Ethnographic Poetry and Kashmir: A conversation with Ather Zia

[This interview with Professor Ather Zia was conducted on March 31, 2018, at the University of Michigan (UM), where she delivered a keynote at Migrant Stories, a Women of Color poetry event organized by UM graduate students. The interview was conducted by  Salman A Hussain (SH), Swarnim Khare (SK), and Mary Pena (MP). The interview was edited by Dr. Tapsi Mathur, and revised by Professor Zia in February 2019. A shorter version of this interview was published by Allegra Lab.]

Ather Zia, Ph.D., is a political anthropologist, poet, and short fiction writer. She teaches at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. Ather is the author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (June 2019) and co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (Upenn 2018) and A Desolation called Peace (Harper Collins, May 2019). She has published a poetry collection “The Frame” (1999) and another collection is forthcoming. Ather’s ethnographic poetry on Kashmir has won an award from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and is the co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region.


MP: Let’s start with talking about your work in both ethnography and poetry, and how you merged the two genres, and how the devices from the two can speak to each other. Processually speaking, how do you use poetic devices in your ethnographic work or how your ethnographic research and sensibility inform your poetry?

AZ: I came to anthropology from a journalism and media studies background, and quickly became focused on anthropological theory to the extent that I feared losing my other modes of expression. To not lose these other avenues, I forced myself to make time. I founded KashmirLit in 2007-08 to provide me with one such avenue. The idea behind KashmirLit was to channel the prodigious Kashmiri poetic output out there. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that every other Kashmiri writes poetry, particularly about repression and life under occupation by India. Still, I felt that I was becoming apologetic about my poetry, and guilty that I should be doing Anthropology. Then when I went to Kashmir for fieldwork I noticed that I was writing more poetry than I was fieldnotes. It was when I became affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Anthropology that I saw people who were doing both: theoretical work as well as unapologetically pursing other literary modes of expression. People such as Renato Rosaldo, whose writing I admire a lot, gave me hope.

I don’t buy into the dichotomy between creative writing and social science research. The latter, too, is creative. Yet, there is also the question of ethnographic surfeit, the subject of my forthcoming paper:  What do you do with all that doesn’t neatly fit into fieldnotes, all that excess, of emotions, perceptions, and experiences? I channel this excess through poetry. The problem is of creating a space for it in academic representational forms and fora. While I intersperse my ethnography with poetic pieces, that alone does not quite cut it. To task the ethnographic reader with absorbing all that excess, the surfeit of emotions is to ask too much from the reader, but one had to still do it. Poetry helps the researcher as well, at least it did me, in that it is cathartic and helped me process my work. What my ethnographic research partners were telling me about Kashmir, about the trauma of occupation, was also, in a way, poetry. So, poetry has many uses, but we, as academics, worry that nonstandard creative modes of expression may hinder our careers and job prospects. I feel that we need to tell anthropologists who want to work in in other forms of expression and representations, in creative writing, and in creative ethnography that there is a place and space for them, too.

Continue reading “Ethnographic Poetry and Kashmir: A conversation with Ather Zia”

CM Exclusive: The Promise of Bhagat Singh

[CM is delighted to present an extract from Chris Moffat’s India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singhwith the author’s introduction to the extract.]

Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History, Queen Mary University of London, where he is completing a new project on architecture and politics in Pakistan. In 2019 he is Visiting Faculty in the Department of History, Government College University, Lahore.

Introduction to Extract 

India’s Revolutionary Inheritance is a book about the continuing political potential of a young man hanged by the British colonial state almost ninety years ago. Executed at twenty-three for ‘conspiring to wage war against the King-Emperor’, Bhagat Singh remains an iconic figure in contemporary India. Recalled as shaheed-e-azam (‘the great martyr’), the story of his life and death draws adherents from across the political spectrum, and as this book argues, compels a peculiar sense of responsibility among the living. Bhagat Singh is not, I argue, a pliant figure susceptible to easy appropriation in the present, but rather manifests as a disruptive, spectral presence, calling the living to account and guiding them toward a certain understanding of what might constitute effective political action. What does it mean, then, to take the dead revolutionary seriously as an active interlocutor and instigator in twenty-first century South Asian politics?

