Ten Years Ago Today

Very first first

Very first first

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this particular blog. A decade of my life is now invested in a virtual space which itself has nurtured my mind, my writing, my friendships, my community and my making sense of the world. Yet, “I” have been only a subset of what “CM” is. This is the fact that prompts me to write today and mark this occasion. CM became, very early, a communal space of a very particular kind: engaged, irreverent, awkward with looking at itself, steady. Many of my closest friendships came into this space and emerged from it. CM was not ideologically driven, it was not geographically situated, it did not have a political agenda. It was a way of seeing the world. CM published, and was published by, a number of individuals who continue here: Farangi, Lapata, Patwari, Sanyasi, Dacoit, Bulleyah and then many, many readers and guest posters and commentators (nearly 11,000 comments!) and friends who came, who left, who came back.

I have used this space to rant, be informative, be lethargic, be angry, be disgusted, be snarky, be all of the above. I have, barring one occasion, never invoked my personal life, never launched personal attacks on others, never participated in group-think, never self-promoted. I used this space to write – differently, effectively, in sync with my academic turns, and not enough. The CM slow-burn has been in effect for a few years, and somehow sustained itself. Blogging seems so old-fashioned now that people can just post updates on facebook but I predict it will make a comeback. Just you wait.

On behalf of everyone who wrote for CM, I want to thank all who are reading this today, and all who have read it over the years.

CM will go on.

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Announcing my new novel, Taste

Excited to announce that my new novel, Taste, will be out from Foxhead Books in early April. Here’s the amazing trailer directed by Carl Sprague and edited by Brett Marty:

You can pre-order the book here.

A vimeo version is in the works for those of you outside the YouTube frontier.

And here’s the vimeo!

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Concluding installment (part 1 here) of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy.1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

In 1892, Maulana Shibli Nu’māni, an internationally celebrated Indian Muslim historian, (Urdu-Persian) literary critic and theologian of his day, traveled by sea from Bombay to the Ottoman Empire, journeying through Cyprus, Istanbul, Syria and Egypt. Of this journey he kept a journal that he later published under the title of Safarnāma-i rūm va misr va shām (A Travel Account of Turkey, Egypt and Syria).2 He claims that he had not intended to write a travel account but that European prejudices with regard to the Turks had led him to do so. Even well-meaning Europeans, he observes, remain bound by the Islamophobic prejudices they are raised with. His aims in writing it are therefore corrective and pedagogical: to correct prejudiced European travel accounts of Turkey that form the basis for European histories, and to instruct Indian Muslims by documenting exemplary “progress” among Turkish Muslims.

The Turkey or Ottoman state of Shibli’s time, we must remember, was the only one of the three great early modern Islamic states – the other two being Safavid Iran and Mughal India – to still be extant. Moreover, its emperor, Abduḥamīd II (1876 – 1909), had only recently achieved radical advances in the movement to modernize or “reorganize” – “reorganization” or tanzīmāt bespeaking the bureaucratic character of this modernity – of his state on European models. Shibli intends therefore to focus on the “developments and reforms” of the Muslim world, especially Turkey.

The turn of the century preoccupation with lost Mughal sovereignty among North India’s Reformist Muslims – a sovereignty they understood as Muslim in the wake of the formal end of the Mughal state in 1857 – led them to regard the still regnant Ottoman empire with special attention: in it they saw a Muslim empire that was modeling itself through technological and institutional reforms on Europe, the very ambition of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, the founder of what became Aligarh Muslim University, and his colleagues like Shibli Nu’māni. Shibli thus discusses formerly Ottoman Cyprus, when he passes through it, in terms of the history of its political sovereignty under Muslim and then British rule. Furthermore, everywhere in his travels he singles out educational syllabi, technology, and such empirical aspects of a society as clothing and food, treating them as indices of a polity’s development.

