A Book of Conquest

Gentle Readers,

It has been a while since we last spoke and much has happened– good and notgood– and I have been remiss with my absence. In a few short weeks you will be able to buy my book, A Book of Conquest from your online or retail bookseller in US, EU and South Asia.

I finished writing the book in earnest last August (2015) and submitted it to the Press. It took until around May for copy-editing and indexing and other things to get set– and almost exactly a year to the date, I have the physical book in my hand. That feels amazing (and actually it is amazing given usual publication schedules are 18 months).

What can I say about the book: It is mostly the history of a Persian text, Chachnama which was written around 1220s. It is mostly a history of the region of Sind from the 9th to the 13th century. It is mostly about a political theory that existed before the Mughals and about which we know little (in general). It is mostly about the notion that Muslims are outsiders to South Asia. It is mostly about how we seek answers in origins (wrongly). It is mostly about a method of doing history as post-partitioned subjects. It is mostly what I wanted to say and I am glad that I was able to say it and I am grateful that you will be able to read it.

I was planning on writing some short posts about the mechanics of the book writing and publishing and whatever I learned from it. I say “was” mainly because I am drowning in other writing assignments and classes are about to start so I don’t know how/when I will get to it. Yet, it is a priority and I will.

In the meanwhile, this note is meant to say:

There will be some more book-related news in the next few months.

To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock

[@sepoy notes: I am grateful to Gayathri Raj and the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, where this interview first appeared, to allow re-printing it here on CM.]

Sheldon Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He was the general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and is the founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India. A famed Indologist, his scholarship focuses on the hermeneutics of Sanskrit texts. He was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian honors bestowed by the Republic of India, in 2010. His involvement with the Murty Classical Library has spawned a petition demanding he be removed from his post as editor in chief.

Gayathri Raj recently graduated from Columbia University. She does not want you to know what her major is, but sometimes she reads Sanskrit. She enjoys listening to M S Subbulakshmi and Oum Kalthoum.

Gayathri Raj: This issue is on myth, all kinds of myth, so I wanted to talk about national myths, given current events. I’ll start with the first question: the big pink elephant in the room, the petition that has been written on change.org demanding to remove you from Murty Classical Library

Sheldon Pollock: I was very tempted to sign that petition myself.

GR: [laughs] Why is that?

SP: My first reaction was, “Thank god, finally a way to get out from under all the crushing work of this project! [laughter] Then my second reaction was, are these people deranged? The suggestion that an obscure professor of Sanskrit off in the middle of nowhere could be a threat to the integrity of the great nation of India, simply because I signed a letter in support of students who have been arrested for nothing more than demonstrating their freedom of expression—- I thought that was utterly delusional. The third reaction has come slowly, and it’s more serious. It’s a little more nuanced and complicated. What is it in contemporary India that could produce such an ignorant, hostile document?

I’m very concerned about the source of this hostility and ignorance and how to address it in a manner that is progressive and salutary, that produces not more conflict but cooperation. So I’m not angry. I’m intrigued and worried about the cultural and psychological sources of the anger and shame that are evident in that document. When I refer to shame, I mean shame among people about the loss of their own cultural knowledge. Shame that it is virtually impossible to produce in India. a series of the quality of the Murty Classical Library. That fact is the result of a deep historical…I don’t want to say robbery, but loss. There is the shame of, “Oh, here’s this guy talking about power, domination, inequality, and hierarchy, and we don’t want to talk about that, we want to just talk about flying saucers in the Vedas and ancient plastic surgery, but here comes along this mean Orientalist.” But my sense is that the true shame that is motivating and empowering the document is the ignorance of things that people’s grandfathers and grandmothers knew which they no longer know. They’ve lost it, and how can they possibly get it back? I may be wrong: maybe too much psychology. But that is my sense of things.

