How Best to Not-Survive

As a visually-read Muslim and an immigrant without the imagined protection of a citizenship, I stand alongside many others who contemplate a precarious and hostile future in United States. There are many reasons, and I am sure you know most, for the threat that Trump’s presidency holds for all of us. I know it will be very difficult and unbelievable and racist and sure, many are telling us that we will survive. But. I want to survive or not-survive, in a just and ethical way.

We can be sure Trump will increase manifold the mass-deportations that Obama– some 2.4 million the majority of which were ‘non-criminal’– has maintained throughout his tenure.

We can be sure Trump will intensify Obama’s drone war and assassinations of military-aged men in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen. Trump will perhaps break the “city” barrier and those drones will fall on multi-story homes inside densely packed Karachi or Islamabad’s subruban bungalows.

We can be sure Trump will close Refugee Settlement plans from allies and victims of Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan.

We can be sure Trump will ask that Muslims inside America “do more”, starting with mandatory registrations so that their whereabouts are known and accounted for– akin to George W. Bush’s “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System” of Sep 2002 which targeted students and workers from “terror-prone countries”. (I remember my visit to security services and I remember friends who were picked up and never came back.)

We can be sure Trump will increase surveillance on Muslims like the NYPD’s decade long program. There is also no doubt that surveillance of data-traffic will be the first increment.

We can be sure Trump will make the path to citizenship harder or impossible for those same people.

We can be sure Trump will introduce legislations against veiling, against political mobilization and other ‘Un-American” activities.

We can be sure that Guantanamo will remain open and be re-populated.

In other words, let us not start with a notion that this is some great new rupture in the history of US or the world. Trump will not invent new tortures, new discriminations, new horrors. He will merely continue or expand what has happened for decades here. In fact, we even know Trump from countless roles outside of United State– from Afghanistan, Philippines, Pakistan, Nicragua, etc.– known as our “strong man”.

I grew up in Doha Qatar where, as an immigrant, my father and our family had no rights, no protections and no shield from draconian police state. I went to college in Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq where once during a simple reading of the daily newspaper, a dear friend cautioned me not to say General Saab with a mocking tone or else he would feel compelled to break our friendship. I was undocumented for many long years in United States.

As a scholar and a digital humanist, I have studied and written and thought about both the technologies of oppression and the technologies of resistance. This very site is a testament to some of those acts which emerged as the country willfully and forcefully invaded Iraq in 2003.

What we cannot do– is grant any space– intellectual or material– to isolation. We cannot survive by keeping quiet and minding our business. We cannot survive by looking out for only our interest and our concerns. We do live in perilous times, but it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the bombs have fallen elsewhere even as we loved Obama. That our victories for civic freedoms came exactly as we gave billions in military aid to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Money, power and prestige that links bombings in Yemen, migrant workers on football stadiums and Shi’a in Bahrain. Let’s not pretend that our solidarities in Ferguson and Staten Island absolve us from casting our eyes elsewhere. As Malcolm X once said, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad”. So pay attention to fellow intellectuals who are fighting for the same rights around the world. Resist not only the domestic policies by writing against them or canvassing against them but also global and climate policies.

There are solidarities which will matter and there are modes of being, writing, thinking and doing that will protect us and our loved ones. This site, like many others, will be a place for your thoughts and our techniques of engagement. We who can write, will write, and we who can march, will march, and we who can sing, will sing. Do our best to think outside the nation-state. Connect through distributed means. Look to our peers in India and Turkey. Create, or join, new cultural spaces; know that those domains of irony, pleasure, satire, and laughter will never succumb and cannot be subverted.

All this accompanies the daily task of being scholars, students, thinkers, artists, workers, lovers, fathers and mothers. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in prison, once wrote:

Just as now,
since forever,
have people tangled with

nor are their customs new
nor are our ways new

Just as now,
since forever,
have we blossomed flowers
in fire,

nor is their defeat new
nor is our victory new

(You can see Faiz recite this full poem.)

I do not quote Faiz to suggest hope and optimism. Only to indicate that the hard work of surviving is continuous historically and throughout our past. In this, we can learn and grow.

On Writing

Gentle Readers,

Today, Sep 19th, marks the official janam din for A Book of Conquest. In light of this occasion, some thoughts on writing it.

Where I started:

The book began as my dissertation but it bears only a faint resemblance to that document. Most critically, I jettisoned much of the analytical framework that was there for the dissertation (memory) as well as the focus of that text (Muhammad bin Qasim). This was due to conversations, readings and publishing decisions that occurred in the year after the dissertation was finished. Since 2012, I published two journal articles which resembled the task of the book but, nothing that would go directly into a new manuscript. In essence, I was starting the book from scratch (which was my preference).


The first thing that confronted me was the mechanics of writing and the workflow. I had some criteria: I wanted my work to always be accessible no matter how many years in the future. I wanted to produce different forms of documents from the same source text. I wanted to have version controls and document forks (basically that I could amend a particular text and have those versions available). For the first, there is only one choice, which is to write in plain text (think your notepad or textedit). Yet, as scholars we also need to do headings, italics, footnotes etc, so we need some light markup. Hence, Markdown, coupled with YAML provides everything one may need.

