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Writing a letter to a dead woman

By Jai Arjun Singh
January 21, 2008 13:49 IST
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Saeed Mirza's first book is a multi-layered reflection on the forces acting on the world today, and the importance of looking back.

Filmmaker-scriptwriter Saeed Mirza is speaking with a friend when I arrive for our appointment at the India International Centre. The details of the conversation escape me, but it has to do with the ongoing month of Muharram and its attendant rituals.

"So this can only be done on the ninth day?" Mirza is saying, "It can't be, say, the 14th day -- or the fifth day? I see."

The tone makes it apparent that he doesn't see, but it's only mildly sardonic, his eyes are sparkling and he's quick to change the topic. It's a moment that captures two things about the man, both of which can also be seen in his first book: he's iconoclastic, questioning, not particularly respectful of traditions that don't make sense to him; but he's disinclined to push the rationalist point too hard.

As a staunch Leftist who admits to being spiritually influenced by Sufism, he understands the value of contradictions. And besides, how does a rationalist justify writing a letter to a woman who has been dead 18 years?

Mirza's Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother has been billed as a novel, but this is an inadequate description.

Though the first half includes a novella-length section where he reimagines the early lives of his parents and the unusual circumstances that lead to their wedding, this restless, engaging work is also part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-film script and a number of other things besides, with reflections on the injustices of history, the perceived clash of civilisations, and the importance of learning lessons from the past.

All this combines to form a lengthy, thoughtful letter addressed to Mirza's mother, who died in 1990 -- so that Ammi is personal and polemical at the same time. How did he settle on such an unusual structure?

"This form was the only way I could encompass everything that was going through my mind," he says, "The idea for the book came from the way certain words are casually bandied about in today's world -- words like 'democratic' vs 'undemocratic', 'rogue states' vs 'law-abiding states', and so on. I wanted to look at how the meanings of these words have been lost or distorted."

The book's longest section is the tale of Jahanara Begum and Nusrat Beg, the former from a Mughal background, the latter a Pathan, who meet in Quetta in the early 1930s.

"Fictionalising the lives of my parents," Mirza says, "created a background for the bits that are more explicitly about my own family and childhood."

The result is an absorbing mix of fiction and non-fiction -- it's as if a line has been drawn down the book's centre, separating the Nusrat-Jahanara story (which is abandoned at a point where the couple are about to start a family) from the autobiographical sketches of later years: the one about his parents' stoical reaction when he unwittingly ate a ham sandwich in school, for instance. ("A sinner is someone who sins against people -- not because he eats pork," his mother hesitantly concludes after thinking things over for a while, though she quickly adds, "But in my house there will be no pork!")

"That dividing line was important to me," Mirza says. "The book's structure begs the question: could this woman (Ammi) have been Jahanara? Could this man (my father) have been Nusrat Beg? I thought that would be an interesting way of telling a story. It also makes it more universal. There were many couples like Nusrat and Jahanara -- people who came together from different backgrounds and who had to struggle with issues of faith, conservatism, the importance of education and freedom. These are ordinary lives and we tend to deny the incredible grace and dignity of the ordinary."

More than anything, Ammi is a cry for inclusiveness, for being able to absorb various things from around the world while retaining the flavour of one's own culture (Mirza himself is quite capable of linking disparate things -- like placing the lyrics of John Lennon's Working Class Hero in the context of the story of the underprivileged Eklavya).

As Nusrat asks the conservative elders in Jahanara's family, "Do we want to live in a well from which we can see only a patch of sky or do we want to live outside the well and see the world?"

"That frog-in-the-well analogy is a peculiarly Eastern one," Mirza says, "and it's a pity how the West, on the other hand, has been playing up this paranoia about everyone else being The Other. People like Samuel Huntington, with their insistence on the 'clash of civilisations', have helped to ghettoise minds."

It's also a pity, he says, that modernity ("another word that has lost its meaning") is defined by the Western model. Ammi is full of pointers to the spirit of radical thinking in Islam, something Mirza feels has been suppressed or misrepresented.

He includes stories about the scholars Ibn Senna and Ibn Rushd, who were among the world's first freethinkers, maintaining their religious beliefs while at the same time daring to suggest that "the design of Allah needs to be studied further".

He discusses the great tradition of Arabic literature from a thousand years ago, which later found echoes in the works of many European masters. And he throws in parables about the legendary figure of Mulla Nasruddin, "a genuine international folk hero¬Ö the classic Fool, who poked fun at royalty and pomp and protocol, who attacked mindless ritual and orthodoxy and everything that stifled the spirit of man".

"I don't think these aspects of Islam are in danger of being lost," he says, "They exist in Turkey, on the Arab streets, but they don't exist with the leadership, and they get misconstrued as being Islamist."

Is it difficult to be both a Muslim and a rationalist in today's world?

"It does become an issue at times, but I've been fortunate," he says. "My mother took all my anti-religious talk with incredible equanimity. Liberals tend to scoff at spiritual-minded people, but I wonder if I would have been as tolerant if the situation were reversed!"

Mirza, best known for his work in films -- he was the writer-director of movies like Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! and Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai as well as the popular TV serial Nukkad -- is starting work on a new feature next week.

"It's time to get back to work," he jokes. "I've spent the better part of the last decade travelling -- within India, in particular, learning about how different people live and think."

Some of these anecdotes have made it to the book, such as the one about the truck drivers who put a huge painting from the Sohni-Mahiwal story on the back of their vehicle, because "nowadays no one has time for true love. So much tension! Fighting about money and religion. Since we travel around the country, we thought why not spread this message?"

"When you travel for 45,000 km on the smaller roads of this country, avoiding the highways," says Mirza thoughtfully, "you realise how utterly insignificant you are, how foolish your arrogance is, how little you know of the world." It's clear that even at the age of 64, he's eager to keep expanding his horizons, to escape the frog's eye view.

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