By Farhad Mirza
In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of ‘risk-free love’, which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers ‘love, without falling in love’. For Badiou, the search for ‘perfect love without suffering’ signifies a ‘modern’ variant of ‘traditional’ arranged-marriage practices – a risk-averse, calculated approach to love that aims to diminish our exposure to differences: ‘Their idea is you calculate who has the same tastes, the same fantasies, the same holidays, wants the same number of children. [They try] to go back to arranged marriages,’ writes Badiou.
The philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek subscribes to similar ideas about arranged marriages, referring to them as a ‘pre-modern procedure’.
When it comes to the view of arranged marriage in the West, Badiou and Žižek offer relatively genteel criticisms. Popular and learned representations of the practice almost always associate it with honour killings, acid attacks, and child marriages. It’s often presumed to be the same thing as a forced marriage; coerced, dutiful, predictable – the very opposite of individual agency and romantic love.
Due to the growth of international migration, the question of how Western states treat arranged marriages bears very serious consequences in terms of how we perceive the emotional lives of migrants and diasporic community members. The prevalent Western perception of illegitimacy is unwarranted, based both on ignorance of arranged marriage and on a lack of insight into Western norms.
Badiou criticises both libertinism (superficial and narcissistic) and arranged-marriage practices (empty of that organic, spontaneous and unsettling desire that inspires emotional transgressions). He argues that love is real when it is transgressive – a disruptive experience that opens people to new possibilities and a common vision of what they could be together. It possesses the power to floor the ego, overcome the selfish impulse, and transfigure a random encounter into a meaningful, shared continuity. To Badiou, love is not simply a search for an adequate partner, it is a construction of an almost traumatic transformation that compels us to look at the world ‘from the point of view of two and not one’.
Do arranged marriage practices suppress the transgressive power of love, as Badiou implies? Can choosing an arranged marriage be the act of a free person, and does that person then feel with as much depth as those who met through a friend, or at college, or via a dating app? Any answer must take into account that there are different arranged-marriage practices, and that what people experience as true love varies across different cultures.
It is important to emphasise the difference between arranged marriages – which respect consent of prospective spouses – and forced marriages, where such consent is absent. By distinguishing forced and arranged marriages, we can begin to see an overlap of the cultural logics that underpin arranged marriages and ‘modern’ match-making practices.
Arranged marriage usually refers to a broad spectrum of practises in which parents or relatives act as matchmakers. They introduce their young ones to ‘suitable’ partners and influence their personal decisions. Such arrangements are fairly common in much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Some arranged marriages are the result of several different introductions organised by families or professional matchmakers, followed by chaperoned or unchaperoned meetings of the prospective couple. The meetings serve as prelude to family discussions that culminate in a decision by the couple. Other marriages are arranged only in the sense that they receive the blessing of the families after a couple expresses the desire to marry (self-arranged).
To varying degrees, each arranged marriage is influenced by filial and social pressures on the agency of the prospective couple. But so are Western marriages, in form. In romantic love too, social class, education, profession, religion (factors that are deeply influenced by family), all mediate and shape attraction and compatibility. The social reality we are raised in shapes our freedom to choose partners, even to feel desire. For Badiou, love becomes meaningful when it is subsumed under anticonsumerist politics. Others find meaning in different ideals.
Couples in arranged marriages often find romance in family-initiated introductions because it speaks to their broader value system. For many, it is a smarter, more spiritual form of love because it prioritises collective will and emotional labour over sexual impulse and selfish individuality. This is perhaps one reason why couples in arranged marriages express high levels of satisfaction in their relationships, sometimes more so than couples in love marriages.
Another common criticism of arranged marriages goes something like this: arranged marriages are not built upon informed desire. Since partners lack familiarity with each other, they cannot be expected to possess any genuine feelings for each other. But as the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips has observed, the romantic euphoria we feel towards a desired partner is not always derived from our knowledge of them, but from prior expectations of meeting someone like them: In Missing Out (2013), he writes, “[T]he person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; … you have dreamed them up before you met them. You recognise them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies.”
This sense of dreamed-up familiarity inspires people to pursue real intimacy. Arranged marriages work in the same way.
It is hard to universalise notions of love because it is such a dynamic, delicate and complicated experience. What Western observers often forget is that people of other cultures are constantly carrying out subtle transgressions against the lazy stereotypes in which they are viewed.
