PROPAGANDA OF THE REED

March 23, 2022

KASHMIR

Filed under: Uncategorized — nkaul @ 9:31 pm

Kashmir – a longer version of my article published in Foreign Policy in 2019 https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/13/kashmir-is-under-the-heel-of-indias-colonialism/

If to most people in the world, Kashmir is still a Led Zeppelin song, then to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kashmir is a film set and a kind of exclusive shawl. In his public speech — made a few days after his government brought in tens of thousands of troops, put the region under lockdown and telecommunications blockade, arrested hundreds of prominent Kashmiris, and without any consultation with the people, unilaterally revoked the constitutional provision guaranteeing autonomy to Indian administered Kashmir, bifurcated the state into two, and downgraded it from being a state to a federally administered union territory — he blamed the autonomy and family run politics in Kashmir for all the ills, promised development, and foresaw a future where not just Bollywood, but international films would be shot in Kashmir, and the famed Kashmiri crafts including of shawl-making would thrive.

The recent constitutional coup in Kashmir by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is part of the toxic nationalism that operates with an often violently and coercively enforced Hindu supremacism along with hypocritical doubletalk on gender (usual discourse of liberating women and fantasies of possessing women as property). The aim is to realise the dream of a Hindu nation for the supporters and to deliver economic exploitation by way of resource grabs for its crony backers (in this case by treating Kashmir as real estate, and unpeopled).

A few facts can easily complicate Modi’s narrative on Kashmir. First, the politics of Kashmir that he condemns as family-based is precisely what allowed the BJP to gain a foothold there in its coalition with the Mufti family-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP). BJP used the most pro-Indian Kashmiri leaders to divide sentiments there, and then unilaterally withdrew from the coalition, imposing Centre’s direct rule.

Second, Modi claimed to liberate all Kashmiris but all the policies in place are keeping the Kashmiri people under siege, detaining and arresting many of them. The very idea that he could as he said, at some point in the future, reinstate the region back to being a state again, makes crystal clear the dictatorial style of functioning of his government. Why bother with the democratic niceties, when the strongman leader can upgrade and downgrade the status of states in an arbitrary and tyrannical way, making a mockery of the Constitution as he goes along?

Third, Modi is not unique in his understanding of Kashmir as a film set where the Kashmiris have walk-on parts as extras, while Indian fantasies are projected onto its exotic otherness of ‘fair women’, ‘beautiful mountains’, ‘walnuts and apples’. From films to literature, Kashmir has always been India’s ‘Oriental other’, loaded with fantasies of beauty and cruelty, provoking discourses of gendered possession in line with every colonial venture. In this framework, Indians must develop Kashmir the way it wants, Indians must liberate Kashmiri women and minorities, and Kashmiri consent matters little. Indeed, in the last few days, Bollywood filmmakers have rushed to register titles of films like ‘Dhara (article) 370’ and ‘Kashmir Hamara hai’ (Kashmir is ours), and several BJP narratives have fantasised about ‘marrying fair Kashmiri women’.

What kind of development happens with assumed moral superiority and economic rationality, under the cover of the night in the shadow of the gun in the most militarised zone with already existing legal vacuum of decades long emergency powers and little accountability, with no consent or consultation of any Kashmiris themselves in a major alteration of their constitutional, political, legal status, and impending changes to the

demography and the economy of the region? This is plain and simple colonialism. That India claims to be a post-colonial democracy does not change this fact for no colonial venture in history has dared name itself as such. Simply put, Kashmiris are claimed in the name of democracy and further colonised in the name of development.

If we zoom out – progressively and chronologically back in time – from the present developments, we will see double digit polling booths with a total of zero votes cast in Kashmir (2019), repeated cycles of brutal suppression of Kashmiri aspirations, the use of Kashmiri civilians as human shields and the blinding of Kashmiri protesters using pellet guns (2016 and 2017), Kashmiris being presented with a bill for flood rescue (2014), indigenous uprisings in Kashmir being seen solely through the lens of Pakistan-backed terrorism (2010), a lack of will to resolve the conflict through peace talks (early 2000s), a decade of heightened torture, violence including mass rapes and mass graves, enforced disappearances (1990s), communalisation of a political dispute by dividing the Kashmiris along religious lines (late 1980s and early 1990s) into Pandits, Muslims and Sikhs, erosion of de jure autonomy, electoral interference and arbitrary removal of elected Kashmiri leaders (1950s to 1980s), and denial of promised plebiscite (1947). Of course, it is also possible to see the continuity of Indian colonial with British colonial policy by going back to the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar through which the British sold the territory along with its inhabitants to unrepresentative and repressive Dogra rulers. As I have said before in my work, almost every narrative on Kashmir is landmined with vested interests, and the political history of Kashmir is selectively told from different starting points by different political voices.

Whether you agree or disagree with the nuances of the above, you cannot deny that as of 14-15 August 1947 (independence days of Pakistan and India respectively), Kashmir belonged to neither of these two postcolonial entities. These states first occupied and divided the territory and have since then periodically and often with no concern for the Kashmiris themselves, fuelled their toxic nationalisms and denied the right to self- determination as well as human rights to the people.

What is important today in order to understand why this is a political dispute that will not go away by fiat or by force, is the basic fact that Kashmir is a problem of postcolonial instantiation of sovereignty where nations and states do not at all meaningfully overlap. By which I mean: What happens when the terms of political settlement, religion-based partition of territory and population transfer, of a people – the Kashmiris – are decided by a third party (formerly colonial, UK), but have to be honoured by the two newly sovereign political entities which are also democratic (India and Pakistan), for a fourth entity where the population (majority Muslim) and the ruler (Hindu) are divided in their allegiances? In such a situation, which norms and rules take precedence, and who enforces them? This origin of the modern dispute cannot be wished away.

