It is only in the last few years of my more than 42 years of existence as an “Indian Muslim” that I have actually been reminded of my religious identity on an almost daily basis. I feel I am being watched with suspicion when I read an Urdu book on board an aircraft. I feel my security check at the airport takes extra time after my full name on the boarding pass is read.

In the last few years I have been made to realise, almost every day, that it is this Arabic name alone which decides whether I should be looked at with suspicion in my own country – a name to which I proudly suffix the honorific “Advocate, Supreme Court of India”, denoting my membership of the bar of the highest Court of a secular democracy whose citizenship, till a few years ago, gave me a certain sense of pride over my Pakistani cousins.

Instead of wandering like a cloud, I tiptoe with circumspection. What brought about this change? How did a Muslim name become a burden even for a professed atheist or a declared agnostic? What does it mean to grow up Muslim in India today? These and similar questions need to be answered and the story of radicalism and the young Indian Muslim needs to be told.

I was, therefore, very excited to read a book whose title promises to tell this story. More excited because Ramachandra Guha has generously endorsed it as “a dazzling debut by a greatly gifted and remarkably brave writer”. Having read it now, this is what I think – a guide to radicalism for the ordinary man needs to be written, but An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism is not that guide.

In the heart of the infamous encounter

This book is the story of a young boy from an ordinary Muslim family of rural Bihar who migrates to Delhi and, many years later, as an undergraduate student, finds himself living in a Muslim ghetto which is vandalised by the police one fine morning of September 2008 in what is widely, and probably rightly, believed to be a communally-laden fake encounter. Who better to tell the story that needs to be told!

Farooquee begins telling it with a short prologue, interestingly titled “A Person Like You”, where, in a few words, he describes how his wary neighbours continue to be visited by plainclothes policemen driving numberless cars even after ten years of the encounter. Evocative and heartbreaking. His story then carries on in eighteen chapters spread over two equal “Parts”.

He tells us how, as a young boy, having been despatched from his village in Bihar to study in middle school in Delhi, he landed up in the Capital’s prominent Muslim neighbourhood, meters away from where the encounter would later take place. He describes his life as a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, immediately touching a chord with every reader who has spent his University days in Delhi. He quotes Iqbal’s poetry and Kabir’s verses which he grew up reading. He paints a realistic picture of the Jamia neighbourhood, connecting the reader almost immediately with the life that lingers in the dhabas of its by-lanes and catches us unaware every now and then.

He tells us how he heard of the “encounter” and what happened thereafter. How he and his friends would not venture out after dark. How some friends dashed back to their small semi-urban hometowns, feeling unsafe in secular India’s humongous capital. How reporters calling his Muslim neighbours disloyal were thrashed by them. How Vice Chancellor Mushir-ul-Hasan, who was detested by him and his fellow-students, suddenly became their hero after he promised them his unconditional support and told them that they did not have to prove their loyalty to anyone.

But we know this story

What he, however, does not do is to tell us something new. Other than the author’s purely personal biographical details, there is very little in the book which was hitherto not known or not widely reported in the media. Wallowing in despair, the book hardly vindicates its title.

Perhaps the only chapter which does some justice to the title is the one titled “Like a Normal Human Being”, where we are told how, soon after the encounter, the author made a conscious effort to disassociate himself from activities which were hitherto perfectly normal but could now be construed as suspicious – being a member of an online page on Allama Iqbal, accepting friend requests from unknown people and everything else that “might cast me as a Terrorist disguised as a Normal Human Being”.

He depicts that daunting vulnerability and helplessness that resonates with many young Indian Muslims today. The book ends with an amusingly titled epilogue telling us how young Muslims living in the Jamia Nagar ghetto are constantly watched even when they have tea at a neighbouhood dhaba. It is titled “So, You are having tea ? I see!” The acknowledgements are funny in parts.

The personal is not always political

Farooquee was most well-suited to write a first-hand account of what is popularly known as the “Batla House encounter” and how it not only changed lives but also an entire secular narrative forever. He does make that attempt but, unfortunately, intersperses his account with too many minute details of his own childhood stories. Some personal details may be necessary to understand the background of a credible first-hand witness to charges of radicalism, but why would someone be interested, for instance, in his Class 8 admit card?

I am afraid this is a classic case of a book that could have been so well-written, ruined by someone’s speculative conviction that readers would be interested in a purely personal autobiographical note of an almost unknown young Muslim journalist. Again, he tries to craft his story by interjecting chapters that, every now and then, take the narrative back in time to his childhood or early youth. Handling flashback as a literary device is not every author’s cup of tea (not even at a neighbourhoood dhaba where you are being watched!).

Everything in the book is overstated. While personal details are overdone, clichés are excessive, the poetry is quoted far more than required, and the cover is over-dressed. Having said this, I must also admit that writing courageously on a subject that inherently brings with it the threat of condemnation and attack from the right is a laudable task in itself. To this challenge, Farooquee has risen with valour and courage and has done so at a time when many are afraid to even speak up for themselves. For this reason alone, the book deserves to be read.

An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism : Growing up Muslim in India, Neyaz Farooquee, Westland.