MUST WE PUNISH THE CHILD FOR THE FATHER’S SINS?

It all began on September 14, 2021, when ‘@Settler Scholar’ launched a 22 Tweets thread, titled ‘Settler Scholarship,’ describing itself in the final Tweet as ‘a group of Kashmiri activists, students & researchers who are concerned about these issues. We are angry & also scared. The only way we could raise these issues publicly is by being anonymous.’ The target of the tweets was the young anthropologist, Saiba Varma, who is presently an Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the reason was her book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published by the Duke University Press.  Published in 2020, the book had been a dozen years in the making, being Varma’s PhD dissertation at Cornell (2013). 

The twenty-one Tweets do not comment on the contents of Varma’s book except once, in Tweet #16, claiming that Varma ‘forc[ed] people to seek medical treatment in a language that isn’t their own.’ They probably mean the one occasion mentioned at the beginning of the book where a Kashmiri doctor asks his Kashmiri patient to continue in Urdu their conversation, done in Kashmiri until that moment, for Varma’s benefit. Clearly, that was the doctor’s decision not Varma’s, and the doctor would not have done so had he felt that would be a hardship for the patient. Kashmir is the only state in the Indian Union where Urdu has an official status and a tradition of regular instruction. 

The other twenty Tweets basically repeat one charge, claiming that Saiba Varma did not disclose to everyone she interacted with in Kashmir during her research work—the Kashmiri doctors/psychiatrists and their Kashmiri patients, male and female—the fact that she was the daughter of one Krishan Varma, who had been a senior officer in India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), and who in that capacity had spent some years in Kashmir in the 1990s. The long series of angry assertions ends with the following: ‘Given her compromised family connections, why should SV continue researching/writing/speaking on Kashmir?’ Indeed, why shouldn’t we, instead, punish the daughter for the father’s presumed sins, and disregard what the daughter strove for and accomplished on her own?  

I placed ‘presumed’ before ‘sins,’ not because I possess some special knowledge of the late Mr. Varma’s official work but because I read the following in The Hindustan Times of September 17, 2021.


Krishan Varma retired from R&AW eight years ago, and according to two retired officers that HT spoke to, was not completely identified with his work in Kashmir. He retired as special secretary and used to head the Aviation Research Centre or ARC in the agency. ‘He is a China expert and was also staff officer to two chiefs, Vikram Sood and CD Sahay,’ said one of the officers, who didn’t wish to be quoted….(Emphasis added.)

Former R&AW secretary AS Dulat [said of the accusation], ‘It’s a lot of bunkum. Krishan is a good friend… He was there ages ago and she has done her thesis there. Krishan doesn’t know half of what his daughter knows about Kashmir.’ 

While some may never put any faith in what a former Secretary of  R&AW says, I am willing to accept Dulat’s assessment of Krishan Varma, who passed away recently, for it is confirmed by what others have said about the contents of book. 

The same day, Saiba Varma put out some Tweets that I have not seen but which apparently sought to explain to the group, ‘@Settler Scholar,’ her acts of commission and omission. Her Tweets brought forth, two days later, on September 19, a short but cogent note from a group of ‘Kashmir scholars’ that was the more compelling with its sober tone. 

For all anthropologists, the primary ethical responsibility is to be honest and transparent with the people who they study. We are disturbed by the ethical choices Varma has made in her research, especially regarding lack of disclosure of her father’s career in the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s premiere intelligence agency with a long history of operations in Kashmir. While the question of whether she revealed her background to her research subjects remains to be clarified by Varma, we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years through various forms of scholarly interaction and professional engagement, including scholarly networks, advocacy forums, fieldwork, conferences, and joint publications. 

We do not believe that “the daughter should be punished for the sins of the father.” The revelations, however, raise key questions about the ethical obligations of all scholars who do ethnographic and archival research in Kashmir, with particular relevance for scholars who are committed to supporting the Kashmiri political struggle. It is a clear breach of ethical responsibility for the researcher to not disclose, or to misrepresent, intimate family links with the colonial state. We are concerned that trust and accountability across the wider community of Kashmir scholars have been violated. Most importantly, we are concerned about the possible breach of ethics towards the vulnerable communities in which Varma has conducted her research, amidst Kashmiri patients seeking psychiatric care. 

This urgent note demanded a proper response, and perhaps one was made by Varma privately and individually. Nevertheless, on September 28, 2021, a very different group launched on the internet an ‘open letter’ to the Duke University Press. Crafted and signed by six professors at different institutions, it laid out why they were against any further dissemination of the book, and asked their readers to add their names to the demand. 

Roughly speaking, the document consists of three parts. The first lays out their case against Varma, the second makes an appeal to the publishers, and the third is a preemptive response to any charge of ‘cancel culture.’ The opening section is solidly and almost exclusively based on the Tweets launched by @Settler Scholar, and repeatedly accuses Varma of not disclosing to his interlocutors the name and professional identity of her father. 

