I have always felt that the excellent films of Saeed Akhtar Mirza, such as Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! are not specimens of social realism, as some film critics suggest, but of what should be called purposive realism. Without being moralistic or ideological in the narrow sense, they are driven by some thematic purpose justifying their use of social realism, even verisimilitude.
Mirza’s first novel reveals a similar sensibility. The purpose that drives Mirza’s narrative is a vital one: combining fiction and history, he sets out to expose a disturbing forgetfulness that informs (Western) modernity. As serious scholars have started noting, European Renaissance and Enlightenment were built on non-European, particularly Arab and Moorish, achievements.
Not only did non-European Muslims preserve, develop and pass on the achievements of Greek and Roman antiquity (civilisations that existed as much in Africa and Asia as in Europe) to late medieval Europeans, they also worked as conduits of scientific, philosophical and other developments from India, China etc. Early Enlightenment thinkers were aware of this, and some of the best European minds of the time sought and cultivated Arab knowledge. But as the Enlightenment proceeded, this memory was subverted and erased, first by religious animosity and then by growing imperial power and nationalism.
Mirza’s novel sets out to recuperate this memory through the story of Rehana, an Iranian girl in the 11th century, and her experience of the ideas, thinkers and peoples of her time. The attempt is not to sing the glories of ‘Islamic civilisation’—there never was and never will be one monolithic Islamic civilisation—but to provide a complex narrative of the moorings of our modernity. Other matters sometimes take a backseat. I do not mean this as criticism. Give me a novel—like this one—with something to say, rather than a novel that says precious nothing with fashionable smoothness.