Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

September 14, 2010

A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion:

It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well. (more…)

Reflections: Literature and Nationalism

June 14, 2010

By Kabir Altaf

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events. (more…)

Reflections of a New Mother

December 9, 2009

By Radhika R. Yeddanapudi

I received a birthday card from my father yesterday. In his familiar, right-leaning hand, he had written, “I believe this is your best birthday yet.” I imagined this card landing in the future in a stranger’s hand, perhaps in an old curiosity shop. What will the stranger make of my father’s allusion? A job, a promotion, an achievement of some sort? I wanted to ask my father to what he referred but decided against it. He may not have wanted to, or even been able to, articulate exactly why the birth of my son represented the best that my life could offer, only that he felt it.  I remained silent out of a mixed sense of inadequacy, propriety and maternal pride: a new living being can inspire and effect change in a way that no achievement can.

My son Himadri was not real to me until we brought him home from the hospital. The involuntary nature of pregnancy, labor and childbirth left me feeling like there was nothing I could control, and hence the child of this natural set of events seemed quite unreal. (more…)

French Salons and South Asia

November 13, 2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.

A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:

A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. (more…)

Reflections: South Asian Pecking Order

November 11, 2009

There is a sentence in Julian Barnes’s review of two novels by Maupassant (1850-1893) that struck me with unusual force and I wish to use it to reflect on our societal values in South Asia.

Barnes is talking about four pages in one of the novels that describe Parisian salons, “the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them.” And here is the sentence that should knock a South Asian for a six:

Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated.

I am not making it up – you can look up the original here. Go over the pecking order again and take a few moments to let it sink in. (more…)

Pakistan: What Do You Want?

November 6, 2009

You must have had the experience of catching just a part of an interesting conversation and wondering how it might have evolved. It happened to me today as I moved past an African and a South Asian who, the words suggested, was a Pakistani. I heard the African asking, “What do professionals like you really want to see happening in Pakistan?” And    before I could hear the answer the words were swallowed by the silence.

It was a good question at a time when Pakistanis seem to be living from day to day just hoping for the situation to stabilize. What kind of Pakistan might middle class professionals really want beyond this immediate crisis if they got around to thinking about it? I would have loved to hear but the opportunity was lost. I wondered then what I might have said had I been given that part in some role-play exercise or in a mock UN format. (more…)

September Eleven

September 11, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

We have short memories.

Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power.

It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan - then the symbol of American capitalism –  was wired up with explosives.

The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be. (more…)

Aditya Behl (1966-2009)

September 5, 2009

I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today.

I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience.

I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him.

******

… Then one morning Naim saab became the bearer of unsettling news, we have lost Aditya Behl. One of the most talented young scholars in his early 40s, Aditya became known for his work in Persian and Urdu but he was at home in many languages including Sanskrit, French, Greek and Hindi. Aditya was the bearer of intimations of being Hindu and Muslim, which are perhaps lost except to a few persons/communities in our times.

Dazzling in his scholarship, repertoire and bearing, Aditya had carved out for himself an area of expertise in the genre of Sufi romances. He was one of the successors to the scholarship of an entire generation including Annemarie Schimmel, Christopher Shackle, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence and Simon Digby (who accompanied him on some of his travels).

I met Aditya for the first time at the University of Chicago in the winter of 1980-81. He was deeply into Sufi studies (much before the subject had become fashionable!). I was then distant from South Asian studies, and instead immersed in European theories of state formation. He spoke to me of the patronage of Mughal and Maratha rulers of Gwalior and Indore and the creativity of sufis.

Over the last twenty years my own area of interest has developed in Muslim identities in Persian/Urdu/Rajasthani texts and the Hindu-Muslim city and I have come to deeply appreciate Aditya’s understanding of facets of Hindu-Muslim relations. I was enthralled by his translation of Mir Sayyid Manjhan Rajgiri, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi romance, done in collaboration with Simon Weightman and published in the Oxford classics series.

In the last decade our interests grew closer. He was also mining the medieval Rajput-Charan texts that I was using. When I convened a double panel on the Universes of Indian Islam for the Conference on Indic religions, which my colleague, Madhu Kishwar, was organizing, Aditya’s was one of the first names that came to my mind. Illness -presaging perhaps the present moment – came in the way of his participation.

