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.

Mirages of the Mind

MAY The early books of famed Urdu satirist Mustaq Ahmed Yousufi (b. 1922), Chiragh Talay (1961) and Khakam-e Badhan (1969), functioned in the college space for us in Lahore as cigarettes function in a prison camp – a currency, a momentary respite, a surge, and a day dream. We used to crack jokes from his oeuvre claiming them as they were uttered. He was not very well liked by my elders, however. They found him a poor replacement for the other satirists at play, Pitras Bukhari or Mustanssar Hussain Tarad or often Ibn-e Insha. Yet he was beloved by us near-adults as a rock star.
Continue reading “Mirages of the Mind”

Profanations I: The Public, the Political and the Humanities in India

First installment of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

Rangila Rasul
Rangila Rasul

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?2

chhor literature ko apnī history ko bhūl jā/ Quit “literature” , dump “history”, don’t be a fool.
sheikh o masjid se ta‘alluq tark kar, iskūl jā/ Break with sheikh and mosque, go to “school”.
char din kī zindagī hai koft se kyā fāyda/ Life’s brief as a blink – why be bothered?
khā double-rotī clerky kar khushī se phūl jā/ Breakfast on “loaves”, push a pen, be cool.3

Beginning at regionally varying dates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries across the world any thinking describing itself as political in whatever sense has had to simultaneously satisfy two minimal conditions: regard the crowd as a legitimate political actor; and grant ontological primacy to the everyday. These two correlated conditions also minimally define the public.

The former condition originates in the awareness that the people, not the king, are the real locus of legitimate power. The king’s once sacred body then vacates an altar whose emptiness, in a sense, begins to constitute democracy.4 It begins to constitute democracy in the sense that the people’s awareness of the impossibility of legitimate power inhering in an individual’s body justifies their sense of its dispersal across themselves. Henceforth, the signs of political legitimacy would increasingly be sought and scrutinized, not in an individual’s mysteriously inherited radiance, but in the masses of ordinary bodies seen in an ordinary light.

This brings us to the latter condition. The people is made up of bodies standing in the sort of quotidian light that Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter, helped make imaginable. Rather than otherworldly effulgence Vermeer’s is a tranquil window-light, suffusing a woman’s stole and cheek as she holds a dully-gleaming metal jug in a basin. Cloth, flesh, wood and metal each come into their own in this profane, diaphanous and impartial medium. To be political in the modern world has meant to gaze at it in this light, to grant that this everyday object-world was more real than any other. After Ghalib (d.1869), canonized as the last practitioner of the traditional Urdu (and Indo-Persian) ghazal, objects in the ghazal never shone so brightly. Displacing the wine, goblets and gardens that were allegorically always more than themselves in the traditional ghazal, the railways, telegraph and bread loaves (“double-roti”) of Akbar Allahabadi’s (d.1921) ghazals dramatized the impossibility of such transcendence in a colonial political economy.5 Henceforth, the legitimacy of political aims was increasingly to be determined, not in the name of the next world, but according to whether and how it entailed a transformation of such this- worldly and everyday object-relations.

Continue reading “Profanations I: The Public, the Political and the Humanities in India”

  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 67. []
  3. K.C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation and Transliteration (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 2005), 89. All the translations from the Urdu are mine. []
  4. I am indebted for this phenomenological theory of the modern political to Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), “Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society a body. And because of this, a latent but effective knowledge of what one meant to the other existed throughout the social. This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place” (17). []
  5. I am indebted for this interpretation to the essays on Akbar Allahabadi by the great Urdu literary critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari, contained in his posthumously published collection of essays, Vaqt kī rāginī (Tune of the Time) (Lahore: Quasain, 1979). []

A Faiz Translation

Dard Aye Ga Dabay Pa’oN” Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Montgomery Jail, 1956 “Prison Letters”
translator – Manan Ahmed Asif

Pain Will come, On Soft Feet.

In a little while when
once again,
my heart will confront the thought
of loneliness, what will I do?
pain will come, on soft feet
carrying a red lamp

that pain which beats a beat
from my heart

its flame will flare in my side
blazing onto my heart’s wall
each shadow’s contour:
curl of hair
curve of cheek
desert of separation
garden of sights

we’ll talk, then,
my heart and I:

O heart, my heart
this beloved you hold in your loneliness,
is your guest but for a moment;
will leave.
It’s not the balm you seek
for the savage flames it ignites …

will depart,
leaving only shadows behind that will, all night long
shed your blood


This is war, O heart,
no game this;
each against your life, murderers all:
this hard night,
these shadows,
this loneliness.
there can be no union between
my heart, this pain.

Bring forth an amber raging with anger

Where is the Army of wrath? Call it.
That Rose which burns through fire—
where is it?
The one that has fervor, and movement, and strength too.

Our comrades, our battalions
await us,
beyond these dark miles
our flames will surely tell them
of our existence.
It’s fine even if they don’t reach us, at least
they will yell:
how far lies the dawn.

