History's Angel

Image of History's Angel
Release Date: 
July 18, 2023
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Anjum Hasan, a gifted writer who deserves wider recognition, deftly highlights the power of ideas and the peril of majoritarianism.”

With unflinching honesty, this poignant and thought-provoking novel, set in the bustling city of Delhi, captures what life can be like for a religious minority in the world’s largest democracy, which is in the grip of a triumphalist Hindu nationalist government headed by a charismatic, popular strongman.

Alif, introspective and scholarly, seems out of place in his own middle-class Muslim community, let alone the country. His love of history—he is a teacher who likes to take middle-school students on outings to see monuments—makes him an inspiring figure. And impractical as well.

His wife, an ambitious saleswoman working on an MBA, is more in tune with the ethos of a vibrant nation that’s hustling to rise higher. Nevertheless, that doesn’t shield Tahira from atavistic prejudice, which ranges from routine microaggression to workplace and housing discrimination. Alif knows that divisions have existed, but he is, like a shrinking number of older people including his parents, “unable to understand how these divisions came to count for so much.”

Anjum Hasan, a gifted writer who deserves wider recognition, deftly highlights the power of ideas and the peril of majoritarianism. While some may find History’s Angel a little talky, others will enjoy it more for just that reason, reveling in Alif’s embrace of the life of the mind.

The crisis begins when he takes his class to see the famous Humayun’s Tomb, built from marble and sandstone in the 16th century. An unruly boy—a more complicated story involving his background emerges later on—mistakes it for a mosque and claims that they were supposed to visit the Hanuman Temple! When a baffled Alif tries to reason with him, the boy throws a tantrum and disappears. Though he’s found shortly afterward, an insult leads to the twisting of his ear, which lands Alif in hot water at his school, where the new hard-nosed principal focuses on what’s politically expedient.

This incident drives the narrative, as does the strange environment Alif and others like him find themselves in. “What does it mean, sir, to be a Muslim in contemporary India?” demands an obnoxious host on a shrill cable channel. But before the bearded guest can answer, Alif’s father, a retired policeman, hastily switches to a food channel that he finds calming.

Of course, extremists are not confined to one community. Alif is disturbed as well by people like Ahmad, whom his family had adopted. Influenced by an austere, intolerant version of Islam that originated in the Arabian desert, Ahmad doesn’t let his wife work. Pestering Alif for money so that he can go to Mecca, he angrily asks, “Do you remember Babri?”—and wonders why the qaum couldn’t save it.

He’s referring to the notorious 1992 demolition of a mosque in northern India, but “his tone is such he could be asking, do you remember the Karbala?” What Alif—a romantic, not a revolutionary—remembers about 1992 is the young Hindu woman he was smitten with in college. She resurfaces after the Hanuman incident, and Alif’s hopes rise again. Is he delusional?

Bookish and obsessed with the past, Alif can’t help thinking about the what-ifs of history. India, he knows, was fortunate to have the right kind of leaders when it won independence. And yet, though the population was very mixed, they couldn’t avoid a fateful separation along religious lines. “All the conversations in his head with Nehru conclude with this deeply pained question: Why Partition?”

Alif also laments the loss of a syncretic Sufi tradition that bridged two great religions. He’s not an uncritical admirer of the Mughals, but the Mongols, he muses, could have been much worse. In any case, you can’t change or erase history just because it doesn’t suit your current beliefs.

The characters in Alif’s orbit—vividly drawn, like Delhi—treat him with a mix of affection, exasperation, and admiration. Unlike his wife, son, cousin, or friend, he “has never understood how money can be used to make more money,” and his fastidious distaste for commercialism is exceeded only by his dismay over communalism. Miss Moloy, an erudite and sympathetic colleague, is a kindred spirit. She’s retiring, though, and Alif doesn’t know where he will end up. “Resist as he will, this remorseless force will propel him into the future.”