Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The terror of being a poor Muslim in India

Jimmy the terrorist by Omair Ahmad
Hamish Hamilton, 2010; Rs. 350

Reviewed by Zafar Anjum

Novelist Omair Ahmad has chosen a misleading title for his third work of fiction, Jimmy the Terrorist. Jimmy, a lovingly anglicized version of Jamaal, is not an Islamist terrorist, plotting revenge in a post 9/11 world. As such, Jimmy the Terrorist is not about Islamist terrorism. It is about the terror of being a Muslim in India.

Well, make that a ‘poor’ Muslim in India. Omair brings up the class issue in his narrative, so the main protagonist Jamaal’s being ‘poor’ is quite pertinent here and must be taken note of. And Jamaal’s poverty is not the typical kind of poverty associated with the majority of Muslims and low caste Indians. His father is a teacher, he has a roof over his head, he studies at Moazzamabad’s most venerable school, St. Jude’s—only he doesn’t have the kind of expensive shoes and shirts and pocket money that his other ‘Hindu’ classmates have. Jamaal is ‘that’ kind of poor. He is middle-class poor—that’s where young Indian Muslim terrorists purportedly come from. The category of lower class Muslims—the ones who live in slums—is the fount of gangsters in India, the type you see in Bollywood films.

When the novel begins with a geographical and historical map-making of Moazzamabad in Uttar Pradesh, a certain kind of expectation builds up. Maybe it is because of the kind of news we have been receiving in the last few years—the stories of Indian police branding innocent young Muslim boys as terrorists and killing them for awards and trophies. When Omair evokes Moazzamabad and Rasoolpur, we hope to read about a sample biography of one of the terrorist boys from Azamgarh. I thought Jimmy the Terrorist would do for fiction what Tehelka does for non-fiction in India. At the same time, I was worried that the novelist would do what he is not supposed to do—bringing the news.

I was wrong.

Omair exceeds my expectations. He goes into India’s heart of darkness (actually he comes from there) and returns with a tale that reflects the reality of Indian Muslims today. His tale is ordinary, even deceptively simple in its plotting and narration but in its bosom is the picture of India’s underbelly and how it perceives its existence in a climate of Hinduvta-based politics.

The story is so plain that if I were a neocon reviewer, drawing a fat salary from one of the American think-tanks, I would have dismissed the book in a few sentences. Why make a fuss over a dead Muslim boy in a god-forsaken small town in Uttar Pradesh? Look at the numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died. And wait! The number of deaths would be even more spectacular after the folly of revolutions in the Middle East. So, why care about Jimmy—I would have said.

Yet, the story Omair wants to share with us is important. And he does it with a simplicity which is hard to achieve, especially in setting up a story in the backdrop of India’s communal politics. Omair pulls the challenge off with ease and dexterity. Through his two main characters, Rafiq and his son Jamaal, the novelist brings into sharp relief the Muslim alienation in India today that has developed over two generations since Independence. The older protagonist, Rafiq, becomes an angry demagogue; the younger one, Jimmy, does not speak; he stores his anger until it explodes in a violent climax. Unlike his father, he lacks the safety valve of hate speech.

Omair shows that his two characters haven’t chosen their attitudes. Their circumstances have turned them into who they are. The story is precisely about this transformation in their nature. And the understanding of that mechanism that Omair brings to his reader is his main achievement in this novel.

When Rafiq, who aspired to be a poet and wanted acceptance in a local poetry circle, loses everything he so painstakingly has built over the years, he is forced to take a job at an Islamic school. Formerly a geography lecturer in a college, he is not sure how to go about his job interview. One of his friends teaches him the trick to land the job:

“Just be angry,” Haris said. “Rant and rave. Talk about the grand tragedies, about oppression, zulm, riots and murder. Grow your beard a little longer and miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of Muslims. It’s what the Mullahs do all the time.”

This cultivated anger gives Rafiq a sort of power that he never had and he carries this trick wherever he goes, to great success.

