Center for South Asian Studies | University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa


Aug 24, 2016
AIBS Fellowship Application
AIBS Call for Fellowship Applications NOW OPEN
Deadline for the application is Sunday, October 2, 2016
(For US Citizens conducting research involving Bangladesh)

The American Institute of Bangladesh Studies is currently accepting research fellowship applications for scholars interested in conducting research that involves Bangladesh in all academic disciplines. AIBS fellowships are supported by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. All fellowship travel is subject to State Department travel restrictions. Due to potential security concerns in Bangladesh, junior and pre-dissertation scholars must carry out research in a country other than Bangladesh or the US, subject to available funding. Senior scholars may propose travel to Bangladesh, but travel may be suspended or adjusted subject to the approval of AIBS and the current security situation in Bangladesh at the time of travel. Deadline for the application is Sunday, October 2, 2016 (11:59 CST).  Fellowships may begin as soon as December 15, 2016, but must be complete by September 30, 2019. Please go to the AIBS website at for additional information about fellowships and on-line application, click on the Fellowships tab.

Apr 4, 2016
South Asia Related Films at HIFF April 2-10

The 2016 HIFF (Hawaiian International Film Festival) Spring Showcase presented by Halekulani is right around the corner, April 2-10, 2016 at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18.

The UH Center for South Asian Studies is a Film Outreach Partner for HIFF

Check out the following films relating to South Asia which will be showcased:

ZUBAAN44776-Zubaan (2016)
Dilsher, born to a poor Punjabi family, ventures to the big city, seeking to find his true self. He soon runs up the ranks of a major corporation and becoming the adopted son of the CEO, much to the chagrin of the boss’ own spoiled son and conniving wife. He also connects with Amira, a tormented singer who reconnects him with music that he loved but once abandoned. Dilsher is faced with a difficult choice; to climb the corporate ladder or return to his musical roots?
Thursday, April 7     8:00 PM
Sunday, April 10      2:15 PM
The_Man_Who_Knew_Infinity_(film)THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY
Featuring terrific performances by SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE star Dev Patel and Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY tells the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician whose contributions to number theory, continued fractions, and infinite series revolutionized the field. This sweeping historical film about high science and the tragic repercussions of racism amongst the ostensibly enlightened is a testament to the wonder and precariousness of genius — and the power of friendship to change the world.

Opening near the dawn of the twentieth century, the film follows Ramanujan (Patel) from his humble roots in Madras — where opportunities for someone of Ramanujan’s abilities are few — to Cambridge University, where the young prodigy’s visionary theories attract the attention of English mathematician G.H. Hardy (Irons). The chance to work in the same hallowed halls where Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation is a dream come true for Ramanujan, but also proves to be a sort of nightmare. His colleagues, unable to see beyond his dark skin and unfamiliar culture, harass and humiliate him, while Hardy insists that Ramanujan deliver countless proofs before being allowed to publish his work.
Sunday, April 3     12:30 PM
Sunday, April 10    12:00 PM

Mar 31, 2016
CSAS Spring Symposium: ‘Borders and Mobility’ (April 7-8, 2016)

bordersandmobility banner

All events are free and open to the public

Generously supported and funded by the GJ & Ellen Watumull Foundation and
The Dai Ho Chun Lecture Series

Click here for the flyer


Keynote Speakers:

Jason Cons, Thursday April 7th, 9:00-10:15am, Hamilton Library 401

  • Title: “Climatic Territories: Technologies of Resilience and Emplacement in the India-Bangladesh Borderlands”

Vazira Zamindar, Thursday April 7th, 1:30-2:45pm, Hamilton Library 401

  • Title: “Black Margins: The Minority in Question”

Kazim Ali, April 7th, 7:00-8:00pm, Kuykendall 410

  • Title: “Border-crossing and The Undocumented Divine: Genres, Genders, Geographies”

(This keynote is cosponsored and funded by the Dai Ho Chun Lecture Series)

Harsha Walia, April 8th, 9:00-10:15am, Hamilton Library 401

  • Title: “Mobilizing Against Borders: Alliances and Responsibilities”

Thursday April 7th

8:45am-9:00am – Welcome Remarks by Monica Ghosh, Hamilton Library 401

9:00am-10:15am – Keynote: Jason Cons, Hamilton Library 401

  • Introduction: Reece Jones, Associate Professor, UH Geography Department

10:30am-12:15pm – Panel: Negotiating Borderland Identity and Belonging, Hamilton Library 401

  • Chair: Ned Bertz, Associate Professor, UH History Department
  • Participants:

    • Md Azmeary Ferdoush, UH PhD Student, Geography
    • Title: Swapping Territories: Choosing Citizenship, Sovereignty and Belonging in the former Bangladesh- India Border Enclaves
    • Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty, Assistant Professor in History, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi
    • Title: Notion of marginality and identity in the borderlands of lower Assam
    • M. Azizul Islam Rasel, Lecturer at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh
    • Title: Lushei People if the Borderland of Bangladesh and the Creation of Transnational Space
    • Nandita Sharma, Associate Professor, UH Sociology Department
    • Title: Postcolonial Partitions: The Social Production of “South Asians as “Settler Colonists” in “Decolonized” Myanmar (Burma)
    • Ananya Chakraborty, Research Scholar at the TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) in Mumbai (via skype)
    • Title: Renegotiating Boundaries: Exploring Lives of Undocumented Bangladeshi Women Workers in Maharashtra

1:30pm-2:45pm – Keynote: Vazira Zamindar, Hamilton Library 401

  • Introduction: Anna Stirr, Assistant Professor, UH Asian Studies Department

3:00pm-4:30pm – Panel: “The Impossibilities of Authenticity: Translating Practices of Bordering and Migration”, Hamilton Library 401

  • Chair: Sankaran Krishna, Professor, UH Political Science Department
  • Participants:
    • Sarah Jamal, PhD Candidate, Aberystwyth University, International Politics
    • Title: “White Stones, Grey Stones, Black Stones:  A South Asian in a Holy Land”
    • Akta Kaushal, PhD Student, Political Science, University Hawai’i at Mānoa
    • Title: Decolonial Intimacies: Exploring Indigenous and Diasporic Struggles & Alliances
    • Riddhi Shah, PhD Student, Political Science Program, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
    • Title: “Disordering History: Temporality and Public Sphere in Gunvantrai Acharya’s Dariyalal”
    • Tana Trivedi, Lecturer, Ahmedabad University
    • Title: Sudesh Mishra’s ‘Un-homely’ poetry: The case of Indians in Fiji [skype participant]
    • Daniel Majchrowicz, Assistant Professor of South Asian Literature and Culture, Northwestern University
    • Title: ‘A Spring Autumn of Leaves’: Urdu Travel Writing across the India-Pakistan border
  • Discussant: Rajiv Mohabir, PhD Student, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

5:30pm-7:00pm – Reception & Open-Mic (‘Vessels in Motion’), Hamilton Library 401

7:00pm-8:00pm – Kazim Ali Keynote & Dai Ho Chun Series Lecture, Hamilton Library 401

Friday April 8th

9-10:15am – Keynote: Harsha Walia, Hamilton Library 401

  • Introduction: Jesse Knutson, Professor, UH Indo-Pacific Languages & Literatures Department

1030-12:15pm – Panel: “Mobility and Migration in and beyond South Asia”, Hamilton Library 401

  • Chair: Jussi Laine, Executive Secretary and Treasurer, Association of Borderlands Studies, Researcher, University of Eastern Finland
  • Participants:
    • Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, PhD Candidate, Social Sciences & Humanities,  IIT Guwahati
    • Title: Prospects of Pilgrimage Tourism Development across Eastern Himalayan borders: Local aspirations and perceptions to such development
    • James (Jimmy) Weir
    • Title: A Young Afghan’s Journey to Germany and  A Family’s History of Escaping Conflict
    • Andrea Wright, Visiting Scholar, Institute for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley
    • Title: Contesting Borders with Localized Networks: Indians’ Strategies for Migration to the Persian Gulf
    • Marta Zorko (Asst. Prof. University of Zagreb, Croatia in Political Science) & Marijan Crnjak (Course Asst., University of Zagreb, Croatia in Political Science)
    • Title: Hardening of regional borders and changes in mobility from SA to EU

Other Events Happening at UH

Monday, April 4th, 2016:

Book Launch for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut

  • in Kuykendall 409 from 3-4:30pm

Friday April 8th, 2016:

University-wide lecture by Angela Y. Davis: “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”

  • at 7pm in the UH Mānoa’s Kennedy Theatre

This is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution.

Feb 23, 2016
JNU Statement of Solidarity

To: Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar
Vice Chancellor
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi-110 067, India

We—the faculty and students at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose work and teaching focus on India and South Asia—write to condemn the brutal assault on free speech taking place at Indian universities, most recently and visibly at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, and in the society at large, as well as to express our solidarity with the students and teachers at JNU as well as others who are standing up to authoritarianism. The government of India has for some time used colonial-era black laws—such as charges of sedition—as well as punitive detention and other similar measures to stifle dissent and induce fear. What could be more anti-national than an extremely vague definition of the ‘anti-national’ subject to any and all whims of the current regime? The government gives itself license to imprison people purely on the basis of thoughts and opinions, as witnessed by the recent arrests of Kanhaiya Kumar and Sar Geelani, the hounding of Umar Khalid, etc.. These highhanded and anti-democratic tactics are those of an exploitative, occupying power, and they were frequently employed by the British colonial state. There is therefore nothing patriotic or ‘national’ about the attempt to police thought and opinion. It is a severe insult to the martyrs of the freedom struggle and to all those who have struggled against oppression in India’s history.

In protest and solidarity,

Jesse Ross Knutson, Assistant Professor, Department of Indo-Pacific Languages & Literatures

Monica Ghosh, South Asia Studies Librarian, Interim Director, Center for South Asian Studies

Monisha Das Gupta, Associate Professor, Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies

Subramanian Shankar, Professor, Department of English, Director of Creative Writing

Sankaran Krishna, Professor, Department of Political Science

Ned Bertz, Associate Professor, Department of History

Miriam Sharma, Professor, Asian Studies

Sai Bhatawadekar, Associate Professor, Department of Indo-Pacific Languages & Literatures

Anna Stirr, Assistant Professor, Asian Studies

Arindam Chakrabarti, Professor, Department of Philosophy

Vrinda Dalmiya, Professor and Undergraduate Chair, Department of Philosophy

Priyam Das, Assistant Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning

Ashok Das, Assistant Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning

Akta Kaushal, PhD Student, Department of Political Science

Rajiv Mohabir, PhD student, Department of English

Richard Forster, Graduate Student, History Department,

Sarah Jamal, PhD Candidate, (visiting from Aberystwyth University)

Tamara Luthy, PhD Student, Departments of Botany and Anthropology

Irmak Yazici, PhD Student, Department of Political Science

Anjoli Roy, PhD Student, Department of English

Lisa Widdison, Graduate Assistant/Instructor, Department of Philosophy

Riddhi Shah, PhD Student, Department of Political Science

Jan 21, 2016
Congrats to CSAS Faculty Dr. Anna Stirr, who will receive the Ali Miya Prize from the Ali Miya Lok Wangmaya Pratisthan (Ali Miya Folk Literature Academy) in Nepal

imageAnna Stirr will receive the Ali Miya Prize from the Ali Miya Lok Wangmaya Pratisthan (Ali Miya Folk Literature Academy) in Nepal, in honor of her research about and performance of Nepali folk music and poetry. The award ceremony will take place on February 27, 2016 in Pokhara, Nepal. Ali Miya, in whose honor the prize is given, was one of Nepal’s foremost folk poets of the twentieth century, and his poems and songs continue to inspire. The prize is given yearly to individuals whose work is notable in the area of folklore, including poets, musicians, and others. Among the previous recipients include folk singers Prem Raja Mahat and Hari Devi Koirala.”

Dec 16, 2015
Bollywood Film Festival / The Apu Trilogy – Jan 2-Feb 6, 2016

Bollywood Film Festival

The Apu Trilogy

Jan 2–Feb 5, 2016

As our Bollywood Film Festival enters its ninth year, the museum expands programming beyond the popular musical extravaganzas with a whole month of Indian cinema—from Bollywood and Kollywood (Tamil-language) megahits to master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s meticulously reconstructed new restoration of his cinematic landmark The Apu Trilogy.

Sponsored by Indru and Gulab Watumull & the J. Watumull Fund.

Special thanks to the Bollywood Film Festival Committee—Sai Bhatawadekar, Maya Cowell, Alan Eyerly and Lachmin Singh.

