“History’s Angel” by Anjum Hasan

History’s Angel, Anjum Hasan (Bloomsbury, July 2023) History’s Angel, Anjum Hasan (Bloomsbury, July 2023)

One knows one has a great Delhi novel in one’s hands if it says that the lines “If there’s an paradise on Earth, it is this”—attributed to the 13th century Indian sufi poet Amir Khusrau speaking of the glory of Kashmir—were actually spoken in praise of Delhi “because when did Khusrau go to Kashmir?” Anjum Hasan’s new novel History’s Angel speaks of the city’s history-soaked geography in the context of the turbulent present when everyday conversations take a communalist turn.

The protagonist is Alif Mohammad, a history school teacher, who usually takes his class to the historical landmarks most which belong to the city’s Islamic heritage) the metropolis is known for. He is a modern day Khusrau in his love for the city, albeit in the avatar of a historian for the city needs more a historian than a poet today.

Alif gets told off when one day things go awry: a student, “whose intelligence is all violence, whose imagination is all lies” ridicules his religion (Islam) and spews out bigotry, repeating what he hears adults around him say. What had earlier been history-as-usual, textbookish, a bit engaging because of the historical excursions, now stands vulnerable to religious fanaticism chipping away at the Muslim citizens’ very idea of identity and existence. Alif, the eponymous angel of history, has family, friends and acquaintances, each of whom deals with the burden of history differently: some doubt history while most people don’t understand how history is relevant at all to the city’s increasing intolerance which masquerades as mere rudeness, against which one cannot protest without sounding ridiculous. As he waits for the decision from the management of the school regarding his status as an employee, he witnesses the various expressions of the same Hindu-Muslim tension that everyone around him—his family specifically but Indian Muslims in general, especially in the northern part of the country—find themselves confronted with.


Reminiscent of Paul Klee’s painting “The Angel of History”, the being with the face towards the past and wings towards future, Alif knows that the hatred pumping in the city emerges out of simplistic narratives of community and identity that many Hindus believe in: the idea that India was a peaceful Hindu country until the Muslims “came”, and “stayed”. Tahira, Alif’s wife, cannot stand this incessant suspicion that has come up as she has come to rent a house in a seemingly cosmopolitan neighbourhood:


‘Stop it,’ says Tahira in a trembly voice. ‘I know your sort. We’re taking over every street of India with our namaz. Want a house on rent and we are doing land jihad. Move into a Hindu area and the azaan will be blasting day and night and the drains always running with the blood of slaughtered animals!’


Bitter as she sounds about the way Muslims get treated in the country, hers is only one among the many concerns that Anjum Hasan expresses in her novel. What else unfolds in the pages of the novel that is about the abuse of history, musing on the nature of history itself, blending Hegel with Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin and even physics (the faster you move through space, the slower you move through time), bringing together reflections on how history has been philosophized. Through Alif, history becomes a character in various ways: an entity that moves ahead (Hegel), as something that is bequeathed upon the present in all the wisdom as well as the madness of the past (Nietzsche), and a necessity that helps one understand one’s own situation (Ibn Khaldun).

Apart from these reflections on the nature and purpose of history, the novel is the Urdu poetry that Hasan translates beautifully to bring a smile to those who get both Urdu and English.


Muskhkilen mujh par padi itni ki aasan ho gayi
So much shit hit the fan that it fell down, transformed, as manna from heaven.


On the subject of Hindu-Muslim cohabitation in India, a subject that is loaded with violence, Anjum Hasan is a voice of grace. The novel is less about pointing fingers at one community than about the sanity that Alif aspires to:


‘Believe if you want to believe,’ says Alif, irritated. ‘Use your mind if you have one. Listen, you either read and hear a few things, the recommended things, and stick with them. Or you read everything and live in enlightened doubt.’


One must read History’s Angel to learn how to live in this “enlightened doubt”. At the same time, reading it would also require one to come to terms with the tragedy of demons of history outnumbering the angel.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.