Thursday, October 13, 2011

*Jimmy the Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad

Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books India, 2010
185 pp

"Nothing teaches a person the rules of power better than being excluded from it..."

 Although events in Jimmy the Terrorist happen in Northern India and deal largely  with the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, the story is applicable in any place where the communal interests of any privileged or powerful groups edge out the interests of others, pushing the latter to the margins of power or influence.  Whether these interests are political, religious or based on other economic, cultural or social factors does not matter as long as the majority maintains its status quo and sets its own interests above those of  a society as a whole.  In this sense, Jimmy the Terrorist is a very human and very global story, one that has always and probably will always continue to play out throughout the world.

The novel actually begins with its ending.  In the town of  Moazzamabad, an 18-year-old young man emerges from a movie theater, and comes across two policeman, one of them beating and threatening to rape a prostitute, while the other, an Inspector, watches from the side urging on. his colleague.  They hadn't heard him leave the theater, and decide to harass him just for being there. Although he is generally a quiet person who never seeks out trouble, "the Fates rode him at that moment," and he sticks a knife into the Inspector's belly. As the knife reaches its target, he yells “I am Jimmy the terrorist.”  The police then beat him to death. The act results in a media frenzy, but while the reporters are off chasing down the story, the narrator decides to tell the real story to one person -- but makes the point that the story of Jimmy the Terrorist can only be understood if one understands the story of his parents.  After all, "there was nobody named Jimmy in Moazzamabad, just a young man named Jamaal Ansari, son of Rafiq Ansari and Shaista Shabbir, who prepared the long road their child would one day take." And, the narrator notes, "because their story played out in Rasoolpur, he was also the story of this mohalla. And of Shabbir Manzil."

And what a story it is -- As a young man, Rafiq Ansari's parents sent him to St. Jude's, where the greatest lesson he learned is that  while "success was a small thing, social standing was the greater goal."  Rafiq's one goal in life is  to enter the Shabbir Manzil, the gathering place for intellectuals and home of what was once the most prominent Muslim family of the area.  Eventually and by accident, Rafiq's goal is met, and it just so happens that Ahmed Saeed Shabbir is on the management committee of a college with a vacancy. Coincidentally, his cousin's unmarried sister will also be joining the staff, and needs a husband. This is Shaista, who dreamed of great of academic success, but whose aspirations were ended by this same brother.  Rafiq is married into the family and into Shabbir Manzil, with a conscious understanding that he "had not really existed before the marriage..." and that he is definitely still beneath them. He is also expected to ignore the parts of his life that came before, including his own family.  When his son Jamaal is born (nicknamed Jimmy by Ahmed Saeed Shabbir),  the women of the house become the main force in Jamaal's life,  leading Rafiq to  attend prayers and commune with the other men at the local mosque.  But when eventually, Rafiq and Jamaal are separated from the Shabbir Manzil and Rafiq from his livelihood, he wants to use the space to find the "sense of honor that he had never had." 

Rafiq is always afraid of what others will think or what others will say about him, and even later when he realizes that what he must do is to show anger and "miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of the Muslims,"  tends to remain in the background in the presence of others in the mosque.  Slowly, however, he begins to understand that his ticket to regaining some of the power he'd lost after Shabbir Manzil could be found in "well-articulated anger," the product of which gave him the "kind of respect that none of his social climbing had."  Jamaal, in the meantime, grows up and watches as his father and other Muslims, descendants of the great Mughals, become increasingly marginalized in the face of the competing political, economic and social/cultural interests of the area.   Jamaal attends St. Jude's like his father, and learns the same lessons -- he is consistently tormented and bullied, even wrongly accused of theft because he is poor and because of his religion.   After finishing school, he he has plans for himself that will empower him to take control of his life, but the realities of the situation are made very clear in one brief moment that encapsulates and brings to the surface everything Jamaal has witnessed and has learned throughout his life.  It will move him from the Jamaal who was a "bit of a dreamer" to becoming Jimmy the Terrorist. 

What's important in this novel is not just the politics, not just the religious issues, but the question of what leads people to do what they do in any given circumstance.  While their actions may not make much sense to others, there is always some driving force behind decisions people make and actions that they take.  At some point in the story,  Rafiq notes that "The British are gone ... we're all free men now," not quite understanding that for the Muslims in his town, the perception was not quite the reality. It is  Muslim homes that were dynamited, Muslim businesses and livelihoods that were destroyed during the riots of the 1960s, and it was Muslims and the poor who, during the Emergency of 1975-77 became part of the target of a forced sterilization campaign. Rafiq has trouble getting a job, as employers are increasingly reluctant to hire people with Muslim names in a "bad time for the economy" when it was "stupid to be a visible minority of any sort." But it's not just Hindu/Muslim politics at work here: Jamaal witnesses his father's powerlessness -- first at Shabbir Manzil then afterward; he watches as his father changes from a rational and intellectual man to one who gains respect from saying things he doesn't really believe and perpetuating the flames of other people's anger. And as Jamaal begins to face his own issues at St. Jude's and seeks help from his trusted imam, his  concerns are lost in a discussion of politics couched in a discussion of religion, going so far as to debate the rightness of the actions of the man responsible for the Mumbai bombings.  If anything, Jamaal learns that religion isn't applicable to secular or political issues. And to be very fair, the author also notes through his characters that not all Muslims are incited to violence by religious rhetoric.   When all is said and done, this is a story of marginalization of a certain group of people by a majority ("the inheritors of the Raj") who were once marginalized themselves under the rule of another.   I read it like this: as Jamaal becomes Jimmy, he becomes the spokesman for the oppressed and the marginalized, and as such, unlike his father, is able to find a real sense of honor and meaning in his existence.  I could be wrong; like all good novels, this is a book each person needs to experience individually and define it through his or her own experiences.

I very highly recommend this novel -- it is powerful, very moving, and especially appropriate in today's world.  It is also a very thought-provoking story, so much so that now, a week after finishing it, I'm still thinking about it.  If you're expecting a novel on the inner workings of an al-Queda type person, you're not going to find it here.  But if you want something intelligent and well written, you're going to love it.

fiction from India


  1. I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds like something I'll love. Thank you for drawing it to my attention. :-)

  2. You're very welcome! It's on this year's longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, but it caught my eye some time back. The title's a bit of a red herring, actually.


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