Review: The Muslim Vanishes: A Play by Saeed Naqvi
A compelling drama about the fears and insecurities of Muslims, their othering, and continued alienation in contemporary India
Insight Today TV’s anchor is bracing up to break the biggest news of his lifetime: 200 million Indian Muslims have vanished overnight, taking away with them the Qutub Minar, and the remains of Afzal Guru, held guilty for the attack on Parliament.
The brand new “Muslim-yukt Bharat”, an India that many have increasingly been dreaming of, and rigorously working towards, especially post-2014, however, scares the daylight out of the savarnas. Conspiracy theories about why the Muslims vanished take a back seat, as the upper castes suddenly stare at the prospect of a Dalit being elected as their prime minister, and Muslims having the last laugh.
“Have you ever considered the thought of savarnas, people like us, facing an assault from the avarnas, the Dalits?” points out a traumatised character in the play. In his head, he is considering revolting against the Constitution, to fight the lower castes who are numerically stronger.
In this masterpiece on a Muslim-less India by journalist-author Saeed Naqvi, equations change overnight as Muslims are critical for electoral and constitutional balance – and the savarnas suddenly wish to have them back.
In a private moment, a TV anchor asks his wife what else she expected with Muslims being lynched, confined to ghettos with no jobs, and being accused of being terrorists or backing Pakistan.
This compelling drama is a commentary on contemporary India – the fears and insecurities of Muslims, their systemic othering, and their continued alienation.
Naqvi deliberately fashions his characters after real-life TV anchors, star reporters, and media barons, bravely assigning names that rhyme with the original ones.
A champion of the fast vanishing Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, Naqvi is at his satirical best in this tragi-comedy staged in four acts, where a character wonders if, in this new India, the word “Mughlai” will be tolerated? Will they serve “Triveni kebabs” in the future? What about Bollywood songs that contain Urdu words? And Delhi’s famed Lodhi Gardens – will it now be called “Kamal Upwan”?
The Muslim Vanishes is a fast-paced and unputdownable drama, rich in anecdotes that make the reader marvel at Naqvi’s vast knowledge. My favourites: the Padain ki Masjid – a colloquialised version of Panditain ki Masjid – was built by an old Brahmin lady for the poor Muslims of Lucknow; a pujari in Gogamedi shrine was Khushi Mohammad; the most famous singer of Salbeg’s Bhakti songs was Sikandar Alam; Munshi Channulal Dilgeer wrote marsiyas (elegies); and Ghalib’s longest poem was on the holy city of Banaras.
When the changed landscape begins to be dotted by “Mohammadiya Hindus”, lower castes embracing Islam, a court appoints an 11-member jury, consisting of those who believed in a multicultural India but died centuries ago. The spirits of Salbeg, Raskhan, Alladiya Khan, Mohsin Kakorvi, Sant Kabir, Munshi Channulal Dilgeer, an anonymous representative of Guru Nanak Maharaj, Abdul Rahim Khane-e-Khana, Tulsidas, Mahatma Phule, and Amir Khusro are summoned using mystical powers. The court appoints Khusro as the spokesperson of the jury, and Maulana Hasrat Mohani as its convener.
Khusro shoulders this task well - endowed with additional celestial powers of reading the mind of earthlings - and reminding the court of Hindustan’s culturally opulent past.
Naqvi tells readers in the foreword that without the “other”, the ruling class fears it will not be able to manage the caste tangle. The best way to address, he thought, was “by a format of dialogue, point-counterpoint, peel by peel like an onion, all set in a fast-paced drama to keep the attention riveted”.
Naqvi also dwells on a “nuanced” truth about Partition: “There is a popular assumption that after the Partition of India, Hindus from Pakistan came to India and Indian Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Nothing of the sort happened. Only Punjab and Bengal were partitioned. Hindu Punjabis came to Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Delhi, UP, and beyond. Muslims from East Punjab, and only East Punjab crossed over to Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar. Muslims in other parts stayed where they were. Only limited numbers went, or were sent, to the secretariat in Karachi.”
The book has been showered with advance praise by many as it “draws on a mix of influences - from grandma’s bedtime stories to Aesop’s fables and Mullah Nasruddin’s satirical tales - to spring an inspired surprise on us, taking us on a journey into the realms of both history and fantasy”.
Naqvi dictated the play to his secretary. “The play was, in some part, written by Ramesh Kumar, my secretary… Every now and then Ramesh would give a start, ‘Kya likh rahein hain aap’ (‘What on earth are you writing’)?”
That’s the feeling readers will get too. Only an old-school journalist with old-school values could have dared to write this utterly upsetting and utterly captivating drama. It would be interesting to watch this play in a theatre to comprehend the shrewd division of India on the basis of caste, religion, and issues of Pakistan and Kashmir, and to see what a Muslim-yukt Bharat would actually look like.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.