Memoirist of Fire — Eduardo Galeano, in memoriam

[This is a guest post by Keerthik Sasidharan. It was first published at Medium.]

On 12th April, the Chinese media reported that Puren, the youngest half-brother of Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, had died at the age of ninety-six. The outside world barely noticed. With Puren’s passing vanished last of the tenuous linkages to a medieval world that was as baroque as the eventual Communist regime of Mao was to be radical. To the outside world, however, replacing the Manchu Qing with the Communists was merely the replacement of one form of opacity by another. Well before the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci threw light on Puyi, the relationship between the Communist Party and the last of the Chinese royals was merely an historical footnote, albeit not as bloody as the Romanoffs in the wake of Lenin and his gang. Eduardo Galeano, the iconic Uruguayan writer died earlier this week, was one of the few reporters who managed to finagle an interview with Puyi in 1963. The red shadow of Mao’s persona, understandably, darkened the mood of the hour. During their conversation, mediated by a Mandarin to Spanish translator, Puyi let in Galeano on a secret with, what must have been by then, a well practiced routine of humility: the Last Emperor of China, who now lived as a gardener and librarian, was not a member of the Communist party. When asked why he hadn’t joined, Puyi confessed: “The title of Communist is a most noble title. I am very far from attaining that incomparable glory… I must finish changing my ideas if I am to reach such an elevated goal.” Galeano doesn’t write what he felt when he heard those words but he leaves behind a cryptic, but sympathetic, note about the cup in which his jasmine tea was served: “The dragons on the porcelain surface are fighting.” Such encounters with those cast away onto the sides of history fueled Galeano’s journalistic and writing career wherein he gently peeled away layers of self-deceptions that the defeated entertain, not to self-aggrandize themselves but often to eke out morsels of dignity.

Galeano’s death comes after more than half century long career wherein he wrote about the vanities and follies of men, the loneliness of back breaking labor in flea markets and coal mines, the worm addled utopias promised by demagogues on the Right (mostly) and the Left, the gray suited high priests of modern finance capital who have sacrificed countries to their great God called productivity, the historical amnesias of the global South and the post-industrial oblivions in the North. When he died, Galeano was 74, thrice married, bald and a prophetic voice who once dreamed of being a footballer.

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For Sabeen Mahmud

In 2007-8 as email listservs sprang up to protest Musharraf’s dictatorship, I met Sabeen Mahmud, her words and her spirit through my inbox. T2F was part of this flowering of young artists, activists who made humor and wit their weapon against dictators. Asim Butt. Sabeen Mahmud. They were the two names I admired from faraway Chicago, IL. I study some bits of Pakistan’s past. I call Lahore, and only Lahore, home. I don’t remember such sadness, and despair. If I had ever met Sabeen, I would not be able to speak or write now. I just knew her from a distance; I just knew her work from afar. Un par kiya basri hai jo uss kay ashna thay. I cry only for few emails, and a spirit that has left with her.

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Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2014

2014 was the 10th anniversary year of CM and the year of the publication of Lapata’s novel, Taste. It was also the year with the least number of posts. Hence, this year’s postcard will do away with a narrative and will simply be a brief list of some of the 2014 posts.

Previous Postcards: 2013, 2012, 20112010

A Qissa for a Globalised World

[Following is a guest post by Kavita Bhanot. She is a london based writer. Her short stories and non-fiction have been published widely in anthologies, magazines and journals, two of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and she is the editor of the short story collection Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press, 2011.) ]

There has, of late, been a revival of Punjabi cinema directed towards and watched by Punjabi audiences. A recent addition to Punjabi language cinema, albeit less ‘commercial’ and more ‘artistic’ is the Punjabi language film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals and was screened last week at the London Indian Film Festival.

The film is about the violent consequences of son obsession in a Sikh refugee family in post-partition East Punjab.Visually striking, Qissa stands out for its cinematography; the framing, the use of shadows and light, the unusual angles. It was often absorbing, most of all in the scenes between actresses Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, playing the couple Kanwar Singh and Neeli who find themselves in a predicament after marriage when they both discover that Kawar is actually a woman. Their interactions quiver with layered tension and chemistry.
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Beyond Batra and Doniger: Reflections on the study of Hinduism in the American academy

For anyone aware of the militant Hindu Right’s hounding of academics whose research engages with Hinduism, the recent events related to Wendy Doniger’s Book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, must appear as a predictable sequel that replays the plot of the original with minor, if equally unpleasant, variations; a Grudge or Insidious set at the intersection of the American academy and transnational Hinduism, in which, eventually, the malevolent spirits get their victims or, to put it less dramatically, the bad guys eventually wear the good guys down.

