Archive Remix I: Bike Rides

[You may know that CM has long had an official Archivist – a person who has helped maintain the Facebook page, and helped me cull through the huge archive for posts and materials. You know him as Salman in the comment sections, SalmaanH on twitter, and patwari as author on CM. This is a first in a series of posts on CM where he will highlight various themes from CM using his own narratives – it is one way to keep the archive from being less a silo and more a quilt. We want to thank patwari for this, and for continuing to be part of the CM family. Love – sepoy, lapata, (that farangi)]

Cricket maintained its presence in my childhood in many forms, be it book cricket in classroom, or make-belief cricket in living room where I would stand in a corner and pretend to be this or that international batsman reeling off six after six, or indoor cricket with my brothers. Sometimes even abbuji played cricket with us in the veranda and bowled underarm to me. But soon enough, my brothers started going out to play street cricket, which I was not allowed to do yet, leaving me with not much to do besides riding my tricycle in the veranda, or nibbling on my mother’s decommissioned dupattas.
Taking note of that, one day my father had me hop onto my older brother’s bicycle and had me paddle as he held on to the carrier at the back of the bike. I could see abbuji breathing heavily as he tried to keep pace with the bicycle. Then, unbeknownst to me, he let go of the bicycle. I paddled for a little while before realizing that he had let go, at which point I looked down at the ground below and the cycle-handle wobbled in my hands. I must have been about to fall when abbuji called out, “Keep the handle straight and keep paddling. You are doing fine. Kuch nahin ho ga.

It wasn’t until 9th grade that I got what I considered a man’s bicycle –a 20+ inch Sohrab. My best friend and I would ride all evening, from one friend’s house to another, going to our tutor’s house and taking our sweet time in getting back. As the span of my bicycle trips increased, so did my sense of self and of the world around me. It is to that combination of boyhood and freedom to explore I return when I read about bike rides.

We Are Strangers Now

No one born after 1975, in my family’s circle of acquaintance, remembers the fall of Dhaka. They don’t know the year. They don’t know that Bangladesh was created out of blood spilled by their own army. I asked them what they had been taught in schools and they said nothing. I went to the market and purchased the history text books assigned in the Punjab Textbook board (serves a population of ~ 80 million and mandatory for all school/college students) for grades 7th – 12th. For giggles, I also purchased the M.A. History curriculum from Punjab University. These are my tweets as I read through them:

According to PK History Textbook Grade 12, Jamaluddin Afghani (d. 1897) supported the Pakistan Resolution on Mar 23rd, 1940. #FAIL

According to PK History Textbook Grade 12, Abdulhaleem Sharar (d. 1926) supported the Pakistan Resolution on Mar 23rd, 1940. #FAIL

PK History Textbook: “The iron man of Russia, Joseph Stalin, anticipated the division of India” #FAIL

According to PK History Textbook Grade 12: In the “Crusades” chapter, time period extends from 1096 to 1660s. #Fail

According to PK History Textbook Grade 12: Hindus would have played Holi with the blood of Muslims if no Partition. #FAIL

According to PK History Textbook Grade 12: 1971 never happened because I can’t yet find a fucking reference. #FAIL

PK History Textbook Grade 12: Found a reference to 1971! Page 56. ONE LINE under the heading Pakistan Constitution 1973. #FAIL

PK History Textbook Grade 12 on 1971: “Unfortunately, none of them agreed on transfer of power, which provided opportunity to India to interfere, resulting in the separation of East Pakistan that became Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.” #FAIL

PK History Textbook Grade 12 Authors: Mohd. Farooq Malik, Dr. Sultan Khan, Rai Faiz Ahmed Kharal, Khadim Ali Khan, Mohd. Wasim Chaudhry #FAIL

Today, Pakistan plays the West Indies cricket team in the World Cup Cricket quarterfinals. Today is also March 23rd, the day celebrated with tons of patriotic fervor. It is on March 23rd, 1940, in Lahore, that the Muslim League made a demand for separate state(s) for Muslims in India. This Lahore Resolution became the political platform for League and the elections/negotiations during and after WW2. Today, the memory of East Pakistan and the sins of West Pakistan lay forgotten. I have a piece in Pakistan Today on this. Go read in full:

In that soil lies the writer of that Lahore Resolution of 1940 – A K Fazlul Huq (d. 1962). There lies also Khwaja Nizamuddin (d. 1964) who was the second Governor General and the second Prime Minister of Pakistan. There, next to him, lies H S Suhrawardy (d. 1963) who was the fifth Prime Minister of Pakistan. These men were the architects of the Lahore Resolution though their visions differed on significant points with that of Quaid-e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. They urged for a Pakistan that was inclusive, diverse and which was the sum of all its parts. Their graves in Dhaka signal the deepest silence in Pakistan’s history. A silence that extends all over Dhaka and the bloody violence it suffered in 1971. It became a city soaked in the blood of its own inhabitants, as the, then, West Pakistani army purged it of its intellectuals, its leaders, its poets, its dreamers, its students. After the separation of East Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh, the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report valiantly tried its best to document that bloody Dhaka but it fell short and, in any case, the report itself lays forgotten by patriotic Pakistanis.

Note: The title is taken from Agha Shahid Ali’s translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 1974 poem, “On My Return from Dhaka”:

After those many encounters, that easy intimacy,
we are strangers now –
After how many meetings will we be that close again?

When will we again see a spring of unstained green?
After how many monsoons will the blood be washed
from the branches?

So relentless was the end of love, so heartless –
After the nights of tenderness, the dawns were pitiless,
so pitiless.

And so crushed was the heart that though it wished
it found no chance –
after the entreaties, after the despair — for us to
quarrel once again as old friends.

Faiz, what you’d gone to say, ready to offer everything,
even your life –
those healing words remained unspoken after all else had
been said.

Adda Post

For my recent column on Bookslut, I approached the worrisome task of writing about the most exalted stars in the Bangla literary firmament gingerly and with some trepidation. What if my reverence was insufficient? What if I missed some important salient details? Was I even qualified to write about Bankim and Tagore at all? It scarcely occurred to me that I might run the risk of treating B and T with too much reverence. But no sooner had the column gone up than I received a string of tweets from a Bengali twitter friend suggesting politely that I look into assertions that it was not Bankim, but rather Peary Chand Mitra who wrote the first Bangla novel. Soon after, an old friend and learned Bangla scholar wrote a critique of my piece in an email (below), taking issue above all with my excessive reverence for the subject matter. This post then is dedicated to the lively spirit of debate, or adda, that stirs in the heart of all Bangla-philes. Feel free to spar, pile on, or sit by with pursed lips and folded hands in the comments below.

Literary ganwaars like me would only ask, ‘yeh sab kaun hai aur jo bhi hain, yeh logon ko leke ab bhi kya guzur fusur ho raha hai?’

Otherwise my comment is that you were too reverent. You wouldn’t write with such reverence on someone more contemporary, would you? This proves that they do not have contemporary relevance but are period pieces. Period pieces of perceived bong greatness. I am unsubtly telling you that Tagore was a crappy novelist–lit-crits don’t want to admit that because they will lose their trade then. Bankim would be spared because he was a novelist though. As in, he was interested in the form.

Now, on to the women’s question:
“…and women rarely know any existence outside the family compound. In such settings there is no room for pre-marital romance, and no chance of swashbuckling strangers striding onto the scene as they do in historical fictions like Durgeshnandini. Romantic tension must therefore materialize and play out entirely within the bounds of the home, the outside world penetrating only through the slats in the window shutters, and through novels, which bring with them a whiff of adventure and the possibilities of romantic love.”

T ‘n B or TB (?) wrote about a social milieu that also was the kachra of the Permanent Settlement (PS): the babus and bibis of Bengal. The majority–literally the millions–who were screwed as a result of the PS beyond any doubt stayed on as landed or landless peasants. And half of that population were women. These women too were indeed married off early but they had to work! And there were many instances of pre-marital sexual encounters (romance too maybe) among poor and working women, tribals, and women living in barren lands as well as forest lands. A good deal of ethno-lit (for what the term is worth) of the 20s and 30s when T was alive and had become the baba of culture bear evidence. Women also really worked in the fields and forests and did gazillion kinds of work and therefore the outside world didn’t come to them through slats at all. On this very premise, it is high time to refuse to write on Tagore and Bankim–simple as that. Your next assignment should be Manik, if you want to hang out with the bhadralok with a difference.

In passing–20th century Bong novel form has truly little or nothing to do with Bankim. It is a lit-crit myth to presume so. My theory experiment is, what if there were no T & B? Would you still be able to lead a meaningful literary and social life? My unambiguous reply to that is, Yes! You would then truly get to know those who were made to live in the dark with TB raging inside and outside.

TB, as we all agree must be eradicated.

Interior Landscapes

My new column is up at Bookslut. It was with some trepidation that I approached the hallowed topic of Bangla literature. Here is an excerpt:


“Neither of them noticed that the period in which husband and wife rediscover each other in the exquisite first light of love—that gold-tinged dawn of conjugal life—had slipped silently into the past. Even before savouring the new, they had become told, familiar, and accustomed to each other.”

— From Rabindranath Tagore’s The Broken Nest

A bored young woman walks from room to room in her beautiful house. She sprawls on her bed and leafs through a novel, then wanders to the living room and looks through the bookcases for a new book. Suddenly she hears an interesting sound. She rushes to the windows and peers through the slats in the dark shutters. She sees a performer with a monkey, then some men carrying a palanquin, then a foolish man waddling along with an umbrella. Excited, she moves from shutter to shutter to peer through as these characters cross back and forth through her line of vision. She fetches a lorgnette, so she can see them better. When all disappear from view, she walks back through the living room, still holding up the lorgnette and stands on the porch that encloses the house’s interior verandah. Her husband walks by, fetches a book, and walks back again. He doesn’t notice her. She focuses her lorgnette on him. As his figure recedes into a different part of the house, her hand, still holding the lorgnette, drops to her side, and the camera zooms abruptly away from her.

Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata (1964) tells the story of a lonely young housewife whose distracted husband fails to notice until too late that she has fallen in love with his younger brother. The film is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali novella Broken Nest (Nashtaneer), which, along with two other Tagore novellas, Two Sisters (Dui Bon) and The Orchard (Malancha), about complicated marriages, has just come out in an excellent new translation by Arunava Sinha as the collection Three Women. The opening scenes of the film Charulata convey viscerally Charulata’s boredom and confinement, conditions that are described, quickly and succinctly in Tagore’s economical but poetic prose:

Living as she did in a wealthy household, Charulata had no chores to do. The only task of her long, undemanding days and nights was to blossom fruitlessly, rather like the flower that will never ripen.

Tagore adds that Charulata has “a natural propensity for reading” and thus he, and Ray, in turn, sets up a clearly Madame Bovary-esque premise for his bored, educated bourgeois heroine. But whereas Madam Bovary gallivants all about the landscape in search of romance, Charulata, as a respectable young woman in late nineteenth century Bengal, does not leave the house. Her adventures, as her boredom, all exist within the confines of her home. Romance, or something like it, comes in the form of the traditionally close friendship between a woman and her husband’s younger brother, known as her “debar” in Bengali.

Read the rest here.

3QD Arts & Lit Prize

I have a BEEF with the ridiculous voting thing that 3QD has – one can only vote for one post (wha?!?). But I want you all to go vote for one of Lapata’s amazing three post (I will be voting for the Stay at-Home Man).

The blogzine 3QuarksDaily Arts & Literature Prize has declared its voting season as open! Five CM posts are there for your pickings, along with 200 other amazing pieces of writing. It has been a good year, looks like.

If Lapata wins, she promises to throw a party and invite only those who voted for her. So, vote for her, then email her your addresses.

Love,
S

P.S. Lapata Sez:

For a trip down memory lane, here are the posts up for nomination:

1. Bookslut: In Search of Spiraling Time (by Lapata)
2. CM: I am Bhains (by Sepoy)
3. CM: Oscar, Wow! (by Lapata)
4. CM: Peccavistan (by Sepoy)
5. CM: The Stay-at-Home Man (by Lapata)

Experts

In the Fall, I am hoping to teach a class on Experts as a category of Knowledge Brokers in the colonial and postcolonial world. Thinking a riff from Richard F. Burton to TE Lawrence to Rory Stewart by way of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. Plus databases and spying drones. Here is somewhat of a programmatic preview in The National:

Flying blind: US foreign policy’s lack of expertise

Both Stewart and Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.

Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.

In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

At the same time there are greater claims, and greater efforts, towards satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data? When one considers the rise of “experts” such as Stewart or Mortenson against the growth of digitised data which remains elusive and overwhelming, one is left with a rather stark observation – that the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalised.

Do read the whole thing and let me know here (I would be SERIOUSLY GRATEFUL for syllabus recs). Also the print version has nice pictures [pdf].

Also, I should note that this piece is a continuation of two earlier efforts at the National, and should be read as such:

  • September 3, 2010. Failures of Imagination: The cultural damage of the ‘war on terror’. The Review, The National UAE.
  • December 17, 2010. “Recall America’s Imperial Past: A Review of Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon“. The National UAE.