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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Religious extremism takes unexpected forms

Saborna Roychowdhury’s second novel has been gathering critical acclaim for exploring the volatile issue of why women and men get involved in religious extremism that espouses violence. Texas-based Black Rose Writing published Everything Here Belongs To You‘ in 2022.

Roychowdhury tackles the issue in a middle-class Bengali Hindu family that employs a Muslim village girl as a servant in their Kolkata home after she loses her mother. The Sens take 6-year-old Mumtaz into their household and give her food and shelter, at a cost. She must relinquish her Muslim identity and take on the Hindu name of Parul.

Roychowdhury’s depiction of the Sen’s double standards is skillful. Ma and Baba see themselves as generous saviors of Parul, without ever acknowledging the tremendous deprivations of the child’s life: alienation from her natal family and losing her religious and cultural identity.

Not quite sisters

In childhood, Mohini, the daughter of the household, befriends Parul. But their lives separate as Mohini grows up and pursues higher education. Parul’s life continues with humdrum daily chores and no possibility of any change to her economic or social status.

As Parul grows older, her father constantly makes financial demands on her to support her sisters. She even contributes to the marriage expenses of a younger sister. Parul’s father has no intention of arranging her marriage since her employment as an unmarried maid provides the financial security that their rural family depends on.  

This shocking reality sinks in when Parul attends her sister’s wedding. She realizes that they only regard her as an instrument of economic upliftment – not as a family member or fellow human.

Finding a friend

Parul sinks into a state of abject despair after her sister’s wedding. When she returns to Mohini’s home, she notices a Muslim man – the manager of a printing press in a section of the house. Parul feels compelled to make his acquaintance.

At first, he rebuffs her, but she tells him that her true name is Mumtaz. She claims she wants to regain her Muslim identity through prayer and purification. The young man, Rahim, accepts her as a follower of the same faith.

They strike up a friendship that develops into romantic intimacy. Parul finds out that the police murdered Rahim’s brother in custody- the catalyst which turns Rahim into an Islamic radical.

The first step to radical

Although Rahim runs a printing press, his real work is to mobilize Muslim youth in neighborhoods against the Hindu majority. Parul’s romantic tryst with Rahim starts her gradual induction into religious extremism.

Under Rahim’s tutelage, Parul creates chaos by subtler means in the intimate domestic space she occupies.

She turns her attention to Michael, a young American who has come to learn to wrestle from Baba. Parul’s initial infractions seem minor. But things come to a head when Rahim forces her to escalate her attacks.

Religious extremism on fire

The Sens throw Parul out as gossip grows about her association with men at the printing press. Parul moves in temporarily with Rahim’s sister who warns her to disavow Rahim’s religious extremism. She offers Parul an alternate path of harmony and co-existence.

Parul rejects the peaceful course of action for Rahim’s subversive tactics. She casts aspersions on the American visitor and inadvertently provokes a mob attack on Michael and Mohini as they try to escape.

The devastating violence that results physically debilitates Michael and Mohini and possibly parts them forever. The novel ends with a hope of reconciliation between Parul and Mohini. However, the reconciliation seems premature given the overwhelming tragedy that precedes it.

Tearing communities apart

Roychowdhury’s novel asks why religious extremism and violence are tearing apart communities in India. She identifies poverty as a root cause, but also blames the increasing surveillance of Indian Muslims as a trigger, drawing parallels to the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. after 9/11.

Even more insidious is the attitude of the Bengali Hindu family who think nothing of stripping Parul of her religious identity. Roychowdhury throws master manipulators and instigators of violence like Rahim into the mix of characters. The novel grapples with how we heal from the intolerance, religious extremism, and violence that has fractured contemporary India.

Can women take the lead in this recovery? How does one keep youth away from religious violence?

One chilling insight that emerges from the novel is how seductive, violent ideology can seem to disaffected youth, alienated from family, and at the mercy of an unfair justice system. Parul acceptance of Rahim’s radicalism stems from her own abjectness and isolation in the world.

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Lopamudra Basu

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English and Philosophy and Co-Chair of the Literature Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin's Polytechnic University.