Book Review: The Convert: A tale of Exile and Extremism

 Keeping up with her penchant for digging up and studying strange stories of strange personalities, biographer Deborah Baker (wife of author Amitav Ghosh) unearths yet another curious tale in her latest non-fiction work The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism.
 Amidst volumes of letters stocked in the archives of The New York Public Library, Baker stumbles upon the life of Margaret Marcus, a Jewish girl from New York, who embraced Islam at the age of 27 years and came to Pakistan to spend the rest of her life in exile as Maryam Jameelah. The eagerness to know what caused this drastic transition in a person triggers an instant interest in the book and as you read on, you realise that this biography is nothing short of a suspense novel, full of unexpected twists and turns.
 The story of Margaret aka Peggy coincides with the 20th century Islamic movement in India, which had a widespread reach, across the world. It traces the origins of Jihad, the Islamic struggle of establishing religious triumphs, which was fought with a much peaceful weapon at that time --- writings! And it was these writings that Margaret struck a strong identification with. As a complete misfit in Western society and culture, Margaret constantly looked for refuge in religious ideologies, those which were somewhere contradicting Christianity. Hence, after getting drawn to Judaism and coming out of it disappointed, she turned to Islam --- a religion that she believed satisfied her quest for absolute values and gave direction to not only her life but also death.
 Teaming up with Islamist thinker and her adopted father in Lahore, Maulana Abul A’la Mawdudi, the writings of whom had an overpowering influence on her, Margaret became one of the most distinctive voices of Jamaat-e-Islami. Like every fanatic though, she ceased to reason, slowly losing touch with reality. In a bid to get into the “heart of things”, she became a mere preacher, who failed to be a practitioner herself. Baker thus mocks her vehement critique of the West and argues about her tireless propaganda of Islamic principles at every step. Baker writes: “Margaret’s argument in support of the punishments for adultery or drinking or theft involved no interpretation, no higher legal principle than ‘the law is the law’.”
 Clearly this extremism without interpretation forms the crux of The Convert, which also throws light on the long drawn clashes between the East and West in the most effective way. Diving into beliefs of various religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Baker questions the very foundation of faith and how it is most often governed by our own insecurities and psychological problems. In case of Margaret too, the reader is stunned to learn about her schizophrenic condition, which Baker smartly hints at even if she consciously evades prodding into.
 Margaret’s story fused with the Pulitzer-finalist’s insightful and lucid commentary brings forth what lies at the core of most terror taking place worldwide. A book that starts by giving an impression of narrating a revolutionary chapter in history ends in a pitiable climax of a woman victimised by her own mind and many like her.
 Baker pulls off a winner with The Convert, tackling a complex subject with such finesse that she is able to lift many veils with regards to the one multilayered word, ‘religion’!


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