Reflections / 13.11.2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia. A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion: A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation.
Reflections / 11.11.2009

There is a sentence in Julian Barnes’s review of two novels by Maupassant (1850-1893) that struck me with unusual force and I wish to use it to reflect on our societal values in South Asia. Barnes is talking about four pages in one of the novels that describe Parisian salons, “the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them.” And here is the sentence that should knock a South Asian for a six: Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated. I am not making it up – you can look up the original here. Go over the pecking order again and take a few moments to let it sink in.
Reflections / 06.11.2009

You must have had the experience of catching just a part of an interesting conversation and wondering how it might have evolved. It happened to me today as I moved past an African and a South Asian who, the words suggested, was a Pakistani. I heard the African asking, “What do professionals like you really want to see happening in Pakistan?” And    before I could hear the answer the words were swallowed by the silence. It was a good question at a time when Pakistanis seem to be living from day to day just hoping for the situation to stabilize. What kind of Pakistan might middle class professionals really want beyond this immediate crisis if they got around to thinking about it? I would have loved to hear but the opportunity was lost. I wondered then what I might have said had I been given that part in some role-play exercise or in a mock UN format.
Reflections / 11.09.2009

By Anjum Altaf We have short memories. Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power. It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan - then the symbol of American capitalism -  was wired up with explosives. The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be. And nor was he was poor. Indeed he was quite well off: in those days he was the proud...

Reflections / 05.09.2009

I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today. I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience. I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him. ****** … Then one morning Naim saab became the...

Reflections / 16.07.2009

By Viswam Kumar When I look back to see what shaped me - I can see how much I am shaped by serendipitous circumstances and encounters with people. Mental Discipline is perhaps the foundational trait behind all my meager achievements. I have the discipline required in focusing, concentrating and working hard to achieve a goal. This goal can be anything from finishing a project at work successfully to sticking with a fitness regime. This discipline has been a result of the grooming from my parents. They have always spoken highly about hard work and discipline and extolled these virtues. Over time, I have learnt that Discipline is something that adds to the quality of life, even if it is not materially rewarding - which was the initial motive for adopting discipline. I have learnt that it can give the courage needed to pursue goals that seem difficult...

Reflections / 22.05.2009

Can you tell me what is meant by ‘sublimated violence’? I am asking this question to try to answer another that was put to me yesterday. It has left me quite perplexed. A reader wrote and described the following observation. He was attending a serious talk by an American professional. Somewhere in the middle of the talk, the presenter had occasion to mention he was from Pittsburg. All of a sudden, he swiveled from his hip, pumped up his fist, and shouted ‘Go Steelers.’ And then he continued with his serious presentation. The question posed by the reader was whether I could imagine a South Asian doing something like that and if not, why not?
Reflections / 12.05.2009

By Kabir Altaf Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English? Das: I do not like everything English. Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire! (Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43) Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally. In the...

Reflections / 28.04.2009

By Radhika R. Yeddanapudi Life in a big city is about connections, people and places and above all a creation of the ideas arising from within – the imagined city dwelling within the real. "..This city will always pursue you. You'll walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. You'll always end up in this city.."  ---- C P Cavafy Some Indians might describe it as twice the dreaded Saade-Sathi - an astrological adverse period ascribed to the planet Saturn in Vedic astrology! I am reminded instead of the legendary tale of the 14th century emperor Muhammed Bin Tughlaq who attempted first to relocate his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and then returned only to lose Delhi forever. It is a city that eludes the grasp and shows itself most fleetingly.I was born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh into a south Indian Telegu Brahmin household. But I...

Reflections / 25.04.2009

With Reflections we begin a new series on The South Asian Idea in which contributors share their thoughts on their own evolution. How did they become what they are and what were the ideas or books or people or places or incidents that moved them, surprised them, gave shape to their lives, or sent them on completely unexpected trajectories?

On The South Asian Idea we believe that ideas matter. Naturally. But disembodied ideas can become too dry and cerebral. We also need to know where ideas come from, how they find their way into the mind, and how they get to capture the imagination.

And how do we try and communicate our ideas to others? Or do we? And should we? And how do we deal with situations where ideas clash?