It is said that literature is the reflection of society and its unconscious moralities. India, i.e. Bharat, has had a long history (herstory?) of literature portraying societal moralities. They expose the currents of society in India as well as are a stark reminder of how long the state of India has to travel to become a Nation and not just a geographically united entity or a political idea of state.
The current pragmatic literary milieu is putting forth the counter-current discourses challenging the hegemonic majoritarian discourse. They are a portrayal of BR Ambedkar’s warning evident in his ‘Grammar of Anarchy’ speech as well as his ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity as the base for the superstructure of the Nation.
Author Abdullah Khan picks up the thread of Constitutional morality via his timely fiction yet non-fiction like English author George Orwell, reminding readers that indeed ‘personal is political’, which the feminist movement had advocated by his gendered and layered fiction set in a small town of Bihar.
As a reader, I could easily relate to his writing because he does not try to do anything fancy or stylistic but portrays the banality of evil in a very lucid manner in the post-Babri phase of India.
The book begins with the following quote:
“The essence of being human is that,
one doesn’t seek perfection.”
The quote gave a glimpse of the bumpy ride this novel was about to take me on. First, it pointed to the idea of essentialism in the realm of existence. This essence was permeated by being humane and devoid of perfection. To be precise, it pointed me to the contemporary Indian setup wherein humanity has lost its relevance and what matters is the perfection of the dogmatic, imposed and majoritarian idea of ‘being Indian’.
This idea of Indianness is the new essential devoid of humanism but based on a majoritarian construct in the spatiality of Indian Animal Farm. We also know that this work of fiction is albeit an Indian Orwellian fiction, which is a non-fiction.
Thus, Abdullah Khan, the author of this novel, makes us meet the protagonist Aslam Sher Khan, who will take the readers to the Indian magical realism-laden setup in the small town of Motihari. Bihar is a state of intersectionality having all the elements of money, muscle, caste, class, religion and gender fragilities. As VS Naipaul says, it is a microcosm of what India is—a state of million mutinies.
The novel begins on an autobiographical note where Aslam is putting forth his life story. Being born in the same location where famous writer George Orwell was born, Aslam takes the readers on a journey in the post-liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation Bharat, where mandal politics are matched with firm kamandal politics, leaving a mark on the contemporary and future Indian politics and society.
His Hindu friends, Shambhu and Aravind, permeate his world but passions laden with chauvinism bisect their relationship. The evidence of media manufacturing consent and constructing a cultural idea of Nation and Nationalism via televised series dents the friendship between these three, portraying the erosion of fraternity owing to mythological and communal passions reaching their zenith.
Khan, the author, in a subtle way, shows how mythology is separate from history via one of Aslam’s friends, Aravind, a Hindu Brahmin having the surname ‘Khan’, which was, in fact, a military title and not a portrayal of religion. This illiteracy of history, in fact, makes Aravind succumb to the communal forces in the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. Thus, the anatomy of hate triumphs over humanity and the liberal constitution.
Aslam, belonging to a middle-class Muslim family is a high-caste Pathan. Thus, the author manages to lay bare the issues of castes among Muslims—in this case, the high-caste Pathans and low-caste Ansaris who are prohibited to marry owing to the systemic graded inequality inherited from majority discourse. Also, the author manages to lay bare the antagonisms among different sects within the Muslims by giving a sociological and anthropological glimpse of Muslim society. Aslam’s narrations beautifully craft the ethos of class among castes and caste among classes.
The existential crisis is laden with expectations of his wife to do well economically and there is a personal lack of cultural capital to transcend class. But, personal and societal deterrents lead to the rupture of their relationship and separation from his wife as well as his beloved daughter. This personal within the political backdrop of Hindu, Hindi and Hindutva as well as a commentary on the communalisation of media is what makes this novel stand apart from others as it puts forth the truth in the contemporary post-truth world.
In this world of imposed essentialism, Aslam finds the love of his life away from his homeland and thus affirms the staunch faith of the power of love to abolish gender, caste, class, religion as well as nation-state fissures. In this magical realistic world of Aslam, the midwife ghost plays an important link of connection of generations barring all fragilities that divide mankind. The novel starts and ends with her. She is the umbilical cord of this novel.
Thinking critically on this novel, the author reminds us that yet a lot needs to be done after the 2019 Ayodhya verdict to achieve the tenets of substantive justice as the fissures in society will keep erupting again and again.
A society whose normal is binary of us vs them, a society which is historically illiterate, can’t separate facts from fiction, easily falling for charismatic hegemons, easily forgetting the principles but nurturing dogmas, values blind fanaticism above the ideal of humanism.
I write this all because as a lifelong student of law, an ardent supporter of Constitutional Morality as well as the idea of Complete Justice, I value democratic ethos, pathos and logos. Khan’s writing makes me as a reader introspect again on the idea of being human, a citizen and the difference between political liberty and social freedom.
Maybe the above words sound too political, but the author gives a clarion call to re-educate ourselves. He invokes us to critically think of the history taught or imposed, the machismo and communal unconscious imbibed via academics and passions that arise with the mention of religion in our hearts.
He questions the process of socialisation of individuals in India by questioning the agents and agencies, too. The beauty of this novel is that he puts forth nuanced genesis, nemesis and mechanisms of religion and castes that have crept from majority to the minorities, the idea of graded inequality, the ascending scale of reverence and descending scale of contempt. In fact, Abdullah Khan is a name you can’t avoid. Within this milieu of Hindu, Hindi and Hindutva, he is a voice that questions its origins.
It feels like here we got our very Indian, new desi Orwell.
Nikhil Sanjay-Rekha Adsule is a senior research scholar at IIT-Delhi and a DAIC Fellow at Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment