In Memory of Kavita S. Datla

At the end, here is my desperate search for the beginnings of memories. I turn first to emails but I cannot find a beginning in these emails, even the very first one is already in medias res. I have now searched my emails for all correspondences and they stretch from Berkeley to Chicago to Madison to Berlin to New York. There are dinner invitations and regrets, coffees and lunches, comments on working papers and introductions, links to academic controversies, thoughts on tenures and promotions, exchanges of meanings of esoteric Urdu words and phrases, discussions of new books, always. There is a photograph that I have in my memory– but not in my possession– from somewhere in 2002/03/04 at the annual South Asia conference at Berkeley. The photograph is taken at night and in the haze of bad light and smoke, I see Kavita standing alongside friends. I am not sure this memory of a photograph is not an invention but I keep looking for it nonetheless.

Kavita Datla was an Associate Professor at Mt Holoyoke. She was the author of The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (2013). You can read my interview with her at the publication of her book in 2013. Her most recent article, The Origins of Indirect Rule in India: Hyderabad and the British Imperial Order evolved the arguments regarding indirect rule and sovereign rights– of states and peoples– outside of European political history. This was part of her new work that she completed even as the illness claimed her. She passed away yesterday after nearly three year battle with cancer.

I am in sorrow and I offer my condolences to the loved ones, colleagues, and family of Kavita. She was the finest mind, the best read scholar I ever met, and the kindest to both arguments and humans. The loss to the field of South Asian history is tremendous, but I also mourn, alongside her loved ones, at our loss of her beautiful heart.

update 08/01: A tribute to Kavita Datla at H-Asia.

What is Aleppo?

 

What is Aleppo?
What is Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in Syria. Aleppo is a city near-destroyed by civil war. Aleppo is besieged. Aleppo is a refugee crisis. Aleppo is the site of an international proxy war. When ill-informed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnston asked this question on a cable talk show this fall his hosts didn’t even know where to start. Did he think he was on Jeopardy? Did he answer any other questions in the form of a question? What levels of ignorance would cause a politician running for major political office to ask ‘what’ Aleppo is, rather than ‘where’ it is?

When I was first asked to participate in a group exhibition organized around the theme of the painter Grandma Moses’s artwork at our local museum, I laughed. I couldn’t imagine what I could contribute. Grandma Moses painted ‘primitive’ style landscapes populated by tiny people—usually pastoral Vermont scenes. What could be further from my work? But after some thought, I realized that Moses’s technique for creating in her paintings a totality of a place by ignoring various features of realism such as perspective and proportionality were a perfect way to capture something I’d been thinking about a long time: how to portray life in the war zone of the Syrian city Aleppo.

As an artist who is in fact located in the pastoral and idyllic setting of Vermont, far away from the horrendous civil war in Syria, I have only scattered glimpses of the landscape in Aleppo. The primitive style allows me to piece together these shards, gleaned from photos on the internet from journalists, civilians, and even militants, and construct an imaginary piece of city. The organizing principle of my painting, and the inspiration for this reconstruction is a civilian by the name of Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel, a man who fled the city with his family to Turkey, but returned alone, unable to tolerate the idea that Aleppo would be totally abandoned by civilians. Muhammad then set up a cat shelter, where he feeds cats who have been left behind in the city, either because their owners have died or have fled. He also looks after dogs and even farm animals and works tirelessly to help out orphaned children left in the city.

There are no good guys in the Battle of Aleppo, which has been ongoing since 2012, with over thirty thousand dead. The Syrian government is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and others, and the rebel forces are fragmented, some backed by Al Qaeda-allied militant groups and covertly by the US and NATO. The UN has called the Syrian Government’s relentless shelling of civilians ‘an extermination.’ Similarly, they have expressed horror at the indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets by the rebel groups in the current round of fighting, in which the rebels are attempting to break the government siege of the city which has isolated the eastern part of Aleppo from all supply lines.

Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel’s cat shelter is located in the besieged rebel-held eastern section of the city. Every day, Muhammad posts to Facebook numerous photos of dozens of cats gnawing on bones and eating little scraps of meat. These images are in fact some of the only signs to the outside world that civilian life still exists in eastern Aleppo and that all the residents are not dead, wounded, or long-fled to fates that have been proven to be just as deadly, and welcomes that have been far from warm.

It could be argued that a state of siege and civil war is hardly a time to concern one’s self with cats, but I believe that Muhammad’s shelter is an amazing act of protest against the inhumanity of perpetual war. His refusal to turn his back on living creatures, or choose sides, or take up arms, all this is a powerful demonstration of non-violent resistance to the inhumanity of war.

This painting will be for sale in a silent auction to benefit the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, VT. The auction will be open for bids from November 25th to December 29th, 2016. Half the proceeds will go to the museum, and the other half will be donated to Muhammad Alaa Jaleel’s cat shelter in Aleppo, which is still able to receive funds. Please contact the Bennington Museum with bids after November 25th.

To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock

[@sepoy notes: I am grateful to Gayathri Raj and the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, where this interview first appeared, to allow re-printing it here on CM.]

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.

Sheldon Pollock with T V Venkatachala

Continue reading “To Understand Understanding: An Interview with Sheldon Pollock”

Nanu’s Poetry

[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.]

Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011
Photo by ShuridGraphy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2011

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.

Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014
Things one sees on long spring walks. New York City, 2014

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
নয়ন খুলিয়ে
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 —

সামনে আসার যতক্ষণ
ভালবাসা ততক্ষণ
সামনে আইলে পুড়ে মন
দুরে গেলে ঠনঠন

When you are before me 
Love lasts the duration
When you are before me
The heart burns
But go far away
Nothing.

She would shake her right fist in front of my face on the rhythm of ṭhanṭhan– the sound of nothing. Then she would conclude happily, with a sly, mischievous smile,

“Oh, he would become so furious! He would say, ‘Thanṭhan? Thanṭhan?!? I crossed rivers for you, roads for you, walked through the rain and mud to return to you…and you say thanṭhan?!”

She then commanded me to recite this very poem to my new partner.  

So I committed the lines to memory, archived as “love’s arsenal” and prayed it would make her happy to drive a lover of my own as crazy.

Bi sirr al-Fātihah. 

After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014
After the night she passed, LIRR Station, 2014