Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2011

The biggest event on CM was the publishing of “Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination – “a curated, edited collection” of sepoy’s posts in book form, with foreword from Amitava Kumar, launched with much fanfare, and earning rave reviews (here, here).

Meanwhile, commentaries and reflections on happenings in Homistan continued to grace CM: Ramanujan’s transformative texts, Salmaan Taseer’s murder and an exploration of the “emergence of the Prophet as a centralising and orienting raison d’etre for Pakistan,” Pakistan’s fugue state and “the notion of treason and affiliation in the colonial and postcolonial setting,” the state of Pakistan’s ways of seeing, and the forgotten “memory of East Pakistan and the sins of West Pakistan.

Sepoy continued his essays on the frontier in imperial imagination, experts and policy prescriptions that aid the myopia of empire.  Reflections on the 10 years since 9/11 by Sepoy, Farangi, and Lapata delighted CM readers, as did discussions of Imperialism and racism (I, II, III).

Lapata was busy holding art-shows and winning awards for her writing , but found time to hold a flash fiction contest with Kuzhali Manickavel as judge, which Amitava Kumar won. The Best Writer of 2010 brought us insightful review essays of Aag ka Dariya, Teju Cole’s Open City, Dictator literature, “Yashpal’s great Partition novel, Jhootha Sach,” and a reflection on the interior landscapes in early Indian novels (and an adda post!). Lapata also interviewed some “prominent Blaft personages” including the “illustrious flash fictionista Kuzhali Manickavel,” and reviewed a host of Tamil pulp fiction.


PS. Naim Sahib contributed a characteristically brilliant review of Deborah Baker’s “The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism.”

PPS. Jassasa’s Goat Spy won the internets (here, here, here, here).

PPPS. See Lapata on OBL, and dental care.

PPPPS. More pics! (here, here, here).

PPPPPS. See yours truly’s humble attempt at an essay.

All this mess (Or, what I remember from 2011) by Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator. His fiction, poetry and translations have appeared in various international magazines including Granta, Vallum, Caravan, and Words Without Borders. He was one of Granta’s New Voices for 2011 and one of the eleven recipients of the 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant. He teaches literature and fiction writing at LUMS, Lahore. He’s a CM fanboy.


  • Pakistan’s General Problem: Mohammed Hanif / OPEN Magazine
    The sanest reading on Pakistan and the Generals who run the country. This would be hilarious if it wasn’t entirely true—but it’s still pretty hilarious. (By the way, I am still waiting for a designer to come up with t-shirts that read: murshid, marwa na dena. I’ll buy two, I promise.)

  • At Sea: Manan Ahmed / Chapati Mystery
    The best post on the OBL saga. If you want perspective, if you want understanding, this is the place to go. 

  • Forfeiting the Future: Manan Ahmed / Caravan
    And not surprisingly, the best piece on the ghastly murder of Salman Taseer was also by Manan Ahmed. Others may give you information. This gives you understanding. 

This was the year of DFW’s The Pale King. I read so many reviews but none was particularly memorable. However, two pieces are worth remembering. First, DFW’s nasty letter to his editor at Harper’s where he threatens his editors in footnotes. Second one is on the tangled youths of DFW, Franzen, and Eugenides and how that led them to create great books. One heck of a read.

Places, Loved Ones

  • Seven Places in My Heart: Mohammed Hanif / Newsline
    Of the most charming essays I’ve read in 2011, this beautiful ode to Karachi by Mohammed Hanif is my winner. Over the course of the year, I have returned to it many times for its little stories, quirky characters, and hilarious situations. I tell you, there is a funny, affecting novel buried in this piece. I hope Hanif writes it one day. I hope he’s listening. 

  • A.A Gill: Dubai on Empty / Vanity Fair
    The curmudgeon-travel writer I love visits a city I loathe. I reread Gill all the time for his mind bending sentences. Nobody writes like him. He can tell you about his writing desk and make it read like a thriller. Favorite reading.

  • What if We Lose This Match?: Khurram Husain/ The Express Tribune
    We weren’t paying much attention to the newspapers on the day of Pakistan-India World Cup semi-final. But we did to this piece—because it captures subcontinent’s collective madness and raging euphoria for the game of cricket. Amazingly, incredibly, impossibly. It simply nails it.

  • Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.: Johnathan Franzen / NY Times
    Nobody talks about love these days; not even poets. Thank God for Franzen.

Some of the Best Writing Is Writers Writing About Books
No, really.

  • The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami: Sam Anderson / NY Times
    Since he’s moved to NY Times Book Review, Sam Anderson has been focusing on his Sentence of the Week column that, generally speaking, I find pretty uninspired and uninspiring. But the Sam we know and love makes a return here and shows some serious love for Murakami, Tokyo, weird things. In between he also talks about Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84.

  • Daisy Rockwell: Night-Smudged Light / Caravan
    In this review of the first-ever translation of Yashpal’s monumental Hindi novel, Jhoota Such (This Is Not That Dawn), our friend, Ms Rockwell, takes a long view of Partition narratives in fiction, history and photography and point to the limitations of the existing conversation on Partition—and looks to expand it.

  • La doublure: The singular fabrications of Raymond Roussel—By Ben Marcus / Harper’s Magazine
    Ben Marcus is probably the smartest writer I have met. Here he reviews Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. A random favorite sentence from the review: “The procession of strange set pieces comes so fast in Roussel, the effect—an intoxicating disquiet out of a world that is ravishingly gorgeous, if wholly unrecognizable—is almost punishing.” (Subscription required, sadly.) His New Yorker podcast on Ishiguro is also a must listen by the way.

Teju Cole
You know who made an appearance this year and rocked our world right away? His name starts with a T and he writes such transparent, light sentences that I seethe with envy. I share two pieces by him.

Other Stuff

  • Falling Man: Vinod K. Jose: / Caravan
    This profile of Manmohan Singh, is a must read even if you are not interested in Indian politics. It details the long and fascinating story of a man who is “an economist among politicians and a politician among economists.” 

  • Paul Simms: GOD’S BLOG / The New Yorker
    This, I think, was the funniest thing I read on the internet in 2011. And it gets better upon rereading.

And Finally, Some Lit Crit
It’s a bad, bad world out there. Writers are constantly asked: Writing is fine, but what do you really do—and, more importantly, why. Two favorite literary critics articulate the role of literary criticism in our age of opinion and numbers. (Technically, these are 2010 – but hey, 31 December, 2010 is so 2011.)

An Alternative History of 2011

I like to think I wrote a fair amount this year – maybe not as much as last year but still, a fair amount. But I also have a bunch of posts stuck in the “Draft” view. Gonna delete them, but here are the snippets for what-might-have-beens.


Yesterday, I went to see Schätzes des Agha Khan at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Later, on the U-Bahn, I tried to rationalize why I was rather disappointed in the curator-ship. Most of the list which formed – think Africa is not a country, chronology is not a suggestion, objects have uses etc. – led back to a discussion I witnessed on the future of Museums in Berlin in early 2010. I had meant to write about it, but clearly I missed
link, link


Sir Alexander Cunningham and the Beginnings of Indian Archaeology (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1966), 53n.Schmidt, Richard. (1898) Śrīvara’s Kathākautuka. Die Geschichte von Joseph in persisch- indischem Gewande. Sanskrit und Deutsch. Kiel.


Roma, Zigeuner, Tzigane, Gitanos, Zincali, Zutt, Jats.
In Johann Zedler’s 1749 Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Kuenste they are wicked and godless. In Denis Diderot’s 1750 dictionary they are vagabonds who will trick you. “c’est ainsi qu’on appelle des vagabonds qui font prosession de dire la bonne aventure, à l’inspection des mains. Leur talent est de chanter, danser, & voler.” By 1783 they were connected to India – philologically – as in Johann Rüdiger’s Von der Sprache und Herkunft der Zigeuner aus Indien


The soundtrack to my recent trip: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


I haven’t actually read Mohsin Hamid’s short story, Terminator: Attack of the Drone.

I joked on twitter about Hamid confusing two movie franchises.

I also commented that he was channeling Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In terms of the patois.

Ok, I read the first paragraph.

I was totally turned off his short-story in Granta: Pakistan issue which was some first-person account of a beheading.

I didn’t like it.

