Omair Ahmed's book Jimmy the Terrorist was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. However, it was in this short story with the same title that Jimmy was born and the blueprint of the eventual longer work exists as a kind of compressed burst of energy. It was evidence not only of masterful interior monologue but also a delicate assemblage of suspense. Jimmy (short for Jamaal) is an Indian Muslim, an identity upon which the Indian state has inscribed an unmediated and consistently legitimized violence. While the roots of this marginalization can be traced to the days of British colonialism, the era following Independence until now has been punctuated by multiple sporadic eruptions. Often just glossed over as rioting and spontaneous mob violence, this conflict has a history and a context. Persecution of Muslims in India is
widespread and can be located within the daily microaggressions that this population faces as well as in more deliberate political ideologies. As the protagonist realizes, there was "no great Cause which gave birth to Jimmy," but a rather long list of grievances. The story evokes the year 1992, when a right wing Hindu fundamentalist rally attempted to tear down the Babri mosque which they claimed was the birthplace of Hindu god and mythological character Rama. The rally progressively turned into an angry mob of over a hundred thousand people, and the violence that erupted here echoed all over the country. Muslims were targeted, rounded up, brutalized and killed. Retaliatory violence from the Muslim communities further exacerbated the situation. Police and political parties took sides and the country plunged into lawlessness for a few days. Curfews became the norm. While evoking this time period to some degree, Ahmed's short story really remains a psychological quest as the teenage protagonist struggles to connect with the world. In a Hamlet-like conundrum, his arousal to action only leads to a bitter end.
Jimmy the terrorist died where he was born: in the ghettoes of the mind. He had sprung full-grown, like Athena, into Jamaal’s mind, but unlike the goddess of wisdom he did spring out of the intelligence that gave birth to him. Maybe that is what happens to knowledge that is never communicated; it festers and rots, becomes a cannibalistic foetus eating its way to the freedom that it had been denied.
The birth happened suddenly. One day, out of nothing came the spark of self-knowledge, and Jamaal thought to himself, “I am Jimmy the terrorist.”
It was the first time that he had thought of himself by any other name. He was one of those odd people who had never had a nickname, certainly not “Jimmy.” Of course his mother called him something when he was a baby, Munnu or Chunnu, one of those nothing names, but she has been dead for some time now and what was the use of bringing up sad memories?
Nobody else became aware of it, but after that time when they looked at Jamaal, Jimmy the terrorist often looked back at them. No, that is not strictly true, some of them were aware that something else looked out of his eyes for a moment, now and then. But he had never been a gregarious type and they attributed the passing strangeness to their own nervousness at the quiet man.
People will complain. They will say that the T-word is too lightly used and too often thrown around, that it is prejudicial and should be avoided. But no other word will do. Euphemisms like “freedom fighter” or “rebel” or even “militant” are useless when it is a tag that Jimmy chose for himself. No one else labeled him thus, crowned him with this set of thorns; it was his choice entirely. He came with the tag attached.
It would have been difficult for any other label to apply to him anyway. He did not have any such cause. He did not jump into existence into the head of a Palestinian or a Chechen, but only into the mind of Jamaal, who was simply an Indian, and not even Kashmiri at that. There was no promised land to fight for, no centuries of oppression and repression. To speak then of liberation or rebellion would be an exercise of semantics far removed from reality.
No. Jimmy the terrorist was born for one reason and one reason only: it is what he wanted to be. It was his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Ah, but I am quoting the wrong Constitution, these are not things that the Indian Constitution promises. Certainly it is not something the Indian government has striven to offer, not to Jamaal. There was no great Cause which gave birth to Jimmy the terrorist, true, but the little causes and reasons that he had a list of. That the list was a full one is taken for granted. He was an Indian Muslim after all, with a grievance aimed at every actor in this world, and even a few reserved for the Actor beyond. He had his reasons alright.
There was the violence of the last decade. The dead century from whose corpse the jewelry of bright conviction was being stolen and re-forged into the endless weaponry of hate. The violence was somewhat subdued now, that is true, but simply because violence slumbers does not mean that it has become safe or can be hidden and neutralized into non-existence. It will only wake, hungry and feral, more truly itself after its long hibernation.
Jamaal’s memories ran deeper because of the age at which they were seared into his mind. He was a teenager during the curfew days and there is something obscene about knowing the face of your death at the age of fifteen. Those were the days when Jimmy the terrorist was seeded into his mind, although he remained unaware of the dark growth that would one day erupt from the memory of his teenage years, and his teenage fears.
