Village Idiots

[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.]


“Some might see this as racism but it’s really funny to see all your friends doing stupid stuff.”

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?

I: …

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 –

I: Pashtun.


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.


Photos via here and here.

Said is Dead. Long Live Said!

Dear all,

On September 27th, I will be moderating an event in CCNY noting the tenth year anniversary of Edward Said. Details on the event are here. The panelists include our very own Lapata; Martín Espada, Chee Malabar (whom you should remember from here), Anjali Kamat, Kade Crockford, and Robyn Spencer. Here is the FB page for the event, should you want to like it.

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.


Looking at Mughal(s)

Lately I have been thinking about narrativizing visual language of Mughal art. Which is a weird way of saying I want to talk about Mughal art telling stories. Which is even more of a weird way of saying I am beginning to see a future article in which I, a historian of text, looks.

Looking seems to be the motif of the summer, in retrospect.

In any event, gentle readers, I (@sepoy) tweeted a number of images which are helpfully storified here by CM Intern (to be disclosed soon) and CM Head Archivist (@salmaan_H). The article will most certainly look something like this.

XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla

A regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship – sepoy.

Kavita S. DatlaKavita S. Datla received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor at Mount Holyoke College’s History Department. Her book, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India was published by University of Hawaii Press in 2013.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, July 12-15th, 2013]

1. Yours is a really invigorating work, which opens up new archives to discuss a host of important issues – translation, governmentality, secularism, colonialism. I want to start at a tangent, important as it is to your book, and ask you to discuss what particular relationship exists between language and community pre 1700 in India. Is there one? Or should we put this in the basket of “ruptures” caused by colonialism.

The Language of Secular Islam Hardcover. 248pp. Cloth  Price: $49.00 ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2  Published: January 2013
The Language of Secular Islam
Hardcover. 248pp.
Price: $49.00
ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2
Published: January 2013

No, I do think there is a relationship between language and region even prior to the colonial period. Clearly, poets would employ certain languages, and explicitly reference that usage, in order to make claims to specific places – something that had a very long history. But, I would add that what is striking to a twenty-first century reader of these earlier texts is the mobility of language – scripts, vocabulary, genres, and languages themselves – in comparison to the situation today. I’ve spoken with non-academic translators who, working in their native language, as they move back in time to earlier texts, are struck by the number of ‘foreign’ words they encounter. I think this has something to do with the fact that languages, before 1700, were associated with regions, amongst many other things. So, as I understand it, every region (though it might be associated with a particular language) would be home to several. This is because languages were also associated with courtly culture, with temple performance, with particular religious narratives or practices that were trans-regional, etc. I am thinking here of Indira Peterson’s work on the multilingual literary and performative traditions of Tanjavur, or Velcheru Narayana Rao’s work on the various shifting geographical sites at which Telugu literary production took place. And of course, in periods of shifting patronage, poets themselves would move, along with their literary and linguistic resources.
Continue reading “XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla”

XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit

The inaugural issue of a regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. I am actively looking for authors & interlocutors so, do get in touch with me. I hope to develop this series into a mainstay at CM. Many thanks – Sepoy

T_PurohitTeena Purohit submitted her Ph.D in Religion at Columbia University in 2007. She is currently Assistant Professor in Boston University’s Religion Department. Her first book is The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India published with Harvard University Press. You can access her full C.V. at her faculty page.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, June 10-15th, 2013]

HARDCOVER 198 pages $45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50 ISBN 9780674066397 Publication: October 2012
198 pages
$45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50
ISBN 9780674066397
Publication: October 2012
1. Both the jacket blurb, and your introduction makes a case against an “Arab-centered” perspective of studying Islam and Islamicate cultures. Could you start by telling me what do you mean here? What is the corrective you are offering?

The book centers on a discussion of a famous court case known as The Aga Khan Case of 1866. The primary argument I make is that the British colonial court redefined a local caste group in Bombay, the Khojas, as “Ismaili Muslim.” In the final judgment, the definitive claim was that they were “converts” to a Middle Eastern Islam. I analyze how this legal process unfolded, specifically, the ways in which the judge deployed what I call an Arab-centric framework in the adjudication process and in the final judgment.

