“The Cliffhangers” by Sabin Iqbal

This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.

But, they try to.

Debut author Sabin Iqbal’s The Cliffhanger is about a group of friends Usma, Thaha, Jahangir and Moosa. They are in their late teens and early twenties. Moosa is nineteen years old. The ages of the other friends are not mentioned but it is presumed that they are more or less the same age. They are not very well educated. Inevitably have failed school and are hanging around the cliff near their village. There is little for them to do. They are considered kafirs for their free lifestyle and friendships with foreigners and Hindus like Balannan and Vivekannan. They belong to impoverished homes that rely upon remittances sent home from the Middle East. It is mostly the men of these families that have gone to Dubai in search of work. They occupy the lowest rungs of society abroad as drivers, shop assistants, messengers etc. Work which is unappealing to the younger men in India but who realise that it is a matter of time before they too have to join the expat workforce in the Middle East. It helps bring in a regular income and is any day preferable to the backbreaking task of fishing — the only skill their village of fishermen has known for as long as they can recall.

The Cliffhangers have chosen the middle path. We don’t wear symbols of any faith or religion. We don’t tie threads around our wrists or biceps. We wear trainers, sweatpants or tracksuits or polos, which are brought by our relatives from the Gulf.

It is a village on the coast of Kerala where the population lives in relative peace and harmony though the settlement is distinctly according to communal lines. The Muslims on one side and the Hindus on the other. There are no Christians in this village. This is how it has been; till now.

Our village also has religious and political divisions — though they seem blurred and harmless to an outsider, they are as distinct as right and left, and potentially as harmful to both.

So far, the two communities in our village have lived in peace and harmony. It is a delicate peace, which any moment, could crumble like papadums.

The Cliffhangers is a fictional account of how close to the precipice this village is from being torn apart along communal lines. The simmering hatred that manifests itself in by the police picking up the Cliffhanger boys for questioning even if they are innocent. It is just that the shroud of suspicion falls upon these boys most of the time because of their faith. It is never said explicitly but it is understood. A frightening prospect. The boys most often are seen whiling away their time hanging out with tourists, ostensibly to improve their English. So if anything happens to a tourist such as the rape of a young girl or the inexplicable death of an unapologetic HRS supporter like Vishwanathan Thampi, the boys are immediately picked up for questioning. As the Cliffhangers are well aware that as young men with Muslim names, they are a soft target for the police and primary enemies of the HRS ( Hindu Rasthra Sangh). It is a tough and uncertain life. None of this uncertainty is helped by the harrowing news from North India about the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. The Cliffhanger gang is stunned into a worrying silence. Unable to fathom what to make of this dystopic world where you are condemned for your food habits, you are persecuted for your religion –whether observing it or not as the boys discovered for having being caught eating during the day when they should have been fasting during Ramzan, you are lynched if you belong to the “other” in terms of colour, ideology and faith. It is a peculiar world.

Hatred is when you think the other has to be eliminated because of the difference of opinion in faith, customs and ways of life. Or, being the axis of evil as Bush, one of the presidents of America, said.

The Cliffhangers want to be the voice of sanity, albeit our patchy English, in the cacophony of communal insanity that our state has fallen into. As you know, we are not adequately educated to sound profound but we are glad that we are not wrongly educated either to hate the ones under the rival flag. We bear Muslim names and maybe we go to the mosque on Fridays and on Eid, but that’s it. You can cut our vein anyway, I swear to you, none of us have any strain of hatred in us.

This free will is something that the Cliffhangers are beginning to discover they are unable to exercise freely. So much so even SI Devan who would pick them up routinely for questioning ultimately decided to “help” them out in an unsolved case of the rape of a foreign tourist. SI Devan had uncovered the truth that the perpetrator, Balannan, a vendor who sold lemonade but was closely affiliated to the HRS. So recognising the terrifying consequences of arresting the member of the Hindu shaka and the horrific prospect of ripping the social fabric of the fishing village across communal lines, the SI chooses to take the rap himself by the senior police officials. SI Devan closes the file as “inconclusive”. His parting words to the Cliffhangers is the truth but with sinister underpinnings.

Remember, we are living in strange times . . .and, your identity is your enemy!” he said….

When the impetus for a story is the growing hatred of the “other” and the heightened communal tension it unleashes, it becomes frighteningly tough to articulate those fears. Fiction helps in unlocking some of those unnamed fears. Whether as a writer or a reader. But as a writer it helps to be crystal clear in channeling one’s anger and distress at the rapid turn of events. For instance to witness the political machinations of hardliners to further their interests despite locals recognising the foolhardiness of encouraging polarisation among communities. A recognition of each other’s differences is sufficient but to underline it on a daily basis and enforce it using state machinery is a dangerous thought and development. It finally rests upon the free will of the citizens of a democracy to subvert this self-consuming destructive hatred.

“The Cliffhangers” is a name given to the four boys but it works metaphorically too for the precipitous situation Indian democracy finds itself in — whether to retreat from the life-threatening crisis or to take the plunge into the depths of the unknown waters and be destroyed. Despite sagging a bit in the middle of the novel The Cliffhangers is a powerful story for the issues it raises. It would be fascinating to hear a freewheeling conversation between Sabin Iqbal, Tabish Khair, Amitava Kumar and Rana Ayyub on writing fiction and non-fiction in these times.

Till then read The Cliffhangers.

14 February 2020

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