Friday, February 05, 2010


SHORT VERSION: blog is now at
Hi folks,

As you've already seen, I've not been blogging actively much over the last few months. It's a mix of being busy and also not feeling the pull in the same way I once did.

Blogger, the service I've used to publish this blog from the beginning, has recently announced that they're discontinuing FTP support for Blogger in the next few weeks. That means I won't be able to have this blog hosted at my Lehigh webspace while also using their service. The stated reason is that FTP and SFTP create a large number of technical problems -- which rings true, since I've never quite been able to get Blogger to update my blog templates right.

It turns out it's fairly easy to move Blogger-based blogs to a custom domain name hosted by Google. I used to own, but I let it go, and now some parasite company owns the domain.

As a result, for now I'm going to be using WWW.ELECTROSTANI.COM, which is also my Twitter name. The entire blog should already be available there, though most of the links will point back to posts at Lehigh. All new posts will appear there.

Please update your bookmarks.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 24, 2009

SALA Conference Program 2009

For the past few years I've been posting the program of the annual South Asian Literary Association conference here. I won't be at the conference this year, but there are some really interesting features on the program, so I thought I would post the program all the same. People who are in Philadelphia on 12/26 and 12/27 might want to stop by.

As a hint, the events not to miss are at the end -- the plenary with Wendy Doniger and Rupa Viswanath on 12/27, and the special commemorative session on Meenakshi Mukherjee with Gayatri Spivak and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan that follows.

The Sacred and the Secular in South Asian Literature and Culture

Tenth Annual South Asian Literary Association (SALA) Conference Program
December 26-27, 2009
Radisson Plaza—Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia
1701 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Saturday, December 26

4:00-5:15: Session 1

1A. Sikhism and Religious Signification and Demarcation

Gina Singh, California State University-Long Beach, “Sikh Women: Markers of Insurgency”

Sharanpal Ruprai, York University, “The Top Knot: Sikh Women Weaving Gender into the Turban”

Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University, “Marking History, Tracing Diasporic Sikh Subnationalism and Subjectivity in Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

1B. Religion and the South Asian Novel

Bina Gogineni, Columbia University, “God and the Novel in India”

Roger McNamara, Loyola University Chicago, “Secular Narratives and Parsi Identity in Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters”

Prasad Bidaye, University of Toronto, “Thus Spake the Brahmin: The Rhetoric of Caste in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope”

1C. South Asian Protest Discourse

Namrata Mitra, Purdue University, “The Limits of the Secular: Riots and State Violence in Contemporary India”

Simran Chadha, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University, “Of Virgins, Martyrs, and Suicide Bombers”

Amber Fatima Riaz, University of Western Ontario, “The Blasphemy of Protest: Challenging Religiosity and the Zenana in Tehmina Durrani’s Blasphemy”

1D. Enchantments in Theory

Bed Giri, Dartmouth College, “Modernity Re-enchanted? On Postcolonial Modernity”

Ashmita Khasnabish, Boston University, “Reason versus Spirituality: Sri Aurobindao, Amartya Sen, and Mira Nair”

Mary Jo Caruso, St. John’s University, "Building a Community of India: Rabindranath Tagore and the Fusing of the Sacred and the Secular”

5:30-6:45: Session 2

2A. V. S. Naipaul: Diasporic and Transnational Contexts

Jayshree Singh, Bhupal Nobles Girls’ P. G. College, Udaipur, India, “The Context and Construction of Religion and Art vs. Reality: A Critical Study of Selected Travel Writing of V. S. Naipaul”

Bidhan Roy, California State University-Los Angeles, “Encountering Islam: Muslims, Travel Narrative and Globalization in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief”

Abdollah Zahiri, Seneca College, “A Contrapuntal Reading of Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization: The Bhakti Movement”

2B. Religion, War, Terror, and Violence: The Effects of Trauma on the South Asian Child

Krista Paquin, University of the Fraser Valley, “Children of the Divide: Physical and Psychological Trauma on Children in Cracking India and ‘Pali’”

Mark Balmforth, University of Washington-Seattle, “Struggling to Abide by Sri Lanka: An Attempt to Engage in Responsible International Youth Activism”

Summer Pervez, University of the Fraser Valley, “The Absence of Childhood: Narratives of Kashmir”

2C. Sri Lanka and Gendered Spaces

Nalin Jayasena, Miami University, “Gendered Geopolitics in the Sri Lankan Armed Conflict: Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek”

Arch Mayfield, Wayland Baptist University, “Cultural Challenges in Sri Lanka: The Gonnoruwa Anicut Project”

Maryse Jayasuriya, University of Texas at El Paso, “Women Writing Religious Difference in Contemporary Sri Lanka”

2D. Diaspora and Postcolonial Writing

Sukanya Gupta, Louisiana State University, “In Search of ‘Destiny’: Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami”

Jaspal K. Singh, Northern Michigan University. “Trauma of Exile and the Muslim Indian Diaspora in South Africa: Dual Ontology in Ahmed Essop’s Fiction”

Sohrab Homi Fracis, Independent, “From Darkness into Light: Zoroastrian Mythology and Secular Awakening in My A Man of the World”

Sunday, December 27

8:45-10:00: Session 3

3A. Partition Narratives

Shumona Dasgupta, St. Cloud State University, “Constructing Community: Negotiating Violence and National Identity in Partition Texts”

Prabhjot Parmar, University of Western Ontario, “Bridging the Communal Divide: Manoj Punj’s Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, Boota Singh”

Amrita Ghosh, Drew University, “Towards Alternative Imaginaries: Subversive Border Crossings in Qurrantulain Hyder’s Sita Betrayed”

3B. Anatomies of Postcolonial Theory

Maya Sharma, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College/CUNY, “The White Tiger as an Anatomy of Postcoloniality”

Waseem Anwar, Forman Christian College University, “Theorizing the Pakistani Post-Postcolonial Real: Ambivalent, Emerging, Amorphous, or Even Beyond!”

Moumin Quazi, Tarleton State University, “A Post-Structural Study of Binary Oppositions in Vikram Seth’s Two Lives”

3C. Songs and the Subaltern

Ira Raja, La Trobe University/University of Delhi, “Living to Tell: Mirabai and the Challenge of Categories”

Sheshalatha Reddy, University of Mary Washington, “‘In brotherhood of diverse creeds’: Hyderabad/India in the ‘speech and song and struggle’ of Sarojini Naidu

Aparajita De, University of Maryland, “The Caged Bird Sings: The Politics of Subaltern Agency in Pinjar”

3D. Arundhati Roy and the Secular

Rajiv Menon, The George Washington University, “’Whose God’s Own Country?’: Caste and Politics in Guruvayur and Roy’s The God’s of Small Things”

Navneet Kumar, University of Calgary, “Humanism, Secularism, and Universalism: Edward Said and Arundhati Roy”

Nicole Tabor, Moravian College, “Secular International Fantasy and Sacred Kathakali in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”

10:15-11:45: Session 4

4A. Sacred or Secular? History and Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction

Madhuparna Mitra, University of North Texas, “History as Trope: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Narrative Habits”

Farha Shariff, University of Alberta, Canada, “Negotiating Cultural Identities: Second-Generation South Asian Identities and Contemporary Postcolonial Text”

Christine Vogt-William, Emory University, “Reflections on the Sancrosanctity of Names and Naming in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake”

4B. The South Asian Secular Citizen Body

Sukanya Banerjee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Bureaucratic Modernity, Moderate Nationalism, and the Secular Citizen Body”

Sami Ullah Band, Kashmir, India, “Whether the Secularism in Kashmir Has Stood the Test of Time”

Indrani Mitra, Mount St. Mary’s University, “Gendered Spaces, Minority Identities and Secular Formations: A Muslim Woman’s Voice”

Suhaan Mehta, The Ohio State University, “Other Stories: Aesthetics and Ideology in Kashmir Pending”

4C. Religion and Class/Caste

Chinnaiah Jangam, Wagner College, “Sanitizing the Sacred Space: Hinduization of Dalit Identity in Telegu Country, 1900-1935”

Smita Jha, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, “Crisis of Indian Secularism: A Study of Untouchable, Waiting for the Mahatma, and Train to Pakistan”

George J. Filip, Arcadia University, “What’s in a Name? Hinduism, Christianity, and the Evolution of Dalit Identity”

Deepika Bahri, Emory University, “The Sign of the Cross: Colonialism, Christianity, and Class in South Asian Literature and Film”

4D. Constructions of South Asian Political Identities

Nivedita Majumdar, City University of New York, “Reclaiming the Secular: An Engagement with the Politics of Religious Identity in India”

Chandrima Chakraborty, McMaster University, “Masculine Asceticisms and the Indian Nation”
Nyla Ali Khan, University of Nebraska-Kearney, “Forces of Regionalism and Communalism in South Asia”
Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, “Pandita Ramabai’s Encounter with American Orientalism”

1-2:15: Session 5

5A. Spiritual and Material Imagery in South Asian Poetry

Cynthia A. Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, “Divine Migrations: Religious and Spiritual Imagery in Meena Alexander’s Poetry”

Mahwash Shoaib, Independent, “‘The grief of broken flesh’”: The Dialectic of Desire and Death in Agha Shahid Ali’s Lyrics”

5B. Bollywood and the Representation of Religion

Monia Acciari, University of Manchester, “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: Worshipping the Star”
Karen Remedios, Southern Connecticut State University, “The Depiction of Christians in Indian Cinema: A Study of Essentialism”
Jogamaya Bayer, Independent, “Jodhaa: A Myth or a Fantasy of an Emperor?”

5C. Salman Rushdie and Postcolonial Epistemological Anxiety

Melissa Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong, “Religious Autonomy and Midnight’s Children”

Umme Al-wazedi, Augustana College, “The Rise of Fundamentalism and the Negotiations of the Islamic Laws in South Asia: (Political) Shari’a, Fatwa, and the Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie Affair”

Pennie Ticen, Virginia Military Institute, “Skeptical Belief and Faithful Questioning: The Satanic Verses 20 Years Later”

2:30-3:30: “A Conversation with Meena Alexander,” winner of the SALA 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, Teacher in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D. Program at the Graduate Center, moderated by Cynthia Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, and Lopamudra Basu, University of Wisconsin-Stout, with Parvinder Mehta, The University of Toledo, with an award presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

3:45-4:45: Plenary Keynote Roundtable Discussion: “India: Religion, Politics, and Culture,” with Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School; also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College; and Rupa Viswanath, University of Pennsylvania, with a presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

5:30-6:30: Commemorative Panel: “Remembering Meenakshi Mukherjee: The Teacher and the Scholar,” led by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University, with Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, New York University, Amritjit Singh, Ohio University, and Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, with introductions by Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From "Pinocchio" to "Astro-Boy": Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi

In the spring I'm co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, "The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature." The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It's an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.

I obviously have an interest in children's books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I've never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course -- especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.

To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.

One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian tale. It is best known through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by an Italian writer, Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply "pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don't want the witch to turn you into a statue").

Many of the trademark features of the Disney Pinocchio are missing in the first version of the story Collodi published in serial form between 1881 and 1883, including especially the nose that grows when Pinocchio lies (Collodi added that later), and the concern about becoming a "real boy" (also added in the second half, which Collodi apparently wrote to make the story more marketable to children -- and less bleak). While in Disney there is a Glenda-eseque, maternal "blue fairy" who makes Pinocchio come alive at the very beginning, in Collodi, the "Turquoise Fairy" only becomes a factor in in the second half of the narrative. Pinocchio's initial enchantment precedes his being formed into a marionette -- the block of wood out of which he was carved was already enchanted. (In Collodi he also burns off his feet near the beginning of the story, and kills the talking cricket. Ouch!)

I am not sure whether we will do all of Collodi, but it seems essential to at least look at the chaotic, violent, and generally picaresque structure of the first half of the book alongside the more sanitized Disney version.

