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FICTION: Sequestered lives

Published Dec 03, 2011 07:36pm

Few minorities have been as extensively represented as Indian Muslims; yet there are but very limited examples of self-representation and Rakhshanda Jalil’s Release and Other Stories is one such attempt. She has taken on an immense task of creating an intellectual space which competes in a field of discourse replete with gross misrepresentations.

Indian Muslims are afforded a minimal space in which to articulate their own narratives. Be it stereotypes in popular culture, or active demonisation in the news and other outlets of media, Indian Muslims’ portrayal is left entirely at the mercy of creators of simplistic yet extremely destructive collective depictions which leave a searing image on the psyche of the audience.

Having spent time in Delhi, I came away with a more nuanced comprehension of what a minority feels like in a developing country, and how much damage can be inflicted on ordinary people in their daily interaction with the majority. I have repeatedly said in a number of my classes that Muslims who stayed behind in India continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of the Partition of 1947.

Politicians who have used domestic and international events to further their vitriolic message at the expense of Muslims continue to enjoy widespread acceptance and electoral popularity even when there is conclusive proof of their complicity in the harassment and persecution of Muslims. There is a chasm between the reality of everyday lives of ordinary Muslims and how they are perceived as presenting a clear and present danger to India. As a minority under the microscope, actions of individuals are used to craft a narrative that holds a whole community hostage and with a constant need to prove its Indian-ness. There are several high-caliber commissions which have reported that the social and economic plight of the Muslims is at best on par with that of the Dalits or even worse.

Jalil has compiled an absorbing collection of stories highlighting various aspects of the everyday lives of her compatriots and coreligionists. Her narratives capture her characters as they go about their daily lives, performing familiar chores. Her collection delves into different scenarios to capture interactions taking place as her characters chart out different pathways for themselves, be it the extreme distress and anguish that Muslims are gripped by whenever there is a terrorist attack and the entire community is held responsible for it.

Even though one of the ostensible aims of the author might have been to showcase the lives of Muslims in the larger milieu of multi-religious India, the dominant impression that one comes away with is a pervasive sense of their marginalisation and isolation. A sense of their insularity permeates the physical and intellectual landscape articulated by Jalil in her collection. The physical space occupied by most of the characters, their location in a specific social and cultural milieu, is left unelaborated. The Muslim characters seem to have parallel lives untouched by contact with the larger community, and the author leaves the causes of their segregation unexplored. If it is implied that such an endeavor is undertaken deliberately, to somehow convey that Muslims could be part of any community anywhere in India, it appears to be too contrived for it to be believable.

The disquieting aspect of these stories is that in a diverse and multicultural country like India, the largest religious minority seems to be cut off from any interaction with the wider society. In virtually all the stories, only Muslims are depicted and their interactions confined to members of their own community. While Jalil may have resisted the temptation to essentialise and homogenise her characters, their isolation becomes all the more ironic. We are not told whether the characters in these stories have elected to sequester themselves or have had isolation thrust upon them.

My favorite story in this collection is “The Failure” which captures the sense of the invisible halo surrounding the (Muslim) characters of Jalil’s stories. We are not really told the reason why River View, a beautiful hotel, has never been frequented by anyone. Is it a mere coincidence that the first and only people who visit this place are Muslims and the establishment also happens to be owned by a Muslim? How come the populace fails to notice this place, for the maxim of ‘build and they will come’ seems to fail glaringly when an effort is made by a Muslim to leave his private space and engage with the outside multi-ethnic society. By the end of the story, one is left to wonder whether Sahibzada Jamal Ali Khan is the ‘failure’ alluded to in the title or whether it is a more allegorical reference to the condition of Muslims in India.

In another story, “The Incident of the Frozen Snake,” we are told about the monocultural, dour and humourless country, which is of course on the other side of the Indian border, and of course a Muslim character, Zainab Begum, crosses over to a multi-ethnic country. Her immediate contact is just with Muslims (in India who, in her estimation, are somehow more culturally sophisticated than the people in Pakistan; however, no explanation is provided for this enlightened state.

What comes across as ironic is that she escapes from a homogenous community which she inhabits in Pakistan to one which is culturally and religiously more diverse. Yet all her interaction in India is with Muslims only.) What seems to be implied in the story is that the splendid isolation of the Muslim community is not a recent phenomenon; instead it is something that Zainab Begum had grown up with even before Partition. For only then does is become realistic for the reader to comprehend her total intellectual and social unity with the (Muslim) characters of her old homeland. Even though the introductory blurb of this collection claims that Jalil “explores the lives of Indian Muslims, not the marginalised or ghettoised Muslims of popular stereotype but ordinary, mainstream ones,” the stories of this collection achieve the exact opposite. What is underscored is the ordinariness of the characters which comes about as a result of their lack of interaction with the wider society.

The overriding impression that one comes away with is of the loneliness that envelopes the characters in particular and the Muslim community in general. It is ironic that Muslim characters of these stories seem blithely unaware of their social and political isolation. The collection in a way becomes about the plight of Muslims in contemporary India.

It should be pointed out that Jalil has filled a glaring void which is present in the self-representation of Indian Muslims. She should be commended for her effort and it will undoubtedly spawn off similar endeavors to represent this significant and often maligned segment of the Indian society.

The reviewer teaches English at LUMS, Lahore

Release and Other Stories (SHORT STORIES) By Rakhshanda Jalil Harper Collins, India ISBN 978-9350290699 144pp. Rs595