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BUILDING THE WALLS

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By Nudrat Kamal

This, it would seem, is the perfect age for dystopia. As the world careens headlong into the horrors of climate change and rising fascism, as the deep-rooted violence of patriarchy is slowly laid bare, as hate and fear-mongering increasingly become the language of politics, dystopian fiction seems particularly suited to make sense of our times. Dystopian literature has long been an effective way of exploring the messes we humans are so good at creating. It takes the worst of society’s very present, very real inclinations and takes them to their extreme logical conclusion, heightening society’s ills to a point where they can no longer be ignored. Indian author Prayaag Akbar joins the ranks of sharp, devastating narratives with his debut Leila that explores a future where humanity is at the mercy of social divide.

Most conversations about the genre of science fiction and fantasy (SFF), or speculative fiction — within which falls the subgenre of dystopian (and its converse, utopian fiction) —tend to be West-centric, ignoring the rich and diverse traditions in the rest of the world. South Asia has had a long tradition of SFF writing, even if it wasn’t always explicitly categorised as such. Apart from the fantastical jinn and pari filled dastaans in our oral tradition, from the mid-19th century onward there has also existed a tradition of SFF novels and short stories in Urdu, Bengali, Tamil and other vernaculars. In the smaller subgenre of dystopian and utopian fiction, South Asia has produced remarkable works; RokeyaSakhawat Hossain, for instance, was a Bengali sci-fi writer whose English-language short story Sultana’s Dream (1905) and Bengali-language novella Padmarag (1924) are masterful narratives of feminist utopias. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, one of the best Urdu humourists of the 20th century, dabbled in speculative fiction with his satirical Bees Sau Gyarah (1950) set in the then-distant nightmarish future of 2011. More recently, Bina Shah set her novel Before She Sleeps in a futuristic South West Asian city where women have no rights over their own reproductive systems. Akbar’s Leila is a worthy addition to this set, creating a world which is not only horrifying, but horrifyingly plausible.

Leila tells the story of Shalini, a once-wealthy woman who is now at the bottom of the political and social hierarchy of a digitised, heavily surveilled city ruled by the faceless, autocratic Council. The Council has segregated the city’s population into sectors separated by 60-foot walls and connected to each other by “skyroads.” This segregation — based on class, caste and religion — means each enclave has its own rules and rituals of marriages, births, deaths and eating. In order to avoid “impurity”, sectors even privatise their air by enclosing themselves within large air-conditioned domes. Failure of residents to abide by the orders of “purity” results in being sent to a prison, called the Tower, for “purity training.”

When the novel begins, Shalini is in the Tower, taken away from her husband Riz and three-year-old daughter Leila because they refused to live in a walled sector, choosing to make their home in the East End, the only remaining unwalled and “free” neighbourhood. But soon the Council gains more power and its militarised forces overrun East End, punishing its residents for failing to live in the sectors assigned to them according to their religious and caste identities. Forced into servitude to atone for her “sin” of not complying with the Council’s rules of purity, Shalini has been biding her time for 16 years, trying to break through the barriers thrown up by the city and find her daughter. Interspersed with the present day are Shalini’s memories of growing up in a city which is becoming increasingly preoccupied with notions of order and purity. Through Shalini’s position as a wealthy, privileged woman in the old order, we see how the city began to rely more and more on the idea of caste and religious purity, as economic crises become the trigger for social and political violence that propelled the city into sectarian authoritarianism. For instance, the Council uses the growing water crisis in the city as justification for its call for separate walled sectors for each religious and caste community, and the city’s residents gravitate to the seeming order and clarity in the Council’s plans, even as it increases inter-religious and inter-caste hostilities.

The most effective dystopian narratives are those that build their worlds on specific aspects of whatever society they are interested in engaging with, and Akbar builds his world with great skill and insight. The main premise of his novel is the physical segregation of the city; it is easy to trace the roots of this to the housing segregation widespread in many Indian cities. However, it is startling and disconcerting to see how easily it parallels greater contemporary South Asia, including Pakistan: water shortages, for example, are used to aggravate already simmering sectarian divisions. Reading of enclaves for the privileged, while the already marginalised are pushed even further into spaces between the walls, one can’t help but think of walled communities here in Pakistan that promise tidy gardens, roads and schools while slums continue to expand outside them.

