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Ambitious but disappointing

Rakhshanda Jalil’s stories offer a narrow picture of Indian Muslims , writes Omair Ahmad

OMAIR AHMAD  27th Nov 2011

'Release and Other Stories' by Rakshanda Jalil

elease and Other Stories by Rakhshanda Jalil, is a slim selection of short stories which, according to the cover flap, "bring to life the complexities involved in being Indian and Muslim". This is an interesting ambition although I have only seen in it attempted in non-fiction before, and only once really well: in Rajmohan Gandhi's Understanding the Muslim Mind. The title has been changed since then, but Gandhi's book was a gathering of eight brief profiles of South Asia's leading Muslim political and educational thinkers.

Ms Jalil's book, being a work of fiction, and non-political, has nothing of this tight focus. Self-consciously avoiding popular stereotypes, the stories also lack any familiar, or dominant, themes. The characters are neither poor, nor ghettoised; they are neither party to, nor implicated in, an act of terrorism; they face neither the terror of riots, nor are they party to riots in their own turn; nor are they part of the nawabi culture so often portrayed or joked about in Hindi movies. Mullahs and butchers are striking in their absence. Instead "Release..." is largely populated by middle-class, or upper middle class denizens of Delhi and its surroundings. There are lovers and businessmen; women trapped in, or fleeing, difficult relationships; diplomats and scriptwriters. Their names might be Muslim, but they share very little in common except that they are pretty normal people going through normal things. In effect Ms Jalil's portrayal of being Indian and Muslim replaces the exotic stereotype with the merely banal and boring.

Muslim women voters point to a polling centre during Indian elections in Mumbai, 2009. Jalil’s stories are restricted to middle-class Muslims around Delhi photo: reuters

Part of the problem is that we all have multiple identities. We can be Indian and Muslim, or Indian and Hindu, or Indian and Marathi, or Indian and Tamil, or Indian and Salman Khan fans, or Indian and haters of Bollywood. There are endless combinations and mixtures of identities; the only time that these identities became apparent as separate, is when one part of that identity is highlighted, whether by outside actors, or the individual themselves. None of the characters in Release... face any such challenge. They are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged by the Muslim part of their identity. It is entirely secondary to who they are.

This may be exactly what Ms Jalil is trying to portray, that for most Indian Muslims in most circumstances, there is nothing particularly different about their experience. While this is an important point, it is worthy of column, at most, an op-ed, not a book. And in effect the stories in Release... are just that, essays with observations. For example the story, "The Failure", begins with the sentence, "Have you ever seen a man with 'failure' writ large across his face?" The story then proceeds to present the reader with such a man. This is merely non-fiction masquerading itself as fiction, interesting in parts, yes, maybe even noble in intent, but certainly not what it is being advertised as.

 
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