Conversations of the Everyday Political in Paromita Vohra’s Documentary Films

This is a guest post by Ashima Duggal. She is an attorney turned documentary filmmaker. She is working on her first film. ]

By Ashima Duggal


For more than fifteen years, documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra has been having large public conversations about everyday political things with Indian audiences. Through her inquisitive, informal, no-boundaries approach to documentary filmmaking, she has encouraged new ways of thinking about a diverse range of questions like “Who has access to public toilets—and, more important, why?” and “How does copyright and creation of art coexist, and how is feminism defined in India?” Her films allow viewers to experience, both sensually and cerebrally, the ways in which unseen political and historical currents influence their personal lives.

However, Vohra was not always so confident in connecting the everyday political to the personal. When she first started making films, she was caught in a self-described “hectic political anxiety.” She felt political, but didn’t know how to express this amorphous sentiment. So she started a long meditation with herself, exploring “the nature of politics, the nature of film as a medium of political activity and the nature of art.” In a 2012 essay in Pratilipi, an Indian literary journal, Vohra asks, “Do we make films that faithfully illustrate our political position? Or do we use our political position to arrive at an understanding of the nature of life in this moment, the catalyst for a creative art?”

Director Paromita VohraA review of her most recent film, Partners in Crime, and a look at two of her other works—Q2P, a film that garnered significant attention in India and globally, and Connected Hum Tum (“Connected You and I”), a progressive new reality TV show—would suggest that Vohra has taken a slightly divergent path, one that is closer to her second inquiry, and yet is not quite fully accepting of it either.

Partners in Crime, which won Best Documentary at the Ladakh International Film Festival in 2011, offers various viewpoints and understandings of copyright enforcement and infringement and artistic creation in India. Vohra’s physical and directorial presence is felt in the film, but she skillfully avoids using her political position to develop a dominant message. In Q2P, which explores women’s access to public toilets in Mumbai, her political position is more evident through her on-screen interactions with her subjects. In this film too, though, Vohra remains curious and casual, and we see her repositioning and refining her stance as the film unfolds. Connected Hum Tum represents a new concept in Indian TV—six eclectic women in Mumbai self-document their daily lives for six months. Vohra’s challenge and opportunity lies in building meaningful and entertaining storylines of the women’s daily encounters. Though the ability to impose any preset position is limited by the fact that the women control what is recorded, Vohra’s instinctive political sensibilities are reflected in the show’s casting and in the creative selection, arrangement, and narration of the women’s stories.

  Continue reading “Conversations of the Everyday Political in Paromita Vohra’s Documentary Films”

An American Show

[ Following is a guest post by Hannah Green. CM readers may remember her JLF diary from earlier this year. Green completed her B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at Northwestern University in 2012. Since then, she has spent her time between the United States and India, writing and learning Urdu. Her work has also appeared in OPEN Magazine and Asia Times Online. Follow her on twitter: @write_noise.]

In the early 1980s, an idealistic young American and a group of Mujahideen trekked for thirty-six hours through the Hindu Kush Mountains, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, toward a battle. The journey would have been much shorter if the American had not been there. He was a burden to them, although he convinced himself he was there to help. His broad goal was to “be of service” to the Afghans, and the best way he could think of was to report their story, take their pictures, and convince the Americans back home to send more money and guns for the fight against the Soviets. (This would fail.) As he stumbled and fell through rocky rivers and cold mountain peaks, the Mujahideen helped him as much as they could. They carried his pack and his heaviest camera. They found fruit and picked it for him to eat, even as they themselves maintained the Ramazan fast. When the American could go on no longer, they carried him. To add to our collection of images of the region, it is good for us just to picture it. Mujahideen wearing sandals, feet bleeding, carry a sickly American in Italian hiking boots over dusty hills in the dark.

1992.coverThe American was William T. Vollman and he recounts this trek in his memoire, An Afghanistan Picture Show. The memoire was first printed in 1992, by Farrar Straus & Giroux. This July, Melville House released a new edition of An Afghanistan Picture Show, after it had been out of print for years.

Reading this book feels like taking a journey with an eternally hapless guide. You see different sights, experience all kinds of rough and unfamiliar terrain, but never are able to hold your footing long enough to see what’s really going on or to form an opinion. That’s what Vollmann wants. His time in Afghanistan and Pakistan taught him a lesson about his own limitations, and those of his government. ”It continues to astonish me how easy it is to harm people and how difficult it is to help him,” he writes in his introduction to the 2013 edition.

In order to distance himself from the youth who foolishly believed he could be of service to the Afghans, Vollmann refers to his 23-year-old self as “the Young Man” throughout his narration.  He recreates the sense of confusion and helplessness the Young Man experienced in Afghanistan, Vollmann jumbling vignettes about his failures and humiliation, descriptions of his weakness and illness, his distaste for the food, unsettling philosophical questions, various jabs that Afghani and Pakistani military leaders directed toward him, interviews of waiters, refugees, politicians and government employees, facts about Afghanistan, and anecdotes about his dreams and his past.

Continue reading “An American Show”