The international community —- including at the supra and infra national levels — must understand the issue of Kashmir much better; in a subaltern geopolitical way, thinking up from the issues of the Kashmiris themselves, rather than thinking down from the vicious cycle of India-Pakistan rivalry. A peaceful and just resolution can only be possible by involving the Kashmiris themselves. This isn’t easy because ever more, the post-colonial diasporic right-wing Hindus can be vocal about minority rights in the West but are often majority supremacists back in their countries of origin.

In a few days, Pakistan and India will celebrate their Independence Days. Though with different emphases, neither of these is a de facto liberal democracy, both having

successfully used majoritarian nationalism for state transformation. The idea of India as a secular democracy with enshrined constitutional principles – a legacy of the Nehruvian era – is anathema to the Hindu nationalists whose ideological parents (early to mid 20th century RSS leaders) looked up to the Nazis for the inspiration of a pure nation. Many of their supporters are quite vocal about the fact that they will not let go of Kashmir, even if it means annihilating the Kashmiris themselves. They have successfully weaponised the Kashmiri Pandit (Kashmir’s Hindu minority) exodus as being not about communalism, religious division of Kashmiris, anti-minority violence, a state that failed different kinds of Kashmiris, but as being about Hindu persecution, existential Islamic barbarism, Pakistani machination. Instead of requesting judicial inquiries into various instances of violence, rapes, massacres and losses of both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, or addressing the conflict in order to move towards a just peace that would enable Kashmiri Pandits to return to their homes, and Kashmiri Muslims to find justice, their interest is in making Kashmir into another ‘Ram Mandir’; a long-standing and politically profitable issue for the BJP – that can help them in transforming India into a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation).

This latest move does not serve Indians, Kashmiri Pandits for anyone other than the Modi led BJP backed by RSS and their supporters and crony industrialist backers. It makes Indians less secure, and makes the future of Pundits ever more uncertain and hostage to circumstances. It will result in further uprising, violence, deaths, hurt India’s international credibility, and put another nail in the coffin of the idea of India as a secular democracy.

The powers that be would have foreseen these consequences but decided to go ahead anyway so as to deny the political nature of the dispute and label all opposition to their actions as ‘antinational’. Their actions amount to a constitutional coup in Kashmir by the ruling Indian BJP and its ideological backers Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Through constitutional subversions, this project of violent and coercively enforced Hindu supremacism (which includes minority lynchings, antiminority violence, change of textbooks, replacing heads of institutions, compromising constitutional bodies, jailing dissenters and so on) moves India ever more towards a state reminiscent of Germany in the early interwar years; if you think that this is an exaggeration, please remember that what is happening in India is not the usual subversion of democracy through totalitarian means but an ideological project with mass support, backed by a powerful RSS that has millions of members throughout the country and branches in every organisation and profession. Further, one of their cherished dreams is the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’, a greater India that includes its neighbouring countries. Like Cassandra’s prophecies, those of us speaking against it today, and especially myself as a non-Muslim Kashmiri woman writer and academic, can only keep drawing attention to what is unfolding, with India in Kashmir, in India, and it in the world.

The Koshur (the Kashmiri language) words — Zulm and Lanath of Hindustan’s Hukoomat — are most often heard when Kashmiris in Kashmir refer to India. They mean: the cruel and violent tyranny of Indian rule which is cursed for its open disgrace and moral foulness.

December 27, 2021

Book Posts (until 31 December 2021)

Filed under: Uncategorized — nkaul @ 5:32 pm

These book posts below are compiled from my social media where they were/are scattered. I have often posted online in detail and with images about various novels, collections of verses, memoirs, and other assorted texts (generally not academic or scholarly books though; for those, there is my academic work). I have gathered what I could find from my posts over the last few years.

November 29, 2021

From Markings, by Dag Hammarskjöld, a man I wish I could have met 🦋

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Summer/Autumn 2021

As I compiled the books posts, I realised there were some books I had not been able to share my thoughts about. As this year ends, I wanted to include them here, with brief retrospective comments. Emmanuel Carrère’s novel The Moustache (2020 trans. Lanie Goodman, original 1988) is such a riveting read. It is a book that reads like a film and has the intense psychological drama of a couple in a relationship where it is not clear who is playing games with whom. The man, after much deliberation, has shaved his moustache. The wife refuses to notice it and when eventually confronted, insistently denies that the man had a moustache in the first place. The surreal/absurd situation exacerbates by the day until the man goes on the run. The last part of the book, mostly set in Hong Kong-Kowloon ferry crossing, was my favourite. The ending does not satisfactorily resolve the psychological chaos, but I did not expect it to, and did not mind it either.

Martin Luis Guzman’s (1887-1976) book The Shadow of the Strongman (2017 trans. Gustavo Pellón, original 1929) is a big canvas political novel about the early twentieth century Mexican revolutionary era. It paints the tragedy of what happens to ideals amid the frenzied contests for power among opportunists in the post-revolution pragmatic politics. The people are fed “the tinseled words of political cliché” as the leaders who are deaf to scruples, pursue their ambitions. The novel contains striking descriptions of demonstrations, torture, parliamentary intrigue. A truly powerful book about the aftermath of a peoples’ revolution.

I enjoyed reading Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story (2013 trans. Ina Rilke, original 1980). It is a fascinating novel with a brilliant plot; an existential mystery of sorts. The kind of story that makes you think of the beauty of oblivion. The narrator’s voice reminded me of the female protagonist in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive your plow over the bones of the dead. I also read Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, a sparkling and complex philosophical tale across generations set in Amsterdam. It is not possible to say what these books are about: absurdity? meaning of existence? the magnificence of the quotidian? praise of the bizarre?

