Saeed Akhtar Mirza has just woken up from a nap. His hair flops to his side neatly. It is a hot day and Mirza sinks into the chair, his feet bare. In Delhi to promote his new book Memory In The Age Of Amnesia—A Personal History Of Our Times, Mirza, who has retired from films, is still raging. And it is heartening. Because, he has a lot to say. None of it is pleasant, though.
His book has his concerns—stories, half-fiction, brutal truths—and is disturbing. Tell him that and he says, “Thank you. I am glad. The intention was not to deliberately obfuscate. There was an agenda at the back of my head. I had things to say. Not just [about] India, but the world that we have inherited.”
Raging, ranting, bitter, tormented, heartbroken, Mirza holds up a mirror to the ugliness of the world today—intolerance, riots, poverty, freedom and the shattered dream of India. “We have reached a point of time in our evolution when the present is so time consuming that to reflect about other things is very difficult. It is almost becoming impossible. You end up going through life like a zombie. That is what ‘they’ want. The ‘they’ is now mythical to me. I don’t know who ‘they’ is,” he said, genuinely baffled. “But I do know that it helps us not to think about war and devastation, hunger and disease. We can give it our fleeting moment of sympathy because we cannot get engaged with it.’’
It is the death of an idea, of ideals and idealism. For Mirza, who has been committed to this idea of India, the loss of the dream is personal, painful and real. He holds up signposts and weaves stories. So, there is one on Antilia—Mukesh Ambani’s home—which is thinly disguised as fiction. He also writes about the death of a “mass leader’’ (Bal Thackeray). Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East, America, and, of course, home, Mirza crams the concerns of the world in one slim book.
There is the trademark Mirza humour that asserts itself time and again. “What you never learn in college’’—a conversation between a don-turned-politician and a young Columbia School of Journalism graduate—is dark, but extremely funny.
The dreams of his generation of equality, of civility, of Indian democracy, have long since vanished. This and a lot more keep Mirza up at night. “The word democracy has got to be retrieved and be given meaning once again. We actually believe we are democratic. We actually believe that the casting of votes changes peoples’ lives. We actually believe that. This is the immense tragedy of it all,” he said.
If the Bombay riots shook Mirza, he still cannot get over the image of a milkman on a bicycle who was lynched by a mob. His films were never escapism. Nor is his writing. “I made a mention of the old man on the bicycle. But I also made a mention of the guys who killed him. What dream did they have after what they did? I really want to know. Sometimes, I believe, they did not give a damn either way. I hope not. I hope I am wrong. But I might be bloody well right and that scares the hell out of me,’’ he said.
It is a question that refuses to go away. Nor should it.
Memory In The Age of Amnesia—A Personal History of Our Times
By Saeed Akhtar Mirza
Published by Context
Price:Rs 499; Pages:222