*The Murder of a Sufi Qawwal and a Nation-Sate in Its Death-Throes

Los Angeles, 25 June 2016

Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead on a Karachi street Wednesday morning.  To millions of people around the world, he and other members of his famous family have been the torch-bearers of Sufi qawwali music since the late 1950s when the two brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, released their first album under the EMI Pakistan label, Mera Kohin Nahin Hai Teray Siva [I Have None Other Than You].  Amjad Sabri not only inherited the legacy of his father, Ghulam Sabri, but was in every way a worthy legatee.


Amjad Sabri

Pakistan has gone well beyond being in a state of crisis.  It has been so long in a crisis that one needs a more trenchant, soul-searching, and analytically penetrative vocabulary to describe the abysmal state to which it has long been reduced.  This nation-state, not yet 70 years old, is now in its death-throes.  It is, as the world’s affairs have made evident, and as is suggested by the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to mention only a few other countries, far from being the only country where common people can no longer expect to live with any assurance of even minimal security and dignity.  No Indian, such as myself, should ever be able to throw a stone at Pakistan without casting a glance at India’s own sordid state of affairs.  India has had its own share of open assassinations of intellectuals and its suppression of voices of dissent is alarming.

Nevertheless, the problems of Pakistan are not only quite distinct but of an altogether different order, even if the assault on freedom of expression and religious worship has taken on menacing overtones even in relatively robust democracies.  One splinter group of the Taliban, the so-called Hakimullah Mehsud faction, has claimed responsibility for Amjad Sabri’s murder and described the music of which he was a superb exponent as “blasphemous.”  The charge of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan, where people so accused—Christians, Ahmadis, non-believers, apostates, even those who are just resolutely secular—have even been killed in custody while awaiting trial.  If an accusation of blasphemy is in many instances nothing short of a death warrant, Sabri’s offense was, from the Taliban perspective, compounded by the fact that Sufi qawwali music is seen as an absolute anathema to Islam.  This view stems from a profound ignorance among the extremists both about the status of music and indeed the place of Sufism in Islam.  Far from being an aberration, Sufism had been central to Islam for centuries; indeed, it would be safe to say that most Muslims, until the advent of ‘modernity’, would have had some affinity to a Sufi order.  What is perhaps even more germane is that the notion that music ought to be abhorrent to a believing Muslim is an idea that is of very recent vintage with little or or no credibility in Islamic history.

The assassination of Amjad Sabri, then, fits the template of interpretation that is now firmly in place.  We have been hearing for many years about the rigid intolerance and fanaticism of the Taliban.  Pakistan is in the grip of several insurgencies, in Balochistan, Waziristan, and among Afghan Pashtuns, but to outside observers, especially in the United States and Western Europe, the battle for Pakistan is essentially between the state and the Taliban.  We may ignore, for the present, the fact that the Taliban is far from being one single entity, and that various Taliban factions do not all share the same ideology.  There is, more pertinently, a lurking suspicion in the foreign policy establishments of India, the US, and most Western powers that the Pakistani political elites only make a show of being committed to the eradication of the Taliban.  Many of them are believed to be sympathetic to the Taliban and extremist ideology is supposed to have many adherents among Pakistan’s politicians and army officers.  A variation of this argument, and it is little more than that, posits the deep discord that is apparently tearing apart the country as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.  In this scenario, whatever the local elements that might be feeding into the conflict, Pakistan is yet another stage where ideologues who are wholly beholden to the Wahhabi and Salafi elements are making an extremely violent and desperate bid to impose a puritanical, harsh, and ferociously punishing version of Islam throughout the world.

While this standard template of interpretation has much merit, it is oblivious to the most critical component that distinguishes the Muslim extremists in Pakistan from their brethren in the Middle East.  Muslims in Pakistan are not only part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, but they also partake of what might be called the Indic worldview.  Much before the rise of the Taliban, South Asian Islam, especially in Pakistan, was beginning to fall hostage to the notion that it was an inauthentic and feebler version of the Islam of Muhammad’s homeland.  The purists in Pakistan, whatever their misgivings about the political implications of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, have always been troubled by the sheer proximity of Islam to Hinduism in South Asia, and Bengali Muslims in particular were seen as the source of contamination which both enfeebled and compromised true, muscular Islam.  Thus the loss of East Pakistan was a blessing in disguise, and Muslims in Pakistan could be weaned, as has been happening over the last 45 years, from those distinct socio-cultural and religious practices, such as visits to the dargahs of Sufi saints, that reeked of Hindu influence and idolatry.

Students of Pakistani society are aware of the close and ever growing ties between the Saudis and Pakistan.  But Pakistan, again, is not even remotely the only country where the Wahhabi state of Saudia Arabia has successfully sought to peddle its noxious and virulent version of Islam.  It thus becomes imperative to understand what is distinct about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and why the stakes are extraordinarily high.  It cannot be emphasized enough that, unlike in the Middle East, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that developed in South Asia over several centuries, from the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century to the end of Mughal rule, is a glorious monument of world culture and a testament to the ability and resilience of the practitioners of two very different faiths to cohabit the same space in the most productive fashion.  The terrorists who murdered Amjad Sabri are seeking to undermine this past, little realizing that they will have succeeded in turning Pakistan into a desert:  not the desert of Muhamamad’s time but akin to a wasteland following a holocaust.





*A Reputation, and More, in Ruins: Gandhi at the Aga Khan Palace, Pune


He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.


Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/


On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.


The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.


One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.


One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.


The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.



The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.


The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.


At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

*The Girl-Child in India:  Play, Pedagogy, and Promise


Review-article on Ruby Lal, Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century IndiaThe Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  xvii plus 229 pp.).

More than twenty-five years ago, the Indian economist and public intellectual Amartya Sen helped ignite a debate on the “endangered” status of girls and women in Asia and Africa when he argued that 100 million women were “missing”, a third of that number from India alone.  Discrimination against girls in India begins, as is now commonly known, in the womb itself. I recall reading, some three decades ago, a report about a hospital in Bombay where 50,000 fetuses had been aborted: one, just one, fetus was male.  Sen was by no means the first person to have broached this subject:  indeed, the girl-child in India had, by the 1970s, already been the subject of numerous government committee reports, but there was still little awareness of the various largely invisible forms of discrimination that affected girls and women adversely.  The various government commissions may, not all that ironically, have helped to bury the problem; but India is attentive to the likes of Amartya Sen, who has wide recognition in educated liberal circles in the West and has been lionized in India.  Just three years after Sen’s article was written, the Government of India outlawed prenatal sex discrimination with the passage of the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act [1994].  Soon thereafter, one could see the following sign at least some hospitals:  “Here pre-natal sex determination (Boy or Girl before birth) is not done. It is a punishable act.”

It is Indian feminists rather than Sen, of course, who must be credited with whatever little reforms the Indian state has undertaken in the matter of rights of unborn girls, female children, and women.  Those who are familiar with the Indian principle of jugaad, which means, among other things, making do with the situation at hand, bending corners, and finding a way out, would not be surprised to hear that sex selection still takes place.  It is not merely the case that most Indian laws are seldom and certainly imperfectly implemented, though this is part of the story:  more than ten years after the legislation was passed, only 400 cases had been registered under the 1994 act, and a mere two convictions had been procured.   What is more germane is that under the guise of aiming to screen for birth defects, amniocentesis is still carried out without any fear of penalty.  At Amritsar’s New Bhandari Hospital, for example, amniocentesis is widely practiced and openly advertised.  Kanan Bhandari, who is herself a gynecologist and married to the hospital’s proprietor, defends her clinic’s practices by distinguishing between amniocentesis and the “medical termination of pregnancy of fetuses older than 20 weeks.”  However, the measure of the girl-child in India can be taken in myriad other ways.  In many Indian households, to take one illustration, girls eat after boys, and women after men; moreover, girls are given less to eat than boys, and they may be given smaller portions of milk, eggs, and poultry.

Considering what the sociological literature on the girl-child has to say, the work of the historian Ruby Lal comes as a breath of fresh air.  Her monograph on the girl-child in 19th century India is of an altogether different genre, even if it is similarly animated by the desire to make visible certain forms of experience that undergird the lives of what she describes as the girl-child/woman.  By the early 19th century, the colonial state in India had embraced the view that a civilization was to be evaluated, and placed in a hierarchical scale, on the basis of how it treated its women.  India was found sorely wanting in this respect:  colonial texts offered lurid accounts of the practice of sati (widow-immolation), female infanticide, child marriage, and the prohibitions placed on widow-remarriage, even among widows who had not yet achieved puberty and had never consummated their marriage.  We need not be detained here by such considerations as whether the position of women in Britain was all that much better, and whether the sexual exploitation of girls was not rampant, particularly in view of the vulnerability of working-class women under the new conditions of industrialism.  In Britain, as in India, girls generally had little access to education. Likewise, there is by now a sufficiently large literature which has alerted us to the politics of representation and the difficulties that inhere in unmediated readings of colonial narratives  What is most germane is that throughout the 19th century, the picture painted of Indian girls and women was generally one of doom and gloom, ensnared as they were by domesticity, servitude, or the iron laws of patriarchy that bound them to be unflinchingly obedient (as in the classic formulation of the Hindu law-giver Manu) to the authority, successively, of father, husband, and oldest son.

In Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India, Ruby Lal argues for a very different reading of the spaces available to girls and women for the expression of their subjectivity in 19th century north India even as “entire stages and spaces of female lives” were “wiped out” (39).  While she is mindful of the duties imposed upon females, and recognizes that many of her subjects found the spaces of freedom fleeting, she nevertheless takes it as her task to argue that a certain playfulness informs female lives, thus “allowing forms of self-expression and literary creativity that are not dependent on masculinist definitions of fulfillment” (39).  For too long playfulness has been seen as the prerogative of males, as their “exclusive province”, but Ruby Lal attempts to understand it also as “a nonpaternal practice of the feminine” (55).  To delineate the contours of such “playfulness”, she distinguishes between “making” a “woman”, which she characterizes in India and other societies as an invariably “male project”, and “becoming” a woman which allowed greater room for negotiation (30-34).  Becoming a woman, in her view, is not a mere “teleological proposition” (33), one that takes us from a girl to a young woman and then to the exalted state of motherhood and finally the aging matriarch.  Her hyphenated girl-child/woman figure points, in fact, to her interest in the idea of liminality—and where there is the liminal there is also the transgressive.

The ethnographic substance of Lal’s argument is played out in four chapters where she considers the space of the forest, the school, the household, and the rooftops.  She turns to an early 19th century text, the tale of Rani Ketki by the writer Insha-allah Khan (1756-1817) where the hero and the heroine meet in a forest.  She recognizes, of course, that parallels can be drawn with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the scholar of Indian literature has to take great pains to ensure that these great pan-Indian epics do not colonize our understanding of texts and practices drawn from very different times and denude them of their local particularities.  Ruby Lal is not only sensitive to these considerations but shows how the trope of play is at work in this text:  as she points out, “the claim of writing a story in the Perso-Arabic script without using a single word of Persian or Arabic becomes all the more a claim about authorial agility and playfulness” (65).  In a similar vein, she describes Insha as “a theorist of playfulness” who systematized Urdu grammar and placed a heavy emphasis on decorum while being “committed to linguistic and gender playfulness” (69).  But what is singularly important for her argument is how the characters are constantly leaving behind the mohalla (the neighborhood) and the duties concomitant to respectable family living for the forest.  Lal describes this as a movement from the spaces of pedagogy to the spaces of pleasure.

The most distinct space for pedagogy, initially for boys alone, was of course the school.  By the third quarter of the 19th century, textbooks for girls had come into shape.  Lal’s narrative at this juncture revolves around Raja Shiv Prasad, an inspector of schools in the Benares region and a writer of books such as Vamamanranjan, or ‘Tales for Women’. In 1856, when he first assumed his post, there were no schools for girls; within a decade, 12000 girls had been enrolled (98).  The matter of textbooks, particularly those focused on the study of history and morals, is too complex to be given any lengthy consideration; but Shiv Prasad’s textbooks are of interest to Ruby Lal since she seeks to understand how girls navigated the space of the school and received the learning that would enable them to engage in various forms of self-making.  The emerging centrality of the school in the 19th century as a form not only of socialization of children, but as a technology of governance and as a mode for creating national subjects, can scarcely be doubted.  Against such a backdrop, Lal’s analysis of the school as a site for “playfulness” is less than persuasive; indeed, the greatest strength of this chapter resides in her discussion of the debates surrounding “the standardization and the homogenization of languages, scripts, religions and communities” in late 19th century India (124).

