Essay Books

Minerva’s owl flies at dusk: An assessment of Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s ‘Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950’

Transfigured: Urdu poet Taqi Abedi (left) reciting at the international musha’irah, Jashn-e-Bahar, in New Delhi, 2018.   | Photo Credit: Jashn-e-Bahar Trust

Sab hi ka khun hai shamil yahan ki mitti men/ Kisi ke bap ka Hindostan thodi hai (Everyone’s blood is present in this earth/ India is not anyone’s personal property)

Inscribed on the first pages of Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s latest book, Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950, this couplet from Rahat Indori’s iconic performance at a musha’irah (poetry reading) is also the book’s pièce de resistance. Indeed, the enunciative force of Indori’s words is consonant with the tenor of the book, for Mahmudabad’s pen never runs demurely: his book is a sharp riposte to the sovereigns who regard India as their ‘personal property’, the frequent references to the ruling party and the RSS leaving little about the identity of the sovereigns to readerly imagination.

Alternative history

Here Mahmudabad is in august academic company. In South Asia, history has not only followed the Hegelian labour of expressing and interpreting the political present but also found itself tasked with the burden of dispelling a diverse assortment of claims upon the past — colonial, nationalist and, more recently, those peddled by votaries and organisations united by a commitment to the ideology of Hindutva. This has been productive, even necessary, and yet, in so far as it magnifies the discursive presence of the disputed object, stultifying. But more on that later.

Because majoritarian projects can only regard the Muslim, à la Faisal Devji, as “the symbol of national frustration and insecurity” whose loyalty to the nation is hopelessly divided and ever suspect, Mahmudabad takes the recovery of an alternative history as his endeavour. This is a history located in the trajectories of the musha’irah and locked in a time when the nation-form was yet to colonise the political wholly.

We meet a galaxy of figures remarkably akin to Indori in their use of a modernised poetic medium, the musha’irah, to debate and reinscribe conceptions of qaum, millat, ummah and watan (people or nation, religious fraternity, community of Islam, homeland)and thus contest the parochialism of the nation state. The latter is, it seems, deducible only retrospectively: to go back to Hegel, only with the coming of dusk does Minerva’s owl spread its wings.

Much of Mahmudabad’s effort is devoted to demonstrating that the colonial encounter and developments such as print and sound technologies, produced significant transformations in the performative site of the musha’irah that had hitherto been opaquely metaphysical. Thrown open to different audiences and compelled to surrender its other-worldly poeticism to contemporary issues, the musha’irah fashioned a liminal space that sought to bridge linguistic and political chasms.

Thriving subculture

Drawn to its political elegance, several thinkers courted the musha’irah in long, mostly unrecorded, and truly illustrious careers. These individuals brought their selves to bear upon the expressive capacities of a thoroughly transfigured creative vehicle that produced ‘a view of the Muslim as a political subject’. Corporate selfhoods were reforged as musha’irah poets eschewed nationalist insularities for transnational cosmopolitanisms. Mahmudabad could certainly have explored the musha’irah’s transnational economies in richer detail.

There is another problem worth considering. Mahmudabad’s musha’irah is a pirouetting article in an entropic world whose conqueror is never inexorable until the nation-form, at Independence/ Partition, assumes a restrictive presence. For Mahmudabad, this presence is epitomised in Hindutva’s intolerance of any political or identitarian recalcitrance.

The nation-form need not have been inescapably Procrustean, but it was perhaps not avoidable either. Indeed, for much of the 19th century, the ‘nation’ remained the most concrete mode of organising the political, one that was and is, like most hegemonies, strengthened by questioning. Few could settle the question of the nation, but fewer still could deny the existential basis of its being one, as Mahmudabad establishes when he quotes a poet from Anjuman-e-Punjab, the literary society founded in Lahore in 1865: ‘qaum se janta ka zizna ho, qaum say badhkar koi chiz na ho’ (Life should not be as precious as the nation, nothing should be more important than the nation.)

In South Asia, national imagination was coterminous with the making of ‘Hinduism’ as national religion. This renders the political assaults of the right wing today fully intelligible while also revisiting the position of Independence/ Partition as a definitive historical juncture. Perhaps the musha’irah was not an alternative culture but a subculture, and although responding to the present is crucial, perhaps the proverbial rot runs far deeper than the RSS and BJP.

There is, however, little doubt about the accomplishment of Poetry of Belonging. Mahmudabad’s command over his sources is impressive and his writing is as cogent as immersive. The book will, in its liberal employment of tweets and audio-visual data as serious source material, ruffle orthodoxies. And this is only the first of many feathers — and orthodoxies — that the monograph will ruffle.

The writer is a history student in the University of Delhi.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 12:19:25 AM |

Next Story