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In 1974, the young but already acclaimed German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, released a remarkable new film, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf; also known as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul], which was as daring as it was prescient in its treatment of the reception of foreigners and particularly Muslims in Germany.  The film features an unusual relationship that develops between Ali, a Moroccan guest worker in his late 30s, and a 60-year old white German widow from a working-class community by the name of Emmi.  A chance meeting between the two blossoms into love, but, as lovers have often found out for themselves, others won’t let them live in peace.  A younger man with a much older woman is a phenomenon that continues to be rare in most societies; some people are even likely to find such a relationship abominable.  However, what most offends Emmi’s daughter, son-in-law, friends, and co-workers is that she shares her bed with a Moroccan immigrant.  The canard that foreign workers—many, though by no means all, of them Muslims—are “dirty” is repeated in Elli’s former circle of friends and workers; and, as societies are wont to do with women who show any degree of sexual independence, Elli is soon condemned as a “whore”.

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Germany, given the enormous burden of its history, the question of xenophobia is of paramount importance.  Germans have striven over the years to contend with their past, and it is certainly unnecessary to recount their myriad efforts to acknowledge, and atone for, what transpired under National Socialism and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian state.  In recent years, even as most European countries have been shockingly indifferent to the fate of refugees who have attempted to made their way into Europe from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Germany has been generous in opening its arms to this—as it sometimes represented—flotsam and jetsam of a surging humanity.  In comparison with every other country, in and out of Europe, Germany has certainly been salutary in its reception of refugees.  Nevertheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now openly voiced in most countries of Europe, and that has taken the form of virulent forms of racism and discrimination, is now being heard in Germany as well.  Far-right parties had been making inroads in Germany over the last twenty years, but their sentiments have thus far not been shared, at least not in public, by the majority of Germans.  However, yesterday morning’s newspapers carried a report that, perhaps in submission to growing public animosity towards Muslims, whose otherness is symbolized to many people most distinctly by the veiling practiced by many Muslim women, Chancellor Angela Merkel had indicated that the use of the hijab in Germany will henceforth be severely curtailed.

Quite apropos, then, of all this, it is perhaps fitting that last evening I should have had occasion to see Fassbinder’s comparatively little-known film, Katzelmacher, released as part of a set of five DVDs of his early films in Criterion’s Eclipse series.  Fassbinder shot this film, in black & white, over a period of nine days in August 1969 and was able to release it just two months later.  The word, “Katzelmacher”, is said to be Bavarian slang for “foreigner”, though the word has also been rendered as “trouble-maker”; and Fassbinder himself is said to have elaborated upon it thus: “a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy great sexual potency.”  The film centers on a group of young friends in one of Munich’s neighborhoods who appear to have largely aimless lives:  their conversation centers on financial woes and gossip about who is sleeping with whom.  There isn’t much camera movement:  the film moves between a few different locations, among them a street where they gather for conversation, a run-down restaurant, and a few “domestic” apartment interiors. In keeping with this bare-bones cinematic minimalism, necessitated to some degree by the small budget with which Fassbinder was working, is the use of recurring tracking shots of pairs of the principal characters strolling down a street where they are the only pedestrians. The men are abusive to their female sexual partners, slapping and hitting them at will as it seems, and it would be far too much to speak of men having respect for women; indeed, scarcely anyone seems to have any respect for anyone else, and the women bitch about each other.  There is no laughter, no joy, no humor.  One woman, Rosy, engages in a form of prostitution, charging even her boyfriend for sexual favors.

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Katzelmacher: Aimless Lives of the Young.

What disrupts this pattern of living is the sudden appearance of Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself), a Greek guest-worker who takes up residence in the apartment of Elisabeth, which she shares, though not with any great pleasure, with her live-in boyfriend, Peter.  By the late 1960s, when Katzelmacher was released, there were over two million foreign guest-workers in West Germany, from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Morocco.  As in the case of Japan, the wartime machinery in West Germany was in the aftermath of the war diverted to industrial production, and by the late 1950s the economic resurgence of West Germany was such as to generate a huge demand for foreign workers. Jorgos is first taken for an Italian; he is then discovered to be “a Greek from Greece”.  Soon, the rumor is circulating that Elisabeth is sleeping with Jorgos; though the rumor is without any foundation, the implication in part is that Jorgos is without any morals.  Any such insinuation, as Fassbinder suggests, would be comical if it were not (as it eventually turns out) dangerous, considering that none of the other characters can even remotely be viewed as a paragon of the virtuous and morally upright human being.  Peter, who does not take kindly to being reminded by Elizabeth of his sheer worthlessness as a man capable of any degree of financial autonomy, loses no time in suggesting to this motley group of rather pitiful specimens of bourgeois middle-class life that the Greek is muscular, of better built, and larger than any of them—more particularly, in the region of the genitals.

