Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On Historical Truths

Well said: The real is, of course, always apparitional, always a reductionist fantasy [...]. Yet acknowledging the fantasy of reality does not, I think, reduce history to fiction; historians can still seek out a more multivalent and still substantial actual and plausible.

Judith M. Bennet, “‘Lesbian-like’ and the Social History of Lesbianisms,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9 no. 1-2 (2009): 1-2ff.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Offering Counsel to the Great Mughal

It has been a busy semester so far. I am always surprised how fast this semester goes by; between the good weather lasting late, an early Thanksgiving, and the non-stop administrative tasks associated with the new year, before you know it you're headed into November pondering what will late night television shows do without an American presidential election and the sudden dread of writing papers while trying to figure whether its worth risking going by PIA to the motherland (though I suspect I won't be headed there anytime soon). At least grant writing is over. Few tasks are as brutal. I am sure some people enjoy it, but I suspect those are the people who get a high from folding laundry and going for morning jogs. I am neither. In fact forms are themselves a source of great dread. I wonder if I could have survived working in Mughal administration with their love of record keeping (of which dreadful few survive or rather dreadful few are documented--this being neither the time nor place for me to bemoan how no one is trying to preserve the archive or do editorial/translation work in North America vis-a-vis the Mughal archive; Wheeler M. Thackston, John F. Richards and Sajida S. Alvi, we salute thee). 

Anyway, grants almost done, I feel odd about not having to apply for school. The last four years of undergraduate and masters were one big smorgasbord of anxiety about further grad school applications! On the bright side, coursework is coming through to make sure one doesn't feel too much at leisure. This is a heavy Persian semester for me, which thankfully is whipping me into better shape. We navigated our way through Rudaki and Shahnamah in Classical Persian Literature and today we finished some sections of Nasihat al-Muluk, which, it turns out, was written by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) [the easiest date in the books!]

I think what is becoming clearer for me is what a big part the study of different Mughal advice texts are going to play in my dissertation, from the lovely Mirza-namahs, to the various akhlaq texts, to the more straight to the point ones on governance in both prose and poetry. There is something about advice texts which I have always enjoyed. They are at that intersection of cultural, social, and political history that I find fascinating. The thing about them is, you can never work on just one or two. Piecemeal discourse analysis of the text can leave you with skewed and at times comical interpretations of what Mughal cultural practices actually were (The same can be said about Mughal chronicles and biographies, which for some reason, despite the considerable attention they have received from cultural historians, focus less on literary practices and more on theories of the self. How images, motifs, myths, etc are linked to their constellation of texts, a term to borrow from an old professor of mine, yet remains to be done; which, I suspect, is in part because it requires a large intellectual warehouse that we as modern historians we don't easily have at hand; from hadith, to the tales of the prophets, to popular legends, to anecdotes from much older tarikhs, adab texts, and poetry, to books of maxims, esoterica, and advice. The list goes on).

But back to advice texts. I think one has to pile them up like a stack of cards and start noticing the variations and individual contours. I think one of the more successful studies for South Asian advice literature is that of Sajida Alvi's on Mazhar-i Shah-Jahani, the Persian text of which sadly yet to be published.  The risk of having a myopic perspective on advice texts is compounded by the fact that so few are edited and translated. Needless to say, at some point I will have to put my money where my mouth is and actually edit one of them and translate it or another one. My old supervisor said that doing a critical edition and a translation was considered firstly, part of one's scholastic duty, and secondly, a test of your actual knowledge. I think thirdly it was a very real way of ensuring the preservation of the archive and the expansion of the easily available one for the next generation. Believe me, after sitting through an assignment where we had to translate a section from the Qabus-nama, despite it having a translation already, teaches you humility about doing accurate, scientific translations. I am currently working on a project that looks at the various advice texts under Jahangir, and hopefully it will end up somewhere, somehow. If there is one thing I have learnt so far, is that like transliteration or card catalogues, when it comes engaging in scholarship that won't leave you with an egg on your face, patience is key.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Foiled by the Book of Kings

At the risk of becoming one of those blogs, the following illustration beautifully captures why I am not posting anything of note. I am currently reading Shah-namah for one class and Siyar al-Muluk for another. Needless to say like Rustam, they are kicking my posterior.

Abridgment of the Book of Kings (Shahnama), Rustam kills the witch who came to deceive him (the third feat), Walters Art Museum Ms. W.597, fol. 44b detail. A nineteenth-century Indian copy of an abridgment of Firdawsī's Shāhnāmah ("The Book of Kings"), composed in prose by Tavakkul Beg Ḥusaynī (fl. 11th century AH / 17th CE), for Shamshīr Khān of Ghaznīn (Ghaznī or Ghaznah - present-day Afghanistan) and entitled Tārīkh-i dilgushā-yi Shamshīrkhānī. This anonymous codex written in a coarse nastaʿlīq hand in the 13th century AH / 19th CE has 33 somewhat mediocre illustrations. Description courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Days of Turks and Turkeys

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and I wish everyone a Happy Turkey day!

Painting of a North American turkey cock for the Mughal emperor Jahangir by Mansur,
Victoria and Albert Museum, c. 1612.