Mir Amman’s A Tale of Four Dervishes was an English translation (by Mohammed Zakir) of an Urdu version, which goes back to the centuries-old Persian text ascribed to Amir Khusrau. The book is comprised of the four dervishes telling tales that are fantastically convoluted, hyperbolic, and polyphonic with narrations inside narrations regressing manifold. Predictably for a medieval text there are wines, jewels, perfumes, pangs of love, tales of justice and mercy, wanders and mysteries. The second dervish’s story is truly weird!

The Red Lily by Anatole France was first published c1924. It is a beautiful novel of ideas, and a book about the tumult of passions in love. Towards the end: “Men and women break themselves against one another, they do not mingle”. I can think of nothing that is not right with a book like this, what with the exquisite language, powerful ideas, strong passions!

When I picked Joginder Paul’s novel A Drop of Blood (2020, trans. Snehal Shingavi, Urdu original 1962), I had not heard of the author. Paul wrote the book in mid 20th century Kenya and the book narrates the experiences of a handsome man (whom women are drawn to) with a rare blood type who stumbles somehow into surviving by selling blood, and then finds himself entangled with a rich family. His struggles with his conscience create the story.

Claudio Magris’ A different sea (trans. M S Spurr, original 1991) has an enchanting opening premise (an intellectual who leaves the city for the faraway) but the book tries overly hard to be profound, and seemed hollow and pompous to me. There are some beautiful turns of phrase and the promise of an alluring depth of thoughts but it was marred for me by the rather underdeveloped female characters, the straightforward misogyny and stereotypy.

Braised Pork by An Yu (2020) came with a jacket bursting with blurbs of praise. I found it a bland book that labours too much to convey too little. The book did not draw me in. Again, the opening premise was intriguing; the female protagonist’s husband commits suicide and leaves behind a mysterious sketch. However, the story felt repetitive and became especially awkward when it moved into the ‘exotic Tibet’ territory. I bought this book on a chance recommendation of a bookstore checkout clerk, and it left me lukewarm, just like another praise-laden book had done several years ago (The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees).

To conclude – De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes. Really!

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April 10, 2021

“Arctic madness: the anthropology of a delusion” by Pierre Déléage (HAU, 2020) is a truly well written book. Even in translation, it reads beautifully, as it chronicles the delusions of Émile Petitot (1838-1916).Petitot was a missionary in the Arctic in the 19th century. He was also often bitter, delusional, suffering from a persecution mania, subject to the real and imagined seductions of women, while he was not indifferent to men. He was conflicted by his “cynicism“ (in his letters this was the code for homosexuality), infatuated by, and unable to resist, the indigenous men; he contemplated seclusion in a Carthusian monastery or becoming a Trappist. He felt that all of the natives wanted to kill him, and ended up in a madhouse.He saw similarities between the indigenous people (Indians) and Hebrews. He saw Jewish fetishism in the shamanism of the Denes, and took it upon himself to advocate the idea of Dene Judaism, or the existence of Arctic Jews, convinced as he was about the Jewish origin of the first nations,His delusions included self-mutilation, and his writing was reviewed badly or dismissed as fanciful or overwrought. These were times when “the Eskimos” could be summarised by outsiders with little knowledge. As an accomplished linguist though, he set down the recorded text of oral traditions.Reconstructing his life based upon his correspondence, diaries, and other academic texts, this anthropological novella “retraces the biography of a delirium“, locating it in the ‘strictures of priestly celibacy’ and the ‘rigid morality of postrevolutionary Catholicism’. It also provides an account of the then in vogue belief about the existence of Arctic Jews, who were imagined as the last Hebrew tribes in the diaspora.I loved reading it!

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April 6, 2021

Patrick Hamilton’s Impromptu in Moribundia (1939) is a strange book – part satire, part science-fiction, part political commentary, neither a capitalist nor a communist utopia, but partially both. I finished reading it over the Easter weekend. In the book, a scientist called Abel Crowmarsh uses his invention called the Asteradio to transport the protagonist into a world in some distant universe where there exists a society that on the surface of it resembles England, but is truly weird. Most of the book is set in an area that the protagonists leaves from earth and which also exists in Moribundia – West central London. It was doubly bizarre/amusing for me as it’s where I live and work. In Moribundia however, all the names of streets and social classes are made alien by spelling them in reverse. It is a world where the opposition between science and religion has been ended; where change is impossible to conceive; where people live in a perpetual fetish of products. Moribundians speak both in words and through the strange practice of ballooning text above their head. Not only can people balloon text in this way, but so can objects. This blurring of the line between visual/textual and human/object pre-figures some of our present digitality and the internet of things.In Moribundia, social hierarchies remain intact but they have been robbed of their political edge. The working-class lives in wasteful plenty that makes them hopeless and callous. Economic facts have been upended. Income is not linked to labour, but to social merit/virtue. Every experience of joy is linked to a commercial product. Even diseases are literal and visible (rheumatism for instance actually manifests as people physically waking up to be physically chained to their beds by the illness).There are varieties of communists and Marxists who dissent but can easily be turned by the lure of wealth and privilege. Of the literary intellectuals, a handful who diverge from the status quo in their views are allowed to continue speaking in this manner in order to demonstrate to others their futility and their assimilation into the Moribundian system. There are shades of Orwell and of Wells in this book, and a reference to ‘third rate Swiss trains’!

