The buried truth

December 15, 2019

Uzma Aslam Khan’s new novel tells extraordinary stories from a forgotten chapter in the history of the subcontinent

Uzma Aslam Khan’s latest novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, is a classically and lyrically constructed novel telling the story of a forgotten episode from our history.

A much-needed work of historical fiction, the novel deals with the Andaman Islands and the prison colony that was established there during the British rule. This part of the pre-partition history of the subcontinent has somehow slipped through the mainstream recollection and has been reduced to a footnote.

Neil Gaiman once said; “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over”.

The true horrors that unfolded on the islands and the number of lives that were impacted need to be passed on to the future generations, as an integral part of our history.

As Khan herself shares in the acknowledgements section and on her blog, this book was in the making for some 26 years. “Feels like I have been winding my way to this book my whole life”. She went to the library looking for a book and stumbled upon a quote of a British politician from the 1930s, referring to the prison colony of the Andaman Islands where they sent “Indian terrorists” as a “paradise”. At that point in time, the islands were nowhere mentioned in the repetitive historical narratives of the time – partly, as a lot of the record was destroyed by the Japanese during the Second World War. “I had gone to the library to find a book that I did not find. I came away with the one I knew I had to write”.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali’s narrative revolves around three children; Nomi, her brother Zee and their friend Aye, and an intricate web that constructs the individual stories of the adults in the community. It is through the stories of these individuals that the author shows the blatant and unnecessary trauma that is the by-product of war.

As Khan herself shares in the acknowledgements section and on her blog, this book was in the making for some 26 years. “Feels like I have been winding my way to this book my whole life”.

All three children are “local born”, the term used for the offsprings of prisoners brought in from the mainland for breaking the laws of the British. These people are convicted of crimes against the Raj, also known as the freedom movement, and many other forgotten transgressions.

Freedom is never in sight because even after serving their sentences, the prisoners cannot leave. They are allotted a piece of land to live on and their wives are either brought in from the mainland or they are matched with fellow female prisoners.

This is a community living in sync with the laws of nature, but still labelled as savages by the “civilized English”. The English use the captive communities to navigate the land and extract natural gifts to trade with other “civilized nations”; while employing savagery in the garb of sophistication. The prisoners are tortured in the most inhumane manner, stripped of their identities and subjected to medical experiments.

Violence is the natural state of colonial rule in the novel. Those living in these prison colonies continue to suffer, only the form of the atrocities change. There are no gods watching over them, only men drunk on power.

When the Japanese take over the control of the islands from the British during World War II, the islanders start believing that they might finally end up embracing freedom. Unfortunately, that hope is brutally stabbed when the soldiers make an example of a child by publicly torturing and killing him. From there on a new reign of horror is unleashed in a different language, with the addition of a whore house (previously a Gurdwara), to serve the soldiers.

Shakuntala, a widow of an Englishman, stuck between the hierarchies of the mainland; moves to the Andamans as a means of escape but ends up dealing with a new set of complications. On these islands, she struggles to protect her daughter from the Japanese soldiers while assisting the doctor at the whore house.

Apart from preserving history, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is also relevant to the times we are living in today. With identity politics on the rise around the globe and a considerable chunk of our everyday news cycle being filled with hate crimes, we can learn from history. This new wave of hatred for the other is just the repetition of history with new characters.

The book pays homage to human resilience, the instinct to fight for a better future and individuals who irrespective of their race and creed are capable of putting the interest of others before them. In doing so, the book leaves the reader clinging to optimism amidst the most brazen cruelty.

Even though this is a work of fiction, the descriptive details are a testament that a great detail of research has gone into it. Khan does not hide behind suggestive context, everything is said as it is. The tormentors are pointed at unapologetically and not brushed in shades to be covered up by circumstantial behaviour.

In order to get out of our identity crisis, we need to take off the ahistorical veil and dig a bit deeper in the abridged history that is thrown at us to touch base with our identity and rich diversity.

The Miraculous

True History of Nomi Ali

Author: Uzma Aslam Khan

Publisher: Context India

Pages: 380

Price: Rs1,695

The writer is a digital communications and marketing professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif

Uzma Aslam Khan's new novel: The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali