Brown as the Mouths of Rivers

By Hasan Altaf

Excerpts from an essay published in a special issue (A Country of Our Own – A Symposium on Re-Imagining South Asia) of Seminar, India, April 2012.


A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace “South Asia” with “Islam”: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interests of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business.

Once again, it was the Met that put things in context.Recently the museum reopened its collection of what is in shorthand referred to as “Islamic art” because its formal name is simply so overwhelming: the new galleries for “the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” By the time one reaches the end of that phrase, it feels as if a globe has already spun halfway around – if the “Islamic world” stretches from at least as far west as Morocco to as far east as Indonesia, and if the “Islamic world” has in some form or another existed for nearly fifteen hundred years, expecting “Islam” – the culture of Islam, the interpretations of Islam, the forms and practices and implications of Islam – to remain constant across both time and space is foolish at best and destructive at worst, like asking evolution never to happen, your seeds never to bear fruit.


These are all however exhibitions, displayed in museums; behind glass and untouchable, these are all in a sense relics, remnants, objects from the past and therefore by definition no longer a part of our present. A show in a museum, then – particularly a show of ancient “South Asian” art in a museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the twenty-first century – is just a show in a museum; one could argue that real life is another thing entirely, and in the real life of South Asia in 2012 (precise, emotionless geography; precise, normative time), painting a Jainesque Shahnama is not exactly anyone’s first priority.

Maybe such things belong now only in museums, and perhaps the same could be said for “South Asia” itself, that as an idea its time has passed, that in any sense other than the geographic it has become as untouchable and distant as a Jainesque Shahnama mounted, framed and hung. Golden ages after all cannot last, empires and nations and even cities fall, languages develop and morph and die: Cultures change, in the end; why should South Asia – because when we use the term to mean anything other than geography in the end what we mean is culture, what we are talking about is culture, kinship – be any different? The lines have been drawn; we have lived since then for the most part within our walls, fortifying our borders (geographical and otherwise, precise and vague, emotionless and heated) with blood and with rhetoric. SAARCs and most-favored-nations are all well and good, but as for anything more, the general consensus (general because it is the view espoused by the governments meant, in our theoretical democracies, to represent us) seems to be that it is time to let the idea go. The rainforest has been razed; now we should make do with our endless acres of corn.


The notion that the arts transcend national boundaries is both obvious and familiar, especially on that subcontinent. It is impossible to imagine the visual art, the literature, the architecture, the cinema or the music of any of the countries of South Asia without imagining at the same time South Asia as a greater whole. More than impossible, it would be foolish, brutal (you would have to tear down the Taj Mahal, burn the poetry of Iqbal and Tagore), and it is also by now a moot point. Jainesque Shahnamas may be passé, but Indian soap operas and game shows are, inexplicably, hugely popular in Pakistan; Coke Studio (the Pakistani one, although the whole concept was started by the Coca-Cola Company in Brazil) has a large audience in India; Urdu ghazals are read in Bangladesh. Somewhere I read that one way to define “South Asia” might be by Bollywood; as long as those movies remain the lingua franca, you are still in some sense in South Asia, you are still in some sense at home. By this calculus, “South Asia” is immense, diverse, impure, jumbled, confused, chaotic, and richer for it.

Art does not convince everyone, however, but the fact of music, “South Asian” music, may have been secondary. Those concerts and competitions, I remember them as completely distinct from the rest of my childhood: We grew up in jeans and T-shirts; only on those weekends would we don shalwar kurtas or lehngas or saris and sit on stage awkward in those unfamiliar clothes (except the dancers, the dancers were never awkward); when we climbed back down the language we spoke was English. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South Asian, we were most of all the kids in America. Between us and the Indian subcontinent there lay the gulf of language, culture, environment; between us and the Indian subcontinent there lay ten thousand miles.

Ten thousand miles were, in the end, the shortest route home: I grew up on the East Coast, but if I looked for it, South Asia was right there. When I was in middle school, the Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis gravitated towards each other, drawn by the opportunity to make fun of other people and complain about our parents to peers who would understand. (The same thing happened even with our parents, people born and raised in South Asia, people for whom the conflicts of South Asian history were not history but lived reality. They met for tea and samosas; they went to listen to Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy read; they went to listen to Abida Parveen or Vilayat Khan perform.) Later, when I was in college in New York, Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis went to the same restaurants for a taste of home; we wound up at the same grocery stores, the same parties, the same movies; now, on Facebook, we laugh at the same memes. One could of course have looked for Pakistan, instead of South Asia, but the former was harder to find, and the differences so minimal.

The important factor was the distance, those ten thousand miles. From so far away, the internal differences began to fade, some of the boundaries blur; as the American child of Pakistanis, the American children of Indians and Bangladeshis were by and large just like me, growing up with similar languages, similar cultures, similar expectations, the exact same schizophrenia of one way of life outside their homes and another inside. This seems though fairly common: In the US and Canada and the UK, in the Middle East and in Singapore and in Hong Kong – surrounded that is by “others,” by people whose languages and backgrounds and cultures and experiences and expectations are more starkly different – Indians and Pakistanis begin to seem and to feel more alike – to feel, as it were, more “South Asian.” (You can see the same phenomenon, on a different scale, working within South Asia too: People from Bikaner and Calcutta can both be “Indian,” Burushaski- and Punjabi-speakers can both be “Pakistani.”)



Internet memes are one thing, but it would be foolish to deny all the problems of South Asia’s history, all the different desires and pressures and goals, all the conflicting needs, all the blood that has been shed. Leaving the region itself aside, even the individual countries have essentially since their independences been divided along lines of language, class, caste, ethnicity, religion, power, wealth; the violence of even individual cities – Karachi, Bombay – shows that while we may all like our food spicy and all our parents may want us to be doctors, old wounds can still bleed. The history of our part of the world is troubled and violent and impossible to escape, even for those of us who left South Asia or who were born or raised in other countries: You bring your scars with you when you travel, too.

In the end, like most things, it boils down to a choice: One can choose to focus on the bloodshed, one can choose to see only the differences, and in response try to eliminate and expel all that is in any way other (although this is a fool’s errand; there will always be someone else to ostracize, another other whose influence to purge), or choose another interpretation, one of which might be that our history has both tragedy and its opposite almost beyond measure, and it is precisely those tragedies and their opposites that are our background. History was handed to us; what we do with it is our own choice. Similarly, identity, too, is a choice: We are born with the geography of our birth and our origin, but everything beyond that geography is up to us. “South Asia,” like any other such grandiose idea (“Islam,” “America,” “Europe,” take your pick), is not static, an object to be passed from parent to child, like a jadanagam – it’s something that we make, something that we create and modify and reshape.

As always happens to me, somewhere in the middle of Central Park I got lost, and I wound up at the Bethesda Terrace, where the Angel of the Waters hovers over her fountain. The terrace always makes me think of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and I remembered a scene in which one of the characters, Belize, tells another about heaven. I’ve remembered his description almost word for word since I first read the play, in the eighth grade:

Big city, overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens… Prophet birds… Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths… And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion… And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers… Race, taste and history finally overcome.

Ever since I was thirteen this has seemed to me the best possible vision for any kind of heaven – a place of energy, being torn down and simultaneously rebuilt, improved upon, changed; a place where even the trash can be lapidary, precious; a place where the lines of color and faith, ethnicity and language, gender and identity can all be, finally, breached. And while this is a vision of a heaven, a similar destiny is, I think, possible for us, too, in South Asia and on this earth. That future may be distant, but it’s there, around the corner. The journey begins simply with the choice to believe that the destination is possible.

The complete essay is available on the Seminar website. These excerpts are reproduced with permission of the author.



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