We are excited to host this conversation on a very important book, Samia Khatun’s Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia. The CM Roundtable is a series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. We thank each of our distinguished panelists for engaging in this public dialogue. We especially want to recognize Sonia Qadir (vakil) who organized this roundtable and wrote the Introduction. You can also download the Roundtable as an e-book.
[Sonia Qadir is a Scientia PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law. Her current research focuses on criminal justice, securitization, and legal history in Pakistan.] ⤴ TOC
The first time I met Samia in late 2018, I had newly arrived as a graduate student from Lahore to Sydney. Samia spoke to me about the isolation of being a South Asian academic and intellectual in Australia; of the perils of laying down roots here. It wasn’t just that my Google searches were coming up empty for not knowing where to look- it was hard to find a ready-made community to insert myself into, few interlocutors to speak of. Compared to the US or UK with their huge South Asian diasporas, and well-established academic links with the subcontinent, Australia felt a lot more alien and white. What did it mean after all to travel just across the Indian Ocean, and yet arrive in what was considered a thoroughly “Western” and simultaneously “remote” part of the world; aiming to think and write about another supposedly marginal but highly securitized geography–that of Pakistan? The two were–couldn’t but be–worlds apart.
And yet it is Samia’s own book–Australianama–the book or account or tale of Australia–that has helped me unpack and reframe this conundrum. This is a book about other histories, about histories that are otherwise–than white, nationalist, and settler-colonial. Samia weaves an intricate tale about South Asian immigrants and their cosmologies, as they arrived with the very first white settlers in the lands of the hundreds of Aboriginal nations, now collectively (mis)labeled Australia. While their presence has been all but erased from the official canon of White Australia, it lives on in texts and oral histories in the non-European languages that traverse this landscape. The South Asian connection with this land and its traditional owners then is not only as old as that of white, European settlers–but in fact older. It is also a deeply complex relationship structured by colonial hierarchies as Samia details and our reviewers reflect on.
Australianama embodies the praxis of epistemic disobedience. As the reviewers emphasize, Samia’s archives are not just the State library and colonial documents, but Aboriginal storylines and her mother’s dreams. She interprets these archives not through the modern historiographic canon or through Freudian psychoanalysis, but by situating them in what she calls the “architectures of subjugated knowledges” of the colonized. The aim, as she reminds us and as our reviewers keenly unpack, is not to add non-English language texts to the Australian historical canon and discipline them into Enlightenment epistemes, but to become the very form, the vessel that awakens knowledges that to modern eyes (and ears) appear long dead and buried.
The second time I met Samia, she took me on a quick guided tour of Redfern – the neighborhood known as the center of Aboriginal politics in Sydney, where Samia herself lived for many years, and where I now live. She pointed out landmarks, buildings, stories. We walked around the corner where in 2004 riots erupted after an Aboriginal teenager Thomas Hickey was impaled on a metal fence during a police pursuit while riding his bicycle. She showed me the main artery cutting across the neighbourhood which is increasingly getting gentrified but which was once a bustling South Asian textile market. Much like the experience of reading Australianama, it felt like a re-orientation into a landscape that I walked across daily but was never actually immersed in; like being awakened into other histories and other presents that were always in front of me, but never quite audible.
And this is perhaps the biggest take-away of this exquisite book, as well as its four different readings presented here: the need to reorient and awaken ourselves as writers, scholars and peoples of colonized geographies to subjugated knowledges. Knowledges that can pave the way to not just different pasts but also help us think and write the contemporary world outside imperial epistemes. As a graduate student of colonial and postcolonial legality, I find this to be a crucial lesson in research methodology. As a Muslim South Asian woman on Aboriginal land, this is a sharp reminder of the duty to pay the rent; unlike Muhammad Bux, the Lahori trader in Australia whose travelogue Samia unpacks, to only return home with Aboriginal stories; to refuse to get comfortable in what Samia calls “Destination: West”. And as a 30-something whose dinner-time conversations with friends and colleagues are now animated by the latest spectacle of a modern, liberal order collapsing at the seams, compounded by the ecological disasters hanging thick in the air, like the smog engulfing both Sydney and Lahore, this is a call to invoke and imbibe other ‘imaginative geographies’ – geographies which can help us lay the foundations of movements and collectivities that carry the potential to birth alternative, non-modern, just futures.
To sum up, this CM Roundtable on Australianama consists of four deeply attentive and delightful readings of the book: three by South Asian scholars Najnin Islam, Taymiya Zaman and Layli Uddin, and the fourth by Aboriginal historian Crystal McKinnon. These are supplemented by Samia Khatun’s own powerful and timely response, which among other things, speaks to why this book and its Roundtable are especially relevant to Chapati Mystery. It is hoped that our readers too will find these texts to be speaking to them, and as providing tools to rethink puzzles in their own work. It is especially exciting to present this as CM’s third all-female and women-of-colour Roundtable. I hope you enjoy reading this Roundtable as much as we enjoyed producing it.
[Taymiya R. Zaman is Associate Professor of History at the University of San Francisco, where she has taught since 2007. She has published scholarly articles on auto/biographical writing in Mughal India and historical memory in South Asia. She has also published narrative non-fiction and fiction. In 2014, her short story “Thirst” won the Pushcart Prize.] ⤴ TOC
I am six years old in Islamabad and my body is burning with fever. The sensation is unpleasant and unfamiliar and it’s hot everywhere. My father is walking in circles around my bed and stroking my hair. “Listen,” he says, “Babur was the king of India and his beloved son Humayun was very sick. So Babur walked in circles around his son’s bed and asked God to take the illness away from Humayun and give it to him instead. I will do the same for you.” I eye my father warily. I fully believe he will get fever now. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. But I get well and forget the story. I encounter it decades later in a memoir penned by Babur’s daughter, Gulbadan Begum; in her memoir, the Humayunnama, Gulbadan Begum narrates how Humayun got sick and Babur exchanged his life for his son’s. I am in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writing a dissertation about autobiography in Mughal India. I analyze the story as a means by which Gulbadan Begum legitimizes her brother Humayun’s claims to kingship. The story lives in two epistemes that remain separate in my head—one composed of my father’s soothing voice and cool hands, the other of words in a book–and I rank the second episteme as higher, obviously. But, as Samia Khatun asks–in her poignant, mesmerizing book, Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia—-how much of what we study is already known to us? (176) More importantly, what does it mean to know, live, and inhabit a story?
Australianama begins with a mother’s visions, a melting Quran, and a story that will soon collapse. At Liverpool Hospital in Sydney, Khatun’s mother Eshrat, who has undergone surgery for ovarian cancer, begins to have visions that she narrates to her daughter in Bengali. She will not narrate them in English to her doctors, despite being able to speak the language. She says the words on her Quran are melting; her Quran, in Arabic with Bengali translations, which accompanied her from Dhaka to Sydney, is no longer a source of solace. Eshrat is convinced that her roommate, a soldier who is back from Afghanistan and haunted by the place, is trying to murder her in her sleep. However, no one at the hospital understands why the two women should not share a room. That spring, Khatun’s own migrant story, in which the West is a destination to which her family came—moving from a poor part of the world to a rich one, from a shaky present into a promising future—slowly begins to disintegrate. “Western states,” Khatun writes, “cannot bomb, exploit, drone, invade, and kill South Asians and have us as part of their citizenry at the same time” (xvi).
That same spring, a talisman appears: In a newspaper article, Khatun sees a photograph of a book in a 19th century desert mosque in the Australian interior. The book is mislabeled the Quran. From what she can glean, the book appears to be in Bengali rather than Arabic. The questions Khatun asks of the book—Who brought it to Australia? Under what circumstances? What solace did it offer on the journey?—lead her to other stories she can inhabit, and to ways of being in the world both timeless and in desperate need of excavation. Khatun is keenly aware that inhabiting Western academia means reading about the episteme of one’s own ancestors haltingly because they are written in languages we no longer speak and contained in books we treat as dead artifacts (8-9). On reading the mislabeled Quran, which is actually a Bengali book called Kasasol Ambia (The Stories of the Prophets), Khatun realizes she is reading stories she already knows. Allowing those stories to shape her interior world initiates a process through which she too becomes a transmitter of living tradition and finds a way to “step into knowledge relations that can enliven knowledges rather than deaden them” (171).
The threads that connect her mother’s visions with the Kasasol Ambia stretch across desert and sea, bloodlines and memory. Focusing on the 19th century, Khatun reconstructs a world in which South Asian and Afghan merchants involved in the camel trade traveled from British India into the Australian colonies. Khatun writes that the temporalities present in the Kasasol Ambia–—which begins with Adam and the creation of the world and continues to well-known stories of prophets such as Yaqub and Nuh—–would have offered “multiple narrative pathways” to the men, and in some cases women, who carried it with them from Bengal to Australia (32). By merging Bengali storytelling strategies with a corpus of knowledge from the Quran, the Kasasol Ambia held multiple traditions without imposing hierarchies on them even as an intricate mesh of racial hierarchies defined the world of white settlers, South Asian migrants, and Aboriginal communities in Australia (53).
The stories of South Asian migrants offer Khatun a window into these migrants’ fraught relationship with British citizenship, whose promise she sees as collapsing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For instance, the merchant Hasan Musakhan, who arrived in Perth in 1894 wrote to Hamid Snow, a British convert to Islam, about attacks against South Asians who were part of the camel lines in Australia (117). Musakhan countered the animosity of white settlers against ‘Asiatics,’ by emphasizing that he was a British subject and a Muslim missionary. Married to Sophia Blitz, a woman of German Jewish background, Musakhan was influenced by Ahmadi prophecies about the demise of the Ottoman Empire and saw a future for Turkey—and by extension Muslims—–within a British protectorate (117-120). The dwindling of the camel trade produced melancholy in Musakhan, who longed for his homeland across the Indian Ocean and documented the lives of men of his generation, who traded, lived, and worshipped at mosques in Australia (122-123). Stories such as his show that by virtue of being located somewhere between white settlers and Aboriginal inhabitants in a racialized hierarchy, South Asian traders in Australia both benefitted from and suffered at the hands of colonial enterprises. The ambivalent position occupied by men such as Musakhan mirrors Khatun’s own interrogation of what it means to be a South Asian immigrant to Australia.
South Asian accounts of the nineteenth century often erase Aboriginal presence. However, Khatun refuses to be implicated in the erasure of Aboriginal stories and guards against collecting these stories as a recognized ‘expert’ in Western academia. Drawing on the knowledge of Reg Dodd, the chairman of the Arabunna People’s committee in Maree in South Australia, Khatun learns of Arabunna encounters with South Asians in the camel trade, many of which Dodd’s own parents remember (131-6). The cadence of these stories takes the reader back to the beginning of Khatun’s text, in which Khatun and her mother are caught in web of legal categories and racial codes designed to erase both mother and daughter. We meet Lallie Matbar, the daughter of a white father and Aboriginal mother who was engaged to Akbar Khan, a camel driver from Karachi. In 1926, Lallie was pregnant with their child and trapped by settler law, which required government permission were a ‘half-caste’ woman to marry a non-Aboriginal man (158). The law, Khatun writes, was an attempt by ‘White Australia’ to absorb mixed-race Aboriginal people and Lallie was on a list of children who were to be removed to Moore River Native Settlement, a ‘half-caste,’ institution near Perth. When the couple’s marriage was not approved, Akbar hired a lawyer, but Lallie’s mother Jirgullu fled with her daughter to the desert where she had raised her. After giving birth to a stillborn child, Lallie was imprisoned at Moore River, tried to escape three times only to be captured again, and was finally reunited with Akbar on her fourth escape, after which she married him in a mosque in Adelaide. The city court of Perth upheld the marriage but Lallie was forbidden to return to the Wongatha deserts of Western Australia where her mother Jirgullu died while waiting for her daughter to return (161).
What does it mean to return to one’s mother? What do mothers separated from their mothers bequeath to their children? Lallie’s daughter Mona Wilson tells Khatun that Lallie raised four children on the Murray River town of Renmark and longed to return to the Wongatha deserts (160). The longing for home in both Musa Khan’s story and Lallie’s comes to form a backdrop for Khatun’s mother’s story. Born in East Pakistan, Eshrat traveled to Australia with her husband and dreamed of escaping both Australia and her marriage (163). Khatun narrates her mother’s dreams about her home in Dhanmondi, Dhaka; when Eshrat’s mother dreams of her own mother, she packs her belongings, says she is going home, and dies after doing so (165). In dreams, Khatun’s mother is able to cross geographies otherwise impossible to bridge. Khatun’s memories of her mother Eshrat lead her back to her family’s history with the Kasasol Ambia. When her Bengali improves, she begins reading the memoirs of her great-grandfather Kazi Motahar Hossain (b. 1897). He writes of growing up in a village in what is now the Faridpur district of Bangladesh and listening to his father Goharuddin recite stories on his verandah from a printed copy of the Kasasol Ambia, often to gathering crowds. Familiar with both Puranic epics and the Quran, Motahar Hossain writes that the stories awakened in him a thirst for history (172-173). In 1920, Motahar married Sajeda Khatun, a translator and lover of books herself. Like the prophet Yaqub, the couple had eleven children. When Sajeda died, Motahar took off his shirt and draped it over his wife’s eyes, hoping its scent would awaken his wife just as the scent of Yusuf’s shirt awakened his father Yaqub. The story of the father longing for his beloved son, contained in the Quran and in the Kasasol Ambia held Motahar’s grief for him. And—-in the years after his wife’s death—-Motahar’s daughter Zobaida remembered him holding her mother’s saris to his face and spoke of him doing so to her daughter Eshrat (174).
The pages of a book, writes Khatun, are sites where stories leave traces (177); in other words, the book is not the story. The Kasasol Ambia is far more than a mislabeled book—the mislabeling itself an act that carries within it entire histories—-in the mosque in Broken Hill. It is in fact part of living tradition, which means that beyond its journey over the sea, it has traveled “into human interiority,” where it functions as part of an inner library that is passed and transmitted, often by women across geographies and generations (174). The notion of an inner library held within Eshrat’s daughter counters the distressing image of the melting Quran with which Australianama begins. When words melt away and texts are lost in mislabeling, the wellspring that is their source survives.
In my own study of Mughal history, I encountered many stories of kings, dervishes, and miracles, many of which my father already knew. I grew up however, educated almost entirely in English. It is ironic that many of us must travel through Western academia, read texts that have been turned into artifacts and their life-worlds into objects of study, only to come back to a living, breathing tradition that should have been part of our own life-worlds to begin with. Australianama shows a historian and daughter fully enmeshed in this calling, gathering “the shattered parts of a coherent whole” (174) and doing so with the realization that what we believe to be lost has paradoxically been in us all along.