Like the Tweets, the open letter contains no evaluation of the book’s contents, not a single sentence challenging her analysis and conclusions. Only a constant claim is made that Varma  deliberately and insidiously hid the fact of her being the daughter of a former R&AW official. Astonishingly, they also draw such baldly stated conclusions as that her work ‘was enabled by her connections to the Indian state,’ or that her actions should be characterized as ‘decades (sic) of hiding facts.’ In their fervor of certitude, they tell us, without even a ‘perhaps,’ what they believe motivated her: ‘What seems clear then is that she chose to hide her personal history of proximity to and complicity in colonial occupation in order to facilitate access and complete her research.’ The slide from ‘proximity’ to ‘complicity’, while pleasantly alliterative, is nothing but slanderous. 

The professors’ own contribution to what they call ‘the threads’ work’ amounts only to a quotation from Varma’s dissertation—not from the published book, mind you—as an evidence against her. 

In her dissertation, Dr. Varma thanked her father ‘for opening up both Kashmir and the world of documents to me’ (p. vii). Despite this veiled admission of how he enabled her access to Kashmir, she does not explicitly note or account for what it means to access Kashmir and “the world of documents” on Kashmiris through a member of the Indian intelligence, even though RAW is a primary force of counter-insurgency in the region. 

But what if these words only expressed the gratefulness of a daughter for the childhood years she spent in Kashmir when her father was posted there in the ‘90s, and ‘opening … the world of documents’ does not mean handing over a drawerful of secret documents on Kashmir but merely refers to a father’s success in inculcating in his young daughter a lasting interest in non-fiction documentary texts that later led to her growth into a research scholar? Here is how Varma thanks her parents in the published book: ‘My parents, Manju and Krishan, have showered me with boundless love. Thank you for teaching me how to love fiercely and openly, giving me plenty of space to flourish, for nurturing a love of reading and writing, and for showing me how to struggle with grace.’ I see no reason to doubt her word when she claims she was given ‘plenty of space to flourish’ on her own, for it is evident even in the little I have read in her book. 

Intriguingly, the Indian signatories of the letter made a point of describing themselves as ‘dominant caste Indian scholars;’ additionally, they called Varma an ‘upper caste Indian anthropologist.’ Why they did so is hard to fathom. Surely, caste and parentage are not chosen by the progeny? Is it then some kind of academic one-upmanship, an idle attempt to underscore their own careful observance of professional ethics? It can’t be. Varma began her research work in 2009; the book came out in 2020. That would make a total of 12 years at most, but the six scholars wrote in high dudgeon: ‘While everyone can mistakes, Dr. Varma’s actions need to be characterized as decades of hiding facts about her father’s position in the Indian state…’ (Emphasis added.) Another equally fierce accusation goes like this: ‘[The] upper caste Indian anthropologist who conducted research in Kashmiri clinics, demanded they speak in Urdu/Hindi (colonizers’ languages) for their trauma to be translated in ways she could understand and then cultivated their stories of trauma from occupation for her book.’ Demanded? They could have given an example from the book but they did not, for they were only repeating what they had read in the Tweets.  

In all the noise and fury of the Tweeter thread and the ‘open letter’ one thing stands out: neither makes any mention of the book’s contents. Not one word of critique concerning Varma’s descriptions, analyses, and conclusions can be found in the two documents. Not a single line is quoted from the book itself. The latter was particularly bothersome in the ‘open letter’ of the six scholars, who were not restricted to 143 characters. Are the contents of Varma’s book really so trivial that they need not be taken into account at all? Or do the professors believe that a person whose father worked for R&AW must never be believed, even if she distinctly stands in opposition to the aims and methods of that agency? 

I have not read the book, nor do I plan to read it. My knowledge of English language is basic, and words like ‘positionality’, ‘processuality’, ‘futurity’ leave me gasping for breath. But when a kind friend sent me some pages, I took the time to read them. Here is a brief excerpt; it made clear to me the politics of Varma’s book. Writing about the day the Modi government abolished Kashmir’s statehood, Varma writes (in the form of a letter to a friend, who is named ‘No-thing’:

“On television, we watched the government’s PR machine churn. The decisions were sold to the Indian public as necessary for Kashmir’s greater integration with India, to end terrorism, facilitate economic development, and invigorate the tourism industry. Though the decision was articulated in the language of care and development, those most affected by it were not consulted. The 8 million residents of the state were put under a total, indefinite communication blackout and curfew. To prevent any untoward incident, an amphibious bureaucrat croaked on tv. In the days that followed, the tv, now our only connection to the outside world, became a funhouse mirror. We watched as distorted images of the reality on the ground were fed back to us….