Curfew fear is of a different quality than any other you can encounter. You can see the stains it leaves behind on those who have had it, a yellowing and tautness of the skin that is unmistakable. You can see it back behind the eyes, and a good doctor can detect it is as infallibly as malaria. And maybe that is another reason that people never really saw Jimmy the terrorist in Jamaal’s eyes; everyone was sick in those days, or recovering. Who wants to be reminded of their own failing health, especially when it is their humanity that is dying?
During the sickness, the curfew fear sits crouched in your living room feeding on slips of the tongue and growing more massive by the hour. You can try to shut yourself off from it but when you are jailed within your own house where can you escape? Its sweat grows rancid and penetrates every part of your life. The stink of it becomes a part of every piece of clothing you wear. Even when the curfew is finally lifted and you walk out of your house at last, you carry its stench wrapped around you in your clothes.
The worst of it is that it is not an unreasonable fear, but a fear of unreason. When the whole country burns, is it possible that one city, one person, should remain untouched? Is that not what it means to be a citizen, that when your motherland is in pain, you die a little too for all the deaths that happen out there? Bosnia and Rwanda were far away, but Jamaal and many others could have empathized, as they waited in India for the holocaust that did not happen, the Armageddon that would have marked the last decade of the millennium.
India had been convulsed in those days, as riots and police brutality had run before the Rath Yatra that made its way from New Delhi to Ayodhya. There were so many deaths that it was hardly even news. Everyone knew of the men and boys rounded up and shot at the banks of the riverside outside Meerut. It was Meerut, wasn’t it, or some other town near there? What does it matter? The dead were not lonely for long and the record of the Police Armed Constabulary was an unblemished crimson.
What do you do when rumor tells you that the mob has already left to gut and burn your mohalla and slaughter everyone who lives there? What do you do when you know the khaki of the police is the uniform of callous disregard, a cliff that you can batter your hands to pulp against, and still it will give you no shelter?
What do you do when you are told that the mob has left, when you know the name of the mohalla from which it has left, when you know your school friends live there and will be part of this maddened hundred-headed creature carrying axes, spears and tridents for you and your family?
There is something obscene in being fifteen years old and knowing the face of your death so well that you can draw in the details, when your classmate refuses to meet your eyes and you wonder if he is thinking about your murder. Jamaal learnt a lot in his high school years. You could say he learnt everything: everything that would one day make him Jimmy the terrorist.
It is impossible to recall how many times the fear came and passed. You do not count the day of your death; it is only supposed to happen once. There is that old cliché that a brave man dies only the one death while a coward dies many, many times. Maybe Jamaal was a coward then, and he died many times, but not, as they say, in reality. The mob that was always coming for them never actually arrived, and the PAC somehow never made it to their door collecting men and boys for target practice.
A new decade, a new century, dawned, and Jamaal found he was still alive.
When a dog bites a man, the man learns to fear. When a dog slavers, barks and howls at the sight of its prey, when it chases the man down the street and corners him against a wall and is then unexpectedly called back by its owner, what does the man learn?
Among the things that Jamaal learnt was that he should have been paying more attention to his studies than fearing for his life. Maybe somewhere in the world you can get a job when all you have is a modicum of ambition, a Bachelor’s degree in History and the ability to hide a kitchen knife on your person without letting it show. Maybe in a dreamed-of America he could have found a job, but this was India, where all he could find were exams that he was never going to pass. He was no genius and somehow he could never spend the hundred hours a week necessary to outstrip his contemporaries for the few jobs available. This was India, where a few hundred million struggle alongside you to find their place in a society that cannot feed them all. This was India, where to struggle is not so much your right or privilege, but a part of your very identity. This was India, where part of your nationality is the ability to sweat, and somehow Jamaal was no longer up to it.
He even missed the tech revolution, but it did not miss him. With no career and no ambition he found a job as a typist in a shop that needed someone whose English was good enough to compose letters for those endlessly applying for jobs, benefits, and so many other things.
Surprisingly enough he was a good, although a somber, typist on the computers. The little shop did good business with him there, and he even suggested a few words for lovers writing paeans of praise to their sweethearts in a language that was not their own. English is a mark of privilege, and a potential lover always aspires to sophistication. Jamaal had read many poems as part of his English literature classes, and he plagiarized shamelessly. No doubt that Keats and Byron would be as bemused by the potential lovers as the lovers were with the words that Jamaal suggested.
