Indian Mythology

Kurukshetra

In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.

 

Notes

[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.

 

 

The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.

The Hindu Pakistan

Modi with petals

India finally has the dictator it always wanted.

Narendra Modi has won a majority of seats in India’s election and is set to be re-elected as the country’s Prime Minister.[1]

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s administration has effectively co-opted the Indian media, judiciary and co-opted under the banner of Hindu Supremacism. Together, they have created a New India of book burnings, student arrests and the slaughter of Muslims, Christians and low-caste Hindus.

As James Crabtree points out in The Billionaire Raj, India’s economy has grown under Modi to become one of the most unequal on earth. Much of the benefits of this growth, Crabtree argues, has accrued to India’s billionaires class and their family run conglomerates (the Ambanis, the Godrej’s and the Birlas) rather than middle-class.

Under Modi, India has become the Hindu Pakistan, an India where Brahmanism (the religious ideology sanctifying caste) and capitalism march hand in hand. The constituents of a fascist society as explained by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works (i.e. a strong charismatic leader, a romanticized vision of the past, an imagined ‘other’ etc.) were already well underway during the Prime Minister’s first term.

Now, they will be given an opportunity to come to fruition.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48389130?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cg41ylwvgmyt/narendra-modi&link_location=live-reporting-story

India’s Supreme Court Ruling

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On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. The section – enacted in 1861 when India was still a British colony – effectively criminalized gay sex.

India’s LGBT communities erupted in euphoria. The Indian and international press joined in the jubilation with one BBC headline ringing, “India’s Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Sex … ”

The Supreme Court’s decision marks an important beginning for India’s LGBT and for the country. For India’s sexual minorities, it represents a victory in a long struggle against an inhumane and draconian law. For India, the ruling holds the promise of a new era where India starts to step out from the shadows of its colonial past.

I too was euphoric after reading the headlines only to confront a few sober realities.

First, the Supreme Court of India ruling has not legalized gay sex. It has declared that the law discriminated against LGBT sex is unconstitutional. The law is still in force and cannot be repealed or amended except by an act of Parliament.

Second, as long as it remains on the books, the section will continue to be invoked. Certainly, a better off and well-informed gay Indian will now challenge a policeman who tries to lay a charge. But those LGBT Indians who are poor, working class or villagers are less likely to contest the enforceability of the law.

Third, the ruling leaves untouched the more basic challenges facing India’s LGBT communities. In particular, the ruling does not recognize India’s LGBT communities as legal persons who can claim basic rights or freedoms as any other Indian. It has brought India’s LGBT persons out of the shadow of criminality, without making them persons under the law.

If anything, the Supreme Court ruling stands for the same principle that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made back in 1967 that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Tushar Mehta, the Assistant Solicitor-General for the Government of India, has otherwise made it clear that the Government of India will construe the ruling narrowly so as not to accord legal status to the LGBT citizens of India in terms of marriage, property rights, government benefits or inheritance.

India’s LGBT communities have just won their first battle against the state, but their war for recognition as equal citizens under the law has yet to begin.

The Gay Faqir

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Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

No Ordinary Sufi

shah hussain

“If you want your life, die before your death” (Shah Hussain).

This is my summary of Fauzia Rafique’s presentation on the life and poetry of Shah Hussain. The presentation was part of the Dead Poets Reading Series which took place at the Vancouver Public Library (Central) on May 6, 2018.

Shah Hussain (1538-1599) was a Punjabi poet from Lahore. He wrote 163 poems in Punjabi and introduced the kafi genre into the language.[1] His collected works remain among the top selling books of all time in Punjabi.

When he was thirty-six years old, Shah Hussain had a dispute with his religious teacher over the interpretation of the following verse:

“duniya khel tamasha hai” (‘the world’s a play and spectacle’).”

For the teacher, the verse meant the renunciation of the fleeting material world. For Shah Hussain, it meant that life is to be enjoyed. With that, he laughed, donned himself in a red cotton robe and became a dancing mendicant in the streets of Lahore.

Shah Hussain was a “malamti” Sufi, one who took pride in the “malamat” or “shaming” he was subjected to. He stood against the the political and religious establishment in support the common people. He identified himself with the julaha (weaver), the chuhra (sweeper) and the faqir. He associated with rebels like Dulla Bhatti who stirred peasant rebellions against the Emperor Akbar. His poetry reflected the folk rhythms and idiom of everyday Punjabi.

Shah Hussain was a rebel in another way. Unlike the male poets of his day who used the feminine voice (rekhti) to express the “feminine” emotions of grief and anguish, Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice to acknowledge and express his own self as a gay man.

If Shah Hussain’s love was transcendent, it was in the earthly sense of overcoming distinctions of class, gender, creed and sexual orientation. He belonged to no sect or lineage other than humanity’s.

Kafi 131

Swaying in ecstasy play on in the inner yard, all is near to those meditating
Rivers flow in this yard, thousands of millions of boats
Some are seen drowning, others have reached the shore
This yard has nine doors, the tenth is locked shut
No one needs to know, from where my lover comes and goes
This yard has a pretty curve, a hollow in the curve
I spread my bed in the hollow to love my lover at night!
A wild elephant in this yard, is struggling with the chain
Says Hussain the Beggar of His Beloved, (the elephant) is teasing the awake

(Trans. Fauzia Rafique)

Jhume jhum khaid lai munjh vehRay, japdeyaN nooN hur naiRay
Vehray de vich nadiyaN vagan, baiRay lakh hazar
kaiti iss vich Dubdi vekhi, kaiti langhi paar
iss vehRay de nauN darvazay, dusswaiN qulf chuRhai
tiss darvazay de mehram nahiN, jit shauh aaway jai
vehRay de vich aala soohay, aalay de vich taaqi
taaqi de vich sej vichaawaN, apnay pia sung raati
iss vehRay vich makna haathi, sangal naal khahaiRay
kahe Hussain Faqir SaeeN da, jagdeyaN kooN chehRay

 

 

[1] A kafi is a lyric poem of four to ten lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russia is a threat … or is it?

Putin Threat

Why does the United States perceive Russia as a threat?

Powerful countries like the United States have always viewed other powers (or rising powers) as threats. Athens felt threatened by the rise of Sparta. The United Kingdom and France historically viewed one another as threats, and both countries viewed a rising Germany as a threat on the road to World War I.

The threat of the “other” nation is also a matter of perception. Like individuals, nations find it difficult to perceive reality objectively. Their perceptions are instead processed through and conditioned by their own historical, nationalist and cultural beliefs and biases. The resulting distorted perception is taken as reality.

The United States’ perception of Russia is obscured by the shadow of the Cold War. The Soviet Union not only challenged the United States politically and militarily but was seen by the U.S. as ideologically threatening and unassimilable. Russia today is seen as openly defiant and dangerous. Whether it’s facing off against Washington over Syria, interfering in the U.S. election or refusing to democratize, Russia is large, powerful and plays by its own rules.

Is Russia a threat to the United States? This is largely a question of perception. Perhaps it’s only natural for the United States to view powerful countries like Russia (or rising powers like China) as threats to its own power. In Russia’s case, however, America’s perceptions are further clouded by memories, beliefs and assumptions arising from the Cold War. The result is a distorted view of Russia, the so-called threat.

– Thanks to Marco, a dear friend; and Bilal, a beloved nephew

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Indias

Indus Valley

In a recent paper, scientists from the United States, Russia and India, have concluded that the Indus Valley Civilization was the result of a mixing of South Asians and Iranian peoples.

The study also concludes that the group previously known as “Aryan” were in fact pastoral communities from Central Asia which moved south from the steppe into the Indus Valley.

The study examined the DNA of 612 ancient individuals from across Central Asia, Iran and South Asia. This data was then compared with the DNA of 246 distinct groups in South Asia.

The study identified the Ancestral North Indian and the Ancestral South Indian as the result of the mixing and combination of three potential groups of peoples:

  1. The South Asian hunter-gatherers, the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent;
  2. The Iranian agriculturalists who migrated into the subcontinent, and;
  3. The Steppe pastoralists who were also migrants into the subcontinent.

The study provided the following outline based on this genetic data:

  1. The Indus Valley Civilization arises through the mixing of South Asians and Iranians;
  2. The “Aryan” civilization arises through the migration of Steppe pastoralists into the Indus Valley around the 2nd millennium BCE;
  3. Some of the Indus Valley moves further south where they mix with more South Asians, creating the Ancestral South Indian population;
  4. In the North, the Steppe pastoralists mix with the remaining Indus Valley population, creating the Ancestral North Indian population.
  5. Subsequent South Asians are a result of mixing between Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

The implication of this is that there was an “Aryan migration” into the subcontinent from the outside and not vice-versa. That suggestion will anger with the Hindu Rights with its inference that their ancestors and ancestral religion (including the Vedas) originated outside of the subcontinent.

