The first time author-poet Tabish Khair became conscious of the word jihad, he was 12 and had just fared well in his exams. A visiting elderly relative congratulated him and encouraged him to “keep doing jihad”.
“He did not mean chop people’s heads off,” said Khair. “By doing jihad, he meant keep on doing your job as well as possible.” The Denmark-based professor was speaking at a session The Personal and the Political where he and author Manju Kapur discussed their recent novels Jihadi Jane and Brothers with Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey.
While Kapur’s 2016 novel Brothers explores fraticide, Khair’s Jihadi Jane tells the story of two London-based Muslim girls who become radicalised and join the ISIS. While Ameena is more outgoing and modern, Jamilla is a member of her local mosque’s discussion group in Yorkshire. “It was important for me to have two different kinds of Muslims. I hear reports of girls being brainwashed. I have a problem with that perspective as it takes away their agency,” said Khair.
He said that he would not like to be seen as a spokesperson for his community. “The concept of good and bad Muslims is different for the west and fundamentalists. I want to speak to everyone: Muslims and non-muslims.”
Speaking of the dilemma of the so-called “second generation immigrants”, Khair said he disliked the term. “It makes some try to be more western and others reactive by trying to be more Hindu or Muslim.”
Kapur, who set a major chunk of her latest book in rural Rajasthan, said she wanted to explore the rural vs urban and tradition vs modernity divides through her main character who murders his brother. “He doesn’t know what to replace his rural values with after he moves to the city. How do you relate to women when you are not used to seeing them as individuals let alone equals? When you can’t negotiate that, it leads to increase in violence against women,” she said.
When asked what drives their work, Khair said the subject had to be something he was passionate about “so that I keep going back to it.” His job and family (he has three kids) did not leave a lot of time to write.
For Kapur, the draw was a connect to the subject. “Writing is not just an intellectual exercise. There has to be an emotional involvement. That’s what pushes the pages forward,” she said.
The session concluded with the authors reading out extracts from their respective works and taking questions from the audience.
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