And I didn’t like his essay on how Pakistan is teh Awesome in an edited volume I reviewed.

Like is a flimsy word. I was angry at that essay.

I have not read his novels, except that first one.

Given all that, I am not going to say anything about the Mohsin Hamid short-story. I want to rant however on the idiocy that compels us to theorize all around the issue of the drone except to the basic point: they are a form of illegal warfare that eliminates human beings without any specific criminal judgement. Let alone civilians, the drones kill members of a violent group itself without any


Much “academic” work taunts and haunts, but some rabbit holes are just too enticing. One is the moon.

The light streaming down from the moon has no part in the theater of our daily existence. The terrain so deceptively illuminated by it seems to belong to some counter-earth or alternate earth. It is an earth different from that to which the moon is subject as satellite, for it is itself transformed into a satellite of the moon. Its broad bosom, whose breath was time, stirs no longer; the creation has finally made its way back home, and can again don the widow’s veil which the day had torn off. The pale beam the stole into my room through the blinds gave me to understand this. The course ofmy sleep was disturbed; the moon cut through it with its coming and going. When it was there in the room and I awoke, I was effectively unhoused, for my room seemed willing to accommodate no one besides the moon.
– Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, p. 115

(my thanks to KP)

From Kāvyamīmāṃsā (found in Bhojaprabandha – later text/collection), p.46, Dalal, Sastri edition, (transl. mine, feel free to improve if you wanna use it)
For men who are together with beloved, long night is diminished to a moment,
when they are separated the coolest moon is heating like fire.
Since I have neither a beloved nor separation, for me, in both situations
the moon shines in a form of a mirror, neither cool nor hot.

An Anthology of Sanskrit Poetry, Vidyākara’s Subhaṣitaratnakoṣa, tr. by Ingalls
You have not seen my mistress’ face, cakoras,
its charms arranged by Love himself;
for had you seen its perfect loveliness,
how could you relish still the taste of moonlight? [Rājaśekhara] p.170 v.411

Cast your glance beyond the hedge and guess
what cool-rayed orb is this
that wanders on the earth without its deer.
The cakoras of the park, who feed on only nectar,
follow as she scatters moonlight
white as ripened parrot-plum. [Rājaśekhara] p.175 v.447

You listened not to words of friends,
you heeded not your relatives’ advice;
but when your dearest fell before your feet
you struck him with the lily from your ear.
So now the moon is burning hot
and sandal paste turn into fire,
the nights each last a thousand years
and the lotus necklace weighs like iron. [Amaru?] p.231 v.702

“Like to a fire surrounded by sharp rays –
a very wonder. Can the sun my friend,
be rising even now at night?”
My sweet, it is the moon.”
“But how should moonlight bring me fever?”
“Ah, what is not contrary, child,
to one without her husband!” [Puṣṭika] p.238 v.738

At me the bow of Love shoots arrows fiercely,
the humming of the bees brings pain
and the moon casts rays of fire;
but these being shamed by the alluring beauty
of my darling’s brow, her sweet-toned voice, her face,
I fare not think what angry measures
the three may take with her. [Śāntākaragupta] p/247 v.776

Your birth was from the sea of milk;
Śrī was your sister, the kaustubha jewel your brother;
your friends are waterlilies and your beams
flow with ambrosia, while your face
is rival to the lotus face of women;
how then, oh moon, crest jewel of God,
should you poor forth on me these painful fires? [Rājaśekhara] p.250 v. 799

Drink all this sea, cakora birds, of moonlight
darting your beaks out as you raise your necks,
that the moon thus reft of brilliance spare the lives
of those who pine in separation from their loves. [Rājaśekhara] p.250 v.800

The moon was born of the same womb as poison;
the sandalwood is known to shelter snakes;
pearls are raised from the salty sea
and lotuses are lovers of sun.
How then could anything exist in these
to assuage the flames of love?
But by mistake of their appearance
we forget the truth and are deceived. [Rājaśekhara] p.250-1 v.801

Grieve not, oh earth; the darkness will not last.
Be happy, lily pond; do not despair cakoras.
The moon now rises, a lamp to all the world,
sole mountain from which flow
all streams of moonlight nectar. [Rājaśrī] p.273 v.899