This would undermines the Hindu Right’s claims that they are the original inhabitants of India vis-à-vis those following foreign religions. It also suggests that modern South Asians are a mix of what we previously called “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” with no such thing as a “pure race” or “nation” which is basic to Hindutva.

The Hindu Right is already rewriting history books in India. It is already censoring any views and ideas that would suggest India is the creation of anything but the primordial Hindu Nation. This paper will not affect the momentum of that project, but it does throw to the wind some of the theories on which Hindutva rests.

– Thanks to Satdeep, for inspiration across continents 

 

The Causes We Cherish

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Jagmeet Singh was interviewed yesterday on CBC Radio. The leader of the federal NDP was asked about a seminar he attended with the National Sikh Youth Federation in the U.K. in 2016. The organizer of the National Sikh Youth Federation, Shamsher Singh, was heard discussing the legitimacy of armed struggle by Sikhs in the creation of Khalistan.

In his radio interview, Singh condemned terrorism without condemning the Khalistan movement. He expressed sympathy with the pain and trauma suffered by Sikhs, while dodging any suggestion that the Khalistan movement was a terrorist movement.

Within hours, the internet was awash headlining Mr. Singh’s name with phrases like “Sikh separatist,” “blood hatreds” and “strange loyalties.”

The Khalistan movement was a violent and divisive movement. It bloodied the towns and villages of the East Punjab for nearly a decade. Its leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, turned Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, into a military stronghold. And the movement turned a generation of young Sikhs into militant separatists.

Murderous and divisive as its legacy has been, the Khalistan cause has long since fallen on the losing side of history. The Canadian media is right to question such causes or, as in the case of Singh, its suspected supporters. Yet the same also fails repeatedly to question those politicians who support “winning” causes like Israel, Saudi Arabia or Canada’s policies towards its own Aboriginal peoples.

Justin Trudeau illustrated this point last month when he visited India. Trudeau met with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a man whose government has become perhaps the worst violator of human rights in independent India’s history. In 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi presided over the worst anti-Muslim program in India since 1947. Since his becoming Prime Minister in 2014, India has witnessed widespread and repeated abuses of human rights and civil liberties.

Trudeau failed to condemn any of this, and the Canadian media failed to question Trudeau. His “loyalty” to Canadian values like human rights weren’t scrutinized. For Trudeau, unlike Singh, was on the winning side.

Thank you to Z. Makhdoom for inspiring me

The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

Pakistan India

Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]

yada

Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]

 

Notes

[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

India at 70

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Written by Randeep Purewall

This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

Trans.daman

Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma)

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

Urdu Poetry: Mir Taqi Mir

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Mir (né Muhammad Taqi Mir) was born in Agra in 1722. His father died when Mir was eleven years old, leaving the boy to seek an education and patronage in Delhi. Mir was educated in Delhi by the poet and scholar Khan-e-Arzu and supported by a nobleman, but left the city upon Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739

It was years later after returning to Delhi, that Mir became a prominent poet, winning high-ranking patrons and competing with the poets Dard and Sauda in musha’ara (poetic symposiums). Delhi was being repeatedly invaded during this period, however, by Afghans, Jat and Marathas. For Mir, the times marked not only the decline of the city, but the setting of a civilization.

This age is not like that which went before it
The times have changed, the earth and sky have changed

In 1782, Mir left Delhi for Lucknow as had other poets like Sauda before him. He found patronage in Lucknow at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula where he received a pension and continued to write poetry. He died in 1810.

mir

Mir’s verses express the impermanence of life and the grief at the loss of love, beauty and spring. At the same time, his poems underline the transcendent experience and journey of love through the colours of the garden, the movement of the stars and heart of man.

How long is the life of a rose?
The bud just smiles

Mir’s themes of love and beauty and pain and separation established the conventions of classical Urdu poetry and his style inspired later poets like Ghalib (1797-1869). He also helped establish Urdu as a literary language. Mir reviewed and refined the use of Urdu in the musha’ara of Delhi and naturalized its use of Persian expressions. He wrote, moreover,  in the everyday language of the city, making the language of Delhi, the language of poetry.

Selected Verse
(Trans. Russell, Islam; Sadiq; Ali)

Every leaf and every plant my state do know
The rose knows not what the garden knows

The world is full of illusions
We behold here what we imagine

The streets of Delhi were not mere streets
They were like the album of a painter
Every figure I saw there
Was a model of perfection

The spring has come, the flowers bloom cheek by cheek
Would you and I might stand thus in the garden!

The greatest sinner, Mir
Was he who adopted love as his religion

The moments of happiness
Within this world were few
Now weep for the smiling dawn
Of the garden like the dew

I never saw the stars so bright before
It was her eyes that taught them how to shine

To keep my eyes on you, and you alone
My one and only heart’s desire is this
To open them only if you are there
The height to which I can aspire is this

Mir, quit the company of Shaikh and Brahmin
And mosque and temple too – leave them behind.
Lay one stone on another in the desert
Worship your Love at your own humble shrine

I grant you sir, the preacher is an angel
To be a man, now – that’s more difficult

Go to the mosque; stand knocking at the door
Live all your days with drunkards in their den
Do anything you want to do, my friend,
But do not seek to harm your fellowmen

What days those were!
When I would drink and climb up to the tavern roof
And fall asleep, the white sheet of the moonlight over me

Man was first made of clay
And if the song you sing be good
This world of clay for years to come
Will listen to your voice

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Mir and Ghalib: Comparisons (trans by F.W. Pritchett), 1997.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00garden/about/txt_srf_mir_ghalib.html

Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell, Three Mughal Poets (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991)

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

Urdu Poetry: Sauda

lucknow-mosque

Written by Randeep Purewall

To many of his contemporaries, Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781) was the embodiment of the ideal mirza. He served in the army and was a courtier and man of letters. His friendship among the nobility won him patronage as a poet and the audience of the likes of the Emperor Shah Alam (r. 1759-1806).

The eighteenth century however was a time of political disorder and confusion in Delhi. The Mughal Empire had begun to disintegrate after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In 1719, the Emperor Farrukhsiyar was blinded and imprisoned by his own generals. The city was sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739 and later suffered invasions by the Afghans, Jats and Marathas:

How can anyone close his eyes in sleep these days?
For fear of thieves even mischief keeps awake during the night.

The devastation of Delhi prompted an exodus from the city. In 1754, Sauda left Delhi and went in search of patrons in the Kingdom of Awadh. He took service in the courts of prominent nawabs  in Farrukhabad and Faizabad before settling in Lucknow in 1774 at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.

Under Asaf-ud-Daula, Lucknow experienced an age of cultural splendor. Poetry, music and calligraphy flourished while mosques, gardens and gateways were built. Sauda was named Poet Laureate by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula and remained in Lucknow until his death in 1781.

mirza-rafi-sauda

Sauda is the greatest non-ghazal of the eighteenth century and one of the three pillars of Urdu poetry. He helped refine the language through mushairras in Delhi. He made Urdu the language of panegyric (qasida), narrative (masnavi), satirical (hajv) and elegaic verse (marsiya). He also composed one of the first shahar-e-ashob in Urdu upon leaving Delhi for Farrukhabad:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi?
There is no house from where the jackal’s cry cannot be heard
The mosques at evening are unlit and deserted
And only in one house in a hundred will you see a light burning

Sauda’s poetry is bold, vigorous and earthy. It reflects the spirit of a man of this world who, while prone to exaggeration, was also funny and playful in his verse. His satires reveal much about the society and culture of 18th century India with its corrupt officials, decadent nawabs, greedy merchants and cunning maulvis.

On the gluttony of Mir Zahik, a Delhi poet and rival of Sauda:

He only has to hear a saucepan rattle
And like a soldier digging in for battle
He’ll take up his position by the door
Nothing can shift him then: that god of war,
Rustam himself, might rise up from the tomb
And try his strength against him. He’d stand firm
He’d fight to the last breath and never yield
Until his corpse was carried from the field.

I am not the fairest flower in the garden
Nor am I thorn in any man’s path
I am neither famous for virtue
Nor notorious for vice
I seek nobody’s favours
And want nobody to seek mine
People may think well or ill of me as they please
I act as my nature prompts me
(Trans. R. Russell)

On Fulad Khan, the Police Officer

O my friends, where are those days
When the hand of a person stealing a lemon was cut off!
What peace and tranquility reign then
And how happily the people lived!
The police officer was above corruption
And not a single thief was to be found
But alas! corruption creeps everywhere now
And the city is full of thieves, loafers and cut-purses …
(Trans. M. Sadiq)

Ridiculing The Times (Tazhik-e-Rozgar)

Should one give up all and take
to Sufism, his fate is then to become
a laughing stock for the poets –
They compare his turban’s end
To a donkey’s tail, the turban itself
To a dome.