Sheldon Pollock with T V Venkatachala

Continue reading “To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock”

Nanu’s Poetry

[sepoy notes: A lovely memorial below via Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah who is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. The 2016 Literature Humanities Preceptor Teaching Award recipient, Sahar is currently completing her dissertation “The Poetics of the Amatory Prelude in the Post-Classical Arabic-Islamic Encomium.]

Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011
Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011

Written by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah
Dedication: In memory of our matriarchs, their lovers, and their poetry
Written Friday, 9 May 2014 // 9 Rajab 1435

Seven summers had passed when I returned to Bangladesh with my family as a new bride of one winter and spring.

The Nanu I met that Dhaka visit was entirely different from the one I had known previously. During the years I was away studying in Egypt I had learned, via long phone conversations, that a terrible trauma had silenced her for months. Yet this Nanu, the matriarch of my maternal line including the eight women and men she carried and raised and the others who departed before seeing adulthood, still had much to say.  

This Nanu– who had awakened from her long comatose silence– was awakened as a poet.

Hundreds of verses she memorized as a child poured out. At times, she composed her own free verse. Other times she gave verses from her childhood schoolbooks her own personal touch. When in a good mood, she had couplets, longer poems, and rhymed stories ready in response to everyone and everything. Seemingly her selected poetic choices appeared to be flippant, but I like to believe they were actually precise. She could be playfully mischievous but at any moment– when Nanu was filled with sadness by a memory or thought– she would simply recite:

ভেঙ্গে গেল আমার স্বপ্নের ফুল 
ছিড়ে গেল আমার বিনার তার 
মর্ম উঠিয়া আমার হাহাকার

The flower of my dream is broken
My instrument’s string is torn
Such is the depth of my sorrow

When I returned as a six months newly-wed to Nanu the poet, she shared with me for the first time the great love between her and Nur Miah–the grandfather I never met. He had passed away almost twenty-five years before in Dharmapur on the bed he had made for them.

She dreamt of him often, and her dreams would leave her in a particular mood for the entire day.

Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014
Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014

One morning, in a bout of anger, she stubbornly refused to eat breakfast. When my aunt gently coaxed her to eat, she said Nur Miah would not share his bowl of rice with her AGAIN and had THE NERVE to wink and smile the entire time. I realized she had awakened from a vision of him–and we all began to imagine that we knew him.

Drawn into her world, we missed him more than ever before. We imagined this man whom she first saw approaching her parent’s home in Baraipur on a white horse must have been incredibly charming.

“What did you think when you first saw him, Nanu?” I’d ask her.
She’d smile, “I liked the horse very much.”
“Was he handsome?” I’d ask her. 
“Oh, I was stunning.”

Once, when I was lying down beside her, she recounted a conversation she had with him. They were discussing where they would like to be buried after they had passed on. When she cried that she didn’t want to be alone, he told her he would find her even in the grave. Then she said Nur Miah would recite:

তুমি যদি হইতা চাঁদ
আমি হইতাম সূর্
প্রথম প্রভাতে উঠিয়ে
নয়ন খুলিয়ে
আমরা একী সাথে থাক্থাম 

If you were the moon
I would be as the sun’s ray
At the first break of dawn
When eyes open (from slumber)
We would be as one. 

That summer, Nanu determined that my signature poem– the poem she loved most for me to recite to her again and again (and again)– would be the one she recited to Nur Miah when he would return home after a long trip. Each time, the conversation would go like this,

“Do you know what I’d tell him when he would come home?”
“No, Nanu. What would you say?”
“I would say —

সামনে আসার যতক্ষণ
ভালবাসা ততক্ষণ
সামনে আইলে পুড়ে মন
দুরে গেলে ঠনঠন

When you are before me 
Love lasts the duration
When you are before me
The heart burns
But go far away
Nothing.

She would shake her right fist in front of my face on the rhythm of ṭhanṭhan– the sound of nothing. Then she would conclude happily, with a sly, mischievous smile,

“Oh, he would become so furious! He would say, ‘Thanṭhan? Thanṭhan?!? I crossed rivers for you, roads for you, walked through the rain and mud to return to you…and you say thanṭhan?!”

She then commanded me to recite this very poem to my new partner.  

So I committed the lines to memory, archived as “love’s arsenal” and prayed it would make her happy to drive a lover of my own as crazy.

Bi sirr al-Fātihah. 

After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014
After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014

The Work of Humanities

Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski
Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski

A few weeks ago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrated its 50th anniversary, alongside 60 years for The Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and more generally a record of excellence in research on South Asia dating back to the foundation of University of Chicago in 1892.

These are good times for the study of India at the University of Chicago. Just two years ago, with much fanfare, the University opened a Center at Delhi (to go along with other global centers in Paris, Beijing etc.). A few years before that the Indian Cultural Ministry put in $1.5 million to install the Vivekananda Visiting Chair. Earlier this year, was another major gift– The Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professorship in Sanskrit Studies– a Chair that will be held by Gary Tubb.

These are bad times for the University of Chicago. In Feb 2016, the S&Ps rating agency cut its credit rating to AA- citing “persistent and expected continued operation deficits, high debt burden and adequate financial resources for the rating with additional debt expected in fiscal 2017”.

This was all pre-dicted. In 2014, Bloomberg reported:

… inherited an ambitious program to improve campus life while bolstering highly regarded academic programs. The institution stuck to the plan even as it suffered a 21.5 percent loss on endowment investments in 2009. Its debt has grown in the past four years to $3.6 billion from $2.4 billion. “We well understand that borrowing for some of these investments entails risk,” Zimmer, whose $3.36 million compensation made him the highest-paid private college president in 2011, said in a statement in August after local reporters obtained a copy of the proposed financing plan. “We cannot, however, scale back our academic and programmatic ambitions in a way that risks our future excellence as a university.”

As a result in 2015, the University claimed to look towards re-couping their losses by focusing on non-academic staff:

… it is signaling a bureaucratic revamp covering some 8,000 nonteaching staff members whose compensation has been growing faster than faculty pay and university revenue. “This means a change in how we think about administrative costs, not just a temporary adjustment of expenses,” Provost Eric Isaacs warned in an April memo to faculty and staff. At a faculty meeting the next day, President Robert Zimmer said support functions that had grown in an ad hoc fashion could be organized more efficiently, according to an attendee who asks not to be identified. Another faculty member, who also requests anonymity, says Zimmer, when pressed, “clearly acknowledged that people were going to be losing their jobs.”

It came then as no surprise that two weeks ago, a number of departmental administrators in the Humanities Division were given a month’s notice for the termination of their jobs– with the stipulation that small departments would now share administrative staff as part of this re-structuring.

One of those given notice is Alicia Czaplewski– center stage in that photograph above, taken at that gala dinner celebrating SALC few weeks ago. In her 23 years of service to the University, she worked for nearly all of those departmental Chairs. In 2011, Alicia was celebrated by her students and awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students. Alongside Alicia, Tracy L. Davis, administrator for Slavic Languages & Civilizations, was also given notice.

The students, and faculty, have a petition in her support that I urge you to read, if only to see how big an impact Alicia has had over the last fifteen years.

I want to, however, tell what it means to be an “Alicia” in a top private University at the Southside of Chicago. I have little to add about the so-called ‘corporatization’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ of the University. Such paeans are deeply ahistorical and ignore the very foundation of such private enterprises.

From 1998 to 2008, I worked in the administrative offices of University of Chicago– first five years for the Social Sciences Division and the last five for the Humanities Division. I worked at least 40 hours even before I became a benefits-eligible full-time employee in 2005. As a graduate student, I was hired at an hourly rate to build the computing administrative structure for the Divisions– payroll, accruals, reimbursements, procurement, accounts payable. This work introduced me to the administrative structures which remain invisible to students or faculty as part of everyday academic life. The systems was organized and run by people like myself, departmental administrators, finance managers, grant managers, secretarial staff, and facilities staff. For ten years, I worked almost exclusively with women of color and working-class women from Chicago’s suburbs. The average service time for these tremendous workers was never below a decade– with services rendered in 20, 30 and even 40 year cycles.

