The backdrop is impeccable, the storyline has its heart in the right place but the book is let down by its protagonist.
Till about a couple of decades ago, Indian fiction in English carefully avoided the more unpleasant socio-political realities of the day. An ever-expanding market for Indian writers and increasingly easier oscillation between journalism and fiction has obviated that particular hurdle. Jimmy the Terrorist belongs firmly to the genre of fiction that goes into places where journalism cannot venture, connecting dots and colouring the spaces in a way possible only in the imagination.
So no surprises that Moazzamabad, where the drama of Jimmy plays out, also belongs to the imagination; a composite of small towns in Uttar Pradesh that find themselves gradually cleaved along religious lines. But perhaps that is an overstatement, for Moazzamabad is merely backdrop.
Author Omair Ahmad sets his focus even tighter, to the self-contained locality of Rasoolpur, and the family of Shabbir Manzil, de facto leaders of the mohalla.
That is as far as Rafiq Ansari's sights go as well: Born into an ordinary local family, Shabbir Manzil is the extent of his ambitions and they all seem within his reach when he marries Shaista, a distantly related daughter of the house. Their only child is Jamaal, aka Jimmy of the title.
It's tempting but facile — and ultimately self-defeating — to read Rafiq or Jamaal's story as Every Muslim's, but Jimmy certainly captures the growing alienation of the minority community with a careful brush. Ahmad stretches his story out over the most crucial years of India's post-Independence history, from the Emergency to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, recording in painstaking detail each little slip and slide, each little shift and hardening of the North Indian Muslim perspective.
Ostensibly narrated by a nameless resident of Rasoolpur to a visiting media person, the story follows a straightforward chronological order, mentioning with nonchalance the evening gatherings at Shabbir Manzil, when “Lal Sahib was the only Hindu among them”, or the incredulity with which the mohalla greeted the rabble-rousers alleging Muslim-specific vasectomies during the Emergency.
This is also the strongest part of the book, when Ahmad is most in control of the arc of his story, thanks no doubt to painstaking research.
Subsequent chapters see Rafiq's personal life spiral out of control and out of his chosen orbit till a series of accidents leads to him teaching in an Islamic school.
“He was in the hands of God now. It was a disguise that grew on him…. Rafiq realized that the anger he expressed, even if he believed none of it, gave him a sort of power. Now that he had lost access to Shabbir Manzil, he found that he liked to sit among the serious people at the mosque after the prayers and discuss the trials and tribulations of Muslims.”
In that sense, Rafiq's character is more carefully delineated, more rounded, even, than Jamaal's. Always a reticent child and then a lonely adolescent, his disaffection with the existing social order, culminating with his ultimate act of violence, is somehow less convincing than his father's story.
We see Jamaal face a pile-up of secular meanness, little schoolboy humiliations that cause him to withdraw into a shell, distancing himself even from his father, but there are also the watchful, sympathetic adults that Rafiq was never privileged enough to experience. The final trigger — a re-run of Bandit Queen — seems especially weak, unheralded by any previous mention of films or even popular culture at large.
In the end, Jimmy is perhaps let down most by its protagonist. Ahmad's backdrop is impeccable, the storyline has its heart in the right place, the author's earnestness reaches out across the pages, making you want to like the story but the baggage of history bends the unrealised Jimmy out of shape, weakening the novel and holding it back short of its ambition.
Jimmy the Terrorist, Omair Ahmad, Penguin, Rs. 350.