Jamaal did well, and his boss, who had hired him because he knew Jamaal’s father, was pleased by the choice and even gave Jamaal a small raise after his third month there.
And then one day Jimmy the terrorist was born.
It was a small incident that led to the birth, nothing out of the ordinary in northern India. A small group of men came to the shop and demanded to see the owner. He came hurriedly, because that is how good men respond when faced by a group of young men in saffron bandanas wielding staffs and tridents.
Their leader said simply, “We are collecting money for the temple.”
He did not have to mention which temple, or who they were. There is only one temple that is being built in India that needs armed men to collect money for it. There is only one temple whose foundations will be paid for by money collected from people like the owner of the typist shop, a frightened man paying a tax to someone else’s god.
The owner of the shop, though, was neither theologian nor lawyer. He simply reached into his drawer and withdrew a hundred rupee note, about as much as Jamaal earned in a day, and dropped it into the tin presented before him.
The leader of the troop sneered, and then turned and walked across the road with his little following to the next shop. There were policemen at the crossroads; they respectfully greeted the saffron bandanas.
Jamaal did not even realize he was weeping until the owner came up to him and said that maybe he should go for a tea break. But Jamaal could only sit there and weep for the hopes he had had and the future he had seen.
Maybe it was his education that was to blame. He should never have studied history. In India it is a subject of hope, of promises and dreams. When you read Indian history you end by saying, “At last, now we are free. Now is our time. Now the world will see.”
It is not that there is no mention of the poverty and pain that exists in the country, the exploitation, the corruption and the misery, but after being the slaves of the English for so long, any dawn when the sun does not rise on British lands is a good one. And tomorrow can only be better than yesterday; that is what the history books promise.
Jamaal had seen that day what his tomorrow would be. He could see himself taking out the money and putting it into the tin. He knew that he did not have the strength to oppose this, and the state would look at him from across the street, all dressed in official khaki, and pay respects to his intimidators.
That was the day that Jamaal realized that all he had been taught in his classes were lies. There can be worse days than the ones that have passed, and that being exploited by your own is infinitely more evil than being exploited by strangers.
That was the day that Jimmy the terrorist was born.
Jamaal did not realize it until later. When the pain had lessened he had realized that it had swept away blockages in his heart and his mind, and another part of him was shouldering its way through. That day when he was sitting at his house, Jimmy the terrorist rose up within him and walked to the kitchen. He took the
knife out the drawer, that old knife that he remembered so well, and he stuck it next to himself in that old way. The metal was cold against his skin for a moment, and then it remembered its home.
Why Jimmy? Why Jimmy the terrorist?
There really is no answer to that question. Neither Jamaal nor Jimmy the terrorist lived long enough to answer, but there are guesses. Jimmy was a foreign name, and when you are preyed on by your own, everything you know becomes unpalatable, even names. As to why Jimmy the terrorist, that is a deeper question. It might have been the curfew fear layered deep within his soul, it might have been the optimism that had curdled, it might have been all that terror that he himself had felt and had never been able to share. In a tortuous way you could see it as generosity, as Jamaal tried to give to the world everything that he had been gifted with.
Maybe the knife would have been the end of it. Jamaal would have walked to work with Jimmy the terrorist hidden within him, clutched the knife, the grip weakening day by day. Once in a while a certain word, a certain sentence would have brought Jimmy the terrorist bounding up into Jamaal’s eyes, only to fade, disappointed. It could not have lasted long. Jamaal was getting older, and all his contemporaries were married. Domesticity would have bled the anger away from him, and in the delight of his children he would have forgotten the name of Jimmy the terrorist. He would have become the father of real children and not of some noxious fumes in his head.
It was not meant to be.
He went to see a movie instead. It was called, “Bandit Queen” and was based on the life story of Phoolan Devi, a lower caste woman dacoit who had risen to prominence and notoriety in a region that cared little for women or the lower castes. He had not been able to summon up the energy to watch it the first time it was shown, despite the great controversy and rave reviews about the film. Now that it was being shown at one of the cheaper movie theatres, it seemed like a more reasonable investment, and would not be much of a loss if he did not like it.
It could be that other things were working also, who knows? There are those that believe there is a Fate in our life, moving us to the paths we take, but if it is easy to believe in Fate then why should there be only one? A hundred thousand destinies could be stalking through humanity, picking and choosing, raising up and discarding. It could be that more than one works on a single person, and what happens if their interests collide? What happens to the puppet when the puppeteers clash?
The movie was a rebirth for Jamaal. A harsh story, brutally told, it dragged him out from a decade of sniveling self-absorption. The pain that had allowed him to believe that he was somewhat special was rendered petty and shallow, and for the first time since he had hidden under his bed from the fear of the mobs that never came, Jamaal saw someone else’s pain.
He could not accept it. At the scene of a rape, taking place in the drab violence of the broken countryside, Jamaal staggered to his feet and blindly burst forth from the movie theatre.
The air was chill and cleared his mind for a second, and then he saw the policemen and the woman.
He did not have to be told that she was a prostitute; there are things even an unworldly young man in a small town learns to tell. It probably would not have mattered much to him if he had known that the violence being inflicted on her was less than nothing to her; her uncle had inflicted much greater punishment when he forced her into the trade at the age of fourteen. This was only friendly persuasion, and the result of her own mistake. She had heard that there were customers to be had where this particular movie was being played and she needed the money. She should have realized that every area has its own predators, and these policemen were not the usual ones she paid off.
The head constable was the one who saw Jamaal first. He was not so focused on the woman and had left the task of her education to his two juniors. As befitted a man of his rank, he watched and directed. Jamaal’s exit from the theatre had been covered by the noise of the movie running inside the hall. This was not one of those posh places with soundproof walls, and the doors had been left open; but as Jamaal stepped into the light the policeman saw him out of the corner of his eye and turned.
The head constable was somewhat bored, and a little frustrated. He owed his superiors some money and he had thought that the woman would have something for him, but the little whore had nothing except pleas for mercy. The young man coming out of the movie theatre became a natural target of his irritation.
“What do you think you are looking at?” he said to Jamaal, and then leered, “You want a little?”
Jamaal spat. It did not come out exactly how he had anticipated. His mouth was too dry with sudden rage, and the spittle sprayed across the head constable’s face.
The policeman did not react for a second; he was that surprised. The two constables had turned at the sound of his voice, and now were stock-still. When the head constable finally spoke his voice was clear and unruffled.
“Chaudhri, Bhave, see that the haraamzada doesn’t escape,” he said to his men, and then addressed Jamaal in a soothing, even loving, voice, “Now, my little one, let us see about you.”
As they moved to hem Jamaal around, the policeman said, again in that soft, affectionate tone, “Now tell me your name, little boy.”
Jamaal should have run then. He was young, and fast. It is possible that he would have gotten away. This had all been a mistake. He had never been someone to start trouble, he could do something, escape. But the Fates rode him at that time then, and the knife that he always carried nudged him.
He moved so fast that Bhave would swear later that Jamaal must have already been carrying the knife in his hand, and that cheap work of wood and steel finally found a home.
“Madarchod,” Jimmy shouted as the blade sank into the khaki-covered belly of the head constable, “My name is Jimmy the terrorist.”
They beat him down until he could not stand, and then they kicked him, shattering teeth, tearing skin, and rupturing organs with their boots. At some point Jamaal flopped into unconsciousness, and a sharp kick broke his neck. They went on kicking him long after he was already dead, and Jimmy the terrorist with him.
It was only the whimper of the head constable that brought them back to their senses after a quarter of an hour, after a lifetime of retribution. The head constable was sitting on the pavement with the knife protruding out of his belly. When Jamaal had been struck down, the force had wrenched the knife out a little way and the blood was slowly spreading. The head constable had been in shock for those long minutes of Jamaal’s death, but when the blood drenched his pants and invaded his underwear the sensation brought a mewl of fear out of him.
Three weeks later the head constable received an award for valor by the Chief Minister as he sat painfully in the hospital bed.
No one asked who Jamaal had been, where he was born, or what he did, but Jimmy the terrorist was listed, his death reported, and maybe that is the important thing.
Omair Ahmad is an Indian writer whose novel Jimmy the Terrorist (on which the short story was based) won the Vodafone Crossword Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. He grew up in Saudi Arabia and India, earning degrees in international politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Syracuse University before working as a journalist and political analyst. His publications include two novels, a novella, a book of short stories, and most recently, a nonfiction book on the history of Bhutan.