Name of the Book: Jimmy the Terrorist
Author: Omair Ahmad
Publisher: Penguin (India), New Delhi
Price: Rs. 350
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam.com
Sensitively crafted and deeply evocative, Jimmy the Terrorist is about the best novel I have read on the unenviable predicament of Muslims in current times. It describes remarkably realistically, and without being preachy, sensationalist or apologetic, the painful dilemmas that vast numbers of Muslims are today faced with in the wake of mounting Islamophobia and increasing anti-Muslim prejudice, on the one hand, and radicalism and hatred in the name of Islam, on the other. Focussing on the momentous transformations wrought in the lives of members of a single north Indian Muslim family in post-Partition India, Ahmad masterfully brings out the range of social, economic and cultural processes at work behind the frightening demonization of Muslims and their religion, as well as the despair and defiance that these are rapidly engendering.
The novel is set in Moazzamabad, a decaying north Indian qasba town, established centuries ago by a scion of the Mughal family. The Muslim gentry of the town, once feudal lords, find their world completely overturned following the Partition and Indian independence. No longer do they enjoy even a semblance of political and cultural dominance. They have lost much of their lands as a result of land reforms, and are rapidly being pauperised in a new economy that has little use for their skills. Their culture, that of the Persianised Indian Muslim feudal elites, is now rapidly heading towards extinction. All around them, they see evidence of the Muslim past, even in such innocuous things as the names of places, localities and roads, being wiped off, and this goes hand-in-hand with even physical elimination of Muslims at the hands of Hindu mobs and a willing police force and a pliant state apparatus. It is increasingly difficult, in an environment characterised by deep-rooted and ever increasing anti-Muslim prejudice, for Muslims to gain employment. Meanwhile, right-wing Hindu politicians deliberately stoke hatred and instigate violence against Muslims, driving the Muslims of the town (and elsewhere across India) further into the miserable ghettos in which they are forced to live—or, to put it more plainly, to just about survive.
Rafiq, a Muslim man from a modest background, is married into what was once the leading Muslim feudal family of this town. Part of the dowry he receives is a low-paid job in a Muslim-run college. Constantly reminded of his lowly status by the men into whose family his married, and unable to take their insults any longer, he increasingly finds solace in religion. He begins to frequent the mosque, much to the chagrin of his wife’s relatives, who find this yet another reason to mock him. He sprouts a beard and begins to regularly pray, spending his time with the imam of the mosque and the rest of the congregation. The imam is a gentle soul, who is greatly troubled by the visible deterioration of inter-communal relations in the town. He advises patience in the face of growing anti-Muslim prejudice, but many younger members of the mosque congregation are increasingly driven to despair as they see right-wing Hindu politicians, even in their own town that has had a history of communal camaraderie, deliberately stoking violence against Muslims simply in order to grab power. The conversation of the men, among whom Rafiq turns into something of a leader, revolves on the persecution of Muslims. Their shared perception of victimhood, of their community and its religion and culture being under menacing threat from viscerally anti-Muslim right-wing Hindu forces, is real and palpable, but it is further stoked by elements, like some unscrupulous mullahs, who thrive on this sense of insecurity, for that is precisely the basis of their power and authority within the community. In other words, in Moazzamabad, as elsewhere in India, Hindu and Muslim communalism cement a symbiotic relationship even as they pose as inveterate foes, and even as they tear apart a once placid town.
And so, as a response to the mounting marginalisation and demonization of the Muslims on every front and the visible Hinduisation of the state apparatus, conservative religious forces gain a shot in the arm among the denizens of the Muslim ghettos of Moazzamabad. They succeed in drowning out voices, like Rafiq’s critics in his wife’s family, who revel in rebellious, iconoclastic Urdu poetry that mocks the merchants of religion.
It is in this surcharged communal atmosphere of a decaying north Indian town that Rafiq rears his son Jamal, nicknamed Jimmy, struggling to provide him with a decent education in a Christian school, which is the only passport out of their miserable morass that those Muslims of the town who can afford it, possess. As a Muslim, and also as the son of a man of modest means, Jimmy is a pathetic victim of double-discrimination. School life, for him, is a daily torment. Shunned by his classmates, on account of being Muslim and poor, he becomes a sullen recluse, although he is brilliant in his studies. But when he is wrongly accused of being a thief by a fellow student, and shamed in front of the entire school, he refuses to take the insult passively. Completely friendless till this time, this harrowing experience draws him close to another Muslim student, Khalid, who is a habitual pilferer. Their bonding, cemented by their being both Muslim and poor in a school where the vast majority are neither, is not without its own tensions as Jimmy can never comfortably accept Khalid’s penchant for stealing, which only worsens over time.
Accused of a major theft one day, Khalid is nabbed by the police, who, on discovering that he is a Muslim, subject him to brutal torture. Ahmad powerfully brings out what is now a pervasive phenomenon: the frightening communalisation and deep-seated anti-Muslim prejudice of large sections of the agencies of the state, including, and especially, the police, resulting in extra-judicial arrests of Muslims on a vast scale across India, who continue to languish and tortured in jail for years on end with little hope for justice. He also sensitively describes, in a manner that cannot leave any reader unmoved, the painful anguish and sheer desperation of Muslims faced with menacing dangers to their very existence and to their sense of self-respect, being treated less than criminals, even worse than second-class citizens in the land of their birth. At least in the Indian context, it is all this, and not just some irredeemable religious fanaticism that is alleged to be innate to every Muslim, that is at the root of what journalists smugly dismiss as ‘Islamic terror’, Ahmad indicates, although he also acknowledges the presence of radical, vengeful readings of Islam that can easily be marshalled in such a bleak situation to make sense of a menacing world that increasing numbers of Muslims—and not just in Moazzamabad—are forced to deal with.
Following Khalid’s arrest, the situation in Moazammabad rapidly deteriorates. Soon, the town is rocked with violence, triggered off by an ambitious politician who thrives on stirring up anti-Muslim hatred. The gentle imam of the mosque which Rafiq frequents, sometimes along with Jimmy, is burnt to death, and the town is placed under curfew. The Muslim ghetto bears the brunt of the curfew, being the target of police brutality and Hindu mobs, who work in tandem. And it is in this situation, finding himself and his fellow Muslims completely beleaguered and driven to the wall, with no hope for any succour, that the docile Jimmy is driven to become a ‘terrorist’.
Ahmad deserves kudos for treating such a complex subject with remarkable finesse and sensitivity. He stridently critiques the politics of communalism and religious chauvinism, both Hindu and Muslim, and convincingly illustrates their devastating consequences for ordinary human lives, for plural societies, for an increasingly globalised and tightly interconnected world, and also for what religion ought to stand for. No one reading the book will be left without being deeply stirred, and, hopefully, passionately indignant at the havoc that politicised religion and narrow communalism continue to play in the lives of innocent millions—not just in obscure Moazzamadabad, and not just all over India, but all across the globe as well.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.