XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja

 

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Dr. Riddhi Bhandari for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX.]

 

Anand Vivek Taneja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. He studied at Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and at Columbia University, where he received his PhD in Anthropology in 2013. His research and teaching interests include urban ecologies, enchantment and ethics, animality, historical and contemporary Islam and inter-faith relations in South Asia, post-colonial urbanism, Urdu literature, and Bombay cinema. He was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences for Jinnealogy. 

Taneja, Anand Vivek. Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. Stanford University Press, 2017.

 

 

1. Can you talk about how Jinnealogycame into being. Why did you pick this name?

Firoz Shah Kotla, the place that is central to the book, is known by those who come here as a dargah, or Muslim saint shrine. Except that the saints here are not human, by most accounts, but spirits known as jinn. Now Delhi is a place known as bais khwaja ki chaukhat, the threshold of twenty two saints, it has long been a center not just of Muslim political power in India, but also a major Sufi center. So one of my major questions going into this project was why the jinn became popular saints in Delhi in the late nineteen seventies, as they did at Firoz Shah Kotla, in a city with so many human saints? What was the relation of this theological newness to transformations in the life of the city? One of the recurring stories that I encountered at Firoz Shah Kotla, which I recount at length in the book, is the ability of the jinns—who in Islamic cosmology are much longer lived than human beings—to serve as links connecting human beings centuries and millennia apart. For example, conveying the greetings of Jesus to Prophet Muhammad, and in story directly linked to Firoz Shah Kotla, authenticating the knowledge of Shah Waliullah of Delhi through an old jinn who was an eyewitness to the life of the Prophet. This ability of the jinn to supersede human genealogies of memory and transmission is what I have called jinnealogy. And jinnealogy, as I found, was a recurring motif in post-Partition Delhi, not just in the stories told at Firoz Shah Kotla, but also in the popular theological literature being produced in the city. This was happening at the same time as there was a huge erasure and suppression taking place of Muslim landscapes of memory and sacrality in Delhi, partly through the enormous violence of Partition, and partly through the subsequent policies of the post-colonial Indian state. As one of my interlocutors told me at Firoz Shah Kotla, 1947 men valiyon ka Dilli se nata tut gaya. 1947—the year of Partition and Independence—severed the relation of the saints to Delhi. But jinnealogy allows for the potential of memory and continuity—and a reclaiming of space—in a city marked by enormous violence, disruption, and official amnesia. The mode of knowledge and its transmission that jinnealogy implies is not just a counter to most “official” modes of knowledge production and remembrance in post-colonial India, but is also counter to many ideas of what “authoritative” religious knowledge and its transmission looks like in the field of Islamic Studies. Jinnealogy, as a concept and as a title, allows me to pithily suggest these differences from our usual understandings, as puns often do, so it kind of had to be the title. Also, I do actually trace a genealogy of jinn-veneration in Delhi from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial in the book, so it is a jinnealogy in that sense too!

Continue reading “XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja”

XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Syeda Masood for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII.]

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Julie Billaud is an anthropologist working on Afghanistan, Islam, gender, international governance and human rights. She is the author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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1. You open the book with a quote from Bakhtin and his idea of the carnival informs your book in a big way. How did you come across Bakhtin’s theory and what compelled you to frame your book largely through his theoretical lens?

Before studying anthropology in the UK, I studied contemporary literature in France and I came across Bakhtin’s theory of language and his work on the social nature of speech in this context. It is only later on, when I started studying for my PhD, that a Mexican anthropologist and friend of mine introduced me to his writings on Rabelais and his reflections on the ambiguous and subversive potential of the carnival. Reading this text was enlightening, as it enabled me to draw similarities between the medieval carnival and the context of ‘postwar reconstruction’ in Afghanistan. Indeed, the so-called ‘transition’ is in my opinion better described as a state of liminality comparable to the one found in a carnival where the new and the old merge in unexpected ways. The joyous atmosphere of the carnival put aside, the ‘postwar/reconstruction’ carnival in Afghanistan is a moment when rules are turned upside down and when new imaginaries can emerge. For instance, the downfall of the Taliban has opened some room for free speech and for women to take part in politics; developments that could at first sight be perceived as a radical reversal of the old order. Yet these reforms have been carried out while former mujahidin and warlords responsible for major crimes and human rights violations have been brought back to power with the support of the international community. Besides deepening a sense of uncertainty experienced by the Afghan people, these contradictions are a source of intense social tensions between conflicting visions for the future of the country. Furthermore, this state of uncertainty forces Afghans to play roles and to constantly adapt their performances according to different situations. It is not the first time that Afghans are forced to engage in a play whose scenario has been written for them by others. Indeed, this ‘frame’ (to use Gregory Bateson’s notion) which powerfully impacts on people’s behaviors, creating spaces and interactions which are ‘set apart’ and understood to operate according to different rules, was also a feature of the Russian occupation of the country. Bakhtin, who wrote on the carnival in a context where communication was perceived as a threat to power, has developed an intimate knowledge of the necessarily ambiguous nature of transcripts in such environments. In the same way as James Scott understood the difficulty for subordinates to speak their minds in the presence of power, Bakhtin was deeply aware – as a witness of the Stalinist purges and as an intellectual who had been banished from the center of official Soviet culture – of the conditions of possibility for dissent to be expressed. Scott uses the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ to characterize the critique of power that goes on offstage, behind the back of the powerful. I personally find Bakhtin’s reflection on the centrifugal force of popular culture, promoting ambivalence and allowing openness and transgression, slightly more compelling than Scott’s ‘public/hidden’ transcripts dichotomy.

