Rajat Mitra is a psychologist in India who works with victims of religious violence. His debut novel, The Infidel Next Door, is set in 1989, during the last exodus of Hindus from Kashmir. It also tells a bigger story about religious identity, personal conscious, and forgiveness.
Rajat recently answered questions for Rose City Reader, including questions about his book, his work, and writing for an international audience.
How did you come to write The Infidel Next Door?
As Charles Dickens once said, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. In 2011, I had just received an award from United Nations for our work with vulnerable women of India to help them testify in courts for the sexual assault they had suffered. It was also the time when I received criticism that we were highlighting a negative aspect of India in front of world. The policy was "don’t talk, don’t tell." Hide problems and keep them a secret. I refused to do that. The funding for our organization stopped and we were not able to continue with our program. We became ostracized for a while and alienated. Friends who we knew well stopped talking. It was a lonely time for me. I withdrew into a shell. I got a job in faraway Hong Kong and had time on my hands.
During that time while digging up old records, I came across notes I had taken long ago in the refugee camp for Kashmiri people. As I sat through re-reading them, I felt the urge to write a story and conceived a work of fiction around the events that seemed to across my mind like a flashback. Here was the way a race that had struggled for its survival and lost and now had its last hopes on someone telling their story to the world. The world had turned indifferent to them and a race, an entire civilization, was about to die soon. I thought I would write about it.
We shifted to Hong Kong and lived near the woods and mountains. Nature was healing to me and as I sat down near a stream, words came from nowhere and formed scenes, images that I had not thought of before or heard about, that were sometimes a part of a truth I glimpsed and slowly became a chapter and then a book.
What is your work background? Did you draw on your professional experience in writing your novel?
My work background is from psychology and human rights. I hold a PhD in psychology but have primarily worked in communities on social issues. My first place of work was in a therapeutic community for young adults recovering from mental illness. Then it was followed by setting up a program for victims of heinous crimes in the city of New Delhi. It involved a 24/7 psychological support to victims of sexual assault, homicide and terrorism. I also began to testify in courts in cases as an expert witness about victims and crimes against them. In some of the cases my testifying contributed to landmark judgments that paved the way for inclusion of psychological evidence in courts.
After the program closed down, I started to work in a program for human rights defenders facing persecution who live under some of the most repressive regimes. It took me to remote regions of Asia where they were incarcerated and tortured. After my contract was over, I had to come back to India. At present I am working on a program on de-radicalization of Muslim youth who are swayed by terrorist ideology.
I drew upon my professional experiences to write, but realized that most of them are plain observations that came from engaging with people at an equal level. It didn’t require any special skills to draw them out and talk about their innermost experiences that is what I feel. In India people love to talk, trust easily and one doesn’t need to be a professional to draw them out of their shell. Sometimes just empathy and a curiosity to engage with them in order to know what is happening with them is sufficient. The priest who told me how he feels praying knowing his temple was destroyed so many times, the grandfather who tells the story to his grandchild of the martyrdom of Sikh guru, did not do so because I was a psychologist. They did so because I asked them.
How much of the book is based on true, historical events?
Many of the events are true, historical events. The earlier six exoduses of Kashmiri pandits from the valley because they didn’t want to be forced into conversion to Islam is well known. The mosques in Kashmir blared loudly asking all Hindus to convert. The destruction of the holiest temple of Hindus by Aurungzeb, the medieval Muslim emperor, is a historical fact and there exists mosques next to the holiest temple of Hindus.
Indians didn’t keep much written records in medieval times and it was forbidden for many to write history so the method of "shruti" followed as a way of passing on knowledge from generation to generation.
Destruction of temples in Kashmir is also a historical reality. Many destroyed stone temples still bear testimony to the way in which they were burnt by armies in medieval times. The seventh and last exodus that made half a million people run away and reduced the population of Hindus to being nonexistent is also a reminder of their persecution that has been a regular feature of their thousand year old history.
How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book? Did you have access to primary source materials? People to interview?
I researched by reading historical books from as many sources as possible: libraries, archives, and personal collections of books. I also recorded the narratives of many people and picked on material from the oral tradition of the six genocides. At times I felt ambivalence in deciding what to choose, when history and memory collided over the extent of persecution of pandits. While the history was written under the direction of the rulers and seemed coached, their memory had many gaps and needed to be filled up with silent understanding.
I believe truth is often on the side of memory. I also believe it needs to be treaded carefully so as not to disturb the pain it holds. I decided to include memory as an expression of people’s voice.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers to gain from the book?
I believe the intended audience of the book is those people who believe in religious tolerance, interfaith healing, and forgiveness. Those who want to understand Hinduism and Islam will get an understanding of the two religions, their conflicts, and how they deal with their respective adherents.
It is also a bildungsroman novel -- that is, a coming of age novel for Hindu and Muslim boys and how they are shaped by their religious indoctrination and respective societies. All those who want to understand how boys and girls come of age in Asia will find it worth reading.
Lastly, my book is an unusual love story, one between a Hindu priest and a Muslim imam’s daughter, Zeba. They both understand the chains that bind them and know that breaking that would bring shame for their families. Zeba’s dilemma shows the extent to which Islam controls women’s lives and why religion is so much against love.
The book has been read by diverse people including scholars of genocide, psychiatrists, professors from various universities, human rights activists.
In the initial stages of the book, when the manuscript was ready, I gave it to an editor for assessment. She found it difficult to go on reading it after the middle and shared feeling increasingly uncomfortable with its theme and content. She felt it was affecting her personally and she wanted to stop. On my suggestion, she stopped and later on her own came back to reading it, and at the end shared a feeling of peace and calmness as the story ended. She said two things about the book that stayed with me. One is that this book will not be an easy read for many in India and elsewhere. That it will raise awareness on what harm and violence religion can unleash and how human conscience and compassion can transcend bigotry. She described it as the book that has affected her the most in a long time and there is nothing similar of its kind that she has ever read.
Can you recommend any other books or resources about story of Hindus in Kashmir?
Rajatarangini by Kalhana, Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita, and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.
What do you hope your book says about overcoming religious persecution and intolerance in general?
Religious persecution is a sensitive subject in Indian subcontinent and one of the least talked about at the same time. Hindus were ruled by Muslims for eight hundred years and the British ruled both for two hundred years. Muslims forcing Hindus to convert remains an unresolved issue for most Hindus. The white missionaries persecuted Tribals to give up their animistic faith to become Christians which the church vehemently denies. In 1947 India was divided along religious identities that saw millions of murders. After 1947 there have been numerous riots between the two religions.
My book is written with the aim that it will start the healing process that all the above forces have left behind so that the future generations do not carry this burden.
My book talks of religious persecution from the point of view of the victims who went through it and how it is a trans-generational trauma that is passed on to their future generations. It talks of the grief they carry inside and the how their psyche has been scarred. I also talk of the trauma from the point of view of persecutors and show how alike the two are behind all that layers that mask their inner selves. When they discover that they feel a bond between themselves that transcends many a barrier they had set up between themselves.
Lastly, Hindu religion has faced religious persecution over centuries and still many adherents face it who are asked to convert or leave. The population of Hindus in many countries have become extinct. In Pakistan and Bangladesh their numbers have gone down sharply. Yet they haven’t turned violent and vengeful towards other religions.
Religious persecution gives us very little choice. It is either convert or die. Overcoming it is not easy. One has to pay with one’s life or honor. Yet there are people who have made that choice time and again and have shown a rare courage that is largely undocumented.
What did you learn from writing the book – either about the subject of the book or writing the process – that most surprised you?
My writing process as a psychologist was a straight forward one, a clinical one to explain behavior in as few terms as possible and include to briefly describe the personalities of the people who did it. It was one dimensional and didn’t reflect the inner conflicts, the dynamics of the persons who were going through the conflict.
It was not easy for me to turn into writing like an author. The entire thinking process for an author is different as you think of characters that are imaginary and conceive of dialogues that they may speak.
I was dealing with many sensitive themes and had to express the emotions of the characters truthfully and honestly. As I realized many emotions, complexes were coming from within me that I was not aware of, I had to often sit back for hours and imagine if this would be true of the character.
But what surprised me most about the writing process is that how much it makes you observe critically things around you, how much it makes you political and become fearless about who you are. One no longer remains apolitical as an author and takes a stand that espouses a position about who you are and what do you think the world is doing. I no longer see feelings as linked to ones’ inner belief but tied up with injustice and denial of human rights.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
My favorite authors are many but if I were to select a few in fiction it would be Khaled Hosseini, Chinua Achebe, Herman Hesse, Gunter Grass, and Saadat Manto, an Indian writer. In non-fiction it would be Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Joseph Campbell, and Rabindranath Tagore.
My thinking is influenced by who I read, not my writing, at least that is what I believe.
What next? What project are you working on?
I am working on my next project, a book on the freedom struggle of India and the role of the armed revolutionaries in creating scare within the British. It is another novel and focuses on three families whose lives are intertwined.
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