The Past is Finally Here

Intizar Hussain, aged 92, passed away today. For all of Pakistan’s history, Husain remained a voice of hope, loss, reportage, critique, renunciation, vexation. I grew up reading his novels and short stories. When I discovered his columns and his critical writing, I also discovered the particular tension between re-framing past hopes with current despair.

Professor Memon has a fine article discussing Husain’s fiction here and I quote from it to give you a sense of his artistic voice:

This corresponds fairly closely to my own descriptive taxonomy of Husain’s work, which I see, rather, in terms of a metaphor of journey. It starts with the realisation that while something has grievously gone wrong, something else, with abundant creative possibilities, has also been gained. I suggest a thematic triad to delineate the three stages of that journey as: (1) reclamation of memory, some initial success in this project, but, ultimately, failure, leading to (2) man’s moral perversion and fall, resulting in (3) the extinction of all the creative principle in life.

There is a lot to say, and others will say, about Husain’s extraordinary body of work. There is a need to archive his memories and writings. Yet, what one can and ought to say at this moment is that 1947 is indeed becoming the past for South Asia. The generation that not only witnessed it but dealt with its consequences in their words, deeds and thoughts, is leaving. Our understanding of nationalism and our engagement with the rights of citizens in South Asia remain indebted to this generation’s memories and writings.

Without seeing their words, hearing their voice, and being their selves, we can only see the border walls.

Remembering M.M. Kalburgi

Panel on Kalburgi

The following are remarks given at a panel “Policing Knowledge: M.M. Kalburgi, vacana poetry, and writers’ revolts in India” on Dec 7, 2015 at NYU|Tisch. The organizer Nosheen Ali has graciously agreed to sharing her remarks alongside the panelist Harita Koya. Thank you as well to the other panelists Tilottama Tharoor (NYU) and Ali Mir (William Paterson University).

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A Contrarian View: Race, Representation, and Islamophobia in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced

I thank Neilesh Bose for letting CM publish this conversation on Ayad Akhtar’s play, and we welcome your thoughts and responses– sepoy.

On April 3, 2015 Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Neilesh Bose organized a panel discussion around racialization, Islamophobia, and political power within theater and performance spaces today as well as in popular culture at Princeton University on April 3, 2015, moderated by Professor Jill Dolan.


The panel also included Aasif Mandvi, Ayad Akhtar, as well as theater producer Jamil Khoury of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising (a theater company dedicated to “Silk Road” stories from South Asia and the Middle East). Formal papers were delivered: Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s “Sexuality, Empire, Islamophobia and the Politics of Piety”, Neilesh Bose’s “The Dramaturgy of Political Violence,” and Jamil Khoury’s “Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation,”. The last has been subsequently published in alt. theatre: cultural diversity and the stage (summer 2015) as well as Arab Stages Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 2015). All three papers are currently being revised for future publication. The edited conversation below reflects a conversation between the three panelists after the panel.​

Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Professor of English, Montclair State University, specializes in feminism, theatre studies, and postcolonial studies, and has published five books, including A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan (Seagull, 2005).

Neilesh Bose, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair, Global and Comparative History, University of Victoria, specializes in religion and nationalism in modern South Asia as well as theater and performance studies. Publications include Recasting the Region: Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal (Oxford, 2014), and his edited collection Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora (Indiana, 2009).

Jamil Khoury, is Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theater company focusing on plays and narratives about the East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Diasporas, as well as a playwright and documentary filmmaker, whose plays include Mosque Alert and Precious Stones and whose documentary films include Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness.

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Passport Tales II

This weekend was the annual Madison conference bringing together all those who work on South Asia in whatever discipline (and whose papers were accepted, and who had funds from their respective institutions to pay the conference fee, and attend). I presented a paper on Mughal Sind, which is the beginning of a new project. As part of the festivities, I got to meet a number of young scholars who are putting in their PhD applications.

I wanted to put here some of the things I think are useful for all international students. First, that while the funding structures at most R1s is now uniform– that is, you get full funding for five years, if accepted– that does not mean all graduate students are treated equally. Non US citizens do not qualify for FLAS (Federal Languages and Area Studies) Fellowships. This means that if you are expected to study a language such as Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit etc. at a Summer Institute or in South Asia, you cannot utilize FLAS funding for it, and must seek extra funding from your institution. Now, if you are lucky enough to be at Yale or Princeton, it may be a moot point but please inquire about this before hand.

Related, is your ability to travel to archives and/or to fieldwork. You will require visas and documentation for funding/accommodation that your peers will not need. This often means even short intra-semester trips need to be planned well in advance.

This leads to the exceptional cases: holders of Passports of Pakistan. There are many more young colleagues coming to US due to H.E.C or Fulbright funding. The visa regimes for these passport holders– and the availability of US Federal funding– is even more restrictive and draconian. Over my academic life, I have cancelled trips to EU, UK and Canada when either the visa came too late, or I could not apply for it in the time available.

