Smoke-wreathed buildings, trapped hostages, well-coiffed villains, heroic soldiers rushing to the rescue. The Mumbai attacks had all the elements of a well-worn Bollywood (or for that matter, Hollywood) blockbuster. Yet the feeling of déjà vu—of having seen all this before, albeit in Technicolor—merely added to the overwhelming sense of bewilderment. The relentless analysis and reporting offered by caterwauling anchors and reporters didn’t help either. Reality-based journalism offered endless details—who, what, when and where—but none could answer the deeper questions terror always raises about who we are, both as individuals and as a nation.
It is no accident that when life imitates art—with its taste for the extreme and catastrophic—we often turn to fiction, not fact, to ascertain the truth.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the best and brightest novelists in the US and the UK bemoaned their irrelevance: How could mere novels hope to capture the cataclysmic reality at hand? As it turns out, the hand-wringing was premature. Over the past seven years, 9/11, and more generally, the spectre of terrorism, has spawned a veritable mini-genre, inspiring writers both great (Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, John Updike) and small (Jeffrey Archer, Nelson DeMille, David Ignatius). National tragedy—be it the Partition or the two World Wars—always inspires literature.
The horror: Can the Mumbai attacks be a theme for fiction? Arko Datta / Reuters
Yet, in a country that has known such violence longer and more intimately than most Western nations, and long before Mumbai, our writers have been near-silent on the subject. Our novelists (at least, those writing in English) have meticulously charted the ugliest aspects of modern Indian reality—corruption, riots, gang warfare, poverty. But not this one. It’s an oversight made all the more conspicuous by the near-constant preoccupation with terrorism that has become part of our daily lives: on the 24/7 news channels, at the movie theatres, in our daily conversations over dinner or at the local chai stall.
There are always exceptions, of course, such as Mukul Dev’s Lashkar, a Clancy-esque thriller inspired by the 2005 Delhi bombings published earlier this year (Dev’s next book, also based on a similar theme, is Salim Must Die, which comes out in February). In terms of “serious” fiction, a better-known terror-themed Indian novel is Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. But this is extremism viewed from the distant shores of exile; the particulars of the conflict in Kashmir employed in service of Rushdie’s overarching view of the world. And in Rushdie’s world, terrorism is firmly situated within the intellectual confines of the West, which interprets such violence through the singular prism of its long, troubled relationship with Islam.
The Indian experience of terrorism is less easily contained within such narrow categories. It’s both more challenging and potentially more instructive.
For one, terror wears a multitude of identities in India: Naxalite, Tamil Tiger, jihadi, Khalistani, Hindu fundamentalist. It’s this knowledge that informs Kiran Nagarkar’s uneven and ambitious God’s Little Soldier, whose protagonist Zia Khan variously embraces different ideologies—transforming himself from a fervent Talibani to a born-again Christian to a Hindu mystic—without ever discarding his single-minded belief in his destiny as the chosen one, “for his true religion is neither Islam nor Christianity; it’s extremism”. This is terrorism defined as the absence of doubt, a contention that may be debatable but surely more interesting than yet another angst-driven Western novel bent on answering that same old question: Why, oh why, do those Muslims hate us?
In a review published in The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra panned much of the so-called 9/11 fiction as shallow and self-absorbed, indifferent to what one DeLillo character calls “matters of history, politics and economics—all the things that shape lives, millions of people, dispossessed, their lives, their consciousness”. Anyone writing in India can ill afford such luxury, making them at the very least more likely to raise new questions, if not offer new answers, in a global conversation about terror.
Besides, the one primary and primal reason why every culture has its storytellers is to help us make sense of ourselves in the wake of tragedy, to offer cultural catharsis and closure so we can heal and move on. Perhaps the Mumbai attacks will finally spur our authors into action. It is, after all, their job.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org