“This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.
But, they try to.”
Debut author Sabin Iqbal’s The Cliffhanger features a group of friends – Usma, Thaha, Jahangir and Moosa. Moosa is 19; the ages of the other friends are not mentioned, but it is presumed that they are more or less the same age. They are not very well educated, having, inevitably, failed in school, and hang around the cliff near their village. There is little for them to do. They are considered kafirs for their free lifestyle and friendships with foreigners and with Hindus like Balannan and Vivekannan.
They belong to impoverished homes that rely upon remittances sent home from West Asia. It is mostly the men of these families who have gone in search of work to Dubai, where they occupy the lowest rungs in the workforce, as drivers, shop assistants, or messengers. This is work that is unappealing to the younger men in India, but they realise that it is a matter of time before they too have to join the same workforce. It helps bring in a regular income and is preferable to the backbreaking task of fishing – the only skill their village of fishermen has known for as long as they can recall.
“The Cliffhangers have chosen the middle path. We don’t wear symbols of any faith or religion. We don’t tie threads around our wrists or biceps. We wear trainers, sweatpants or tracksuits or polos, which are brought by our relatives from the Gulf.”
It is a village on the coast of Kerala where the population lives in relative peace and harmony, though the settlement is communally arrayed, with Muslims on one side and Hindus on the other. There are no Christians in this village. This is how it has been. Till now.
“Our village also has religious and political divisions – though they seem blurred and harmless to an outsider, they are as distinct as right and left, and potentially as harmful to both.
So far, the two communities in our village have lived in peace and harmony. It is a delicate peace, which any moment, could crumble like papadums.”
The Cliffhangers is a fictional account of how close this village is to the precipice of being torn apart along communal lines, and the simmering hatred that manifests itself in the police picking up the boys for questioning even if they are innocent. It is just that the shroud of suspicion falls upon these them most of the time because of their faith. This is never said explicitly but it is understood. A frightening prospect.
The boys most often are seen whiling away their time hanging out with tourists, ostensibly to improve their English. So if anything happens to a visitor, such as the rape of a young girl, or the inexplicable death of an unapologetic Hindu Rashtra Sangh supporter like Vishwanathan Thampi, the boys are immediately hauled in by the police. They are well aware that as young men with Muslim names, they are a soft target and the primary enemies of the HRS. It is a tough and uncertain life.
The usual suspects
None of this uncertainty is helped by the harrowing news from North India about the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. The gang is stunned into a worrying silence. Unable to fathom what to make of this dystopic world where you are condemned for your food habits and persecuted for your religion – whether you observe it or not, for the boys are caught eating when they should have been fasting during Ramzan. You are lynched if you belong to the “other” in terms of colour, ideology and faith.
“Hatred is when you think the other has to be eliminated because of the difference of opinion in faith, customs and ways of life. Or, being the axis of evil as Bush, one of the presidents of America, said.
The Cliffhangers want to be the voice of sanity, albeit our patchy English, in the cacophony of communal insanity that our state has fallen into. As you know, we are not adequately educated to sound profound but we are glad that we are not wrongly educated either to hate the ones under the rival flag. We bear Muslim names and maybe we go to the mosque on Fridays and on Eid, but that’s it. You can cut our vein anyway, I swear to you, none of us have any strain of hatred in us.”
This free will is something that the Cliffhangers are beginning to discover they are unable to exercise freely. So much so even SI Devan, who would pick them up routinely for questioning, ultimately decided to “help” them out in an unsolved case of the rape of a foreign tourist.
SI Devan uncovers the truth that the perpetrator is Balannan, a vendor who sells lemonade but is closely affiliated to the HRS. Recognising the terrifying consequences of arresting a member of the Hindu shaka and the horrific prospect of ripping up the social fabric of the fishing village, the SI chooses to a different path. His parting words to the Cliffhangers is the truth but with sinister underpinnings.
“‘Remember, we are living in strange times . . .and, your identity is your enemy!’ he said...”
A real metaphor
When the impetus for a story is the growing hatred of the “other” and the heightened communal tension it unleashes, it becomes frighteningly tough to articulate those fears. Fiction helps in unlocking some of those unnamed fears, whether as a writer or a reader. But as a writer, it helps to be crystal clear when channeling one’s anger and distress at the rapid turn of events.
Consider the political machinations of hardliners to further their interests despite locals recognising the foolhardiness of encouraging polarisation among communities that we see in this novel. A recognition of the differences among one another is sufficient, but to underline it on a daily basis and weaponise it using state machinery is a dangerous thought and development. It finally rests upon the free will of the citizens of a democracy to subvert this self-consuming destructive hatred.
“The Cliffhangers” is the name given to the four boys, but it works metaphorically too for the precipitous dilemma Indian democracy finds itself in – whether to retreat from the life-threatening crisis or to take the plunge into the depths and risk annihilation. Despite sagging a bit in the middle, The Cliffhangers is a powerful story for the issues it raises. It would be fascinating to hear a freewheeling conversation between Sabin Iqbal, Tabish Khair, Amitava Kumar and Rana Ayyub on writing fiction and non-fiction in these times. Till then, and even afterwards, the novel must do the job.
The Cliffhangers: A Novel, Sabin Iqbal, The Aleph Book Company.
This article first appeared on Jaya Bhattacharji Rose’s website.