Book Talk: Jimmy the Terrorist in small-town India

NEW DELHI Thu Feb 24, 2011 5:02am EST

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - It took nearly a decade for Omair Ahmad's depiction of life in small-town India to take shape as a novel after starting life as a short story.

"Jimmy the Terrorist" was first written as a short story in 2002 in an attempt to understand how riots could affect a young man growing up in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The demolition of a 16th-century mosque in the state's Ayodhya town in 1992 triggered some of India's worst riots that killed about 2,000 people.

Ahmad's novel, recently launched in India, is set in the fictional town of Moazzamabad, where protagonist Jamaal grows up in a Muslim neighborhood.

Ahmad, 36, told Reuters in an e-mail interview that the new "Jimmy the Terrorist" is very different.

Q: What was the inspiration behind "Jimmy the Terrorist?" What attracted you to the story?

A: "The inspiration behind 'Jimmy the Terrorist' was two-fold. For the original short story, written almost a decade ago, it was an effort to try to figure out the impact of the political violence -- riots, curfews, the basic fear of those days -- of the late 80s and early 90s on an anonymous young man in a nothing town in Uttar Pradesh -- something that decision makers in places like Delhi and Bombay were unlikely to see, and therefore fully appreciate. In a sense, how a terrorized young man might spew that fear out of himself. I guess over time I have aged a little more, and for the novel the questions, inspirations were different, more subtle. Possibly more the question of who is responsible for an action, and how we divide the individual from society. As I hope the novel shows, my response is the classical Indian response: it's complicated."

Q: The novel was originally written as a short story. How different was it from its present form?

A: "The novel is very different. There is a huge difference between writing 4,000 words and 45,000 words, and it isn't just of length, but also of composition, of thinking, of the deepness of information and research. A short story can be written in a fit of pique; a novel, even a short one, requires a different way of thinking. It isn't just the questions, but the type of questions that change.

"In the short story I presented a possible individual, in the novel I am trying to present two generations of a small neighborhood, and all the history, economics, politics and social changes that that demands."

Q: Would you describe the novel as an exploration of small-town India, the Muslim community and the victims of communal violence?

A: "Small-town India yes, not so sure about a Muslim community and victims of communal violence. I dislike the idea of victimhood, and I would like to think that all the characters I describe are more than simply victims. Even Jamaal, the weakest of them, acts, however wrongly. He is an agent, not simply a receiver.

"It is, of course, about a Muslim neighborhood, but I do not think any of the characters is defined simply by their religion -- it is their desires whether for social recognition, love of poetry, pure love of power or corruption that make them who they are. I would like to believe similar drives power most human relationships no matter where or who we are."

Q: You grew up in northern India in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and curfews. Are there parallels between real life and Jamaal's experiences in Moazzamabad?

A: "I have taken some incidents from real-life scenarios that I witnessed, heard of or read about, of course. In a sense, Shabbir Manzil draws on observations I made of society in my own house, but fiction is not about simply reproducing your own experience. That would be boring. For me, 'Jimmy...' was about imagining a society and neighborhood that was less capable and lucky than my own. I am part of the lucky people of India, with a job and a good education. Most of India is not, and part of the purpose of the book was to imagine an unlucky neighborhood, an unlucky family and an unlucky young man."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Read, write (and rewrite) incessantly and most importantly cultivate good friends, people whose advice you respect, who will tell you the truth and laugh at your mistakes but help you out. Nothing will ever be more important than that. A writer's prime vocation is the search for truth, but you need people to tell you when you have it right, and especially when you've got it wrong."

(Editing by Elaine Lies)

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