Book Buying in South Asia: call for submissions

Update: Deadline is one week from today– Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 12 noon EST

Dear Readers,

I am working on a post about book buying, browsing, searching in South Asia. I would like to solicit from you anecdotes and stories about looking for books in any language other than English while in South Asia. I have found when looking for Hindi books, for example, that it is very hard to browse for and discover books in Hindi bookstores. Below are the guidelines for submissions, which can be anonymous or named. Depending on volume, I may not be able to post everything I receive, but I will try to put up as many as I can, and summarize the rest.

Aap ki,


Format for submission:

1. Name (you can be anonymous, or choose initials)
2. Location (also can be skipped)
3. Language-literature you have experience looking for and where
4. Anecdote or description of how bookstores are organized for this language/literature, what kind of people go there, how un/appealing the book bindings are, etc.
5. Send me a photo of a bookstore, even if it’s a cell phone picture
6. Email it to lapatastic [at] gmail [dot] com

Flyover Country

The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousand-fold
magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow-peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one-five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature roof tops, their colour a uniform grey. Binod saw very clearly in his mind the spreading delta of underdevelopment; almost despite himself, he smiled.
And Rabinder, getting more excited, said that the camera would be at ground level now, approaching a heavily loaded Ashok Leyland truck on the highway: as it got close to the truck, a white Maruti would zoom out from behind the truck. A few drops of rain would fall on the lens as the camera swerved, forcing a policeman on his bicycle into a puddle. The man would be wearing his khaki uniform and a red cap. The camera would avoid hitting the bicycle and, almost within that same instant, its eye would pick out a large yellow building. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before pausing at a barred room in which would be a solitary man, sitting.
The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone. The place would be a prison near Patna.

From Home Products by Amitava Kumar (pp. 34-35)

A number of years ago, I took an overnight train with my family from Allahabad to Puri, in Orissa. It was a long ride in 2nd A/C, and, as usually happens on such trips, the people around us became our temporary friends. The train passed through Bihar in the middle of the night; the next morning, when breakfast arrived, we were in West Bengal. The little children from the compartment next to ours came racing in and exclaimed breathlessly, “We made it through Bihar! Our parents were worried bandits would attack the train, but we made it!”

Bihar is what is known in the US as flyover country. In the phrase of the guidebooks of old, ‘there is nothing here that need detain the traveler’– unless the traveler is Buddhist, and going to Gaya and Bodh Gaya. When one opens the papers in other parts of India, there is invariably news of some ghastly crime or another that has taken place in Bihar, or a corruption scandal, or some other example of ‘backwardness’ to add to the pile of reasons why we never would want to get out of the train in Bihar. A Bihari accent in Hindi is to be avoided, and makes a person sound uneducated, and of course, because poverty is widespread in Bihar, many laborers and servants in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay are from Bihar. In my experience in India, it has always seemed as though prejudice toward Bihar and Biharis does not need to be hidden; Bihari jokes are never off-limits.
Continue reading “Flyover Country”

Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan

Very Promising new collection of essays on Pakistan. It will make a fine addition to this.

Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan
Edited by Naveeda Khan
Published by: Routledge India
Publication Date: 23/02/2010
Pages: 544

About the Book
Through the essays in this volume, we see how the failure of the state becomes a moment to ruminate on the artificiality of this most modern construct, the failure of nationalism, an opportunity to dream of alternative modes of association, and the failure of sovereignty to consider the threats and possibilities of the realm of foreignness within the nation-state as within the self.

The ambition of this volume is not only to complicate standing representations of Pakistan. It is take Pakistan out of the status of exceptionalism that its multiple crises have endowed upon it. By now, many scholars have written of how exile, migrancy, refugeedom, and other modes of displacement constitute modern subjectivities. The arguments made in the book say that Pakistan is no stranger to this condition of human immigrancy and therefore, can be pressed into service in helping us to understand our present condition.