Lal’s chapter on the “Woman of the Household” has similarly little to say on (to borrow from the subtitle) the “art of playfulness” and is focused on “a number of significant texts concerned with the upbringing and training of respectable (sharif) girls and women” (125).  These texts, not surprisingly, were concerned rather with the duties of girls and women, the modes of respectability, and the protocols of domesticity.  Her gaze extends to several texts, the “dominant motif” of which is sharafat or respectability (137); one of the texts in question has a section entitled “Concerning the Chastisement and Regulation of Wives” (139), not really a subject calculated to inspire hope that girls and women could readily escape the constraints placed upon them.  A much more promising space for tasting forbidden fruit was the rooftop of the home, which Lal in an imaginative stroke describes as the “the forest” that is transplanted.  The rooftop was the extension of the home, used by women and servants, to take one illustration, to put up the day’s washing; however, in another register, it was also the place, not just for dalliances, but for reading and writing.  The scholar who is attentive to the practices of reading in India would do well to devote some attention to Indian homes with their rooftop terraces.  It was similarly the rooftop from which women, when they were still forbidden to take part in the political life of the nation, observed marches and demonstrations.  Drawing on Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in Fez, Morocco, in the 1940s, Ruby Lal quotes her to suggest what possibilities came to mind atop the terrace (198):  “So every morning, I would sit on our threshold, contemplating the deserted courtyard and dreaming about my beautiful future, a cascade of serene delights.  Hanging on to the moonlit terrace evenings, challenging your beloved man to forget his social duties, relax and act foolish and gaze at the stars while holding your hand, I thought, could be one way to go about developing muscles for happiness.  Sculpting soft nights, when the sound of laughter blends with the spring breezes, could be another.”

While Lal’s close readings of the texts and the literary history of 19th century north India yields some arresting insights, her argument seems forced at times just as her neglect of a large swathe of literature that may be useful for her arguments is puzzling. More than six decades after it was first published, Johan Huizinga’s Homo LudensA Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950) has still not been superseded in its depiction of the civilizing function of play and the play-forms that are encountered in poetry, philosophy and art.  Considering Ruby Lal’s interest in the categories produced by aesthetics, even Huizinga’s analysis of the play element in the baroque and the rococo could have been productive for her own work.  If Huizinga seems too far removed from the Indian context, though his canvas extends to the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, Indian readers might ponder over the relation between the Indo-Islamic or Urdu literature that she peruses and the stories that proliferate in north India on the playfulness of the gopis or the village women who engaged in constant play with the god Krishna.   As Ruby Lal doubtless knows, the mythopoetic world in which Krishna and the gopis are immersed was construed by the most positivist of the Indian nationalists as one of the principal sources of India’s subjection to colonial rule.

Ironically, then, for a book that promises to open up our understanding of the “art of playfulness”, Ruby Lal’s monograph gives insufficient play to the idea of play itself.  Nevertheless, her social history of play and pedagogy, refracted through the lens of the girl-child/woman, is not without promise.  Whatever the limitations of education in India, and those are severe, and whatever the merits, which are likewise considerable, of the meta-critique of education as the indispensable element in the liberal pharmacopeia, the education of the girl-child in India still remains the first door leading to a more enhanced and dignified conception of human life. The criminal neglect of the girl-child and woman in India will haunt the nation for decades to come. However, as Lal’s study amply shows, girls and women have displayed remarkable ingenuity and resilience alike in giving play to spaces to make them less restrictive. It is in the imaginative dialectic of play and pedagogy, as it were, that the promise of Indian girlhood and womanhood will come to fruition.

[Adapted from a review published in The Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (Spring 2016), 752-54.]


*The Romance of a Mathematician’s Life:  The Ramanujan-Hardy Conundrum

(after a viewing of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”)

No matter how often one might have heard the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, it never ceases to astound.  G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician with whose life Ramanujan’s story is inextricably intertwined, put it poignantly when he remarked that his collaboration with him was “the one romantic incident in my life.”  Even those who are mathematically illiterate are touched by the story.  It is a romance that nothing can kill.  And when the life of a mathematician appears as a romance to ordinary people, then one can only turn to Hamlet’s admonishment to his friend:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


Srinivasa Ramanujan with one of his legendary notebooks.

However sophisticated the interpretations surrounding Ramanujan’s life and his extraordinary genius, the bare outlines of the story appear in a form that is inescapably present to every reader of the narrative, which goes something like this:  A little-known, indeed rather obscure, Indian mathematician was toiling away as an office clerk in Madras in the early part of the 20th century.


Srinivasa Ramanujan’s birth home in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Though recognized by his peers in Madras as man of unusual mathematical gifts, Ramanujan could find no one in his vicinity capable of understanding the theorems which he had a habit of recording in his notebooks.  Meanwhile, Ramanujan had been published in the journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.  Ramanujan eventually, and altogether fortuitously for the history of mathematics, came to the attention of G. H. Hardy, quite possibly the greatest mathematician of the day in the Anglo-American world. The two would commence a famous intellectual collaboration after Ramanujan had been brought over to Britain.  Alas, five years in Britain, while they would bring Ramanujan to the notice of fellow mathematicians all over the world, would also be his undoing.  The inhospitable climate and food took its toll of the fastidious Brahmin, and a year after his return to India in 1919 Ramanujan passed away at the age of 32.

GH Hardy

G H Hardy, Cambridge mathematician.

At first glance, a casual reading of Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which has inspired the film of the same name, might appear to convey the impression that the Ramanujan-Hardy encounter is best read as a ‘culture clash’.  Hardy, writes Kanigel, was a “Fellow of Trinity College, the mecca of Cambridge mathematics, hence of English mathematics” (111); Ramanujan, on the other hand, was largely an autodidact, and was bereft of any degree.


The Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1914.

Though Ramanujan spent five years at Trinity College, and the two worked in close proximity throughout this time, Hardy was little aware that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian and that his complete rejection of meat, fish, poultry, animal lard, and, I suspect, eggs was leaving him starved in a country that for centuries had remained clueless about vegetables.  (Now that Britain had been civilized by South Asians, at least this problem has been addressed.)  Even less would Hardy have understood that vegetarianism alone is construed by some as a religion—though, as shall be seen, Ramanujan’s religiosity went well beyond dietary preferences.  Watching this film, where episodes that point to the difficulties that Ramanujan encountered in being able to satisfy his hunger without violating the tenets of vegetarianism with which he had grown up appear intermittently, brought to mind an evening in 1992 I spent with T.G. Vaidyanathan, a comparatively little-published but maverick thinker (and even more so teacher) of great reputation.  TGV, as he was known to friends, was visiting New York; we walked to dinner; and when I inquired whether he had any preference for a particular cuisine, he stated only that he was a strict vegetarian.  What stays with me from our conversation that evening is TGV’s remarkable rendition of his faith:  Vegetarianism is my Bhagavad Gita, he told me.


So with Srinivasa Ramanujan, except that he further expressed himself as inspired by the Goddess.  Hardy, by contrast, was an unflinching atheist.  But this was not, as is commonly supposed, a clash between the mysterious and spiritual East and logos-centered West.  True, there are moments when the film might appear to descend into such clichés, as when Hardy, in a moment of exasperation, berates Ramanujan for ignoring “proofs” and relying on “intuition”.  However, Kanigel wisely eschews the satisfaction of embracing the easy distinction between the spiritual Orient and the material Occident that continues to inform many popular readings of their encounter, gesturing instead at least at what are some of the more fundamental questions that emerge from the collaboration of these two minds.  Both Ramanujan and Hardy were consumed by numbers, though there is the arresting question about what we mean by numbers at all—and particularly very large numbers, broaching, shall we say, infinity.  What did either of them understand by numbers?  What, in turn, were the sources of their creativity, and what might the fact that Ramanujan was unschooled have to do with Hardy’s inability to comprehend how Ramanujan’s mind worked?  How, Hardy asks Ramanujan more than once in the film, do you know what you do know?  How do you arrive at these theorems?  Is there, in other words, a method to this madness—for surely it was madness that drove Ramanujan to his results and then to extinction?


The Hardy-Ramanujan narrative is a parable about the politics of knowledge and the incommensurability of knowledge systems. Against Hardy’s repeated insistence that Ramanujan offer “proofs”—which I would liken to the stations of the cross, the steps that culminate in the apotheosis of mathematical truth—for his theorems, the South Indian Brahmin countered that the “proofs” barely mattered. If a theorem was correct, then what need was there for proofs?  Hardy’s knowledge was more than merely bookish; nevertheless, he had been schooled in certain styles of mathematical thought and was bound to a bookish conception of mathematical rigor.  What Hardy barely recognized was that his own knowledge, formidable as it may have been when measured against other mathematicians, had constrained him; Ramanujan, in contrast, was unburdened by formal learning, and that was also the source of his extraordinary creativity.  To me, Sir, Ramanujan told Hardy, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”  Now Hardy could simply have dismissed this as a nonsensical remark, the residual effect of superstition from which the mind of a Hindu, no matter how much given over to the work of logos, is never entirely free.  Or he could have assimilated Ramanujan’s statement to a worldview for which he had some affinity, namely that mathematical truths have something of the ineffable about them, a beauty and purity which approximates spiritual truth.  Or he could have taken Ramanujan’s strange expression of truth as a tacit invitation to at least momentarily unburden himself, desist from proof-seeking, and allow a less charted framework of knowledge to inform his work.


Ramanujan (center) with other scholars at Cambridge University.

