From afar it is idyllic. A green island, overrun with forests of giant padauk trees and climbing lianas. Pristine waters surround it in bewitching shades of blue – though one should be mindful that parts of it might still be mined. The island – Andaman – belongs to an archipelago known by the same name.

There are other islands in this archipelago where indigenous people are estimated to have had an uninterrupted and reclusive natural existence for fifty millennia or more. They continue to occupy their tree-canopied abodes – “untamed” but harmless to the outside world.

Yet the “civilising” European males who came here a couple of hundred years ago chose to call them “savages” for reasons deeply self-serving. In order to understand real savagery – a sophisticated and very modern form of it – one, in fact, has to turn to South Andaman Island and its capital Port Blair with its infamous British colonial era penal colony called the Cellular Jail.

The ocean-facing jail that could incarcerate hundreds of prisoners was curiously shaped like a starfish – its seven arms containing narrow, solitary prison cells extending from a central watchtower, like spokes in a wheel. Inspired by the efficiency-driven fantasies of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, such panopticons were erected at different locations in Hindustan. French theoretician Michel Foucault masterfully dissects their underlying project of “normalisation” and control in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Any layperson with half a functioning heart can also sense their dehumanising capacity.

Dispelling forgetfulness

That one jailer could simultaneously monitor hundreds of prisoners who would not even know that they were being watched was a delightfully simple idea – delightful for the jailer of course. Or more chillingly, as Uzma Aslam Khan puts it: “The man in the central tower was there, looking at [them] with all one hundred eyes.”

This was no ordinary penal colony. Invested with institutionally manufactured fear and intimidation, it developed an aura that looms much larger and darker than the actual place. It lay beyond the dreaded Kala Pani or Black Water. Generations of freedom fighters were transported to it on life sentences as a punishment for gallantly dissenting against the harsh colonial rule. It ought to figure prominently in the minds of a truly liberated and grateful people but, as we know, we are neither.

Our ignorance about Kala Pani is not just due to the fact that we are ahistorical, though that is a major reason. While our historians are largely to be blamed for this state of affairs, our literary writings are also devoid of nuanced and probing historical insights. Mercifully, for every historical outrage eventually there comes along a work of fiction that does it justice.

In important ways, even more so than a good history book, it is good fiction that is truly capable of capturing not just what is factually known to have transpired but also the attendant hopes, dreams and emotions of a people and of an era. Such a work of fiction miraculously lifts the mists of collective forgetfulness. When it comes to the hellish penal colony of Andaman Island, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali performs that vital and welcome miracle.

That its author is one of the most lyrical prose writers hailing from or connected to South Asia is not just fortunate but a vital prerequisite for what she has chosen to write in this book. Any endeavour to excavate and recreate the hopes and apprehensions of generations of voiceless convicts and those born in Andaman would have been a fruitless task if it had been approached purely as an exercise in documentation and analysis of what survives of the prison on that island. For what survives largely are prisoner numbers, dry and crumbling prison records and cold, mechanical details of prison rules, processes and practices even though some historians and journalists have recently done a fabulous job of bringing to light the horrors of the Andaman prison colony.

Listening to the unheard

But though these histories and reportages have opened up the jail to the modern gaze and showcased some of its known inmates, what of the lesser known people who crossed the much feared Kala Pani – which sucked up caste, creed, community and also all hope – became mere numbers, languished in jail for years and then died namelessly? What of the nearly unknown – women prisoners, ex-convicts settled on the island, and island-born children?

Shipload after shipload of the condemned arrived and the island swallowed them like a primeval beast. A character in the novel who had served time in the Andaman describes the spectacle of these arrivals both succinctly and poignantly. When he is asked why he did not accompany others to witness the arrival of a new ship, he admitted that he could not bear to watch others being sent to the Andaman jail where “no gods watched over them, only men did”.

No gods watched over them as they lived in acutely miserable conditions, were employed like animals for forced labour and were perpetually subjected to solitary confinement (that is how the cells were designed), beatings, torture, medical experiments and force-feeding. Some of the most harrowing passages in the novel describe all these practices.

No gods watched over them as the penal colony changed hands from the British to the Japanese in World War II. The Japanese introduced their own special horrors, including mass abuse of women abducted or procured for the soldiers.