“After the first month, which people only survived thanks to their premonition, careful planning, and execution, the catastrophes cascaded. As the blackout stretched on, I was haunted by your words. Back in the summer of 2014, after the Hindu supremacist BJP government led by Narendra Modi had first swept to national victory, you had said, ‘Modi has come to finish us. He has come to destroy Kashmir.’ I had dismissed your words as hyperbolic. But now I understood. You did not mean genocide in a spectacular sense, although, as you know, Modi has that, too, in hisstory. Rather, the game now was slow violence in the form of demographic changes and settlements, the influx of financial capital, from whose spoils Kashmiris will be excluded, changes to land ownership laws, the detention and criminalization of young people, the prohibition of expression and dissent, weaponizing all aspects of civilian life.” (p. xvi)

**

This has grown longer than I wished, but a few more things need to said, even if briefly. Firstly, Saiba Varma did respond in some detail to the comments of the @Settler Scholar and the members of the ‘Research Ethics in Kashmir’ collective. Dated October 1, 2021, it runs to 8 or 9 pages. People should give it some thought before they make up their minds about its writer.

Secondly, the issue—the right of a scholar to make an attempt to rise above and beyond any conditions forced upon him or her by familial ties, caste or creed—is not trivial. In fact, one brave and convincing exploration of the issue was made right after the furor began. The writer, Samhita Arni, is  herself a daughter of a former R&AW officer, and has actually read Varma’s book, which she found to be ‘a brilliant, well-researched analysis of the care that is afforded to the mentally ill in Kashmir.’ She then adds, ‘In her work, Varma notes that the ‘clinic has become part of the battlefield’, that the very medical tools, locations of clinics, and understanding of care, can also create violence ‘through medicine’, and that these serve to advance the aims of the Indian security establishment in Kashmir.’ This is how she concludes the  piece: 

Intimacy and empathy are created by what we disclose, but also what we choose to conceal. I have been in situations where I know that if I had revealed that my father worked in the Indian security establishment, the other person may have not engaged with me in the same manner. While I might want relatedness and see myself as an ally, the other would not. I do understand that there may be those who feel betrayed by such a lack of disclosure, and this can create a sense of rupture, a loss of relatedness and trust. 

These feelings are real and must be engaged with in a way that moves us forward, not back. There is a great opportunity in this. It is of value to hear from Varma herself, and from those she observed, patients and medical practitioners both. To ask them to speak for themselves and their own experiences — rather than us deciding for them how they must feel or what serves their interests best. Lived experience is much more complex, and ambiguous than the categories and binaries we see from afar, from our perch atop ivory towers. Varma’s experience testifies to this, as do the accounts of the doctors and patients she writes about, and the dilemmas they face.

These are wise words. Lived experience is indeed much more complex and ambiguous. Judgements should be made with some self-doubt and humility. Varma’s book should first be judged by that primary rule: what did it set out to do and did the effort succeed? That simple but obligatory effort, made without prejudice, will also provide answer to the question: does the book serve the cause of the victims or does it seek to enhance the legitimacy and control of the victimizer? So far, those who bothered to make the effort have all said: the book stands by the victims. 

چودھری محمد نعیم۔ “محمدی بیگم: اک شعلہٴ مستعجل

Muhammadi Begum, the co-founder with her husband, Syed Mumtaz Ali, of Tahzīb-e Niswāñ, was the first Indian woman to edit an Urdu journal. She was also a prolific writer and organizer. Sadly, her active life lasted only ten years (1898–1908). My Urdu article is a comprehensive account of her life and writings. Its English version will appear in a forthcoming book. The Urdu article will also appear in Aaj (Karachi) in a coming issue.

An article on Muhammadi Begum, the the first woman to edit an Urdu magazine.

چودھری محمد نعیم۔ "محمدی بیگم: اک شعلہٴ مستعجل" مشمولہ "امروز" (علیگڑھ) ، نمبر ۸ (اکتوبر تا دسمبر ۲۰۱۸)، ص۔ ۵۷ تا ۸۸۔

A Season of Betrayals by Qurratulain Hyder – Translated & Introduced by by C.M. Naim

Qurratulain Haider. A Season of Betrayals: A Short Story and Two Novellas. Translated and Introduced by C.M. Naim. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999.

