Uses of History: Ramanujan Edition

Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day

1935. Professor of Sanskrit
on cultural exchange;
passing through; lost
in Berlin; reduced
to a literal, turbaned child,
spelling German signs on door, bus, and shop,
trying to guess go from stop;
for a way of telling apart
a familiar street from a strange,
or east
from west at night
the brown dog that barks
from the brown dog that doesn’t
memorising a foreign paradigm
of lanterns, landmarks,
a gothic lotus on the iron gate
suddenly comes home
in English, gesture, and Sanskrit,
the swastika
on the neighbour’s arm
in that roaring bus from a grey
nowhere to a green.
– AK Ramanujan

I have a piece on Ramanujan’s essay and the DU controversy in The Caravan, All the Myriad Ways:

It’s no surprise, then, that so consistently we receive a singular history of the State, a composite account that tells an overwhelmingly familiar arc of progress towards the very moment in which you—the school child, the dutiful citizen—happen to be reading and accepting that history. That the United States is a melting pot, or that India contains multitudes is itself a monolithic and singular account.

We, for whom the history of the State is a familiar battleground; we, who grew up in dictatorships, for whom history was the first and most potent weapon for warfare, know this intimately. In Pakistan, there is no multitude of narratives when it comes to our pasts. In Islam, there are no voices that interpret scripture in divergent ways. Notions like these are quickly labelled heretical and such voices are shunted off to the mortuary. Notice the fate of Punjab’s governor, Salmaan Taseer, who dared to imagine a Constitution that might include another voice, admit to another living diversity.

Do tell me what you think.

Oh, Go AAWWn

I loved the space and the wonderful people at the Asian Writers’ Workshop who were kind enough to host my book launch a month ago. Magical! So, I pass on, with enthusiasm, a festival of awesomeness for their 20th anniversary! They feature Teju Cole, Amitava Kumar and some other people (ok some of the other people are also very cool, but really, we only have eyes for TC and AK {though, appearance by Jennifer 8. Lee!!!}).

Please do go.


Here is the deal.

If you provide a dishy/photo-filled festival diary to CM of the event, I will buy your ticket. Email me. (those who promise photos of CM loved ones will clearly have an unseeming advantage here, but um, whatever)



Come rub elbows and knock knees with your favorite writers at one of Brooklyn’s best alternative literary festivals: the third annual PAGE TURNER: The Asian American Literary Festival. Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the festival features a Korean taco trunk, two stand-up comedians, five National Book Award finalists, seven Guggenheim Fellows, a killer afterparty with the best playlist of all time, and you!

An all-star line-up featuring: Junot Díaz, Amitav Ghosh, Jessica Hagedorn, Kimiko Hahn, Hari Kunzru, Jayne Anne Phillips, Suketu Mehta, Min Jin Lee, Mark Nowak, Amitava Kumar, Granta editor John Freeman, and Guernica editor Joel Whitney.

Your favorite new voices: Teju Cole (author of Open City), Danielle Evans (NBA 5 Under 35 winner), Booker finalist Hisham Matar, Pen Faulkner winner Sabina Murray, Whiting Award winner Alexander Chee, Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, National Book Award finalist Monica Youn, and NBCC finalist Brenda Shaughnessy.

Multi-dimensional program includes: a staged reading directed by Ralph Peña; artist Wangechi Mutu (MOMA, Guggenheim) talking about immigration; an open mic featuring Jen Kwok (Date an Asian), Negin Farsad (Nerdcore Rising) and others; stories from twenty years of the Workshop; and hard-hitting conversations about Occupy Wall Street, Islam and the West, the rise of China and India, and the national crackdown on immigration.

Keep coming back as we update our full schedule at Co-sponsored by powerHouse Arena, Verso Books, MTV, Guernica, and Granta.