Opening-night reception Jan 2, 6-7:30pm: Start 2016 in style with a spicy Bollywood soundtrack from DJ Mr. Nick, performance by dance troupe Aaja Nachle, henna tattoos by HennaLove Hawaii and food from India Café! Wine, beer, and soda available for purchase. Bajrangi Bhaijaan screens at 7:30pm.

Opening-night reception + film: $35 | $30 museum members
Opening-night film only: $15 | $12 museum members

    • Featurebox_bollywood_bajrangi

      Bajrangi Bhaijaan
       Jan 2


      Ok Kanmani

      Jan 3, 8, 13 + 27

    • Featurebox_bollywood_margaritastraw

      Margarita, with a Straw

      Jan 3, 10, 22 + Feb 4

    • Featurebox_bollywood_dhanak

      Dhanak • Rainbow

      Jan 3, 16 + 28

    • Featurebox_bollywood_court


      Jan 5, 14, 21, 29 + Feb 4

    • Featurebox_bollywood_waiting


      Jan 5, 9, 26 + Feb 5Featurebox_bollywood_meetthepatels

      Meet the Patels

      Jan 6, 12, 15, 19 + 28


      Nachom-ia Kumpasar • Let’s Dance to the Rhythm

      Jan 6, 16 + Feb 2


      Elizabeth Ekadashi

      Jan 7, 13, 17 + 21

    • Featurebox_bollywood_enithran

      Enthiran • Robot

      Jan 7 + 26

    • Featurebox_bollywood_premratan

      Prem Ratan Dhan Payo

      Jan 8, 31 + Feb 5


      Bajirao Mastani

      Jan 9 + 22


      Dil Dhadakne Do

      Jan 15

    • Featurebox_bollywood_missindiaamerica

      Miss India America

      Jan 16


      The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali • Song of the Little Road

      Jan 17 + 24

    • Featurebox_apua_aparajito

      The Apu Trilogy: Aparajito • The Unvanquished

      Jan 17 + 24

    • Featurebox_apu_apuransar

      The Apu Trilogy: Apur Sansar • The World of Apu

      Jan 19 + 24

Nov 12, 2015
South Asia Related Films at the 2015 HIFF (Honolulu International Film Festival)

35th Hawai’i International Film Festival

Baahubali — The Beginning

baahubali_the_beginningTwo brothers clash for the control of a kingdom. The story has been told many times before — a child is born destined for greatness and, as a man, vanquishes the forces of evil — but in the confident hands of accomplished South Indian director S.S. Rajamouli, the tale gets potent new life in BAAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING.

Raised in a remote tribal village, Shivudu grows up a carefree young man who relentlessly pursues his heart’s desire. This leads him on an adventure to a completely unfamiliar territory. On this journey, he falls in love with Avantika, a Nishada soldier. To win her over, Shivudu takes on the dangerous mission of rescuing Devasena from the tyrant King Bhallaladeva. Shivudu manages to free Devasena, and during their escape, uncovers the truth behind his mysterious past.

With epic battles, swords, sandals, horses and elephants, the film is reminiscent of the big epics, both old and new (think SPARTACUS meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS). No penny is spared in the production design, incredible in its sheer grand scale. And yes, the subtitle, “THE BEGINNING” does mean that this is indeed a part 1 of a planned trilogy.

The Festival will be screening the newly released “international version.” which provides more backstory and more action. Sit back and be thrilled by India’s biggest film ever, and be transported to a world of titanic battles and sweeping romance among the world of kings.
— Anderson Le

Click here for more info…


Sunday, November 15, 5:45 PM — Regal Dole Cannery

Bajrangi Bhaijaan

abcw-bajrangi1A little mute girl from a Pakistan village gets lost on her return back from a trip to India. In Kurukshetra, she meets Pawan (superstar Salman Khan, monstrously buff as ever) – a devout Hanuman Bakth – who is in the midst of a challenge posed by his lover’s father. In trying to discover her parents, he develops an unshakable bond with the young girl. He tries to get into Pakistan through a path righteous to his conscience and later, with a smart Pakistani news reporter (the luminous Kareena Kapoor) who takes a liking to this “story”, captures the imagination of the public in both countries.

BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN is a fun and heartwarming road film that has enchanted Indian audiences since its release this summer. Salman Khan flexes his charisma, developing a sweet bond with the precocious Harshaali Malhotra (as the young Pakistani girl). Coupled with strong performances from Bollywood vets Kareena Kapoor and Om Puri, it is no wonder this film has become the biggest Bollywood hit of the year.

Click here for more info…


Saturday, November 21, 5:15 PM  — Regal Dole Cannery

Miss India America

MissIndia_4_1000x316Lily Prasad (Tiya Sircar) wants to win at all costs. She’s a high school valedictorian who arrogantly rubs her triumphs in the face of, well, everyone. But she soon loses her boyfriend, Karim (Kunal Sharma), to the reigning Miss India National Reshma (Sameera Eligeti), pulling a key block out of her Jenga-like tower of ambition. She vows victory and schemes to retake Karim by winning the Indian American beauty pageant with the help of her friend Seema (Kosha Patel). How will she get past the gorgeous and talented Sonia Nielson (NEW GIRL’s Hannah Simone)? Lily is ugly in ego, like Frank Underwood in a dress — she’ll find a way. As women crack glass ceilings around the world, this film shows us girl-power gone hilariously bad. Hope comes the form of friendship and family. Lily rises and falls, and comes out a better person on the other side.

Ravi Kapoor’s debut feature showcases great acting by an almost entirely female cast. Strong writing and direction complete this film as a fun, campy romp of megalomania and redemption.
— Ravi Chandra

Click here for more info…


Saturday, November 21, 2:30 PM — Regal Dole Cannery
Sunday, November 22, 12:45 PM — Regal Dole Cannery



Winner of top prizes at the Venice and Mumbai film festivals, Chaitanya Tamhane’s COURT is a quietly devastating, absurdist portrait of injustice, caste prejudice, and venal politics in contemporary India. An elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer, dubbed the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide. His trial is a ridiculous and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. What truly distinguishes COURT, however, is Tamhane’s brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors; his affecting mixture of comedy and tragedy; and his naturalist approach to his characters and to Indian society as a whole, rich with complexity and contradiction. —New Directors/New Films

Click here for more info…


Sunday, November 15, 12:00 PM — Regal Dole Cannery
Sunday, November 22, 6:00 PM — Regal Dole Cannery

Margarita With A Straw

Margarita,_with_a_Straw_-_posterLaila (Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin) is like all overachieving students — constantly busy with extracurricular activities and passion projects. Aside from being an aspiring writer, she is also crafting lyrics and electronic beats for an indie band at her Delhi university. Her cerebral palsy doesn’t much get in the way of her life – although it sometimes does for others, especially when her feelings for a boy goes unreciprocated. Although she has a loving family and a strong support group of friends, Laila feels the itch to leave the nest and see the world. She applies for a scholarship and is accepted into a university in New York City. Laila loves her new life; on the first day of her creative writing course, she is paired with a cute guy who catches her eye. But the real game changer in Laila’s life is when she meets a fiery activist, Khanum (Sayani Gupta), who challenges her beliefs, sparks her creativity, and, eventually, seduces her. For these two women, their meeting marks the beginning of a remarkable love story that will be tested when they must return to India because of a family emergency.

Click here for more info…


Monday, November 16, 8:15 PM — Regal Dole Cannery
Wednesday, November 18, 7:45 PM — Regal Dole Cannery


25388_Dheepan-PosterIn Sri Lanka, the Civil War is reaching its end, and defeat is near. Dheepan decides to flee, taking with him two strangers – a woman named Yalini and Illayaal, a little girl – hoping that they will make it easier for him to claim asylum in Europe if they pose as a family. Arriving in Paris, the ‘family’ moves from one temporary home to another until Dheepan finds work as the caretaker of a tenement block in the suburbs.

He works to build a new life and a real home for his ‘wife’ and his ‘daughter’, and for a time, they are thriving and growing as a family – Illayaal is quickly assimilating to school and Yalini takes a job as a caretaker to a terminally ill man and his nephew, who live in the same complex. Dheepan works his daily routine and keeps his head down, when he notices that the tenement block is ground central for gang and drug activity for young hooligans who are also residents. Soon, the daily violence he confronts quickly reopens his war wounds, and Dheepan is forced to reconnect with his warrior’s instincts to protect the people he hopes will become his true family.

Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, DHEEPAN led the march of similarly themed European films that explore immigration themes in a European context. Director Jacques Audiard (THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED – HIFF 2005, A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE – HIFF 2012) explores immigration through the lens of a refugee from a war-torn nation who continues to be haunted by war. From Tamil Tigers, to Arab prisoners and thuggish hoodlums, director Audiard has a knack of exploring characters who attempt to escape from their own personal hells. DHEEPAN is an extension of this theme, and one that is telling of the current climate of immigration strife in Europe.
— Anderson Le

Click here for more info…


Friday, November 13, 6:30 PM — Regal Dole Cannery
Saturday, November 14, 2:00 PM — Regal Dole Cannery


120582Taxi passengers express their views and opinions as award winning filmmaker Jafar Panahi (currently under house arrest, since 2010, and charged for conspiring to create anti-Islamic propaganda) drives through the streets of Tehran, Iran, picking up passengers along the way who serve as conduits for a provocative discussion of Iranian social mores and the art of cinematic storytelling.

Panahi establishes the ground rules early on, when three disparate passengers enter his taxi in rapid succession: a loud-mouthed know-it-all who takes quick note of the small camera mounted on Panahi’s dashboard; a mild-mannered female schoolteacher who gets into a feisty row with the first man over the morality of capital punishment and Sharia law; and a flop-sweating DVD bootlegger (a nod to the only way “Taxi” will ever be seen in its home country), who recognizes Panahi and, after the other two passengers alight, asks the director if they were in fact actors playing out a scripted scene.

Thus the stage is set for a series of deft seriocomic episodes that bring Panahi (who exudes a warm, almost Chaplin-esque presence) into contact with a diverse cross-section of Tehran society, all captured from the fixed p.o.v. of the taxi’s dash-cam. Time and again, the car becomes a kind of impromptu film studio. Reminiscent of HBO’s TAXICAB CONFESSIONS, Jim Jarmusch’s NIGHT ON EARTH and Panahi’s own mentor, Abbas Kiarostami’s TEN. Although Panahi and his passengers are confined in a car for a brisk 82 minutes, TAXI makes many more stops around the world, before returning to the garage.

TAXI premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Golden Bear, the grand prize for best film. Click here for more info…


Saturday, November 14, 4:30 PM — Regal Dole Cannery

Sunday, November 15, 11:00 AM — Regal Dole Cannery

Nov 3, 2015
Prof. S. Shankar’s reflections on the current state of freedom and expression in India in Words Without Borders

Poetry and the Curse: On Censorship in India

(Originally Published in Words Without Borders)

By S. Shankar

If the free exchange of ideas is the oxygen of democracy, India’s vaunted open society is in grave danger of asphyxiation. On the morning of August 30, 2015, renowned Kannada rationalist scholar M. M. Kalburgi was shot dead, allegedly by right-wing assailants on a motorcycle. This brazen act, just the latest in a series that includes the murders of writers and activists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, has led literary figures of the stature of novelist Sashi Deshpande and poet K. Satchidanandan to resign from posts in the Sahitya Akademi, India’s preeminent national literary institution, in protest of its lack of support for writers and scholars in the face of ever-increasing attacks. To put the matter bluntly—the situation in India with regard to freedom of expression is dire.

The Modern Language Association, the largest professional organization in the world representing scholars of languages and literature, too has weighed in on the worsening situation in India, albeit obliquely. At the urging of me and other members, earlier this year the association released a statement, available on its website. The statement notes:  “The Modern Language Association condemns both the censorship of work treating controversial religious subjects and physical threats directed at the authors of such work. Recent instances include the harassment of the University of Chicago Indologist Wendy Doniger and the Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan.”  The proximate reason for the letter exhorting a public stance I sent to the Executive Council on behalf of several signatories was indeed the recent attack within India on Perumal Murugan, mentioned in the statement. Murugan has been forced to flee his hometown and even renounce writing because of the perceived offense caused by his novel Mathorubagan. Of course, the larger censorship story of which the Murugan episode is a part was also very much in my mind. It is gratifying that the MLA has spoken out at its members’ urging, but frankly, given the gravity of the situation, it is hard to deny that the statement, which mentions incidents pertaining to India but does not name the country, is unnecessarily timid.

