I came to Georges Perec (1936- 1982) through his Espèces d’espaces and I have never really left him. Perec was part of the post-War, 1968 generation (with Paul Virilio, Jean-François Lyotard, Raymond Queneau and others) who were obsessed with space, and with narrativity.They all (to various degrees and varying forms) look at the place where events took place and tried to find ways of writing and seeing that place. In a slight little volume published in 1975, Tentative d’epuisement d’un lieu parisien (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris), Perec sat in a public square in Paris. There, Perec records the banal, the ordinary, that which is not noticed, that which cannot be noticed, time as it passes, space as it modulates with peoples, buses and shadows. Perec sits in varied locations for three straight days, and simply records. He narrates his own boredom. He notices what he noticed before, and finds un-noticeable now. He notices that which has no importance and, hence, is never noticed. For Perec (as for Virilio), looking was not a given act. It required training and it required a discipline. In sympathy with the dérive of Guy Debord and the situationist, Perec’s urban nomad is rooted within a deep ecology of the city. When reading Perec’s text, I noticed his fixation on the bus routes, their fullness/emptiness, and how in marking the final destinations of these buses, Perec had linked his stationary observer to the moving city. His little bit of fixed space, was connected to all other parts of Paris.
What I took from Perec is not entirely obvious and I want to explain why I invoke him. I began to observe objects as closely as I was trying to observe place and space. Over the course of three years (and those many trips to Pakistan), I have been photographing my surroundings as I conducted archival work or went on research walks. One particular object that I assiduously photographed were book-shelves (inside homes), book stalls (on the street) and book stores. My impulse was archival at first. I wanted to look at what was being sold and I rarely had time to linger at each of the places. But behind that impulse was my own cultural map of Lahore.
Around 9th grade, I was headlong in love with pulp spy novels (Ibn-e Safi or Mazhar Kaleem) and pulp crime. The only way to access these books was by joining the neighborhood book-club. After a one-time membership fee (five rupees), you were allowed to rent any of the books in the library for 1 rupee/day charge (maybe my memory is off here). At the same time, a friend of mine, was setting up his own business selling pamphlets and steamy novels on the street. The various “sutra” books would often share the same “models” from the spy novels – caucasian skin tone, almond eyes, veils half draped over thighs and long hair. These sex manuals, he would tell me, were doing amazing business. He needed to emphasis to the buyers that these were translations of kama sutra or kokh shastar and they sold like hot cakes. It was not until I began to work on the book, that I started to think about these mini-archives of circulation and consumption. I attended a talk by Veronika Fuechtner who told us about the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the rise of therapeutic and pharmalogical sex clinics in the early part of the twentieth century in India. Suddenly, those innumerable signs advertising “German Clinics” for sexual potency drugs began to make sense. These Urdu sex manuals were always written by a “Pandit” (and translated into English by “Alex Comfort“). The other bestsellers were books on magic, on prophecy, on spells, on djinns, on hypnosis, on mesmerism, on palmistry, on controlling jinns, on controlling your sexual strength. Etc.
In the last three years, I have been researching and thinking about a volume of interlinked essays on Lahore – perhaps on the historical “al-Sind”. Over the course of the coming year, you will see one or two of those essays in print, and I hope to finish the book next year. It was contracted as a single-volume history of Pakistan but I had both political and philosophical problems with the very notion of “single-volume”. I spent a solid few months trying to find which “single-volume” histories of United States I could adopt as a model for my own work. Of course, I was cognizant that the production of histories aimed at other geographies and ethonologies dovetailed with imperial and colonial projects. Of course, I was making a cheap point to myself.
What ended up happening, over the course of the last three years, is Walter Benjamin, Susan Buck-Morss, and Annemarie Schwarzenbach changed the way I was thinking about space, about landscape and about narrative. If you remember some of the small essays I wrote here, it was a bit of a struggle for me to think through the very form of writing and its intimate connection to the content of writing. Such modes of expression remain in tension with my graduate training, and the larger field of History – though I make no broad claims, nor do I claim any grievances. Related to the question of “form” was the question of history itself. Rather, the politics of how history and historiography play out in ontological or epistemological claims. In my dissertation, which was focused on ‘political memory’, I had a rather binary relationship between power and narrative – the power to narrate itself had political force, had violence, had truth-claims, and shaped knowledge. I had looked at Sindhi sub-nationalists as well as national textbooks and I had argued for a dialectical tension between community and state. Again, over the course of the last few years, largely through a deeper reading of Foucault and Reinhart Koselleck, I have come to amend my own understanding in crucial ways. I am much more conscious of the non-divide (along with the divide) between “state” and community. I am more aware of the everydayness of history-making – corporeally, materially and visually. The sights, smells and tactile aspects of historiography are venues that I have been collating and mulling over my last three trips to Pakistan.
In that vein, I wanted to share (in a few posts), some of what constitutes an archive. This poster was the beginning of one journey (subsequent posts will show other snaps). I had visited Jahangir’s tomb with friends. The tomb lies at the outskirts of Lahore by the river Ravi. Rather, it used to. Lahore swallowed up Ravi. It swallowed up the tomb. Jahangir is now in Lahore’s belly.
At the ticket counter, affixed to the window was a poster of South Asian Islam’s great heroes. Or that is what I thought, as I did not even look closely at first. As the discussion among my companions turned towards whatever correct change they needed from the Archeological Society, my eyes turned back to the poster. It was not what I had assumed. The Mughals were there. But so was Sher Shah Suri (who threw Humayun out of India). Chinghiz Khan, Hulagu Khan, Timur and Nadir Shah – destroyers of Iran, Iraq and Delhi – were also present. Salahuddin Ayubi and Tariq bin Zayad were there, but so was Alexander the Great. Razia Sultana and Noor Jahan. This was not heroes of “Islam”. It was not “South Asia”. What a weird poster.
Since March 2012, I have researched the canonization of Islam’s heroes and the development of the theme of the popular historical fictions. Abdul Halim Sharar (1865-1926), Jurjī Zaydān (1861-1914) and Shibli Naumani (1857-1914) are at one node of this tree while Ratan Nath Sarshar (1846-1902) and Nasim Hijazi (1914-1996) are another node. Pamphlets, posters, radio programs, tele-novellas are all modes of productions whereby these figures come to represent Pakistan’s teleological certainties. The series (usually titled “Heroes of Islam”) are present in almost every bazaar in every town or village. Their colors are vivid. The figures depicted almost always in bust- silhouetted- with thin delicate features and extravagant head-dresses.
What accounts for their near-ubiquity? What accounts for the diversity in their rankings? Who decided whom to include? How do we reconcile these textual productions with abysmal literacy rates and a near-dearth of a culture of book-acquisition? First, let me tell you a bit about the authors, and then let me suggest a way in which we can read this archive. The authors are rarely “academically trained” historians but each takes great pains to emphasize genuine historical inquiry and research into the sources by highlighting Orientalist historians and major works of Urdu or Arabic historiography. They are often retired military or civil-bureaucratic personnel who frankly stress one of these two, or both, goals in the writing of their histories: first “to acquaint boys and girls with the spiritual possessions of which they are to be guardians,” and second, to battle “corruptions in history.” There is no guild behind them, no formal organization. Hence, there is “Sindh jo Soomro” (Sindh’s Heroes” or “Punjab di Shakseitan” (Punjab’s Luminaries”. The canon, by and large, remains within South Asia – though Alexander and Saladin are perennial favorites. Women are absent with the exception of Noor Jahan (Taj Mahal would be the deciding factor). There are spiritual analogues of these worldly conquerors and rulers. Visual representations and genealogical trees of Sufi silsila of char-yaars.
The poster, affixed to the wall, with very small print titles works associatively in public culture. The visual language of the depicted figure is almost always carried over to the cover of the pamphlet or the novel or the history. A curved sword, a green flag, a galloping horse, a sketched army, a woman in distress. Take a look at this depiction of Mahmud Ghaznavi on the poster for Luqman’s 1960 historical movie Ayaz with the depictions of Ghaznavi and Iltutmish on the poster, and another novel from the 1980s:
Arrayed open-faced on bookstalls and pasted to walls and windows, these iconized faces reveal a visual history of Islam in the cultural imagination of Pakistan. The story may be urban-centric – though tier two and three towns have borne the brunt of rural migration in the past two decades and these visuals are just as prominent there. It is not so much about literacy rates, as it is about cultural literacy. Pakistan Television over the last four decades, and other cable and media operators have produced a tremendous archive of visualized and imagined heroes of Pakistan. More recently demagogues like Zaid Hamid have produced their own versions. The presence of these figures in the visual landscape is a link to congealed history of self-representation for a wide swath of Pakistanis. Every figure need not have a legible story and every story need not keep the central biography clear. Instead it is the connective tissue between a triumphal history and a triumphal nationalism that is most clear, most valuable. This is what is being read.
In subsequent posts, I will show you some pictures of bookstalls and bookstores. More places for an eye to rest, and a nation to form.