The cat, thinking its rays are milk,
licks them from the dish;
the elephant, seeing them woven through the lattice of the trees,
takes them for lotus stems;
the damsel after love would draw them from her couch
as if they were her dress:
see how the moon in its pride of light
has cozened all the world. [Bhāsa?] p.274 v. 905
*(I know it’s not exactly what you need but I like this verse )

The moon, which here has multiplied its light,
checkered with spots of darkness by the beaks
of cakora birds unsteady with intoxication,
constructs a graceful foliage of finger painting
to serve for strewing on the couches
of damsels weary from their bouts of love. p.278 v.929

A palace for the sports of damsels fair as moonlight,
a lake whose waves are nectar,
a lump of butter churned from the sea of milk,
a waterstone for cooling the earth’s fever,
forehead ornament of night, sole recourse of those in love:
the moon climbs into heaven, a rain of camphor,
giving its light to the suppliant cakoras. p.282 v.955

Two or three stars are left, the color of old pearls;
the cakoras sleep, inert of limb from drinking of the moonlight.
The moon, pale as an empty honey comb, goes to the Western Hill.
while the east receives the color of a kitten’s eyes. [Rājaśekhara] p.284 v. 964


“As the Romans liked to say, Solvitur ambulando! (Solve it by walking.)”
–Edward Casey,




What is Imperialism?

The recent hissy fit thrown by historian Niall Ferguson (racist! imperialist!) because Pankaj Mishra wrote a scathing review in the LRB deserves comment.

Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s TV-Book Civilisation, Watch This Man, led with drawing attention to White supremacists like Theodore Stoddard and the twin peaks of their insanity – the inherent belief in their racial rule and the imminent rise of the non-white. He carefully placed Ferguson’s tele-tectonic career within those peaks, as Ferguson maniacally catapulted from one to another to back to forth; content only when everyone was praising his wit or inviting him to exclusive seances with Dick Cheney. Well, sure. Ferguson was only one among many intellectuals who took the post 2001 moment and led the charge of the key boards. Let us never forget Fouad Ajami or Bernard Lewis or Kanan Makiya or Boot or Kaplan or Zakaria or Friedman. Let us never forget.

Here is what Ferguson wrote in October 2001:

The future of Afghanistan must, if the war is successfully prosecuted, be very similar indeed to those states currently under this kind of international colonial rule. Nothing else will do. Contrary to popular arguments made in the 1980s, imperialism is affordable for the richest economy in the world. You could argue that the cost of isolationism could be much higher in the long run than the cost of confident intervention in rogue states. When the British empire controlled 25% of the world’s surface and population, the British defence budget averaged around 3% of GNP. Currently the US defence budget accounts for slightly less than that. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that by increasing the defence budget to 5% of GNP, still below the levels of height of the cold war, more effective military intervention could be undertaken.

There is no excuse for the relative weakness of the US as a quasi-imperial power. The transition to formal empire from informal empire is an affordable one. But it does not come very naturally to the US – partly because of its history and partly because of Vietnam – to act as a self-confident imperial power. The US has the resources: but does it have the guts to act as a global hegemon and make the world a more stable place?

This is what he wrote in October 2003, reviewing a book:

Perhaps the book’s real problem is that the very concept of “hegemony” is really just a way to avoid talking about empire, “empire” being a word to which most Americans remain averse. But “empire” has never exclusively meant direct rule over foreign territories without any political representation of their inhabitants. Students of imperial history have a far more sophisticated conceptual framework than that. During the imperial age, for example, British colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard clearly understood the distinction between “direct” and “indirect” rule; large parts of the British Empire in Asia and Africa were ruled indirectly, through the agency of local potentates rather than British governors. A further distinction was introduced by the British historians Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their seminal 1953 article on “the imperialism of free trade,” in which the authors showed how the Victorians used naval and financial power to open markets well outside their colonial ambit. There is an important and now widely accepted distinction between “formal” and “informal” empire. The British did not formally govern Argentina, for example, but the merchant banks of the City of London exerted such a powerful influence on that country’s fiscal and monetary policy that its independence was heavily qualified.

