Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters


Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters




I was a graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley when Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope came out in 1960. I had not heard of the author before and came upon the book only because in those days there was a lovely reading room in Dwinelle Hall where one could read literary magazines, listen to recorded music, plays and poetry, glance through the latest acquisitions in poetry and fiction, or simply doze off in one of the old-fashioned lounge chairs. No one bothered you. The room was large and quiet, and people still believed in allowing quiet private spaces to others in shared public places. It was one of my favorite haunts, for I could go there and try to catch up on all that I had missed out on in Lucknow. It was there one afternoon that I found Rao’s novel among the week’s highlighted new acquisitions.


As I flipped its pages, its language fascinated me. A month later I was able to borrow the book to read at home at leisure. I soon discovered that I enjoyed the language much more if I read it aloud to myself. The sentences moved forward but often also seemed to curl back on them. Not only the narrative but its narration too invited you into experiencing a kind of circularity that was challenging, often exasperating, but, at that time in my life, also charming and fascinating. I don’t think I would be able to read the book now for more than ten pages, but it came into younger hands then, and also at a time when I was as heartbroken in an impossible love as the novel’s protagonist. Also, like him, I was quite arrogant in my own certainties.


A few years later, in Chicago, some friends and I started a magazine that we called Mahfil—it eventually gained more fame as the Journal of South Asian Literature. Our first issue was almost exclusively on Urdu, the second on Hindi, and the third on Indian writings in English. I wanted to highlight in it the two writers I then most admired, G. V. Desani and Raja Rao, and so arranged to include short excerpts from Desani’s classic All About H. Hatterr and Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope. It entailed correspondence with the two. Some of it survived my many moves, including one to India in 1971 for more than fourteen months. Among the survivors are the following letters from Raja Rao.


I have no record and almost no memory of what I wrote to him. I’m sure I had little idea of his age and achievements when I wrote him first. I do recall inviting him later to Chicago a couple of times to give seminars—“readings” were not in fashion then—and also had him interviewed on radio by Studs Terkel. (There must be a tape of it in Terkel’s archive somewhere.) But Raja Rao never became a great hit with my colleagues at the University of Chicago. Most of them felt no desire to concede to him the status he most cherished, that of a scholar-philosopher. They viewed him merely as a novelist with certain thematic predilections. In a sense, the artist had moved on, whereas most academics only saw him as the author of an astonishing debut novel, Kanthapura (1938). Also, he was perhaps too “Continental” for the English and “Comp Lit” crowd at Chicago. He eventually found his niche—in Philosophy—at the University of Texas, Austin, where Desani had preceded him. They taught in alternate semesters, and had their devoted followings for many years. Zulfikar Ghose also taught there, but in the department of English (or perhaps Comparative Literature). But I doubt very much if the three South Asian masters of fiction writing ever appeared together on the same platform—or in the same drawing room.


Looking back after so many years I can confidently say that it was an enriching and joyful experience knowing him even so cursorily.


C. M. Naim

Chicago, March 2013


In transcribing the letters I have retained any word that Raja Rao crossed out, but marked it as such. Where he added comments on the margin, I have inserted them in the text, placing them between asterisks. Raja Rao wrote a minuscule scrawl, hard to decipher now in every instance. My guesses, in such cases, are followed by a question mark within brackets.






40 Acres Club,

Austin, Texas

May 1, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I wish I could have written to you in Urdu. You know I am an old student of Madrassa-i-Aliya in Hyderabad, and Aligarh University (and Nizam College) – so once my Urdu was not bad. Even now I enjoy listening to Urdu – it seems to have such elegance and such maturity. While in Lucknow (which I know well) I used to go to Josh Malihabadi, and hear him sing away his verses (actually one of the women sang Josh’s verses) and it was such a festival of poetry. I wonder whether in modern India today such “careless rapture” is possible. I hope it is.


While in India this time I did not have sufficient time in Delhi or Hyderabad to go to a mushaira – and those organised by the All India Radio have neither the fragrance nor the lustre of the old mushaira atmosphere.


So, as you see, like my old friend Ahmed Ali (we were at college together – he is now in Pakisthan [sic]) I am a nostalgic person – not necessarily for what is old, but for the sensibility it created.


I shall soon be with you – on the 18th I arrive, and we will take up this talk. It is so easy to demolish the old – but one day even the new will become old. Ghalib must have said somewhere such a thing, I am sure. *For the very thought of Urdu makes me think in an Urdu thinking intellectual’s manner.*


My coming to Chicago is entirely of your making, so may I thank you for it sincerely, and believe me, sincerely yours,

Raja Rao




Saratoga Springs, N.Y.


June 14, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I was – I am – certainly very ungracious in not having written to you after all the kindness and hospitality you showed to me. The fact is my energy is inadequate to my needs, and as I am physically less strong, my work is also more demanding – in fact with increased maturity, one’s work becomes more and more precise, and thus one gives to one’s work the major portion of one’s strength. For sometime here I live in much noble solitude, and except for an appearance at dinner, one is left completely alone. And so little by little I catch up with my mail. And yours is among the first letters I am writing.


What was Chicago like to me? I wrote to Milton Singer to say (he had asked me to read one of his manuscripts and comment on it, which I at last did last week) – I said I was just beginning to know Chicago when I left. The day before I left was extremely rich in meetings, and about everybody I met, I should have met seen several times. Also I was overwhelmed by certain perspectives on Chicago which seemed authentically (?) deeply satisfactory, and completely unexpected. Perhaps I will one day come back to Chicago – who knows? I never know what calls me where and when? (sic) For life is such a series of gifts. I did not know even six months ago that I was going to come to Chicago. Nor for that matter to Yaddo.


I will probably go towards the middle of July to California, and will perhaps drop in at Philadelphia for a day or two. Please drop me a line at the above address giving me your address whereabouts in Philadelphia.[1] I would like you to know some of my friends there.


Your “short story” I read with very eager interest. I think that you have a very good story, and it seems to me that the story has to be much reduced in size. The idea is poetic but the treatment is too straightforward. It needs bypasses (?) and complexities of approach in language and structure so that the theme is discovered in the conclusion – your beautiful conclusion. If we could have read it together I would have told you more explicitly. A short story is a poem, in many ways, and so it needs a bare statement of fact to overwhelm the reader. There is a similar story by Liam O’Flaherty (I do not know if you know it. It’s also about a donkey about to die and of birds wanting (?) to finish up the animal before life has left it.) I think even O’Flaherty is too old fashioned. The short story today is a highly sophisticated form, and if I were you I would go on to the novel. After the novel the short story seems more pure in spirit easy of understanding. This is only a friendly suggestion. After all each writer has his own pattern of work. And work indeed is purely personal. And usually no writer is right about another writer’s work.[2] However since you had the kindness to show your short story I thought I would say what I felt. I would like to see more, if you have any you could spare.


With affectionate regards,

yours very sincerely

Raja Rao



Do you think I should write a formal letter to Marc Galanter? I shall in a day or two. Give him my regards, please.[3]


(Inflight Pan Am Clipper. Airline envelope.

c/o A E Jolis, 589 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.)

Between Paris and New York


January 15, [1965]


My dear Naim Sahib,


Forgive me, will you, for this mad silence where everything seems to move but no one knows where. I have been working as I have rarely worked before (that is the work I did in New York) and then I rushed off to my friend’s (?) flat on the Mediterranean, at Grasse, to work on my new book. In the vitality of air and beauty that shines on Grasse, I lived and worked successfully, and partly recovered my failing health. I am returning to New York for the publication of my new book (Jan 18) and after a week there I will go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a four month visiting Professorship. I have of course Chicago on my programme (sometime towards the end of May perhaps) so that I could see you and Ramanujan, and Mircea Eliade. I got to know Chicago and began to love it.


Did you get a copy of my new book? I think I put your name down for copies to be sent to. If you haven’t received it let me know.


How is your work going on, and your own writing [?] In all frankness I must admit I have been so busy I have had no time to go through your story. But I hope to in Baton Rouge.


Is there anything I can do for you[?]


I saw Ali Yavar Jung in Paris; he is going to Aligarh. He wants to bring in many important changes in the way the university is run.[4] I hope you will go back to it one day.


After Baton Rouge, I return (after having seen you) to New York and then to Paris. I may go to Africa (French-speaking) briefly, and in September I return to India for a year of hard work.


How beautiful, Naim Sahib, life can be  – in the miracle of emergent circumstance – of devoted friendships, of intellectual penetrations to the world of poetical suchness. Is it intellectual? No, it’s just the play of truth discovering itself in terms of a seeming otherness. Life is meant for happiness.


Is there anything I can do for you [?} Just take me for an older brother and let me know.


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao



(Written on an aerogramme that apparently got torn, and so was mailed in an envelope)

c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


June 8, [1965]


My dear Bhai Saheb,


I am so unhappy I could not make Chicago. I will tell you one day the good, the auspicious reasons, why I had to skip Chicago. I know you will forgive me, and so will our friends.


I am here till the end of this month, and if you come to New York let me know, and give our friends in Chicago (Ramanujan, Mircea Eliade, etc.) my address here, so that if they come here they could contact me. My whole programme is somewhat uncertain – India in a few months is certain, so is Europe next month. And what are your plans?

Your affection will forgive me.

Yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao



(The following came in response to what I had arrogantly written after reading The Cat and Shakespeare (1965). Sadly, the letter somehow got torn into two, and now I find that one of the pieces is missing.)


Dear Bhai Sahib,


I was moved by the fact that you understood indeed the trick (that I played – in The Cat and Shakespeare) and I am grateful to you for it. *And I realise why you do not want to read the book again.* Yes, those who have only seen in the book the side of high comedy or of metaphysical exaltation have missed the fact that to apply the Mother-cat and kitten philosophy  to one’s own life is to lose one’s life – yet, to gain all! For what is life worth if you cannot gain it all!

Yes, do send me the Sillapadikaram and I will do my own sort of review, as long as you…. [5]

Yours always,

Raja Rao

P.S. I will be going to Texas University from April 18th to May 5, for a series of lectures. I will be at the old address: 40 Acres Club, Austin, Texas.


(Mailed on 20 September 1965)

Palais Provencal

Grasse. A.m. France


Dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me, I have taken all this time to reply to your affectionate letter. The fact is when I work I find letter writing somewhat difficult.  So I will be brief but there is such warmth in me for you, and such devotion, I hope we will one day be long enough together to discover this common link. You call me a brother, and I feel a brother.


I must also tell you I have been settling down to the prospect of married life. Katherine is an American (from Texas), an actress by profession, deeply serious, young and intellectual. You will probably meet her in Paris – that is if our dates coincide.


I reach Paris on October 8th or 10th. I cannot find your letter, and that is why I do not know when you propose being in Paris. If I am there I would of course look after you, but I suggest in any case that you contact Mr. Hashmi (HASHMI) who is also from Aligarh, and who is first secretary. *(Indian Embassy’s address in Paris.)* I do not know him that well but I am told he is interested in literature. And he seemed to me to be a man of infinite charm and of intellectual curiosity. I shall write to him today, and will speak to him of you. If you need accommodation, of this too will you write to him. Thank you.


Mahfil came the other day, and I and Katherine were most impressed with the review of The Cat and Shakespeare.[6] What a remarkably intelligent statement (?) it is – though not entirely accurate, but always pushing forward to new propositions, and so of new meanings. I will probably write to the reviewer one day.


Meanwhile what sorrow fills our hearts, yours and mine, at this plight of India and Pakisthan (sic). Must one be so stupid (both of them), and be so reckless about dear human life. How I wish intellectuals could do something – yes, they can – but it will bear fruit in a century.


I hope I will not miss you in Paris, but if I do we will meet in Chicago next year.


Be well in Aligarh, and write to me at the above address – letters will always be forwarded.


yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. Rajeshwar Dayal, present Ambassador to Paris, was the Collector of Barabanki – and that is how I know Barabanki![7]



(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)

1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas


November 6, [1966]


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been waiting for the summer to be over and for the autumn to set in to write and inquire from you whether you have returned from India, when a colleague of yours (in the Dept. of Anthropology) who was here a few weeks ago told me that indeed you had returned, and I was indeed most happy to know that once again you are not very far from me. I had, if you remember, promised to visit you in Aligarh when I was in India last year but the Indian train accommodations are so difficult to get that though my train did pass from Delhi to Bombay via Aligarh I did not get down to see you (and Ali Yavar Jung, who also I had promised to see).[8] I was just afraid that I would have to wait ten days to get a decent seat on the train again. (Because of my illness I have to travel with  conditioned imp…..(?)) I wish I could have come to see you and also meet some old friends, and again see the university after almost thirty-five years. I do hope you had an (sic) useful year, and that you found your family not too uncomfortable in these very trying days in India.


I went from Bombay to Calcutta, and from Calcutta to Bombay and Kerala (for the All India Writers Conference), and thus I saw a good bit of India. I was saddened by the general demoralisation among the people, and in some areas I found a healthier spirit than the year before. I was hoping to go to India again this coming year but it looks as if I cannot manage it as I have to finalise the text of my book on the Ganges, which is almost finished (at least one volume, for there will be three or four volumes in all, perhaps, and this may come out sometime next year. I have been very ill again with asthma (since three four months) and so my work has been very slow.


I want to know how you are, and how it feels to be back in Chicago. Is your magazine continuing? It is a fine publication, and I hope it prospers. Is Ramanujan there? If so give him my warm regards. I hope someday I will return to Chicago to meet you and a few friends. Is there any hope of your coming southward to Texas? Can I do anything for you at all?


You probably know that I am not only married but have a son (six months old), and I find enchantment in the discovery of this young creature face to face with the world (this world of doors and chairs and toys and trees). How much one can learn from the learning of children, and I have been wondering why so few novelists have ever written about children. The child is such a reminder of wisdom, and of simplicity. Let us learn them from them.


I send you my very deep affection,

Raja Rao







(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

Jan. 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me – this silence has been improper. But I wanted to write to you an adequate letter.


Your letter brought tears into my eyes, and I shuddered at the thought of all that you must have gone through. It is difficult to understand human nature often. It seems to contradict the very basis of what is human. The wars, the massacres, the disloyalties, the subterfuges of modern living, all seem so strangely inhuman that one wonders how we can continue to live. After the massacre of nearly eight million Jews by Hitler, the Western world continues to live as if nothing had happened. After the Hindu-Muslim massacres the Indians and the Pakistanis live as if it was all a history-book affair.


So it is with individual stories. In spite of my 57 years, I still feel a child face to face with the “normal” human situation. Yet, what has enriched, ennobled me is the (?) of friendship, the sacrifice that man will make for man. People, this world, has been most kind to me – yet suffering there has been, and so much of it.


Suffering comes often from a simple misunderstanding, which ultimately becomes a symbol, and then divides.


If I want to come to Chicago it is mainly to see you, and Mircea Eliade, and Ramanujan. My plans however are still very vague because of my health (which is slowly improving), and because of my wife’s activities.  (She is an actress, and the program goes according to where and when she is acting.) But I want you to meet Katherine and my son.


Your colleague, Marc Galanter, did write to me, but he was as vague as I was. I want to know definitely if (a) the University of Chicago wants me, (b) and if so when. Your colleague’s letter does not speak of any honorarium and so I took it as being only a friendly sort of visit, and in America I find this not altogether proper. You know how I feel about money – how in America money is a serious matter. So if they want me I will come, but under my own conditions. Unless you advise me otherwise. In which case I will accept your suggestion. Otherwise I come only to see my friends. The university will have nothing to do with it. Could you explain to Galanter. I will also write to him.


Katherine and I are driving to New York, and it is too cold and full of snow to drive up North in March or early April. People tell us this. So maybe we will come to you in Autumn. Anyway, please write to me often, and tell me how life is with you and around you, and also if there is anything I can do for you. Please write to me without any reason.


With affectionate regards.

yours …

Raja Rao




1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

March 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Saheb,


So, Katherin and I, leave Austin on Sunday, April 2nd, and after an overnight stop at Dallas (where Katherine has her parents) we will leave for Chicago on Monday morning, and hope to reach there by Wednesday evening. (Roughly driving 350 miles a day.) Now, could you book us a room (a double bed or two single beds, it does not matter) with a private bathroom, and not very far from the campus. Perhaps the Windermere may still be the best, unless we could stay at the Faculty Club. Our needs are simple – only the private bathroom is all that we need, and in America that is not difficult to get.


Now, as to what we should do (apart from seeing you, and giving the talk that [Marc] Galanter asked me to give – this time unambiguously ) is to see a few persons. (1) [Edward C.] Dimock (to whom I have just written.) (2) Mircea Eliade (to whom I wrote sometime ago.) (3) [A. K.] Ramanujan. (4) Milton Singer (to whom I have not written but would be grateful if you could.) In case it is not too much of a trouble could you kindly contact them from us, and the man at the Radio Station. I forgot his name now – I was so impressed with him the last time I saw him – and any others whom you think I should see. May I leave the programming to you. *Also some interesting play or show connected with the theatre for Katherine. A very wide programme, as you see.*  And thank you for it all. We will probably leave on Saturday morning, unless there is something very important to do or to see, in which case we may be able to stay a few days more, but as it stands we will leave on Saturday.


My main purpose in coming, as I told you, is to see you. I feel you have not been too happy, and just to see one another may take away some edge of pain. At least I hope so. I hope I am right.


yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


Could you let us know here when you have reserved our room so that we could drive straight to the hotel (or wheresoever you have fixed for us to stay). Forgive the trouble. If I do not hear from you before we leave I shall telephone you on arrival.

Anyway, my telephone number: home GR7-1565, and you could always ring me collect. And please do if you feel like it. Thank you.




1808 Pearl Avenue

Austin, Texas

Dec. 8, 1969


My Dear Bhai Sahib,


In all honesty I must tell you since that day, some two and a half year ago, when I said au revoir to you in Chicago, I had promised myself to write to you, for there was a melancholy in your being, a sort of noble pessimism, a sense of craving Destiny, back to one’s Gods as it were, for sustenance and comfort – and I have sometimes been anguished at the loneliness it indicated. And to take two and a half years to write to you does not indicate that my own capacity to respond to your solitude was so very …. (?) However, believe me I have carried an envelope of yours through all my travels. For since I saw you last I have been to India twice, and then again to Africa, and my health being poor, I have had to fight against time and circumstance, and it is only since about a fortnight that my health is recovering from a terrible attack of asthma that I had on arriving in Africa last March. I see three doctors now, and I am getting better and better. But even last year my health was miserable. All this is an explanation for my silence, and not an apology. There is no apology for such sheer indelicacy, for such an idiotic negligence. Please forgive me.


Could you now tell me how you are? Do you still feel as sorrowful and solitary as I found you – not according to you perhaps, but certainly according to me. I do hope someday you will come to Austin to see me. I always feel the elder brother, if you will permit this indiscretion.


Katherine will return from India with …(?) after nearly two years in South India. She has India as her new home, and she has bought a piece of land to build a house there, in Kerala, on the river Pampa, near the Home of my Sat-Guru. What greater home has a disciple than the Home of his Guru, he who has shown the face of Truth, the Sat Guru.


I go on working on my book, and each time I seem to have finished my manuscript. I feel it needs even more work. What a noble task writing is – it asks for everything that one can give beyond oneself – and as …(?) this agony and this joy.


To you, therefore, dear Bhai Sahib, this brings my very affectionate regard.

Raja Rao


P.S. What are you working on now?

How do you …(?) cost your journal – it is a very fine journal indeed.

a. l. (?)

Please believe me this is not a Christmas letter.


Dec. 20: I once again delayed sending this to you because I was searching for your proper initials. It seems improper – unless otherwise urgent – to write to people without their full and properly formulated address.[9]


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

April 1, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been proposing (with my wife) to visit you, sometime early in May – that is if all goes well, and you are there, in Chicago. I did not write to you earlier for I have been busy with my own writing, and also because of my uncertain health. Anyway, my main purpose to go to New York via Chicago is to see you – and after that meet one or two friends like Mircea Eliade, and may be Milton Singer. Could you write to me at once, if possible, so that we could make our plans.


The need to see you somehow seems deep-seated. I want to be near you, and if possible to bring to you a brother’s warmth of presence (?) of awkward gesture.  So much of saying is largely immature. The Symbol seems so true, for the word, the naked word, is too concrete. The real is in dissolution – the Symbol the ritual of true meaning.


Yours affly,

Raja Rao


P.S. 1) We will be driving.

2) Have not had time to read your Ghalib.




The Guest House Motor Inn

Birmingham, Alabama

May 4, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Strange, you must think, I should write to you from here – I was invited to give a lecture … (?),[10] and I accepted it, hoping I may still be able to go to New York via Chicago. But I discovered that my conference in New York starts on the 11th (the P.E.N.) not on the 16th or 18th as I had imagine it to do, and as I have to give a brief talk I should be there on the opening day – which means once again I will miss you. But I shall try to make it on my way back, or late in August. Anyway, here is my address in New York, and I would like to hear from you.


c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


I am deeply sorry to miss seeing you now as I had hoped. But please write, will you. And give me news. With my warm greetings to your wife and children,


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. By the way Rajeshwar Dayal came to Austin last week, and we spoke of course of Barabanki.

By the way, again, I wonder if you have any way at all of helping poor Ahmed Ali to get out, even temporarily, of Pakisthan (sic). If you could, I should be so grateful.



P.S.S.  As you can see the letter was written in a hurry, so please forgive.



[1] I spent the summer of 1964 in Philadelphia, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. As I remember, he was not able to make the stop.

[2] He was of course dead right about the story. Titled ‘The Outcasts,’ it is included in my collection of miscellaneous writings: Ambiguities of Heritage (Karachi, 1999).

[3] Prof. Marc Galanter of the University of Wisconsin, the distinguished author of Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India (1984) and other books, was at the time a young colleague at Chicago and had been the host of Raja Rao on behalf of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies of the University of Chicago. He was also an avid reader of Indian literature, and it was he who introduced me to G. V. Desani’s masterpiece. The book had been remaindered by the publisher, and he had bought four or five copies to share with friends. Together we wrote – anonymously – the short introductory note introducing the excerpt in Mahfil.

[4] Navab Ali Yavar Jung, a distinguished diplomat, had a troubled tenure at Aligarh as the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. He was attacked and suffered bodily injuries at the hands of the students. I did go to Aligarh during that time, and in fact taught Linguistics for a couple of months in an honorary capacity at the request of my teacher, prof. A. A. Suroor.

[5] I’m not sure if we sent him the book. It was reviewed by someone else.

[6] The book was reviewed by Robert J. Ray of the Beloit College. He had earlier reviewed for us The Serpent and the Rope, and was actually quite enthusiastic about both.

[7] At our first meeting or perhaps in an earlier letter Raja Rao asked what my home town was in India, and learning that it was Barabanki he somewhat gleefully, and to my utter amazement, told me that he had been there.

[8] I am not sure if any train from Delhi to Bombay passes through Aligarh, unless he was going some place else before heading off to Bombay.

[9] He had some trouble with my initials, and the envelopes are variously addressed. I once pointed it out to him and he promptly apologized.

