HT reviewer Maaz Bin Bilal picks his best reads of 2020
In the year of the Pandemic, Albert Camus’ classic The Plague (1947) was essential (re-) reading. Despite his colonial aporias, the novel comments insightfully on the variety of human and state reactions to the epidemic, lending clarity to the appraisal of our own epoch. But this has not been only the year of viral disease. The virus provided occasion to shutdown dissent across the world too and also saw increased anti-Muslim sentiment across many state lines. Many Indian provinces are at the verge of passing anti-love jihad laws even though the minister of state for home affairs G Kishan Reddy had declared in February in parliament: “No such case of ‘Love Jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies.”
In such a climate, Michel Houllebecq’s gripping page-turner Submission (2015), which depicts a religious Muslim becoming President of France was revealing for its depiction of the author’s and the majority’s paranoia against Muslim minorities in the land of Laïcité, which we see replicated in so-called inclusive multi-faith secularism too.
Rahman Abbas’s Urdu short story, Ta’un ke Dinon mein Eid (2018), or Eid in the Time of the Plague, so far untranslated, sheds light on the common attribution of the plague and its stigma to the ghetto and the minority. Published before the COVID19 crisis, it pre-empts the easy media trials and police persecution of the Tablighi Markaz for which many courts have since acquitted and exonerated the Tablighis. Set in an imaginary city and its suburbs, Abbas’s story is an acute examination of Mumbai and its others.
The year has also been one of continuing renamings and the reconception of the idea of India itself. Most recent electoral campaigning in Hyderabad called for doing away with nawabi and Nizami cultures and for the city to be renamed in the manner of Allahabad. (Akhand-) “Bharat” (including Karachi) and “Hindutva” are the watchwords of the regime and its friends. The historian Manan Ahmed’s seminal new book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2020) interrogates the idea of Hindustan that lasted for more than a thousand years but is now as good as lost. “Hindustan” is what was fought for in 1857 and captured imaginations leading to the independence of the country as evident in the slogan Jai Hindustan Ki which became the rallying cry of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj in 1942, and later became the diminutive Jai Hind. Ahmed’s book could not have come at a better time when Bharat Mata is taking precedence, and the concept of Hind with its various peoples lies forgotten or ignored.
Maaz Bin Bilal is an author and translator and teaches at Jindal Global University.
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