A decade ago, another book on Hinduism, Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, had similarly incensed some Hindus in the US and India. The litany of charges leveled against Courtright, a professor at Emory University, was similar to that against Doniger—disrespecting Hinduism, an obsession with sexuality, promoting a Christian agenda, and the like. And like the ominous suggestions of violence contained in the lawsuit against Doniger, some of the comments related to Courtright’s book in online petitions (long since taken down) were borderline threatening.

I was a graduate student at Emory University at the time, working on a dissertation on how Hindu communities were using the Internet to articulate conservative understandings of Indian identity. I had developed an interest in the topic while working for rediff.com in Bombay in the late 1990s right before I moved to Emory. rediff had tapped into, and, to an extent, shaped an online right wing Hindu culture, with star columnists like Varsha Bhosle, Rajeev Srinivasan, and Francois Gautier. Essays by Arvind Rajagopal and Vinay Lal had already drawn attention to the Hindu nationalist attempt to mark cyberspace as its own domain. Important work by Paula Chakravartty and Sunil Khilnani had mapped the complex web of relations between liberalization, diaspora, and shifting ideas of nationhood among global Indian communities. (Sorry, Indian media, your recent discovery of “Internet Hindus” is neither original nor nuanced). My argument was that there was a long and complex history of the relationship between technology and nationalism in India, rooted in the nineteenth century, that informed online Hindu nationalism and that the phenomenon, accordingly, needed to be seen in the light of both this history and the logic of online communication.
Continue reading Beyond Batra and Doniger: Reflections on the study of Hinduism in the American academy

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2013

2013 saw the publication of a collection of Lapata’s translations of Ashk’s short stories. You can read excerpts from the collection here and an interview with Lapata here. CNN returned to talk to her about her art and her new book (link), and again to ask the “terror artist” about the offensiveness of Rolling Stone’s depiction of that good-looking white boy. Sanyasi returned the gaze and observed that CNN’s reading of Lapata’s art reflects “something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.” Taking some time off from painting terrorists, Lapata also reviewed ‘Aisha Jalaal”s hagiography of Manto.

Sepoy began the year by completing his Berlin series (III IV), and ended by translating Faiz. In the middle was his review of Dalrymple’s latest that found D’s critique of empire to be “at the service of bettering Western-driven governance in Afghanistan and the pacification of Afghan tribes.” And then, there was his piece on the Pakistani elections  for the paper of record (yes, that). In this piece he made some bizarre statement about peasants and laborers having agency, which irked some folks who pointed out that those deaf and dumb slaves only act out the narratives that their superiors set. Sepoy responded by arguing for understanding “agency and contingency in an historical event from the perspective of the subaltern, the vanquished, the dispossessed, the marginalized […].” And so it went.

Sanyasi returned to CM with reflections on the violence of American paranoia from the Hindu-German conspiracy to its present day Islamophobic avatar, and with reviews of Ramachandra Guha’s latest (link) and Niraja Gopal Jayal’s Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History (link,). He also gave us a glimpse of his forthcoming book, Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss. Speaking of forthcoming publications, Sepoy discussed his approach for the book he is working on (here, here), and Bulleyah contributed an essay (here, here) on Sepoy’s forthcoming chapter (link) in an edited volume.

Sepoy also wrote about growing up in Dubai, and Basanti about surveillance in the KSA and the USA (link). Our friend MNJ reflected on “[t]he power inherent in autobiographies, and our fascination with them” in a three-part essay on Mahvish Khan’s memoir My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me (III, III).

We published a greater number of guest posts this year, bringing to our readers glimpses of JLFKurdistan, and Kabul; a review of Vollman’s memoir; a comment on “the politics of ‘Razakar memory’ in Andhra Pradesh”; a reflection on the “everyday political in Paromita Vohra’s documentary films”; and AJK’s Shura City. Of all these many excellent guest posts,  Prof. Veena Oldenburg’s contribution was truly a cut above.

In 2013, CM launched a new series of conversations to discuss and introduce new and exciting scholarship on South Asia. The interviews with Teena Purohit and Kavita Datla are the first of what we hope will be an ongoing feature of CM. Bint Battuta started contributing excerpts from her readings to CM (here, here). Also, with a satire of LUMS’ paindu dayour friend, Mutiyar, started contributing to CM.

 

PS. Where are you from? Or, how I became a Pakistani?

PPS. OMG, OMJ. 

PPPS. I reviewed a couple of books for Dawn (link).

PPPPS: Here are the previous year-end summaries: 20102011, and 2012.

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.

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