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Beating Up on Imigrants: Jorgos is set upon by the young men of the neighborhood, in a scene from “Katzelmacher”.

Some might suppose that it is sexual envy that feeds the anger and resentment of this circle of young friends.  However, though anti-immigrant feeling may feed on predictable anxieties, such as the notion, now being widely trumpeted in Trump’s America, that immigrants “steal” jobs, xenophobia needs no such rationale and can live off a great many others rumors and anxieties.  For the young women and men in Katzelmacher, vindictiveness towards immigrants is something like a sport; for no apparent reason, Jorgos is constantly taunted as a “communist”.  Greece, in fact, was under the rule of a military junta from 1967-1974, and thousands of communists were hounded, killed, and exiled to remote Greek islands.  The only person who stands by Jorgos is Marie, whose boyfriend, Erich, is a particularly vicious and violent hoodlum of sorts; but her affection for Jorgos, far from saving him, makes him a target of attack by Erich, Peter, and others.  Jorgos is beaten up badly; he is tempted into returning to Greece.

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Jorgos and Marie stroll down a street: from “Katzelmacher”, directed by Fassbinder.

The film ends with Marie and her friend Gunda strolling down a street, hands held together, and exchanging these words:

Marie:  In the summer, he’s taking me to Greece.

Gunda:  And his wife?

Marie:  It doesn’t matter. In Greece everything’s different.

The anti-immigrant narrative now sweeping through the US and much of Europe has nowhere to hide and nothing to say for itself:  it is pathetic, farcical, and tragic as much for immigrants and refugees as it is for wealthy host societies who have apparently still not learned to live with difference and understand what constitutes hospitality and ecumenism.  The bold minimalism of Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher brings us closer to the emptiness that lies at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiments.

 

 

Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime II

(Being a Cornucopia of Facts, Opinions, Commentary, Satire, Scholarly Writing, Poetry, and Vignettes, But Mainly Facts and no Ressentiment)

 

Trump Tower, Trump Avenue, Manhattan, 18 November 2016, 7:00 PM EST

The President-elect, Donald J. Trump, today appeared before a large pool of reporters for his first press conference since his victory speech in the wee hours of the morning of November 9th.  Mr. Trump seemed to be in a radiant mood and there was much expectation that he would address looming questions about the rockiness of the transition and his choices for top cabinet positions. The President-elect knows that he is in the eye of the storm, but while acknowledging that much of the world was uneasy both about some of the choices that he had made thus far and about others who were clearly in the running for some of the highest offices of the land, Mr. Trump said that he wished to turn his attention to a more pressing matter.

Throughout the blistering campaign, Mr. Trump noted, he had been the subject of many unfair attacks.  Much had been said about him being a racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and so on.  Total lies, all lies, lies, lies coming out of—wherever.  Nothing had hurt him as much, Mr. Trump complained, as being accused of being a sexual assaultist.  Yes, he had said things on the video about kissing any woman who struck his fancy, and grabbing women by the pussy.  He had explained, however, that this was just locker-room talk, men being men.  The problem with the elites was they didn’t spend much in locker rooms and places where real men gather.  The fact that he had been elected to the most powerful office in the world was as convincing a demonstration as any that women, who had given him more votes than they had to Mrs. Clinton, didn’t care much for what he had said and recognized that men were entitled to be men.  The women who had voted for him didn’t want men to be pussies and they recognized a man when they saw one.

When the Independent Press (IP) reporter, Vincent Salaam Lal, asked Mr. Trump whether he had anything really new to add to this somewhat worn-out subject, the President-elect got excited and replied that he had called this press conference to furnish a fuller account of himself. Once he had done so, he did not doubt that everyone would recognize him for the gem that he is. He had many times said openly that he found women beautiful, women were just such beautiful creatures, they’re mothers of the human race and of my children, now what would we do without women.  Hadn’t he said, and yet no one took him seriously, except the huge number of women who cast their lot with him, that no one, and I mean no one, loves women as much as I do.  He had described them as “phenomenal” on more than one occasion.  Jeb Bush, in one of the debates, had said that he wasn’t sure that the government could cough up billions of dollars for women’s health.  Now wasn’t that deplorable?  And what had he, Mr. Trump, said in response: “When you’re negative on women’s health, you can forget about it.  I’m the exact opposite. I cherish women. I want to help women. I’m going to be able to do things for women that no other candidate would be able to do, and it’s very important to me.”  Those who claimed that he had called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”—well, they were just being “nasty”.  Lies, all lies, complete lies, Mr. Trump added with some vehemence.

Mr. Trump noted that he still had an ace up his sleeve.  Nothing demonstrated his affection for women, beautiful women whom he cherished, as much as his chivalry.  The fact was that he had done nothing to women that they hadn’t done to themselves, but out of his unrivalled respect for women he had decided to forgo this line of defense at the time of the campaign.  Take, for instance, the question of grabbing ‘em by the pussy.  Mr. Trump noted that the inspiration for behaving thus had come to him one evening as he lay in his gold-framed bed and looked at a wonderful painting by some Italian artist called Modigliani hanging on the opposite wall.  At Mr. Trump’s sign, one of his executive assistants then projected this painting:

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Amedeo Modigliani, Woman Pinching Her Breast and Grabbing Her P___Y, otherwise known as “Venus”, 1917.

Now, look here, what is this woman doing? She’s grabbing herself by the pussy, Mr. Trump claimed, and what’s more, she’s pinching her own breast.  Now that’s what one does.  That’s what any reasonable person, man or woman, would do.  This is why this artist, whatever his name is, is worth so much.  He knew the truth, he recognized the truth for what it is, and he painted it. His paintings sell for millions, many millions, and I’m one of those few who can afford to buy them.  Isn’t that beautiful?  But I want to know why everyone was beating up on me? If they had to beat up on anyone, it should have been the artist.

Unfair, so unfair.  With this, Mr. Trump let loose what seemed to some a light sob and yet to others a slightly triumphant note of glee.  And with this, Mr. Trump suddenly called his first press conference to a close.

 

 

Annals of the President-Elect Trump Regime I

(Being a Cornucopia of Facts, Opinions, Commentary, Satire, Scholarly Writing, Poetry, and Vignettes, But Mainly Facts and no Ressentiment)

November 18, 2016

The American Psychiatric Association announced today the release of its new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, popularly known in the profession in the US and worldwide as the DSM.  The DSM’s new edition, an event that transpires only once every decade, has long been awaited.  Among this year’s new findings, the DSM VI’s editors stated, nothing is remotely as significant as the addition of a new disorder which has been termed by experts the “Trump Penile Disorder”, aka as “Trump Penis Disorder” or, in short, TPD.  The editors hastened to clarify that TPD is entirely distinct from Erectile Dysfunction, which though it may have psychosomatic elements is primarily a physical phenomenon, as well as from Peyronie’s Disease, an affliction which hits about 5% of all men after fifty but can scarcely touch such stout men of stamina as the President-elect.  In Peyronie’s Disease, the experts explained to a large crowd of reporters, the penis becomes a curve ball and is barely able to reach first base, whereas Mr. Trump was known only to hit home runs.

The DSM’s editors were drawn to the conclusion that the Trump Penile Disorder (TPD) had to be taken seriously on account of two considerations.  First, they drew attention to the testimony offered by the world-acclaimed Indian ayurvedic doctor and healer to numerous Hollywood stars, Dr. Deepak Chopra.  Appearing on a show with Fox New Radio host Alan Colmes on Tuesday, June 7, the soft-spoken Chopra said that, watching the presumptive Republican nominee over a period of time, he regrettably had come to the conclusion that Mr. Trump was a “racist” and “bigot” who “represents the emotional retardation of a three-year old.”  Dr. Chopra, who is ordinarily reticent in delivering such judgments, was adamant in his gentle way that he was “100% sure” in reaching the opinion that Mr. Trump was a belligerent and prejudiced “racist” who had brought out the worst in everyone else.  Yet it was not merely Mr. Trump’s belligerence and severely emotionally retarded state that distinguished him from others, since many others display similar characteristics; rather, as Dr. Chopra would explain in a subsequent appearance on the Conan O’Brien show on October 24, 2016, Mr. Trump’s “consciousness is stuck in his genitals.”  Mr. Trump, Dr. Chopra stated, “thinks with his penis”.  With the best or most compassionate of human beings, one expects that they might think with the heart, leaving the thinking with the brain to those who have dedicated their lives to the illumination of reason; but Mr. Trump’s singularity, Dr. Chopra was clearly inclined to think, resided in the fact that he thought with his penis.  As with others who are mentally challenged, Dr. Chopra appeared to be suggesting, Mr. Trump, notwithstanding the severe retardation which made him speak, blabber, and froth at the mouth like a three-year old, had an overgrown body and in particular he let his penis do all the work for him, which included the thinking apt for a toddler.

