A book that raises hope too high, rues Urvashi Butalia
THERE’S SOMETHING odd about reading a book that is quite compelling, but that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, and you can’t quite put your finger on why or what it is that makes for this niggling sense of being cheated. I read Sally Neighbour’s book more or less in one sittings. I was intrigued by the sub-title for we know so little about what it is that leads women into violence.
But let me explain. Sally Neighbour, an investigative journalist from Australia, sets out to seek the story of an unlikely protagonist, a woman called Robin Hutchinson (and later Rabiah Maryam Hutchinson) who takes to Islam with enthusiasm and who comes, eventually, to be quite close first to the Indonesian Islamic movement and then to Osama bin Laden, the latter when she lives in Afghanistan. At first reluctant to talk to Neighbour, Rabiah finally acquiesces.
Neighbour’s search reveals a woman from a difficult and dysfunctional family from Australia, whose early dreams of marriage and family fail to materialise. She experiments with things that may help her to deal with the world, including drugs, alcohol, perhaps sex (although this is never really articulated) and religion, becoming, at one stage, a Catholic for a short while. Nothing works. Then, like many young people of the time, she travels the world. She finds herself in Indonesia, and discovers Islam.
All this may sound very bald, but for Robin, Islam provides all the answers she is seeking and, in time, she becomes more holy than the holy, owning to a ‘pure’ version of the religion, working in an Islamic school, becoming the first westerner to be admitted to the interior world of the Jemaah Islamiya. Along this path, she marries several times, bears several children, takes on the full hijab, teaches students, and is sometimes targeted for being a ‘foreigner’.
Though rich in potential and extremely well written, the book leaves you wondering if this isn’t just the story of a complex religion being reduced to a set of principles. The only time Robin expresses regret is when she marries off her 10-year-old daughter to a 21-year-old man. Can a lifetime of different learning be put aside so easily? Does she really believe that fundamentalist violence is justified? Does she, in fact, become a jihadi? There are more questions than answers. Perhaps it’s the mark of a good book that it forces the reader to ask questions, but I’m not sure. I had hoped I would understand what makes women head towards violent religious agency. But that’s not what I came away with.
The Body In The Library
Surinder Mohan Pathak, the king of Hindi crime fiction, casts a critical eye on the new translations of his old favourite Ibn-e-Safi
IT WAS 1956 and I was in class 10 when one of my classmates handed me a book to return to the neighborhood lending library. I went to a cowshed close to school, sat on a chabootra under a peepul tree, read the whole book in about half and hour and enjoyed it immensely.
The author was Ibn-e- Safi and the book was Vinod Aur Leonard. Later, I learnt that Safi was an Urdu writer who had been writing detective fiction since 1952. A new Ibn-ESafi came out every month. Vinod Aur Leonard was the first one translated into Hindi. It was an instant success and Ibn-e-Safi nee Asrar Narvi of Nara village, Uttar Pradesh had arrived with a bang.
Safi soon became more popular in Hindi than in Urdu, notwithstanding the fact that the translations were immature. The readers could afford to ignore the discrepancies in translation as they were hugely impressed by Safi’s style of writing, his lively characters like Rajesh (Imran in Urdu) who appeared to be a bumbling nincompoop. Like Inspector Clouseau, he was an object of ridicule among his colleagues, but what they didn’t know was that he was the chief of secret service, code named X2. Don’t ask how a 28-year-old who had just returned from Oxford had become the chief.
The other memorable Safi character was Col. Vinod (Col. Faridi in Urdu). Col. Vinod was a khandani rais who had inherited a big estate and a lavish lifestyle. Who ever heard of Colonel as a police designation? But such were the thrills of Safi that, nobody, including myself, took any notice of such anomalies. Safi wrote unputdownables in a literal sense of the word.
But the success of the crime monthly Jasoosi Duniya was not all due to its regular author Ibn-e-Safi. Its success can be traced back to the publisher, whose father was the general manager of AH Wheeler and Co., the railway book stall contractor controlling more than 400 stalls in North and West India. With an iron hand the doting father promoted sales to an enviable high. Those days people read not for knowledge but for entertainment. Those were times when television transmission was available only in Delhi—for a short duration in the evenings, in black and white.
Safi, a good writer, but by no stretch a great one, was lucky to have escaped scrutiny of his inconsistencies. The House of Fear, featuring Imran, runs into 115 translated pages. Minus the ‘smart talk’ of his principal character, the balance is merely a novel, so no wonder the author could write four of them each month. The novel opens with Imran and his usual tomfoolery which has no bearing on the story.
The story line is flimsy, the end is abrupt and the solution all guesswork. The ‘know-all’ Imran solves the case out of nowhere. The reader doesn’t know how the solution occurred to the hero in the first instance and how the culprit was connected with the strange happenings in the ‘house of fear’ or why the hero chose to scale the rear wall of the house to gain entry when the key to the main door was available to him, and the main door unlocked. The second Ibn-e-Safi novel in this two-novella set, Shootout at the Rocks, runs on similar lines and is nothing to write home about either.
Bilal Tanweer’s translations leaves much to be desired. It appears to be dictionary generated which might be the reason for the use of expressions like ‘favour forgetter’ (instead of ungrateful), ‘empty house’ (unoccupied, vacant), ‘appointed’ (deputed), ‘decided’ (settled), ‘understood’ (followed), ‘fame’ (reputation) etc.
Safi’s books fared well when the going was good. But have these two novellas withstood the test of time?
I’m not sure.
A book that means a lot to you?
That would be JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Mostly because I read it when I had started writing. I must have been 13 or 14.
Your favourite genre?
I cannot really pick one genre as my favourite as mostly everything appeals to me. But currently, it would be historical fiction.
Your favourite character?
Definitely Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. Actually even Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind has stayed with me. Characters from Joyce Lankester Brisley’s series of children’s novels Milly Molly Mandy always inspired me as a child.
How many books do you own?
I don’t really have an exact idea. But I think I must have somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 titles.
An underrated book?
Steve Toltz’s Fraction of a Whole is a much-underrated book. It is far superior to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. In fact I think it should have won the Man Booker instead of The White Tiger.
An overrated book?
I must confess that although I haven’t read them, I think Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is quite overrated.
The book you bought last?
Jane Austen’s biography by Claire Tomalin.
Last book read?
I just finished Ru Freeman’s Disobedient Girls. I found it to be extremely well written.
A book you wish you’d written?
There are so many works I wish I had written! I think Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld in particular is such a brilliant and spontaneous novel.