[Dr. Layli Uddin is a is a social and intellectual historian of 19th and 20th century South Asia. She specialises in subaltern decolonisation, revolutionary ideas, and worker and peasant politics with a focus on Marxism, Islam and social movements. She is currently working on her monograph, which focuses on the charismatic leadership of Maulana Bhashani and the political mobilisation of peasants and workers in the making and unmaking of East Pakistan, from the 1930s up to 1971. In February 2020, she will join King’s College London as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, and begin her new project, which will be a history of Islamic Socialism in South Asia, 1920s-1978.] ⤴ TOC
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie Black Panther takes place in ‘The Museum of Great Britain’. The villain and his team of mercenaries kill the museum curator and retrieve a hammer made of “vibranium” to use in their struggle for black liberation. The poisoning of the curator symbolises a rejection of the abstract disengaged knowledge of Western experts to the non-Western objects in the museum. The hammer comes alive to reveal its true past, present and future possibilities only when Killmonger tells the expert a story within a story. He goes beyond the story offered by the museum by retelling a tale from his exiled father about a powerful black nation. This story helps to sustain Killmonger during his childhood environment of racialised oppression and harrowing violence, eventually bringing him back to the exclusionary museum space in a dramatic intervention to liberate the object.
Beyond Hollywood, what are the stories that migrants, people of colour, and other marginalised and exiled groups tell to help think about the past, present and future? How do we unlock these stories? Who is responsible for retelling them? These questions are central to Samia Khatun’s exquisitely written and intellectually important book, Australianama. Khatun might not be the comic book villain smashing her way into colonial museums or killing off white experts, but she skillfully brings to life the stories, encounters and experiences–“subjugated knowledges”–of South Asian diaspora in colonial Australia between 1870-1920. In a welcome departure from the alienating narratives of progress that belie the brutal reality of brown lives in Australia, Khatun offers narratives that enable the continuing struggle against racism, state violence and erasure of aboriginal and non-white histories, as well as promise a “new beginning.”
There is a grief and anger at the heart of Australianama that make it a profoundly moving and compelling read. The grief of a daughter, whose mother is dying in front of her eyes while yearning to be elsewhere than the hospital room with a returnee soldier from Afghanistan. The troubled emotions of being a South Asian Muslim in the west at a time of escalating racism and Islamophobia, and the struggle of being a historian of colonial Australia. These emotions come together in Khatun’s ‘discovery’ of the book Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets) on the shelves of the “little red mosque” in Broken Hill, a mining town in the Australian outback. This book, labelled as the Quran by several Australian historians, turns out to be an 1895 edition of a poetic Bengali Sufi collection of stories of Prophets from Adam to Muhammad. How had Australian historians got it so wrong? What did the absence of Kasasol Ambia from Australian historiography indicate? Why was there no mention of other South Asian characters in Australian histories besides the ‘Afghan’ camel drivers and owners? What happened to stories of lascar sailors, merchants, religious saints and leaders, wives, runaways and indentured labour from South Asia?
Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his brilliant book, Silencing the Past writes of silences in crucial stages of historical production: making sources, archives, narratives and history. He describes these silences as products of power. Khatun similarly shows how a belief in the superiority of Enlightenment knowledges and thus, a belief in what constitutes History, has meant that Australian historians have routinely ignored the “vast wealth of non-English language sources” that circulated across the Indian Ocean, Australian ports and desert towns. These sources, some of which appear in Australianama, range from seafarer travelogues in Urdu, dream texts in Persian and Arabic, and aboriginal accounts of their encounters with South Asians. Khatun argues that “story-telling strategies” and clues contained within these archives offer an alternative history of South Asian diaspora revealing “rich imaginative landscape” and “multiple pathways” that shaped their experience and the futures they imagined for themselves in colonial Australia.
There are several things that make Australianama an important, exciting and deeply creative piece of historical scholarship. Khatun shows us the importance of storytelling in the history-writing for those invested in the politics of public history. Inspired by Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistories and Aditya Behl’s work on enigmatic texts, she brings to life the different narrative strategies and knowledges of early South Asian diaspora in the prose and structure of her book itself. She draws her readers in and immerses them in these “architectures of knowledge” so that they can too imaginatively travel through time. Mirroring the Kasasol Ambia, described as a “book of books”, we find that Australianama is also a book containing multiple books (chapters in other words), in fact eight books, the same number as Kasasol Ambia. These different books interpret the migration and encounters of South Asians in Australia, each structured around a specific narrative device. Khatun’s second chapter, “Stories of the Prophets”, employs the interlocking frame of tales that structures Kasasol Ambia to talk about the different migrant travellers that might have brought Kasasol Ambia to Broken Hill with them. We are treated to multiple frames, archives and stories as she discusses lascars, merchants, religious guides, hawkers, wives and ayahs (nurses) who came to Australia.
Khatun uses the eighth book in Kasasol Ambia, which is about the Prophet’s wife, Ayesha, to frame the possibility that Kasasol Ambia was brought to Australia by women. Using ship passenger lists, she shows us how women crossed borders as ayahs and wives. Her chapter on the Lahori merchant, Khwajah Mohammed Bux, deploys the same storytelling strategy that he used to frame his own travelogue, which details his rise from a lowly lascar to a successful merchant of camels and other goods. Bux splits his journey across the Indian Ocean and Australia into seven stages, similar to Punjabi epic romances. Khatun retells his story in seven stages as well. In this way, in her writing, Khatun becomes Munshi Rezaullah, one of the three poet-tellers of Kasasol Ambia, jumping into the ocean of stories to thread a chain which ‘entices audiences to immerse them[selves] in South Asian epistemes’.
Australianama is an important intervention in both Antipodean histories and Indian Ocean studies, inviting scholars to re-think their ideas on gender, mobility and epistemology. Khatun challenges the gender binaries structuring Indian Ocean histories, which have linked ‘masculinity to motion and femininity with stasis’ by presenting us with histories of border-crossing women. Marriage records indicate how women were constantly negotiating with, and crossing multiple–physical, political and racial–borders as the wives of South Asian men. Contrary to Orientalist narratives about ‘brideprice’, savage Afghan men and oppressed Muslim women, Khatun in ’The Book of Marriage’ employs the story of four women to show how they challenged oppressive patriarchal systems and racist settler regimes and narratives. The most poignant and moving of the accounts is that of Eshrat, the author’s mother. We learn how her mother escaped her difficult marriage and Islamaphobic policies and narratives through vivid dreams of return. In one of the dreams Eshrat crosses the ocean and finds herself lost on her way to her home in Dhaka, and a young girl comes to the rescue. We don’t know whether the young girl is the author herself, but what we do know is that Eshrat, at least in her own narrative, found a way to finally get back home.
Australianama demonstrates how the most important historical works have been consciously political. As Trouillot writes, “the meaning of history is also in its purpose.” For him, historical authenticity came from being able to connect the past to present struggles. Khatun’s book works against settler colonial politics and discourse of ‘blank space’ in Australia. She explains how historical narratives of Asians as ‘pioneers’ contribute to an ongoing violence and erasure of aboriginal people in the country. Using aboriginal accounts and oral histories, the author reveals how the the lives of the colonised often criss-crossed in the course of work and marriage, and at times randomly, leaving traces and imprints of those interactions. The ‘Train at Beltana’ chapter examines aboriginal railway songs and memories of the arrival of South Asians on the first steam train to Beltana in 1881, laden with camels and other goods. However, Khatun also quickly debunks any idea of a natural solidarity or unity between the South Asian and aboriginal communities. The relationships between colonised groups were in fact quite unequal and violent, with South Asian accounts of migration often committing a similar omission as settler narratives of Australian aboriginal geographies and histories.