I worked with these women as they gave support, catering to the demands, whims, desires, and complaints of faculty who were paid hundreds times more and without participating in either the prestige economy or the benefits economy of the University on equal terms. Alicia, and her daughters, would pick up Speakers and Visiting Professors coming from India, at the Airport to save the department costs of taxi services. They would house them, assist them in cultural and legal translations; work late into the night, and over the weekend to help critical departmental business go forward. All of this was labor unpaid, and required, for the mere functioning of the department. All of this labor was done by Alicia, and Tricia, and Anne and every other departmental administrator for the sake of their Chairs and their tenured faculty. I bear direct witness to this labor and I know that it was done without any ‘cost-sharing’ with the University.

That was not all. Any Ph.D. program is necessarily structured to debilitate one’s sense of self-hood and sanity. Whatever sadism is intended by this ‘rite of passage’ the fact is that mental health services were not a part of Graduate Student benefits during my time at Chicago. Life– marriage, birth, death, divorce, trauma– had to happen off-screen and far away; there was no institutional ways outside of the tried and failed “leave of absence”. That task of mental health wellness for Graduate students, and faculty, was also the task of the women sitting in the departmental offices. They were the confidants, the shoulders-to-cry-on, the help, the surety of purpose for the hundreds of students and faculty. This too was uncompensated labor. In the petition, Alicia is called “the Foster Mother” (the building in which SALC is housed is Foster Hall). She was not anyone’s mother that attended or worked in Foster Hall. That she was asked to play that role is itself a condemnation of the way in which Humanities operated at Chicago. Her love and grace saved many a dissertation, and that work clearly won her devotion from the hundreds of students. That love, however, was not what she was being paid to do.

In my ten years at University of Chicago, there were many, many like Alicia who belonged to the South Side community and who served the University. When the University made a decision on how to face financially uncertain times, it relied a priori on an understanding of waste within its operation– redundancies, expired utilities, inefficiencies. To clear that waste, the most disposable people were these lower administrative staff. The access of such denizens of the South Side to a lower-middle class life, via employment at the University, has now ended at the University and the stories of retirements, lay-offs are all too common.1 In my ten years, I also witnessed the hiring and setting up of countless new “Deputy Deans” and “Associate Deans” in the Humanities– all charged with managing what was deemed unmanageable without centralization. I can assume that no cost-sharing is happening at the Divisional level.

The faculty at University of Chicago have been abdicating their governance over such matters for a long while now– and I do not know if the rally to save the SALC position will be successful. I hope that it is– but what about the Slavic position? what about the other redundancies? The financial crisis remains as do the newly built very tall, all glass structures erected by the University to house art centers or alumni relations. The time for tightening the belt is only for small departments, and those who run it, not for the grand funding campaigns and the constructions of the new New. The University is a university only if it can keep growing, keep expanding.

All that said, for the faculty and the students of SALC, there is no greater articulation of their engagements with the University than Alicia Czaplewski. They have all rallied to save her and I hope we succeed. I predict, however, that in not too distant a future they will be asked to save that department itself. It is already too late. Until then, I wanted to document the immense contributions of Alicia to the intellectual, social, and legal life at Foster Hall. We all owe her.

———
  1. University of Chicago is no friend to the community in which it has lived. It’s ethos “life of the mind” cherishes the fact that the mind is not attached to a body, and that body is not colored. The horror stories of its “largest University Police Force” are countlessly documented but less documented, or understood, is its neo-colonial restructuring of urban landscape in Hyde Park. The Urban Planning and Sociology departments worked closely with foundations to make the University part of the national conversation. See LaDale Winling, “Students and the Second Ghetto: Federal Legislation, Urban Politics, and Campus Planning at the University of Chicago,” Journal of Planning History (2011) http://jph.sagepub.com/content/10/1/59.refs. The history of its refusal to allow a Trauma Center on the South Side is, in itself, a brutal history to behold. []

3+4=7

Here is a game we used to play in Berlin. The idea began with trying to combat the righteousness with which we each organize our thoughts on our intellectual projects. When asked to narrate this to someone else, and when someone else says, ‘have you thought about…?’, we either compartmentalize that feedback (‘I will look this up later’) or dismiss it for not being serious enough. How do we teach ourselves, and others, the art of empathetic listening?

So the game goes this way. We know that 7 is a magical number: the average time to completion of dissertation, the number of years on the tenure clock, the average number of chapters in a monograph. Among other things. So, 7 minutes.

We started with a pair AB. A would begin and speak for exactly 3 minutes– they can speak about the main questions animating their research or a particular chapter or whatever they wish. They are asked to speak at a normal pace (not rush) and speak to a peer audience. As the buzzer sounded, they stopped, and immediately B picks up. B picks up the narrative, and continue speaking about the project, adding questions, themes, concerns to As ideas but drawing upon B’s own expertise, ideas, concerns and delights. However, critically, B is asked to add, augment, grow, consider, elaborate and NOT deconstruct, destroy, deteriorate. B speaks for exactly 4 minutes. At the end, there is a 3 minute period when those listening (not A not B) indicate what they liked, and help elaborate and illuminate.

The exercise was built as an antidote to the generic workshop where a colleague’s paper etc is ‘critiqued’– that is, its gaps, elisions are pointed out for the scholar to address and what the listener feels is a lacunae is attended to. We wanted to have a place for anticipatory thinking where both as a speaker and as a listener, one tries to think alongside and in tandem to.

It was a fun game and some cool things happened and then we stopped. There was another game where we downloaded weird powerpoints (usually from .mil) and did karaoke with them.

Use as you will.

In Memoriam: Nasser Hussain

CM joins our colleagues in remembering Nasser Hussain, legal theorist and scholar at Amherst, who passed away on November 9, 2015. Today, Amherst College is holding a memorial in Johnson Chapel. These are heavy times– Shahab Ahmed, Nasser Hussain, Barney Bates, the Rudolphs– for students of South Asia. Yet, they have all forged a path forward for scholarship to follow, and for ideas to flourish. Hussain’s book (as mentioned below by Professor Datla) remains a critical intervention in South Asian studies. One trenchant example is Hussain’s reading of Counter-Insurgency manual. Hussain’s critical acuity and engagement with imperial politics in that piece is fully recognizable to the readers of his scholarship. Our hearts and thoughts are with the family and colleagues of Nasser Hussain. Please find below remembrances by Professor Datla, Baxi and Lokaneeta.


Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Associate Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

Nasser Hussain’s PhD dissertation and his first book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (University of Michigan Press, 2003), begins with a description of Pakistan’s post-independence legal crises– more specifically, the 1955 Supreme Court case that considered the Governor General’s dissolution of the constituent assembly and rule by decree. In doing so, this work proclaimed the centrality of Pakistan’s historical experience to attempts to understand the conditions of modern law, and the relationship between the rule of law and state power. This was because of the importance of the British Empire to the legal history of large portions of the globe. But it was also the case because in the history of colonial India one could see, perhaps more starkly than other contexts, how and why emergency law came to be. This study analyzed the tension between sovereign emergency and the constraints of the rule of law in a colonial territory even as it traced the impact of that tension on the development of western legalities more broadly. In British India, this pioneering work showed us, a conquest state spoke the normative language of law in ways that are of continued significance. The postcolonial peoples and states were shaped by that specific history, as well, the various contexts in which ‘emergencies’ are managed by global powers.

No ordinary South Asianist and no ordinary scholar, Nasser Hussain will be deeply missed by his colleagues, students, and scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents. Humble and generous, Nasser may have objected to us speaking too much about him as a person. But ferocious in his pursuit of ideas, he would have had a much harder time objecting to us making a first attempt to appreciate the influence of his contributions. In the months that follow, there will undoubtedly be more extended discussions and publications about the range of Nasser’s work and its continued relevance to discussions of history, law, the humanities, and politics in South Asia and beyond. Here we hope to offer an initial and diverse set of reflections on his profound contributions.