The great Japanese manga artist and animator, Tezuka Osamu has described how he he was influenced by the early Disney animation style, and it's not hard to guess that the Disney version of Pinocchio had an influence on the genesis of Astro-Boy, which Tezuka created as a manga starting in the early 1950s (in Japanese, Tetsuwan ATOM). While the preoccupation in Collodi's Pinocchio is an industrial-era rendition of the prospect of artificial life, Astro-Boy is clearly inflected by the concerns of the nuclear age.

I have not seen the original, printed manga of Astro-Boy, though I have watched a little of an English-language version of the original televised cartoon, as well as the 2009 animated feature (which was, incidentally, better than the reviews made it out to be). However, what is immediately clear from the television cartoon is that Tezuka is interested in adapting the fundamental ideas of the Pinocchio story to the Japanese context after Hiroshima. While Gepetto is a puppeteer, Astro-Boy's father is a maker of robots, and his co-workers worry, in even the first episode, about the dangerous potential of the robot that is to become Astro-Boy specifically in terms of his potentially being used as a weapon.

In both the television cartoon and the recent CGI, animated film, Astro-Boy's "father" creates him as a substitute for a real son who died -- and for whom the father feels guilty. (This is not there in Collodi.) In neither case is there space for a mother figure anywhere; the mother is dead, out of the picture. The absence of women or mothers is roughly true even in the Collodi, where the maternal Turquoise Fairy was added in largely as an after-thought. Interestingly, and troublingly, none of these "Pinocchio" narratives seem to need or want mothers.


I have one broader thesis about 20th century science fiction that I think Pinocchio/Astro-Boy reflects quite well, and that is that there are often strong affiliations between science fiction (narratives of the future) and traditional folk tales, which seem to reflect a version of the past. Though modern and post-modern science fiction tends to reflect contemporary concerns, they often rely on very traditional tropes.

But I also have other questions that I'm still thinking about; maybe readers can help.

For instance, to what extent should The Adventures of Pinocchio be seen as a variation -- albeit inflected with stylistic and structural elements borrowed from Fairy Tales -- of Frankenstein? In short, is Frankenstein relevant?

Another question I have, not being an expert in fairy tales or the Brothers Grimm (one of my projects for winter break is to catch up on scholarship by critics like Jack Zipes), is how to think of antecedents to the idea of the inventor who creates "living" machines -- artificial life. One thinks of the "Homunculus" in Goethe's Faust, Part 2, but even that is not that far off chronologically from Shelley's Frankenstein. Really, the appropriate point of origin seems to be the Golem figure in the Hebrew Tradition (The author of the Wikipedia "Golem" entry even suggests that some passages in the Talmud describe Adam himself as a kind of "golem").

Are not all of our modern and contemporary robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s simply variations of the ancient Hebrew Golem narrative? Is there anything really 'new' about "artificial intelligence"? (Isn't it, in fact, the oldest thing in the world?)

Yet another question to explore is whether there are antecedents for the artificial life of Tezuka's Astro-Boy in the Japanese folk tale tradition. (A surprising number of contemporary fantasy manga narratives -- one thinks of Naruto -- seem styled after traditional Japanese folk tales.)

Finally, can readers think of other "nexus" sites, where there is significant crossover between Japanese sci fi (including manga and anime), and western science fiction and fantasy? (One site we are exploring is Japanese cyber-punk -- Ghost in the Shell vs. western cyber-punk, in Neuromancer, et al.)

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Nose-Piercing, Utah, and a Big Oops (Not Mine) [Updated]

On Thursday, I spoke to an AP reporter about a story in Utah last week, expressing some views about a girl in middle school in Utah who got suspended from her school for violating dress code, after getting her nose pierced. She and her family said she did it to get in touch with her Indian cultural identity -- she had the piercing done on Diwali just a couple of weeks ago. The school, however, had a strict "ear pierces only" policy, and was only willing to allow her to have a "transparent" stud in her nose, not the more obviously Indian nose ring she wore to school initially.

Here is the AP story that resulted. It's been printed in a fair number of newspapers around the country. The reporter quotes Abhi (from Sepia Mutiny), Sandhya (also from Sepia Mutiny), and myself. But something goes wrong here:

"I wanted to feel more closer to my family in India because I really love my family," said Suzannah, who was born in Bountiful. Her father was born in India as a member of the Sikh religion.

"I just thought it would be OK to let her embrace her heritage and her culture," said Suzannah's mother, Shirley Pabla, a Mormon born in nearby Salt Lake City. "I didn't know it would be such a big deal."

It shouldn't have been, said Suzannah's father, Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who was raised in the United States and works as an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's true that the nose ring is mainly a cultural thing for most Indians," Singh said. "Even if it is just culture, culture matters. And her right to express or explore it seems to me at least as important as her right to express her religious identity." (link)

Um, wait a minute. Did I read that right? Take a look at it again: "...said Suzannah's father, Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who was raised in the United States..."

[UPDATED: The error has been corrected in the online version of this article.]

This is a really bizarre and unfortunate error. Just to be clear, I have one kid, and he's three years old. I am annoyed on my own behalf, but I also feel bad for the Pablas. (Suzannah has a dad, who is a practicing Sikh. It just so happens that most of the coverage of this story in the local Utah newspapers doesn't mention his name: see the Salt Lake Tribune, for example)

When I spoke to the reporter who authored this story, he was 100% clear that I was in no way related to the Pablas. Somewhere between that conversation and the story that has now run in 200+ newspapers around the country, that important fact fell out. I don't know who's responsible for the error -- it appears it's an editor who might have come up with this.

In the end, it's not really that big a deal; the only people who will really think anything is amiss are people who know the Pablas and people who know me. Still, maybe the moral here is to JUST SAY NO when reporters call you for a quote for a story that doesn't really involve you directly.

If there is a bright side of this, it's that I got to be photographed by a professional photographer: here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New and Forthcoming Publications

I was happy to see that an essay I wrote for the journal Symploke recently became available via Project Muse:

“Anonymity, Authorship, and Blogger Ethics.”

[If anyone who doesn't have access to Project Muse would like me to send you a copy, please let me know by email; I would be happy to send it to you.]

This was something I actually wrote more than two years ago, not long after a series of panels at MLA related to blogging and public intellectual activity. The paper actually began as an MLA presentation, for a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski, in December 2006. In the essay, I bring together literary theory relating to authorship (Barthes, Foucault, and critiques of French theory by scholars like Sean Burke), with context from literary history (the 18th century broadsheet as a predecssor to blogging as a genre), in order think about how the possibility of universal, instantaneous publishability is changing ideas of authorship (not destroying it, but changing it).

I was happy to see that it appears that a student at West Virginia University is already using the article in a paper she's writing: here. (It's part of this course)

I have some other publications coming out soon as well:

"Veiled Strangers: Rabindranath Tagore’s America, in Letters and Lectures." Forthcoming from Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing, 10:1, 2009.

"Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues" Forthcoming from South Asian Review, 2010.

"More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr." Forthcoming from Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2009.

Of those, the Desani article was the most difficult to write; it actually had its start as a blog post I wrote all the way back in 2005. I had submitted it for publication in 2007, only to receive a "revise and resubmit" that seemed very challenging at the time. For various reasons, between 2007 and summer 2009 the paper was simply in limbo. I attacked it again this summer, and sent it off, this time successfully. The version that will be published is much shorter than the original version. Some of the materials I referred to, such as Desani's columns for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1960s, are not easily accessible, and I'm toying with the idea of having them scanned and OCRed for the web.

The Tagore essay goes back even further. It had its seeds in the very first blog post I wrote for Sepia Mutiny, back in 2005. I had given versions of it (in a more scholarly vein, of course) as a talk a couple of times. When the invitation came to send it to "Journeys," I was happy to finally finish it.

Finally, the essay on Nina Paley and the Ramayana was written quickly this past summer, almost on a lark. It brings together scholarship on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition (especially in the two important Paula Richman anthologies) with Nina Paley's animated, postmodern appropriation of the narrative.

In other news, the project I have been doing on Mira Nair is approaching completion; I'm hoping to send off the manuscript this fall. I'm also presenting a paper on the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at the upcoming Modernist Studies Association Conference in Montreal (early November). Finally, I'm presenting at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia at the end of December (a paper on the "open letter" as a literary genre in the era of globalization -- from Sa'adat Hasan Manto to Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga).

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall Teaching: "Global English" and "Converts and Rebels"

This post is partly inspired by Tim Burke's recent post, asking why more web-oriented academics don't post drafts of their syllabi on their blogs or websites.

I'm teaching two undergraduate-oriented classes this fall. One is called "Global English," and it's a senior "capstone" course, while the other is a more general, upper-level course called "Converts and Rebels: Debating Religion in Modern British Literature."

1. "Converts and Rebels" (English 395)

Here is the course description for "Converts and Rebels":

Though the modern period was generally a time when religious institutions were in decline, several major British writers from the early twentieth century had intense religious conversion experiences, leaving an impact on the literature of the period as a whole. These conversions, many of which involved Roman Catholicism, were seen as controversial by mainstream English society. Analogously, and just as importantly, several important writers found themselves falling out of religious faith in dramatic fashion, suggesting that the period as a whole was one of intense religious ferment. Is it possible to view religious conversion as a "subversive" activity? How might religious conversion relate to the aesthetics and ideological premises of literary modernism, which is so central to our understanding of this period? Writers whose work and lives will be explored in this course include T.S. Eliot (poems), James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist"), Oscar Wilde ("Salome"), John Henry Newman ("Loss and Gain"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), Graham Greene ("End of the Affair"), and Iris Murdoch ("The Bell").

In this course, I'll be building on ideas related to my first book ("Literary Secularism"), and using James Wood's "Broken Estate" as a conceptual jumping off point.

In terms of period, I decided to start with a little material based in the Victorian period. Though he's not talked about very much outside of Catholic circles, it seems to me like John Henry Newman is a key figure -- someone who had influence on quite a number of writers who converted to Catholicism, or thought about it.

I have been debating whether to bring in people who converted out of minority faith traditions to Christianity. Benjamin Disraeli seems like an obvious figure to consider, though in his case he never appeared to be especially passionate in his Anglicanism. As far as I know, he never directly addressed his personal experience of conversion, though some of his novels are clearly about figures who might be described as "crypto-Jews" (I'm using the term along lines described by Michael Ragussis). I'll also be using Ellis Hanson's "Decadence and Catholicism" to help triangulate some of the interesting questions about sexuality and religious conversion (especially Catholic conversion) circulating in the fin de siecle.

I decided against assigning C.S. Lewis for this course, though I may use a few short passages from "Surprised by Joy," and I will certainly mention his conversion experience as an important one. I haven't found his non-fiction writing related to his conversion interesting enough to have something to say about it in a classroom.

I was strongly tempted to assign The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, but decided against it at the last minute. If I do a version of this course again, I might do both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Golden Compass -- thinking of the latter as a kind of refutation of the former.

This is a new course for me. Though I know a fair amount twentieth-century writers like Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch, Victorian figures like Newman are a bit of a stretch. I'm open to suggestions for biographical and critical sources that might be relevant -- as well as primary texts or authors readers would recommend for a course like this.

2. "Global English" (English 290/Senior Seminar)

Here is the course description for this course:

The English language has traveled, and found a home in many parts of the world that were formerly colonized by Great Britain, especially Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With the rise of English as a literary language in those areas has come a new slate of anxieties and questions. Some writers have noted the uncomfortable fact that English seems to be tied to the history of colonial domination; it is the 'master's' language, and should be rejected. Others (like Joyce) have expressed their discomfort with English, but have nevertheless written in English with affection. It need not be an either/or proposition, and this course will aim to explore the global embrace, not without its anxieties, of English as a literary language. Along the way, a few critical terms and concepts related to linguistics will be introduced (i.e., slang, dialect, creole, patois, acrolect, and basolect, to name just a few). Authors will include a mix of short and long works by James Joyce, Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things"), Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus"), Amitav Ghosh ("Sea of Poppies"), Brian Friel ("Translations"), G.V. Desani ("All About H. Hatterr"), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, J.M. Synge ("Playboy of the Western World"), and Ken Saro-Wiwa ("Sozaboy").