Australianama opens new directions for future research and what history writing can be. Khatun shows how non-colonial epistemes offer new critiques of power, which can be further developed by a new generation of decolonial historians. Her technique of close reading of travelling texts can be used to yield further rich insights on the different ways in which migrants understood and reworked ideas of power and authority in their encounters with new forms and structures of hierarchies. Furthermore, Khatun’s exploration of aboriginal oral histories and what it means ‘to hear’ stories provide new ways to think about how print affected the circulation and consumption of stories. What transformations does a story undergo once it is detached from the conditions of production? Which stories lose out in print, and are they then ‘dead’? If we moved beyond the shadow of the book [the written word] in the way Khatun does, what we might learn about the fluid, dynamic and shifting nature and production of knowledge across gender, class and religion? Finally, the author provides us with these exciting interactions between the colonised communities in Australia, which researchers can use to open up oral and textual archives of solidarity, alliances and movements between the Aboriginal Australians and South Asians.
Australianama is an original and important contribution to existing work on migration, Indian Ocean and feminist histories. Khatun also joins an exciting group of scholars thinking about ideas and practices of decolonisation in the Global South and diaspora communities. More importantly, Australianama offers those struggling and working for just futures in these bleak times of a rampant right-wing nationalism, racism and Islamophobia, an ocean of stories to fight with.
[Najnin Islam is Assistant Professor of English at Colorado College where she teaches classes on Global Anglophone, and Postcolonial Literatures. Her research focuses on the transit of people, commodities, and ideologies between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds in the nineteenth century. In particular she works on the migration of indentured servants or “coolies” from India, and China to British plantation colonies after the emancipation of enslaved African people. Her first book project, currently in progress, investigates the production of the figure of the “coolie” through appositional readings of literary fiction and historical-archival materials on indentureship. She received her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018.] ⤴ TOC
Mislabeled as the Koran and treated as a dead artifact by historians, a Bengali book of verses had been gathering dust inside a mosque in the Australian desert. Historian Samia Khatun’s rediscovery and identification of this book as an 1895 edition of Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets) published in Calcutta, sets her on an incredible journey across nineteenth-century imperial trade networks in the Indian Ocean, traditional and non-traditional archives as well as across disciplinary methods. How did a copy of Kasasol Ambia end up in Broken Hill, a remote mining town and what might its presence there teach us about the unattended aspects of Indian Ocean histories? How might paying attention to non-English language books that travelled with South Asians help us rearticulate the history of these communities in a way that is cognizant of the knowledge systems they carried with them? These are some of the fundamental questions that animate Khatun’s project. In answering them she offers a sustained critique of Enlightenment epistemes that have continued to structure how histories of the colonized are narrated and interpreted. Inextricably linked to Khatun’s elaboration of a connected history of the Indian Ocean world is an emphasis on its articulation with Aboriginal histories, settler colonialism and racialization in Australia. Thus her account of South Asians in Australia goes beyond the framework of the “pioneer” or the “alien” to understand this diaspora’s complicated relationship with settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession.
Kasasol Ambia contains over 500 pages of Sufi poetry detailing stories that have circulated the Indian Ocean world. Describing “events spanning thousands of years, ending in the sixth year of the Muslim Hijri calendar”, it is, Khatun surmises, “a Bengali book of popular history”(3). So, how did a book like this end up in Broken Hill? Answering this question requires us to recognize the long history of South Asian presence in the Australian continent going back to the nineteenth century. This old diaspora, to use a term from Vijay Mishra, provided cheap labor to fuel British shipping, sugar, railway construction and camel transportation industries. South Asian men, referred to as “Afghans”, were part of a transoceanic network that aided the transportation of camels from ports in British India to Australia. Perhaps a copy of Kasasol Ambia arrived with one such cameleer. Though probable, Khatun doesn’t settle for a single answer. Instead she sutures the question–– how did the book arrive in Broken Hill–– to the stories contained in Kasasol Ambia to offer a rich, speculative account of routes the book may have traveled on its way to the mosque. I use the word speculative to underscore the creative methodology that Khatun brings to bear on historical research. I also use it to index her critique of Enlightenment epistemes whose claims to ‘truth’ and universality, ironically, are predicated on the neglect of non-western knowledge systems. Khatun argues that while it might be impossible to offer an empirically verifiable answer or to name who brought the book to Broken Hill, animating the stories, metaphors and motifs present in the stories of Kasasol Ambia might offer imaginative pathways into the past. This is also her call for a method of reading that emerges from within the object of analysis rather than make it fit available disciplinary and methodological frameworks; something we might apprehend as part of her theorization of non-Western “knowledge relations”.
Australianama tracks multiple pathways into the past by animating “the storytelling techniques and interpretive keys contained in non-English language texts” including Urdu tales of travel, Persian dream texts, Aboriginal language stories and Kasasol Ambia (5). The story of Khidr, patron saint of sailors in Kasasol Ambia, for instance, leads Khatun to ask if the book may have arrived with a South Asian sailor. Archival research reveals characters like Anno Khan who were contracted as lascars on ships bound to Australia. Simultaneously, it reveals a rich history of collaboration and collective action among lascars and other non-white populations who protested their abysmal working conditions under the British. The story of Khidr thus enables a set of historical questions about people who traveled between South Asia and Australia and the colonial machinery they negotiated while doing so. Again, the story of Ayesha leads Khatun to speculate whether a copy of the book may have arrived in Broken Hill with a woman instead of a man. A suggestion such as this chafes against the conventional wisdom of the field of Indian Ocean studies that has, for the most part, insisted on the lack of women’s mobility along circuits traversed by South Asian men. Keeping close to the narrative injunction that frames Ayesha’s story–– “what you search is what will be revealed”–– Khatun argues that a careful study of non-traditional archives such as marriage contracts reveals that women did in fact emigrate through marriage to South Asian merchants. The study of ship manifests further confirms that many South Asian women went to Australia as domestic workers and caregivers (ayahs) accompanying British families. Through stories of women such as Shamsulnissa, Fatima and Eshrat in later chapters, Khatun re-scripts women’s experiences of travel and their modes of negotiating patriarchal and legal regimes (domestic as well as settler colonial) at the heart of an alternate model of writing Indian Ocean histories.
Whereas South Asian and Aboriginal Studies have developed as distinct bodies of scholarship that are rarely considered in conjunction with one another, Australianama sets these two fields in conversation. Khatun explains that by drawing upon “the conventions and insights in the field of Aboriginal history”, her book, “adds to the much longer history of Aboriginal encounters with peoples from across the Indian Ocean”(19). In effect this is also a call to go beyond the immigrant/host paradigm that has overdetermined scholarship in the field of diaspora studies and a useful reminder of the fact that when South Asians arrived in Australia they entered a physical and discursive terrain marked by Aboriginal presence. Khatun’s intervention here is significant both methodologically and ethically as it emerges out of a refusal to participate in the discursive erasure of indigenous communities and their knowledge systems that has undergirded the project of settler colonialism. To this end, Australianama participates in an ongoing set of critical conversations regarding the power dynamics that inform encounters between non-white settler/immigrant communities and Indigenous peoples. Shona Jackson’s (2012) scholarship on the ongoing disavowal of indigenous presence and claims to land in postcolonial Guyana is a particularly relevant example. Khatun’s project draws attention to the asymmetries that underpinned interactions between Aboriginal and South Asian peoples in Australia. Her discussion of Khwaja Muhammad Bux’s memoirs is particularly instructive in this regard. Even as she highlights the colonial machinery that Bux had to negotiate as a Muslim South Asian man, a racialized body, an “Asiatic”, Khatun is careful to point out that by erasing Aboriginal presence, his account ends up reinforcing “settler narratives of emptiness”(80). Knowledge production by South Asians, she reminds us, is not in and of itself a mode of resistance, and can in fact, serve imperial interests.
In contrast to this lacuna, aboriginal language stories that circulate to this day offer a wealth of details about people from the Subcontinent. Like the stories in Kasasol Ambia, these accounts too invite listeners to inhabit alternative modes of viewing and comprehending the world around them. One such narrative is the tale of two Arabunna sisters who feared South Asian cameleers scrutinizing them would eat them. It is only through her interactions with Aboriginal activist Reg Dodd and his lessons in reading animal tracks on land that Khatun begins to apprehend why being eaten was an apt description or an adequate metaphor for how the women felt in that moment of encounter. She realizes that the Arabunna sisters’ story followed the logic and vocabulary of reading tracks; stories of pursuit, struggle and escape from predators. Being eaten was only the next “logical step in the grammar underpinning many of the Arabunna stories of encounter” (139). This method of deciphering the meaning of the story illuminates how Khatun’s critique of Enlightenment epistemes happens in an accretive manner by drawing within its ambit South Asian as well as Aboriginal knowledge systems, which include reading the land as text. This episode also demonstrates Khatun’s conscious engagement with the asymmetries that mark her own encounter as a researcher with Aboriginal communities whose insights and knowledge have often been appropriated and unduly exploited. She navigates the risks and challenges of such research engagements with sincerity, often highlighting moments of incomprehension and misreading that needed correction. It is important to locate her reflections here within a larger body of conversation happening in relation to indigenous studies both within and outside of the Australian context regarding the ethics of research and collaborative authorship. The challenge for Khatun going forward is perhaps to carve pathways that will carry her scholarship meaningfully to communities that enabled it.
In the process of discussing aboriginal language stories that feature people from the subcontinent, Khatun shines a light on an archive of interracial intimacies between South Asian men and Aboriginal women. While some of these relationships remained unacknowledged, such as in the case of Bejah Dervish who never married Arabunna woman Anne Murray but fathered children with her, others unfolded in defiance of the racist policies of ‘White’ Australia. Here Khatun’s project is in conversation with recent scholarship by Gaiutra Bahadur, Lisa Lowe and Vivek Bald, to name just a few, who have turned a critical eye on the question of interracial intimacies and what they might reveal not just about the management of race in the past but also its continuing effects in the present moment. Khatun situates stories like Lallie’s relationship with Akbar Matbar within the larger context of racial governmentality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Australia. The state’s efforts to materialize ‘White’ Australia took various forms. While on the one hand, race based exclusions sought to restrict immigration of non-white people into Australia, on the other hand, several policies were adopted with the purpose of erasing aboriginality altogether. The states efforts in this regard included the removal of mixed-race children from their Aboriginal parents and marrying mixed-race women to white men, to name a few. The same racial regime also outlawed intimacies between “Asiatics” and “half-castes” thus rendering Lallie’s marriage to Akbar illegal. Khatun observes that piecing together the stories Lallie told, “shows how some Aboriginal women envisioned marriage to South Asian men as a way to escape settler regimes” (158). Lallie’s own trajectory however underscores the pervasiveness of the state-apparatus and its modes of surveillance that extended beyond her generation into her daughter’s and that continues to affect aboriginal women in the present.
Australianama offers a rich account of the Indian Ocean world. Without taking away from the expansive scope of the project, one could argue that it is also an alternative account of Australian history; one that moves past the narrative of triumphant white settler colonialism and centers instead, aboriginal communities and South Asian immigrants who too are constitutive parts of this history. Crucial to this project of re-centering is the acknowledgement of the knowledge systems these communities have carried and nurtured for centuries and an effort to demonstrate what they might teach us about the past, our present and potentially about the future. Khatun’s narrative moves seamlessly through the nineteenth century, the era of ‘White Australia’, and our contemporary moment marked by the aftermath of 9/11, and an increase in modes of domestic and international surveillance of bodies and borders. In doing so it demonstrates the historical continuities in modes of governance directed at racialized bodies and the ways in which their narratives are crafted by systems beyond their reach. In this sense Khatun’s project, which takes a nineteenth-century book of verses as its starting point, is also effectively a history of the present.
[Crystal McKinnon is a Yamatji woman who lives and works on Kulin country. She is an historian and critical Indigenous studies scholar, who is currently working at RMIT as a Vice Chancellor’s Indigenous Research Fellow. Her work has looked at concepts of Indigenous sovereignty, and Indigenous social movements, resistance and protest.] ⤴ TOC
On an afternoon in October driving back from a visit into the high mountains of Wurundjeri Country near where Coranderrk Aboriginal Station once thrived, Tharawal man Jason Brailey, Kanaka Maoli woman J. Kēhaulani Kaunanui and I were having a lengthy discussion about being Indigenous – we were in fierce agreement that one of the things that is central to being an Indigenous person is knowing how you fit into an interrelated multi-generational familial and kinship schema. A central way this knowledge is relayed and known is through story. Established in 1863, Coranderrk was once a place where Aboriginal people from across the Great Eastern Kulin Nation and beyond lived together, most driven there by government policies aimed at moving Aboriginal people off their land and territories. These same policies aimed to divide families and communities not only through physical movement of people, but by attempting to erode Aboriginal customs and knowledges of family structures, kin relatedness and other relationships. Right across the globe colonisers and their colonial governments have launched similar attacks to those made in Australia against all Indigenous people in our homelands. And like those made here in Wurundjeri country, the violent attempts did not work.
Indigenous people globally are all just too strong and too clever for any colonial policies or governments who seek to wipe out our knowledge systems. And there are so many examples of how strategic and skilful we were at ensuring our knowledge, language and customs survive. Some of those ways are told in Samia Khatun’s brilliant Australianama. The name of the place, Coranderrk, close to where we drove that day, tells us another. The Wurundjeri people and Taunerong people who first set up camp named the place ‘Coranderrk’ which is in Woiwurrung language after a flowering bush native to that area.^[Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013), p. 8.] Naming it such, the people ensured Woiwurrung language would be spoken by all those that said its name, and its name tells part of the story of that country. As Samia may say, these 40 Kulin people storied the land, adding this narrative of their experience and knowledge of the country to a place long storied by their families, kin and ancestors.
