Thursday, December 23, 2010

‘Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems’: Interview with Omair Ahmad, author of Jimmy The Terrorist

Omair Ahmad in conversation with John Cheeran

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy The Terrorist is a partisan, political novel, set in Moazzamabad, a fictional north Indian neighbourhood that speaks of the alienation of the Muslim community. But being partisan and political in fiction is no longer considered a crime.
Ahmad, a political analyst based in New Delhi, says the title is a red herring. “The book is more about society. It is about how in small towns life revolves around small issues. We try to define everything by political terminology. Is Jamaal (Jimmy) a terrorist, a nationalist? He is a human being.”
Ahmad ends his novel by saying,”No one asked who Jamaal had been, where he was born, or what he did, but Jimmy the terrorist was listed, his death reported, and may be that is the important thing.”
These are precisely the questions that Ahmad has tried to address in his novel. At a certain level, Jimmy the terrorist is also about the author.
Ahmad argues: “Politics is important. I gave up science to study politics. I was 17 when Babri Masjid was demolished. I came into my adulthood at a time of great political conflict in India. My school was being evacuated because of the potential of a riot. Some people tried to ignore the political churning and moved on. For me it became important to understand the unfolding of events. I wanted to figure things out. The result is this novel. Jimmy in a sense goes back to very local roots. It’s not about grand events. It’s not about 9/11. It’s very local. And those are the things that matter to people in the end.”
Ahmad considers himself a lucky guy when compared to Jamaal. He says: “I didn’t get killed in a riot but one of my cousins was killed. I didn’t get roughed up by the police. But all these happened to people who matter a lot to me. It matters for me to address issues that matter to the people who do not matter.”
Jimmy The Terrorist is the Muslim narrative of recent Indian history, pockmarked by grievances, riots and pogroms.
Ahmad, however, admits that his is not the Muslim voice. He says: “I’m not trying to represent the Indian Muslim community. It’s a community too large and too diverse for me to represent, or for any one person, in the same sense that no one person can represent India.”
Ahmad believes that the problems of Indian Muslims are secular, not religious. He says: ”People are more influenced by their local situation. If you look at the geographical spread of Indian Muslims, 60 per cent live in UP, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. All these states have gone through political and economic crises. When 60 per cent of Muslims live in these states that are not rich and prosperous, how does it matter which religion people belong to? That is why the making of Jimmy is important to me. It’s not one person. It is the society, the economics, the town and the situation that makes or breaks a person. And Jimmy is a broken person. And in my case, I’m not.”
Ahmad says though religion informs every page of Jimmy The Terrorist, the protagonist’s concerns are all secular. ”Religion is very much a part of a person’s identity. All the decisions that Jimmy ends up taking, whether his confrontation with the cops, his alienation within his school or his decision to become a typist while studying for IIM entrance examination, all these are purely secular decisions.”
Ahmad says religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. “Of course, Jimmy talks in terms of religion. And Jimmy looks towards the maulana for some kind of understanding which he is not able to give. It is one of the most important points in the book when they talk about Dawood Ibrahim having stopped riots in Mumbai. The maulana can respond only in terms of religion. Religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. In that sense Jimmy is a political problem.”
Ahmad becomes uneasy when people answer political questions in religious terminology. “Once you say that ‘God said this’ I have a problem. I haven’t met anyone who has interviewed God. Religion is not about political questions. As Amitav Ghosh says in his book The Imam and The Indian, people who purvey religion are not interested in religious questions. They are interested in political questions. When Osama bin Laden talks about occupation, vengeance, or killing, all those things are exquisitely political questions. He wants to be a political leader. Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems.”

Are Muslims in India one step away from breaking down like Jimmy?
“Jimmy is a single person in a large community. He is an outlier. He is not what everybody is. He starts from a broken family. He is in a broken society. His parents are in trauma. He still tries to go on, displaying resilience. At one point he breaks down. We all carry within ourselves possibilities of breaking down. Rafiq, his father, carries on despite taking a battering. Most Indians carry on despite heavy odds. I don’t want to say that Jimmys do not exist. They do. The Muslim alienation does not spring from nowhere. In its bid towards power the BJP used Muslim bashing to garner votes. It’s not that Indian Muslims went out to be alienated. It’s quite another matter whether the BJP has revised its position. But I think Muslim alienation will take care of itself.”
Ahmad also questions Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. “Gandhi had this practice of looking at religious representatives as political representatives. So it was a maulana, pandit or sardar for him. And that’s a problem. Ask a maulana what are the problems of the Muslim community and he will say they are not religious enough. Ask a priest what are the problems of the Hindu community and he will say they don’t pray enough. If you go to a political leader who happens to be a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, he will talk about unemployment, lack of infrastructure, etc. That’s a political problem.”
Ahmad points out that, in India, poverty matters much more than religion. “Access to opportunity is vital. You want to be poor in India and that’s the worst kind of discrimination you face. No Muslim can say he has been discriminated on the basis of religion as much as a poor man is discriminated for being poor in India. But to be Muslim and poor is a different thing,” says Ahmad.
But there have been outstanding Muslim contributions in sport, entertainment in India. Why not in politics?
“There is a distinction between how much a minority can achieve in sports, arts and in politics. Politics requires people to take one side or the other. It’s always a thing of numbers. But it’s true that democracy works better than any other system. Democracy has a problem because it tends to be majoritarian. Liberal democracy, however, tries to address this fault line through courts, press, etc. Political leadership from Muslims will take time in India. It cannot be compared with their achievements in other areas. There is still a hangover of partition in India.”

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy the Terrorist was short-listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. Ahmad has degrees in international politics from JNU (New Delhi) and Syracuse University (New York) and has worked for Voice of America, the British Foreign Office and the Conservative Party's National & International Security policy group. His other works are Encounters and The Storyteller’s Tale.

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