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Three men and a trope

Manisha Pande  |  New Delhi 

Warning: Tabish Khair’s latest book, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, offers no insights on how to achieve such a feat (averting the clash of civilisations would, otherwise, be one joyful exercise). Be that as it may, the book doesn’t disappoint — far from it. If you did happen to pick up the book purely for its rather salacious title, you’d be pleasantly surprised with this brilliantly clever work of fiction. The title, then, however misleading, is a fitting prelude to a book that’s “wonderfully irreverent” — to quote from the cover blurb which, for once, is not phoney.

Set in Aarhus, Denmark, this is the story of three men whose lives intersect as they come to share a flat together. Through their stories, the author tackles the themes of love (carnal and sublime); religion (fundamentalist and flexible) and, well, what these slippery constructs can do to people.

The plot opens with the unnamed narrator coming to terms with his divorce and traces the events of his life before the infamous “axe attack” on the Danish cartoonist whose controversial caricatures of sparked riots across the world.

A Muslim from Pakistan, the narrator harbours a quiet disdain for romantic or religious fervour. The pragmatist in him is content with “sane attraction” and has little patience with ideas of houris or paradise. Ravi, his Indian friend and flatmate – easily the most likeable character in the book – is more flamboyant. He spins elaborate theories on everything from being a “post-modern” lover (while most are still stuck knee-deep in modernity) to the “Eng Lit types” to fascism.

Different as the narrator and Ravi are, they have more in common with each other than with their landlord, who also shares their flat. Karim Bhai, a devout Indian Muslim, hosts Quran clubs every Friday, takes the Prophet’s words to be final and turns pink to his long, flowing beard at the mention of women. Despite his fundamentalist leanings, Ravi and the narrator see no reason to doubt this man of religion — till the “Islamic axe attack” takes place in the town. It is then that they begin to question his mysterious disappearances. Where does he go off to? Why does he receive mysterious phone calls from unknown numbers? The narrator begins to doubt Karim Bhai. Is there a terrorist lurking behind this seemingly calm fundamentalist?

Khair ably uses his characters’ dilemmas to draw a sharp commentary on the many preconceptions that surround religion. And he does this without indulging any of them in heart-wrenching monologues or passionate outbursts. Khair’s weapon against the tyranny of our times is humour, and he has a keen eye for it. He uses dollops of satire and wit. You trust him instantly as a storyteller because he steadfastly refrains from going into sermon mode as his characters grapple with questions of faith, love, beliefs and tolerance. Above all, he reminds you of the importance of looking at the world and its failings, including oneself, with a touch of lightness.

It’s through Ravi’s mordant wit that the author gives the book some of its brightest moments. On deciding to learn the namaaz and its intricate postures, Ravi realises that not only is it a complex exercise but a painful one too. In his trademark facetious style, he explains to the narrator how India came under Islamic rule: “Now I understand why you f*****g mullahs came over and colonized us. It was not the gunpowder and the cannons. It was the namaaz. While we were sitting around on our backsides, jingling bells at our gods, you were working out five times a day. The namaaz is the gym of Islam.” He goes on to add that the West probably hates the Muslim prayer so much because it is too much competition for their health business.

And now for the title. Khair understands that part of the charm of the book comes from his clever use of words on the cover; and in keeping with the tone of the book, he delves little into explaining it. The book triumphs because once you finish it, you’d be compelled to go back to its title and think: could it be that the chances of fighting Islamist terror from the missionary position (literally) are as slim as fighting it at all? Or is it that the missionary, with its delicious dips into double entendre, indicates Khair’s frustration at the way terror is handled — from the easy position of fixed schools of smug ideology? Grab the book and draw your own conclusions.

Tabish Khair
Fourth Estate
190 pages; Rs 450

First Published: Thu, April 26 2012. 00:15 IST