Friday, December 09, 2005

Amitava & I and The Demons We Fight

I think I had a slick opening line a few minutes back but it has slipped away as I await my PC to open a new word document file. Anyway, it saves me from the embarrassment to sound erudite.

I first heard of Amitava when I saw (saw not read!) a review of his first book ‘Passport Photos’ almost three years back. I had no clue who he was and the review, I think it was India Today, was not very generous (or was it generous? Critics are seldom generous to first time writers). Later, over a meeting with a common friend, I came to know how Amitava was her elder brother’s classmate and her first crush. I could see her eyes glittering with that teenage soft look and I felt a pang of envy. After so many years she still harbors a soft corner for him. I didn’t say anything. I normally don’t have anything to say. I like listening. It is cathartic. I just smiled. She asked can I get her a copy of this book and I said sure. Some days later I walked in to a book store and bought two copies of Passport Photos, one for her and one for me. It still lies on my bookshelf gathering dust.

A few days after this chance conversation, she informed me that Amitava would be in town to launch his second book titled ‘Bombay-London-New York’. She asked me if I be interested in attending the book launch and I readily jumped at the invitation. In the run-up to the book launch, I bought his second book and this time I started reading it too (small redemption for Amitava). The very opening lines drew me to the book. The humor of them and how instantly they demarcate, delineate us from the others - the notion of who we are and who the others are and why the two are different. Amitava writes,

“ This book is about recent Indian fiction in English, but it is also, I have found out, about how and why we read.

In my childhood home, paper, of any kind, was to be touched only by hand. If you stepped on a book by accident, you were to pick it up and raise it respectfully to your forehead. I am not from a culture, although that seems the wrong word here for any number of reasons, where you rubbed paper on your arse.”

Well it hurts both my Muslim and Indian sensibilities to wipe my arse with a paper and not rinse it with water. I feel uncomfortable using five star hotel toilets as they seldom have a tap and a mug next to it and I would wonder why they don’t have one. This is New Delhi and not New York. But reading Amitava made it evident that for all the comfort with the English language we’re far from English. Thats why we are inevitably drawn to V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitava Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, et al more than James Joyce, William Burroughs or A.S. Byatt when we wish to read. (Ok! I make a correction… I feel inevitably drawn when I wish to read). How culture moulds not just our culinary and music tastes but also our reading habits.

A couple of years back or maybe more Edward Said came out with his autobiography titled ‘Out of Place’. I had read Said in bits and pieces and was drawn to his succinct, intelligently argued, clear style of writing. I didn’t wish to miss an opportunity to peep in to the man’s personal life. The book also had few photographs slipped in between the pages. There were two photographs that caught my imagination. One was young school going Said with his sister. Both in school uniforms, arms around each other gleefully staring in to the camera. I had a similar photograph with my sister. The pose was strikingly similar. If you’d ignore the faces, you’d think they are the same photograph - one in black & white and the other in color. The other one had young Said as a Harvard graduate in a pair of black goggles placed in some exotic Greek locale. The young Said much resembled Amitava in his photograph at the back cover of his first book Passport Photos. The resemblance in both the photos is coincidental and I do not see any karmic design here. But it struck me how varied cultures thrust similar emotions in visual imagery.

‘Out of Place’ was universal in terms of being a voice of someone displaced and brought up as a minority in another country. In the same breath you belong and you do not belong. You live with this permanent notion of being at home and yet displaced. I have grown up hearing tales of how I am a progeny of the Prophet, a progeny of the survivors of the Battle of Karbala. My ancestors had come to India in the 13th century from Arabia via Central Asia. One of my ancestors was a cavalry in-charge in Muhammad bin Tughlak’s army and had vanquished the local king, Chakwa Mandhata, around Ghazipur region in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His name was Masood and after this victory he was christened as “Ghazi” or “The Victorious One”. The erstwhile kingdom of the Hindu king was given to him as jagir and the area was christened Ghazipur after his title. In some sense this personal history resounded V.S. Naipual’s words in ‘Among the Believers’ that all non-Arab Muslims were tied to a notion of being and from elsewhere. They were mainly converts and had a false sense of history. My ideas of an identity were further shattered when while chatting to a distant granduncle, he is working on the genealogical history of our family; I was told that none of us, or most of us, were not pure descendants of the Prophet. Our ancestors had come as cavalrymen, mostly single or separated and had married local girls and had settled down here. Even if they had come with families, it was quite prevalent to marry more than once and many of these second wives were maids of local origin. For all my repulsion to this dilution of my genealogy I could not but see a reason in his argument. After all, if I was a pure direct descendant there must be a tinge of that gene in me but no matter how hard I stared at my face, I looked like an average brown skinned Indian. There was not a trace of an Arab being.

But in the same vein I disagree with Naipual. Not for an academic or emotional reason but purely based on a first-hand experience. Though I find my personal sense of history rooted in the desert of Arabia, I identify myself with India. I feel closer to a dhoti clad, tilak smeared Hindu than a beard-sporting skullcap wearing Arab. I identify more with Hindi and Urdu than Arabic though a muezzin’s call for namaaz does enchant me. Or to put it in Amitava’s words, ‘it is necessary to see how communities have grown historically in dialogue with each other. Their influences are mixed and shared. They have long standing histories in the places they have flourished.’ The sufi and bhakti movement in India and the Indonesian culture are syncretic products of such historical mixing of cultures. Surely, an Indian Muslim is very different from an Iranian or an Arab Muslim. If we ‘go far back in time, surely all of us are converts’. What were my ancestors before the Prophet? However, as Edward Said says, ‘it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or, more exactly, to feel less comfortable with, “Edward”, a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said’, I have become accustomed to an Arabic-Persian name labeled across my south Asian face now. I see no conflict, no dichotomy here Mr. Naipaul and my past like my present is true.

However, this sense of being at home and being displaced from a home that I do not identify with anymore creates a chasm in my personal identity and I see myself on both sides but more than that I am comfortable being on both sides. It is like you have just put one foot across the chasm while the other foot still entrenched and you do not feel the urge to either step forward or backward. You wish to ride the chasm astride like a cowboy riding in a Clint Eastwood movie - at once a part of the landscape and yet a lone rider.

I remember in one of the articles that Amitava wrote, he mentions it in his latest book ‘Husband of a Fanatic’ too, he reminisces his interaction with a Pakistani taxi driver. The driver said something about Americans, though not being Muslims, practice Islamic teachings in their social and civil behavior more. They give fair wages. I recall my mother echoing same sentiments after her first visit to the US though she didn’t speak about fair wages specifically. My apologies if I have hurt the sensibilities of non-Muslim readers. The idea is not to monopolize civil behavior as Islamic but understand our perceived realities. What I realized when I read about the taxi driver and heard my mother was how contact between diverse set of people change their perceived realities about each other. Prolonged non-contact leads us to look for stories elsewhere and we fall prey to media, stereotypes and our self-created demons. We construct our realities not on first hand experience but on heresy. And thus the enemy loses his or her face. The enemy becomes a perpetual demonic entity epitomizing everything evil that we are not. It becomes easier to hate the enemy, to fight him, to decimate him once he loses the face. In Amitava’s words we have a textbook enemy at hand. Easy to comprehend and perpetuate hatred against. And once this has been achieved even if textbook enemy surfaces as a face in real life, it is easier to ram a cricket stump up her vagina or chop off his body in six pieces even when he is dead. It becomes easier to lob a bomb in a shanty settlement as people sleep or walk in to a worship place and fire indiscriminately. (For details read Amitava’s first-hand reports in his book ‘Husband of A Fanatic’)

A friend chuckled and said one of the reviews said Amitava has overdone it this time. He is playing it to the galleries. No madam! Amitava has not overdone it this time. He is only highlighting the imminent danger if we do not fight this hate factory churning out textbook enemies. He is only giving a face to the enemy, making him or her more human through his personal interactions and in the process perhaps exorcising the ghost of textbook enemy. The demon is this ability of ours to create stereotypical enemies of chimerical proportions. Let us make the enemy more human. Perhaps, we will have fewer reasons to hate then.

So, Amitava and I finally meet. I sit through the book release listening intently to whatever is being spoken. One constant observation by many readers was Amitava’s intimate writing style. How he shifts from a general commentary on a political or a literary issue to a personal experience thus vacillating between an essay and a memoir. Readers found it hard to classify his work. Is it an essay, a personal memoir or may be a part fiction? I could feel their discomfort. And I amusedly wondered why such an issue over his writing style. Why this urge, instinct, imminent need to classify, categorize, catalogue one’s work? A writer only speaks his or her mind whether it is a hard-hitting analysis or a personal experience or a fictitious tale. He or she knows no barriers. He or she will transcend them, flow lucidly through genres, keep writing till the myriads of emotions welled inside flow out as words on paper. This urge to classify is similar to our primal instinct to seek security, to draw the unknown in to the known. This insistence to adhere to the known, to conventions, to the practiced is a reflection of how we have become a stickler for nomenclature, systems, dogma, etc. We ought to be somebody – an essayist, a novelist, a critic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a South Asian, an American – any of this but how can we assume plural identities. And the moment we do this there is a violation. It is the same instinct that engenders an appetite to create textbook enemies. A writer strives to fight this. He or she strives for a borderless world where our identities don’t define us, our humanity does.

Murtaza Danish Husain
September 18, 2004
New Delhi


Jyotsna said...

I enjoyed reading this post of yours.Interesting and so true about how we tend to classify ad categorize writers into slots..A writer has the freedom to express what he/she wants without limitations..yes!
Glad you started a new prose blog..Keep writing!

Accidental Fame Junkie said...

"Prolonged non-contact leads us to look for stories elsewhere and we fall prey to media, stereotypes and our self-created demons."

I agree with you. Also, the idea of "text-book enemies" who can be classified was very enlightening.

If we are within a country, its easy to sponsor scholarships so that cultural interaction can be encouraged. What happens if the enemy is within us? And by enemy I don't mean a category of people; I mean the demons that surface from time to time.