Ferguson has bristled (BRISTELD) that Mishra “called” him a racist. Ferguson has threatened to sue LRB and Mishra because, well he is NOT a racist. Mishra, to his credit, has used the Letters to further skewer and flay Ferguson and one great, great service Mishra has done to humanity (the thinking third) is to wipe the sheen off that smug face. Bravo.

I am less interested in the racism debate, and more in the imperialism. In a recently published article, historian Richard Drayton, succinctly blasts the defenders of cultural imperialism.

It is important now to be clear about the reality of Imperialism, in ways its historians so rarely are. For it is not merely, as it was at its origin, a word of political abuse. It is a useful category through which we may make sense of a phenomenon which recurs in world history wherever a power gap allows one soci- ety to become predatory towards others. Imperialism, in all its contexts, is a regime through which external entities derive maximum gain from the labour and resources within a territory. A foreign power, with or without formal colonization, although always with local collaborators, secures a protected and privileged sphere for its economic actors. There the relationship of labour to capital is manipulated via the suppression of taxes, wages, social or environmental protections, by forms of coercion which drive labour towards that direction of employment and limit its legal or practical ability to resist the regime, and from which tribute, commodities and profit may be freely expatriated. The social rent paid by capital is minimized, as both the costs of social reproduction (childhood, ill health, aging) are borne from the wages of labour and the costs of infrastructure through which the external actor derives extraordinary benefit – roads, deepwater harbours, airports, electricity networks, local policing and repression – are funded mainly out of taxation of the wages and consumption of the squeezed wages of labour. Those on the under- side of this regime derive reduced benefit from their labour and resources, and live in circumstances of insecurity, if not permanent malnutrition. The upshot of this is high levels of unnecessary mortality sustained over very long periods, a kind of slow-motion mass manslaughter. Violence is a constant and necessary corollary of such an order, needed to install, defend, discipline and replace local collaborators. Torture is not just a problem that oddly pops up in the midst of imperial adven- tures: it is the necessary recurrent partner to a non-consensual regime of exploita- tion, where the application of force to bodies to extract information, to spread terror, to break the will to resist, is fundamental. But Imperialism always comes wearing the mask of community, promising that its form of domination is in the universal interest. To such a claim historians and their colleagues in the social sciences lend active help.1

Drayton criticizes historians who took the cultural turn of making imperialism about representation:

But even these new currents of Imperial history as a subject rarely posed a critique of either the past of British Imperialism, or even less, a challenge to the forms of domination and exploitation which it had shaped and which survived its formal collapse. For the ‘cultural turn’ was associated with an ascent of Idealism in the historiography of British imperialism which was remarkably compatible with the Neo-Liberal moment. On the left, the postcolonialists were preoccupied with how the British perceived the colonized, and with the imperial life of cultural ste- reotypes.15 On the right, as we shall see, apologists for contemporary British and American power sought to revive the Whig history of the British Empire. Somewhere in the centre, we were told of the ideological origins of the British Empire. Colonial encounters, for Cannadine, became mere consequences of how the British imagined social class. The mental worlds of individuals at the frontier, usually white, became the subject of many elegant studies from Linda Colley and her two distinguished students Kathleen Wilson and Maya Jasanoff.17 A focus on subjectivity, on how people in Africa, Asia, or Latin America thought about things, displaced examination of practical and material experience. Historians appeared to be more bothered by ‘epistemic violence’ than the real thing. The exceptions to this have been few – David Anderson’s and Caroline Elkins’s studies of the violence with which the colonial state repressed the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya stand out, and the hostility with which both, but particularly Elkins, were received, is an emblem of the costs involved in breaking the code of silence.

In important ways, post-colonial Imperial and world history is still written mainly for the pleasure of the reading classes of past and present imperial powers.

This is a serious critique that deserves to be taken seriously by historians – especially those among us who wish to show the rot in the fruits of imperialism. I am going to take my time and write more on Drayton’s critique but for now, just wanted to highlight this to you (my thanks to Mishra for drawing attention to this essay).

In the meantime, the likes of Ferguson will never go away (I blame TV) until the true horror of imperialism is distinguished along with the representations of imperialism.

Gitmo is real.

  1. Richard Drayton, “Where Does the World Historian Write From? Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism“, Journal of Contemporary History 2011 46: 671 []