An ex­plo­ration of the post- mod­ern Mus­lim ex­pe­ri­ence in a Western so­ci­ety

India Today - - LEISURE - By An­var Alikhan

This is not the best time in his­tory to be a Mus­lim: The lib­eral space is clos­ing in on you, and from both sides. This is so not only in the usual, ex­pected are­nas such as the US, the Mid­dle East and South Asia, but, ev­i­dently, even in a place like Den­mark— which I had al­ways thought of as be­ing one of the world’s most lib­eral so­ci­eties— and which is where Tabish Khair lives and writes. Iron­i­cally, even as I was read­ing this book, the TV news was re­port­ing the ar­rest of three men in Den­mark for plan­ning a ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tion. The plot ob­vi­ously re­lated back to the car­toons of Prophet Mo­ham­mad. The car­toons them­selves re­lated to… and so it goes, that ‘ clash of civil­i­sa­tions’, thrust­ing and par­ry­ing, on and on.

The sce­nario that Khair sets up is this: The time is some­time last year; the place is a lit­tle univer­sity town in Den­mark. Three di­verse char­ac­ters, through a set of cir­cum­stances, are shar­ing a small apart­ment. There’s the un­named nar­ra­tor, an aca­demic and non- prac­tis­ing Mus­lim from Pak­istan. There’s Ravi, an­other aca­demic and lib­eral Hindu from In­dia. And then there’s Karim Bhai, a taxi driver and de­vout Mus­lim, also orig­i­nally from In­dia.

The nar­ra­tive be­gins with the quo­tid­ian lives of these char­ac­ters, their do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tions, their work, their del­i­cately bal­anced re­la­tion­ships. But there’s an aw­ful claus­tro­pho­bia about it all, and we sense, from the start, that Khair is set­ting us up for some­thing nasty to hap­pen. Is there more to the soft- spo­ken Karim Bhai than meets the eye? What ex­actly is the weekly Qu­ranic study group that he hosts? What about the mys­teri- ous phone callers who abruptly hang up? And Karim Bhai’s sud­den, un­ex­plained dis­ap­pear­ances? Ac­com­pa­ny­ing these ques­tions are the omi­nous asides with which Khair skil­fully es­ca­lates the nar­ra­tive, look­ing back on the present from some grim, know­ing post- de­noue­ment fu­ture.

Khair is a kind of lit­er­ary Swiss Army knife: He has var­i­ously been a jour­nal­ist, poet, es­say­ist, play­wright and novelist. How to Fight Is­lamist Ter­ror is a dark, sar­donic, bawdy book, whose sub­text fol­lows Hanns Jost’s wry ad­vice to the Nazis: When you hear the word ‘ gun’, you need to reach for your cul­ture. It is about the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence, and the na­ture of friend­ship, love and be­lief. I en­joyed many things about the book, es­pe­cially the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Pak­istani nar­ra­tor and the In­dian Ravi, with their shared cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences and four- let­tered ado­les­cent ban­ter (“Ravi pointed out that Karim Bhai and he, de­spite be­ing ‘ bloody In­di­ans’, would pass off for any ‘ fron­tier Pash­tun’, while I be­ing a bloody ‘ Paki’, dis­graced my na­tion­al­ity and looked like a ‘ Darkie Hin­doo’. That’s be­cause, Ravi would add, this bas­tard is not a real Paki; he is a f*** ing ‘ mo­ha­jir’). The book reads well up to a point, but Khair is some­how un­able to ul­ti­mately pull it off ( a com­ment that was also, in­ci­den­tally, made of his last novel, The Thing About Thugs). The care­fully crafted es­ca­la­tion of the drama loses its way, and the sur­prise of the end­ing is un­der­whelm­ing.

There is a canon of fine works on post- mod­ern Mus­lim ex­pe­ri­ence, from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist to H. M. Naqvi’s Home­boy. Khair’s novel is the lat­est ex­plo­ration of this genre, though it’s not nec­es­sar­ily one of the best.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com


by TABISH KHAIR Fourth Es­tate Price: RS 450 Pages: 190

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