“…if you will not learn from history, you will have to be taught by a harsher teacher the same lesson—and taught perhaps at a much more tremendous price…” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 7, p. 770)
Dr. Rajat Mitra’s ‘The Infidel Next Door’ is a book divided in 100 chapters. But each of these small chapters is a definitive peek into the multiple layers of the story that is unfolding — the story of pain and hope, faith and fear, revenge and friendship, anger and understanding, retreat and return, rejection and renewal, trauma and transformation, and of hate and love. This is a tale drawn from the pages of the history, but one that also reveals the different possibilities for the future. There is no shying away from the horror that religious extremism and terrorism unleash, and similarly there is no hesitation in highlighting the good that also blossoms even amidst all the hatred and distrust. By weaving together the stories of several individual characters, this becomes a story of two communities and one nation – a story that doesn’t feel like fiction at all, because it is too real to be ignored and because it continues to play itself out in various ways.
The plot is situated in the painful context of the displacement or forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in 1989-90, making them refugees in their own country. But as the characters in the story remind the readers, this was only the most recent exodus; Kashmiri Pandits have been the victims of the horrors unleashed by the Islamic powers several times in the long history of Kashmir.
Each time the only choices given to the Kashmiri Hindus, if they were to survive, were: either leave or convert to Islam. As this book reminds the readers, the slogans blaring from the mosques in 1990 kept repeating these terrible choices for the terrified Hindu minority, and also added that if they were to leave the Kashmir valley to save themselves, they should leave their women behind. This is a matter of history – unfortunately, the history that is not often spoken about because it is inconvenient, but it is the history a whole community continues to live with. It is in such a horrific historical context that we find the two key characters of ‘The Infidel Next Door’ coming to a deeper and greater self-awareness. This is what makes the book much more significant and engaging.
First, a brief account of the main storyline is in order. Aditya Narayan, the young priest, is the son of a Kashmiri Pandit and carries a great burden of his family’s history. His ancestors had been the priests at Adi Shankara temple in Kashmir. During one of the past forced exoduses of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, one of his ancestors had boldly refused to convert before the Islamic forces. He was beheaded, and so were several other Hindus who were at the temple. Those who could, fled to various other parts of India. Some members from Aditya’s ancestral family landed up in Varanasi and found shelter in a temple, where Aditya’s father is now a priest. The temple was brutally destroyed – a horror that has been repeated countless times across the length and breadth of India at the hands of barbaric Islamic rulers and their armies.
All this happened in 1676, Aditya learns from his teacher, whom we meet as Gurudev, a wise old man. As his gurudakshina, Gurudev asks Aditya to go back to Kashmir and rebuild and renew the temple where his ancestor was killed. The temple which is now in ruins stands next to a mosque which had come up after the temple was destroyed centuries ago. In the recent years, the mosque has become even grander with the help of money flowing in from ‘outside’ sources, thanks to one influential person known as Haji Chacha. It is Haji Chacha who leads the campaign of ‘āzādi’ of Kashmir by recruiting young boys from the valley and facilitating their training – starting from stone-pelting and leading to use of arms and ammunition in terrorist training camps across the border in Pakistan.
Anwar, the son of Imam of the mosque next to Aditya’s temple, is under the influence of Haji Chacha. He carries in himself this great hatred for Aditya and the temple Aditya is slowly trying to rebuild. Anwar is a master stone-thrower, and Aditya as “The Infidel Next Door” is his primary target, because he is the one who needs to be banished, indeed killed, if Kashmir has to become ‘āzād’ as per the guidance given by Haji Chacha. Aditya’s temple must also be destroyed because the very sight of it hurts the religious sentiments of the Muslims in the area, Anwar is told again and again. And if Anwar could do this – kill Aditya and destroy the temple – he would have gained the position of the leader of ‘Azad Kashmir’ movement. This is what he hears frequently – not only from people such as Haji Chacha but also his fiancée, who ends up leaving him once he switches sides and turns out to be the one who actually saved Aditya, whom he had first tried to kill!
How does this turnaround happen? What happens to the temple which Aditya had built with so much devotion and dedication when the few remaining Kashmiri Pandits also flee the valley to save their lives? What happens to Aditya who survives several brutal attacks on his life?
These questions keep the reader engaged as the subtle layers of the minds of the key characters keep opening up with the progression of the story.
In addition to Aditya and Anwar, we also meet many other equally intriguing characters: Zeba, Anwar’s sister who is in love with Aditya and feels a great sense of peace and calm descend on her every time she hears the temple bells and Aditya’s recitation of mantras; Gayatri, Aditya’s mother who is in many ways the strength behind Aditya whenever he feels hesitant; Prof. Baig, a history professor who helps Aditya see the force that is the collective memory of people and how rebuilding the temple will be an act of healing for the whole valley; Javed, Anwar’s friend who keeps trying to make Anwar see the wrong of his ways; Nitai, a young lad from the Dom community who grew up working in a cremation ground and ends up taking refuge in the temple as Aditya’s assistant and protector; and several others.
There are two commonalities with these characters – one, all of them in their own ways keep reminding Aditya and Anwar what is the right thing to do; and second, they all face tragic deaths at the hands of forces of destruction, division, terror, and evil. In their deaths also, these characters help Aditya and Anwar learn more about suffering, about what turns people’s hearts so strongly against their fellow human beings, what moves one to hate the ‘other’ so strongly, and about the way pain itself gets transformed into courage within.
In addition to revealing such deep psychological insights into what moves the key characters in the story, the narrative also doesn’t shy away from providing the details of the terrorist horror that was being unleashed – the torture, the humiliation, the murders, the rapes, and, of course, the exodus. A colossal human tragedy resulting from a dirty nexus between political and fundamentalist Islamic forces engulfs the well-meaning people from both sides. While Aditya, his father Krishna Narayan, his friend and assistant Nitai, Nitai’s sister Tara and many others from the Kashmiri Pandit community become victims of the terror unleashed at them, many others from the Muslim community such as Zeba, Prof. Baig, Javed are also swallowed up by the same forces of hate and destruction.
A Nation’s Story
Religion as the basis for national identity – this falsehood became the basis for the bloody Partition in 1947 which left millions dead and many more displaced. As a nation and society, India has yet to honestly deal with the psychological and sociological trauma of this horror. Failure to do so has led to serious schisms between Hindus and Muslims, because the whole basis for Partition was the demand of a separate nation for Muslims by some influential Muslim leaders of the time. The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in late 1980s up to early 1990s has only added fuel to the fire that has been simmering under the outer façade of platitudes such as ‘composite culture’, ‘ganga-jamuni tehzeeb’ etc.
Indian polity can no longer afford to shy away from dealing with such difficult chapters of our modern history. Indians can no longer refuse to see facts staring in their face and pretend that love can conquer all when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits who were banished from their homes right before the eyes of all national and international media continue to stay in refugee camps in their own country – hoping against all hope that one day they will return to their homeland.
At the core of the book’s narrative is the author’s deep understanding of human psychology which comes not only from his professional background as a clinical psychologist but also from his work with both the victims and perpetrators of violent terrorism. Through his careful portrayal of Anwar, we see how easy it can be for someone like Haji Chacha and his ilk to sow seeds of disharmony and conflict and to stir up communal strife, riots, bloodshed and destruction of innocent lives. At the same time, the sensitive narrative also doesn’t hesitate from the fact that an important reason for the Hindu-Muslim conflict has to do with the exclusive creed of Islam.
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the great rishi of modern India, a sage philosopher and poet, who was once a revolutionary freedom fighter, is reported to have once said in a conversation with his disciples:
“You can live amiably with a religion whose principle is toleration. But how is it possible to live peacefully with a religion whose principle is ‘I will not tolerate you’? How are you going to have unity with these people?” (Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 23 July 1923).
