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

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  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
away
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.

Come.
instead.
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

The Story of Aath Din

Upendranath Ashk

Prashansa Taneja is currently working on a translation of Upendranath Ashk’s memoir of his supposed enmity with Manto, “Manto: Mera Dushman”. Below is an excerpt which chronicles Manto and Ashk’s time together working at Filmistan in the early forties. The two first worked together in AIR Delhi along with Krishan Chander and other Hindi/Urdu writers. But after Ashk cruelly vetted the manuscript of a play he’d submitted, Manto quarreled with with the station director, quit his job and returned to Bombay to write for films. A year later, he made his peace with Ashk and invited him to work in Filmistan.

This excerpt describes how Manto got Ashok Kumar to film his story Aath Din instead of one written by Ashk. To take his revenge, Ashk, who played the comic role of Pundit Totaram in the film, created confusion on the set. Manto appeared in the film in a cameo role as a shell-shocked soldier. Aath Din, released in 1946, was also S.D. Burman’s first film.

From Upendranath Ashk’s Manto: Mera Dushman (“My Enemy, Manto”) published in 1956. Excerpted and translated from the Hindi by Prashansa Taneja.

The Story of Aath Din
My first film, which Nitin (Bose) Babu directed, was Mazdoor; the second was Safar, which was directed by Bibhuti Mitra. I wrote the dialogues for both the films and, in this way, the first one-and-a-half years of working in Filmistan passed relatively quietly. Manto regretted that I had derailed his plans [After coming to Bombay, Ashk realized that Manto had invited him to Filmistan to get back at him for tearing apart his play at All India Radio, Delhi, which had led to a quarrel between Manto and the station director N.M. Rashid. Because of this, Manto quit his job there–trans.], but I thought it would be better to make sure as far as I could that I stayed away from him instead of arguing daily.

But despite my caution, Manto was at last successful in wounding me. Continue reading The Story of Aath Din

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

I reviewed a couple of new(ish) books. Following are snippets from the two reviews.

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora

A few days after 9/11, Mark Stroman walked into a Dallas petrol pump and shot the attendant, Rais Bhuyian, in the face. Before pulling the trigger, he asked the Bangladeshi immigrant where he was from. His answer did not matter. Bhuyian survived, but not Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant whom Stroman had shot a few days earlier. A few days later, he would kill again. This time it was an Indian immigrant, Vasudev Patel. All three of his victims worked at convenience stores. All three were South Asian immigrants. After his arrest, Stroman boasted of being the “Arab Slayer” avenging 9/11.

 

 

 

Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

The racism at the heart of modern imperial violence operates on indifference as much as on explicit hatred. The indifference to the many that die “over there” in the “badlands,” that such brutal military assaults can only be launched at will on a non-Western population, that the blatant state surveillance of entire neighbourhoods inside the US based on ethnicity and religion can only happen to the ‘Little Pakistans’ — all of this requires rendering certain people as justified ‘collateral damage’ to the civilising imperial mission. It is this imperial racism and the dehumanising Islamophobic rhetoric of the so-called ‘war on terror’ that Kumar brings into focus in this most valuable primer. “Drawing on my academic training as a cultural theorist,” Kumar writes, “I situate the rhetoric of Islamophobia within the broader political, historical, legal, and social context from which it emerges to show that anti-Muslim racism has been primarily a tool of the elite in various societies.”