A book about communal harmony can never be easy to write – not only because of its obvious vulnerability to controversies, but also because so much has already been written by literary geniuses that one would think it would be difficult to come up with a new approach. However, the complexities of relationships between various religious communities in contemporary context are very different from those that existed at the time of Partition, the era that was tackled by the likes of Intizar Husain and Manto. In her book The Uncommon Memories of Zeenat Qureishi, author Veena Nagpal bravely sets out to explore the complexities as they exist today, even though the book itself is set in the early 1990s. The novel, though based on some historical events, doesn’t claim to be historical fiction and takes liberties with some aspects of history.
The novel revolves around Zeenat Qureishi, a sensitive 20 year old who lives in London with her father and a 70 year old grandmother. Traumatized by London Tube Bombings, a phobic Zeenat who is plagued by mysterious recurring nightmares, visits India in an effort to escape her private demons. However, that is not what destiny has ordained. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ajay Mehra, their neighbour whose family has been accused of butchering Zeenat’s Great-Uncle, Great Aunt, and their six-year-old daughter Zainab in the post-partition riots. Their relationship flourishes despite the growing animosity between the two families, until it too falls prey to the communal tensions following the demolishing of Babri Masjid. With her heart constantly torn between what she believes she has seen and what her instincts tell her to be true, she is pushed over the edge and the painful memories from her several past lives explode around her and channel themselves out to the world through the national television. All viewers interpret these memories in different ways and what follows is a spurt of heated discussions, riots, and, in some cases, introspection. The book ends with a final act of supreme sacrifice that leads to the Ultimate Peace.
Though the underlying message isn’t new, the method used to convey is far less pretentious and much more direct. The novel, though long, is an easy read, and the author chooses to refrain from using unnecessarily complex language – a wise decision considering the inherent complexity of the subject.
With multifaceted characters that often display very human contradictions, the novel tells an intriguing tale and at places keeps the readers at the edge of their seats. Though it succumbs to cliches at places, such as while depicting the forces of good and evil, the story subtly explores the gradual demise of reason and logical thinking during the times of communal unrest, and the resultant lack of trust. The story manages to put forward the viewpoints of both Hindus and Muslims without succumbing to biases, held together by the voices of sanity that manifest themselves through three characters who would rather believe in the basic goodness of human beings. Though peace reigns towards the end of the novel, one is left wondering whether the loss of countless innocent lives over meaningless religious egos can ever be justified and whether those souls can ever get justice.