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Review: How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position

A clever, self-reflective tale that lightly touches on the clash of civilisations, cultures and attitudes

books Updated: May 04, 2012 19:17 IST

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power Prosperity and Poverty

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson

Crown Business

Rs 1,782  pp 529

The three main characters in Tabish Khair’s new novel contain many polarities. The unnamed narrator — a 30-something lecturer living in Arhus, Denmark — is a Pakistani Muslim by birth but also an atheist (“I had given up on God a long time back; if God had existed, I am sure he would have reciprocated in kind”). His friend Ravi, a tall, handsome man working on a PhD in history, is an irreligious Hindu who becomes interested in the nuts and bolts of Islamic practice. And their landlord Karim Bhai — who has lived in Denmark for years but appears generally indifferent to the country — is a devout Indian Muslim who holds Quran sessions in their flat every week.

What unfolds as they go about their lives is a narrative about reading yourself and other people. Ravi and the narrator of How to fight Islamist terror from the missionary position are the more obvious kindred spirits, liberal men who can banter and theorise about any subject. They go on blind dates hoping to find that elusive Danish woman “who doesn’t date only white men or only coloured men”. Their conversations turn on the intricacies of race and religion: the attraction that Oriental exoticism holds for a certain sort of white person; the subtle difference between ‘Allah hafiz’ and ‘Khuda hafiz’ as forms of greeting.

We never get a similar perspective on Karim’s interior life. Though a seemingly decent man, he is an incongruous, shadowy presence — much like the protagonist of Khair’s last novel The Thing about Thugs, a Bihari who becomes a murder suspect in 1830s England. We see him through the narrator’s eyes, and the narrator is wary of this “narrow, religious man, intolerant of so many aspects of modernity”. Karim receives mysterious phone calls and the narrator makes teasing allusions to a terror-related incident; we think about the real-life Danish cartoon controversy from a few years ago, and our suspicions are roused. Most damningly, Karim does not have a sense of humour or irony. This is a trait that irreligious people (perhaps with some justification) tend to associate with the very religious, but it also shapes the reader’s attitude: it might be said that the die is loaded against the po-faced Karim because irreverent humour is so central to this book’s appeal.

Almost throughout, serious issues are addressed with a beguilingly light touch. Khair has a talent for effortlessly funny sentences: when Ravi and the narrator enter a bar unfrequented by Asian men and the inebriated occupants turn around to watch them, “one man revolved all the way round under his initial impetus and had to try again”. A line like “Bastard was a term of affection between us, as it usually is in the subcontinent between men who share a Catholic missionary school education” is a reminder of how holy cows might be skewered when they pass from one tradition to another. And there is a brilliantly deadpan account of an old man locking himself in his bathroom, calling the police and munching on a sandwich to pass the time while a would-be assassin tries to hammer down his door.

The more flamboyant humour usually comes from Ravi — a relentless wordsmith, he uses deliberately cheesy sentence constructions (“You are one picky Paki, pardner!”) and frequently lapses into his “oratorical mode”. But one sees a more sensible side too. He is in a way a bridge between the narrator and Karim — he can crack jokes about complicated namaaz postures being “the gym of Islam”, but he is also genuinely interested in (and unprejudiced against) Karim’s orthodox religiosity. Ravi’s transformation in our eyes from being a shallow child of privilege to a principled, inclusive figure is one of the more compelling things about the narrative.

It might sound frivolous to say this of a book about the clash of civilisations, cultures and individual attitudes, but my only real problem with How to Fight Islamist Terror is that it isn’t as consistently funny as it might have been. The narrative is stymied somewhat by a romantic thread and symbolism involving glasses half-full with love (or tolerance or understanding, or whatever qualities we must aspire to in our dealings with other people). But though this weighs down the book’s midsection, no lasting damage is done. This is, for much of its length, a clever, self-reflective tale about (as the narrator puts it in another context) the difference between what we seem to be and what we are to ourselves.

Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer