On Writing

Gentle Readers,

Today, Sep 19th, marks the official janam din for A Book of Conquest. In light of this occasion, some thoughts on writing it.

Where I started:

The book began as my dissertation but it bears only a faint resemblance to that document. Most critically, I jettisoned much of the analytical framework that was there for the dissertation (memory) as well as the focus of that text (Muhammad bin Qasim). This was due to conversations, readings and publishing decisions that occurred in the year after the dissertation was finished. Since 2012, I published two journal articles which resembled the task of the book but, nothing that would go directly into a new manuscript. In essence, I was starting the book from scratch (which was my preference).

Workflow:

The first thing that confronted me was the mechanics of writing and the workflow. I had some criteria: I wanted my work to always be accessible no matter how many years in the future. I wanted to produce different forms of documents from the same source text. I wanted to have version controls and document forks (basically that I could amend a particular text and have those versions available). For the first, there is only one choice, which is to write in plain text (think your notepad or textedit). Yet, as scholars we also need to do headings, italics, footnotes etc, so we need some light markup. Hence, Markdown, coupled with YAML provides everything one may need.

Markdown has grown tremendously since I used a version of it for the dissertation writing in 2008 (via Scrivener). The availability of Pandoc meant that producing a .pdf or .docx file from my markdown (.md) files would not a hassle. (To learn about Plain Text/future-proofing your work, see this introduction). So the workflow at the outset was to write in a lightweight text editor (I used Sublime Text but you can also try Atom or really any plain text editor) and then use pandoc to produce a pdf for sharing/proofing. I used a GitHub repository (and Google Drive as backup) to keep the files and version control. (If you use Atom, it helps with that).

Once I had a chapter draft complete– meaning all the text I’d imagine writing, plus all citations, and some preliminary copyediting– the file would move into an “Alpha” folder. It was only at this stage that I had friends read that chapter and offer any feedback/suggestions for revisions. I would then make those revisions and give that file to my editor for copy-edits. When that file would get back, I would move it into the “Beta” folder. The Beta folder– with the .md files converted into .docx according to the Press’s specifications was submitted to the Press.

Co-Presence:

A colleague and I began the writing process together. We did so after a number of conversations about the solitude and stress that long writing projects induce. We did not have a lot of science behind this, except the understanding that much of academic self-presentation is masochism, self-aggrandization and needless self-harm. We began with the idea of “co-presence” as a way of both motivation and solidarity but also re-thinking writing as a solitary pursuit. We were lucky that we both had offices in adjacent buildings. So we alternated our writing– a day in one office followed by a day in the other.

We belong to different disciplines and were writing different books so there was not much of an overlap there. However, we did some things like share the number of words written that day; share coffees, lunches and walks around the blocks; think out aloud any problems or issues with the writing. The solidarity of co-presence was perhaps the most critical strength through very long, rough, patches. Soon after we started, a number of other colleagues joined in co-presence and everyone worked under the same set of guidelines (workworkwork).

Chalkboards

In terms of writing, I am a visual thinker. So I invested in a small erase-board (picked it up on the street) and also worked in a room that had a chalkboard. I would draw argument flows constantly and those chalkboards would help me think as I wrote the sections/subsections. It really helped me especially when I would get stuck because I knew where I was (visually). (Incidentally, this is why I worked in SublimeText because it shows a visual map of the document)

Form:

In the last decade, I have written around 1.5 million words for this blog. Add on another 40k for opinion pieces, review essays and such for other media (print or online). Add another 170k for a dissertation and a book. Add some 40k for articles in academic journals. Add some more in 140 character bites for twitter. My one take-away from all that writing has been that each medium, message, requires its own form. Further, that forms should never be consecrated or calcified. Knowing when to be obedient to form and when to rebel is, thus, a necessary skill.

For the book, I did extensive fieldwork between 2011 and 20014 in Uch Sharif. My method consisted primarily of long walks and conversations. It informed my understanding of the contemporary world but it also informed the types of questions I was bringing to bear on the medieval text. I needed to make sure that the resultant book bore witness to this process but also to the friends and helpers I encountered in Uch Sharif and Ahmedpur Sharkia.

