Memoirist of Fire — Eduardo Galeano, in memoriam

[This is a guest post by Keerthik Sasidharan. It was first published at Medium.]

On 12th April, the Chinese media reported that Puren, the youngest half-brother of Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, had died at the age of ninety-six. The outside world barely noticed. With Puren’s passing vanished last of the tenuous linkages to a medieval world that was as baroque as the eventual Communist regime of Mao was to be radical. To the outside world, however, replacing the Manchu Qing with the Communists was merely the replacement of one form of opacity by another. Well before the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci threw light on Puyi, the relationship between the Communist Party and the last of the Chinese royals was merely an historical footnote, albeit not as bloody as the Romanoffs in the wake of Lenin and his gang. Eduardo Galeano, the iconic Uruguayan writer died earlier this week, was one of the few reporters who managed to finagle an interview with Puyi in 1963. The red shadow of Mao’s persona, understandably, darkened the mood of the hour. During their conversation, mediated by a Mandarin to Spanish translator, Puyi let in Galeano on a secret with, what must have been by then, a well practiced routine of humility: the Last Emperor of China, who now lived as a gardener and librarian, was not a member of the Communist party. When asked why he hadn’t joined, Puyi confessed: “The title of Communist is a most noble title. I am very far from attaining that incomparable glory… I must finish changing my ideas if I am to reach such an elevated goal.” Galeano doesn’t write what he felt when he heard those words but he leaves behind a cryptic, but sympathetic, note about the cup in which his jasmine tea was served: “The dragons on the porcelain surface are fighting.” Such encounters with those cast away onto the sides of history fueled Galeano’s journalistic and writing career wherein he gently peeled away layers of self-deceptions that the defeated entertain, not to self-aggrandize themselves but often to eke out morsels of dignity.

Galeano’s death comes after more than half century long career wherein he wrote about the vanities and follies of men, the loneliness of back breaking labor in flea markets and coal mines, the worm addled utopias promised by demagogues on the Right (mostly) and the Left, the gray suited high priests of modern finance capital who have sacrificed countries to their great God called productivity, the historical amnesias of the global South and the post-industrial oblivions in the North. When he died, Galeano was 74, thrice married, bald and a prophetic voice who once dreamed of being a footballer.

Galeano

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Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2014

2014 was the 10th anniversary year of CM and the year of the publication of Lapata’s novel, Taste. It was also the year with the least number of posts. Hence, this year’s postcard will do away with a narrative and will simply be a brief list of some of the 2014 posts.

Previous Postcards: 2013, 2012, 20112010

A Qissa for a Globalised World

[Following is a guest post by Kavita Bhanot. She is a london based writer. Her short stories and non-fiction have been published widely in anthologies, magazines and journals, two of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and she is the editor of the short story collection Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press, 2011.) ]

There has, of late, been a revival of Punjabi cinema directed towards and watched by Punjabi audiences. A recent addition to Punjabi language cinema, albeit less ‘commercial’ and more ‘artistic’ is the Punjabi language film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals and was screened last week at the London Indian Film Festival.

The film is about the violent consequences of son obsession in a Sikh refugee family in post-partition East Punjab.Visually striking, Qissa stands out for its cinematography; the framing, the use of shadows and light, the unusual angles. It was often absorbing, most of all in the scenes between actresses Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, playing the couple Kanwar Singh and Neeli who find themselves in a predicament after marriage when they both discover that Kawar is actually a woman. Their interactions quiver with layered tension and chemistry.
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Reppin Your Hood: Zabān, Pehchān, and Pakistani Rap

[Following up on his earlier essay that traces the development of contemporary rap productions in Pakistan, Khwaja Hamzah Saif profiles two Pakistani rappers, a Sindhi and a Punjabi, rhyming to preserve language and reinvigorate ethnic traditions. This essay was first published on Ajam Media Collective.]

Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx
Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx

Shahzad Meer, or Rapper Meer Janweri, grew up in Thatta, a city in south-eastern Sindh famous for its ancient necropolis,. Once a Sindhi cultural capital, it is now among the smaller cities of a Pakistan bifurcated into the mega-metropolises of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar, and everything else. Meer’s parents are from Dadu, a comparably sized Sindhi city about 300 kilometers north of Thatta. Shahzad’s Sindhi is accented with the twangs of Dadu and the crispness of Thattai Sindhi. “Northern Sindhi,” he describes it.
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Raags to Riches: Globalism and Vernacular in Contemporary Pakistani Rap

[Following is a guest post by Hamzah Saif. A version of this essay was published by Ajam Media Collective.]

By Hamzah Saif

Rap’s transition from the poetry of marginalized African American communities to the mega-hits circulating in mainstream America today draws fierce debate. Consumerism and commodification are frequently found guilty of eviscerating a once-radical movement with the market’s golden handcuffs, swapping its class politics for “mere spectacle.”

In contrast, Western popular and academic assessments of rap’s journey beyond American borders, particularly in the “Muslim world,” are markedly inattentive to this commercialism. Instead, this rap evokes a virtually unanimous nostalgia. There, 1986 Los Angeles is found alive in 2013 Lebanon, and New York’s Public Enemy and L.A.’s N.W.A are discovered rhyming through Beirut’s Rayess Bek and Tehran’s Yas. So prevalent is this penchant for locating the dissent lost in American rap in “over there” rap that the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, Middle East Institute, finds Iran’s Ayatollahs battling a reanimated Tupac, and Wall Street Journal has rappers soundtracking revolt from Egypt to Iran.

The anachronism of finding 1980’s Ice Cube in contemporary Islamabad can be plausible only if one abundantly ignores the realities of contemporary rap. In a landscape where middle class white purchasers have dictated the contours of the genre’s production since at least 1992, it is particularly absurd to impose upon non-American “Muslim” rappers the romantic notion that their rap is protest.

Imagining a resurrection of resistance in “over there” rap shortchanges the breadth of the non-American musical movements. Instead, they are much more productively seen as artists in the peripheral markets of globalized rap. Such a lens appropriately situates the rappers, and accords their work the creativity and artistry it deserves.

Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, Middle East and South Asia rappers are creators of an entirely new art, vastly expanding the frontiers of the genre. “It may not have started in our communities, but just like cricket”, says Islamabadi rapper Xpolymer Dar (Muhammad Dar), “we have made rap our own.”

Indeed, in Dar’s country of Pakistan, where rap is a growing underground music genre, the ‘80s American rhymes for race and class justice are judged to have little resonance with Pakistani realities. Instead, it is the stylings of hyper-commercialized contemporary artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent that find ears, and have provided the launching pad for contemporary Pakistani rappers.

Eminem, 50 Cent and Bohemia: Language, Vernacular and Rap

Prior to this most recent spike in the popularity of rap among Pakistani musicians, the genre’s heyday would likely be located in the early 1990s, when acts such as Fakhar-e-Alam enjoyed a broad audience. Alam’s hit track Bhangra Pao held the number-one spot for 28 straight weeks in local charts and was among the first Pakistani songs to be featured on MTV Asia. Indian and South Asian diasporic rappers such as Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal too found their tracks bumping across Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan’s contemporary rappers, however, rarely trace their roots to that rap tradition. In fact, many take reminding to even recall the productions of the 90’s decade. Today’s movement, instead, is overwhelmingly a product of the globalization of commodified American rap. And if there is one American artist around whose productions penetrated Pakistani music stores, and whose face came to represent rap in Pakistan, it is Eminem.

From Peshawar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group, Fortitude, describes its introduction to rap, “I used to go to Shumail and Shahkar’s house and we used to sit and listen to Eminem.” From distant Karachi, Qzer (Qasim Naqvi) similarly describes, “I was eleven years old when I listened to Lose Yourself by Eminem, and realized the connection between my poetry and rap.”

Ali from the Lahore-based crew DirtJaw offers perhaps the most vivid example. A poet for some years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, featuring Eminem, and loosely based on the artist’s life. Having no idea who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of poetry over beats, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.

During this time, a period beginning shortly after Eminem’s release of the Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2000 to 2005, rap remained a marginal artistic force in Pakistan. Rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a construction on a caricature of American slang that accused Pakistani rappers of aping Western culture.

This all changed in February 2006, when goliath label Universal Music dropped the first commercially backed album of the Bay Area rapper, Bohemia.


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Love Sans Gurdwaras

[Following is a guest post by Pukhraj Singh (Email: pukhraj AT gmail), the founder of Abroo.]

By Pukhraj Singh

The latent passions of this land are steeped in love and longing. If one sees Punjab solely from the perspective of its oral traditions, local continuities and folklore, then the picture that emerges is in complete contrast to the drubbed, kitschy monochrome making its way to the mainstream. It is the unquestionable faith and conviction of its peoples, which have often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, to create identity markers that are more organically rooted in the mythos and geography.

By innately focusing on the unseen and the unsaid, there will be an emotional realization of a certain kind of inexplicable absence, and the purity of absence, overwhelming its verdant backdrop. The dirt-tracks crisscrossing the rural outliers are pockmarked with the signage of a time bygone, managing to exist somewhere between the interstices of memory and history.

It was from the critically-acclaimed documentaries of Ajay Bhardwaj that I first learnt to conduct séances, invoking an esoteric Punjab that has been rarely been experienced or talked about. His trilogy—Kitte Mil Ve Mahi, Rabba Hun Kee Kariye and Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te—has archived such crucial portions of its culture that the future generations would forever remain indebted, be it the lesser-known Dalit Sufi customs or the militant pluralism of its men of faith like Baba Hajji Ratan and Sakhi Sarwar. Beating the post-traumatic amnesia of the Partition, the Green Revolution and the militancy, reemerged a few counter-narratives such as these—and that is how I started trusting the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse—leading me to territories uncharted.

When Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal laid the foundation stone for a 120-crore Valmiki temple this October to woo the sizeable community, the irony wasn’t lost on me. For decades the Balmikis or Mazhabi Sikhs have consecrated their identity and heritage in barebones temples, overshadowed by the mighty village gurdwara. The fretful caretaker of one such insipid place of devotion in village Dhotian (district Tarn Taran) first apprised me of an unpardonable depravity perpetrated by the local Sikh clergy, which barred the low-castes from performing kar seva (voluntary service) because “they looked dirty.” The dilapidated building, sticking out like a sore thumb, then seemed like a towering tribute to the inconsequential life of a Punjabi Dalit.

The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.
The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.

Continue reading Love Sans Gurdwaras

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2013

2013 saw the publication of a collection of Lapata’s translations of Ashk’s short stories. You can read excerpts from the collection here and an interview with Lapata here. CNN returned to talk to her about her art and her new book (link), and again to ask the “terror artist” about the offensiveness of Rolling Stone’s depiction of that good-looking white boy. Sanyasi returned the gaze and observed that CNN’s reading of Lapata’s art reflects “something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.” Taking some time off from painting terrorists, Lapata also reviewed ‘Aisha Jalaal”s hagiography of Manto.

Sepoy began the year by completing his Berlin series (III IV), and ended by translating Faiz. In the middle was his review of Dalrymple’s latest that found D’s critique of empire to be “at the service of bettering Western-driven governance in Afghanistan and the pacification of Afghan tribes.” And then, there was his piece on the Pakistani elections  for the paper of record (yes, that). In this piece he made some bizarre statement about peasants and laborers having agency, which irked some folks who pointed out that those deaf and dumb slaves only act out the narratives that their superiors set. Sepoy responded by arguing for understanding “agency and contingency in an historical event from the perspective of the subaltern, the vanquished, the dispossessed, the marginalized […].” And so it went.

Sanyasi returned to CM with reflections on the violence of American paranoia from the Hindu-German conspiracy to its present day Islamophobic avatar, and with reviews of Ramachandra Guha’s latest (link) and Niraja Gopal Jayal’s Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History (link,). He also gave us a glimpse of his forthcoming book, Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss. Speaking of forthcoming publications, Sepoy discussed his approach for the book he is working on (here, here), and Bulleyah contributed an essay (here, here) on Sepoy’s forthcoming chapter (link) in an edited volume.

Sepoy also wrote about growing up in Dubai, and Basanti about surveillance in the KSA and the USA (link). Our friend MNJ reflected on “[t]he power inherent in autobiographies, and our fascination with them” in a three-part essay on Mahvish Khan’s memoir My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me (III, III).

We published a greater number of guest posts this year, bringing to our readers glimpses of JLFKurdistan, and Kabul; a review of Vollman’s memoir; a comment on “the politics of ‘Razakar memory’ in Andhra Pradesh”; a reflection on the “everyday political in Paromita Vohra’s documentary films”; and AJK’s Shura City. Of all these many excellent guest posts,  Prof. Veena Oldenburg’s contribution was truly a cut above.

In 2013, CM launched a new series of conversations to discuss and introduce new and exciting scholarship on South Asia. The interviews with Teena Purohit and Kavita Datla are the first of what we hope will be an ongoing feature of CM. Bint Battuta started contributing excerpts from her readings to CM (here, here). Also, with a satire of LUMS’ paindu dayour friend, Mutiyar, started contributing to CM.

 

PS. Where are you from? Or, how I became a Pakistani?

PPS. OMG, OMJ. 

PPPS. I reviewed a couple of books for Dawn (link).

PPPPS: Here are the previous year-end summaries: 20102011, and 2012.