How to read a book

I came across this title, “How to Read a Book” while browsing through my favorite bookstore on the Upper West Side. I had just enough time to read a snippet of the introduction, where Virginia Wolf notes that while she would be loathe to prescribe how a book must be read, she does have some suggestions. She notes that the reader should read with an open mind, receiving what the book conveys, before turning on it with a critical eye.

Elsewhere, philosophers put forth the “principle of charity”,  that requires interpreting the speaker’s statement to be rational, and one avoids attributing falsehoods, logical fallacies and irrationalities to another’s statement.

The most compelling for me is a quote by Joseph A. Buttigieg in the foreword to Santucci’s book on Gramsci, where Buttigieg quotes from Gramsci’s letter to his wife:

Who reads Dante with love?Doddering professors who make a religion of some poet or writer and performs strange philological rituals in his honor. I think that a modern and  intelligent person ought to read the classics in general with a certain “detachment”, that is only for their aesthetic values, while “love” implies agreement with the ideological content of the poem; one loves one’s “own” poet, one “admires” the artist “in general”. Aesthetic admiration can be accompanied by a certain “civic” contempt, as in the case of Marx’s attitude toward Goethe.

This helps put to ease the discomfort I had after reading Borges. I found Borges a compelling and captivating author. Thus, much to admire about his aesthetics, yet one can have civic contempt for his politics.

I did not get too far with the booklet on “How to read a book”, but for now, Gramsci may have given me the answer. Interestingly,  Buttigieg notes that “Gramsci’s writings invite his reader, even today, to become involved in an active – one could even say participatory – encounter with ideas and lines of thinking”. Indeed, for me, inadvertently so.




Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis

This is probably the second graphic novel I’m reading after Red Rosa. This graphic novel was a gift, I would have otherwise never picked up. So I am oh-so-grateful for this gift!

Persepolis is a rare story of the coming of age of a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi’s parents are Marxists, and she grows up in politically charged climate with close relatives jailed and some executed for their anti-Islamic Republic ideologies. It traces her colourful life in Austria and back in Iran, as she navigates a repressive regime with great ferocity, courage and humour.

What I loved – Satrapi read voraciously through the tough phases she faced. Reading was her anti-depressant, her entertainment, and her education.

What is relatable: Third-World existential angst encountered while living in the West.

Memorable – Satrapi’s face-offs between Marx and God.

Food for thought: Decades of US and UK instigated violence to control oil in the region.


Epistemic metaphors

I have been grappling (or beginning to grapple) with Foucault’s Order of Things and William Sewell’s Logic of History. I am currently intrigued by how both (not that this is their forte alone) unearth epistemic metaphors.  For instance,  Foucault engages with the “appearance of man”  that underpins modern writing.  Within the epistemic paradigm that such a metaphor brings forth, there is a return to origins, as exemplified by Darwin’s Origin of Species, Heidegger’s Origin of a Work of Art, and so on. Even where not explicit, modern writing tends to gravitate to the origins in its episteme, as seen with Freud’s work on psychoanalysis.

Sewell points to the epistemic metaphor of “social structure” that gets deployed in the social sciences as an architectural metaphor, as  the structure of a building, as a foundational building block. Another epistemic metaphor is language, which brings with it semantics (a system of meaningful symbols) and syntax (a set of rules for combining them). This builds on Saussure’s langue (set of rules grasped synchronically) and parole (flow of practice grasped diachronically)

This is intriguing because what do these epistemic metaphors  exclude. How does thinking within the bounds of these metaphors exclude other lines of inquiry? How do such epistemic metaphors gain traction within a field? How do they get “seen” or archaeologically excavated? And if at all, displaced?

While I search for the answers, here is an excerpt from Foucault’s Speech begins after Death (so can we call this Foucault’s Origin of Speech?) that may point to how Foucault surgically examines his own writing

“….I’m wondering if it wasn’t the system of values of my childhood that was being expressed in this depreciation of writing. I come from a medical family, one of those provincial medical families that provides, when compared to the somewhat placid life of a small town, a relatively accommodating or, as they say, progressive milieu….. The physician—and especially the surgeon, I’m the son of a surgeon—isn’t someone who speaks, he’s someone who listens. He listens to other people’s words, not because he takes them seriously, not to understand what they say, but to track down through them the signs of a serious disease, which is to say, a physical disease, an organic disease. The physician listens, but does so to cut through the speech of the other and reach the silent truth of the body. The physician doesn’t speak, he acts, that is, he feels, he intervenes. The surgeon discovers the lesion in the sleeping body, opens the body and sews it back up again, he operates; all this is done in silence, the absolute reduction of words. The only words he utters are those few words of diagnosis and therapy. The physician speaks only to utter the truth, briefly, and prescribe medicine. He names and he orders, that’s all. In that sense, it’s extraordinarily rare for the physician to speak. No doubt it’s this profound functional devaluation of speech in the old practice of clinical medicine that has weighed on me for so long and has meant that up until ten or twelve years ago, speech, for me, remained just so much hot air.”


P.S: I do recognize that Foucault’s treatment of an episteme and his archaeological method is a different level of analysis compared to Sewell. This post remains, with all disclaimers, a novice’s engagement with the idea of an epistemic metaphor.

Charles Tilly: Social Movements 1768-2004

This book was written after Charles Tilly was diagnosed for  lymphoma in 2003. When understood as a project undertaken in between chemotherapy, and without an assured prognosis, one sees this ambitious undertaking in different light – that of a scholar seeking to understand the origins and trajectories of a phenomenon he has studied through his career.

The book’s primary thesis is to examine the history of social movements as a phenomenon, and explores the conditions of their proliferation and/or abeyance. He attributes the rise of social movements as a form of contentious politics to war, capitalisation, proleterianization, and parliamentarization.

Tilly traces the origins of social movements to popular uprisings in 1768 championed by “political entrepreneur” John Wilkes, a radical who published a weekly publication called “The North Briton”. Wilkes fought for voters’ rights to select their own representative, and eventually was elected a Member of Parliament.

Tilly, with his vast swathes of reading of global social movements, weaves in movements from Switzerland, Argentina, Philippines, India, China to unpack the rise and changing nature of social movement.  He examines how social movement repertoires,  performances and WUNC (Worthiness, Unity, Commitment and Numbers – perhaps a rather simplistic acronym for examining movement attributes) combine and translate across time periods and spaces.

The interesting snippets in the book centre around the discussions of democratisation and social movements. It was fascinating to read about how some countries, like Switzerland and Chile transitioned to democracy first before these societies saw the rise of social movements. Most other countries like Spain, France and Britain engaged with social movements before the transition to democracy.

What is also fascinating is the correspondence, albeit inadequate and incomplete,  between social movements and democratic regimes. Tilly postulates on social processes such as equalisation of resources, segregation of political elite from masses and the presence of larger numbers in public spheres due to small ruling elites, that translate into greater movement activity that can foster transitions to democracy. Similarly, democratic regimes foster associational life, greater engagement with government, and so on,  that facilitate movement activity.

This is a great, swift read for anybody interested in a history of the world along social movement lines. While reading it, I had the vivid imagery of a time lapse video. Tilly powers through with his encyclopaedic knowledge combined with effortless writing, reminding us of his authority as a social movement scholar.


On Theory

Here I curate different authors description of what theory is, to their ethics and politics.

In Undoing Gender (2004, pg. 204-205) Judith Butler notes:

“… we must also have an idea of how theory relates to the process of transformation, whether theory is itself transformative work that has transformation as one of its effects… I will argue that theory is itself transformative… I do not think theory is sufficient for social and political transformation. Something besides theory must take place, such as interventions at social and political levels that involve actions, sustained labor, and institutionalised practices, which are not quite the same as exercise of theory. I would add, however, that in all these practices, theory is presupposed. We are all, in the very act of social transformation, lay philosophers, presupposing a vision of the world, of what is right, of what is just, of what is abhorrent, of what human action is and can be, of what constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions of life.”

Elsewhere, Butler (pg. 201) highlights:

“Theory emerges from location and location itself is under crisis in Europe, since the boundaries of Europe are precisely what is being contested in quarrels over who belongs to the European Union and who does not, on rules regarding immigration, … the cultural effects of Islamic communities, of Arab and North African populations.”

Butler notes above, that in all these practices of social transformation, theory is presupposed.

My (elementary, rudimentary) reading of Heidegger presents an alternate view:

In Being and Time, Heidegger notes (page 177, Macquarrie and Robinson trans.):

“By looking at the the world theoretically, we have already dimmed it down to the uniformity of what is purely present-at-hand, though admittedly this uniformity comprises a new abundance of things, which can be discovered by simply characterising them. Yet even the purest [theory] has not left all moods behind it; even when we look theoretically at what is just present-at-hand, it does not show itself purely as it looks unless this theory lets it come toward us in a tranquil tarrying alongside.”

—Here theory means contemplation. What is revealed through moods cannot be described through contemplation. You can’t observe, stare at, inspect something theoretically the way you can through moods. For instance, if you were to walk through a graveyard at night, with the twigs cracking, the eerieness of the tombstones, and the wind howling, you feel spooked. What’s spooky can’t be revealed by descriptions of gravestone, twigs, and so on. You can be in a mood, and also rationally think through a situation of being spooked.

[It is important to note here that Heidegger’s usage of mood here does not imply a mentalistic state. Rather, it is colloquially a  ‘state of mind’ (without reducing it to mind category) or more closely attunement, disposedness, affectivity (Befindlichkeit)]



Our Moon has Blood Clots – Rahul Pandita

An interesting part of  the experience of reading this book was that I had just finished reading Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. So it was an engaging exercise to see how one account filled another’s ellipses, and points where the two converge and diverge. Peer and Pandita are contemporaries, and grow up in Kashmir as the period of conflict begins to unfold. Both are journalists, and both long for Kashmir.

[I’m inspired to do this henceforth when I read accounts of strife, to read from two different view points. This is not to say of course, that if I were to read a Maya Angelou, I would want to read a first person account of a Ku Klux Klan-er]

Pandita traces how Kashmiri Pandits have been regime-after-regime ethnically cleansed for centuries. This made me wonder about what it means to be tied to a land. What makes people stay? What is it about a location that gives people a sense of home, even though this location may have been fraught with brutality and systemic violence? What does this “home” mean for people in exile? For those who have lived whole lives elsewhere, who have barely escaped  annihilation, what does it mean to say I am a Kashmiri?

Pandita’s story provides persuasive clues . For his mother, Kashmir is the land where she had a house with twenty windows and this becomes a tic that she keeps repeating through her life. Poignantly, Pandita notes, she says this for the first time, the day after suffering the indignity of someone coming to their refugee accommodation in Jammu and handing over a plate of food as charity.

While I was compelled by Peer’s account to sympathise strongly for the separatist cause (see this moving song for Azadi, Tum Kitne Jawan Maroge), I am swayed by Pandita’s account which accents how Kashmir has always also been the land of the Pandits, the rest of India and its customs being as alien to them growing up, as it was for the Kashmiri Muslims. Pandita decries the apathy of the media and the intellectuals and regrets that, “It has become unfashionable to speak about us [the Pandits], or raise the issue of exodus.” As he rightly questions, where are the fellowships and grants to understand the exodus? Rejecting positions that Pandits who chose to stay in the Valley have been unharmed, Pandita draws on Primo Levi:

In a Paris Review interview, holocaust survivor and acclaimed writer Primo Levi is asked, ‘Are they still anti-semitic in Poland today?’. ‘They’re not any more. For lack of material!’ he replies.(page 220).

As a teenager trying to make sense of his conflict-riddled existence, Pandita finds escape through comrades who read Gorky, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Camus, Chekhov, Flaubert, Weston La Barre, Avataar Singh Paash and Shiv Kumar Batavia. I like anyone who reads Paash.

Both Peer and Pandita provide compelling accounts. They are brave lives, speaking out in courage, in defiance, and in hope. Yet they remain the accounts of middle-class men, reminding us that there are several unheard, untold, silenced voices.


Post Script: After reading Warsan Shire’s phenomenal poem Home, it is the Kashmiri Pandits I think of, expelled, spat out, exiled.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well1

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.51

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land224
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Reading Curfewed Night

Last week in book world, I travelled with Basharat Peer to Kashmir, the most militarized zone in world. Peer leads the reader into the warmth and comforts of his privileged childhood, as the son of a bureaucrat, grandson of a village school teacher (as Kashmiri introductions go, you are the son of, and grandson of…). Idyllic childhood days, marked by Eid celebrations and making homemade  ice-creams with his brother  (by mixing icicles with milk and sugar) remain dotted with a sense of alienation bordering resentment towards India. Cricket matches between India and Pakistan, imply cheering for Pakistan. A cricket match between India and any other country, implies cheering for the other country.  Peer  traces how  Kashmir, always restive,  transforms into a site of relentless, brutal, all-pervasive war that permeates and dehumanizes each living being it comes into contact with – militant, military or the “innocuous innocent”.

The Curfewed Night weaves a stirring account of Kashmir over the last three decades, an account intimately woven with Peer’s childhood, youth and career as a journalist.  In this account, there is no euphemism of political unrest; Peer describes a state of perennial war. Militants who are  martyrized, love-lorn Pakistani infiltrators, teenaged boys who sport Kalashnikovs because they must and because it is cool, cousins who cross the border to come back doomed with short lives, teachers and friends who flee, uncles in paranoia, mothers mobilizing for “disappeared” sons, boys turned into human grenade launchers by the army. Heavy militarization has thus displaced, dispossessed, deprived and denied any semblance of a human life. Indelibly etched in my mind is Peer’s narration of a Kashmiri writer’s story called the “New Disease”. Every man in Kashmir walks up to a gate or a door, pauses for a moment and then turns away and walks. So internalized is this routine of frisking and searching that unless he is frisked and searched at the gate or door of his house, no man passes through.  The writer advises that the only cure for this  New Disease is that family members must frisk and search their men as they enter their house.

Peer thus paints Kashmir today as dialectically a place of great beauty – of walnut trees, apple orchards and chinars, a serene dal lake, and women in bright pherans,  and as a site of tanks, kalashnikovs, ashes, rubble, charred skeltals of bridges and buildings, and Papa-2.

In my readings over the last year, I have come across Agha Shahid Ali’s poems from A country without a postoffice, which hauntingly beautiful as they are,  barely scratched the surface of my understanding given the lack of familiarity with metaphors and colloquial usages. As Peer himself repeats, there are very few accounts – sociological,  journalistic book form or literary –  on the violence in Kashmir. Peer is thus an important voice in the Kashmiri separatist movement.In those moments that he lays bare his vulnerabilities,  he reveals his  great courage and  conviction in telling this account.

Questions that arise:

  • Having read  “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora”, which narrates the harrowing account of over 50 women who were brutally sexually assaulted by Indian armed forces in the villages of Kunan Poshpora, one wonders about the voids within which Kashmiri women exist. Peer’s account, though giving voice to mothers who fight for disappeared sons, and women like Mubeena the bride who was barbarically raped by the BSF on the day of her wedding,  remains primarily an account of Kashmiri men (and arguably of the Kashmiri middle-class as my colleague Rohit Varman points out). As the account of Kunan Poshpora reminds us, in a highly patriarchal society like that of Kashmir, women are reluctant to speak of brutalities and sexual assaults from fear of being stigmatized and bearing dishonour for their families.  Rohit, in personal communication,  rightly pointed out, that here lies the problem with our social fabric which continues to hold on to such regressive values cast in sharp relief in these times of conflict.
  • While Basharat Peer does, with great sincerity, pursue the cause of Kashmiri Pandits and their exodus, his account remains predominantly of a Kashmiri Muslim’s account of the war, with the pandits becoming unfortunate victims as bystanders. I am curious to read a similarly highly skilled, well-researched account of the Kashmiri Pandits.

Books I would like to read after this:

  • Homage to Catalonia – Geroge Orwell
  • More of Agha Shahid Ali
  • Accounts of Kashmiri Pandits. Immediately perhaps: Rahul Pandita on Our  Moon has Blood Clots

Ways this book influences me:

  • It’s a writer’s obligation to tell stories with the courage and conviction that Peer has
  • While uploading this post, I was going to categorize the post under the category of “India”. But I correct myself. In deference to Peer and the Kashmiri’s call for Azadi, this post gets the distinct category of  writings on “Kashmir”.

Thanks to Kangana for her link to a recent article by Peer:

The Writer’s Obligation

So this is an ambitious attempt to learn some and write some during the 18 months I have on a fellowship. While I have had many moments of conflict prior to taking this up – I’ll be away from an Institute I really like working at for a long time, away from people I love for a very long time, and so many more reasons related to seasons and cycles of time, a large part of me wanted to take up this fellowship, so I can read some and write some more.

The domain name of the blog is inspired by Neruda’s poem, the Poet’s Obligation, which remains a North Star, ever since I discovered it with a fellow traveler and comrade.

And the reason I decided to blog was to steer clear of random musings, which although (most certainly) may arise from words that I encounter, could still be confined to the pages of my diary. This space then remains a attempt to compel myself to write regularly  on questions that I am concerned with.  As a writer’s obligation.

And here is  Neruda’s  The Poet’s Obligation:

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to who ever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weigh of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So. Drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of the windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.