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2015: The year in words

Last year was long, unsettling and transitional. I have always welcomed change but being unsure about one’s future path is not too exciting.Have been a nomad for the past eighteen months. But I don’t want to start 2016 with complaints or regrets. During 2015, I finished two fellowships in Washington D.C. and then moved to Ithaca College […]

January 4th, 2016|Personal|0 Comments

Book Review: South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures

My review for The Friday Times

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South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures is a comprehensive volume of essays edited by Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf. Given the importance of the South Asian region, this book attempts to fill in a huge gap that has existed for decades. Discourses on South Asia for reasons well known, have been obsessive about all things security and in recent times terrorism. The editors note that South Asia “sits atop a globally strategic location” and gladly move on to other important topics, which makes this volume a useful contemporary reference. The introduction notes the immense potential for energy trade as well as the significant regional security implications for the world at large. This is why the future of South Asia is not just important to those who live in the region; it is duly a global concern. The 37 papers authored by 44 experts, in the volume trace the multiple futures and mercifully avoid the common fallacy of reducing South Asia to India and Pakistan and their bitter rivalries.

The introduction summing up the book rightly identifies that the idea of South Asia is a contested one and its ownership – political and economic – would determine the future. Commenting on the term Southasia introduced by Nepal based Himal magazine, the editors state: “…the future of the geography we know as South Asia will depend, at least in part, on what happens to the idea of Southasia. We are not in a position to say what that will be just yet, but it is clear that the aspiration of Southasianness is entrenched more deeply in the South Asian mind than we had imagined. It is an idea that our regional politics has often rejected and fought against. But the resilience of the aspiration suggests regional politics may eventually have to embrace it.” Thus the emergence of Southasia, a regionalized identity, will be a political process and the book suggests that there is no one course or prediction to hold it.

In this context the paper, the paper by US based Pakistani historian Manan Ahmad Asif entitled “Future’s Past” contends that though the immediate history of Pakistan and India might broadly be cause for pessimism (such as the violent partitions of ’47 and ’71), there is nevertheless a greater, storied and shared history that can be recalled in order to realize how communities in South Asia can peacefully co-exist. […]

Understanding Contemporary Muslimness

A review of Naveeda Khan’s  book Muslim Becoming published in “The Book Review

I wanted to learn what it meant to know Islam in Pakistan and why this knowing was so easily brushed  aside.

It is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on  Islam, identity and Muslimness in contemporary Pakistan. Khan begins by presenting a debate between four librarians of differing religious persuasions. Deep within the stacks of the Provincial As- sembly Library, four men take part in a dis- cussion that highlights the marked differ- ences in their belief systems. Of the four, one is a Shia and the other three Sunni. Among the Sunnis, one identifies himself as a Deobandi, one as a follower of Ahl-e-Hadis sect, and the third as a Barelvi. Akbar, the follower of Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought, speaks at length of the superiority of their mosques as ‘they allowed laymen to give ser- mons and encouraged women’s participation in congregational  prayer’. Despite his reverence for mosque culture, Akbar is derisive of the thought of praying at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.

It  is  commendable to  pray at  the Prophet’s  mosque, but it isn’t  necessary. Some among us have made it into a re- quirement by saying such things as, the Prophet is alive there, he can hear your prayers and he can grant you your wishes. Such claims are bid’a. One cannot pray there until such time as this bid’a has been vanquished… […]

November 1st, 2013|books, Islam, Islamophobia, Pakistan, Pakistani Literature|2 Comments

Book Review~ Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District

Writing about the lives of “fallen women” is a problematic endeavor, especially in South Asia where the morality of the middle classes defines the views of the “educated”. There is too much romance, tragedy or judgment in such writing. So for an English-language writer to humanize women (and increasingly men) who pursue sex work as a source of earning a livelihood is often quite difficult.

Three years ago, when Mayank Austen Soofi told me about his project, I could not tell him how difficult it would be to write a book about the sex workers of Delhi’s GB Road. Of course there have been some interesting books about South Asia’s sex workers in recent years. British author Louise Brown, for instance, wrote a wonderful account of life in Lahore’s Heera Mandi in her celebrated book ‘The Dancing Girls of Lahore’. Pakistani writer and activist Fouzia Saeed wrote another important book on the subject appropriately titled ‘Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area.’ Another book, though a work of fiction, is Feryal Ali Gauhar’s novel ‘The Scent of Wet Earth in August’. It tells the moving story of Fatima, a mute girl from the red light area, and her romance with one Maulvi Basharat from the mosque nearby. I liked Gauhar’s book for exposing the hypocrisy of a moralizing society while adding nuance to characters that were both victims and perpetrators of injustice.

Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District
Mayank Austen Soofi
Penguin Books Ltd, 2012
250 pages

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Mayank Austen Soofi with his bookMayank Austen Soofi with his book
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It was a chilly evening in Delhi when Soofi made me read the first five chapters of Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. My trepidation vanished into thin air as soon as I read the prose, which was nothing like what I had read before on the subject. This book was about characters from the universe of a GB Road kotha, the North Indian equivalent of a salon, a place of performative art and sexual pleasure. I lost touch with Mayank for nearly a year, but having re-read those chapters now, I find them even more visual and melancholic than before. Soofi spent endless days, and sometimes nights, at one particular kotha. He immersed himself in the everyday lives of the women, their children, their pimps and clients, and saw it all not as an outsider but with an empathy and humanity that can only be garnered when you leave your preconceived notions before the act of writing. […]

Heart to Heart: Remembering Naina Devi


My dear friend Vidya Rao’s labour of love is finally out. She has been working on this project for quite a while. Her book Heart to Heart: Remembering  Naina Devi is a tribute to her teacher, Guru and inspiration who trained Rao as a singer..

Legendary singer, Naina Devi  was born into a Bengali Brahmo Samaj reformist family in the early years of the twentieth century. A childhood replete with music, dance, theatre and social reform gave way to the grandeur and seclusion of the life of a young queen of the Kapurthala royal family of Punjab. Despite seventeen  years of silence necess
itated by the norms of a royal household, she came back to music and a glorious career as a singer, arts-administrator, teacher and patron,  after the tragic death of her husband.

Heart to Heart, traces Naina Devi’s incredible story as she told it to her foremost disciple, Vidya Rao. Naina Devi’s  story traces the changes in the world of Indian classical music, women singers and women in Indian society  over the last century.  Learning seena-ba-seena, heart to heart, in a seamless blend of music and life-lessons,  Rao imbibed not
just a knowledge of her chosen form, Thumri,  but a sense of the very being of her teacher.

The evocative  narrative weaves back and forth between history  and memory,  past and present, and between Naina Devi’s voice and Rao’s own, to illuminate the power  and beauty of music, the lives of these two women and of many others,  of courage, pain, joy and love, and  of the deep bond between Rao and her beloved Guru.

Here’s a detailed review published here […]

January 15th, 2012|books, India, Music|2 Comments

Myths, fables and lies: The murder of history in Pakistan

KK Aziz’s seminal study, ‘The Murder of History’ is essential to understand what went wrong in Pakistan. The most worrying sign of an insecure and fissured polity is when it reinvents, twists and lies about its history especially relating to its genesis and progress. K K Aziz was not an Indian nationalist, nor a screaming ideologue who wanted Pakistan to fritter away. In fact his early work The Making of Pakistanremains an essential reading on how Pakistan came into being. He believed in Pakistan despite his emotional links to the separated eastern part of the Punjab. However, at the zenith of his career he could not conceal his deep anguish and disappointment with the way ‘History’ in his beloved country had turned into sham-narratives comprising fables, myths and outright deceit.

Three brutal realities by the end of Zia era were clear: Pakistan’s military-bureaucracy complex had reinvented an ideological state based on a sectarian worldview; History was an instrument of propagating this ideology; and the jihad factories were flourishing. Jinnah’s Pakistan had been irreversibly shattered and perhaps destroyed. For K K Aziz’s generation this was nothing short of a great betrayal.

Published in the early 1990s, ‘The Murder of History’ for the first time documented a meticulous analysis of the history books taught in Pakistani schools and colleges. The book revolves around the main argument that History and Pakistan Studies curricula was nothing more political propaganda aimed at indoctrinating young minds through half-truths and blatant falsehoods. […]

Another Incarnation

By PANKAJ MISHRA

THE HINDUS

An Alternative History

By Wendy Doniger

Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. This first encounter with devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled. “There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam. Describing the muezzin’s call at the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons.” […]

May 17th, 2009|Personal|0 Comments