The Saturday before Halloween join us for music, drinks, dancing, and fine company for the raucous afterparty for the Page Turner Literary Festival. We’ll have a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline at night, a killer playlist for your dancing shoes, cake, noisemakers, glitter, a giant piñata, and infinite quantities of beer and wine. Special guests include former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee and celebrity chef Eddie Huang of Baohaus, who will DJ part of the night’s festivities.

Additional playlist selected by some of New York’s hottest cultural figures: Kris Chen (head of XL Recordings in America, the label of Vampire Weekend, the XX, Sigur Ros), hip hop trio Das Racist, sports blogger Nathaniel Friedman (The Classical, Free Darko), literary enfant terrible Tao Lin, Jefferson “Chairman” Mao (Ego Trip NYC), writer Luc Sante (author of Low Life, Factory of Facts), novelist Lynne Tillman, music journalist Dave Tompkins (author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach), Michael Vazquez (Senior Editor, Bidoun magazine), music critic and DJ Oliver “O-Dub” Wang ( Before the dancing starts, we’ll also honor the winners of the Fourteenth Annual Asian American Literary Awards: AMITAVA KUMAR, winner of our nonfiction award which will be presented by past honoree Suketu Mehta, and KIMIKO HAHN, our poetry award-winner. The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, one of the country’s premiere literary arts spaces, is throwing the party to end all parties. We want you there. Celebrate our twentieth anniversary and reserve your space today. Co-sponsored by MTV World, Verso, Granta, Guernica, Beerlao, NoveRoma wines.

Executive Director, The Asian American Writers’ Workshop
110-112 W. 27th Street, Sixth Floor, NY, NY 10001
212.494.0061 tel.
212.494.0062 fax


I have a review of Granta’s ten years post-9/11 issue up on The Sunday Guardian (New Delhi). When I first wrote my draft, I sent it to Sepoy, because I was worried it was too much of a screed. Sepoy, upon reading it, was disappointed in the lack of screedishness of the review. He had hoped for something more screed-like. Now it is for you to judge, Dear Readers, whether or not this is a piece of screedery. Here’s a preview:

Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, I spoke on the phone with a student of mine. After briefly discussing the attacks on the World Trade Center, which had just occurred, he asked, half joking, “will you come visit me at the concentration camp?” He was referring to his religion (Muslim by birth) and his skin color (brown). A couple of days later, a group of female students came to my office. They all wore hijab and were anxious because, they said, their fathers had told them not to wear any head coverings for the time being to avoid hate crimes. They had previously understood their commitment to wearing hijab as an act of pride in their faith that should not be abandoned in the face of ignorance or hate. But should they ignore their fathers? They did.

Read the rest here.

Madison 2011



It is the Annual Awesomeness that is the Madison conference – this is the 40th one! Big times now. I will be on two panels – giving a paper on something I am quite excited about and discussing a set of papers elsewhere. I wish there was a way to link to my panels but that technology is currently unavailable. You are welcome to go here and kinda browse around, however.

Friends and scholarship. What more can a historian want?

Nauman Naqvi on Sadequain

We were just talking about the scholastic and the imaginative that underpins some gems of scholarship – such as Ramanujan’s work on the Ramayana (and his work on poetry, in poetry), and here comes another deeply inspiring articulation.

Nauman Naqvi, anthropologist, delivers a wonderfully framed, evocative,(and beautifully filmed) lecture ruminating on the art, the poetics of Sadequain – linking his calligraphy, his art, his poetic imagination, and then moving out towards the act of witnessing, of sacrifice and of truth.

It really is a must-must-watch.

A Muslim Meditation on Violence from nofil naqvi on Vimeo.

