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
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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

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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”