The author of ‘The Infidel Next Door’ in his patient building up of the narrative provides enough glimpses of such intolerance that lays at the bottom of the exclusivity of Islam. What is un-Islamic must be washed away, destroyed and killed if Kashmir has to become a pure land for Muslims – this is the lesson Anwar and other boys in the Valley are given by folks such as Haji Chacha. The intolerance toward the idea of a temple being next door to a mosque plays an important role in moving the storyline, gradually making the case for the complete destruction of Aditya’s temple and killing of caretakers Nitai and Tara, and severe injuries to Aditya. It is the same intolerance toward the idea of any co-existence with Hindus, with kafirs, which eventually leads to the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits as the story continues to unfold.
The book does not ignore the fact that the excessive politicization of Islam has added fuel to the fire of fundamentalism. India’s history is a testament that even prior to Independence in 1947, many of our politicians led by M.K. Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru had taken the politics of flattery to absurd extremes. Such appeasement politics basically required that Hindus should keep on accommodating and Muslims should be made to feel comfortable at any cost. This eventually resulted in the Partition of India which subsequently gave rise to a constant Hindu-Muslim tension across India.
Sri Aurobindo had cautioned amply that this kind of appeasement politics fuelled by Gandhi and the Congress was going to create deep fissures in the Indian society. He spoke of the Muslim appeasement policies as “false diplomacy” and attempts to “patch up a unity” by giving too much importance to the Muslims as the root of growing Hindu-Muslim divide (1 August 1926, conversation recorded by Anilbaran Roy). His fundamental argument was that Hindus could eternally compromise in order to accommodate the Muslims, who would continue to ask for more. Interestingly, in ‘The Infidel Next Door’ we see this tendency of Muslims asking for more accommodations and compromises on the part of Aditya – shifting the orientation of the Hanuman murti, not ringing the temple bells around the time of namaaz, and several others.
No Simplistic ‘Love Conquers All’
The book’s chief strength rests in the way it reveals a common humanity that ties the disparate lives of its key characters. But it does not preach a simplistic ‘love conquers all’ type of philosophy. Rather, the story’s narrative painstakingly builds a strong argument for truth as the only basis for creating harmony and understanding among people of different religious backgrounds.
The lesson for the larger society is obvious – only when sincere and clear-intentioned practitioners who have the most non-dogmatic and inclusive view of their religions come together in truth, possibility arises for healthy co-existence, closer union and possible synthesis. In the absence of sincerity and truthfulness, as the lives of some of the key characters in this novel reveal, even the good people can end up getting ‘used’ by some of their own for serving nefarious and destructive agendas. Only when the truth takes centre stage, even the worst adversaries end up protecting each other – whether it is the relation between Anwar and Aditya, or Aditya and Nitai.
As the story builds up, we also recognize that any attempt to paper over the problems created by religious fundamentalism will never result in a truthful reconciliation. Such a ‘truth and reconciliation’ exercise is a pre-requisite for pluralistic Indian society to move forward in a healthy manner and to work toward realising a true unity in diversity – this is an important lesson to take from this book. It is appropriate at this juncture to recall a deeper and truthful formula given to us by Sri Aurobindo in 1909 with respect to creating a meaningful Hindu-Muslim unity:
“Of one thing we may be certain, that Hindu-Mahomedan unity cannot be effected by political adjustments…It must be sought deeper down, in the heart and in the mind, for where the causes of disunion are, there the remedies must be sought. We shall do well in trying to solve the problem to remember that misunderstanding is the most fruitful cause of our differences, that love compels love and that strength conciliates the strong. We must strive to remove the causes of misunderstanding by a better mutual knowledge and sympathy; we must extend the unfaltering love of the patriot to our Musalman brother, remembering always that in him too Narayana dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom; but we must cease to approach him falsely or flatter out of a selfish weakness and cowardice. We believe this to be the only practical way of dealing with the difficulty. As a political question, the Hindu-Mahomedan problem does not interest us at all, as a national problem it is of supreme importance.” (CWSA, Vol. 8, p. 31)
Even though Sri Aurobindo made this statement in 1909, it is amazing how applicable and relevant it is for today’s India. It is significant because since independence most of the efforts to address the problem of Hindu-Muslim divide in India have been led by a political motive as well as politics of flattery, instead of really going to the roots of the problem and dealing with it at the level of the hearts and minds of the people from these religious communities.