What is the source of Islam’s potential for a beautiful, passive revolution today? How are the greater and lesser jihads distinct and entangled? What are the experiences of force given in the Muslim tradition? What are the relations between beauty, divinity, history and the forces of peace, truth and violence in this tradition? These are the prayers, the questions silently addressed in this filmic presentation of the anguished work of poesy and asceticism against historical violence in the painter-poet Sadequain (1930-87) – a presentation of the experience and logic of another force given in Islam, and dramatized in the life and oeuvre of this postcolonial Pakistani artist. Through a range of effects – including a generous and dynamic display of striking images juxtaposed with ravishing lyric from both Sadequain, as well as the larger Indic-Muslim and affinate traditions of the pre- and post-colonial modern period – this lecture-film enacts the experience and logic of this other force in three dramatic scenes of a performative lecture given by Nauman Naqvi at The Second Floor (PeaceNiche) in Karachi. The scenes – the hand, the head, and gesture – are scenes of what Sadequain called the technique of ‘mystic figuration’ in his painting: a certain tortured entanglement of the aesthetic, the ethical and truth in Muslim inheritance. An anguished entanglement of beauty, the good and truth in their ecstatic appearance in the secular world – the world of sight and sound – that is inseparable from the demand of sacrifice, of a strenuous self-canceling intention given in the aspect of a subtle violence of immanence in the Muslim understanding of being and existence. In tracing this haunting, subtle force of life, the lecture-film gestures towards the potential inheritance of a radically ethical politics of universal grace in Islam.

Transformative Texts

The First out of the four experts termed the text as “appropriate” for the syllabus, second expert congratulated the History Department for including the essay, third expert opined that the contents of the essay are “unexceptional”. Only the fourth expert proposed to incorporate other texts in lieu of Ramanujan’s text, as “anything that goes against” the “sacred character” of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is “almost blasphemous” for the “Indian psyche”.

I had no idea what I was doing. That first semester of graduate school – on the intimidating premises of University of Chicago – was mostly overflowing with mundane paperwork and the collection of life stories that seemed too fantastic to be real (“I was de-worming orphans in Bombay…”). We were supposed to figure out some classes but also supposed to scatter around the various departments of the University, looking for sympatico professors. I wandered to Foster Hall where the South Asianists lived. A series of embarrassing (for me) encounters later, I found myself holding a syllabus for a class on Kings and Epics.

My admissions essay for Chicago had featured a text. It was written in 1226 CE or so and I had read a small portion of it. I thought that I could work on that text for my PhD. Like most of my thoughts, I didn’t really think through what this would mean.

What would it mean to read something written nearly 800 years before I was even born. Leave aside the issue of language, grammar, or context – tell me does it make sense? How would I access a world which made sense of words in that order, saying that particular thing. How would I know the mentalscapes which erupt in that reader’s mind as he (yeah) read or she (yeah) heard that text. I had no idea. There was just too much I didn’t know. About reading. About texts.

The first time something changed for me was in that class with Ron Inden. We read A. K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Rāmāyanāṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” Ramanujan (1929-1993) had taught at the University from 1961 to his sudden death in 1993. The essay appeared in Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (1991), edited by Paula Richman.

The change was Ramanujan. His essay looked at the variations in tellings and re-tellings of the story of Rama, Sita, Hanuman etc. across southern and southeastern Asia. He rejects the notion of an ur-text; instead he posits a family of texts (invoking genetic and structural resemblances) so that “no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in text.” Ramanujan’s reading of text, of epic of the role of repetition, of textual movements altered my own sense (but as I recall, I had no sense). The greatest shake – and one upon which I remember spending days and weeks – was the last section of his essay. Listen to him:


This essay opened with a folktale about the many Rāmāyanāṇas. Before we close, it may be appropriate to tell another story about Hanumān and Rāma’s ring. But this story is about the power of Rāmāyanāṇa, about what happens when you really listen to this potent story. Even a fool cannot resist it; he is entranced and caught up in the action. The listener can no longer bear to be a bystander but feels compelled to enter the world of the epic: the line between fiction and reality is erased.

A villager who had no sense of culture and no interest in it was married to a woman who was very cultured. She tried various ways to cultivate his taste for the higher things in life but he just wasn’t interested.

