Umar, My Namesake

My name is Umar too. Umar, as in Umar Khalid. That is perhaps all that we share, and also our faiths (or rather the faiths we were born into), as well as the fact that both of us are Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students.

When he was detained, people would ask, ‘Aren’t you an Umar too?’

Here I was, a meek rice-eating South Indian with an incongruous Arabic name, which tickled some. I told them, there were two Umars. The Ur-Umar, where the name derives from, was the second Caliph. He is still a hero for many, for his valour and ruthlessness and unparalleled success in spreading his faith. The other was Umar-ibn-Abdul-Aziz, an Abbasid with a penchant for soft living, who turned frugal, pious and uppity once the Caliphate was conferred on him by chance. A softie of a Caliph if there ever was one.

History is a nightmare. And in early 2016, it was unfolding right in front of our eyes. There were people laying siege at the main entrance of the university. Even the rightwing supporters inside were looking miffed and sheepish with what was unravelling around us. And the man in the eye of the storm was Umar. Even people from the Left, in private conversations spoke of how foolish Umar was, and accused him of having skittered away a hard won ‘space’, borrowing their metaphor from some medieval battleground – the neophyte berserker who had let himself be whisked away, thus ruining the formation.

I saw Umar for the first time at the screening of a documentary Fire in Babylon, about the bygone glories of West Indian cricket – goosebump inducing and full of legends like Malcolm Marshall, Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Clive Lloyd. This was at the Centre for Historical Studies and the theme was test cricket.

One of the side effects of doing research is that you gather films from all over the place, till your hard drive becomes a veritable archive. Umar was the organiser of the event and was trying to set up the whole thing from his laptop, the contents of which could be seen projected onto the big screen. One of the many movies he had was Unthinkable. My heart skipped a beat.

Unthinkable is a 2010 Hollywood movie about torture; grievous, ‘unthinkable’ torture that just falls short of being porn. To say that ‘it is unwatchable’ would be putting it mildly. It has Michael Sheen as a Muslim man, Yousef, who claims to have planted bombs in three different locations and then deliberately conveys the info, sans the locations, to the police, who bring in a professional interrogator to torture him into divulging the locations.

As the torturer, played by Samuel L Jackson, begins his bloody work, all your worst fears come true in the first few moments. Medieval methods like the rack and the wheel are put to shame by a pair of pliers and a little knife. Then there is other equipment too, and also electricity. What really follows is the ‘unthinkable’. The man is divested of all his rights as a citizen.

Later on in the film, his folks are brought in and tortured before his eyes. This is the film which has the classic dialogue: “You can’t prosecute a man with no fingernails.”

Though very graphic, the film is basically about the ‘concept’ of violence and whether torture is justified in such extenuating circumstances. Unlike Umar, the protagonist in the film is guilty. But what is unsettling is the almost clinical depiction of torture, not as in horror movies like Saw or Hostel, full of gore and grime, but clinical and cerebral. The screenplay, not exactly Casablanca grade, proceeds along these lines:

Bad cop: You understand what I’m about to do to you?
… What? What? It’s only a finger.
What, not really a whole finger, it’s…

And later on:

Good cop: Physical torture doesn’t work.
Bad cop: So, I guess that’s why they’ve been using it since the beginning of human history, huh? For fun?

In one of his many YouTube lectures, Slavoj Zizek says that there are two kinds of torturers. The ones who do the actual dirty work – the pulling out of nails and electrocution etc. They are the pawns, the clogs in the machine – mostly henchmen with malfunctioning wetware and zero empathy.

Then there are the cerebral academic types who prepare the manuals, how much pain can be administered to extract information without causing death or grievous harm. Zizek then goes on to reveal the not so rosy prospects for the second type of torturer were he to meet good old Slavoj over a drink.

Zizekisms apart, the student organisation that Umar represented was not one that inspired much confidence. They essentially were a bunch of rich kids – the Bohemians, the quizzers, the seekers, the holier than thou – who would send spies around to check on how broken you were, but that is another story. But Umar had seen this movie. He had seen the unthinkable. He knew what these people were capable of doing. So he was not being foolish. He knew and he had braved it.

Umar was detained and then released. In his speeches afterwards, he stressed that he had not been tortured. As if all the shame in the world was contained in that one word. Not tortured. Not broken. Still a Marxist, and articulating a universal position for all of humanity.

Meanwhile, I went to Oxford for a short-term course and picked up a university T-shirt at a local store. Back home, I started to wear it around. In JNU, at a protest meet, I saw Umar. Our eyes met briefly. His were unfathomable. Here was a guy who could have been to Yale or another Ivy League iviversity, but chose not to.

Here is a man who has had to endure the unthinkable. Umar Khalid, my namesake.

Umar Nizarudeen is a student in JNU who writes occasional poems. His poems have been published by Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library and also broadcast by All India Radio. 

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty