“Terrorism in literature” was the topic of discussion during the recent release of my latest Bengali novel Tero Nadir Pare (Beyond The Ocean). The novel deals with international terrorism and the incidents in the book are set against the backdrop of some of the most horrifying terror attacks in the western world. The novel also explores how those events affected lives on the subcontinent, and started changing the course of history.
But what I personally understood from the discourse that evening – and earlier, when the cover was unveiled – is that readers often fail to differentiate between violence and terrorism. So when they talk about terrorism in Indian literature, they refer to the battles and the killings in epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For the same reason, they also consider domestic violence an act of terrorism.
But once this misconception was pointed out and debated, and as the discussion focussed more on real terrorism, something interesting happened. A contemporary writer, while talking about the situation in Kashmir, strongly argued that if we condemn cross-border terrorism in the state, we also have to justly condemn state terrorism unleashed by the security forces. A friend from the audience, a professor and social activist, rightfully questioned why we tend to have the image of an Islamic terrorist in mind when we talk of terrorism. Why do we only mention the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda but become oblivious to terror nearer home?
When put in the right perspective, “terrorism” poses quite a few uneasy questions. But is this uneasiness being reflected in our literature? I ran a Google search on “Terrorism in Indian literature”, and the first few results referred to “Terrorism, insurgency and Indian literature 1830-1947”. That is, acts of terrorism in colonial India.
Of course, there were other results too, which referred to writings on two hotbeds of terrorism in India – Punjab and Kashmir. And these are writings in English. I am sure that, had there been ample English translations of stories written in Kashmiri or Gurmukhi, there would have been more results.
But it is also evident that there is a dearth – if not complete absence – of stories, novels, or plays in English and regional languages on the subject. For some reason Indian writers are not very comfortable or confident about writing on terrorism. They tend to shy away from the imminent dangers lurking ahead.
For example, if we consider contemporary Bengali fiction, there is a clear lack of interest in the recent past. Historically Bengal has witnessed two major sociopolitical events. The first was the Partition of 1947 and the refugee crisis, and the second was the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s. There are numerous writings on both – an abundance of stories, novels, plays and films, in fact. Indeed, Bengali writers have never tired of these themes and are still writing about the Partition and Naxalite movement.
But in the process, they are deliberately ignoring the fact that the social fabric of Bengal is being continuously threatened by extremist ideas. Be it by Hindu hardliners or by radical Islamists, freethinking secular Bengalis are being challenged every day. Bengali society is being polarised, but this is hardly reflected in contemporary Bengali literature.
Hindi films have actually been quite active about terrorism, putting out films about practically every major incident of terror in the country, however superficial and far removed from reality some of these might be. We have had films on Khalistan, on Kashmir, on cross-border terrorism, and, of course, on the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. Though most of these films rally around nationalist ideas, at least they have not shied away from acknowledging reality.
Too soon to write about it?
This does not hold true for Indian literature. Though many essays and articles have been written exploring Indian terrorism, its varied context and myriad patterns, probing deep into the problems, the same cannot be said about literature. Terrorism, it seems, is taboo there.
The only justified argument Indian writers can offer in their defence is that writers are not journalists. They are not necessarily chroniclers of events. Of course they observe everything, but they prefer to let it settle, keep thinking about it, and then respond through their art at a later state. This, of course, is true.
Literature cannot be instant reactions like social media posts are, for instance. Authors need time to reflect. It is never a hurried process. But a decade and a half has passed since 9/11, the biggest terror attack in modern human history. Things have started changing drastically after that. In India, Islamic fundamentalism has made space for far right radicalism to grow. It is time that Indian writers started telling themselves, “Hurry up please, it’s time.” Now is the time to write about it.
My novel Tero Nadir Pare, however, is not an attempt to do this. It only uses terrorism, local and global, as a backdrop to events. The novel tries to follow the journey of a few individuals whose future is affected by some mindless acts of terror, events that have shaken the world in recent times.
Many controversial issues popped up in my head while writing this novel, leaving me uneasy. These are usually discussed in private or within the ambit of closed-door seminars, and dealt with only in academic writing. I realised that these issues might be the reasons behind very few fiction writers venturing into this sensitive area.
But these issues should have been raised and debated in public long ago. Or, at least, they should have been recorded in literature. Why? Because these are the questions that are shaping our future.