Journalist-author Rakesh Kayasth warns you at the very start of his Hindi novel, Rambhakt Rangbaaz, that “tik-tik karti hai ghadi aur dhak-dhak karta hai dil” (the clock goes tick-tick, the heart goes dhak dhak). This is later elaborated to mean that all clocks and other timepieces are time bombs that will explode and the end is a certainty when we mark the passage of time. Yet, the way the story of Aashiq, the tailor, and Rambhakt ultimately unfolds is like a bolt from the blue.
Kayasth became known as a writer of satire with his first book Prajatantra ke Pakaude. But here, humour, satire, tragedy and hope all blend to tell the big story of India through a supposedly insular town in north India.
It is tough to classify this work as an ‘upanyas’, or fiction. It clearly falls in the category of ‘faction’ (fact meets fiction). The author, now based in Mumbai, says the story is plucked straight out of his life. He knew all the characters who are written in, some names have been changed, and some are not. The story starts in a town named Aaramganj, a Bhojpuri-speaking town, in September 1990, which is waiting for LK Advani’s Rath Yatra to go through. It ends on 30 January 2020. The dates and times – like the timepieces – have clues strewn everywhere about what this book is about. You are immediately reminded of Omar Robert Hamilton’s remarkable debut, The City Always Wins, set in the Arab uprising of 2011.
'Oo Log' and 'Outsiders'
But now, Aashiq.
The lead character in this novel believes the myth about this town, that Lord Ram had traversed through these parts when on his way to Ayodhya. So, how can anything go wrong? Aashiq is the perfect bridge between the Muslim area sketched sharply as Rayyat Tola and the market centre in Aaramganj, where he has his tailoring shop. His close encounters with an old Pundit schoolteacher, now dead, have armed him with scriptural knowledge, dohas, shlokas, customs and portions of Ramcharit Manas, which he recites effortlessly. That no doubt gives him a special place as the only Muslim in Hindu-centric areas of the town and makes him the subject of friendly ‘jokes’ and jibes about being a Rambhakt and Rangbaaz too, for being able to perform miraculous fire-dance moves at Kali pujas and Dussehra functions.
Aashiq is not trusted in the Muslim tola for his acceptability in the market centre. In the town, too, eventually, as 1990 ends in bitterness with Advani’s Rath hurtling closer to Aaramganj, hostilities mark Aashiq out as one of ‘oo log’ – ‘those people’, the ‘appeased’ and ‘outsider’ Muslims – leaving him isolated, bereft of identity and in deep turmoil.
So, who is Aashiq portraying? I asked author Kayasth. Aashiq is no doubt scripted as a Muslim character, but the author says it is more than that. Aashiq is shaped by his environment and circumstances but not quoting Ramcharitmanas only instrumentally.
It is a genuine sense of confidence that he belongs in Aaramganj, and is safe in ‘Ram ji’s’ care. Aashiq is also a bearer of the promise of citizenship that India offers. Kayasth says he identifies with Aashiq.
It would be wrong to see him as just standing for a modern Muslim in modern India. It is the hope that modern India offers to each citizen that Aashiq epitomises.
Life in Mofussil India
Aashiq’s tailoring shops, with ‘Savitri’ tailors for ladies and ‘Mr India’ for men, makes him ‘a two-in-one tailor’. The doors are different, but inside, it is all interconnected as it is in the same space. This is the most obvious metaphor in the book for inter-community ties. The book is multi-layered and the author’s familiarity with life in mofussil India allows him to get inside many heads. There is also a Valmiki mohalla, and the Mandal moment can be traced; it has left its impact and resentments as the higher castes weigh the pros and cons of maintaining deep contempt for OBCs and Dalits versus the need for tolerance in a quest for ‘Hindu ekta’, which is increasingly being encouraged in Aaramganj.
From the Rath Yatra and Mandal commission-affected 1990s to all the way to 2020, when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act casts a dark shadow on inter-community ties, Rambhakt Rangbaaz takes a no-holds-barred look at the society that India has become. The zeitgeist of mistrust, rupture and exclusion are fleshed out and the author excels through the short but powerful section on Aashiq’s techie son’s choices and dilemmas in 2020.
Aashiq’s tailoring shop was part of a much bigger weave and fabric. The unravelling stands to take a toll on much more than just Muslims.
The story is brimming with powerful phrases and smaller characters, who swing from being sidekicks or humorous to vicious and consequential within the space of a few pages. The inter-personal relationships are laid out with great skill – you realise that everyone gets to interact with everyone else in the book, so all paths cross at some time or the other, despite this being about a very diverse set of people and circumstances.
What's the Benchmark for 'Acche Din'?
A historian, Dr Srinath Raghavan, happened to recommend this book to some of us and it took me only a few pages to understand why. This book does what many specialist historians might find too risky an enterprise – get right inside the belly of the elephant in the room. For several of us who have been alive, adults and witnesses of the times since 1990 to now, the question of personal and a nation’s identity being carved up is brought out in sharp relief in this book.
Many things lurking like shadows in the background of our recollection of these turbulent three decades are pushed into the light by Kayasth’s Rambhakt Rambaaz – or, should one say, dragged closer to the fire which is raging? – taking away all ambiguity.
What is left is a poignant portrayal of a nation and its people in turmoil. As Aashiq’s uncle, Idrees ‘chacha’, puts it, what if the times one goes through today and classifies as the ‘worst-ever’, are recalled in future as the ‘acche din’ (good days)? What then, indeed?
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)