And then there was none: The Muslim Vanishes by veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi imagines India without its Muslim population
Imagine what will happen if one fine morning India wakes up with the disappearance of its 200 million Muslims. Not only Muslims, but their sculptures, their literature, their culture, their language – it’s all gone – poof, up in the air!
Saeed Naqvi’s new play, The The Muslim disappearsjust explore that.
Fiction is the most beautiful and yet cruelest form of reality. Dystopian fiction is even crueler. I still remember my first reading of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Imagining a world where all the books were burned was like imagining a sky without a sun or moon. Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist, gave me a strange hollow but hopeful feeling. That’s what good dystopian novels do to us – they’re like a surgical procedure where controlled violence cures a disease.
The drama, as a dystopia, is a rare breed but still makes for interesting reading. A friend once asked Irish playwright Samuel Beckett why he couldn’t write something joyful. In response, Beckett wrote Happy Days (1961), one of the best dystopian dramas you can read. The Vanishing Muslim is the dystopian metaphor we never want to experience. But Naqvi’s play is not a classic drama. Although written like a play, it lacks the essential technical elements of a play. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It’s an interesting concept in a country that struggles to strip off its secular garb and slip into theological garb, a country where the narrative of identity is carved in the blood of minorities.
I presume you can take a journalist out of the news business, but you can’t take the news business out of a journalist. Naqvi is a seasoned journalist, so it’s no wonder the play begins in a TV newsroom where hyperventilated newscasters announce the disappearance of the country’s 200 million Muslims. The book’s two protagonists – Brajesh and Anand – are interesting shades of gray characters. Their conversations are punctuated with threads of the everyday prejudices of Indian society.
On reading the play, we conclude that Naqvi is a reductionist. The sudden disappearance of Muslims from India is in itself a very complicated idea but Naqvi simplifies it. He magnifies a very small aspect of “post-Muslim” India in the book. Its postulate is political. It postulates the emergence of new electoral equations following the disappearance of Muslims in the country. He concludes that such a scenario will embolden those at the lowest rung of the caste system in society. In the book, following the disappearance of the Muslims, the Dalits begin to occupy their abandoned properties. The electoral commission, the political class, the media and the people are worried about this “revolution” of the Dalits. Interestingly, the contempt for Muslims portrayed in the book can only be surpassed by the contempt for Dalits. In India, the competition for abhorred identities is very tough indeed!
The invented world of Naqvi is interesting but scary. It’s as simple as it is complicated. The convolutions of Naqvi’s play are tied to many social interfaces of Indian society. It very subtly encloses in its pages the patriarchy, individual and collective communitarianism, morality, caste, the judiciary, the police and sexist prejudices. The pages of The Muslim disappears scattered remnants of the now ridiculed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a tradition to which Naqvi belongs. Like dry autumn leaves, they induce a wave of nostalgia in readers for a time that no longer exists.
But like all good dystopian novels, The Muslim disappears also raises hope. The most interesting part of the book is when a special jury is appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the sudden disappearance of Muslims. This 11-member jury includes pillars of India’s composite culture. It’s heavenly in the truest sense of the word. Its organizer is Urdu poet Hasrat Mohani and includes others such as Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, Mahatma Phule and others. The judicial exchanges between these deputies and the right-wing representative are simple. Without much literary eloquence, Naqvi attempts to draw our attention to the country’s now dying syncretic culture. These are the pages that induce hope and joy.
Ironically, the book reminded me of a joke that made the rounds just before the start of the Second Gulf War in 2003. The joke said that since there had been harsh criticism of the President’s plans American George W Bush to invade Iraq, he held a meeting behind closed doors. , a one-on-one meeting with the British Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair. The meeting lasted for hours until the president’s attaché decided to intervene and entered the meeting room. Seeing him, Bush said, “We’re done. We decided to kill a million Muslims and a goldfish. The confused attache asked, “But why the goldfish, sir?” Bush turned to Blair and said, “Listen, I told you Tony, nobody’s going to ask about Muslims.”
I don’t know if anyone will even ask about missing Muslims if Naqvi’s fable comes true. In New India, the silence of the unsaid is better than the chaos of the spoken words. As for a solution to the problem posed by Naqvi, I have nothing better to conclude than these verses from Mohani, the organizer of Naqvi’s all-important imaginary celestial jury:
Gandhi ki tarah baith ke kaatenge kyun charkh,
Lenin ki tarah denge duniya ko hila hum
(Why should we sit and spin like Gandhi,
Rather, like Lenin, we will shake the world)
(Dr Shah Alam Khan is Professor, Department of Orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi)