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.
[sepoy notes: A lovely memorial below via Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah who is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. The 2016 Literature Humanities Preceptor Teaching Award recipient, Sahar is currently completing her dissertation “The Poetics of the Amatory Prelude in the Post-Classical Arabic-Islamic Encomium.]
Written by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah
Dedication: In memory of our matriarchs, their lovers, and their poetry
Written Friday, 9 May 2014 // 9 Rajab 1435
Seven summers had passed when I returned to Bangladesh with my family as a new bride of one winter and spring.
The Nanu I met that Dhaka visit was entirely different from the one I had known previously. During the years I was away studying in Egypt I had learned, via long phone conversations, that a terrible trauma had silenced her for months. Yet this Nanu, the matriarch of my maternal line including the eight women and men she carried and raised and the others who departed before seeing adulthood, still had much to say.
This Nanu– who had awakened from her long comatose silence– was awakened as a poet.
Hundreds of verses she memorized as a child poured out. At times, she composed her own free verse. Other times she gave verses from her childhood schoolbooks her own personal touch. When in a good mood, she had couplets, longer poems, and rhymed stories ready in response to everyone and everything. Seemingly her selected poetic choices appeared to be flippant, but I like to believe they were actually precise. She could be playfully mischievous but at any moment– when Nanu was filled with sadness by a memory or thought– she would simply recite:
ভেঙ্গে গেল আমার স্বপ্নের ফুল
ছিড়ে গেল আমার বিনার তার
মর্ম উঠিয়া আমার হাহাকার
The flower of my dream is broken
My instrument’s string is torn
Such is the depth of my sorrow
When I returned as a six months newly-wed to Nanu the poet, she shared with me for the first time the great love between her and Nur Miah–the grandfather I never met. He had passed away almost twenty-five years before in Dharmapur on the bed he had made for them.
She dreamt of him often, and her dreams would leave her in a particular mood for the entire day.
One morning, in a bout of anger, she stubbornly refused to eat breakfast. When my aunt gently coaxed her to eat, she said Nur Miah would not share his bowl of rice with her AGAIN and had THE NERVE to wink and smile the entire time. I realized she had awakened from a vision of him–and we all began to imagine that we knew him.
Drawn into her world, we missed him more than ever before. We imagined this man whom she first saw approaching her parent’s home in Baraipur on a white horse must have been incredibly charming.
“What did you think when you first saw him, Nanu?” I’d ask her.
She’d smile, “I liked the horse very much.”
“Was he handsome?” I’d ask her.
“Oh, I was stunning.”
Once, when I was lying down beside her, she recounted a conversation she had with him. They were discussing where they would like to be buried after they had passed on. When she cried that she didn’t want to be alone, he told her he would find her even in the grave. Then she said Nur Miah would recite:
তুমি যদি হইতা চাঁদ
আমি হইতাম সূর্
প্রথম প্রভাতে উঠিয়ে
আমরা একী সাথে থাক্থাম
If you were the moon
I would be as the sun’s ray
At the first break of dawn
When eyes open (from slumber)
We would be as one.
That summer, Nanu determined that my signature poem– the poem she loved most for me to recite to her again and again (and again)– would be the one she recited to Nur Miah when he would return home after a long trip. Each time, the conversation would go like this,
“Do you know what I’d tell him when he would come home?”
“No, Nanu. What would you say?”
“I would say —
[Professors Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, University of Chicago professors, brilliant political economists of South Asia, outstanding mentors and wonderful friends, both passed away this winter. Susanne, on December 23rd, 2015, Lloyd on January 16, 2016. Below, I reflect on all the life lessons they taught me over the past 27 years. Painting above by yours truly, presented to Susanne on her 8oth birthday in 2010, depicting Susanne and Lloyd with Indira Gandhi at O’Hare Airport in 1966]
1. Fall of 1995: Susanne and Lloyd take us on a hike to see the mouth of the Ganges at Gangotri. As we pass the tree line, I crumple with altitude sickness. Susanne and Lloyd both feel fine. They are in their sixties. We are in our twenties. As I clutch my stomach and lurch along, Susanne and Lloyd are spry and invigorated. Lloyd has just learned that another University of Chicago economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize, this one for his theory of rational expectations. Lloyd proceeds to attempt to apply this theory to our hiking behavior.
At the flat sandy bank below the glacier, Lloyd and Susanne pitch a four-person tent. I vomit quietly behind a boulder. At sunset, immediately preceding a modest dinner of dal and roti, provided by a man with a small eatery beneath a tarpaulin, Lloyd brings out the perfect size of flask, containing Scotch whiskey for cocktails. After dinner, we retire to our quadruple-sized tent and lie in four sleeping bags in a row. Susanne and Lloyd have miner-style headlamps for reading before bed. Susanne is reading an interesting biography of Mary Shelley. Lloyd is reading Wendy Doniger’s latest book, in which, he notes, she thanks a lover in her acknowledgments. Lloyd wonders if he should note down this pilgrimage to Gangotri in the acknowledgments of his next book.
I curl up into fetal position and wait for morning.
Always bring a flask on a hike. Never forget your bedtime reading and lamp. Avoid being born with a feeble constitution. Economic theory can be applied to daily life. Anything can go into your acknowledgments.
2. My second year of graduate school, 1992: Susanne hires me to be a student worker in their office. Lloyd and Susanne have an office suite: twin offices with a common area where the student workers sit. The job involves a huge amount of filing. My predecessor has left suddenly due to mental illness, and so the training is spotty. Every morning Lloyd and Susanne wake up very early and read all their newspapers. Lloyd cuts out all the articles that are pertinent to his own interests or those of virtually anyone he knows. He writes in loopy letters with a fountain pen on post-it notes instructions to us: “One to Deb Harold, one to Dick Taub, one to Brian Greenberg.” We must photocopy these and send them off to the appropriate parties. Often the original is to be filed. Sometimes we find our own names on the recipient list. Then we dutifully make a photocopy for ourselves and file it in our backpacks.
Students sign up for office hours in fifteen-minute segments on a sheet outside the door. Our job is to chat with them while they wait. Well, no, we are supposed to be filing and such, but the students want entertaining. Susanne always dispatches her advisees promptly after 13 minutes. Lloyd must be reminded. Lloyd likes to have a cup of Medaglia D’Oro coffee in the afternoon. If one of the women student workers accidentally makes it for him and brings it in, he becomes very anxious and we have to have a long conversation about whether or not it’s exploitative for him to accept it.
For a while, Lloyd and Susanne resist email. We are instructed to print out every single email they receive and place them in their inboxes, just like regular mail. As this practice fades, we begin to receive 5 AM emails from Susanne full of instructions for the day. Susanne’s instructions are always terse. In handwritten notes, her handwriting is thin and cramped. She uses ballpoint pens. Often, elucidation is required.
When Susanne and Lloyd give talks, Lloyd is famous for going off on tangents of which he loses control. Susanne is famous for cutting the tangents short and summarizing what Lloyd just said while he regains his composure. When they write, it’s the other way round. Lloyd’s ink pen loops all over Susanne’s text, cutting, expanding, copy-editing and critiquing. They do know how to write and speak without one another: Lloyd has a lesser-known specialization in the American presidency. Susanne is also a scholar of Max Weber. But they are at their happiest and most productive when they work together.
Summers are spent in their house in Vermont. As when they go to India every fourth year, they ship all the books and papers they will need for their work in large crates. They also ship their cat (but not to India). While they are gone, we continue to work in the office. Whole mornings can be spent pursuing instructions such as these: “LIR needs Sovereignty in China. Pale green cover. By Smith or Jones. Southeast shelf of LIR study at home or in LIR library office.”
I am also charged with ordering office supplies. I order everything in purple and lavender. No one seems to notice.
Share knowledge. Do not exploit your female workers. If you speak in tangents, find a pithy partner. Reverse is also true. Always edit with nice pens. Bring your work on holiday, as well as your cat.
3. The late 1950’s: Susanne and Lloyd first travel to India. Of course the best way to do this is to acquire a Land Rover in England and drive there. Most of the places they drive through are now war-torn, but that doesn’t mean it was easy then either. They tell thrilling tales of fording rivers in the car and all manner of hardships. Somehow or other, they end up in Jaipur, staying with the Maharaja. Perhaps the palace was already a hotel, but they immediately become fast friends with the princely set. There are photographs of hunting expeditions and glamorous parties. These interactions form the basis of their book Essays on Rajputana and they become India scholars. Their last major work, Reversing the Gaze, builds on a lifetime of good-will and intimacy with the history and politics of the princely states.
When the Maharani of Jaipur was imprisoned by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, all she could think of was Susanne’s pineapple upside-down cake.
Always take the most adventurous route. Stay in palaces. Study what you love. Every adventure should become a book. Learn how to make pineapple upside-down cake.
4. Fall, 1988: I first meet Susanne in a required social sciences course at the University of Chicago, known informally as ‘Self, Torture and Anxiety’. She is teaching the unit on ‘Self’. Authors to be read: Max Weber, Adam Smith, Karl Marx. What I remember from the course: Susanne introducing herself on the first day, and explaining that she spends every fourth year with her husband and co-author in India, doing research. She is wearing a light blue khadi vest, or so I remember. Cornflower blue was always her favorite color.
I am a Classics major. I think: this woman has a better life path than I do; I go to my adviser and drop Latin and add Hindi. Political economy is something I’m still trying to understand.
Be on the lookout for good life plans. A Classics degree will not get you to India. Political economy is very important.
5. 2008, Kensington, California: The Rudolphs have retired to a beautiful house in the Berkeley Hills. I visit for lunch one day. Susanne’s Parkinson’s disease is noticeable now, although she never mentions it. On the other hand, she has just come in from Tai Chi in the park. For lunch, she makes a quiche. I watch as she tenaciously controls her movements, chops mushrooms, beats eggs. Each motion is an act of will for her. Lloyd is in charge of salad. He does not attempt to help her, not because he wouldn’t want to, but because executing these movements is clearly of the greatest importance to her. At lunch, on the deck, in the sun, they explain what projects they are working on. They reveal that they’ve started to watch movies in the evenings instead of working. This is a new world for them, and they seem quite amazed at all the material available. Susanne nods off to sleep. Lloyd gently wakes her and reminds her of the topic at hand. The pain in his face shows his anxiety about her illness, but also his disbelief. How can he be left with the responsibility of keeping the conversation on track?
Try new things. Keep fit. Don’t accept defeat. Respect your partner. Prepare to assume one another’s responsibilities.
6. Fall, 1989: I’m in India for the first time on a new study abroad program organized by Susanne. Me and one other student. Susanne isn’t actually there, nor is anyone else there to greet us, save a driver from the American Institute for Indian Studies (AIIS). In a scenario that’s guaranteed to horrify any modern-day study abroad coordinator, we are put in charge of making our own hotel reservations and finding a taxi to take us up to Mussoorie where we will study Hindi. The hotel thing falls through, and we end up sleeping on the sofas at AIIS, after which we are dispatched to an unknown guest house by an irate Pradeep Mehendiratta. When we finally have the courage to leave the guest house, we take a map (to try to determine where we are in New Delhi) and Susanne’s instructions. Go to Kashmiri Gate. Hire a one-way taxi to Landour Bazaar. This should cost you 750-900 rupees.
Be self-reliant. Carry a map. Prepare for surprises. Don’t forget your instructions.
7. 2015, Summer: We visit Susanne and Lloyd at their house in Vermont. Susanne is using a walker now, and Lloyd has been ill as well. He says he gets tired a good deal. Until a few years ago he still swam in Silver Lake at the foot of their lawn every day at dawn, but now that’s too much for him. You cut out more and more as you get older, he says, regretfully. He misses playing squash and going on long hikes. Susanne is sometimes present and sometimes not. She engages with bits of the conversation and wanders off with them. Lloyd seems anxious. What if he becomes too ill to care for her? The strain on him is already great. He still reminds her of what we’re discussing, in the most respectful tone.