Postcolonial feminist theory has demonstrated that women who opt for arranged marriages are not passive subscribers of patriarchal traditions, but engaged in negotiating the practice to shift the balance of power in their favour. Arranged marriage might not be the perfect solution to the problem of love, but it isn’t a fossilised holdover from archaic times. It’s an ever-evolving, modern phenomenon and should be understood as such.
Badiou’s definition of true love is limiting, idealistic and dismissive of the cultures and experiences of most people in the world. It gets in the way of understanding how love can be expressed and experienced within even the most seemingly ‘traditional’ practices. This misunderstanding and limitation poses real dangers in our current political climate.
As the volatile Western political world plunges deeper into xenophobia and nativism, empathy is ever more at risk. Dismissive and stigmatising caricatures of cultural differences can be – and often are – enlisted to cast migrants and people in diasporic communities as lesser or somehow not worthy of respect.
History has repeatedly shown us that imagining a group of people as unloving beings serves as a prerequisite to mistreating them. While it is necessary for us to condemn violent and coercive social practices such as forced marriages, we must not malign an entire culture as the loveless ‘other’. What would that say about the quality of our love?Aeon counter – do not remove
(Farhad Mirza is a Pakistani-born freelance journalist and researcher, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, New York magazine and Deutsche Welle, among others. He is based in Berlin.)
Faiz and Manto
By Ali Madeeh Hashmi
January 18 was Manto’s 64th death anniversary and it should be noted that Manto has been experiencing something of a renaissance for quite a few years. Manto’s best short stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Mozail’, ‘Hattak’, ‘Naya Qanoon’, ‘Khol Do’ and countless others remain peerless both as works of art as well as searing commentaries on their times. However, even Manto’s most ardent admirers admit that his work is wildly uneven. Exquisite short stories are mixed in with works that are at best hurried and slapdash, at worst incomprehensible. Most of this is, no doubt, a result of the life that Manto lived: a life marred by poverty, alcoholism and mental illness.
In and of itself, this is of no moment. After all, an artiste is free to create and propagate his or her work anyway he likes. But the continuing attention on Manto has had the result of perhaps diverting attention away from a number of other gifted writers some of whom were his contemporaries and some who came later. Writers like UpendranathAshk, Krishan Chander and even the great MunshiPremchand. In addition, later writers like the exquisitely subdued Ghulam Abbas and Muhammad Hasan Askari have not received the kind of attention or accolades that have accrued to Manto.
February 13 was Faiz’s 108th birthday and it seems appropriate to examine what connection (if any) existed between the two. In a couple of interviews, initially noted in Dr Ayub Mirza’s book Hum keThehrayAjnabi, Faiz said: “Manto was my student at the MAO College Amritsar (Faiz’ first job after finishing his MA)”. Faiz went on to note affectionately: “He never studied much, he was mischievous. He…didn’t respect anyone. But he respected me and considered me his ‘ustaad’”.
A recent column in a leading Urdu daily devotes a considerable amount of ink to disproving that Manto was ever Faiz’s student. It points out, correctly, that Faiz was appointed a lecturer in English at the MAO college Amritsar in 1935, probably in the latter half (the exact date is not available). Manto had, by then, already become a translator of some renown having translated and published some Russian short stories as well as Oscar Wilde’s play Vera among others. Manto did join the MAO college Amritsar as a student in 1933 but most likely had dropped out by the time Faiz joined as a lecturer. Subsequently, Manto was briefly a student at the Aligarh Muslim University but had to drop out after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned to Amritsar in August 1935, probably right around the time that Faiz joined MAO college as a teacher. Manto then travelled back and forth between Amritsar and Delhi for treatment and in May 1936, on the advice of his physician moved to Bombay and later (after partition) to Lahore.
It seems obvious that Manto and Faiz were, in fact, present in Amritsar around the same time (mid-late 1935 till summer 1936). Faiz was an up and coming poet having received some acclaim for his poetry while still a student at Government College Lahore and then Oriental College from around 1929 till 1934/35. His poems had been published in Government College’s esteemed literary journal Ravi and his teachers, leading literary lights of the day including Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Dr MD Taseer and Ahmad Shah Bokhari ‘Patras’ were aware of his poetic talents.
