[Shubham Shree’s irreverent Hindi poem “Poetry Management” has been awarded the 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize by renowned Hindi author Uday Prakash to howls of rage from the Hindi poetic establishment. Below, I share my translation of the poem, and Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral explains what’s got them so mad. Urdu readers can check out Aftab Ahmad‘s translation by clicking here. Many thanks to Hindi poet Asad Zaidi, editor of Three Essays Collective, for introducing me to Shubham Shree’s work and to Aftab Ahmad for invaluable translation assistance.]
Poetry Management By Shubham Shree
(Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell)
Writing poetry is bogus!
Yeah, and useless!
Why didn’t I do some MBA-type thing?
It’d be a blast, man!
I’d write a poem; the SENSEX would fall The poet Mr. So-and-So has written a poem against capitalism The SENSEX has fallen
Chatter on the channel This is an example of the fall of American imperialism Will America be able to control poets inspired by Venezuela? Assurance from the Finance Minister: Have faith, small-time investors!
The RBI will immediately increase the repo rate
Hubbub in the media
A contemporary poetry collection is coming out: What do you think, how will the common man, the aam aadmi, deal with this collection? SMS your response to us
But hey, the glory of the CPO (Chief Poetry Officer) will skyrocket!
Ads will show up for every program:
Reliance Digital Poetry makes life poetic
Tata poetry– every word just for you
People will hang poetry in their drawing rooms Ooh, it’s so lovely! Seems like something by someone from Sahitya Akademi!
No, sir, it’s imported
The original is worth millions of dollars
This one’s a copy
Children will write essays: When I grow up I want an MPA
LIC Poetry Insurance: Your dream is ours too
DU, Poetry Honors, cut-off sky-high
The girls have come in first again
in the PAT (Poetry Aptitude Test) exams
Students have burnt the VC in effigy
protesting PAT reservation cheating
Approval granted for eight new poetry institutes
At only three years of age, three thousand poems memorized:
India’s tiny miracle
America, anxious about the situation in Iran–
defeated by the Farsi poetic tradition!
This is All India Radio
Now you’ll hear the news in Hindi from Seema Anand Namaskar! Today the Prime Minister departs for a three-day International Poetry Conference All the country’s poetry groups are participating The Foreign Minister made it clear that India will not change its poetry policy for any price The India-Pakistan Poetry Negotiations were again unsuccessful Pakistan demands India retract its claims on Iqbal, Manto and Faiz China again tested new poetic adornments Sources say these adornments will now create the most powerful poetry collections in the world India’s foremost poetry producer, Mr. Wandering Lover—Ashiq Awara—died at dawn today More attacks on Dalit poets in Utter Pradesh today In the meantime, in games, for the third time running, India has won the gold medal in Antakshari India won the match in straight sets, 6-5, 6-4, 7-2 That’s the news for today!
Today’s Hindu, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagaran, Prabhat Khabar The kids are going crazy for the latest poetic hairstyles Poetesses share their short and long vowel secrets 30-year-old MPA boy—seeks homely, convent-educated, traditional bride 25-year-old MPA girl: fair, slim, tall—seeks suitable groom
Dude, this is fun
I’m gonna be a hero
Handing out autographs everywhere I go
It’s gonna be awesome, dude
Shut up, man
Third Division MA
Who’s gonna pay for an MPA?
Enough of your bullshit!
Sit down and proofread
(Recently, I was asked to write something about translation for The Byword, a new journal of arts, literature and culture based in New Delhi. I wrote this essay, which appears in the latest edition, available only in hard copy for the moment. The illustration is pen and ink, by me. Cross-posted from shreedaisy.tumblr.com)
There are many ways in which translation is unfulfilling. It’s a solitary pursuit, and one for which the translator receives scant praise. If the translation is really good, the praise goes to the author of the original text. If it’s unsuccessful, the translator may be blamed, but readers might just assume the original author is not worth reading. The translator is invisible even in her badness. On top of invisibility, financial compensation is meager, translations are not widely read in English, and often one’s name doesn’t even appear anywhere on the cover of the book. Oh yes, and it takes a very long time, and one is never satisfied with the final outcome.
So why translate? Even though it’s not technically a compulsion for me, I can’t really stop myself from being a translator. When I read something in a language other than English, I constantly imagine how the writing would be rendered in English, word-by-word, sentence by sentence. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of French literature for example, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. I imagine myself translating everything I read. I have to constantly remind myself as I read that I’m not a translator of French, and that there are many other translators more capable of translating from French into English than me. But then, of course, there are many people who would be more capable of translating from Hindi into English than me, but they don’t choose to do it, and I do.
The (non) compulsion of translation for me is rooted in an orientation toward linguistic detail so extreme that I am liable to have numerous thoughts on every single word in a sentence even when I’m just reading for pleasure. When an editor questions my word choice in a translation, I am likely to respond with a paragraph or two defending my choice. It’s a headache for them, but most likely they will breeze past it, make a determination and move on. But I won’t. Years later, I’m still thinking about that particular word and what my editor said about it.
For example: the Hindi word kānā—which is usually translated into English as ‘one-eyed man’. I remember learning this word in introductory Hindi, not because it was a terribly important basic vocabulary item, but because it’s a useful tool for language teachers giving out dictation exercises. The distinction between kānā and khānāis a small puff of breath, or what linguists call ‘aspiration.’ The ‘k’ in ‘one-eyed man’ is not aspirated; the ‘kh’ in food, or khānā, is. For non-Indian English speakers the puff of breath is not the problem; it’s the absence of the puff that’s extremely difficult to hear, and even harder to pronounce. The classic dictation exercise is to read out the following two sentences and ask the students to write them down on a piece of paper: ghar mẽ kānā hai and ghar mẽ khānā hai. Students who have no grasp of Indic phonetics are flummoxed by the exercise and hear no distinction at all. The teacher then reveals that one means ‘there is a one-eyed man in the house’ and the other means ‘there is food in the house.’ The room dissolves in laughter, and the lesson is learned.
Or is it? After years of using this exercise as a teacher myself, I began to realize that what kānā meant to me as a non-South Asian English speaker was something akin to a Cyclops. A one-eyed man was a man with only one eye, and only one eye socket. As I began to read more deeply into Hindi literature, I realized that of course a kānā was not a mythical sort of creature with a single eye above his nose, but instead, an individual with only one good, or functioning eye, someone like Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban. To speakers of English in South Asia, this fact is already known, and assumed, when hearing the phrase ‘one-eyed man,’ because the concept exists in many Subcontinental languages. But in American and British English, such a state is described as ‘blind in one eye,’ and other such phrases.
Interestingly, many other languages contain a term equivalent to kānā, though what the valence of each term is, I am not sure. In Spanish, there is the popular saying ‘en la tierra de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey’—‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ This, in turn, is derived from the Latin saying ‘in regione caecorum rex est luscus,’ which means, literally, ‘in the region of the blind, the king is a one-eyed man.’ More research into luscus indicates that it is defined in Latin as ‘one-eyed man,’ but also as ‘with one eye closed; half-blind.’ The same is true for the Spanish tuerto.
In an online forum devoted to translating proverbs such as this, a commenter asks, in a discussion of the Spanish version, “Does anyone else find it really weird how Spanish has a word for ‘one eyed person’. Surely this word would be almost never be used.” This random online remark echoes my initial reaction to what I perceived as the absurdity of the sentence ghar mẽ kānā hai when I first started to learn Hindi. What made me remember the example, and learn how to de-aspirate the ‘k,’ was the preposterous notion of a Cyclops-like figure sitting in a house. What was he doing there? Was this example drawn from mythology or a fairy tale? It never occurred to me until many years later that the correct contemporary American English translation would be, ‘There is a person with an ocular disability in the house.’
Despite decades of thought on the subject of one-eyed men, I was never confronted with the need to render the word kānā in English translation until recently. That opportunity arrived in the form of the first chapter of Premchand’s famous novel Godan, which my editor at Penguin asked me to re-translate, as the two previous versions were considered poor, or, as he put it more kindly, ‘dated.’ I decided to try out translating the opening passages of the book, where I found I would at long last be afforded the occasion to translate the word kānā. The sentence in question was this, “kānā kahne se kāne ko jo dukh hotā hai, voh kyā do ānkhonvāle ādmī ko ho saktā hai?” In the 1956 translation by Jai Ratan and P. Lal, this sentence is translated as follows: “Can a two-eyed ever feel the hurt that a one-eyed feels at the taunt of being called a one-eyed man?”
Besides being an inelegant rendering of a pithy Hindi proverb, this translation embraces the notion of the one-eyed man, and goes one step further, creating a new category in English, the ‘two-eyed’. I then turned to Gordon Roadarmel’s 1968 translation to see what an American English speaker would do with kānā. Roadarmel’s rendering breaks the sentence up in an attempt to capture the jauntiness of the original phrasing: “The taunt ‘Hey, one-eye!’ hurts a one-eyed man more than a two-eyed one.” Roadarmel does not attempt to engage with the notion of one-eyed-ness in English, but does artfully try to instruct the non-Indian reader in the notion that in Hindi there exists a class of taunts for the condition. In Ratan and Lal’s translation, this idea is left opaque.
In my own first attempt, I struggled mightily to find a phrase which captured the actual condition that a kānā suffers from. My version was even less elegant: “If you taunt a man with two good eyes and call him one-eyed, will he feel the same sorrow as a man with only one good eye?” To this rendering, my editor rightly wrote that there might be a crisper way of expressing this, perhaps by simply calling him a one-eyed man? To this I responded with a lengthy treatise on the nuances of kānā and the state of one-eyed-ness, no doubt eliciting in him some qualms as to my own fitness for the task of creating a more up-to-date version of Godan.
I’m still working on this. I’ve only just begun the translation of the book, and I’m confident I’ll have dozens more versions of this one sentence. A man with only one good eye is much more wounded by taunts of his condition than a man with two eyes would ever be. Because this is the nature of translation. If you’re blind in one eye, won’t you feel more hurt by being called ‘the one-eyed guy’ than if you have two good eyes? A translation is just never finished. If people shout‘Hey, one-eye!’ after a man with two good eyes, will he feel half the pain that he would if he were half-blind? Even when you see your work in print. He who is blind in one eye feels keenly hurt by taunts of his condition; not so the man with two good eyes. It’s never perfect. He who is half blind feels the greater injury from taunts of blindness than the man with perfect vision. There’s always some way to improve it. Taunts like, ‘What’s the matter, lost an eye?’ hurt the half-blind man more than the one with perfect vision. And it’s always possible I’ll change my mind about one-eyed men and stop thinking of them as Cyclopses. The half-blind man is pained by taunts of blindness; not so the man with two good eyes. But probably not.
[Professors Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, University of Chicago professors, brilliant political economists of South Asia, outstanding mentors and wonderful friends, both passed away this winter. Susanne, on December 23rd, 2015, Lloyd on January 16, 2016. Below, I reflect on all the life lessons they taught me over the past 27 years. Painting above by yours truly, presented to Susanne on her 8oth birthday in 2010, depicting Susanne and Lloyd with Indira Gandhi at O’Hare Airport in 1966]
1. Fall of 1995: Susanne and Lloyd take us on a hike to see the mouth of the Ganges at Gangotri. As we pass the tree line, I crumple with altitude sickness. Susanne and Lloyd both feel fine. They are in their sixties. We are in our twenties. As I clutch my stomach and lurch along, Susanne and Lloyd are spry and invigorated. Lloyd has just learned that another University of Chicago economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize, this one for his theory of rational expectations. Lloyd proceeds to attempt to apply this theory to our hiking behavior.
At the flat sandy bank below the glacier, Lloyd and Susanne pitch a four-person tent. I vomit quietly behind a boulder. At sunset, immediately preceding a modest dinner of dal and roti, provided by a man with a small eatery beneath a tarpaulin, Lloyd brings out the perfect size of flask, containing Scotch whiskey for cocktails. After dinner, we retire to our quadruple-sized tent and lie in four sleeping bags in a row. Susanne and Lloyd have miner-style headlamps for reading before bed. Susanne is reading an interesting biography of Mary Shelley. Lloyd is reading Wendy Doniger’s latest book, in which, he notes, she thanks a lover in her acknowledgments. Lloyd wonders if he should note down this pilgrimage to Gangotri in the acknowledgments of his next book.
I curl up into fetal position and wait for morning.
Always bring a flask on a hike. Never forget your bedtime reading and lamp. Avoid being born with a feeble constitution. Economic theory can be applied to daily life. Anything can go into your acknowledgments.
2. My second year of graduate school, 1992: Susanne hires me to be a student worker in their office. Lloyd and Susanne have an office suite: twin offices with a common area where the student workers sit. The job involves a huge amount of filing. My predecessor has left suddenly due to mental illness, and so the training is spotty. Every morning Lloyd and Susanne wake up very early and read all their newspapers. Lloyd cuts out all the articles that are pertinent to his own interests or those of virtually anyone he knows. He writes in loopy letters with a fountain pen on post-it notes instructions to us: “One to Deb Harold, one to Dick Taub, one to Brian Greenberg.” We must photocopy these and send them off to the appropriate parties. Often the original is to be filed. Sometimes we find our own names on the recipient list. Then we dutifully make a photocopy for ourselves and file it in our backpacks.
Students sign up for office hours in fifteen-minute segments on a sheet outside the door. Our job is to chat with them while they wait. Well, no, we are supposed to be filing and such, but the students want entertaining. Susanne always dispatches her advisees promptly after 13 minutes. Lloyd must be reminded. Lloyd likes to have a cup of Medaglia D’Oro coffee in the afternoon. If one of the women student workers accidentally makes it for him and brings it in, he becomes very anxious and we have to have a long conversation about whether or not it’s exploitative for him to accept it.
For a while, Lloyd and Susanne resist email. We are instructed to print out every single email they receive and place them in their inboxes, just like regular mail. As this practice fades, we begin to receive 5 AM emails from Susanne full of instructions for the day. Susanne’s instructions are always terse. In handwritten notes, her handwriting is thin and cramped. She uses ballpoint pens. Often, elucidation is required.
When Susanne and Lloyd give talks, Lloyd is famous for going off on tangents of which he loses control. Susanne is famous for cutting the tangents short and summarizing what Lloyd just said while he regains his composure. When they write, it’s the other way round. Lloyd’s ink pen loops all over Susanne’s text, cutting, expanding, copy-editing and critiquing. They do know how to write and speak without one another: Lloyd has a lesser-known specialization in the American presidency. Susanne is also a scholar of Max Weber. But they are at their happiest and most productive when they work together.
Summers are spent in their house in Vermont. As when they go to India every fourth year, they ship all the books and papers they will need for their work in large crates. They also ship their cat (but not to India). While they are gone, we continue to work in the office. Whole mornings can be spent pursuing instructions such as these: “LIR needs Sovereignty in China. Pale green cover. By Smith or Jones. Southeast shelf of LIR study at home or in LIR library office.”
I am also charged with ordering office supplies. I order everything in purple and lavender. No one seems to notice.
Share knowledge. Do not exploit your female workers. If you speak in tangents, find a pithy partner. Reverse is also true. Always edit with nice pens. Bring your work on holiday, as well as your cat.
3. The late 1950’s: Susanne and Lloyd first travel to India. Of course the best way to do this is to acquire a Land Rover in England and drive there. Most of the places they drive through are now war-torn, but that doesn’t mean it was easy then either. They tell thrilling tales of fording rivers in the car and all manner of hardships. Somehow or other, they end up in Jaipur, staying with the Maharaja. Perhaps the palace was already a hotel, but they immediately become fast friends with the princely set. There are photographs of hunting expeditions and glamorous parties. These interactions form the basis of their book Essays on Rajputana and they become India scholars. Their last major work, Reversing the Gaze, builds on a lifetime of good-will and intimacy with the history and politics of the princely states.
When the Maharani of Jaipur was imprisoned by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, all she could think of was Susanne’s pineapple upside-down cake.
Always take the most adventurous route. Stay in palaces. Study what you love. Every adventure should become a book. Learn how to make pineapple upside-down cake.
