Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

One of Brown Pundit’s commentators, Ruchira, wrote a wonderful piece (titled similarly to this post) on her sadly discontinued still archived but profound blog, Accidental Blogger, in 2007 about being an NRI. It was really very well-written and I thought I would reproduce it here for its 10+ year anniversary. For someone like myself who has such diverse origins and is also “peripatetic” (it’s always nice to have to google words to refresh on their exact meaning); this piece really resonated with me.

This is one of the few personal essays Ruchira had written on her blog and her father-in-law, mentioned below, passed away last year in 2016. I have excerpted & italicized a particularly moving passage on him as he was a noted Urdu writer.

It is bittersweet that Urdu, an exalted melange borne of poets, warriors & nomads, is cursed to wrestle with death every few generations in the bloodiest of circumstances (1857, 1947, 1971). Truly a tongue more suited for war than peace, for pain than pleasure but then perhaps that is what makes it so achingly beautiful and ephemeral.

A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

All in all a very wonderful and lyrical piece, which I’m very happy to share below.

Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

More than twenty six years ago, I left New Delhi, India to follow my peripatetic husband on a journey that would take us across two new continents and four different cities. Until then my birthplace Delhi, was the only home I had known.  Most of my family and all my friends lived there and frankly, I had never imagined leaving that comfortable zone of familiarity except for travel and tourism. In the years since the initial uprooting, the idea of home has undergone dramatic changes in my mind, as has the definition of comfort zone. What exactly is home for any one of us?  Where the heart is or where the hearth is? Is it the place we ourselves grew up in or where we bring up our children?  Do we define it by the food, the smells, the climate or the faces around us? Or is much of it in our minds?

For ages humans have left their homes in search of food and adventure, as also in fear. They have set down new roots in unfamiliar landscapes . Having done so, they have surely at one time or another reflected back on that decision and wondered if their lives were better or worse for having left. Good and bad fortunes are both ascribed to the decision to leave one’s homestead.

Severing ties with once familiar surroundings can come about in two ways – voluntarily and involuntarily.  For some it is a deliberate choice of a new life in a new place. Others leave under the threat of natural or man made disasters. There is no doubt that the initial trauma and the feeling of helplessness is much greater for the latter group. But after years, when things have settled down and a modicum of normalcy returns, do things even out?  Do those who are violently uprooted from their nests continue to pine for their loss longer and more keenly than those who leave peacefully? During WWII did European Jews fleeing the horror in their homeland miss Poland, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania once they found safe haven elsewhere? Or were they able to shed their attachment for the “home” that didn’t accord them dignity and provide sanctuary? Will Palestinian refugees ever accept a peace settlement with Israel without a “right of return” clause?  Are displaced persons from war torn regions more or less nostalgic about their homes than immigrants such as myself who chose to relocate under placid circumstances? Or is it all in our head, how rooted or uprooted we feel in one place or another?

Both of my parents and my father- in-law lost their ancestral homes during the partition of India to what was to become Pakistan (east & west). My own parents came from the eastern wing of partitioned India which saw far less sustained violence than the western part to which my husband’s family belonged. My parents’ side of the family lost considerably more in material wealth and social standing than did my in-laws. Yet there was a dramatic difference in the way the two families chose to remember their loss. Although their circumstances had been seriously and even brutally altered, my parents and other close relatives went on to live reasonably comfortable lives in India, going about their business in a forward looking manner. They explained the partition in terms of politics, history and the perfidy of the British. Their progeny (me included), born in independent India in safe and peaceful circumstances heard their stories and in their imagination, often conjured up a sense of loss more wrenching than the refugees themselves felt. But that is always the peculiar burden of subsequent generations – to feel more helpless, more enraged and more emotionally bereft for the sufferings of their elders. The victims themselves who live through the terror and the humiliation manage to often remember their experience with aloofness and perhaps even triumph, looking back at discrete events which they managed to survive against all odds.

Like my family, my father-in-law too did well for himself in east Africa (he left India soon after the partition) and in India where he returned several years later. But to this day, he remains very sentimental about his interrupted life and his erstwhile home from where he and his family escaped with little more than the shirts on their backs. He witnessed widespread violence during the bloody mayhem that accompanied India’s wrenching territorial partition and population exchange. A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

Last month I came across the poem, “How Do You Like Austin?” by Maurice Leiter at Brian Leiter’s blog. It is apt to quote a few lines from the poem here.

How do you like your new home? …

But isn’t it different from New York?

I am different from them both.
Once the sightseeing is done,
There is really no place
That is not home.

After initial few years of slight disorientation (especially the two years in Germany), like Maurice Leiter, I too no longer fret about where “home” is. It now is a state of mind that transcends  geography. I have found wonderful friends and a rhythm of life that I can enjoy almost everywhere I have lived. In the early days when I visited Delhi, I felt I was going “home.” Gradually as the years went by, the return flight to the US began to acquire the feel of “coming home.”  Since the death of my parents, Delhi, which I still love to visit, feels less and less like the home I knew.  Also, I am now much less connected to the political / social reality in India, a connection which for me, is vital to feeling at home. Delhi will never fully cease to be “home” for me – it is thoroughly integrated in my memory and my imagination. But “home” now no longer evokes a single concrete image as it did in my youth. Several others vie for that honor – places where I have been, where I am now … and hopefully  also where I will be in the future. I can now go back and forth physically between these spaces at different times and emotionally inhabit them simultaneously.  All feel equally comfortable and I don’t have the need to transpose one upon the other to create an illusion of the perfect “home.”

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Life expectancy in South Asia

India is very heterogeneous. Nevertheless, the contrast between Assam and Bangladesh is very curious to me.

1Kerala74.974.0
2Delhi73.2
3Jammu and Kashmir72.6
4Uttarakhand71.760.0
5Himachal Pradesh71.667.0
5Punjab71.669.4
5Maharashtra71.667.2
8Tamil Nadu70.666.2
9West Bengal70.264.9
10Karnataka68.865.3
11Gujarat68.764.1
12Haryana68.666.2
13Andhra Pradesh (includes Telangana)68.564.4
14Bihar68.161.6
*India67.963.5
15Rajasthan67.762.0
16Jharkhand66.658.0
17Odisha65.859.6
18Chhattisgarh64.858.0
19Madhya Pradesh64.258.0
20Uttar Pradesh64.160.0
21Assam63.958.9
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To be brown is to be a civilization


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

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The Obliquity of Oriental Culture

I love the Tipping Point genre. I was recently reading Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” & I also enjoyed the Rational Optimist, Black Swan (which is tbh slightly different to the rest). However most of all Obliquity deeply impacted me.

I tend to be oblique, or indirect, in my aims & agenda. It’s something that’s perplexing for my wife, who is extraordinarily direct. That suits her in her academic career and cultural heritage, where Sindhis seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Growing up I was deeply impacted by the very restrained mores of Irani Yazdi Baha’i culture (it’s a thing trust me & disproportionately influential in the South Asian Baha’i world). I always found desi culture much more emotional whereas ours was reserved (almost) to the point of being British, to this day I find emotional outbursts to be troubling and a personal failure (also for someone so chatty I find it difficult to discuss deep emotions).

Further to that is the distinction between the public face and the private one, again a relic of Persian culture. Now by Persian culture I have no idea whether it’s prevalent in the mainstream Iranian culture but rather in the diasporan pockets of Baha’i communities in the Gulf & South Asia. However ta’arof (the art of politeness) is a pretty universal thing among Persian speakers I imagine.

Ironically these Oriental cultural features, obliqueness, reservedness, class consciousness (that one I picked up from Pakistan which in the 90’s & naughties was positively Victorian in its class hierarchy), the private & public distinction were all cultural traits that hyper-accelerated my integration into Britain. Britain is a complex country and the class system is still very much a national feature; especially in the regions that I’m in (Oxbridge Formals sometimes feel straight out of Hogwarths).

For instance take the term “micro-aggression”; now I’m not exactly sure of what it means but I understand it to be a way of scoring racial points by white people in as subtle a way as possible. That’s basically Persian Baha’i culture because our Faith is so idealistic we can never be outright rude to one another so sometimes we manifest anger in very mundane, petty & hurtful ways.

My wife makes a good point that Pakistani & her Sindhi Bhaiband culture are very similar; there’s a love of socialising, glamour and opulence. It’s very very different to the sub-culture that I grew up in that preferred the under-stated and refined rather than scale or lavishness.

Brown Pundits becomes interesting to me personally when I need to reflect on my culture, on my mindset and whether it hinders me or aids me. I imagine if I had moved to the US instead of the UK I would have probably emphasised the more Pakistani-desi aspects of my heritage; the extroversion, the ebullience & conviviality (again I’m talking about the Karachi KGS sub-culture in Pakistan). In Britain however the haunting & melancholic tones of a lost Persia (Yazdi culture is a culture of mourning & redemption in the Faith) chime very very well here and sort of facilitated an interest in the rarer circles of British life.

I do find posh Britain to be a bit common & vulgar at times, especially when they are always trying to get sloshed/drunk (alas the English & their drink), but once one swims among the older generations there is a sense of artistic and aesthetic inclination coupled with a love of good conversation.

However nothing prepared me for my wife’s hugely superior approach she took to life in the West. Whereas I was always holding on to my idealised constructions of my heritage; she essentially junked that and showed me that even though I was a many-generationed Baha’i there was some ineffably Islamic bug about my mentality that hindered my full progression in the West.

Islamic cultures have this sort of puffed up pride because of their glory-days and Bahai’s too can sometimes have it because our Prophets were Persian. This unearned haughtiness makes us feel sometimes that the West is only technically and materially superior but nothing more. What my wife has shown me that Westerners have an extremely different, not so positive, impression of our cultures and that only through internalisation of this reality can one hope to truly compete in the West.

For all this time even though I commingled in White Society, in a variety echelons, I somehow stayed apart & alien to it because my own conception of my heritage bubbled me from truly intimate interactions. It’s only when I popped the bubble, thanks to my wife, did I truly join White Society and began to realise there are things like white privilege, micro-aggression and that white people behaved pretty much like much like ethnic people just much more subtly.

I also realised that when I went from being an exoticised & fascinating alien to be an actual member in England among the English that why so many immigrants prefer the ethnic enclave. The English are not racists but neither are they entirely welcoming. Brexit reflected that silent strain of superiority brought upon by Memories of the Empire.

If I wasn’t naturally very extroverted I would have retreated back to Londonistan a long time ago. My wife & I find ourselves in situations where we are the only dark-haired people in crowded room (it’s shocking how mono-ethnic social groups are in multi-cultural societies) and Society does see us as Sui generis.

  • As an example we have the very un-Asian thing where we have a puppy (mA a beautiful one at that) as opposed to a child (Asians are more into kids, white people more into pets).
  • My wife is more educated and accomplished than I am, which is rare in most couples but even more so in desi ones. We are in Oxbridge because of her.
  • We live in the shires and not in the multi-ethnic urban zones.
  • Even though I write on BP as Pakirani IRL I will usually call myself an Indian out of respect for my wife. The country that I cannot bear to see criticised/humiliated is India because I see it as an attack on my wife (irrational I know).
  • Mind you this is very different to the BP banter where Internet Hindus wants to see me as this crazed Paki & I like to provoke them.
  • For an Asian/Indian woman my wife has privileges and a voice that is rare even in emancipated Western cultures. As I said in my wedding speech I see my wife as an incarnation of Lakshmi (maybe a tad hyperbolic but YOLO).
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Hindustani Culture as a Link culture?

I was replying to Razib on this comment & thought that instead I would turn it into a post. I would also like to caveat my thoughts:

I have a habit of generalizing since I am now more used to social media posts than blogging. As always I’m very happy to be wrong and these are simply my thoughts and observations.

The fact that my wife is a Sindhi from Chennai (among other things) gives me an additional window into “other” parts of South Asia long inaccessible to the average Paki. As an aside my late eponymous paternal grandfather was actually Kakazai but my grandmother was an Urdu-speaker from Amroha so that culture was instead transmitted to the next generation. So I speak both as an insider and an outsider to this Hindustani cultural complex that I’m commenting on. Not fully in but neither out & just enough on the margins to make it interesting!

How do Desis from any part of the Subcontinent connect? Let’s say as a thought experiment we take the extremes of the South Asian desi region; a Tamil, Pashtun, Nepali and Bengali walk into a bar. Now none them may know Hindustani or they may speak it with a very heavy accent but that is their common link and bond, which would even inflect the English that they speak to one another (English usage of course depending on their socio-economic strata). If they didn’t want to watch a Hollywood film they could conceivably agree on a Bollywood film. UP, in that way, is the beating heart of all South Asia.

All of these cultures are radically different from “Hindustani” culture (for want of a better term) but there’s enough familiarity with it, which makes it a civilizational links of sorts (or a cultural lingua franca that underpins Desidom).

A culture that hasn’t been touched by Hindustani culture or is far removed from it (both Afghanistan and SE Asia were at times part of the Indic cultural sphere but it’s hard-pressed to consider Burmese, Dari-speakers or even the Hindu Balinese as Desis) doesn’t get absorbed into desiness. Whereas Nepal has sufficiently desi touches even though its people do look very different (most of the Nepalis I’ve met in my limited experience do seem more East than South Asian).

As a final point to a very great extent Hindustani culture has been deeply influenced by the colonial project as part of the divide & rule strategy (I don’t want to go into the Hindi-Urdu controversy hence why I’ve used the neutral term Hindustani). There is a reason why that, despite their very different geographies, both the successor states to the British Raj (India & Pakistan) depended on this culture as a nation-building project for their diametrical ideologies.

There were of course severe limits to the Hindustani language project with riots in South India in mid 60’s and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 but even so the march of Hindustani as a core component of Desiness remains unabated especially with the rise & rise of Modern India & Hinglish.

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Good on you Mahira Khan-Kapoor – now please stop playing the Virgin

Mahira Khan is of course Pakistan’s biggest actress and she seems to be dating Ranbir Kapoor (in this picture he looks the spitting image of his Dad Rishi).

Of course Twitterstan is going mad with calling Mahira an infidel and what not for betraying her country for a Hindu Indian (no matter that the Kapoors, like so many of their caste, are sons of an Indus soil).

My only take in all this is that good on Mahira for expressing herself and living life to the fullest. However kindly stop playing the Virgin in Distress (Hum Safar, Bin Roye, Sadeqay Tumhara & Sheree Zaat). It’s that hypocritical strain in Pakistani culture that we must constantly project this hyper-idealised version of reality where women have no autonomy or sexual freedom apart from their role as good Muslim mothers.

Spoiler:

In Hum Safar she accepts her treatment at her mother-in-law Farida’s schemes. In Bin Roye she punishes herself with a tortuous (and unconsummated) marriage while in Sheree Zaat she atones for her arrogance by becoming a good Namaazi. While Sadeqay Tumhara (which is a truly fantastic show along with the groundbreaking Hum Safar) she allows her future to be ruined by her mother.

Mahira has created a dangerous template for a female lead in Pakistani dramas; Kashaf (played by Sanam Saeed) in Zindagi Gulzar Hai is a much more autonomous and forward looking character but even in that brilliant show the central message was on the Mother’s Sacrifice so shall the Good Life be built. Pakistani culture needs to start giving our Women Room to Breathe and allow them to make their Mistakes/choices the way the Menfolk are given that Carte Blanche.

