13 January 2011

Jimmy the terrorist - Omair Ahmad's interview

Author: Omair Ahmad
Pages: 180

It's easy to read author Omair Ahmad's new book, Jimmy The Terrorist, as a partisan novel about mariginalistion of the Muslim community in India, their victimisation and all the issues that come with it. But Ahmad is staunchly against such narrow readings. The book is set in the fictional town of Maozamabad in Muslim-dominated colony in UP, and follows closely the life of a few of its denizens, against the changing socio-political atmosphere in the country. In establishing the history of the people of the town, the author briefly touches upon the antecedents, following which the drama begins from the 60s where you enter the life of an ordinary Muslim youth, Rafiq who aspires to be a well-educated elite. The old Shabbir Manzil, which houses affluent Muslim families and is the intellectual hub for poets, is where Rafiq aspires to be. He finally becomes privy to this much envied circle by way of his marriage to Shiasta -- the well-educated cousin of the affluent Ahmad Sayeed. However, other complications come along. The Rafiq-Shiasta union produces a son, Jamal aka Jimmy, and it is in his young life that you see the undercurrents of religious intolerance taking its ugliest turn.
The novel undoubtedly points at the vulnerable, fragile situation of Muslims in India, even though Omair is enough of a writer to add touches of irony (the Muslim characters show a tendency to feel victimised for everything, often ignoring their personal failings.)

Taking Omair Ahmad's point that his book is primarily a personal, human story and must not be seen as religion-specific, it could be pointed out that there are some jumps in the narration that aren't altogether convincing. The Rafiq-Shiasta relationship is a complex one, but never really clear. Nor is Rafiq's slow hardening of his Muslim identity. Whether these things are allegorical or so not is besides the point - purely as a story, there seem to be a few gaps.

Ahmad's book started as a short story of 4000 words, which ultimately got transformed into a novel. "I was in the US at that time, and was trying to explain to colleagues in think tanks (this is the time of Godhra, the Parliament attack, just after September 11, after Afghanistan and just around the time of Iraq) the costs of violence, and the breakdown of law and order on young people, especially in the context of religious politics. In a sense although this is set in a Muslim locality, I believe that it should generally work in the context of any minority facing majoritarian politics -- think of Kashmiri Pandits, of Ahmadiya in Pakistan & Bangladesh...," says the author whose earlier novella, The Storyteller's Tale came in for much praise.

"The novel was because of a nudge by Ravi Singh (at Penguin), and also maybe as I got older I have become less interested in the violence, and more interested in the larger society, about ideas of social mobility, the problems of small town societies... So the novel is frankly about very different things than the short story."

Though the novel concerns itself with a particular Muslim locality and simultaneously traces the country and community's trajectory through prickly religious events, Ahmad clearly states that he is not trying to 'represent' the Indian Muslim community. "I don't think that is the choice, or job, of a writer. The essential question are: "why would somebody do this thing? what are the circumstances necessary? does it make sense?" The only job a writer has to try to search for some kind of truth and make it a little clearer -- to share his or her understanding... The partial drive in the book is to understand how complicated people really are, how a story has not just two, or three, or even
four perspectives, but more than any one person can adequately capture. We just get a bare outline of all of that.," says the author, who has worked as a political journalist with Outlook.

The book decidedly appears mostly allegorical, where each character mirrors some facet of society. But Omair's answer suggests there was no strict pattern to the narrative, and many characters in the novel simply behave the way they do because of the kind of people they are. "I hope that not everything is simply representational. Shabbir Manzil, and Ahmad Saeed, are obviously characteristic of a declining aristocratic, educated elite, but the fact that Ahmad Saeed likes the poetry he does, or how he deals with the failure in the UPSC exams is something of his own character, that of an imagined person,not simply a code word for something else. Similarly Shaista passion, her bitterness, is who she is." he says, adding wryly, "If I may say so, I am not Dan Brown (for one, my books don't sell
millions of copies!)
and I am not writing puzzles for people to solve,
but trying to understand why people might act the way they do."

Omair's idea for the novel began with one thought - what would be a Muslim youth's mind-set amidst events of religious intolerance and unrest? But this situation is hardly unique to India alone, and several Muslims will admit that their sense of marginalisation is far greater in other countries. The story based in a small town in UP can easily translate into being a microcosm for Indian religious conflicts and further a microcosm for Muslim victimisation. It's a subtext hard to escape, but Omair insists on seeing the story as a purely human one. "The only uniqueness for me about the Indian experience is that it is mine. When I write about eastern UP, about the failure of our agriculture policies, about the crumbling of our infrastructure, our hope in a vision of 'modernity' that we may not be able to fully
achieve, I write about people and places I know." he says.

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