In the summer of 1992 my father took our family and the family of a visiting aunt to Ayodhya, Faizabad. While the objective for the aunt’s family was clearly sacred and devotional, to my father it remained mainly ‘journalistic’. As he said then that ‘we must see the Mosque’ for he was not very sure of its ‘future’ given the politics of hate and violence in those times fuelled by the RSS, BJP and their various sister organizations. Those were the years when the whole country—or perhaps mostly North India— was in the grip of ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ or the ‘Mandir’ movement and was increasingly getting divided on communal lines. What remains at the heart of this ‘deliberate’ crisis was the ostensible dispute of the ‘birthplace’ of ‘Lord Rama’, in whose place there stood the Babri Mosque. ‘Hindus’ were being mobilized from all over India to reclaim this very birthplace and demolish the mosque which has by design become the symbol for the ‘historical inferiority of Hinduism at the hands of Islam’.
After exploring the city which mostly consists of temples and other such sanctum sanctorums, we finally arrived on the site where stood the then Babri Mosque, which by that time was managed by the ‘Hindus’ and the place was continuously thronged by the devotees along with their generous alms and donations. While my mother (only to give company to her sister and my aunt) and others went inside, I stayed outside with my father. I still vividly remember that the Mosque was surrounded by trenches all around flushed with running water in it. The idea was to weaken the foundation of the Mosque which will eventually lead to its decimation. Well, the mosque was indeed destroyed and demolished, six months later, not by that moat filled with water but through a more direct sort of action by the crowd of thousands of people purportedly in love with ‘Lord Rama’. The Babri Mosque was destroyed by the belligerent crowd of ‘Hindus’ led by RSS-BJP on December 6th 1992 and a makeshift temple of ‘Ramlalla’ has since been installed in its place.
This above anecdote and many such associated memories which followed post-Babri Mosque demolition at the hands of Hindu Right were so far—not so—securely locked in some quiet corner of my mind. And it is in this milieu that after almost 23 years, the importance of Ajaz Ashraf’s The Hour Before Dawn should be seen. The novel has not only jogged my memory of the year 1992 but has also pushed me to recollect those traumatic times which the multitudes of us went through. The sheer frenzy of those turbulent days, the complete madness of the Mandir Movement and the subsequent days leading up to 6th December 1992 and very much everything after that, still gives me shivers. ‘An Hour Before Dawn’ especially in our times, when New Delhi has an emperor instead of a Prime Minister, reminds us about the roots and ‘where it all started’ for today’s Hindu Right’s political success. The book took me back to the days when many of my childhood friends were jubilant (of course taking cue from their parents) after watching the live telecast of the ongoing demolition of the mosque. I happened to witness one such occasion, as I was at a friend’s place on that fateful Sunday afternoon.
Ashraf’s novel is a brutal reminder of an equally brutal and dark past. There are of course several characters in this work, among which I will only mention two, but before that, the plot of the novel. The story will also not be divulged in its entirety, considering the genre of the work is basically a thriller. Anyhow, the novel is about its protagonist Rasheed Halim who is a cancer patient and about his endurance vis-à-vis the imminent death from cancer relapse and how he eventually overcomes his own fears. Rasheed’s comrades and friends in his difficult times are one Wasim Khan who is a deeply religious old man and a woman who helps and support the protagonist in fighting his own demons and his recurrent thought that he does not have much time to live. Then, there is this dual character called ‘Secret History’ which comes up every day as pamphlet on the walls of New Delhi’s plush residential societies. These everyday pamphlets are like a sort of clarion call to the ‘sons of Hindus’ to rise up against Muslims for Lord Ram on the upcoming 6th of December. Needless to say the ‘Secret History’ is rabidly vitriolic in nature and its content is full of that ridiculous and highly biased interpretation of history.
The character of the ‘Secret History’ is dual in the sense that it is both a text and represents the author of the same, who is unknown. And it is this quest for the author of the ‘Secret History’, which led by the protagonist and his friends and others that forms the axis of this novel. And unfortunately, to my mind, it is this chasing of the unknown writer of ‘Secret History’ where the plot not only loses its potential but becomes very shaky to comprehend. More than half of the book’s pages are spent on this act of ‘finding the secret writer’, without telling the readers why. What will happen if you find ‘the writer’? Instead of politically responding to those vitriolic pamphlets called secret history, the energy of all the characters—so laboriously portrayed—saps in this unnecessary exercise of who wrote the pamphlets.
However, The Hour before Dawn succeeds in showing it readers what it set out to do in the first place—the horrors and humiliation met by the Muslims of this country. The description of Rasheed’s struggle with his inner psyche and the way his character has been penned with all its solitude and loneliness enmeshed into one is simply brilliant. The intricacies of a young man’s troubled mind, jostling with his terminal illness and striving hard to give a new meaning to his own ‘new’ life, is to my mind a significant achievement of the author. Wasim Khan who helps Rasheed is another character who binds the reader to the world of an Indian Muslim family. Wasim with all his energy and enthusiasm devoted to the family business eventually come across to his own quest for knowing Islam more, unlike a common practicing Muslim, who does not question the established religious codes. Wasim as a scholar on Islam, with an equal and unapologetic belief in the same, gives us a window into the available diversity of practices and beliefs among the Indian mussalmaan. Hence it is no surprise that Ashraf pens him more as someone in pursuit of the rationality of the whole belief system, instead of as a mere cleric: How could he have been satisfied reciting the holy verses without understanding the meaning? A community of believers was created in India who could read without understanding what they read, who were moved without knowing what moved them, who passed the Words across generations, devoid of any sense. Imprisoned in the gilded cacophony of the language, they simply pirouetted through life by imitation.
Characterization of both Wasim Khan and Rasheed Halim not only reflects on the two different generation of people in India of 1990s, they also do manifest themselves as the ongoing class tension within the Muslim community. Ajaz Ashraf undoubtedly and very ably weaves the crisis of 1992 which continues to haunt our collective psyche. The novel meticulously brings up all the traumatic memories of how deathly silence enveloped the whole city in the aftermath of the Mosque’s demolition. The ghostly silence of the curfewed days and how my mother used to hush us siblings down whenever she would hear the wailing voice of some woman in the dead of the night are indelible marks on an already scarred memory of those horrid times. Lastly, Ajaz Ashraf, through his work, gently reminds us not to forget that justice remains an illusionary concept for the multitudes of India and the politics of hate cemented on 6th December continues to run very deep in Indian society.
Moggalan Bharti is a researcher based in Delhi.