Good luck Mahira, Mahira Khan-Kapoor has a good ring to it & with your Star Presence you will smash Bollywood (you were the best thing in Raees, maybe I’m being jingoistic when I say that but Paki pride still runs deep lol).

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The Civilizational Unity of India

This article (excepts at end of this post) is a good summary of the (relatively reasonable Hindutvadi) arguments for regarding India as one civilizational and cultural whole (at least in historical time). i.e. you don’t have to share the author’s Hindutvadi beliefs to accept a lot of his arguments for the civilizational and cultural unity of India.
Of course, nation states may come and go and even civilizational boundaries can and do change; Tunisia and Libya used to be pretty Roman and now they are pretty Arab. Shit happens. One would not be likely to lose much money betting on Xinjiang being very Chinese for centuries to come. Han migration alone will take care of that. But still, there is a civilizational and cultural unity of India and that is not such a bad basis for a nation-state… It is certainly better than many other UN member nations have these days (hint hint..)

By the way, you will notice that even “soft Hindutvadis” with relatively rational arguments continue to have serious difficulty with the Indo-European invasion/migration into India. Come on dude, man up, own your frigging warlike ancestors 😉

.
By the way, he could have said more about Indian contributions to Arab, Persian and Central Asian civilizations (while acknowledging vice versa).
Excerpts:
….
These ideas of our unity have permeated all our diverse darshanas. We have talked aboutBhakti and Vedanta and the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But this idea of unity was not limited to particular schools. They were equally present in the tantric schools that exerted a tremendous influence on popular worship. Thus we have the legend of Shakti, whose body was carried by Shiva and cut up by Vishnu, landing in 51 places throughout the landmass of India that are now the site of the Shakti Peetham temples. The body of Shakti, or so the story goes, fell all the way from Neelayadakshi Kovil in Tamil Nadu to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, from Pavagadh in Gujarat to the Kamakshi temple in Assam and 47 other places.
 
Why would the story conceive of these pieces of Shakti sanctifying and falling precisely all over the landmass of India, rather than all of them falling in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Himachal (or alternately, Yunan (Greece) or China, or some supposed `Aryan homeland’ in Central Asia) unless someone had a conception of the unity of the land and civilization of Bharatavarsha? Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.
 
And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.
 
Thus the Arabs and Persians already had a conception of Hind far before the Mughal Empire was established. If we suggest that their conception of Hind was derived only from their contact with Sindh in western India, why would the British, when they landed in Bengal, form the EastIndia Company, unless the conception of the land of India (a term derived from the original Hind) was shared by the natives and the British? They used this name much before they had managed to politically hold sway over much of India, and before they educated us that no India existed before their arrival. Why would the Portuguese celebrate the discovery of a sea-route to India when Vasco de Gama had landed in Calicut in the south, if India was a creation of the British Empire?
 
The answer is obvious. Because the conception of India, a civilization based in the Indian sub-continent, predates the rise and fall of these empires. True, that large parts of India were under unified political rule only during certain periods of time (though these several hundreds of years are still enormous by the scale of existence of most other countries throughout the globe) such as under the Mauryas or the Mughals. But those facts serve to hide rather than reveal the truth till we understand the history of the rest of the world and realize the historic social, political and religious unity of this land. We are not merely a country; we are a civilizational country, among very few other countries on the planet.



…o there we have it. India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilization and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilizational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone. This continuity was fostered by its unique geography and its resilient religious traditions. Unlike any other country on the planet, it retained these traditions despite both Islamic and Christian conquest, when most countries lost theirs and were completely converted when losing to even one of these crusading systems. The Persians fell, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon were lost, the Celtic religion largely vanished, and the mighty Aztecs were vanquished, destroyed and completely Christianized. Yet Bharata stands. It stands in our stories, our languages, our pluralism and our unity. And as long as we remember these stories, keep our languages and worship the sacred land of our ancestors, Bharata will stand. It is only if we forget these truths that Bharata will cease to be. That is precisely why the British tried to hard to make us forget them.


….
You are excluding Islamic contributions and Indian Muslims from your definition


This essay is about finding the historic roots of the Indian civilization and defining who we are as people and as a nation. We have had many migrants and invaders. While Islam has contributed to the Indian civilization, our roots are much older than when Prophet Mohammad first appeared in Arabia in the 6th century AD, so our civilization cannot be defined by Islam. Alexander the Greek came to our shores, so did the Kushans and Mongols and Persians and Turks. All of them added their contributions to our civilization as we did to theirs. The Mughal Empire helped in our political re-unification. But none of them define who we are.


We had the great Chinese civilization towards the north and the Persian civilization towards our west. Each of them influenced us as we influenced them. But because the Chinese came under Buddhist influence from India does not mean that they cease to be the Chinese civilization, an entity with a distinct cultural flavor and history from India.


Similarly, the Persians and the Turks came in many waves and contributed to Indian culture, even as we did to theirs. This does not mean that our civilization suddenly became Persian or Turkish. Some of these people settled in India, some of them brought a new religion called Islam and converted some of the existing people. All those who ultimately accept India as their homeland are accepted as Indians, for we have been a welcoming land. It would be a strange case indeed if conversion to Islam led people to deny the roots of their civilization. Do the Persians cease to be Persians, now that they are Muslims?


Islam does not define nationhood. If it did, the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan would be one country. Iran and Iraq would be one large Islamic country, rather than separate entities based on Persian and Babylonian civilizational roots. Indonesia and Malaysia would be one country.


Thus the civilizational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Indonesian Muslims don’t trace their civilizational roots from Arabia, but from the Indonesian culture developed over the centuries. As Saeed Naqvi writes, the Ramayana ballet is performed in Indonesia by “150 namaz-saying Muslims under the shadow of Yog Jakarta’s magnificent temples for the past 27 years without a break” — Indonesians can apparently celebrate their civilizational roots without conflict of their being Muslims. There is no reason that Muslim Indians feel any differently unless led by the creation of fear or sustained demagoguery to believe otherwise.

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Aqlima. Daughter of Adam

A translation (by Ruchira Paul) of Pakistani Feminist poet Fahmida Riaz’s poem Aqlima (daughter of Adam and Eve)

Audio in the poet’s own voice. (mislabeled as another poem).


Aklima
jo Habil aur Kabil ki maa jaani hai
maa jaani,
magar muqtalif
muqtalif beech raano ke
aur pistanon ki ubhaar mein
aur apne pait ke andar
aur kokh mein
is sab ki kismet kyun hai
ek farba bher ke bachche ki qurbani
woh apne badan ki qaidi
taptee hui dhoop mein jalte
teele par khadi hui hai
patthar par naksh banee hai
us naksh ko ghaur se dekho
lambee raano se upar
ubharte pistanon se upar
paicheeda kokh se upar
Aklima ka sar bhi hai
Allah kabhi Aklima se qalam karain
aur kuchh puchhain.

(Translation)
Aqlima..
Born of the same mother as Abel and Cain
Born of the same mother but different
Different between her thighs
Different in the swell of her breasts
Different inside her stomach
And her womb too
Why is the fate of her body
Like that of a well fed sacrificial lamb
She, a prisoner of that body
See her standing in the scorching sun on a smoldering hill
Casting a shadow that burns itself into the stones
Look at that shadow closely
Above the long thighs
Above the swelling breasts
Above the coils in her womb
Aklima also has a head
Let Allah have a conversation with Aklima
And ask her a few questions.
(Aklima was the lesser known offspring of Adam and Eve, the sister or Cain and Abel)

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The Helper Boy

Today’s horrific child abuse scandal from Punjab (the exact extent is disputed, with official inquiry reports saying the numbers are smaller and hinting that families in a property dispute may be making up some of the accusations; but of course those inquiries may well be part of the coverup too) reminded me of this short story by Pakistani-American writer Asif Ismael. It was originally published in viewpointonline but seems not to be on their site any more. So I am posting it here..

The Helper Boy 
 

It’s a very cold morning. Rustam wipes the fog off the windshield of the parked truck and looks out. It’s dark except for a thin strip of light on the horizon. Not a soul in sight, except a dog hopping across the GT Road. Keeping one of its hind legs off the ground it lurches toward the parking lot of Hotel Paradise, the truck-drivers hotel. It wobbles across a dozen or so parked trucks, and heads over to the tea-stall located by the hotel’s entrance, where behind the counter a cloaked figure moves in the dark.
It must be Ibrahim, the owner; he sleeps in his shop, in a room at the back. A flame leaps in the air behind the counter, a flickering glow of orange. Ibrahim is hunched over his stove.
Rustam wraps himself in his blanket, quietly unlatches the truck’s door, and slips out into the cold. By the time he gets to the tea-stall his bones feel chilled. The dog, standing by the doorstep, wags its tail as if welcoming Rustam. It’s a female dog, its shriveled teats hanging under her belly empty. She is so thin that he can see her ribs through her scarred brown coat.
The door squeaks as Rustam pushes it to enter the shop. Inside, Ibrahim squats by the fire, throwing crumpled papers into the flames. He turns his head, looks at Rustam, and nods with a smile. His face is swollen and wrinkly from sleep, his fingers combing his fist-length, bushy black beard, and his eyes wide and staring, reflecting the fire. Rustam walks over to the stove, sits beside him, and moves the end of a log.
“It’s good to get up so early,” Ibrahim says, as he winks at Rustam. “Everyone is asleep except the two of us.” The flames have started to die. Rustam bends over, takes a deep breath, and blows on the logs till he runs out of breath. Ash swirls around his head, and gets in his eyes, making them teary. The wood catches fire. As he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, he feels Ibrahim’s hand on his shoulder. He freezes. The logs crackle, sparks fly out of the earthen stove. “I wish I’ve a boy like you to help me out with my shop,” Ibrahim says, squeezing Rustam’s shoulder. “Your Ustad is so lucky to have you.”

Rustam blows on the fire as if he didn’t hear what Ibrahim just said. “What would you say if I ask your Ustad to leave you with me for a few days?” Ibrahim says. Rustam keeps his eyes on the fire. He can sense, through his blanket, the heat of Ibrahim’s hand over his shoulder. “You’re not in a talking mood today,” Ibrahim says. “Is everything okay?”
“Ustad will never let that happen, and even if he does, what makes you think that I’ll stay?” Rustam says, keeping his eyes on the flames. “I’ll take good care of you if you work for me,” Ibrahim says. He slides closer to Rustam and pulls his shoulder. Rustam stiffens, shrugs to loosen Ibrahim’s grip on him. “Alright! Alright! Keep the fire going,” Ibrahim says, taking his hand off Rustam. “I’m leaving to say my fajr—when I’m back I’ll make tea for you and your Ustad.”
Ibrahim stands up, unwrapping and then quickly wrapping his woolen shawl around his stocky frame, and heads out the door. Outside as he passes by the dog she wags her tail, looking at Ibrahim. He throws a kick at her, but she’s swift to move away, missing the point of his shoe. He bends down and picks up a rock. The dog, putting her tail between her legs, runs away.
“Mother-fuckers! Freeloaders! Can’t even wait for the sun to rise!” Ibrahim shouts, throws the rock at the dog but misses. He resumes walking. The flames now leap in the air, their tongues licking the cold off the room. The wall behind the stove is black with smoke, except for the clear, white outline of two hands, their finger spread apart and pointing upward. The hands seem to tremble behind the flames.
Rustam remembers the wood-stove of his house, its blackened hearth of baked mud, where he and his younger brother, Ameer, etched with the point of stones, the sun, with its wiggly rays rising from behind the mountains, birds and trees, and a hut with a stream flowing by its side. The dog has come back, and standing at the threshold she stares at Rustam. He looks around for leftovers.
A rat moves along a crack on the floor, sniffing, its fearless eyes fixed on Rustam, its whiskers jerking. Rustam searches in his pockets for any remaining bit of the roasted peanuts Ustad bought for him yesterday from the outskirts of Multan. He finds a piece stuck within the seams of his front pocket. He tosses it towards the rat. The rat sniffs the peanut, and then putting in its mouth it draws nearer, wanting more. Rustam shoos it away by suddenly getting up.
The dog stands by the door and stares at Rustam, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. She does that several times. Rustam walks towards her, but as he gets to the door, she starts limping towards the road. He follows her. She looks back every few steps as if to make sure he’s behind her. She crosses the GT Road and keeps walking, towards the line of massive Peepal trees over on a hillock.
The air is still and quiet During the day, the area around Paradise Hotel is crowded with truck drivers, hawkers, drug sellers, fruit vendors, the women holding babies begging; some crouching to touch the feet of the passersby for food or money; and once in a while a woman in a black burka shuffling nervously a few paces behind her pimp. Ustad, though he doesn’t like girls, is quite good in telling apart a taxi from a regular woman.
The dog stands still for a moment, looks back, and then disappears behind the mound populated with the Peepal trees. Rustam quickens his pace. Upon reaching the trees he stops, his eyes searching for the dog. He spots her a few meters to his right, a shadow between two massive trunks. As he gets closer, she disappears from view again. On reaching the point where she has gone out of sight, Rustam finds himself looking into a triangular hollow at the base of a trunk. He bends over to take a peek. It’s dark in there, but he’s able to count six puppies crawling around on hay-covered ground. The dog sits down and the puppies cling to her, their eyes closed. What can possibly be in those withered sacs?
The dog stands up, and the puppies fall off her and roll on the ground. She looks at Rustam and he knows what she wants. He turns around and heads back to the shop—this time with a quicker pace. She follows him. Passing the front of his truck, he halts, and upon hearing the snores of Ustad, he resumes walking. Ustad is still asleep, tucked comfortably in the cozy sleeping cabin of his truck. On most days he doesn’t get up unless Rustam shakes him up and hands him his cup of tea. After waking up, the first thing he’d do is to light up a cigarette. Some days Ustad pulls him inside the blanket, and after having him, he’ll ask him to light a cigarette for him. He’s been with Ustad for the last year and a half.
Rustam enters the shop. It’s still warm in here, although the fire is beginning to die. The dog sits at the threshold. Ibrahim is still at the mosque, praying. Rustam squats on the floor, moves the logs, and throws a ball of crumpled papers in the fire. Behind the smoke, the hands look as if they are underwater. He looks around for a pan of milk, but he knows that Ibrahim keeps things, things which can be stolen, in his room at the back. He goes to the rear end of the shop, and, standing in front of a padlocked door, peers through a crack into Ibrahim’s room. All he sees is darkness. A rustle on his back makes him turn around. Ibrahim stands right behind him, his lips quivering under his mustache, his eyes gleaming like coals.
