The Infidel Next Door by Rajat Mitra is a sweeping tale of clashes that take place in the society in the guise of religion, baseless bigotry, radicalization, terrorism, spirituality, case system and so on. The story is mix of history and religious persecution and because of this factor the pace of the novel never drops for even a second and it fuels up many sub-plots in the sprawling story.
The balance that the author has maintained throughout the novel is commendable, otherwise with this kind of story most of the writers slip to one corner or stick to one point of view and they are never tired of eulogizing either one or their main character. As you read the novel, you will get to know that Anwar, Aditya, and Zeba – by knowing their stories and conflicts you will come to know evidently that throughout the novel a sense of equilibrium of characterization has been maintained superbly.
The story opens with a young Brahmin called Krishna Narayan getting married to an orphan girl called Gayatri. Behind Krishna Narayan there are some episodes of black history and for this reason he is never liked by his peer priests. It happens that because of history or the wrongdoing of ancestors, the next generations face a stigma in the society. But that’s the way a society works. After some years, they are blessed with a son: Aditya Narayan. Aditya is bestowed with godly grace: smart, fast learner, prodigious memory. Unlike other Brahmins, he is away from prejudice. In Banaras, while taking bath in a Ganga River once he was saved by an untouchable boy. His father loathes untouchables, but he doesn’t. For this reason, father and son never comes to any agreeable point throughout the novel.
At the behest of his mentor, Aditya is asked to go to Kashmir to build a temple that lies in ruins for last three centuries. From here onwards, the novel veers towards the issues of Kashmiri Pandits. Readers will also come to know who that great person was that checked Aurangzeb’s propaganda of converting Hindus to Muslims and how Kashmiri Pandits were responsible for saving then India from the clutches of religious atrocities of Aurangzeb. The temple that Aditya has to build was actually destroyed by Muslim Rulers a few centuries ago. Re-building that temple means revving Hindu’s faith and it will give hope to fleeing Kashmiri Pandits.
On the other hand, beside the ruined temple lies an active mosque. The Imam Saab of that mosque is a peace-loving person, so does his children, son Anwar and daughter Zeba. And there is Haji Chacha, a staunch Muslim who believes that the freedom of Kashmir from Infidel Indians lies in the blood of Kashmir’s youth. He is a dangerous person, who at the blink of an eye can brainwash any innocent child.
One day Anwar is framed on false charges that he incited the stone pelters. Anwar is taken into the custody: there he is beaten badly by the cops. Realizing the heat of the situation, Haji Chacha brainwashes Anwar. Consequently, Anwar becomes one of the prominent stone pelters in Kashmir. All of sudden his heart filled with hatred. So, when Aditya comes to live next door and tries to build the temple, he is assaulted by this stone pelter. However, Zeba, Anwar’s sister, is different. The best part of her characterization is that she has had a dark secret behind her birth. Thus, her characterization is valued.
Aditya is mocked and attacked morally and physically by some fervent Kashmiri youths but he never takes weapons in his hands, nor does he try to flee away. The kind of steely determination and mettle he possesses becomes a talk of the town, even among his enemies. Whenever Aditya sings rhymes in the temple or worships, Zeba automatically succumbs to his charisma. It takes no longer to recognize that she falls in love with that priest. However, Aditya shows no signs of infatuation – he is rigid with his religious duties. On one side, it is Zeba that has soft heart for Aditya, while on the other hand it is Anwar who wants to kill that priest. The lover and hater of the priest lives under the same roof.
In the first half of the book, Anwar is on mission: he wants to destroy that temple and kill the young priest. His hatred is actuated by Misba, a girl whom he loves. So, one day, he throws two stones at Aditya who is passing throw a narrow bridge. Aditya falls down and is covered by snow. His death is certain. However, when Anwar returns home a strange sensation catches him and then along with Zeba he goes back to bring him out from the snow. Anwar carries Aditya home on his back. Next day Anwar becomes famous: in the newspapers it comes out that a Muslim boy saved the Hindu priest.
After this point, the novel runs really fast and takes umpteen turns. Anwar’s life changes and Zeba is forcibly married to Salim who later turns out be a militant. Once looked upon as a hero of Kashmiri Azaadi, now Anwar faces the wrath of hatred of his own people. They think that he has weakened their spirits by saving that Hindu priest.
There is more on the atrocities faced by Kashmiri Pandits, how Kashmiris got treated by the local police and the army deployed there. There is a lot of pain and suffering one can see while going through this novel. The theme and climaxes of the novel mainly stick to Kashmir issues but between that it sees many arteries. The Infidel Next Door is a terrific novel. To understand the social plight and political landscape of the current Kashmir, it is a must read. Highly recommended! The author is too good with his pace and lucid way of narration.
Though there are many characters, it is likely that you may take time to forget Zeba and Aditya. Their influence is inevitable.