Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The terror of being a poor Muslim in India
Hamish Hamilton, 2010; Rs. 350
Reviewed by Zafar Anjum
Novelist Omair Ahmad has chosen a misleading title for his third work of fiction, Jimmy the Terrorist. Jimmy, a lovingly anglicized version of Jamaal, is not an Islamist terrorist, plotting revenge in a post 9/11 world. As such, Jimmy the Terrorist is not about Islamist terrorism. It is about the terror of being a Muslim in India.
Well, make that a ‘poor’ Muslim in India. Omair brings up the class issue in his narrative, so the main protagonist Jamaal’s being ‘poor’ is quite pertinent here and must be taken note of. And Jamaal’s poverty is not the typical kind of poverty associated with the majority of Muslims and low caste Indians. His father is a teacher, he has a roof over his head, he studies at Moazzamabad’s most venerable school, St. Jude’s—only he doesn’t have the kind of expensive shoes and shirts and pocket money that his other ‘Hindu’ classmates have. Jamaal is ‘that’ kind of poor. He is middle-class poor—that’s where young Indian Muslim terrorists purportedly come from. The category of lower class Muslims—the ones who live in slums—is the fount of gangsters in India, the type you see in Bollywood films.
When the novel begins with a geographical and historical map-making of Moazzamabad in Uttar Pradesh, a certain kind of expectation builds up. Maybe it is because of the kind of news we have been receiving in the last few years—the stories of Indian police branding innocent young Muslim boys as terrorists and killing them for awards and trophies. When Omair evokes Moazzamabad and Rasoolpur, we hope to read about a sample biography of one of the terrorist boys from Azamgarh. I thought Jimmy the Terrorist would do for fiction what Tehelka does for non-fiction in India. At the same time, I was worried that the novelist would do what he is not supposed to do—bringing the news.
I was wrong.
Omair exceeds my expectations. He goes into India’s heart of darkness (actually he comes from there) and returns with a tale that reflects the reality of Indian Muslims today. His tale is ordinary, even deceptively simple in its plotting and narration but in its bosom is the picture of India’s underbelly and how it perceives its existence in a climate of Hinduvta-based politics.
The story is so plain that if I were a neocon reviewer, drawing a fat salary from one of the American think-tanks, I would have dismissed the book in a few sentences. Why make a fuss over a dead Muslim boy in a god-forsaken small town in Uttar Pradesh? Look at the numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died. And wait! The number of deaths would be even more spectacular after the folly of revolutions in the Middle East. So, why care about Jimmy—I would have said.
Yet, the story Omair wants to share with us is important. And he does it with a simplicity which is hard to achieve, especially in setting up a story in the backdrop of India’s communal politics. Omair pulls the challenge off with ease and dexterity. Through his two main characters, Rafiq and his son Jamaal, the novelist brings into sharp relief the Muslim alienation in India today that has developed over two generations since Independence. The older protagonist, Rafiq, becomes an angry demagogue; the younger one, Jimmy, does not speak; he stores his anger until it explodes in a violent climax. Unlike his father, he lacks the safety valve of hate speech.
When Rafiq, who aspired to be a poet and wanted acceptance in a local poetry circle, loses everything he so painstakingly has built over the years, he is forced to take a job at an Islamic school. Formerly a geography lecturer in a college, he is not sure how to go about his job interview. One of his friends teaches him the trick to land the job:
“Just be angry,” Haris said. “Rant and rave. Talk about the grand tragedies, about oppression, zulm, riots and murder. Grow your beard a little longer and miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of Muslims. It’s what the Mullahs do all the time.”
This cultivated anger gives Rafiq a sort of power that he never had and he carries this trick wherever he goes, to great success.
Jamaal, Rafiq’s son, on the other hand, grows pensive and inward-looking at St. Jude’s. “Being a winner requires more than just being first in a race: a victory is never quite that unless there are people who will acknowledge your triumph. It was the reason Jamaal never stood first in any of his exams.” At school, Jamaal also learns that there is a price to success, and the price isn’t simply hard work.
In the novel, Omair mentions many things: partition, communal riots, Sanjay Gandhi’s nasbandi programme, demolition of Babri Masjid and Advani’s Rath Yatra. But not once does he mention Pakistan. This omission is strange; or maybe it is a welcome relief for many Indian readers. But I wonder if the protagonists ever imagine what their fate would have been in Pakistan. Would they have fared better there?
Since Omair’s Jimmy the Terrorist has emerged out of a set of short stories, the seams have marked the narrative. More than half way through the book, one protagonist fades off and another protagonist takes over. If the story is about Jimmy, tell us Jimmy’s story—some readers might feel that way.
Even though the narrator’s voice in the novel is warm and mellifluous, it sometimes tires you. That is the other problem with the novel. Omair’s tendency to overexplain things slows down the narrative.
Jimmy the Terrorist is no Booker Prize material (here I humbly disagree with the novel’s publisher who had thought that it was Booker prize material)—it does not have the level of complexity and technical finesse of a great work of fiction but given the fact that the Chetan Bhagats are ruling the roost in India, it is encouraging to see young writers like Omair Ahmad trying their hand at serious fiction. Jimmy the Terrorist should be applauded for that daring itself.
This review was written in March and a version of it appeared in Indian Literature (published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) in August 2011.