As we drove slowly through the winding roads near Coranderrk, it was a fitting place for a discussion of the centrality of the thread of family and kinship to Indigenous being. The people that lived there in the mid 1800s helped ensure their knowledge and familial kinship systems continue to be lived and known today, generations after they passed. One way this is done is through family stories and children’s questions. Jason relayed that when he was a kid and a teenager he would go to his mum with questions, and his mum would tell him stories about how people were, and how they fit with him, with their family and in their community. Hearing his mum explain who people are in relation to their family over time and in different ways gave him not only genealogical information but it also storied him into his place in the world. This is an example of story and narratives that all of our Indigenous mums and dads, aunties and uncles, and grandmothers and grandfathers tell us; most often they draw together seemingly disparate strands of connection and weave them together, whilst crisscrossing diverse places and spanning other times and generations.
This conversation with Jason and Kēhaulani was just one of many stories that came into my mind when I read (and re-read) Samia’s first book, Australianama. This is a remarkable book and it has a depth of meaning in the stories it tells. This along with its political and theoretical work means it resonated profoundly with me. It stands in starkly beautiful contrast to many other Australian history books, which often use the same traditional methodologies and centre Western knowledge systems. As a consequence, these books continue to tell variations of the same white-washed history. Opposing more of the same, Samia explains her methodology is constructed by using “non-European reading techniques” and she uses “subjugated knowledges” to create the architecture in which to place “colonised people’s texts”. She continues that in doing so it reveals the “epistemological terrains on which past South Asians stood across the Indian Ocean rim.” (15)
By taking this position Samia not only tells a different Australian history, her project challenges the very foundations of Western thought and power – the position from which those histories are told. Samia reiterates throughout that this is not a story of recovery of non-European stories, or of insertion of Aboriginal and South Asian voices or people into existing historical narratives. We know that simple incorporation of these voices does little to disrupt this progress narrative and its discursive violence, which is one of the book’s aims. Samia makes clear that she understands what is at stake in the histories we tell, and thus she is writing a book that disrupts the thrust of modernity which leaves Brown, Indigenous and Black people behind in its wake. Instead, her book takes seriously South Asian and Indigenous peoples, knowledges, epistemologies, and languages using them as epistemological foundations, and the critical and interpretative lens through which she undertook the research and writing of Australianama.
The centrality of story and their various and varying connections is a strong driver of Samia’s work. A significant theoretical premise of Australianama is that the stories of Indigenous people and South Asian people are alive. Rallying against European imperial projects that systematically turns non-European knowledges into “dead objects”, Samia proposes that these knowledge and stories “contain valuable strategies for connecting past, present and future that render visible alternative axes along which we might glimpse new beginnings.” (24) And in Australianama, Samia illuminates the intersecting axes of South Asian and Indigenous knowledges, stories and language. In doing so, this text gives those who read it really valuable methodological tools and guides for doing excellent research work.
In the aptly titled chapter “To Hear”, Samia tells the reader how her great-grandfather Kai Motahar Hossain wrote in his memoirs that he learnt who he was and how he fitted into his family by hearing his genealogy recited while growing up in a village of what is today the Faridpur district of Bangladesh. (177) He wrote of repeatedly hearing where his different relations came from, of hearing who they were in their world. This was one place in the book where I was reminded of that car ride near Coranderrk that day in October. The layered stories of relatedness and connectedness that Jason’s mum, and all Aboriginal parents, grandparents and Elders teach their children are not stories easily found in books. Yet they are crucial to who we are as Indigenous people. These stories of kinship systems are not simply “descriptions of relationships, but also describe ways of living well, laws for strengthening human and more-than-human life, and restoring and nurturing social and emotional well-being.”^[Patricia Dudgeon and Abigail Bray, ‘Indigenous Relationality: Women, Kinship and the Law’, Geneaolgy, 2019 3(2), 3] Crucially, this is how these stories that our Elders tell us are alive; they hold vast amounts of intricate knowledge, laws and guides for how we live our lives as Indigenous people. These stories also teach us about our past, and like in our Aboriginal stories, Samia tells us that Kassol Ambia contains strategies “for thinking about, seeing and narrating the past.” (27). They both also hold many ways that we can see and imagine the future.
Throughout the book Samia shows us that to actually begin to understand and try to really know a story you have to give yourself wholly over to it, and you have to hear it as it was meant to be told. By leading the reader through her research journey and her honest accounts of moments of despair, frustration and vulnerability, Samia shows us how the rigidness of a researcher limits the stories that can be heard and consequently limits the knowledge that can be gained. Samia illustrates this in her re-evaluation of a well-known story about an encounter between two young Arabunna girls and two South Asian men at a train station. This story was told by Arabunna woman Mona Merrick, recorded in 1960 by linguist Luise Hercus and printed in 1981 in the journal Aboriginal History. Mona had first heard the story from her mother, Barralda. In order to understand key aspects of the story, Samia travelled to Arabunna country and formed an important relationship with Uncle Reg Dodd, who is the grandson of Barralda. She beautifully narrates her friendship with Uncle Reg, which begun at the Camel Cup in Marree. She takes the reader through her struggles to understand this story and tells this alongside the story of the patient mentorship and lessons of Uncle Reg. In doing so, she shows how this is a story which can only be understood though Arabunna people and knowledges. She shows that it needs to be understood in this context, and that by only reading this story off a page the central meaning of the story is not only obscured, it is lost. As Samia wrote “Yet, when I tried to read Mona Merrick’s Arabunna story through these historical and linguistic interpretive lenses, something disappeared: the imaginative world of the Aboriginal women who told this story.” (129) It is through the guidance of Uncle Reg Dodd that Samia understands what this story is actually about and the role it has in the Arabunna world.
The book Kasasol Ambia, a text that is meant to be sung and performed, sparked the beginning of this history project. In his memoirs, Samia’s great-grandfather Kai Motahar Hossain wrote of hearing Kasasol Ambia recounted by his father on a veranda in Bengal. (175) The audibility of the performance that day meant that around 100 years later in South Western Sydney, Samia heard this story of her great-grandfather’s Bengal veranda recitals from her mother, Eshrat. The stories of our ancestors, of our many grandparents, are carried by our mothers and our fathers. Jason’s mum’s relatedness and relationship stories had been passed to her, and like Samia in her book Australianama, he too was sharing the importance of these ancestral stories that day in the car. These stories are our connections to each other and to our family and to our kin. That they are spoken means that they are alive and will continue to live as long as we tell them.
Samia began this journey wanting to know the story of Kassol Ambia, searching for traces of people who had heard its poems, seeking the person who had carried the book across the Indian Ocean. Her search for that person propelled her to travel to many Aboriginal countries long storied by their people, and along trade routes which may have been travelled by her ancestors, or maybe by mine. As it turns out, in the end she was searching for stories she “always, already”, knew. (176) Maybe, it just took writing this book to remember.
[Samia Khatun is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Prior to taking up this post, she was based in Dhaka where she was developing a history program at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia is Samia’s first book.] ⤴ TOC
Today, a warning about feral camels signposts the approach to the Flinders Ranges–the hilly country of Adnyamathnha, or the ‘rock people.’ Accompanied by South Asian drivers, camels began arriving to Adnyamathnha country over 150 years ago. It was in the aftermath of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in British India that white Australian colonists first travelled from the Flinders Ranges to South Asia in search of camels, entering into an agreement with merchant Khan Bahadur Moradkhan–the architect of a 10,000 camel relay which had funneled ammunition and imperial troops from port Karachi towards Delhi, playing a key role in British suppression of the 1857 rebellion. A few years later, beginning from Moradkhan’s extensive camel yards in Sindh, 31 South Asian workers and 124 camels voyaged across the Indian Ocean to Port Augusta, travelling inland to the dramatic, stained peaks of the Flinders Ranges to establish the first camel depot in the Australian colonies.
With 1857 marking the beginning of a decade of rebellions by colonised peoples across the British empire, in the Flinders Ranges, white colonists unleashed armed violence against Aboriginal people to maintain control of the region as the export value of wool tripled over the next two decades (96, 110-1). The earliest camel drivers arriving to this contested terrain were sometimes referred to as ‘sepoy attendants’ and newspapers confirm that they frequently took strike action against white employers. Reporting on one of the first strikes by South Asians in the Flinders Ranges, the South Australian Register claimed in 1866 that they “demanded ghee or butter in addition to their usual rations. And are disposed to be awkward unless it is given them.” While these camel drivers were always implicated in the ongoing process of colonising Aboriginal lands, intricate and sometimes intimate relationships emerged between South Asians and Aboriginal people–both somewhere on the margins of “White Australia.”
Travelling to the Northern Flinders Ranges in January 2014, I stayed at the Aboriginal-run Iga Warta camping grounds operated by Adnyamathnha families. Surrounded by red-stained hills, the languid, stifling days were at times broken up by the most dramatic summer storms. Whilst writing Australianama, this was one of many trips I made along the old camel routes in search of the history of relations between South Asians and Aboriginal people. After an extraordinary afternoon spent hunting kangaroos with members of the Coulthard family, Terry Coulthard asked me to help him make the bread for our evening meal after the sun set. Two kangaroo tails were cooking in an underground pit and as I placed the round kneaded pieces of dough on a grill placed over the campfire, I asked Terry what kind of bread this was. “Juppadi” he replied. When I stared back at him blankly, he repeated it a few times, “Juppadi, juppadi. Its juppadi Samia.”
Wait. Could it be?
Chapati? Was the “juppadi” that Terry and I had slapped into shape from the dough, a chapati? As we know, ‘chapaat’ in Persian ‘is a blow/slap’ and since the bread ‘is cooked with palm blows, they call it chapaati.’ As a certain “quaint publication” tells us, “chapatis (flat, round indian bread)” were “suspected during the rebellion of 1857 of carrying secret subversive messages.” Knowledges that were illegible to imperial eyes, British officers suspected that these messages were “…hand-delivered from village to village–especially in Awadh and Bengal–to organize themselves. The secret paper messages were baked inside the chapati, they imagined.” With the wave after wave of South Asians arriving to Aboriginal lands in the decades after the 1857 rebellion, did words like “chapati” move across languages? Did the humble chapati, with or without enough ghee, circulate of messages of revolt, resistance and resilience against empire across the Indian Ocean and through Aboriginal lands, between Aboriginal peoples and South Asians?
Australianama is centrally preoccupied with the possibility that secret strategies for resisting and surviving modern regimes of power at perpetual war with colonised selves reside in the words, books, stories, dreams and songs deadened in the pages of most modern history books – subjugated knowledges that were sometimes exchanged between colonised peoples situated differently across Anglo-imperial terrains. Just as ‘chapati’ and ‘juppadi’ rhyme and resonate, the four readings of Australianama brought together here echo each other on a number of points.
I offer my sincerest thanks to Chapati Mystery for hosting a conversation that clarifies, names and animates some of the central tenets of the book. In what follows, in drawing out some of the resonances between the generous readings, I use this space to reflect upon a project that radically transformed my own understanding of history, knowledge and human consciousness.
I. Knowledge Relations
As all four reviewers highlight, central to the reading of non-English language texts in Australianama is a critique of Enlightenment epistemes. With the book resonating with Layli Uddin and Crystal McKinnon particularly because it sets out to explicitly connect this epistemological argument to a social justice political project, McKinnon found a range of “valuable methodological tools” for doing research work.
It is with the motif of such a tool that Uddin opens her review with the memorable scene from Black Panther set at the ‘Museum of Great Britain’, where Killmonger poisons the white metropolitan curator and reclaims a hammer made of ‘vibranium’ stolen from Wakanda. In drawing of a parallel between the vibranium hammer and the Kasasol Ambia–both turned into artefacts by the modern expert–Uddin invites reflection on precisely what it means to ‘liberate’ the tools seized from colonised peoples. As Uddin narrates, Killmonger’s reclamation of the deadened artefact takes place within a ‘retelling a tale from his exiled father about a powerful black nation.’ This is a strategy of reclamation that sits at an interesting angle to my techniques of retelling tales from mothers who sidestep nations–white, black and brown alike–and ultimately do find their way home and out of their experience of painful separation from homelands. This is an important divergence.
Reading Uddin’s review made me realise that ‘exile’ is not a term I use in the book. While it’s a word that might capture what was imposed upon figures such as the young Aboriginal woman Lallie Matbar barred from return to Wongatha deserts, the deployment of ‘exile’ as a metaphor to describe broader experiences of circular migration back and forth across the Indian Ocean, albeit through the increasingly rigid borders of ‘White Australia,’ would have risked conflating different forms of violence in a problematic way. More importantly, the experience of displacement from homelands, in the very particular regional context and moment of grief that I was researching in, was far more productively understood through the concept of viraha–an incredibly creative state of painful separation from loved ones that is densely theorised in South Asian literatures through the recurring gendered motif of the lover and the beloved. While viraha is not a concept I actually name in Australianama, it is one that hovers just under the surface of the text.
That Uddin is the only reviewer to identify that the reclamation and reanimation of these subjugated knowledges comprises a feminist project made me realise that this is not something I state all that explicitly in Australianama–it was almost too obvious a point to make for a project that emerged in dialogue with feminist scholars working in the interlocking fields of Australian history, Aboriginal history and British imperial history. As Taymia Zaman writes, the stories told in the process of reclaiming the Kasasol Ambia can be traced to an “inner library” of knowledge “that is passed and transmitted, often by women across geographies and generations.” With this interior, subjugated, effeminised realm housing modes of knowledge that I argue should and can be harnessed for social justice purposes, Najnin Islam highlights that animating these logics comprises my critique of “claims to ‘truth’ and universality” in Enlightenment epistemes.
II. Performing Texts: Cultivating Intergenerational Selves
When I first travelled to Broken Hill, the Kasasol Ambia in that little red mosque issued an invitation to perform the stories it contained. It was after all a book penned for the purposes of being recited to an audience. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that researching and writing Australianama comprised one particular performance of the motifs and interpretive strategies of the Kasasol Ambia. Reading Zaman and McKinnon’s responses to Australianama, it was a joyous realisation that their texts too can be read as performances of sorts. Perhaps, just perhaps, Australianama too is issuing audiences with an invitation to perform its methods?
Drawing attention to the two registers in which a story from Mughal history resides, Zaman writes that a tale from the text Humayannama “lives in two epistemes that remain separate in my head—one composed of my father’s soothing voice and cool hands, the other of words in a book—–and I rank the second episteme as higher, obviously.” Telling us about the circulation of a story transmitted from the sovereign Babur to his child Humayun, she does the work of connecting her and her father’s embodied knowledge with its penned instantiation in the pages of Gulbadan’s Humayannama. In doing this work of connecting epistemic sites too-often abruptly partitioned by the empiricist gaze of the modern historian, Zaman refuses to enact a rupture and hierarchy between embodied knowing and written knowledge that produces the rationalist being, the motif of the two sovereigns instead pointing to another theory of selfhood.