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March 29, 2021

This is one of those posts about books/novels that I do now and again (wishing every time that I had actually collected them on a website or blog, since I really cannot retrieve/connect the previous ones easily, but I suppose some archiving is better than none), so here goes: Walter Brierley’s novel “The Means-Test Man” was published in 1935. He had been an unemployed Derbyshire miner like the protagonist Jack Cook. The chapters cover a week in household of Jack, wife Jane, and little son John. The book is set over period of one week from Saturday and until Friday; opening with a domestic scene (the family settling down for a Saturday breakfast) and detailing their life/thoughts till Friday when dreaded ‘means-test man’ makes his monthly appearance, around which their life revolves.The main focus of the novel is the way in which the unemployed person, their life, everything connected to them, and everyone connected to them, suffers from a deep and profound violence and humiliation, requiring a constant sordid negotiation of time and effort, just to survive. The eponymous means test men visit them in their household, underscoring with every visit, their lack of privacy, their lack of control over their own household or identity. The family feels this keenly, wishing Jack could somehow get work.The novel makes repeated use of patterns of light and shade, has local details and superstitions, plus a peculiar use of words such as “re-fusing” to describe the re-connexion made between people after a friction, which may not even have been explicitly stated or expressed. There is some reflection on the different ways in which the situation of unemployment in the 1930s affected the man as the miner and woman as the person who runs the household. Another theme is the extent to which they can make their child feel protected and proud in front of others.The tender scenes of the father son interaction are especially beautiful. The little child at one point innocently asks his father why thinking of his own childhood makes him feel sorrowful..(how can a child ever really know what it means to grow up!). There is also the way in which Jane, the child’s mother, insists that the child not speak in dialect so that his prospects can be improved. She herself has been in service before getting married and feels quite proud of how she can enunciate words better than her husband or child.The violence of deprivation, in its various aspects – how it is so ubiquitous, yet banalised, and the ways in which it works on the human psyche, poisoning every little choice or decision or interaction, is the mainstay of the novel.Growing up, one of the places that I lived in had a factory (textile mill?) not too far away. I remember every morning at about eight or so and every evening at five or six, they would be a loud siren & the workers in droves would go to work or return. Economic violence, deprivation, social and economic inequalities as they manifest in identities and interactions have always haunted me. From “imagining economics otherwise” to “economics turning people into things”, I have tried to articulate this in different forms of writing. Economic justice needs constant championing in every narrative form. Unemployment/impoverishment/economic exploitation are most remediable of all wrongs yet have been naturalised in name of ideology. Their effects are insidious (rob dignity, kill relationships; I know this 💔)This is a powerful book, written by a man who had been an unemployed miner himself, trying to make his way in a world of letters, striving, striving…But also, for the way in which the characters, aside from occasional frustrations, have a social and existential, but not necessarily political, understanding of unemployment. This is perhaps not unusual, and it is why dispossession so often goes unchallenged.

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March 7, 2021

I recently finished reading “Nightmares of Eminent Persons”, a book of stories by Bertrand Russell (yes, he wrote fiction too).The nightmares are absurd, part satire, part critique, strangely comic. The eminent persons are many and various: The Queen of Sheba who fears trusting Solomon’s soulful words; Mr Bowdler who expurgates Shakespeare’s plays for women’s eyes to preserve their virtue but ultimately can’t protect his own wife; the nightmares of a robot scientist, a mathematician, Stalin, and Eisenhower, and Dean Acheson. The Eisenhower story illustrates the paradox of how clear authoritarian agendas may work to avert war (quite in contrast to the democratic peace theory, I might add).I liked the nightmare of the metaphysician who denounces Satan as a bad linguistic habit (of speaking in the negative, saying no) after a visit to Hell, which is a place full of happenings that are improbable but not impossible, and also the nightmare of the existentialist who wants to obtain a sensation of existence through suffering. However, my favourite story of all was the nightmare of the psychoanalyst, where we hear from Macbeth, Othello, Anthony, King Lear, Romeo, and Hamlet. I’m sharing the text of that here for you to read.In addition to the nightmares, there are two longer stories in the book – ‘Zahatopolk’ and ‘Faith and Mountains’ – that carry an underlying message about the perils of unquestioning belief. In Zahatopolk, a future Peruvian civilisation (after the Greco-Roman, and the Sino-Javan) seeks to indoctrinate people and implement a supremacist totalitarian agenda in a highly hierarchical society. Diotima, a young girl, challenges this and pays with her life, although not without inspiring others to think critically in the longer future. I love this line in the story “The gods are shadows of our fears upon the opacity of the night”. ‘Faith and mountains’ is about sectarianism. People are divided between two rival cults of the Magnets and the Molybdenes (led by two women, Aurora Bohra and Molly B. Dean). In the style of Romeo and Juliet, two young people from each of these cults decide to look beyond the boundaries, even as they struggle with the question “Do you think it is possible to be good without the help of faith?”. Not only are the stories interesting, I find many of the beginnings quite fascinating. For instance, ‘Faith and Mountains’ begins with the perspective of a Nepalese delegate to UNESCO who has arrived in London and witnesses the entrenched sectarian parades.All of the stories in the book, I think, are really concerned with a central idea that is also the last line in the book: “He sighed, and muttered to himself, ‘Could I but return to the old Sublimities! Ah, how hard is the Life of Reason!”. This would seem to resonate with Russell’s views, politics, and other work.