In September 2006 he gave a Seminar at CSDS on the Dabistān-i mazāhib, an Encyclopedia of Religion. By then he was holding the chair of South Asian Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It had been a long day at work, but the seminar was invigorating. I have in my notes of that evening the words, “As always I like his work and the way it opens up a vista.” The Dabistān-i Mazāhib is a 17th century text, “authored” by a Zorastrian who has a surface duplex identity with two names, Zu’lfaqar Ardistani and Husaini Shah. The author identifies various groups such as Zorastrians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. The “Hindus” refer to a geographic category and include a variety of sects, Aditya pointed out. The Zorastrian group from Azerkhaiban had suffered persecution under the Safavids and had come to practice taqiyā-using the tools of the conqueror against them. Aditya read the text in terms not of identity but as difference. My question for him had been that instead of the incommensurable difference he read, the text suggested to me numerous encounters and conversations: the reference to yogic breathing and other techniques; the Prophet being described as a disciple of Gorakhnath who taught him yoga; the description of Sarmad’s identity who is a Jew-Sufi. There is a reference to divisions, of course, that China and India will send forces that will reverse the Muslim expansion! The larger picture is of the Mughal Empire with its imperial bureaucracy in place, its agricultural productivity and considerable prosperity, and hence, the movement of holy men. I debated with him later that material prosperity alone does not explain this movement, particularly when it comes to holy men in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What one needs to know more about is the popular support for holy men, the interaction between the village/town and these figures. I recall on the occasion Shuddhabrata’s comments that the last group of Mutazzilites was in Patna and that this was a period conducive to the writing of such “encyclopedias.”

In the last few years Aditya had become interested in the figure of Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830), immortalized in Habib Tanvir’s play Āgrā Bāzār. Nazir, the proponent of the language of the street and the bazaar, the poet of the carnivalesque kite flying and Holi festivals, the portrayer of vendors such as the watermelon seller, and of the sensual. He presented his work at the Delhi School of Economics and later wrote it up in, “Poet of the bazaars: Nazir Akbarabadi 1735-1830.” This was published in A wilderness of possibilities-Urdu studies in transnational perspective, edited by Kathryn Hansen and David Lelyveld. Aditya in this paper is interested in the formation of the Urdu literary canon, how Nazir’s verse was seen as vulgar by Mustafa Khan Shefta, characterized as “psychological impotence” by Shamsur-rahman Faruqi and seen as distant from the “high-minded Islamic revivalism” of Altaf Husain Hali. His interest was in Nazir’s poems on pleasure and how it requires a sensual sensibility, quite anamolous for the Urdu canon.

Aditya, I miss you already, the many conversations real and imagined that we had and could have had. You opened for the English reader a magical, miraculous world of medieval Sufi poetry, the premākhyāns notably Manjhan’s Madhumālati, Jayasi’s Padmāvat and Qutban’s Mrigavatī. A glorious Sufic contribution to Hindavi, but also to Brajbhasha and Avadhi and of thinking beyond “religion.”

You were an exceptionally talented person and explored a beautiful universe. Now you know more than any of us, what its deepest secrets are, of fanā and baqā, and the truths of wahdat ul wujūud and Alakh Niranjan!!

Shail Mayaram
Visiting Professor
Indian Institute of Advanced Study
Shimla

This tribute is reproduced with thanks from Chapati Mystery.

 

Reflections: Shaped by the Times

July 16, 2009

By Viswam Kumar

When I look back to see what shaped me – I can see how much I am shaped by serendipitous circumstances and encounters with people.

Mental Discipline is perhaps the foundational trait behind all my meager achievements. I have the discipline required in focusing, concentrating and working hard to achieve a goal. This goal can be anything from finishing a project at work successfully to sticking with a fitness regime. This discipline has been a result of the grooming from my parents. They have always spoken highly about hard work and discipline and extolled these virtues. Over time, I have learnt that Discipline is something that adds to the quality of life, even if it is not materially rewarding – which was the initial motive for adopting discipline. I have learnt that it can give the courage needed to pursue goals that seem difficult to others. This foundational quality has enabled me to diligently pursue interests that have also contributed to shaping my life. (more…)

Reflections: Go Mohammedans?

May 22, 2009

Can you tell me what is meant by ‘sublimated violence’?

I am asking this question to try to answer another that was put to me yesterday. It has left me quite perplexed.

A reader wrote and described the following observation. He was attending a serious talk by an American professional. Somewhere in the middle of the talk, the presenter had occasion to mention he was from Pittsburg. All of a sudden, he swiveled from his hip, pumped up his fist, and shouted ‘Go Steelers.’ And then he continued with his serious presentation.

The question posed by the reader was whether I could imagine a South Asian doing something like that and if not, why not? (more…)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers