May 16, 2016

On Christians in Fiction: How well do Pakistani authors write about religious minorities?

The irony of Jinnah’s address at the time of subcontinent’s partition hits me every time I read it again, because he made quite a big deal about the fact that religious minorities would have their due rights. In the speech delivered on 11 August, 1947, mere days after the creation of the newly-christened Pakistan, he said, “You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.” Except, not really.
As long as I’ve been alive and able to bear witness to religious discrimination, I’ve been bearing witness to religious discrimination. It happens again and again and again. And again. And if I’m exhausted, from my privileged, safer position of religious majority in this country, of hearing about it, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be to live through it.

Jinnah made quite a big deal about the fact that religious minorities would have their due rights.

The problem is, real-time conversations or any kind of one-on-one dialogue about such tricky, sensitive subjects is almost impossible in a country like Pakistan. People are suspicious, and wary, and rightly so, because there are those who are willing to cut you down for the smallest imagined slight against their religion. The only way i can ever truly understand that position, the only way i can walk in those shoes, is through the only means available to me, and that is fiction.
Stories such as Mohammad Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Bina Shah’s Slum Child do more than just bring minorities into conversation. Even though both books feature a Christian protagonist, their books carry a pervasive us versus them message while at the same time showing how well minorities can be integrated into the very societies that judge, condemn or exclude them. Both books have been written by writers from a religious majority, so in an ideal situation my exposure to fiction about minorities would have been written by someone who was part of the marginal community , but these books set the standard unusually high on their own.

The only way i can ever truly understand that position is through the only means available to me, and that is fiction.

Bina Shah’s protagonist, a young Christian girl living in one of the slums of the city,  goes from belief to anger to a certain kind of peace with herself and her religion throughout the course of the book. Her journey is one of change, one of progress, whereas Hanif’s character arc is dominated more by the plot than by the religion, though it is still mentioned very prominently. Right at the very beginning, one of Hanif’s characters interrupts himself with the sudden desire to point out that not all Christians are sweepers - a belief held by a large majority of the Pakistani community, which has relegated the role of sweepers/maids/helpers to Christians in the country. But he doesn’t say anything because he fears the retort: “But all sweepers are Christians.”
This sort of commentary on the times is a thread that runs through both the books. “A married Muslim nurse is not much better than a single Christian nurse. You just become a slave multiplied by two,” Hanif says, who uses his platform to integrate ideas of religious discrimination with the rampant sexism that runs in Pakistani society. This is something Bina Shah does as well, but her story separates sexism from the religious aspects of it. While she seems to be saying sexism affects all girls everywhere, Hanif is found concentrating on how being a woman is just an added disadvantage over the mistake of being born a Christian in this society.
Both authors take risks, again and again. Bina Shah boldly proclaims It was easy for people to bring up God when they wanted you to feel ashamed of yourself, when they wanted acquiescence or obedience. Hanif takes this a step further, showing both bafflement and a sense of irritation at the religious practices of the majority of the country’s believers. “You Muslas have a prayer for everything,” a character snaps halfway through the book.

Her journey is one of change, one of progress, whereas Hanif’s character arc is dominated more by the plot than by the religion.

Both stories also flirt almost casually with atheism. Feeling exhausted by the hands that life has dealt her, Shah’s protagonist, Leila, declares “I don’t believe in God anymore.” In Hanif’s story, religion is both a saviour and a burden. His characters show resignation; religion is something you just have to put up with: She believes in Him like people believe in the weather; you have no control over it, you just have to deal with it. You can air-condition your house, plant a tree and maybe you’ll be better off. But there are always hurricanes, sand storms and earthquakes that can shatter the most elaborate protective fences.
Shah’s characters also show through their actions how complicated religion can be. In one of her harder moments, Leila contemplates suicide, musing on the morality of taking your own life: Suicide was a sin, as Father Roberts had told us countless times; but perhaps the line between suicide and accident could be blurred. What’s interesting about both these stories is that they blur the lines between those who are Christians and Muslims almost seamlessly in some scenes, while still making sure that the two religious identities stay disparate. When Alice Bhatti, the eponymous heroine of Hanif’s story, claims to know the Kalima, a Muslim character gets depressed. The fact that this Catholic girl who hates all Muslims and most of their Catholic cousins could be reciting the kalima to the almost dead depresses him, Hanif writes.
Both authors also attempt to show how hard life is when you’re a member of a religious minority. Shah’s characters fear all types of administrative authorities, claiming We Christians in the slum knew better than to go to the police for anything. Hanif tackles a more subtle form of discrimination; that of being shunned from a society, of distant whispers and hard looks. She is aware of the fact that different rules apply: some people do not want to drink from the same glass that she has drunk from, others will not take a banana from the same bunch that she has taken a banana from.

Both authors also attempt to show how hard life is when you’re a member of a religious minority.

These books, with their relentless message of the treatment of religious minorities as other, lesser, or worthy of censure is in such stark contrast with Jinnah’s dream that one has to wonder what the father of the nation would say if he saw the country now. Back then, on 11 August he said, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another... We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State.” But that was back then, and this is now, and now times are different. And if fiction is the only way we can begin to have this conversation properly, then more people need to start putting pen to paper, urging this dialogue forward.