“If we take the Muslim out of India, what becomes of the country?” This is the central question that veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi’s recent three-act play The Muslim Vanishes seeks to answer. In a crisp preface he first explains the premise of his plot and then the choice of “play” as his genre: Politicians hold two interlocking triangles in their hands, both feeding on each other. The first is the caste pyramid, the second has three intrinsically intertwined sides — “India-Pakistan, New Delhi-Srinagar, Hindu Muslim”. Without the second, the Hindu Right will not be able to manage the first. Combine the two triangles with the deliberately misunderstood complications of Partition and you have the perfect recipe for hate. Only a comprehensive, all-encompassing dialogue can resolve this situation and that is best-presented in a fast-paced drama. Standing on this brief but compelling introduction, Naqvi dives straight into Act 1, Scene 1: a distraught and excited junior journalist rushes into a busy news studio telling two primetime anchors that all Muslims have vanished from India overnight and, along with them, has vanished the Qutab Minar. It seems they have “taken it back”. Much as this opening seems to lay the ground for what the reader can expect later, not one of the next 150 pages is monotonous.
As the scene progresses, the characters debate among themselves — What else did, or can, the Muslims take back? Writings of great poets — Mir, Ghalib, Josh. But what about Hindu poets of the ghazal — Brij Narain Chakbast, Raghupati Sahai Firaq? Can they take them back, too? And those exquisite terms used in our courts — munsif, farraash — will they also disappear? And what about our great musical repertoire, the gharanas? And food? Can they also reclaim nihari and kabab and the rista and gushtaba? Perhaps Hussain’s paintings will also magically vanish. But for those who think that the Muslim vanishing will only be about the loss of literature, art and culture, Naqvi has news. It will have far deeper socio-political consequences. It will change the power equation in a way few realise. In an early scene, a dalit, who had never dared to enter the main gate of a Hindu Brahmin leader’s house without being summoned, not only enters uninvited but also sits on the sofa without permission. The leader’s son, one of the two primetime anchors to whom the news of the vanishing Muslims was first broken, explains. “Today, without the Muslims, the battlelines have been redrawn. It is Savarnas versus Avarnas, upper castes versus lower castes”.
The problem has become so serious that a special court has been set up on the issue of the Muslim vanishing. And, this is where Naqvi shows his prowess as an eclectic thinker. To assist the court, an 11-member jury has been constituted. On the recommendation of the great Sufi saint of Barabanki, Shah Abdul Razaq, who has a deep mystical link with the Hindu court at Maihar, the jury is chaired by Urdu poet and Constituent Assembly member, Maulana Hasrat Mohani. Best known as the author of the romantic ghazal “chupke chupke raat din aansu bahaana yaad hai”, it was the Maulana who coined the slogan ‘Inquilab zindabad’. He is accompanied by the social activist Mahatma Phule, poets Raskhan, Salbeg, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, Mohsin Kakorvi and Chunnalal Dilgeer, Classical singer Alladiya Khan, Kabir, Tulsi Das, an anonymous nominee of Guru Nanak and Amir Khusro. The lawyer in me applauds Naqvi’s jury-selection skills — four Muslim poets who are devotees of Hindu dieties (Maulana and Raskhan of Krishna, Salbeg of Jagannath and Khan-e-Khana of Ram), one Muslim Urdu poet who uses Hindu imagery in praise of the Prophet (Kakorvi), one Muslim proponent of Marathi Natya sangeet (Alladiya), one Hindu poet known for his poetry on Karbala (Dilgeer), two mystic poets whose philosophy cuts across religion (Kabir and Tulsidas) and one anti-caste reformer (Phule).
The jury chooses Amir Khusrau as its spokesperson. Again, an incredible choice. Khusrau is one of the most influential figures in the cultural history of the subcontinent and perhaps the most transformational part of the “long tradition of eclectic liberalism” that Naqvi alludes to. Who better than him, then, to speak for a composite India?
The judicial proceedings that follow through an entangled web of examination and cross-examination, unravel the rich and diverse history of the Hindustan that was. From complexities of the partition to the making of the Constitution, from mystic syncretism to the politics of conversion, from the special status of Kashmir to urban Naxalism and from cultural renaissance to quelling free speech, Naqvi steers through Hindustan’s intricate landscape with a masterly hand. Riding on his vast knowledge of politics, society, history, literature, art and culture, he moves between time and space with tremendous poise. I wish he had occasionally interspersed his scenes with some Mir and Ghalib, like he does when he speaks, but this wish arises more out of my constant greed for ‘Saeed Naqviesque’ narratives than by any insufficiency in the script.
The expression “Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb” must be one of the most misused ones in recent times. In their bid to buy an imprimatur of approval from the majority, Muslim apologists have abused the idea to such an extent that it has now entered the realm of the ridculous: “Oh, but we are secular Muslims. We celebrate Raksha Bandhan and participate in Diwali puja.” Though the very foundation on which Naqvi’s play stands is “Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb”, he does not tom-tom it as a saleble commodity to barter acceptance with. Instead, he forcefully situates the followers of this tehzeeb as equal participants in the making of a secular, democratic republic, demanding their indispensability in all decision-making processes in the present. This, to me, is his biggest win.
Sociopolitical writing has immense potential to exhaust the reader. But Naqvi’s satirical tone and terrific sense of humour compel the reader to go on, and expect something exciting every now and then. To quote Asghar Gondvi: Sunta hoon bade ghaur se afsaana-e-hasti Kuchh khvaab hai, kuchh asl hai, kuchh tarz e ada hai.
[Intently I listen to his life-story. It’s part dream, part reality and part style.]
The play has immense potential to be performed on stage and I hope that, when it is performed, none other than its author is persuaded to direct.