One day a great reciter of that grand epic the Rāmāyanāṇa came to the village. Every evening he would sing, recite, and explain the verses of the epic. The whole village went to this one-man performance as if it were a rare feast.

The woman was married to the uncultured dolt tried to interest him in the performance. She nagged him and nagged him, trying to force him to go and listen. This time, he grumbled as usual but decided to humor her. So he went in the evening and sat in the back. It was an all night performance and he just couldn’t keep awake. He slept through the night. Early in the morning, when a canto had ended and the reciter sang the closing verses for the day, sweets were distributed according to custom. Someone put some sweets into the mouth of the sleeping man. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife was delighted that her husband had stayed through the night and asked him eagerly how he enjoyed the Rāmāyanāṇa. He said, ‘It was very sweet.’ The wife was happy to hear it.

The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall, and before long fell fast asleep. The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall, and before long fell fast asleep. The place was crowded and a young boy sat on his shoulder, made himself comfortable, and listened open-mouthed to the fascinating story. In the morning, when the night’s portion of the story came to an end, everyone got up and so did the husband. The boy had left earlier, but the man felt aches and pains from the weight he had borne all night. When he went home and his wife asked him eagerly how it was, he said, “It got heavier and heavier by morning.” The wife said, “That’s the way the story is.” She was happy that her husband was at last beginning to feel the emotions and the greatness of the epic.

On the third day, he sat at the edge of the crowd and was so sleepy that he lay down on the floor and even snored. Early in the morning, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth a little before he woke up and went home. When his wife asked him how it was, he moved his mouth this way and that, made a face and said, “Terrible. It was so salty.” His wife knew something was wrong. She asked him what exactly was happening and didn’t let up till he finally told her how he had been sleeping through the performance every night.
On the fourth day, his wife went with him, sat him down in the very first row, and told him sternly that he should keep awake no matter what might happen. So he sat dutifully in the front row and began to listen. Very soon, he was caught up in the adventures and the characters of the great epic story. On that day, the reciter was enchanting the audience with a description of how Hanuman the monkey had to leap across the ocean to take Rama’s signet ring to Sita. When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the signet ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman didn’t know what to do. He had to get the ring back quickly and take it to Sita in the demon’s kingdom. While he was wringing his hands, the husband who was listening with rapt attention in the first row said, “Hanuman, don’t worry. I’ll get it for you.” Then he jumped up and dived into the ocean, found the ring in the ocean floor, brought it back, and gave it to Hanuman. Everyone was astonished. They thought this man was someone special, really blessed by Rāma and Hanumān. Ever since, he has been respected in the village as a wise elder, and he has also behaved like one. That’s what happens when you really listen to a story, especially to the Rāmāyaṇa.

Firstly, I had never read an essay like that before. My template for a “well written” article in Middle East/Orientalist reading canon was someone like R. B. Sergeant. Dry as that dustpan in your attic. Ramanujan opened the essay with a story, ended the essay with a story. In the middle, he included a severely nuanced critique of both western philological practices and our idea of text and circulation. The writing was light, his voice was unmistakable. This was a erudite human being talking – not an academic automaton.

Secondly, I got stuck and came unstuck at the notion of a text that transforms – that changes the way reality is organized. Later, much later, I read Gadamer and his efforts to “understand” text and I too began an effort to “understand” my text. But I am still, hopelessly, trying to “listen” to my text.

Ramanujan’s essay is, in my view, one of the best pieces of scholarship the discipline of South Asian Studies has produced – theoretically rich, innovative and amazingly perceptive about the lived ways in which texts continue to exist – the importance of reading, of listening. It ought to be, if it already isn’t, required reading for anyone working on epic or performative texts in any historical or geographical period.

So, when I hear that the Delhi University has removed the essay from History syllabi, I feel the urge to grab my print copy, a chair, walk to the busiest intersection on campus, stand on the chair and start reading out loud his essay. Every word. Make them listen. They will be transformed.