Life and longing of a Mappila poet: On Ajmal Khan’s The Mappila Verses

Zeeshan Husain,

The story of India for the past three decades has been stuck somewhere between poverty and religious fanaticism. There is, on a large scale, the belief that India must go back in time and establish a theocratic state; a state to be run on the principles of Brahminic Hinduism. All these things took an overt face in 2014. There is a sudden surge of sentiments over social media against the rights of women, Dalits, tribes, backward classes and poor people. All these are covered up by spreading hatred against religious minorities (Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists) in general and Muslims in particular.

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Ajmal Khan AT’s The Mappila Verses (2020) is a depiction of this grim picture as lived by him in mundane life. This slim volume is rooted in the lived experiences of a Malayali Muslim social sciences researcher who is also a poet. This collection of poems is not an exercise in mourning but a call for struggle against oppression and a fight for social justice. Belonging to underprivileged caste and class, Ajmal is a young scholar from Kerala, who has struggled his long way from the hinterland of Malabar to India’s financial capital Mumbai. Seasoned in anti-caste and anti-class politics, Ajmal finds that both the struggles fail to get the nuances of how Islamophobia affects Muslims of India. What I found the most startling aspect of the book from the literary point of view is its inclusion of a Mala poem written in English – Mala poems are exclusively written in the Malayali language. Ajmal AT makes it clear that he is not only a sophisticated social scientist and firm activist but also a kind-hearted sensitive poet. Three major points make The Mappila Verses stand out from the usual corpus of works of English poetry, from the framework of socio-political realities.

First and foremost, The Mappila Verses is a deeply political project. Muslim identity is observed, experienced and re-constituted at multiple levels. If one finds Ajmal submerging himself amidst nature (‘Writing’; untitled p. 52), one also sees him raising slogans at ‘Shaheen Bagh’. If one finds Ajmal struggling in his taxi ride in Mumbai (‘My Ride to Bandra’), one also sees him getting unusually frisked at New York airport (‘Emigration Counter after 9/11’). Since the marginalisation of Muslims is multi-sited, the formation of Muslim as an identity also has many foci. No doubt, we all have multiple identities but at a particular historical juncture, all identities are submerged by the dominant power structures and we are labelled as a single monolithic identity. Flipping through the pages of Mappila Verses, one is reminded of the historian Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s Poetry of Belonging. Like Mahmudabad, Ajmal also locates Muslim identity across time and space. Identities are not a noun, but a verb; always forming, changing, altering and even inverting. Ajmal is a lover somewhere (‘Love’), researcher somewhere (‘Writing’), commuter somewhere else (‘Peace be Upon you in Delhi Metro’), and merely a Malayali villager somewhere (‘Where do We Go?’). All these are together weaved in a poetic manner, and this weaving critiques the dominant understanding of Muslim as a homogeneous category. When Ajmal asserts that he is ‘not your Mia’, he is actually affirming against the Saidian Orientalist image of Muslims and now carried forward not only by the Hindu right but also by various progressive-secular forces. Poems like ‘Native Son and Motherland’, ‘Termites’ and Do you ask Identity cards to Birds?’ tell us how identity has been reduced to a physical space, and people not conforming to that identity are considered as foreigners. It is here that I see Ajmal dialoguing with Irfan Ahmad’s essay Islamophobia, Domophilia and Liberalism. Like Ahmad, Ajmal is also asserting his rootedness; he is talking back in a universal language of humanity. Such an approach can be seen in the work of Suryakant Waghmore’s Civility against Caste where the Dalits are not depicted as victims but as harbingers of ethically just social order which would include all and exclude none.

This brings us to the second argument which The Mappila Verses puts forward. This slim volume is also a critique of the Western liberal understanding of Islam and Muslims. Through lyrical verses like ‘Portrait of a Bastard’, ‘Write me Down, I am a Mappila’, ‘Biriyani’, and many others, Ajmal elaborates the epistemological basis of growing Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not a political position, it is deeply epistemological. It is here that I found The Mappila Verses in synchrony with the work Religion as Critique by sociologist Irfan Ahmad. Islam (like Buddhism) is not a set of orthodox traditions but a body of knowledge, an epistemological tradition, and a space for critical thinking. Religion, as conceptualised by Western liberal tradition merely put ‘all religions are bad’ rhetoric robbed of its historical context. ‘Our House Hunt’ is the poem that tells us how self-claimed liberals are deeply illiberal, a point made by Ahmad as well. I was reminded of an incident where one of my Muslim seniors was denied a house for rent by a Brahmin physician in Mumbai. Or I can even speak of my own experience as a student in Kolkata where I found that few scholars worked nefariously so that the subalterns could not get the opportunity to speak. “You don’t look like a Muslim” somebody had asked Ajmal, and me too! In my case, it was from a person belonging to a dominant caste! I wonder if Ajmal too faces Islamophobic gestures in his habitus under the garb of ‘friendly jokes’. That one experiences Islamophobia among such elite left-liberal-postcolonial spaces, tells us how deep the rot is. Ajmal portrays the grim picture but the tone is not despair. His pen is dripping blood, and this blood has universal appeal.

The Mappila Verses is written in English but the heart of the poet is firmly grounded in Kerala. The poet desires to reach the audience at the national and international stages. There are poems alluding to the struggle of Dalits, Adivasis/ indigenous peoples, Blacks, and women all over the world. Ajmal takes inspirations from such luminaries as BR Ambedkar, Birsa Munda, James Baldwin, Milan Kundera and Mahmoud Dervish, and events like Bhima Koregaon, the Black Lives Matter movement and Shaheen Bagh. It is a matter of pride for us that the Constitution of India, whom Ajmal calls ‘soul of this land’, has been drafted by BR Ambedkar who was Dalit by birth and Buddhist by faith. In the collection, ‘Shaheen Bagh’ informs us how strongly Muslim women are taking leadership roles in the building of India in the 21st century. Ajmal is equally sympathetic to the plight of Hindu women who are slowly losing their legal rights to marry outside their religion. India of the 21st century is seeing an increasing attack on the fundamental rights of (Hindu) women where even a Brahmin woman gets ostracized by her family for marrying a non-Brahmin. It is this universal appeal to social justice that makes The Mappila Verses an outstanding contribution to the present corpus of Modern Indian English poetry.

The author has done BSc (AMU), MSW (TISS) and MPhil (CSSSC). Presently he is a PhD Sociology candidate.