The Jamhuriyat Road to Taksim Square: Shilpi Suneja

The Jamhuriyat Road to Taksim Square: Shilpi Suneja.

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To Boston From Kabul With Love

To Boston From Kabul With Love

Thanks to Keegan O’Brien for this powerful photo — which is part of a series:

Blood has no national identification. Our capacity for empathy and solidarity is massive, and always must expand beyond the nationality of the victims.

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Teachers Rule

This morning when I opened my inbox I got an excellent reminder of who teachers really are and what they/we do.

The first line of the email to parents, written at 2am, says it all: ‘I want to let you know that I am in labor.’

The rest of the email goes on to detail the way the class will work during her maternity leave, knowing that the kids will need structure through the transition. On our side, of course, we add how important it is for parents and students to support the teacher, and how great it is to actually have maternity leave!

Teachers get vilified in the media, especially when we’re union, but this sort of thoughtfulness is pretty common. That’s why I say: Teachers Rule!

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Race and Orientalism

In Half of a Yellow Sun by Adichie, a character writes that the post-1884 British colonizers of what became Nigeria preferred the North over the South because of the weather — but also because:

“‘the Hausa-Fulani were narrow featured and therefore superior to the negroid Southerners. Muslim and therefore as civilized as one could get for natives; feudal and therefore perfect for indirect rule.”

So much is packed into this sentence, and forces us to rethink the ideas in texts like Edward Said’s Orientalism.

As Said and so many others have written, the construction of an inferior Orient, often centered around stereotypes about the backwardness of eastern religion and society, went hand in hand with western imperialism. A war of ideas went along with and supported actual wars.

And yet all of this happened in the context of deeper layers of colonialism and global hierarchies of race. However negative Muslims were considered to be, they were more civilized than animists; however inferior racially to Europe, at least they were not Black. However backward feudalism was, it was more familiar and useful than African republicanism as represented by Igbo village organization.

Adichie also forces us to ask about the effects of Arab conquests in Africa, not only north Africa but also sub-Saharan Africa. What ideas about race and color developed in this context? What was and has been the effect for ordinary Africans, whether Black or Arab?

Finally, how does this colonial context differ from others? In South Asia, for example, the British used at least two different ways of identifying the people: sometimes they were all ‘niggers,’ and sometimes they differentiated between upper-caste, lighter skinned, northern ‘Aryans’ whose traditions and languages were linked with Europe, and southern, darker ‘Dravidians’ who were the indigenous inhabitants.

These racial theories of South Asia have been repeatedly challenged, but they point to a complex construction of race that echoes both anti-Muslim/Arab Orientalism and anti-Black racism.

Kudos to Adichie for packing such complexities in a novel!

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Sure Signs of ADD

At one point this morning, I had two FB pages open and a Gmail window to sync my calender to my mobile. I was responding to a note when two chats appeared on my screen at the same time. My phone beeped to let me know of a text, and then promptly started ringing.

So I thought what the heck, I’d better blog about it.  Twitter will send it to FB, so I’ll be covered.

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JP’s Radicalization in the 1920s

I’m giving a paper at the 2012 South Asia Conference in Madison.  That’s right, a literature guy amongst the social scientists.  I’ll try to keep up…

The panel is “Reading the Revolutionaries,” on Indian revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s.  It’s on Friday, October 12, from 3:45 to 5:30pm.

Paper Title: “Bihar, San Francisco, Columbus, Madison: JP’s Radicalization in the 1920s”

Abstract: “Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of Indian revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s.  He is cast as a moderate, a “Gandhian socialist,” in scholarly histories and political assessments of Indian anticolonial nationalism.  And there’s good reason for this.  For all of his attraction towards socialism, secularism, and Marxism, JP actively placed himself in close association with Gandhi during the anticolonial movement, and with Gandhian cultural and political practices in postcolonial struggles against economic inequalities and political repression.

This paper, based on my translation of JP’s 1972 interview with Hari Dev Sharma of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, argues differently: that JP was very much a product of interwar radicalism, and that his future trajectories can be better explained when we contextualize his politicization over the course of the 1920s.  JP’s political education developed across continents: as a participant in the Non Co-operation Movement in Bihar, as a farm laborer and poor student in California, as a graduate student at Ohio State, UW-Madison and elsewhere in the Midwest, where he was introduced to Marxism in the context of labor solidarity work and anti-racist struggle.  This JP – sitting in Wisconsin or Ohio, debating Lenin during Lenin’s lifetime with a mixed-race group of radicals – is part of a larger leftist, cosmopolitan story that is usually not associated with his legacy.

In addition to offering a glimpse into JP’s early life, this oral narrative in Hindi opens up unexpected and intimate windows into his political consciousness, complicating the conclusions of mainstream historiography.  Though trying to recover JP for a nationalist archive, the NMML interviewer actually unleashes memories that reveal the uneven and dynamic interactions of nationalist and revolutionary consciousness.  As the pre-Emergency JP reflects on the thoughts of the pre-political JP, his stream-of-consciousness narration unearths alternative avenues for research-like JP’s early Leninism-and, less self-consciously, the biases and stereotypes that this young immigrant student had to confront before arriving at progressive social and political views.  In the end, the oral narrative makes a very specific contribution to the historical record of Indian revolutionaries, suggesting that JP’s later political turns may have had as much to do with the crises of Indian and global revolutionary thought and organization as they have to do with his own, deeply-held cultural nationalism.

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Solidarity with CTU!

Solidarity with CTU!

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Delhi Memories X: St. Peter and Other Gatekeepers

This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.

I had promised a detailed, regular snapshot of my year in India — and what have I given you instead?  Nothing better than a few scraps and fragments, scattered here and there.  Betrayed and lied to, I realize you may never come back to me.  It might not be enough to say that something called “the Occupy movement” has transformed my life since the time of my last post.  Yes, I’ve found someone else…

And yet I’ve returned.  Because India has latched onto my brain and won’t let me go.  I need to tell someone about it.  And I’ll try to be more faithful.

I waved goodbye to you at the doorstep of the National Archives of India, which is well and good because you cannot enter anyway without proper documentation and permission.  Why don’t we linger here a bit?  Gaining entry into such institutions gives as much of an insight into the processes of knowledge production as anything that you might read inside.

First of all, so many bureaucrats lovingly made my research project their own, from the Indian Consulate in New York which issued by visa to various US and Indian border authorities to the Home Department of the Government of India.  What they made of a project entitled “Insurgency, Violence, and Anti-Colonial Resistance” I cannot say, but I certainly didn’t choose the most subtle title.  It was only after being duly stamped and scanned by these gatekeepers of knowledge that I could make my way to the NAI.

In the early days at the Archives I had not let learned how to get through the gates of the compound—surrounded by tea-drinking policemen with long rifles and big mustaches—if I got there before the wizened and silent old man who is supposed to issue the pass.   The Archives might be open, but if you don’t have your official pass from the Home Department, nothing will get you past the gates.  This St Peter of the NAI must have signed your paper and entered your name into his ledger, skillfully copying your information at the exact same moment that you enter it onto the form, reading your handwriting upside down. How many years has he sat there, entering name after name so diligently?  Researches from all over the country and the world, laborers working that day in the compound (who often either signed with a mark, or have a supervisor sign them in), and all others who did not have some sort of permanent identification queue up outside that office.

No matter how long the line, no one could force St. Peter to fill out the form before he had completed (deliberately, methodically) his daily routine.  I can see him now: he slowly comes up to the padlocked office, brings out his big ring of keys and opens the door, takes off his jacket and places it on the hook, walks back to the desk and sits down, turns on his small fan, if appropriate, produces a thick, dusty ledger which slams on the desk with a cloud-creating thwack, opens it up to the right page, places the forms in front of the lines of eyes, watching him impatiently now, and taps once or twice to tell you he’s ready.

These were the early days.  Later, I discovered how to get through on my own terms.  A smile and a nod to the policemen who had seen you there before, a tug on the official-looking badge hanging on your neck (who cared that it only indicated you were a parent at your kids’ school), a brisk walk with your head held high indicating you’re a man of some importance (underline and bold on “man”) – all of these were sufficient.  But you couldn’t be arrogant about it, and you had to accept the offer, once in a while, of tea and ‘interrogation’ (Where are you from? Why’s your Hindi so bad?  How much are you paying for rent, and why not move to another place?  How many kids do you have? ).  And you had to know what day it was and adjust your behavior accordingly: a few weeks before days like Republic Day, the place would go into lockdown mode, new cops would rotate in, and even the ones who knew would act officious.

Can I emphasize enough that whatever informalities developed not a single rupee passed from my hand to theirs?

