Chatterjee:What was the inspiration for undertaking this journey through India and Pakistan to write Husband of a Fanatic?
Amitava Kumar:I began writing the book because I was put on a Hindutva hit-list after my marriage to a Pakistani. But the immediate context was provided by the riots in Gujarat. It is the events in Gujarat that provided the book its focus.
In writing this book you met and talked to people from all walks of life in India and Pakistan. What would you say are the major issues of Hindu-Muslim divide in the subcontinent?
That question is a difficult one for me to answer. I wasn’t trying to produce a thesis on Hindu-Muslim relations. The book is an account of a writer’s experiences with religious violence as well as ultranationalism. I repeatedly put myself in situations from where I could writing about my own contradictions and dilemmas.
While divisions along caste lines seem to have been eliminated to a great degree at least in urban India, so that the “glass plate under the sink rule” does not apply for people of other castes anymore, the communal fissures have deepened. What factors do you think contributed to this?
I think caste and caste violence exists in very real and dangerous forms all over India. But, to respond to your question, I have little doubt that the politics of Hindutva and the BJP’s proximity to power has been one of the main factors responsible for rise in religious ideologies in India.
How do you see the recent peace diplomacy between India and Pakistan: the cricket season, exchange of artists, the cross cultural exchange?
It is wonderful that we have the new bus line in Kashmir. The cricket series is a great event. I just hope that India wins the remaining matches!
Twice in the book you comment about the Indian brand of secularism being somewhat undemocratic because “the English speaking elite of India has not granted the likes of him (Barotia, the Hindu fundamentalist character) a proper place under the Indian flag”: later again you have similar thoughts while talking with the BJP guy Dalmia. But isn’t it this elitist feature that has contributed to secular instruments of state, such as the government machinery (aside from the Gujarat riots), the press, the armed forces etc. or we might have seen many more Gujarats burning.
You’re quite right to draw attention to the achievements of the elite, although, unlike you, I don’t see the state and its branches as simply elite institutions. I see those sites as places where the elite and non-elite fight an uneven battle for power. Let me make myself clear: I admire the legacy of secularism in India. It is important, however, to ask what a non-elite-driven secularism might look like.
Gandhi’s brand of long distance nationalism and South Africa are discussed at length in your book. How did it transform itself into this new saffron avatar that we see across the western world today?
It seems to me that Gandhi’s discovery of nationalism outside the national boundaries had as its enemy imperial might of the British. Our more rabid long-distance nationalists are happy to be in bed with the imperialists, old or new. Having left India, they have transformed their guilt into fundamentalism and found it easier to invent enemies among the minorities.
Tell us about some of your experiences in Pakistan?
Your readers might want to read the book and discover my experiences for themselves.
In writing Husband of a Fanatic, what would you say is your message was to people of India and expatriate Indians living all around the world?
You know, there is much to criticize about Islamic fundamentalism. And indeed, there is much to be said against Christian fundamentalism, and Jewish fundamentalism, and other forms of fundamentalism. My book is an attempt to write a travelogue against the backdrop of the fundamentalism that is closest to my own experience and to the experience of my country—Hindu fundamentalism. It is not a sociological treatise, and it doesn’t have a message. It is a writer’s account of a series of encounters with violence.
Contributing reviewer Shampa Chatterjee
conducted her interview with Amitava Kumar via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of Husband of a Fanatic.