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”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan

 

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago.
Aug 14– Author’s response
***
Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Arvind Elangovan, Assistant Professor of History, Wright State University.

 

A Defiant History

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan is a towering testament to the presence of a once vibrant brand of left politics in Pakistan. Ali’s probing, sympathetic, and yet critical account leaves none in doubt about the genuineness and promise of the communist project of emancipation or at the very least fulfill its potential to be the critical voice of Pakistan. However, as Ali illustrates, the communist project could not achieve either of these ends. Instead, ‘bigger’ imperatives such as the need to create and maintain the integrity of the state of Pakistan through a strict enforcement of nationalist and religious inspired rhetoric and the geo-political maneuvers of the United States and Great Britain in their interests of the fight in the cold war severely affected not only the trajectory of left politics but also entangled the movement in contradictions almost from the beginning. The resulting tensions also contributed to the swift decline of left politics.

However, Ali’s aim is not merely to record the contextual decline of left politics in Pakistan as a minor part of a grander narrative of Pakistan’s political history in the postcolonial period. Instead, it is a defiant account of a once influential strand of Pakistan’s political fabric that even in its ‘ruins’ dares to emit a beacon of hope for the present and future generations. This defiance can be seen in both the methodology that Ali employs as well as in the substance of his narrative. Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Rana

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago.
Aug 14– Author’s response
***
Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam

Junaid Rana, Associate professor of Asian American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

Writing left history or radical history is always global. In periods of formal decolonization the nation-state inevitably emerges as an issue of debate in which the direction and mandate of a country is set. Such was the case in post-partition India and the creation of the separate entity of Pakistan. For those committed to an internationalist vision of disrupting the capitalist model, the creation of a new nation-state represents itself as a particular challenge. How would, for example, the downfall of capitalism and imperialism be advanced with the problems of creating a new state? What of the vision of an international and global camaraderie? How does solidarity work toward a radical internationalist world that spurns class oppression and gender domination alike? Such are the dilemmas that begin Kamran Asdar Ali’s fine book Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and the Class Activism in Pakistan, 1947-1972. This is a much-needed study that makes sense of the way communist party and worker party politics of colonial India and Pakistan took shape after partition. The tragedy of partition was also the quintessential chance at a fresh start from the perspective of those who migrated to the newly demarcated lands of Pakistan. For those who gathered the fever of revolution, these shifts inaugurated feelings of a needed social transformation. These were ambitions of a grand scale with a sense of correcting the social and economic ills of society. That many of those who were committed to left politics or were sympathetic came from wealthy class backgrounds is not surprising, as this was the case throughout the postcolonial world. Ali brings the nuance of these class networks to the fore by writing history with his first-hand interviews and encounters. It makes for intriguing reading told from a generous scholarly perspective, which turns out to be one of the great strengths of the book. Aside from the general scope and expanse of relaying a history that has been buried deep, the openness from which Ali has elaborated the details of the experiment in progressive left politics in Pakistan lends itself to imagining other possibilities that were not foreclosed either by intellectual narrowness or ideological romanticism. There are no party allegiances to distract the assessment, nor are there quick judgments on the part of Ali, instead there is the careful extraction of a fine-grained story from available archives and oral histories. Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Rana”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Besky

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago
Aug 14– Author’s response
FullSizeRender-2
photo by Sepoy

***

Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.

Ali-Communism in Pakistan
https://amzn.com/1784532002

Sarah Besky, Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University

 

The acknowledgements to Communism in Pakistan describe a conversation between Kamran Asdar Ali and an activist in Karachi.  As they sat and drank tea in the midst of political tumult in Pakistan in the late 1970s, Asdar Ali’s interlocutor remarked that a history of the Pakistani Left had yet to be written.  Not only was that history unwritten; in the activist’s opinion, it needed to be written.  Asdar Ali’s book sets out to fill that need.  It focuses on the years between Partition and the formation of Bangladesh and the accession of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to power.

Asdar Ali begins by invoking Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s deceptively simple question from Silencing the Past (1995): “What happened?” (p. 10).  Specifically, Asdar Ali asks what happened when the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) broke off from the Communist Party of India (CPI).  The simple answer is that Partition put these two organizations on separate paths, but Asdar Ali provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at the CPP, describing the group’s marginalization and ultimate outlawing in the early decades of Pakistan’s political life.  Following Trouillot, for Asdar Ali, to narrate the Pakistani Left is to write against silences.  There is a “national amnesia,” he writes (p. 6), that obscures certain voices in mainstream scholarship on Pakistan.  This scholarship, he notes, tends to examine themes of Muslim nationalism, gender discrimination, and militarization (p. 2).  These themes are important, but he argues that the early years of the Pakistani state, wrapped in the ideology of Muslim nationalism, put forth a deceptive “metanarrative of an undivided nation on the populace” (p. 5).

To do the work of narrating “what happened” to the Pakistani Left, Asdar Ali de-centers dominant figures in Pakistan history–namely Jinnah and the Muslim League.  “In Pakistan’s early history,” he writes, “we find contesting voices of uncertainty and confusion, against an emerging nationalist framework, debating the shape Pakistan’s social, political and cultural life would take in the ensuing years” (p. 13). Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Besky”

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Kanna

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago
Aug 14– Author’s response

Surkh Salam

***

Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.

