Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Gentle Readers: A small discussion of Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book The Last Hindu Emperor (2015) that I gave on March 5, 2016

Thank you to Professors Akbar Haider Ali for the invitation to come today. To Professor Kamran Asdar Ali and Rita Soheila Omrani at the South Asia Institute for their hospitality. I am very pleased to be here today, and honored to speak about Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book- which is great, and you should purchase it, and read it immediately.

Let me start with a joke and an observation.

The joke was told to me by my advisor sometime ago in his class on Hindu Kingship.

I was in a rickshaw in India and I saw an ancient monument that I did not recognize, so I asked the rickshaw walay “How old is that building?” and he answered it is “five thousand and ten years old” and I said, “wow, that is very specific” and he said, “ji, I was told it was five thousand years old about ten years ago”.

Ronald Inden’s point in that telling was to mark the way in which totemic past (five thousand years) and material past (the monument) intersect with the re-telling of that past.

Now the observation. I was visiting Jahangir’s tomb located on the outskirts of Lahore in 2014. After spending a day at the tomb, I left it and hailed a rickshaw to take me back over Ravi into the city. As the rickshaw started to drive along the outer wall of the tomb’s enclave, I noticed a mihrab-like structure– almost like a chau-burgi– sticking out from the wall. Underneath the shade of the arch, there was a tea-stall. Puzzled, I tapped the rickshaw-walla and pointed at the mihrab and said, “yeh kab bana?” (when was this built). He looked over, and replied: “About three years ago. There was no tea-stall near here, so we are very happy that there is a place to get tea now.”

The structure, I was pointing, was invisible to my driver, for the tea-stall was occupying his field of perception. He had noticed only change over time.

These are two interlocked mentalités: our capacity to emphasize the durability of long durée past as well our capacity to notice only new-ness. These two capacities, the contestation between memory and history, as it were, lie at the heart of this wonderful work by Professor Cynthia Talbot.

We find ourselves in a specific historic moment, writ globally, when memory and history, community and politics, narrative and law are at loggerheads again. In the EU– specifically in Greece and Germany– we have the cities of refugees consisting of displaced, the dispossesed, the stateless, the deported and the exiled. That crisis, determined as it is by the political aftermath of Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, has prompted in Germany, France and Norway a stark battle to forget the history of “camp” from European memory.

In United States, Trump’s presidential run has triggered a specific set of re-memembrances as political theater. First and foremost, are the invocations of the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacist support for Trump. Trump’s theatricality does not, however, need to directly invoke the little remembered “Yellow Peril” campaigns of 1870s through 1920s when those of “Chinese and Indian” descent were barred from entering United States– for in his argument against immigrants from “terror prone” Muslim countries, all that is already implied.

In India, the Modi regime has opened up fronts over cow-protection, love jihad, reserved seats, and now academic freedom in JNU. The modes of the battle are familiar to observers of Indian history and politics. However, there is new-ness in that Modi is no longer merely the Prime Minister in India; his politics and world-view reverberate in diasporas especially the Hindu-American diaspora here. AK Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger, Jack Hawley, Andrew Nicholson and Sheldon Pollock are known adversaries for the Hindu-American Right. In either spaces (India or America), the power to interpret the past, and the capacity to point out historical contingency are met with rampant mobilization of masses and crowds. For the crowd, the totemic presence of the “Pakistani” on JNU campus or the “Swadeshi Indologist” on the Editorial Board comes with a specific understanding of historical injury, and thereby, present action.

What unites these three moments is not neo-liberal demaguogery but an argument for, or against, belonging. Who belongs where? who can ask for a right to be somewhere. We have been here before. Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” from 1795 was the cruel foil for Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida in the aftermath of the Mass-Killing of Jews and Roma peoples of Europe. In Arendt’s 1967 chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”– and its gloss by Jacques Derrida in On Cosmopolitanism from 1996– there was a critique of how the post-War nation-states had written out of their charters any category of Asylum which would allow the post-colonial world to impugn upon the recently-colonial world. Arendt pointed out, rightly, that this required an amnesia of the Roma people from the European imagination. Now, as the rhetoric in Netherlands or Germany or United States or India, turns to ripping valuables from the hands of the refugees, the history of the targeting of the Roma from 1930 Berlin to their 2009 expulsion from France, the insistent demands “Go to Pakistan”– we see what is clearly at stake.

Against this milieu, our field has produced three new works that speak to history and its contestation. I will not argue that this is a coincidence– rather that it is a confluence. The three works are Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014), Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2016) and Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 (2015).

What I would like to do today, is to first, speak on Professor Talbot’s book; remarking on the interventions that it offers to historians, and then present points of convergence and divergence with the other two texts. In my conclusion, I will try and answer why I see these historical works opening a critical new phase in South Asian historiography.





The story is simple enough: at some historical point a transition is memorialized between Hindu and Muslim political rule in India. This historical point differs for various communities– and Talbot’s book focuses on Prithviraj Chauhan who is cast as “The Last Hindu Emperor” by James Tod in the early nineteenth century. That is, he represents the end of the Hindu polity and arrival of the demonic Muslim one. Talbot takes the “idea” of Prithviraj as the subject– drawing upon Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux des memoire – a project launched in the 1960s by the historian Jacque LeGoff and sociologist Nora and deCerteau.

The project was explicitly nationalist– in that it sought to recognize the “constitutive” forms of French-ness, the Republic, the Nation, and a specific history of belonging that stretched from Michelet to Lavisse to Braudel and Bloch. The first volume, when it appeared in 1973, was already a response to the 1968 uprisings and the war in Algeria. Nora, and his compatriots, were then rescuing memory from history– a point of departure that I see here for Talbot’s work.

Talbot is not interested in separating memory from history per se and the approach is deconstitutive. Talbot faces an already formed idea of Prithviraj Chauhan and as a historian is interested in the formation of that idea, its forms and its social function. It is thus more cleanly seen as a Nietzschean project of genealogy: In his Untimely Meditations where Nietzche framed his critique, his concern was not with history or memory but with “triumphant historical culture”. Prithviraj Chauhan’s history and memory belongs to particular modes of triumphant historical culture, as Talbot beautifully demonstrates.

The earliest traces of Chauhan’s polity in Ajmeer and its movement to Delhi is traced through inscriptions, the earlier Prithviraj Vijaya conquest-epic, and the Persian chronicles of the thirteenth century such as Taj al Maathir and Tabaqat-i Nasiri and then Jain chronicles. Talbot moves through these sources to show various stages and strands of that fuller story of Chauhan which will not coalesce the Prithviraj Raso’s longer form in the sixteenth century associated with the bard Chand Bardai.

Talbot follows the Raso and its reception in Mughal texts, the ways in which it constitutes Rajput warrior and courtly culture in the sixteenth century. Talbot’s work here, in reading close the presence of Rajput family and warrior names and placing the acquisition of royal brides as political arms of the clan is remarkable. The Raso made the Rajput Great Tradition and there it emerges from the bardic Alha caste epics to the triumphant historical culture of Rajput courts. From there, the Raso is taken up by the court in Mewar and enjoys its most sumptuous visual and artistic form. Talbot thus is able to demonstrate not only the literary and mnemonic claims on history but its relationship to the political power.

The story in the second half of the book is what I have already called deconstitutive. Talbot traces the discovery of the text by the administrator James Tod and the marking of Chauhan as the “Last Hindu Emperor”. Talbot shows how Indian historians and philologists dealt with Tod’s claims about the Raso as well as how other strands of histories intersected with nationalist and anti-colonial claims in the twentieth century.

Talbot’s work thus demonstrates two key findings for us: first, that the historian of South Asia’s pre-colonial past must confront colonial forms of knowledge in her inquiry. This is a charge unique to the historian of the previously colonized world. The ‘discovery’ of manuscripts, inscriptions; the archeological forms; and the historical culture for India was determined between 1800 and 1930 and that reality remains our reality. The displacement of archives to London, Berlin or Cambridge and its attendant after-effect that a scholar be based in US or UK (where the monetary capacity to do research exists, or the capacity to read journals behind paywalls) is but one part of this.

Against this we necessarily need different methodologies for writing the past. Different is perhaps a stronger word– I mean particular or specific. Such is the project that Talbot has undertaken– to demonstrate how historical event and historical memory have intersected within political and social structures of South Asia across the colonial epistemic violence. This work, while building on earlier scholars like Richard Davis, Romila Thapar, Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam, yet pushes us further to combine book history, manuscript codicology, material culture, literary culture, and historical memory as one fluid source-material for history. That is the real innovation and intervention of this book.

As such, I see this book to be methodologically between two new texts– Shahid Amin’s and Phil Wagoner/Richard Eaton’s. Like Talbot, Amin traces the memory of an eleventh century sufi-warrior Ghazi Miyan through another sixteenth century text and its oral revival in nineteenth century ballads in UP. Amin’s is less textual and he is not arguing against a dominant colonial historiography– rather Amin is working to situate history into the local. Amin demonstrates the demands narratives of belonging make on landscape, on family, on stories. His effort is thus ethnographic, fragmentary and captured within different modes. At the other end of the spectrum are the material remains of the past which are re-used in medieval Deccan. Wagoner and Eaton, re-construct (pardon the pun) how building and memorialization practices of Vijayanagar and Bijapur drew upon Chalukya past. Their micro-studies are dominantly architectural and surmise the social function of this past.

Talbot’s work, placed within these two, thus offers us a continuum– from oral and local history to textual and material history . The three works deconstruct the colonial depiction of insular Hindu-Muslim binaries while building critical new understandings of medieval pasts. They also demonstrate how medieval history of India requires attention and simultaneous availability of Sanskrit, Persian, Kannada, Telegu, Hindi and more literary cultures. The careful work of book history, of philology, or cultural and social threads in the text, and the pivot to attend to power, sexuality and gender are all demonstrated in Talbot’s work.

Going back to the question of belonging, these three books written by scholars with long engagement with Indian pasts constitute a challenge to the triumphant historical culture of Hindutva or xenophobia. They are also a methodological argument which will shape the next two decades of historical writing for India. We are grateful to Cynthia Talbot for the gift of her work, and I hope we can carry on in the exacting spirit that the book personifies.

Thank you.

XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Tariq Rahman for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIV, V.]


unnamedNayanika Mathur is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Cambridge and has held research fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. Her book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

Tariq Rahman is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests broadly include real estate, financialization, development, the state, genealogy, and Pakistan.


  1. Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Paper Tiger.

There is an intended double entendre to the title, Paper Tiger. On the one hand, the book is quite literally about paper and tigers. More accurately, it is about paper and leopards but the word in Hindustani – bagh – is the same for tigers and leopard and, furthermore, both these big cat species are protected and governed by the very same legal regime in India. Literality aside, the critical point of the title is to assist in a rethinking of the developmental Indian state. Paper tiger is an oft-used descriptor for the Indian state, particularly with regard to its puzzlingly consistent failure to implement its sophisticated laws, plans, and policies. The phrase, kaghaz ka bagh, was utilized, loudly and poignantly, during a fieldwork episode when a man-eating bagh terrorized the town I was living in for several months. At that point, I was repeatedly told that the Indian state is nothing but a paper tiger (kaghaz ka bagh). That phrase stuck and as I slowly started writing my dissertation, which eventually became this book, I found it an eloquent ethnographically-derived term that could be utilized to conceptually work through broader concerns with the execution of law, workings of bureaucracy, and the tabulation of success/failure in the contemporary Indian state.

Continue reading “XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur”

How Best to Not-Surrender

The first lesson I learned in resistance was to surrender. It was a hard lesson. It was the apocryphal year of 1984 and General Zia ul Haq was our leader. The General had come to power in a military coup in 1977– deposing an elected and popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In short order, he had hung Bhutto, for conspiracy to commit murder and corruption and had donned the mantle of a populist cleanser of political rot. When in 1979, Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the General became the conduit for US “resistance”.

