Sunday, July 29, 2012

Speaking of an Old Book, Omair Ahmad's Encounters

This is not a review.

A newly acquired friend, SS, recommended to me one of his writer friends, Omair Ahmad and said I should read his books. We had arrived at it in the course of discussing Pakistani literature. I talked of how much I loved the writings of Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif and the others. I think we got to The Reluctant Fundamentalist when this friend said Ahmad’s first book stylistically pre-dates Hamid’s work. A few days later, at a book sale, I happened to come across Encounters, Ahmad’s debut novel. I started reading it about 3-4 days ago and was blown away by the writing.

You, Omair Ahmad, are amongst my favourite writers now.

This was Aligarh, where I had no friends; it would have been hubris indeed to want a lover.

Encounters is set in small town Aligarh, where Rahman and Saleem grow up like brothers. There are riots, ideologies get in the way, injustice happens, religious politics spring up, people die, love happens.

In October, my favourite month, she spoke to me.

Rahman is writing all this in a notebook that he knows no one will read, before he attempts to shoot the Home Minister with a locally made illegal gun that remains in his possession. He writes of growing up, boyhood adventures, influences and the feeling of being enclosed in their little worlds, before the worlds from outside, from the cities, come barging into Aligarh and destroy the world they had seen surrounding them.
He writes of indulging in a forbidden love. In the fashion of first loves, it consumes him until he spends his days and nights in an intense derision of worship, dreams and madness. 

She bit her lip, and that one gesture, I knew, would cause me many sleepless nights.

Rahman’s story is about being a Muslim and by the time he ends the book, he has gone from Muslim being a religion he was born into to being happy to be a ‘Muslim’, a tag that he consciously sports. ...against Pakistan, that Muslim state, the renegade province of united India.

I loved the book, though it was rather disturbing as well. The torture that the state decides to try on the boys isn’t glossed over. If I hadn’t read reports from Kashmir and elsewhere, I would have presumed it was the writer’s imagination at play. The book disturbs and brings up several questions, which I think was the intention.

The descriptions of growing up in the midst of curfews and riots took me back to my childhood in my town. The changes that were sweeping the nation passed us by. We never had Coca-Cola while growing up, so I don’t think I realized when it was banned and then brought in later. The liberation era affected everyone but back then, it didn’t change my life. Neither did the Babri Masjid incident. We were aware of it of course, but our daily lives were instead consumed by the hills and braving the leeches and keeping books dry while walking in the rain to catch the school bus. My world was my home and my town where nothing happened back then. At least now married women are eloping with their much younger lovers, there is some gossip.

I don’t know why I write this here or how it is relevant. But perhaps it is because we grew up in such a calm, settling environ that we don’t feel the kind of anger we would want to feel. We meaning I. I don’t talk of personal anger, which I have; my short temper was known far and wide. I talk of that sense of urgency, that anger, that reaction to the world and its events. I have opinions but the angered reaction is perhaps muted. It is so in my own eyes.

If oppression and strife and violence is a good breeding ground for beautiful art, like the romantics like to tell the town, then that passed me by. I tend to lean towards the beauty of art from conflict areas, conflict being personal or political. Is an intolerant society good for art? I often wonder. Ahmad’s book made me think about it again. I don’t have the answers. I don’t think there are any. Neither do I wish to examine where my art comes from. Perhaps it is from personal conflict, from the upheavals and changes and the near violence of my different lives. But then we all go through it.
The point is, there is art that leaps out of my head. For that, forever, I am grateful.

This post was to be about the book and religious politics and much else. But a story I heard tonight from Dubai lead to a whole hour of déjà vu and this became something else.

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