[10] The four words are indecipherable to me. The final, for example, could be ‘ on Mahatama’ or ‘on Malarme.’ Either would be correct in Raja Rao’s case.

A Must See Film: The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall

It was sheer chance that I watched Rowan Joffe’s powerful film, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, at home the same night when Oscars were being awarded. In fact, my watching it was also by chance, since I knew nothing about it. I had seen it listed in the Netflix catalog, and since the director’s surname seemed familiar had sent for it. Only later did I discover that I had confused the son with the father. Roland Joffe is the maker of such acclaimed films as The Killing Fields and The Mission. Rowan Joffe is his son, and a filmmaker in his own right. The two apparently share the same concern and passion for justice.

Thomas Hurndall was a young British photographer and activist who was volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement in occupied Palestine in 2003. On April 11, 2003, he was shot in the head in Gaza by an Israeli army sniper from one of the army watchtowers. Left in a coma, Hurndall eventually died in January 2004. He was barely 23. The man who killed him was 20.

The film (available on the internet) is as much about Hurndall and his family as about the trained sniper, Sgt. Taysir Hayb, who happened to be an Arab Beduin, . Most emphatically it is about the ordeal the two families underwent at the hands of the callously ruthless state of Israel and its army. Hurndall’s story did not make any headline in the United States, where even the story of its own Rachel Corrie—a tragedy of a similar nature—has not received any artistic tribute. But both Corrie and Hurndall received due attention in U.K, and in the latter’s case also some strong responses from its political establishment, the like of which was scant here in the United States concerning Corrie. Of course the most disgraceful example of the pusillanimous attitude of those who most whoop up ‘Triumphant America’ in the United States concerns the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in which 34 American sailors were killed in the line of duty. Hollywood is yet to spend a penny or a moment on that dastardly incident. Its shame lies not in ignoring the plight of the Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation but in its utter neglect of even its American victims. Again,  BBC has an hour-long film, “Death in the Water,” about it on the Internet.

Incidentally, this year’s Oscars race featured two ‘Triumphant America’ films. One of them got the top prize. Israel had two finalists in the Documentary category. Both were denied the honor of an award. The great Israeli journalist Uri Avnery explains why in his admirable way.

From the La La Land (December 2012)


From the La La Land (December 2012)


The December 23 issue of Munsif (Hyderabad) carried two items concerning Christmas. One described how the Ulama Council in Indonesia had declared participation by Muslims in Christmas activities to be un-Islamic, and urged Indonesian Muslims not even to greet Christians with a cheery “Merry Christmas.” The same report also detailed similar actions by “major” Muftis and scholars in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They too, apparently, have declared it as harām for any Muslim to participate or use expressions of joy at Christmas time. According to them, Muslims should not go to any church service if invited, for that is when “Allah casts down his particular displeasure upon Christians.”

The other item was datelined Medak (AP). Apparently the place is a favorite with holidayers at this time of the year. And local Muslims too have long enjoyed the various events that take place at Christmas. Now a Maulana Muhammad Javed Ali Hussami, President of the Muslim Welfare Society, has taken umbrage. He has issued a call to all Muslims not to participate in any non-Muslim festival, though his immediate target were the celebrations at the Church of India at Medak.


 Another Conspiracy

The same issue of Munsif also carried a boxed item on the front page, with the headline: “The Massacre of Children in the American School was a Jewish Terrorist Attack.” Here is the initial part of this long item:

A sensational disclosure has been made that Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency, was involved in the incident at the Newtown School. The disclosure was made by none other than the future Defense Secretary of the USA. His statement has been reported by the Iranian Press TV. [The report] says that the Jewish agents committed the massacre at the school to teach a lesson to Americans, and to warn them against giving any support to the Palestinians. It should be evident that the Israeli Prime Minister and the Jewish lobby in the America are enraged at the recognition given by the U.N. to the Palestinian state.…

The former Governor of Arizona (sic), Michael Harris, has openly said at an international level (sic) on a TV channel that the incident in Connecticut was a terrorist act of revenge on the part of Israel.

The rest of the boxed space contains more similar claims by Mr. Michael Harris, including: “The Jews of Hollywood have encouraged the culture of violence in America;” and “The killings on the Norwegian island were also a similar vengeful Israeli act.”

Please note, Press Council of India:

  • The only source of this most reprehensible piece of reporting is a small Iranian news agency, PressTV, which has an office in Washington, D.C. No other news agency located in Washington sent out anything remotely like it. (Claiming it to come from “Agencies” is a blatant lie.)
  • Former senator Chuck Hagel, now nominated by President Obama for the post of the Secretary of Defense, never issued any such statement. (Another blatant lie.)
  • In fact, even the Iranian news agency did not make such a libelous claim concerning Mr. Hagel. Munsif made it up entirely on its own.  Was it intentional or due to poor command of English, I cannot say. (Worse than a blatant lie.)
  • The only person who brought up Mr. Hagel’s name in any fashion was Mr. Michael Harris, who publicly claimed that since Senator Hagel had a reputation to be fair minded concerning the Palestinians, his nomination had enraged Israel and it supporters in the United States, and that both had launched attacks on him.
  • So who is this Michael Harris? A search on the Internet with his name and Arizona will suffice. He is NOT a former governor—either of Arizona or any other state. He is NOT even a former Republican nominee in an gubernatorial race. His claim to fame is that he ran in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary in Arizona, and received 18000 votes.


The Rape in New Delhi

 Mr. S. A. Sagar is a regular columnist in the daily Sahāfat, published from Delhi, Lucknow, and Mumbai. On December 24, 2012, under the heading “Why Such Violence Against Ladies?” he wrote about the demonstrations protesting the horrific rape of a young woman in New Delhi. After describing the demonstrations, Mr. Sagar makes his major point: immodest dress of women causes men to behave like animals.

We may have heard that before, but Mr. Sagar is different.

Original to him is his “scientific” explanantion, based on an article he found in the Tarjumān-al-Quran, the monthly journal of the Jamaat-e Islami, which, according to Mr. Sagar, was a translation of an article published in 2008 in Pravda. It seems that a Russian doctor—I failed to recover the original name from its Urdu transcription—believes that the high incidence of prostate cancer among European and American men, as compared to the very low incidence of the same in the “Muslim” lands, is due to the sexual agitation and frustration European and American males suffer, surrounded as they are by scantily-clad women. This “scientific” proof then leads Mr. Sagar to rhapsodize about the “balanced inequality” between sexes in Islam, and condemn what he considers “unbalanced equality” championed under the slogan of “Women’s Freedom.”

The note struck by S. A. Sagar was also sounded by a few other writers in Sahāfat, who similarly found in the Western ways, as imitated by South Asian women, the chief cause for the rising incidence of rape. Needless to say, they show no awareness of the rapes that occur in villages and towns where women do not go around in jeans, or the rapes in Kashmir now, and in Bangladesh in 1972, that were not perpetrated upon scantily clad women, nor of course the rapes that immigrant women have suffered in “Islamic” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

One intriguing piece was written by a very young-looking Muhammad Asif Iqbal, in the Sahāfat of December 26, under the bold heading: “Behind the Cry for Women’s Freedom.”  Actually, he was far more sensible than the older contributors, and was concerned with many more issues plaguing the Indian urban society. What intrigued me was the incident he cited when he too turned to the theme of the accursed West and its more accursed Feminism. Allegedly, five girls at some unnamed university in Arizona climbed into the room of a Yemeni student, took of their clothes and invited him to make love to them. He, naturally refused—“My religion does not allow it”—leaped out of the window, and rushed to the campus police, who promptly arrested the five girls. What happened next, we are not told. But Mr. Iqbal assured his readers that nasty things would not happen if more people showed the strength of character that the Yemeni student did.

I failed to find any story of that description in the Arizonian press. It could be there, but hard to find at this late date. I, however, found the same story repeated on any number of websites in English, in more or less the same words.