Upendra Baxi
Emeritus Professor of Law
University of Warwick and Delhi

The sad demise of Nasser Hussain, on November. 9, 2015, who taught in the Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought since 1996, signifies an immeasurable loss for the world of juristic learning. His outstanding work on the states of exception that stood for a ‘jurisprudence’ of constitutional emergency is still relevant to a deeply troubled world. So is his work (coedited with Austin Sarat) on forgiveness, mercy, and clemency. Close colleagues and students know him as a deeply committed teacher and as a pioneer in the field of law and colonialism.

I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally but am deeply influenced by Nasser’s works. In the global context today, his analyses of colonial law, the linkages between martial law and massacre, and the aporia of the rule of law remain abiding and poignant. No ideologue, he has bequeathed us a legacy of critical legal thought under conditions of colonialism that also speak (beyond South Asia) to contemporary neoliberal authoritarianism and the necessity of taking social and human suffering seriously. Nasser Hussain speaks for all subaltern scholars when he depicts how basic human freedoms are obstinately, even obscenely, denied everywhere by the triumphant market and state fundamentalisms.


Jinee Lokaneeta
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Nasser Hussain’s death on November 9, 2015 has felt like a deeply personal loss but has actually left a void in a much wider intellectual and political community—regardless of whether one knew him personally or not. I met Nasser during my graduate student days and was fortunate enough to have him engage with my work and remain a supportive figure over the years. His insightful and brilliant comments, gently but firmly articulated-— often with a beautiful smile—- had a way of staying with me long after our conversations ended, and influenced my work perhaps much more than he (or I) realized. His comments and his work have been so fundamentally transformative, above all, because his work while being disciplinarily rigorous as a legal historian could not be contained by disciplinary boundaries in ways that was quite intentional, making his iconic book Jurisprudence of Emergency a shared legacy for all.

As a political theorist, what inspired me the most was his ability to utilize theoretical concepts (that may have emerged in very specific contexts and were therefore necessarily embroiled in debates on their utility elsewhere) and brilliantly apply them to extremely complex historical events in ways that do justice both to explaining the particular event and further developing the concept theoretically. An excellent example is found in the chapter from his book titled “Martial Law and Massacre: Violence and the Limit.” He uses Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence to analyze the relationship between law and violence in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre committed by the British in colonial India. Rather than understand martial law as a way to enforce law and order, Nasser argues that it actually represents a performative and foundational violence required to recreate the (colonial) state’s authority. The problem for the colonial state in dealing with the excessive force used in this massacre is that the event might reveal the foundational violence that lies at the heart of the rule of law; this the state attempts to conceal but struggles to contain. Martial law and massacre become reflective of the ambivalent relationship of law and state to violence.

Being a theorist and historian of the rule of law and emergency, it was not surprising therefore to see him play a prominent role as an educator, public intellectual and as a theorist to make sense of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba in the post-9/11 context. Nasser was a member of the group of legal historians that wrote an amicus brief on the right to habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees in 2004 (in Rasul v. Bush); he was also a part of a related virtual teach-in that included more than 200 colleges and universities in 2006. It was his concept of hyperlegality (See “Beyond Norm and Exception”) that eloquently explained the ways that law could actually enable the existence of a space such as Guantanamo even as most theorists turned to Agamben and Schmitt to term it a State of Exception, and political critics resorted to defining it as a “lawless” space. The ability to recognize what “rule of law” could accommodate in the form of new laws, regulations, procedures (prompting a continued struggle with the tensions within the law) in both colonial and postcolonial times was what Nasser’s work and interventions taught us…Grateful for the support over the years; the conversations shall continue, dear Nasser.

Rickshaw Diary

by Annie Ali Khan

Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab
Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab

While returning home one night from a reporting trip, I found myself in a rickshaw that was going so fast that I had to hold on to the tinsel wrapped poles for dear life. M.A. Jinnah Road, the road that forms the main artery of the city, was a blur of headlights and honking cars as the rickshaws weaved in between trucks and motorbikes. Seeing my face in the mirror, a young woman, her face and head uncovered, clearly a new customer, the old man with the grizzled beard laughed. “Here you have to learn to walk while holding the finger of death.” This was my first lesson navigating in the city.

His name was Lauri Baba, a word that means someone who is loved by his people. Lauri Baba, was an old resident of Lyari, the heart of the city of Karachi. But what is your real name, I asked him. “Even my own parents do not remember my real name,” he said. But he knew the city like the back of his hand.

A fellow reporter, also a young woman, told me she had taken a rickshaw home well past midnight one night. The rickshaw wallah veered off the main road. She began to scream. “If you did not want to have sex, then why are you out so late?” he said. He dropped her home. But he looked angry. Once I wanted to get home well past midnight. After standing by the roadside on Shahrah-e-Faisal, across from the Naval museum, for half an hour all I saw were strange cars slowly driving past, full of men. A flower seller sitting, who had long closed shop and was chatting with a friend on the pavement asked me where I wanted to go then called his rickshaw driver friend, who dropped me home. A friend visiting Karachi asked me what I did when I was out late. I take a rickshaw, I told her. It is the safest ride. I can always jump out. Rickshaws are pronounced “ruck-shah” and it is the Hindi word for protection. I always repeat that to myself. If you grew up on Bollywood films of the 90s there was a lot of reference to that sort of thing in those movies featuring macho men.

In an empty lot in the neighborhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in one of the biggest migrant settlement, an inner-city neighborhood, beside the apartment building where my grandmother lives, there are always five or six rickshaw wallahs waiting in a row for passengers. They wait there amidst garbage heaps, where a man in tattered shalwar and no kamiz leads a herd of bony cows to graze every morning on the weeds. The paan wallah leans out of the window of his stall and cracks a betel-stained smile.

The rickshaw wallahs pass the hours playing a game using pebbles set in concentric chalk squares drawn on the roadside. They always look up and stop playing when I come by and then nods will be exchanged as to who will give me a ride. A kick to the rickshaw motor and we are on our way.

The rickshaw wallah has a hole in his ear. It is a hole the size of a small pea in the center of the cartilage. In the early morning when the sunlight is dim I believe I can see a bit of the road through his ear. Most times, there is a bright spot of light shining through. His mother pierced it with a fat needle when he was a little boy. It was back when he lived in the mountains in the north and apparently it was the only known cure for chicken pox.

A woman in a purple burqa sits by the roadside in front of the mausoleum of the Quaid, where the founder of the country is buried. The mausoleum is halfway between the area of Gulshan where my naani lives and Empress Market. A white domed structure in the center of a park. I have never been. There have been reports in the news of girls getting nabbed there so my parents never took us there. I remember reading the report of a girl who went missing while visiting the mausoleum with her family on a holiday. She was abducted by unknown men and was later raped in the basement of the mazaar. A Baloch man told me his cousin visiting from interior Sindh stopped to pray while passing by the white stone structure. “But he is no pir,” the Baloch berated his cousin who replied. “He must be have mystical powers, he gave us Pakistan.” The woman in the deep purple shuttlecock burqa is completely concealed. Nothing shows, except for her hands reaching out from the heavy folds of the burqa, moving over something on the road. It is unsettling and I see the rickshaw wallah veers a bit away from her whenever we pass by. She is there every morning, the purple of her burqa vivid and yet silent in the early morning gray.

There is another older rickshaw wallah who constantly scratches his bald head and always rushes out from the line of parked rickshaws when I come outside. He is safe I think. But sometimes I notice him adjusting the mirror and I see my face in it, and I see his eyes locking with mine. I’d much rather he kept his stare fixed on the road.
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