The attached extract sets out the stakes for such an argument, exploring how the book works against an existing historiography that simply laments the ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’ of Bhagat Singh’s name while setting out to uncover the ‘real’ figure and what he ‘really’ fought and died for. I argue instead that Bhagat Singh’s potentiality was always phantasmal in form. The revolutionary needs to be understood for the promise he represents, rather than for any particular programme he may or may not have elaborated in 1920s colonial India. In focusing on those aspects of Bhagat Singh’s story and struggle that appear portable and reiterable across time and space, we can begin to think seriously about the long-term legacies of revolutionary politics and the reverberations of anti-colonial martyrdom in post-colonial India. We can open a discussion about why this young man from a small village outside Lyallpur, Punjab, remains instructive for thinking about the form and contours of a militant life in the present.

The book is thus interested to ask how historians and other scholars might take seriously the question of ‘afterlives’ and the operation of ghosts and spectres on the shifting terrains where they work and study. But it is also concerned with the more directly political question of why anti-colonial histories remain so compelling and challenging in our global, post-colonial present. What can be learned if we address those revenant figures from struggles past, not as sentimental remnants or heroic precedents but as comrades in a fight that continues? As signals of ‘unfinished business’ and exhortations toward a freedom that has not yet been secured? Having followed closely the gaze and guidance of a spectral Bhagat Singh, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance represents one attempt to grapple with this vital problem-space within contemporary political thought.

XQs XVI – A Conversation with Aniruddha Bose

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Tania Bhattacharyya for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV]

Aniruddha Bose is Associate Professor of History at Saint Francis University, Loretto (PA). His research interests lie in Modern and Early Modern South Asia, in the area of labor history. He is the author of Class Conflict and Modernization: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). He is currently writing a book on the role of railwaymen in the making of free India.

Q. Modernization is popularly narrated as a feat of technological advancement, political will, and capitalist philanthropy, with workers usually not featuring in the story. Your book in contrast, right from the title, places technological modernization in the same conversation as class formation. What are the stakes of studying class and labor history in India today? What in your view is the problem-space, to borrow David Scott’s term, that makes the historical questions of this book salient questions of our time?

There are two answers to this question. The historiography on class labor in India was previously concerned with questions around how and why Indian laborers seemed unable to develop class-consciousness on the lines predicted by Marx. Fortunately, some thirty years ago, historians began to shift their gaze away from what Indian labor did not do to what Indian labor actually did. Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Without a central historical question/problem, the field subsequently fragmented. Recent literature consists of discrete studies of class conflict and labor history in distinct industries, geographical locations, and times. This book tries to overcome this fragmentation by connecting the history of one discrete set of workers (the dockworkers of Calcutta) with a larger framework (modernization).

The fragmentation of the academic field mirrors the fragmentation and weakening of organized labor in Indian society. There is however, considerable evidence to suggest that technological and other kinds of changes in the Indian economy are creating opportunities for the emergence of new forms of labor organization. The rather striking agricultural labor marches of the last year, organized using both old-fashioned labor organization as well as WhatsApp, indicates changes in class conflict in India today. In this book, I demonstrate how the forces of class conflict informed modernization in British India. This is, however, a pertinent question for 21st century India as well. What will the effect of India’s farmers using social media to organize do to our policing of Indian cyberspace, for instance?

Q. With a view to introducing readers to the basic conceptual pivots of your book: what is the relationship between class conflict and class formation and how is it expressed in your research?

