Excuses for enmity
Manju Jaidka

Husband of a Fanatic
by Amitava Kumar. Penguin. Pages 328. Rs 295.

Husband of a FanaticWhen Amitava Kumar married a Pakistani Muslim, he began a process of discovery that culminated in this "fiercely personal essay" entitled Husband of a Fanatic. This work examines the complex relationship between Hindus and Muslims on the one hand, and India and Pakistan on the other. Predictably, it couldnít have been an easy book for the writer; nor is it easy for readers from this subcontinent who, thanks to their long socio-cultural conditioning, are likely to have affinities either with one camp or the other. Judgment on the book, therefore, is likely to be coloured by personal ideologies and an objective assessment would be a near impossibility. However, like all literary endeavours, it deserves a fair trial before verdict is pronounced.

The marriage of an Indian NRI, who teaches in the USA, to Mona, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, also settled in the American continent, raises several complex issues because of the religious factor. While the new bride is accepted by the groomís parents unconditionally, the groom is asked to adopt a Muslim name, thereby "converting" to Islam. This begs a question that this "fiercely personal essay" fails to answer Ė if it is love that unites two individuals, why isnít there an unconditional acceptance of each otherís individuality and beliefs? Why does Amitava Kumar have to become Safdar Ali to marry his true love?

Instead of facing this problem squarely, the writer Ė with the loyalty of a devoted lover and the zeal of a new convert Ė skirts the issue, talks about Hindu-Muslim relations, about community politics that sour all chances of peace across the Radcliffe Line, and a lot of other related issues. Often the account seems to ramble as though the writer were explaining things to himself, seeking private solutions to the problems confronting him.

The prologue narrates the writerís encounter with a caricatured Mr Barotia, a foul-mouthed Hindu fundamentalist who embodies the prejudices and misconceptions that the Hindus of India harbour against Muslims. Sure, caricature, too is an admirable art, but Amitava Kumarís penchant for caricatures seems limited to Hindu fundamentalists; he seems more tolerant of individuals with rigid ideologies on the other side of the communal divide. While visiting India he focuses on the discrimination meted out to the Indian Muslims, their backwardness, their sufferings in Gujarat, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Apparently, he does not think it necessary to highlight the special concessions, the privileges and the protection the minority community has received over the last half-century.

In Pakistan, although he is aware of the near-absence of Hindus in the country, he does not analyse or explain it. Briefly, he mentions the demolition of their temples and burning of Hindus but there are no graphic accounts, no psychological probing into the hatred nurtured against them by the Islamic nation. Whatever the reason, Kumarís account of the animosity between the two nations remains one-sided.

At the same time, there are several plus points: one does not doubt the authorís sincerity in trying to grapple with complex religion-based issues. Nor can one ignore the range of subjects covered and the research undertaken. Kumar has surveyed diverse areas ranging from the academic and elitist to the popular. He speaks of nuclear tests, of popular cinema, of Partition literature, of writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi and Urvashi Butalia, Lal Ded and V.S. Naipaul. He gives us the history of Kashmir when he discusses the Kashmir problem. He focuses on stereotypes, on the mutual suspicion and distrust, and on the crying need for "brotherly love" between the two communities.

Sometimes his viewpoint seems naÔve but there are moments of insight, too, when he evokes memories of a shared life between the two communities. All this is contained in the eight chapters of Kumarís book. His sources are cited in the bibliography. What the reader misses is an index, which would have been very useful.

Kumarís effort to explain and understand animosity between two warring communities is in itself a laudable one. Although the account begins in private experience, it attempts to reach far beyond the personal, exploring realms that concern not just individual lives but international relations. His point of view may be too personal, it also may be the expiation of a private guilt, yet the effort, despite shortcomings, is commendable.