Book Review: The Map and the Scissors by Amit Majumdar — A tale of two personalities

A piece of historical fiction brings to life the politics of the late colonial period

Book Review: The Map and the Scissors by Amit Majumdar — A tale of two personalities
Starting off with the commonalities of the trajectories of their early lives— both men of Gujarati origin who went to London to pursue a career in law but finally wound up in politics, Majmudar takes us through their differences that widened with every crucial turn in anti-colonial Indian politics.

By Srishti Narain

Amit Majmudar’s The Map and the Scissors recounts the riveting story of modern Indian politics brought to life by the contrasting personalities of MK Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the evolution of their respective brands of politics, culminating in independence and Partition. Starting off with the commonalities of the trajectories of their early lives— both men of Gujarati origin who went to London to pursue a career in law but finally wound up in politics, Majmudar takes us through their differences that widened with every crucial turn in anti-colonial Indian politics.

In opposition to Jinnah, the perfect gentleman and brilliant lawyer with grand plans to become the future of the Congress by brokering its unity with the Muslim League, we have the eccentric Gandhi, already a raging success on his arrival in India as the inventor of satyagraha. Much of the plot revolves around Jinnah being left behind, as the Congress becomes a universalist project toeing the Gandhian line, and his ultimate reinvention as the prime votary of Pakistan, an ideological experiment that he initially suspected.

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As a fiction writer, Majmudar plays on his strengths, dealing primarily with the personal lives, that is the emotions, ambitions, relationships, etc, of Gandhi and Jinnah, and a series of other historical characters, some well-known, such as Nehru, Patel, the Mountbattens, etc, and others who remain in the shadows of history like Jinnah’s sister Fatima, or Gandhi’s grand niece Manu. By doing so, he carves out a space for himself as this is a domain where academic histories traverse only with measured speculation. This approach also renders him the advantage of steering clear of the extremely controversial, larger-than-life quality that many of these figures generally assume, for in his narrative they come across as regular people who get “swept up in historical upheaval”.

Even as his focus is on the personal, Majmudar does not exhibit a simplistic understanding of the politics of the time, being on the mark when it comes to capturing its significant changes and contentions. We observe this in his reflections on the transformative turn to mass politics after Gandhi’s arrival, and its implications for politicians like Jinnah who still fancied politics to be a gentleman’s game and were contemptuous of the latest developments. Majmudar astutely links this up with Jinnah’s realisation that in order to make it in politics, he must also have a people to back him, which furthers his engagement with the Muslim question and finally leads him to embrace the two-nation theory. But this is also where for Majmudar, Jinnah’s character peaks: in the latter half of the novel, when transfer of power is being negotiated, Jinnah’s insistence on the demand for Pakistan practically turns into an obsession. The story then becomes extremely facile with Jinnah doing whatever it takes, even unflinchingly giving up the Hindu dominated halves of Bengal and Punjab, to succeed in obtaining a sovereign Pakistan.

Majmudar’s imagination also feels very limited when it comes to exploring Jinnah’s turn to Muslim politics which, of course, is the most defining moment in his political journey. This is different from his treatment of Gandhi whose political motivations are always judiciously explained, first through his experience of racism in South Africa, and later through his personal quest for truth and discipline, the outward manifestation of which was the politics of satyagraha. But from Majmudar’s portrayal of Jinnah, it appears that the reasons that pushed him to become a spokesman of the Muslims were purely personal, or to be more specific, the direct consequence of him not receiving his due in the Congress and being constantly underestimated by the likes of Gandhi and Nehru. This view appears rather dismissive of the fact that Jinnah occupied a political space which already existed and was the result of a contradiction in the Congress’ brand of nationalism, which equated any talk about interests of the community with communalism.

It has thus been argued by many historians that the increasing inability of Muslims to voice their demands from within the Congress compelled them to search for a distinctive political identity of their own. But instead of probing into the gradual alienation of Muslims from the Congress, Majmudar—perhaps in a continued effort to posit Gandhi and Jinnah as natural opposites —presents Jinnah as acting mainly out of resentment towards Gandhi and the Congress in erecting an independent Muslim politics.

The most remarkable thing about the novel is the style of writing. Being a poet, a lot of Majmudar’s prose reads like verses, beautifully structured, using a fewer number of words to convey a complex range of emotions. What’s more is that the entire story is presented to us like an epic drama playing out before our eyes—fittingly so, as the developments of the period did unfold in ways that were intensely dramatic. The experience can only be likened to witnessing a play in the theatre.

Such is the mark of good writing; it leaves you not only with a story but an experience to remember. As for the historical accuracy of it all, such a fiction can only be written by taking certain creative liberties which is essential, but to my understanding, the basic facts and timeline have been respected.

All in all, an exquisitely written historical fiction which anyone with a genuine interest in the politics of the late colonial period would appreciate. The drawback remains that the novel, perhaps unwittingly, adopts the perspective of the nationalist movement by furthering the impression that it was Jinnah’s personal ambition that led him to advocate an idea that divided the nation.

Srishti Narain is a student of MA modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University

The Map and the Scissors
Amit Majmudar
HarperCollins
Pp 344, Rs 499

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