FO° Books

History’s Angel

In Anjum Hasan’s History’s Angel, Alif Mohammad is a middle-aged, mild-mannered school teacher who, when not taking his students around to gawp at the relics of Delhi’s past, is immersed in reveries on the country’s long centuries. But the present is pressing down on him – in the form of colleagues suspicious of too much history, landlords keen to police his eating habits, and increasingly unreliable friends, not to speak of the imam at the local mosque whom the God-loving but not necessarily God-fearing Alif is anxious to avoid. History’s Angel is a darkly funny story that explores the wildly conflicting views on the country’s past currently in circulation. It probes how religious belief can be a source of private comfort as much as an empty spectacle of righteousness. And it asks if the love of history can save a man who increasingly feels caught in its cross-hairs.

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July 30, 2023 03:58 EDT

Ganesh flings his phone on the table in a way that makes Alif suspect he is already inured to it, though two months ago, when brand new, it so compelled him that he felt it worthy of a human pronoun. She’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for all my life, he’d tenderly proclaimed. As for Alif, he has yet again misplaced his much humbler device and is making do with a specimen Tahira discarded, something from the era, very recent and already prehistoric, when phones were just phones.

‘So you hardly go online and you don’t know what your son, who’s online all the time, might be up to. Do you have any idea what interests a teenager?’ asks Ganesh. ‘Look in on him once in a while, yaar. Don’t neglect your fatherly duties just because you can’t tell the difference between a motherboard and an ironing board.’

Alif says, ‘Tahira watches him like a hawk, so I don’t need to. We just chat.’

 ‘What about?’

Alif clears his throat, sips his drink and chews on a leg of chicken. ‘He is teaching me about the world these days. Which start-ups make money. How champion league football is organised. What the South Delhi restaurants cost. I am teaching him about the world as it used to be. Not that I can claim to have succeeded there . . . yet. He can’t see a practical use for history and he is a child of a practical age.’

‘Where is he heading, this baccha?’ asks Ganesh suspiciously. ‘Does he have a girlfriend?’

Alif shrugs because he doesn’t really know. ‘Wherever he’s heading, he doesn’t want us to buy him the world or even burn our savings to educate him. He understands money, he says.’

‘He’s right,’ admits Ganesh. ‘The way it works now is you do a short-term course online, you get hired for some years. Your skillset gets obsolete. You get fired or downgraded. You study again so as to move up the ladder or switch tracks completely.’

‘Tahira knows all about it. Even if I don’t.’

His wife is taking classes in some place out in Pitampura whose degree is not cheap but the only one they could afford. Alif tries his best to help with her course work but he is too taken with the fundamentals and only ends up hindering. Uneasy, each time they sit down with her books, at how oblivious they seem of the dark roots of capitalism, he asks the wrong questions which she fends off with gossip about her robotic, if not moronic, lecturers and with pictures she shows him of the glass-and-chrome facade hiding the empty library shelves, the abandoned canteen, the broken toilets. So ponderously silly it would be to say to this, brilliant in her own way, wife: resist becoming a tool of the ruling classes. When this is her resistance – sales strategising. So Alif stops, then starts, then gives up altogether.

Meanwhile, Tahira, as soon as she is home, composes herself as if to pray, then opens her homework and starts to whisper a litany of business-like and business-related facts to herself. Sometimes she will break off to actually pray, but hurriedly and without the same intensity. All the same pray she must, if for no other reason than habit, if for no other reason than that her God may just have a hand in the workings of the brave new world in which she so longs to succeed. And she has the history of the religion to back her, for was not the Prophet himself a merchant, and hadn’t traders done the work, along with kings and Sufis, of disseminating Islam in this land and, much later, in the nineteenth century, didn’t puritan reformists of the religion, some fomenting rebellion against the British, rely on the age-old trade networks between India and Central Asia to further their cause even as they bought weapons from European arms- dealers? The business and the faith, the bread and the butter . . .

‘That’s the thing,’ Ganesh is saying. ‘The world changes, you try to change with it. Do you know what the half-life of a skill is today? Max five years. The twenty-five-year-olds in my company know more about all this new shit – ethical hacking – than I will ever do, and in five years they’ll be overtaken. As for me . . .’ He looks deep into his glass before taking a draught. ‘How much do you think a single minute of downtime costs a company?’

He mentions a figure of several thousand dollars which Alif gasps at, then promptly forgets. ‘I think our very conception of time has changed,’ he says, speaking over the group of Sadar Bazaar businessmen doubling up drunkenly at the next table, their talk peppered with that profuse invective sans which no spirited Hindi male exchange is possible.

‘When we were Salim’s age the horizon was out there, solid but distant, like that space mission of the 1980s, remember? We, that is the common people then, had little stake in the future. But for a teenager now the future is already here.’

Ganesh shrugs. ‘Last week they fired a dozen customer care folks. Why? Because they’ve got someone to develop a chatbot-based app that can take care of customer queries. The sister-fucking future’s here and do you know what it looks like? An hourglass.’

He explains the image. The specialised jobs that earn the most money are at the top. This is where the big thinkers are lodged – those who can design the systems, make the apps, break down the data, crunch the numbers.

‘You and I,’ he tells Alif, ‘and all those others with average skills are in this constricted middle that’s getting further squeezed every day. It’s a wonder we can still sit here breathing. And down below are the millions of losers who just push the buttons, real or supposed, crank the handles, keep the lines running, the services operational, the mills grinding, the goods delivered.’

Alif is touched that Ganesh has put them in the same neck of the bottle, considering he earns three times Alif’s schoolteacher salary.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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