Jamaal, Rafiq’s son, on the other hand, grows pensive and inward-looking at St. Jude’s. “Being a winner requires more than just being first in a race: a victory is never quite that unless there are people who will acknowledge your triumph. It was the reason Jamaal never stood first in any of his exams.” At school, Jamaal also learns that there is a price to success, and the price isn’t simply hard work.

In the novel, Omair mentions many things: partition, communal riots, Sanjay Gandhi’s nasbandi programme, demolition of Babri Masjid and Advani’s Rath Yatra. But not once does he mention Pakistan. This omission is strange; or maybe it is a welcome relief for many Indian readers. But I wonder if the protagonists ever imagine what their fate would have been in Pakistan. Would they have fared better there?

Since Omair’s Jimmy the Terrorist has emerged out of a set of short stories, the seams have marked the narrative. More than half way through the book, one protagonist fades off and another protagonist takes over. If the story is about Jimmy, tell us Jimmy’s story—some readers might feel that way.

Even though the narrator’s voice in the novel is warm and mellifluous, it sometimes tires you. That is the other problem with the novel. Omair’s tendency to overexplain things slows down the narrative.

Jimmy the Terrorist is no Booker Prize material (here I humbly disagree with the novel’s publisher who had thought that it was Booker prize material)—it does not have the level of complexity and technical finesse of a great work of fiction but given the fact that the Chetan Bhagats are ruling the roost in India, it is encouraging to see young writers like Omair Ahmad trying their hand at serious fiction. Jimmy the Terrorist should be applauded for that daring itself.

This review was written in March and a version of it appeared in Indian Literature (published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) in August 2011.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paris on my mind

For the last few weeks, Paris has been on my mind.

It all started with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I had seen the movie on a plane en route to Shanghai. I had loved it for the sheer fact that it has characters that portray literary figures such as Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. And Marion Cotillard--she is divine even though she is in a cameo in the movie. I had loved Hemingway's (played by Corey Stoll) macho dialogues. "No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure," says his character at one point in the film. I also loved the scene where Gil (Owen Wilson) asks Hemingway to read his novel. Papa says he hates it. "Why?" asks Gill, "You haven't even read it". "If it's bad, I'll hate it," says Papa. "If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

There are many such memorable scenes in that movie from the Paris of 1920s when Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, James Joyce, Piccasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald, among others, enlivened the literary world of Paris.

I mentioned this, my love for Paris arising from the movie, to one of my friends in Paris and she invited me to visit the city in December. How sweet of her! Alas, I cannot make it as I may have to travel to India in connection with a book.

But ever since, almost anything I have touched has some Paris in it. Weired, isn't it?

One day I picked up this book from the library which I thought would have nothing to do with Paris. It is called The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano. Now I have loved some of Bolano's works, not all of them.
In this book, there is a lovely essay, Literature + Illness = Illness but the story that I loved most in the collection is titled Alavaro Rousselot's Journey. It is about a lesser known Argentine novelist Alavaro Rousselot who takes a trip to Paris to hunt down a French filmmaker who he thought was his most ardent reader/follower and who had made his name by making films that had plots similar to the plots of novels that Alavaro had written earlier in his career. It is a beautiful story and it ends poignantly like all good stories should, touching you somewhere on the spine, to make it atingle (to borrow that Nabokovian phrase).

The next two books I picked up and read also had a lot of Paris in it. One is a book of interviews of Nabokov, selected by the great writer himself. He had spent parts of his youth in Berlin and Paris as an immigrant and he talks about seeing Joyce and Aleksei Tolstoy there. Joyce once even came to one of his talks that he was made to give at the last minute after a famous Eastern European writer failed to appear at a scheduled event.