In ‘The Infidel Next Door’ we come across several nuggets of wisdom, particularly in the voices of Gurudev, who compels Aditya to go back o Kashmir and rebuild the temple where his ancestors prayed, and Prof. Baig, whose words encourage Aditya to discover his inner strength as he comes face to face with the pain and trauma suffered by his ancestors during his meditations at Battamazar – a small island in the middle of beautiful Dal Lake where thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were tortured and killed. Only when histories and collective memories are confronted in the light of truth, a reconciliation and moving on can happen – this the book tells very clearly.
A Richly Layered Narrative
There is a lot more to this book, however, than merely a Hindu-Muslim binary. And it is the sensitive portrayal of the richness of human emotions and complexity of life which makes the book a winner in ways more than one.
There is tenderness of first, young love as experienced by Zeba and Aditya – the blossoming, the acknowledgement, the sacrifice, everything is masterfully narrated by the author. We also witness an underlying tension between a father and a son – not only because the father refuses to give up certain unfair conventional practices but also because he knows that he lacks the moral strength that his son has to pursue what is true, the right and the good. There is the unspoken feeling of love a father has for his son which tries to express itself at the very moment the father decides to give up all worldly ties.
We see the despondency of a religious-minded father who, simply to save his face among his co-religionists and prove his ‘Muslim’ credentials, marries off his adopted daughter to a person of a dubious character who turns out to be a terrorist and eventually kills his wife because she had once loved a kafir, a Hindu priest nonetheless. In addition to the love between Zeba and Aditya, there is a beautiful relationship blossoming between Zeba and Gayatri, Aditya’s mother; but Gayatri dies too soon and Zeba is killed too brutally by her own husband.
But there is even more. There are sensitive portrayals of adolescent girls who grow up in highly restrictive environments discovering the first flushes of their sexuality and joking with their friends in a hush-hush manner. There are snapshots of mothers whose biggest worry is that their daughters should not get too many ideas of freedom in their heads because that would ruin their married lives.
The book also makes clear that women are the biggest losers in any ‘holy war’ that aims to curb the free blossoming of individuals. We see through the eyes of Zeba, a once-feisty woman, how a Muslim woman’s entire existence can be challenged when she is forced to wear a burqa. We cry with her when she sacrifices her love for Aditya, a Hindu priest, who is willing to elope with her to a place far away from Kashmir. But it is Zeba who reminds Aditya that he could not and must not leave the temple because the very existence of the temple there means a place for Hindus and Hinduism in the valley. Alas, the destruction to the temple does come and it happens at the hands of her own terrorist husband. This entangled web of lives of people makes the story so much more honest, real, and deeply layered.
The Kashmir and Kashmiris depicted in ‘The Infidel Next Door’ pay a heavy price for the deadly mix of fundamentalist Islam, politics and cross-border terrorist support. This truthful portrayal of how Kashmir since the late 1980s has been slowly transformed into a breeding ground for home-grown terrorism is what makes this work of fiction seem so real, taken directly from the pages of modern history of Kashmir. The book also touches upon the dilemma faced by the security forces in such a situation where the enemy is somewhat undefined. And fighting against such an enemy is often muddled with questions of what is moral and ethical in a war.
To conclude, the book’s biggest strength rests in the fact that its author, a trained psychologist with nearly three decades of professional experience, has successfully revealed for the readers what goes on in the minds of his central characters, what forces drive them and why. He has masterfully portrayed the outer and inner lives of these people entangled in a cycle of deadly violence all around them. And as a reader you end up empathising with each one of them in a unique way. There is no ‘othering,’ and Aditya, Anwar, Zeba, Javed, Nitai, Prof. Baig and Gayatri stay with you long after you finish the book.
About the Author:
Dr. Rajat Mitra is a Clinical Psychologist, author, Harvard alumni, and UN public service awardee for gender justice. He has worked nationally and internationally on human rights issues, worked with Islamic militants and radicalized youth on one hand and survivors of mass violence and genocide on the other. He is the author of “The Infidel Next Door” (2019), a book that he believes will speak directly to all people whose conscience has ever been shaken by religious persecution in our times.
For readers interested in learning more about the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, see the following videos: