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Reading the mind of the bigot

While racism has abated in recent years, religious fanaticism has taken an upward swing and assumed medieval proportions, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2007 05:30 IST

There is something loathsome about racial and religious bigotry. While racism has abated in recent years, religious fanaticism has taken an upward swing and assumed medieval proportions. The phenomenon is more evident in the Islamic world than in the Christian and the Hindu because Muslims have lost their past glory and are desperately trying to regain it. One section that is in a majority is trying to modernise themselves while the other believes that their salvation lies in reviving Shariat laws, as they are prescribed in the Koran and sayings of Prophet Mohammed with their draconian code of punishments: lopping of errant limbs, beheading men found guilty, stoning to death women caught in adultery. Such are the followers of Osama bin Laden, his Al-Qaida and the Taliban. They provide a lot of anti-Muslim ammunition to the western media and the Hindu-owned press in India.

I have done my best to understand the Muslim bigots’ point of view but without much success because there is very little written to explain it. I was, therefore, very eager to read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Penguin Viking). I had good reasons to do so; I had read his first novel Moth Smoke and gave it a favourite review; he is a Lahoria (from Lahore), so am I and would in all probability still be living there but for the partition of 1947. He is a product of Princeton University. I taught at Princeton long before he was born. I was fascinated by the way he described his own conversion from an Americanised Pakistani, a topper in his studies, holding a highly lucrative job in a prestigious consultancy firm and in love with a rich, beautiful Princtinian, who he is interested to marry. All this is detailed in felicitous prose, shorn of adjectives that Indian and Pakistani writers are prone to use in excess. The change is dramatic. He is on an assignment in Manila. He has done his job to the complete satisfaction of his employers and is packing up to return to New York. His TV is on. He sees the New York Trade Centre being rammed by a passenger plane and Pentagon in Washington being bombed. Instead of being appalled by the magnitude of death and destruction caused by these criminal acts committed in a country to which he owes so much, he says to himself: “Serves you Yankees right.” He feels a sense of pride at the precision with which the operations were carried out by Muslims who are ready to give up their lives for the cause of Islam. He justifies their actions as something Americans deserved to get for their arrogance and meddling in affairs of Muslim countries. He stops shaving and starts growing a beard. On arrival at New York he is subjected to body search and questioning by Immigration officials while his colleagues are let in without fuss — for no better reasons than that he bears a Muslim name and sports a beard.

He becomes a split personality. His mind is no longer in his work. His girlfriend is in a psychiatric clinic and no longer keen to marry him. On his next assignment in Chile he leaves his job unfinished and knows he will be sacked. But his mind is made up on hearing one word Jaan Nisaar — life sacrificer. They were a kind of suicide squad formed of young Christian slaves and trained as bodyguards of the Sultans of Turkey. So much as he owes to America, he returns to Lahore, takes up a job as a lecturer and becomes leader of the anti-American agitators.

The story is related to an American tourist he takes out to dinner in a dhaba in old Anarkali when all vehicular traffic is stopped at sunset and the ancient bazaar becomes one long colourfully lit eatery. It is a well-told story but I could not find any cogent arguments justifying his conversion from rationalism to fundamentalism.

No punctuation

Am I right in believing that none of our languages have ever used punctuation marks: no commas, colons, semi-colons, exclamation marks or even full stops? Why? And why has not any of our bhasha writers ever suggested that it is time we introduced them in languages recognised by our Constitution. We do not have to manufacture them; just take the whole lot from European languages and adapt them for our own purposes.

In many of our ancient scriptures even words were joined together with one line running from left to right across the pages. I recall having to battle with them when first inducted to read the Granth Sahib as a child. It not only made reading difficult but also led to confusion of meanings. It was said that a curse was placed on anyone who separated the words. It was only in the 1920s that scholars took courage and new editions of the scriptures with words separated were published. But to this day the only punctuation mark is a full stop in the form of a straight line like the letter ‘I’ and two ‘II’ at the end of every hymn.

Punctuation marks are important. If wrongly placed, they can change the meaning of the sentence. Rightly placed they help the reader in understanding what the writer wants to say. I wish some writer of eminence like Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore or Munshi Prem Chand or Allama Iqbal had taken the initiative in this direction. It is something our Sahitya Akademi and regional language academies could put on the top of their agendas and relegate giving awards to authors and translators as of lesser importance.

Satyamev Jayatey

A judge took his car for repair to his mechanic who was running his workshop in a rented house. On seeing the landlord abusing the car mechanic, he intervened.
Landlord: This mechanic is a liar and I don’t lie except in the courts.

Judge: Why so? Landlord: If I tell the truth, I would lose my case.

(Contributed by Vikram Singh, New Delhi)