A Yemeni student got sexually harassed by the Americans five female students in Arizona. They went to his private apartment near the campus, and take off their clothes, after closing the apartment door to prevent him from escaping but the student opened the bedroom window and jumped to the street. Essam Sharabi immediately inform the police attended the area and the girls arrested. After investigation, one of the students acknowledged that they believe that the student in question is suffering from a psychological issues as they asked him to go out with them on dates more than once, but he refused claiming that religious young man and his religion prevents him from exercising any intimate relationships with other than his wife. And by virtue of the state law prohibits all forms of harassment unless one of the two parties agree to establish a relationship with the other party.

Since the English text sounded very much like a bad translation from Arabic, I expanded my search, and was not surprised to find an Arabic text on a site named “Yasater.” It seemed to have been the source for the English, and what was on “Yasater” was itself derived from an item published in “Al-‘Arabia” in May 2012. The latter, luckily, concluded its report with a reference to the number of clothes the wild co-eds at the unnamed university shed off at an annual event. I could then easily find what inspired Al-‘Arabiya: an event in April 2012 at the Arizona State University at Tempe. One report:

Arizona State University students pose for photos as they celebrate the last day of classes by taking off their clothes and donating them to charity during the ASU Undie Run 2012 in Tempe, Arizona April 24, 2012. Over 15 thousand students participated in the end of the year tradition, with over 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) of clothes and 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of food donated to local charities.

Shedding clothes and running in underclothes may not be the ideal way to raise funds for charity, but must it be reported with prurient intentions? That is what the so-called Muslim sites did, when they deliberately left out the charitable purpose. Needless to say, the annual semi-nudity has never caused anyone to assault a man or a woman.







Discussing Books at the end of 2012

Usually year-end discussions or surveys are a bore, but the following in Dawn (Pakistan) serves up more than some good titles to seek and read; it informs us much  about the reading public in Pakistan. The participants are significant writers themselves, and their enthusiasm for the books they read and enjoyed is evident.


As 2012 comes to an end, Books&Authors takes a look at what the year meant for literature in Pakistan. The good books and the not so good ones, fiction’s ability to help us make sense of our world, the evolving nature of censorship, the challenges of accessibility and what’s in store for readers in 2013 are just some of the questions that were raised when writer Mohammed Hanif, Sindhi-language poet Amar Sindhu, writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, writer, translator and publisher Musharraf Farooqi and writer, translator and critic Bilal Tanweer sat down to take a look at contemporary literature in Pakistan.

While Sindhu and Farrukhi expressed disappointment at the dearth of good prose writers in Sindhi and Urdu, respectively, Tanweer said that he has hopes from upcoming English writers. Meanwhile, Farooqi questioned the belief that Pakistanis don’t read and said that quality books need to be made available more easily.

The following pages contain excerpts from the discussion:

“Be crazy with God. . . .”

C. M. Naim


Be Crazy with God . . .



            Bā Khudā Dīwāna Bāsh o Bā Muhammad Hoshiyār

            Be crazy with God, and be careful with Muhammad


I have long known this Persian hemistich. Recently, while thinking about this essay, I discovered it had variants, with Mustafā (lit. Chosen; an epithet of the Prophet) or Payambar (Prophet) instead of Muhammad. In one form or another, the saying is several centuries old, perhaps a millennium. The earliest reference two kind Iranian scholars provided goes back to the book Tamhīdāt by ‘Ainul Quzat Hamadani, one of the martyrs of Sufism who was executed at Baghdad in 1132 and whose writings, according to the late Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, were very popular with the Chishti sufis of India. I have, however, no knowledge of the origins of this binary. The hemistich I have known most likely originated as a piece of prose, and only later someone altered into a line of verse. Was there ever a companion line? I don’t know. Only this one line was what I infrequently heard as I was growing up.


Most likely it was our Uncle Fareed who brought it up. He was the most well-read among the male elders in our extended family; he also had a gift of gab. I loved his visits and his winding comments on whatever took his fancy that day. He was wont to quote the above verse whenever the subject of the Ahmadis came up in his digressions. “Bā Muhammad Hoshiyār,” he would reiterate, underscoring his displeasure at the Ahmadi belief that there were several kinds of “prophets,” including the lesser kind that could come to mankind even after Muhammad, “the Final Prophet.”


Frequently I also came across the verse in books or articles relating the aftermath of the Khilafat Movement. Many would mention the notorious book Rangīlā Rasūl (The Libertine Prophet) and the assassination of its publisher Rajpal at the hands of a Muslim who couldn’t bear any insult to someone he so revered. The authors would quote the line as an admonition to remember: “Be careful with Muhammad.”


Needless to say, the verse made an appearance again in the months after Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, hit the news. It was repeatedly quoted in Urdu columns and editorials that condemned the author and the book and supported the edict issued by Imam Khomeini. It made an appearance in English too. Shabbir Akhtar used its second half for the title of his book on the scandal, calling it Be Careful with Muhammed (1989).


What never came up in those writings or in Uncle Fareed’s digressions was the fact that the emphatic admonition in the second half, “Be careful with Muhammad,” was preceded by an equally forceful command: “Be crazy with God.” In fact, the two statements shared a single imperative: bāsh (Be!). You might say, one balanced the other, having—as a cultural imperative—one and the same force.



The idea of “being crazy with God” has been around for a long time, particularly among Sufis and poets in Muslims lands. South Asia is no exception. Here is an example of such “craziness” as narrated—admiringly—by the poet Mir Muhammad Taqi “Mir” (d. 1810) in his autobiography, Zikr-e Mīr:


[Once there was a severe drought in Moses’ time.] When people began to die, they came to him and said, “Moses, please tell God that it has not rained and that no creature alive can bear such extreme hardship.” … Moses went up Mt. Sinai and made the petition. The divine response was: “There is a destitute man of confused speech lying in the ashes at a certain bath—his crazy words used to give me much pleasure. But for some days now he has not raised his head skyward and uttered those words. The coming down of rains depends on his loosening his tongue again.”


Moses immediately hurried to the bath, where he found the man—that Bearer of Love’s Burden—lying in the ashes, wrapped in a dark blanket. … When their eyes met, the man asked, “What brings you, Moses, to this dunghill?” … “There has been no rain,” Moses replied, “And no prayer seems to have any effect. All life is threatened. When I petitioned God, I was told that it was your falling silent that had caused the drought. Now winds wouldn’t bring clouds, nor would clouds shed any rain, until you speak again in the manner you did before.” . . . The man replied, “Moses, you don’t know that trickster. You have not given him your heart the way I have. … His smallest gesture can totally confuse you. I never let him lead me down that path. On the other hand, I now risk becoming an infidel if I do not obey his prophet. For it is said: ‘Be crazy with God, but be careful with a prophet.’”


Then that Prisoner of Absolute Love … turned his face heavenward, and spoke in his special manner: “O Embodiment of deceit! O Enemy of my heart’s peace! Till yesterday, the clouds, winds, and rain obeyed your command—now suddenly they have become my slaves? And it is I now who orders the clouds to gather, and the rain to fall? But then, you are always right, aren’t you? … Come, come—stop your tricks. Take pity on your creatures.” He continued in that manner only a few moments when suddenly a strong wind brought piles of dark clouds, and a torrential rain started.


Another, more well-known story of that nature comes from Rumi (d. 1273), several centuries before Mir, in his great Mathnawi. It too involves Moses, the first lawgiver in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Here is an abbreviated version:


Once, in his wanderings, Moses came upon a shepherd, and heard him saying: “Where are you God? I cry to be your servant so that I may mend your shoes and comb your hair. So that I may clean your clothes, rid them of lice, and bring you a bowl of milk to drink. So that I may press your tired feet when you lie down to rest, and look after you if you ever fall ill. If I only knew where you reside I would bring you milk and butter mornings and evenings, together with some cheese and bread.” …


Hearing these words, Moses was horrified. “What blasphemy!” he thundered, “Is it any way to address God? Stuff your mouth with cotton. You think you are talking to one of your uncles? God is beyond any need, and no place or corporeal body bounds him. Do you realize your blasphemy could have enraged him? A woman might be pleased if you called her ‘Fatima,’ but address a man in that manner and you might get stabbed.”