The other book that I have been enjoying a great deal is A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. As you may know, this book is Hemingway's tribute to Paris and an elegy to the remarkable group of expats that formed the literary and artistic life of the Paris of the 1920s. In this book, I have loved the chapters on Scott and Zelda. His struggle to become a writer amid poverty should inspire all poor writers, like myself. It was strange to read how Hemingway treated poverty, exactly like me: "We did not think ever of ourselves as poor," he says. "We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich." Reading Papa's words brought me some relief; only I do not believe in the inferior and superior bit, but I would certainly never respect anyone just because he/she is rich. Only two qualities - piety and knowledge - will generate awe in me for a person.

It was about Paris that Hemingway wrote to one of his friends in 1950: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

I know Paris has changed since Hemingway's time. But after reading so much about Paris and having watched so many great French films, why won't I wish to see Paris? I know it is a matter of time. At least, I hope so.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dr. Susan Lim's search for justice

In recent months, well-known Singapore surgeon Dr. Susan Lim has received enough media attention here and abroad in the wake of her run-in with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC). Last week, the judgment on her appeal against constituting a second disciplinary committee by the SMC was reserved.

SMC, whose job, among others, is to determine and regulate the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore, wants to conduct a second disciplinary inquiry into the Ministry of Health's accusation against Dr. Lim that she overcharged a patient--the sister of the Brunei queen--over seven months in 2007. Her controversial medical bill, still unpaid, after discounts, stands at $12 million.

The first SMC disciplinary committee had to stand down after Dr. Lim's lawyers claimed it had per-judged the case (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). Dr. Lim's lawyers want to exploit this 'standing down' of the first committee to avoid being further investigated. "It was illegal, improper and biased," said Dr. Lim's lawyer in the court of the SMC's disciplinary proceedings (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). However, the SMC's lawyer insists that there is a case against Dr. Lim since there is no evidence of an agreement between the doctor and the patient of a fee agreement, and so the overcharging was unjustified. Who knows if this case leads to the standardization of fees by medical specialists in Singapore, just like Britain is contemplating legislation next year to curb excessive executive pay?

I had briefly written about this case before as it had caught my attention (a writer always keeps a lookout for interesting stories; Hemingway, when he was in Paris, loved to read crime stories in the scandal sheets). It sounds callous and heartless but that is how writers are.

Months later, upon reading my piece, one day I was invited to meet Dr. Susan Lim's team. They wanted to present the facts, their side of the story which was not sufficiently covered in the media, in front of me. I wondered why they would want to do that for an insignificant blogger like me? Maybe it was because of the questions that I had raised in my previous blog post.

One the one hand, I was curious; on the other, I was apprehensive, not sure about going for the meeting. A meeting meant an obligation to write a piece. Or may be not. But as is the case with me, I am too soft-hearted to say no to anyone. I also had to think of the possibility of any consequences of my writing about an ongoing case. Should I be afraid of anything? The moment I thought of that, of being afraid, I knew what I should do. I went right ahead to the meeting. Ideally, the whole country's media, and not just me, should have been called in to an open press conference for them to be presented with the facts of the case.

The meeting lasted more than an hour. It was a pleasant meeting. Like any corporate briefing, there also was a representative of a PR company present there. At the end of the meeting, he asked me to get in touch with him if I needed any more info. "Shop talk," I smiled and got out of the meeting venue.

A reputation collapses under the weight of newspaper headlines

After the meeting, I was thinking about the beleaguered surgeon and her staff (I don't know how many of them have already been retrenched because of lack of funds). What a price to pay for a royal engagement? One the one hand, Dr. Lim's image has been tarnished because of the heavy media coverage and the chatter in the blogosphere: she has been portrayed as a greedy profiteer, as if she were not a top surgeon but a buccaneer, prizing profit out of human misery (even though the 'misery' was royal in her case). On the other, she has lost her business. A medical practitioner of 30 years standing, Dr. Lim once (in 2007) led the largest surgical practice in Singapore with 33 staff at two clinics in two of Singapore's top private hospitals. Not long ago, according to her team, Dr. Lim's business was worth about 80 million dollars in valuation. Today, that business has gone kaput, bankrupt. Dr. Lim is a pioneering surgeon in Asia; she is a star speaker in conferences all over the world.