What I mean by an “Arab-centered” approach is that it gives primacy to origins of Islam–the classical Arab period and Arabic texts. This approach was consolidated in the 19th century when Orientalists wrote definitive accounts of Islam on the basis of their philological work in Arabic. This perspective predominates today in the popular media as well as the western academy: Islam is thought to be understood primarily through Arabic religious texts (Quran and Hadith) and Arab-centric practices, such as pilgrimage to Mecca and praying in the direction of the Kaaba.

The judge determined the character of Khoja religious idenity through a tendentious interpretation of the gināns, the devotional texts of the Khojas. The alternative approach I offer is an examination of the gināns from a literary perspective as a way to think religion outside the language of identity. The gināns are body of South Asian Muslim devotional poetry composed in the Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu languages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These texts have been primarily translated and interpreted by scholars of Ismaili studies, who have adopted an Arab-centric perspective to understand these texts. That is, they have analyzed the gināns as part of a continuous Ismaili tradition that can be traced to the origins of Islam.

I situate the gināns as “Islamicate” texts because I am interested in the how these texts are embedded in local contexts and how their texture and movement help us understand religious practices that are not derivations of an Arab Islam, but instantiations of local Islam, described by the poems as Satpanth. My analyses of the poems foreground how the Satpanth tradition reworks classical Sanskrit and Arabic forms and ideas, giving them new meaning and significance. These “borrowings” and “exchanges” set in motion particular ways of imagining community and belonging that are not based on a restrictive conception of identity.
Continue reading “XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit”

A Methodological Footnote

I wrote,

The makers of Pakistan were peasants and laborers. In 1940, they passed a resolution in Lahore to demand a separate homeland for Muslims and an end to British colonial occupation. In 1946, their votes brought a political party, the Muslim League, to power. They chose Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a modernist technocrat, as their leader.

The first sentence was a deliberate conceptualization of how I would approach a possible history of Pakistan. It garnered a critique from friend and CM associate Musharraf Ali Faroqui on twitter (storify: by @salmaan_H and by @anniepaul).

So allow me to lay out here, more substantively, my methodological hypothesis and argue against the dominant paradigm within which popular understandings of 1947 enact themselves.

To wit:
Continue reading “A Methodological Footnote”

Berlin Sketchbook IV: Ghosts

[see earlier in the Berlin series: I, II, III (also, earlier: I, II, III) On the city, see companion series on Lahore: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

My first ghost sighting in Berlin was on September 8th, 2009, on the fifth floor inner balcony of a building at the corner of Duisburgerstrasse and Brandenburgerstrasse in Charlottenburg. It was early afternoon, and I saw her standing in the sun. Her head turned at an un-natural angle, so that the meagre rays of the sun lit her up her neck. On seeing her, I nearly jumped from the balcony from fright.

When I was living in the hot burning sun and society of Doha Qatar, we used to love the thrill of the firangi ghost stories. In that desert, jinns were everywhere, and fairies too. There was the hotel for new immigrants that was run by a family of mean, mean jinns. There was the puchchal paeri taxi driver you would hail in the late evening ocean mist. There were the black magic witches of Oman with their secret words and chin tattoos. Each of these stories was tied to a specific place: the hotel was on Corniche Drive, the taxi was in al-Thammama, the witches in the old bazaar. These stories were how we (a group of 9-12 year olds from Pakistan, India and Srilanka) made sense of the desert to which our parents had brought us – the place where a houl was jinn. There I heard, for the first time, a ghost story. It took place in London. In mists and graveyards, and overhanging trees, and it starred a woman, in white, and it had the narrator frozen to the spot, contemplating this other worldly intruder inside his home. I remember being scared out of my wits. The narrator was the elder brother of my best friend who had lived in London and this was what had happened to his best friend, in a house near where they lived. He swore, he thought, he too was a witness to the ghost, on another occasion. This was terrifying. You flee the jinn. You lash out at the churail. This ghost, this white woman, she turned you into a statue.

