EXILED AT HOME: A JOURNALIST’S JOURNEYS
SATENDRA NANDAN HONOURS THE INTELLECT AND INSIGHT OF TWO WRITERS, ONE OF WHOM HE, TALKS ABOUT, AT LENGTH, IN THIS REVIEW. SAEED NAQVI IS ONE OF INDIA’S MOST CELEBRATED JOURNALISTS AND WRITER ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India is a work of a cultured in
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. He’s currently completing his travelogue: From Nadi to New Delhi.
In the last fortnight I’ve read two remarkable books by two outstanding contemporary journalists from the so-called third world. Goenawan Mohamad is the foremost public intellectual of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world; it’s also the third largest functioning democracy, after India and the USA. For the last five decades, Mohamad has kept the light of free thinking and freedom of expression burning in Indonesia’s tumultuous and tragic history. His volume of essays, In Other Words, (374 pages), covers that period with courage and insight, selected from the weekly magazine Tempo of which he has been the founding editor.
Neither Sukarno’s belligerent nationalism nor Suharto’s dictatorial regime were able to extinguish the flame of a lively mind exploring and interpreting a palimpsest culture built on animistHindu-Buddhist civilisations overlaid by Islamic traditions. Three centuries of Dutch colonialism with three years of Japanese occupation during World War II hasn’t dimmed the perceived bright future of his country. That to me is true creative freedom.
Indonesia today is also Australia’s biggest neighbour and casts a long shadow across our Asia-Pacific horizons. However, the book that touched me personally is by India’s Saeed Naqvi, one of the most independent and intrepid journalists of a passing generation.
Being the Other: The Muslim in India ( 240 pages) is a work of a cultured intellectual confronting the many intractable issues on the Indian subcontinent.
Naqvi is a man who is more Indian than anyone I’ve met in my many journeys to India.
There’re, of course, personal reasons for it: I’ve known Saeed Naqvi for the past fifty years, since the early 1960s during my student days in Delhi. His classmate was Amitabh Bachchan; both were students in a college in Delhi, next to mine. Amitabh made his name in films; Saeed became a world-renowned journalist. For almost three decades Saeed Naqvi ran a programme on Indian TV titled
World Report. For his numerous stories he visited more than 110 countries and interviewed the newsmakers of the times from Fidel Castro, now 90, to the late Nelson Mandela. He was a Foreign Correspondent par excellence. He brought to an Indian audience the subcontinent’s diaspora in various parts of the world long before Pravasi Bharitya Divas became fashionable in government circles. Mr Naqvi also came to Fiji after the second Rabuka coup on September 25, 1987. He made two other visits to make his 40-minute weekly films for Doordarshan and Star TV. One was filmed in my village with me reading my poems among the sugarharvesting gang on my brother’s farm in Maigania. His cameraman was Kabir Khan, now a successful director in Bollywood with such films as Kabul Express and Bajrangi Bhaijan to his credit. The other day I read an interview with Kabir who said he’d learnt his art while working with Saeed Naqvi who imbued in him a vision of a challenging and changing world. Mr Naqvi’s book is a personal one full of anger and anguish for a world that has almost vanished. There’s a deep sense of melancholia and nostalgia reminiscent of Keats’s poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: My heart aches ..…/ The weariness, the fever, and the fret/… Here where men sit and hear each other groan/… Where but to think is to be full of sorrow… Being the Other is a sad and saddening narrative written by a writer who sees so much through the prism of his personality and experience, and a professionally fulfilled life.
But Saeed, who is well-versed in English, Urdu, Hindi and Persian poetry, is at heart a poet who also sees his world disintegrating in front of his house in Delhi. And he uses his personal fate to capture the agony of a community who chose to remain in India after that terrible imperial crime: Partition. The book reminded me of a poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens: After the leaves have fallen, we return To a plain sense of things. It is as if We had come to the end of the imagination, … It is difficult even to choose the adjective For the blank cold, this sadness without a cause. The great structure has become a minor house. No turban walks across the lessened floor. … Those of us who have experienced the sorrows of exile, betrayal in your homeland, will know that this sadness is never without a cause: it has many causes, personal and political, of grief and glory.
It’s the hurts of history that leave their deepest scars, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Mustafabad, his idyllic place of birth, to Mumbai where thousands were massacred. Today there are almost 200 million Muslims in India, the second largest Muslin population in a supposedly modern, secular democracy. Saeed writes about this composite, syncretic, subcontinental civilisation with the knowledge of a lived and felt life in so many arts and narratives on which nations create their future. He has an enviably intimate knowledge of India.
The provocative subtitle of the book is The Muslim in India. Muslims, he feels, have been betrayed by successive governments.
Naqvi’s argument is that India, envisaged at the time of independence, is now sinking into a religious frenzy of the sectarian right, jehadis in many colours including saffron, giving a deepening sense of alienation for a community. The chapter titled ‘A Procession of
Prime Ministers’ makes interesting and controversial reading, from the founding prime minister Pundit Nehru to the present incumbent Narendra Modi. Critically it’s the central strand in the complex Indian saga. Saeed Naqvi is an intrepid and independent journalist and his commitment to a Free Press is unquestionable. He has worked in many Indian newspapers, from The Statesman to the editorship of The Indian Express, India’s largest-selling daily with several editions. Now retired he writes a weekly column from Delhi syndicated to many newspapers and journals, world-wide. This is his third book and it deserves serious political and public scrutiny by those who care for the largest secular democratic state ever conceived. The issues raised are many and varied but the heart of the matter is that the religious fundamentalism of any religious garb or race damages irrevocably the inner fabric of a society.
And the ancient hatred, like the past, can kill. Saeed Naqvi, like most of us who have lived the biblical three score and ten years, sees the old order is changing yielding place to a rather grim new picture of the world that is being born as if through a Caesarian operation. The loss and grief are there and Naqvi writes movingly of his world from Mustafabad to the iconic symbols in Delhi. We in Fiji have known the sorrows of those who, for racial and religious reasons, have been dispossessed and disenfranchised.
Fortunately the tragedy of the three coups led to the triumph of the fourth that became the saving grace of a nation. But once you’ve been through that experience, you have to build your community with special care. Those possibilities are now present in Fiji if not fully realised at least substantially visualised. A person who has suffered three heart attacks needs very special care both with his daily diet and the reduction of the level of racial cholesterol running in the arteries.
Being the Other: The Muslim in India should be widely read and the wisdom of a thoughtful and independent mind may have some special message for India, Fiji and beyond. Naqvi’s book has a melancholy ring about it—it’s one man’s remembrance of a lost world; but more importantly how the very idea of India is being mutilated from a composite civilisational idea to one where narrow religious nationalism can be so profoundly damaging. Mr Naqvi has shown considerable courage to lift his pen against the terrible forces within his beloved India.
I’ve travelled with Saeed Naqvi to his village in Mustafadbad where his family haveli lay in ruins, where sarso fields shone yellow and gold in the setting sun, and where Mustafabad mangoes smelled sweet even out of season. Lucknow of course has a deeper meaning for me—the designer of Canberra is buried there; my grandparents, I’m told, migrated to Fiji from a nearby village called Sultanpur.
I did once visit its landscapes but felt that my history really begins in Fiji, 10, 000 miles away. Reading Naqvi’s powerful evocation of a vanished world made me feel that one cannot quite escape history; it binds one in its karmic circle and cycle – one that is viciously cynical to our individual fates. Mr Naqvi’s poignant portrayal of a Muslim is a brave book that will be widely read for its recollections of the past, the avoidable tragedies of the present and an imagining of some future for the subcontinent— the three nation states with different realities but an integral part of a triangle. If Europe can endeavour to build a European Union of 27 states, after so many wars, including two World Wars, surely it’s not beyond the wisdom of the subcontinent known for its sages and sufis.
It’s been said that only thing necessary for the triumph of evil that good men should keep silent. Mr Naqvi’s is an important and urgent voice –with his journalistic scalpel he has diagnosed many of the present ills and mistakes of the past—it’s now for the new generation to find the cure for the cancer of communalism, the nihilism of jihadists and religious fundamentalists of all sinister shades and colours that seems to be invading the body-politic of his country and her neighbours. Cry, the Beloved Country is Mr Saeed Naqvi’s cry too.