Shibli desires and is at pains to discover signs of a continuous Muslim world. That he conflates all Arabs in the Ottoman territories with Muslims and vice versa signals this desire. The historical motivations for this desire lay both in the Pan-Islamism adopted as a policy against European meddling in Ottoman affairs by Abdulḥamīd II as well as in the sense of shame at their civilizational “decline” (inḥitāt) pervasive among intellectuals and literati in the Arab world of the time. From Bombay to Aden, writes Shibli, he had been “longing to see a Muslim” and, in Cyprus, when he hears a boy in a seminary recite from the Qur’an he is filled with an emotion of wonderment: “At the priest’s signal the boy recited a few verses from the Qur’an. It affected me strangely. It occurred to me: what was the affecting power in these holy words that, becoming electric power from East to West, shot across from the distant deserts of Arabia to the far-flung islands of the Mediterranean and still survives?” The “affecting power in these holy words” became “electric power” in its rapid global spread: the metaphor succinctly formulates the Muslim Reformist goal of a modernity for a single if heterogeneous global Islam that would validate and include Western technological inventions.
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  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Shibli Nu’māni, Safarnāmā-i rūm va misr va shām (Ā’zamgarh: matba-i ma’ārif, 1940). All the translations from Urdu in this essay, unless otherwise indicated, are my own. []

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First installment of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

Rangila Rasul

Rangila Rasul

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?2

chhor literature ko apnī history ko bhūl jā/ Quit “literature” , dump “history”, don’t be a fool.
sheikh o masjid se ta‘alluq tark kar, iskūl jā/ Break with sheikh and mosque, go to “school”.
char din kī zindagī hai koft se kyā fāyda/ Life’s brief as a blink – why be bothered?
khā double-rotī clerky kar khushī se phūl jā/ Breakfast on “loaves”, push a pen, be cool.3

Beginning at regionally varying dates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries across the world any thinking describing itself as political in whatever sense has had to simultaneously satisfy two minimal conditions: regard the crowd as a legitimate political actor; and grant ontological primacy to the everyday. These two correlated conditions also minimally define the public.

The former condition originates in the awareness that the people, not the king, are the real locus of legitimate power. The king’s once sacred body then vacates an altar whose emptiness, in a sense, begins to constitute democracy.4 It begins to constitute democracy in the sense that the people’s awareness of the impossibility of legitimate power inhering in an individual’s body justifies their sense of its dispersal across themselves. Henceforth, the signs of political legitimacy would increasingly be sought and scrutinized, not in an individual’s mysteriously inherited radiance, but in the masses of ordinary bodies seen in an ordinary light.

This brings us to the latter condition. The people is made up of bodies standing in the sort of quotidian light that Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter, helped make imaginable. Rather than otherworldly effulgence Vermeer’s is a tranquil window-light, suffusing a woman’s stole and cheek as she holds a dully-gleaming metal jug in a basin. Cloth, flesh, wood and metal each come into their own in this profane, diaphanous and impartial medium. To be political in the modern world has meant to gaze at it in this light, to grant that this everyday object-world was more real than any other. After Ghalib (d.1869), canonized as the last practitioner of the traditional Urdu (and Indo-Persian) ghazal, objects in the ghazal never shone so brightly. Displacing the wine, goblets and gardens that were allegorically always more than themselves in the traditional ghazal, the railways, telegraph and bread loaves (“double-roti”) of Akbar Allahabadi’s (d.1921) ghazals dramatized the impossibility of such transcendence in a colonial political economy.5 Henceforth, the legitimacy of political aims was increasingly to be determined, not in the name of the next world, but according to whether and how it entailed a transformation of such this- worldly and everyday object-relations.

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  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 67. []
  3. K.C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation and Transliteration (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 2005), 89. All the translations from the Urdu are mine. []
  4. I am indebted for this phenomenological theory of the modern political to Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), “Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society a body. And because of this, a latent but effective knowledge of what one meant to the other existed throughout the social. This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place” (17). []
  5. I am indebted for this interpretation to the essays on Akbar Allahabadi by the great Urdu literary critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari, contained in his posthumously published collection of essays, Vaqt kī rāginī (Tune of the Time) (Lahore: Quasain, 1979). []

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For anyone aware of the militant Hindu Right’s hounding of academics whose research engages with Hinduism, the recent events related to Wendy Doniger’s Book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, must appear as a predictable sequel that replays the plot of the original with minor, if equally unpleasant, variations; a Grudge or Insidious set at the intersection of the American academy and transnational Hinduism, in which, eventually, the malevolent spirits get their victims or, to put it less dramatically, the bad guys eventually wear the good guys down.