2. You touch upon many themes and highlight several tensions that your interlocutors were living with like gender as self and performance, nation and occupation and freedom and constraints. What would you say is your main argument in this book?

In writing Kabul Carnival, my intention was to provide a historically, politically and culturally situated representation of ‘Afghan women’. The argument I make in this book is that the political category ‘woman’ in Afghanistan is the result of a long history of interventions in the region, which have often been legitimated by the need for white men ‘to save brown women from brown men’, to use Gayatri Spivak’s expression. These orientalist representations of Afghan women as oppressed ‘others’ have been reactivated in the post 9/11 context to legitimize the occupation of the country and the various reforms imposed on the Afghan polity. Because of the disconnect that currently exists between the liberal ideology accompanying so-called ‘reconstruction’ efforts and the harsh material reality of life under foreign occupation, the international community’s agenda for ‘gender justice’ has the paradoxical effect of triggering identitarian reactions and nationalist feelings which deeply constrain women’s capacity to speak. Indeed, the eruption of moral panics framed in terms of ‘moral pollution’ is very much related to the presence of NGOs, international organizations and military troops whose agenda and actions remain doubtful for the majority of people. Like in other colonial encounters, women are the symbolic terrain upon which a cultural battle between different versions of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ is being fought. The book provides ethnographic illustrations of the dilemmas faced by ordinary (and less ordinary) women in their quest for a culturally legitimate voice and of the various cultural repertoires they mobilize in their everyday interactions. Moving away from representations of women as powerless victims, the book is an attempt to reveal their extreme resourcefulness and ingenuity even in the most precarious circumstances. More generally, the book is a plea to acknowledge the wounded relationships between Afghanistan and ‘the West’ and the unforeseen consequences these may have, not only for gender relations but also for the country’s political destiny.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/10144406@N06/

Continue reading “XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud”

XQs VIII: A Conversation with Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande

 

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Yogesh Chandrani for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVI, VII.]

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Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande teaches comparative politics at Temple University’s Department of Political Science and was previously assistant professor of politics at the University of Mumbai. Her book, Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002, examines the forced displacement of Muslim communities of Gujarat due to the pogrom of 2002. In the aftermath of the violence, the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat represented the state as a model of good governance. In the book, Lokhande draws on extensive field research and government documents to examine the politics of forced migration and relief and rehabilitation in order to interrogate the neoliberal state in India.

(Interview conducted by Yogesh Chandrani, September 2016 – January 2017).

1. Can you describe how you came to this project and the central questions that inform your inquiry?

The research for this book grew out of my doctoral studies at the Center for Political Studies, JNU where I was initially interested in the category of internally displaced persons in India and I was advised to focus on Gujarat. The central question that I began with and that is at the heart of the book is: how does displacement affect the experience of citizenship rights in a democratic setup where there is no evident large scale or regime changing conflict but where the democratic processes continue and such events are seen as aberrations. In Gujarat for instance the debate went from violence to good governance and that is what the book engages with. Continue reading “XQs VIII: A Conversation with Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande”

XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. Interview conducted by Patwari via e-mail. Previously: IIIIIIIVV, VI.]

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Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

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1. Let’s start with the title of the book, The Darjeeling Distinction. What is the significance of this title?

Darjeeling is often represented as distinct—a place apart from the rest of India, and tea unlike (and better tasting than) other teas. Darjeeling tea is known for its smoky, muscatel taste. It is not drunk with milk or sugar. It is one of the few teas on the market whose name is also the name of a place. The Nepalis, or Gorkhas, who constitute Darjeeling’s majority population, are often portrayed as internal others within India. They have built a longstanding movement for subnational autonomy. Their claims for a separate state of Gorkhaland are largely based on their shared sense of ancestral attachment to the place. (Meanwhile, the plantations on which many Gorkhas live serve as the pastoral backdrops for Bollywood musical asides–when the budget does not allow for a trip to Switzerland). With the book, I wanted to critically examine Darjeeling, as place and product, in national and international imaginaries. The book examines the linkages between geographical and consumptive distinction, but it also looks at the ways in which the plantation, as a productive form, remains exceptional.   In it, I critically engage Darjeeling’s multivalent distinctiveness, where it comes from, how it is perpetuated, and what it means for Gorkha belonging. Continue reading “XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky”