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Redefining ‘missionary position’

Redefining ‘missionary position’
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At 9.30 in the morning, silence could be sliced at the sprawling Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU] campus, even on a weekday. As you wait in the thick of silence, soundproofed from the buzz of everyday life in Delhi, you hear water gurgle and gush out of the tube, providing sustenance to potted plants nearby. Within minutes, the echoing footsteps and murmur of voices, which slide through silence effortlessly, announce the arrival of Tabish Khair, professor-cum-author.

Tabish Khair, the English professor is all that you imagined him to be. Polite and pleasant, he ushers you into the lobby of the Institute of Advanced Studies. Khair, who lives in Aarhus, Denmark, is in Delhi on a visiting professorship at the JNU.

But Tabish Khair, the author, who thought up a quirky title for his latest book – How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position – and proceeded to recount in a delightfully irreverent voice the issues that plague our 21st century world, is bit of an enigma.

The polite professor persona stands in the way of the author, who for most part gets tongue-in-cheek. Five minutes into the conversation, the author takes over with a quiet confidence. Five more minutes and you realise the confidence is hard earned. He is where he is because he made an effort. Neither is he going to forget that nor is he going to let go of an opportunity to let the world know that.

So he tells you the story of a small town Bihari coming to Delhi in all wide-eyed innocence in his early 20s. He recounts his early struggles to understand life’s intricacies. He talks about his days as a journalist that sort of prepared him for things to come. He tells you how the poet in him stepped out, establishing a voice for him that he could work on. He tells you of times when the ideas that churned inside him could not go anywhere because of his limited knowledge of the world outside. He tells you how his aspirations took him overseas – first to Denmark and then to England.

You get the drift: Tabish Khair became an author because he believed in the saying that there is a book in every one of us. But Tabish Khair, the author, did not wake up one fine day and took a sheaf of papers and started writing bestsellers. For Tabish Khair is the kind of author who has been dissecting the world around him, labelling it carefully and storing it in his head for reference.

In How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position, Khair has cloaked his characters with references from his life. His narrator teaches English just like him. Ravi, another protagonist, has a journalistic background, which he gave up – just like Khair – to pursue an academic career. And the issue that is being chewed on in this book – Islamism in the 21st century– is something that Khair could talk with confidence. He was born into it. He also uses the real life situation – the January 2010 Westergaard incident, in which a Somali armed with an axe attempted to murder one of the Danish cartoonists of the infamous Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons – to create his fiction, his characters fitting naturally into the narration.

Tabish Khair is the kind of author who is not going to provide you easy answers. He leaves clues, he discusses issues, but he lets you make up your mind. His latest title is a case in point. If you are expecting to find an explicit reference to ‘Missionary Position’ you are going to be disappointed. He lets you infer what you want from it. But earlier on, on page 6 to be exact, he does drop a hint. The main characters – the nameless narrator from Pakistan and the flamboyant Indian Ravi – despite their different cultural and religious backgrounds, have one thing in common. Education in posh catholic missionary schools. It could be that ‘Missionary Position’ refers to the standpoint of these missionary school educated immigrants.

The conviction of the convent educated Pakistani narrator, a Muslim himself, that the blind followers of Islam like Karim Bhai [who, incidentally, is a Muslim from India, described as someone who shackles himself within the rigidity of the religion] have taken the religion out of its context and have placed it in the hands of the terrorists forms the crux of the story.

Tabish Khair is the kind of author who does not hesitate to rant about the idiosyncrasies of the literary world that makes it almost impossible for non networked authors to succeed; he’s honest about his inability to break through those barriers and make it really big [‘My books are good. They are critically acclaimed, but I don’t get a flashy coverage, for instance.’]

But Tabish Khair is also the kind of author who wants to be in touch with his readers. Tell him that when you finished reading How to…, you ended up sympathising with Karim, he smiles triumphantly. That is exactly what I wanted to say through this story, he tells you. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I am, of course, happy if my books are critically acclaimed and are a commercial success. But I really treasure the moments when a reader tells me that he understood the things that I am trying to convey through my stories. It is these moments, more than anything else, that gives me a sense of achievement.’

Above all, Tabish Khair is the kind of author you would love reading. For, he is one of those few lucky authors who have found a ‘voice’ that is both contemporary and compelling. The kind of ‘voice’ that lets him crossover genres jauntily: from Bus Stopped [‘complex narrative’] to Filming: A Love Story [‘complex story retelling history’] to his latest, How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position [‘the story that I have been wanting to tell for 10 years, but took me, in all, just about a year when I started to write’].
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