The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 8, 2002

Individuals can make a difference
Manisha Gangahar

by Meher Pestonji. Harper Collins, India. Pages 318.
Rs 295.

Pervez"ALL I want is everything" — this seems to encapsulate the yearnings and aspirations of the present-day individual. This craving is never-ending, especially when it comes to ‘power’, and there could be no better example of this than the politicians. In India politics goes beyond dealing with the affairs of the state and trickles into the spheres of culture and religion. Yet it does not end here as Madhu Kishwar rightly asserts: "Politicisation of religion would be a relatively harmless affair if the parties concerned vowed not to use criminal means to secure their political ends". India flaunts its secular credentials but, unfortunately, behind the facade of secularism lies hardcore communalism. And interestingly, it is the leaders of the country who seem to be better practitioners of communalism rather than the common folk.

Meher Pestonji’s novel is yet another piece of writing that critiques such duplicitous political machinery of India. However, it does not merely criticise the political scenario but also delves into other issues of class differences and cultural conflicts. The backdrop of the novel is political and the idea is to convey the sense of involvement on the part of the ordinary man in the affairs of the nation, and at the same time to highlight the role of influential people in instigating enmity that never existed before between people of different religion or castes. The ‘riots’ are not the result of religious intolerance among people but are engineered by the supposedly honourable leaders belonging to diverse groups and ideological institutions. The novel traces the developments that took place prior and subsequent to the demolition of the Babri masjid while crucifying politicians like Advani and Thackeray: "Only politicians have water not blood in their veins".


The novel acquires its title from its female protagonist Parvez, a Parsi woman who is not comfortable with her social identity and says: "I have to find where I belong". The strength of the novel lies in the fact that it studies the politics of communalism through the eyes of the Parsi community to which the novelist herself belongs. The novel, in fact, doesn’t offer a structured story as such. It seems to be a projection of the turmoils outside as well as inside the mind of its protagonist and deals with how she comprehends life within political and communal upheavals. Pervez could be regarded as the writer’s mouthpiece, trying to confront the conventional opinion that "We Parsis are such a tiny minority we can’t afford to interfere". Nevertheless, an unprejudiced perception of the Hindu-Muslim conflict is feasible through a Parsi’s mind as the Parsis are "neutral" in their affiliations: "Being neither Hindu nor Muslim felt strange in these times of turmoil. Like wearing a skin that magically protects. For Parsis were respected by both the warring communities and left alone even as they brutally assaulted each other. She had never been conscious of her Parsi identity but now she wondered whether neutrality could be positively employed".

Pestonji, a journalist belonging to the Parsi community, is self-conscious of her own and of her clan’s position and describes her birth in a Parsi family as "accidental". What she insists upon is the contribution of the people to the society as individuals rather than as envoys of various ethnic groups. The novel says: "She had lost links with the community of her birth and realised she’d have to act as an individual." It is important to go beyond one’s personal alliances, especially when the lives of innocent people are threatened by hollow interests of the powerful few. But the question that needs to be asked is "Can individuals be effective when communal virus had driven half the population insane?"

Although communal conflicts are the focus of the novel, the collision of contrasting cultures elevates the sense displacement that Parvez experiences after her unsuccessful marriage in a Christian family. However, after she walks out of the relationship she matures as a person and is able to establish herself an individual who is not swayed by the Marxist idealism or beleaguered by feminist voices. She needs to make a difference and not remain cocooned within her privileged sect. Parvez seems to have found here identity in the role of an academician, one who can disapprove of the things around and yet not be allied to any group except the human race. Similar to artists who take the responsibility of maintaining communal harmony: "Art opens the mind... Artists can’t be anything except against communalism". Nonetheless, this does not mean that one needs to be an accomplished artist in order to fight for peace. Each individual is creative in her/his own and that should be enough to make a difference.