Writing fanaticism

Reading Stephenie Hendricks’s Divine Destruction recently, I was amazed to discover that the disregard my mother always showed for the environment (“it doesn’t matter; Jesus is coming back any day”) has been codified in certain branches of fundamentalist Christianity as a divine imperative not unlike “Manifest Destiny.”

That’s one thing about fanaticism, though: it never stops mutating. And no religion — not Christianity, not Judaism, not the West’s favorite scapegoat, Islam — has a monopoly on it.

In his nonfiction Husband of a Fanatic, Amitava Kumar, an Indian Hindu writer married to a Pakistani Muslim woman, expresses frustration not only with the hatreds that divide South Asia but with the inadequacy of the writer to explore them in any meaningful way. For the writer, “[a]ll the truth and pity of the world, instead of finding its way to a larger politics, gets reduced to a personal soap opera of the self,” he says.

In the prologue (reproduced here), Kumar describes visiting a man who’s called him a haraami (bastard) and a kutta (dog), and a traitor to his country. The man’s home sits “in a locality where Indian and Pakistani immigrants live together.”

Elmhurst is said to be the most diverse zip-code area in the whole of the United States. When I asked Mr. Barotia about his experience of living in this part of the city, he looked at the Muslims milling around us, the men with beards and caps, women with headscarves, and he spat out abuse. They harass our women, he said, and there is a lot of tension here. Then, suddenly, he began to talk of my wife, whom he has never met. We were passing in front of the Indian grocery and jewelry stores, and Mr. Barotia turned to me and said, “It is okay. You fuck her. And you tell everyone that she is Muslim, and that you keep fucking her! And through her, you keep fucking Islam!”

“What did you do when he said that?” This is what Mona, my wife, asked me when she heard the story. I had called her from a public phone near Mr. Barotia’s apartment. Above me was a large sign with black letters painted on a white board, Learn English, Aprenda Inglés. There was a pause before I replied to the question. I told Mona that I had done nothing. Wordlessly, I had kept walking beside Mr. Barotia. It would have been more accurate to say that I had made a mental note of what he had said. I said to myself that I needed to write down his words in my notebook as soon as I was back on the train. And that is what I did. Sitting in the train, with three men on the seat opposite me, all of them wearing identical yellow jerseys and holding aluminum crutches against their knees, I took down notes about what Mr. Barotia had said during our walk back from lunch. The strange thing is, although perhaps it is not strange at all, that later Mr. Barotia’s words crossed my mind, just when my wife and I had finished having breakfast in our kitchen and there, next to the sink with the empty bowls of cereal, I had begun to kiss her.


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