The reading list could be much longer than it is; indeed, one could easily have a whole semester's worth of material just based on language questions in any of the particular national literatures that will be at issue here -- including Ireland, Anglophone West Africa, the Caribbean, and India, respectively. I decided to make the approach of the course comparative because the overlap between different national experiences of "Englishness" seems like it might be interesting to a broad group of students. I was also tempted by Junot Diaz's "Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," though in the end bringing in the Dominican diasporic experience seemed to a bit too far afield. (Again, perhaps next time.)

We'll be using scholarship by David Crystal ("English as a Global Language"), and also Dohra Ahmed's anthology, "Rotten English." I would be grateful for any suggestions on criticism or theory here as well.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"I Wanna Be Like You": The Jungle Book, Revisited

Being a parent gives you a chance to go back over the children's stories you grew up with and even, in some cases, learn about new ones. The following post consists of somewhat scattered thoughts on "The Jungle Book," including a 1967 Disney animated film version, as well as Kipling's original book.

I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" -- either adaptations or the original story -- but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it's gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.

The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).

My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of "The Jungle Book," which you can also see on YouTube here. It's a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a "desi" context?)

I somehow didn't know about the Disney songs growing up, and it's too bad, because both my son and myself are now thoroughly addicted to them. Looking at the music a bit critically, I was earlier a little put off by "I wanna be like you," where I initially thought the singer was Louis Armstrong. The idea of a monkey-king, who liberally throws around African-American slang, kidnapping the "man cub," in order to learn the secret of being human, seemed a little uncomfortably like an allegory of race relations in the real world:

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too

It's hard not to think of the analogous human race-mimicry situation: "I wanna be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you, too" could be the voice of an under-class minority asking the "man" for access to privileges (here, embodied in the technology of "man's red flower," fire) that make him supreme over the rest of society. It's a little better that the singer is Italian-American rather than African-American, but there's still a slightly off-putting race angle here if you're looking for it. (I'm sure some readers will think I'm reading too much into this.)

Also, just to be clear, I still play this music for my kid all the time, and have no qualms about doing so. I also don't mind that "The Jungle Book" is a good excuse to teach him a few Hindi words: Bagheera, Akela, Shere, Bhalu, Hathi, Bandar, etc. As I riff on the stories with my son, I'm also trying to sneak in some new ones, which Kipling doesn't use: Gainda (rhinoceros), Bheriya (wolf), Magar-much (crocodile).

Some of the race stuff, of course, comes directly from Kipling's other writing. As people who know his other works are already aware, Kipling was obsessed with race (this is the guy who invented the term, "white man's burden," among many other things). He was born in India and spent his first few years there, before being sent to England for boarding school, as was the norm in late Victorian British India. Though he hated his experience in boarding school, he still always thought of England as "home" -- and strongly supported the British Imperial project in India.

As a young man, Kipling returned to India to work as a journalist, and lived mainly with his family in Lahore. He published his first short stories (mainly on the Anglo-Indian community in India) in the newspaper he wrote for, and frequently used material related to his journalism work as fodder. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was the principal of the art school in Lahore for many years, as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum (Lockwood Kipling is the model for the museum curator in the opening chapters of Kim, incidentally). Some part of Rudyard's interest in animals in India -- which would later nourish one of the best-selling children's books of all time -- probably came directly from his father, who drew and wrote about India's animal life himself in a beautifully-illustrated early book, called "Beast and Man in India". (And Rudyard Kipling's original published version of "The Jungle Book" has great illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling.)

Kipling's own The Jungle Book is a little different in structure from the Disney adaptation of his story. For one thing, the Disney version only uses material from the first three chapters of Kipling's book; "The White Seal," "Servants of the Queen," and "Rikki-tikki-tavi" go in different directions. "The White Seal," for instance, isn't even based on an Indian jungle, but rather involves seals in a northern ocean.

Even in the "Mowgli" chapters, there is a big difference in the fact that, in Kipling's story, Mowgli actually meets his mother and lives in the human village for a time, before being excommunicated because of his ability to talk to wolves ("Tiger-Tiger"). Disney doesn't get into this potentially dark situation (i.e., the boy being forced to separate from his mother by a mob of angry villagers who are ready to stone him to death), and rather chooses to end with just a hint of Mowgli's repatriation into human society and inevitable future adulthood preoccupations -- as he ogles a village girl getting water from the river.

There are other differences too. Kipling's story is more unabashedly violent, and the most dramatic story arc in Kipling's version in my reading is the battle against the monkey-people, which ends with hundreds of dead monkeys. The killing of Shere Khan via a strategically arranged stampede of cattle in Kipling is somewhat anti-climactic by comparison to the stormy fight sequence between Bhalu and Shere Khan in the Disney film.

In Kipling, the society of the Jungle has several different respectable species who adhere to the "Law," including Bagheera the panther, the wolves, Kaa the snake, Balu the bear, and Chil the kite. Shere Khan, the Tiger, behaves a little like an Oriental despot, whom the other people of the Jungle are right to want to depose.

By contrast to the animals who follow the law, the Monkey-people ("Bandar-Log") are sociologically anarchic:

"Listen, man-cub," said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. "I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?"

"No," said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.

"The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads."

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

"The Monkey-People are forbidden," said Baloo, "forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember."

"Forbidden," said Bagheera, "but I still think Baloo should have warned thee against them."

"I—I? How was I to guess he would play with such dirt. The Monkey People! Faugh!"

Because they have no social hierarchy, no memory, and above all, no "law," the other animals treat them as "outcasts" (loaded choice of terms!). The Bandar-log themselves treat the other animals with contempt. (I don't see an obvious "race" angle here, incidentally, though it does seem like there is a rationale for Imperialism: the people who follow the Law are justified in either excluding or attacking those who do not.)

When the Bandar-Log kidnap Mowgli, they take him, interestingly, to an abandoned, formerly human-occupied city in the middle of the jungle. Their reasons for kidnapping him are given as follows:

They never meant to do any more—the Bandar-log never mean anything at all; but one of them invented what seemed to him a brilliant idea, and he told all the others that Mowgli would be a useful person to keep in the tribe, because he could weave sticks together for protection from the wind; so, if they caught him, they could make him teach them. Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter's child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it. The Monkey-People, watching in the trees, considered his play most wonderful. This time, they said, they were really going to have a leader and become the wisest people in the jungle—so wise that everyone else would notice and envy them. Therefore they followed Baloo and Bagheera and Mowgli through the jungle very quietly till it was time for the midday nap, and Mowgli, who was very much ashamed of himself, slept between the Panther and the Bear, resolving to have no more to do with the Monkey People.

The motivation parallels, roughly, the "I wanna be like you" song in the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," except here the focus is not so much on the "Red Flower" of fire, but on adopting Mowgli as a king who would bring "civilization" to the Bandar-Log.

(It's hard not to think of Hanuman and the monkey-warriors of the Ramayana when reading Kipling's description of the "Bandar-Log." In the Ramayana, of course, they are loyal servants of Rama and brave warriors; in Kipling they also seem to have anthropomorphic qualities, but have none of the positive attributes one sees in the Hindu epic.)

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Guest Post by Narayan: More on Madras, Elihu Yale, Hiram Bingham

I have been blogging lightly this month, mainly at Sepia Mutiny, while trying to finish a draft of my monograph on Mira Nair. My friend Narayan contacted me after a post a few weeks ago regarding Vinay Lal's "The Other Indians," and I suggested he consider writing up a guest post. The following is that post.

Guest Post by narayan

I, Eli & Hi

Madraspatnam / Medras / Chennai

Phonetics and orthography were at odds when the British named the city lately called Chennai. In 1639, factors of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) trying to get a foothold on the South-Eastern coast of India, the Coromandel, leased land from the local Nayaks at Madraspatnam, a name of dubious origins. S. Muthiah, the popular-historian of Chennai, in his admirable and informative book "Madras Rediscovered”, says that it was by all accounts "a God forsaken place … a narrow protected peninsula [sic], but a site without a safe landing place". Francis Day, the junior factor, who was "a hard-drinking, enthusiastic gambler and lusty womaniser", finalized the deal, justifying his choice with the report that the hinterland offered "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 percent than anywhere else”. Plus ça change! Muthiah credits the senior factor, Andrew Cogan, with "encouraging the boisterous Day, making the first official landing, building the first fortified factory which was to grow into Fort St. George, and colonizing the place – the result of which industry is Madras today". Neither Cogan and Day, nor their Indian aides, Thimmappa and Nagabattan, are memorialized anywhere in the city.

My 1980 trip to Medras (which native ever pronounced it otherwise?) was doomed from the start, a favor to a well-meaning uncle. I spent the morning on the verandah of a mansion, stretching out polite conversation with a taciturn woman, a scientist with a PhD from Europe, past marriageable age like myself. She too had a well-meaning uncle as I soon surmised. I had to catch a bus to Pondy in four hours and was determined to wait it out. Watching the sly antics of a chhipkali in the bushes outside helped. There was a brief interview with the ageing father, then the special lunch for the prospective son-in-law. She insisted on accompanying me to the bus station in their chauffeured Ambassador with cloth covered seats. In her relief at my departure she became voluble, pointing out landmarks to me as we skirted Marina Beach, the one place I remembered from occasional family trips in childhood. At one point she pointed to a large brick structure and said, "And that’s Yale’s Ice House". Seconds later I reacted, "What do you mean – Yale?" "You know, Yale – from the university. He was Governor here."

Kafka would have wept at the struggle at the bus station just to buy a ticket; he would have soiled his pants on the bus ride back from Pondy. Understandably, I forgot all about the Medras fiasco until I was safely back in Boston. Months later, while browsing through the stacks at the public library, I came upon Hiram Bingham’s 1939 book "Elihu Yale - The American Nabob of Queen Square". Excuse me? Shouldn’t that be "Welsh Nabob of Medras"? After a prefatory nod to Kipling, a man who had never ventured south of the Vindhyas, Bingham begins : "Before the War it was exciting to go and find behind the ranges of the Andes the white temples of Machu Picchu and the palace of the last of the Incas." More about this later.


Elihu Yale’s father David, unmarried at twenty-three, emigrated from Wales to Boston, with his mother Anne, two siblings, his stepfather Theophilus Eaton, and two Eaton children. Shortly after, they moved to the new settlement of New Haven, then back to Boston after six years of domestic and social instability. David married at thirty and engaged in trade, but chafing at the theocratic rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to try his luck in Cromwell’s England. Elihu, David’s second child, was three in 1652 when he left Boston; he never set foot in America again. David succeeded in trade and became a man of property. He used his influence to get Elihu a berth in the HEIC as a Writer, paying a bond of £500 for the privilege.

When he set foot in Fort St. George in June 1672 after a six month voyage from England, Elihu was twenty three and at the bottom rung of the company. By the time he left India in February 1699 he had become Governor of the colony, only to be recalled under a cloud of suspicion. The story of the intervening years is Bingham’s to tell; it would be foolish of me to attempt a précis here. Rushdie and Swift together could not have conjured up the Munchausenesque events, intrigue, and personalities that inhabit the two hundred pages of Bingham’s book that detail Elihu’s twenty-seven year tenure in India.

In an article in The Hindu, Yale University student Ajay Gandhi summarizes Elihu’s Governorship adequately :

"As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort at Tevnapatam (present-day Cuddalore). He imposed steep taxation towards the upkeep of the colonial garrison and town. His punitive measures against Indians who defaulted included threats of property confiscation and forced exile. This spurred various Indian revolts, which were ruthlessly quelled by Company soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse.