In addition, in Amritsar, he was introduced to Syed SajjadZaheer and quickly became one of the leading organisers of the newly emergent All India Progressive Writer’s Association (AIPWA). All through this time, Faiz would undoubtedly have been reciting his poetry both at mushairas and perhaps private events even though the publication of his first volume of poetry Naqsh-e Faryadi was still some years away (1941). Many of Manto’s short stories were also published in the quarterly Adab-e Lateef which Faiz briefly edited around 1939-41. Faiz also defended Manto in court more than once. In Dr Ayub Mirza’s book, he said “Every time he (Manto) would be taken to court, I would be one of the defense witnesses. He was arrested four times; for ‘KaaliShalwar’, ‘ThandaGosht’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Dhuan’. The first three times we managed to get him off.”
Manto was actually prosecuted six times for alleged pornography. In addition to the stories Faiz mentions above, he was also taken to court for his stories ‘Bu’ and ‘OoperNeechayaurDarmiyan’. In 1949, Faiz was the convener of the Press Advisory Board tasked with rendering a judgment about whether Manto’s notorious short story ‘ThandaGosht’, published in a special edition of the magazine Javed in March 1949 was a work of art or pornography. In short, the two were well acquainted.
When Faiz says in his interview “Mantoapnashagirdtha”, he clearly means ‘Shagird’ not in the narrow sense of a student enrolled in a class one is teaching in a college or university but someone who seeks guidance from another who he considers more learned or erudite. In addition, when Faiz says
“Wohmeriizzatkartathaaurmujhayustaadmaantatha”, he clearly means ‘Ustaad’ in the Eastern/Indo-Pakistani sense, again, someone learned, older, more worldly who can be confidante/guide and mentor.
Manto, to my knowledge, never referred in writing to any association with Faiz and, fairly early on, dissociated himself from the AIPWA. From his meteoric rise as a short story and then film writer in the late 1930s and early 1940s, to his legal battles over being an alleged pornographer, through his fateful decision to migrate from Bombay to Lahore only to be dogged by continuing legal troubles, alcoholism, mental illness and penury into an early grave, he walked his own lonely path, refusing to compromise what he considered his artistic integrity, refusing to draw a cloak over the ‘unbearable society’ in which he lived.
In 1955, he died in Lahore at the young age of 43. Faiz, languishing in prison at the time under threat of a death sentence for the Rawalpindi ‘Conspiracy’ case wrote: “I was grieved to hear of Manto’s death. Respectable members of our community, who have neither the awareness of the fragility of an artiste’s heart nor any sympathy for it, will probably say that Manto himself is to blame for his death. But no one will wonder why he did this…The problem is that when life and art are in conflict with each other due to social circumstances, one of these has to be sacrificed. The other possibility is of mutual compromise, in which some part of both is sacrificed. The third possibility is to unite the two into a subject of struggle, which only great artistes are capable of.”
Faiz referred in another interview to Manto’s ‘exquisite short stories’ and went on to say “but after 1950, he lost his way. The film or newspaper people would give him a bottle of liquor and have him write whatever they wanted”. None of this is to take away from the greatness of Manto which is universally acknowledged but perhaps we can stop quibbling about what relationship (if any) he had with Faiz; student, peer or fellow artist. Neither one of them is with us today but their art is, and that’s the way it should be.
ODDS TOWARDS ENDS
By Umair Khan
The relationship between Pakistan and India has seen many ups and downs — probably more downs than it should have. Several books have been written to explore the intricacies of this sensitive relationship as both sides try to present arguments from their own perspective in an effort to legitimise their policies and actions. India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds is one such endeavour undertaken by Avtar Singh Bhasin, a researcher and former Indian diplomat.
Before writing this book, Bhasin had compiled a 10-volume magnum opus titled India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study comprising original political and diplomatic documents from the archives of the government of India pertaining to Pakistan-India relations. In a way, his new book is a distilled form of the earlier, encyclopaedic work.
India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds consists of 34 chapters dedicated to important events in the region’s history in chronological order. The book starts from the woes of Partition and continues up to the mistrust each country holds for the other even today. Looking back over centuries of recorded history of the Indian subcontinent, Bhasin rightly points out that “at no time in the medieval history of India was there a single ruler ruling the entire country from [the] east to the west and north to south. There were many rulers.” Thus, he gives credence to the claim that the Indo-Pak subcontinent has not been a political unity for a long period of time.