All their lives they’ve lived in many places at once. Summers in Vermont, fourth years in India: winter in Jaipur, fall and spring in Mussoorie. Then there were always conferences, awards ceremonies and important meetings. They were always in motion. Even then, when they were both quite ill, they’d flown from California to Vermont, to be at their lake house. How much longer could they do this, we wondered, and how could Lloyd bear to return to Vermont without her? Lloyd explains to my daughter that Susanne is suffering from Parkinson’s, a disease that affects the memory. This is the first time I’ve ever heard either of them mention her illness, even though it has been evident for many years. In the evening we watch Mansfield Park. Lloyd no longer drinks a French-press full of coffee after dinner, and no one has any cognac.
Do what you love. Respect those you love. Make every journey matter. Don’t dwell on negative thoughts.
8. Thanksgiving, circa 1994: We are amazed to be invited to dinner at the Rudolphs’. There are other graduate students and also assorted faculty members. As always at their house, we start off with sherry, cheeses and stoned wheat thins. By dinner, the graduate students, us included, are all quite drunk. At dinner there is more to drink. Lloyd and Susanne drink more than us and don’t seem in the least affected. The conversation is high-powered and intellectual. We are very quiet. We can’t contribute much to discussions of the inner workings of Indian parliament, the results of the latest census and controversies surrounding the Mandal Commission. After dinner, there is cognac and strong coffee. The graduate students can barely stand. The Norwegian Rational Choice theorist is only getting started. He is explaining something theoretical that we are in no position to understand. “Take jazz, for example…” he begins. “…or chess…” We don’t know what he’s talking about, but Susanne leans forward, bright-eyed and engaged, asking him all the right questions. Eventually we are bundled out onto the pavement, bleary-eyed and barely cogent. One of us has spilled red wine on the white sofa and covered it up with a sofa cushion, but I won’t say who.
Always serve cheeses with stoned wheat thins before dinner. Invite a nice assortment of people. Do not feed poor graduate students too much liquor. Figure out how to make jazz and chess analogies at dinner parties.
9. Christmas Eve, 2015: I’m in the kitchen, preparing eggnog with bourbon and nutmeg (without bourbon for the child). I receive a text from a friend who has heard that Susanne has passed away. Though the news comes as no surprise, I feel the tears coming, and a sense of helplessness. What would Susanne do, I asked myself. She’d pour the drinks with a steady hand. She’d carry on. Instead, I go upstairs and sob. The scene repeats itself: each time I think of her, I become tearful, and ask myself how she’d behave in my place. Susanne would be stoic. She’d think of the right thing.
What do you do when a mentor dies, and you have no example to follow? I try over the next few weeks to write something about Susanne, about what she meant to me, what she taught me about being a professional woman and leading a thoughtful life, but I couldn’t tell the story without Lloyd, and when I thought of Lloyd, waiting behind, as she embarked on the final journey before him, I cried again. I thought of Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel, The Buried Giant, which explores just this theme: no matter how tenaciously one might cling to a partner in life, the final journey must be made alone.
Or does it? Just twenty-four days later, word came that Lloyd had also passed away. I don’t know what afterlife they envisioned, or if they did at all. They were not openly religious or spiritual; they were fiercely rational scholars who loved to study, as political scientists, the present moment as it unfolded. But I like to think of them now, together on another journey, to an intellectually stimulating place in the sky, or of their souls finding new incarnations that will meet again, and forge another fruitful partnership, or of the two of them soaring off into another dimension full of conversation, stimulating company, hikes, cocktails and articles to be shared with all their friends.
When in doubt, pursue your research, write your books, pour out the drinks and carry on. Even if you don’t know your final destination, do your best to leave the party together.
This summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.
Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands.
When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.
[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]