Titles include: The Sound of Falling Leaves, Sita Betrayed, and The Housing Society

Click here for download PDF

ابوالکلام آزاد کی ایک تاریخی تقریر

ابوالکلام آزاد کی ایک تاریخی تقریر (۱)

تعارف:

کچھ عرصہ ہوا مجھے دوستوں نے بتایا کہ یو ٹیوب پر مولانا ابوالکلام آزاد کی جامع مسجد دہلی میں کی گئی تاریخی تقریر خود انکی آواز میں مہیا ہے۔ میں نے چیک کیا تو پتہ چلا کہ ایک ہی جعلی رکارڈنگ کو متعدد لوگوں نے طرح طرح سے لوگوں نے اپلوڈ کر رکھا ہے، اور ہر جگہ اس پر خوب خوب خیال آرائیاں ہو رہی ہیں۔ ٹھیک اسیطرح جیسےاس انٹرویو پر ھوئی تھیں، اور اب بھی ہوتی رہتی ہیں، جو احراری جرنلسٹ شورش کاشمیری نے شائع کیا تھا۔ (ابوالکلام آزاد: سوانح و افکار۔ ۱۹۸۸۔ یہ کتاب انکے بیٹوں نے مرتب کی ہے۔)۔ کچھ عرصہ ہوا نوجوان وکیل اور دانشمند کالم نگار یاسر لطیف ہمدانی نے اس انٹرویو کی حقیقت کھول دی تھی اور انگریزی کی حد تک لوگوں کے علم میں آگیا تھا
کہ وہ محض ایک جعل ہے۔ یہاں صرف دو باتوں کا اضافہ کرنا چاہونگا۔

Continue reading “ابوالکلام آزاد کی ایک تاریخی تقریر”

Old Book Catalogs

(The following appeared as the ‘Preface’ in a book in Urdu—Fihrist-e Kutub,Siddīq Bukdepo, Lakhna’u (Delhi: Dilli Kitab Ghar, 2016)—that I jointly put together with Dr. Abdur Rasheed of Jami’a Millia University, New Delhi.)

 

Though Urdu books had started to appear in printed form much earlier book printing in Urdu properly took off in the early 1840s when lithography reached India. Invented in 1796 by Johann Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), a German actor and playwright who needed to produce his own writings in an easier and cheaper manner than was allowed by conventional printing, the process turned out to be ideal for Urdu once it reached India. The technology was simple, and the required equipment—some limestone slabs, a hand press—was not prohibitive in cost. Most importantly, the technique perfectly accommodated the skills of the existing population of traditional scribes who had calligraphed Urdu and Persian books for generations. By 1850 there were any number of litho presses across North India, in big towns and small, that were soon steadily producing Urdu books on assorted subjects for general consumption. A few also published weekly or biweekly newspapers that also served to draw attention to their books. The most prominent Urdu press of the 19th century, the press of Munshi Newal Kishore of Lucknow—it had branches in several cities—could have been the first such establishment to publish an independent catalog of its publications, which it then made available to booksellers and individual buyers alike. Its earlier known catalog is dated 1874, and a properly edited reprint of the 1896 edition was recently made available.

It is safe to assume that by the first decade of the new century the practice had been taken up by other large publishers too, in particular the two major ones at Lahore: the Dar-al-Isha’at Punjab of Munshi Mumtaz Ali and the Matba’ Khadim-al-Ta’lim of Munshi Mahbub Alam. These catalogs, made available gratis or at a nominal cost recoverable when an order was placed, were godsend to the booklovers who lived in places where there were no bookstores but who could take advantage of the new, increasingly expanding and efficient postal service. Soon a few other people in the book trade, those who themselves published only a few books but stocked and sold hundreds more of other publishers—e.g. the Nizami Book Depot of Budaun, and the Siddiq Book Depot and Al-Nazir Book Depot of Lucknow—were also issuing general catalogs that catered to an enthusiastic clientele not restricted to any region or topic.

The book at hand is a consolidated/amalgamated reprint of two catalogs published by the Siddiq Book Depot separated by 14 years. We don’t know the history of the establishment. It was most likely named after the owner, and though it published quite a few books under its own imprint over the years its main business was stocking and selling Urdu books from all over India. I recall visiting it often in the 1950s. It existed in a corner of Aminabad, Lucknow’s main shopping area in those days. No browsing was available. One sat on a chair in the verandah in front of the shop and asked for a book or a particular author’s publications. The owner sat at the mouth of the long narrow interior of the shop and called out to his assistants. If the book was well-known or sold well for some other reason it was brought out right away from one of the shelves, but in all other cases the owner would call out a number and a small bundle containing a dozen or so books wrapped in cloth would come down from an unseen space above. The owner would then unwrap the bundle and present you with the book to inspect or call out for some other bundle if the requested book was not found in it. One could of course browse through the other books in the bundle, but asking for too many books without quickly setting aside a few for actual purchase was definitely not encouraged. If one bought enough books one could ask for and obtain a complimentary copy of their printed catalog, other wise one had to buy it like any other book. One of the catalogs that we used contains numbers in the description column that most likely referred to the serial number of the bundles kept in the attic above the shop.

Why publish an old book catalog, and that too of a bookshop long finished and gone? After all, the catalog of a functioning library or bookshop comes with promises of discovery and reading pleasure at least to some of its readers. You can actually gain access to the enticing discoveries if you have the necessary money and other resources. The book in hand no doubt contains listings that would both surprise and delight any reader it however comes with no promise of access.