4. Fall, 1988: I first meet Susanne in a required social sciences course at the University of Chicago, known informally as ‘Self, Torture and Anxiety’. She is teaching the unit on ‘Self’. Authors to be read: Max Weber, Adam Smith, Karl Marx. What I remember from the course: Susanne introducing herself on the first day, and explaining that she spends every fourth year with her husband and co-author in India, doing research. She is wearing a light blue khadi vest, or so I remember. Cornflower blue was always her favorite color.
I am a Classics major. I think: this woman has a better life path than I do; I go to my adviser and drop Latin and add Hindi. Political economy is something I’m still trying to understand.
Be on the lookout for good life plans. A Classics degree will not get you to India. Political economy is very important.
5. 2008, Kensington, California: The Rudolphs have retired to a beautiful house in the Berkeley Hills. I visit for lunch one day. Susanne’s Parkinson’s disease is noticeable now, although she never mentions it. On the other hand, she has just come in from Tai Chi in the park. For lunch, she makes a quiche. I watch as she tenaciously controls her movements, chops mushrooms, beats eggs. Each motion is an act of will for her. Lloyd is in charge of salad. He does not attempt to help her, not because he wouldn’t want to, but because executing these movements is clearly of the greatest importance to her. At lunch, on the deck, in the sun, they explain what projects they are working on. They reveal that they’ve started to watch movies in the evenings instead of working. This is a new world for them, and they seem quite amazed at all the material available. Susanne nods off to sleep. Lloyd gently wakes her and reminds her of the topic at hand. The pain in his face shows his anxiety about her illness, but also his disbelief. How can he be left with the responsibility of keeping the conversation on track?
Try new things. Keep fit. Don’t accept defeat. Respect your partner. Prepare to assume one another’s responsibilities.
6. Fall, 1989: I’m in India for the first time on a new study abroad program organized by Susanne. Me and one other student. Susanne isn’t actually there, nor is anyone else there to greet us, save a driver from the American Institute for Indian Studies (AIIS). In a scenario that’s guaranteed to horrify any modern-day study abroad coordinator, we are put in charge of making our own hotel reservations and finding a taxi to take us up to Mussoorie where we will study Hindi. The hotel thing falls through, and we end up sleeping on the sofas at AIIS, after which we are dispatched to an unknown guest house by an irate Pradeep Mehendiratta. When we finally have the courage to leave the guest house, we take a map (to try to determine where we are in New Delhi) and Susanne’s instructions. Go to Kashmiri Gate. Hire a one-way taxi to Landour Bazaar. This should cost you 750-900 rupees.
Be self-reliant. Carry a map. Prepare for surprises. Don’t forget your instructions.
7. 2015, Summer: We visit Susanne and Lloyd at their house in Vermont. Susanne is using a walker now, and Lloyd has been ill as well. He says he gets tired a good deal. Until a few years ago he still swam in Silver Lake at the foot of their lawn every day at dawn, but now that’s too much for him. You cut out more and more as you get older, he says, regretfully. He misses playing squash and going on long hikes. Susanne is sometimes present and sometimes not. She engages with bits of the conversation and wanders off with them. Lloyd seems anxious. What if he becomes too ill to care for her? The strain on him is already great. He still reminds her of what we’re discussing, in the most respectful tone.
All their lives they’ve lived in many places at once. Summers in Vermont, fourth years in India: winter in Jaipur, fall and spring in Mussoorie. Then there were always conferences, awards ceremonies and important meetings. They were always in motion. Even then, when they were both quite ill, they’d flown from California to Vermont, to be at their lake house. How much longer could they do this, we wondered, and how could Lloyd bear to return to Vermont without her? Lloyd explains to my daughter that Susanne is suffering from Parkinson’s, a disease that affects the memory. This is the first time I’ve ever heard either of them mention her illness, even though it has been evident for many years. In the evening we watch Mansfield Park. Lloyd no longer drinks a French-press full of coffee after dinner, and no one has any cognac.
Do what you love. Respect those you love. Make every journey matter. Don’t dwell on negative thoughts.
