& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, January 31, 2020

A Delhi Obsession

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MG Vassanji
In 2012, I had been in Canada just four years and read Indian newspapers online regularly. I discovered an interview of MG Vassanji in India’s Mint newspaper when his novel The Magic of Saida was published.  The interview was competent, or so I thought. It covered all the things that a newspaper reader would want to know about an author.    

I sent the link to Vassanji, thinking that he would be delighted. I told him that I had posted the link on social media. He told me to remove the link. He was actually livid. 

I asked him why, and said, “They have labelled me. Would they have called Margaret Atwood a Christian author? Or Amitav Ghosh a Hindu author? I doubt it; they wouldn’t. Then, why label me as an Ismaili Muslim.”

I didn't quite understand his anger then. But over the years, as I have got to know him a bit better, I have begun to comprehend his irritation over being labelled. 

It is impossible to categorise Vassanji on the basis of faith or nationality because it is impossible to fit him into a specific ethnic, religious, national silo. 

He is like the Indian raita (an Indian dish of finely chopped cucumber, peppers, mint, etc. in yoghurt, served with curries). The Indian raita spreads on an Indian thali, freely mixing with different vegetables and curries in the thali, and in the process, both acquires their taste and gives its own flavour to them.

Ismaili-Khoja culture is a mix of both Hindu and Islamic traditions, blending the streams into a fusion of Sufi/Bhakti. Although today’s generation believes in having a distinct as opposed to a defused identity, the religious songs of the Ismaili-Khojas called Ginans reveal the strong syncretic roots of the community.

To help me understand the unique syncretism that has made him who he is, Vassanji had sent me a review of a book on Ginans. (Ginanic Travails: Conflicted Knowledge)

Over the years, in many a heated discussion about the religious tensions in India that we have had, Vassanji invariably points out the tendency amongst Indians to label people; even Indian liberals are not above the labelling, he would complain. This labelling leads to stereotypical understanding and portrayal of the two communities in general, but especially of the Indian Muslims.

Finally, in 2019, with A Delhi Obsession Vassanji has published a novel that sensitively depicts the insensitive Indian habit of identifying and categorizing people on the basis of their religion. 

The novel is a love story, an illicit love story between a married Hindu middle class woman in Delhi and a Muslim widower from Toronto, who is uncomfortable every time everyone identifies him as a Muslim.

Early on in the story, when the newly-in-love couple visit a shrine, the tension over identity is palpable.

Image result for a delhi obsession"“The shrine was modestly decorated with marigolds and an idol of a god, behind which quietly sat the priest. Mohini covered her head with her sari end, joined her hands and knelt before the idol, Munir looked around nervously, then shakily half-knelt beside her, joining his hands, too. The priest gave them some water, which following Mohini, Munir sipped from his hand, dabbing his head with what remained. The watching priest then gave them each some coarse sugar pellets.

When they were outside, back in the brightness, she turned to him and said, “But you are a Muslim.”

He took a breath, then replied, “If you say so. But I don’t describe myself by a faith.”

He felt stupid saying that, but it was the naked truth.

“But you bowed to our gods.”

“Your gods…Well, I paid my respect to the gods.”

“What are you, then?”

“Do I have to be something?”

“How do people know you, then?”

“As just another person. A friend. A neighbour. An author.”

Towards the end, when the Hindu nationalist rabble rouser Jetha Lal and his brutish acolytes surround Munir at the club, threatening him, Munir exclaims in despair and anger, “I’m a Canadian. Don’t put your labels on me.” To which the uncouth Jetha Lal patiently responds, “Canadian, sir. But you like Hindu women, I see. Better than Canadian women, no?” He waited. “No doubt. But you are Muslim, sir. Mlechha. Different.” 

(The word Mlechha is italicised perhaps to emphasize it, not because it is an Indian word).

A Delhi Obsession is an incisive portrayal of the unbearable intensity of Hindu nationalism that is rapidly transforming India into an intolerant, bigoted place where fear rules. Expectedly, the novel ends tragically; illicit love stories often do. But the end is as unexpected, sudden, brutal as the end of the popular Marathi film Sairat. The end keeps you awake at night, long after you have read the last page. 

I apologise for spoiling the reading experience of those who haven't yet read the novel, but I was horrified by the end of the story. In half a page, it brought alive the horror that is India today.

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