Like many students of South Asian literature, I was delighted when the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) was launched this January. The MCLI –– whose general editor is Sheldon Pollock –– is a collection of South Asian literary works in over twelve different languages. Although some of the volumes in the MCLI will be Sanskrit works, the library’s vital contribution will be rendering available texts that belong to vernacular South Asian literary traditions such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Sindhi and Punjabi. The importance of making vernacular works of South Asian literature more accessible is paramount. As Rohan Murty, the founder of the MCLI, points out, many students in India today are more familiar with Robert Frost and Shakespeare than they are with Indian classics.
In a certain sense, the MCLI is complemented by Sudipta Kaviraj’s new book, The Invention of Private Life: Literature and Ideas, which also draws our attention to the importance of South Asian vernacular literature, specifically Bengali literature. In this book, Kaviraj offers a set of critical reflections at the intersection of literature and political theory. In the introduction, Kaviraj describes how he once thought that his scholarly penchant for both literature and political theory was “simply an accident of taste”, and that these two academic interests were unrelated to each other (Ibid: 2). But, as is evidenced in these diverse essays, Kaviraj has since then begun to see literary works as sites of formations and articulations of nationalist ideas as well as other political and social forces. Throughout this book, Kaviraj uses the theories of Bakhtin, Taylor and Danto, among others, to examine and analyze the different Indian literary works that he discusses. Yet, despite approaching many of these pieces of literature with questions of political and social theory, Kaviraj’s “sense of textual pleasure” for these works clearly comes across in his essays (Ibid: 8).
Election results in India are not merely an aggregate of atomistic decisions made on the polling day. Even before the first vote is cast, a significant degree of synchronization has usually already taken place in the voting choices of the vast majority of the electorate. One of two scenarios usually obtains. Either a candidate wins by a huge margin, or, if the contest is a close one, the overwhelming majority of votes are split between the top two contenders. In other words, only those candidates who are perceived as having a real chance of winning are catapulted to victory, while others receive little more than scraps.
The concept of the electoral hawa (lit. breeze, wind) denotes, in lay usage, the creation of this perception of winnability. It is a notoriously ambiguous term, whose usage spans the entire spectrum from the buzz created at the electoral betting market (satta bazaar) to the more profound process through which the entire electorate is said to make up its mind. Part of this productive linguistic ambiguity stems from the fact that the hawa ‘reaches’ different people in different ways, depending upon their location within society and their involvement in politics. Only those who are involved in creating the hawa, i.e. politicians, or those involved in diagnosing its direction, i.e. the satta bazaar operatives, can be said to possess anything like a bird’s eye view of it. For most of the rest of the electorate, who observe politics from a distance, the hawa becomes discernible only when, having turned into an aandhi (a seasonal storm), it is already upon them.
For several years now, my humanities education has been running in parallel with my training as a vocalist in Carnatic Music, a style of music from South India. Each December I travel to Chennai to attend the famous “music season,” a festival for Carnatic Music that sees hundreds of performances and lectures throughout the city for nearly a month. I often return to Chennai in the less chaotic summer months, when I have more time and patience to learn from my guru Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy, whom we affectionately call PSN Mama. The transition from finishing my last paper of the semester to learning the first composition of the summer is always something of a leap.
Music seems to demand of me a different kind of learning than what I’m used to at university. Yet when I try to speak on the specific method of my guru, at first I don’t have anything all that interesting to say. Like most teachers of Carnatic Music, PSN Mama teaches me through compositions: he sings the composition line by line, and I sing each line back to him until he is convinced I’ve understood its structure. For fifteen years we have known each other more through our singing voices than our conversations, most of which are usually about when to meet next, or whether I want coffee before we begin.
Written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mahmood Mamdani’s 2005 book Good Muslim, BadMuslim historicizes the violence of terrorism. It extricates terrorism from the narrow morality that arises from the convergence of ethics and national interest, and instead locates terrorism “first and foremost as unfinished business of the Cold War.”1 “Good” and “bad” Muslims, terms borrowed from former U.S. President George W. Bush,2 are descriptions not of religious adherence, but of utility to U.S. foreign policy. As yesterday’s allies become today’s antagonists, the labels change to morally denigrate American foes.
