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!

2.  How would you describe/summarize Jinnealogy to a non-academic reader?

The book centers on Firoz Shah Kotla, a ruined medieval palace which has become a prominent dargah, or Muslim saint shrine, in contemporary Delhi. Firoz Shah Kotla is frequented by both Hindus and Muslims, and the saints venerated at this dargah are not human but Islamic spirits known as jinn. Visitors, predominantly women, write letters of petition to these jinn-saints as if petitioning a government official, including their names, addresses, and passport photos. This is also a place where animal life flourishes, and as jinns are renowned as shape-shifters, the animals too are imbued with sacrality in this space. At a time when reformist Islam is dismissive of jinn and the unseen, following the familiar script of modernity and disenchantment, here the jinn are sanctified. The “enchanted” nature of popular Islam that we encounter here is not a pre-modern relic, as I show, but an ethical, political, and theological stance emerging anew in response to the post-colonial—and specifically, post-Partition—condition of Delhi. Jinnealogy draws on ethnography, Urdu literature, and rarely used government archives to explore the ways in post-colonial politics affects popular theology, contemporary urban life becomes a locus for ecological thought, and popular Islam plays a crucial role in the ethical lives of Muslims and non-Muslims, not reducible to religious identity.

Image courtesy: Anand Vivek Taneja

3. The three central elements in your book – ecology, religion and polity – all appear to be in a state of disarray and despondency in contemporary India. Communal fault lines are stressed, Delhi (and northern India in general) faces unprecedented ecological degradation and pollution, and the political system is party to both. Can Jinnealogy, with its stress on “counter-memory” and “elsewhere-ness” speak to this contemporary India, mapping a way forward or at least providing hope for an alternative way of being in northern India?

As I write this, I am thinking of an article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta published on New Year’s Day. Mehta is, as many of us are, pretty despondent at the beginning of 2018. He says that, “If Indian society, over the last few years, been characterized by a trend, it might be described thus: losing grip over reality.” This is something of a global trend right now: Trump’s constant war with facticity being a case in point. And Mehta is right. Rather than dealing with the ecological disaster that we are living with right now, Indian politics and the Indian news cycle is dominated by entirely fabricated controversies like “Love Jihad”—with tragically real consequences— and the uproar over the film Padmavat(i). And at the same time, the political response to the ecological disaster that is unfolding in Delhi—epitomized by the off the charts pollution levels of Delhi smog—can best be characterized as non-existent. As academics, we are supposed to question the “real”: much of “reality” as we know it is constructed through culture and politics, including the increasingly reified and frighteningly real (in terms of political impact) identities of Hindu and Muslim. But Mehta locates his “real” in Nature, and I think he is onto something. If there is something that approximates an unconstructed real, it is creatureliness, being a creature among other creatures, a being among other beings, unencumbered by the constructs that constitute our usual sense of the “real”. And in Firoz Shah Kotla, far more than any other place that I have been, there is an embrace of creaturliness. For example, there is an ethics of nameless intimacy that people observe in this space. People have deep conversations about politics and theology, but also deeply intimate personal matters without asking each other’s names. So you get to know each other as human beings before you get to know each other as Hindus and Muslims, as high-caste or low-caste. And there’s a sanctity to all animal life within this space—including kites, centipedes, snakes, and cats—and a tenderness with which people speak about and interact with animals which is really quite remarkable. Jinns are shape-shifters in Islamic mythology, often taking the form of animals, so all encounters with animals are potentially encounters with jinn-saints in this space. Which also means that animals have a high status in this space, both morally and ontologically, in ways that seem quite unexpected in a city as “developed” and as densely human as Delhi. As I show in the book, this creaturely response to both animals and humans has precedents within the pre-modern Islamic tradition, which serves as an ethical resource for both the Hindus and Muslims who come to this space, and not just as a religious identity. So in that sense religious practice at Firoz Shah Kotla does invoke an “elsewhen”—the pre-colonial Indo-Islamic world—in response to the travails of the present. Can Firoz Shah Kotla show a way forward out of the morass of the present? To quote Firaq Gorakhpuri,

Isi khandar men kahin kuchh diye hain tute hue

Inhin se kam chalao bari udas hai rat

Somewhere in this ruin there are some broken lamps

Make do with these, this night is very sorrowful

4. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is that it gives due accord to individual actions and freedom. Many petitions to the jinns and saints, especially made by women, articulate desires that are socially transgressive. A social group forms around a man (Balon) whose death results in its slow dissolution. Can you speak to this idea of Jinnealogy opening up a discursive space for individuality and its role and import in the social order?

