Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan

[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his longer review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]

NagarAmritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399

On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.

‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)

In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).

Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.

To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
Continue reading “Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan”

August Days

Gentle readers,

It has been quiet, I know. I hope all of you are busy writing your books to keep your jobs, or to get new ones. It must be exhausting, and you have my sympathies. I published a review-essay in Caravan looking at four new books on 1947/Partition: the edited volume by Urvashi Butalia, Partition: The Long Shadow, Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, and Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina.

The histories and memories in the new books considered here are in tension with one another. They open up new archives, methods and understandings, just they continue to naturalise the incommensurability of the Muslim with India. It is evident in reading them that our need to understand the deep history of Partition is acute. Just as graveyards are segregated by communities, so are histories. In partitioned South Asia, the Shia, Sunni, Muslim, Hindu, or Assamese, Sindi, Baluchi pasts are also constructed to be separate. The histories we produce must acknowledge the burden of recognising difference and parsing it. For the subalterns, those adrift among borders, the fuller history of Partition remains unwritten. The Rohingya floating at sea are also part of the forgotten stories of Partition. They who once were Indian or Burmese or Pakistani or Bangladeshi are now of nowhere. Without land, they are also without history.

Do take a look, and do let me know what you think.

Bhalo ki Bhalo na

Acchā Jī Acchā!
– Taimoor Shahid, translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri acchī
aslī acchī naq̣lī acchī
sastī acchī mehngī acchī
maiṇ bhī acchā tum bhī acchī
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī acchī
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī acchī
āsmān ke bādal acchay
mauj dularī hawā bhī acchī
garmī acchī sāwan acchā
mailā acchā ujlā acchā
sabzī acchī qourmā acchā
machli bharā pakoṛā acchā
sīdhā acchā bāṇkā acchā
daff bhī acchī ḍhol bhī acchā
bāl bhī acchay ganjā acchā
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā acchā
ḳhastā pūrī belnā acchā
gān purāne sunnā acchā
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā acchā
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi acchā
lekin sab se acchā bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ!

Kāfir Re Kāfir
Taimoor Shahid, translated parody of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri kāfir
aslī kāfir naq̣lī kāfir
sastī kāfir mehngī kāfir
maiṇ bhī kāfir tum bhī kāfir
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī kāfir
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī kāfir
āsmān ke bādal kāfir
mauj dularī hawā bhī kāfir
garmī kāfir sāwan kāfir
mailā kāfir ujlā kāfir
sabzī kāfir qourmā kāfir
machli bharā pakoṛā kāfir
sīdhā kāfir bāṇkā kāfir
daff bhī kāfir ḍhol bhī kāfir
bāl bhī kāfir ganjā kāfir
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā kāfir
ḳhastā pūrī belnā kāfir
gān purāne sunnā kāfir
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā kāfir
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi kāfir
eid-ul fitr ki pūjā kafir*
lekin sab se kāfir bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ

*Line inserted on the recent IS statement banning Eid prayers in Mosul

The World of Prannath

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My review of Vasudha Dalmia and Munis D. Faruqui, ed. Religious Interactions in Mughal India. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014) a version of which ran in The Book Review (Feb, 2015).

In 1674, Mahamat Prannath (1618-1694 CE) and his followers sought an audience with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1619-1707) in the imperial capital of Delhi. Mahamat Prannath had recently split from other disciples of his sampradaya of Guru Devchandra over the question of succession and the audience with the Mughal badshāh was meant to resolve this differnence –as was customary in such cases, in those times. Leaving Gujarat must have been hard for Prannath. He was born in Jamnagar and had spent his adulthood living and traveling in Junagadh, Ahmadabad, Diu, Thatta, Muscat, and even Mecca. The regions of Sind, Gujarat and Aden had shared networks of traders, merchants, mendicants and scholars — living in port-cities and capitals — for centuries before Prannath. During his time, it was an especially diverse space. Here were the religious orders of Nizari Ismailis, Jesuits, Jains, Vaishnavite and Krishanavite sants, Sufis or Sunnis. Here was just as diverse political powers of the Arghuns, the Mughal, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Surat Rajas.
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An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

Divan “An Account of Autumn and in Praise of Aḥmad bin Abdus Samad, Vizier of Sultan Mas’ūd”, a wine-panegyric or khamriyya by Manūchherī Dāmaghānī (d. 1040 C.E.)
(trans. Prashant Keshavmurthy)

The Lord be praised – for autumn’s month is here,
The month of shrinking and swelling vineyards.
So much do they harvest and heap the grape
Now the vineyard teems like the milky-way.
For when the grape leaf, rainbow-like, is many-hued
The rainbow seems to hold grape clusters.
Blue purses hang from yellow leaves,
In each blue purse a largish seed of grape-flower.

And in the heart of that seed’s vinous flower
Are hidden ten sacks all concealing musk.
And that fruit’s as if it were someone unwell,
Of double aspect among all its limbs and body, One of its cheeks yellow, the other red.
Of them one’s breathless, the other jaundiced.

That pomegranate’s like a pregnant woman
And in her belly – a fistful of sons.
She won’t give birth until you beat her to the ground.
And when the child’s born its birth’s the same as eating it.
A mother gives birth to a child, or two or three.
Then why’s this pomegranate a mother of three hundred?
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XQs III: A Conversation with Arafaat Valiani

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship

valiani-150x150Arafaat A. Valiani earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University. From September 2014, he will be Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Militant Publics in India: Physical Culture and Violence in the Making of a Modern Polity, published by Palgrave (2011).

[Interview conducted by Sanyasi, via email, May-August, 2014]

1. Could you explain what you mean by physical culture?

Sure. Though I argue in my book that physical culture is central to various nationalist movements in South Asia I’ll start with Hindu nationalist understandings of it. The founding organization of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has sought to introduce a set of physical practices comprising drills and games to young men and women residing in the cities, towns, and villages India. Performed during daily meetings in local branches, such routines of physical culture are framed as a set of bodily exercises described in Vedic texts that only the most privileged (usually high-caste) Hindus are permitted learn and perform. For the RSS, as well as other Hindu nationalist organizations today like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal, the collective performance of these physical practices affords the practitioner with physical power, courage and self-mastery while also reforming him/her morally because of the discipline required to undertake these physical practices on a daily basis.

These practices also have broader national goals in that they are also supposed to unite all Hindus because they consistently attract young men and women to branch meetings, in which they train together and thus form affective bonds, all the while incorporating them into the moral and institutional sphere of Hindu nationalist organizations throughout the country (and globally). (One striking thing about neighborhood shakhas is that in my research, many Hindus and certain Indian minorities of all castes and classes confirmed some kind of experience with a local branch when they were growing up so it is a common experience among Indian youth in large metropolises as well as provincial cities and towns in India.) For particularly adept swayamsevaks and sevikas (male and female volunteers respectively), branches are an entry point into a vast national and international network of branches whose members are selected by branch shikshaks (teachers) to attend periodic training camps. For Hindu nationalists, the project of enracinating this particular vision of physical culture among all Hindus is crucial because it seeks to repair what its founders viewed as a divided, cowardly and physically weak Hindu nation.
Continue reading “XQs III: A Conversation with Arafaat Valiani”

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.