Author Zafar Anjum, with his new book ‘Kafka in Ayodhya and other short stories’, alludes to the bizarre nature of what is already a convoluted court case – the Babri Masjid dispute. This interview explores Frank Kafka’s fictional visit to Ayodhya, the writer’s own take on the controversy, and his future projects
Speculations would abound if thinkers, philosophers, authors and poets of the yesteryear were introduced to modern settings; more so if it were riddled with conflicts and controversies. Would they actively intervene to alter the course, or keenly watch only to pen down their thoughts? Would it be a passing mention in a memoir or make its way to the heart of a new book?
Ram Mandir, Ram Jamnabhoomi or Babri Masjid – the words you choose to address this conflict has little impact on what is undoubtedly one of the longest and emotionally draining controversies of India. Now a protracted court case with more politics affixed than religion, the issue surrounds a historical mosque in Ayodhya that was allegedly built over the birthplace of Lord Ram – a Hindu God.
With no end to the conflict in sight, one author has found a way to exacerbate the bizarre nature of the issue; albeit not with a sword that many have brandished, but with pen. Franz Kafka is made to visit Ayodhya.
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based novelist and the author of several books and published essays, most notably, Startup Capitals : Discovering the Global Hotspots of Innovation, Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician, and The Resurgence of Satyam. A former journalist with popular titles such as the Hindustan Times, Times of India, and Tehelka; he started his writing journey in 2002 when one of his short stories (The Rats) won him an invitation to the Conference of New South Asian Creative and Academic Writers in Sri Lanka.
His latest book is Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories published by Kitaab that he helped found to promote Asian writing in English. In this interview, Zafar speaks about the purpose behind bringing Kafka to Ayodhya in latest book; his personal views on the infamous Babri Masjid case; and his journey in writing.
AG – Why did you choose Franz Kafka as Ayodhya’s guest? According to you, what are some of the Kafkaesque elements within Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid issue that make his presence unmistakable?
Zafar – The labyrinthine court case that the Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi matter has been is obvious to anyone who is aware of its history and background. Given the nature of bureaucracy and justice system in India, even to imagine pursuing justice in this matter seemed ‘Kafkaesque’ to me. This was clearly a case of politicisation of religion. I wanted to introduce Kafka to such an India, and through him I wanted to bring out this bizarre aspect of contemporary India.
AG – Is there an underlying theme in all the short stories in your new book? What emotions do you seek to evoke through them?
once you start writing a story, it takes a life of its own and that’s the fun of writing
Zafar – I recently read a report on Abdullah Hussain, one of Urdu’s greatest fiction writers. He was quoted as saying: “What I have learnt from life is that everything is random, nothing happens for any reason, and this is how we should take it”. The same is true of the stories in this collection. Unlike my earlier collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue, which had a theme and a central character, this one is a random collection of my stories. They are without an underlying theme, but most of them are metafictional pieces and you can see political comments hidden in some of them. One of the stories, E.D., is about the act of writing as well of rioting—it was written as a reaction to the Gujarat riots that occurred during Narendra Modi’s watch when he was the Chief Minister of that state. The Thousand Yard Stare is about the life of children in Palestine under occupation.
This collection also contains one of my most favourite stories, The Rats. It was one of the first few stories I ever wrote and this story took me to Sri Lanka for the Conference of New South Asian Creative and Academic Writers.
I don’t find myself reading much of fiction and I don’t enjoy reading what most others are writing these days. When I feel sad, I go back to my Kafka, Manto, Chekhov, Carver and Marquez. There are none who are better than them.
AG – How does your expat status play out when you write stories on topics revolving around India?
Zafar – I have been living in Singapore for more than a decade now. When I came to Singapore, I carried India and the stories that were within me to this land. As I spent a few years in Singapore, I became privy to a different kind of life. You start living in a new place, you forge new relationships and a new life grows on you. You can see that transition in my stories in The Singapore Decalogue. However, in the last few years, I have mostly done non-fiction, and the demands of earning a keep and the tumultuous events in the world have dampened my enthusiasm for fiction. I don’t find myself reading much of it and I don’t enjoy reading what most others are writing these days. When I feel sad, I go back to my Kafka, Manto, Chekhov, Carver and Marquez. There are none who are better than them.
AG – Are any of the stories in the book inspired by personal incidences?
Zafar – Some of the stories in this collection are rooted in personal experiences, or at least, triggered off by personal experiences. But then once you start writing a story, it takes a life of its own and that’s the fun of writing. All the stories in this collection came alive in that way. They took me on a ride of discovery.
AG – Are there more books lined up for the near future? If yes, can you tell us a little about them?
Zafar – I have been working on a novel for a long time, and the manuscript has been gathering dust for a while. Maybe I would like to give it one final push. There could be a collection of essays too. Then, there are plans for a non-fiction book. I am also working on a play based on the life of Allama Iqbal. Let’s see how it all goes. More than my own books, I am now excited about the authors I am publishing under Kitaab.
AG – If one of Kafka’s contemporaries visited Ayodhya today, which of them would be most deeply affected by the chain of events that would translate into words?
Zafar – I can think of only Albert Camus, though he was not a contemporary. He was a generation younger than Kafka. But I guess, being a journalist and writer, Camus would have captured the absurdities of India very well—a beautiful country undone by the greed of its political class.