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Children of a lesser God
It is almost a clichê to read about the two India's;the rising, aspiring urban one and the misery and poverty of its rural counterpoint. There is, actually a third India and it exists in many small towns across India where not much has changed since Partition and the Hindu-Muslim divide grows wider each day, fuelled by vote-hungry politicians and petty-minded camp followers. In states like Uttar Pradesh, such towns have become the focus of anti-terrorist probes, suspected of being the breeding ground for home-grown Mujahideen and their right-wing counterparts.
Omair Ahmad's Jimmy the Terrorist is, in that sense, unveiling a contemporary reality and taking a hard, uncomfortable look at how religion, alienation, poverty and the struggle for communal dominance impacts on the social fabric of a small town. This is a work of fiction but every page, every individual, is very real, even scary in just how accurately Ahmad portrays life in today's small town India.
Muazzamabad, the fictional town in UP where Jamaal, or Jimmy the Terrorist, lives and dies, could be any of a dozen existing towns in the state where Muslim neighbourhoods are surrounded by those populated by Hindus. It is in this very real setting that Jamaal grows up, watching both his father and his neighbourhood change as riots and curfews redraw the psychological boundaries between the two communities. Ahmad juxtaposes fact and fiction - the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the use of communalism as a political weapon - to create a backdrop to what is a predictable denouement;Jamaal's act of ultimate frustration and anger that leads to his death. It is, subliminally, also a mirror to the making of a terrorist. Not by some mad mullah or diatribes and videos on Iraq and Afghanistan, but by a society conditioned to marginalise those who have no influence, no Godfather, no education and no political affiliation. Jimmy is what is known as an outlier, faceless, futureless, until he takes a life and gets his 15 minutes of fame. Before he is beaten to death, he shouts;"I am Jimmy the Terrorist" but in actuality he is not, just a young man becoming a nowhere man.
This is a sparse, gritty novel that was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize. Ahmad did not intend this novel to be about terrorism and its causes, but it becomes that by the end. The author is a political analyst and it helps him create this masterful expose on how in small towns life revolves around small issues. Indeed by the end, it's not clear who Jamaal (Jimmy) really is, a terrorist or a nationalist, victim or criminal, he could fit any of those descriptions. For all its local roots, its local flavour, its local issues, Jimmy the Terrorist is very much a microcosm of society at large. Whether small town or big city, the prejudices and misapprehensions remain the same. This is a book about contemporary India and the political and communal churning that is taking place in society in general. It started life as a short story but the expanded version was required to bring out the anger and angst of people like Jimmy, children of a lesser God.
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