8. Thanksgiving, circa 1994: We are amazed to be invited to dinner at the Rudolphs’. There are other graduate students and also assorted faculty members. As always at their house, we start off with sherry, cheeses and stoned wheat thins. By dinner, the graduate students, us included, are all quite drunk. At dinner there is more to drink. Lloyd and Susanne drink more than us and don’t seem in the least affected. The conversation is high-powered and intellectual. We are very quiet. We can’t contribute much to discussions of the inner workings of Indian parliament, the results of the latest census and controversies surrounding the Mandal Commission. After dinner, there is cognac and strong coffee. The graduate students can barely stand. The Norwegian Rational Choice theorist is only getting started. He is explaining something theoretical that we are in no position to understand. “Take jazz, for example…” he begins. “…or chess…” We don’t know what he’s talking about, but Susanne leans forward, bright-eyed and engaged, asking him all the right questions. Eventually we are bundled out onto the pavement, bleary-eyed and barely cogent. One of us has spilled red wine on the white sofa and covered it up with a sofa cushion, but I won’t say who.
Always serve cheeses with stoned wheat thins before dinner. Invite a nice assortment of people. Do not feed poor graduate students too much liquor. Figure out how to make jazz and chess analogies at dinner parties.
9. Christmas Eve, 2015: I’m in the kitchen, preparing eggnog with bourbon and nutmeg (without bourbon for the child). I receive a text from a friend who has heard that Susanne has passed away. Though the news comes as no surprise, I feel the tears coming, and a sense of helplessness. What would Susanne do, I asked myself. She’d pour the drinks with a steady hand. She’d carry on. Instead, I go upstairs and sob. The scene repeats itself: each time I think of her, I become tearful, and ask myself how she’d behave in my place. Susanne would be stoic. She’d think of the right thing.
What do you do when a mentor dies, and you have no example to follow? I try over the next few weeks to write something about Susanne, about what she meant to me, what she taught me about being a professional woman and leading a thoughtful life, but I couldn’t tell the story without Lloyd, and when I thought of Lloyd, waiting behind, as she embarked on the final journey before him, I cried again. I thought of Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel, The Buried Giant, which explores just this theme: no matter how tenaciously one might cling to a partner in life, the final journey must be made alone.
Or does it? Just twenty-four days later, word came that Lloyd had also passed away. I don’t know what afterlife they envisioned, or if they did at all. They were not openly religious or spiritual; they were fiercely rational scholars who loved to study, as political scientists, the present moment as it unfolded. But I like to think of them now, together on another journey, to an intellectually stimulating place in the sky, or of their souls finding new incarnations that will meet again, and forge another fruitful partnership, or of the two of them soaring off into another dimension full of conversation, stimulating company, hikes, cocktails and articles to be shared with all their friends.
When in doubt, pursue your research, write your books, pour out the drinks and carry on. Even if you don’t know your final destination, do your best to leave the party together.
What would little Aylan have become if he had grown up? Riss’s recent cartoon in Charlie Hebdo does not hesitate to prognosticate about the future of this child. And yet it was the termination of this future, pithily captured in the photograph of Aylan’s lifeless, facedown body, washed up against the shore of a beach in Kos that haunted viewers for days. Days only, it seems. We learned his name, but never caught sight of his face. Named but faceless, Aylan could become an icon of the moral outrage of liberals. Lifeless but untarnished, his body foregrounded the tragedy of the loss of an innocent life but did not confront viewers with the forces responsible for it: the brutality of an authoritarian regime and its challenger, the manic power play orchestrated within global politics in alliance with and response to it, and the forced renunciation of a right to (meaningful) life that accompanies the refugee’s endless traversing of unwelcoming borders.
Since its publication, the cartoon has received predictably mixed responses. Some, embodying the moral outrage I mention above, have decried it with disgust. Others have suggested that it mocks not refugees but Marine Le Pen’s recent opinion piece about the alleged dangers that immigration poses to the achievements of Western feminism. Le Pen attributes the sexual assault of “hundreds” of women to immigration and, with a quick turn of phrase, criminalizes all migrants – suggesting that they hold Western laws, especially the rights of women, in contempt. She then declares her fear that women might once again be subject to barbarism. But Le Pen is not alone in positing this causality between immigration and sexual violence. News sources reporting the testimonies of the assaulted women were quick to invoke ethnicity – “North African or Arab in appearance”– in describing the perpetrators. My point here is not to challenge the ethnicity of the perpetrators, but rather to highlight the accounts’ use of ethnicity as a marker of criminality; something that the cartoon does not do, even though its caption refers to the “groping” mentioned repeatedly in the accounts. Indeed, far from challenging the rabid imagination of those who fear immigration, the cartoon trivializes the enduring hardship of the refugee and even makes him culpable for it.
