Nighat M. Gandhi’s Alternative Realities speaks of the extraordinary tales of ordinary Muslim women

Love sells. The furtive kind sells better. Many summers ago when life was about affirmation and acquiescence, Ismat Chughtai came up with Lihaaf. And lo, the world was shaken out of its slumber. We were not living in times of acquiescence, after all! The fiercely independent author had done the unmentionable — she had talked of women who loved their own, of furtive touches under a quilt and of moments of stolen pleasure. Muslim society was outraged. Years later it turned out, the larger society shared the sentiments. The proof came when Deepa Mehta’s Fire, starring the redoubtable Shabana Azmi and the then upcoming Nandita Das, hit silver screens across the country. Cinema halls at many places had to thwart dharnas, at others the film’s posters were smeared with black ink. The show went on. But it almost didn’t.

Times, they have changed. Quietly, with barely a ripple. Tranquebar recently released Nighat M. Gandhi’s book, Alternative Realities, which talks of “love in the lives of Muslim women”. In the decades gone by, it would have been a head-turner; for many, it would have been worthy of a sermon. Not so today despite the fact that it is not just the usual love stories that Gandhi talks of — boy meets girl, they fall in love, their parents object and ultimately love conquers all. That kind of love is for escapist cinema. For Gandhi, love is a four letter word. Forbidden love is more tempting, more tantalising. She disdains the conventional and is hooked to the extraordinary tales of ordinary Muslim women in the Indian subcontinent. These women love across the barriers of religion, region, caste and even mock at gender stereotypes.

For reasons easy to understand and harder to appreciate, she chooses to highlight the story of Nisho, who considers herself a woman in love with a man, except that she is not quite a woman. Yet she is in love with a man, seven-eight years older to her, a man who professes love but who cannot marry her.

“Who hasn’t been in love? At least once in their lifetime?...People think only a man and a woman can make a couple…But, the truth is, anybody can fall in love with anybody. A man can fall in love with a man, a woman can fall in love with a woman. But society doesn’t accept such love,” Gandhi quotes Nisho in the chapter Rakhee Sawant of Sind. It is a story of alternative love, the one destined to be doomed in a society where those born different are regarded as either deviants, or worse, hijras.

Then, there is the more engaging story of Firdaus, a feminist who can walk out of a loveless marriage but cannot give up on love, with or without marriage. Here Gandhi begins by quoting from Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s widely read Behashti Zevar, where he advises that women should not be taught to write! Firdaus, obviously — thankfully too — would have none of it and happily talks of how her mother burnt all books at home following the imprisonment of the noted poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, holding literature to be the refuge of the escapist. The collection of Firdaus’s father was burnt too. Firdaus, though, hid hers. Years later, when her first novel was published her father advised her: “Keep writing. You’ll save yourself a lot of suffering.”

For a while, the fate of Firdaus reminded me of our own Salma, the talented Tamil writer who had to withdraw from school when she reached puberty; had her books and magazines burnt or sold as waste paper, and initially, had to write under a pseudonym — she was born Rokkiah — to avoid recognition. It was a classic case of what Oscar Wilde said about a classic artist: reveal art and conceal the artist. Salma, more appropriately, Rokkiah, though could not remain concealed for long. She went on to carve her own niche.

So too would Firdaus, Nisho and others featured in this book. Gandhi too. She talks of her unconventional love story in an unabashed manner; the distance in time and place helping her locate it better. All of this adds up to tell us, ever so quietly, that times, they are a changing.

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