The Sad and Curious Tale of MM/MJ

(A version of this review essay ran in The Friday Times, Vol. XXIII, No. 41)

Review Essay by C.M. Naim

In May 1962, when the first groups of America’s newly established Peace Corps were flying out to various “underdeveloped” countries to help them along the road of “progress”, a twenty-eight years old woman set off in a Greek freighter from New York, to a self-imposed exile in one of those same countries, Pakistan. She traveled under the name Margaret (Peggy) Marcus that her parents—racially Jewish, politically Zionist, religiously members of the then quite the fashion Society for Ethical Culture—had given her, but to herself she was Maryam Jameelah (the Beautiful Mariam). Having only recently converted to Islam after a long struggle with her parents and her milieu, she was traveling to Pakistan not to join hands with her compatriots in the Corps but to find shelter from her painful and troubled past in a well-to-do suburb of New York, and to gain a new, purposeful and happy life at the home of the founder of Jama’at Islami, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. She possibly felt she had found in the Maulana the understanding father she needed, while the Maulana might have taken comfort in believing that she would be the ideal person to expose for the benefit of the Pakistani youth the spiritual hollowness of the West and its notions of Modernity and Progress.
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Naim Sahib, one of my teachers at Chicago, has a must-must-must read “rant” (as he puts it) in Outlook India. I really think it is one of his best and critically lays bare a key disconnect between the intellectual engagements within Urdu and English presses when it comes to matters of Muslims and Islam. I think almost everything he writes, holds true for the case of Pakistan. Please read, print, and frame it.

C. M. Naim, “The Deadening Silence of Good Intentions“, Outlook India, Nov 18, 2011

Let me put my argument this way. In Kerala, for example, local Muslims at all levels of the society not only speak the language of the region but also think, argue, and communicate—with each other as well as their non-Muslim peers—in that language. The same can be said to be true for the Muslims of so many other states. A Muslim professor of sociology in Bengal will not only be conversant in Bengali but also very much aware of what was being said or written in Bengali on the issues that should be of concern to him. Likewise, a Muslim intellectual in Gujarat would not hesitate to jump into some cultural debate in the Gujarati press because she would most likely be a part of its readership. These persons of my examples are unlikely to be entirely circumscribed by the English media in their regions. That situation, I aver, does not exist in Delhi, U.P., and Hyderabad. (I leave out Bihar and Madhya Pradesh since I know nothing about the Urdu press there.) Over the last five or six decades, the educated Urdu-speaking Muslim elite in Delhi and U.P., particularly those equipped with higher education in social sciences and thus expected to hold and express considered views on socio-political and economic issues, have become cut off from the Urdu-medium discourse around them. Those who seriously read and write on contemporary issues do so almost exclusively in English. That disconnect does not affect their wellbeing either professionally or personally. Most remain oblivious of it, and a few cheerfully so. Many of them, in my experience, express a little disdain when Urdu press comes up in conversation. Of course, that is to their loss. But, more importantly, it is a greater loss to the general Muslim population of the region.

Das Konzert war dann, kurz gefasst – perfekt

Taste the war paint on my tongue/as it’s dripping with my sweat/place my gaze in the futures path/seeing things that ain’t come yet

Many years ago, a different me was in a car driving down a highway I had travelled many hundreds of time to a destination I was intimate with, and from a base which was called home. I guess it was 2001-2? I was thinking, listening to My Morning Jacket (review of Circuital), on the car’s cd player that I must talk to farangi about this band. Must. This was the best of jam-band and this guy had a voice that I couldn’t quite believe. Plus, they were from Kentucky – a place that is well, legend to me.

watchin’ a stretch of road, miles of light explode/driftin’ off a thing i’d never done before

Plus, they seemed not only to be amazing musicians but also had a deft way with lyrics. I liked them.

Every one else in the car hated them.

Years passed and they released more records, which I purchased. Listened to them. They toured within reach of me. But I never saw them. Once, I remember trying to make a plan with farangi to watch them, but who knows. We didn’t.

A few nights ago, I saw them in Berlin. In a very intimate little venue in Kreuzberg. I saw Jim James channel his inner qawwal and dance as if the haal was on him. When they started “Outta my system” I was bouncing from the ceiling. Standing within arm’s reach of the band, the sheer weight of polished rocking inexorably lifted all weights on me.

Have you ever lost yourself at a rock concert?

But, here is the well thing. At one point Jim James puts a towel over his head and sings through “Gideon” and “Mahgeetah” and I am transposed immediately to the haal-singers in sufi circles in Lahore, where the act of veiling is precisely to note that the voice coming out is supernatural. James’ voice is supernatural.

Thanks, Berlin.

Oh, and after, the roadie tossed me the set-list. Guess a salt-and-peppered-bearded-brown guy bouncing all night elicits sympathies.

L’Affair Ramanujan: OUP & c;

Some more important readings for you in terms of the DU/Ramanujan.

– Shahid Amin (Professor, History, Delhi University), When a Department Let a University Down, The Hindu, Nov. 3, 2011

At the first sign of trouble, in a letter written in September 2008, OUP decided to thank those who felt aggrieved by it, “for pointing … out … that the essay has the potential of hurting religious sentiments.” It went on to add “that neither are we selling the book nor there are any plans to reissue it.” This was a corporate’s way of being economical with the truth, for the apology left unsaid that the offending article was also a part of another OUP-published volume, the Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, and whether that academic bestseller was being trashed forever as well. That was not the end of the story. The Press also served a veritable notice on DU’s History Department for infringing its copyright (and in effect profiting) by including the Ramanujan article in a book of readings! There was no such book, and no intent, only a bunch of photocopies including that essay in a campus photocopy shop, and stories planted in the press about it. The publishing house was being simultaneously both supine and assertive.

– Ananya Vajpeyi (Resident Intellectual, Delhi), Old tale, Modern Hate: The Ramayan returns to haunt Indian Polity, Nov. 3, 2011

Towards the end of the 20th century, India returned once more to the Ramayan. In the late 1980s the epic was serialized and broadcast, bringing the cable television revolution to India. A resurgent Hindu Right demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, claiming it stood on the hallowed ground where Ram himself had been born on earth. A constitutional crisis, widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims, legal battles in India’s courts on the authenticity and historicity of competing religious beliefs and claims, and the attenuation of minority rights in secular India followed throughout the mid-1990s.

On the back of its virulent Ramjanmabhoomi movement (a campaign based on the idea of recapturing the so-called “birthplace” of Ram from Muslim control), the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power and led the national government until the general elections of 2004.

– Rukun Advani (Publisher, Permanent Black), Narrow View at the Top: Ramanujan, a publisher’s perspective, The Telegraph, Nov. 7, 2011.

A history department prescribes it. A hurt Hindu, his sentiments backed up by the sort of antagonism to ideas in which only cretinous Indian vice-chancellors specialize, takes the publisher to court. And what does the publisher do? Instead of preparing for a siege and sticking his Oxford Blue banner into the battleground, the publisher grovels. He agrees that what he has published can cause religious offence, and that by publishing Ramanujan he has caused it. He promises in court that he will renounce Ramanujan and not reprint the offensive essay.

Do read!