As we well know at least since the recovery of the great Arabic tome of the tenth century, Kitab-al-Fihrist of Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim—a bookseller and a calligrapher, in addition to be a scholar and bibliophile—all catalogs are extremely useful. Each is preeminently a snapshot, a vivid image of a people’s or a language’s literary/intellectual wealth. The published catalog of a library displays for our benefit what the library had available for its readers/borrowers at a particular time in history. It also informs us—if we are curious in that regard—that the listed books had been published before that date. It does not, however, tell what books were actually read, or which of them were more popular than others. Similarly the catalog of a bookseller, if dated, tells us what books were available to any buyer in that year. And again, it helps us roughly date a book if listed in it. The important difference between a library catalog and that of a bookseller’s is that while the former shows what books were available at a particular place and under other restricting conditions the latter tells us what was available for common purchase to any booklover across the country or even beyond. The former reflects the preferences of a particular collector or institution, the latter makes us aware of the choices that were available to a much larger cohort that was not restricted to a particular city or region.

Academic Urdu scholarship over the years has produced several valuable literary histories, implicitly also narrating a history of the language. But even the most comprehensive does not tell the entire story; all of them place almost exclusive emphasis on what they consider ‘classics’ or ‘canonical.’ These literary histories overlook books that would otherwise be considered foundational for producing an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, nor do they pay much attention to what they only infrequently, and almost grudgingly, subsume under the rubric of ‘popular literature.’ Additionally, Urdu literary historians pay scant attention to translations and the significant role they played in the formation and cultivation of literary taste and talent in Urdu during the final decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Given the large scale closure of public libraries in North India since 1947 and the destruction, through deliberate neglect as much as natural causes, of Urdu collections in those that still survive it is only through the recovery of old booksellers’ catalogs that we might hope to establish some sense of what was at a particular time published and read in Urdu. Some examples should help.

The name ‘Bahram’ or ‘Bahram Daku’ was not too long ago synonymous with exciting reading for Urdu readers of mystery fiction. The character first appeared in 1916, in the novel Nili Chhatri by Zafar Omar. (It was an Indianized version of Maurice Leblanc’s The Hollow Needle.) I knew about the wide popularity of Omar’s book but the full sense of its influence came to me only after went through the 1936 catalog and found that even twenty years after its publication the book was not only still in print it had in fact generated over forty other novels about ‘Bahram.’ Also such titles as Pili ChhatriLal Chhatri, and Jadid Nili Chhatri!

Further, the same catalog made me aware of the fact that just as Hindi popular fiction included a genre described as ‘tilismi or tilismati’ novels so did also Urdu, at least so far as the clients of Siddiq Book Depot in 1936 were concerned. The same catalog lists ten or so novels described as ‘tilismi,’ out of which four are also described as jasusi. That the cataloguer had some clear sense of genres and the books’ contents is suggested by the fact that he described Mirza Ruswa’s Khuni ‘Ashiq (‘The Murdering Lover’)—a translation of Wormwood, A Drama of Paris by Marie Corelli (1855–1924), who was once described as Queen Victoria’s ‘favorite’ novelist—as a ‘philosophical’ novel and not as a thriller, contrary to the practice of most literary historians.

It is little known that between 1890 and 1920, two of the most read and admired novelists in Urdu were George W. M. Reynolds and Marie Corelli thanks to the translations of their novels—over thirty in the case of the former and nearly a dozen in the case of the latter. A few of Reynolds’ novels were translated more than once, and some ran to more than a thousand pages. Among their translators were such notables as Mirza Ruswa, Zafar Ali Khan, and Tirath Ram Firozepuri, and their avowed admirers included Premchand and Manto. The popularity and range of these and other translations can be best traced now only with the help of old catalogs.

Similarly, it is a sad fact that despite incessant claims of Urdu being a language common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike—a claim that actually makes no sense, since all major languages of India are common to all religious groups—histories of Urdu literature have constantly failed to give full consideration to the writings that are of greater social and intellectual relevance to non-Muslim speakers of Urdu. No history of Urdu novel to my knowledge, for example, mentions Shiv Barat Lal Verman (1861–1939), whose copious output I became aware of only through the same catalog. It listed 23 novels by him, all described as ‘philosophical.’ On further research I discovered that he had published perhaps a dozen more novels and a total of over three hundred books, most of which went through more than two printings during his life. His influence on later ‘literary’ novelists could be negligible but his importance in the intellectual life of a large portion of Urdu speakers cannot be denied. The same can be said with regard to Mahashai Sudarshan, another fiction writer of the same period whose popularity at one time matched that of Premchand, and whose works can be discovered again with the help of these catalogs.