Rustam marvels at his swiftness. How quietly he must have entered the shop and got all the way back here without making a sound? “What are you doing here?” Ibrahim whispers in his ear, his lips touching Rustam’s earlobe. “Nothing.” Rustam feels his heart begins to pound. Suddenly he feels very warm. “You want to come in?” Ibrahim leans forward and whispers in his ear, pressing his body against his.
“I need milk,” Rustam says. He inches back and tries to stay calm, the ridges of the door dig into his back. “Anything for you!” Ibrahim’s face is next to his. Rustam feels his warm breath on his cheeks. He smells of Nivea, the cold cream his Ustad also uses. “I need a lot of milk,” Rustam says, taking a deep breath and holding it in his chest, as he watches the hairy, pointed swelling of Ibrahim’s neck, an inch away from his face, moving up and down. “A lot of milk.”
“How much do you need?” Ibrahim says swallowing his saliva.
“A kilo, may be.”
“Do you have money?”
“No.”
“I keep milk inside in my room,” he says. “There I also keep butter—nothing tastes as good as pure, desi butter with a freshly made, hot prathaa.”
Reaching above Rustam’s head Ibrahim twists a key in the padlock and lowers the chain. The door flings open with Rustam’s weight on it. Ibrahim pushes Rustam further inside the room, and once they are both inside the room, he shuts the door behind him. The room has no window; it smells of wax and cold cream.
Without turning the light on, Ibrahim moves his hand on Rustam’s back, all the way down. There’s no way out of this room for Rustam.
“I need a pan to carry milk,” Rustam says.
“Hot or cold?” Ibrahim’s voice is now shaking, as he massages Rustam’s buttocks.
“How much would you pay?” Rustam says, feeling Ibrahim pressing himself against him, his hands fast undoing his waist-cord.
“How much do you need?”
“Five hundred rupees.”
“I can have a fifteen year old girl for that money.”
“How about four,” Rustam says. “Plus a kilo of milk.”
“I’ll give you enough to make you happy,” Ibrahim says, pushing him towards the mattress. He’s twice Rustam’s size.
“But, first give me the milk. I promise I’ll come back,” Rustam says, but he knows further negotiations are futile.
“I will give you as much milk as you want, but after.” Ibrahim lowers his shalwaar and pushes him on the mattress. Rustam lays on his stomach and looks back, clutching onto the bed-sheet. Ibrahim, tucking the end of his kurta under his chin, throws himself on Rustam’s back. He is heavy and breaths like a mad bull. His beard feels like a sandpaper against Rustam’s nape.
“I always think about you, even when you’re not around.” Ibrahim pinches Rustam’s cheek, as he moves on top of him. “You’ve such dry skin. Let me rub some cold cream on you.”
Ibrahim puts a dab of cold cream on Rustam’s cheeks and some upon himself. It doesn’t take long.
Ibrahim gets up and leaves the room. Rustam stays lying on his belly and thinks about the dog standing outside on her three legs, her six hungry pups waiting for their mother, and his Ustad: what if he finds out about what’s just happened?
Rustam comes out of the room tying his waist cord. The morning light seems brighter after having dissolved the leftovers of the night. Squatting on the floor, in front of the fire, Ibrahim warms milk in a pan. Rustam sits down by his side, holds out his hands to the fire, and glances at Ibrahim. As if looking for something on the floor on the other side, Ibrahim turns away his face; his hands tremble as he tries to keep the blackened pan steady on the flames.
“I think it’s quite warm now; do you need some sugar?”
“Where’s the money?” Rustam says. Ibrahim takes out a bundle of crumpled ten-rupee notes. He wets his thumb with his saliva and starts counting. “I can only give you fifty for now.” He holds five ten rupees notes out to Rustam.
“Why don’t you keep it for yourself,” Rustam says. “I don’t need money.”
He picks up the warm pan of milk from the ground.
“Don’t be angry with me now. Next time I’ll give you much more, I promise.” From the weight of the pan Rustam can tell it’s probably less than a kilo of milk.
“Do you want some sugar?” Ibrahim asks.
“I’ll take it to my truck,” Rustam says. The warm pan feels good against his belly. “I will bring your pan back. No, I don’t want sugar.”
“Promise me you won’t ever tell your Ustad.” Ibrahim moves the logs and stares at the flames. His beard shines as it reflects the glow of the fire. A log hisses, sparks fly out of the fire and disappear in midair. “You also don’t tell him, that I’ve taken so much milk from you,” Rustam says, walking towards the door.
At the threshold, the dog looks at Rustam curiously as he comes out of the shop holding the pan against his belly. She hops back towards her puppies, and he follows her. From the now crimson horizon, a beam of light shoots across the sky, flooding the air with a warm, golden hue.
Rustam’s face breaks in a smile. Ustad has promised him a girl in Lahore, at their next stop. Ustad has made advanced arrangements for that. Since he’s grown in size, he’s begun to like girls. “Girls are expensive to get, but I’d get anything for you as long as it makes you happy,” Ustad has told him.
Rustam knows deep inside that Ustad has been good to him; but he also knows that time has come to be on his own; he knows Ustad is not going to let him go that easy; only if he could get married. Rustam follows the dog, feeling the pleasant warmth spreading over his entire body. With the smile still on his face, he imagines himself lying on top of the naked back of a girl, moving.

