Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie shows that religious and ethnic intolerances, such as what we are facing in Nigeria today, brings about nothing but destructions which led to the formation of Pakistan from India.
Have you ever caught yourself telling a lie to protect your loved ones from the truth, a truth that might be detrimental to them? Almost everyone has found himself in such predicament before but the problem has always been that after that first lie, you are left with the burden of concocting other lies to justify the first one and you end up moving from one lie to another! This, unfortunately, is the plight of Bilal (a young thirteen years old boy), who takes up the burden of hiding the truth about the disintegration of India from a patriotic father constrained to a sick bed and patiently awaiting death as a result of cancer and a stroke which left him physically incapacitated.
Sixty years after, Bilal, now a Chief Judge, returns to his place of birth (Market Town, a fictional name for Bengal perhaps) to tell his story to the people of the Market Town; it is a story which left many dumbfounded and sad after its telling.
Bilal who lost his mother at the age of eight is now about to also lose his father at the age of thirteen but these are not the only things he would lose, he would lose a brother, friends, and the place he had come to cherish and call home.
It is 1947 and things are changing rapidly, people are being divided along religious lines. For a small market town which had experienced much sameness in their pattern of existence in the past, these changes bother the young and sensitive Bilal. India was formerly dominated by both Muslims and Hindus who formerly acted as one till religious intolerance brought violence and then the drift of the Hindus towards India while Muslims moved towards Pakistan–over one million lives were lost in this violence and drift.
The changes are not just on the outside for within his household, Bilal is slowly losing the man he loves the most to the cold jaws of death, his bahpuji (father). Bilal’s father (Mr Gulam) is a notable patriot who has contributed in no small measure to the development of his community, in one way or the other he has reached out to everyone living in his community and affected their lives positively. For Mr Singh, he had persuaded the town council to offer him a loan for the purchase of the first and only printing machine in the community, he had also supported Mr Mukherjee in the establishment of his school. His love for India is unquantifiable and he would love nothing more than to see a united India. But this is not to be as religious violence began threatening the chord of unity and large scale violence is about to be launched.
Considering the fact that his father has just about two months to live, Bilal concludes that news of India disintegration would hurt his father very badly and might hasten his death so he took it upon himself to ensure that his father dies a “beautiful death;” by not knowing the truth, dying with the knowledge of a united India as he had always envisaged. This would prove a daunting task for although the father is bedridden, he is such a popular person that everyone wants to visit him. How was Bilal to ensure that no one visits his father and even if they did, news of India’s disintegration must never filter into his ears from them?
Bilal resolves to discuss his idea with his three close friends and classmates, Saleem, Manjeet, and Chota, who decide to assist him in ensuring that no one visits Bapuji. Worthy of note is the fact that Saleem and Bilal were born into Muslim homes while Manjeet and Chota are from Hindu families yet the four friends seem to get on well! Yes, on Bilal’s plan to ensure no one gets assess to Bapuji, Chota agrees to skip school (he never liked school anyway) and watch over the house for any intruder approaching the place; he would use a vantage point where he can see anyone coming towards the house from the streets, the roof. Chota is to signal Bilal in the school’s classroom if he notices anybody coming towards Bilal’s house while the other friends were to cause distraction in order to allow Bilal leave the classroom without being spotted by the teacher, Mr. Mukherjee. This plan went on smoothly but not for too long.
Mr. Mukherjee began suspecting a foul play and meets the boys who confessed the plan to him and this makes him feel sad. Before then the village doctor had also come to discover the plan, including the three holies, Imam, Pastor, and Hindu priest, who are friends and are often found moving and visiting various families together. Soon, what the boys were trying to do became an open secret in the town and their endeavour brought tears to the eyes of many. The boys went as far as printing a fake newspaper edition with tales of a united India in order to make Bapuji assume all is well when he insists on reading a newspaper so he can be kept abreast of the situation of things outside his home.
However, the violence continues to escalate and Bilal’s bhai (elder brother whose name is Rafeeq) being a Muslim fanatic and who had abandoned home a long time before over arguments with the father joins in perpetrating the violence. For this, Bilal becomes a target for Hindu families who claim Bilal’s brother has a hand in the death of their sons. On one occasion, he is almost burnt alive but for the intervention of Manjeet who intervenes and stops the murder attempt even though he would no longer be friends with Bilal due to the differences in their religious backgrounds. Saleem’s family would also move out of the town because their lives are at risk being Muslims. Against his brother’s wish, Bilal refuses to move out of his home with the sick father, he is determined to protect his father from the truth till the very end.
Bilal’s father dies on the wake of India’s independence and the separation between India and Pakistan while killings continue on both sides of the divide. Few minutes after Bapuji’s demise, the Hindus come to Bilal’s home and set it ablaze burning all of his father’s books with Bilal inside the room cuddling the corpse of his dead father. Bilal feels he has achieved his aim, his father dies not knowing of India’s disintegration and the large scale violence which attended it, he felt fulfilled and prepares to be burnt to death alongside his already dead father till Bhai rushed in and forced him out of the fire.
Bilal would never see his brother again after that night and for sixty years he would carry the guilt of that lie even though there was the satiation of his father dying as he (Bilal) wished it to be. Bilal returns to the town sixty years after, following an invitation by the Market Town Committee to come tell his story in a gathering of the town populace and after telling his story to the town populace, he meets a familiar face, Gulam, who turns out to be the town’s doctor and Bapuji’s personal physician grandson. The boy hands him an old letter that he found among his late grandfather possessions. The letter is from Bapuji praising him for being a good son and telling him that he came to know about India’s disintegration from the old doctor:
“Bilal, you are my India. You are my dream. What you have done, the gift you have given me is branded to my heart. When you receive this letter, please realise that when I found out, I cried, not in misery but in joy knowing I had a son like you. I beg you not to blame Doctorji for telling me. The righteous old fool felt he had no choice. I know that you of all people know how that feels.” (288)
Such a sad tale right? Yes it is and I felt bad after reading it too. That humans could unleash that much violence on each other all in the name of religion is appalling! It is not just an Indian thing, it is happening everywhere in the world till this very hour. Think of the recent Myanmar and Rohingya Muslim crises, think of Isis and Boko Haram in Nigeria, everywhere are people killing each other all in the name of religion! And no one seems to care that religion is just a brand to label our person but that we are first of all humans before being called Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or a practitioner of Judaism. This is what Bilal tries to make his Hindu friend Manjeet understand when Manjeet tells him that they can no longer be friends:
‘Bilal, I won’t be able to see you any more. My family think…that Muslims…’
I felt anger flare up inside me.
‘What about you Manjeet? What do you think? You know me. I am not Muslims. I am Bilal.Just Bilal.’
Clenching his fists, Manjeet set his jaw. ‘It’s not that, I–‘
‘What is it then? What is the difference between you and me?’
‘It’s all changed, like you said it was changing. We shook our heads and laughed at you back then but it has changed. You tell me what the difference is. My family tell me I should join the struggle, I should take a kirpan and…that I should burn people…?’
‘But what do you think? What do you say?’ I asked desperately.
It doesn’t matter what I think!’ shouted Manjeet, his face set in a grim mask.’ Don’t you get it Bilal? You really think there is a choice in any of this? We are just kids. What choice do we have about anything? You think you are in control – and sometimes you might be – but when it matters, when it’s important, Bilal, there is no choice.
‘There is always a choice,’ I whispered. Looking at the storm-flared sky, my heart filled up like a sinking boat, sadness welling up faster than I could ship it out with my cupped hands. ‘You chose to come after me even though you knew it would cause you trouble.’
‘I’ll always be your friend,’ replied Manjeet in a low voice. ‘We just can’t be friends. I’m sorry. I have to go.’
Looking directly at me, Manjeet backed away towards the opening. I watched as the orange turban I knew so well flickered and disappeared from view and drifted out of my life. (248-250)
This scene also shows the devastating effect of losing friends who have been like brothers over religious differences. Little boys are forced into enmity and become predators seeking to cause injury and burn each other down! Quite sad!
Considering the history of India, especially the fact that they won their freedom through Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance (Satyagraha) against the British imperialist, it is quite ironical that after using a peaceful approach to defeat colonialism, they had to turn upon themselves and resolve that the best way for “brothers” of different religious inclination to resolve issues could only be through violence! It is just too sad. Also sad to note is the fact that such religious violence and intolerance continues today in our modern societies.
Now, let us consider the novel’s formalistic aspects. The idea of using flashback narrative technique is well appreciated, for even though the flashback did not strike me too well at the beginning, I came to appreciate its therapeutic effect at the end and it offered the story a much needed happy ending.
The use of the first person narrative point of view and the constant probe into the narrator’s (Bilal) mind allows much familiarisation between the narrator and the readers so we feel a part of the story and can even feel Bilal’s pain and fears. The speech pattern of young children is also well captured with the use of simple sentences and ellipsis (children think more than they say).
Lastly, I noticed how the author employed symbolism to buttress his facts and they align very well with the story if I must say. Poignant among these metaphorical symbols is that of the dying father which relates closely with a disintegrating India, most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Bapuji dies at the early hours of the 14th of August 1947, same day the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was declared. Bapuji therefore becomes a symbol of the old united India, his sickness is the religious violence eating it up and his death is the death of a united India. Notable also is the symbol of the Banyan tree which is also India’s national tree, the tree had been a gathering point for the old market, its strength comes from its intricate lacing, when Bilal visits this tree, it was broken somewhere which is perhaps a symbol of the fate that was to befall the old India, the emergence of Pakistan. These symbols are cleverly woven into the story and can be easily noticed by a clever observer cum reader.
Irfan Master has written a good historical novel by weaving a story out of the yarn of history and he has done well in representing the devastation, horror and destruction that accompanies religious intolerance. Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie is a novel about the close affinity between love and lies, it is a novel about childhood and nostalgia, it is a novel about religious violence and it is a novel about India and the emergence of Pakistan. Yet, it is a novel about humans and their beastly and irrational manners anchored on religious disparities. It is a novel about you and I, it is a novel all of humanity need to learn from and understand that there is no culture older than that of being human for we are first humans before all else follows.
Now say, have you ever told a lie to protect your loved ones from the truth? What was that lie? Do you mind telling us about it?
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018
Read Eazy’s review every Saturdays on Memorila.com