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February 27, 2021

Not too long ago, I had written here about a novel by Rex Warner called The Professor, which was about a philosophy professor’s involvement in calamitous politics. This post is about a novel converning an economics professor’s attempts to change the world of politics.I first read John Kenneth Galbraith as an undergraduate economics major back in the 90s. Finding my way around this discipline (economics was new to me, I had studied sciences at school), I realised that I had a happy facility for serendipitously stumbling upon heterodox economists who were historically known to be critical of both the discipline and its effects on societies (Joan Robinson, John Maynard Keynes, Thorstein Veblen and so on). As a graduate student doing my PhD in economics, I remember going to workshops where the work of his son James was discussed.Then, along the line, I discovered his fiction. As an economist, who turned to politics, and also writes fiction herself, this was a remarkably joyous realisation. I wish that someone had told me back in my teenage years that an economist I liked also wrote novels.In recent years, ever more, I have been especially drawn to works of fiction that deal with the world of politics and economics. I remember sharing reflections on J.K. Galbraith’s The Triumph here. Recently, I finished reading his more well-known novel titled ‘A Tenured Professor.’ Montgomery Marvin is an economics professor at Harvard (by way of Cambridge and Berkeley) who works on econometric studies of refrigerator pricing, but has always really wished to change the world for the better. Following the advice of a senior colleague and mentor, he decides to get tenure first. But then, along with his wife Marjie (also an academic with determined views on women’s rights and progressive politics), he focuses on financial speculation based on an index that he has created – index of irrational expectations (IRAT). Having made seriously significant amounts of money, they set out to invest in ideas such as EXEGES (which is about developing a signalling system of stickers that would indicate the extent of women’s representation on the board of any particular corporate firm); the endowment of various named peace professorships at different institutions; setting up of PRCs (political rectitude committees) that match the funding of political action committees (PACs) to level the democratic playing field; and finally the acquisition of special electric or SPELCO. This latter is a company that has various kinds of holdings, but which the Marvins want to recalibrate by restricting their involvement with the defence and weapons industries, and by including discussions of peace on television networks owned by them.An innovative novel, it contains relevant critiques of mainstream neoclassical economics’ understanding of human behaviour. I loved the critical reflections on the social system and on academia. The sarcasm towards the nature and functioning of hallowed institutions was vastly entertaining. There is an acute portrayal of the possibilities and the limits of liberalism in effecting change within the existing structures with their status-quoist configurations. Radical ideas for progressive change are seen as immodest and ambitious, and are more likely to fail than succeed in the face of indifferent publics and entrenched conservative vested interests.Finally, a couple of random points — one, the use of the Hindu idea of Darshan to illustrate a mode of encounter, and two, look up the Gaelic etymology of Galbraith. Interesting, right?

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February 6, 2021

Christoph Ransmayr is an interesting writer. The theme of his recent novel “Cox or the course of time” (originally published in 2016, translated into English in 2020) captivated me. The story is set in the 18th century during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong in China. This most powerful Emperor of the Qing dynasty invites an Englishman named Alister Cox to China. Cox is an unrivalled master-maker of automatons who also happens to be a man of melancholy after losing his only child (a five year old daughter) to death and his young wife to eternal silence thereafter. With his assistants, Cox arrives in China and awaits to be summoned by Qianlong for months on end in an obscure and ambiguous wait marked by witnessing the splendid majesty of all that China is from within his quarters in the Forbidden Palace. His task, eventually revealed to him, is to make clocks that capture the subjective experience of time passing. At first, he is to make a clock that represents how time passes for a child, his next clock is to be one that brings to life the passing of time for a man condemned to death very soon. And finally, a grand task is given to him: he is to construct a perpetuum mobile – a timeless clock. As I had noted with Michael Ayrton’s Maze Maker, the very idea of the ‘mechanical’ has the potential to lend itself to such passionate characterisations through minds that are driven by the lure of the mechanism. Like Daedalus in that novel, Cox is that figure here.The novel reads beautifully even in translation. There are enchanting descriptions of clocks of course but also lovely word-pictures of the cavorting whorls of incense or squabbling mockingbirds that suddenly pause in the middle of asserting new territories with song. Qianlong was a legendary emperor, and the novel makes excellent use of his historical persona and of the shifting landscapes of both the palace in Beijing and the expanses of Jehol. As an aside, historically, the eighteenth century is a period of many important western encounters with Asia. The envoys in the Himalayan region at this time are known to me through my academic work but it was very enjoyable to read a fictional account of a non-official imaginary encounter. Unlike the actual Macartney Mission to China in late 1700s, Cox and associates in the story had no issues with kowtowing!

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February 5, 2021

Whatever your discipline, and even if you are not an academic, read this book (Taken for granted: the remarkable power of the unremarkable, by Eviatar Zerubavel)! It’s a concise and beautiful exposition of what naming does and why it matters, how perception functions and how it may be altered.

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February 5, 2021

The Professor by Rex Warner was published in 1938. It is a book with a sharp presentiment of the moral and political choices that would need to be made in the face of the war against fascism that was to shortly unfold. The eponymous character of the professor refers to a distinguished professor of the classics (specialising in the Greeks, greatest living authority on Sophocles) who is invited to work for the government of his unnamed small country at the time of an impending war. Society is fractured among different versions of politics or salvation (ranging from religious philosophy to communism to National League facists). There is a ferment of ideas. At the start of the book, the professor sees himself as a sensible liberal aiming to use the power of reason and communication to convince people of the logic of what is good and correct and must be done. While able to see the dangers of the fascists, the professor refuses to arm the revolutionaries or countenance any thoughts of violence, even though a policeman who is secretly a revolutionary desperately tries to convince him of the nefarious intentions of the establishment and of the police chief.By the end of the book, the professor finds himself beaten and battered, a political prisoner about to meet a supremely tragic fate at the hands of the right-wing fascists who have taken control of the government using everything from violence to deception in order to support their plans.As befitting a novel of ideas,there are some brilliant long monologues in the book. One from a fellow former classicist now championing the national league, who speaks about a contrast between artificial and real morality, decrying liberalism and its illusions. The other is a suicide note written by the professor’s revolutionary son’s girlfriend, who has been the victim of league violence. Another is by a cobbler who tries to convince the professor of the ultimate need to believe in the divine.A radio broadcast which was to be the climax of the professor’s plan of reason and rational discourse, unravels when the right-wing reactionary chief of police subverts his broadcast and whips up a passionate nationalist frenzy against liberals and revolutionaries alike. The human reactions of the characters are beautifully sketched – whether they are confronted with a revolver, a threat, a dilemma or an irritation.The structure of the state and the establishment is clearly hostile to the Reds, but much more accommodating of the National League. I found particularly striking the representation of the ways in which the police treatment of the protesters on the political right differs from those on the political left. This resonates very much in our time, anywhere. That this is a book which reflects its era is most apparent when the sounds of cars on the road is described as melodious. No one would frame it as such now. There were obviously fewer cars at that time and in that country.The introduction by Arnold Rattenbury is brilliant and includes references to several major works of that decade, now mostly forgotten. Also, I liked his use of the phrase ‘pikestaff significance’ when referencing them.

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January 23, 2021

Today I read “Stories of Mr. Keuner” by Bertolt Brecht. Mr. Keuner was a recurring ‘thinking man’ in Brecht’s plays and other work. The translator (from German) rightly describes the stories as anecdotal and aphoristic, as dialectical puzzles.In some measure, they reminded me of similar form absurd stories by Daniil Kharms. There is raw humour, bitter sarcasm, cynicism, and a variety of moral instruction in them. There is also the resolute anti-nationalism to be expected from a revolutionary writer who was often in exile and defied Nazism in Europe and anti-communism in the US. These little fragments of narrative offer a glimpse into the creative processes of thought, the dilemmas of uncertainty, and the need for incorruptibility in social life. They are occasionally obscure, perhaps intentionally so.I share the images of several little stories here. But my favourite line from one of them goes thus: “A mountain is more likely to be moved by a single ant than by the rumour that it is impossible to move”.The translator’s note tells me that Walter Benjamin had suggested that the eponymous character ‘Keuner’ may have been deliberately named as such to indicate either a derivation from the Greek word keunos meaning “the general, concerning or pertaining to everyone” (koinon refers to the political community, koine means everyday speech in ancient Greek) or, alternatively from the German word keiner meaning no one (a certain no man, who like Odysseus, is in the cave of the one-eyed monster of the class state; referring to Odysseus’ reply to the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus as he escapes from the giant’s cave).Finally, reading fiction across the ages and from different locations, I (with my caravan of engagements with economics, politics, and IR) am often struck by how many later social science themes and concepts that became important for strategic thinking in the 20th century, originally were written quite exactly as such by writers. For instance, in the book by Anthony Trollope that I read just before this, the idea of deterrence and plausible deniability makes an appearance, and here, in Brecht stories, what economists call the incentive compatibility condition finds a mention.

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January 23, 2021

Last weekend I finished reading Anthony Trollope’s last novel: The Fixed Period (1882). The protagonist of the tale is John Neverbend — the President of a small former British colony, called Britannula, off the coast of New Zealand — who has enacted into law (with the support of some of his people) the eponymous ‘Fixed Period’. This fixed period is a law whereby every child in Britannula is tattooed with its date of birth on its back, and once they are a year prior to reaching the age of 67 years, they are to ‘deposited’ into a specially-built college called necropolis with all manner of comfort so as to undergo mandatory euthanasia before their 68th birthday. The idea behind it (for Neverbend) is to save human beings from the weaknesses, discontent, imbecility, and the extravagance of old age.However, when the time comes for the first person to be thus deposited, complications arise. This person is a healthy and successful business man in his 60s called Gabriel Crasweller. He is a longtime friend of the president (whose own time to be deposited has 10 years remaining) who had supported the fixed period until it was time to put it into practice. Gabriel, his daughter, the president’s son and wife – in short, his own circle of elites realises that they are in fact humanly opposed to such a scheme. The unfolding drama includes an English cricket team coming to Gladstonopolis (the capital of Britannula) to play a cricket match. Message reaches England that its former colony is about to put the ‘fixed period’ into practice, and an English ship with soldiers and a 250-ton gun arrives. England retakes control of the colony, and the president is removed and duly but politely escorted onto ship to England. The novel is written by former President Neverbend on his voyage back in the hopes of reaching England to build international support for such a policy as the fixed period.Needless to say, this unusual book made for strange reading at this time of the pandemic and its threat to the most vulnerable, especially the elderly. The fantasies of perfect human existence have obviously long been with us.The book was also notable for another interesting reason; anticipating later science-fiction, it refers to a whole range of devices such as the steam tricycle, the hair telephone (akin to a mobile phone), the water telegram, the reporting telephone apparatus.The use of language is peculiar. For instance, the word Britishers, now surviving only in Indian English perhaps and generally thought of as incorrect usage, is used routinely in this book. There are also interesting phrases such as “all things cannot be done by rosewater”. I was left wondering as to whether it was ever the custom in England in the 19th century for men to have bags of hot water tied to their chest underneath their clothes in the winters so as to keep warm? If so, that clearly reminded me of kangris (the clay firepot from Kashmir, also kept inside clothes).As if the book weren’t strange enough, the passion of the author’s protagonists for an end to life at 67 is strangely mirrored by Trollope’s own death asudden from a stroke just after the book came out, also at the age of 67.

