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‘Prodigal’ by Irshad AbdulKadir reviewed by Tabish Khair: The heart of the prodigal

Irshad AbdulKadir’s Prodigal starts with a truck carrying five youths and bales of cotton cloth from Karachi to Peshawar, on their way to be “smuggled into the tribal area north-west of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formally referred to as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA.” Two of the youths, Akbar Ali, who is the main protagonist of the novel, and Bairam Afridi, strike up an instinctive friendship, exchange the facts of their lives, and disappear on to their respective missions. Both are on their way to “serve Allah” — Bairam as a mujahideen, and Akbar as... well, we are to find out soon.

Parallel worlds

The two young men are tall and well-built, physically not dissimilar, but they come from vastly different backgrounds. Sparsely educated, an orphan who has borne the blows of a “brutish uncle,” reared in poverty in a suburb of Karachi, Bairam has embraced the mujahideen cause to run away from all that — and visit the ancestral land he has only heard of.

‘Prodigal’ by Irshad AbdulKadir reviewed by Tabish Khair: The heart of the prodigal

Akbar on the other hand is a brilliant polyglot scholar, educated in the best institutions of Pakistan and the U.K., and born in an erudite and rich family. His father is the chief justice of Sind High Court and his mother the daughter of the vicar of Avebury, Wiltshire, England; his uncle a learned professor, with roots in Sufism as well as Cambridge. Endowed with natural brilliance, Akbar walks easily in all these possible and possibly parallel worlds.

As the novel proceeds, we discover through a series of ‘flashbacks’ what has brought Akbar to FATA. He is following up on his instinctive feeling for “God,” which led him from secular studies to a career in Islamic studies, including modern and classical Arabic, in both of which he is fluent. In FATA, he joins the seminary of the Sufism-influenced Jalal Baba, a man whose learning, devoutness and tribal connections protect him from too much interference by the Taliban. But all that is going to change when sometime later Akbar falls in love with the ‘wrong’ woman... and Bairam re-enters his life, this time as the local Taliban commander.

Twists and turns

The story takes other twists and turns, Akbar and Bairam meet once again, this time in England, but I have no wish to spoil the pleasure of those who read a novel for the twists in its plot. This novel contains quite a few twists, of which perhaps the final confrontation between Akbar and Bairam stretches belief, but is obviously necessitated by the fact that the two are meant to be two sides of the same coin of Islam.

Akbar’s side reminds me of cultivated supporters of Hindutva: people who talk of the Ramayana or the Gita with such sophistication and humaneness that one forgets the mobs out there beating up men — and denying them water when they are dying — because of some crime of commission or omission against the Hindutva ideology.

Akbar too delves into Islam: a firm believer, motivated by a spiritual experience, he sees in his faith the multiplicity, openness and beauty that some of the deeply religious associate with God, Ram, or Allah. Bairam, of whom we hear only when his path crosses that of Akbar, reminds me of a lynching mob of Hindutva supporters.

Deep affection

It might have been the author’s intention to narrate the many points at which Akbar and Bairam actually meet — and could potentially meet. This ends, significantly, in the death of Bairam, a committed suicide bomber, at the hands of Akbar, who finally and uncharacteristically acts in desperation. If this exploration of the proximity of two different approaches to faith and their final failure to ‘meet’ was the main purpose of the novel — and it would have been a significant endeavour in that case — then I am afraid the author seems to lose sight of that purpose at times, which diminishes the intellectual coherence of the narrative.

I cannot help wondering if this might have happened not so much because of the author’s drive to pack the novel with events and twists of plot as because of a certain hesitation to suggest an argument that could, and sadly would, be taken over by those who hate Islam. AbdulKadir tries to guard against that reading, and his deep affection for the philosophical aspects of Islam comes through in many of the discussions, some conflictual, that Akbar holds with other characters in the novel.

This is a fast-paced novel, illuminated by a serious attempt to enter the mind of a Muslim who is deeply religious but not a fanatic or a fundamentalist, let alone an Islamist: the prodigal Akbar. One of the strengths of the novel is its ability to portray the differences of class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, thinking, etc., which are just as much part of Islam as its briskly universalising tendencies.

It is also successful in making the reader participate in a thoughtful dialogue — carried out throughout its pages — between open and embracing interpretations of Islam and its orthodox and reductive versions. However, I could not help feeling that perhaps if AbdulKadir had tried to do a bit less in Prodigal, he would have achieved a bit more.

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

Prodigal; Irshad AbdulKadir, Pan Macmillan India, ₹399

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2021 11:16:01 PM |

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