Starting proper from the fateful years of the post-Partition era, Bhasin admits that “certain actions of the Indian leaders at the very start of the journey, even if they were rational from the Indian standpoint, such as withholding Pakistan’s share of Sterling balances, the stoppage of canal waters, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, did not add to building trust between the two countries, and Pakistan cried foul.” However, he is not able to explain how these actions were rational from the Indian standpoint. The same has been admitted by another former Indian diplomat, ChandrashekharDasgupta, in his book War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, that “the Indian control over the irrigation headworks in Mangla could lead to the ruin of Pakistan’s agricultural economy.”
Bhasin presents the case of the generations of mistrust in a way that implies that the British favoured the Muslim League over Congress during the last days of their Raj, and favoured Pakistan over India during the early days of its independence. However, recent scholarship discredits the author’s claims. In a story published by the BBC in August 2007 titled ‘Partitioning India Over Lunch’, it was revealed that the memoirs of Christopher Beaumont, who was secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission, had been discovered by his son. Beaumont wrote in his memoirs that “the viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame — though not the sole blame — for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million men, women and children perished.” Beaumont categorically stated that Mountbatten favoured the Indian side in the matter of the Radcliffe Boundary Award. This effectively negates Bhasin’s implications that the British favoured Pakistan over India.
When the locals of Kashmir revolted in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the words of Bhasin, “unable to opt for the military option, went to the UN considering it the better option. It was a panic decision.” However, the author feels that the platform of the United Nations — that had been created for the peaceful resolution of international disputes — was not the right platform for the Kashmir dispute to be taken to by India’s then prime minister. With hindsight, he believes that Nehru should have opted for the military solution instead.
When the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions in 1948 that asked India to let the people of Kashmir exercise their democratic right of self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite held under the auspices of the UN itself, Bhasin writes that “India had the option of rejecting the resolution since it had gone beyond its reference.” Here, any student of international law can underscore the fact that the UN Security Council has been authorised by the UN Charter to ensure peace and security in the world and its resolutions cannot be rejected by any state on the flimsy ground of “having gone beyond” the reference submitted by that state.
Nehru reneged on his promise to hold a free and fair plebiscite in Kashmir on the flimsy grounds that ground realities had changed after Pakistan made military pacts with the United States during the mid-1950s. Bhasin does not clarify how the signing of these military pacts by Pakistan could disbar the Kashmiri people from exercising their democratic right of self-determination.
Commenting on the nuclearisation of South Asia, Bhasin admits that after a nuclear test was conducted by India in 1974 (Pokhran I), Pakistan proposed in a statement issued in 1980 to declare South Asia a nuclear weapon-free zone. However, Bhasin states that “India was keen on a universal nuclear disarmament, something which was beyond the realm of possibility.” And when India again conducted a nuclear test in 1998 (Pokhran II), forcing Pakistan to conduct a nuclear test as well, Bhasin comments on the nuclearisation of South Asia by writing “both Vajpayee and then Nawaz Sharif did the most unexpected” without putting the blame where it primarily belongs — the side that introduced the nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Reading and understanding the history of Pakistan-India relations has never been more important. The geostrategic situation of the region demands that both the neighbours at odds with each other need to bridge the trust deficit somehow and find some way to move forward. While this book is a good source for understanding the Indian perspective and narrative on important issues, and it is rich in quoting primary source material, it falls somewhat short in the logical analysis of those references. Still, it can prove a good read for students of history and policymakers.
India and Pakistan:
Neighbours at Odds
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
Colours of Asia
By Nijah S. Khan
Asia, the world’s largest and most populous continent, home to 48 countries each with their own diverse cultures and subcultures, languages and religions, presents an interesting situation: What is it to be ‘Asian’? It almost seems impossible that such an expanse of land would have narratives that are similar and relatable, given the uniqueness of the multitudes residing within each Asian nation. Yet in The Best Asian Short Stories of 2017, “different voices, viewpoints and themes combine to shed light upon various facets of the Asian experience,” writes Editor MonideepaSahu in her foreword.
