At last!

Mehru Jaffer

One of the titles that I brought back from Delhi's impressive World Book Fair is Pigeons of the Domes. This collection of 18 short stories on the theme of communalism is edited by literary historian Rakshanda Jalil. The stories were originally written in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.

My reason for picking up this particular volume for myself turns out to be somewhat similar to that of Jalil who says in the introduction that she put the book together in an effort to trace the secular thread in the fabric of modern India.

In the process of editing this volume she wanted to examine the impact of continuing instances of communal violence in the past six decades on the idea of secularism. To what extent did the bloody pogrom of partition, the rise of militant right-wing nationalism, the eruption of militancy in Punjab, growing insurgency in Kashmir and the events of Ayodhya and Gujarat, challenge or weaken the secular and pluralistic fabric of our country? These are questions worth examining.When she set out to choose short stories that deal with the issue of secularism, those stories turned out to be about its dark twin communalism as well. I too believe that secularism can be better understood through the prism of communalism.

I am baffle,  but I must admit that these days I often find myself cloaked in a little mistrust, fearing that some trigger may lead even a reasonably sane person like myself to become unreasonably furious. The inherent fear I have is of losing all sense of proportion and beginning to view the world with paranoia and to see myself as a victim in today’s India.

That is a very frightening thought, indeed!

At the time of going to press I managed to read just the introduction and one engrossing short story called Blank Call, by Khurshid Akram, a writer and broadcaster who was born in Calcutta in 1963. Since then Akram has published numerous short stories, poems, polemics and reviews.

The chapter looks at communal violence in all its dangerous, destructive ugliness. Here the communal divide has less to do with god and more to do with trivial, personal issues. However the possibility of violence spinning out of control is very real when collective pride and collective rage marry. Fear and fury are a deadly combination in Blank Call that lead to dire consequences.

As the story unfolds the personal frustration of a few people holds the city to ransom. Their mostly random, irresponsible, spontaneous acts lead to arson and violence. As neighbourhoods burn and a curfew is imposed in an attempt to control if not douse the fire of hatred, the media steps in and together with community elders often helps to further divide the city.

There is the very simple Sharmaji who is a pleasant enough government employee during the day. However in the night pages of books he had once read in a state of hopelessness keep fluttering in his dreams. In these dreams it is as if he is transported to a land where the Golden Bird lives. He has made a beautiful map in his head of that land from stories, legends and myths. That is why it annoys him when a dark shadow falls over the map of ghosts and figures like Mohammad Bin Qasim, Babur and Aurangzeb who are seen strutting all over the map of the land of the Golden Bird. This recurring dream makes Sharmaji wake up in a cold sweat every single time. And after a sleepless night the headlines in the newspapers in the morning only add fuel to the fire. The anger that Sharmaji has tried to hold back for such a long time begins to flow without control like a filthy sewer gushing into a river.

Another character in the same story wanders around in a state of worry in another part of the city over his suspension order. Suhail Abbas is not much concerned about retaining the job. For him it is more a question of self respect. The humiliation of being reprimanded after he is found guilty has driven him dangerously mad with rage.

There are 17 more stories to be read in this interesting anthology put together by Jalil, pointing to some very personal reasons that make people go berserk. Communalism is cancerous to our collective well-being and whatever helps us to understand the roots of this menace is worthy of our attention. Even if it is just a short story.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2016 - JANUARY 2017