Given these recent events of unbridled violence and even murder, should we conclude that those with power in India—politicians, state officials, influential non-state actors—are growing increasingly intolerant? No one can be blamed for answering “Yes, of course.” Evidence of intolerance grows month by month. On the occasion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, for example, I signed an open letter expressing grave misgivings regarding the Indian government’s safeguarding of privacy, academic freedom, and freedom of expression. Soon, hate mail began arriving in my inbox (and in the inboxes of other signatories), some of it containing thinly veiled threats of physical violence.

Censorship has ebbed and flowed in India since independence in 1947. But by any measure, the current situation would have to be considered desperate. There is blame enough to go around for this state of affairs, though evidence suggests that the lion’s share belongs to the Hindu right, which has its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, now in power in New Delhi.

I can only surmise that things have come to this sorry pass because those currently in power in India have not really understood one of their own treasured narratives—which is at the same time, I want to insist, “mine” as much as “theirs.” The story of the origin of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana is admittedly ambiguous but still instructive regarding the social role of discourse and imagination. In the story, two birds on a tree are engaging in amorous play watched by the sage Valmiki when one is shot dead by a hunter with an arrow. Witnessing the inconsolable grieving of the remaining bird, words expressing sorrow (soka) burst from Valmiki’s lips in the form of a metrical poetic unit (sloka). In that sloka of soka, Valmiki curses the hunter to suffer forever for his cruelty to an unsuspecting bird. Simultaneously Valmiki, now provided with the literary form he needs, is converted into the author of what is arguably one of the greatest tales ever told. Cursing sage becomes inspired poet.

It is easy to read this story as only positing implacable opposition between Valmiki, who represents poets, and the hunter, who represents heartless violence. In the world of the Ramayana, the sage is powerful in social status as well as in his personal ability to impose a curse through his words; and through this dual power, he confronts and condemns the alternative power of physical violence represented by the socially inferior hunter. The partial parallel with current events in India—the social inferiority of the hunter in the epic does not map easily on to the contemporary scene—is illuminating. Isn’t it fear of condemnation—dread, that is, of the power of the word to speak truth and to render justice—that led to the attacks on Perumal Murugan and the brutal murder of M. M. Kalburgi? On the other hand, the powerful in India are not like the hunter—indeed they have little respect for the “tribal” forms of life represented by the hunter. Unlike the hunter, who does not attack the sage despite being condemned, the powerful in India have trained their arrows on the poets of our times with deadly force.

There is a second, perhaps more subtle, way in which the story of the Ramayana’s origin can be understood as commenting on the place of the word in the world. Looked at from another angle, sloka is poetry rather than curse—that is, it is a grief-stricken but also redemptive art rather than a discourse of potent vengeance. In this alternative reading, the story teaches us that the addition of one small sound—soka becoming sloka—turns the sorrow of life into the compensation of literature. It instructs us that literature is close to life but not the same as life. Literature engages life, without completely disappearing into it. There remains always a distinction between sokaand slokasloka is almost soka but not quite.

The Hindu fundamentalists of today claim to love the Ramayana but secretly fear the power of imagination that gave it life. Refusing to read well, they treat the discourse of literature—indeed, discourse in general—as if it were the same as the experience of life. They forget that the statement of an opinion or the writing of a literary work is not the same as the shooting of an arrow or the firing of a gun, and that if the hunter in the story had turned on Valmiki before a curse could escape the sage’s venerable lips there might very well have been no Ramayana—no timeless narrative of the god Rama, his love for his wife Sita, and the sorrows of separation.

The survival of a free society depends on a general understanding that discourse is indeed powerful but is not the same as life. This distinction is necessary because it grants a vital freedom to the exercise of the imagination. If not in ideas and stories, how else is a thriving society to explore, to test its own limits, and thus grow? India is routinely heralded as a great experiment in democracy; but that experiment will surely be choked out and die if the powerful insist on cutting off the oxygen on which it survives.

Oct 16, 2015
EWC Exhibition – “Parsi: Silk & Muslin from Iran, India, & China”


Click here for more information on the EWC Website:

Sep 16, 2015
New UH Publication: “Story is a Vagabond: Fiction, Drama, and Essays by Intizar Husain”

Series editor is Prof. Fran Stewart (UH English Dept.) with co-editors Alok Bhalla, Asif Farrukhi, and Nishat ZaidiIntizar hussain announcementIntizar hussain announcement 2

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