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The Babri canon: Putting words to complex emotions

Literature on the events of 1992-93 capture the stories of ordinary people caught in a pivotal moment in history

The under construction Ram Temple in Ayodhya.(Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times)

By Aditya Mani Jha

LAST PUBLISHED 08.12.2023  |  06:30 AM IST

It’s been 31 years since the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was demolished on 6 December 1992. In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the building of a temple on the site while allocating five acres of land for a mosque to be built in Ayodhya. Last month, it was reported that the ground floor of the new Ram Mandir had been finished and would be open to visitors starting January 2024.

Journalistic responses to the tragedy are well-documented, but it’s also worth our while to see how some of our best-known novelists responded. Documenting the facts and the figures associated with a tragedy is essential for any act of remembrance. At the same time, the role of literary representations, in fiction, in poetry, and more, cannot be discounted. There are solid reasons behind this. First, a powerful novel or short story can contain the emotional kernel of a large-scale tragedy quite effectively; Shirley Jackson’s (short story) The Lottery (1948) has retrospectively become a part of Holocaust literature, for example, despite having no plot details that identify it as such. Second, survivor memories are best expressed in narrative form, especially since trauma doesn’t work the same way as the rest of our memory. Imre Kertész, the Hungarian writer and Nobel Laureate, was also a Holocaust survivor and his novel Fatelessness (2002), set in Auschwitz and other concentration camps, has the iconic line summing up this phenomenon: “I couldn’t command my memory to follow order."

TRENDING STORIES

Salman Rushdie was one of the first A-listers to directly reference Babri, in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Set in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Cochin (now Kochi), the novel lamented “that corrosive acid of the spirit, that adversarial intensity that poured into the nation’s bloodstream when the Babri Masjid fell (...)". Significantly, Rushdie also criticised Sir V.S. Naipaul in that same passage, because the latter had approved of the masjid’s demolition, calling it “an awakening to history".

Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy (1993) was set in the late 1980s but Hindu-Muslim violence was a major plot point, and these passages were all the more poignant in 1993. The post-Babri violence unleashed across the country was explored by Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters (2002).

Also read: Ayodhya in 4 books: The long and winding 'mandir-masjid' trail

Abdullah Khan’s novel A Man From Motihari (March 2023) was one of the unalloyed pleasures of my year-in-reading. With great line-by-line writing and admirable attention to detail, the novel depicts a young Muslim man’s coming-of-age in the wake of Hindutva politics’ dawn and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In a memorable scene set during the protagonist Aslam’s Motihari childhood, we see the boy’s friend Shambhu trying to defend Hindutva politics and its then-figurehead, fictionalised as “Lalwani".

Many recent Indian books have featured the Babri Masjid’s demolition and its aftermath—30 years have passed since the incident itself, and we now have enough high-quality works to comprise a “Babri canon". Between these books, a reader can plausibly cover practically every single aspect or angle from which the Babri Masjid demolition can be studied—the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the rise of the BJP, the Supreme Court judgements, the communal violence and more.

Lindsay Pereira’s novel The Memoirs Of Valmiki Rao (August 2023) features a modern-day retelling of the Ramayan set in the immediate wake of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, triggered by the demolition. Advance reading copies of this novel came with a little postcard-like note from the author, explaining how the demolition set the ball rolling in terms of communally-charged politics-of-hate.

Karan Madhok’s A Beautiful Decay (2022) presents us with an elegant chain-of-consequences tailing back to the events of 6 December 1992. His novel begins with the narrator-protagonist, a young man called Vishnu who is gunned down by a racist white man in America. As the novel proceeds, now with a narrator-beyond-the-grave, we see how Vishnu’s father, Shankar, was indirectly involved in the demolition, as well as other instances of communal violence, as it helped his business in the long run. “Shankar can only climb ‘the ladder’ in times of chaos—and this chaos is often a zero-sum game," Madhok says on email. “As he likes to say, his comfort is someone else’s catastrophe. And the highest price is paid by the minorities and the disenfranchised of the community."

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Vivek Narayanan’s poetry collection After (2022), a decade and more in the making, is his magnum opus, a 600-page work in polyphonic, postmodern conversation with the Ramayan. It’s an act of “radical translation" that reads as though the world’s most eccentric DJ were playing a roster of Ramayan covers—and every song feels as revolutionary as musician Lou Reed smashing the alphabet of rock n’ roll. The book’s concluding section features a 12-page poem called Ayodhya, inspired by the poet’s experiences in the temple-city.

The Babri Masjid being demolished on 6 December, 1992. (Getty Images)

Daisy Rockwell, whose translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi (Tomb Of Sand) won the International Booker last year, is currently translating Shree’s 1998 novel Hamara Sheher Us Baras (literally, “our city in those days"), set amidst the violence that was unleashed post-Babri.

It follows a young Muslim professor, his Hindu wife, and their Hindu best friend, all three writers, as they try and fail repeatedly to capture the horror unfolding around them—until their personal and professional failures come back to haunt them. “They are paralysed with horror—not the fear of reprisal that we see in India now—but the horror itself renders them incapable of recording anything," explains Rockwell in an email interview.

There are many books, across fiction, non-fiction and poetry, that feature the post-Babri landscape prominently and have insightful, cogent arguments to make about how this one incident affected the polity and the sociological equilibrium of the country. A parallel can be drawn with what one might call the “9/11 canon" in American literature. In the two decades since the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell, some of America’s finest writers have contributed to this canon.