Ali-Communism in Pakistan
https://amzn.com/1784532002

Ahmed Kanna, School of International Studies, University of the Pacific

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan is a meticulously researched and carefully argued work of scholarship. It is also a deeply moving reflection on Pakistani dreams for a just society unfulfilled, dreams that, though they are in retreat in present-day Pakistan, are ultimately unvanquished. An anthropologist and director of the South Asia Institute at University of Texas at Austin, Ali evokes the egalitarian and democratic hopes that animated generations of working class Pakistani fighters and their comrades – from communists in the first decades of the new country to labor militants in the early 1970s – as ultimately indomitable, if only in the traces, or as Ali calls them “ruins”, that they have left behind. Following the work of anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, Ali suggests that these ruins can become resources for ongoing and future struggles for justice. While it will be compelling interest to South Asia specialists, non-specialists approaching Communism in Pakistan with little or no knowledge of the country’s history and that of South Asia more generally should prepare to devote intense concentration to it, as the complex skeins of narrative that Ali so skillfully weaves together produce a highly entangled and rich portrait of Pakistani history that often only yield insight upon rereading.
Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Kanna”

Zindagi Gulzar Hai and The Production of a New Traditional Woman

Rich boy meets poor girl, they clash at first only to fall in love later and to live happily ever after. This basic plotline of the popular TV drama serial Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012-13) is one very familiar to South Asian viewership. But, there is more to the show than masala entertainment. At its best, the serial provides keen commentary on the class structure of Pakistan and, in some ways, even contests social norms. At worst, the show is simply a repackaging of pedagogical manual of yesteryears that taught women morality and respectable behavior. In any case, Zindagi grapples with the anxieties of living authentically in a rapidly changing world. In recent years, Pakistan has seen rapid growth of its large cities and a burgeoning urban middle class. Concurrent with this capitalist urbanization has been the decades long process of the Islamization of the Pakistani state and society. These processes converge in a discourse of morality that takes as its disciplinary object the bodies of women, and this, I argue, is what we see in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, specifically, in the show’s positing of models of good and bad women as a way of addressing the anxieties about the mixed up contemporary world of the urban viewer.

But, why pick on, and apart, a TV serial? Isn’t it just entertainment? I think not. Following scholar Humeira Iqtidar’s distinction between secularism as a project and secularization as a process (2011), I conceptualize Islamization as a political project, connected but distinct from Islamization as a social process. While these two formulations can be mapped onto a divide between the state and society, they are not mutually exclusive. Grasping the feedback loop between the two is crucial. A more thorough work would place an interpretative analysis of this show in the multiple and interconnected contexts of the privatization of Pakistan Television and economic liberalization, and a political economic history of Islamization— a project built on and through misogynist regulation of Pakistani women. Such a reading of popular cultural forms like the TV serial, I hope to show as best as I can in the space I am allowed here, helps understand these processes and the emergent social formations, in the case of Pakistan, of Islamized capitalist patriarchy under the hegemony of neoliberal and war-on-terror discourses.

ZGH

Continue reading “Zindagi Gulzar Hai and The Production of a New Traditional Woman”

A Contrarian View: Race, Representation, and Islamophobia in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced

I thank Neilesh Bose for letting CM publish this conversation on Ayad Akhtar’s play, and we welcome your thoughts and responses– sepoy.

On April 3, 2015 Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Neilesh Bose organized a panel discussion around racialization, Islamophobia, and political power within theater and performance spaces today as well as in popular culture at Princeton University on April 3, 2015, moderated by Professor Jill Dolan.

disgraced180x278

The panel also included Aasif Mandvi, Ayad Akhtar, as well as theater producer Jamil Khoury of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising (a theater company dedicated to “Silk Road” stories from South Asia and the Middle East). Formal papers were delivered: Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s “Sexuality, Empire, Islamophobia and the Politics of Piety”, Neilesh Bose’s “The Dramaturgy of Political Violence,” and Jamil Khoury’s “Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation,”. The last has been subsequently published in alt. theatre: cultural diversity and the stage (summer 2015) as well as Arab Stages Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 2015). All three papers are currently being revised for future publication. The edited conversation below reflects a conversation between the three panelists after the panel.​

Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Professor of English, Montclair State University, specializes in feminism, theatre studies, and postcolonial studies, and has published five books, including A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan (Seagull, 2005).

Neilesh Bose, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair, Global and Comparative History, University of Victoria, specializes in religion and nationalism in modern South Asia as well as theater and performance studies. Publications include Recasting the Region: Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal (Oxford, 2014), and his edited collection Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora (Indiana, 2009).

Jamil Khoury, is Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theater company focusing on plays and narratives about the East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Diasporas, as well as a playwright and documentary filmmaker, whose plays include Mosque Alert and Precious Stones and whose documentary films include Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness.

Continue reading “A Contrarian View: Race, Representation, and Islamophobia in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced”