A few months before he killed himself to avoid capture by the Gestapo, German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin mailed his most recent work to his friend, Hannah Arendt. A beguiling series of brief numbered meditations that critique the idea of historical materialism, it might have been lost forever had Arendt not managed to narrowly escape the Nazis herself. Later, the essay was published as Theses On The Philosophy Of History. The title of Anjum Hasan’s highly anticipated new novel, History’s Angel,draws from Benjamin’s ninth thesis.
The enigmatic angel of history, as depicted in a Paul Klee painting, is transfixed by the past, eyes wide in horror. But, Benjamin writes, “a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”
Hasan’s protagonist, Alif Mohammad, our stand-in for the angel of history, lives in Old Delhi, where the bustle of modernity has left at least a few pockets yet untenanted and where, as dusk falls, the past looms large. Alif, a teacher at a middling private school in Old Delhi, is a mild-mannered man, a family man, even a contented man. He is, of course, a historian—an accomplished if unambitious one, having always eschewed worldliness in order to swim freely in “the past’s unfathomed depths”. Alif, we are forewarned, subjects every free moment “to a historical test”. He pauses to ask: “This is now but how was it back then? Or that was then but how does it matter now?”
In the opening pages, Alif visits his former university professor, “the Maharishi”. Familiar figures from any campus, Alif and the Maharishi sit “on worn concrete benches at an outdoor canteen” and drink “over-boiled tea out of paper cups, hearing students tease and chaff each other”. They speak of the past: the Sultanate, the steppes of Central Asia, the Aryans, the Delhi Renaissance, and one imagines their voices rising occasionally in emphasis. Then, “a beefy student in a saggy kurta and a militantly neat crew cut, who’d been sitting with his tea quietly to one side, appearing to be lost in idle thought”, walks past them. He turns to the Maharishi and says softly, “Your time is up.” This single incident, a clever instance of mise en abyme—if we are to persist with painting analogies—presages with perfect economy the concerns of the novel. Except, of course, it turns out the warning was actually for Alif.
Soon after the meeting, Alif takes his students on an outing to Humayun’s Tomb. There, he loses his temper—only for a moment, only when Ankit Chaturvedi, an angel-faced nine-year-old who has been tormenting him all day, calls him a “dirty Musalla”. This sets in motion a chain of events that will pull him out of the quiet scholarly corner in which he likes to spend his days.
In any case, all around Alif ,the clamour of the world has begun to intensify. His wife Tahira, busy completing an MBA, is fed up with her job managing a supermarket in Karol Bagh and fed up of living in Tiraha Bairam Khan—she wants to trade up, get a modern sort of job, perhaps in “a glittering mall in Greater Kailash or Saket where she can call the shots”, and a modern sort of life in an apartment far away from the warren of lanes where they live; his son, Salim, is fed up of school and wants to enter the real world as soon as possible; his parents, Mahtab, who retired from the UP Police as an assistant sub-inspector, and Shagufta, who worked all her life as a paramedic, are fed up with their longtime house-help-cum-foster-son Ahmad, who has turned hyper-religious; and his best friend and drinking buddy, Ganesh Khanna (an odd name for a Sikh), is so fed up with life that he reaches out to an old flame, Prerna Mittal, someone for whom Alif himself has long carried a torch. In school, it turns out the new principal, Mrs Rawat, an ambitious woman of little knowledge, is fed up with Alif.
Hasan’s writing is at its best when it focuses on the minor characters. And in this novel, where Alif, the discipline of history and the city of Delhi are the chief protagonists, all the other characters cannot help but remain minor. Consider Mrs Rawat. In one of my favourite passages, Alif, pulled up over the Ankit affair, lapses into eloquence, while Rawat, unimpressed, brings up his unorthodox teaching philosophy. Why does he not teach chapters chronologically? How will it help students beat those from rival schools? “I want to surprise them,” Alif explains earnestly. “I would like them to see that India is not any one thing, with any one obvious destiny.”
“‘India?’ asks Mrs Rawat, with the sudden alertness of one who counts herself among the nation’s guardians.”
With this one memorable line, Hasan both crucifies and humanises Rawat.
The conversation continues, Alif nodding vigorously and upholding his position on the Ganga-Jamuni lens of looking at the past, until the principal says, fake smile unwavering: “They are children… And to children, the only thing that matters, in my view, is a positive message.”
Though it has layers and layers, much like the proverbial palimpsest of thought and reverie that is the Nehruvian concept of our country, the central conflict in History’s Angelis this: the academic practice of history as a discipline, where research methods are as important as the conclusions, pitted against history as raw emotion (a mistranslated whiff of which animates Ankit)—or, history as reduction, a tool for messaging (positive or negative).
Alif’s unlikely—and, in fact, uncertain—heroism arises from the fact that he cannot bring himself to adjust his views based on convenience; Alif’s tragedy is that he is an intellectual in a world of self-appointed apparatchiks. Unlike several other characters in the book, Alif is not a victim because of his religion—at least that is not the only reason why—but because of his choices. And in the timelessness of that premise, the story of Alif Mohammad rises above the specifics of the very timeliness that makes the novel such an urgent and provocative read in today’s climate.
There are so many things Hasan executes with Hasan-esque brilliance. For instance, in evoking a sense of place. Having never really lived in Delhi, she brings her novelist’s eye to it. It helps that Alif is quite the flâneur himself, so his meditations and inner monologues map the geographical terrain he traverses daily, weekly, seasonally. Old Delhi, Daryaganj, North Campus, Jamia Nagar. His world is inhabited by various kinds of Indian Muslims—roundly underscoring the diversity of a community which, in the National Capital Region alone, has more than 2.1 million members. Hasan’s evocation of Jamia Nagar (which has, post the2008 Batla House encounter and 2019-20 Shaheen Bagh protests, become so shrouded in stereotype in mainstream media) reminded me of Neyaz Faroouqee’s wonderful memoir, An Ordinary Man’s Guide To Radicalism (2018).
Interestingly, so hemmed in is Alif geographically (despite the sheer expanse of his historical imagination) that the one time he goes to Greater Kailash-II, to a barsati where his friend and colleague Miss Moloy lives, with books and music and two strays, or to Nehru Place to meet Prerna Mittal, the journeys seem like grand expeditions. This ends up telling us even more about the specific Delhi he inhabits so naturally, a Delhi that will soon see protests and riots, though the novel ends before that crescendo.
The most powerful sequence in the book comes when Alif and Miss Moloy track down Ankit’s family and find there is just an old grandfather, a mildly crooked astrologer who freely accepts that Ankit is a habitual liar and a bully. Hasan writes, “Alif and Miss Moloy, sitting cross-legged, facing their supposed adversary, find they have nothing to say. They had been building up a defence but there is no one to present it to.”
It is here that Hasan has chanced upon and given us the gravest of truths. If Alif’s long, sophisticated and pointed defence of nuance, of the subcontinent’s Ganga-Jamuni past, of the methods and methodologies of history from the academy, is to be mounted, who is the audience? After uttering that cryptic “your time is up”, the young man disappeared into his Delhi. He is not likely to read this book. Or then again, perhaps one day he will.
Devapriya Roy is the author of five books, including Friends From College. Her sixth is an anthology she has edited, titled Cat People.