On Writing

Gentle Readers,

Today, Sep 19th, marks the official janam din for A Book of Conquest. In light of this occasion, some thoughts on writing it.

Where I started:

The book began as my dissertation but it bears only a faint resemblance to that document. Most critically, I jettisoned much of the analytical framework that was there for the dissertation (memory) as well as the focus of that text (Muhammad bin Qasim). This was due to conversations, readings and publishing decisions that occurred in the year after the dissertation was finished. Since 2012, I published two journal articles which resembled the task of the book but, nothing that would go directly into a new manuscript. In essence, I was starting the book from scratch (which was my preference).


The first thing that confronted me was the mechanics of writing and the workflow. I had some criteria: I wanted my work to always be accessible no matter how many years in the future. I wanted to produce different forms of documents from the same source text. I wanted to have version controls and document forks (basically that I could amend a particular text and have those versions available). For the first, there is only one choice, which is to write in plain text (think your notepad or textedit). Yet, as scholars we also need to do headings, italics, footnotes etc, so we need some light markup. Hence, Markdown, coupled with YAML provides everything one may need.

Markdown has grown tremendously since I used a version of it for the dissertation writing in 2008 (via Scrivener). The availability of Pandoc meant that producing a .pdf or .docx file from my markdown (.md) files would not a hassle. (To learn about Plain Text/future-proofing your work, see this introduction). So the workflow at the outset was to write in a lightweight text editor (I used Sublime Text but you can also try Atom or really any plain text editor) and then use pandoc to produce a pdf for sharing/proofing. I used a GitHub repository (and Google Drive as backup) to keep the files and version control. (If you use Atom, it helps with that).

Once I had a chapter draft complete– meaning all the text I’d imagine writing, plus all citations, and some preliminary copyediting– the file would move into an “Alpha” folder. It was only at this stage that I had friends read that chapter and offer any feedback/suggestions for revisions. I would then make those revisions and give that file to my editor for copy-edits. When that file would get back, I would move it into the “Beta” folder. The Beta folder– with the .md files converted into .docx according to the Press’s specifications was submitted to the Press.


A colleague and I began the writing process together. We did so after a number of conversations about the solitude and stress that long writing projects induce. We did not have a lot of science behind this, except the understanding that much of academic self-presentation is masochism, self-aggrandization and needless self-harm. We began with the idea of “co-presence” as a way of both motivation and solidarity but also re-thinking writing as a solitary pursuit. We were lucky that we both had offices in adjacent buildings. So we alternated our writing– a day in one office followed by a day in the other.

We belong to different disciplines and were writing different books so there was not much of an overlap there. However, we did some things like share the number of words written that day; share coffees, lunches and walks around the blocks; think out aloud any problems or issues with the writing. The solidarity of co-presence was perhaps the most critical strength through very long, rough, patches. Soon after we started, a number of other colleagues joined in co-presence and everyone worked under the same set of guidelines (workworkwork).


In terms of writing, I am a visual thinker. So I invested in a small erase-board (picked it up on the street) and also worked in a room that had a chalkboard. I would draw argument flows constantly and those chalkboards would help me think as I wrote the sections/subsections. It really helped me especially when I would get stuck because I knew where I was (visually). (Incidentally, this is why I worked in SublimeText because it shows a visual map of the document)


In the last decade, I have written around 1.5 million words for this blog. Add on another 40k for opinion pieces, review essays and such for other media (print or online). Add another 170k for a dissertation and a book. Add some 40k for articles in academic journals. Add some more in 140 character bites for twitter. My one take-away from all that writing has been that each medium, message, requires its own form. Further, that forms should never be consecrated or calcified. Knowing when to be obedient to form and when to rebel is, thus, a necessary skill.

For the book, I did extensive fieldwork between 2011 and 20014 in Uch Sharif. My method consisted primarily of long walks and conversations. It informed my understanding of the contemporary world but it also informed the types of questions I was bringing to bear on the medieval text. I needed to make sure that the resultant book bore witness to this process but also to the friends and helpers I encountered in Uch Sharif and Ahmedpur Sharkia.

It was thus a natural decision to introduce myself as a participant into the text of the book. I did not hesitate with that decision and each chapter organically opened up with a small contemporary incursion into Uch Sharif. I hope the readers will see the logic and necessity of that move– as a method and as a ethic. I believe, and have argued, that the texture of the scholarly work ought to reflect the texture of the evidence that it is built upon. Artifacts of the past and present– their form, shape, appearance, structure– informs the secondary analysis and revisitation that we understand as scholarly work. Any number of critical voices are available to buttress this observation– Gloria Anzaldua, Carolyn Steedman, Greg Dening, Quratulain Hyder– being those particularly trenchant examples.

Alongside the form, is the notion of the audience, the framework, the “whats-at-stake” sets of issues. At least for me, there were specific conversations with senior colleagues and my Editor which clarified my own particular answers and which ended up being the “frame” for the book. I am really grateful for those conversations in shaping the work.


Some of my concerns were that the book be available in South Asia and that the Press be able to put out a reasonably priced volume. Being a first book author in the academic scene is a hard task for any of us in that position. Harvard University Press was a genuine pleasure to work with and I am very happy with the final product. If people are interested, I can post more about the publication process and/or the publishing scene for medieval South Asia in particular (though, frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of us).

Still, I tried to think forward through the process. Through a departmental initiative, I participated in a manuscript workshop where a set of senior faculty gave me invaluable feedback and corrections. Through a grant, I paid for copy-editing before the text went out to reviewers to get it into some good shape. These two things, I think, made the rest of the review process easier. I made an effort to meet every single deadline on the publication schedule (submission, reader responses, copy-edits, proof-edits, indexing) so that I did not insert delays in the process. I paid for services outside the publishing process (pre-submission copy-edit and indexing) via grants that I applied for (institutional). This was a luxury that I had, and I took advantage of it.

The whole process took 18 months during which I also taught three courses. Some of that period was easier and some was rougher but it went, more or less, according to the plan I sketched out in November 2014. That plan was what saved me in the darkness.

I hope you read the book and I hope this above is of some usage. Thank you, as always, for reading.

That Pleasant Prison Dream

No, I doubt I’d be that kind of father
not rural not snow no quiet window
but hot smelly New York City
seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
And five nose running brats in love with Batman
And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
like those hag masses of the 18th century
all wanting to come in and watch TV
The landlord wants his rent
Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
Impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking–
No! I should not get married and I should never get married!
But–imagine if I were to marry a beautiful sophisticated woman
tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
holding a cigarette holder in one hand and highball in the other
and we lived high up a penthouse with a huge window
from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
No I can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream–

— From “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso

A Hindi poet I knew in Allahabad was, like many writers in his generation, very taken with the Beatnik poets. He had a particular desire to translate into Hindi the poem “Marriage” by Gregory Corso, but he was stuck on the line “…Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus.” We explained to him what each term meant, but in the end we had to agree that it would be pretty much impossible to translate that part elegantly. It would possibly take at least two or three footnotes, and as AK Ramanujan always used to say, in translation, “every footnote is a confession of failure.”
Continue reading “That Pleasant Prison Dream”