A Muslim Teacher Gets Caught in the Rising Tensions of India’s Hindu Nationalism

Anjum Hasan, author of "History’s Angel," on how hardline positions seem ordinary in in uncertain times

History's Angels by Anjum Hasan

Alif, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s latest novel History’s Angel, is borne by historical forces into an increasingly catastrophic future for India’s Muslims, even as his face remains turned toward the “reputedly more enlightened” and accommodating past. By profession and temperament a scholar of history, Alif’s perspective provides both solace and a heightened sense of tragedy amid the maelstrom of rising religious fundamentalism and exploitative capitalism that beset contemporary Indian society. Alif himself becomes targeted by these forces when a seemingly innocuous incident—where he twists the ear of a student who abused him for being a Muslim—jeopardizes his career, even as his family and community are affected by violence. At the same time, Alif’s tender feeling for the past—and his enduring love of the poetry it produced—emphasize his human complexity and dignity in a world determined to deny these qualities.

A portrait of an individual as well as a nation in transition, History’s Angel traces the fading of the secular promise of the Indian nation—and the richness of its multifaith culture—under its current, Hindu nationalist regime, and the growing intolerance in society.

Anjum Hasan’s previous books similarly chart stories of marginalized outsiders in twenty-first India: her first two novels, Lunatic in My Head and Neti, Neti: Not This, Not This, trace the trajectories of migrants in multi-ethnic Shillong in India’s northeast, and a rapidly globalizing Bangalore, amid a time of growing communal tension. In History’s Angel, she explores this rising tension in New Delhi, the national capital—once the site of an idealistic, multicultural renaissance, and now the site of the erasure. Yet in chronicling this erasure, History’s Angel exemplifies and makes a case for the role of literature in preserving the marginal and diverse aspects of a society. 

I spoke with Anjum Hasan over email about the growing narrowness of the present, and the ability of literature to preserve and restore some of that historical and cultural scope.

Pritika Pradhan: In History’s Angel, Alif consistently takes the long historical view of a given situation —envisioning, for instance, the multicultural history of Hindustan when faced with the Hindu nationalist idea of “Mother Bharat,” or the “New Learning” of early 19th-century Delhi, with its blend of English, Persian, and Arabic literatures, against the fundamentalist agenda of his school principal Mrs. Rawat. In what ways does his historical perspective enable Alif to deal with the present, while also making him more vulnerable to those wishing to suppress India’s diverse heritage?

Anjum Hasan: He likes to daydream about the pageant through the ages of India’s long past, a bit like Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India, a book he admires. It gives him a way of insulating himself from the tawdriness of the desires that surround him. He also knows that the past is more complex and it effects more transformative then we imagine, that it cannot really be divided into conquerors and conquered, good guys and bad, as some of the current propagandists of the Indian past would like to think. This gives him a superiority that turns out to be redundant because he is a brooder, really, always getting caught on the wrong foot by “the forces of humourlessness,” in Martin Amis’s great phrase. 

PP: The incident that marks the turning point for Alif—his twisting the ear of a student, Ankit, who abused him for being a Muslim—echoes India’s communal violence in relatively minor, farcical mode (Ankit’s calling the Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb a Hanuman temple recalls the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid for allegedly occupying the site of a Ram temple). Could you tell us more about how communal violence has percolated in Indian society to the point where it is weaponized by a child—with devastating effects for Alif’s life and career?

AH: The child, Ankit, is definitely a bit of a scamp but Alif is also fond of him till he finds himself pulling him up—and later regretting it. Hanuman-Humayun could be a genuine mix up or it could be a ploy but in any case there is something untamable about this child. He comes from a poor family and shields himself from adults by channeling the rumors he hears into grand untruths. 

PP: While imagining the past often stirs people to action, as the novel’s narrator says, Alif’s historical perspective does not stir him to action, but instead makes him an observer. In what ways are his acute perceptiveness and historical view connected to his outward inaction? What role do the non-action oriented, intellectual qualities of observation, imagination, and contemplation have in India’s narrowing and turbulent present? 

AH: Alif would just like to be left alone to get his students fired up about the cross-currents that go into making history, especially India’s history. He can’t be roused into becoming a man of action, as his friend Miss Moloy’s hopes. Nor is he, unlike any well-meaning middle-class person, inspired to “make it”. And so, of course, he’s something of an anachronism. 