“More audaciously, Yale amassed a private fortune through secret contracts with Madras merchants, against the East India Company's directives. This imperial plunder, which enabled his patronage of the American university, occurred through his monopolisation of traders and castes in the textiles and jewel trade. By 1692, Elihu Yale's repeated flouting of East India Company regulations, and growing embarrassment at his illegal profiteering resulted in his being relieved of the post of governor.”

Some blame for the first half of this assessment may be ascribed to the robber-baron ruthlessness of Sir Josiah Child, then head of the HEIC, but the second half rings entirely true.

Even after his return to England, Elihu continued in the profitable and possibly illegal import business in which he was enabled by his equally culpable successor as Governor, Thomas Pitt. The story of his donation to the Connecticut Collegiate School starts eighteen years into this prosperous retirement. The lobbyists for the donation are acknowledged to be Cotton Mather, the famous Bostonian of many parts, Jeremy Dummer, the equally accomplished and erudite London Agent for the Bay Colony, and Gen. Francis Nicholson, the militant and religious erstwhile Governor of Maryland. Why Elihu decided to favor their suit instead of some college in Oxford has to be a matter for conjecture, since New Haven was a place of regrettable history and unhappiness for the Yale-Eaton family. Mather and Dummer must have been uncommonly persuasive. Elihu’s son by his wife Katherine had died at four in Fort St. George; Charles, his son by his mistress Hieronima de Paivia died in Cape Town at the age of twenty-one en-route to England in 1712. Having no male heir, Elihu had considered taking the son of a Connecticut cousin under his wing. An ardent social climber, he had become a donor of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He might plausibly have been trying to make his peace with God in his waning years.

The first donation was a gift of thirty-two books, among them a copy of ‘Principia’ gifted by fellow FRS, Isaac Newton, and an Armenian Dictionary, which might have found more use in a Medras library. Other members of the SPG contributed in kind. Harvard at the time was beginning to harbor religious dissenters, and there was friction between the college and Rev. Mather on that score. Nor did the government of Massachusetts want to encourage missionaries from the Church of England. The funding of a college in New Haven that might offset radical trends in Boston was an ideal project to be exploited by the SPG.

Mather’s 1718 letter to Yale is characterized by Bingham as a historic document.

“Ingeniously worded, adroitly suggesting both spiritual and worldly advantage to a possible patron who had lost his two sons, he believed it planted a seed which bore important fruit.”

Bingham follows this with several excerpts and his own commentary. An opening sentence of the letter may resonate with Indian-Americans :

“There are those in these parts of western India, who have had the satisfaction to know something of what you have done and gained in the eastern, and they take delight in the story.”

The italics are probably Bingham’s, but let me say this – WOW! Then there is this :

“Sir, though you have your felicities in your family, which I pray God continue and multiply, yet certainly, if what is forming in New Haven might wear the name YALE COLLEGE, it would be better than a name of sons and daughters. And your munificence might easily obtain for you such a commemoration and perpetuation of your valuable name, which would be better than an Egyptian pyramid.”

Double WOW! Mather’s coup de grâce might well have resulted in a coup de foudre at the receiving end. The rest, as they say, is history - and we know how history gets written.


Enthusiasts of travel and exploration lore will recognize Hiram Bingham as the man who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. He was the third in a line of Hiram Binghams, born in Honolulu to a Protestant missionary whose father had also been a missionary in Hawaii. Phillips Academy, Yale, Berkeley, and Harvard feature in his academic résumé. He had worked as a chemist, a lecturer of history and politics, and a preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. After his explorations in the Andes he went on to serve the state of Connecticut as Lt. Governor, Governor and Senator. In short, he was the quintessential WASP of impeccable credentials and accomplishments.

Those who care to follow up on the fine print may have read that he is in the process of being discredited in favor of prior claimants to that re-discovery dating back to the mid 1800s. His sponsors, Yale University and the National Geographic Society are being tarred with the same brush as the Government of Peru seeks to recover national treasures and antiquities taken from the Andes. His detractors may also note that he was censured by the US Senate for fiscal improprieties. Sound like anyone we know?

The Internet, which makes child’s work of the acquisition of such trivia, was not around when I started on my personal quest for Elihu in the 80’s. My copy of Bingham’s biography retains a bill for $58 from an antiquarian book dealer in New York City in 1990; it was a Christmas gift to myself. I cannot claim to have read the book from cover to cover – there’s too much there for a casual history buff to absorb. Readers of this article who have read the book more carefully will be justified if they disagree with some of my unguarded criticisms of it. The first few times I delved into it I had vague intentions of writing a novel about Elihu’s times in India. The notion had a long gestation, the pregnancy proved ectopic, and while the act of procreation had been pleasurable, post-partum depression set in. I packed the book away for many years.

I had and still maintain great admiration for Bingham. His research on Elihu was, for his time, a monumental effort – would that I had his tenacity and endurance. My recent disaffections come out of a maturation of feelings about history, starting with a chance encounter with a collection of essays on subaltern history. One essay recounted an incident in British India where the Army was called in to quell a riot by farmers, resulting in several deaths by shooting. It was a minor event, no Jallianwala Bagh, but, based on their research, the authors went on to draw an alternative picture of the incident that was totally at odds with the contemporary accounts favored by the Raj. Over the years a fanatical skepticism has taken root in me. It is a skepticism not just of history as written by the victors, but also directed at the motives of those who betray unreasoned and intemperate attitudes toward Western accounts of India.

It is patently clear that Bingham reached out for credible source material to unearth information about his subject. My first readings were uncritical, eager as I was to take in stories that I could never have imagined in the years we were fed pap in high school. In my schoolboy consciousness the Raj had its roots in the East India Company, and the story of the Company started with Clive in the mid XVIII Century. Indian history came from text-books and was to be taken on faith. I was approaching middle-age when I discovered that I could access contemporary accounts of travelers through the centuries. I had known only of Alberuni, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Fa Xian, Xuan Zang when I found antiquarian books in the stacks and vaults of the Boston and Brookline public libraries. Till then I had never heard of Duarte Barbosa, Bernier, Tavernier, Manucci and a handful of other travelers to pre-colonial India, nor the volumes of Hakluyt Society where their narratives are enshrined. Even at second hand Bingham became a vital source to me.

In my latest reading of him though, I have found him less than reliable. His biography is really a history that might be found flawed by the norms of scholarship of today. To his credit he went to various archives in London; but why didn’t he go to India? The British would surely have welcomed and paid him for his whitewash, as they did his compatriot and contemporary, the agent provocateur Katherine Mayo. He could have sought out Shafa’at Ahmad Khan, whose book, “Sources for the History of British India in the XVII Century”, kick-started Bingham’s own quest for Elihu. Undoubtedly, he would have found much material in India to augment, confirm and correlate with what he found in London. He might have gotten a feel of the country, experienced, even at arm’s length, life in the towns and villages that feature in his story. Could he not even have consulted a British map of India and provided a glossary of place names? I pored over two maps and couldn’t identify a third of the places he mentions in the arbitrary and un-phonetical spellings he merely copied off antique records. I could find on my maps no place names in the Coromandel littoral remotely approximating Conimeed, Brontispatinam, Yencatanipeets, Edelumburoo, Arramimpetts, Cheratunepolle, Jekeery, Maimra - while most of the name endings sound familiarly Tamil or Telugu, the names might as well be for villages in Brobdingnag.

Bingham thanks many people for help rendered in his research; there is not one Indian name among them. I am quite sure that there were accomplished Indians reading history in Oxbridge in the 30s; what concerns me is the thought that Bingham would not have cared to consult them. Often enough in his text he makes snide remarks about Indians of his own accord that would have been unacceptable from scholars of his day. They are gratuitous solecisms that would be branded racist today. To an Indian eye they jump off the page. One might overlook this in an Elihu, but it is unforgivable coming from Bingham. Well before his time English historians had published a trove of historical research on India. While he lists several exemplars in his bibliography it is apparent that Bingham’s reading was selective. He mentions Aurangzeb and Shivaji, but couldn’t care less about the politics of the region. Rajas, Nayaks, Poligars, Muslims, Hindus, Moghuls, Marathas make no difference to him, as though social taxonomy and administrative hierarchy were gifts the white man bore to the natives. The reader is left to fend for himself in unraveling the Byzantine political situation on the ground (India owes nothing to Byzantium in this sense).

Lastly, what do we learn about Elihu from Bingham? My latest reading informs me that the book is blatant hagiography. Much is made of small favors that Elihu extended to individuals in need and distress. On the other hand, at the slightest hint of wrongdoing on his subject’s part, the author serves up apologia as commentary, presenting convoluted and hypothetical alternative explanations. He gives credible arguments to contest the accusation of Elihu having strung up a groom for going AWOL, but my skepticism kicks in because of the numerous instances of such favorable analyses. Bingham’s constant theme is that Elihu could do no wrong, and all his detractors had an axe to grind. Besides lacking the wit to handle this quandary in a subtle way, he does not seem to know that readers are willing to empathize with deeply flawed humans when the writer coaxes them in that direction. He fails to pursue the London proceedings against Elihu in a systematic way, preferring instead to dwell on his ascent in society and on details of his wealth. Clearly, he is the wrong man to have tackled this subject. As a descendant of Protestant missionaries, a graduate of Yale, and recipient of patronage from the university, how could he possibly make a balanced assessment of the man? Then again, faced with the looming influence of the university and the Ivy-WASP establishment, who can?


This has been a case study in the failures of historiography. I doubt that anyone will make another attempt at researching and writing a serious and balanced history of Elihu Yale and his times. Who would care to fund such a project about a man who has been a minor myth for centuries already? The question is rhetorical – the answer unacceptable.

A Hakluyt Society volume of 1889 included a biographical addendum that conflated Elihu’s wife with his mistress. The historian at fault, John Anderson, published a correction elsewhere and accepted full blame for the blunder. In 1984 an eminent biographer of Mather wrote this of Elihu :

“...a London diamond merchant. ... As a young man Yale had emigrated to Madras, India, where he made a fortune. Becoming President of the East India Company, he had lived protected by several hundred guards carried on an ostrich-fan-shaded palanquin.”

Where does Kenneth Silverman get his stuff? Had he said ‘peacock’ I might have given him a B-minus. That the Yale affair gets three paragraphs in a Mather biography merits a C-minus. Instead, he got a Pulitzer Prize for his scholarship, so I don’t expect a corrigendum from him – an I grade perhaps?

The groom hanging incident is well on its way to becoming an important event in Elihu’s life. Bingham’s chapter on the case gives a creditable historian’s account. Conversely, I find Gandhi’s gratuitous mention of it reprehensible for the implied lie which is bound to be perpetuated through easy access over the Internet. The inference to be drawn from Gandhi’s compound sentence is that the “stable boy” was Indian. Not true! From Bingham’s research we know that the unfortunate fellow, Charles Cross, was English, a Company soldier who had been demoted to stable duty as punishment for theft. Upon their arrest all parties involved were duly court-martialed by the Governing Council. So much for Gandhi’s oxymoronic “private authority”! Cross was hanged, presumably for being recidivist, his companion, George Isaac, was shot for desertion, three confederates were transported to Sumatra, and two others made to “runne the Gantlett”. Bingham surmises that Elihu’s offence here lies in the severity of the sentences in light of the promise of mercy he had made to the Raja of Kanchipuram who had delivered up the two runaways. Indian readers of Gandhi’s polemic might not be disturbed by the facts Bingham unearthed; it is far more convenient to be outraged by the arbitrary hanging of an Indian stable boy.

It is a sign of our Internet obsessed times that bad information passes for the real thing, with no distinction made between the verifiable and apocrypha, between the plausible and fantasy. Everyone knows the story of the naming of the university and each wants to embellish it with his own two cents worth, thereby compounding the mess. It’s the whispering game of cyberspace. He was Governor of Fort St. George – no, the President of Madras – no, Director of the Company. The college was named for him – no, only a building – no, the name was assumed ten years later – no, he founded the university. He had one mistress – no, two, possibly more; one son by her – no, five by them. He was a Second on the Council – no, the Second Governor of Madras. He donated a bale of cloths – no, a box of precious textiles; fifty-seven books – no, hundreds; worth £567 – no, more than £800. Every article on the Internet has some or all of it wrong, or simply made up from whole cloth - sad to say that the authors might have actually benefited from reading Bingham’s hagiography.

