15 June, 2005Issue 4.3Asia & AustraliaTravel

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Intimate Borders

Elizabeth Angell

Amitava Kumar
Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate
The New Press, 2005
301 pages.
ISBN 1565849263

At the height of the Kargil border conflict between India and Pakistan in the summer of 1999, the two countries’ national cricket teams met on the playing fields of England for the Cricket World Cup. A lone spectator at one of the matches held a sign reading CRICKET FOR PEACE. ‘Watching the match on television,’ writes Amitava Kumar, ‘I wondered whether I too could walk around with a placard hung from my neck, saying MARRIAGE FOR PEACE.’

Kumar, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, is a Hindu from India. Mona, the woman he married during the Kargil war, is a Muslim from Pakistan. Their improbable union, thousands of miles from their home countries, is the starting point for his latest book Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate, a thoughtful if somewhat disjointed rumination on the connections between intimacy, violence, and communal identity in the subcontinent. Kumar viewed his marriage as a hopeful sign, a sort of symbolic act of diplomacy. ‘I felt good about myself for marrying “the enemy”’, he says, ‘The thought gave me a small thrill.’ After all, the appeal of a Romeo and Juliet story, of love triumphing over rivalry, remains endlessly popular; one of the biggest Bollywood productions in the past year, Veer-Zaara, is a melodramatic tale of a crossborder, Hindu-Muslim romance. For Kumar, a secular leftist appalled by the resurgence of religious nationalism in India, the idea of mixed marriage quickly becomes important as an act that transcends religious as well as national borders:

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 […]. [O]n the one hand is the division between communities inside India, and on the other, the division between the two nations, but in the neurotic imagination of the anxious nationalist, the two are identical.

As his title suggests, Husband of a Fanatic is Kumar’s account of his travels through India, Pakistan, and the South Asian diaspora in search of those borders, and in hopes of their subversion.

Kumar writes that the book ‘began as an essay on the idea of the enemy’, and he opens the volume by tracking one down and inviting him to lunch. Finding his own name listed as a traitor on a Hindu nationalist website, Kumar called Jagdish Barotia, the New Jersey legal secretary who acts as webmaster of the site, and asked him to meet. ‘On the phone’, Kumar recounts, Barotia ‘called me a haraami, which means “bastard” in Hindi, and, after clarifying that he didn’t mean this abuse only for me as a person but for everyone else who was like me, he also called me a kutta, a dog.’ To Barotia, Kumar’s pride in marrying a Muslim is almost a personal betrayal: ‘You have caused me a lot of pain’, he tells a bemused Kumar. The intimacy across communal lines, which Kumar sees as a sign of hope, is a transgression to his self-declared enemy. Barotia proves to be obsessed with the spectre of Islam and the fear of Muslim sexual rapacity, complaining crudely about the marriage of Muslim Indian film stars to Hindu women. To him, such relationships represent the subjugation of one group at the hands of the other. On that note, Mr. Barotia suddenly develops a perversely triumphal view of his guest’s marriage: ‘Mr. Barotia turned to me and said, “It is okay. You fuck her. And you tell everyone she is Muslim, and that you keep fucking her! And through her, you keep fucking Islam!”’

This crude logic lingers in the reader’s mind as Kumar, sets off for the refugee camps of Gujarat in the wake of the Hindu nationalist attacks on Muslims there in February and March of 2002. Harsh Mander, a career civil servant who had resigned his post in horror at alleged state complicity in the killings, later wrote that he had ‘never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence’ as in Gujarat. As in so many other cases — the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, Nanking, Partition itself — rape and sexual mutilation were instrumentalised as tools of war, a means for one group to mark the subjugation of another. The book gingerly explores this legacy of sexualized violence, a threatening facet of the theme of intimacy between enemies. Kumar, clutching a newspaper account of a Gujarati Hindu woman killed in the riots because of her marriage to a Muslim, goes looking for other mixed marriages. He is met with polite evasions and disconnected phone calls: in the polarized atmosphere, none of the couples will talk to him. Instead, he winds up as a guest at the mass wedding of twenty young Muslim couples in a relief camp—told by one of the hosts that the marriages are taking place in part because of a desire to marry off the virgin girls of the community, rather than risk their safety and honour in future riots. Afterwards, it occurs to him ‘that Gandhi would have wanted weddings to take place, but between Hindus and Muslims, and he would have wanted leaders of both communities to give away their sons and daughters in marriage.’ Unable to fi nd such unions in Gujarat, he returns to his hometown of Patna, and there meets a teenage Muslim girl locked in a women’s remand home at her family’s behest, having ‘found out that after she married a Hindu, the border had moved to her village’. The recurrent theme of borders, as liminal zones and persistent barriers, permeates the book.

Later, Kumar travels to Pakistan, to stand at the physical border itself. He visits his wife’s grandparents in Karachi and her aunt (the formidable lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jehangir) in Lahore. He meets with schoolchildren in both countries, and in one of the book’s most striking sections, shares letters he has asked them to write to imagined counterparts across the border. 1 e schoolchildren’s letters display a curious mix of friendly intimacy — greeting their fellow students, giving them representative names, signing ‘lovingly’ and ‘your friend’—and stony distance, repeating the nationalist tropes learned from schoolbooks and leaders, particularly about Kashmir. One letter ends with a poignant apology: ‘I like you but not your country. Please forgive me if I said something wrong.’ These jarring shifts of perspective sometimes occur within a single letter, as the writers address their counterparts first as imagined friends, then suddenly transform them into representatives of the national enemy.

Kumar’s journey to Pakistan prompts an exploration of his own uncertain sense of belonging as a Hindu, but also a convert of sorts, having superficially adopted Islam as a matter of convenience to make his marriage legal in Pakistan. On his Pakistani visa form, he self-consciously scribbles, ‘Hindu converted to Islam during marriage’. Kumar comes to see conversion as the ultimate act of border crossing. Inevitably, then, he returns to the experience of Partition and the creation of the very borders he wishes to unravel. Drawing on Urvashi Butalia’s groundbreaking oral history of Partition narratives, The Other Side of Silence, he links his own story to those of the men and women who crossed the new borders or converted to another religion, either to be with loved ones or simply to ensure their survival. Kumar still considers himself a Hindu (albeit one who resents the appropriation of the term by right-wing nationalists) as well as a secularist (albeit one who nonetheless feels the need to engage with religious identity). The metaphor of conversion provides an answer to rigid boundaries, although he admits that conversion is ‘perhaps not the right word for what I have in mind, which has more to do with a notion of plural identities.’ Nonetheless, the flexibility and open-mindedness necessary for conversion is the core of his challenge to Hindu nationalist rejection of a pluralist India. ‘We are Nehru’s bastards,’ he tells Barotia, and professes his worry that the secularist approach of Nehru’s generation has lost ground in recent decades, failing to capture the imagination of a still-religious population. He offers his own marriage as a regenerative model: two ceremonies, one Muslim, one Hindu, and the idea of plurality and fusion as a response to the narrowness of religious nationalism. When a Pakistani schoolchild asks him where he belongs, which name he answers to, Kumar replies that he wants to say both, and quotes the poet Ajai Singh, ‘Main aadha Hindu hoon, aadha Musalman hoon,/Main poora Hindustan hoon’ (‘I am half a Hindu, I am half a Muslim/ I am the whole of India’).

Kumar argues that conversion is a particularly fruitful metaphor for pluralism because it subverts the charge advanced by V. S. Naipaul, among others, that South Asian Muslims — indeed, all non-Arab Muslims — are merely ‘converts,’ having foregone their authentic roots for an alien religion. Kumar argues ‘against Naipaul’s idea of purity and fixity in religion …if you go far back in time, surely all of us are converts.’ This embrace of plural identity and historical syncretism in response to the challenge posed by religious nationalism is not unique to Kumar: various other South Asian writers — among them Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, Gauri Viswanathan — have addressed these themes in fiction, memoir, and scholarly works. Still, Kumar’s personal take on the issue provides a worthwhile addition to the conversation. The book is mostly composed of Kumar’s journalistic travel accounts, and one particularly interesting diversion takes him to South Africa, where he explores the role of the South Asian community in the anti-apartheid movement, almost enviously describing the impact of a shared cause that brought Hindus and Muslims together in the solidarity of the struggle against white rule. The theme of migration, so central to Kumar’s earlier books, is less pronounced here, although in his consideration of long-distance nationalism he writes about those — like Mr. Barotia — who strive to reproduce the border from a continent away. Yet there is little exploration, aside from the South African episode, of the possibilities that migration can also provide for transcending such boundaries. Kumar and his wife, after all, met as immigrants in the United States and married in Canada, and owe much to the blurring of borders that can result when diasporas of ‘enemies’ end up having more in common with each other than with their new society. ‘South Africa is the place where Gandhi became Indian,’ he writes, and to some extent, North America is where Kumar became a convert.

In two previous books, Passport Photos and Bombay- London-New York, Kumar explored the theme of migration through a fusion of personal history and literary criticism, using books as milestones to map the trajectory of his own life as well as the contours of postcolonial literature. In Husband of a Fanatic’s later chapters, he occasionally returns to this combination of finely wrought recollection and bookish musing, providing a counterpoint to the more journalistic tone of his travel accounts. These are some of the most rewarding parts of the book, as familiar figures from fiction, poetry, and film appear: Lata and Kabir of Vikram Seth’s epic A Suitable Boy are here, as is Toba Tek Singh of the eponymous short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, along with a host of writers less familiar to an international or English-speaking audience. Even the book’s title is presumably a nod to Hanif Kurieshi’s My Son the Fanatic. The interweaving of literature and cinema throughout the narrative is one of the great strengths of Kumar’s writing, and distinguishes him from other purveyors of similar travel-based memoir and journalism.

That said, Husband of a Fanatic tends to wander, as some of Kumar’s diversions (particularly at the book’s ending) are more distracting than fruitful. Moreover, where in all of this, the reader wonders, is Mona? Kumar’s wife and their daughter are largely absent from the book. His role as the ‘husband’ of the book’s title is the starting point for his explorations, but he rarely returns to it. Given the vicious response of right-wing nationalists to his initial newspaper articles on the subject of his marriage and conversion, it is understandable that he has chosen to keep much of their own story private. Yet the reader longs to hear more about the relationship at the core of the book, and in particular, about Mona’s perspective. Instead, she remains a cipher, only speaking directly through a few lines of poetry affixed as the book’s epigraph:

He writes that he wants to talk
that he’s thinking of converting
and I know, it isn’t to me.
—Mona Ahmed Ali, ‘The Wolf’s Cry’

Elizabeth Angell recently completed an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. A native of Seattle, she plans to spend the next year or two crossing some borders herself, with possible interludes in Istanbul, New York, Damascus, and Delhi.