Someone’s remembered the living.
Alif turns a corner and sees sliced bread soaked with milk laid out in earthenware platters.
Sleek crows swoop down for the offerings, lifting the sodden pieces jerkily as if unsure of their marvellous luck, flapping back when a stray dog comes to lick at the sop, while large red ants march in file, working on the sticky splashes that dot the pavement. The sight of these bowls of food put out under the last summer blossoms of a gulmohar tree for any creature in need makes Alif feel he has been transported to some earlier, reputedly more enlightened, stage of civilisation.
His ruminations are interrupted by a message from his wife.
U hd promise to cum home erly. Dont eat too much and dont forget.
She speaks in Hindustani but writes always in this impatiently compressed English.
All right Tahi, Alif replies.
U hv to help me with my asgment on sales strategising, rmber?
He has forgotten, if he ever knew, what this is all about but makes, as always, an effort to be conciliatory, assure her he’ll be home right after lunch, his words pointedly spelt out correctly and punctuated right. An unnecessarily decorous reply for she comes back with only a string of those cutesy plastic symbols that have come to stand in for emotion – among them joined palms, a livid red heart, a golden smiley.
He tries to recover the thread of his thoughts. Perhaps this was how it felt to walk the streets in the third or fourth century before the common era, he thinks – even as a vilely large Fortuner honks in his face – when, under the influence of the gentle creeds of Buddhism and Jainism, emperors patronised dispensaries for sick animals or, very much later, during the proud and pompous reign of the leading Mughals, several of whom when not hunting were animal lovers too, commissioning paintings in which the predator and the prey, the lion and the lamb, were often pictured together in metaphorical harmony. And then came the British who, dispensing with such kindly fancies for relations between ruler and ruled, set about administering with the sword and decimating wildlife with the gun.
Alif is something of a historian and if there’s one thing to be said about history it’s that there’s too much of it; he is but a struggling apprentice, trying always to sound the past’s unfathomed depths. Every free moment he subjects to a historical test. This is now but how was it back then? Or that was then but how does it matter now?
He has just left the company of the Maharishi, his former teacher at university, who, some 25 years previously, taught him that the past always seems simple from a distance, that we subdue it with stuff like rise and decline, conquest and submission, golden ages and dark ones, but that in fact it is full of inexhaustibly interesting mysteries. Alif drops by to see him once in a while, and today, sitting on worn concrete benches at an outdoor canteen in the university’s north campus, drinking over-boiled tea out of paper cups, hearing students tease and chaff each other in a vociferous mix of Hindi and English, the two men occupied themselves with deeper themes. Alif was reflecting on the medieval Delhi Sultanate – an outcome of the eastward expansion of that powerful Muslim caliphate, the Abbasids, a thousand years ago. The hardy, once nomadic Turkish slaves who accompanied these sultans sometimes took over and became, in India, sultans themselves. Their roots, pointed out Maharishi, were in the Central Asian steppes. And almost two millennia before that, from near about those regions, the Aryans arrived, forerunners of today’s Hindus. Two eventually different peoples with perhaps a common origin.
Maharishi chuckled and Alif understood the piquancy of what he was getting at – what every historian worth his salt knew. “Hindus and Muslims,” said the professor, smiling as if these were upstart species that had been spawned but yesterday. “Forever conjoined and sometimes at war.” Alif wondered if the conceit was to blame – that imposing idea of a country as a pre-existent something which other people settle, invade, mix into, enrich or impoverish. “Perhaps if we stopped believing so fanatically in these entities,” he said, “and came to realise they’re practical necessities, not timeless ideals.” The Maharishi perked up at Alif’s donnish tone and asked how his research was going. This research is a putative thing at best; his interests are many and his attention is liable to being diverted.
He’s started and stopped several projects over the years, unable to find the one he would like to take up to the exclusion of everything else. Even so, something’s always compelling him. For the last few months he has been trying to collect his thoughts on what is known as the Delhi Renaissance, those all-too-short decades in the first half of the nineteenth century when the citizens of the city took to the study of modern astronomy, geography and mathematics in the newly opened Delhi College, when fatwas were passed sanctioning Western education provided it did not conflict with religious ideals, when translations were undertaken into Urdu of Western texts, and when, the frictions notwithstanding, Hindus and Muslims in Delhi often saw eye to eye. There was something hopeful about that time of determined self-improvement under the protection of what came to be called the “English peace” and it has been the subject of Alif’s sustained if often haphazard reading.
He told his teacher that what most attracted him was the tenor of that time, that atmosphere of hope, that idiom of progress. Just then a beefy student in a saggy kurta and a militantly neat crew cut, who’d been sitting with his tea quietly to one side, appearing to be lost in idle thought, walked past them and turning to the Maharishi said softly, “Your time is up.”
He strolled away, empty hands swinging by his side.
In Anjum Hasan’s History’s Angel, Alif Mohammad is a middle-aged, mild-mannered school teacher who, when not taking his students around to gawp at the relics of Delhi’s past, is immersed in reveries on the country’s long centuries. But the present is pressing down on him – in the form of colleagues suspicious of too much history, landlords keen to police his eating habits, and increasingly unreliable friends, not to speak of the imam at the local mosque whom the god-loving but not necessarily god fearing Alif is anxious to avoid. History’s Angel is a darkly funny story that explores the wildly conflicting views on the country’s past currently in circulation. It probes how religious belief can be a source of private comfort as much as an empty spectacle of righteousness. And it asks if the love of history can save a man who increasingly feels caught in its cross-hairs.
Excerpted with permission from History’s Angel, Anjum Hasan, Bloomsbury India.