Even Muthiah doesn’t seem to know the book even though his own history has as much to say of Yale as of Clive. However, thanks to Muthiah I now know something about the Ice House. This old government building was leased out and converted to an ice storage facility in 1845, the year Frederic Tudor of Boston began shipping ice from Boston to Madras, to be sold for an-anna-and-a-pice the pound. It was harvested at Walden Pond, a process described by Thoreau who felt compelled to add :

“The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges...”

Distant as the Ganges is from Medras and Bombay, I doubt that Thoreau cared a whit for Indian geography, preferring instead the facile fantasy.

And since we are back on Indian soil, who am I to fault the somber lady scientist for misinforming me about a building off the beach that was established as an Ice House a century and a half after Yale’s stay in Medras? She will never know how her casual remark has affected me. I sincerely hope she married well!

Guest Post by narayan

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good": Ram Narayan Kumar

I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India's northeast -- places like Nagaland and Assam -- where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.

I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.

Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar's greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.

The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar's quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar's more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006.

For reference, here is the National Human Rights Commission's order related to its Punjab human rights investigation, dated October, 2006. The report is on an Indian government website (

And below is an abbreviated version of Ram Narayan Kumar's account of his investigation, quoted from Kumar's 2008 book Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge, and Truth. I'll pick up the account after the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who first discovered the record of the mass cremations, who was himself disappeared by the Punjab police in 1995:

On 6 September 1995, Khalra himself disappeared. That morning, Punjab police officers kidnapped him from his Amritsar home. In November 1995, the Supreme Court instituted two inquiries to be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The first inquiry aimed to determine what happened to Khalra. The second inquiry intended to establish the substance of the allegations that Khalra had made. In July 1996, the report of the first inquiry [I think he means, the second inquiry] categorized 2097 cremations into three lists of 585 identified, 274 partially identified and 1,238 unidentified corpses.

After receiving the CBI's report, the Supreme court, in its order dated 12 December 1996, noted that it 'disclosed flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale.' Instructing the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly progress report, the Court appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to determine and adjudicate all other issues and to award compensation. The court's order clearly said that 'since the matter is going to be examined by the NHRC at the rquest of this court, any compensation awarded shall be binding and payable.'


After 10 years of litigation, exhausted mainly in futile legal wrangling and denials by the State agencies, the National Human Rights Commission disposed of the matter with its 10 October 2006 order, awarding arbitrary sums of monetary compensation to 1245 victims. The order divides 1245 victims of illegal cremations into two categories of 'deemed custody,' meaning those who were admitted to be in police custody prior to their death and cremation, and others whose police custody prior to their death and cremation was not admitted. The categorization is based on admissions and denials by the State of Punjab without further inquiry or verification and without the victim families receiving a chance to be heard. Under the first category, 194 families receive 'the grant of monetary reief at the rate of Rs. 2.50 lakhs' . . . Under the second category, the Commission's order awards a grant of Rs. 1.75 lakhs . . . to 1051 victim families on the ground that the police cremated their relatives without following the procedure prescribed by the Punjab Police Rules.

[... ]

When the Supreme Court designated the NHRC to examine and determine 'all the issues' connected with the matter, it also entrusted the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly status report on its progress. Ten years later, nothing is known about the progress the CBI has made in its investigations. The quarterly reports, if they have been submitted, remain sealed and unseen. Yet, the NHRC's final October 2006 order affirms faith that the State of Punjab and the Union of India will take appropriate steps to ensure taht violations do not recur. The faith is misplaced, to say the least, when the NHRC, through the procedure of investigation it followed, barred all 'what', 'why' and 'how' questions. How can there be a guarantee of non-recurrence when there is no knowledge of what occurred? These failures constitute a major blow to more than 10 years of work, and a hopeful engagement with the legal process for justice, reparation and accountability, which a small voluntary group of individuals attempted to develop.

The outcome is very disappointing. Yet, I am not taken aback. The atrocities and their denial, which I observed all these years, occurred in a climate of impunity and its surreal celebration, which is very aptly echoed in India's ancient war epic, Mahabharata: 'Yudisththira sat on the high summit of a mound of human skeletons. There, in a state of visible contentment, he ate his rice pudding out of a golden bowl.' (Source: Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knoweldge, and Truth)

In light of the life of Ram Narayan Kumar, a second quote from the Mahabharata seems appropriate:

To those who fall in war, victory or defeat makes no difference. All the good people -- the courageous, the upright, the humble, and the compassionate -- die first. The unscrupulous survive. Victory becomes the defeat of the good. (Mahabharata, Udhyoga Parva, Chapter 72, 15-72; link)

Labels: ,

Friday, July 03, 2009

Vinay Lal, "The Other Indians"

We finally have a pedagogically useful introductory book on the history of the South Asian American community, Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (see an earlier post on Vinay Lal by Abhi here). Lal’s book covers some of the same topics as Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk but is much more heavily factual and closely researched -– it’s a work of history rather than a political polemic –- and it’s rich with useful and well-sourced statistics. If I were to ask students to read something about the history of South Asians in the U.S., say, in conjunction with a segment of a course relating to Indian immigrant fiction, I would probably assign this book.

In lieu of a comprehensive review, below are a few highlights and interesting tidbits from The Other Indians that I picked up on: Elihu Yale, early Immigration/Legal issues, Religion, and the old terminology question.

Elihu Yale

Lal's chapter on the early American relationship with India was interesting to me, specifically the account of Elihu Yale (i.e., the Yale who gave Yale University its name):

Well before Indians first began to arrive in some numbers in the United States a little before 1900, trade had brough the products of ‘East India’ –tea, spices, silk, muslin, opium—to New England homes. Salem owed its greatness to the commerce with the East . . . It is the ‘magnificent Oriental plunder’ accumulated by Elihu Yale in India, who served as a lowly clerk in the East India Company’s offices before he rose to assume charge of the Madras Presidency, that lifted a New England college founded in 1676 from the doldrums and prompted its founders to rename the college in honor of the wealthy donor. As a young boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, later to be known as the ‘Sage of Concord’ and the leader of a group of writers and thinkers who would be characterized as the ‘Transcendentalists,’ often visited Boston’s ‘India Wharf’ which had by his time becomethe leading center of trade with China and India. Emerson confided to his journal in 1836 that everything in ‘this era’ had been made ‘subservient’ to ‘Trade,’ and ‘On us the most picturesque contrasts are crowded. We have the beautiful costume of the Hindoo and the Turk in our streets.’ (Lal, 8)

I have sometimes wondered whether folks at Yale today ever stop to think about the colonial legacy of Elihu Yale. (Is there anyone reading this who went to Yale, who's looked into it?)

The Dark Years: Bhagat Singh Thind, 1920-1940

I also found Lal’s account of the legal history of Indian-American citizens following the Asian Exclusion Act informative. After allowing a first wave of immigrants from India around the turn of the century, U.S. immigration authorities started to tighten restrictions on Indian immigrants by 1910, rejecting more and more applicants, in part because of fears about the Ghadr movement, and in part because of rising general xenophobia about immigrants from Asia. Still, prior to 1923, many Indians could get around racial restrictions by claiming to be ’Caucasian.’ In 1923, this was reversed, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Bhagat Singh Thind needed to be ‘de-naturalized’:

In early 1923, the Supreme Court heard on appeal from the Immigration Bureau the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, whose application for naturalization had been granted in the face of the Bureau’s opposition. Thind, a Caucasian of ‘high-caste Hindu’ stock ‘of full Indian blood,’ enterd the U.S. through Seattle in 1912, enrolled as a student at Berkeley in 1913, and was one of a handful of Indians who fought in World War I under the U.S. army. . . . Thind’s lawyers rested their case on the two-fold argument that, on the anthropological evidence, north Indians were Aryans and thus Caucasians, and, secondly, by judicial precedent Caucasians were to be construed as whites. Justice Sutherland took the contrary view: in the ‘understanding of the common man,’ . . . ‘white’ clearly denoted a person of European origins. ‘It may be true,’ wrote Sutherland, ‘that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable profound differences between them today.’ The ‘Aryan theory’ had been ‘rejected by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology,’ and the word ‘Caucasian,’ Sutherland argued, ‘is in scarcely better repute.’ (Lal, 37-38)

Funny that Judge Sutherland, in 1923, was casting doubt on the Aryan invasion theory even then. (Isn’t it strange that some people still want to believe it’s true, even today?)

Another surprise in Lal’s account is of the years subsequent to the Thind case: despite the fact that the U.S. had decided it could de-naturalize Indian immigrants who had achieved citizenship, in practice, it happened to very few people. A lawyer named Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, successfully went to the Supreme Court in 1927, to defend his naturalization as valid, and after that de-naturalization was quite rare. The real impact of the Asian Exclusion Act and the Thind case was that Indians no longer immigrated to the U.S., and many who had already settled here decided to leave. According to the U.S. census, there were 8000 Indians in California in 1917, but only 1,476 by 1940 (Lal, 40). Throughout the entire country, there were only 2,045 self-identified Indians present in the U.S. in 1940. (Just forty years later, in 1980, the Census recorded 387,223 Indians in the U.S., and that number has of course jumped again in both 1990 and 2000.)

Religion: Hindu Temple Architecture

I also learned from Lal’s treatment of religion as it is practiced by Indian Americans. He does not ignore some of the radical religious groups, like the VHP-A. But he doesn’t obsess over them either, and he makes space for a detailed account of the complexities of Hinduism as it is actually practiced in the U.S. by ordinary people. He has, for instance, interesting details on houses of worship, referring to some of the new temples that have been built with strict adherence to architecture stipulated the Shilpa Sastras, as well as the more syncretic temples that are structured very differently than they would be in India. I thought the following was interesting, along these lines:

A large metropolitan center such as Los Angeles is home to a Murugan temple, at least two Radha Krishna temples, a Kali Mandir, a Devi Mandir, a Sanatan Dharma Mandir, a Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Sri Venkateswara temple, and close to a dozen other temples. The nondescript Valley Hindu Temple of Northridge, where a sizable Indian community has developed over the last two decades, is representative of the other, nonsectarian tradition of Hindu temples in the United States, insofar as the temple houses a diverse array of deities—Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, to name a few—and welcomes Hindus in the diaspora of all persuasions. It has sometimes been suggested that Hindus in the diaspora may be less attentive to distinctions which hold sway in India, such as those between north and south, Vaishnavites and Saivites, and so on. Whether this is partly on account of their own minority status in the U.S. is an interesting and yet unresolved question. Whether this phenomenon is as distinct as is sometimes argued is also questionable. While images of both Vishnu and Shiva are not usually housed under one roof in Hindu temples in India, and the mythological works known as the Puranas—where the history, genealogy, and worship of these gods is articulated—are exceedingly sectarian, the Puranas are less exclusive than is commonly argued. Thus, a Vaishnava Purana usually elevates Vishnu as the supreme God but still has ample room for Shiva; a Saivite Purana inverses the order. A Devi Purana, dedicated to the Goddess, will similarly render secondary the male Gods. (Lal, 73-74)

I wonder if any readers who have been to different temples around the U.S. (and perhaps also in India) might have any comments on temple construction in the U.S. vs. India. (It might seem like an obscure topic, but actually I think architecture of houses of worship says a lot about the way people practice their faiths.)

The Old Terminology Problem: Desi, South Asian, etc.