Travelling back from the “high mountains of Wurundjeri country near where Corranderk Aboriginal Station once thrived” McKinnon hangs her reading of Australianama on a road trip that connects places dense with Aboriginal history across lands never ceded to settlers. Beginning with a “fierce agreement” between three Indigenous travellers on a road trip, her engagement enacts a form of storytelling that I had the privilege of taking lessons in from Reg Dodd and others–a strategy that Islam describes as “reading the land as text.” McKinnon’s observation that the book illuminates “intersecting axes of South Asian and Indigenous knowledge, stories and language,”” points to a methodology of place-centred thinking, where multiple histories are inscribed onto the land and converge upon places, highlighting the powerful ways of thinking/seeing that become possible in the process of solidarity with Aboriginal peoples and articulating shared imagined futures–the incredibly rich theoretical, political and methodological resources that are simply not visible to the imperial eyes that continue to see blank spaces. Reading McKinnon’s response whilst travelling on the Hammersmith and city line tube somewhere deep below the streets of London, I did wonder precisely how to do this work of playing with the rich grammars of difference and encounter relegated to an underground world of subjugated knowledges now that I live and work in Britain. Where are the epistemes that people here were displaced from with the advent of colonial-modernity? Do the network of ‘secret rivers’ that are said to belie London somehow hold the key?
Expanding a methodological argument made in Australianama about the co-constitution of text and self, Zaman and McKinnon’s responses highlight that the process of transmitting stories that they in turn transmit to a larger audience is a process central to the ongoing cultivation of embattled forms of colonised subjectivity that modern institutions are perpetually at war with. McKinnon’s ‘fierce agreement’ with Tharawal man Jason Brailey and Professor of American Studies, J. Kēhaulani Kaunanui that “central to being an Indigenous person is knowing how you fit into an interrelated multi-generational familial and kinship schema” echoes Zaman description of intergenerational forms of selfhood in the South Asian context as “ways of being in the world both timeless and in desperate need of excavation.”
It is as if Zaman and McKinnon’s exquisite readings, in offering reflections from Mughal history and Aboriginal history respectively, amplify the mode of research and storytelling that I set out to perform in Australianama. It is clear that these scholars who have long been thinking and writing in modes that draw from non-Enlightement historiographical traditions. What Australianama does then is similar to the Kasasol Ambia, the Humayunnama and the route through Wurundjeri country McKinnon travelled back from Coranderk–they operate as sites that invite others to cultivate the selves “always, already” within them on alternative discursive terrains to the deathscapes of colonial-modernity.
III. Text and Geography
That historians had systematically and repeatedly mislabelled the Kasasol Ambia in Broken Hill as a Quran was a very productive phenomenon to think with, Zaman describing “the mislabeling itself [as] an act that carries within it entire histories.” That a number of generous readers are systematically and repeatedly mislabelling Australianama as “Australian history” offers another productive phenomenon to think with, revealing the way that texts are not only implicated in the production of subjectivities but also geographies. “One could argue” as Islam proposes cautiously at the end of her review, that Australianama is “an alternative account of Australian history; one that moves past the narrative of triumphant white settler colonialism and centers instead, Aboriginal communities and South Asian immigrants who too are constitutive parts of this history.”
Disciplining this book, in the final analysis, into a national history framework is an interpretive move that risks missing an important argument that underpins Australianama. The nation–Australian or otherwise–is an imagined community and institutional reality that I have a political project to challenge. Modern history as a discipline has played a key role in establishing the nation-state as the hegemonic and unquestioned unit of sovereign power governing life on this collapsing planet. In Australianama I understood myself to be embarking on a longer project to delink history writing from the geography of the nation, in dialogue with range of activists and scholars working to open up possibilities for other future geographies that we can orient towards.
This is a project that is urgent. That there are more then 10 million stateless people today who inhabit the borderlands of various countries is a direct product of increasingly violent national border-drawing practises that have accompanied the rise of right wing nationalisms across the world. That the drawing of national borders is inextricable from a process of ongoing, endless partition of communities into citizens and aliens has never been clearer then in contemporary India as the Modi government unleashes the next era of terrifying violence on its internal others through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Meanwhile in Australia, with over one hundred uncontrollable bushfires currently raging, the fact that the Australian government can only respond to the destruction of vast bushlands, homes and even species by denying any link to climate change points to the profound inability of nation-states to respond to the planetary crisis that we are now amidst. At this particular historical juncture we must interrogate whether one of the most violent legacies that European colonialism left in its wake is the conceptual and institutional hegemony of the nation itself.
Formulated in dialogue with this set of political concerns, one of the questions that underpinned the researching and writing of Australianama was: What geographies apart from the nation can frame social justice imaginations? In writing a history of a region beleaguered by one of the most belligerent, racist settler states operating today, I was running with the idea that if modern historians were central to inventing nations, new generations of historians have a vital role to play in the articulation of other ‘imaginative geographies’ to use Said’s phrase – geographies that are perhaps ‘always, already’ there.
IV. The Way Home; The Way Forward
Beginning with a tale of travel from Dhaka to Sydney, Australianama was a search for another ontological orientation to the fundamentally racist tale that I described as ‘Destination: West.’ The history book that this search produced, Uddin reads as “a welcome departure from the alienating narratives of progress” and traces indices of movement that Zaman names as “the way back home.” It’s a pathway connecting yesterday, today and tomorrow that McKinnon writes, “disrupts the thrust of modernity which leaves Brown, Indigenous and Black people behind in its wake.” A question that lies ahead is whether it is possible do historical scholarship and participate in political projects that articulate departures from ‘Destination: West’ even whilst relocating to London.
As Islam aptly points out, one component of this “challenge for Khatun going forward is perhaps to carve pathways that will carry her scholarship meaningfully to communities that enabled it.” This is an important task that awaits. Since the Australian edition was published in September 2019, beyond sending people copies of the book I have yet to reconnect to the families whose stories and generosity were so crucial to writing Australianama. However, my purpose in embedding Reg Dodd’s invitation to return to Marree in the northern deserts of South Australia into the very last chapter, was to signal a commitment to an ongoing dialogue beyond the publication of the book with the families and the places I wrote about. As Reg said to me when I rang him from Dhaka in March 2018: “You are just beginning to understand and you should come back and sit down around the campfire again!” (181) It is an invitation that remains open. To Reg Dodd or Larl Zada, incase you are reading this: I am coming back to Marree and Port Augusta, and with many tales of deltas and islands shaped by rivers that behave quite differently. I’m just taking a scenic route.
That the dialogues between different people somewhere on the margins of colonial modernity that Australianama brought to the fore might be best seen as intergenerational conversations is an intriguing possibility that McKinnon hints at. Describing the quest to uncover an alternative type of human subjectivity, she writes, ‘Her search for that person propelled her to travel to many Aboriginal countries long storied by their people, and along trade routes which may have been travelled by her ancestors, or maybe by mine.’ It is precisely along such trade routes that people have long cooked aromatic chapatis and juppadis, perhaps sharing messages about resilience, resistance and hope that have long been unintelligible to imperial eyes and ears. I would like to sincerely thank Najnin Islam, Crystal McKinnon, Layli Uddin, Taymiya Zaman and Salman Adil Hussain and Sonia Qadir from Chapati Mystery crew for facilitating another chapter in this ongoing conversation over the humble yet mysterious Chapati.