The juxtaposition of Shalini’s past and present explores her relationship to, and even complicity with, this new world order. She has memories of her own conduct that served to reinforce caste and class divisions, despite her otherwise progressive politics and her opposition to the ideology of the Council: she makes her daughter’s ayah — a lower-caste woman — sit on the floor instead of the furniture and use separate cutlery and glasses and, while the city experiences a severe water crisis, the privileged Shalini plans a birthday party for Leila around an artificial pool, using her family’s wealth and her class privilege to disregard the needs of the larger city. It is through this concurrence that the reader, slowly and subtly, realises that the difference between Shalini’s and the Council’s actions is merely of scale: the Council is reinforcing, at large, ideas of social division that are already ingrained in many of us.

An especially affecting moment is when Shalini’s search for Leila leads her to a rubbish covered slum that exists alongside the walled sectors. These spaces are where the most marginalised live and picking garbage is the only source of income allowed. As she talks to two women who explain how the air-conditioning dome of the adjacent walled sector set fire to their slum, Shalini is forced to reckon with her own privilege, even under this new order. One woman tells her, “The Tower is where they put high-borns. The people who broke their rules. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilet, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.”

The society Akbar portrays in Leila is, in many ways, a mirror to the one in which we live. His prose is engaging, the narrative tension of Shalini’s increasingly desperate attempts to reunite with her daughter keeps the reader in its thrall. But it is his astute look into contemporary South Asian society’s worst impulses that makes Leila a truly groundbreaking entry into the dystopian genre.

Leila
ByPrayaag Akbar
Faber and Faber, US
ISBN: 978-0571341313
250pp.


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Opinion

India’s Muslim obsession

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By Adil Bhat

Pakistan has always been central to India’s right-wing political imagination. The bellicose narrative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the current leadership and direction of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached its nadir, with the two sides adopting offensive foreign policy postures. As India moves closer to the elections in April-May 2019, the public discourse on Pakistan is likely to become more obtrusive in the country, mainly for domestic political gains. While this is symptomatic to the Modi-led BJP, Pakistan has always been fundamental to the BJP’s politics, including those of the former and the late prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Saba Naqvi’s book, Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi, traces the evolution of the BJP through these two towering figures who led a nation of complex cultural and religious diversities by first creating an enemy within — the Indian Muslim — and associating it with the enemy without — Muslim Pakistan. Naqvi is a senior political journalist and commentator who worked as the political editor with India’s leading current affairs magazine Outlook. As a beat reporter she has covered the developments in the BJP for the last two decades. Arguing that the BJP has evolved in its political strategy, ideology and approach, her book also shows that there are continuities from its own ideological past.

As Indian politics gradually spiralled towards Hindu nationalism with Modi’s victory in 2014, the aggressive discourse on Hindu identity politics — diluting caste divisions and accentuating communal polarisation — came to prominence. While the issue of appropriation of caste is more about the BJP’s social engineering programme within the fold of Hinduism, the antagonisation of the Indian Muslim is in proximity to the political rhetoric on Pakistan.

The subject of caste mobilisation has been broached by the BJP leadership at all times. Continuing with the tradition of expanding its Hindu mass base, the party has persisted in its outreach towards backward castes and Dalits (untouchable caste). In pursuing its social engineering process, Banguru Laxman, a Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh and member of the BJP’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), became president of the BJP in 2000. His appointment was a radical move in keeping with the party’s social engineering approach.

The BJP has mastered the art of expanding and retaining its social base. Moreover, in legitimising this strategy, the BJP tactfully abandoned the trend of anointing chief ministers from castes that are traditionally dominant in the states. For instance, in the Jat-dominated northern state of Haryana, the BJP chose Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi-Khatri and former RSS pracharak (ideologue), as the first non-Jat chief minister. While a little misadventure with caste politics can disturb the social mass base of the BJP, its divisive communal politics have, on the other hand, consolidated the support of the previously warring castes.