Among them are Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), not to mention more recent luminaries like Lisa Halliday (Asymmetry, 2018) and Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, 2018).

These books present 9/11 as a gigantic hinge upon which American history turned, and the Babri canon does something very similar for India.

THE CANON AND GUNPOWDER

Pereira recalls witnessing the changing nature of his city in the mid-to-late 1990s, with the Mumbai blasts and the riots that followed. In The Memoirs Of Valmiki Rao, we are shown how Hindus were mobilised with slogans like Chalo Ayodhya—not necessarily a literal call-to-action, but enough to unleash violence against the city’s significant Muslim population. This section has a very “gunpowder, treason and plot" stamp on it, the sense of history rushing past us urgently.

“I think this was certainly a big part of being a Bombayite in the 1990s," Pereira says during a video interview. “People across the different communities in Bombay, set about changing the way their city looked. Ghettos that did not exist previously came to be. I feel like I can draw a straight line between these phenomena and the events of 1992-93. I could see how it affected property rights...the migration of people from specific communities."

Pereira recalls stories about Muslim friends who lived in Mumbai’s Malad area, taking turns to keep night-time vigils on the densely packed rooftops—the fear was that Muslim houses were being targeted. A very similar scene unfolds in Zeyad Masroor Khan’s memoir City On Fire: A Boyhood In Aligarh (released earlier this week); in the book’s third chapter, Khan recalls the workings of “The Button", a warning system, rigged with a light bulb, installed post-Babri.

The fact that 1992 irrevocably changed the nature of Hindu-Muslim relations, especially in north and central India, is pivotal to these books. In Anjum Hasan’s novel History’s Angel (July 2023) , the protagonist Alif Mohammad teaches history at a school in Delhi’s Daryaganj. A recurring theme is how Alif uses the glories and the excesses of the past as a kind of elaborate escapism, a way to avoid the ugly political realities of the present day. However, when he goes to his parents’ place and meets their domestic worker Ahmad, he is surprised at the extent to which the demolition has affected this unlettered man, who in Alif’s eyes has little understanding of or engagement with history. The class differential between Ahmad and Alif is crucial to understanding their wildly differing relationships to the events of 6 December. Alif mostly associates the winter of 1992 with the beauty of a young Hindu woman he fancied at college. There’s a smidgen of guilt at this realisation, but no more.

WHITHER SECULARISM?

While these books bring us post-Babri scenes unfolding in Mumbai, Delhi, Aligarh, a vital part of the Babri canon is set in and around ground zero (a term popularised by the 9/11 canon), Ayodhya itself.

In Narayanan’s poem Ayodhya, he describes a visit to the heavily-guarded Ram mandir complex—with themes of mass surveillance, consent-manufacturing and communal violence. “1992 sucked the life out of this city / and established the Site / So I walked in it and into it / and true to form noticed virtually nothing / but the monitored cage / in which I moved / its endless maze-like twists and turns /"

After Narayanan finally reaches the sanctum sanctorum, a macabre scene unpacks itself: devotees praying under the shadow of machine guns. It’s almost as though man is reconciling the two dominant religions of the day—one marked by idols and mid-wived by priests, and the other distinguished by guns and presided over by soldiers.

In this context, journalist and writer Scharada Dubey’s 2012 non-fiction book Portraits From Ayodhya: Living India’s Contradictions is an invaluable and remarkable resource. Dubey, a Faizabad-Ayodhya resident at the time of the book’s writing, interviewed a range of residents, both ordinary citizens and relatively famous stake-holders in the Janmabhoomi dispute. The testimonies we read reveal a staggeringly complex, diverse place that chafes against the casual essentialism of newspaper reports.

Portraits From Ayodhya is a triumph of journalism, of historic documentation—and these are the precise sites of secularism’s failure, according to a slice of the Babri canon.

The most subtle and masterful depiction of this crisis-of-documentation is found in Geetanjali Shree’s Hamara Sheher Us Baras. The novel’s narrator is an unnamed woman who is constantly defining herself in opposition—she says she is not a journalist because journalism is not up to the task. She says she is not a novelist because the truth of these times cannot be pinned down in elegant sentences. In this vein, she negates the most popular and widely-disseminated modes of storytelling—a stunning gambit that would have almost certainly fallen flat in a lesser writer’s hands.

Rockwell says of the book’s formal idiosyncrasy: “I’m struck by how she both portrays all the known genres as not up to the challenge of the moment, but also the writers... The narrator claims to be ignorant and simply a recorder bearing witness, but of course she makes very sophisticated observations so in that sense she’s unreliable. But she’s also underscoring how difficult it is to capture a historical moment as it unfolds."

This failure of secularism is diagnosed accurately by the novel, but is there even the semblance of an answer in sight?

Perhaps it lies in a passage from the first chapter of Hamara Sheher Us Baras, where Shree talks about the inherently fluid nature of identity, of how something only thrives when it’s allowed to breathe and intermingle freely. It’s an old-school thought, one grounded in Nehruvian syncretism, the kind espoused by Daddu, the novel’s tragic figure, a generally cheerful old man who by the end of the book has his spirit broken. “Daddu used to say that if you recognise a thing by only a fragment of the whole then it becomes trapped in its own contour; a useless lifeless caricature. True recognition bursts forth, spreading and wandering about in the open, enveloped by all things, melting into everything."

More than three decades after that day, these words—and, indeed, the Babri canon—hold something for every Indian to reflect upon.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

Also read: The other Ayodhya