The research demonstrates that class conflict heightened class formation and vice versa. This book looks at the impact of the shift from sail to steam, in the second half of the nineteenth century, on the dockworkers of Calcutta. Historical records are fairly clear and consistent. As steam ships became more ubiquitous, class conflict worsened. This had much to do with the economics of steam power, which required a much quicker turnaround time at ports than sailing ships did. Shippers and port authorities increasingly demanded more from their dockworkers, which the dockworkers resisted. The resistance was more effective when it was organized, creating an incentive for the dockworkers to conceptualize of themselves as constituting a distinct entity or class. The process worked in reverse as well. Port authorities and shippers responded to resistance with greater policing and a management that was more intensive. Thinking of the port dockworkers as a distinct class with their own interests that ran contrary to the interests of the state and capital helped port authorities justify and devise new methods of policing and management. Over time, the process became self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, such that by the end of the nineteenth century, class conflict had become endemic and class formation almost complete.

Aniruddha Bose, Class Conflict and Modernization in India

Q. What is modernization? You underline interestingly that an important element of modernization was labor management. How do all of these parts – technological innovation, mechanization, infrastructural overhauls, new administrative structures and labor management – relate to one another and why do you call it modernization? Continue reading “XQs XVI – A Conversation with Aniruddha Bose”

8th Annual UM Pakistan Conference: Movement, Migration, and Borders

With this post, we welcome Tapsi Mathur, qainchi, to CM. Mathur is a recent PhD from University of Michigan, and currently enjoying a postdoc as the Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellow at NYU Shanghai. Thank you for your volunteer work, and welcome to CM!– sepoy.

[The 8th Annual Pakistan Conference was organized by the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. You can find the conference schedule and speaker bios on the conference website.]

The theme of University of Michigan’s Annual Pakistan Conference, held on April 6, 2018, was “Movement, Migration, and Borders.” Conference convener Matthew Hull reminded us in his opening remarks of the focus of this conference, now in its eighth year, on fostering a political and academic discourse on Pakistan that moves beyond the paradigm of security studies. Conference organizers Salman Adil Hussain and Brittany Puller put together a lineup that examined the mobile realities of Pakistan and its people, covering the histories and trajectories of Pakistani diasporas in Aboriginal Australia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe.

Several of the presenters interrogated the capaciousness of the lens of transnational for theorizing migration and displacement. Ali Nobil Ahmad, in a paper examining human smuggling from Pakistani Punjab to Europe, placed his work in conversation with theories of migration and environmental history. He spoke of that aspect of travel and migration seldom talked of – regret – contrasting it to transnational literature, structured as it is around the myth of arrival, where travel is largely optimistic. Attiya Ahmad’s paper examined the gendered nature of the transnational work sector, taking as her subject South Asian migrant domestic workers and how they are produced as a “temporary population” in Kuwait. In this, she also added a temporal dimension to the spatial sense in which transnational is invoked in the literature on displacement and migration between the Gulf and South Asia.

The question of mobility and how it shapes both home and borders shifted the conversation back to the particularity of Pakistani state and society within the transnational. The screening of the film Zinda Bhaag (2013) zoomed into the category of the neighborhood. Shot on location in the house of one of the three young men featured in the film, each of whom was searching for a way out to the West, the neighborhood of Samanabad in Lahore is the site from which they plot their escape. Farjad Nabi talked the audience through, amongst other things (see the Q&A below), the aesthetics of the film that he co-directed along with Meenu Gaur. He pointed to the bright colors of the working-class neighborhood of Samanabad, contrasted with the fawn and beige-toned elite neighborhoods separated out from it, all making up the shades of Lahore they were trying to capture. Ammara Maqsood’s paper stepped from the neighborhood in to the home,  talking of the ways in which migration has shaped a middle-class population in Pakistan. Covering both migration in the 1980s and 90s to the United States as well as more recent migration to the Gulf, she elaborated on new ideas for religious learning and changing joint family structures and domestic life at home enabled by this movement.  Sanaa Alimia took the conversation to the border and technologies of exclusion, in her study of Afghan refugees negotiating the Afghanistan-Pakistan border through the material means of the ID card. She showed how that border, celebrated by both the colonial and post-colonial state as historically fluid, was performed in to being since the 2000s, under the “Global War of Terror.” Continue reading “8th Annual UM Pakistan Conference: Movement, Migration, and Borders”