Muslims become ‘the other’
Anjum Hasan’s new novel History’s Angel is a poignant representation of the increasingly precarious lives of Muslims in contemporary India where they are perceived as suspicious and foreign. This novel does not focus on incidents of horrific communal carnage which has been the traumatic legacy of Partition and continuing religious conflict in postcolonial India. Instead, the novel depicts how the business of everyday life, work, housing, and education have become unsustainable for a religious minority.
The protagonist of Hasan’s novel is a middle-aged, history teacher, Alif, who has no materialistic ambitions but is genuinely invested in igniting a passion for the past in his students to make them more critically conscious of the present. He often deviates from school syllabi and rules to take his students on field trips to Delhi’s abundant historical monuments, to make history come alive for them.
On one occasion when he is visiting Humayun’s Tomb with his students, a young student Ankit, seems to be intentional in provoking Alif, first by insisting that Humayun’s Tomb is a temple of the Hindu god Hanuman and then accusing Alif of being a dirty Muslim. This perhaps expectedly provokes Alif to twist Ankit’s ears, following which Ankit disappears and causes a great deal of stress for the touring students and their teacher. The Delhi Police is contacted, and the school principal gets involved. The child is soon found; however, the incident becomes the catalyst for the unraveling of Alif’s previously fulfilling vocation as a history teacher.
The incident at Humayun’s Tomb draws the attention of the new principal Mrs. Rawat to Alif’s unconventional teaching style. She immediately suspends him and convenes a committee to investigate the matter citing violation of school policy in the use of physical punishment to a student.
In the meantime, Alif feels a distancing from his wife Tahira, who unlike him is pursuing an MBA in the quest for better material standards in life. His son, Salim too does not have any interest in history or an academic life in general and is negotiating with him to quit his studies after high school to begin a business. His parents are vaguely disappointed in his lack of ambitions.
All of these aspects of his life leave Alif feeling alienated. He is also conflicted about his only friend and drinking buddy Ganesh’s love life. He is on the verge of rekindling a romantic interest in an old flame Prerna, who had been involved with and then abandoned by Ganesh. This is prompted by Alif’s increasing sense of purposelessness in life and his growing distance from Tahira.
Unlike Alif, Tahira believes in education and hard work as a path to a consumerist utopia in India. However, her hopes for more modern housing and an escape from the enclave of old Delhi are dashed in a humiliating quest for new housing. Alif and Tahira are insulted by the potential home seller and made to feel inadequate due to their cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Everyday aspects of life like eating meat and wearing hijab become markers of otherness and undesirability as potential buyers in a tight housing market in Delhi.
Alif does have one friend and ally, his colleague Miss. Moloy, who is a follower of the reformist Brahmo Samaj, committed to rationalism rather than old Hindu idolatry. With her, he visits Ankit’s family only to realize that the boy is being raised by a grandfather who is a kind of astrologer. The family knows that Ankit is a habitual liar and has no intention of suing the school for the physical punishment that Alif has meted out to him.
It seems for a while that Alif will be able to succeed in counteracting the charges brought against him. However, that hope fizzles out when Alif realizes how much Mrs. Rawat hates him for teaching “too much Muslim history.” She is re-fashioning the school, stripping it of its previously secular aura, and instituting pujas as part of school functions. In such a shift in climate, there is no space for a teacher of Muslim history.
In the end, Alif is contemplating his cousin’s offer of getting involved with a shoe store business, signifying perhaps his survival instinct, albeit a loss of vocation and identity.
Although fictional this novel resonates with the climate of censorship that has overshadowed the teaching of history in India. Recently, major sections of Islamic history have been removed from NCERT school textbooks, including sections on the banning of RSS after Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Gandhi.
No longer a space for a Muslim teacher of Indian history
In the context of these events, the events in Alif’s life seem highly possible. There is no longer a space for a Muslim teacher of Indian history. History is being used deliberately to erode India of its multireligious ethos. The novel laments the irrevocable loss of such a predicament. The ending of the novel suggests the survival of Indian Muslims perhaps in diasporic communities in the West or the Middle East, but also expresses a sense of loss for the implications of this for the India that is left behind.
By Anjum Hasan
Bloomsbury, July 2023