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04.05.2018

“They joke,” Neyaz Farooquee writes halfway through his memoir about growing up as a Muslim in India. “If you go to Aligarh Muslim University, you lose your deen, faith. If you go to Deoband, you lose your duniya, world. And if you go to Jamia, you lose both deen and duniya.”

The armed members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini who wreaked havoc in Aligarh Muslim University two days ago, ostensibly over an old portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hanging in its halls, are likely neither to have heard this nor to have cared for its wit. Farooquee’s book, An Ordinary Man’s Guide To Radicalism, is not meant for these haters. Indeed, many of its readers may be those who already know its milieu well: that of Muslim life in the Indo-Gangetic plain, and one of its modern cornerstones in the cramped by-lanes of Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, the neighbourhood that sprang up around the author’s historic alma mater, Jamia Milia Islamia.

Farooquee was a student here at the time of the Batla House “encounter” in 2008, in which the Delhi police killed two young men and arrested two others in connection with bombings that had taken place in the capital earlier that year. The killings became a national controversy, with the university at the centre of protests and demands for a fair inquiry. (A National Human Rights Commission report cleared the police of all wrongdoing.)

Meanwhile, fear engulfed the area. It emptied out - and so, bit by bit, does Farooquee’s life, as he slowly trawls backwards through phone contacts, internet histories, and memories to try and root out any that could mark him out as a suspect - a Muslim who masquerades in Indian society as a “Normal Human Being,” as the police say.

The cold, creeping doubts of those months gave Farooquee the impulse to give up his uninspired pursuit of the biological sciences and become a journalist. (His work has since appeared in the New York Times and Al-Jazeera, among others.) But other things went into his decision, too. These include a childhood in a small village in Bihar, where his grandfather presided over a farmstead that echoed with the poetry of Iqbal and Kabir; religious instruction that went hand-in-hand with the promise of a modern secular nation; sumptuous Eid meals at home, and sattu paratha and aloo to take on the train, to accommodate the sensibilities of vegetarian fellow passengers.

This past resurrects both the vision of an historic civilisation that Hindus and Muslims built in negotiation with each other, and the utterly ordinary life of a Hindi- or Urdu-speaking 90s kid. But these memories aren’t recounted to indicate that its characters are just like anyone else.

Hijinks at school assemblies and idle college-kid gossip may be everyone’s lot; but not everyone can recollect every heart-stopping detail of the Suleman Bakery firing because their uncle was murdered there. Not everyone has to live in fear that their ID proofs may someday be the only thing standing between them and oblivion - or, worse, that they may condemn them because of the name they bear. This is what delineates the life of a “Normal Human Being,” Farooquee tells us, and it is what sets Muslim life in India apart in spite of all its routine familiarities.

Farooquee’s narrative is not without its missteps. Curious lags and gaps slow the narrative down from time to time, and there’s something so casual about his throwaway reconstructions of women’s lives, both in rural Bihar and in Delhi, that it almost amounts to carelessness. But these are small obstacles in an honest and moving story. And unwritten, between the lines of this Guide, is a still more unnerving story - the shadow radicalism of all those young men currently riding high on their own dreams of deen and duniya in the Hindi heartland, with no use for history except as a weapon.

Getting there: An Ordinary Man’s Guide To Radicalism is available here

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