1. We would like to know about your journey as a historian...
I sometimes think that it was my experience with immigration that made me interested in history. Having been born and grown up in East Africa, I had to make sense of my identity as an Indian, not least because the name had become a kind of abuse in the 1970s. This was a time when 'Asians', as we were known in English, and Indians or 'Wahindi' in Kiswahili, were being accused of dominating the economies of these newly-independent African countries by corrupt means, and to the detriment of their indigenous majorities. As Indians were expelled from Uganda, those of us living in neighboring states were made ever more anxious, and eventually many were encouraged to leave by a mixture of legal incentives and threats. How and why did this happen, I wondered as a child, and what role did an India I'd never seen have in this history?
2. Why did you choose to write about India and Pakistan?
Having emigrated to Canada, I had to deal with other perceptions of what being Indian meant, and also to come to terms with others of Indian descent there who had no connection with East Africa and didn't belong to its largely Gujarati and Punjabi communities. Being called by a name meant that I either had to refuse it altogether, which many people of my age did, or answer to it and thus be compelled to own the identity. I think that was the origin of my interest in India. It had little to do with some nostalgia for an ancestral land, though of course we were fed with stories of Mumbai and Gujarat by grandparents and other relatives who had been born, visited or brought up there. And whereas in East Africa, the name Indian referred to an ethnic and indeed civilisational identity rather than a national one, in the West it was always the Indian state with which we had to engage, even though we were not its citizens.
3. Would you like to throw some light on your book : "The terrorist in search of Humanity"?
My book was an attempt to think about the new Islamic militancy of Al-Qaeda in terms of globalization. For while commentators repeatedly described it as being global in character, very few took that description seriously enough to analyse the phenomenon in terms of what I argued was the new global arena that came to light with the end of the Cold War. Instead scholars and journalists were much more interested in medieval history and theology, whereas I thought that much of Al-Qaeda's strength came from the same resources that defined globalisation more generally, from financial and technological instruments to popular culture. In my view the globalisation of Islam was a sign not of its strength or 'revival' but weakness, since it was unable to maintain its historical integrity and spread instead as a set of disconnected fragments. The book dealt with the way in which these militants made a claim on the universal through the figure of humanity, whose supposed victimhood Islam was said to represent.
4. What do you think is the role of literature festival?
A literary festival is not a conference but a celebration of books and writing. It is meant not to impart knowledge so much as make conversations possible between those who love reading. It is, in other words, an event dedicated to pleasure and its varying intensities rather than to learning, though of course there is plenty of learning available in festivals as well, but only ever as a side show. Unlike most cultural events having to do with art, cinema or theater, however, a literary festival isn't a performance to be enjoyed by an audience, but precisely a conversation and sometimes a cacophony of people sharing their interests, a bit like collectors of stamps, coins or other objects. It is always informal and democratic, and isn't weighed down by expectations of specialist knowledge or the duty of appreciation. Of course such events are also leveraged or 'enriched' by cities, corporations and other hosts or donors to encourage tourism, make profits and the like.