Friday, May 11, 2007

Against the City of Djinns

This was published earlier this week in Delhi City Limits. It's not online on the Outlook site yet, so read it here!

The theatrical adaptation, currently playing in Delhi, made me, in New York, return to the book. This is how William Dalrymple's, 'City of Djinns' begins – 'It was in the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla that... Pir Sadr-ud-din... sat me down on a carpet and told me about the djinns.'

Thus begins a book which over the past decade or so has become the definitive account of Delhi, a book read by visitors and Dilli-wallahs alike, a book which has since inspired a photo-exhibition, now a play, and innumerable cocktail conversations. But I find myself increasingly puzzled. For though the book begins with Feroz Shah Kotla, it never mentions it again. Which is sort of shocking, given the book's title. The Pir and his carpet are long gone, but every Thursday, there are thousands of people thronging these ruins, and depositing letters in the many alcoves and crevices, letters addressed to jinns.

Why would this most strange and relevant phenomenon be absent in a book which begins at Firoz Shah Kotla and has jinns as a thematic? In answer, let us begin to see what the narrative would look like if these letters had been written about. If while talking about the jinns that haunt and love Delhi, Dalrymple had also talked about the petitions addressed to them, petitions which form an archive of the disquiet of the city - loveless marriages, alcoholism, smack addiction, disease uncured, love unrequited, loans unpaid, work unfinished?

As soon as the letters enter the narrative, it becomes very hard to romanticize the city, to think of it as one 'whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic'. We are forced to ask, why do people write these letters? Since when have they been doing this? What do they have to do with the vanished Pir and his carpet? When did he start living in an ASI controlled ruin? And rather than being a 'timeless' practise, our answers begin to point back to the distressingly close past, to the demolitions and dispossesions and terrors of the Emergency as they visited themselves upon the people of Delhi. There is no room here to go into those histories, alas, except to say that the jinns and the everyday violence of the city are inextricably mixed up, on beginning to research these letters.

Dalyrmple's book does not flinch from recording violence. The Emergency gets short shrift, but 1984, and Partition, and the excesses of Mohammad bin Tughlak are all well chronicled. But these are all spectacular events of violence; and by focusing on them one ignores the humdrum violence that is visited upon the less elite denizens of this city everyday, and with increasing frequency, and has been done so for a very long time. The uniqueness of Delhi is not that, to paraphrase Dalrymple, different centuries have been preserved intact, but that the past is constantly charged and transformed by the traumas of the present – that 'Tughlakshahi' becomes a metaphor for government arbitrariness and cruelty during the industrial closures of 2000.

Dalrymple is an engaging and important writer, and obviously loves the city. But to celebrate his romantic vision of a 'timeless' Delhi at the precise moment when the city is being transformed most brutally and rapidly, when the count of demolitions of homes and shops in the past year has gone insane, reeks of criminal callousness and cretinity among the city's elite. In the story that the Pir tells Dalrymple, Delhi is rebuilt again and again because the jinns love it too much to see it deserted. But all the jinns can do is to bear mute witness and read the letters deposited in their name, as those in power screw the city's denizens yet again, while we go and applaud the 'City of Jinns'.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Remembering 1857: 10th and 11th May, New York

Two events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the The Great Rebellion in India. Spread the word.

1) Rebellion: History, Music, Poetry
featuring musicians Achyut Joshi, Dave Sharma and Samita Sinha; and narratives, poetry and folksongs from 1857
Alwan For the Arts, 16, Beaver Street
Thursday, May 10, 7pm

2)The Uprising: Reflections on 1857
A panel discussion with Janaki Bakhle, Faisal Devji, Salahuddin Malik and Veena Oldenburg
602 Hamilton, Columbia University
Friday, May 11, 6.30pm

1857 – A defining moment in the history of South Asia and British colonialism.

May 10th, 2007 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion of 1857. As the largest anti-colonial uprising of the 19th century, the Rebellion marks a watershed moment in history at multiple levels: the end of the East India Company's rule and beginning of direct British government rule and the Raj; the completion of the loss of Mughal sovereignty in India; and a sea change in North Indian life, culture and politics.

1) Rebellion: History, Music, Poetry

To mark the 150th anniversary, we are revisiting 1857 through multiple narratives of the event - narratives of revenge, lament and lost possibilities - through history, music, poetry, and images. The program will integrate live performances of ghazals and various Indian musical forms, readings of selected poetry and historical prose, and images of the uprising and its aftermath.

May 10, 2007. 7pm
Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver St.

Music - Achyut Joshi, Dave Sharma, Samita Sinha

Poetry/Narrative/Images - "The 'Wheat-ish' Log Collective" - Sajid Huq, Prashant Keshavmurthy, Daanish Masood, Haroon Moghul, Anand V Taneja

About Achyut Joshi - Achyut Joshi has trained in Hindustani Classical Music as a student of Raghunandan Panshikar of the Jaipur Gharana. In 2005 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study music in India. He teaches high school math in New York City.

About Samita Sinha
- Though trained primarily in classical Hindustani music, Samita Sinha's repertoire spans a range of styles in several different languages. She experiments in synthesizing elements of Hindustani music with jazz, electronic music, and theater. In 2002 she was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study in the guru-shishya tradition in India with Dr. Alka Deo Marulkar. Since returning to New York City her main projects have included KAASH, Sunny Jain Collective, and Sekou Sundiata's the 51st(dream)state.
More at

From Dave Sharma's Myspace page - Sharmaji creates a bass-heavy, post-desi sound that is as consistently powerful as it is diverse in background-- and completely NYC. As a DJ and percussionist he's brought his riddims to artists as diverse as Karsh Kale, Ming & FS, Tina Sugandh, JUNGLI, and Timbaland's hookstress RajeSwari, as well as for NYC's 9-years-strong Basment Bhangra party...
In 2004 he started a long-term relationship with AR Rahman's Broadway musical "Bombay Dreams"
More at

The 'Wheat-ish' Log Collective - Came up over chai one rainy New York afternoon as a bunch of impecunious desi graduate students and NGO types realized that the state sponsored 'celebrations' of 1857 in India were going to entirely painted in black and white, and that even if sitting in NYC, we needed to do something to change the tints of the picture.

2) The Uprising: Reflections on 1857

To mark the 150th anniversary of the rebellion of 1857, we will come together for brief reflections on the event, its lasting repercussions in the 90 years of the Raj that followed, and its relevance to current Indian identity and politics. Professors Janaki Bakhle, Faisal Devji, Salahuddin Malik, and Veena Oldenburg will offer brief remarks on 1857 and after. This will be followed by an intra panel discussion and an interactive Q&A session with the audience.

May 11, 2007. 6.30pm
602 Hamilton, Columbia University.

- Janaki Bakhle teaches History at Columbia University.
Prof. Bakhle has recently published Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition (New York: Oxford, 2005). She is currently researching Marathi Revolutionaries in the early twentieth century. Bakhle is working to situate their activities within a specifically Marathi discourse.

Faisal Devji teaches History at the New School. He is interested in the political thought of modern Islam as well as in the transformation of liberal categories and democratic practice in South Asia. His broader concerns are with ethics and violence in a globalized world. Prof. Devji has recently published Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity.

Salahuddin Malik, a professor of history, earned his PhD at McGill University in Montreal. He is a widely-published specialist on 19th century British India and Islam. He teaches Ancient World and upper-level courses on Islam and South Asia.

-Veena Oldenburg teaches at Baruch College, CUNY.
Among her publications is her work on British colonial urbanization, The Making of Colonial Lucknow, 1856-77 (Princeton University Press, 1984), "Life Style as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow" (Feminist Studies , 1990) and Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Friday, May 04, 2007

वापसी के इंतज़ार मेँ

बस कुछ दिन और, और फिर घर की ओर सफ़र।
कल रात को एक पुराना खयाल लौटा। के इस शहर में मेरी जिंदगी बहुत हसीं है, पर इसका मेरी हकीकी जिंदगी से कोई वासता नहीं।
मैं तरजुमे मेँ जीने से थोड़ा थक सा गया हूँ। और ब्लॉगर की ऊट-पटांग मात्राओं से भी।

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

kalenda maya (the first of may)

Kalenda maya the first of May
Ni fuels de faya neither leaf of beech
Ni chanz d'auzelh nor song of bird
Ni flors de glaya nor flower of sword lily
Non es que'm playa pleases me
Pros domna guaya lady noble and gay
Tro qu'un ysnelh until I receive
Messatgier aya a speedy messenger
Del vostre belh from your fair self
Cors, que'm retraya who will tell me
Plazer novelh the new delight
Qu'Amors m'atraya which love brings me

Things haven't changed that much from 12th century Provence.
or, my setiments exactly, or something. :) More here...
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