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January 10, 2021

Putting these images here so you can’t say they don’t exist and you didn’t know. The world is multiple and seeded with meaning beyond the narrow canons of established traditions. #Read #decolonise #literature #novels #books #AfricanWriters #Africa #writers

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January 10, 2021

This weekend, I finished reading the novel ‘The Voice’ by the Nigerian writer and poet Gabriel Okara (1921-2019). Set in fictional settlements of Amatu and Sologa, it is a story of a young man called Okolo, whose search for ‘it’, is seen as a challenge by his community, especially Chief Izongo. Okolo is appreciated only by Tuere and Ukule, a woman branded as a witch and a crippled man, who are outsiders themselves.I found this novel to be a kind of Afro existentialist vitalist work, rich in visual and auditory cues. The use of a strange/simple language is intentionally experimental, to blend a worldview with its grammar. Think of Agha Shahid Ali crafting an English ghazal; Okara does something like that with forms of feeling and the language in the novel form and Nigerian (specifically Ijaw) folk life. The figures of speech were often memorable and haunting for me; striking in how they underscored corporeality and context. For instance — the footsteps heard in his head, the smell of an anger that does not reach his chest, the surface-water laughter, something being like soup without pepper, making faces like people taking nivaquine.

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January 3, 2021

Today, I finished reading ‘A small door set in concrete’ by Ilana Hammerman; it’s such an evocative and powerful personal account (political-literary-documentary) of the absurdity, madness, brutality of life in Israel/Palestine. The nonlinear recollections reveal how power intersects with people’s bodies in prisons and checkpoints, and also how multiple subversions are essential to acknowledge and preserve humanity.Palestinian lives in the book reminded me so many times of Kashmir, and the ways in which Indians often support the actions of the state there due to intentionally constructed and perpetuated ignorance, indifference, or insecurity. Hammerman’s account as a Jewish Israeli woman motivated by Thoreau especially resonated with me given my own identity of being born as a Kashmiri Pandit (non-Muslim Kashmiri; the ones in whose name the occupation legitimises itself) and the nature of my public work and views.

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December 27, 2020

Today, it was an old book (first published in 1936, my copy is from 1945) that I read. The print was small, the paper thin, so the sunlit Sunday hours were all reading. I don’t know if I seek obscure works (perhaps I do) but I certainly don’t shun them! The novel Strange Glory by Leo Myers (1881-1944) is a philosophical exploration in the guise of a curious story of the friendship between a young woman and a Thoreau-esque hermit who dwells in a Louisiana swamp forest, and also of the love that comes about between her and a British Communist crystallographer (with a Creole wife and a genius child) who chose to live in Russia but isn’t sure anymore. I never care for the ‘but that’s not possible’ variety of objections to fiction so I had no problems letting a story be imagined and impractical. The imagery of nature (a forest under the starry skies being the central location) is beautifully conveyed, and there is clearly a Whitman-Blake-Traherne sort of meditation on transcendence and creation that captivates.

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December 26, 2020

Today, I finished reading The Maze Maker, a fictional autobiography of Daedalus by Michael Ayrton (1921-75). It’s a truly fabulous novel, narrated like the ancient Greek myths themselves — with a mix of meandering, matter-of-factness, embellishment, metaphorisation, lyricism, and resonance. Daedalus, the father of Icarus, deeply etches the contrast between the technician (maker of things, lover of order) and the hero (yearning as a poet, lacking proportion). I loved the magical retelling quality; how he goes into excessive detail about metalwork techniques or a certain ruse for seduction, and then just casually glosses over an entrenched idea, rejecting a long-believed version of events (the wings were not made of wax, that’s not why Icarus fell).

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December 23, 2020

Last weekend, I read The Painted Room by the Danish litterateur Inger Christensen (1935-2009). It’s a novel with a mytho-poetic quality. Of the three novels she wrote (in addition to play, poetry, and essays), I’ve read Azorno recently, but the third novel Eternity Machine is not available in English. Literatures in translation are not always easy to find! Speaking of Danish authors, I loved Karl Bjarnhof’s (1898-1982) The stars grow pale, when I read it years ago. Much recommended. There ought to be many more books translated across languages. 📚

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December 12, 2020

I read the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s novel Azorno this weekend. If a book were a film, this is nouvelle vague crossed with Inception. With patience, one sees the unfolding mix of philosophical farce, mad romance, feminist anti fairy tale; as a poetic dream sequence..Speaking of complex narration, here’s the first line: “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.”

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November 17, 2020

Hai Zi. #poems Over Autumn Rooftops

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August 26, 2020

Ten years ago, I had a wish to read Paul Scheerbart in translation. Finally, I have the book in my hands..

Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! A Paul Scheerbart Reader

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August 22, 2020

Poems by Antonia Pozzi (1912-1938) and prose by César Vallejo (1892-1938).

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August 15, 2020

I grew up seeing the Indian tricolour flag waving around me on 15 August. As the Prime Minister of my school cabinet and the President of my college, I am sure I gave speeches about Freedom, what it is, and why it matters. Oppressers and colonialists may have their eras, but they have *no phenotype*. History is not just the past; it is also the present in view from a future. And we can do better at challenging the statist frames when it comes to speaking of Freedom and Independence of people in the now. If nationalism is a productive force in your thinking, and whichever country you identify with, I urge you to read texts like Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear’ and Frederick Douglass’s ‘What, to an American Slave, is the 4th of July?’.My memory today – as woman or Kashmiri or Indian or Briton or existentialist non nation-statist thinker – is complex, but two images stand out —One: I’m a small girl who sits reading big books on the steps of a sunny verandah outside a freedom fighters’ flat in my neighbourhood. The very humble, gentle, old man from Andhra wears thick glasses and lives austerely in a room full of books and papers. He’s kind to me, and we exchange smiles, and occasionally a sentence or two about books. He died before I finished school. I’m always in awe of how he was part of history.Two: I’m in summer 2020 in lockdown in intense pain a few months ago, and I pick up a book to read from my bookshelf that tells the story of Kisainin Jaggi Devi (female farmer Jaggi Devi) who was a freedom fighter. This evening, aptly, I finished reading it. Here are some images that speak for themselves.

A passion for freedom: The story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi, by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

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August 8, 2020

Madly hot Saturday indoors, turned to a few poetry collections for bibliomancy 🥰 Here are the results (images in order: Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam, Rainer Maria Rilke, George Seferis).

And while with poetry, some playful lines of verse that I scribbled a while ago this summer:

Love errs and can’t,

So lovers can’t,

I love you,

Is mere lovers’ cant…

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May 28, 2020

I am so excited!!!! ❤️☺️

As the images below — from Felix Holt, the Radical’ (1866) and Future Tense (2020) —testify, George Eliot and I, two centuries apart, have shared the *exact same* thoughts! I have always loved her. These last days, I have been reading Felix Holt, a political novel set during the Reform Bill of 1832, and chanced upon this discovery today, a fact that has left me startled and joyful beyond measure! I think she (Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans) was astonishingly prescient. Last week, I was reflecting upon her influence, quite directly, upon Sartre. I’ve found much more work on her influence upon Beauvoir, and more work on Sartre and the other Eliot (T.S). But, I’d like to trace her influence on Nausea, and may someday say more in writing, should life permit!

#FutureTense #Kashmir #GeorgeEliot #literature #chess

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May 13, 2020

My corona reads continued — narratives play a central role in literary texts and in political life; reading a political novel is also an encounter with political theory/context. Sharankumar Limbale’s novel ‘Hindu’ (2003) is an important text of Dalit literature and a powerful indictment of the ghastly violence of caste against the backdrop of ascendant Hindutva in India. I found in it a delineation of the complexities of gender, caste, democracy, violence, and power as lived in the local world of a village. If you read it, don’t miss the translator’s introduction. Parenthetically, I’m struck by the connect between linguistic expression and experienced particulars in vernacular literatures (the thousand cyclones in a heart, the vermilion sun, the taut mango and incense reference in relation to a body, the rangoli of ashes, and so on).

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May 9, 2020

The corona #books continued — the last two were ‘The Confusions of Young Master Tieless’ by Robert Musil, 1906, and ‘Half a Lifelong Romance’ by Eileen Chang, 1950/66. Both, in very different settings (late 19th century boarding school for boys in Austro-Hungarian empire and 1930s Shanghai) are stories of complex passions. I love Musil. Ten years ago, I read Man without qualities (in a wooden house in autumn in the Himalayas), and I was again struck by how, even in translation, his words so often get to the ineffable soul of things, describing almost unbelievably the almost indescribable in a way that we almost understand it. Chang I discovered by chance one summer in London some years ago through her ‘Red rose, white rose’. Her cinematic narration of detail and evocation of tragic sentiment in love is beautiful. Literature aside, however, the most apt text I recently read, whose title fits right into the contemporary moment, was on the politics of international seclusion — self-isolated states!

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April 22, 2020

In these blighted days of a remote spring painted on the unreachable canvas beyond my window, when amor fati became rather hard to hold on to, #books of all kinds, and in multiple ways, have been a lifeline. In these lockdown weeks, I’ve listed hundreds, read upwards of a dozen, caressed many more, divined through one, feasted my eyes on them all. Out of the several hundreds on my bookshelves that I listed the titles of (many were bought second hand), fell out old postcards, annotations to and from strangers, someone’s bus ticket from over half a century ago, my own childhood doodles in a little dictionary or copious highlighting in a story I read when at school. I’ve been posting about my corona reads, so I’ll continue doing that. The last five novels that I read recently happened to fall by chance neatly into the following kinds.

— two strange novels about characters with exceptional drives born out of denial and suffering (drives to kill and to love) that lead to a dramatic end in both cases.

The Murderess, Alexandros Papadiamandis, 1903. Brother of Sleep, Robert Schneider, 1992.

— two novels about different kinds of civil wars, in the USA (Union/Confederacy) and in China (PLA/Kuomintang).

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895. Living Hell, Chen Teng-Ke, 1955.

— And, a fascinating political novel (fiction, but not really!) account of politics, diplomacy and international relations in The Triumph by John Kenneth Galbraith, 1968. Much recommended. After all, he bridged economics, politics, fiction — what’s not to like! 😉

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April 10, 2020

Reading poems that are categorised in an anthology under ‘passion’ and ‘musings’ in a solitary room as the orange-gold sun sets in the skies beyond the window in a city braving suffering under lockdown, is certainly quixotic, a bit like flinging a flaming red rose at a thunderstorm with the faith that disaster would be averted. But today was actually a ‘good’ Friday for me, and I particularly relished these lines of Richard Lovelace:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

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April 1, 2020

Loved reading this book (Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, Olga Tokarczuk), woven as it is around many themes that are rather dear to me: animals, trees, existence, planets, solitude, morality/legality, and even Lamarckianism! 📚

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March 30, 2020

Evening; a soft rain falls upon a gray and unfortunate world outside the window. Beside my tree, I sat reading of women in Japan and in England who are driven to insanity and death in beautiful books written by men. The music changed on its own from a lark ascending to a Chinese melody of coming home. When time is out of joint on a little planet in a vast universe, our stories are what remain. #books

Images from — The setting sun, Osamu Dazai; Wish her safely at home, Stephen Benatar.

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March 22, 2020

Four #poems by Paul Eluard [1895-1952]. The first one here is called Ring of Peace.