Price of innocence

LEAD REVIEW

Price of innocence

SCAPEGOAT Silenced forever.

This is the story of Jamaal Ansari, an ordinary lad from a nondescript small town in UP, who breathes his last as  Jimmy the terrorist. The novel examines with deep sensitivity the complex socio-economic and political factors that turn a young man neither cursed nor blessed with extraordinariness to become sensationalised by the media as some monster. Jamaal, like his father before him and like billions of youngsters all over the country, was merely hungry to be acknowledged, to claim the right to live with social acceptance and dignity. With well-crafted prose, the author succeeds in making us empathise with Jamaal; to want to know and understand the forces leading to his untimely and violent end. Ironically, death brings the alienated Jamaal posthumous fame and acknowledgement by Moazzamabad as one of its own, albeit as a terrorist.

Jamaal begins to understand early on the subtle social distinctions that revolve around and “about power, about honour, and ultimately about wealth.” He understands instinctively how people like his father and himself are “an offense to the well-cultivated sensibilities of the rich, making their nostrils curl in disgust.” He makes it through the entrance exams into St Jude’s, the best school in town offering education emphasising the anglicised sense of fair play and equal opportunities. Jamaal’s joy in gaining admission was short-lived, for “within the confines of the school the politics of wealth was indulged in as viciously by the children as their parents played it outside.”  When Jamaal answers every question correctly in his first social sciences test, his delighted father presents him with his first fountain pen. His mean and jealous classmates treacherously break the nib. He learns that the fruit of his achievements, the proof his father’s pride, could never be displayed in school because someone would find a way to destroy it. Approaching the school authorities would not bring redressal, for even if they believed him, the treacherous schoolmates would still seek every chance to pull him down. Confiding in his father was of no use. What could his father do? He also realised he was not a fighter who could ever confront his tormentors. He could only bend before them.  

Rasoolpur Mohalla is a Muslim neighbourhood in a Hindu town where Jamaal is born, grows up and dies. The inhabitants of Rasoolpur are finely delineated with their shortcomings and redeeming features. As a young man, Jamaal’s father Rafiq’s life’s ambition is to sit in Shabbir Manzil among the mohalla’s notables and speak of poetry and cricket. For all his vanities and flaws, his affection for Jamaal is genuine. Jamaal’s mother, Shaista, is a poor orphaned girl from the prominent clan of Shabbir Manzil. Well educated and with clear views of her own, she finds it difficult initially to wholeheartedly love and appreciate the effete Rafiq. The couple’s marital love blossoms briefly before Shaista’s untimely death, after which Rafiq and Jamaal are rudely thrown out of Shabbir Manzil.

Maulana Qayoom, imam of one of the oldest mosques of the city, is a wise and affectionate community elder with social standing and prestige. Both Rafiq and Jamal look up to him for sympathy and advice. Mullahs like Jamaal’s father are of a different and lesser breed. “A Mullah had the word of God, but still, what did it matter? … Without a mosque, without the favour of the wealthy, a mullah was a mere man, even if his voice was more insistent than most.”

In contrast, the people outside Rasoolpur come across as one-dimensional bad guys. They are mean and evil for the sake of it without any redeeming shades of grey. We learn next to nothing about them except their widespread antagonism, arrogance and callous disregard for Jamaal and his ilk. Manoj Tripathi, the power-hungry bigoted Hindu priest of the Hanuman temple, uses every trick in the book to win elections and cow down opponents. His nameless, faceless henchmen are mercenary thugs and killers, whose ungodly acts culminate in dousing Maulana Qayoom with kerosene meant for the temple, and burning him to death. The upholders of law and order, beginning with Inspector Rawat to the constables and the PAC Special Forces, wear the “khaki uniform of callous disregard, if not hate.” Even the children in St Jude’s School are featureless clones of their snobbish and arrogant parents. The media descend on the town like vultures after Jamaal’s death, sensation seeking newshounds who do not care to go in depth into a story.

Only two figures outside Rasoolpur show serious positive qualities. But they too are one-dimensional and mentioned only in passing. The principal of St Jude’s makes the rich and snobbish Saurabh Mukherjee publicly apologise to Jamaal, upholding the values of uprightness and fair play. Mr Gill, who runs the school, does not restrict admission only to children of the rich. A deeper exploration of the inner lives and motivations of the folks outside Rasoolpur would have further enriched this story.

Jimmy the terrorist
Omair Ahmad
Penguin
2011, pp 177
Rs 350

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