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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 11th, 2005


Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate

by Amitava Kumar

Identical other

A review by Neelum Saran Gour

When, in September 1946, riots broke out in Calcutta, leading to widespread carnage among Hindus and Muslims, Mahatma Gandhi commented: "We are passing through trying times . . . . How the stabbing and murder of innocents, whether aggressive or retaliatory, can help the cause of religions I fail to see". In the past six decades, those "trying times" recurred in countless outbreaks of violence between the two communities, who see one another as historic enemies, and in three wars between India and Pakistan. Both countries now have nuclear capability, and in the last confrontation, in 1999, they exchanged no fewer than thirteen nuclear threats. Within each country there have been intermittent bloodbaths of appalling brutality. The eruptions have been of such manic ferocity that questions about community conscience and collective shame have become pressing as never before.

Amitava Kumar conceptualizes the division well. "The border that divides the Hindu and Muslim communities in India is often interchangeable as an idea with the physical border between India and Pakistan . . . . Each border recalls the other, and one can always suspect that behind the invocation of one lurks the shadow of the other." When Pakistan was carved out of greater India in 1947, the creation of the new country was accompanied by violence in which more than a million people died; and many millions more became refugees as they undertook possibly the biggest exodus in history, a chapter of extraordinary suffering. Gandhi, in his own way, had sought a solution. Kumar's dedicated book strives to work out contemporary answers.

An Indian Hindu married to a Pakistani Muslim, Kumar confesses that having confronted prejudice in its myriad forms, he was "dreaming of a dialogue between all those who had suffered". His impassioned investigation of the problem finds practical form in visits to refugee camps, Muslim and Hindu, making close acquaintance with victims and aggressors both. He writes about Muslim militants and Hindu nationalist extremists, displaced peasants who have lost their farms to intensive land mining, violated women and people who have broken the social barrier by marrying an "other". He has carried letters written by Indian and Pakistani children to imagined friends across the border and has studied the identical bereavement of war-widows on both sides of the territorial divide. His research is both concentrated and comprehensive, supported by sensitive documentation of telling details, and significant nuances. Kumar comes across as a one-man intelligence service in the cause of peace, conveying the viewpoints of ordinary people to their counterparts on the other side, humanizing the face of the "enemy" but exposing the equal guilt in both. All this achieved without romanticizing or practising any "fraudulent sentimentality".

Old wounds stay fresh and historic healing is practical, not theoretical. Kumar looks for the eternal common denominators between traditional enemies. Above all, he highlights the fluid overlap of cultural identities, the richly shared syncretic life of the subcontinent, and the many overlooked points of affinity between Hindus and Muslims. As he disarmingly puts it -- "our enemies look a lot like us". If this sharpened sense of sameness slowly comes to override baser urges, the result could be a delicate repositioning of attitudes. Popular culture too may prove to be an antidote to communalism. Kumar conducts an extensive survey of the literature and films handling this issue, and discusses the jingoism of governments and "the ideology of aggressive patriotism . . . used to prop up the nation state". Criminal misinformation by the Asian media, as well as the opportunism of western nations who sell arms to both India and Pakistan while expressing concern about their nuclear capability, are denounced. Kumar organizes his material like a novelist, in patterns of counterpoint and situational correspondence. There are minor inaccuracies, and the section on the Bhagalpur blinding of criminals is gratuitous, but he has harnessed his energies to a monumental cause. Already, the subcontinental political discussion is focusing on individual contact and conflict resolution. This may be the beginning of a shift in attitudes, a change of mind that books like Amitava Kumar's will help to serve.

Neelum Saran Gour teaches English Literature at the University of Allahabad. Her new novels Messers Dickens, Doyle and Wodehouse, Pvt. Ltd. and Sikandar Chowk Park are published in India this year.

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