Reintroducing history to the violence, the book begins by tracing the broad contours of the relationship between nation-state modernity and violence. Mamdani rejects violence as a pre-modern phenomenon, asserting instead that there is an inextricable relationship between violence and modernity.3 This is the book’s central theoretical framework: violence is political, not cultural.
The first chapter builds on this history of violence, and offers an alternative account of political Islam. It exposes the caricatures of Muslims and Islam that are deployed to provide a moral veneer for expansionist imperialism. The subsequent three chapters offer a chronological account of the violence of U.S. imperialist policies, beginning with post-Vietnam American support for anti-nationalist militancies, and through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s terrorism, the book asserts, is a direct consequence of these policies. The final chapter of the book offers closing thoughts, exhorting a review of American policies that “consistently seem to erode support and generate opposition.”4
These pictures were taken at the Dalit Adivasi Mahasamelanam, in November 2012, where tens of thousands of Dalits and Adivasis, including families of men, women, children, the elderly and in some cases, entire village communities, gathered together at the famous Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi in a campaign to end caste, caste discrimination, and caste atrocities. A letter reprinted below, written by Mr. G.M. Thaware, Secretary, All-India Depressed Classes Association to Mr. M.K. Gandhi regarding the condition of the ‘Depressed Classes,’ written in 1941, is telling. This letter is sourced from the National Archives of India‘s public records–Thaware forwarded a copy to the British Indian Administration for their records.
2011 has marked a new model of revolution that stem from practical realities and shun standardized theory. What do you think the prospects are for such demands for change that function in the absence of macro-social frameworks and ideologies? What ideas or discourses are likely to rise to the fore in the future? Does the nation state have a future as the main unit of political organization? If not, how will people and societies be organized?
The recording is now available for the public conversation between Prof. Hamid Dabashi and Prof. Ashis Nandy.
The two eminent scholars raised crucial questions revolving around the theme of “state, culture, and human imagination.” Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy brought to this discussion their respective conceptions of these central ideas. Of particular interest was the nature of the modern state and its viability within the context of changing epistemological, discursive, and temporal spaces. Professor Nandy suggests that the advent of the modern state has wreaked devastation upon societies by imposing the necessity of a cultural homogenization project. Building upon this idea, Professor Dabashi questions the viability of the modern state, in the Weberian sense, suggesting that the amorphous state has a greater tolerance for critical thinking than a totalitarian nation-state. The public conversation between Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy is crucial to Baraza’s own work, which seeks to imagine – and create – a space that not only facilitates engagement within the geographic and disciplinary boundaries of Area Studies. It also encourages the production of new discursive modes around which these engagements can be centered.
The renowned writer, journalist, director, and producer, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas narrates an important encounter that took place between Gandhi and Hakiman, an elderly weaver woman from Panipat. The story provides important insight into the atmosphere during the fight for freedom from colonial administration that took place on the Indian sub-continent during the first half of the 20th century. Abbas’ story illustrates the function of Gandhi’s persona in South Asia during this period. In his autobiography, Abbas recounts his impressions of Gandhi’s visit to the historic town of Panipat. He notes that Gandhi travelled the country extensively. This was the primary manner in which Gandhi was able to spread his message.
Though images, newsreels, and reports of Gandhi and the freedom struggle were splashed across global media from the 1920s onwards, the British administration did their best to limit his visibility on the subcontinent due to his incredible popular appeal. In India and abroad, Gandhi’s charisma was unparalleled. His celebrity was certainly profitable for news agencies. Yet, while he became a household name abroad, in his own home all references to Gandhi in the public space were subject to absolute censorship.Even foreign films that featured Gandhi and his struggles were banned and confiscated in India by the British administration. For the common men and women of the subcontinent, Gandhi was not an image or an everyday presence, but he was a man who stood for a familiar system of values and a set of ideas.