The present leadership of the BJP has been more inclined towards hard Hindutva that has interchangeably been used as ‘Moditva’, which may be defined as that ‘phase of Hindutva personified in an individual’. Unlike his predecessor Vajpayee, who had visibly softened his approach towards Muslim minorities in 2004 in an attempt to project a secular face, Modi has, since his early days in the RSS, believed that in chasing Muslims the BJP may end up alienating Hindus.

Moreover, the hardening of communal sentiment was a fallout of the 2004 election debacle, which, according to Naqvi, led the party hardliners to revisit their “original agenda — focus on ideology and forget everything else.” While there has been constant change in the political narrative of the party — depending on the leadership — the ideological nucleus, that is, the RSS, has been committed to its Hindutva doctrine.

Veteran patriarch L.K. Advani faced the ire of the party and the mother organisation soon after his visit to Pakistan in June 2005; he was at the time leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha [Lower House] and made some controversial statements during his week-long visit. Advani’s overwhelming stature was diminished for his political naivety exhibited abroad; his invocation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah cost him his glorious political career, never to be redeemed again. Calling Jinnah a “great man” who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity, Advani expressed his remorse at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the 1990s, calling it “the saddest day.” Adding further insult to injury, Advani sent ripples down to New Delhi when he said that Partition was irreversible and that there is a Pakistani in every Indian.

This was nothing short of “heresy for the party of the faithful”, writes Naqvi. Their ideological guru had just debunked an entire body of beliefs. This led to a political debacle within the party which resulted in Advani losing the support of the RSS. Another casualty was senior party leader Jaswant Singh who published an empathetic book on Jinnah, titled Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. Following the publication of his book, Singh was unceremoniously expelled by then party president Rajnath Singh and reduced to insignificance.

Incidentally, the ghost of Jinnah still lurks in Modi’s India and continues to shape his present and future politics. A case in point is the May 2018 controversy over Jinnah’s portrait in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which led to a violent confrontation between Hindutva forces and AMU students. The outrage over the presence of Jinnah’s portrait, which had been hanging at the university since 1938, defines the BJP’s communalisation of politics.

Naqvi’s account of the BJP is a glimpse of modern India’s realpolitik that has wilfully sacrificed the principles of freedom and secularism enshrined in its Constitution at the altar of majoritarian Hindutva politics. As the author candidly narrates her journey inside the BJP, she foregrounds the party’s obsessive pursuits — Muslim first and Muslim last — from the Mughals in pre-colonial India to post-Partition Pakistan.

The relevance of the book lies in its detailed account of the evolution of the BJP and right-wing politics in India. As the country inches closer to the 2019 elections, it remains to be seen if the ghosts of history still haunt the political landscape of India and shape the uncertain future of the largest religious minority in the world: the Indian Muslims.

Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi

By Saba Naqvi

Westland, India

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Opinion

The tyranny of vowels

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By Syed Nomanul Haq

Urdu script — which is, in fact, an augmented version of Arabo-Persian script — does not by default indicate short vowels, as is the case with its primogenitors. The doubling of a letter, such as the ‘r’ in the popular name Khurram, is not normally indicated either, the diacritic indicator being familiarly called tashdeed.

Likewise, those letters in a word that are not followed by a vowel — quiescent letters, that is — these, too, are left unmarked in normal writings. An example of this last case is the word amn [peace] in which there is no vowel after ‘m’ and so it is quiescent; but then, almost universally this word is becoming aman: yes, if the script has no vowels, it allows for such possibilities.

Note that all Semitic scripts, Hebrew and Syriac among them, share such peculiarities — they are all consonantal and they all move from right to left, and yet there is one exception, a telltale exception. This is the case of our common numerals, what are known as Arabic numerals, based as they are on a place-value system shared by the Latin/Roman script, moving from left to right. The appellation ‘Arabic’ numerals is a kind of misnomer, for these are Indian numerals, but since they reached the modern world through the Arabic writings of the 8th/9th century mathematician Al Khwarizmi, they were named so.

Now there are some intriguing consequences of all this. For example, a word in the Urdu script can be read in numerous ways, given that the three unspecified short vowels, zaer (the ‘i’ vowel), zabar (the ‘a’ vowel), and paesh (the ‘u’ vowel), can occur in different combinations; then, there can be that unmarked doubling of a letter as well as quiescent letters in it, too. It so happens that, quite often, many different readings of the same word in an expression all make equal lexical sense at once, leading to what one may call a semantic anarchy. So how does one cope with this anarchy?