Table of Contents:

Foreword, Veena Das, series editor

Introduction, Naveeda Khan

Part I: Artificiality of the State
1. Towards a Lyric History of India – Aamir Mufti
2. The Politics of Commensuration: The Violence of Partition and the Making of the Pakistani State – Tahir Hasnain Naqvi
3. A Real Terrorist- Oskar Verkaaik
4. Re-imagining the “Land of the Pure”: A Sufi Master reclaims Islamic Orthodoxy and Pakistani Identity- Robert Rozehnal

Part II The Difficulty of Nationalist Visions
5. Registering Crisis: Ethnicity in Pakistani Cinema of the 1960s and 70s- Iftikhar Dadi
6. Listening to the Enemy: The Pakistani Army, Violence and Memories of 1971- Yasmin Saikia
7. Strength of the State Meets Strength of the Street: The 1972 Labor Struggle in Karachi- Kamran Asdar Ali
8. Jamaat-I Islami Pakistan: Learning from the Left – Humaira Iqtidar

Part III Foreignness Within
9. From Muslims to Apostates: The Legal Construction of Muslim Identity and Ahmadi Difference- Asad A. Ahmed
10. Words that Wound: Archiving Hate in the Making of Hindu and Muslim Publics in Bombay- Deepak Mehta
11. Itineraries of Conversion: Judaic Paths to a Muslim Pakistan- Sadia Abbas
12. Iqbal and Karbala – Syed Akbar Hyder

Part IV The Everyday
13. Look Who’s Talking Now: Voice and Authority in Pakistani Shi‘i Women’s Gatherings- Amy Bard
14. Madrassa Metrics: The Statistics and Rhetoric of Religious Enrollment in Pakistan- Tahir Andrabi,, Jishnu Das, Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Tristan Zajonc
15. Uncivil Politics and the Appropriation of Planning in Islamabad- Matthew Hull
16. Mosque Construction or the Violence of the Ordinary- Naveeda Khan

Living the Tensions of the State, the Nation, and the Everyday- David Gilmartin

Anthropology and the Pakistani National Imaginary- Katherine Pratt Ewing

Note on the Editor
Notes on Contributors

Nine Lives

William Dalrymple by Lapata

“When you walk you are freed from the worries of ordinary life” – Kanai Das Baul.

“I know it is not exactly like every family, but in this burning ground, in this place of sorrow, we have found new hope.” – Manisha Ma.

There are nine lives but eleven stories. Prasannamati Mataji and Prayogamati, Jain nuns who renounce the world to walk (carefully); Hari Das, a Dalit thayyam dancer who channels god for three months; Rani Bai, a beautiful devdasi struggling with AIDS and poverty; Mohanji and Batasi, a Rajasthani bard of Pabu’s epic; Lal Peri, a Bihari sufi, living at Sehwan Sharif; Tashi Passang, a Tibetan monk who renounced his vows, fought in Bangladesh, and now hopes to make amends; Srikanda Stpathy, the Brahmin who makes idols; Manisha Ma and Tapan Sadu, the Tara devotees who live in a crematorium; and Kanai Das Baul and Debdas Baul who sing their songs of syncretic devotion to the truth within us all. Eight of the nine lives in William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India belong to liminal beings – who flourish in ways incomprehensible to those of us desk-bound, foot-snared and upwardly-mobile. There is great sorrow, poverty, and pain attached to them, but along with those burdens, a great amount of love, self-awareness, devotion and humanity. Dalrymple lets them speak. To the reader, he provides some historical and theological context, but of the speakers, he asks simple and direct questions. Their answers, their stories, sometimes direct and sometimes summarized, comprise the social history of Nine Lives.

Others have written informed reviews of the book, you can seek them out, and I will point you to Wendy Doniger‘s (in many ways, Nine Lives is to be read as a companion volume to her Hindus: An Alternative History). Let me instead just make a couple of points, in a somewhat splotchy manner.

In the Introduction, William Dalrymple writes that he “hopes to have avoided many of the clichés about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion”. Such clichés have, of course, a long and durable history since the seventeenth century. Partly governed by the self-righteousness of Christian belief and partly by wide-eyed wonder at incomprehensible practices, the Western observer has rarely moved beyond a descriptive text accompanied by a plea to some normative rule. I could re-hash this engagement – this Orientalism – but you are all enlightened beings. And though this Orientalism remained (actually remains), by the mid-18th century there were also leaps and bounds in the Western engagement with Indic religions – the provenance of what we can term lower-case-o-rientalism, an engagement that continues to this day.1 William Dalrymple has certainly succeeded in presenting a humane, de-exotified account of these modern lives in India. But at least in one instance, he irritated me by re-stating hoary old clichés. Predictably, it is in his historical background. He writes on pg. 215:

These original esoteric medieval Tantric traditions nearly died out in India, sinking from view around the thirteenth century AD, probably partly as a result of the disruption that followed in the wake of the violence of the Islamic invasions, which broke many of the lines of guru-disciple relationships through which Tantric secrets were passed.

I would urge him to read his own chapter five, and his own discussion of Akbar or Dara Shikoh. Actually, scratch that, I want to know what disruption is he referring to in the thirteenth century. The beginnings of which were marked by an internecine struggle for domination over Multan, Lahore and Uch between the war lords Yildiz, Iltutmish and Qabbacha? The Mongols also disrupted a heck of a lot in Sindh and Delhi. But none of these were “disruptions” of sufficient socio-cultural force to reshape Tantric practices across India. I know it’s a nit-picky point but this “disruption” talk is a slippery slappery slope which inevitably leads to ahistorical claims of victimhood and vengeance. Dalrymple’s text – being a bestseller in India – will undoubtedly be used in ways and means un-intended by its author. So I pick nits.

The sub-title tells us that we are to learn about “Modern India” from these accounts. Insofar as these are contemporary lives, yes. As usual, a caveat floats up. By their practices or their thoughts, the people Dalrymple profiles do exert a tremendous influence on everyday life in their respective communities, but it is worth noting that they either consciously rejected those very communities (by their vows) or their caste and creed create an unsurmountable barrier – often of poverty – between them and the majority population. Dalrymple never directly provides the point of view of that overwhelming majority of South Asia who likes their religion compartmentalized, regulated, clear-cut, and restrained. They too represent a “sacred”. Perhaps it takes no great talent to imagine how those lives play out – the desire for a steady income, a good house, happy parents or children, prayers at prescribed times or places and a ready tendency to get suckered in by authority figures. Perhaps it is enough to just note that those other sacreds swim in turbulent waters of communalism, sectarianism, stringency to thought and practice and, sometimes, extremism. Maybe those other lives are more readily accessible from our daily news-reports. Yet, the “mainstream” lives also provide the essential stage upon which these nine lives play out. Leaving them out – only the idol maker Srikanda Stpathy is a middle class Brahmin – forces us to conclude that the only paths to sacred lie outside of everyday lives.

Related, is the issue of the nine human beings themselves. They are our contemporaries – not composites, not historical figures. They live and breath with us (Sadly, Dalrymple notes, Mohanji passed away). And they do so, by choice or by fates, in abject poverty and in harsh circumstances. As I read their stories, as I got to know them, I felt responsible towards them – as a human being. Their thoughts, and their actions, had made me think, made me reflect, and made me tear up. What happens to them, after the chapter ends. I really wanted Dalrymple to tell me the after-tale. I know that some of the musicians, singers Dalrymple profiles became part of a concert series which gave the world exposure to their amazing talent and stories (and I hope gave them both direct and indirect financial support). This was truly a commendable act by Dalrymple, for which he deserves far greater accolades than for chronicling their lives alone. I do hope that Manisha Ma, Lal Peri, and Rani Bai are also beneficiaries in some sense of this generosity.

I admit that all this was an excuse to get the incredibly au courant Lapata to paint a portrait of Dalrymple, which she has, and which crowns these meagre notes.

  1. And lest you think, as most do, that this burden of polluted imagination lies solely upon the shoulder of the White Man, let me tell you about ‘Ajaib al-Hind. The Muslim rule in Sindh began in the eighth century, but until the tenth and eleventh century we find travel accounts (produced by merchants and sailors) of al-Hind wa’l Sind (the Indian peninsula as it was known in Arabic sources) largely focused on lists of commodities, communities and exotic sacred beings and practices. This archive is often termed as ‘Ajaib al-Hind (Wonders of India). We can trace this back to Greek sources, but that is less important at the moment. What is worth noting is that this genre contained an Indian “sacred” which was miraculous, awe-inspiring, and exotic. The sadhus, yogis, mendicants and ascetics who populated these tenth and eleventh century writings were little more than literary tropes wrenched into circumscribed lives by the collective imaginations in the milieu. India was the “Other” wherein both beauty and horror commingled to great heights. It is only after the balance of power shifted from Baghdad to Ghazni and the twelfth/thirteenth century migrations took place, that the Indian exotic became the local color and eventually acquired its own Islamic gloss and its own comprehensible logic. []