It was thus a natural decision to introduce myself as a participant into the text of the book. I did not hesitate with that decision and each chapter organically opened up with a small contemporary incursion into Uch Sharif. I hope the readers will see the logic and necessity of that move– as a method and as a ethic. I believe, and have argued, that the texture of the scholarly work ought to reflect the texture of the evidence that it is built upon. Artifacts of the past and present– their form, shape, appearance, structure– informs the secondary analysis and revisitation that we understand as scholarly work. Any number of critical voices are available to buttress this observation– Gloria Anzaldua, Carolyn Steedman, Greg Dening, Quratulain Hyder– being those particularly trenchant examples.

Alongside the form, is the notion of the audience, the framework, the “whats-at-stake” sets of issues. At least for me, there were specific conversations with senior colleagues and my Editor which clarified my own particular answers and which ended up being the “frame” for the book. I am really grateful for those conversations in shaping the work.

Publishing:

Some of my concerns were that the book be available in South Asia and that the Press be able to put out a reasonably priced volume. Being a first book author in the academic scene is a hard task for any of us in that position. Harvard University Press was a genuine pleasure to work with and I am very happy with the final product. If people are interested, I can post more about the publication process and/or the publishing scene for medieval South Asia in particular (though, frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of us).

Still, I tried to think forward through the process. Through a departmental initiative, I participated in a manuscript workshop where a set of senior faculty gave me invaluable feedback and corrections. Through a grant, I paid for copy-editing before the text went out to reviewers to get it into some good shape. These two things, I think, made the rest of the review process easier. I made an effort to meet every single deadline on the publication schedule (submission, reader responses, copy-edits, proof-edits, indexing) so that I did not insert delays in the process. I paid for services outside the publishing process (pre-submission copy-edit and indexing) via grants that I applied for (institutional). This was a luxury that I had, and I took advantage of it.

The whole process took 18 months during which I also taught three courses. Some of that period was easier and some was rougher but it went, more or less, according to the plan I sketched out in November 2014. That plan was what saved me in the darkness.

I hope you read the book and I hope this above is of some usage. Thank you, as always, for reading.

A Book of Conquest

Gentle Readers,

It has been a while since we last spoke and much has happened– good and notgood– and I have been remiss with my absence. In a few short weeks you will be able to buy my book, A Book of Conquest from your online or retail bookseller in US, EU and South Asia.

I finished writing the book in earnest last August (2015) and submitted it to the Press. It took until around May for copy-editing and indexing and other things to get set– and almost exactly a year to the date, I have the physical book in my hand. That feels amazing (and actually it is amazing given usual publication schedules are 18 months).

What can I say about the book: It is mostly the history of a Persian text, Chachnama which was written around 1220s. It is mostly a history of the region of Sind from the 9th to the 13th century. It is mostly about a political theory that existed before the Mughals and about which we know little (in general). It is mostly about the notion that Muslims are outsiders to South Asia. It is mostly about how we seek answers in origins (wrongly). It is mostly about a method of doing history as post-partitioned subjects. It is mostly what I wanted to say and I am glad that I was able to say it and I am grateful that you will be able to read it.

I was planning on writing some short posts about the mechanics of the book writing and publishing and whatever I learned from it. I say “was” mainly because I am drowning in other writing assignments and classes are about to start so I don’t know how/when I will get to it. Yet, it is a priority and I will.

In the meanwhile, this note is meant to say:

There will be some more book-related news in the next few months.

Poetry Management

Shubham Shree[Shubham Shree’s irreverent Hindi poem “Poetry Management” has been awarded the 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize by renowned Hindi author Uday Prakash to howls of rage from the Hindi poetic establishment. Below, I share my translation of the poem, and Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral explains what’s got them so mad. Urdu readers can check out Aftab Ahmad‘s translation by clicking here. Many thanks to Hindi poet Asad Zaidi, editor of Three Essays Collective, for introducing me to Shubham Shree’s work and to Aftab Ahmad for invaluable translation assistance.]

 

Poetry Management
By Shubham Shree

(Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell)

Writing poetry is bogus!
Yeah, and useless!
Totally.

Unprofessional profession!
Part time!
Why didn’t I do some MBA-type thing?
It’d be a blast, man!
I’d write a poem; the SENSEX would fall
The poet Mr. So-and-So has written a poem against capitalism
The SENSEX has fallen
Chatter on the channel
This is an example of the fall of American imperialism
Will America be able to control poets inspired by Venezuela?
Assurance from the Finance Minister:
Have faith, small-time investors!

