This is a remarkable, brave, moving, disturbing, funny and at times beautiful book. It tackles head-on the great Indian paradox, which most observers tend to ignore or obfuscate: that India is a centre of religion and spirituality, and hence of tolerance, celebrating the many paths available to those seeking the Godhead; yet it has also been home to some of the most terrible atrocities committed anywhere in the name of religion. Ms Fernandes’s startling insight is to see that this is not really a paradox at all: “Home to all the major religions, India is also, inevitably, host to virtually every type of religious fanatic.”
Her book takes us on a tour of India’s religious flashpoints: to the Islamic seminary in Deoband in the state of Uttar Pradesh; to Gujarat, where a terrible pogrom in 2002 saw Hindus slaughter hundreds of Muslims with the connivance of the state government; to Ayodhya, where the destruction of a mosque built on what Hindu fundamentalists claim is the birthplace of the god Ram, still reverberates in national politics to Amritsar, where the storming of the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, by government forces in 1984 was followed by the assassination of a prime minister, a decade of violent insurrection and a brutal repression; to Goa, home of her ancestors, where she finds the brutality of the Christian inquisition still echoing in contemporary disputes; to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, now in its seventeenth year of bloody insurgency; to Nagaland, in the north-east, where Baptist Christians have been waging one of the world’s longest running independence struggles.
What make the book a riveting read, besides the inherent interest of the theme, are Ms Fernandes’s skills as an observer, as a listener, and as a writer. She has an astonishing gift for bringing her interlocutors to life, and a flair for descriptive humour. (At Goan get-togethers in the London of her childhood “rhino-rumped Goan matrons swathed in purple satin would dance with diminutive husbands to the cha-cha-cha and tango.”). The Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jami Masjid, spiritual leader of India’s 150m Muslims, is a “grizzled old lion…behind gold-framed Ray Ban-style glasses”. Brahmans Ramchandra Das, self-appointed keeper of the Hindu flame at Ayodhya, and aged 93 when she met him, just before he died, “looked like a sinister marmoset” (I can confirm the truth of this observation.)
Ms Fernandes seems to have won the trust of all her interviewees. They have opened to her and revealed themselves and their subject in new lights. Even the “supercop” K.P.S. Gill, who to some Sikhs will forever be the “butcher of Punjab”, seems to have been unable to resist her charms.
She has not betrayed the trust. She has neither mocked her subjects unfairly, nor given them undue latitude. Among the book’s delights are her occasional wry asides. After a hilarious description of members of the RSS, a Hindu-fundamentalist mass organisation, at a “shakha”, an early morning gathering for physical jerks with attitude, she quotes the blood-curdling prayer they sing calling for the “breaking” of Pakistan. “Not quite the Boy Scouts, then,” she notes.
India is gaining plenty of international attention at the moment: as an emerging economic powerhouse, especially because of its “outsourcing” industries; as a nuclear power about to be legitimised by America; as an extraordinary triumph of democratic values in the face of internal disorder, external threat and unimaginable diversity. This book is an indispensable reminder that one of the most important forms of that diversity – religious — is also a source of some of the biggest threats it faces — bigotry, fear and hatred. It is also a joy to read.
Simon Long is South Asia bureau chief of The Economist
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