An inset on the top left recalls the photograph of Aylan and repeats its facelessness. But it also does away with the reference to scale that crucially helps the viewer identify the body in the photograph as that of a child. Furthermore, unlike the soft curves of a child’s limbs that we see in the photograph, the stark lines of the inset denote an adult human body, albeit one in rigor mortis. Thus, even before we exit the inset, at the margin of which we find the accompanying caption enquiring about his future, we are confronted with Aylan in the conditional; that is, as an adult. The caption asks in the past conditional: Que serait devenu le petit Aylan s’il avait grandi [what would little Aylan have become if he had grown up]? Note that it asks what (que), not who (qui), Aylan would have become. Que here asks about Aylan’s professional future – Tripoteur de fesses (ass-groper) – and the accompanying image depicts his performing with gusto what the caption predicts. But the snout-nosed, bulging-eyed creature that we see in the image also invites a different reading of que. It makes one wonder if the caption asks what kind of animal little Aylan would have become in adulthood, and in so doing echoes the judgment of the likes of Le Pen, thereby leading defenders of the cartoon to assert that it is a caricature of the right-wing’s imagination of refugees. Going above and beyond the right-wing’s fear-mongering about rapist immigrants (note: not refugees), the cartoon shows snout-nosed creatures with outreached arms running in pursuit of an equine woman whose gaping mouth and bulging eyes suggest excitement about, rather than fear of, sexual violence. Riss’s cartoon visualizes not the fear of sexual violence but of racial miscegenation. Without the twinned prejudices of racism and misogyny, the white men of Charlie Hebdo would need to save no one from no one.
My ire against Riss’s cartoon is because of the way in which it deploys the past conditional; not, as liberals complain, for its toying with a future otherwise denied, or for its replacing the unseen face of a dead child with the caricature of a hybrid man-pig. Placed under the caption “migrants”, the sentence “Que serait…” seizes, transforms, and trivializes a grammatical tense and mood that, with its inherent sense of contingency and uncertainty, textures the day-to-day life of the refugee and highlights the discrete temporality of refugee life. On each boat, in each van, on the margin of every border, at each camp, over each meal, at each farewell to a loved one, at each reunion, at every instance of clinging to and handing over a document of identity, at every reminder of the lost home, against the gaze of every unwelcoming stranger, the life of the refugee necessitates the perpetual incantation of “what… if…” against the unknown that lies ahead and the violence that is routinely expected within it. Furthermore, “What… if…” spaces a painfully unbridgeable gap between refugee and migrant. Riss’s cartoon may caricature the right-wing imagination, but its caption fails to grasp, and even conceals, that the future projected onto refugees is the very source of their conditional present. Here a productive dissonance between caption and image arises. Placed in the indefinite blank space of the cartoon, the phantom Aylan chases after the object of his desire. However, like the refugee, he goes nowhere.
The phantom Aylan, the cartoon tells us, is a tripoteur de fesses. The noun is derived from the verb tripoter, ‘to grope’, or ‘to fiddle’. The noun in the caption affirms the realization of a desire that, however, remains unfulfilled in the accompanying image. Indeed, unlike the promise of its caption, the image shows us something else: outreached hands, not groping ones. As I noted above, the cartoon displaces the refugee’s experience of the conditional (the “what…if…”) onto the future that the right-wing predicts for it. Similarly, it also seizes the refugee’s gesture of plea and both misrepresents and mislabels it.
The word caricature, used in both French and English, derives from the Italian caricare (meaning ‘to charge, exaggerate, load’). The Italian root illuminates a critical aspect of the history of caricature in what is often heralded as its Golden Age in the 18th and 19th centuries: the caricaturist’s emphasis on the exaggerated or overloaded line. Thus, for example, Charles Philipon could, with a few strokes, simplify and distort the outline of the face of Louis-Philippe in 1831 into the shape of a pear in a caricature published for La Caricature. The transformation of line not only allowed the caricaturist to create new meaning out of old forms, but it also enabled him to reveal the meaning latent (indeed, concealed) in the original form. In this regard, the image’s dissonance with the caption was in some instances as formative of the caricature’s critique, as the consonance between the two was in others.
The protean nature of caricature thus prevents the neat demarcation of its politics. Indeed, published in the same years as Philipon’s roi-poire were caricatures that besmirched the working classes and sought to maintain the social order desired by the Parisian middle class (Cuno 1994). Riss’s cartoon may depict Le Pen’s predatory migrants in order to mock her opinion piece. But it also caricatures or “charges” the conditional world of the refugee. A gesture of plea that underlines the refugee’s submission to the conditionality of hospitality now becomes the source of his affirmed criminality. As such, just as Le Pen accuses refugees of criminality, so too does the cartoon charge them with the source of their own destitution. Now recall that Aylan is dead.
James Cuno, “Violence, Satire, and Social Types in the Graphic Art of the July Monarchy,” in Petra-Ten-Doesschate Chu and Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture Under the July Monarchy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 10-36.
Friend break-ups are usually painful, lonely affairs. But on September 13, 2015, a young man from Gujranwala, Pakistan, took the unusual step of publicly announcing on a social media network he was no longer best friends with one Mudasir, and had moved on to a new friendship that showed more promise, with a fellow by the name of Salman. Whether it was out admiration for Asif’s boldness in making such a personal announcement so public, or for his unique skills in graphic design, or for his innovative use of language, coining as he did the term ‘proudy’ to describe his former friend, the original break-up announcement was ‘shared’ all over the world, and went ‘viral,’ attaining eventual ‘meme’ status. A month later saw a stunning turn-around in the fortunes of the two young men torn asunder by the proudy behavior of Mudasir: Asif announced that they were reunited, and that he now enjoyed the company of two best friends, both Mudasir AND Salman. This portrait has been rendered to pay homage to the journey of that friendship, because, as Asif has written:
Friendship is not a toy to play, if we consider it a toy to play, then we play with hearts in the name of friendship… friendship is the name of faith, the life is with the friends, I think that the life is nothing without friends…
This summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.
Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands.
When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.
[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]
My new interview with Amitava Kumar about his book A Matter of Rats, out from Duke University Press, is up on Bookslut. Here’s a sneak peak:
You discuss a Hindi short story in your book, in which the three kilometers the young heroine must walk to college each day is described in three phases, and represents a kind of microcosm of the trials and tribulations of making one’s way through Patna. If you were to choose a stretch of road in Patna to describe in that manner, what stretch would you choose and why?
Oh, that passage! I wish I had written it myself! I’d gladly exchange a whole book for three paragraphs of Arun Prakash. Frankly, I think his brief description of the three stages of his protagonist’s journey from her home to her college is better than many sociological treatises on cities.
Your question makes me think of the street near my house, Boring Road. I used to catch my school bus there. The house of my history teacher, a man who drank himself to death, is now a bank. Across from that building is a huge structure that also houses a new coaching institute. Next door is the Hindi paper, Prabhat Khabar. Down the road is the house of the great historian Ram Sharan Sharma, and closer than that is the home of another great historian, Surendra Gopal. This was where a great communist leader lived till his death, and a communist poet has a small apartment there. The shabby stalls selling chicken and fish are still there, and a Sudha milk-booth. Right in the middle of the chauraha is the temple, which appears bigger with each passing visit. When I was a schoolboy, it was just a shrine, coming up to my knees. The main change is the explosion of commerce on this street. New stores with their air-conditioned galleries and security guards, jewelry merchants, sweet and gift shops, even a spa. What I’d like to do is write three paragraphs naming each store and take note of how recent they were. My theory is simply that the dates of their establishment would prove a simple fact to us: in place of the old culture, including the prized place of the intelligentsia, what we have now is the sudden influx of black money. Unaccounted-for cash that proves wrong all dire observations about economic downturn. Yes, there might be no electric supply, an absence of wide roads, a general sense of pollution, even violence in the air… but in the secret lives of the people, there is industry and ambition. Too bad that it can’t always be distinguished from criminality and greed.