Table for two Metroplus

When the journey is not a cakewalk...

Irfan Ahmad at Monsoon restaurant in New Delhi’s Le Meridien Photo Sandeep Saxena

Irfan Ahmad at Monsoon restaurant in New Delhi’s Le Meridien Photo Sandeep Saxena

Simplicity could be the middle name of Irfan Ahmad, he with “Islamism and Democracy in India” under his belt and “Religion As Critique” on the anvil. Sitting at Le Meridien’s Monsoon restaurant on cool winter evening, Irfan gets sucked into the mood of the place. There is stillness about the place, an easy quietude that lends itself to reflection. The restaurant with its soft lights, grey shades evokes melancholy, so much so that wistfulness could sneak in unannounced. Irfan digs in. Looking at the smoothly moving traffic outside, he goes down memory lane when life was young and challenges aplenty. “We used to take a bus of route number 615 to go from JNU to Connaught Place. At that time I had often seen Meridien but never stepped inside,” he recalls his days at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

There is more to come. Now well settled as an academic in Melbourne, Irfan shares with us an interesting incident involving his first major break in the world of academics.

“I was wearing chappals with jeans and kurta as I went to meet my would-be superior from the Netherlands at the Imperial hotel. The guard won’t allow me inside. He had probably seen me getting down from the bus. However, I noticed from his accent that he was from Bihar. I started speaking to him in English and he let me in. In our country, so many doors open if you speak English.”

That interview in the Imperial took him to the Netherlands for close to eight years before he went Down Under. Along the way, came his landmark study of Jamaat-e-Islami and a nice peep into the world of Maulana Maududi. First Princeton, then Rukun Advani got interested in the book which moved steadily off the shelves. Irfan discusses all over this cappuccino, Meridien’s signature starter, with something cool, something hot, everything refreshing. I love the drink; Irfan merely likes it.

Soon over sips of orange juice he resumes his journey. “I come from a village near the Indo-Nepal border. We had no electricity. I studied at a madarsa for five years then went to a middle school close by. On the way to school those days there was a stretch when the road would disappear during the monsoon. As a boy I would take off my trousers and cross that stretch with my cycle resting on my shoulder.”

As he waded across every day, he gained in grades. Soon he moved to Patna for matriculation and beyond. Then came a move to JNU followed soon after with shifting to the Netherlands, It must have been a steep climb, a kind of a cultural shock for a village boy. Digging into his chicken and fish tikkas, Irfan comes up with a revelation. “No, it was not such a major shock moving to the Netherlands. The bigger shock was shifting from Bihar to JNU. Back home, we did not interact much with women. Here I found boys and girls moving around at midnight in shorts and T-shirt and nobody bothered. Then the language some of the ladies used was a bit of a shock too.”

Life was no cakewalk in Amsterdam either. “I used to teach in two college in two cities on the same day. I would start my day around six in the morning. There six in the morning in winters is like midnight here. Take a class in my college, then take a tube, take another class and be back in the evening.”

As he finishes off his gilauti with a relish, the staff inquires if he would like vegetarian main meal or non-vegetarian. Typical of the man, Irfan simply says, “Main vegetarian le leta hun but I prefer non-vegetarian. I like fish and chicken; mutton or lamb less so.”

From Amsterdam to Melbourne. That must have been easier. “In a way, yes. But initially, there was not a lot of awareness about India there beyond the Indian circles. Over the past five-six years, things have started changing there. Now, you can get Indian food every where. But the biggest change came with the victory of Modi in 2014. Most Indians celebrated. And when he went there as the PM, the local trains made announcements in Hindi, even greeting people on Diwali.”

Soon we have simmering chicken biryani on our table. There is methi-chicken qorma too with a variety of breads.

The biryani comes with an airtight covering of bread, something which mildly interests Irfan. As he begins with qorma, I ask him about his experience of writing “Islamism and Democracy”. “It took a long time. I went to so many places, so many madarsas, universities, etc. Through the book, I understood Maududi. You know, initially he was not in favour of a leadership role for women. He wanted them to limit their political involvement to voting. But after he went to Pakistan, he supported Fatima Jinnah.”

And Dr. Israr Ahmed? “He was more radical in a way, his was a pure approach to Islam. But I have not studied him the same way.”

And what about Tabligh-i-Jamaat? “They have a huge network, presence in so many countries. But they are concerned more about namaz-roza. They do not study the world systems, etc.”

As he shifts his attention to biryani, I ask him about his next project. He is obviously working on a new book. “It is called ‘Religion, As Critique’ I am 80 per cent done.” Then there is a volume he is editing.

Meanwhile, he has to catch up with his roots in Muzaffarpur before he embarks on his Melbourne journey. Irfan has come a long way, and maybe, got miles to go still.

“Yes, after my photograph appeared in a newspaper recently, one of my professors remarked, ‘Tumhara achcha hai, Melbourne mein rehte ho aur Dilli mein chhapte rehte ho’.”

Here is more writing, happy reading. As for desserts, well, there is always the next meeting!


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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 8:32:21 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/When-the-journey-is-not-a-cakewalk.../article14010182.ece