That’s a really interesting question, especially because it touches on a deep ambivalence at the heart of the book. Individuality implies a self that is in-divisible, a self-contained unity. But whose self is like that? I am thinking of the Punjabi poet Paash here, one of whose lines (in Hindi translation), goes: main admi hun, bahut kuchh chhota chhota jor ke bana hun.  I am a man, I am made by joining together many small things.  I love the way that line speaks a truth about the divisibility, the fragility, the contingency of human selfhood. As you say, at Firoz Shah Kotla, people act and express themselves in ways that are remarkably rebellious, explicitly going against family and community norms. From a western moral epistemology, we would think of themselves as expressing their individual freedom. But people who act in these rebellious ways don’t conceive of themselves as acting individually, they conceive of themselves being acted upon, often by the jinn-saints of Firoz Shah Kotla. So in some senses, what I am pushing against in the book is the too easy equivalence we make between individualism and freedom. What I am more explicitly critiquing is the extant literature on shrine-based healing in India, which often implies that “healing” means re-intergration into the family. What we see at Firoz Shah Kotla is often the very opposite. But it is not individualism that we see here, I would argue, but rather a remaking of the relations—the small small things—that constitute the self.

Image courtesy: Anand Vivek Taneja

 

5. I read the second half of your book as a re-telling or an alternate telling of the [India-Pakistan] partition story from the perspective of Delhi’s people and landscape that predated the partition and that were altered by partition in very different ways. Could you speak more about this?

When we speak of Partition, we usually speak of violence and mass migrations of people, we speak of changes in demographics and political systems, and the social consequences thereof. What we tend not to speak of is the changes in topography and ecology, and related to this, the sacred geographies of cities and villages, that the political and demographic shifts heralded by Partition also brought about. In order to tell the story of the emergence of Firoz Shah Kotla in the sacred landscape of Delhi, I also had to tell the story of what had disappeared. And what I found surprised me. 1947 was not just a watershed moment in the political and demographic remaking of Delhi, but also in the remaking of its ecology. If you look at a pre-modern account of Delhi’s sacred landscape like the 18th century Muraqqa-e Dehli, you find that the sacrality of Muslim saint-shrines (which are sacred for both Hindus and Muslims) is inextricably connected to the ecological—to greenery, flowing water, and the scent of flowers. Through oral history interviews, I got the sense that this continues, despite the massive British intervention in the landscape, right up to 1947. In 1947 many Muslim saint shrines are attacked, of course, but what is even more consequential in the erasure of the sacred landscape is the massive growth and development of post-Partition Delhi. We have a demographic shift where the majority of the city’s population are suddenly recent migrants, who have no affective links to the landscapes they have moved into. We have a government which is committed to not just providing housing for all these people, but also to a modernizing ideology which prioritizes development over all else. And so orchards and gardens and water bodies get concreted over to make houses and shops, formerly sacred streams turn into sewers, and new deities and their temples become part of the religious landscape of Delhi, entirely disconnected from the ecological.

6. I’d like to hear more about the “Invisible Religion of North India” and its lingering impacts on people, sociality, and Bollywood. 

The idea of “invisible religion” is something I borrow from Jan Assmann, who is an Egyptologist. To simplify Assmann’s thesis, invisible religion consists of a culture’s underlying notions of cosmological order, justice and ethics, while visible religion consists of one’s ritual relationship to a deity. The problem, Assmann says, is “The failure to distinguish between IR [Invisible Religion] and VR [Visible Religion] leads to an ethnocentric narrowing of our concept of religion, since we tacitly base our definition of religion on the familiar characteristics of Visible Religion and thereby mistakenly identify religion with one of its particular forms.” I find this idea compelling because I think it works well to explain why Islamic motifs and Islamic saint-shrines continue to have such a major role in the public life and religious culture of Hindu-majority India. What I have shown in the book is that commonplace ideas of justice and ethics in North India are deeply influenced by Islam, without necessarily influencing the ritual world of Hinduism at all. Hence “Muslim socials” were wildly popular in Hindu majority India because they staged ethical dilemmas and their resolution which were recognizable to all (north) Indians. Hence Hindus continue to come to Muslim saint shrines to address particular ethical problems, particularly those related to the disruptive nature of desire. My argument in the book is that if commonplace ideas of justice and ethics (invisible religion) are shared across religious divides in India, as we have seen, then we can think of the Muslim saint shrines and their shared understanding of justice and ethics as being the loci of North India’s historically evolved Invisible Religion, of which Hinduism and Islam as religious identities are the visible sub-sets. Or to put it extremely simplistically, Islam is the Invisible Religion of North India.

