Tabish Khair is an academic writer. What do I mean when I say ‘academic’? Simple. You would probably like him more if you are an academic, especially if you are a liberal arts academic! So why not call him an ‘academic’ writer? Well, he is also very academic himself, like Ghosh babu (Amitav Ghosh), and therefore given to a kind of self-conscious stylisation that comes with the territory (a rather inapt image, since we are talking about academia here, borrowed from the gun-slinging world of the American Frontier!). Khair’s latest offering, How to Fight Islamist Terror from a Missionary Position, does not have the historical reach and Dickensian period detail of his previous work, The Thing About Thugs, but is provocative, clever and carries on with the author’s penchant for inventiveness.
The first question that assaults the reader is: Why is the book titled the way it is? Set in the Danish town of Aarhus in contemporary times, the story has as its leitmotif a terrorist attack (well, not exactly the type of explosive thing you might imagine, but inspired none the less by actual contemporary events, with the name of the cartoonist changed. Oops!). Right at the outset, when the two protagonists of the story — the Pakistani narrator, a confirmed atheist, and his glib-talking debonair Indian friend Ravi — are forced by necessity to bundle up at taxi driver Karim’s (a religious man who holds Quran-reading sessions at home for the faithful) little pad as paying guests, you are provided the first hint of what soon becomes a recurrent theme. “That he needed the money was also something he was not ashamed to confess. But the purpose for which he needed the money, remained, alas, a secret to us until the last moments of the crisis that broke over our heads and so exercised the Danish media and politicians for a few weeks.” This brief introduction takes care of the ‘how to fight Islamist terror’ bit in the title. The second reference, to the ‘missionary position’ as it were, is a little disingenuous. Both protagonists have been to Catholic schools in the parent cities (Karachi and Bombay), and reflect contemporary cosmopolitan responses to what they believe to be religious fundamentalism. It is through their response to Karim’s secret lives that the story’s climax is woven.