Reagan toasted Zia in 1982 as the key architect of a peaceful South Asia (Zia, in return, requested “Spread this America, Mr. President”). Zia returned to Pakistan with the full support of United States. In August 1983, Zia revealed a theological argument for his military regime: according to God and his Prophet, as long as there is a Muslim leader pursuing a strategy of bringing an Islamic state into being, there can only be complete obedience to his rule.

In 1983, Pakistan started its resistance against the General. The “Movement for Restoration of Democracy” (MRD) emerged as an umbrella for Marxists, Progressivists, PPP, followers of pirs, provincialists, feminists, atheists– all assemble only to resist Zia. They blocked highways, took over university campuses, shut-down bazaars and ports. The poets wrote verses that could be chanted. Sufi shrines become the rallying places for mobilizations. Someone stood in front of Zia’s motorcade and flashed his privates.

Zia’s regime cracked down. The army fired bullets in streets, campuses and bazaars. Thousands disappeared. Student unions were banned. Students vanished. In November 1984, Reagan won 58.8% of the votes cast and swept back into office. Not to be out-done, on 19 December 1984, Zia ul Haq held a referendum with one single question: Did the people of Pakistan support”the Islamic ideology of Pakistan?” Yes, would mean that Zia ul Haq would be elected President for five years, by the way. Well, if you put it that way.

Zia campaigned vigorously for the “referendum”. The nationalized Radio and Television illustrated the divinity of military rule, and the rule of the militarily divine. On the 20th of December 1984, he declared victory after receiving 97.7% of 60% votes cast. Lahore surrendered. My uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends all declared widely and publicly that Zia ul Haq was the “Mard-e Haq” (Man of Truth). No one would speak, in public or private, against the General.

The second lesson I learned in resistance was to remember 1983. In 2007— after September 2001, after George W. Bush– resistance came to Pakistan as the “Lawyers Movement” against General Pervez Musharraf. This history is known to the readers of this blog, so I will tell only of the shape resistance took. Like 1983, an umbrella covered the many forms of political differences into a protected space. It was on the street– the iconic black suits of the advocates of court battling the police. It was in cultural spaces– galleries, salons, tea shops. It was online– blogs, email listservs, youtube. It flashed Musharraf– making him an object of ridicule, of shame. This time I was not too young and easily silenced. This time I learned the way and power of resistance.

The playbook of the Generals of Pakistan may seem incongruous next to that of a democratically elected Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. Hence, the techniques of surrendering or resistance may seem equally alien. However, do not be too quick to dismiss. Our Pakistani strongmen had much that bolsters Trump’s appeal: the love of autocrats and technocrats, the claim to clean up corruption, the mode of ‘direct speech’ that cuts through ‘bullshit’, the claim to independence from special interests, the eye for gilded portraits, the male-ness, the love for big building projects and real estate acquisitions.

When I see Trump, I understand him and I understand the ways in which my uncles in Pakistan love him. Trump speaks that language already:Oh the Theater must always be… oh the University must endure… Oh the minorities must be protected. Trump’s hierarchies (America First) and promises (Make America Great Again) are easy analogues to Zia ul Haq’s “Islam First” or Musharraf’s “Make Pakistan Moderate Again”.

Against Zia, writers and artists like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar, used stand-up and prov sketch comedy in venues like the television program “Fifty-fifty” to subvert, to transgress, to document. Being on a National Television and subject to heavy censorship, their sketches had a pre-approved “official” reading and a reading that came clearly as disruptive resistance to the viewers outside. Performance that illustrated “all politics” is performance enabled that dissatisfaction with the “real”.

Against Musharraf, the tactic of satire as resistance was amplified in wildly popular shows like “Begum Nawazish Ali” and “Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain” (We are all Expecting). Jokes carried over instant messaging apps, blogs, and emails poked fun at the self-regard of the dictator. I collected them and promised myself I would write about them one day, and I guess I will one day.

Artists, poets, teachers, writers are the first line of defense against tyranny. They are also the first targets of censorship, condemnation or disappearance– hence Dhaka University in ’68-’71, hence Karachi University in ’74-’76, hence Punjab University ’83-’85. Against Zia and Musharraf, these were the critical spaces of collaboration– between students and professors, between poets and reciters, between artists and viewers. I spent a lot of time in living rooms of my professors learning the trade of resistance. I spent a lot of time on street corners complicit in the making of shadow discourses. The classroom, the living room, the street corner were all fed by texts– our Franz Fanon, our Kishwar Naheed, our Manto.