The shepherd was devastated. “Moses,” he cried out, “you have sewed up my erring mouth. I now burn in shame.” Then, tearing off his clothes, he fled into the wilderness.


Immediately a revelation came to Moses: “Why did you separate my servant from me? I sent you to bring my creatures closer to me, not to distance them further. Do not create distances. I gave each creature its own nature, and its own way to communicate. What sounded evil to your ears was praiseworthy coming from his lips. You thought it was poison, but to me it was the sweetest honey.”


So what do the two stories teach? For one, they direct one’s attention to a God who created all creatures great and small, and whose favors were not exclusive to any particular cohort of human beings. But much more importantly, they instruct us to appreciate the mystery—the mystery of profound paradoxes, even contradictions—that perforce must surround any human conception of God. Remove that mystery, and there would not be ample scope for the incalculably diverse humanity to find its place and express its diversity in any scheme of things involving God. And if in the process of discovering his or her place the greater scheme of things, an individual human being appears to be imprudent—nay, impudent—vis-à-vis God, so be it.


Consider the story narrated about Rabi’ah of Basra (d.801), the first and foremost woman Sufi, who was one day seen in the streets carrying a burning brand in one hand and a jug of water in the other. When asked what she was up to, she replied, “I shall set fire to the delights of Paradise and pour water on the fires of Hell, so that human beings may love God for his sake, and not out of fear or greed.” More than a thousand years later, Ghalib (d. 1869) repeated the same sentiment to improve God’s scheme of things as found in the prevalent faith:


Tā’at meñ tā rahe na May-o-Angbīñ kī Lāg

Dozakh meñ le ke āl do ko’ī Bihisht ko

Will someone please throw Paradise into Hell?

Obedience shouldn’t be for wine and honey.


He also boldly corrected us about the meaning of Faith:

wafādārī ba-shart-i ustawārī asl-i īmāñ hai

mare butkhāne meñ to ka’be meñ gāo birahman ko

Consistent fidelity is the core of Faith, and so

If a Brahmin breathes his last in a temple, bury him at Ka’ba.


Altaf Husain Hali (d. 1914) lovingly tells a delightful anecdote concerning Ghalib. “One night the Mirza was lying on his cot in the open, looking up at a sky full of stars. Noticing their apparent disarray, he remarked, “Anything done willfully (khudrā’ī se) is often ungainly. Just look at the stars. They are scattered haphazardly. There is no design or pattern. But who can object? The King is His own Authority (khudmukhtār).” A century or more later, Jaun Eliya (d. 2002) echoed the same, but more bitterly:


Haasil-i-Kun hai ye Jahān-i-Kharāb

            Yahī mumkin thā itnī ‘Ujlat meñ

You said “Be!” and the Wasteworld appeared.

What else could such haste produce?


It is little recognized but among all Urdu poets, Iqbal (d. 1938) was the perhaps the most avid practitioner of the “Be crazy with God” sentiment. Apart from his famous “Shikwa” (Complaint)—it brought him severe denunciations when it was first published in 1909; available in a fine translation by Khushwant Singh (Oxford, 1981)—Iqbal has many other remarkable poems where he seemingly takes liberties with God, and acts, in his own words, like an “impudent slave” (banda-i-gustākh). Consider the many poems in which Satan appears as the major protagonist. The most elegant and eloquent of these is titled, “Gabriel and Satan” (Jibrīl-o-Iblīs), in which Satan, cast out from the heavens, still claims superiority over angels. Iqbal’s Satan makes the claim by declaring that it was his blood that added color to Adam’s otherwise monochromatic tale, and that it was he who set in motion the chain of events we now call History. Satan concludes by declaring that he continues to prick in God’s side like a thorn, while Gabriel and other angels do nothing except endlessly repeat: “He is God. God is He.”


Maiñ khaaktā huñ dil-i-Yazdāñ meñ Kāñe kī tarah

Tū faqat Allāh Hū, Allāh Hū, Allāh Hū


In another Urdu poem titled “The Mullah and the Paradise” (Mullā aur Bihisht), Iqbal opens, “I was there and couldn’t restrain myself // when God ordered the Mullah to Paradise;” he then goes on to point out how Paradise could not possibly suit the Mullah, for it was a place free of conflict and argumentation while the Mullah relished only discord and strife. The poem does not tell us God’s final decision, but we can guess what Iqbal had in mind. Then there is a short Persian poem, conceived as an exchange between God and Man, which lays out in no uncertain terms the almost coequal creative role Iqbal conceives Man to play in God’s world. He also gives Man the last word.


I made the world from one dust and water;

You turned it into endless separate nations.

I gave dirt the strength of the purest steel;

You forged it into swords, guns, and spears.

You took your axe to the tree in the garden,

And constructed a cage for the singing bird.



You created night; I made the lamp.

You created clay, but I the bowl.

You made deserts, mountains, and wild spaces;

I filled them with gardens, orchards, and parks.

It was I, who ground rocks into mirrors,

And converted poisons into sweet elixirs.


Perhaps the most audacious of Iqbal’s poems of that nature is a three-poem sequence, in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin arrives, posthumously, before God. After briefly acknowledging the error of his disbelief while still alive and the truth of what he was finally faced with, Lenin asks God a question that had always bothered him on earth:[1]


Oh, of what mortal race art Thou the God?

Those creatures formed of dust beneath these heavens?


He then explains his dilemma:


Europe’s pale cheeks are Asia’s pantheon,

And Europe’s pantheon her glittering metals.

In high-reared grace, in glory and grandeur,

The towering Bank out-tops the cathedral roof.

What they call commerce is a game of dice:

For one, profit, for millions swooping death.


After more in the same vein, Lenin concludes:

Omnipotent, righteous, Thou; but bitter the hours,

Bitter the labourer’s chained hours in Thy world!

When shall this galley of gold’s dominion founder?

Thy world Thy day of wrath, Lord, stands and waits.


Apparently God had not been aware of all that had happened to His creation. But the angels had been, for they immediately sing out, unasked, and basically confirm Lenin’s observations. At which, God commands them into action:


Rise, and from their slumber wake the poor ones of My world!

Shake the walls and windows of the mansions of the great!

Kindle with the fire of faith the slow blood of the slaves!

Make the fearful sparrow bold to meet the falcon’s hate!

Find the field whose harvest is no peasant’s daily bread—

Garner in the furnace every ripening ear of wheat.

Banish from the house of God the mumbling priest whose prayers

Like a veil creation from Creator separate!


God concludes by describing the new world as a place of deceptions (kārgah-i-shīsha-garāñ, lit. a glassmakers’ workshop), for which the angels must prepare the Eastern poet—they must teach him the “Protocols of Madness” (ādāb-i-junūñ).


These poems by Iqbal are now seldom included in prescribed textbooks. Nor do his votaries among the Urdu journalists of Pakistan and India quote from these poems in their columns, not even when they enshrine Iqbal as “the Poet of the East.” To my mind, these poems are now anathema not so much because they mention Lenin or Satan but because they assert that one could imagine a relationship with God that could be playful, soulful, or just plain confused—as long as it led to an ethical realization of the individual self vis-à-vis God and the Society.


A strange time has now come not only upon Iqbal’s poetry but also on “Allah,” who is now contested over the way brand names are disputed by business corporations. Not too long ago, some Muslims in Malaysia claimed an exclusive right over “Allah,” and would not allow their Christian compatriots to use the word in their religious texts—even though the name predates Islam, and has long been used by Arabic-speaking Christians. Other Muslims in South Asia have demanded that the Almighty must be invoked by one name alone: “Allah.” They consider it un-Islamic for any Muslim to place a loved-one in God’s protection by bidding him or her, “Khudā Hāfiz.” For them, only “Allah Hāfiz” would do. (We don’t know what they might say to “Rahmān Hāfiz.”) Some, one hears, denounce the use of the expression Allah Miyān by Urdu-speaking women and children, though the habit of adding Miyān—lit. Master, but also a term of endearment—developed over a few centuries only out of a sincere desire to use the “polite” verbal forms of Urdu with reference to God. According to these champions of God’s singularity, even grammatically required linguistic plurality can amount to blasphemy. To them, Allah dekhtā hai (Allah sees) is Islamic, but Allah Miyāñ dekhte haiñ a grave sin.  And then there are those votaries of “Allah” who cannot even wait for Him to act in His wisdom, who have usurped to themselves all powers to judge and punish, and whose ruthless self-righteousness brings horrific death to so many so frequently.


In this din it may be hard to remember that not too long ago Allah had 99 names, and of them only two invoked fear. The rest reminded humankind of its own better aspirations, such as Mercy, Justice, Generosity, and Kindness. In that time, it was also possible for many to follow the old dictum in its fullest sense: be “careful” with the Prophet, and be, or at least let others be, “crazy” with God—to engage with Him in all His mystery—each in his or her separate, though ultimately meager, way. Even so, human imagination could soar and cast its net over God, ignoring angels as unworthy prey.


dar dasht-i-junūn-i-man jibrīil zubūñ saide

            yazdāñ ba-kamand āwur ai himmat-i-mardāna

            In my crazy realm Gabriel is not worth the bother.

Rise, Manly ambition; cast your net on God.             (Iqbal)


Iqbal. Ghalib. Rumi. Are we not the richer for their managing to soar so high? Should we not make sure that others are able to do the same?


(December 21, 2012)

Published in Outlookindia.com

[1] All excerpts from this particular series of poems are from V. G. Kiernan’s, Poems from Iqbal (Oxford, 1999), pp. 114–121. Kiernan, sadly, left out the “Angels’ Song.”

Thinking About Manto

Muhammad Umar Memon has published an important essay on Manto in the Books section of Dawn today.

An excerpt:

It is about time that we discarded the myth about Manto tacitly following some Progressive-Socialist-Reformist agenda in his fiction; if anything, he was following his own agenda as a writer true to his calling.

Lest the above sound too partisan, I am only arguing for the self-sufficiency and autonomy of fiction. No writer lives outside of his time and place. Something of his environment and its peculiar aura will inevitably find its way into his writing. Moreover, unlike poetry, the linear structure of prose makes it impossible to transcend time and place. To read fiction merely as a social or political document is a fundamental outrage against its nature. We cannot judge it by extraneous criteria. Its success or failure will be determined by whether it has lived up to its own promise.

Read the full essay.

Do we really need Jinnah’s Pakistan?

I wish this essay by Hussain Nadim had appeared in the Urdu press, for the debate he mentions rages most fiercely and incessantly in the columns and letters published in Pakistani Urdu newspapers. The author makes an urgent plea to think anew. It has been made by others too. Even I, a non-Pakistani, once wrote: [The Pakistanis] will have to delve deep into themselves as they are now, and not as they think they were in the past, recent or remote. After all Iqbal told them:

“Why should I ask the ‘wise men’ what my beginning was?
I am busy discovering what my destiny is.”

Adab and Civility: Some Tangential Thoughts


Some Tangential Thoughts on Adab and Civility*


I begin with a quotation in translation.

—Nowadays true spiritualism is as rare as the Philosopher’s Stone; for it is natural to seek the medicine that fits the disease, and nobody wants to mix pearls and corals with common remedies…. In times past the works of eminent Sufis, falling into the hands of those who could not appreciate them, have been used to make linings for caps or binding for the poems of Abu Nuwās and the pleasantries of Jāhiz…. Our contemporaries give the name of “law” to their lusts, pride and ambition they call “honour and learning”, hypocrisy towards men “fear of God”, concealment of anger “clemency”, disputation “discussion”, wrangling and foolishness “dignity”, insincerity “renunciation”, cupidity “devotion to God”, their own senseless fancies “Divine knowledge”, the motions of the heart and affections of the animal soul “divine love”, heresy “poverty”, scepticism “purity”, disbelief in positive religion “self-annihilation” neglect of the Law of the Prophet [PBUH] “the mystic Path”, evil communication with time-servers “exercise of piety”. As Abu Bakr al-Wāsiti said: “We are afflicted with a time in which there are neither the religious duties of Islam nor the morals of Paganism nor the virtues of Chivalry.”— [1]


Don’t let the sad litany deceive you into thinking that I was quoting from some sermon I heard last night on Pakistani TV. As some of you may have recognized, the passage comes from the beginning pages of that magnificent book, Kashf-al-Mahjūb, whose author Syed Ali bin Usman al-Hujwiri is now renowned and revered by the name Dātā Sahib. He wrote it ten centuries ago, and probably not terribly far from these borders. And I did not quote that passage to give you some cold solace by suggesting that if things looked bad presently they looked much the same a millennium ago too. My interest lies in what al-Hujwiri quoted from Abu Bakr al-Wāsiti—who in fact lived a century earlier—to add a powerful final flourish to the denunciation of his own times. I repeat:  “As Abu Bakr al-Wāsiti said: ‘We are afflicted with a time in which there are neither the religious duties of Islam nor the morals of Paganism nor the virtues of Chivalry.’”

al-Wāsiti bemoans his days, and claims that his society had lost its moorings totally. Nothing exists that could give his society direction or vitality, and thus make its life full of meaning and purpose. He lists the three things that to his mind could have served the purpose but were no longer found in the land: the ādāb of Islam, the akhlāq of the Jahiliyya, and the ahlām of the Men of Muruwwa, the men who lived by a code of Chivalry.

I’m not as well informed as I should be when talking of these things, but to my knowledge Muruwwa was a code of chivalry, kindness and forbearance that many in the upper classes of the Muslim society identified themselves with around the time of the first Crusades—like the codes of chivalry among the Knights of Europe. If one influenced the other, it is of no concern to me. What I would note, however, is that the Muruwwa  of the non-Sufi elite was not very different from what came to be called Futuwwa among many Sufi circles.

In any case, what matters here is the naming of the three by al-Wāsiti, and the order in which he placed them. First and foremost are the ādāb of Islam, which are not to be confused with the laws of Islam. This is no time to discuss what falls under the rubric of ādāb or Adab in the Islamicate world. The literature is vast, the topic enormous. Muslim societies have produced countless treatises on Adab, and Muslim authors have tried to lay down the Adab or an ideal code of praxis for all sorts of trades, disciplines, and professions. From the Adab of a Qazi to the Adab of a Sufi Disciple to the Adab of a Poet-Lover. In essence, the concept of Adab served a key role in that binary of Zāhir and Bātin—the External and the Internal; the Shell and the Kernel—that governed much of the life and thought in the pre-modern Islamic societies, Adab claiming to define the “inner reality” of anything and everything, usually in the guise of protocols and codes.