The editors were pressed on this matter by skeptical reporters, particularly experienced women journalists who complained that they all knew of men who treated their penis as a thought(ful) projectile.  This led the DSM’s editors to describe, in miniscule detail, the second set of circumstances that had inescapably led them to the view that they had not been hasty in given medical recognition to the Trump Penile Disorder.  During the course of the campaign, they noted, nearly two dozen women had come forward to complain of sexual molestation and sexual assault by Mr. Trump.  Some women had complained that Mr. Trump hid pinched their bottoms; others complained that Mr. Trump’s hands had a tendency to wander during their conversations, and they would invariably come to rest upon their genitals or breasts.  Mr. Trump was accused by at least one woman of walking into her dressing room without knocking while she was in a state of undress. And, of course, there was the (in)famous incident which had been captured on video and seen around the world where Mr. Trump had loudly bragged that he was “automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them.  It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it.  You can do anything . . . Grab them by the pussy.  You can do anything.”

Keeping in mind these considerations, the DSM’s distinguished editors, now looking a little red in their faces, sought to furnish a definition of the Trump Penile Disorder.  (They noted, in passing, that the elites were prone to describe it as Trump Penile Disorder, but the working-class thought the word “penile” a little presumptuous and long-winded and were content to settle for the more familiar “penis”.)  Needless to say, only men were afflicted with the Trump Penile Disorder, though the experts admitted that a transgendered person might, in certain circumstances, fall under the sway of this disorder.  A person diagnosed with TPD let his penis do the thinking for him; secondly, the person so diagnosed had a grand plan for penile projectile propulsion, which the experts signified through the acronym PPP2—the number “2” being added to distinguish it from the economists’ conception of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  When a number of reporters objected that a sample of one, namely Mr. Trump himself, was grossly inadequate to furnish an account of a supposed mental disorder, much less one designated by a name, the DSM VI’s editors were quick to point out that Mr. Trump had been propelled into the White House by over 60 million voters who appeared to recognize TPD for what it is.  The most distinguishing feature of the TPD, they noted, is that the person afflicted with this disorder, always a sexual predator, is able to induce in everyone a schizophrenic state where they come to believe that carrying out sexual assaults, preying upon women, and otherwise “objectifying” women not only do not furnish any kind of hindrance to the advancement of the predator’s ambitions but are in fact essential to propel the sexual predator into high office.  The question for the nation, the DSM VI’s editors appeared to be suggesting, is whether any successful candidate for the office that Mr. Trump will invariably have to vacate one day could conceivably win it unless he too had been diagnosed with Trump Penile Disorder.

At the Trump Organizations’s Headquarters at Trump Towers on Trump Avenue in Manhattan, New York, where there is a Trump Boutique with its hot-selling Trump Perfume for Pussy-Grabbers and a Trump Perfume, albeit in sample size only, for Dick-Catchers, as well as a Trump Cafeteria renowned for Trump Dogs, there was much rejoicing that the Trump Band had been able to make its way into the recondite world of the DSM.  No other President of the United States, or indeed the head of the state of any other country, could claim as much.  When asked if the President-elect did not have his match in the late Idi Amin, the Trump Organization spokeswoman noted that the President-elect did say “Amen” both before having his meals and after every successful attempt at pussy-grabbing.  The spokeswoman further argued that it was quite apposite that the supposed disorder in the world created by the President-elect’s triumph should apparently be echoed by the disorder in the President-elect’s most vital organ.  President-elect Trump, she noted, had been voted into power by people who trusted him and expected consistency between his body and the body-politic, the inner and the outer.  She would not comment, however, on the possibility that the “Make America Great Again” tri-colored caps might be replaced with brown-colored caps bearing the acronym, TPD.

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.]

 

(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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.