There’s a saying in Hindi which goes: dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka. The washerman's dog doesn't know where he belongs, whether at home or at the ghats with his master. Farzana Versey's maiden novel is a lot like that because it deals with the plight of Muslims in India. In certain sections of Indian society it is believed that the Indian Muslim community harbours a not so secret wish to separate from the union and create another country. This is partially a result of the growing Hindutva movement.
Indian Muslims are constantly regarded with suspicion and treated with a certain degree of caution. And that was before Godhra and the successive bomb blasts. This suspicion in fact goes deep into the heart of the country’s foundations, so much so that there is hardly any Muslim representation in India's armed forces and there are no Muslim officers in the country’s premier intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Versey’s immediate family did not move across the border when Partition was declared. However, as in many Muslim families, a host of aunts, uncles and cousins did. The one who stayed behind were curious to find out what had happened to the ones who went across and vice versa. Versey finally gave into curiosity and began to travel across the border, only to find that nothing was quite as she or anyone else had imagined it. “When I was on the soil of the land of the pure, my impurity struck me. I was the emotional mulatto,” she writes.
In her prologue she describes how a retired army general, hearing her visa had lapsed, told her, “You need to be deported”. Versey sensed a deep resentment in his voice and tone, which was directed not against India, but against Versey’s identity as an Indian Muslim. Oddly enough Indian Muslims in Pakistan are treated with a strange kind of contempt and are not even given the respect that Pakistani Hindus get. According to Pakistani logic, any Muslim living in a country of Hindus by choice has to be a kafir or an infidel.
At one level this book is a travelogue - it begins with a journey that was cut short because a visa expired. However, it differs from most conventional travelogues by being a collection of snippets from the many journeys made by the author to Pakistan between April 2001 and May 2007. The journeys reflect the changing geopolitical landscape of the subcontinent. Versey’s reportage encompasses time frames covering 9/11, NATO in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Gujarat, Karachi and Lal Masjid - to name a few of the issues hitting the headlines during her trips.
With this as a flexible dramatic and quick changing backdrop, she describes her conflicting encounters with politics, nationalities and genders, through a series of interactions with Pakistanis, mostly male, from various social strata. As a woman she can and cannot be alone with certain types of men - she may have male relatives, but not male friends, for example. However, she manages to rise above those basic problems to meet celebrities and cultural icons as she peers into the nooks and crannies of Pakistani society.
They call it the “land of the pure" but hiding in and out of the cupboard are gays, junkies and other kinds of what we refer to as 'minorities’. And then there are the artists jostling for space on the periphery of a society that may or may not accept them. Versey interviews the legendary poet Ahmed Faraz and finds that despite the pain in his poetry, Faraz is sympathetic to Musharraf. “His experience and observations have forced him to believe that democracy does not mean condoning the acts of democrats. When the dishonesty goes too far the army, he feels, fills the vacuum.” Another poet gave up writing altogether because it was simpler than being faced with what national opinion declared was acceptable.
While Pakistani youngsters wriggle their snake hips to latest Bollywood hits and stick Shah Rukh Khan posters over old ones of Osama bin Laden, being anti-Indian is an important part of Pakistan’s national identity. The nation’s own journey through history has been interrupted by Army dictatorships, political mismanagement and Islamist jihadism. 'Every few years,’ Versey says, ' Pakistan writes a new fiction' - this is necessary to give the Pakistanis a national raison d'etre. Sown into that story are the perceived travails of being an Indian Muslim. The book is 'about Pakistan, but it is also about India. It is about Them and Us, Her/Him and Me’, writes Versey.
And of course, there is the matter of Kashmir, which is an integral part of the interrupted journey of both nations. Versey describes Kashmir as a trap into which she could not escape falling. Kasmir is part and parcel of the confusion, where politics between the two nations has divided ordinary people who would be quite happy coexisting together at friendly dinners without having blasts disrupt their lives.
There are things one can argue with - the last section, for example which is a history of Partition seems a little unnecessary is so personal a book - but one has to admire the unique viewpoint. At a time when Pakistani writing is being universally admired comes a book, which deals with the provocative question of 'being Indian in Pakistan’.
At one level the book is an attempt to break through the stereotypes that exists on both sides of the border. Versey tries gallantly but, in the end, the similarities defeat her. Out of curiosity, she travels to Wagah to watch the Beating the Retreat ceremony from the Pakistani side of the border. She is unsettled by what she describes as the 'unsheathed anger and the charade of candlelit peace’ and finds the 'proximity' and not the distance disturbing. The real interrupted journey is Versey's search for her real identity as a Muslim, as an Indian and as a woman. A journey which in the end is unfulfilled, mainly because she looks for her identity in Pakistan, a country where the national identity is equalled interrupted. Neither ghar ka, na ghat ka.