How Best to Not-Survive

As a visually-read Muslim and an immigrant without the imagined protection of a citizenship, I stand alongside many others who contemplate a precarious and hostile future in United States. There are many reasons, and I am sure you know most, for the threat that Trump’s presidency holds for all of us. I know it will be very difficult and unbelievable and racist and sure, many are telling us that we will survive. But. I want to survive or not-survive, in a just and ethical way.

We can be sure Trump will increase manifold the mass-deportations that Obama– some 2.4 million the majority of which were ‘non-criminal’– has maintained throughout his tenure.

We can be sure Trump will intensify Obama’s drone war and assassinations of military-aged men in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen. Trump will perhaps break the “city” barrier and those drones will fall on multi-story homes inside densely packed Karachi or Islamabad’s subruban bungalows.

We can be sure Trump will close Refugee Settlement plans from allies and victims of Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan.

We can be sure Trump will ask that Muslims inside America “do more”, starting with mandatory registrations so that their whereabouts are known and accounted for– akin to George W. Bush’s “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System” of Sep 2002 which targeted students and workers from “terror-prone countries”. (I remember my visit to security services and I remember friends who were picked up and never came back.)

We can be sure Trump will increase surveillance on Muslims like the NYPD’s decade long program. There is also no doubt that surveillance of data-traffic will be the first increment.

We can be sure Trump will make the path to citizenship harder or impossible for those same people.

We can be sure Trump will introduce legislations against veiling, against political mobilization and other ‘Un-American” activities.

We can be sure that Guantanamo will remain open and be re-populated.

In other words, let us not start with a notion that this is some great new rupture in the history of US or the world. Trump will not invent new tortures, new discriminations, new horrors. He will merely continue or expand what has happened for decades here. In fact, we even know Trump from countless roles outside of United State– from Afghanistan, Philippines, Pakistan, Nicragua, etc.– known as our “strong man”.

I grew up in Doha Qatar where, as an immigrant, my father and our family had no rights, no protections and no shield from draconian police state. I went to college in Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq where once during a simple reading of the daily newspaper, a dear friend cautioned me not to say General Saab with a mocking tone or else he would feel compelled to break our friendship. I was undocumented for many long years in United States.

As a scholar and a digital humanist, I have studied and written and thought about both the technologies of oppression and the technologies of resistance. This very site is a testament to some of those acts which emerged as the country willfully and forcefully invaded Iraq in 2003.

What we cannot do– is grant any space– intellectual or material– to isolation. We cannot survive by keeping quiet and minding our business. We cannot survive by looking out for only our interest and our concerns. We do live in perilous times, but it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the bombs have fallen elsewhere even as we loved Obama. That our victories for civic freedoms came exactly as we gave billions in military aid to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Money, power and prestige that links bombings in Yemen, migrant workers on football stadiums and Shi’a in Bahrain. Let’s not pretend that our solidarities in Ferguson and Staten Island absolve us from casting our eyes elsewhere. As Malcolm X once said, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad”. So pay attention to fellow intellectuals who are fighting for the same rights around the world. Resist not only the domestic policies by writing against them or canvassing against them but also global and climate policies.

There are solidarities which will matter and there are modes of being, writing, thinking and doing that will protect us and our loved ones. This site, like many others, will be a place for your thoughts and our techniques of engagement. We who can write, will write, and we who can march, will march, and we who can sing, will sing. Do our best to think outside the nation-state. Connect through distributed means. Look to our peers in India and Turkey. Create, or join, new cultural spaces; know that those domains of irony, pleasure, satire, and laughter will never succumb and cannot be subverted.

All this accompanies the daily task of being scholars, students, thinkers, artists, workers, lovers, fathers and mothers. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in prison, once wrote:

Just as now,
since forever,
have people tangled with

nor are their customs new
nor are our ways new

Just as now,
since forever,
have we blossomed flowers
in fire,

nor is their defeat new
nor is our victory new

(You can see Faiz recite this full poem.)

I do not quote Faiz to suggest hope and optimism. Only to indicate that the hard work of surviving is continuous historically and throughout our past. In this, we can learn and grow.

A Manifesto for the Age of Orange

butterfliesWe need new metaphors. Many of us will feel tempted in the coming years to speak of Our Leader’s ‘black heart’, to call him ‘The Dark Lord,’ or to opine that we have entered a new age of darkness. Yes, I know that speaking of evil in terms of darkness and blackness is rooted in and ancient fear of places that have no light—of the dark forests of Grimm, the Black Forest, of haunted houses, and frozen winter nights—but these fearful darknesses are easily elided with the pernicious racism in our culture that seeps into our language and overtakes our intellect whether we like it or not. I vote for orange to be the new tint of evil. Orange is the new black: it’s already the name of a popular show. I love the color orange as much as the next painter, but it has many associations with evil besides the unnatural tint of The Small-Fingered One’s skin: the color of prison jumpsuits, Agent Orange, ‘nude’ stockings, that crayon that used to be called ‘skin color’ but now is labelled ‘apricot,’ and the sickly orange tinge of night skies in smog-smothered cities.

The morning after the election I woke my seven-year-old daughter to get ready for school. I was shaky, nauseous, trying to not be weepy. As soon as she opened her eyes, she asked me cheerfully, ‘Who will be president?’ I told her the bad news. She sobbed and thrashed in her bed. As I held her, she asked if this meant we would move, as we had often joked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’ll stay and fight. We’ll fight for our country.’ She thought for a bit, and then observed mournfully, ‘Well, at least the butterflies will be able to fly over the wall.’

So here’s a metaphor for our new age, The Age of Orange: where they build walls, our political ideas will be the butterflies that can’t be stopped by hatred, ignorance and violence. For the next four years, I pledge to use whatever means at my disposal, but especially art, to spread the ideals of true leftism and tolerance throughout this land awash in orange bile. Like the free flight butterflies, I will think of ingenious ways to make these messages seen and heard by a wide audience. I will use the internet and social media, which are being accused this week of cocooning us in bubbles of the like-minded, to traverse those barriers. I’ll think of ways to depict climate change that will make people understand the real and present danger of blowing up our planet. I’ll think of new ways to paint about tolerance, to make people question their racism and misogyny and Islamophobia. No, I don’t propose we hug it out and accept those with repugnant views into our lives, but I call upon my fellow artists of all stripes to enlist in a quest to find new metaphors. We must break down words and images and sounds and start anew, so that knowledge, tolerance, and love have a chance of breaking through the coming orange haze.

What is Aleppo?


What is Aleppo?
What is Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in Syria. Aleppo is a city near-destroyed by civil war. Aleppo is besieged. Aleppo is a refugee crisis. Aleppo is the site of an international proxy war. When ill-informed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnston asked this question on a cable talk show this fall his hosts didn’t even know where to start. Did he think he was on Jeopardy? Did he answer any other questions in the form of a question? What levels of ignorance would cause a politician running for major political office to ask ‘what’ Aleppo is, rather than ‘where’ it is?

When I was first asked to participate in a group exhibition organized around the theme of the painter Grandma Moses’s artwork at our local museum, I laughed. I couldn’t imagine what I could contribute. Grandma Moses painted ‘primitive’ style landscapes populated by tiny people—usually pastoral Vermont scenes. What could be further from my work? But after some thought, I realized that Moses’s technique for creating in her paintings a totality of a place by ignoring various features of realism such as perspective and proportionality were a perfect way to capture something I’d been thinking about a long time: how to portray life in the war zone of the Syrian city Aleppo.

As an artist who is in fact located in the pastoral and idyllic setting of Vermont, far away from the horrendous civil war in Syria, I have only scattered glimpses of the landscape in Aleppo. The primitive style allows me to piece together these shards, gleaned from photos on the internet from journalists, civilians, and even militants, and construct an imaginary piece of city. The organizing principle of my painting, and the inspiration for this reconstruction is a civilian by the name of Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel, a man who fled the city with his family to Turkey, but returned alone, unable to tolerate the idea that Aleppo would be totally abandoned by civilians. Muhammad then set up a cat shelter, where he feeds cats who have been left behind in the city, either because their owners have died or have fled. He also looks after dogs and even farm animals and works tirelessly to help out orphaned children left in the city.

There are no good guys in the Battle of Aleppo, which has been ongoing since 2012, with over thirty thousand dead. The Syrian government is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and others, and the rebel forces are fragmented, some backed by Al Qaeda-allied militant groups and covertly by the US and NATO. The UN has called the Syrian Government’s relentless shelling of civilians ‘an extermination.’ Similarly, they have expressed horror at the indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets by the rebel groups in the current round of fighting, in which the rebels are attempting to break the government siege of the city which has isolated the eastern part of Aleppo from all supply lines.

Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel’s cat shelter is located in the besieged rebel-held eastern section of the city. Every day, Muhammad posts to Facebook numerous photos of dozens of cats gnawing on bones and eating little scraps of meat. These images are in fact some of the only signs to the outside world that civilian life still exists in eastern Aleppo and that all the residents are not dead, wounded, or long-fled to fates that have been proven to be just as deadly, and welcomes that have been far from warm.

It could be argued that a state of siege and civil war is hardly a time to concern one’s self with cats, but I believe that Muhammad’s shelter is an amazing act of protest against the inhumanity of perpetual war. His refusal to turn his back on living creatures, or choose sides, or take up arms, all this is a powerful demonstration of non-violent resistance to the inhumanity of war.

This painting will be for sale in a silent auction to benefit the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, VT. The auction will be open for bids from November 25th to December 29th, 2016. Half the proceeds will go to the museum, and the other half will be donated to Muhammad Alaa Jaleel’s cat shelter in Aleppo, which is still able to receive funds. Please contact the Bennington Museum with bids after November 25th.

On Writing

Gentle Readers,

Today, Sep 19th, marks the official janam din for A Book of Conquest. In light of this occasion, some thoughts on writing it.

Where I started:

The book began as my dissertation but it bears only a faint resemblance to that document. Most critically, I jettisoned much of the analytical framework that was there for the dissertation (memory) as well as the focus of that text (Muhammad bin Qasim). This was due to conversations, readings and publishing decisions that occurred in the year after the dissertation was finished. Since 2012, I published two journal articles which resembled the task of the book but, nothing that would go directly into a new manuscript. In essence, I was starting the book from scratch (which was my preference).


The first thing that confronted me was the mechanics of writing and the workflow. I had some criteria: I wanted my work to always be accessible no matter how many years in the future. I wanted to produce different forms of documents from the same source text. I wanted to have version controls and document forks (basically that I could amend a particular text and have those versions available). For the first, there is only one choice, which is to write in plain text (think your notepad or textedit). Yet, as scholars we also need to do headings, italics, footnotes etc, so we need some light markup. Hence, Markdown, coupled with YAML provides everything one may need.

Markdown has grown tremendously since I used a version of it for the dissertation writing in 2008 (via Scrivener). The availability of Pandoc meant that producing a .pdf or .docx file from my markdown (.md) files would not a hassle. (To learn about Plain Text/future-proofing your work, see this introduction). So the workflow at the outset was to write in a lightweight text editor (I used Sublime Text but you can also try Atom or really any plain text editor) and then use pandoc to produce a pdf for sharing/proofing. I used a GitHub repository (and Google Drive as backup) to keep the files and version control. (If you use Atom, it helps with that).

Once I had a chapter draft complete– meaning all the text I’d imagine writing, plus all citations, and some preliminary copyediting– the file would move into an “Alpha” folder. It was only at this stage that I had friends read that chapter and offer any feedback/suggestions for revisions. I would then make those revisions and give that file to my editor for copy-edits. When that file would get back, I would move it into the “Beta” folder. The Beta folder– with the .md files converted into .docx according to the Press’s specifications was submitted to the Press.


A colleague and I began the writing process together. We did so after a number of conversations about the solitude and stress that long writing projects induce. We did not have a lot of science behind this, except the understanding that much of academic self-presentation is masochism, self-aggrandization and needless self-harm. We began with the idea of “co-presence” as a way of both motivation and solidarity but also re-thinking writing as a solitary pursuit. We were lucky that we both had offices in adjacent buildings. So we alternated our writing– a day in one office followed by a day in the other.

We belong to different disciplines and were writing different books so there was not much of an overlap there. However, we did some things like share the number of words written that day; share coffees, lunches and walks around the blocks; think out aloud any problems or issues with the writing. The solidarity of co-presence was perhaps the most critical strength through very long, rough, patches. Soon after we started, a number of other colleagues joined in co-presence and everyone worked under the same set of guidelines (workworkwork).


In terms of writing, I am a visual thinker. So I invested in a small erase-board (picked it up on the street) and also worked in a room that had a chalkboard. I would draw argument flows constantly and those chalkboards would help me think as I wrote the sections/subsections. It really helped me especially when I would get stuck because I knew where I was (visually). (Incidentally, this is why I worked in SublimeText because it shows a visual map of the document)


In the last decade, I have written around 1.5 million words for this blog. Add on another 40k for opinion pieces, review essays and such for other media (print or online). Add another 170k for a dissertation and a book. Add some 40k for articles in academic journals. Add some more in 140 character bites for twitter. My one take-away from all that writing has been that each medium, message, requires its own form. Further, that forms should never be consecrated or calcified. Knowing when to be obedient to form and when to rebel is, thus, a necessary skill.

For the book, I did extensive fieldwork between 2011 and 20014 in Uch Sharif. My method consisted primarily of long walks and conversations. It informed my understanding of the contemporary world but it also informed the types of questions I was bringing to bear on the medieval text. I needed to make sure that the resultant book bore witness to this process but also to the friends and helpers I encountered in Uch Sharif and Ahmedpur Sharkia.

It was thus a natural decision to introduce myself as a participant into the text of the book. I did not hesitate with that decision and each chapter organically opened up with a small contemporary incursion into Uch Sharif. I hope the readers will see the logic and necessity of that move– as a method and as a ethic. I believe, and have argued, that the texture of the scholarly work ought to reflect the texture of the evidence that it is built upon. Artifacts of the past and present– their form, shape, appearance, structure– informs the secondary analysis and revisitation that we understand as scholarly work. Any number of critical voices are available to buttress this observation– Gloria Anzaldua, Carolyn Steedman, Greg Dening, Quratulain Hyder– being those particularly trenchant examples.

Alongside the form, is the notion of the audience, the framework, the “whats-at-stake” sets of issues. At least for me, there were specific conversations with senior colleagues and my Editor which clarified my own particular answers and which ended up being the “frame” for the book. I am really grateful for those conversations in shaping the work.


Some of my concerns were that the book be available in South Asia and that the Press be able to put out a reasonably priced volume. Being a first book author in the academic scene is a hard task for any of us in that position. Harvard University Press was a genuine pleasure to work with and I am very happy with the final product. If people are interested, I can post more about the publication process and/or the publishing scene for medieval South Asia in particular (though, frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of us).

Still, I tried to think forward through the process. Through a departmental initiative, I participated in a manuscript workshop where a set of senior faculty gave me invaluable feedback and corrections. Through a grant, I paid for copy-editing before the text went out to reviewers to get it into some good shape. These two things, I think, made the rest of the review process easier. I made an effort to meet every single deadline on the publication schedule (submission, reader responses, copy-edits, proof-edits, indexing) so that I did not insert delays in the process. I paid for services outside the publishing process (pre-submission copy-edit and indexing) via grants that I applied for (institutional). This was a luxury that I had, and I took advantage of it.

The whole process took 18 months during which I also taught three courses. Some of that period was easier and some was rougher but it went, more or less, according to the plan I sketched out in November 2014. That plan was what saved me in the darkness.

I hope you read the book and I hope this above is of some usage. Thank you, as always, for reading.