Accidental Insights Into Reading

On May 27, 2012 by admin

Manash Bhattacharjee

The new Seminar issue, ‘A Country of Our Own’ (April 2012), became an interesting prospect when I saw Nauman Naqvi’s name among the contributors. I started reading his essay the night I got the issue, but other matters intervened and I kept it for later. The next day I took the issue with me to read on my way to JNU. I opened the Nauman essay and began to read earnestly.

Before I began to read, I vaguely remembered Nauman mentioning in the beginning a “repetitive writer” named Intizar, but I had turned the first page which I had already read, and was eager to go on from the second. I read about Nauman’s summer holidays in his native village in Barabanki where he was joined by Pakistani cousins. He mentioned how as children they were invariably divided into Pakistani and Hindustani groups and teams in discussions and games involving the partitioned countries. A few “Indian cousins” would support Pakistan in the cricket and hockey matches to not only stamp their displeasure against Indian Muslims being discriminated against but also from a fear of Islam being under threat in India. When it came to hockey matches, the same cousins would desire that Zafar Iqbal and Mohd. Shahid score goals for India, but that Pakistan win in the end. Nauman slowly realised, in his gradual visits to Pakistan, there being more to Partition than the Hindu–Muslim divide.

When he visited Pakistan after the Sikh riots, Nauman found Muslims having relinquished Hindustani for Punjabi, with a majoritarian refrain against the migrant Urdu speakers. Nauman then recollects how his own family was divided between the two nation-states during Partition and how the matter was more complex than children’s games. Nauman pauses to see how even those games as children were coloured in turn by what happened during Partition. With interesting tales about the difficulties of visas to Pakistan, Nauman ends by pointing to the ridiculous problems thrown up by the nation and seriously questioning its legitimacy.

I finished reading the essay, glad to know much more about Nauman’s life, and felt a little more enriched. But the moment my eyes drifted towards the next essay, I read: ‘A Secret South-Asian Meta-utopia’ by Nauman Naqvi. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. I turned back the pages to find out whose essay I had been passing off in my head as Nauman’s. The essay titled ‘Family Chronicles’ bore the name Jamal Kidwai. I had met Jamal at a party once, and knew he was from Aman Trust. But I had never read him before. I had never read even Nauman before, though I had heard his video lecture on ‘A Muslim Meditation on Violence’. Nauman, I knew, was from Karachi. So how could I have glossed over the fact that the account I was reading was of an “Indian” Muslim? How could such an error happen?

Anyway, an error is simply an error, and all I had to do was re-structure my rational sensibilities, acknowledge the Jamal story as Jamal’s, forget the associations I had made of the story with Nauman, and move ahead to read Nauman’s piece with a better hold on error-prone possibilities. I did read Nauman’s piece finally. I did not, finally, take the rational line of editing out the writing titled ‘Family Chronicles’ from the associations I had developed from it with Nauman Naqvi. In other words, I did not hold my error of reading as an error of judgement or an error of ethics. I found my error simply circumstantial and not burdened by the discourse of truth or truth-reading. I was not reading into any truth; I was reading a narrative signed by a person whose name I merely misplaced. But does that misplacement amount to an aesthetic or ethical crime regarding the author and the author’s name/signature? To my understanding, it is not, because the author, alive or dead, is a singular register only because his name is NOT another name. Nauman is NOT Jamal. At least that part of the error was, willy-nilly, “rectified”. I couldn’t do much about it, but I still wanted to read Jamal’s story with Nauman’s presence in it, as if it was Nauman’s story. And I looked for reasons about why it is possible to do so and take this erroneous reading further. I wanted to see where an error-prone road could take me. Is there anything as a wrong road in a journey where the destination wasn’t chosen in the first place? How to read the signposts then? I decided to go ahead.

Does it really matter, in the first place, if Nauman is from Karachi and Jamal from Delhi or Lucknow? The narrator of ‘Family Chronicles’ was moving in and out of India and Pakistan, having family members in both the countries, and it didn’t matter whether he was an Indian moving in and out of Pakistan or a Pakistani moving in and out of India. Jamal’s story is obviously capable of being told in reverse (with slightly different anecdotes) by a Pakistani. The story of Partition was a mix-up of lives and habitats, of lives and histories getting in the way of each other, of memories getting in the way of each other. In this scenario, why couldn’t Jamal’s story be Nauman’s and vice-versa? Jamal’s story accidentally got misread as Nauman’s, but the rational error also gained a larger perspective, as a larger and more complex sensibility got added in the process of thinking about reading, the author’s name/signature, and the relationship between the two.

The context being Partition, Jamal and Nauman are two names of Partition, partitioned names, moving in and out of two countries like a name halved into two slices of history. How much did Nauman find himself in Jamal’s story? Maybe he did find a few things, if not in common, in a familiar un-commonness. After all, Jamal was Nauman’s other half, the half who lived in India and visited Pakistan. Maybe their relatives in Pakistan met, or knew of those who met. If anyone did a field research, maybe certain meetings, if not connections, can be found in the story. And the two stories will finally connect into a larger story of partitioned people. Without my error, which mixed up Jamal’s story with Nauman’s, the essence of Partition’s story would have been missed. I had grasped the crux of the matter.

There is a term in Greek called hamartia. It refers to an injury committed in ignorance. It is a term developed by Aristotle in his Poetics. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin. My act of reading, seen through hamartia, would then try and propose such an act of missing the mark as a necessary—albeit accidental—way of re-cognising the missing-marks, the accidents, the errors and the wrongdoings of history. This hamartian reading of Jamal’s text, by replacing the name of the author, gets nearer to what the story of Partition meant to everybody who suffered it: stories which are impossible to individualise, because the subject of that story can no longer affirm his subject-hood without falling prey into the fractured subject-making discourse of the nation. The subject of Partition, in order to free his subject-hood from power, has to flee the name and look for a pseudonym, to become another, the way Manto becomes Toba Tek Singh. Toba Tek Singh helps Manto flee his own story and find refuge in the madness of his character. It is a deliberate act of fictionalising one’s subject-hood in order to re-appear as mad in the guise of another character.

But in my case, it wasn’t Jamal or Nauman who faced the possibility of madness, but myself, the reader. The accidental act of reading created a schizophrenic moment where I could not go back to the original moment of the accident and found myself split into two: much like a post-Partition subject reading on Partition. I could had to save my madness by simply rationalising the act, which I did not end up doing. I wanted to face the depth of this accident and see what strange conclusions I would find there. The first relation I could deduce from it was that just like Partition was a catastrophe, my reading was a catastrophe within that catastrophe.

The past, Nauman writes in his ‘correct’ text, is “no longer a clear and determined relation” but a “bundle of relations, whose tips come into their grasp only to slip away, and nor are they convinced of the truth of these relations”. If the clear and determined relations of the past slip away at the tip, there is no relapse into a relation-less sphere but those relations being replaced by the unclear and undetermined relations of the world. The moment the ‘truth’ of relations vanishes, the hamartia of relations begins. There is no other way to re-enter history unless through an original hamartia that catastrophically mimics the other catastrophe, history, and refuses to part with that relationship of everlasting death and remembering.

As a reader who turns interlocutor, I marked a relationship between Jamal and Nauman, which strikes at the heart of the secret South Asian meta-utopia. The secret is perhaps the error of reading itself, of finding itself error-prone in the reading of loss and its relationship with one’s past and one’s world, forever ruminating at the vanishing tip where those near leave and those afar draw near, and the variety of loss overwhelms its subjects.


# I am indebted to my friend Rajarshi Dasgupta for insightfully adding to my direction of thought.

(The author is a political science scholar and writer, living in Delhi)

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