There are, as the film amply suggests, a great many other features that are important to an understanding of the Ramanujan-Hardy narrative and an appreciation of the immense odds against which Ramanujan had to struggle.  The racial element was always present, if not in their relationship, certainly in Cambridge and in wider mathematical circles:  an unschooled, “bloody Indian” had slowly but surely established himself in the Mecca of mathematics and cut the venerable dons of this institution down to size.  Kanigel misses out, however, on the politics of sexuality that is incipient in a narrative which has tacitly opposed a masculinized Hardy representing the imperial and ratiocinative vigor of Britain to an effeminized, vegetarian, superstitious Brahmin belonging to a subject race.  Their story, though it has never been read this way, is also a parable about how ostensibly neutered and highly objective forms of knowledge are also captive to dominant registers of masculinity.  But, amidst these and many other strands of thought that emerge from this story of the meeting of two minds, it is the politics of knowledge to which we must remain supremely attentive as we continue to grapple with this story.


The first of three postage stamps released by the Government of India in honor of Ramanujan, this one on the centenary (1997) of his birth. Few Indians have been conferred such official recognition.

*A Bonfire of Guns:  De-arming America and the Social History of the Dukhobors


The United States is conservatively estimated to have at least 300 million firearms in private ownership, though the actual number may be considerably higher.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey put forward a figure of 270 million in 2007, nearly ten years ago, but this estimate is based largely on recorded sales and information furnished by individual gun owners. However, gun registration is not mandatory across the United States, and trafficking in firearms is a lucrative business.  What is unequivocally true is that every study ranks the United States as number one globally in the per capita ownership of private firearms.  It is, of course, far from being the only trigger-happy country in the world.  Other countries that place in the top ten are Iraq and Yemen; though officially Afghanistan was placed only 102nd in the 2007 Geneva survey, the country is known to be awash with private firearms.  Indeed, the Pathan has long had a reputation, whether deserved or otherwise, for a love affair with his rifle.  But these are not the countries with which the US likes to be compared, though it is a telling fact that the US often finds itself—for example, in the matter of adhering to capital punishment—in the company of countries, among them Iran and North Korea, which it otherwise describes as “rogue” states.

Gérard Dicks Pellerin a-1640xl

First Group of Dukhobors Arriving in Halifax, Canada, by ship. Source: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

So just what is it that is to be done with all these guns? Assuming, as I have had occasion to remark on my blog on several previous occasions, most recently in my essay posted yesterday, that the measures—background checks, placing a ‘reasonable’ limit on the number of firearms an individual might own, initiating a waiting period—that are from time to time proposed in the US, varying only in degree rather than in kind as one moves from one state to another, are nearly worthless, what lessons might be drawn from other countries?  To pose a question in this fashion itself often invites opprobrium in the US, since many Americans, and not merely those who are not well-educated, hold dearly to the view that America has little to learn from the rest of the world.  To take one illustration, the late Justice Scalia, whose sudden departure to another world led to a rather mysterious, indeed I should say herd-like, outpouring of grief, held firmly to the opinion that American justices had no business citing the opinions of courts in countries such as India since American jurisprudence was self-sufficient, supreme, and trend-setting.  Michael Moore’s late 2015 film, Where to Invade Next?, dwells precisely on these forms of American insularity and exceptionalism, though as he points out some of the most progressive social innovations were the consequence of American ingenuity but were later abandoned in the US even as they came to be adopted in other countries.


Australia offers perhaps the best illustration of how private gun ownership might be limited while not outright eliminated.  Japan’s rate of homicide by private firearms is practically zero; there have been years when there have been fewer than ten fatalities on account of gun violence in an entire calendar year.  But once one moves beyond the iconic Japanese brand names and the taste that a certain sector of the white population has acquired for Japanese cuisine, Japan is construed as much too alien to the American sensibility.  Most Americans would take offense at the suggestion that their country might consider emulating Japan.  Australia, on the other hand, shares with the US an Anglophone culture, English common law traditions, and much else—even if cricket and Australian Rules are not quite akin to baseball and (American) football.  In 1996 and again in 2003, Australia initiated a gun buyback program.  The 1996 program, precipitated by a massacre in Tasmania that took a toll of 35 lives, required Australians to surrender certain firearms, among them some semi-automatic rifles, long guns, and pump-action shotguns.  This mandatory buyback program provided owners with “just compensation” and was financed by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5% to 1.7% of income for a period of one year.  The NRA and its various mouthpieces, among them the National Review, have not surprisingly contested the efficacy of this program; however, more scholarly studies have established that the firearm homicide rate in Australia fell by an astounding 59% while the firearm suicide rate decreased by 69%.  Australia’s gun ownership rate is presently about 21.6 per every 100 residents; its gun homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000 in contrast to around 11 per 100,000 in the United States.  Gun buyback programs have barely been tried in the US; where at all they these feeble measures have been grudgingly attempted, they have been on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis.


If, however, the US is going through a period of mass delusion, then Americans will be impervious to reason.  When rational argument cannot prevail, we should at least permit ourselves some stories.  The social history of one radical anarchist community, the Dukhobors, also known as the “Spirit Wrestlers”, has been little told.  Even chroniclers of nonviolent resistance are unfamiliar with them:  there is no mention of the Dukhobors in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Resistance (2000), or in Mark Kurlansky’s short but engaging NonviolenceTwenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).  Arising from the great 17th-century schism that shook Russia, the Dukhobors were a mystical evangelical group that faced intermittent persecution from 1773 onwards.  The Dukhobors rejected all external authority, the Bible not excluded, and viewed their own leader as a reincarnation of Christ.  The convoluted history of the Dukhobors, among whom the adherence to nonviolent resistance to oppression, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, communal ownership of property, and the repudiation of conscription is common if varying in degree, need  not be rehearsed at this juncture.  A series of exiles—to the Caucasus, Siberia, then to scattered villages in Georgia—eventually brought them, with the financial assistance of Leo Tolstoy and English Quakers, to Canada.  The bulk of the Dukhobors, some 25,000, are now settled in western Canada; there is a small population, numbering not more than 5,000, in the US; and estimates of their numbers in Russia vary immensely, from a mere few thousand to something like 30,000.


Russian Dukhobor settlers on ship, enroute to Canada, 1898. Source: Canadian Archives.


It is the Dukhobor practice, very much alive today if only in the form of symbolic remembrance, of creating a bonfire of guns that is of supreme interest.  7,000 Dukhobors first engaged in the burning of weapons in 1895, on June 29, at three different sites in the Caucasus, to protest conscription in Tsarist Russia.


The Doukhobors’ “Burning of Arms”, 29 June 1895, painting by Terry McLean. Source: http://www.doukhobor.org

This act of defiance is one of the more remarkable chapters in the history of human awareness, an affirmation of the dignity of every human life and simultaneously an expression of an adamantine refusal to kill another person.  One need not idealize the Dukhobors:  they have been implicated in previous years in Canada in acts of arson and dynamite, even if such acts were directed at their own properties to signify their repudiation of material possessions.  In all the discussion that is presently taking place in the US on gun violence, and amidst all the bravado about the intent to be unified and to prevent terrorists from dominating the narrative, there is barely any reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications for the human spirit when killing becomes a sport.  It is not for nothing that the Dukhobors have been known as the ‘spirit wrestlers’ or ‘spirit warriors’:  they call to mind, with unmistakable urgency, the simultaneously necessity to tend to the spirit and to take arms against arms. The call to nonviolent resistance is heard loud and clear in the Dukhobors’ burning of weapons.


*Mass Delusion, Not Just a Mass Shooting:  The Orlando Massacre & the “Lone Wolf”


For the fifteenth time in his presidency, Barack Obama appeared this morning before the American public to express his sadness and shock at a mass shooting.  Just hours before, a gunman, identified as 29-year old Omar Mateen, opened fire with an assault rifle (AR-15) and possibly a handgun at a gay club called Pulse in Orlando, Florida.  The precise facts of what transpired are yet to be established, but this much is known:  he commenced firing just a little after 2 AM on Sunday morning, was then holed up in the club with hostages, and was finally taken down in a gunfight with a SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] team around 5 AM.  But this was not before Mateen had killed at least 50 people; at least another 53 people have been injured, some critically.  This carnage is being described as the “worst mass shooting” in American history.


The gunman’s name identifies him as a Muslim.  The media chatter all morning has swirled around speculations about Mateen’s possible fidelity to ISIS, his links if any with ISIS or other Islamic “radical” groups, his friendships with those who might have been similarly radicalized, or his probable homophobic tendencies.  The killer’s father has issued a statement where he has disavowed any possible connection between the killing and “religion”—he did not mention Islam by name—and he has suggested that that his son was repulsed by his sighting in Miami of two men kissing each other in public several months ago.  It has also emerged that minutes before Mateen started firing, he placed a call to 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS.  Mateen had apparently come to the attention of the FBI a few years ago for possible links to radical groups but was no longer under surveillance.


In the hours and days ahead, a picture will be formed of the gunman’s motivations.  Most likely, it will be established that he had been radicalized by ISIS videos and literature, and that he was moderately active on social media sites which espouse radical Islamic views.  The carnage will be described as arising from a conjuncture of circumstances:  all over the United States there are celebrations these days of gay pride, and Mateen may have chosen this moment to signal both his abhorrence of homosexuality and his acceptance of radical jihadists’ denunciation of homosexuality as a form of wickedness intrinsic to the West. The abhorrence of homosexuality is, of course, not particular to ISIS or Islamic extremists:  the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia does not tolerate open expressions of homosexual conduct, and likewise many Christian fundamentalists are also violently homophobic. But these comparisons will not be allowed to disturb the placid waters of American reporting, especially not at this juncture.  We can also be certain that, whatever Mateen’s motivations, the Orlando massacre will now be exploited by Trump, whose credentials as an utterly shameless person are well established, to the hilt.


Speaking with an air of resignation, President Obama mentioned that investigators would go wherever the facts take them.  It may be that he has come around to the view that no intervention by him can make an iota of difference, and that as Consoler-in-Chief he can only express his condolences to the families of the victims, congratulate various law enforcement agencies for stepping into the line of fire, rally the American public, and ask for God’s guidance and wisdom in helping the nation meet such challenges. Indeed, it is beyond him to do anything else at all, for the simple reason that what we are dealing with here is not a “mass shooting” but rather mass delusion.  Whatever the gunman’s motivations, or his state of mind, the one indubitable fact is that he was able to access an assault rifle, a handgun, and possibly explosives.  In Florida, an assault rifle can be purchased legally, which is in itself an outrageous statement on the affairs of this nation.  However, it is quite immaterial whether Mateen was able to make a legal purchase of an assault rifle in Florida, since such legal gun purchases are possible in other states; there is, moreover, an open arms market, including one on Facebook.  The “facts” that the FBI and other investigative agencies will chase down are altogether irrelevant; they will establish merely the history of the weapons in question, and, at best, whether Mateen may have been assisted by others in procuring such weapons.


What does it mean, then, to suggest that the Orlando shooting is nothing other than a visceral demonstration of the fact that the United States is living through a period of “mass delusion”?  To be deluded, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, is to accept foolishly a false or mistaken belief; a delusion is “a false impression or opinion, especially as a symptom of mental illness.” Another dictionary definition offers an elaboration:  a delusion is persistence in an idiosyncratic belief that is maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, and this is typically a symptom of mental disorder.  Mateen’s ex-wife has stated that he was abusive in their relationship and beat her often; she describes him as someone who was “unstable”.  Let us leave aside for the moment the colossal understatement involved in characterizing the gunman as “unstable”:  one would think that anyone who perpetrates such a massacre is, in some sense of the term, unstable.


What is far more germane to my argument is that the characterization of Mateen as someone who was of unsound mind ought not to be allowed to obfuscate the graver reality that begs to be recognized.  In an earlier blog, precipitated by a shooting at a community college in Oregon last year, where too the killer, Chris Harper Mercer, was described as a “loner” with a history of mental illness, I had called for the National Rifle Association to be declared a criminal or terrorist organization and be banned.  The same pussyfooting that has characterized the response to every mass shooting will doubtless be on witness again in the days ahead. There will be much discussion of the necessity of background checks, tightening gun laws, restricting the number of firearms an individual can buy, and so on.  The lunatic NRA will respond with predictable bravado, suggesting that “guns do not kill, people do”, and that the only way America can be made safe is to ensure that guns do not fall into the wrong hands and that a well-armed people is the best retort to killers.  Other well-meaning people will chip in with the observation that hunting is nothing less than a sacred American tradition: indeed, though I have not verified this, it would not be surprising if every American president has not declared a fondness for hunting.  Some noise will be generated; and, then, life will go on.  Another shooting will be around the corner, as it must.


A few generations from now, when one hopes that the United States will join the rank of civilized nations and virtually ban private ownership of firearms, or make the conditions so restrictive as to virtually eliminate violence by firearms, Americans will wonder how and why the country labored under a mass delusion for so long.  This mass delusion begins with a primitivist not to mention outrageously silly reading of the second amendment to the US Constitution.  The mental illness of which many previous killers have been accused is in actuality the mental disorder that now afflicts this nation as a whole.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, the NRA and the millions of their supporters in the wider public domain have persisted in peddling the view that gun ownership is an inviolable part of American identity, that private ownership of guns makes people safe, and that the antidote to gun violence is more guns.  It is not the “lone wolf” or the insanity of one gunman that we need to be worried about, but rather the state of lunacy to which the United States has been reduced.  No diagnostic manual has a known remedy for the mass delusion through which the United States is now living.