In 1872, the night before a meeting about the progress of education among Indian Muslims, Nawab Mohsin ul-Mulk (1837-1907) woke up and realised that his companion, the famous Muslim reformer Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), was not beside him:
When I went out of the room in his search, I saw him pacing up and down the veranda. His eyes were filled with tears. I got worried and asked him whether he had received some bad news. On hearing this, he started crying even more: “what greater catastrophe can be there? The Muslims are ruined and still they are following the path of destruction.” […] After witnessing the condition of Sir Syed, I felt so much worried that I cannot describe it, and for me, admiration for that man became boundless.
Hali, Ḥayāt-e Jāwed (1901; Lahore: Anjuman-e Taraqqi-e Urdu,1939), part I, pp. 152–3 trans. Hali, Hayat-e Jawed: A Biographical Account of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Part I–II, trans. R. A. Alavi (Aligarh: Sir Syed Academy, 2008), pp. 97–8.
Syed Ahmed Khan’s manifestation of grief at the “miserable” Muslim present overwhelmed Mohsin ul-Mulk to the point that it convinced him to dedicate his own life to the cause: he became a fervent supporter of Sir Syed and later one of the founders of the All-India Muslim League (f. 1906). This anecdote hints at the power of emotions: they can be contagious and at the very basis of many collective and political endeavours. They can proactively build communities by marking belonging and by excluding others who do not “feel the same”.
My latest book Grief and the Shaping of Muslim Communities in north India, 1857-1940s addresses the way Urdu-speaking (mostly Muslim) elites related to their past and emotionally engaged with their present at a transformative period in the history of South Asia. Through the prism of emotions, it documents the period from the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857 with the establishment of the British Raj until the emergence of the Pakistan movement.
It particularly emphasizes the transformations of one of the most powerful feelings that transpired from vernacular memory works: grief. Despite sadness being commonly identified by Paul Ekman as one of the universal “basic” emotions, it was far from being uniform in colonial north India. It assumed a multiplicity of meanings and of practices that points to the co-existence of different communities of feelings. Through a host of Urdu literary forms and public discourses from key moments of the history of British India, I highlight how grief worked for a diverse group of people and how it could turn them into communities, but also how it changed across time.
The book pays close attention to vernacular language and emotional expression, and to the evolving codes of a popular mournful poetic genre (the shahr ashob). It shows for instance that, while communities of poets emphasised physical pain in their descriptions of the Uprising immediately after 1857, political writers rather channelised grief into collective action by linking it to love and devotion in the 1910-1930s. It also reveals that contemporary communities sometimes clashed over their emotional styles. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, while the modernist Aligarh movement used grief to encourage self-reformation, conservative poets vigorously mocked and lampooned what they described to be an opportunistic and deceitful recourse to feeling. Referring to the former, Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921) denounced:
qaum ke ġham meṇ ḍinar khāte haiṇ hukkām ke sāth
ranj līḍar ko bahut hai magar ārām ke sāth
Our leaders, in pain for the nation, are guests of the rulers for dinner
In their suffering situation, it’s strange they’re not looking thinner.
“Miscellaneous”, number 1349, in Kulliyāt-e Akbar Allāhābādī, vol. 3 (Badaun: Naqeeb Press, 1921), 167 trans. M. H. Case, “The Social and Political Satireof Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921)”, Mahfil, 1, 4 (1964), 18.
The analysis of emotional registers focuses on five intersecting moments in the history of north India: the post-1857 period; the reformist phase of the end of the nineteenth century; the early years of the construction of New Delhi (1911-1915); the Khilafat movement; and the Delhi of the 1920s-1930s. Each “vignette” shows different facets of how memory and grief were invoked, interpreted, and publicised often via the flourishing periodical press. More broadly, this book contributes to our understanding of what emotions do in history.
Have your say!