August issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 18 years ago

“I was seventeen,” writes M.J. Akbar. “Life had begun.” But this, in fact, is the ending of Akbar’s autobiographical novel, Blood Brothers, sub-titled ‘A Family Saga.’ It covers three generations, and the beginning of the book firmly establishes the dramatic texture of Akbar’s narrative: “My grandfather died while I was playing on his chest. That was my first stroke of luck.”

Stroke of luck because the family believed that the grandfather’s soul had passed into the author. Now, this allusion to transmigration assumes multiple layers of meaning when you learn that Akbar’s grandfather was born a Hindu and was named Prayaag, “after the confluence of the holy rivers, Ganga and Jamuna.”

How teenager Prayaag escapes from a famine in Bihar in the 1870s, arrives in Telinipara in West Bengal, is taken in by a childless Muslim couple and finally converts to Rahmatullah to marry a Muslim girl, is the defining spirit of the saga.

M.J. Akbar is a distinguished writer and accomplished journalist, with a number of best-sellers to his credit. He tells his story well. In fact, too well. He almost fictionalises it with a clever fusion of history, aphorisms and anecdotes. In places, it becomes the screenplay for a blockbuster. One is reminded of Irving Stone, who specialised in writing biographical novels, including Lust for Life (Van Gogh) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo).

But Akbar is writing about his own father and grandfather, and that dictates the style of the autobiography. However, the distractions that the author has planted are quite engaging and also serve the purpose of providing a wider perspective to the seminal issues of relations between Hindus and Muslims during a very painful phase in the subcontinent’s history. The canvas encompasses the momentous period from the last decades of the 19th century to the late sixties.

The family saga of a remarkably successful Muslim journalist of India, one whose grandfather had converted to become a pious Muslim, would naturally reflect the communal and political vagaries of our confused and chaotic times. Much of the action that Akbar recounts takes place in Telinipara, a town in West Bengal with a jute mill. In some ways, it represents the dream of an integrated India where Hindus and Muslims could live in harmony. But this community, too, is repeatedly wounded by acts of violence.

The most moving and meaningful encounter in the saga is presented in the last chapter, titled ‘Brothers’. Akbar’s friend Kamala is killed in a communal riot, trying to protect the author. This event, in itself, could be the heart of an epic tale. Akbar has handled it with sensitivity. But it does not stand out as prominently as it should because the reader has already been overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of Akbar’s style. He keeps you breathless throughout with his knowledge, research and journalistic tendency to indulge in brainy digressions.

Look at this, for instance: “I suppose I owe my familiarity with the English language to the French Revolution.” Now, when you make such a statement, you are obliged to give some explanation. Hence, we learn about Anne-Marie Javouhey, “fifth of six surviving peasant children” who “was ten when the French Revolution broke out, and faith went underground.” The point is that she was linked to the founding of the St. Joseph’s Convent for Girls in the French colony of Chandernagore. “Since boys were not expected to provoke girls sexually before the age of ten, they were permitted to study at the convent till Class 5.” Naturally, Akbar went to this convent. As an aside, which may be more excusable in a review, let me add that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — a Capricorn like Akbar — had also briefly attended the St. Joseph’s Convent in Karachi as a child.

All 19 chaptes of the book have one-word titles. ‘Blood’ is one of them and the last one is ‘Brothers.’ Looking at the titles, some readers may readily turn to chapter 18, called ‘Bikini.’ This leapfrogging is rewarded with this opening sentence: “I survived 1967 thanks to Sharmila Tagore’s bikini.” But this does have relevance to Akbar’s story — the rite of passage, in a sense. As a young student, he was beginning to be a writer and to discover the mysteries of sex.

For readers of Newsline, I am tempted to bring up a reference to Karachi in this chapter. Akbar writes about Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot’s translation of a fifteenth century Sanskrit text of an erotic nature in the middle of the nineteenth century. He adds: “Foster had a friend, Richard Burton, a subaltern in the Indian Army who was so thorough in investigations, ordered by Sir Charles Napier, of homosexual brothels in Karachi that he was accused of being a pederast himself, thereby ruining his army career and saving him for worldwide fame as an explorer and translator, along with Foster, of the Kama Sutra.”

This does not, of course, mean that Akbar has remained too engrossed in an arcane past. He recounts his memories of growing up in a country in which communalism and the implications of religious orientation have retained their relevance and consequences. I particularly enjoyed his chapter on ‘Stars’ and its nostalgic mood. It has a smart but very gratifying opening: “‘Mother India may have been born a Muslim, but she married a Hindu,’ chortled Kamala.” Kamala, you should remember, is the friend who finally pays the debt of his friendship with Akbar with his own blood. And the reference to that great movie Mother India , is prompted by the fact that Nargis, who played the title role, was a Muslim and she married Sunil Dutt, a Hindu. The fact that Sunil had played Nargis’s son in the movie is a twist that Akbar has left out.

In the same chapter, there is an evocative description of ‘Mughal-e-Azam,’ and the manner in which Akbar has woven his thoughts and emotions into the story of Anarkali and Salim, the Mughal prince, is proof of his brilliance as a writer. (Another aside: after all these years, Mughal-e-Azam is only now showing in Pakistan).

“But it was the emperor who gave me back my identity when we went, a cluster of cousins, to see the film,” he writes. “The curtains rose above a dark screen on which, slowly, a map of united India appeared. A deep regal baritone spoke three simple words: ‘Main Hindoostan hoon!” I am India! I am Mughal. I am Muslim. I am India. My India is not a part of India. It is the whole of India. I am not just Pakistan; I am this vast subcontinent that sprawls from the rough diamond mountains of the Hindu Kush in the northwest to the turbulent waves of the Bay of Bengal and the sweet rhythms of the Indian ocean beyond the shores of sultry, sunburnt Kerala. I am Muslim. I am everywhere.”

Coming to terms with these and similar thoughts is what Akbar’s book is all about. One has to sum it up as a significant contribution to the emerging awareness of the contemporary reality of South Asia in a human context. Akbar has made his contribution to the task of exorcising the trauma of a partition that was attended by unprecedented communal carnage and one of history’s biggest migrations. This had naturally planted the seed of hatred and mistrust between, at one level, India and Pakistan and, at another, between Hindus and Muslims. In recent years, lessons of history are beginning to impinge upon the minds of the intelligentsia in both countries. The truth is that at the popular level, the desire for peace is becoming irresistible, the only barrier being the ruling cliques of the two countries and temporary setbacks such as the Mumbai train bombings.

In Blood Brothers, what we have is the subjective account of a successful Indian Muslim but it certainly raises some important questions. Because of communal tension after Partition, the author’s father had briefly migrated to the then East Pakistan. Akbar asked him later why he had returned from Pakistan in 1948. “His answer told a long story in a few words. ‘There are too many Muslims in Pakistan,’ he answered.”

Akbar’s father was arrested on suspicion of being a Pakistani spy during the ’65 war. Fortunately, he was released without a charge. At this point, Akbar reminded his father of his earlier remark. “And aren’t there too many Hindus in India, I asked angrily. ‘Be that as it may’, he said evenly, ‘this is my land.’”

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.

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