Then there is a more mundane concern regarding Urdu printed books. While the earliest publications invariably mentioned the year of publication, the practice, inexplicably, slowly disappeared. Particularly in the case of popular fiction and poetry. Here again, old catalogs—they seem to have been always carefully dated— come handy, and make it possible for us to make reasonable approximations. Likewise, a comparison of prices listed in two catalogs separated by, say, ten years should be helpful too. Popular books tend to get pricier, while those not selling well remain at the same price or are discounted. And a reprint is almost always more costly than the earlier edition.

Finally, in the contemporary educational system in India schools provide instruction in Urdu language while colleges and universities teach Urdu literature. There is, however, no institution in either India or Pakistan where instruction or research is pursued in what could be called ‘Urdu Studies’—i.e. a ‘holistic’ study of all those many movements, publications, trends and conventions that, over the past two hundred years, played major roles in fashioning the intellectual life of Urdu speakers and effecting their private and public behavior. It is a major lacuna, but whenever in the future an attempt is made to produce an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, Muslims and Non-Muslims, these old book catalogs will be an invaluable source of information.

 

Rest in Peace, Ram Bhai

From left, CM Naim, historian Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and book collector Aslam Mahmud. Photo: Unknown waiter at Lucknow golf course, February 2015, via CM Naim.

(CM Naim,  Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and  Aslam Mahmud).

 

When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.

With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.

I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.

Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.

Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.

Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.

I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.

As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.

Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.

The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.

Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.

Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.

 

First published in Scroll.in on March 14, 2016.

Let Sonu Nigam Sleep, Please!

 

When I was growing up in the small town of Barabanki in the 1940s, the mosques had no loudspeakers. Those abominations would appear at the political rallies, and then disappear. Even in our Eidgah, where hundreds of people came from all parts of the town to pray together on the two Eid festivals, no loudspeakers were used to summon them. Not only that, even during the prayers, no microphone was used by the imam. In fact, when the idea was suggested by some individuals, it was quickly rejected by most of the so-called notables, who organised the special prayers, as well as the clergy. The imams of the neighborhood mosques, at the time, would proclaim the azaan themselves, or had some young man with a loud voice do the honors from the roof of the mosque. The human sound, often quite melodic, that emerged from his throat had enough reach to bring the nearby faithful to the mosque. And it did so no less efficiently than the electronically engorged aberration that now resounds over Barabanki. Actually, I should use the plural, for what we now have are scores of aberrations.

Last year, when I made a determined effort over several days, I discovered that the fajr or dawn prayer azaan came barging into my room in Barabanki from eight different mosques – mind you, only one of them was within walking distance from my home – and the whole thing, the calls from those eight different mosques, lasted nearly 30 minutes, as each mosque made its separate contribution. At moments, what one heard was an ugly cacophony. Far from providing the aesthetic pleasure that a single human voice produced for most listeners in my boyhood days, the effect of what came over the air now was intolerable even to my deeply devout sisters.

Undistorted and un-amplified, an ordinary human’s voice was perfectly able to do the task in the days when few people had alarm clocks or, for that matter, even a wristwatch. But now, even the tiny mosque in my neighborhood that can accommodate no more than 50 or 60 people has two loudspeakers tied to its minaret, and a sound system that sends its call out to a body of people 50 times larger than its capacity. But one cannot suggest a change. Apparently, the people who attend the neighborhood mosque can do perfectly well without an amplified alarm in all aspects of their daily lives except when it comes to reaching the mosque to form a congregation. Their grandfathers could do without loudspeakers but not these stalwarts of the 21st century.

Given the recent controversy over Sonu Nigam, I totally believe that no use of inappropriate amplification should be allowed in open spaces. Period. Not at akhand paths, not at jagrans, not at wedding celebrations, not at political meetings, not at anything. Not within a mile of any hospital. Not close to any school. And most definitely not during the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. Needless to say, the required laws are there on the books, what does not exist is the will to enforce them.

There are, however, a couple of things that Indian Muslims should themselves be concerned about that are related to the matter of electronically amplified sounds emerging from mosques. The idea of praying together in a congregation is quite important in Islam, hence the need to construct mosques. And that leads to the immediately relevant question: how far away should one mosque be from another? The rule is clear: mosques should be so built that the call from one must not reach another. The worshippers should not be confused, nor should there be an appearance of discord or disunity. If you don’t believe me, ask the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. They will confirm the above, even if reluctantly. For the size and numbers of mosques has now become a matter of honor.

Then there is the second, perhaps even more critical, issue. Everyone is aware of the quantum increase in sectarian thought and practice among the Muslims of South Asia. The evil that started in Pakistan, particularly during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, has now well established itself in India too. Thankfully, the murder and mayhem that are now routine in Pakistan have not yet happened in India. Indian Sunnis are not killing Indian Shi’ahs, nor have the Indian Barelavis gone gunning after Indian Wahhabis. But anyone who reads Urdu journals knows that sectarian intolerance has increased, and no effort to curb it is in sight.