If in ecstatic dance at songs divine
He shouldn’t keep time, they whisper
“How silly, to be out of step!”
And if he moves to time, they say,
“What the hell! Is this a nautch-girl’s dance?”

Forsaking the world and trusting in God
If you sit at home, the wife believes
You to be an idle, feckless wastrel
Your son’s sure in his heart that you
Are in his dotage. Your daughter thinks
“The old man’s mad for sure”.
(Trans. S.R. Farqui; R. Purewall)

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, The Satires of Sauda (1706-1781), University of Heidelberg, September 2010.

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

Films on South Asian Muslims and Islamophobia in the Diaspora

video-mira-nair-articlelarge1

Written by Randeep Singh

In much of post-9/11 cinema, a Muslim is a person whose identity is defined fundamentally in terms of religion rather than nationality, culture, class or ethnicity. Indeed, South Asian Muslims in post-9/11 American cinema are usually portrayed either as religious radicals or terror suspects in films like The War Within (2005) or as exhibiting a bipolar Muslim disorder in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).

Thankfully, there have been attempts to understand the more nuanced shades of South Asian Muslim diaspora identity. In The Muslims I Know (2008)Mara Ahmed speaks with Pakistani Muslims in upstate New York on questions of cultural identity and being American while also interviewing others on what they think of Muslims.

Films from the U.K. have also tried to portray the experiences of South Asian Muslims humanistically. One such film is Yasmin (2004). The story of a spunky, young British girl from a Pakistani family in West Yorkshire, Yasmin (played by Archie Punjabi) is forced to choose her identity after the Twin Towers come crashing down.

Another film is Bradford Riots (2005), a film about Karim (Sacha Dhawan), a young university student also from northern England. When Bradford burns in riots during the summer of 2001, Karim finds himself on the wrong side of the mob and the law.

The third film, Brick Lane, is the story of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young woman who moves from Bangladesh to East London. The film looks mostly at her life against the backdrop of her family and the British Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, before and after 9-11.

With respect to identity, Yasmin and Karim are the British-born children of working class immigrants. At most, they are “Muslim” in an ethnic sense only, having little to do with religion. Like many from working class backgrounds, they are tough, proud and street smart. Yasmin wears a hijab when she has to but otherwise lets her hair down. Karim has his white mates at college and dosses around with his boys back in the pool halls of Bradford.

In contrast, Nazneen is a first-generation immigrant who came to England to get married. She spends much of the film picturing the paddy fields back home. What’s most crucial for Yasmin is her Bengali culture, her adjustment to life in England and her raising a family.

There’s a difference in how these characters experience racism and Islamophobia. In fact, Nazneen does seem to experience these at all directly. Yasmin and Karim, on the other hand, are labelled Muslim by a society and system. Karim is sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the Bradford riots, raising the question of whether he received a fair trial at a time of such heightened racial tension and the public call for retribution.

Yasmin meanwhile is detained on suspicion of harbouring a terrorist in her husband. Not having gone to the mosque in five years, she is given a copy of the Quran in prison and told which direction Mecca is in. Having suffered taunts at work, she is subjected to the condescending gaze and tone of a police constable who threatens to charge her for withholding information which she doesn’t have.

In Brick Lane, Nazneen’s lover, Karim experiences racism and Islamophobia more directly. After facing harassment from racist gangs, Karim and starts holding meetings on how the local Bangladeshi community can defend itself after 9/11.

For Yasmin, Karim and Nazneen, being Muslim is only part of their larger identities which are defined in terms of culture or nationality. However, the Bradford riots and 9/11 complicate that question for Karim and Yasmin. Are they different? Nazneen’s identity unfolds differently learning as she is to live in a new world. For Karim and Yasmin though, the Muslim part of their identity is something they’d be at peace with if not for the world around them.

Previews:

The Muslims I Know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PPBbIzq_0E

Yasmin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjzg1PC0QjM

Bradford Riots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJYBX64PdV8

Brick Lane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hbd7m00oW6c