Dear Mr. Chetan Bhagat,
I have been meaning to write this since yesterday, when I read your well-intentioned letter. But as you might know, we academics are a little slow to get off the block. Sometimes it’s our inertia; at other times, our unwillingness to engage with the current/immediate; and still at other times, our snobbishness to engage with someone who writes such ‘trashy novels’ (that’s how your detractors address your fiction).
But, believe me, I have none of those hang-ups. I genuinely wanted to respond to your letter at the earliest. Though I jotted down around 400-words immediately after reading your letter, my other work kept me busy.
Finally, here I am, writing to you. Personally, I am not among those snobbish ones who nitpick your novels and search for grammatical errors. Rather, I read your first two novels with great interest, courtesy my youngest sister. She had been dating an engineer at the time and found your novels appealing. I must admit, I found your racy style quite gripping.
Now why do I speak about your novels, which have no apparent relevance in the current debate? But your fiction resonates at multiple levels with your current letter as a Muslim youth.
First of all, you have very cleverly managed to transgress genres. If a Hindu author (though, I am not sure if you would like to see yourself as one. Also, I am not even sure if you are Hindu, or Jain, or Sikh) assumes the identity of a Muslim youth, the letter can easily pass off as a work of fiction. As you write, ‘You forget, this writer also writes fiction. So perhaps I, or what I say here, is nothing but a fabrication.’ How do we apportion blame to something that is fictional and to an author who just produced a work of fiction?
But Mr. Bhagat have you forgotten the fate of Mr. Rushdie? In our part of the world, we are far less willing to grant the author any artistic freedom. We are a people who value art for its one-to-one valence with their everyday reality.
That brings me to my second point about your success as an author. Though I have read only two of your books, from what I hear and what I read, I can safely assume that the success of your novels mostly depends on your ability to connect the youth of India to their dreams in the most realistic manner possible.
In your novels, they learn how to find love, how to be rich, and how to be successful. The youth, or ‘the underage optimist’, on whose behalf you seem to speak, do not read your novels to find an escape but to learn a few things about the real world. And you seem to be aware of the reality quotient of your work, ‘However, maybe there’s something useful in there for all you well-wishers.’
Now do you see how you have already contradicted yourself by assuming a fictional mode in order to write a letter as a Muslim youth?
Now let me extrapolate a bit more from my second point about your success with the youth. When you ask in a disguised manner, ‘Can the modern Muslim youth speak?’ it appears, you have a particular sort of youth in your mind: educated, English-speaking, upwardly mobile or, at least, one who dreams of upward mobility, most probably one who works as a professional, or aspires to be a professional. And this is the sort of youth that you always address in your novels.
But Mr. Bhagat, I am having a great deal of difficulty in understanding how you define the term ‘modern.’ Going by your letter, a modern Muslim is one who is not ‘topi clad.’ More than any other markers of modernity that I have already mentioned, the ‘Muslim cap’ appears to make all the difference for you.
Just to let you know, I am not a ‘cap’ wearing Muslim either. But let me keep my personal appearances aside.
If discarding the cap is an essential prerequisite of being modern, then I am sorry to say that there has been a considerable resurgence of religion among Muslims in the last twenty years or so, especially after the Babri Masjid demolition in India.
The secularization thesis, a darling of many western commentators and scholars, assumes that religion must be discarded in order to become modern. If you have noticed, that idea of modernity stands pretty discredited at this moment.
The friends I grew up with, many of whom are professionals, have started wearing a cap with pleasure and have started sporting a beard after the traumatic event of Babri demolition. Likewise, many women friends have taken to wearing hijab, despite being professionals and achievers in their own fields. Aren’t they modern enough in your opinion?
This leads to my next point. While there might be some truth in your letter, your most glaring oversight is your deliberate negation of history and context. You write: ‘We need jobs. We need good schools and colleges. We need a good, clean home with power and water. We need a decent standard of living…We are willing to work hard for it. Just, if you can, create the opportunities to do so.’
No sane human being will deny that Muslims or, any other community for that matter, strive to achieve a decent standard of living. Yet, is working hard the solution to the supposed backwardness of Muslims in India? What about the fraught political climate since the partition of India?
As has already been well documented by historian Gyan Pandey, right after the partition of India, Indian Muslims’ loyalty to India was a suspect. That suspicion has been further crystallized by the right-wing political parties that engineered the demolition of Babri Masjid and the pogrom in Gujarat.
Mr. Bhagat, how did you forget this history? Also, what about the exclusionary role of the state, tense inter-community relations, the history of conflict and animosity between communities?
Any social scientist worth her/his salt will tell you that more than individual ability, it is the enabling role of the state and the creation of a peaceful environment that makes progress of the people possible.
When Indian Muslims are already marked as violent, backward, and fanatics by the state (and also, to an extent, by the other communities) and easy targets in moments of periodic violence, is merit enough to succeed in life?
Further, you write: ‘You know what hurts? We do not have a strong modern Indian Muslim voice. If I am an Indian Muslim, who believes in ambition, scientific way of thinking, entrepreneurship, empowerment, progress and personal freedoms, where do I go? Which party is backing that? Can someone give me a leader who represents my aspirations?’
What you state here is a repetition of the discourses we hear about Muslims after every incident of violence. If you remember, after the Assam riots and Azad Maidan violence in Mumbai last year, the Indian media and many well-meaning Indian commentators raised a similar question: the leadership of the Muslim community. And who gets to speak on behalf of Muslims.
I had been grappling with similar questions. In fact, after last year’s violence, I felt agitated when Indian media repeatedly telecast the image of the desecration of the Army memorial and deliberately erased the voice of Muslims themselves.
I am not sure if we qualify as the ‘caretakers of Indian Muslims’ but it was at that moment, some of us thought of starting a new magazine called, Café Dissensus (http://cafedissensus.com/). I am sure, you have never heard of this magazine. If you have the time and inclination, I will request you to read our first issue on Indian Muslims’ reaction to Assam Riots and Azad Maidan violence.
This issue will answer your question: Can the modern Indian Muslim speak? They can speak and they did speak. The first volume of Café Dissensus contains the voices of Indian Muslims, ranging from early twenties to late forties. And if being a professional is a maker of modernity, all the writers are modern. They are either students or scholars or writers, or academicians. And many of them are accomplished in their own field of work.
However, if you are asking a purely rhetorical question, I have nothing to add. Rhetoric, as we know, is a potent weapon in the hands of the powerful. If you are merely using it to silence the Muslim voices, I understand. You might have your own compulsions, electoral or otherwise.
Mr. Bhagat, I won’t extend my letter any further. I could have offered rebuttal for each of your points.
But, I agree with you on one point: somewhere the political leadership has failed Muslims in India. The tokenism of ‘cap’ has gained a currency among political parties that are unwilling to reinvent the political idioms and images, as far as Muslims are concerned.
In his study of the madrassa, Partha Chatterjee has already shown how many professional Muslims themselves have despaired that the leadership of the community can be legitimated only through the sanction of religious leaders.
It’s not voice that the Indian Muslims lack. What they genuinely lack is an alternative political imaginary and idiom.
Mosarrap Hossain Khan
[This was first published in Cafe Dissensus Blog.]