The RBI will immediately increase the repo rate
Hubbub in the media
A contemporary poetry collection is coming out:
What do you think, how will the common man, the aam aadmi, deal with this collection?
SMS your response to us
But hey, the glory of the CPO (Chief Poetry Officer) will skyrocket!
Ads will show up for every program:
Reliance Digital Poetry
makes life poetic
Tata poetry–
every word just for you
People will hang poetry in their drawing rooms
Ooh, it’s so lovely!
Seems like something by someone from Sahitya Akademi!
No, sir, it’s imported
The original is worth millions of dollars
This one’s a copy
Children will write essays:
When I grow up I want an MPA
LIC Poetry Insurance:
Your dream is ours too
DU, Poetry Honors, cut-off sky-high
The girls have come in first again
in the PAT (Poetry Aptitude Test) exams
Students have burnt the VC in effigy
protesting PAT reservation cheating
Approval granted for eight new poetry institutes
At only three years of age, three thousand poems memorized:
India’s tiny miracle
America, anxious about the situation in Iran–
defeated by the Farsi poetic tradition!

This is All India Radio
Now you’ll hear the news in Hindi from Seema Anand
Namaskar!
Today the Prime Minister departs for a three-day International Poetry Conference
All the country’s poetry groups are participating
The Foreign Minister made it clear that India will not change its poetry policy for any price
The India-Pakistan Poetry Negotiations were again unsuccessful
Pakistan demands India retract its claims on Iqbal, Manto and Faiz
China again tested new poetic adornments
Sources say these adornments will now create the most powerful
poetry collections in the world
India’s foremost poetry producer, Mr. Wandering Lover—Ashiq Awara—died at dawn today
More attacks on Dalit poets in Utter Pradesh today
In the meantime, in games, for the third time running, India
has won the gold medal in Antakshari
India won the match in straight sets, 6-5, 6-4, 7-2
That’s the news for today!

Today’s Hindu, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagaran, Prabhat Khabar
The kids are going crazy for the latest poetic hairstyles
Poetesses share their short and long vowel secrets
30-year-old MPA boy—seeks homely, convent-educated, traditional bride
25-year-old MPA girl: fair, slim, tall—seeks suitable groom

Dude, this is fun
Keep talking
I’m gonna be a hero
Handing out autographs everywhere I go
It’s gonna be awesome, dude
Shut up, man
Third Division MA
Who’s gonna pay for an MPA?
Enough of your bullshit!
Sit down and proofread

Continue reading “Poetry Management”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Singh

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
Aug 21– Author’s response
***
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Atiya Singh is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Currently, she is working on her manuscript entitled, “The Vicissitudes of Democracy in Pakistan.”
***

 

Photo Courtesy: Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/1270214
Photo Courtesy: Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/1270214

A recent New York Times article, Posters in Pakistan Urge a General to Take Control of the Government, (July 15, 2016) reveals a not-so-astonishing demand of the masses of Pakistan requesting the military to establish control of the government—“For God’s sake, take over.” The gist of this slogan was further captured in a statement issued by Rana Jafar Ali, President of a political party, Move On Pakistan: “Civilians are corrupt. They only fear the military.” Both the posters and Jafar Ali’s statement resonate with the sentiment of most people in Pakistan, whether they belong to the Left or to the right. It comes as no surprise when conservative forces pledge allegiance to the rule of the army, but how are we to understand the Left’s flirtation with authoritarianism?

The history of Pakistan provides several instances of the Left conceding to the ideological stance of the right. Before delving into the details of this history, it will be useful for us to keep in mind that on the whole the South Asian Left—Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.—was a direct expression of the ideological orientations existing within International Marxism. The rise of Stalinized communism in the 1930s signaled a shift in the idea of socialism away from overcoming capitalism, understood as an international and world historical phenomenon, toward the struggle for “socialism in one country.” This had significant consequences for the Left in regions that had struggled to find their national identity under colonialism. The story of the Left in India and Pakistan unfolds in this historical context. Anyone studying the history of the Left therefore has to contend with the implications of the legacy of Stalinism as a political problem that has continued, in the words of Marx, to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism, 1947–1972, wrestles with the predicaments of leftist politics in post-independence Pakistan. The example of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), and later other variations of leftist politics that emerged in the form of the National Awami Party (NAP) and the Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP), reveal problems in relating struggles for democracy with the struggle for socialism. Ali claims to recover the lost narrative of the Left in Pakistan’s history in order to uncover a series of political struggles led by the Left for the institution of democracy in the country. Undoubtedly, his narrative account has brought to light the unknown and forgotten tale of hardships confronted by a number of cadres, unions, and intellectuals at the hand of the state; the details of torture in the prisons are painfully vivid. In retrospect, confronting such extraordinary sacrifices, one is left to wonder how these martyrs understood their own political role. What did Marxism mean to these leftists? It is this conception of Marxism that needs to be directly addressed in Ali’s framework.
Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Singh”

