Saturday, October 13, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Soliture of Emperors

The Solitude of Emperors
By David Davidar
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 246pp, $32.95

In modern Australia, sectarianism rarely goes beyond the occasional provocative opinion piece in the newspaper or a comment from a bigoted politician. In India, the world's largest democracy, ancient religious hatreds are frequently used as modern political tools to deadly effect.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, as well as the birth of the modern and nominally Muslim state of Pakistan. The founders of both states envisaged two modern secular states living side by side and maintaining good relations based on their shared cultural heritage.
Yet in the weeks and months surrounding Partition, more than a million people were killed in religious riots in northern India's Punjab and Bengal wings. In the train stations of Lahore and Amritsar, on either side of India's boundary with what was then West Pakistan, it wasn't unknown for trains to silently stop at the platform, their carriages transformed into communal coffins.
How can modern secularism overcome such ancient hatred? After all, we in the West regard secularism as keeping religion away from politics wherever possible, as if religion can only play a destructive, not cohesive, role when allowed to dominate the public sphere.
David Davidar's latest work, The Solitude of Emperors, is a reminder that secularism can take other forms. The novel's narrator is Vijay, a young south Indian man who escapes from a suffocating rural home to work as a journalist in Mumbai. His employer is Rustom Sorabjee, a wealthy member of the ancient Parsi community, descendants of the Zoroastrians of Iran who fled the armies of the Muslim caliph Omar in the 7th century.

Sorabjee is publisher and editor of The Indian Secularist, a magazine with a small but elite readership of Indians opposed to the growing influence of Hindutva (Hindu chauvinism). The novel is set about the time of the destruction of the ancient Babri Masjid, a mosque built by the Mughals in the north Indian town of Ayodhya and regarded by Hindus as the birthplace of Rama. The destruction on December 6, 1992, led to the rise of far Right Hindu chauvinism and subsequently the election of what many Indian minorities feared would be a neo-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party government.

The sectarian riots reach Mumbai, and Vijay witnesses a mob of crazed fanatics hacking at the remains of Muslim civilians they had just murdered. The mob demands Vijay prove he isn't Muslim, even insisting he shows he isn't circumcised. One of the mob notices that Vijay wears the sacred threads establishing his Brahmin Hindu heritage, but bashes him with a metal bar for good measure. The incident leaves him suffering post-traumatic stress. His employer suggests Vijay take time off in a small village in the Nilgiri mountains in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Sorabjee gives his employee two tasks. First, Vijay is to report on the struggle to protect the Tower of God, a Christian shrine at the top of a mountain that, like so many religious shrines in India, is revered by followers of all faiths. Hindutva activists believe the shrine is built on the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple and are agitating to destroy it.

Vijay's reporting is to occur within the context of his second task: reviewing Sorabjee's book "The Solitude of Emperors: Why Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi Matter to Us Today", excerpts of which appear in the novel. Though Sorabjee's work is a defence of secularism, Western readers will find its approach somewhat novel. Far from insisting that religion (and religious people) remain aloof from government, Sorabjee champions the idea that religious citizens of modern India change their attitude towards their own faith and the faiths of their fellow Indians.

This book within the book attempts to define secularism as a messianic force that will eventually lead to the creation of an India that maintains its religiosity without compromising its pluralism.

The promised secular messiah would be a leader who combined the best qualities of Ashoka (the warrior king who left war behind to spread the message of Buddha), Akbar (the Mughal Muslim king who developed a hybrid religion containing elements of all faiths) and Gandhi (who developed the Hindu doctrine of Ahimsa into a modern form of non-violent activism). Sorabjee sees the common thread of these three Indian leaders as their willingness to occasionally embrace solitude, to remove themselves from the hysteria of their communities and rise above commonly held prejudices.

So much of our modern politics is driven by advice from spin doctors encouraging their clients to make statements and develop policy based on little more than popularly held prejudice.

Davidar's novel provides a believable Indian scenario of where such politics might lead in the long term. It also opens our eyes to uglier sides of Indian cultures that may surprise Western readers enamoured of all things Indian, but which Indians take for granted.

First published in The Weekend Australian on 13-14 October 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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