class point of view when it turns out to be a work full of empathy and solidarity with the poor and the suffering, or from a secular and democratic perspective when it seems to be trying to understand and fight religious dogmatism and dictatorial tendencies that can ruin an emerging nation.

It easily enters the category of the soul-searching national narratives in English produced in recent years in the subcontinent whose origins can be traced back to writers like Mulk Raj Anand, but which began to gain international attention after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

I know a summary is not going to do any justice to a novel brimming with lyrical intensity and presents the traumatised life of a people through several unforgettable characters and moving episodes. I can only hint at the general directions of the part-domestic, part-historical narrative. The novel travels back and forth in time, covers a decade and a half—from 1971 to 1985—of the life of Bangladesh, and ends with an epilogue set in 1992. The narrative alternates between flashbacks and straight narratives.

The central character is Maya Haque, a secular woman, a doctor, a patriot and freedom fighter who puts her skill at the service of the poor, the wronged and the wretched. Her brother Sohail Haque was a brave and dedicated freedom fighter, who too had grown up as a liberal and an avid reader. He helps a wronged girl, Piya Islam, and takes her home before he returns home after the victory—though her family refuses to take her in and she later comes to Sohail seeking solace. He wanted to avenge Piya and several wronged women like her and in his rage he mistakes an innocent old man for a Pakistani soldier and stabs him to death. He realises his mistake too late and he finds comfort in the company of Haji Mudassar whom he identifies with his lost father.

Slowly, under the Haji’s influence, he turns into a pious man, haunted forever by his guilt, seeking expiation. He gives up all the joys of life, including the books and the music he loved. He marries Silvi, the pious woman next door, and they have a retarded son, Zaid. One day he sets fire to his books that had not been easy for him to collect. Maya’s loving mother blames her for having been harsh on Sohail; she had pushed him to the edge by blaming him and calling him a mullah. This was too much for Maya—who did not really know why her brother had changed so much—to take: she feels betrayed and runs away from home, serves the rural and tribal people in many villages, and ends up in Rajshahi.

The country was now under military dictatorship; Maya hated the Dictator (General Ershad’s name is not mentioned in the book) who was the very opposite of all that Mujibur Rahman had stood for, and after coming back from her self-exile, along with nursing her cancer-prone mother back to life, she starts writing about the plight of Bangladesh, calling the Dictator a “war criminal” in one of her articles in Shafaat’s independent newspaper that fearlessly critiqued the new regime. This leads to her arrest and she faces a trial for treason.

In between she tries to rescue Zaid whom Sohail had sent for religious education to Huzoor—he did not like his sister giving him lessons—who she gets to know had been sodomising the children in the madrassa. It proves a misadventure and Zaid drowns in the river they had to cross during the trip back.

Maya is overcome with remorse for all that she had done: from her mother she learns that Sohail had turned to religion to escape his sense of guilt; he would have safely brought Zaid back home as he had promised to her; Silvi (who dies in the meanwhile) whom she had hated and held responsible for her brother’s transformation was in fact not the kind she had imagined her to have been; she played Ludo with Zaid and was willing to send him to a proper school but for Sohail’s insistence; Sohail had a lot of goodness in him and had rescued Piya from the rape and torture at the barracks and she had named her son Sohail in memory of her saviour; Joy whom she had blamed for running away to America instead of serving the country had done so only on the insistence of his mother who had found that he had been so furious after his father was killed that he would have killed any Pakistani or Bihari who he came across.

She marries Joy and calls her daughter Zubaida, a name that resonates not only with Zaid, but also with Sohail. For “she recognises the wound in his [Sohail’s] history, the irreparable wound, because she has one too. His wound is her wound. Knowing this she finds she can no longer wish him different”.


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