Though I think very highly of Lal’s book, his discussion of terminology did raise some questions for me at certain points. Lal eschews the word “desi,” and settles on “Indian-American,” and explains carefully why he’s doing so. I can’t reproduce all of Lal’s arguments along these lines, but the following paragraph stood out to me as an interesting (though not necessarily compelling) critique of “desi”:

Though there is no gainsaying the fact that many proponents of the term ‘desi’ similarly seek to invoke its widest and most pluralistic meanings, calling forth the shared lives of many South Asians, the term operates on many different and disjunctive registers. As I have often been reminded by an old friend from Jaisalmer, in Western Rajasthan, words such as ‘country’ mean quite different things to people from metropolitan centers and those who earn their livelihoods in India’s tens of thousands of villages and smaller towns. When my friend chances to remark ‘Hamare desh me aisa hota hai’ (‘This is how it happens in our country’), by desh he clearly means his part of the country. The observation invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits. The word ‘desi’ also calls to mind home-grown products: thus, for example, no that liberalization has opened the Indian market to a whole array of foreign goods, including Western/hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, one hears often of the contrast between foreign vegetables and those branded ‘desi’—the latter being small and (in common belief) much more palatable to the taste than foreign varieties. There is, it appears to me, something unsettling and certainly odd about the fact that the most enthusiastic proponents of the word ‘desi’ are precisely those diasporic Indians who, in many ways, have least claim to the word and its multiple inheritances, considering their location in metropolitan centers of thought and their immense distance from local and vernacular knowledge systems. For these reasons among many, I have, except in a few particular instances, eschewed the word ‘desi’ when speaking of Indian Americans. (Lal, xi)

I understand Lal’s reasoning, though I don’t think it’s necessarily always a mark against "desi" that many people who use the term are diasporic, and perhaps less connected to South Asian culture. I don't think the variations in the way "desi" (and videsi and pardesi) is used within northern India necessarily make the diasporic deployment of it less true within its context. Language can change.

Later, Lal also addresses the term "South Asian American," and introduces some concerns about it that will be familiar to readers of the endless debates over terminology that have taken place on Sepia Mutiny over the years (to wit: the problem of tokenizing or ignoring ‘smaller’ countries in South Asia; the fact that few people outside of secular/progressive communities would actually identify themselves primarily as “South Asian”; the confusion of South Asia with Southeast Asia; the difficulties of limiting South Asia geographically, with Afghanistan on the west and Burma on the east, etc.).

[Incidentally, I also address the terminology question in this published essay.]

Again, while the problems with the term "South Asian" (or "South Asian American") are real, they are not insurmountable, and Lal’s reasons for electing not to use the term were not entirely convincing to me. In the end, he seems to settle on "Indian American" because, "it appears to me to best do justice to those people who are the subject of this book." In effect, it seems to me that Lal may have decided for practical reasons to focus primarily on immigrants from India in particular as the subject of his book, and some of his arguments about the problems with the term “South Asian” (or “South Asian American”) might be beside the point.

That said, The Other Indians is a great read and a very helpful book overall.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

Get this widget | Track details | eSnips Social DNA

It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian": Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight, who had a pretty rough childhood in upstate New York, converted to Islam as a teenager. He came from an Irish Catholic background, but partly under the influence of Malcolm X and black nationalist Islam, and partly simply as a result of his own idiosyncratic spiritual leanings, he took the Shahadah at age 16, and changed his name to Mikail Muhammad. He traveled to Pakistan to study Islam at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, under the guidance of Muslim intellectuals he first knew in the U.S. With a convert’s enthusiasm and zeal, he was as a teenager on a course to militancy –- perhaps not so different from John Walker Lindh (and Michael Knight acknowledges some similarities at certain points in his memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil). But Knight soon became disillusioned with that life and the rigidity of the teachings he was being exposed to, specifically as it seemed to inculcate a negativity in himself he didn't like.

When Knight returned to the U.S. after a year in Pakistan, he continued to identify as a Muslim, but with a dimension of non-conformist punk rock theatricality. Starting in the early 2000s, Knight became a fixture at Muslim American conferences like ISNA, where he posed himself as a dissenting, outsider kind of figure, next to the well-groomed second-generation Muslim-Americans from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds.

Also, starting around 2003, Knight started circulating a photocopied version of a novel he had written about an imagined community of Muslim punks in Buffalo, New York, called "The Taqwacores" ("Taqwa" means piety in Arabic). Eventually the book would be formally printed, most recently by an established independent publishing house called Soft Skull Press. Since 2004 Knight has become a bit of a publishing machine, putting out several other books. A documentary has been made about the Islamic punk movement his book helped inspire, and a feature-length film version of "The Taqwacores" is in post-production.

One interesting thread in Knight’s story is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in "Blue-Eyed Devil" (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as "intellectually black and socially South Asian," (quoting from memory) and the phrase has stuck with me.

1. Blue-Eyed Devil

Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America began as a series of columns Knight wrote for the website Muslim WakeUp! between 2003 and 2005. Some chapters are personal accounts of hanging out (and sometimes hooking up) with Bangladeshi American girls he meets in environments like ISNA. These chapters alternate with travel experiences and encounters, all loosely structured around resolving the identity of the figure who inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, a figure known as W.D. Fard (or sometimes Wallace Fard Muhammad).

One of the major threads in Blue-Eyed Devil is the thesis, which Knight investigates at length, that this pioneering figure in black Islamic theology, W.D. Fard, may have actually been from South Asia, rather than the Middle East, as was originally thought. There is at least some evidence uncovered by Knight and others (none of it overwhelming) that Fard may have come from India via Fiji. After 1934, Fard disappeared for awhile, and officially no one knows what happened to him. However, the successor to Elijah Muhammed in the black Muslim community in the U.S., Warith Deen Muhammed, claimed that Fard re-appeared as a "Pakistani" Imam in the Bay Area named Muhammed Abdullah starting around 1959, and died in 1976.

The prospect of W.D. Fard as a South Asian immigrant is a thesis not so much proved as explored in Blue-Eyed Devil. But it presents an interesting image: this founding figure in black nationalist Islam may not have been of African, but South Asian, descent.

Knight’s narrative involves contemporary desis to a considerable extent. One passage, which gives a strong indication of Knight’s complex relationship to South Asian American peers, is in a section where he talks about going to a Muslim Summer Camp in the U.S.:

Often I’d try to boost my Muslim cred by wearing the right kind of hat but only ended up looking like a crazy convert with something to prove. Which I was, of course. I had taken a decent religion and made it real crazy, crazier than any of the good normal kids at my Islamic summer camp back in Rochester. All those desi teenagers would go out between lunch and Zuhr to play basketball or soccer or man-hunt and I’d sit in the office pouring through Bukhari with the imams telling me that it was okay to go outside and play, that even Prophet Muhammad enjoyed sports. I had soon read enough to teach kids my own age who had been raised with Islam around them all their lives. I remember one summer-camp afternoon when all the kids sat in a circle in the mosque and the imams asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be an imam or an alim and assumed that everyone else would say the same thing, but one after another it was all doctor, engineer, computer programmer. It blew me away; I thought we all wanted to live in mosques and read the Qur’an all day. (3)

Michael Knight’s approach to Islam often seems contradictory, not just slightly, but intensely. As a young man, he studied Islamic theology obsessively, and tried to shape his life to follow a pretty rigid interpretation of that theology. But there’s also a punk, anarchist, and non-conformist side of his personality which can’t help but rise to the surface. The two sides of himself seem to battle one another in the pages of his books, and he neither turns away from Islam (as the non-conformist side of himself might require), nor does he finally suppress all of his own rebellious tendencies under the banner of an undivided, respectable approach to Islam. Instead, you see passages like the following, again from Blue-Eyed Devil:

ISNA speaks for the Islam of Uplifting Hygiene: a vision of smiling professionals in cotton white hijabs, community-minded role models, politically moderate doctors, teenagers who keep their genitals clean and a perfectly sound way of life that all Americans will inevitably flock towards, or at least concede an enlightened admiration. In paying my $100 registration fee online I had to click ‘Agree’ on the term that if any member of a group caused a disturbance, my whole group would leave. I had no group. "Judgment of term ‘disturbance,’" it said, will be determined solely by ISNA officials." The convention’s official website also provided a list of behaviors for Muslims to avoid and discourage while at McCormick Place: things like fuhsh (‘indecency, obscenity, atrocity and abomination’), fuhsha (‘shameless deeds, adultery, fornication and whoredom’), munkar (‘ignorance, detestable behavior and reprehensible action’) and bagha (‘rebelliousness, outrageousness and wrongdoing’). I figured that in my time at ISNA I’d have no problem hitting each at least once. My friend Sara told me that while ISNA usually had cool programs, it could often become a big hook-up place for horny young Muslims. 'I guess they’re not all there for speeches and stuff,' she said. (8)

Knight almost seems to take pride in first, knowing the Arabic terms for what is forbidden at an Islamic event, and then deliberately flouting those rules. (If it’s haram, it’s sexy.) A committed individualist (that is to say, a liberal) would reject the institution as a whole, or at least argue for a "progressive," softened version of the institution, while a devout Muslim might do his or her best to follow the rules as given. But Michael Muhammad Knight seems happy being in both places at once: he prefers the most conservative version of Islam, specifically because it’s more thrilling to disobey it.

Admittedly, some of the people who figure in Michael Knight’s story as friends do call him on his idiosyncratic approach to the Muslim community in the U.S., leading to a fair amount of internal debate within the books themselves. A revealing example might be the following passage:

Then I imagined a voice in my head that sounded like Khalida’s telling me, 'It’s not about being white or not white, Mikail... you’re in no shape to tell the story of American Muslims because you think that only weirdos are worth writing about, you and your Wally Fords—'

I don’t know why it sounded like Khalida in my head, maybe Khalida’s just my conscience but I knew that she was right—because I couldn’t bum all over the country sleeping in my car or sleeping on Greyhound buses for the sake of writing on lame Progressive Muslims and I don’t know that I could if I wanted to. Give me Noble Drew Ali with a Cherokee feather in his turban, selling Moorish Healing Oil for fifteen cents a bottle—and W.D. Fard in his mug shot looking like he could slit your throat with a thought (83)

Indeed, Knight is mainly interested in the weirdos and marginal figures in American Islam, people who are in some way like himself. He finds the new, respectable authority figures in the Muslim community –- people like Ibrahim Hooper and Asma Gull Hasan -– insufferable.

2. Taqwacores

I didn’t really enjoy reading "The Taqwacores," certainly not as much as the two memoirs, Impossible Man and Blue-Eyed Devil. In large part the book just seemed too abrasive and gratuitously provocative, though I recognize that it wouldn’t be “punk” if the writing was too pretty and well-considered. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is supposed to be a Pakistani-American interested in both conservative Islam and punk rock, but the novel isn’t really convincing on that score. There’s no real acknowledgment of Yusef Ali’s family, and very little discussion of Pakistan itself. Though most of its main characters are from South Asian backgrounds, it seems like "The Taqwacores" subsumes that part of their social identity to "Islam."

Still, there are some great dialogues, which might have been inspired by Knight’s conversations with immigrant and second-gen Muslims at various conventions and summer camps. Below is part of a dialogue between Yusef and a white convert named Lynn, who has been struggling with her identification as a Muslim after being given grief by orthodox Muslims about her lifestyle:

The conversation paused for us to take a few bites of our respective slices. 'You know,' I mentioned after swallowing, 'I imagine it’s a lot easier for you.'

‘What is?’ she replied with her mouth full.

‘Separating the good stuff from the bad. You weren’t raised in a Muslim family so you can just take things on your own terms. For me it’s hard because I got all this tuff in one big lump package. Some of it’s worthwhile guidance that I would like to hold on to for the rest of my life, some is just culture that’s a part of who I am and then there’s a lot of traditional things that I can’t understand and I don’t know why people follow them, but they always have. I think that’s why you have something to your Islam that I don’t have.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with half-smile of pleasant surprise.

