Book review: History's angel

A fictional saga that borrows from reality to show the plight of minority communities in India
Communal riots in Delhi in 2020
Communal riots in Delhi in 2020

Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind,” wrote novelist Haruki Murakami in Norwegian Wood. But the Japanese novelist was certainly not talking about Anjum Hasan. The Indian writer, in her latest offering, History’s Angel, digs deep into the farthest recesses of her mind to bring forth the minutest details of ‘scenes’ that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Her protagonist, Alif, often stands at the crossroads of past and present as he combs his memory, to connect every unfolding event that he witnesses, with history. 

He is a middle-school history teacher, who lives in Old Delhi with his wife and teenage son. The narrative builds on a seemingly inconspicuous outing to Humayaun’s Tomb with his students, which turns out to be life-changing. Within this one incident are also cocooned several similar happenings of how anyone not following the chosen path has to pay a heavy price. Alif’s unconventional style of teaching history––making it magical, thinking out of the box while talking about India’s Mughal past––costs him his job. In modern-day India, he is a Muslim first and a teacher later.

In the past year, there have been many books by writers who have ensured newspaper headlines found a way into their works of fiction. Hasan is the latest addition to the pool. She has managed to convey all that can’t be said out loud through Alif, often riding on dark humour. The book is an opportunity that’s bravely undertaken by the writer without any qualms. Via her protagonist, she delves into an introspective journey about the turbulent times we live in.

Take, for instance, the scene where Alif, who has gone to return his shiny pair of expensive shoes, is watching television news as he awaits the owner’s attention. Though inaudible, he knows from the visuals of the weeping women, poker-faced police officer and mug shots of a dead man that something disagreeable is unravelling. It could be anything––an untouchable murdered for being an untouchable, a Muslim lynched for being a Muslim, a Naxalite shot for being a Naxalite, a Kashmiri liquidated for being 
a Kashmiri, a journalist assassinated for asking questions or a farmer dead from suicidal despair. But everyone in the shop remains unfazed, carrying on with business as usual. In this parallel universe, they appear to live in an illusion of grandeur.

In History’s Angel, Alif is in no hurry. But that’s not true of others in his life. His ambitious wife wants to move from being a sales girl in a store to becoming a team manager at, perhaps, a glitzy mall. To that end, she is single-mindedly focused on getting an MBA degree. Meanwhile, his son harbours dreams of dropping out of school to start working at the earliest. 

With a retired cop for a father and a paramedic mother, Alif grew up in a family where going to the mosque or covering one’s head were personal choices. His parents, however, have their own set of problems. Their domestic help––an orphan boy who they raised as one of their own––has transformed into an abusive fundamentalist. It’s during his evening conversations with his childhood friend that the readers get a glimpse of Alif in his younger days. Both reminisce about an old crush they have reconnected with, sparking a sense of nostalgia and deeply inflicted wounds of adolescent years.

The book is replete with parables, drawing from history, spiritual scriptures as well as recent events. At various turns in the chapters, Hasan cleverly leaves behind questions, asking the reader to make a choice. In History’s Angel, the author serves us on a platter the society we inhabit through the eyes of a spirited yet languishing teacher. From downsizing in offices due to the advent of apps that can replace humans to a city burning under the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Hasan has covered it all using her subtle sense of humour. It’s a reflection of our present, one that may be etched in history’s annals, for better or worse.

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The New Indian Express