What this means for a graduate student? In my book I make a (brief) argument for how the passport regime governing the scholar impacts the actual research methodology and practice. I will have much more to say on this, as the book comes out, but I wanted to flag this issue to the graduate students: when we imagine ourselves as scholars, who do we actually imagine? The international student in US/EU or the Pakistani student specifically, cannot imagine themselves as their US/EU/UK citizen peers. They cannot be the mimic men of Bhabha for they cannot mimic the legal ontology governing their peers. They are in an exceptional state (one only their Afghanistani, Yemeni, Iraqi and Irani colleagues can share).

The issue does not disappear as one progresses through the ranks either. Fellowships continue to be available through federal and semi-federal channels which are restricted to US citizens or Permanent Residents. Taking a visiting professorship in EU or UK is not as simple as just getting through a difficult selection process– it means dealing with even more legal regimes. If one is a Permanent Resident, for example, of the US, then staying out of the country for the duration of a 9 months fellowship may put that status in jeopardy. The calculus is confoundingly complex. Further, I have had numerous friends refuse to change jobs because their host institution promised them help with permanent residency. I have had others leave US because their host failed to live up to the promise and they were facing a significant financial burden in moving from working visa to a more permanent status.

In other words, the passport remains a critical aspect of the daily life, and life planning, for those who, on surface, seem to be just like everyone else. The citizenship regimes governing one’s legal life also governs one’s social and intellectual life. This point, perhaps seems absurdly pedantic to a young scholar seeking their first admission to a graduate program, but it may very well be, the most critical one.


Shahid Amin Reviews II: A Few Good Men of the Empire

[Review of Ferdinand Mount, The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster, 2015) by Shahid Amin]

A couple of years before he lost his mind, Ram Gharib Chaube, assistant to the ICS ethnologist William Crooke, and chief clerk in fellow Irishman and batch mate George A. Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, persuaded his master to let him collect folksongs about the Mutiny – worth their while as “indicators of the real feeling of the people fifty years after the occurrence”.

As befitting subaltern compositions in the Awadhi and other dialects, a large part of the Chaube Collection turned out to be dirges in the feminine register, as of the banishment of Awadh Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Maita Buruj in Calcutta: “tum bin hazrat, aaj mulk bhayo suuno/ … Angrez Bahadur ain: muluk lai linho” (Without thee, my Lord, our des is now forlorn/ the Great Brits came and snatched away our country!) Another, a sensual longing for Raja Gulab Singh, the Thakur rebel of Barwa Batola, Hardoi intoned in the Dadra mode: “rahiya tori herun, ek baar daras dikkhawa re.” To which from his garhi-fort responded the Raja: Hear my words, Lady, I have slain foot-solders and cavalry, have slain a countless army. Or this love ditty sung by Gujar women of Saharanpur: “Logon ne lute shaal dushale; mere pyare ne lute rumal/ Meerut ka Sadr Bazar hai, mere sainyan lute na jane” (The Cantonment bazaar in Meerut is up for grabs after the mutiny in the barracks, and my gauche darling does not even know how to plunder properly).

Grierson and Crooke, Chaube’s superiors, were both graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, had joined the coveted Indian Civil Service in 1871 along with Vincent A. Smith and four others from the same institution. This was the distinguished Irish contingent of District Collectors who contributed to colonial India’s knowledge economy, as our present rulers are wont to call it. Smith, a prolific historian, also unearthed Kasya, the site of Buddha’s niravana, 50 kms from Chauri Chaura. Crooke and Grierson were not expressly concerned with our history, being more concerned with matters ethnographic and linguistic.
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Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan

[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]

NagarAmritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399

On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.

‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)

In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).

Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.

To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
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August Days

Gentle readers,

It has been quiet, I know. I hope all of you are busy writing your books to keep your jobs, or to get new ones. It must be exhausting, and you have my sympathies. I published a review-essay in Caravan looking at four new books on 1947/Partition: the edited volume by Urvashi Butalia, Partition: The Long Shadow, Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, and Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina.

The histories and memories in the new books considered here are in tension with one another. They open up new archives, methods and understandings, just they continue to naturalise the incommensurability of the Muslim with India. It is evident in reading them that our need to understand the deep history of Partition is acute. Just as graveyards are segregated by communities, so are histories. In partitioned South Asia, the Shia, Sunni, Muslim, Hindu, or Assamese, Sindi, Baluchi pasts are also constructed to be separate. The histories we produce must acknowledge the burden of recognising difference and parsing it. For the subalterns, those adrift among borders, the fuller history of Partition remains unwritten. The Rohingya floating at sea are also part of the forgotten stories of Partition. They who once were Indian or Burmese or Pakistani or Bangladeshi are now of nowhere. Without land, they are also without history.

Do take a look, and do let me know what you think.