Though feeble, distant and ephemeral – quite like the haunting, dying words of the drowning – the voices from the past have been successfully captured and amplified by this remarkable novel. Most of its narrative is spun around three adolescents – Nomi, Zee and Aye. It is through them, various other island dwellers who have seen it all and the enigmatic and anonymous female prisoner known merely as Prisoner 218 D that Khan adroitly gives voice to those who were seldom, if ever, heard.

A new relevance

Set in the 1930s and the 1940s around World War II, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali provides us both a series of flashbacks and a multiplicity of perspectives through a predominantly stream of consciousness style of writing. In an interview, the novelist has described writing as a deeply immersive act for her. This immersive style is evident in the dream-like quality to her beautiful prose as she weaves together vivid descriptions, memories, nostalgia and conscious and sub-conscious reflections. At times it is hard to tell which of the various inter-connected realms she has led one into. But that is deliberate.

For recollections, experiences and emotions often overlap and supplement each other as the writer speaks of the common ordeals and shared coping mechanisms of a vast array of subjugated people caught up in the juggernaut of events. Many among them realise that “no good had ever come from getting involved in the wars of men who should have stayed apart”.

Andaman continues to haunt us in other ways as well – including through a massive battle for dominance that is underway these days in India between polarising political and ideological icons. Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, is being propounded as an alternative to his victim. Ideological purity, revolutionary zeal and uncompromising courage – as much as these qualities can be successfully manufactured – are being attributed to him to anoint him as a new national saint.

While Godse is rather compromised due to his violent tactics and the corrosive ignominy attached to them, Brave New India is being coaxed by its new rulers to choose Veer – or Brave – Savarkar over Mahatma – or great-souled – Gandhi. But even Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – the formulator of Hindutva philosophy – is not above controversy. There is mounting evidence that he wrote abject apologies to his captors during his imprisonment at the Andaman penal colony. This is proving fairly inconvenient for those desirous of hoisting him as the fountainhead of their worldview. This novel thus arrives at a time when Andaman has been receiving renewed and much-needed attention. It will help ensure that the attention does not dissipate.

The sublime and the horrendous

While the novel castigates the complex cycle of cruelties unleashed by colonialism and the essentially horrendous nature of any war, at its heart it displays deep anguish caused by the cruel pointlessness of it all. It is an anguish that results from the vast and deep destruction wreaked by tides of history that are not controlled by those who get impacted by them the most. What could be a crueller irony than the one described in the following passage from the novel:

“The next day, a bomb nearly struck Army Headquarters in Haddo. It killed an inmate of the asylum, a man locked inside decades prior for reasons no one remembered. He bled to death believing that the view of the sugarcane plantation opening before him through the blasted wall was of paradise.”

Khan also displays a striking ability to capture and juxtapose the sublime as well as the truly horrendous. Nowhere is this resonant more than in her treatment of the artistic sensibility of a Japanese occupier and his description of Ukiyo-e – or the “Pictures of the Floating World” genre of Japanese art – and the unimaginably depraved practice of Ni-ku-ichi – or twenty-nine soldiers to one girl. In brutal times that normalise the depraved, the very notion of any benevolent divine presence comes into question. Tellingly, one character in the novel says to another: “Our god is the same…This doesn’t make him good.”

Well researched and lyrically narrated, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is a fundamentally and unabashedly political novel. It is a novel about pain, loss and systematic exploitation but ultimately it is also about injustice that transcends time and locale. And yet unlike a lot that has been written more recently and raved about internationally, this book is neither reluctant nor vague about its politics. It does not obfuscate injustice as a neutral, ahistorical and decontextualised phenomenon. It provides no leeway for the unjust to breathe easy.

In Khan’s politics, the ingloriousness of empires, the tyranny of the oppressors and the suffering of the victims are not abstract ideas. She engages with these ideas through specific stories with a definite history and a particular geography – a history and a geography that keep repeating in the Global South. Her novel is not a neutered, truncated and soulless tale of injustice but the one in which neither villainy nor victimhood are underplayed, mitigated or disguised. At the same time, all that in no way prevents her from also successfully exploring the universality of these phenomena. Therein lies the great triumph of the novel.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, Uzma Aslam Khan, Context.

Osama Siddique is the author of the acclaimed historical novel Snuffing Out the Moon and the multiple award winning non-fiction work Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice.

This review first appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Herald, Pakistan.