‘I can’t separate spirituality from my family, my heritage, my identity as a South Asian; it’s inextricably connected. You reject an aspect of one, to some extent you’re rejecting all of them.’

‘Yeah, my family didn’t seem too disappointed when I started celebrating Christmas again.’

‘You celebrate Christmas?’

‘Just with my family. It has nothing to do with religion.’

‘Well, it is Christ-mas.’

‘No, no it’s not. It’s see-my-family-that-I-don’t-ever-see-mas.’


‘But who cares anyway, right? It’s like Attar said, ‘forget what is and is not Islam.’ (86-87)

The novel is a young person’s book –- at its core, it seems to be about how the protagonist’s sexual coming of age comes into conflict with his religious beliefs. The book has a series of graphic sexual encounters and a general uncensored sexual candidness that’s likely to turn off some readers (especially, one thinks, the conservative Muslims to whom it seems to be addressed).

But most of all, it’s the novel’s conclusion, which involves a graphic sex act performed by a woman in a Burqa in a public place, that is likely to be shocking to many readers. When the film of "The Taqwacores" comes out later this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pretty major controversy, specifically relating to that scene... (I’m told the filmmakers are fully expecting that controversy to occur.)

Overall, I think readers will find Knight’s books to be worth their time, especially the two memoirs written by Knight in maturity, Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man. Impossible Man is a highly compelling conversion narrative, which includes both the rise as well as the decline of Knight’s religious fervor (and, oh yeah, a couple of chapters about wrestling). Blue-Eyed Devil is more of a road narrative, focusing on Knight’s engagement with African American interpretations of Islam, including the NOI, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, as well as the movement of black Islamic communities towards orthodox Sunni Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammed.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Sort of Book You Actually Want to Write: “Big Sid’s Vincati”

A friend of mine from graduate school, Matthew Biberman, whom I knew primarily as an ambitious and driven Milton scholar, has written a memoir about not Milton but motorcycles. The book is called Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime. His book, which has not had a lot of publicity yet in the general media, has come out at the same time as a second memoir about the power of physical involvement in mechanical problems (incidentally also involving working on motorcycles), Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford's book has gotten quite a bit of attention, including a long excerpt in The New York Times Magazine, as well as Kelefa Sanneh's review in The New Yorker. And Stanley Fish, in his blog at the New York Times, put together a lengthy blog post last week, where he considered Biberman's book alongside Crawford's, while also addressing Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Here I'd like to attend to Biberman's memoir on its own terms, though I've also added a brief consideration at the end of this blog post that gets at the obvious 'meta' question of why this particular kind of knowledge seems to be so satisfying to people who started out their lives with a passion for the abstract liberal arts -- literature and philosophy.

1. Vincatis

Since I know many readers will be wondering, I should probably start by explaining the “Vincati”: a “Vincati” is a hybrid bike, with a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine. It brings together the best features of two legendary motorcycles, the 1970s Ducati’s widely praised chassis, and the 1950s Vincent’s powerful twin engine, immortalized by Richard Thompson, in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Creating a hybrid bike using largely original parts is a particularly challenging project, both in terms of tracking down the necessary vintage parts and as a matter of mechanical skill. In the case of Matthew and his father, Sid, putting one together after the latter had a nearly-fatal heart attack became a labor of love and a reason for his father to go on living.

The memoir resonated with me in part because Biberman, like myself, came into literary studies from a rather unlikely background – his father was a motorcycle mechanic who never went to college, while he went to elite schools on scholarship, only to struggle somewhat in the early years of life as a “grown-up” in a tenure track academic job. Being a hungry outsider in English studies can give you the motivation and hustle to get through college and graduate school with flying colors, but it’s when you settle down into a tenure track job that you realize that sheer scholarly hustle alone may not make you happy in the intensely bourgeois culture of academia, nor does it give you the continued motivation to keep up the intellectual pace you set in graduate school. Academia has many perks, but for many people it can be a difficult profession to remain passionate about, and a curious sort of disconnection sometimes sets in for people about half-way to tenure. I’m not sure there is any single explanation for it -- though, admittedly, the institution of tenure might be part of the problem -- so let me just say this: it does not seem entirely an accident that many academics have passions outside of their teaching lives that animate them more than their primary work.

In Matthew Biberman’s case, that outside passion entailed rediscovering the love of motorcycles he grew up with in the first instance, but which he had put away for many years as he tried to make it first as a novelist and then in literary studies. Big Sid’s Vincati is clearly primarily a motorcycle enthusiast’s book, with some rather technical accounts of the innards of vintage British and Italian motorcycles. It is not a book full of literary metaphors for motorcycle culture, and there is nary an allusion to Shakespeare or Milton anywhere.

Still, since the book is first and foremost a personal memoir, Biberman can acknowledge the development of his career, and the tension that begins to build between the hobby he loves and the academic career he’s committed to professionally. The following dialogue is one that resonated in particular with me as I read it:

While I worked, I told Sid that I had come to a decision about the donor motor. ‘I’ll agree to hopping up the Vincati if you make me a promise.’

‘I’m listening,’ he said.

‘First, you need to know that I am playing a dangerous game of chicken professionally. If I spent too much time out in the garage and lose my tenure, there goes my regular paycheck, plus my benefits, and with Lucy’s condition I just can’t lose my health insurance. But I also know we can’t stop our work out here. So I have to thread the needle and do both: get tenure and be a grease monkey.’

‘Understood,’ Sid said in his gravest tone. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘You have to promise me you will stop asking me about what I am writing.’

This request surprised Sid. It had been going on for months. When we worked, he continually made me talk about Shakespeare and Milton. I’d been working on a dry tome of literary criticism and for some reason Sid was fascinated by it.’

‘Look, I never wanted to write this book in the first place,’ I explained. ‘But now I have no choice. No book, no job—that’s how you get tenure. And when I come out here I just don’t want to think about it.’

‘How can talking about Shakespeare and Milton depress you?’ he said. ‘You always loved books. You always wanted to be a writer—now you are writing a book. How can that be depressing?’

‘Because I never wanted to write this kind of book, okay? I wanted to write the great American novel, be the great American writer. Not become some professor who writes incomprehensible criticism that no one wants to read. Look at you. You wanted to set a record at Bonneville. Well, sometimes our dreams don’t come true. Just leave me alone when it comes to that stuff and let me do what I have to do.’

I looked at him and knew: now he got it. (169-170)

I think many people who have struggled with projects that become professional obligations rather than really rewarding intellectual writing experiences will know where Biberman is coming from at moments like this. In effect, the divide between a literary studies career and an intensely involving hobby involving motorcycles, which Biberman asks his father to accept above, becomes the rule for the memoir as well. Literature and motorcycles are on somewhat separate tracks in Big Sid’s Vincati.

That said, there are some literary reference points in Big Sid’s Vincati here and there. One is Thom Gunn, a poet Biberman writes about encountering while in college. Here are a couple of verses from Gunn’s “On the Move,” which is mentioned (but not quoted) in the memoir at one point:

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, directions where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.

Actually, some beautiful writing there. But as I say, Biberman doesn’t cite the aesthetics or philosophical attractions of motorcycles (and this is what differentiates his book from something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or for that matter, Matthew Crawford's, Shop Class as Soulcraft).

Rather, his is a true insider’s appreciation of motorcycles and biker culture, as an end in itself, rather than as a vehicle for an argument about Kant. The following passage might be a representative moment of motorcycle enthusiasm:

Sid forgot all about his plan to order parts and wandered over to the tent instead. Inside he was surrounded by rare models, special factory projects, and race bikes, both solo and sidecar. He saw a rare Series A twin, a ‘sectioned’ Series A Comet motor, and an ultrarare model W two-stroker, complete with leg shielding. To its right sat a Picador motor, a modified Vincent motorcycle engine developed to propel a drone aircraft, as well as another war ministry project, a Uniflo air-sea rescue lifeboat motor. . . . But it was the tent’s center attraction that brought sweat to Sid’s palms—the legendary works racer, Gunga Din. That bike held more records than any other machine in England, and quite possibly the world. Sid had only read bout it in the magazines, where it was written that if regular rider George Brown wasn’t flung off, he was just about sure to win. (21-22)

Biberman does a very good job transmitting what’s so pleasurable about the world of fast, classic bikes at moments like these. Though I came to this book knowing nothing at all about this stuff, I must admit I’ve slightly caught the bug. (And no, I’m not thrilled about a British racing motorcycle named “Gunga Din,” even affectionately. Try “Mangal Pande” next time, Vincent enthusiasts…)

But the true poetry in Big Sid’s Vincati is not enthusiasm for motorcycles in general, but the precise mechanical language lovingly applied to describing the Vincent’s engine in particular. Some of Biberman’s technical descriptions of the work he and his father did while working on their five-year labor of love left me wanting to see diagrams, to help me visualize better what he’s talking about. For example:

Here it helps to know a little more about a Vincent motor. The bottom half is called the crankcase and it is compared of two matched pieces, a left and a right, that are bolted together by studs that run horizontally. The front of the crankcase is symmetrical but the rear is not. The left side is longer, extending straight back beyond the clutch housing where it accepts the swingarm pivot shaft. This shape is not matched by the right crankcase. That piece ends earlier and sweeps in to expose the front drive sprocket around which the rear chain runs, so it can turn the back wheel of the bike. Sid had spotted gouging on the longer left-hand side and now wanted to lay a flat file on that surface and reduce it by a few thousandths of an inch. (205-206)

It will remain a little vague in my mind until I see either a detailed 3D diagram or the machine itself, but I admire the mechanical knowledge behind this explanation of a Vincent motorcycle motor.

One has to feel that, through this book, Biberman has been able to reconcile his stated adolescent desire to write the “great American novel,” with the real circumstances and problems he’s faced in life (besides his father’s illness, Matthew and his wife had to deal with a daughter born with a serious congenital heart problem, during roughly the same period he and his father were working on this bike).

Big Sid’s Vincati will undoubtedly appeal to motorcycle enthusiasts, but I suspect it might also appeal to many non-enthusiasts who know what it is to be passionate about something that won’t help you get tenure, and are, consequently, willing to go along for the ride.

2. A Thought on Technical Knowledge vs. Liberal Arts Knowledge

Here we might take a look at Matthew Crawford's excerpt from Shop Class as Soulcraft, up at the New York Times Magazine. Unlike Matthew Biberman, who is a tenured academic at a respected research university, Crawford left academia shortly after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, aided by the bleak job market. While suffering through that period, he often took recourse to working on motorcycles as a way of focusing his energy productively He then landed what was presumably a high-paying job at a think-tank in Washington DC (probably considerably more lucrative than academia would have been!), but walked away after saving enough money to buy the tools that would enable him to set up his own small motorcycle repair shop. Here is a little bit from Crawford's description of the work he does now:

The business goes up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the country. My most reliable source, Fred, has such an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I have been able to offer him in exchange is deliveries of obscure European beer.

The question I have while reading passages like this is whether the approach to knowledge and problem-solving is really absolutely different from what one does, say, in sitting down to put together a close-reading of a novel.

Isn't there, in literary studies, also a technical base of knowledge that is acquired partly through exposure to savants ("Fred" in Crawford's example above could be "Fred Jameson" for an aspiring literary theorist), and partly simply through long experience? Admittedly, most literary critics today de-emphasize technical aspects of literary analysis in favor of historical, contextual, and political thematics. But that doesn't mean the option to engage in more technical analysis of literary tropes and forms isn't there for those who are interested in it.

In other words, a possible counter-diagnosis to Crawford's alienation from first academic, and then white-collar, intellectual labor, might be simply to try doing a different kind of intellectual labor, rather than condemn intellectual labor as a whole as inherently alienating.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shameless Literary Tourism in Dublin: Bloomsday 2009

It’s rather striking how much of a commodity James Joyce is in Dublin; there’s nothing comparable to it in any American city. You hear mentions of Bloomsday activites on Dublin radio stations, and see events described in some of the newspapers. There are two Joyce museums in the city, a proper statue to Joyce on one of the biggest commercial streets in the city, and plaques on the ground and on buildings all over the place. Every other pub has a picture of Joyce or Yeats somewhere; there is even something called a "James Joyce Pub Award" (for "being an authentic Dublin pub"). On Bloomsday there are performances at big as well as small venues all over the city related to Ulysses. We saw a flyer for an actress doing a solo show as Molly Bloom, and we even saw something about a reenactment of a brief dialogue between Ned Lambert and J.J. O'Molloy at St. Mary’s Abbey (from "Wandering Rocks"; a rather minor incident in the novel).

That said, some of the events not involving pubs didn't seem to be all that well attended. And while there were a fair number of knowledgeable readers of Joyce on the two tours I went on (many of them American college students, interestingly), there were plenty of people who just came because their guide book recommended it as something to do in Dublin.

The only dissenting voice I heard on James Joyce was in a pub in a village called Bunratty, north of Limerick. There, at a pub named "Durty Nelly's," I was accosted by a rather inebriated Irishman who wanted to tell me all about his time at the Kumbh Mela in India. When Joyce came up in the conversation later (this man knew a fair bit about literature), he scoffed: "Joyce was a lackey, he was nothing but a lackey." I didn't have the presence of mind to ask him why he thought so, and now I wonder what exactly he meant.

As an intellectual exercise, I'm not sure whether there was much value in spending a day walking around Dublin with Joyce-tinted glasses on; it's admittedly tourism, not scholarship. But it certainly was fun to see Dublin this way.

1. Sandycove and Howth

On the morning of the 16th, I took the DART train out to Sandycove early in the morning, leaving Samian asleep at the hotel in central Dublin. It’s a pretty long ride from Tara Street Station in central Dublin, which surprised me a little in itself; I had always envisioned Sandycove, where Buck Mulligan is staying in the novel, in the Martello Tower, and Dalkey, where Stephen has been teaching, as a relatively short hop to central Dublin. In fact, it’s a forty minute commute at rush hour, even in a fast subway train. How long would it have taken by tram in 1904?

I was pleased to see a handful of people, men and women, bathing in the water by the tower, now a James Joyce Museum. There were people in period costume, though not many who were identifiably a particular character in the novel (elsewhere, we did see people dressed as "Leopold Bloom" and "Stephen Dedalus"; the Molly Blooms, I'm guessing, stayed home).

A Dublin-based actor and writer named Barry McGovern did a brilliant reading from “Eumaeus” at the top of the tower, with about twenty people crammed in around the small circle. I thought the choice of passages was great – it would be tempting to just do “Telemachus” at the top of the Martello Tower in Sandycove, but in fact the dialogue between Stephen and Bloom in Eumaeus walking through Dublin on their way to the cab shelter has some really poignant moments; it works especially well as a passage for recital. In terms of seeing Ulysses as a living text, this was the high point of the day for me.

Incidentally, if you watch this slideshow of the event at the Irish Times, you'll see a picture of me along the way, and hear a little of Barry McGovern reading. Proof that I was there!

I decided to forego the “Bloomsday Breakfast” (focusing on pork kidneys, and “snotgreen soup” – really) at a local restaurant in Sandycove. I didn’t have all that much time, and anyway, 18 Euros is a little too steep for me for breakfast.

All in all, things were pretty quiet out at Sandycove. I noticed a couple of families with young children at Sandycove’s little beach (i.e., the actual cove at Sandycove), playing in the sand, as I walked back toward the train station. They were there for the beach on a warm, sunny morning, not related to Bloomsday. There was a serious-looking man in a black turtleneck who spoke halting English in an Eastern European accent there, frequently consulting what appeared to be a Polish or Russian translation of the novel, and another man (a nurse by profession) who had flown in from Leicester, England, that morning, just to participate in Bloomsday.

A week earlier, we had gone to Howth, on the north side of Dublin Bay. In fact, it was an accident – not literary tourism, but plain old tourism. (We had been given, as a present from relatives, a gift certificate for dinner at a nice seafood restaurant called “Aqua,” on Howth Pier –a gift given with no connection whatsoever to Joyce.) Howth is a pretty little fishing village, with some upscale restaurants, working fishing boats, and a few places selling takeaway fish and chips a bit more cheaply. The view of Ireland’s Eye to the north is pretty spectacular at sunset from the “Nose of Howth.” Here is what happens in Ulysses at Howth:

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun's heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion's head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you'll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

It's a memory both Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom hold fondly and come back to at various points in the novel, as representing the emotional core of their relationship. The scene is very, very intimate. After seeing the place, all I can say is: I hope they were warmly dressed; to us, it felt a little cold and desolate out there. (Perhaps it was just a windy day.)

2. Daytime in Central Dublin

We decided to skip the obligatory lunch of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy at lunch, though half the pubs in the Temple Bar district were advertising it as a special, including of course, Davy Byrne’s, on the 16th of June. (I think people don’t really realize that Bloom, though he had an intense reaction to the Burgundy, didn’t really respond much to the Gorgonzola Cheese.) Instead, we had a much more satisfying meal at the Joy of Cha on Essex Street East, near Meeting House Square.

The biggest crowd we saw was about 200 people at noon, at Meeting House Square, where there were readings and performances related to Ulysses for three hours in the middle of the day. We walked in on the tail end of an operatic performance of one of the Italian songs mentioned in Joyce’s novel (I couldn’t quite figure out which one), but after that the various speakers weren’t particularly exciting. After a little while, they turned it over to audience members to come up and read favorite passages from the novel. Unfortunately, it seemed like people were reading quite badly, and without explaining why such-and-such passage might be important for themselves personally. The adjacent Irish Film Institute was screening John Huston’s film version of “The Dead” on the night of the 16th, but it was sold out. We moved on.

Later in the afternoon, we did the Bloomsday walking tour that starts at the James Joyce Centre on North St. Georges Street (just a couple of blocks from Eccles Street, on the north side of the city). The guide presented himself as Stephen Dedalus, and in his opening spiel he announced, I thought quite cleverly, that while he was going to show us around some of the landmark sites in Ulysses, it wasn’t really his favorite book by Joyce. (Obviously, if you’re Stephen Dedalus, your favorite book should be Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) He also made an appropriately irreverent comment about the deification of Joyce as follows: "we’re here to celebrate the author James Joyce, the creator of everything, the father, the son, and the holy ghost..."

The spots in Ulysses on the Bloomsday tour aren’t really that thrilling to see, unless you’re the kind of Joyce reader that obsesses over the little details in Joyce’s novel. The spot that would have been Dlugacz’s butcher (always a fictional store, but a real address), is now a dry cleaners’ – wow, thrilling. Still, to see the church clock tower, and be able to visualize the streets and topography does help give a better picture of some of the key events in the book. The red light district (“Night-town”) is completely gone; today, that neighborhood has a big bus station and a train station. I also found, at several points in the Bloomsday tour through north central Dublin, that the mundane activities of the city – passing buses, construction work, routine traffic – overwhelmed our tour. If it was anything like this in 1904, Dublin at mid-day was a loud, busy place in which to walk around.

For me, the most poignant shift between the Dublin of Joyce’s day and the present moment entails the disappearance of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street, mentioned particularly in connection with the "Parable of the Plums" in the Aeolus episode. In 1966, the IRA blew up the pillar, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising. Dublin has replaced what was once a symbol of British Imperialism with a 500 foot tall, abstract metal spike, which now stands anomalously (and ominously?) above the rest of the skyline of central Dublin.

On the tour, I met two Chinese women carrying the Chinese translation of Ulysses with them. The mother was a big Joyce fan, while the daughter seemed to be cramming a little bit to try and understand what the fuss was about. I asked them what the translation is like – is it full of neologisms, words borrowed from other languages, and so on? But they didn’t seem to understand the question; they simply said they’d never looked at the original in English, so they couldn’t make a comparison.

3. Evening

Davy Byrne’s was too crowded in the early evening with people in period costume eating cheese sandwiches, so we went to the Duke, across the street. All of the action is at Davy Byrne’s, since it’s still there, but people generally neglect to mention that Burton’s, the first pub Bloom had walked into in the same episode of the novel, is now a travel agency.

We ended our evening with the "Dublin Literary Pub Crawl," as part of a group of overwhelmingly American tourists. The actors who run this popular evening tour do really good (and funny) short bits from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “The Risen People,” and a winningly fey enactment of one of Oscar Wilde’s letters from America (the letter they used was Wilde writing from Leadville, Colorado). They also pepper their anecdotes about literary Dublin with quotes and references to a number of Irish writers and historical figures. Some of the people cited that I can remember included Brendan Behan (the "drinker with a writing problem" quote), Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, and the labor activist Jim Larkin.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'I Hope You Feel Better Soon': Hello From Ireland

We've been in Ireland for a little holiday. Some of it is a little bit of long overdue literary tourism around Dublin (about which I might have more to say in a few days), but we also spent several days in some of the beautiful western counties, doing some cycling and hiking, and checking out live music in village pubs. For the most part, it's pretty homogeneous -- sizeable South Asian, eastern European, and East Asian immigrant populations have emerged in Dublin, but rural western Ireland hasn't changed quite as much. A lot of little villages have Indian restaurants, but that's about it.

Our best night in terms of live traditional Irish music was in a town called Clifden, in County Galway -- and it was also the night where we had what you might call a 'desi moment'.

The band was very good -- the fiddler was brilliant, and one of the singer/percussionists had a lot of entertaining, if rather corny, jokes -- and a strong rapport with an audience of upwards of 50 people in a smallish space. The audience was a mix of locals from around Galway, and international tourists, speaking Swedish, German, and of course "American." There was even a woman from Uganda in the audience, and I somewhat regret that I didn't get to ask her how she ended up at a pub in a remote town in western Ireland. Then again, there were clearly a number of people in the audience who were eyeing us, a Sikh couple, and wondering the same thing. By chance, we had gotten seats right in the front, which we were really happy about until the point in the evening I am about to describe.

During one break, the jokester/storyteller in the band, a jolly elderly man, asked the Swedish women in the audience how you say "cheers" in Swedish. He ran through "cheers" using the word from every language he could think of, including, now, Swedish. Then he turned to me: "And how do you say it in Sikh?" I couldn't think of the Punjabi (and no, I didn't bother to correct him on that) off the top of my head, so I just threw out "Balle Balle." ("Vadaiyan" might have been more correct). He liked "Balle Balle," and said it several times, relishing the sound, and even getting the Punjabi tonal inflection pretty much right. He even got several people in the back of the bar repeating it as they raised their glasses: Balle Balle! Balle Balle! Balle Balle!

A little later, he got bolder, and told the following story:

"Seeing this gentlemen here [gestures at me] reminds me of a true story, and I hope no one gets offended. One time I was riding a late night bus in London, home from work. It was the last bus of the night, and there were four people angling for just one standing spot in the bus. The driver was a Sikh gentleman in a white turban. From the group trying to get on the bus, he gave an old lady, clearly weary and not very well-to-do, the remaining spot, and told the others there wasn't room. When she reached to her purse to pay, he shooed her away, saying he wouldn't hear of making her pay. When she finally reached her stop, she stepped down from the bus, and said, 'Thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!'"

[Get it? She thought the white turban was a bandage.]

The joke killed with the audience in the pub. I was blushing, but I smiled weakly and sort of shrugged it off the way one does: no worries, my friend, I'm not going to ruin your good time by taking umbrage. (But could we get back to the music, please?)

During the next little instrument tuning break, Samian got up from her chair and approached him. Without a word she picked up the drum brush he had been using, and batted him lightly on his bald head with it. She then said, "thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!" He loved it -- I think he must have known he'd crossed a line earlier -- and I certainly felt a lot better all of a sudden.

Our evening out in Clifden ended on a high note. And the locals, including our friend in the band, are likely to remember the random Sikh couple who came in one night, to hear the traditional Irish music.