‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.


The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it


(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads athttp://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)


Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

Venu @ the window

The basis of the Renaissance movement lay in the ‘discovery’ and absorption of natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy, in the 12th and 13th centuries AD in Italy. Onto this was added, in the 15th and 16th c.AD, the question of the true nature of ‘The Word’, and the relative positions of Church and Man to it. The answer to the question was a cultural efflorescence that dazzled the Western world, shook Abrahamic religions out of a millennial stupor, and culminated in the next phase of human evolution – the industrial revolution. To set a key, central date around which these five centuries swung, seems more self-defeating than an infinity of Sisyphean strivings; and yet, there is a date, after which the impetus for a new learning, a new enlightenment, and a new style of trade, gained critical momentum – 1453 AD, the fall of Constantinople. The rush, indeed a veritable…

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The Two Avataras of Romila Thapar

I was first introduced to Romila Thapar by my father, not long after I had exited my teens. On a weekend trip to Stavanger to do my laundry, he handed over his dog-eared copy of Thapar’s seminal work on Ancient India, along with Percival Spear’s companion volume on the medieval and modern periods. Over the next fortnight, I read both volumes with hardly a pause. I was hooked! When I went home a month later for Easter break, he handed me Basham’s equally magnificent ‘Wonder that was India’. “Read it for balance”, he said, somewhat enigmatically. A delightful lesson which sank in only later in my twenties, but which has stayed with me ever since – a lesson which I now employ to Dr. Thapar’s latest work: “The Past as Present” [Aleph Book Co., 2014].

Verdict: I must say I am woefully depressed.

For the ‘Why?”, we must differentiate between Romila Thapar the historian, and Romila Thapar the Marxist historian.The differentiation is nuanced, but both definite and visceral. In her first avatar, she holds claim to having written the most readable book on Ancient India in the past century; it is objective, the prose is delicious, and she makes no foray into the politics of historiography [the study of historical research]. She tells it as it is, and where sources are inadequate, or interpretations fraught with limitations, she states so – clearly and purposefully. This approach she continued successfully into her next marvel – an analysis of Emperor Ashoka, his life, his edicts, and the decline of the Mauryas. It was a time in her life [1950’s to late 1970’s] when she was doing original research, when the source material took greater prominence over their dissemination by others; meaning, she held to her views with the force of logic, and since she was better than most in constructing cogent arguments, the rest fell by the wayside. She was a detective solving the mysteries of time.

But then, after the 1980’s, she was presented with that most awful of situations –she was forced to choose; but choose what? No great thinker should ever be forced to choose between the truth and her beliefs – it cuts to the bone of everything she stands for. Sadly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a nationalist right in India, she chose ideology over logic. Ever since, fuelled by a deep hatred for the Hindu nationalist cause, she chose to remodel her platform from one of research, to one of countering – in her mind – pernicious ideas that sought to disrobe her land of the fabric draped by the freedom struggle. Sad indeed, for an historian to forget history and place faith over logic.

As time passed, into the new millennium, she grew increasingly tetchy – I can find no other word to convey the tone of her works, churning out work after work countering what she believed was a depraved ideology. And when the Babri Masjid was brought down, it was war. What she didn’t realize was that she had unwittingly become caught up in that very process she had devoted a lifetime to deciphering: change. But we, her devotees, nodded to one another in solemn understanding, and continued to chase her publications hot off the press. “Somanatha”,for example, where she went out of her way to prove that the great Shiva temple of Saurashtra – perhaps the richest of its era – was plundered by the Ghaznavid invaders solely for economic reasons; the religious angle of crushing idolatry,she says, is ill-defined, or incidental at best. Look at how the Hindu Kashmiri kings looted temples in the Valley ‘left-and-right’? Well, one might ask what lapse of sanity forces her to ignore innumerable firmans that demanded transformation from dar-ul-harb to dar-ul-islam? Could it be that she fears a flaring of evil passions if she walks further down this path? Or, holds she fears of modern India to be so intellectually stymied, that we – the unwashed we – will not differentiate between that age and ours, instead rising on these disclosures in a barbaric tide of sectarian violence? Or, worse, had she by this argument of differentiating between economic and religious plunder, slipped into the politician’s trap of ‘big-rape-vs-small-rape’? Can her devotees not then ask what her views on the medieval inquisition in Goa are?

But then, just when we feared the worst, she returned to her roots with “The Past Before Us” [HUP, 2013] – a dense, sweeping tome that sought to survey how ancient Indians presented their own history to themselves. Suddenly, it was the good Doctor at her best again, showing thru page after memorable page, how the very tenets of historical consciousness vary from civilization to civilization. I should have known better – especially when her central thesis appeared to have been structured in counter to that old claim: the Indians have no sense of history. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in her amazingly logical, if maddeningly convoluted arguments, to note their incipient tendentiousness.

And what notes she collected in the course of writing that book, she furthered into a set of essays with a far more simplistic aim, which her ideologue-in-arms David Davidar was only too happy to publish. An aim to show up low-brow over-generalizations, and to prevent these shallow revisionist themes from making their way into text books. Yes, a noble aim indeed, and most necessary,but I am unable to shake the feeling that this is someone else – some left-liberal clique – using Dr. Thapar’s name to make a few points heard. After all, I have struck work since noon today to write this piece, haven’t I?

Can it then be laid at her door that her fury stems from having attempted to perceive the post-independence process in Westphalian terms, and that somewhere, deep down in a corner of that remarkable mind, she knows she may have gone too far? Perhaps, for in the process, it appears that she overlooked a simple fact – nationalist movements cannot be countered by argument; they can only be contained by compromise. And the ultimate irony? Ah, it is that the true counter to the half-baked loony-tunes she attacks with such vigor, in “The Past as Present”, will actually be made by those of us who adopt her logic and reject her ideology. Go figure!