To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock

[@sepoy notes: I am grateful to Gayathri Raj and the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, where this interview first appeared, to allow re-printing it here on CM.]

Sheldon Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He was the general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and is the founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India. A famed Indologist, his scholarship focuses on the hermeneutics of Sanskrit texts. He was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian honors bestowed by the Republic of India, in 2010. His involvement with the Murty Classical Library has spawned a petition demanding he be removed from his post as editor in chief.

Gayathri Raj recently graduated from Columbia University. She does not want you to know what her major is, but sometimes she reads Sanskrit. She enjoys listening to M S Subbulakshmi and Oum Kalthoum.

Gayathri Raj: This issue is on myth, all kinds of myth, so I wanted to talk about national myths, given current events. I’ll start with the first question: the big pink elephant in the room, the petition that has been written on change.org demanding to remove you from Murty Classical Library

Sheldon Pollock: I was very tempted to sign that petition myself.

GR: [laughs] Why is that?

SP: My first reaction was, “Thank god, finally a way to get out from under all the crushing work of this project! [laughter] Then my second reaction was, are these people deranged? The suggestion that an obscure professor of Sanskrit off in the middle of nowhere could be a threat to the integrity of the great nation of India, simply because I signed a letter in support of students who have been arrested for nothing more than demonstrating their freedom of expression—- I thought that was utterly delusional. The third reaction has come slowly, and it’s more serious. It’s a little more nuanced and complicated. What is it in contemporary India that could produce such an ignorant, hostile document?

I’m very concerned about the source of this hostility and ignorance and how to address it in a manner that is progressive and salutary, that produces not more conflict but cooperation. So I’m not angry. I’m intrigued and worried about the cultural and psychological sources of the anger and shame that are evident in that document. When I refer to shame, I mean shame among people about the loss of their own cultural knowledge. Shame that it is virtually impossible to produce in India. a series of the quality of the Murty Classical Library. That fact is the result of a deep historical…I don’t want to say robbery, but loss. There is the shame of, “Oh, here’s this guy talking about power, domination, inequality, and hierarchy, and we don’t want to talk about that, we want to just talk about flying saucers in the Vedas and ancient plastic surgery, but here comes along this mean Orientalist.” But my sense is that the true shame that is motivating and empowering the document is the ignorance of things that people’s grandfathers and grandmothers knew which they no longer know. They’ve lost it, and how can they possibly get it back? I may be wrong: maybe too much psychology. But that is my sense of things.

Sheldon Pollock with T V Venkatachala

Continue reading “To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan

 

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago.
Aug 14– Author’s response
***
Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Arvind Elangovan, Assistant Professor of History, Wright State University.

 

A Defiant History

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan is a towering testament to the presence of a once vibrant brand of left politics in Pakistan. Ali’s probing, sympathetic, and yet critical account leaves none in doubt about the genuineness and promise of the communist project of emancipation or at the very least fulfill its potential to be the critical voice of Pakistan. However, as Ali illustrates, the communist project could not achieve either of these ends. Instead, ‘bigger’ imperatives such as the need to create and maintain the integrity of the state of Pakistan through a strict enforcement of nationalist and religious inspired rhetoric and the geo-political maneuvers of the United States and Great Britain in their interests of the fight in the cold war severely affected not only the trajectory of left politics but also entangled the movement in contradictions almost from the beginning. The resulting tensions also contributed to the swift decline of left politics.

However, Ali’s aim is not merely to record the contextual decline of left politics in Pakistan as a minor part of a grander narrative of Pakistan’s political history in the postcolonial period. Instead, it is a defiant account of a once influential strand of Pakistan’s political fabric that even in its ‘ruins’ dares to emit a beacon of hope for the present and future generations. This defiance can be seen in both the methodology that Ali employs as well as in the substance of his narrative. Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan”

Nanu’s Poetry

[sepoy notes: A lovely memorial below via Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah who is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. The 2016 Literature Humanities Preceptor Teaching Award recipient, Sahar is currently completing her dissertation “The Poetics of the Amatory Prelude in the Post-Classical Arabic-Islamic Encomium.]

Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011
Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011

Written by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah
Dedication: In memory of our matriarchs, their lovers, and their poetry
Written Friday, 9 May 2014 // 9 Rajab 1435

Seven summers had passed when I returned to Bangladesh with my family as a new bride of one winter and spring.

The Nanu I met that Dhaka visit was entirely different from the one I had known previously. During the years I was away studying in Egypt I had learned, via long phone conversations, that a terrible trauma had silenced her for months. Yet this Nanu, the matriarch of my maternal line including the eight women and men she carried and raised and the others who departed before seeing adulthood, still had much to say.  

This Nanu– who had awakened from her long comatose silence– was awakened as a poet.

Hundreds of verses she memorized as a child poured out. At times, she composed her own free verse. Other times she gave verses from her childhood schoolbooks her own personal touch. When in a good mood, she had couplets, longer poems, and rhymed stories ready in response to everyone and everything. Seemingly her selected poetic choices appeared to be flippant, but I like to believe they were actually precise. She could be playfully mischievous but at any moment– when Nanu was filled with sadness by a memory or thought– she would simply recite:

ভেঙ্গে গেল আমার স্বপ্নের ফুল 
ছিড়ে গেল আমার বিনার তার 
মর্ম উঠিয়া আমার হাহাকার

The flower of my dream is broken
My instrument’s string is torn
Such is the depth of my sorrow

When I returned as a six months newly-wed to Nanu the poet, she shared with me for the first time the great love between her and Nur Miah–the grandfather I never met. He had passed away almost twenty-five years before in Dharmapur on the bed he had made for them.

She dreamt of him often, and her dreams would leave her in a particular mood for the entire day.

Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014
Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014

One morning, in a bout of anger, she stubbornly refused to eat breakfast. When my aunt gently coaxed her to eat, she said Nur Miah would not share his bowl of rice with her AGAIN and had THE NERVE to wink and smile the entire time. I realized she had awakened from a vision of him–and we all began to imagine that we knew him.

Drawn into her world, we missed him more than ever before. We imagined this man whom she first saw approaching her parent’s home in Baraipur on a white horse must have been incredibly charming.

“What did you think when you first saw him, Nanu?” I’d ask her.
She’d smile, “I liked the horse very much.”
“Was he handsome?” I’d ask her. 
“Oh, I was stunning.”

Once, when I was lying down beside her, she recounted a conversation she had with him. They were discussing where they would like to be buried after they had passed on. When she cried that she didn’t want to be alone, he told her he would find her even in the grave. Then she said Nur Miah would recite:

তুমি যদি হইতা চাঁদ
আমি হইতাম সূর্
প্রথম প্রভাতে উঠিয়ে
নয়ন খুলিয়ে
আমরা একী সাথে থাক্থাম 

If you were the moon
I would be as the sun’s ray
At the first break of dawn
When eyes open (from slumber)
We would be as one. 

That summer, Nanu determined that my signature poem– the poem she loved most for me to recite to her again and again (and again)– would be the one she recited to Nur Miah when he would return home after a long trip. Each time, the conversation would go like this,

“Do you know what I’d tell him when he would come home?”
“No, Nanu. What would you say?”
“I would say —

সামনে আসার যতক্ষণ
ভালবাসা ততক্ষণ
সামনে আইলে পুড়ে মন
দুরে গেলে ঠনঠন

When you are before me 
Love lasts the duration
When you are before me
The heart burns
But go far away
Nothing.

She would shake her right fist in front of my face on the rhythm of ṭhanṭhan– the sound of nothing. Then she would conclude happily, with a sly, mischievous smile,

“Oh, he would become so furious! He would say, ‘Thanṭhan? Thanṭhan?!? I crossed rivers for you, roads for you, walked through the rain and mud to return to you…and you say thanṭhan?!”

She then commanded me to recite this very poem to my new partner.  

So I committed the lines to memory, archived as “love’s arsenal” and prayed it would make her happy to drive a lover of my own as crazy.

Bi sirr al-Fātihah. 

After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014
After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014