And Then There Were None: Veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi’s The Muslim Vanishes imagines India without its Muslim population

Imagine what will happen if one fine morning India wakes up to its 200 million Muslims having vanished. Not only Muslim people, but their sculptures, their literature, their culture, their language – all gone – poof, into thin air!

Saeed Naqvi’s new play, The Muslim Vanishesexplores just that.

Fiction is the most beautiful and yet the cruellest form of reality. Dystopian fiction is even crueler. I still remember my first read of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. Imagining a world where all books are burnt was like imagining a sky without the sun and the moon. Guy Montag, the protagonist of the book, gave me a weird hollow but hopeful feeling. That’s what good dystopian novels do to us – they are akin to a surgical procedure where controlled violence cures a disease.

Drama, like dystopia, is a rare breed but always makes for an interesting read. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett was once asked by a friend why he could not write something happy. In response, Beckett wrote Happy Days (1961), one of the best dystopic dramas one can read. The Vanishing Muslim is the dystopian metaphor we never want to live. But Naqvi’s play is not a classical drama. Even though it is written as a play, it lacks the technical essentialities of one. But that does not make it less enjoyable. It is an interesting concept in a country struggling to take off its secular outfit and sneak into a theological apparel, a country where the narrative of identity is carved out of the blood of the minorities.

I presume you can take a journalist out of the world of news but you can not take the world of news out of a journalist. Naqvi is a veteran journalist, little wonder then that the play begins in a television newsroom where hyperventilating anchors are breaking the news that the country’s 200 million Muslims have disappeared. The two protagonists of the book – Brajesh and Anand – are characters with interesting shades of gray. Their conversations are punctuated with threads of everyday biases of the Indian society.

The Muslim Vanishes by Saeed Naqvi; Vintage Books; 256 pages; Rs 499 (Source: Amazon.in)

Reading the play one concludes that Naqvi is a reductionist. The sudden disappearance of Muslims from India is in itself a very complicated idea but Naqvi simplifies it. He magnifies a very tiny aspect of the “post-Muslim” India in the book. His premise is political. He postulates the emergence of new electoral equations following the disappearance of Muslims in the country. He concludes that such a scenario will embolden those who are at the lowest rung of the caste system in society. In the book, following the disappearance of the Muslims, Dalits begin to occupy their abandoned properties. The election commission, the political class, the media and common people are worried by this “revolution” of the Dalits. Interestingly, the contempt for Muslims depicted in the book can only be surpassed by the contempt for Dalits. In India, the competition for abhorring identities is indeed very tough!

Naqvi’s invented world is interesting but scary. It’s as simple as it is convoluted. The convolutions of Naqvi’s play are knotted at many social interfaces of the Indian society. It very subtly ensnares in its pages patriarchy, individual and collective communalism, morality, caste, judiciary, police and gender biases. The pages of The Muslim Vanishes have scattered remnants of the now-ridiculed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a tradition to which Naqvi belongs. Like dry autumn leaves, they induce a wave of nostalgia in readers for a time that no longer exists.

But like all good dystopian novels, The Muslim Vanishes also induces hope. The most interesting part of the book is when a special jury is set up by the Supreme Court to look into the sudden disappearance of the Muslims. This 11-member jury has stalwarts of India’s composite culture. It’s celestial in the true sense of the word. Its convenor is the Urdu poet Hasrat Mohani and includes others such as Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, Mahatma Phule and the likes. The court exchanges between these members and the right-wing representative are simple. Without much literary eloquence, Naqvi tries to draw our attention to the now-dying syncretic culture of the country. These are the pages which induce hope and joy.

The book ironically reminded me of a joke which made the rounds just before the start of Gulf War II in 2003. The joke went that since there was severe criticism of then US President George W Bush’s plans to invade Iraq, he held a closed-door , one-to-one meeting with the then British PM Tony Blair. The meeting went on for hours till the President’s attaché decided to intervene and went inside the meeting room. On seeing him, Bush said, “We are done. We have decided to kill one million Muslims and a goldfish. ” The confused attaché asked, “But why the goldfish, sir?” Bush turned to Blair and said, “Look, I told you Tony, no one will ask about the Muslims.”

I am not sure if anyone will even ask about the vanished Muslims if Naqvi’s fable comes true. In New India, the silence of the unsaid is better than the chaos of the said words. As for a solution to the problem Naqvi poses, I have nothing better to conclude with than these couplets by Mohani, the convenor of Naqvi’s all-important imaginary celestial jury:

Gandhi ki tarah baith ke kaatenge kyun charkh,
Lenin ki tarah denge duniya ko hila hum

(Why should we sit and spin yarn like Gandhi,
Rather, like Lenin, we will shake the world)

(Dr Shah Alam Khan is Professor, Department of Orthopedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi)

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