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Filmmaker Mansoor Khan’s new novel questions civilisation and existence

Mansoor Khan’s new novel, ONE: The Story of the Ultimate Myth, explains how living in harmony with nature is the actual way forward. However, its activist and argumentative tone doesn’t offer solutions or balance.

Filmmaker Mansoor Khan’s new novel questions civilisation and existence

Friday September 15, 2023,

5 min Read

Filmmaker Mansoor Khan might not be instantly recognisable to the Instagram generation. Back in the 80s, Khan shaped our imagination with the Romeo-Juliet-like tragic love story Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), and the high-school drama Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). Both were cultural moments besides being huge hits.

Khan, an IIT Bombay, Cornell, and MIT graduate, then left it all behind to take up organic farming in Coonoor, rarely making a public appearance.

Now, Khan has penned a short novel, ONE: The Story of the Ultimate Myth. It is about the perennial debate around civilisation and progress manipulating nature.

With the tool of a book within a book, Khan builds a deep and complex argument against separating human beings from nature through development and civilisation. A close look at the very existence of human beings in their natural state and their natural home, planet Earth, drives home a cyclical point. Humans chose to break with nature when progress interfered and civilisation took charge with innovation and development.

The story centres on two protagonists–Sonal and Dr Abhay–both deemed insane and unsuitable to fit into norms of behaviour in modern society. Their decision to not follow the preset path of social approval and professional growth makes them sizable misfits, so much so that they can be separated from the world around them. In highlighting their situation, the book highlights the anxiety that a corporatised, business and money-driven world can create in the human mind. Anyone who thinks differently is just kept ‘outside’ of society’s approved spaces.

The story of the protagonists takes off to a banal start. But it weaves its way into Khan’s larger argument about the ONE. Using terms like OneCulture, he argues that the perception of civilisation-that nature needs to be tamed, corrected, and manipulated for human progress and better quality of life-is flawed.

Khan draws from the ways of life of tribals who prefer isolation to integration to explain that living in harmony with nature is the actual way forward. From the time of lighting the first fire to this age where climate change has caused irreversible damage to planet Earth, the human desire to develop and progress has systematically plundered natural resources, destroyed forests, animals, organic life in soil and in water bodies, and has shamelessly killed anyone that doesn’t toe the line.

As the story progresses, the protagonists work quietly to strike a balance between nature and civilisation, and work to break the limits of ‘boundary science’ that modern times have put, in the heart of Mumbai. When the results of their efforts are discovered, will they be applauded or banished, perhaps even locked up for insanity?

Khan’s argument can’t be criticised as wrong. Much of what he writes here, along with an independent theory on the verges of social anthropology, has proven to be true. But the point of view of his protagonists, and therefore this book of analysis within the novel, is one-sided and imbalanced. Some of the local context about nature being upended for development and indigenous people suffering has roots in his family’s experience.

Movie star Aamir Khan, who is his cousin, has written a blurb that makes it to the book’s cover. His attempts at activism during the Narmada Bachao Andolan find its reflection in this book with a similar incident that affects Sonal. His focus on the corruption of natural soil with fertilisers and genetically modified organism (GMO) crops comes from his determined attempt to build a sustained organic farm. That the planet is dying rapidly, and most people have put on blinders to live a narrow comfortable life, rings true. Having said that, to reduce civilisation, or to not address the human desire for self-preservation, isn’t mentioned in this book.

It is a quick read, yes. But it is also an inadequate read. Khan does well in picking holes in theories like ‘The Butterfly Effect’, or ‘Black Swan Events’. These oft-used argumentative terms don’t hold up to basic scrutiny. But he doesn’t provide a viable alternative to the damage done by civilisation. He also doesn’t offer the perspective of potential corrections in ways of living or national challenges like feeding a burgeoning population or vaccinating a huge number of people against a pandemic. Some of the arguments, like pandemics and diseases being a consequence of development, also feel inadequate. Their correlation to development isn’t explained properly.

However, Khan’s explanation of money and wealth and their reductionist impact on society is well done. It feels refreshing to see the simplicity behind the mechanism of wealth creation as a non-essential tool for human life to survive. Perhaps we all know it but can’t quite imagine a world without it.

In the age of quick reads and short books, this book can be finished smoothly and swiftly. As for its writing and content, the activist and argumentative angle brings it gravitas. But a balancing of this argument would have elevated it to an informative and well-written book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Edited by Megha Reddy