Filmmaker-scriptwriter Saeed Mirza is speaking with a friend when I arrive for our appointment at the India International Centre. The details of the conversation escape me, but it has to do with the ongoing month of Muharram and its attendant rituals. “So this can only be done on the ninth day?” Mirza is saying, “It can’t be, say, the 14th day – or the 5th day? I see.” The tone makes it apparent that he doesn’t see, but it’s only mildly sardonic, his eyes are sparkling and he’s quick to change the topic. It’s a moment that captures two things about the man: he’s iconoclastic, questioning, not particularly respectful of traditions that don’t make sense to him; but he’s disinclined to push the rationalist point too hard. As a staunch Leftist who admits to being spiritually influenced by Sufism, he understands the value of contradictions. And besides, how does a rationalist justify writing a book-length letter to a woman who has been dead for 18 years?
Mirza’s Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother has been billed as a novel, but this is an inadequate description. Though the first half includes a novella-length section where he reimagines the early lives of his parents and the unusual circumstances that lead to their wedding, this restless, engaging work is also part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-film script and a number of other things besides, with reflections on the injustices of history, the perceived clash of civilisations, and the importance of learning lessons from the past. All this combines to form a long letter addressed to Mirza’s mother, who died in 1990 – so that Ammi, though polemical in places, remains very personal, very conversational throughout.
In his preface, Mirza likens the book’s form to “miniatures set in a mural” and admits that he doesn’t know whether it will work for most readers. “My wife Jennifer felt it lacked cohesion after reading the first two drafts. She likes it better now, but she’s probably just saying that because she’s exhausted!” How did he settle on such an unusual structure? “This form was the only way I could encompass everything that was going through my mind,” he says, “The idea for the book came from the way certain words are casually bandied about in today’s world – words like ‘democratic’ vs ‘undemocratic’, “civilised” vs “uncivilised”, ‘rogue states’ vs ‘law-abiding states’, and so on. I wanted to look at how the meanings of these words have been lost or distorted.”
The longest section in Ammi is the tale of Jahanara Begum, a girl from a Mughal background, and Nusrat Beg, a Pathan, who meet in Quetta in the early 1930s. “Fictionalising the lives of my parents in this way,” says Mirza, “created a background for the parts that are more explicitly about my own family and childhood.” The result is an absorbing mix of fiction and non-fiction – it’s as if a line has been drawn down the book’s centre, separating the Nusrat-Jahanara story (which is abandoned at the point where the couple are about to start a family) from the autobiographical sketches of later years: the one about his parents’ stoical reaction when he unwittingly ate a ham sandwich in school, for instance. (“A sinner is someone who sins against people – not because he eats pork,” his mother hesitantly concludes after thinking things over for a while, though she quickly adds, “But in my house there will be no pork!”)
“That dividing line was important to me,” Mirza says. “The book’s structure begs the question: could this woman (Ammi) have been Jahanara? Could this man (my father) have been Nusrat Beg? I thought that would be an interesting way of telling a story. It also makes it more universal, rather than being a particularised account of a specific couple. There were many couples like Nusrat and Jahanara – people who came together from different backgrounds and who had to struggle with issues of faith, conservatism, the importance of education and freedom. These are ordinary lives and we tend to deny the incredible grace and dignity of the ordinary.”
More than anything, Ammi is a cry for inclusiveness, for being able to absorb various things from around the world while retaining the flavour of one’s own culture (and Mirza himself is quite capable of linking disparate things – like invoking the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” in the context of the story of the underprivileged Ekalavya). At one point, Nusrat asks the conservative elders in Jahanara’s family, “Do we want to live in a well from which we can see only a patch of sky or do we want to live outside the well and see the world?” Later, she tells him she decided to marry him because she didn’t want to live in a well, “even if seeing more of the sky would bring pain”.
“That frog-in-the-well analogy is a peculiarly Eastern one,” Mirza says, “and it’s a pity how the West, on the other hand, has been playing up this paranoia about everyone else being The Other. People like Samuel Huntington, with their insistence about the ‘clash of civilisations’, have helped to ghettoise minds.” It’s also a pity, he feels, that modernity (“another word that has lost its meaning”) is defined by the Western model. Ammi is full of pointers to the spirit of radical thinking in Islam, something Mirza feels has been suppressed or misrepresented. He includes stories about the scholars Ibn Senna and Ibn Rushd, who were among the world’s first freethinkers – holding that faith was not the only way to truth, maintaining their religious beliefs while at the same time daring to suggest that “the design of Allah needs to be studied further”. He discusses the great tradition of Arabic literature from a thousand years ago, which later found echoes in the works of many European masters. And he throws in parables about the legendary figure of Mulla Nasruddin, perpetually astride his donkey, “a genuine international folk hero...the classic Fool, who poked fun at royalty and pomp and protocol, who attacked mindless ritual and orthodoxy and everything that stifled the spirit of man”.
“I don’t think these aspects of Islam are in danger of being lost,” he says, “They exist in Turkey, on the Arab streets, but they don’t exist with the leadership, and they get misconstrued as being Islamist.” Is it difficult to be both a Muslim and a rationalist in today’s world? “It does become an issue at times, but I’ve been fortunate,” he says. “My mother took all my anti-religious talk with incredible equanimity. Liberals tend to scoff at spiritual-minded people, but I wonder if I would have been as tolerant if the situation were reversed!” Smiling, he recalls an incident from when he was just 10 years old. “My father and brother were climbing up the steps of a mosque and I suddenly decided that I didn’t want to pray. So I called out and told my father that I had stopped believing in God.” His father’s response was to look back for a moment and say, “Okay, but stay there until we return, don’t go near the road, there’s traffic about.”
Mirza is best known for his work in films: he was a major figure in what was known as the parallel-cinema movement in the 1970s and 1980s, the writer-director of movies like Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and the co-director of the popular TV serial Nukkad. He’s starting work on a new feature next week, after a hiatus of more than a decade. “It’s time to get back to work,” he jokes, “I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years traveling – within India, in particular, learning about how different people live and think.” Some anecdotes from these travels have made it to the book, such as the ones about “the laughing, unpaid tea-garden workers”, “the young poet of the high mountains”, and the truck drivers who put a huge painting from the Sohni-Mahiwal story on the back of their vehicle, because “nowadays no one has time for true love. So much tension! How to earn money! How to get a job! So much fighting about religion! Since we have to travel around the country, we thought why not spread this message?”
“When you travel for 45,000 km on the smaller roads of this country, avoiding the highways,” says Mirza thoughtfully, “you realise how utterly insignificant you are, how foolish your arrogance is, how little you know of the world. In a sense this book is also my private apology to some figures from my past – like my Hindi teacher Sharmaji, whom we used to make fun of, even as he told us it was tragic that we knew nothing about the work of Premchand and other great Indian writers. Those of us who are more educated, and educated in a certain way, think we are philosophically superior to others – we don’t give enough consideration to someone who has come from a different background.” It’s clear that even at the age of 64, he’s eager to keep expanding his horizons, to escape the frog’s eye view.
P.S. The book's cover design has been done by the very talented Moonis Ijlal - here's an earlier post on his work.