Markdown has grown tremendously since I used a version of it for the dissertation writing in 2008 (via Scrivener). The availability of Pandoc meant that producing a .pdf or .docx file from my markdown (.md) files would not a hassle. (To learn about Plain Text/future-proofing your work, see this introduction). So the workflow at the outset was to write in a lightweight text editor (I used Sublime Text but you can also try Atom or really any plain text editor) and then use pandoc to produce a pdf for sharing/proofing. I used a GitHub repository (and Google Drive as backup) to keep the files and version control. (If you use Atom, it helps with that).

Once I had a chapter draft complete– meaning all the text I’d imagine writing, plus all citations, and some preliminary copyediting– the file would move into an “Alpha” folder. It was only at this stage that I had friends read that chapter and offer any feedback/suggestions for revisions. I would then make those revisions and give that file to my editor for copy-edits. When that file would get back, I would move it into the “Beta” folder. The Beta folder– with the .md files converted into .docx according to the Press’s specifications was submitted to the Press.


A colleague and I began the writing process together. We did so after a number of conversations about the solitude and stress that long writing projects induce. We did not have a lot of science behind this, except the understanding that much of academic self-presentation is masochism, self-aggrandization and needless self-harm. We began with the idea of “co-presence” as a way of both motivation and solidarity but also re-thinking writing as a solitary pursuit. We were lucky that we both had offices in adjacent buildings. So we alternated our writing– a day in one office followed by a day in the other.

We belong to different disciplines and were writing different books so there was not much of an overlap there. However, we did some things like share the number of words written that day; share coffees, lunches and walks around the blocks; think out aloud any problems or issues with the writing. The solidarity of co-presence was perhaps the most critical strength through very long, rough, patches. Soon after we started, a number of other colleagues joined in co-presence and everyone worked under the same set of guidelines (workworkwork).


In terms of writing, I am a visual thinker. So I invested in a small erase-board (picked it up on the street) and also worked in a room that had a chalkboard. I would draw argument flows constantly and those chalkboards would help me think as I wrote the sections/subsections. It really helped me especially when I would get stuck because I knew where I was (visually). (Incidentally, this is why I worked in SublimeText because it shows a visual map of the document)


In the last decade, I have written around 1.5 million words for this blog. Add on another 40k for opinion pieces, review essays and such for other media (print or online). Add another 170k for a dissertation and a book. Add some 40k for articles in academic journals. Add some more in 140 character bites for twitter. My one take-away from all that writing has been that each medium, message, requires its own form. Further, that forms should never be consecrated or calcified. Knowing when to be obedient to form and when to rebel is, thus, a necessary skill.

For the book, I did extensive fieldwork between 2011 and 20014 in Uch Sharif. My method consisted primarily of long walks and conversations. It informed my understanding of the contemporary world but it also informed the types of questions I was bringing to bear on the medieval text. I needed to make sure that the resultant book bore witness to this process but also to the friends and helpers I encountered in Uch Sharif and Ahmedpur Sharkia.

It was thus a natural decision to introduce myself as a participant into the text of the book. I did not hesitate with that decision and each chapter organically opened up with a small contemporary incursion into Uch Sharif. I hope the readers will see the logic and necessity of that move– as a method and as a ethic. I believe, and have argued, that the texture of the scholarly work ought to reflect the texture of the evidence that it is built upon. Artifacts of the past and present– their form, shape, appearance, structure– informs the secondary analysis and revisitation that we understand as scholarly work. Any number of critical voices are available to buttress this observation– Gloria Anzaldua, Carolyn Steedman, Greg Dening, Quratulain Hyder– being those particularly trenchant examples.

Alongside the form, is the notion of the audience, the framework, the “whats-at-stake” sets of issues. At least for me, there were specific conversations with senior colleagues and my Editor which clarified my own particular answers and which ended up being the “frame” for the book. I am really grateful for those conversations in shaping the work.


Some of my concerns were that the book be available in South Asia and that the Press be able to put out a reasonably priced volume. Being a first book author in the academic scene is a hard task for any of us in that position. Harvard University Press was a genuine pleasure to work with and I am very happy with the final product. If people are interested, I can post more about the publication process and/or the publishing scene for medieval South Asia in particular (though, frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of us).

Still, I tried to think forward through the process. Through a departmental initiative, I participated in a manuscript workshop where a set of senior faculty gave me invaluable feedback and corrections. Through a grant, I paid for copy-editing before the text went out to reviewers to get it into some good shape. These two things, I think, made the rest of the review process easier. I made an effort to meet every single deadline on the publication schedule (submission, reader responses, copy-edits, proof-edits, indexing) so that I did not insert delays in the process. I paid for services outside the publishing process (pre-submission copy-edit and indexing) via grants that I applied for (institutional). This was a luxury that I had, and I took advantage of it.

The whole process took 18 months during which I also taught three courses. Some of that period was easier and some was rougher but it went, more or less, according to the plan I sketched out in November 2014. That plan was what saved me in the darkness.

I hope you read the book and I hope this above is of some usage. Thank you, as always, for reading.

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 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”