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We learnt little from history


Listening to you deliver the Faiz Memorial Lecture, it was as though we were sharing not just the legacy of a great poet but also a deeper bonding that went beyond the personal, regional or national identities. Would you agree?

Yes, I was very moved by the response of the audience and people old and young came to chat afterwards. We could have been in Lahore, except that the crowd here was much more mixed in the best sense of the word. And then, as always in Delhi, one meets people who once lived in what is now Pakistan. We have so much in common that the visa and passport restrictions, it seems to me, are not so much designed to keep terrorists out but to keep ordinary citizens in and prevent a commingling from below. Utterly ridiculous and counter-productive.

What, do you believe, is the importance of history?

History is important to prevent distortions in our life and culture. The right-wing in India fights tooth and nail to prevent critical and serious histories of the origins of Hinduism and the subcontinent from becoming widely available.

Last year saw a dramatic rise in people's movements globally, including our very own Anna Hazare. How would you explain the politics of these social movements?

Yes, but the successes have been limited. In any case, the mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are far removed from the rantings of the tin-pot dictator Anna. Of course, most people hate corruption and he tapped into this well of anger, but it's become obvious that his megalomania, pseudo-puritanism and authoritarian practices will make this a relatively short-lived affair and yet another Indian cult with diminishing supporters.

What is the future of the Left/Socialist democracy in India today?

Does not look too promising at the moment.

In Saadat Manto's centenary year, Ken Mc

Mullen's film Partition (adapted by you for the screen from the original story) becomes more significant. If you had to review it today, would you make it differently?

I hope Manto's centenary is celebrated this year. He was a great short story writer and wanted his epitaph to be: "Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God. " As for Partition, I saw it with film students last year. It looked rather good now. So I would leave it as is.

You have won the Cercle Interalliê literary prize, 2012, for Night of the Golden Butterfly, your concluding volume on the Islam Quintet. In 2010 the city of Granada in Spain also honoured you for the Islam Quintet. Your political persona tends to overshadow this other, more private world as a writer of fiction. Will you tell us a bit about it?

When I was in Granada, I told the organisers that the reason I started the quintet was because I wanted to remind readers of the last tormented days of Islamic civilization in al-Andalus;not for reasons of nostalgia, but because the crimes that were committed - the burning of the books in the Bib Rambla, the expulsion of the Jews, the forced conversions, the autoda-fes (burning of heretics at the stake), the Inquisition and its secret police, the Holy Brotherhood and the final expulsion of Spanish Muslims. All this marked the new identity of Europe and we saw its results in the 20th century in Germany, Italy and Spain itself, in the period before World War II.

History never repeats itself exactly, but its
echoes can sometimes be more deadly. So remembering the past is not designed to make people feel guilty of crimes committed by their forebears or to demand reparations but to ensure that we learn from the past. Have we learnt anything?

In the realm of culture - music, literature, theatre - there are attempts to convey some of what has been lost: a Europe where once there was a co-existence of many cultures and traditions that created a unique synthesis in philosophy and literature. In the realm of world politics, nothing has been learnt. The re-conquest of the 15th century has been replaced today by a process of re-colonisation. A million Iraqis died after the occupation of their country;giant US bases have been built to keep American soldiers in the country indefinitely. Afghanistan has been occupied for over eight years (and including by troops from your country). Might this have something to do with a widespread belief in the Muslim world that the Crusades are not yet over?

Rolling Stones' most political song 'Street Fighting Man' is believed to have drawn inspiration from you: "Hey, said my name is called Disturbance/I'll shout and scream, I'll kill the King, I'll rail at all his servants/Well now what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band?/ Cause in sleepy London Town there's just no place for a street fighting man, no. " Have things changed today?

"Street-fighting" men and women today would be locked up indefinitely without trial under the various "anti-terror" laws. In Britain they arrest people who dream subversively and discuss the dream via e-mail. This has actually happened.

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