The veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi has recently published a play, The Muslim Vanishes. I believe it has not been performed on stage yet. But there seem to be enough people in our own zeitgeist in India who appear to be ready to stage it in real life.
With the hijab ban, demands for measures against the azaan and the namaz in public spaces, calls for a ban on the sale of halal meat, social boycotts of Muslim vendors, and the banishment of Muslim food stalls from Hindu religious festivals, there seems to be a demand that Muslims should vanish from India’s public and economic life, or at least make themselves invisible and subordinate.
In this dystopian thought experiment of a play, Saeed Naqvi imagines what would happen if this were to truly come to pass in its extreme manifestation – where all Muslims of India completely disappear. A journalist tells his boss at a TV station at the beginning of the play, “I don’t know how to explain…it’s just…so unbelievable. Sir, there is no one left! I mean the Muslims. Muslims have gone. Some say they have taken the Qutub Minar with them.”
An unusual voice of reason
After initial disbelief there is opportunistic euphoria, for properties are there to be captured, and businesses to be taken over. Some dream of a Hindu socialist utopia, for “now that Muslims have disappeared there is no one left to hate.” But things go south rapidly, and the ruling upper-caste elite feel threatened by the lower caste majority that now threatens to overwhelm and supersede them electorally.
To counter this, the upper castes now make efforts to try to bring the vanished Muslims back, so as to prevent the demographic change that is leading to their loss of power. A special court is instituted with a special jury invoked ritualistically, comprising some of the great voices of the last millennium of South Asia’s composite culture – with Amir Khusrau as its spokesperson.
This court with its jury is Naqvi’s chief device of expanding upon the theme and problem with which he shocks the reader / viewer initially, the absence / place of the Muslim population of (New) India. The court case becomes the debating arena of the Hindu and Muslim representatives, the cross-examiner, and the tempering voice of the jury.
Against the hate of the last many decades, compounded by the role of media (of which Naqvi has long been a part), Khusrau’s advice on behalf of his millennium-experienced jury is of creative programming through TV and journalism. One that is focussed not just on the market, but examines the place of democracy, constitution, and tradition, to create a country that no one wants to leave. Still, one wonders if such easy solutions are realistic, in the India of the play or of our own times.
Even as the court case goes on, rampant casteism is seething outside, from the folds of the media and from other social and political actors. The bitter irony is that the whole court setup is one to prevent the Dalits from gaining power. I will leave it to the readers to pick up the book to discover whether the Muslim reappears or disappears forever, what happens inside the court and outside of it, and how the play ends.
For the times we live in
The Muslim Vanishes is a gripping fast-read, with all action, such as the bits to be played cinematically on a screen installed as the backdrop of the stage, described vividly. Conceptually, Naqvi’s easy conflation of Urdu and certain architectural monuments with Muslims (and their subsequent disappearance together), may be quibbled over as all of these were composite and distinctively Indian creations.
But Naqvi is aware of this contradiction and does provide a counter critique to it in the form of a retort from a character towards the end of the play. We may surmise that he probably uses the premise strategically for enhanced effect.
Yet, I increasingly wonder, who cares? Will readers be shaken out of their torpor by the drama that Naqvi has created if they are not already awakened by the news that plays out in front of their eyes every day? Or will only a Muslim reviewer care to pick up a play written by a Muslim about the loss of Muslims, while no one else reads such a text?
After all, literature is an attempt to escape reality for most, many of whom may have chosen to close their eyes anyway. I would like to posit that this play is a must read for our times, especially for those who may not understand the force of history, to create empathy, to encourage responsibility in all responses.
Our neighbour Sri Lanka also underwent halal labelling withdrawals and burqa bans, and is now financially bankrupt. As the din for such calls increases in India, when we are selling the third-most expensive petrol in the world, and the most expensive domestic LPG, readers might seek to pause and acknowledge their priority in life and literature. For even if the Muslim vanishes, as Naqvi attempts to boldly and creatively show, will that signal the end of India’s – and the reader’s – problems?
Maaz Bin Bilal teaches literary studies at Jindal Global University. His recent works include the translation of Fikr Taunsavi’s ‘The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India’ (2019).