In Hindutva heaven: Sudhanva Deshpande reviews Saeed Naqvi’s ‘The Muslim Vanishes’

The Muslim Vanishes works brilliantly as polemical literature but, sadly, not as theatre

Published - March 26, 2022 04:00 pm IST

It’s an explosive premise. What if India, with the second largest Muslim population in the world, were to wake up one day to find that all Muslims have disappeared? And not only Muslims, but even their monuments, such as the Qutub Minar? Saeed Naqvi’s characters are as baffled as we, the readers, are. Turns out though that not all characters have been stunned into inaction. Dalits and other Avarnas have moved in swiftly, taking over the properties and assets of the disappeared Muslims. It is the privileged who are confused and paralysed.

One of them, Anita, wife of a journalist and daughter-in-law of a politician, is quite pleased that the Muslims have disappeared, since she imagines that their properties, businesses and assets can now be distributed among the Hindu poor, to create a kind of socialist utopia. She’s perplexed, as the play progresses, when this doesn’t come to pass — it turns out that an exclusivist, anti-Muslim Hinduism doesn’t go well with socialism. Her husband Brajesh asks her: “Have you ever considered the thought of Savarnas, people like us, facing an assault from the Avarnas, the Dalits?”

The political triangle

The play opens in a television studio. Given the author’s decades-long, distinguished career as a journalist, this is perhaps expected. As a framing device, it is also convenient, since it not only allows a large number of diverse events to be relayed to the reader, but also allows us a peek into the characters’ bafflement. And events unfold rapidly. For instance, we learn of the Rehmani brothers, accused of being terrorists, being shot just as they were to take the stand in court. Now, if all Muslims had disappeared, how were the Rehmani brothers still around? Could it be that they were actually not Muslim at all, or that Muslims decided to leave behind crooks, rapists, murderers and terrorists to torment Hindus? Before we can get into any of this, though, we learn that the Pakistan High Commission has sent an ambulance to the court, claiming their bodies, leading to a minor diplomatic crisis.

The disappearance of Muslims upends the traditional social hierarchies. Shuklaji, Anita’s father-in-law, laments that now menial people can walk into his portico without taking off their shoes and even sit on a chair without seeking permission. This is perhaps the least of it. Without Muslim support, Shuklaji is no longer certain of winning elections. This could lead to Dalits and other Avarnas taking power. When this becomes apparent, Brajesh — Shuklaji’s son, Anita’s husband, and senior journalist himself — who had so far appeared secular and liberal, snaps. “Stop being stupid,” he says to his naive, confused, idealist wife. “If the vote goes against the ruling classes in the next elections, we will have no choice but to revolt against the constitution.”

Meanwhile, events escalate — the Pakistan High Commission returns the bodies because, it claims, the brothers were not actually Muslim; Avarnas continue to take over properties and businesses left behind by the departed Muslims; Dalits begin claiming their share of the political pie; there is discord among the three Election Commissioners on whether elections can be held without 200 million Muslims casting their votes.

The absurdities mount, giving the play its political and comic zest, and forcing us to reconsider long-held assumptions. The main interconnection the author wants us to see is the one between the three sides of the political triangle that has shaped Indian political and social life since Independence and Partition — the Hindu-Muslim relation; the Kashmir question; and India’s relationship with Pakistan. And then there is India’s deep-rooted caste pyramid that structures all aspects of life.

Too many actions

In order to bring out these interconnections, and to underline the richness of India’s syncretic past, Naqvi stages a trial where the jury is composed of historical figures such as Amir Khusro, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Mahatma Phule, and others. This device of the imaginary trial allows the author to explicate his own deeply humane, learned, caring world view and to make a plea for sanity amidst the insanity of our world today.

The Muslim Vanishes works as polemical literature, but does it work as a play? Sadly not. There are too many characters, many of them popping up only to allow the author to make a certain point and then disappearing without a trace. There are too many actions in too many locales that the author doesn’t know how to stage, so he suggests that they be filmed and projected instead, making me shudder thinking of the hypothetical budget of the play.

But where the play really fails is in its inability to give its antagonists credible, powerful, believable voices. In their absence, the protagonists, particularly in the trial scenes, end up delivering homilies that are informative, but hardly the stuff of riveting drama. A last quibble, directed more at the publisher, Penguin: Ten well-known people blurb the book, but not one of them is a theatre person, or a woman.

The reviewer is an actor, publisher and author.

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