16 September 2010

My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume

I met Sadanand Dhume at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year and wondered vaguely why his name was so familiar. When I got home I found out – he was the author of one of the books I’d kept aside to read as soon as I got back.
Sadanand had struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful and courteous person, and his book echoed these attributes. Since then I've read some of his columns and found them relevant, stylish, and keenly perceptive of incongruity. Here's one. And here’s the review I wrote for the Sunday Mid-day issue of 31 Jan 2010.

Sadanand Dhume quit his job as foreign correspondent in Indonesia to write this book. In it, he seeks to find out how Indonesia, a society famous for its tolerance and where Islam was traditionally shot through with Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism and other pre-Islamic concepts, could begin to accept and adapt to Islamic fundamentalism.

“As a reporter, I was asking questions about the banking crisis, political devolution, separatist movements in Papua. These are important issues but to me the elephant in the room was a much larger one: what is the nature of Indonesian society going to be in the next ten or twenty years? I knew that in this country where 88 percent of the population is Muslim, it depended on the course that Indonesian Islam took. If indeed this was changing to a more fundamentalist view, the consequences to the country and the region would be immense.”
To find answers, Sadanand Dhume, an outsider and a non-Muslim, would need help to gain access and he was lucky to be introduced to Herry Nurdi, the editor of the Indonesian magazine Sabili, a fundamentalist mouthpiece with a circulation of about 500,000 copies per week.
Together they travelled across Indonesia and the book records what they saw – new regulation that demanded that women wear headscarves, Koran reading and memorising made compulsory, the sale of alcohol reduced, music and football frowned upon – but tolerated for practical reasons.
The book describes Indonesia well, and gives a sense of the incongruities thrown up during this period of transition of a country that wants Microsoft but not Madonna, and other preoccupations of the people and their sometimes confused but unrelenting conversion to the belief that the ideal society was the one in Medina during the Prophet Mohammed’s time. It is well written and full of information. While it’s partly a reporting of history and events and partly a memoir of the travels of two young men, the approach is entirely objective and impersonal and rather stylish. The title indicates a friendship, but the only emotions in this book are those that are clinically described.
And, though Sadanand Dhume claims that he is an atheist, he is still capable of sentiments that would do justice to the philosophy of any of the world’s religions. When his friend Herry asks what he will do after he finishes the book, he replies, “I’m not sure. I hope I can make a living from writing, but if I can’t I’ll work something out. Money’s not the most important thing to me. Something will work itself out. It always does.”

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