Dreams, Dictators and Dementia in Shah Alam Khan’s “A Man with White Beard”


The loud bugle of the euphoric majoritarian narratives of culture, tradition and political dominance often result in the growth of smaller less documented poignant narratives recoiling from the traumatic memories of the conflict-ridden minority lot. When secularism is groped in the darkness of a majority world view minority narratives become perfunctory or even might be blacked out from an otherwise sovereign democratic republic.  

Shah Alam Khan’s debut novel A Man with a White Beard is a concocted nexus of such dismissed, tormented, nondescript minority narratives yet it is not wholly what it seems to project. Going against the grain of dislocating the author figure in what French historicist  and philosopher Michael Foucalt says in “What is an author” and post-structuralist thinker Roland Barthes reasserts in “The Death of the Author” one might make the judgemental error of thinking the novel to be based on Muslim culture and ‘the man with the white beard’ to be a Maulvi or an Imam of the decrepit mosque shown in the cover page in connection with the title and the authorial name being a Muslim one. But a close look at the novel unfolds the crisis that centres round a Sikh family affected by the bloodshed and violence in Delhi meted out to the Sikh community following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Shah Alam Khan’s words aesthetically resonates the recurring sadness of the religious division created by the two nation theory of the colonial masters and about the collective picture of gnawing hatred imbibed in the mob psychology in India that is time to time politically fuelled and reignited with a slightest communal pretext:

“The horizon turned red with the fires of hate almost every year. Collective sadness was like a common future which a nation anyway promises its citizens. But collective sadness, unlike the promised common future, was never equally shared. It was dispensed free of charge to all those who fell in the perennial category of being the ‘wretched of the earth’. It was let out like the roaring waters of a flooded river, washing away even the tiniest traces of life! (A Man with a White Beard p. 21)”

Kulwanti Kaur, the lead lady in the story was a victim of the anti-Sikh riots to which she lost her two brothers, her virginity and the sanity of her mother who remains as the demented ‘old time piece’ with time scheduled bouts of mad howls throughout her life. Strangely enough Goldy, Kulwanti’s adopted son born almost two decades after the 1984 riots is visited by a weird dream where four characters as if coming out of a street play haunt his sleep regularly. One gets the stylistic feel of a Marquez like eeriness in the description of the insomnia that affected Kulwanti, her son Goldy and her mother Beeji. But the novel is not a rich tapestry of historical violence represented through magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie rather a fragmented social picture of documented realism captured in the archives of memory and the dream narratives of the afflicted families and their close acquaintances.  Kulwanti establishes an unprecedented connection with a Muslim woman Khaleda, whom she had accidentally met at the steps of a Gurudwara during the days of her trial and tribulations with motherhood through treatment and talisman.

Khaleda Patel was affected by the genocide in Gujrat in 2002 following the Godhra violence.  In the slogan of progress for a developing nation communal forces can undo the inclusive growth for all social sections by featuring a parochial picture of dismissal of some for the rise of a select powerful few. As the narrative unfolds the multi layered half-truths, mysteries and erasure of histories buried under the sands of time following communal riots and shifting of powers, Goldy started growing to manhood in the sexist robustness of the suburbs in Raja Garden area of Delhi inculcating the bawdy requirements of a gregarious masculinity through the use of local slangs, watching of B grade movies, fantasying women and so on. Despite his merit as a promising athlete with the hope of being a future Olympian surpassing even “the flying Sikh” Milkha Singh his nightly sojourn in somnolence with the four unidentified characters carried on.  As a child Goldy received many talismanic visits around Nizamuddin Dargah, the reigning world of occult in the capital city and the langars sevas around Nanak Sahib Sat Sang Gurudwara but there was no respite to his deadly dreams or ‘nocturnal cauchemars’. The hounding regularity of his dream was etched in his existence as a permanent reality evading the disclosures of his identity.

Eventually the panacea for Goldy’s nightmare about the man with the white beard seemed to lay in the heart of Ahmedabad city and the soulful debris of the extinguished Muslim culture of the Gulberg Society that Kulwanti silently deciphered after her visit to  the ghettos of modified Ahmedabad with Goldy, Khaleda and Topo, a tragic reality unfathomably submerged in the organized killings of the Muslims by the saffron brigade in February 2002. One more connection to the main story line though not a linear one is the narrative of Topo, a converted tribal Christian from Gadragam village in the Kandhamal district of Orissa who worked with the automobile company run by Kulwanti’s husband the stocky ghar jamai Balwant as an errand boy. Topos’ narrative exposes the hatred between the tribal Christians and the Ashram guru Swami Lakshmi Saraswati who was allegedly killed by Christians which turned out into mob violence against the Christians from which Topo escaped to Delhi while his sister Anita landed up in a Brothel but was eventually bought with a high price by a ashram man with whom she fell in love and reconverted into a Hindu after marriage.

The novel covers a time frame of thirty years from 1984 to 2014 and is mainly Delhi based. It is first published in New Delhi by Lifi Publications in April 2018. As a first novel it is not without limitations in terms of stylistic patterns and repetitiveness of language used in the dream narrative. Lack of forceful oral narrative is marked in recapturing the documentary evidences of violence. But a doctor’s hand at art makes a beautiful representation of a traumatized and demented mind that can open up readings linking mental health with literature and life which is the need of current times as depicted in the characterization of Beeji:

“She had always been gentle with children and even as dementia was eating up her brain, she had never shown any signs of being violent. It appeared that violence could take birth only in a healthy brain. A demented brain forgets to hate, or be violent. No wonder in dementia lies the peace of this globe! (A Man with a White Beard, p.168)”

The awe of the “stained dawn” of communalism commemorated in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem on the occasion of independence reverberates in Shah Alam Khan’s narrative. The novel contains the divisive legacy of being an intercommunity thriller but it is not transgressive like Khuswant Singh’s Train to Pakistan or panoramic in range like Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Though practically a political satire, the novels’ inter-weaved narrative structure constantly draws the reader’s attention towards a therapeutic closure in attaining mental peace through amicable means of progress. Be it the intercommunity marriage of Topos sister with a Hindu, be it Khaleda’s safe resettlement at Delhi after the Muslim genocide of the Gulberg society, or be it Kulwanti’s acceptance of her son Goldy’s fractured identity as born Muslim brought up in a Sikh family retaining all her aims and aspirations.

The twist in the tale occurs when Goldy realises that the sardonic man with the white beard to be none other than the newly appointed prime minister. “‘Mummyji’, whispered Goldy with some urgency, as Kulwanti looked towards him, ‘Mummyji, the man with the white beard!’ He said pointing towards the centre stage where a man with a white beard read out the oath of secrecy as the prime minister of the country. (A Man with a White Beard p. 231)”

The declaration of the identity of the man with a white beard came as a  furious shock to an enraged Balwant, a promising member of Akali Dal by virtue of which they got an invitation to the oath taking ceremony. And consequently Goldy’s dream was silenced as a dead habit by Kulwanti’s efforts for the families’ survival amidst the newly rising death knells of democracy.  After maintaining a throughout suspense about the horrific dream about the man with a white beard and his companion, the perpetrators of violence and a little toddler clutching the body of a women with green dupatta, the symbolic victims, the narrative hurriedly closes without Goldy’s knowledge about his Mohammedan legacy and his orphan status as an offshoot of the genocide meted out to a large section of Muslims at Gujarat.

The novel winds up with the exhilaration of Goldy’s athletic feat of breaking the state record in 100 metre race that flashed the headlines of all the capital’s newspapers. Perhaps like Goldy’s story, the novel coming out of the pen of an medical practitioner at the best medical college of the country AIIMS tries to draw the lines towards a dream of untainted progress with no fear of being strangled or fraught with communal violence either in the active mind or in the living body for an average Indian be it a Hindu, Christian, Sikh or Muslim.

Though a first novel the author makes a commendable delivery of Nietzsche’s idea of existentialism with which he draws the novel through the representation of the aestheticized politics of a pious hypocrisy that feeds on religion to dehumanize man and divisively dismantles a deep- rooted democracy into dictatorship of the rulers. The novel at the end seems to instil a distant dream that a collective dementia for the violent past can restore hope for a unified future in a land of diversity rather than finding an en route for peace in foreign shores like many Indian families settled overseas.

Dr. Sabreen Ahmed is Assistant Professor,  Department of English, Nowgong College, Nagaon, Assam