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A lineage of lost instants


Express News Service

In India, the past always breathes down the neck of the present. People are forever talking in terms of the ruler and the ruled, who were invaders and who weren’t, about battles won and lost thousands of years ago—so much so that they even dictate their present-day choices. Anjum Hasan’s new novel History’s Angel (published by Bloomsbury India) tackles the subject through the story of a history teacher of Delhi who, it seems, can look at the present only if he can refer to similar situations in the past: “This is now but how was it back then? Or that was then but how does it matter now?”

The novel grapples with questions of religion and identity, of history and progress, questions that are urgent and serious and that confront every citizen in today’s India. At a virtual meeting organised by the Quill and Canvas bookstore in Gurugram, Hasan elaborated on how the novel is also about the different identities we all subscribe to and the historical baggage they carry.

Anjum Hasan

“We are always weighed down by larger inheritances. We’re always being addressed as tropes or stereotypes. A Muslim, a Hindu, a Delhiite. What do we actually feel about these things as opposed to what we are expected to say? This is a question I wanted to explore with the novel”, says the author.

Set in present-day Old Delhi, History’s Angel is the story of Alif, a mild-mannered history teacher from a middle-class family who has a deep love for his city and the society he keeps. Alif is a thoughtful man. Obsessed with the twists and turns of history, he is frequently lost in musings about the artistic richness of the Byzantine Empire or the architectural brilliance of Delhi’s Humayun’s Tomb. He is almost Hamlet-like in his indecision and does not demand much from life. But his life changes all of a sudden when he punishes a student during a school vacation trip. He is faced with a barrage of consequences that arise from reasons that have little to do with his act and much to do with his identity as a Muslim.

Delhi is no doubt at the centre of the novel. Anjum treats the city almost like a character. It is a landmark of social diversity and historical intensity for her. She makes the characters in the novel roam its bustling streets, its crowded malls and monuments, all in attempts to “fit in”.

Alif has lived all his life in a quaint gully of this romanticised part of Old Delhi. He is rooted but never sentimental. “Old Delhi, on the one hand, is a historical hotspot for tourists, who are eager to go on heritage walks through its Havelis, and on the other, it is home to the thousands of people who live there. It is a place where the historic is commonplace”, says Hasan. Alif’s relationship to the city is far more complex, a complexity, Anjum feels, that can only be described as love. Alif thinks Delhi is “the city on which the Apocalypse descends every day and the city where the Apocalypse is always awaited.”

Like German philosopher and theorist Walter Benjamin’s idea of the Angel of History whose face is turned to the past—the book takes its title from the concept—Alif is constantly looking back even as he is compelled to walk forward. He names his son Salim, after Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor, one of the most romantic figures of Mughal history. “History is always filtered through one’s person. You’re always adding something from imagination”, Anjum says about the way people relate to history in their daily lives.

The novel dismantles, with great subtlety, all categories and identities we so dearly and insecurely hold on to. “Individuality is what interests me as a novelist. History’s Angel is, above all else, a novel about an individual who is at odds with what is around him. It is about the complexity of our desires”, she adds.

Tahira, Alif’s wife, very much a “creature of the present” is a pucca Delhi girl. A store manager at a Karol Bagh supermarket, she yearns for an MBA and upward mobility. Salim is fascinated with the fast-paced and evolving technology of the digital world—his father, Alif, understands nothing of it. Other interesting characters that makeup Alif’s life are Ganesh, his childhood friend who likes his drink, Alif’s parents, his cousin who wants to move to the Emirates, and the household help who does one day pose the question: “What does it mean, sir, to be a Muslim in contemporary India?”

Both subtle and sad, humourous and heartbreaking, History’s Angel is a wistful Delhi novel about lives that are caught in the push and pull of history.

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