In a candid chat with Mirror on Saturday, Abbas, 44, said he could still forgive the naivety of the girl, but was aghast at the war waged on liberal Urdu writers in the days after a first information report was lodged against him in 2005.
“For months, fundamentalist and Urdu newspapers in Mumbai pursued a fervid campaign against my novel and me for being bold and questioning the existence of religion and god through my writing in general,“ recalled Abbas, who is among the writers who returned the Sahitya Akademi Award to protest a perceived intolerance of divergent views under the current BJP regime.
Other than the charge slapped on him under IPC section 292, what was more humiliating for Abbas was that the south Mumbai institute where he taught Urdu, Anjuman-I-Islam’s Allana Junior College, sacked him, buckling to “fundamentalists“ who pressured the management to boot him out for “disrespecting Islam’s teaching“.
“They had stooped to a new low when they did this, attacked my livelihood. But this is a writer’s journey and if there’s one thing I have learnt it is not to take things lying down,“ he said.
Abbas, ironically, was never the primary target of her complaint. He just happened to be caught in the crossfire between a conservative young Muslim girl and her liberal Urdu professor, Kalim Zia.
Zia, head of the department in a college in Jogeshwari where the teenager studied, gave her a copy of Nakhalistan Ki Talash. But she found a portion objectionable and, on March 17, 2005, lodged a complainant against Zia. Abbas was arrested months later, on June 28, when cops came knocking at his door at 5.45 in the morning. Abbas spent a night in Arthur Road jail before he got bail the next day. The publisher, Khazana Publications, was also booked.
Criticising Urdu media and certain sections of his community for their rigid opposition to liberalism, Abbas said, “It’s extremely difficult to survive as an Urdu writer, as opposed to being an English novelist. Urdu media is very orthodox because of the type of people at the helm. They promote religious fanaticism, enforce extreme ideologies and have brought the decline of liberalism in Urdu.“
In stark contrast is Urdu literature, which has been extremely liberal, he says. “It has always promoted freedom of expression, secularism, and a questioning spirit. Urdu writers are still fighting for their place. But the good thing is, we have the capacity to protect our cause today,“ said the novelist who has written a total of six books, four of them novels.
He currently works with a think-tank called Strategic Foresight Group.
Set in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition, Abbas’s novel Nakhlistan Ki Talash is about a young educated Muslim, Jamal, who finds his cultural identity blurring during the rise of hate-filled right-wing politics at the turn of the century, which leads him to join a militant organisation in Kashmir.
His increasing alienation in a post-1992 Mumbai propels him to define a new identity for himself in a historic context, which ultimately leads to his mysterious, tragic end.
The paragraphs thought to be “objectionable“ are about Jamal imagining all the good times in his life as his end nears; most of these are memories of his girlfriend and their love-making. Another “offensive“ bit is a conversation between the two lovers.