It is very important to recognise that there are at least two ways of determining the correct reading. The first has to do with the context, the semantic environment is which the word occurs. One reads a word such that it makes plausible sense (qareena) in the general thrust of the expression. For example, the words aa‘lam [the created world] and aa‘lim [learned] are orthographically identical — but quite naturally one would opt for the latter vocalisation in a sentence such as ‘Zaid is erudite and informed; he is a great aa‘lim.’ But here two fascinating issues ought to be noted: one, that the moment of reading a text is also a moment of the interpretation of the text. So there is, in today’s parlance, an interactive relationship between the text and the reader. This is a mode of improvisation which we see in South Asian classical music too, where the moment of execution is also the moment of creation.

The other fascinating issue is that this interpretation can always be, in principle, challenged because this is a human judgemental act. Indeed, multiple readings of the same text have a whole history in the intellectual life of Arabic, Persian and Urdu. It is for this reason that the text of the Holy Quran is fully vocalised, with all diacritics given and all vowels specified, so that it is read in one and only one way; no other text has this privilege. The command of vowels in the script is so effective that the change of one single vowel can reverse the meaning. Thus, the word muntazir means ‘the one(s) who await(s)’; whereas muntazar reverses it, meaning ‘the awaited one(s).’ The first is an active participle, the second a passive one. Remember the well-known saying, literally, ‘my world became zaer and zabar’ — that is, ‘my world turned upside down, became messed up.’ Here is a pronouncement on the tyranny of vowels.

The second means of determining the correct reading of the text is recourse to poetry. Let’s pause here and carve it on our cultural consciousness that poetry — especially Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry — is essential to learning a language, its sounds and its semantic range. Now we know that Urdu poetry is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, built until this day around certain fundamental metres articulated for Arabic prosody by the mathematician Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the 8th century. Khalil’s system has ramified into numerous modified metres that poets use as their ground, even when they play with them or subvert them, as is the case with modernist poets such as Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The historic point is that no poet who is considered a poet-proper would use a word destroying its standard vowels. If the reader omits a vowel when there is one, or adds a vowel when there is none, or does not double a sound when doubling is standard — this reader will destroy the metre of the poem. What does this mean? It means that the rhythm of a poem serves as the bridle to control the reading. How fascinating.

But there is one illegality that poetry does not control — placing a vowel when needed, but placing the wrong vowel. This is the offence often committed to Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s famous verse:

[O awaited Reality, manifest yourself in the cloak of metaphor!]

The fourth word here is muntazar, but, ah, it is often read as muntazir. And as I wrote in my last column, the same havoc is meted out to Faiz’s ahl-i-hikam — an expression almost ubiquitously misvocalised by readers. Poetry and therefore language is more than orthography.

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Opinion

Pride comes before a fall

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By Anum Shaharyar

Certain stories, it seems, will never stop being adapted, either into other genres and settings, or on to various mediums. One such versatile tale is Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. From a British miniseries to a Bollywood adaptation (Bride and Prejudice) and even an online vlog (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries), it has also crossed genres from the detective (Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James) to the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and has been a popular base for modern novels (such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Each adaptation has fluctuated wildly in how faithful it is to the original. That is a given, as adaptations can, as a matter of course, differ in what they retain of the original concept. However, while the latest offering in the line — Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last — is quite exciting as it puts a Muslim take on the story, in failing to retain much of Austen’s original plotline or charm, the book loses its allure.

The basic plot of Pride and Prejudice is a proud hero and a prejudiced heroine slowly unlearning lifelong habits and falling in love along the way. It makes for a captivating story. Unfortunately, the execution of this story in Jalaluddin’s novel is weak at best. The protagonist, Ayesha Shamsi, doesn’t have a gaggle of sisters or a mother obsessed with marriage or a Bingley moving in next door. There is, in fact, no character based on Bingley at all. What we do have is an Ayesha whose father died in suspicious circumstances back in India, prompting her widowed mother to move to suburban Toronto with her two children and her parents. Ayesha has a younger brother (nowhere present in the original), a set of grandparents (also missing in the original), and wears a hijab. That’s because Ayesha is Muslim — a refreshing twist which adds another point to the representation of Islamic stories.

But while it is very exciting that Muslim youngsters — who rarely see themselves represented as anything but a teenager about to be recruited for terrorism or, at best, a funny sidekick — can now see themselves as part of the main narrative, it is disappointing how weak the story itself is. Everything from the writing — middle-grade at best — and the characters — so very different from the original — to the plot itself, fail to impress. This might be the fault of the publishers who chose to market this book as a P&P retelling for young adult audiences. This creates false expectations; it would have made more sense had the novel been touted as a story about navigating this world as a regular girl who happens to be a hijabi.

Ayesha’s family includes a Shakespeare-quoting grandfather and cook-extraordinaire grandmother, a moody teenage brother and an overworked mother with a broken heart. Then there is the extended family, complete with flighty younger cousin Hafsa who receives multiple marriage proposals per week and for whom Ayesha is forced to act as the responsible, mature older cousin.

Because of a misunderstanding at the local mosque, Ayesha — who spends her days handling teenage students in her day job as a substitute teacher at the community school while simultaneously dreaming about being a poet — is forced to pretend to be Hafsa. As a consequence, she must now plan a conference with Khalid, the Mr Darcy to Ayesha’s Elizabeth Bennet.

Khalid — in a refreshing turn of events — is an actual practicing Muslim. It is important to get this point across because, even though the occurrence of Muslim characters has increased in recent years, it is still rare for those who practise the religion faithfully to be depicted as anything but evil, much less the actual hero of the story. The Muslim characters you do encounter in much of modern fiction are there as token representation, fine with drinking alcohol and never once mentioning prayers or actual Muslim holidays. This is why Khalid, who wears a thobe and a skullcap to his work as an e-commerce project manager, is such a welcome relief. Our handsome and conservative hero, who believes love comes after marriage, moves to Ayesha’s neighbourhood at the beginning of the story with his widowed mother — a scheming character completely new to the P&P narrative. However, Khalid’s sister, banished from the family to India for mysterious reasons, draws some parallels to Darcy’s sister Georgiana, and Wickham is introduced here as the charming rogue Tarek Khan, a slick conference organiser working with Ayesha and Khalid for the mosque.

A fun thing about reading an adaptation is identifying which parts of the new story were inspired by the original, or where the author linked the work to the source, and Jalaluddin does give quite a few nods to Austen. From the oft-quoted opening line “It is a truth universally acknowledged” to pivotal scenes such as the couple’s first, supremely awkward meeting or the horribly botched proposal, there are brief flashes of connection between this book and the text published in 1813. And since it is an ‘adaptation’, we already know most of what is going to happen. We know Tarek has his eye on Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa and that he is ultimately untrustworthy. We also know that even though there might be misunderstandings at first, our couple will eventually find their way to each other. I will concede that here, Jalaluddin does deliver on what she promises: Ayesha and Khalid, initially not willing to trust or like the other, find themselves taking comfort in each other’s presence and the various scheming characters — threatening to undo it all — ultimately lead our protagonists to fight their own pride and prejudices to find their ways back to each other.

There are several contemporary and cultural nods as well. Jalaluddin uses the story to talk about workplace Islamophobia, with Khalid facing a discriminatory boss and finding help in a supportive human resource manager. Ayesha’s lack of marriage prospects at the age of 27 gets a mention, pointing towards communities that value early marriages. Then there is the reference to political idealism and journalistic principles of fighting to report the truth, as Ayesha’s father died as a journalist fighting for worthy causes in India. Jalaluddin incorporates a number of issues into her story but, unfortunately, her deviations from the original plot, while relevant, don’t manage to retain the reader’s interest.

It is hard to feel invested, much less moved, by the plight of our protagonists — probably because, unlike Austen’s witty commentary on the times or the romantic comedy of manners she sketched, Jalaluddin doesn’t hold that same command over language. In the times in which we live, this story might be important, but here’s hoping there are multiple other adaptations as well, so that with increased representation of the modern Muslim, we also get better literature.

Ayesha At Last

By Uzma Jalaluddin

HarperAvenue, Canada

ISBN: 978-1443455848

352pp.

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