The End

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Killing Atheists. A Wedge Issue in Bangladesh

Yet another Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death. This is the third time in just the last two months that someone has been hacked to death in BD for being an “atheist blogger”.

The victims:
1. Ananta Bijoy Das

2. Avijit Roy

3. Washiqur Rahman

Two born Hindu, one Muslim, all three known to be associated with Bangladeshi rationalism and “freethought” and in particular with the freethought blog “Mukto-Mona”. 

Someone with more local knowledge can comment about them and add their tributes. I wanted to focus on a more general issue: Why kill these bloggers? As Bond noted, the first time is happenstance, the second time coincidence, but the third time, it’s enemy action. This is not just some random Muslim fanatic getting riled up and going to earn his virgins. This is a systematic campaign…and it makes a lot of sense. These killings are a near-perfect “wedge issue” for Bangladeshi Islamists. How does that work?

1. Bangladesh is a relatively liberal Islamic country. There is a significant Hindu minority (though it shrank somewhat at partition and then again, drastically, during the anti-Hindu genocide of 1971) and thanks to strong traditions of secular Bengali nationalism and old-fashioned (i.e. not Post-Marxist Western elite and University imported) Left wing activism, there is a significant Muslim Bengali secular tradition. Another factor is the fact that when the Awami League led the Bangladesh liberation movement against West Pakistan, the West Pakistani army was supported by the main Islamist party and its cadres provided the volunteers who were their eyes and ears (and in many cases, their eager executioners).
After independence, as a “right-wing” Bangladeshi political grouping developed with military (and Pakistani, Saudi and possibly CIA) assistance, it was provided crucial support by the Islamists and in return their successive regimes provided assistance to the Islamists and protected them against prosecution for war crimes. At the height of the honeymoon between Islamists, the Pakistani intelligence agencies, Saudi Arabia and the CIA, this right-of-center alternative (first as military rule, then as the BNP) established itself firmly as one half (and for much of that time, the dominant half) of Bangladeshi politics. Since then, things have changed. Saudi Arabia is now somewhat conflicted about the Islamists and at a minimum, distinguishes between “good Islamists” (who behave themselves and support the royal family) and “bad Islamists” (who prefer to go the whole hog and aim to replace the royal family with a more authentic Islamist alternative). Pakistan and the CIA are no longer BFFs (though wary cooperation and buying and selling continues). And Western powers are not entirely happy with Islamism. As a result, the playing field in BD seems to have tilted towards the Awami League and towards relatively secular Bangladeshi nationalism. In the nature of things, the BNP or some such will still be needed to provide the other half of a stable two-party electoral system, but their Islamist allies are under some pressure. There is even the possibility that the BNP will have to carry on without hardcore Islamist cadres being sheltered under its umbrella and will have to (perhaps as an “India-skeptic” critic), go along to some extent with a new “India-friendly” regional order.
2. But there is another alternative. Is there some way the Islamists can recover and even win new heights they did not possess even under BNP regimes in the past?
3. Some of them, and perhaps some of their backers in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (in Saudia, more in the private sector than in the government? who knows) seem to think so. And they are using these killings as a wedge issue.
4. By going after atheist bloggers (many or most of them Hindus), they have found a near perfect wedge issue. The Hasina government is not happy with these blasphemers being killed, and unlike in Pakistan, the regime seems to have made some arrests. But if they take a very public stand against these killings and aggressively protect the rights of these free-thinkers, then they stand with atheists and blasphemers and risk losing the support of “moderate Muslims” who don’t go in for machete-wielding execution, but whose core beliefs include the belief that atheism and apostasy cannot be tolerated….But if the Hasina government lets this go on, then they permit the Islamists to grab the initiative and drive away atheists, secularists and Hindus…all of whom are more or less her voters and supporters (and whose friends and supporters are also the “intellectuals” of the Awami League regime). At a minimum, it is an uncomfortable position for the regime.
5. Moderate Muslims may condemn free-lance executions, but such executions also bring to light the existence of atheists, Hindus and blasphemers in what is, after all, a Muslim majority country. For the moderate Muslim the best thing would be for this conversation to just go away. The longer it goes on, the more they have to commit to options they don’t like: should they come down in favor of Hindus, atheists and blasphemers (not necessarily in that order, but all these items are uncomfortably connected in mukto-mona)? Or, when push comes to machete-shove, do they stay silent and “understand” that the blasphemers have sorely provoked their Muslim executioners? whatever they decide, the discomfort is a net plus for the Islamists. They are betting on the fact that by making this an “Islam versus atheism/Hinduism” issue they make it hard for moderate Muslims to chose atheism and Hinduism over Islam.
6. With the penetration of bullshit-postmarxism into the Bengali elite increasing as their access to expensive Western education increases, the “high-end secularists” can be split too. “Black and White” division of the world between Islamists and anti-Islamists is anathema to postmodern-postmarxism. They too would prefer to opt out of this “complex and nuanced” issue. Their discomfort is an added bonus to the Islamist cause (of relatively little practical importance, but these people have some visibility in high-end intellectual circles, so their discomfort doesn’t hurt either).

Can Bangladeshi secularism (meaning in practice, the Awami League regime, there being no other secular alternative on the horizon) defeat this rather well-chosen point of attack? Maybe they can (in which case the Islamists will have gambled and lost and the secular cause will emerge stronger than before). But it is a big if…If they lose, Bangladesh is in play again as a possible Islamist base in Eastern India. The Islamists know what they are up to…

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