Book Review: Pigeons of the Dome: Stories on Communalism by Rakhshanda Jalil

Why Communalism?

Rakshanda Jalil’s latest book, ‘Pigeons of the Dome: Stories on Communalism’ instantly catches the reader’s attention as its very title makes the reader think, Why Communalism? What more can be said about the topic that has not been told already? As if anticipating the questions, the editor writes in the ‘Introduction’ to the book, “secularism cannot be understood without understanding communalismto study one you have to study the other” for they are “conjoined twins”. However, what makes this anthology more unique is,

it’s not a mere attempt to chronicle the incidences of violence against one community by the other or the search for “unlikely heroes and heroines” but an attempt to understand the very “anatomy of a communal riot”; “the reasons for the continuing communal clashes and the fault lines that mar the surface of day to day life.

Presciently selecting the nineteen stories for the anthology, Rakhshanda Jalil picks up the threads of communal violence where Manto, Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, Yashpal left off. Tracing the fracture lines in the post-partition era, the first story in the anthology ‘Fear’ deals with the fear and paranoia that grips the community in the aftermath of the riot, “There was no trace of fear on his face. He was definitely a Hindu; this was Yaseen’s first reaction…” Gulzar brings forth the irrationality of violence, the sheer indifference towards fellow human beings when fear spreads its tentacles, “Screaming ‘Ya Ali…!’, he grabbed the man’s legs and threw him off the train. As he fell from the train, he heard the man scream, ‘Allah…!’…That night, he told Fatima, ‘If I had not done what I did, what proof did I have of being a Muslim? I wouldn’t have got naked!’

The irony and mindlessness behind the occurrence of riots

Even the absence of violence and the presence of mere signs can give way to fear and panic as happens in Abdus Samad’s ‘The One with the Signs’ due to the suspicion and mistrust that goes back to decades, if not centuries. Chhatari’s ‘The Line’ portrays how misgivings rapidly deteriorate into violence and how madness gets unleashed, the stone meant for Krishan Bhagwan hurts Hameed and bloodlust takes over both sides. This story is in a way a continuation of Gulzar’s ‘Fear’, “…when the mob is in a frenzy, they do not stop to ask names. Their thirst is quenched with blood or fire alone. Burn them, kill them. Finish them off. Their anger is subsided only when nothing is left.” The stone meant for Hindu God kills a Muslim (who is playing a Hindu God) and that too, by the very Hindus who are fighting to avenge the same God who was hurt by Muslims. The irony and mindlessness of religious passion will not be lost after the reading of this particular story.

Are wolves and rogue elephants more secular than humans?

However, wolves and rogue elephants are not as communal as humans are. They are the ones who understand the meaning of secularism, in letter and spirit, “In fact, not just that one – all wolves are secular. They do not kill on account of religious convictions.” The fault lines and the incidents of violence are not restricted to anyone community; every community is a harbinger of violence and in turn, its victim too. Set in 1984, ‘The Wail of the Black Breeze’, a sort of memoir reflects upon the fact that although the rulers and emperors have been assassinated in India since long, this is the first time when the innocent citizens of the nation are being killed to avenge the death of the ruler, “This time in the Black November of 1984, people were being killed openly, out in the streets.”

The reasons behind the beginning of riots

As the editor explains in the ‘Introduction’, this anthology is not merely a chronicle of violence but an endeavour to understand the reason behind the starting of a riot, motivation behind its continuance and the motive for its end. ‘I am a Hindu’ tries to unravel the reasons and motivation behind the occurrence of riots. As usual, a riot starts with a discovery of a parcel of meat inside a mosque which leads to a slaughter of a cow and kicks off a full-fledged riot. The narrator answers a very significant question, “And who is the beneficiary in these riots? Beneficiary? Why, who else but Haji Abdul Karim who is fighting the municipality election and will bag all the Muslim votes. And Pandit Jogeshwar who will mop up all the Hindu votes.” The narrator ponders, will the riots stop if the religious heterogeneity gives way to homogeneity and answers in the negative, “Look at Pakistan – the Shias and Sunnis are forever at each other’s throats!…And in Bihar, the Brahmin shrinks away from the Harijan’s shadow…May be mankind as a species is destined to fight with its own kind…

Hope amidst paranoia and mistrust

At the Zebra Crossing’ illustrates the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley and how their very own country has uprooted them and has turned its back to their suffering, “‘Belong to this country! How? How do I call this country my own? The country which neither gives me security nor sustenance. Does one become a refugee in one’s own country?’” Amidst all the violence and bloodshed, ‘Flowers of Mustard’ comes as a ray of hope. Set in Punjab during the peak of militancy, the narrative infuses the reader with hope and optimism for better days, “From Kandhar to Kurukshetra, so much blood has been shed and so many times too…Yet, mustard flowers as beautiful as ever continue to burst forth from her bosom. Because the earth never changes her nature.’

Joginder Paul’s ‘The Last Lesson’ gives a dark twist to the comic characters, Santa and Banta. No longer, the harmless duo employed to provide comic relief; Paul’s Santa and Banta are guns for hire who have been assigned with the task of killing an entire family of the village headman. Although not able to execute the wish of the gang which is titled as the “God’s wish”, Santa points out, how religion has been perverted, distorted and corrupted by the so-called guardians of religion and “…many gods have put the human race on the wrong path!’”. A parody of war, Ratan Singh’s ‘Another Great War’ brings out the folly and senselessness of war by depicting “a war between two beggars”. As two nations engages in war over a “trivial issue”, these beggars have come to loggerheads over a coin and “Just as nations who are engaged in prolonged battles get poorer and poorer still and the rows of beggars become longer and longer in their cities, the same happened to these beggars. They, too, remained bereft of the largesse of the charitable man.” Although the story does not touch upon the issue of communal violence; the narrator talks about the futility of war which does not profit any party and ends with more squabble and strife.

What happens once the riots end?

In ‘Pigeons of the Dome’ Shaukat Hasan paints a picture of the murkier world left behind in the aftermath of riots; although the riots end, a feeling of anxiety and homelessness lingers. Using the analogy of pigeons, the author talks about the “feelings of homelessness and turbulence” when homes are “barbarically and brutally wrecked and ruined”. The story is not about the violence but what happens once the violence subsides and normalcy begins to return, “People were either in a state of helplessness or a state of happiness – handling it in their own way. But despite these states of mind and oblivion, there was one question bothering everyone, ‘What will happen now? What is going to happen in the future?’” Noor Zaheer’s ‘A Life in Transit’ talks about the deep seated fears and hysteria that has pervaded the psyche of even educated Hindus and Muslims and the ‘otherness’ is not only viewed with suspicion but complete distrust. Although “there is no difference between the yearnings and aspirations of well educated Hindus and Muslims’”, “stereotypes about religion blind them to the common humanity of their neighbour’”. ‘Blank Call’ portrays how the passions simmering under the façade of normalcy suddenly ruptures and “Collective pride, collective obstinacy and collective rage” gives a free rein to brutality and savagery. All it takes is an isolated incident and riots spread like wildfire and abate only when the daily life takes over the religious frenzy.

Will the violence ever end?

Bars’ especially written for the current edition is the most contemporary story and touches upon the present political milieu, “…denigrating Gandhi, extolling Godse, the majority being asked to produce more children, the division of people into legitimate and illegitimate people.” The anthology ends with the most disturbing story, ‘The Vultures of Doongerwadi’ that takes violence and carnage to the absurd end. Due to riots, vultures have disappeared however, once the roads will be cleared of corpses, they will return. However, the story leaves the reader with a disturbing thought, “’So what if the roads clear…will the vultures return…After all, this is India…there is a riot here every day.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 3365 incidents of communal violence took place between 2011 and October, 2015. In this context,

Rakhshanda Jalil’s anthology is a significant attempt in understanding the fracture lines that divides the communities. More than sixty years after the Partition, the suspicion and fear of the ‘other’ refuses to dissipate and all it takes is a single incident to break the façade of peace and harmony.

Through the means of present anthology,

Jalil tries to trace not only the emotions and frenzy that often accompanies the riots but also the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that lies behind the occurrence of these savage acts of violence and this is what makes this anthology truly unique.

A careful placement of the stories from active to passive acts of violence along with smooth translation makes this anthology an interesting read.

Title: Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism

Author: Rakhshanda Jalil

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Genre: Fiction/ Anthology

Pages: 284

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About the Author:

U5hW4URk.jpegRakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has edited three collections of short stories and eight works of translation. Her PhD on the ‘Progressive Writers’ Movement as Reflected in Urdu Literature’ was published as Liking Progress, Loving Change. Her recent books include a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan and a translation of the short stories of Intizar Husain. Her collection of essays on the little-known monuments of Delhi called Invisible City continues to be a bestseller. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Pigeons of the Dome: Stories on Communalism by Rakhshanda Jalil

    • Thank you for liking the review. Although it got a bit too long by the time I finished it. The book is very interesting and at times depressing too. The most amazing thing is it starts off from where the Partition literature leaves

      Liked by 1 person

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