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Fiction of Activism

By Mosarrap H. Khan

While this issue is predominantly about social activism as practice, fiction, especially the Anglophone ones from South Asia, seems to have started engaging with activism as well. Social activism is very often seen as a practice without any theoretical reflection. Fiction seems to challenge this notion as it offers glimpses into the minds of activists, who, while taking part in activism, reflect on its modes and procedures as well.

In this very short piece, I will be exploring three novels that have been published in the last fifteen years – Geeta Hariharan’s In Times of Siege, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentlist, and Meher Pestonji’s Sadak Chhaap. The first two engage with questions of academic activism or how academics exceed their brief and plunge into activism because of their commitment to immediate political concerns. The third novel explores how empathy could lead to activism and what it can do in transforming the lives of street children.

In Gita Hariharan’s In Times of Siege, Shiv, a 52-year old professor of history in an Open University in Delhi, finds himself in the midst of a controversy unwillingly. The novel centers on a history lesson plan that Shiv writes on the twelfth century poet and social reformer, Basavanna, for his distance learning students. Hariharan tries to forge a link between the politically turbulent times when Basava launched a social reform project and the present times torn between conflicting perceptions of Indian history and ethos. The larger concern of the novel is to challenge the notion of a distorted Indian history propagated by the right-wing government and political parties in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition on 6 December, 1992.

In the lesson, Shiv portrays Basava as an egalitarian who propounded the cult of veerashaivism (those who worshipped Lord Shiva). The veerashaivas worked against all forms of social inequity, especially the caste system. Sitting in the small patch of green in his Delhi house, Shiva ponders on the necessity as well as impossibility of Vasava’s ideals in the present time: ‘In his deceptively quiet Delhi garden in the year 2000, Shiv considers Basava’s legacy–a legacy he is now heir to in a sudden, unexpected way. Basava’s dream broke up a long time ago, it no longer stands. But it was there. It lived. His movement for equality, for democracy, must be remembered, but so must its destruction; one without the other perverts memory. How is Shiv to explain Basava–his ideas, his times–to some bunch of hate-crazy goons?’

While a newspaper reporter asks for his comment on the controversy, in an epiphanic moment, Shiv realizes the limitations of his position as a traditional academic: ‘He is an academic, he argues, not some rabble-rousing activist. He is a professor after all, not a two-inch newspaper column hero. Basava’s man is ready with his rejoinder: Why pretend you are a professor if you can’t stand up to someone telling you what to think? How to think?’

In Times of Siege does not offer any resolution to the raging debates on India’s past and its history. Yet the novel critically reflects on activism and its necessity in striking back against the distortion of history and the vilification of a community.

Set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and America’s ‘War on Terror,’ Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist explores questions about Pakistan’s domestic policy which has been held hostage by the US. Changez, who studied at Princeton University on a scholarship and who once worked for a reputed consulting firm in New York City, returns to Lahore after his carefully nurtured career comes crashing after 9/11. After returning to Pakistan, he takes up employment as a teacher in Lahore University, a hotbed of politics, both of the leftist and the rightist kind.

In his monologue with the American visitor to Lahore, Changez asks: ‘What exactly did I do to stop America, you ask? … I will tell you what I did, although it was not much and I fear it may well fail to meet your expectations.’ Further, Changez explains his work as an activist on campus: ‘I had in the meanwhile gotten a job as a university lecturer, and I made it my mission on campus to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine. I was popular among my students…and it was not difficult to persuade them of the merits of participating in demonstrations for greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs, demonstrations that the foreign press would later, when our gatherings grew to newsworthy size, came to label anti-American.’

Like Gita Hariharan’s protagonist, Changez engages in activism in the academia, thereby blurring the division between academic and activist space. Changez makes it a mission in his life to teach his students resistance against American neo-imperialist policies. He advocates Pakistan’s independence in its domestic politics/policies and its right to self-determine in its internal as well as external matters. In fact, Mira Nair’s film version assigns even more importance to the figure of the academic in determining the fate of the kidnapped Prof. Rainier. In the film, Changez seems to catapult resistance against American interference almost single-handedly.

In Meher Pestonji’s Sadak Chhaap, the story revolves around Sharan, a shelter for street-children, run by a young woman, Aparna. The novel is narrated through the perspective of Rahul, a boy, who runs away from his village in rural India when his father is killed and his mother is forced to cohabit with the caretaker of a construction site where she takes up work. While Aparna’s figure flits in and out of the novel, Sharan remains a constant presence in the novel and in Rahul’s life.

After moving from Sharan to Bal Kendra, which expels him on disciplinary grounds, Rahul experiments with life as a beggar, a coolie, a   tourist guide, and a child sex worker. He is finally rescued by Aparna when he becomes a victim of substance abuse after a horrendous sexual experience with a traveler from the US. When Sumangali, who runs a telephone booth near Sharan, asks Rahul if he had gone back to his family for the last two years, he replies: ‘I have no family. I only have Sharan.’

Unlike the first two novels, Sadak Chhaap does not concentrate on the figure of the activist. Rather, the understated figure of Aparna emphasizes the important role the social activists play in shaping the lives of street-children. The novel also seems to suggest that an over-emphasis on the figure of the activist can undermine the larger cause.

This brief piece does not allow me a more in-depth discussion on the mechanics of these novels. From this brief discussion, I would like to propose that a new genre of fiction is slowly making its presence felt in the literary space. I term this new genre, FICTION OF ACTIVISM.

Joseph Slaughter’s recent book (2007) explores the ways novels can intervene in the global human rights discourse. And sometimes, these novels might be used to legitimize imperial aggression, as in the case of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which was bandied by even Laura Bush as a chilling description of the exploitation of children in Afghanistan.

The ‘fiction of activism’ might likewise contribute to human rights discourse. But the scope of these novels seems different as they engage more with the mechanics of activism and social transformation. The very reflective nature of these novels makes them distinct from activism as practice. The ‘fiction of activism’ offers a dialectical between the theory and practice of activism.

[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is also the Co-editor of Cafe Dissensus. Check out his  Personal Website.]

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