Death is Iconic

Death is Iconic IThis 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. Death is Iconic II

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.]

There’s something about Rats

My new interview with Amitava Kumar about his book A Matter of Ratsrockwell-1, 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.

Read the rest here.

The Story of Aath Din

Upendranath Ashk

Prashansa Taneja is currently working on a translation of Upendranath Ashk’s memoir of his supposed enmity with Manto, “Manto: Mera Dushman”. Below is an excerpt which chronicles Manto and Ashk’s time together working at Filmistan in the early forties. The two first worked together in AIR Delhi along with Krishan Chander and other Hindi/Urdu writers. But after Ashk cruelly vetted the manuscript of a play he’d submitted, Manto quarreled with with the station director, quit his job and returned to Bombay to write for films. A year later, he made his peace with Ashk and invited him to work in Filmistan.

This excerpt describes how Manto got Ashok Kumar to film his story Aath Din instead of one written by Ashk. To take his revenge, Ashk, who played the comic role of Pundit Totaram in the film, created confusion on the set. Manto appeared in the film in a cameo role as a shell-shocked soldier. Aath Din, released in 1946, was also S.D. Burman’s first film.

From Upendranath Ashk’s Manto: Mera Dushman (“My Enemy, Manto”) published in 1956. Excerpted and translated from the Hindi by Prashansa Taneja.

The Story of Aath Din
My first film, which Nitin (Bose) Babu directed, was Mazdoor; the second was Safar, which was directed by Bibhuti Mitra. I wrote the dialogues for both the films and, in this way, the first one-and-a-half years of working in Filmistan passed relatively quietly. Manto regretted that I had derailed his plans [After coming to Bombay, Ashk realized that Manto had invited him to Filmistan to get back at him for tearing apart his play at All India Radio, Delhi, which had led to a quarrel between Manto and the station director N.M. Rashid. Because of this, Manto quit his job there–trans.], but I thought it would be better to make sure as far as I could that I stayed away from him instead of arguing daily.

But despite my caution, Manto was at last successful in wounding me. Continue reading The Story of Aath Din

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).


Since my review of Ayesha Jalal’s new biography of her great uncle Saadat Hasan Manto came out in Caravan Magazine, I’ve received loads of praise for my courage. But the fact of the matter is it doesn’t take a lot of courage to write a critical review of a senior scholar if you’ve got nothing left to lose academically. I didn’t tremble with fear at the prospect of having to write a critical review when I realized that was going to be necessary, and I’m not anxious now about whether or not Jalal will read it. Really the sad thing of it is that it should be considered a matter of courage to simply write a review with due diligence. Is truthful critique possible in an academia so defined by rigid hierarchy?

From the sloppy editing to the grandiose claims within the book and on its dust jacket, The Pity of Partition spoke to me more than anything of the condescending attitude of US academic publishing toward ‘third world’ ‘vernacular’ literature, and who knows, maybe just all things relating to the lesser places. There was no need to bother with getting Urdu words and names spell-checked, there was no apparent solicitation of feedback from scholars of Urdu literature (and if feedback was sought it was obviously ignored). I strongly doubt Princeton University Press (PUP!) would handle a publication on American or European literature with the same disdain (or perhaps I’m wrong? Maybe this is part of the destruction of the academic publishing industry? If so, may such publications hasten its demise).

Here’s an excerpt of my (oddly named) review (and no, I didn’t make the art):

In her new biography of her great uncle (The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs. 599), historian Ayesha Jalal does little to dispel the notion that Manto should be lionised as a unique writer who need not be considered in the context of a literary milieu. Though she does nod at his many contemporaries, this is only to showcase Manto’s place as a combative genius among lesser figures. This tendency is particularly noticeable when she discusses his relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Association, which blacklisted him in 1948 for being a ‘reactionary’ writer. Relying mainly on Manto’s own narrative of events, she depicts a scenario in which Manto the iconoclast stands apart from the lockstep of the PWA, ignoring the fact that there were many writers who fought and made up with the organisation in those days and that Manto was one of them. It is not clear whether Jalal’s portrayal of Manto is owing to the fact that she is not familiar enough with the literary history of the time (she states repeatedly that she has not set out to write about Manto from a literary standpoint) or because she has relied too heavily on Manto’s own recounting of his life. In either case, the end result is a biography that seems curiously thin and borders on the hagiographical.

Read the rest here. For a previous discussion of Manto by me that includes some papier mâché cats I made of another reductive discussion of Manto that I disliked (an attempt at constructive criticism!) go here. Interestingly, the gentleman who wrote the essay I repurposed into papier mâché cats has a blurb on the back of Jalal’s biography. Hmmmm.

Zabardast Ashk

Hats and Doctors

About seventeen years ago, I started a project translating a collection of the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk’s short stories. The project has had a checkered career but is finally coming to fruition in March 2013 from Penguin India. The collection will be called Hats and Doctors, and two excerpts are now available online, one from Caravan, and one from Pratilipi. (the image is a brilliant illustration for the short story “Hats and Doctors,” published in Caravan