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Book review: Terrorism is funny business in 'Vanity Bagh'

Once upon a time, there was a place called Mangobagh, which was divided into a Hindu neighbourhood called Mehendi and Vanity Bagh, a Muslim area. In Vanity Bagh, there lived five young men who spent most of their days doing nothing. Their names were Imran, Jinnah, Navaz Sharif, Zia, Zulfikar and Yahya. One day, idly, they formed the gang of 5 ½ Men (Yahya being deaf and mute doesn't qualify as a full man, the rest of them reasoned). Then they sat back and abstractly dreamt of being the top dogs of Vanity Bagh.

In case you missed the significance of the 5 ½ Men’s gang members’ names, the blurb for Anees Salim’s novel Vanity Bagh begins with, “Inside every big Indian city, there is a tiny Pakistan.” There must have been a moment when Salim had debated whether one of the 5 ½ men should be named Pervez and, given the results of the recent elections in Pakistan, Salim’s decision to go with Nawaz, sorry, Navaz Sharif, was inspired. It’s unlikely that the Pakistani politician would be particularly thrilled by what happens to his almost-namesake in Vanity Bagh though.

The cover of Vanity Bagh.

The cover of Vanity Bagh.

Salim’s novel is set in an unnamed city and in fictional neighbourhoods that feel entirely real because Mangobagh could easily be in any Indian city. (Translate ‘mango’ into Hindi, think of the word’s alternative meaning, and you’ll see why Salim chose this particular name. It would be interesting to know whether there are any resonances with Pakistani cities.) There is occasional violence, but by and large peace is maintained in Mangobagh by respecting the unofficial line of control that divides the Hindu turf from the “pocket-sized Pakistan” that is Vanity Bagh.

Imran, Jinnah, Navaz Sharif, Zia, Zulfikar and Yahya are silly, directionless and seem harmless – not quite the profile that you’d expect for the masterminds and perpetrators of 11/11, “Mangobagh’s private little 9/11”. Except that’s what the 5 ½ Men end up to be when they take on an assignment that requires them to leave three scooters in Mehendi and calmly walk away. They think they’re helping smuggle gold, but within minutes of completing their assignment, the scooters explode and Mangobagh’s hospitals are filled with those injured in multiple blasts.

Imran is among the 5 ½ Men who survives and is eventually sent to jail. The novel shuttles between the past in Vanity Bagh and Imran’s present. The story is broken up by standalone quotes from a wide selection of Vanity Bagh residents, ranging from the mad woman outside the mosque, Imran’s lawyer and an amateur poet whose verse is so bad it’s good. Through Imran and his friends, Salim points out the distance between those who perpetrate terror plots and their masterminds.

Without getting on a soapbox, Salim observes how violence becomes normal and an accepted part of our street culture. The novel also looks at youth unemployment and the difficulty of finding your place within the adult world of jobs and expectations. All of these come together to create the world of Vanity Bagh, which is terrifying and yet hilarious because Salim doesn’t deliver any lectures and his narrator’s one aim in life is to keep himself amused.

You wouldn’t expect a novel about home-grown terror, in which a prisoner seems to be losing his hold on reality, to be fun, but Salim manages this feat because Imran is a delightful narrator.

Like many literary losers, he’s endearing and thanks to his descriptions, Vanity Bagh emerges as home to a set of delightful, oddball characters. If there is a weakness to Imran being the storyteller, then it is that everyone but Imran seems a little absurd because that’s how he sees the world around him. It may teeter towards uni-dimensional, but Imran’s worldview is just too much fun for this to be a serious complaint.

In the quotes are parallel little stories that punctuate Imran’s tale. Many of them are obviously connected, like those that subtly highlight the biases against Muslims that don’t allow Imran and his friends any benefit of doubt. There are also strands like the delightful exchanges between poet Shair Shoukath, Professor Suleiman Ilahi and Rustom sahib, that have nothing to do with terror (unless bad poetry scares you), but serve to present the camaraderie that makes Vanity Bagh so dear to Imran.

It’s rare to come across a book in contemporary Indian English fiction that makes you giggle. Vanity Bagh does this, and that too while telling a gripping story of a terrorist who is neither misunderstood nor a martyr. He’s clueless and in jail, where optimism is being systematically drained out of him.

His sadness is expressed not through melodrama, but in hallucinations and escape plans whose critical component is bubble gum. The idea of a young man who finds himself embroiled in a terror plot isn’t new, but this befuddled hero who holds on to his sense of humour through all his trauma deserves a resounding cheer.