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Review of Book - The Infidel Next Door by Rajat Mitra - The Religious Struggle Between Hinduism and Islam in Kashmir

Updated on June 28, 2018
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Andrew reviews books and occasionally movies for online blogs and print magazines.

The Infidel Next Door
The Infidel Next Door | Source

Rajat Mitra and The Infidel Next Door

The Infidel Next Door is a novel that focuses on the lives of two young men, Aditya Narayan, a Hindu priest, and Anwar Siddiqui, the son of a Muslim imam. It is a harrowing and compelling story set in beautiful yet troubled Kashmir in 1989.

In the one hundred short chapters the narrative alternates between the two young protagonists as they undergo their personal spiritual journeys. They have a lot to deal with. Not only are they rivals in religion, they each have to negotiate tricky family and cultural issues, which all add to a melting pot of tensions and psychological wrangling.

This is Rajat Mitra's first novel and he has succeeded in bringing fresh insights into the ongoing religious strife between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir. The book is a timely addition to the literature already published on this most troublesome theme - books such as Mirza Waheed's The Collaborator and Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night.

It seems that, in Kashmir, sometimes referred to as Paradise on Earth, those with great religious power are the least able to exercise peaceful means and denounce violence. Some extremists actually condone it. A tragic irony repeated in many places worldwide.

With a background in psychology and social enterprise Rajat Mitra skilfully weaves his narrative between the lives of the two lead roles, opening up their psyches with use of metaphor and analogy.

More poignantly, the inner turmoil both experience impinges on family and community and it is this effect that is so well controlled. Blood is thicker than water they say, and there is certainly plenty of both in this book.

  • Negotiating a way through the complex history of Kashmir's religious intolerances is no mean feat. Perhaps only a writer personally involved in the social issues of our times could manage it with such humanity and grace.
  • For readers with no knowledge of Kashmir and its problems this book offers a crash course in the complex history of a land part governed by India, Pakistan and China, whilst delivering a story strong enough to stand on its own.
  • For those familiar with the specific political and religious problems in Kashmir, this book brings a stark intimacy and sensitivity, as you'd expect from a writer with many years experience in the field of counselling and human rights.

To help with the understanding of the language and customs there are useful footnotes throughout the book, and a glossary of cultural and religious terms ensures a full grasp of the text.

The Infidel Next Door - Substance and Style

The narrative moves swiftly through 100 short chapters, alternating between the lives of Aditya and Anwar, their families and religious elders. The personal struggles are dealt with in a sensitive and intimate way. Dialogue plays a major role in this process but the bigger picture is never lost - the Kashmiri question - Why do a few hate when so many tolerate? Rajat Mitra uses his considerable experience as psychologist and social entrepreneur to open the hearts and minds of his characters.

The Infidel Next Door

For a first book, Rajat Mitra has certainly tackled a deeply complex subject. The land of Kashmir has been the scene of violent struggle between Hindus and Muslims for centuries and it is this simple fact that the narrative feeds off.

I suspect Rajat Mitra wrote the book in order to gain more understanding of this perplexing issue and it is clear that his many years working with traumatised people provided much authentic material.

Kashmir historically was the seat of Hinduism, a religion without a central founder or scripture, that has animal deities, gods and goddesses and no prophets.

Contrast this with the rapid spread of Islam, a monotheistic religion, with a scripture (the Koran) and a prophet.

  • Although the majority of Hindus and Muslims follow a strict way of life - dharma and sunnah respectively - and advocate peaceful existence, it seems that a minority of religious extremists continue with their violent regimes, inciting others and spreading fear.

This struggle is ongoing, with acts of violence from both sides. With additional political and territorial battles raging, Kashmir has become one of the most militarised places on earth.

  • Enter Aditya, a Hindu priest whose ancestor priest died at the hands of Muslims when he refused to convert to Islam three hundred years earlier.

Aditya's mission in life is to rebuild a ruined village temple, Adi Shankar, not far from Srinagar in the Kashmir valley. These ruins stand next to an active mosque and it is this physical closeness that gives the book its title.

Aditya's presence is supposed to heal past wounds and bind the Hindu community together but he soon experiences the reality of the situation on the ground. Many fear that his rebuilding will ignite an already tense atmosphere.

It is 1989, year of the insurgency, and old hatreds are on the rise again.

  • Aditya's neighbour is Anwar, stone throwing expert, son of an imam, and a leader in the Muslim community. He is fervently anti-Hindu and totally against the temple being rebuilt.

He cannot understand why Hindus worship animal deities, when there is only one god. He ridicules the fact that a stone monkey is given space in such a sacred place.

He cannot understand why Aditya allows two untouchables to work in the temple, Nitai and Tara, lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system.

Things start to turn in time when Anwar's sister Zeba falls in love with Aditya, a great cause for concern in the Siddiqui family because she is bound to marriage with an extremist Salim.

As the book progresses it becomes clear that Anwar, with all the pressure that comes from family, history and the tradition of jihad, will confront Aditya at some stage.

  • In chapter 54 the inevitable occurs - as Aditya crosses a wooden bridge he is hit twice on the head by stones thrown by Anwar. The unfortunate priest falls off and down into the rocks and snow below. In freezing weather he would certainly die.
  • However, back home, when Zeba gets to hear the truth from her brother, she immediately rushes off to rescue Aditya. Anwar follows and helps his sister revive the stricken priest, before carrying him all the way home on his back.

Zeba is the catalyst for Anwar's compassionate act and from this chapter on he starts to question his own acts of violence, his conscience sparked by Zeba's emotional involvement with the infidel priest.

The rest of the book highlights Anwar's quest to answer his own question - Why do people hate? - and to make contact with Aditya, who, following the attack and desecration of his temple, seeks solace in a remote monastery.

Rajat Mitra, by writing this important book, has shown that hatred lies deep in the history and memory of the people. There are no straightforward answers to the previous question. Just ask the ruined stones of Kashmir.

Religious dogma, bigotry and use of language to incite violence has a long and bloody history in Kashmir. Cultural differences, corruption and turning a blind eye only add to the idea that death and destruction are normalised. Heroes are worshipped, martyrs are feted, peacemakers perceived as weak and untrustworthy.

It's a vicious cycle that can take centuries to break, for healing to take place. The Infidel Next Door brings taboo subjects out into the open, readying them for discussion and debate, which are the true harbingers of hope.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


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