I first visited Pakistan in 1980, and well recall what some friends in Lahore told me was happening in the Old City. After the ‘isha (late evening) prayers, they said, the Barelavis and the Deobandis regularly engaged in denouncing each other, using their azaan amplification systems, and filling the air with choice imprecations. My friend had said that with a smile. Now, of course, that smile is long gone. In fact, when I was in Lahore last year, and staying with a friend in an affluent neighborhood, I heard an azaan that I had never heard before. Later I found out that the Barelavis in Pakistan now have their own special azaan, and the additional material was put in basically to annoy the Deobandis. Probably the same is now happening in Bareli and Mumbai, too, but until last year it had not reached Barabanki.

Public display of religiosity is now common place. Piety that used to be expressed privately or through public humanitarian acts has now been replaced by a religiosity that is much more about pomp and glory, about self-exaltation, than humility and service. The cry one hears is of shaukat-e Islam (Glory of Islam). Anything that detracts from that presumed glory becomes “intolerable”. Sonu Nigam’s complaint against the use of loudspeakers was turned into an attack on Islam’s “honor”, and had to be retaliated against by demanding that he should be denuded of his “honor”. “Shave his head off,” brayed one savior of Islam. “Put a garland of shoes around his neck.” Now I only wish Sonu Nigam had saved the hair clippings and mailed them to his detractor.

More seriously, it is about time administrators across the country began to enforce the existing laws. Put strict limits on amplification. Enforce hours. Punish those who break the laws. And the so-called leaders – political and religious – should also make sure that the presumed piety of one party does not put undue burden on the rest of the citizens of the country.

 

First published at Scroll.in on April 21, 2017.

Publish and Perish

I have long been familiar with the adage that governs so much in American academia—Publish or perish—but now I have learned a new truth: publish and perish.

It began some weeks back when I got a pleasant surprise from Professor Narayani Gupta of Delhi. She informed me that an enterprising young scholar named Rana Safavi had translated into English both editions—essentially two separate books—of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar-al-Sanadid, and the translation was soon to be published by the Tulika Books, Delhi. Would I be willing, she then asked, to have my long essay on the book reprinted in it as an Afterword sort of thing?

My essay, “Syed Ahmad and His Two Books Called ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’,” appeared in the May 2011 issue of Modern Asian Studies (45:3, 669–708). That was ten years after I had retired. So its publication was not for the purpose of saving me from perishing. The books had become available in facsimile editions in 2005, and it had taken me close to five years to finally finish a project that I had long aspired to do. In fact, the seed for it was planted a few decades back by Professor Gupta when I had met her at the Jami’a Millia. My essay was a labor of love, and much work and reading had gone into it as can been seen in its 100 footnotes.

Naturally, therefore, when I got Professor Gupta’s note, I was doubly gratified, and only too glad to give my full consent. What could be a better new life for my article, I thought, than for it to be included in the first full/joint translation of the two books it discussed?

Alas, I had forgotten the PUBLISHER. Modern Asian Studies is published by the Cambridge University Press; in fact it is just one of a whole gaggle of journals that they publish. Tulika Books contacted them, informing them of my full consent. I too wrote them. What was the end result? Here is the relevant portion from the note I received from the editor at Tulika:

“I’m afraid what I had feared has come to be. I just received an email from CUP granting us permission to include your article in our translation of Asar — but at a fee of GBP 480, which works out to over Rs 40,000 given the skewed currency exchange rate! I am sorry if this is disappointing to you, as indeed it is to us, but I hope you will understand that we just cannot afford to pay out such a high amount for reproducing your article. It would upset the entire ‘economics’ of the publication’s production cost. I haven’t yet replied to CUP but will be sending them a ‘no, thank you’ email by tomorrow. I thought I should inform you first. I thank you very much for your generosity and for taking time out to pursue this on our behalf.”

Four hundred and eighty pounds, i.e. six hundred and twenty-one dollars! For the right to reprint a forty page article on an obscure subject in a book that is not likely to sell more than six hundred copies! I’m fairly confident that the CUP makes enough from the sale of the MAS, in print and on line, not so much from individual subscribers as from the special rates that institutions pay. (In 2011, any American institution desirous of subscribing to the MAS had to pay $574.00.) University presses also get grants and subsidies, particularly when they publish something rare and special. So it is not as if they cannot afford to be less ruthless. Mind you, I, the author, did not get a penny in 2011, and would not have received a penny now either from Tulika or the CUP. And so, from the perspective of my essay, it lost a lovely and unusual opportunity to reach a new and wider audience in India. It was published in 2011; it perished in 2016. RIP.

India’s National Library Goes Digital – Sort of

In April 2014, The Guardian published a longish piece by Samuel Gibbs entitled, “The most powerful Indian technologists in Silicon Valley.” It opened: “Ever since waves of Indian graduates poured into Silicon Valley in Northern California in the 1970s and 1980s, talented Indians have made breakthroughs, pushed boundaries and held positions of power in the world of technology and media.” Gibbs then went on to give brief but substantial accounts of the achievements of eleven such Indians, nine men and two women. Included were such luminaries as Ajay Bhatt—“credited as being the father of the USB standard”—and Vinod Dham—“The father of the famous Intel Pentium processor.” What is also striking about these men and women is the fact that almost all of them received their foundational education in India, in some of its most prestigious institutions. One may then rightly assume that those institutions, and others like them, must have by now produced a very large number of well-trained and talented people. Too numerous, perhaps, even to imagine. So why is it that not one of them apparently found his or her way to be on the staff of the National Library at Kolkota? For as anyone who visited it knows that the National Library’s website is nothing short of a disgrace to such a prestigious institution.

Click on the above link and you will see the following:

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Note the invitation—“User can register from this website free of cost”— on the left, spilling out of its box. Ignore the amateurish effect, and instead try to register. You will be immediately forced to make an arbitrary choice. There is on the right of the screen a tempting box titled “New User?” with a winking sign saying “Register Now!” But there is also smack in the middle of the screen a box marked “User registration.” Most likely, you will do what I did and click on the “New User” box, to be greeted only with the following bracing message: “This facility will be made available soon.” Now try the box in the middle. It works. You can register – but only if you are an Indian citizen. It does not say that in so many words. However, I as an American citizen was in no position to answer all the “mandatory” questions, even if I chose to ignore their highly obtrusive nature. I gave up and consoled myself by concluding that “User Registration” was perhaps not meant for those who only wished to use the website and the NL’s online information resources.

I next tried the button saying “View Recently Digital Books” (sic), assuming that they actually meant “Recently Digitized.” What did I find? Just one title, as can be seen below.

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Ignore your disappointment, ignore the incongruity of “1 Records Found.” But do consider the details of the one “recently digital” book. The author is given as “Ober, Fredwick Alboin.” His parents, however, had named him: Fredrick Albion Ober. Now look at the title of the book as offered by the National Library of India: “Comps in Carbbees; the adventures of a naturalists in the Lesser Antilles.” The book when it came out in 1880 was actually titled: “Camps in the Caribbees: the adventures of a naturalist in the Lesser Antilles.” Four serious typos in a context where not one should have happened.

I next tried the box in the middle of the page titled, “Digitised Book (sic),” expecting to find some description of the nature and number of the books, with perhaps an alphabetical list of the most prominent authors so far included. Instead I found I had to blindly try, and if I were lucky I could find something. As fate would have it, almost all the times I was only told: “No records found.” It soon became obvious that no browsing was possible. One could only make a specific request and then pray for good luck.

Finally, I decided to search the library’s online catalog as offered on the home page. My recent research interest has been popular fiction in Urdu at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20 centuries, in particular what was translated from the English. Two authors, George W.M. Reynolds and Marie Corelli, had been particular favorites in Urdu, as in fact they had been in several other Indian languages. I thought the National Library should have a good record of the titles by these authors that had been available in India as well as the translations that appeared in Indian languages. I was not disappointed. A substantial number of the two authors’ early editions are preserved. I also found titles of some translations in Bengali and Malayalam. But very few. Far fewer than were actually done in those two languages. And no mention of any translation in Urdu, though at least 34 novels of Reynolds and 5 of Corelli were to my knowledge translated and avidly read in Urdu in the 1920s.

I also found that there was no easy way for me to check Urdu titles. As shown below, the page invites readers to use regional languages but where is the “Control Panel” that it asks them to use?

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I had to resort to Romanized forms of Urdu words. It worked – mostly. But it would have more helped if they had offered a guide to their Romanizations. It turns out that there is no fixed system. Different people on the staff have differently Romanized Urdu titles and authors’ names. I wonder if that has happened with other languages too or was that some special treatment meted out to Urdu? Surely, it is not fair to change Urdu ‘z’ to Hindi ‘j’ even in Romanization. Not in Kolkota, where people lustily pronounce ‘z’ and ‘f’ even where they are not required to.

Why should this be the case? A friend suggested the practice of “tendering out” such jobs could be to blame. The library wished to have a website; it asked for tenders from different IT firms; then chose the least costly, hence the least efficient. The usual bureaucratic fiasco. There is also that attitude so prevalent among Indian librarians. Very few of them think of themselves as providers of an essential service to the general public. Most of them view themselves simply as custodians of the contents of their institutions—contents that they preserve and protect but do not, in the same measure, also make available to rightful users. After visiting the National Library’s website it was obvious to me that no one had bothered to try it out and see if it actually worked. They can now claim, like everyone else, to have a website, that it worked or not was of little importance.