A Djinn and a Cat Walk Into a Bar…

Unable to answer questions about why children knew the names of lord Ram’s brothers and Jesus’s mother but not the Prophet’s mother, Anita Nair decided to try and learn – and tell – such tales in her new book Muezza and Baby Jaan.

A child runs to safety as armed police hunt gunmen who went on a shooting spree at Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi September 21, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Anita Nair’s Muezza and Baby Jaan is a book born out of tragedy and research. As she explains in the preface of the book, she was struck by an incident during the terrorist attack in 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, when the terrorists took over a mall and let Muslims go, while executing the non-Muslims. To differentiate, they asked the victims simple questions, like the name of the Prophet’s mother.

This was a striking moment for Nair, who – once the horror of the incident had passed – made her wonder why such questions should be difficult. After all, the name of Jesus’s mother is common knowledge, as are the names of Rama’s brothers, wife, father and others. These names are common currency, so why is there a shroud of ignorance over aspects of Muslim history?

Unable to answer the query, Nair decided she would, instead, try and learn – and tell – such tales. The outcome is a delightful little children’s book, about a cat – apparently the Prophet’s favourite – telling stories to a young djinn in the desert.

She spoke to The Wire about the making of the book:

How much of this book is based on Idris – the main character of your last novel, a Somalian in south India in the 17th century?

Anita Nair
Muezza and Baby Jaan
Penguin, 2017

Some of it does come from that. Initially as I was trying to understand the character I was building, I realised I did not know enough to understand his context. I am familiar with Indian and Hindu mythology, but did not know how a practicing – though not strict – Somalian Muslim would think, what would be his reference points. For example, Idris has a dog, but I knew that dogs were disapproved of in Islam, though not why, and then when I did some reading, I realised it was very context-specific and there are a number of positive references to dogs as well. In fact there is a reference to ten blessed animals that will make it to heaven, one of them being a dog. This gave me leeway for Idris’s affection.

What was your principal source of research?

I started with the Quran, but it is not an easy book to get into. Then I ran across a copy of “al Bidayah wa al Nihaayah” (The beginning and the end), a 13th century eschatology of Islam by the scholar Ibn Kathir, translated by the University of Cairo. This is a long text, and is written like a companionable history, and I adapted stories from that text for Muezza and Baby Jaan.

For me the research was very important, even if I am making this into a children’s book, I wanted to make sure the ideas I drew on were authentic and did not offend sensibilities.

But is it a religious book?

No. I did not want to make it into a religious text, just drawing out some stories, things like the story of Noah – Nuh, in Arabic – which are instantly relatable.

How can you tell religious stories without it coming across as preaching?

The core of the book is that of an unlikely friendship between a cat and a baby djinn which has taken the shape of a white camel. The stories that the cat tells the camel/djinn are stories that elucidate a point or two, they clarify. This is what stories – children’s stories or others – do; they allow us to access a territory that we did not have access to on our own.

Anita Nair. Credit: Penguin

Do you think you can take religious ideas out of religious stories?

I think I can, and I have tried. This is not about preaching, but about familiarising myself, and readers, with references and names that people do not know about. I am trying to even out the lack of public information. At a classroom recently I asked people simple questions, like name the brothers of Rama, or give me the Buddha’s original name, the parents of Jesus. The kids were able to answer easily, and then I asked the name of Mohammed’s mother, and they were utterly blank. They had no knowledge, did not even know that this was something known. This is the lack of knowledge that I hope to correct, but also, these are fun stories, they are interesting, and have a sense of lyricism to them, they speak of tenets of decency, of being humane, which would be ideally what religions should teach instead of using an identity to be part of an exclusive club.

You are from Kerala, which has a substantial Muslim population, about a quarter of the population, but you were not familiar with these stories?

Well, I lived in the Army cantonment and went to a pretty secular school. Knew of the Quran, and saw that people kept it reverentially, often covered by a cloth, or that when Muslim kids were reading it, they would cover their heads, but I didn’t know what was in it. I guess I thought it was a book of instructions, and was a little careful about whether I should look at it or read it, as it might be misconstrued. It surprised me how little I knew, how little was publicly known.