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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Dying Banyan: Novel explores Hindu-Muslim relationship, Communal fault lines in India

Sookha Bargad, translated in English
Manzoor Ahtesham's novel 'Sukha Bargad' was translated in English sometime back.

I read the novel five years back and I must say that it is one of the best novels written on Hindu-Muslims relations in this country.

The novel tells the story of a middle-class Muslim family and its struggles in the wake of partition. At times the novel truly astonishes the reader.

The protagonist is a girl, Rashida, [and her brother Suhail] and it is through her eyes that the novelist takes you through the deepest fault lines in independent India.

Rashida's father is a liberal man, a humanist with strong ideas about human values, someone who sends his children including the daughter to a co-ed school when nobody thought about sending daughters to any place other than the local maktab.

But kids realise that their father, a lawyer, isn't looked at favourably by elders of the community because of his unbending views and for his being a bit too outspoken. The protagonist's father is finding it tough to make both ends meet.

It is because of his thoughts on religion [and religiosity] and his uncompromising views that have made the family a sort of pariah. One day the son confronts the father, "I heard you ate pork once after a bet with friends". The answer is indeed revealing. There are interesting dialogues and arguments.

The siblings are growing up in the decade of sixties. The novel is set in Bhopal. The Nawab's rule has ended. The City though remains a Muslim-dominated town is now undergoing a fast demographic change. Communalism, joblessness and insecurities are the topic of several such novels.

But in this novel, the discussions between Suhail and his friend, and views of the protagonist who falls in love with her brother's friend, make them more real. Almost every issue, either its right-wing Hindus' questioning Muslim's patriotism or a section of Muslims' complaining of persecution and bias, is dealt with here.

Its not a complex novel. Suhail remains jobless, turns alcoholic, later seeks refuge with a clever Muslim politician, and once again becomes a born-again Muslim. Rashida remains unmarried. People who had migrated to America and Pakistan, returning occasionally, with their own issues.

Along side, there are wars with China and Pakistan, later the creation of Bangladesh. Events in Pakistan, particularly, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's execution, and the religiosity during Zia Ul Haq's regime. Though this has been the subject of some other novels, Sukha Bargad hooks the reader.

Originally published in Hindi 
Manzoor Ahtesham had originally written it in Hindi. This was a rare thing, as mostly Muslim authors wrote in Urdu.

[Now, there is an entire crop of Muslim writers who write in Hindi]. Ahtesham has treated the subject well and the reader never gets bored.

Besides, it keeps you in a reflective mode.The description, either its about the children's growing up years, Rashida [a Muslim girl's] romantic involvement with the Hindu boy Vijay, later her job at the radio station and the desolate phase, is enchanting. The novel moves at a steady pace.

In fact, the characters appear quite close to you. Perhaps, lot of it is from the writer's personal experience, and as a result, the book becomes a major novel on Indian Muslims.

From regionalism to sectarianism, Shia-Sunni conflict, it deals with a host of issues, subtly. The book ends somewhere in the aftermath of Jamshedpur riots where a famous litterateur was killed in a riot. A must-read, which you will thoroughly enjoy.

Read similar posts on this blog and reviews of major literary works on Indian Muslims AT THIS LINK

[As far as I knew, the author spells his name as Manzoor Ahtesham, but the cover of the translated book reads as 'Ehtesham'.]