Contemplation or, let’s say, an ambivalent soul, is quaint these days. Even in the arts, things feel like they’re becoming more outward-facing and certain of their message. So this sort of ineffectual, intellectual drifter has, perhaps, a romantic attraction for me. Even if it can mean, sometimes, not being up to doing much about the state of one’s world.  

PP: Some of the novel’s most beautiful and affecting moments arise when Alif and his cousin Mir recall Urdu poetry, a legacy of India’s multifaith culture (such as Mohammad Iqbal’s “Hindi hain ham/vatan hai Hindustan hamara”). What is the relationship between poetry—and literature in general—and history as depicted in the novel? In what ways does literature complement history as a chronicle and a guiding force in society?

AH: That’s a great question. We need poetry to puncture illusions of grandeur and keep us from completely selling out, it’s a necessary safety valve. The little Urdu poetry I know seems suited to this ironical, humanist position. But what if literature is tied to an overt politics as in fact happened in Iqbal’s case, when he started to write about his vision of a modern, democratic and yet deeply spiritual polity based on God’s laws rather than manmade ones – and hoped to see such a thing come into being.

PP: While literature may offer subtle guidance in the form of contemplativeness and complicated questions, many characters are depicted as “seeking the certainty” of religious fundamentalism—such as Ahmad (Alif’s parents’ companion and help), or his friend Prerna’s increasingly devout Hindu family. What are the dangers of this search for certainty? In what ways do fundamentalisms mirror each other across religions, to the detriment of the country’s multi-faith heritage?

AJ: There is definitely a loss of imagination on both sides—a wish to cut out all the dynamism and doubt that faith implies. What sort of people does religion make us? It seems to Alif that a decent combination would be devoutness and humility, as in his grandfather’s case, or faith tempered with a “God-helps-those-who-help-themselves” briskness as in his mother’s. Neither would be thrilled about the more restrictive aspects of Islam. But there is also a way in which this live and let live outlook is easily corrupted. In uncertain times, it does not seem to take very much to make the hardline position seem like the ordinary one. 

PP: The novel’s largely contemplative tone is punctuated by harrowing acts of communal violence. In both cases Alif reflects how individuals—being the wrong person at the wrong place—are rendered ineffective by larger historical forces of hatred and violence. What is the role of the individual in the face of historical forces? Are individuals condemned to be swept along, or do they have the capacity to resist, and affect change?

AH: One tries to explore the psychic landscape of violence and pull in both positions: sticking one’s neck out and keeping one’s head low. The inspiration is novels that are pictures of a society at large rather than expressions of just one stand. The great Russians, of course, were past masters of this—Brothers Karamazov reads like a very long conversation on justifying one’s philosophies and actions, for instance— but among contemporaries, writers like Orhan Pamuk and Yiyun Li fascinate me for their being able to show the individual as, even if not always made helpless by history, definitely conditioned by it. 

PP: Despite his historical perceptiveness, Alif remains at a loss regarding how to connect with the women in his life—his ambitious wife Tahira, whom he identifies with the present world of commerce, and Prerna, whom he failed to “save” from an assault years ago, and whom he sees as “part of the history of womanhood.” Could you tell us more about the contrasting roles of these women in the novel? Do their complicated presences reflect the silencing or erasure of women’s voices in history, including the histories that Alif recalls? 

We need poetry to puncture illusions of grandeur and keep us from completely selling out, it’s a necessary safety valve.

AH: The women are much more self-possessed and aware of what they want than Alif, who is often misreading them. But, yes, Prerna and Tahira are at odds, the first tied to her past, the second besotted with the future. I guess from Alif’s point of view these two represent two different kinds of contemporary disappointments. He sets up Prerna as a poetic character and Tahira as a worldly one but both make compromises that show them to be somewhat out of the grasp of his imagination. 

PP: Ironically, Alif ends up having to join the world of commerce of his wife Tahira and his son Salim, in the wake of communal violence. Could you tell us more about this entwinement of commerce and religious fundamentalism in India? What does this mean in terms of the novel’s—and Alif’s—continuing engagement with history?

AH: It’s a commerce that feels both hollow and out of control—Ganesh gripes about how ridiculously fast skills get obsolete in the tech industry, while Tahira is unsure how to improve her job prospects. The cult of progress, as Walter Benjamin saw, can sever our link to the past. And so though we imagine we are rooted in that past and we constantly idealize it, our desires show we are all part of the same historical moment that is crazily and constantly projecting into the future. 

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