I belong to two circles of equal size, but which are not concentric. One is India and the other is the Muslim world.” So said writer and politician Maulana Muhammad Ali, one of the founders of the Indian Muslim League, in 1930. In principle, there is no reason why one cannot be equally attached to both religion and motherland but, since the creation of Pakistan, Indian Muslims have often been made to feel as if their allegiance to their country is suspect. As historian Rajmohan Gandhi has written in his study Understanding The Muslim Mind, “Whether the Muslim in India is a Muslim or an Indian first is a question he has always faced.”
An outsider in Lahore: Versey recounts her several trips to Pakistan.
But, crucially, as the Indian (and Muslim) journalist Farzana Versey reports in A Journey Interrupted — an account of several visits to Pakistan, made from the turn of the century — this stereotyping of Indian Muslims occurs not just on the Indian side of the border, but on the Pakistani side too. Many of the people she meets imply, and one woman explicitly tells her, that “when we think of Muslims in India we imagine them to be outsiders there”. Most Pakistanis find it difficult to believe that for the majority of Indian Muslims, Pakistan is just another country, and that they do not want to be rescued and repatriated.
Thus it was, says Versey, that “when I was on the soil of the land of the pure, my impurity struck me.” She continues, not without a touch of hysteria: “I was the emotional mulatto. The intellectual eunuch. The fence-sitter. The one who could not make up her mind. But when did I have a choice?”
Over the last decade, Indo-Pakistan relations have thawed at the level of governments, and even more so at the level of people. So, there was a lot of potential in Versey’s project for an exploration of the dynamic relationship between the two sides, routed through her own identity as an Indian, a Muslim and a woman. But what insights Versey has (and I found many of them tendentious) are debilitated by her rambling and incoherent organization of her material and her careless — and often ugly — language, which just stops short of being unreadable.
Briefly, the language and editing of Versey’s text are simply not up to book standard, and in a time of rising standards in Indian writing and publishing, this is especially deplorable. The reader is bemused and often baffled by ungrammatical sentence structures, sudden shifts of tense, portentous phrasing — straight out of a diplomat’s handbook (“It has been both an uplifting and edifying experience”) — and contentious assertions (“Religion in the subcontinent is about mass hysteria, not belief”). I felt my head spin when batted with such sentences as: “Many such people chisel the stone of an immoveable social construct. How can you see straw pillars as concrete?”
Further, Versey is an unusually complacent and unreasonable traveller and commentator, asking questions and making judgements almost in the same breath, as if feeling the pressure of a word count in an op-ed piece. In one chapter, she takes up a photograph of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan “sprawled by the poolside of a Mumbai socialite”. “Thoughts of Pakistan do not appear to be on his mind,” she comments waspishly. “He is giving sound-bytes about democracy, a messiah in swimming trunks.” This churlish observation itself has the quality of a sound bite. Why should Imran Khan appear to be thinking of Pakistan all the time?
Similarly, Versey is sceptical about the peace process, believing that the two countries are deeply invested in being at war with each other. One can grant that, but no one will be amused by her remark that “the camels along the Rajasthan border discovered ‘people-to-people’ contact long ago when they began to go across the sandy dunes to mate.” One might say that the camels did at least manage to get over the sandy dunes, but Versey’s narrative is, at all levels, a journey interrupted.
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