7. Reading your book evoked an immediate affective response that preceded and subsequently shaped my intellectual engagement with it. In light of this, could you talk about the relationship between your writing style and the story you were telling?

I think most academics are moved to do the work we do because of a certain emotional response, which often underlies our ethical and intellectual engagement with the world: being moved by the beauty of a poem in a language we have just encountered, or outrage and sorrow, say, at the injustices of the world, and trying to understand (through historical work for example) how that came to be. And yet, academic writing, even in anthropology and in the humanities, tends to be devoid of emotion, often to the detriment of readability. And in very important ways, I think this enforced separation between our emotions and our intellectual work makes us dishonest. In writing this book, I have tried not to be dishonest. I have tried to convey both the sorrows and the joy I encountered in the field, and the sorrow and the joy, the temptations and the frustration that my interactions in the field evoked in me. I think this makes the conceptual and theoretical work I do in the book much richer. This is one of the reasons why I have begun each chapter with an Urdu and/or Persian sh‘er, with one exception: because the epistemological wonder of the ghazal tradition is being able to bring together poetry and philosophy, emotion and intellect, ‘irfan and ‘ilm with a marvelous economy of expression. The one exception is two lines in English from a poem by the late Agha Shahid Ali, whose work is the closest poetry in English gets to the ghazal tradition.

8. I’d like you to talk a little about the process of transitioning from dissertation to book. What were the challenges, their resolution? Some handy tips for future writers.

I submitted the final version of the dissertation in June 2013. I submitted the final manuscript of the book to the press in December 2016. So there was a three and a half year of growth and change between the manuscript and the book. The difference in the titles in telling: the dissertation was titled, “Nature, History, and the Sacred in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi.” The subtitle of the book is “Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi.” The change in titles is indicative of the huge conceptual and organizational shifts that took place between the dissertation and the book. In retrospect, the dissertation was something of a hot mess, in which I was trying to stuff in all the ideas and all the material I had. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because it served as a solid base from which to organize and rethink and rewrite in ways that made the book far more readable and relevant. For me dissertation writing was a largely solitary process, which I don’t think is that uncommon. My major interlocutors were five people, i.e. my committee. The most major factor in turning the dissertation into the book was moving away from being solitary and really opening myself up to conversations about my work. And these conversations took many forms: journal peer review, presenting my work at conferences and workshops, conversations with colleagues and students, sharing drafts of chapters and my book proposal and eventually the manuscript with friends and colleagues and editors, reading and thus getting into conversation with new bodies of work and thought.

9. Can you name three books or scholars that you think Jinnealogyenters into conversation with and should be read alongside.

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? Sarah Pinto, Daughters of Parvati. Mrinalini Rajagopalan, Building Histories.

10. Last but not the least, what are your hopes and expectations for South Asian scholarship moving forward?

For a long time, scholarship of South Asia has been compartmentalized by nationalist, communalist and linguistic ghettos: scholars of India not studying (or not being able to study) Pakistan and vice versa, scholars of Hindu traditions not engaging with Islam, scholars who engage with Persian materials not reading Sanskrit, etc. etc. Many of these limitations have been imposed by the politics of the nation-states of South Asia, but many of them have also come from inherited categories and biases in US based South Asian studies. In recent years, there has been a small but growing corpus of work in history, anthropology, and religious studies which has productively challenged this compartmentalization. I hope this trajectory continues and strengthens, despite the assault on freedom of speech and academic freedoms both in the United States and in the nations of South Asia. I also hope that the disciplinary boundaries that sometimes fetter our work continue to disappear, and are replaced by a rigorous eclecticism. I know my own work as an anthropologist has been enriched by my engagement with Urdu literature and poetry, with Bombay cinema, and with government archives. Finally, I hope that future scholarship of South Asia makes a concerted effort to be in conversation with other areas of the world, especially with other areas of the global South, and continue to challenge the “universalist” certitudes of the West. Almost twenty years after Provincializing Europe, a whole generation in other words, it remains a matter of surprise and concern to me how dominant the narratives of triumphalist Euro-American modernity still are in the larger academy. To give a hopeful example of two writers who are dear to me, and both of whom are essential to my thinking in the book, I hope that one day Intizar Hussain is recognized and cited and thought with as a writer and thinker of twentieth century modernity as much as Walter Benjamin is today.

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Riddhi Bhandari is the International Visiting Fellow at Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond. She received her PhD in Anthropology from American University, Washington, DC in 2016. She is interested in exploring economic transactions through the lens of affect, ethics and jurisprudence.

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