XQs: Interviews about South Asian Studies
July 30, 2020 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Starting in 2013, Chapati Mystery (previously) has hosted interviews with scholars about their research in South Asian Studies. "The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with first-book authors in South Asian Studies (broadly understood). Our aim is not to 'review' but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship." Recent interviews discuss "jihadism" and the problems of doing anthropological work during the War On Terror, the trading world of the medieval Indian Ocean, demarcation of cities and the stigmas on "slums", and the "fascinating quasi-ethnographer-poet-journalist-reformer" Behramji Merwanji Malabari (1853-1912).

Some quotes:

Darryl Li, author of The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity:
One of the ironies of my research experience was that just as I was trying to put my past life in the human rights NGO world behind me, it turned out that this background provided the most concrete basis for initially relating to my interlocutors! Understanding me as an NGO type, an “International” like the many others who have been in Bosnia was much easier than understanding me as an anthropologist.

But once I accepted this situation, I realized that I needed to be both creative and careful in weighing the distinct ethical obligations of research and advocacy. For me, ethnographic lawyering entails, among other things, theorizing from doctrinal artifacts, in the same way that anthropologists do with the everyday categories of all our interlocutors–this may be a bit different from what is normally called the “law and society” approach which tends to treat law and legal institutions primarily as empirical objects of study.
Ammara Maqsood, author of The New Pakistani Middle Class:
I think that, for me, one of the biggest challenges was to undo a way of thinking about Pakistan — and about religious life, in particular — that I had grown up with. And, even when I had succeeded in doing that in my thinking, I was unable to change my interlocutors' assumptions about me, whether it was my background or my position as a researcher from the west. Ultimately, I dealt with these challenges by bringing them into the narrative of the book, and discussing the underlying politics that they represented.

As a “native” researcher, though, what I continue to struggle with is the difference between my politics and activism, and the politics of the people I write about. I realize that how I conceive of the country and the future that I want to see for it does not always align with the people I write about. As an anthropologist, I feel that my academic role is to write and explain the worldview of my informants. But that does not always conform to my own politics, and I find this division difficult at times.
Mitra Sharafi, author of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947:

I was interested in how minority communities engage with law. There are plenty of examples historically and today of minority communities trying to avoid interaction with the state -- particularly where there is a history of conflict and exploitation by the state. Equally, there are many examples of communities handling their intra-group disputes internally. But one day as I was leafing through the Bombay law reports, I noticed Parsi names everywhere and on both sides of many cases. Why would members of the same small, tight-knit community take each other to court, especially in a South Asian context where there were so many non-state options for dispute resolution? And why would they do so particularly in sensitive intra-group disputes over religion (temple disputes) and family (matrimonial and inheritance cases)? I was intrigued. Here was a minority community that took its inside disputes to court readily and often, in contrast to the more common patterns of avoidance (of the state) and containment (within the community).
posted by brainwane (11 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
These look awesome, thank you for the intriguing, enticing pull quotes. I especially appreciated Maqsood's point about the difficulty of research as a "native" researcher (with greater access supposedly to "emic" or insider meanings) when there is a major misalignment between your own perspectives and those who you are interviewing and learning from.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:22 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Ooh. Thanks!!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:27 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Brilliant. I have complicated feelings about discovering the book I went straight to was written by a white man, however... There's mention of social network theory and Indian ocean trade in that interview and I know the literature traces where that mashup of context came from.
posted by infini at 1:21 PM on July 30

posted by infini at 1:23 PM on July 30

I really look forward to diving into this post tomorrow, when I have more time. Thanks for making it!
posted by mumimor at 1:54 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Some more pull quotes:

Mubbashir Rizvi, author of The Ethics of Staying: Social Movements and Land Rights in Pakistan:
I was drawn to AMP [Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (The Punjab Tenants’ Association)] because it didn’t fit my preconceived ideas about social movements in Pakistan or in other places. The AMP was not organized around indigenous claims to land, nor was it created to counter ethnic/sectarian marginalization. I saw the AMP as embodying a politics of subsistence rights, or what I call “the ethics of staying” that resonate with the demands of other contemporary peasant movements represented by La Via Campesina.....
Amy Bhatt, author of High-Tech Housewives: Indian IT Workers, Gendered Labor, and Transmigration:
Many of the women in my book are as well educated as their spouses and had been working before migrating. While they are moving as spouses, their categorization as dependents grossly downgrades the skills and training that they bring to the US..... While it is easy to turn to patriarchy and cultural norms to explain Indian women's experiences, those frameworks don't capture the real change in India around women's education and work, especially within this globally oriented and technically-trained class. My intention is to use a Marxist feminist analysis to underscore the economic and social value that women migrants provide through their roles in the household, as well as in the workplace.
Aniruddha Bose, author of Class Conflict and Modernization: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront:
Modernization is a highly contested term. From the 1950s to the 1970s, developmental economists peddled it as a magic formula from American universities. It referred largely to physical infrastructure that poor countries needed in order to turn into rich ones - roads, schools, hospitals. Economists discarded it in the 1970s under an avalanche of criticism that noted how the theory did not address critical issues like inequities in the global trading order, access to global capital, etc. I use the term cautiously, including changing physical infrastructure as well as labor management, two connected processes evident in my own research. Few historians use the term because of its negative connotations. However, I feel it is appropriate to use as long as there is nothing prescriptive or teleological about it. I used it because the term best captured the changes in the patterns of work that I was trying to describe.

Arafaat A. Valiani, author of Militant Publics in India: Physical Culture and Violence in the Making of a Modern Polity:
For particularly adept swayamsevaks and sevikas (male and female volunteers respectively), branches are an entry point into a vast national and international network of branches whose members are selected by branch shikshaks (teachers) to attend periodic training camps. For Hindu nationalists, the project of enracinating this particular vision of physical culture among all Hindus is crucial because it seeks to repair what its founders viewed as a divided, cowardly and physically weak Hindu nation.

In the book I suggest that these branch based physical practices are key sites in which notions of political community are forged and they depend on powerful moral-religious references to Hinduism in addition to an affirmation of the social and political utility for routinized physical force and self-discipline.
Anand Vivek Taneja, author of Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi:
The book centers on Firoz Shah Kotla, a ruined medieval palace which has become a prominent dargah, or Muslim saint shrine, in contemporary Delhi. Firoz Shah Kotla is frequented by both Hindus and Muslims, and the saints venerated at this dargah are not human but Islamic spirits known as jinn. Visitors, predominantly women, write letters of petition to these jinn-saints as if petitioning a government official, including their names, addresses, and passport photos......

If there is something that approximates an unconstructed real, it is creatureliness, being a creature among other creatures, a being among other beings, unencumbered by the constructs that constitute our usual sense of the “real”. And in Firoz Shah Kotla, far more than any other place that I have been, there is an embrace of creaturliness. For example, there is an ethics of nameless intimacy that people observe in this space. People have deep conversations about politics and theology, but also deeply intimate personal matters without asking each other's names. So you get to know each other as human beings before you get to know each other as Hindus and Muslims, as high-caste or low-caste.

..... Islamic motifs and Islamic saint-shrines continue to have such a major role in the public life and religious culture of Hindu-majority India. What I have shown in the book is that commonplace ideas of justice and ethics in North India are deeply influenced by Islam, without necessarily influencing the ritual world of Hinduism at all. Hence “Muslim socials” were wildly popular in Hindu majority India because they staged ethical dilemmas and their resolution which were recognizable to all (north) Indians.
posted by brainwane at 3:29 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

And a few more [since the XQ index page doesn't tell you the topic of the book, so it's harder to browse/skim]:

Nayanika Mathur, author of Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India:
The arrival of the man-eater in Gopeshwar during my fieldwork was, obviously, terrifying and horrifying but it also ended up being very illuminating for my wider project on the execution of law and the functioning of the state. I was astonished to see that from within my primary field site — the District Magistrate's office — state life remained more or less the same. The very same things (paper), rituals, and processes were followed to deal with the, by any account, extraordinary issue of a predatory animal in the town precincts. These state practices were precisely what were in play for the slower, more normalised phenomena like rural poverty and unemployment. Gopeshwar was in the grips of total terror mixed with profound anger at the paper tiger that is the Indian state. Yet, I would enter the offices and find all the bureaucrats were doing their everyday activities albeit at a quicker pace: filing, writing letters and reports, filling out balance sheets, holding meetings, making telephone calls. Instead of being pushed into a different register, state practices remained recognizably the same. They were paper-based, ritualistic, involved meetings, invocation of laws, deference to procedure.
Sarah Besky, author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India:
My argument is that to understand contemporary capitalism, we have to understand how the plantation form endures over time.....

I went to Darjeeling to study fair-trade and organic certification, what they meant to workers and how they might be making a change in workers' lives. The short answer to this question was that these certification programs didn't mean that much, and many workers did not know what they even were! So I turned my attention to the plantation itself.....

I began to ask: What makes a “plantation” different from the industrial strawberry fields of California's Central Valley? Thinking in this way brought my attention to time and domestic space.
Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande, author of Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002:

I also used displacement as an analytical lens to understand the larger polity and its limits......

The view that communal violence is natural and endemic can be found in policies, in archives of legislative assembly debates among political leaders across party lines, among academics and in common parlance....The shift was in the assertion of normalcy and complete denial of displacement that was described as migration of those who had moved to what the state described as 81 resettlement colonies of their own volition.
And: every author mentions a few books that ought to be read in conversation with theirs. Harleen Singh, author of The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India, mentions an Amar Chitra Katha comic, which makes me all nostalgic and happy.
posted by brainwane at 3:44 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

I have complicated feelings about discovering the book I went straight to was written by a white man, however....

There isn't enough academic literature coming from India, possibly because of funding issues and because few people choose this career path. But there is a deeper reason I feel - Indians don't appreciate the act of preserving the past, at least not as much as Europeans. Foreign historians have always played an important role, whether William Dalrymple or Scorcese, who saved some of our cinematography, which institutions are happy to let rot...

(I understand that there's a colonialist aspect to this argument and that it can be conceivably extended to argue that stolen artifacts don't need to be returned or some such, which I majorly disagree with, but the fact remains India sucks at conserving its history. That makes the finds of this post all the more interesting IMHO).
posted by kolendra at 2:00 AM on July 31

Glad people find the post chewy and interesting and useful! I subscribe to the Chapati Mystery syndication feed* and probably every single post would be of interest to MeFites. The Li and Prange interviews I showed to my spouse a few days ago in a "you gotta see these" kind of way - Darryl Li is caustic and thought-provoking on violence and academia, and the discussion of medieval Muslim traders mentioned that "To a degree, Muslim traders on the Malabar Coast were able to pursue their own foreign policy" (the part about who people dedicated Friday prayers to!) which is fascinating.

I really love that these interviews are structured and conducted to draw out each interviewee, to help them discuss what they found and how they got interested and what it took to make the book happen. There is so much good faith in these conversations, even affection -- to read people affectionately talk about each other's scholarly work is something I find so nourishing.

* for avoidance of ambiguity or jarring dual readings in this particular thread I decided not to say "RSS feed"
posted by brainwane at 4:31 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]

kolendra, we don't know why Indians were encouraged to prioritize STEM over the humanities, the exact opposite has happened in the former British colonies of East Africa.

brainwane, truly appreciate your find. Just feeling over sensitive these days.
posted by infini at 1:00 PM on July 31

infini: I get it :-)
posted by brainwane at 1:37 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

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