On the academic front, the papers by Ramya Sreenivasen, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Mrinalini Sinha and Madhuri Desai were a special treat for me. A number of speakers – Partha Chatterjee, Robert Travers – spoke of the historiographic impact of Kumkum’s 1998 article, “History as Self-Representation: The Recasting of a Political Tradition in Late Eighteenth-Century Eastern India” Modern Asian Studies 32, which launched a number of re-assessments as well a critical interest in examining Mughal historiography on Bengal.
On the personal front, it brought tears to my eyes (of laughter) when after dinner, participants shared funny anecdotes and songs, evoking the laughter that I most associate with Kumkum.
We look forward to the publication of Kumkum’s essays and the establishment of her library and archive in the future.
Recently, a Sikh man was called “terrorist” and “Osama” and assaulted near his house – in Harlem. I wrote about it:
Is the attack on Mr. Singh an event that bears a relationship to incidents of violence against minorities around the globe? His is, after all, a singular story. Yet, all the other cases of crimes against minorities are also unique. Each represents a member of a community chosen as a target and then subject to annihilation – legal or physical. To resist such erasure, to speak out against the attackers, to educate the community, to build networks of support, are all necessary acts that depend on proper contextualization of the crime.
[Gentle Readers, let me introduce to you another member of the CM family:ਮੁਟਿਆਰ مُٹیار mutiyar who prowls the streets of Lahore in a bael-gari and whips any machar she encounters. She is currently finishing her B.A. She is the best. We like her. We hope you do, too. – sepoy.]
I’ve met students from LUMS who have participated in those popular “Paindu Day” and “Daaku Day” festivals where youths dress up like stereotyped Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, etc to show their self-proclaimed “appreciation” for aforementioned cultures in Pakistan. The appreciation, however, is lost somewhere in translation and ends up only becoming trite and typical of mostly rich students studying in a university located in a gentrified housing residential area. Obviously the last detail is conveniently brushed aside. The usual trajectory of such a conversation goes like this:
Interviewer: So, tell us more about the motivation to “appreciate” rural culture in this particular way?
LUMS student: Well, yaar, dekho. My driver na? He’s from some duur daraz village and he talks in such a funny way like he bumps off words and sounds like your typical paindu. Then there’s Sheeda Tulli or Bhatti in your Punjabi movies and even Urdu dramas, and they all look so hilarious and happy despite not having much na.
Interviewer: You decided to appreciate this culture by wearing excessively bright and tacky garb, black marker moles on your cheeks and keeping mid-parted oily hair?
LUMS student:Aho! That’s how paindus say it, right? AA-HO! Ho, get it? I’m hilarious. My friend laughed at my brilliant mimicking – I mean appreciative impersonation – of the jaahil painday for, like, hours, yaar.
I: And you saw nothing wrong with it?
L: Yaar, please. Racist hogi tumhari dunya mai. Idher scene chill hai. Only over-sensitive uncles and aunties will be offended at our appreciation of rural people. Ek to you guys want representation and then tum laug fauran bura mana letay ho. Look at this black mole I put on my cheek to look like one of them. And check out my pagri and my fake mustache that I’ll twirl dramatically like every done-to-death Punjabi villain in movies does. My girlfriend here put on a tub of makeup to look happy and cheap si like those paindu girls. Someone really needs to teach them what to wear, you know?
L: My other friend appreciates Sindhi culture so he dresses like a Daaku (bandit). I love the diversity in Pakistan, man. Another friend of mine pretends to eat niswar and wields a fake machine gun to look like a Pathan and –
L: Yeah, whatever you call them. They smell weird, hai na? This is appreciating cultures in Pakistan. What’s the big deal! Khocha, come on! Maybe we could find a bachi who puts on a topi burka for the day and acts like a subservient Pathani wife which is so hilar –
I: That’s racist.
L: Lighten up, yaar! We’re appreciating culture. Besides, we do pay the dhol wala a good amount of money and I’m sure the janitors on campus love to see us copy their accents. They know we’re appreciating them.
I: I’m sure.
L: My idea of showing interest in the cultures of Pakistan is by acting like them. Don’t lie. You know they’re misfits in the city. I don’t hate them, though! I certainly do not have a superiority complex either…
I: But you would never let them sit on the same couch with you, right? Or embrace you on meeting because, you know, they smell “different” and you don’t want your peers to see you in questionable company, correct? Ever considered taking them to Gloria Jeans with you? Maybe for dinner at CTC? Or will they be told to wait in the car?
L: Dekho. That’s different. Kuch farq bhi hota hai hum mai aur un mai.
It bears saying that I am intensely excited about this event, and the gathering. I also want to note that this event is truly a NYC collaboration with CCNY, CUNY, York, Columbia and NYU as well as The New Inquiry and The Asian American Writers’ Workshop among the supporters. We all hope to see you there.