Going back to al-Wāsiti, he seems to declare that the people of his Muslim society had lost what gave meaning to their lives, the ādāb of Islam. “Externally” or on the surface his society was Islamic, but not so “internally.” Next, he seems to suggest that his people could have possibly given some significance to their lives by cultivating the akhlāq—the natural virtues—that existed in pre-Islamic societies and enriched the lives of those bygone people. But that too was no longer possible. The final nail in his society’s coffin, according to al-Wāsiti, was the fact that even the qualities of Chivalry, the virtues belonging to a very small group, were no longer to be found. My understanding of al-Wāsiti’s ordering of the three is that the first refers to a unified vast community defined by a religion, the second to a smaller society defined by tribes, and the third to a much smaller group that consisted of self-driven individuals. The decline, therefore, was total, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

I submit that the above tripartite delineation, despite its hierarchic undercurrent, could be useful in any discussion of what we are now calling “Civility”, be it with reference to its commonplace meaning or its etymological connotation. “Civility” as perceived and practiced by a society, to follow al-Wāsiti, can arise not only from laid down rules—religious, professional, or tribal—and enforced through some institutional device; it can arise also from individual initiatives and acts of choice or preference. Today we live in nation states of the kind that did not exist in al-Wāsiti’s time, and are surrounded by technologies that possess much greater totalizing force than any emperor in the past could have imagined. In our times, “civilities” of one kind or another can be imposed fairly successfully on large groups of people, not necessarily through the muzzle of a gun, but in various, much more innocuous ways. Meanwhile, it appears that the possibilities for individualized or individually inspired “civilities” are threatened everywhere. Particularly in many so-called Muslim countries. Muslim societies that were religiously multi-chromatic for centuries, and peacefully so, are now riven with extremist movements that would rather impose some one or other monotonous color.

That, to me, suggests that the tripartite thinking of al-Wāsiti—religious Adab, natural Adab, and individual Adab—should be borne in mind when considering, for example, school curricula. I believe that any institutional effort to cultivate or inculcate “civility” could become counterproductive if it exclusively used Islam or any other religion. More precisely, no institutional effort should use any religion in a manner that would belittle or uproot the true source of “civility” in praxis, i.e. the individual’s own reasoning and conscience. The latter, in the past, could devise ways to express itself using the above-mentioned binary of the word and the spirit (or the external and the internal). That, now, has become more fraught in many Muslim societies. The threat comes not only from sectarian literalists, it also comes from many secular rationalists. Most Muslims have not quite given up on that binary, and readily draw upon it to make sense of some mundane joy and disappointment of life, but they might under all the forces ranged against them. And that would be a very sad day.

Two more observations, though they may appear even more tangential to the topic.

Recently, thinking about Adab in the Indo-Muslim culture of North India, I asked myself: isn’t it possible that some perfectly civil people might see Adab as a kind of unacceptable conformity? Or, to put it differently, what could an individual do to be a nonconformist of some sort while remaining a worthy member of his Adab-bound society? I found that something called waz’dārī, which was essentially a matter of personal consistency, was one such acceptable individualism that was much practiced in the Adab-bound Islamicate elite society of North India in the 19th century, and is still cherished in some ways. I learned that minor breaches in the observance of the prevalent Adab were not only considered acceptable but were found admirable if they were committed with elaborate consistency, instead of randomly or at whim. In other words, consistency in non-conformity was also a kind of Adab. In the heydays of its popularity, such consistency was celebrated resoundingly, as in this couplet by Ghalib:

wafādārī ba-shart-i ustawārī asl-i īmāñ hai

mare butkhāne meñ to ka’be meñ gāo birahman ko

Fidelity is the core of True Faith, but only if it is consistent;

If a Brahmin breathes his last in a temple, make his grave in the Ka’ba.

What marginalized waz’dārī, though not made it completely meaningless, was the great surge for change and reform that came after 1857 and whose proponents felt that giving undue importance to “consistency” in praxis would be contrary to what they were proposing to their coreligionists in the newly emergent Colonial India: “Progress” through steady adaptation and change. I have discussed waz’dārī and related issues in fair detail elsewhere.[2] I mention them here to draw attention to the constrictive aspect inherent to any protocol or Adab. Some perfectly civil elements in the society will always find in any codified “Civility” a threat of conformity that they must somehow challenge.

My second observation relates to what I have been tinkering with for a long time, with no success. Many years back, when I read the 11th century savant Ibn Hazm’s treatise on Love, translated by A. J. Arberry as The Ring of the Dove, and other Medieval books that delineated how a perfect ‘āshiq or Lover was to behave in Love, I wondered if anyone had also laid down a protocol that an ideal Beloved could or should follow. Was there, in other words, an Adab manual for the countless beloveds or ma’shūq in the Islamicate world? To my surprise, I found there was none. I then tried to write a brief essay on the subject, but so far it has been an impossible task. Why? To put the issue at heart most succinctly: while every manual of Love allows that a Lover could be in love with “Love” itself, and thus, theoretically, can be independent of any “Beloved,” it is impossible to think of a “Beloved” without first implying a “Lover.” It appears that “loving”—or being a “Lover”—is essentially the act of a subject person, while to be loved—or being a “Beloved”—is nothing more than to be the object of someone else’s will. It made me wonder: is it the case that an Adab can be constructed only for those who either already possess the power to act as subjects, or are empowered by the proposed Adab to act in that manner? And if that is true, can we really separate Adab or “Civility” from Politics and Justice?

C. M. Naim (December 20, 2012)

* Presented at a workshop at Islamabad on “Being Muslim in the World: Everyday Ethics and Cultures of Adab.” organized in May 2012 by Professors Yasmin Saikia and Chad Haines of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict of Arizona State University, Tempe, and co-hosted by the Iqbal Institute for International Research and Dialogue and the Islamic Research Institute at Islamic International University, Islamabad.

[1] Ali bin Uthman al-Hujwiri, The Kashf Al-Mahjub, translated by Reynold A. Nicholson (Delhi: Taj Company, 1989 reprint), pp. 7–8.

[2] See “Individualism within Conformity: A brief history of Waz’dari in Delhi and Lucknow,” in Indian Economic and Social History Review, 48:1 (March 2011), pp. 35–53.

“The Treason of the Intellectuals” in Pakistan

Summer of 1970. Rochester, N.Y. I was teaching in the Summer School on South Asia at the University of Rochester. Noticing an announcement concerning a conference on Pakistan’s economy being held on the campus, I decided to attend it. Until that moment I was totally ignorant of the realities of the politics of Pakistan. The sessions at the conference were eye-openers. All the big names were there, the Harvard gang led by Gustav Papaneck and his ilk, the big names from what was then West Pakistan—the guys who went on to live a good life off World Bank and the post-1972 Pakistan, and the big guns from what was still East Pakistan. Rahman Subhan is a name that jumps into memory. As I said, the sessions opened my eyes, and made me realize for the first time what had been happening in Pakistan in the name of Development. Consequently I was not surprised when the big break up happened the following year. I’m sure there is some record somewhere of the papers read at that historical meeting.

Unfortunately, i.e. for the new Pakistan, the MBAs with World Bank and IMF aspirations continued to hold their own in the new country. They were the ones who were also favored by the dictators and autocrats who followed Yahya Khan in the President House, for both sets were keen to make good off the United States. But their acts, mostly of commission, are hardly ever mentioned in the Pakistani media. Thus it was a pleasure to come across the essay, “Providing intellectual cover to General Zia’s sectarian policiesby Murtaza Haider at Dawn.com/blog.

One hopes he will write more, taking into account those who preceded Mr. Burki. Needless to say, the role of the “intellectuals” in the PPP, particularly during the days of Mr. Z. A. Bhutto, is a story that still has not been told.

Limits of Naipaul’s antipathies

Concerning V.S. Naipaul — my apologies to those in India who can only call him Sir Vidia — it may be useful to remember the old Sherlock Holmesian insight about the dog that didn’t bark at night. Certainly when it comes to championing his insightful antipathies, I well know how he feels about India, Africa and the Caribbean islands — or rather the relatively darker people in those lands — and have long benefited from his antipathetic insights concerning them. I have had trouble, however, of benefiting from the same when it comes to the fairer skinned folks, in particular those in his preferred domicile. Nor have I seen him lumbering up to wag a finger at those who misunderstand his antipathies and use them for their own not-so-helpful purposes.

In Indian Express.