In Mahmud and Ayaz, R Raj Rao’s titular characters paint a bleak picture of present-day India, one where the poor get poorer and minorities are silenced. Despite the heavy subject material, it’s a provocative, sexy, and playful read that treats characters as caricatures and acts as a larger experiment on how much an openly gay, openly left author can get away with today.

History as an affirmative source

Mahmud Fakhar is a young man who spends his days reading in the library, rubbing up on men on the Bombay train, and resisting the marriage his parents desperately want. But Mahmud is far from a floater and holds a simple, revolutionary goal: he has seen the brutality inflicted on Muslims in India under Modi and now wishes for good ol’ revenge. Ideally, terrorist revenge. So he studies for the IAS to get closer to power, where he hopes to enact all sorts of mayhem. But this plan is thwarted after a series of catastrophes hit Mahmud; his family is killed in a stampede, and cow-related lynchings get increasingly closer, culminating in a failure of his last IAS exam attempt.

With a tragic clean slate, he decides to embark on the scholarly pursuits of a PhD on the love between Mahmud of Ghazni and his Turkish slave/lover, Ayaz. Mahmud sees his likeness in Ghazni for his beliefs, his name, but most importantly, the fact that he was a “married man with children and homosexual at the same time”, holding a casual passion toward sexuality that Mahmud believes is lost today.

Though much of the novel focuses on Mahmud learning about – and, in a way, mimicking – Mahmud of Ghazni, it’s simplistic to say that the novel is concerned with the parallels of history. It treats history almost as an affirmative source, a tarot card deck that can be constantly referred to so that we may understand how a situation plays out. So when Mahmud meets his version of Ayaz, it not only seems fated but absolutely inescapable.

One day, caught in the throes of demonetisation, he meets Pandurang, a broke, scrawny young man who falls on both ends of Mumbai’s trafficking – the victim and then the pimp. Upon begging Mahmud for money, Mahmud offers him a solution: Pandurang should convert to Islam, move in with Mahmud, attend to the housekeeping and cooking, and, in turn, get a meagre salary, room and board. The unspoken agreement is, of course, that sex is a must in this arrangement. Pandurang accepts, and he is reborn as Ayaz.

The decade that was

Gluttony is a prominent theme for Mahmud in his personal life, but it takes over the plotting of the novel too, and because of this, all major political events of the last ten years are included. The demonisation of Muslims under the BJP, migrant workers during COVID-19, an increasing surveillance state, industrialists ruling the country, terror as justified revolution, and beef lynchings, illustrate a very small sample. Each chapter has roughly two larger political subtopics Mahmud thinks about or finds himself involved in, and the result is a lukewarm approach to everything. The narrative jumps across the spectrum of Modi’s two terms, creating a dizzying and disappointingly macro view of the country, channelling events that the reader has recently lived through without any of the biting insight that Rao is more than capable of delivering.

For all the packed plot and colourful characters, the juiciest, softest parts of the novel are in watching Mahmud struggle with his identity. Upon printing his PhD, he finds that he has reversed the subject and author names, writing, “Mahmud Fakhar: His Expeditions to India by Mahmud of Ghazni”. Whether this was a clerical error or a personal one, it’s a clever insight into how Mahmud visualises himself (delusions of grandeur coupled with loneliness that might extend a relation across centuries) and reveals more than hearing him talk about Ghazni. However, within less than a page, the novel has moved on from the incident, now focusing on the red tape bureaucracy of academia. And there lie the snags in the novel.

By the end, Mahmud and Ayaz – who are well settled and quite in love by now – find themselves as full-blown terrorists awaiting a final mission. The last fifth, where the details of Mahmud’s terrorist plot are carefully laid out, feels like attending a class titled “Jihad 101”. The result is mostly thrilling, even if only to see how much can be published today. The novel is acutely self-aware of its polarity, invoking Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses repeatedly. Ultimately, it’s impossible and undesirable to separate the macro context of the novel’s publication from its content, and in doing so, it feels like a happy miracle that Mahmud and Ayaz could even be published.

Mahmud and Ayaz, R Raj Rao, Speaking Tiger Books.