Humanity Amidst Insanity: Unknown Tales of Unexpected Salvation
Elise Alexander attends American University and is a research assistant for Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies.
I feel a connection and an intense admiration for Mr. Tridivesh Singh, though I’ve never met him. Mr. Singh, a former student of Prof. Akbar Ahmed, refers to Prof. Ahmed as “uncle.” It was, in fact, Prof. Ahmed who wrote the foreward to the book that Mr. Singh co-authored, Humanity Amidst Insanity. I have recently had the honor of calling myself Prof. Ahmed’s student, in the more archaic sense of one who learns from and seeks to emulate a teacher. In an odd sort of way, then, one might say Mr. Singh and I are intellectual cousins. Mr. Singh has also recently contacted my university’s chapter of Project Nur, a student initiative of the American Islamic Congress, to offer his help in setting up projects. These are reasons which stand alone in building up my esteem for Mr. Singh, but the punch line is this: Tridivesh Singh, who refers to my Muslim professor as “uncle”, is a Sikh. That is interfaith cooperation come to life.
So it was that I entered into reading Humanity Amidst Insanity, by Tridivesh Singh Maini, Tahir Malik, and Ali Farooq Malik, with a feeling of anticipation before ever turning the first page. In many ways, it lived up to that excitement, and more. The book, like Schindler’s Ark, later made into the well-known film, “Schindler’s List,” comes in the fine tradition of works which strive to dispute the myth of monolithic savagery during conflict. Though humans can get caught up in the herd instinct which urges violence against the “other”, these books argue, individual agency and empathy still remains forces with which to reckon.
Humanity Amidst Insanity is, at its heart, an accumulation of oral histories of the Partition of India and Pakistan, a story-telling session with those who either were present in during the events 1947 or who have grown up side-by-side with stories about them. The authors acknowledge in their introduction the dangers of using interviews to gain information; this is a risk run with a very good outcome. The interviews are only very slightly polished, and this works to their benefit. Each sounds like a conversation with one’s neighbor or a friend’s parent, just someone down the road. This sensation is important to the theme of the book, the “everyday”, unheralded acts of love between neighbors and friends who found themselves expected to be enemies: a Sikh and his Muslim servant, a Muslim and his Hindu milkman, and many others. Few of these individuals, it seems, thought much about their identities before Partition, nor thought that their leaving their homes for safety would last.
One thing troubled me, however, about the tales recounted. I am an American Christian, and I have never experienced violence or overt discrimination because of my religion. Perhaps it is for this reason that I associate religion at its best with community-building, with compassion, with the search for truth, and with self-discipline. Acts of religiously-motivated violence are repugnant to me, as they were to most of the people interviewed in Humanity Amidst Insanity. Neither Jesus nor the Prophet Muhammad nor Guru Nanak Dev would have supported the slaughter of refugees making for safety on a train, as in one account, nor the beating and death of an old man on a bicycle, as in another. Many of those who were interviewed, however, emphasized that it was their non-religious identities which caused them to perform life-saving acts: Punjabiat, for some, social status, ethnicity, or even, in one case, “leftist ideology.” One Muslim woman, saved by a Sikh landlord, put it this way: those who saved people during Partition did so because, for them, “humanity took precedence over religion and nationalism.”
Are religion and humanity incompatible, then? Must one overcome one’s faith in order to act humanely? I do not believe so. The thought I took away from the book, then, is not that God has to be gotten around for humanity to prevail, but that human ideas and leadership must sometimes be gotten around for God to prevail. As one interviewee, Professor Rafique Muhammad, eloquently put it, “we are not mere human beings; there is also a strong touch of divinity in us. We have only to realize it.”
This review was originally published in The Pakistan Link on Nov. 6, 2009.