Thursday, June 30, 2011

Saeed Akhtar Mirza's Ammi

Ammi: letter to a democratic mother

‘…in the twentieth century
grief lasts at most a year.’

I have used this quote from the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet as a prelude to a small tale before I go on to the War in iraq. The reason I chose to use this quote is because I wonder how long grief lasts in the twenty-first century. Is it now a month? Two weeks? Or just enough time for the television cameras to record it and then it’s over? I don’t know.

It is the early 1930s. There has been a Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Turkey is on its way to progress under the leadership of Kemal Attaturk.  Two years have passed since the British Empire hung the troika of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru

Three young people in the moufassil town of Sibi discuss the ramifications of these events and their impact on India’s fight for freedom. Which path should they follow? Which path will India follow?

‘Are you a communist, Madanlal sahib?’
‘I don’t know, but I agree with Bhagat Singh.’
‘I too think he was a good man…’
‘But.’ Madanlal smiled. ‘There’s always a “but” when people talk about revolutionaries, isn’t there Nusrat sahib?’
‘Yes, there is. I think I prefer the path of Khan Sahib. He wants the British out too.’
‘I don’t know how you can say that. Khan Sahib and Gandhiji are playing their game. You need to create your own rules. You have to fight the British and kick them out. That’s what is required. You talk about Kemal Ataturk with such fondness. All he had to do was go one step further and he would have reached the position of Bhagat Singh.’

It is these interesting conversations and personal recollections that lend such charm to Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s debut novel Ammi: letter to a democratic mother. Written as a letter to his dead mother, the book is part memoir, part reflections, part history... there is even a screenplay. Fictionalising the life of his parents, Mirza discusses the Muslim identity and the prejudices and challenges Muslims face post 9/11. Turning the pages of Islamic history, Mirza reveals the vibrant and progressive face of Islam that has, of late, been overshadowed by a narrower outlook that gives no space for questioning. The book’s set agenda makes it quite polemical in part, however, the story of Jahanara and Nusrat, of two young people trying to make their way in this world is engrossing enough to put in shade everything else. 

There are many beautiful passages in the novel but the one that resonated the most is one which, in fact, describes a tragedy - the killer quake that reduced Quetta to rubbles:

When he reached Quetta, it was as if the town didn’t exist. Most of it had been flattened and reduced to rubble. There was not a locality, a neighbourhood that was not badly affected. The only part left standing almost untouched, was the British garrison beyond the encircling ditch. There were thousands of corpses lying around and thousands more waiting to be discovered beneath the debris. Hundreds of dead bodies had been carted away. There was a wave of wailing and a stench that surrounded the city as the living and the wounded tried desperately to look for family and friends. British troopers and officers could be seen everywhere helping with the relief work. Nusrat rushed around trying to locate Jahanara’s home. The earthquake had leveled all signs of identification. As he ran down street, he saw a half-building suddenly come down in a haze of dust. He turned a corner to see a man screaming as he stood over the corpses of five people.

My grandfather lost members of his family in this quake. I visualise him running around like Nusrat Beg, screaming and searching, as the corpses stank, the wails grew louder, and hope sank...



First Line:                               Salaam alaikum Ammi
                                                When you died on the morning of the 
                                                7th of February, 1990, you did so
                                                without a fuss and in silence.

Author:                                    Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Publication details:                  Chennai: Tranquebar, 2008.

First Published:                       2008

Pages:                                     viii + 307


Ammi: letter to a democratic mother is available in bookstores and on the net. I borrowed it from Delhi Public library, Vinoba Puri.

First entry for the Borrowed Book challenge. Also submitted for A - Z reading challenge. Thru with the letter A.

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