I did not see a white people cemetery until I moved to the Midwest of the United States. I did not see a ghost, but I did hear many more ghost stories. They seemed to not tell me anything about the city. They were about houses, rather the interior of the houses. They were inside doors, around the corner, by the bathroom. How was I to understand Dayton, Ohio from the inside of a house? I stopped caring. There were no jinns in United States (at least not pre 2001).

The ghost in Berlin turned to me and spoke. She said words I did not understand. She struggled to find another language. I did not know any that she knew. She lived nearby. Just three doors down. Her son had moved her there some three years ago. She had survived the Shoah. She was a Polish woman who had spent the last 20 years in some town in Russia. She had just had her 92nd birthday. She died some months later. Though I kept seeing her.

I learned about Charlottenburg via her. I learned of the Russian migration post War. The scores of sex kinos, gambling dens to cater to the young male industrial worker: sites where German women worked. New immigrants all. The neighborhood was changing rapidly, though the Russians had their own ghosts there. She told me about Vladimir Nabakov’s house on Paulsbornerstrasse just down the street from us. She told me about Walter Benjamin’s street just to the north of us. She told me about Robert Walser’s shopping haunts just east of us. In the months that followed, I rarely left the neighborhood. I traced the ghostly city outlined in Nabakov’s Berlin crime novels, and Benjamin’s childhood memoirs. I tried to find the contemporary names of the streets, the corners, the businesses. Of course, it was rare that I actually saw anything. Ghosts have a tendency to not be visible.

The second ghost I saw was after I left that neighborhood, and I left my own body behind. I had acquired a new one. I lived now near David Bowie’s ghost city and the one of Christopher Isherwood: actually exactly equidistant between the two. But I never saw them, or any of their ghosts. I saw him while biking at night. It was really late. I was whizzing by. He appeared out of nowhere, causing me swerve and stop almost touching him. His name was Johann Trollmann, and he had won a amateur boxing championship in 1933 on Fidicinstrasse. He was a Sinti, an impure German. To punish him, he was stripped of his title. He changed his name, dyed his hair blonde and tried to fight again. They disqualified him, and later sent him to the worker’s camp. There they kept making him fight to live. He kept winning, until he made the mistake of defeating a white prison guard. They beat him to death. He stood there by the side of the road, and told me this Berlin. His gym was right there. He told me of the camp that they had taken him, in Marzahn. I went and saw the graves and the ghost of the enclosure, still with bricks embedded in the grass. It is now a cemetery. This cemetery was full of ghosts of gypsies of Berlin.

The third ghost. This is where it gets tricky. You remember I told you I had left my body, yes? Would it surprise you, then, that I was the third ghost? I know what you are thinking. I have been telling you lies all along. These “ghosts” are not “ghost story” ghosts. When I arrived in Berlin, I understood one word out of well any. So, I stopped listening. When you stop listening, you stop talking. I lived mute and deaf in Berlin. I made no eye-contact. I saw no one. No one saw me. No one said anything to me. I walked un-noticed. A citizen of Berlin invisible to his neighbors, his fellows. Slowly, I began to show myself. I remember a gentleman in car – desperate – yelling an address at me. I answered him. Relieved, he took off. He was the first person who saw me in Berlin. It was August or so, of 2010. Emboldened, I started to show myself elsewhere. I began to find those brown and black spaces where ghosts hung out. I began to move in a crowd. They notice you in a crowd. Four brown people are noted on the UBahn – scared and noted. One day, there were 8 of us and then we really got noted. They denied our corporality in public.

I have written, in this series, I now realize about those ghosts that I met in Berlin – the ones who haunt the landscape and tell stories – the Egyptian quarter, the Pakistani parts, the Punjabi cricketers. Being a ghost in Berlin had its advantages, sometimes.