A decade ago, another book on Hinduism, Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, had similarly incensed some Hindus in the US and India. The litany of charges leveled against Courtright, a professor at Emory University, was similar to that against Doniger—disrespecting Hinduism, an obsession with sexuality, promoting a Christian agenda, and the like. And like the ominous suggestions of violence contained in the lawsuit against Doniger, some of the comments related to Courtright’s book in online petitions (long since taken down) were borderline threatening.

I was a graduate student at Emory University at the time, working on a dissertation on how Hindu communities were using the Internet to articulate conservative understandings of Indian identity. I had developed an interest in the topic while working for rediff.com in Bombay in the late 1990s right before I moved to Emory. rediff had tapped into, and, to an extent, shaped an online right wing Hindu culture, with star columnists like Varsha Bhosle, Rajeev Srinivasan, and Francois Gautier. Essays by Arvind Rajagopal and Vinay Lal had already drawn attention to the Hindu nationalist attempt to mark cyberspace as its own domain. Important work by Paula Chakravartty and Sunil Khilnani had mapped the complex web of relations between liberalization, diaspora, and shifting ideas of nationhood among global Indian communities. (Sorry, Indian media, your recent discovery of “Internet Hindus” is neither original nor nuanced). My argument was that there was a long and complex history of the relationship between technology and nationalism in India, rooted in the nineteenth century, that informed online Hindu nationalism and that the phenomenon, accordingly, needed to be seen in the light of both this history and the logic of online communication.
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In Defense of The Hindus: An Alternative History

It seems like only yesterday that I was present in Foster Hall for Wendy Doniger’s book launch. After I posted on it on CM, a healthy discussion happened, to which Wendy graciously responded. The generosity of her response showcases her unmatched pedagogic spirit and how, with humor and humility, she has shaped our collective understanding of the past.

In the aftermath of Penguin’s rather shameful decision to pull the book from India, a number of responses have emerged. I happen to concur with EPW’s take.

Below is a statement from some of her students at UChicago, to which CM adds its name:
This statement expresses the views of the individuals listed below and does not represent the views of the University of Chicago or any of its departments.

We, the undersigned, as students of South Asia, strongly condemn the withdrawal by Penguin Press India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from distribution in India. We believe that this work has been attacked because it presents a threat to orthodox Brahminical interpretations of Hinduism. We believe that this attack is part of ongoing attempts by upper­caste extremist Hindu forces to stifle any alternative understandings of Hinduism. As students in the United States, we are acutely aware that North American organizations of the Hindu right initiated the protests against Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. Hindu right wing organisations in India have worked in tandem with their North American counterparts to suppress alternative voices in India and too often violently. We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in attacks on any academic study of Hinduism that does not fit these groups’ narrow and exclusionary vision of Hinduism which is part of their desire to create a Hindu India that excludes the religious minorities of Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.
Wendy Doniger, a respected scholar who is devoted to the study of Hinduism, has astutely recognized the great danger to human life and the plural practices and beliefs of Hindus posed by these groups. She has courageously refused to bow to their pressures to curtail her scholarship and has consistently challenged the Hindu right. By tracking the formation of myth through history, her work undermines these groups’ exclusionary claims on the past.

As researchers we know that a singular narrative of Hinduism, as of any living tradition, is completely untenable. This incident is indicative of the genocidal imagination of these groups that seek to extinguish the idea of a plural and secular India. This attack on Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is reminiscent of the earlier attacks on the scholarship of AK Ramanujan carried out by Hindu fundamentalist student organisations. We protest the rise of majoritarian narratives that curtail different ways of knowing the world and urge scholars, researchers, academics and people of all persuasions to call for Wendy Doniger’s book to be brought back into circulation in India. We join others who have articulated their protest against the withdrawal in refusing the singular, elitist and exclusionary imaginings of the past that are used to do violence to our shared present.

Signed:
Shefali Jha
Malarvizhi Jayanth
Ahona Panda
Aakash Solanki
Sayantan Saha Roy
Tejas Parasher
Suchismita Das
Abhishek Bhattacharyya
Joya John
Emma Meyer
Kyle Gardner
Erin Epperson
Victor D’Avella
Joseph Grim Feinberg
Ranu Roychoudhuri
Ishan Chakrabarti
Margherita Trento
Adam O’Brien
Madlyn Wendell
Jeff Wilson
Jetsun Deleplanque
Leah Richmond

In solidarity:
Ankit Agrawal

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[Following is a guest post by Hamzah Saif. A version of this essay was published by Ajam Media Collective.]

By Hamzah Saif

Rap’s transition from the poetry of marginalized African American communities to the mega-hits circulating in mainstream America today draws fierce debate. Consumerism and commodification are frequently found guilty of eviscerating a once-radical movement with the market’s golden handcuffs, swapping its class politics for “mere spectacle.”

In contrast, Western popular and academic assessments of rap’s journey beyond American borders, particularly in the “Muslim world,” are markedly inattentive to this commercialism. Instead, this rap evokes a virtually unanimous nostalgia. There, 1986 Los Angeles is found alive in 2013 Lebanon, and New York’s Public Enemy and L.A.’s N.W.A are discovered rhyming through Beirut’s Rayess Bek and Tehran’s Yas. So prevalent is this penchant for locating the dissent lost in American rap in “over there” rap that the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, Middle East Institute, finds Iran’s Ayatollahs battling a reanimated Tupac, and Wall Street Journal has rappers soundtracking revolt from Egypt to Iran.

The anachronism of finding 1980’s Ice Cube in contemporary Islamabad can be plausible only if one abundantly ignores the realities of contemporary rap. In a landscape where middle class white purchasers have dictated the contours of the genre’s production since at least 1992, it is particularly absurd to impose upon non-American “Muslim” rappers the romantic notion that their rap is protest.

Imagining a resurrection of resistance in “over there” rap shortchanges the breadth of the non-American musical movements. Instead, they are much more productively seen as artists in the peripheral markets of globalized rap. Such a lens appropriately situates the rappers, and accords their work the creativity and artistry it deserves.

Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, Middle East and South Asia rappers are creators of an entirely new art, vastly expanding the frontiers of the genre. “It may not have started in our communities, but just like cricket”, says Islamabadi rapper Xpolymer Dar (Muhammad Dar), “we have made rap our own.”

Indeed, in Dar’s country of Pakistan, where rap is a growing underground music genre, the ‘80s American rhymes for race and class justice are judged to have little resonance with Pakistani realities. Instead, it is the stylings of hyper-commercialized contemporary artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent that find ears, and have provided the launching pad for contemporary Pakistani rappers.

Eminem, 50 Cent and Bohemia: Language, Vernacular and Rap

Prior to this most recent spike in the popularity of rap among Pakistani musicians, the genre’s heyday would likely be located in the early 1990s, when acts such as Fakhar-e-Alam enjoyed a broad audience. Alam’s hit track Bhangra Pao held the number-one spot for 28 straight weeks in local charts and was among the first Pakistani songs to be featured on MTV Asia. Indian and South Asian diasporic rappers such as Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal too found their tracks bumping across Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan’s contemporary rappers, however, rarely trace their roots to that rap tradition. In fact, many take reminding to even recall the productions of the 90’s decade. Today’s movement, instead, is overwhelmingly a product of the globalization of commodified American rap. And if there is one American artist around whose productions penetrated Pakistani music stores, and whose face came to represent rap in Pakistan, it is Eminem.

From Peshawar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group, Fortitude, describes its introduction to rap, “I used to go to Shumail and Shahkar’s house and we used to sit and listen to Eminem.” From distant Karachi, Qzer (Qasim Naqvi) similarly describes, “I was eleven years old when I listened to Lose Yourself by Eminem, and realized the connection between my poetry and rap.”

Ali from the Lahore-based crew DirtJaw offers perhaps the most vivid example. A poet for some years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, featuring Eminem, and loosely based on the artist’s life. Having no idea who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of poetry over beats, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.

During this time, a period beginning shortly after Eminem’s release of the Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2000 to 2005, rap remained a marginal artistic force in Pakistan. Rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a construction on a caricature of American slang that accused Pakistani rappers of aping Western culture.

This all changed in February 2006, when goliath label Universal Music dropped the first commercially backed album of the Bay Area rapper, Bohemia.


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