Imagine losing your business after achieving such great success, after climbing such great heights, and on top of that, being labelled a greedy person, a profiteer. And for what? According to her team, it was merely for going out of her way to treat the patient. She should have billed the patient every month. Then the issue of outstanding bills would not have arisen.

According to her team, the doctor has been wrongly accused of having no fee agreement with the patient. But the agreement was only verbal--or so it was said. Their point is that Dr. Lim had been assured by the royal patient that Istana (The Royal Palace of Brunei) would take care of her fees and she should not worry about it. True to the promise, for six years, the doctor was paid her fees, whatever the amount, without any questions asked; but, once the patient passed away, the same kind of fees were deemed outrageous. According to her team, the Brunei government were appreciative of her services and only wanted a benchmark or justification from the Singapore authorities for standardizing fees.

Since the rest of her story is well-known, encapsulated here in this video ( (brought to my notice by her team) and numerous press articles and blog entries, I will not go into much detail. As a writer and artist, I am only interested in the individual.

From the meeting, I emerged impressed by the fearlessness and perseverance of Dr. Lim's team. All they want is to get her name cleared.

Justice and Fearlessness: A Faulknerian quest

After the meeting with the doctor's team, I had been thinking of the controversial case. Why is it important for anyone but her? Why should anyone bother about what happens to her? She is not even an underdog! (It is simple human instinct to champion the underdog) She is well-set and is married to a rich banker. I have been wondering about all these questions when one afternoon, as if by serendipity, I came across a volume of American writer William Faulkner's Essays and Speeches in a library. Some of the Nobel prize winning writer's thoughts jumped at me, making immediate connection with my quest at hand as well as with numerous uprisings making headlines around the world.

In speech after speech, if Faulkner has emphasized on anything, it is fearlessness. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1950, he said that the basest of all things is to be afraid. In 1951, addressing the graduating class of University High School, Oxford, Mississipi, he said: "What threatens us today is fear. Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it...Our danger is not that. Our danger is the forces in the world today which are trying to use man's fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery...because they themselves are baffled and afraid, afraid of, or incapable of, believing in man's capacity for courage and endurance and sacrifice."

In the same speech, Faulkner says: "It is not men in the mass who can and will save Man. It is Man himself, created in the image of God so that he shall have the power and the will to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving;--Man, the individual, men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked and frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed."

Dr. Lim is fearless and is seeking justice for herself and her team. If she thinks she has a solid case, which she thinks she has, why can't she allow SMC to conduct another inquiry and prove her point? After all, SMC has the responsibility of regulating the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore. If SMC does find something wrong in her case and passes a regulation which she might consider unfair, she still would have recourse to justice, won't she?

One can understand that her faith in the SMC is shaken after what happened in the first disciplinary committee. But my hope is that Singapore, having made its name on the back of championing hard work, fairness and justice, will give Dr. Lim a fair chance to clear her name.

What's wrong with Ra.One?

Contrary to what the title of this post implies, there are many things right with Ra.One. It is an ambitious film, in terms of scale and budget. It is India's most expensive film to date. It introduces the superhero genre to the Indian audiences. For some, it even has moments of breathtaking special effects. And no matter what the naysayers say, the film has already recouped its cost (over Rs 125 crores, according to actor and producer Shahrukh Khan) from the trade.

Lead actor Shahrukh Khan and director Anubhav Sinha wanted to make a superhero film for (their) kids. Both wanted to pay a tribute to the dads of the world that they are cool too. The boxoffice says they have succeeded in their effort. Good. I am happy for these two brave dads.

A dad's reaction

I took my daughter to the theatre to watch Ra.One last week. She liked it. She had already got hooked on to the Chamak Challo song. For a six year old, the story and the effects would have been overwhelming.

Personally, I wanted to like the film. I had loved Shahrukh's My Name is Khan, though many of my friends didn't like it--I have a weakness for films or literature with ideas and social messages: a sure sign of mediocrity, and I know Nabokov would not approve of it: A work of art has no importance whatever to society; it is important only to the individual, he has said. But I know what you are thinking already. Are Bollywood films even works of art? Can Nabokov's standards be applied to Bollywood or even Hollywood films? It is not even debatable, I know, I know (with some exceptions again).

Apart from its timeliness and social relevance, I had liked My Name is Khan because it was smoothly written and Shahrukh's acting was consistent in the film (excepting one or two scenes, if I remember correctly). The credit also must go to the film's director Karan Johar and writer, Shibani Bhatija. That film, and many of Shahrukh's earlier films, had led me to believe that Shahrukh had a great script sense and no matter who he worked with, he would bring up the film to a level that would make it appear grounded and polished. His Don with Farhan Akhtar is another recent example.

With Ra.One unfortunately I did not feel so. Despite the special effects (and many would say "I have seen better" effects), the film has many blurs and blotches. The characters are not grounded enough and everything has a plastic feel to it. The film is too episodic in nature and the seams in the story are visible. The trick is to hide them.

My problem, in regard to Ra.One, is clearly with the story and the writing. I will not discuss Shahrukh's acting here: the performance has been more or less consistent except for the scene towards the end of the film where G.One tells Prateek (Armaan Verma) that he has to 'go'. There, he slips into the My Name is Khan mode of acting.

Now, look at the writing credits of Ra.One (source: IMDB):

David Benullo
Kanika Dhillon dialogue
Kanika Dhillon screenplay
Niranjan Iyengar dialogue
Shah Rukh Khan screenplay
Mushtaq Sheikh screenplay
Anubhav Sinha story

When many writers work on a project, the resulting product could go in any direction. Example: Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Even though the film was based on a book and four writers worked on it, the film failed to appeal to many Scorsese fans. I am afraid the same has happened in Ra.One's case.

Superhero films needn't be for children alone (Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight is an example). And even for a children's film, I found some dialogues in Ra.One distasteful. At the film's beginning, in the fantasy sequence, the Bruce Lee and his three sisters-- Iski Lee, Uski Lee and Sabki Lee-- joke was not only trite but subpar (It belongs to, maybe, an Anurag Kashyap film dealing with characters who are Mumbai's scum). That too from a kid like Prateek (he is dreaming out this sequence) who is studying in England? Will his jokes be like this? I doubt that. Also, the kid is perhaps a genius geek, even though all he does is play video games, argue with his father and listen to loud music by Michael Jackson. In the first half of the film, he is writing an essay on his father in his classroom (makes him a primary school kid?); in the second half of the film, he successfully assembles G.One at his home. What a leap for kid like him!

The other distasteful jokes were the kondom, kondom joke and the power yoga joke. These could have been weeded out at the script level.

Shahrukh's V.Shantaram-loving Shekhar Subramaniam character is also a hodgepodge, just like his plate of noodles and curd. Back in India, all we see about Shekhar is an empty house and two neighbours. What is his backstory, guys?

I know all these points do not matter, now that the film is a success. Like Hollywood's, Bollywood's biggies too know the box office game too well. As has been noted in a book on summer blockbusters (read Diwali or Eid here), these big budget films will work no matter what kind of writing they employ. My only request to the Shahrukh Khans of Bollywood is that, please, encourage good writing. It is sad that it does not matter but it should.

I am sure Shahrukh will make a sequel of Ra.One (called G.One?) and it too will become a huge hit at the boxoffice. When it comes to the cinemas, I know that I will bring my daughter to the theatre to see it. I know that she will like it too--she is just a child. But can Shahrukh make his writers work harder this time, so that a dad like me can enjoy the film with his daughter, without having to squirm in his seat. That is my only request to Shahrukh Khan and his team.