City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh
By Zeyad Masroor Khan
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-9356998247
312pp.

Zeyad Masroor Khan, hailing from New Delhi, boasts a multifaceted career as a journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker. With over a decade dedicated to journalism, he has worked with several reputable media outlets, such as Reuters, Vice, Brut and the Deccan Herald, honing his expertise across diverse platforms.

As a distinguished South Asia Speaks fellow, Khan gravitates towards in-depth coverage of political landscapes, under-represented communities, criminal issues and the intricate tapestry of cultural narratives. His journalistic prowess extends beyond the written word, with three of his compelling documentaries having been screened and earning recognition at prestigious international film festivals.

Among his notable accom­plishments, Khan’s recent literary debut, City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh, stands as a significant milestone in his career trajectory. The book marks his foray into the realm of memoir, offering a poignant narrative that echoes his experiences and insights gathered through his immersive journey as a chronicler of human stories.

At the age of four, Zeyad Masroor Khan experienced a pivotal moment — the realisation that a seemingly harmless action of flipping a switch near a window overlooking a street in Uparkot, a Muslim enclave in Aligarh, could incite a riot. When there is religious and ethnic enmity going on, there are curfews and lights out for all residences. Turning a light on at such a time resulted in everything going haywire.

A coming-of-age memoir about religious intolerance, discrimination and violence in India echoes patterns of persecution in societies worldwide

As the distant noise of a gathering crowd drew nearer, filled with menacing calls for violence, Khan gained his initial insight into the realities of growing up in a world starkly different from the popularly romanticised image of Aligarh — a city known for its poets, refined culture (tehzeeb), and as the hub of the Aligarh Muslim University.

The book also depicts Aligarh as a paradoxical landscape, marked by duality. Renowned as an intellectual centre, it showcases the richness of culture, education and the legacy of the Aligarh Muslim University on the one hand. However, amid this scholarly marvel, it also serves as a disquieting stage for recurring communal riots.

The town’s multifaceted identity embodies a stark contrast, where the pursuit of knowledge coexists uneasily with persistent undercurrents of religious tension and sporadic outbreaks of violence, reflecting a complex societal fabric grappling with ideological and communal rifts.

The story commences with a harrowing incident of a riot erupting in Khan’s neighbourhood, underscoring the family’s anxiety regarding Khan’s older sister Sayema’s safety, particularly given her pregnancy at the time. Ultimately, they successfully arrange for her to move to a more secure location.

But Khan’s persistent reality was one where narrow streets simmered with hostility, households fervently prayed to avert the ever-looming dread of losing a family member to violence, and the gentle breeze sweeping over crowded rooftops often carried whispers of a bloodthirsty mob lurking nearby.

Zeyad Masroor Khan | Source: X
Zeyad Masroor Khan | Source: X

In his memoir chronicling his passage to adulthood, Khan candidly explores the undercurrents of religious animosity and the persistent sense of being ‘othered’ that shadowed his every step. From his school days in Aligarh — where venturing into the ‘Hindu’ neighbourhood to find his beloved comic book or joining neighbours in celebrating Diwali with lit candles was laden with tension — to his college years in Delhi, marked by routine rejections for housing due to his name, and finally transitioning into a career as a journalist documenting the unfolding history of his nation, Khan’s narrative is one of searing honesty and unfiltered intensity.

Following his father’s demise, Khan enrolls in a journalism programme at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. Initially, he holds the belief that the threat of riots, which he experienced in Aligarh, would not affect Delhi. However, his assumption is shattered in 2020, during protests that took place in various cities across India, where hundreds of thousands participated in demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

This law offered a route to citizenship for certain undocumented residents fleeing religious persecution, yet it differentiates against refugees and migrants who are Muslim — a segment belonging to India’s significant minority. Recognised as the anti-CAA movement, it emerged as India’s lengthiest sustained civil protest since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in 2014.

City on Fire’s poignant narrative of navigating religious tension and societal ‘othering’ will resonate profoundly as well with audiences on this side of the border, where recurrent riots and sectarian clashes mirror the turbulent backdrop of Khan’s experiences. His memoir finds a striking and definite parallel in Pakistan’s own tumultuous history, marked by Baloch communal conflicts and recurring outbreaks of violence against Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.

The themes of religious intolerance, the ominous spectre of communal strife and the palpable fear that pervades communities bear a haunting resemblance to the lived realities in various parts of Pakistan.

Does City on Fire serve as a mere memoir or is it a chilling echo of not just Subcontinental but the world’s turmoil surrounding us right now? As it vividly portrays ethnic cleansing, communal riots and religious violence, does it not reflect the distressing reality of various global regions?

In Pakistan, where various minorities end­ure similar harrowing experiences akin to the narratives within Khan’s book, is the narrative within these pages an eerie mirror to the ongoing struggles faced by these marginalised communities? Is it a stark reminder of the hauntingly familiar patterns of discrimination and violence that plague societies worldwide? Yes. City on Fire whispers an unsettling truth: the scars of religious intolerance and communal discord resonate eerily across borders, reflecting the silent anguish of those subjected to persecution.

By sharing his deeply personal journey, Khan speaks to a shared human experience marked by the distressing impact of religious discord and the resultant alienation. In Pakistan, where similar societal fractures persist, Khan’s memoir serves as a mirror reflecting the urgent need for dialogue, understanding and reconciliation, in the face of entrenched divisions and recurring unrest.

It isn’t merely a personal account but a universal call for fostering understanding amid diversity and bridging the gaps that fuel societal unrest. It signifies an urgent plea to confront prejudices, dismantle barriers and pave the way for a more harmonious coexistence — and a reminder that healing these fractures requires concerted efforts and a shared commitment to understanding and unity.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency.

She can reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2024

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