Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love and Hate
Reviewed by Salil Tripathi

A bus journey in the Indian subcontinent across mountainous terrain can be hazardous even in good weather and at the best of times. But a bus leaving Srinagar in early April was embarking on a particularly dangerous route. It was to reach Muzaffarabad by crossing over the line of control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The two nations have fought three official (and one unofficial) wars since their independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, and Kashmir is a potential nuclear flashpoint.

The bus journey could ultimately prove as significant as the first blows struck on the Berlin Wall, coming on top of cultural exchanges and a tour of India by Pakistan’s cricket team. The wall between India and Pakistan hasn’t tumbled down and is unlikely to do so immediately, but the ride was meant to achieve something concrete: allow the people of the estranged neighbors to meet one another.

It was no surprise, then, that despite the high-security precautions, extremists set out to bomb the guest house where passengers stayed. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the bus continued its journey the following morning.

The violence was consistent with the fanatics’ tactics over the past six decades. They want to emphasize, again, the differences between Indians and Pakistanis. War-mongering has its uses. It has allowed both countries to push aside more pressing development concerns by keeping their defense budgets sacrosanct. And it has given a platform to jingoists on both sides, so that they can vilify the pacifists.

The strategy works through a perverse masterstroke: both governments have made nonofficial ties between the countries almost impossible to establish. Pakistan is more adamant about this, but India’s record is only marginally better. It is difficult to trade, travel, or communicate across the border. Most Indians, if they meet a Pakistani at all, do so abroad, as students at a foreign campus, or as professional colleagues in a multinational company, or as co-workers in backbreaking jobs in the Persian Gulf.

Early in this remarkable book, Amitava Kumar, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, writes about a female Pakistani acquaintance in New York called Shabnam, who wants a visa to visit friends in India. The Indian officials want incredibly detailed information about the districts she would visit and the local contacts she would meet. Exasperated, she tells Mr. Kumar: “These people have found a strategy. If you stop friends from visiting, you also keep folks hating each other.”

Mr. Kumar happened to fall in love with an academic named Mona Ali a few years ago. He was a Hindu from India, she a Muslim from Pakistan, and they met the only way it was possible—abroad. Even as their relationship progressed on a pleasant trajectory, relations between their two countries’ governments worsened. A weak civilian government in Pakistan was trying to shore up its credibility by aiding the decade-old insurgency in Kashmir. After several years of weak coalitions in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party cobbled together a credible alliance, and promptly exploded nuclear bombs. Pakistan returned the favor a few weeks later. In 1999, the two countries fought what almost became a full-scale war in Kargil.

And all this time, Mr. Kumar, a secular Indian liberal, was irrevocably in love with Ms. Ali. The Kargil War didn’t stop their marriage. Nor did their families. However, Mr. Kumar went along with a charade of a religious conversion, adopting the name Safdar, because he was told had he not converted, their marriage would not have been deemed legal in Pakistan. In an honest and moving rendering of the thoughts that crossed his mind, Mr. Kumar confesses his ambivalence about his conversion, aware what a big deal it would be for his parents. They correctly told Mr. Kumar that they would not have expected Ms. Ali to convert to Hinduism, but his mother also told him that now he had no right to criticize Hindus.

Mr. Kumar wants to understand why his conversion, which he describes as insincere and fake, is such a big issue—not only for his mother, but also for hundreds of Hindu nationalists from the Indian diaspora. He steps out of his ivory tower, and meets the paper tigers in their dens. He meets a foul-mouthed nationalist in New York’s Jackson Heights, and a bigoted scientist at a university in New Jersey, both united in their hatred of Muslims. One of them even placed Mr. Kumar’s name on a hate-list posted on the Internet.

And as Mr. Kumar embarks on this remarkable journey—among long-distance nationalists, victims of senseless carnage, fundamentalists and liberals, as well as the brave men and women who try to bridge the gap between the communities by following their heart—he creates a vivid portrait of the volatile region. He paints haunting images of relatives standing on rooftops, trying to see weddings of families across the border; of blood relatives unable to attend funerals; of school children parroting prejudice unthinkingly; of war widows unable to rise above their grief for a peaceful tomorrow.

In so doing, he raises uncomfortable questions about Pakistan’s contrived religiosity, India’s perceived secular identity and the inherent vacuity of Hindu nationalism. He also examines the failure of India’s leftist and secular forces to capture the religious idiom—a skill which Mohandas Gandhi, India’s founding father, perfected.

In the end, he returns to the white line, the border:

The ideology of nationalism is an ideology of difference, a return to roots, a vision of wholeness. That’s why so many visitors to [that border] seem to take comfort in a white line painted on the ground. The line assures the viewer that the border exists, clearly defined and zealously protected.

While some Indians and Pakistanis draw comfort from that line, Mr. Kumar grieves for those kept apart. But he does not adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. After talking to young Hindu nationalists who meet near his parents’ home, he notes with humility:

It is impossible for me to dismiss the youth … even though I see them as my enemies. I am not about to sympathize with their beliefs, but it will be stupid of me to laugh at them, because those youth are as modern as I am. We are both products of the same forces. I left my small town and went abroad. I learned to speak the language of the world. They caught hold of the idea of nationalism and of citizenship—powerful, modern ideas—and they are now using them in a narrow way for their own ends in the small space left open to them. The market … has come to them with the mantra of sameness. The youth have accepted that, too. They believe in homogeneity and are going to erase, they believe, all signs of difference from their land. It is frightening and wrong, but it is as real and as contemporary as that which has made me who I am.

It is only when they cross the border—as traders, tourists or cricket fans—that the two peoples will be able to overcome its limits. Love, too, may follow.