The anthology contains thirty two stories ranging from the skyscrapers of Korea, to the deserts of Jordan, from the rainforests of Malaysia and the historic anguish of the Indo-Pak partition to the impoverished slums of Bangladesh, just to name a few. The particular focus of this omnibus of short stories is precisely the home-grown Asian identity, free from Western attempts to explain what they see as quaint and exotic. The stories ‘Jellybeans’ by Soniah Kamal and ‘The Spaces Between Stars’ by Gita Kothari, which are set in the United States of America are still narrated from the Asian perspective.
Though the call for submissions prescribed no set theme, larger motifs such as extreme poverty and the quest to improve one’s living situation through brutal hard work emerge across the stories; for example in ‘Ladybugs Fly From The Top’ by Korean writer Park Chan-soon, our acrophobic window-washing protagonist dangles daily from the tops of skyscrapers with only ropes attached to a small board, risking his life to make a living. A poor construction worker’s family converts to Christianity from Hinduism in the vain hopes that “their escape in the dead of night from one identity into another” will help transform their lot in life, in ‘Patchwork’ by Shikandin.
In MithranSomasudrum’s ‘The Yakuza Under the Stairs’, Clisty’s tale is a slightly less morose one of rags-to-riches, when the humble immigrant cab driver finds himself the unsuspecting recipient of a sizeable inheritance. The story takes a humorous turn when a pronunciation mixup leads our newly moneyed protagonist to accidentally order a Yakuza (i.e. Japanese gangster for hire) instead of a jacuzzi, for his new home in Thailand.
Of course, no collection of Asian narratives can be truly representative without reference to the long period of political turmoil and upheaval in the subcontinent, which forms five stories housed in this panorama, but each tale reveals a unique facet of the struggles countless individuals faced.
The troubled Kashmir forms the backdrop for Siddhartha Gigoo’s ‘The Umbrella Man’, the story of an inmate at an asylum which parallels the persecution of Hindu Pandits in Kashmir, cast out from their motherland as refugees, their identity as a community stands endangered with no salvation in sight. Left isolated and expelled from Kashmiri society, they are akin to the inmate at the asylum, “For the inmates, the world ended at that wall. Beyond that brick-and-stone wall was a vast darkness, an oblivion.” The horrors of war and its effects on the natural beauty of Kashmir and the lives of brave youths who enlisted are further illustrated in IlaksheeBhuyanNath’s ‘The Wetland’.
Our subcontinent, unfortunately, is not the only region affected by war: a young mother fleeing war-torn Aleppo is the central figure of Amir Darwish’s ‘Samar’, and the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution and a childhood spent in starvation during a famine are elucidated by an elderly woman to her young niece growing up in a time of prosperity in Jeremy Tiang’s ‘1997’.
Female protagonists that are breaking away from the tropes of battered and oppressed women populate many of the short stories found in this collection, some like ‘Lilly from Fits and Starts’ by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and ‘Moyna in Powerless’ (a translated work) written by Moinul Ahsan Saber rise above their difficult circumstances and take charge.
Lilly holds her own as the only female 24-hour delivery rider for McDonald’s, filling in for her brother to support her family while he is behind bars. Her beauty and femininity is juxtaposed with her no-nonsense and often defensive exterior, an occupational hazard for females who work in a male-dominated environment. “She moved the big bike stiffly, and although she was tall enough to swing her leg over it, things got unwieldy when she strapped on the bulky backpack they used for transporting the food. Once, Zul had offered to hold the backpack while she mounted, but she barked him off.”
The challenge taken on by the editors of this collection was no small feat. The American equivalent to this compendium The Best American Short Stories selects its contents from works already published in literary journals, whereas MonideepaSahu had to trawl through numerous submissions. Deciding what qualified as “the best” Asian short stories meant struggling through the deluge of entries and an acute reader’s block for Sahu.
Whilst inclusiveness was a goal when consolidating the selected submissions into a book, out of thirty two stories contained in the anthology only four are translated works- a number that one would expect to be far greater given the rich linguistic heritage of Asia. Central Asian short stories also remain conspicuously absent from the winning essays. Nevertheless, the goal of gleaning transferrable themes of humanity across the stories proves to be not only a successful one but an illuminating and enjoyable one in this inaugural endeavour in collecting the finest short stories written across Asia.
The Best Asian Short Stories 2017
Author: Edited by MonideepaSahu
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017