Since I’m at the compound anyway I might as well tell you about it a bit more.  As we all discovered over time, sharing information with newcomers to the NAI, there were two main eating places: the canteen and the dhaba, just outside the side gate (the one leading to the Krishi Bhavan bus stop and Central Secretariat metro station).  Both really inexpensive, both very tasty, both liable to you a little sick every say, sixth meal or so.  In other words, a good deal.

The ‘bread-omelets’ at the canteen – well, I remember them every time I saturate my bland, US omelets in salt and pepper.  And the chutney that they give with the samosas at the dhaba—my god, if you never understood why the treatment of “ear, nose, and throat” are often combined in medical practice  you would after tasting some of this.  That chutney sears through your system like a wildfire, and begins an entire cycle: you go for more, you get stomach upset after the 6th time, and then once you’re recovered, you go back for more.

Remember: the fresh samosas at the dhaba come in around 3.  Don’t go before; the old oil reduces the rate of upset stomach to once every 4 or 5 meals.

Can you see what just happened?  Each entry gets so long, so focused on small things, that you feel like you can’t take the time to write more regularly.  What to do?  You begin to talk about one thing and get overwhelmed by the significances of the minute images and incidents that are associated with it.  But this was India for me, a series of experiences in which every moment stood out in rich detail.

Posted in delhi 2010-11, delhi memories

Delhi Memories IX: Starting Research

This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.

Delhi High Court was bombed on Wednesday, killing 11 and injuring over 70.  Deep sympathies to the victims and their families.


Sometime in last August last year, I became well enough and we became settled enough to begin the project for which we had come to India in the first place: research!

My basic idea, in brief, was to study Indian representations and narratives of the 1857 Revolt as they have changed over time, from the 19th century to the anticolonial struggle in the 20th to the postcolonial period.  As I wrote in a post last year, I was motivated by the need to contest current ideas about “insurgency” and “counter-insurgency” that act as if they are neutral terms when, in fact. they are quite politically charged.  In addition, while many studies exist on the impact of 1857 on the British imagination, I felt there was a gap on studies on the complex associations of 1857 in Indian consciousness.

I was intrigued, one might say, by the process through which an uprising that was loathed by elite founders of the Indian National Congress in 1885 has became heralded, in mainstream nationalism today, as “the first Indian war of Independence.”  And this too while embracing the notion that India’s was a non-violent revolution!  My aim, even before doing the research, was not simply to point out the tensions in such thinking but to investigate how it had come about.

I quickly located three broad areas where I could investigate Indian voices on 1857.   The first, and most obvious and accessible, was what we might call the nationalist archive from the 20th century movements.  Newspapers, histories, speeches, plays, novels — all of these were relatively straight-forward to access, many from the Nehru Memorial Library, where Iw as an affiliated scholar.  Though limited in my knowledge of Indian languages, I could still find plenty of texts to investigate, both primary and secondary.

Next, and more difficult, was the task of locating 19th century voices.  Here, the fact that Indians has been crushed militarily and politically, and were subject to draconian laws after 1857, had everything to do with the lack of sources–not to speak of sources in English!  The few texts available turned out to be loyalist Indians, paraded about by the British and made available in India while other perspectives were suppressed.  And so one of the key sources for finding 19th century traces of Indian voices were the British colonial archives themselves.  Reading against the grain of the documents, I felt, I could try to derive some sense of Indian rebel thought and action.  For this I gained admittance to the National Archives of India.

Finally, I wanted to have an experiential component to my research.  Between the ongoing TV serial on the Rani of Jhansi, one of the 1857 heroes, the presence of sites in Delhi and surrounding areas relevant to 1857, and the currency of the event in the present moment, I wanted to get an understanding of what it meant to folks today.  Road trips and interviews, I thought, would be useful for this aspect of the study.

The research itself was to take me in many new directions.  And yet these three basic approaches remained generally the same.  I decided to begin with the most unfamiliar work, the National Archives of India.

And so one day, with great trepidation, I set forth to do my first bit of archival work ever, entering the world of historians, sociologists, economists, and other fantastical beings…

Posted in delhi 2010-11, delhi memories

Delhi Memories VIII: The Politics of Cars

This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.

“No Honking!  Kutte Bhi Bina Vajah Nahin Bhonkte!”

Even dogs don’t bark without a reason!

If you’re not used to Indian city streets and the incessant honking that is their soundtrack, you’ll probably laugh when you see such signs posted outside the gates of colonies (residential areas) in South Delhi.

Depending on your bent of mind—or your mood at that moment—you might think something like: “At least someone has some civic sense in this country.”  Or, more charitably, “Yes, this honking is a problem and it’s good that people are aware of it.”  Which pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Around this time last year, I had been in India for a little over a month, and I too was firmly ensconsed in this sort of mindset, along with the neighborhood “welfare association” which had authorized such signs.

At least in terms of their content.  I had a problem with the metaphor being used, revealing a deep classism and snobbery in comparing drivers with dogs.  I also wondered whether the makers of the sign actually lived in Delhi, since the local community of street dogs often howled for absolutely no reason outside our windows in the middle of the night.

Still, such signs made me smile because they seemed to resist the dominant politics of cars in Delhi: the wealthier the family, the bigger the car; the bigger the car, the louder the horn, and the less regard for the many other vehicles and pedestrians populating the road, which was itself usually too narrow to accommodate these new, monstrous goodies of globalization.

The neighborhood we lived in is a case in point.  Built in the 1970s or so, Gulmohar Park is much less swanky than other South Delhi colonies, like Sunder Nagar, Nizamuddin East, Vasant Vihar, etc., which are themselves a far cry from the flat cities in Gurgoan.  Yet, GP is chock full of journalists, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen who have redone their houses, often renting them out, and have jumped headlong into the new consumer market.  This also means getting bigger and bigger cars—despite the fact that the roads are (in my view) far too small for them.

Owners driving the cars themselves are often much worse than folks hired as drivers.  But to some extent the arrogance goes with the car itself.  I’ve seen drivers who have very little—living and sleeping in shacks, sending most of what they make to their families in Bihar or Haryana—turn into manics behind the wheel of an Innova or Pajero, bearing down on elites in their jogging suits, out for their evening walks.

So in the early months I kept getting into angry spats with drivers who got too close to me.  Standing out in the middle of the road and refusing to move.  Yelling at people and pointing to the kid they almost hit.  People thought I was crazy, and I was a bit.

But like everything else, I later got used to the state of things regarding cars.  Pretty soon, I’d have no problem walking about calmly as cars whizzed by a few inches from my feet.  Some of this had to do with a general acceptance of my shrinking physical space—on lines for recharging the mobile, in the metro, on the bus, on the street.

And a lot had to do with learning how to inhabit a different space, with learning how to move with the flow of the traffic, even as a pedestrian.  By the end of my visit I was able to cross major roads (like Aurobindo Marg) at any point, and at any time, whether or not it was packed with vehicles.  You learn how to do things—use rickshaws as blockers, recognize how various vehicles are moving at different speeds, realize that the fact that most vehicle are stick and not automatic means they can switch gears in a heartbeat, and slow down when needed.

I also got used to the idea that honking was a language, and often used strategically by the better drivers in the absence of street signs and traffic signals.  Some of the best drivers I’ve seen–one Ramavtar comes to mind—could inflect their honking incredibly well, with appropriate variations to convey anything from “I’m at the T and taking a turn” to “Please recognize that I’m passing you,” to “Get me three pakoras and a chai; I’ll be back in three minutes” (ok, strike the last line).

Look, I had a cousin of mine killed in a traffic accident in Gujarat, ten years ago now, and I would never take the question of car safety lightly.  I saw several accidents while in India, at least two of them within the few minutes of their occurrence, with the corpses of victims twisted in unimaginable shapes.  They haunt my memory as I write this.  They take the romance away from some of the incredibly dangerous situations I sometimes found myself in, like the completely crowded rickshaw taxi a friend and I took between Jhansi and Orccha.  It’s fine as long as it’s going; if it got hit by a truck, forget it.

So there are many things that could be better as far as traffic rules, etc.  But the longer I lived there, the more I realized that you can’t just blame individuals who are looking for a way of a situation that is less than ideal.  It’s not about drivers honking and being reckless, it’s about the proliferation of cars without necessary infrastructure, and the power hierarchy represented by car owners.

It’s not without reason that so many South Asian texts use the car as the site for power but also isolation, and the violence of cars as a sign of class disparity.  From Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; from Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines to Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography; cars and the violence they cause are signs of a reckless globalization that tramples non-elites underfoot.

Posted in delhi 2010-11