Riyaaz, saadhana, taiyyari: life practices


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A long time ago, when I had just about begun to draft the chapters of my dissertation, a full-time author told me that writing was hard work. When I looked at him a little uncomprehendingly, he said riyaazsaadhanataiyyari. I understood. Those words had strolled into the rooms of my life long before the desire to write.

Riyaaz: a word counselling practice, everyday practice, patience, perseverance.

In Kathak this often means tatkaar – perfecting a cycle of footwork for extended amounts of time, always escalating. Five minutes for beginners, almost half an hour for senior students. Riyaaz is also pain, from ankles to the shin, staying with that pain, the necessary forgetting of that pain, the joy of maintaining the beat, and then graduating to more complex rhythmic arguments.

The habits of a historian. Or habitus. We chase footnotes for a living, sometimes we write them for the first time, proud of a ‘finding’, that will be footnote number 174, thank you. We also stay with questions, for years, unequal to the task of reducing them to hypotheses (or bad fiction).

Riyaaz: deciphering awful handwriting, marginalia in old files, touching with sheer awe the lavender envelope that once held a letter, drafts of a speech titled ‘Tryst with Destiny’; matching, word for word, arguments in a newspaper clipping with those in a ‘collected works’ just so the citation is right; checking for bias, again, and then again.

Riyaaz: falling down, stepping back, not finding the reference, making critical mistakes. Returning to the text; to dance class; losing bearings; forgetting to practice; despairing of practice, and then the overwhelming absence, the silence of bare feet, the unwritten page, the necessary return.

Riyaaz: rewind, replay. Did I get the pause, the necessary ellipses? Why did she (whose name I had to change in my book) change the subject? Oral histories: necessary, not adjunct, to all things contemporary.


Reliving arguments in my dreams: Why didn’t Gandhi petition for his release? Why did Bhagat Singh have to die? Can both of you please let me sleep?

Returning to primary sources: When did Mian Iftikharuddin join the Muslim League? When, precisely, did the Hindu Sabhaite Gokul Chand Narang invite the Muslim Leaguer Mr. Jinnah for tea? (Why does it matter? Doesn’t it?)

Riyaaz: remembering the first argument for partition in the Punjab. The year is 1924. Lajpat Rai wrote, ‘It should be distinctly understood that this is not a united India. It means a clear partition of India into a Muslim India and a non-Muslim India.’1 I interrupt him in my dreams. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you please repeat what you said?’ He turns, annoyed at the interruption, then kindly, ‘Girl, did you not study about the partition of Bengal in your school? Do you not know about the Congress resolution in Karachi that agreed to the linguistic reorganization of provinces?’ I am a little taken aback at my audacity and his gracious response. ‘But, Sir, you just wrote about this not being a united India.’ ‘Tut, tut, you are too young to understand.’ Always too young. The alarm bell goes off, I’m alone once more.

On television that evening a mad man explained Newton’s third law to hordes of television crews. He is not alone.


Saadhana: concentrated effort, an extension of practice, faith, meditation, devotion.

It is the left heel once more. I turn it quickly, no blood, not yet. Slowly the tempo quickens and my feet begin to dance, wilfully, meaningfully.

Stone floors, wooden floors, rooms with views, rooms without.

Studying in an archive with a bee for company (and many monkeys!), or a scholar sharing a power strip who likes to read out loud from files.

Rooms with power, rooms without, words with power, words that morph into gusts of so much hot air.

Saadhana: summer passed me by, then fall. I had only read five years of this precious daily, the Tribune. At this rate, this will be the only book I will ever write. The librarian walked in and snapped, ‘You are still here? Don’t you get bored staring into that fine print?’ ‘I’m searching,’ I responded ‘searching for the first time anyone used the word secularism in a prominent Indian daily.’

Saadhana: ‘swallow it!’ That voice once more. ‘What?’ ‘Your pride! Secularism came later, far later than you’d like. On these pages you will only find faith, a fervent, hot, raging faith in a future so bright it almost blinded us.’

‘You were blind, all of you, and you misled us all.’

I died’ he responded, harshly, (as if I could ever forget that brutal unnecessary death). ‘But before I died I asserted the need for compromise, didn’t I?’

So he did. So he had, in his own quiet affirming way said, ‘if the revolutionaries were fighting for sixteen annas, they were to accept the one anna they received and continue fighting for the remaining fifteen. The problem with the moderates was that they fought for one anna and received nothing in return.’2

Saadhana: after all those hunger fasts, petitions, bombs that went off and those that didn’t, revolutionaries sent to the Andamans and those who turned coat … succumbed to writing mercy petitions begging forgiveness, so many movements, rebellions, insurgencies, hartals, salt marches, walkouts, and everyday acts of sabotage and disobedience, did the leaders of India accept one anna and give up on the fifteen?


Taiyyari: there! almost ready to perform! with every detail on flexed finger-tips, ready to soar!

At what point does a dancer know she is ready? When does she trust her instinct and when does she turn to her teacher’s instinct?

When does she realize she might not be ready? Can she afford to retreat under the glare of ancient floodlights? Watch her jawline stiffen – she will face the music, the petty critics, the temperamental microphone.

Taiyyari: then there are the photographs. The light in his eyes on the eve of a radio broadcast, the energy in his hands as he gesticulates to a group of gathered students sitting cross-legged, comfortable in their double-breasted suits, vivacious, optimistic, even laughing. (If they had known that Aligarh would not go to Pakistan, would they have laughed?) How can the historian put together the pieces when the line of argument in the text doesn’t follow the accompanying laughter in the photograph? Which piece of evidence is true?

Taiyyari: every bell in my ghunghroo is tied with love. Every quote in the manuscript is chosen with care. The tone, check here, check there, the intent, check here, check there…

Taiyyari: at what point does a negotiator know that he must compromise (there is too much at stake) or push forward a point (almost there, and it’s worth it... deftly... seamlessly… almost laughingly… just. that. point. And if he fails to…? Does the promise of victory beguile the more rational senses?

Taiyyari: a promise. The promise of a new country in 1947. Well, make that two. Two for the price of one, ha ha. How hard Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Jinnah have worked after all. The peasants of Gorakhpur, the villagers of poor Gangauli, the elite of Abbottabad (what a strange future this town would have). But tell me: When did the aftertaste of fear begin to overpower every other conceivable taste? Did it?

Taiyyari? and what of those oft-repeated words, told to a journalist twelve years later, ‘We were tired men’? Were you aware, Mr. Nehru, that Hindu supremacists would quote this line and hold you responsible for a partition they had adamantly demanded all along, to safeguard Hindu interests alone? How could you have fallen so neatly into their trap? (Do you remember the time Lajpat Rai vied with your father on who was more Hindu and thereby fit to represent Hindus? Bless his soul, he was so nuanced).

Perhaps it is only fitting they gave you such a hard time after Bapu died.

Taiyyari: was freedom, finally, a mere ‘transfer of power’, power transferred when the Treasury, depleted and indebted, couldn’t afford this particular jewel? So the haste, the haste to jump a dangerously loaded ship.

And what of the millions who died crossing unnecessary borders, not of their own making? Were the founding fathers ready for those millions upon millions upon millions of refugees?

opar di gurgur di annexe di bay dhiana di mung di daal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.3


Yugaant/Shuruaat –

yugaant: the end of an age

shuruaat: the beginning

Was 1947 a beginning or an end? ‘It depends…’ is my first response.

And then, suddenly, the memory of an interview that became a conversation, stretched across several hours, into the night. At about 3 am in Lahore (the year is 2006), this Hindu-turned-Muslim, Pakistani-turned-South Asian laughed narrating her father’s arrest in 1965. ‘Your father was arrested’? I ask, in shock. ‘And you’re telling me now, after twelve hours?’ ‘Arré baba, so much has happened I completely forgot. Yes during the war, you see, he was seen as a potential spy since he was a Hindu …’

As she filled in the details, innocuous, after a fashion, I found the placement of that ‘oh-by-the-way-my-father-was-arrested’ noteworthy. In a South Asia so fraught, the 1965 war is barely a footnote. In a Pakistan so beset with all kinds of terrorisms against minorities and majorities, the arrest of one elite Hindu male seemed inconsequential. And then, after all, he was released. Unlike so many others, both there and here. Here and there.

Wagah border: a tired motif, but evidently not so for the screaming Indians massed there every evening. If Indians are ‘over Pakistan’, why are there three times as many Indians as there are Pakistanis shouting themselves hoarse in the August (not august) heat of the blessed border? Do the schoolchildren shouting Bande Mataram know that beautiful slogan has been misappropriated by murderous trishul-wielding mobs? Of course not, in their school textbooks, history ends in 1947.


Your history gets in the way of my memory

Your memory gets in the way of my memory.4

They say you cannot step into a moving stream twice. They say the world changes a thousand times in the flash of a second. They say history imprisons us, we are fettered, encumbered, scarred by a thousand difficult memories.

Which memories? Will you pick or shall I? Memories of a jihad during the mutiny that included Hindus, or those of a promised ghadr that included Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims?

1971!’ you exclaim. ‘Fine, let’s talk about it. Memories of Indian perfidy in late 1971 or of Indian dithering through that summer while the super powers made a chessboard of our lands and our waters. And what about the people of Bengal?’

People? Remember Kashmir?’

Kashmir? Kashmir!

Kashmir: where the cycle of history and memory finds its response sometimes in grim silence, in the hurried pelting of stones, in angry conversation, usually in the thoughtless, endless placement of soldiers, one every second if you drive out of Srinagar on your way to Anantnag (also called Islamabad, the abode of peace). Or, as I discovered in Martand, the beautiful eighth-century Sun temple, tucked away from the well-worn routes of arrogant ear-piercing Amarnath yatris and perfectly well maintained by unpaid Kashmiris: a small local community’s answer to the charges of communalism. (Even the ten rupee fee-collecting Archaeological Survey of India employee was not to be found).


Neither memory, then, nor history is quite so uniform to be castigated as unbending, unyielding, unwilling, or indeed, moribund. And neither memory nor history will, eventually, suffice. For, as events the world over and within all of India and Kashmir have shown us, what victims fundamentally want is justice.5 In the now, where perpetrators continue to hold high office or roam freely in high places, unperturbed that the long arm of justice, so tired of wielding a gavel and adjourning repeated hearings, might one day catch up with them.

‘Let us not ask of History what she cannot deliver’, my Israeli colleague says to me, and I concur. But who are we? What of those who do ask difficult questions of the past? Shall we preach to them, wag our fingers and look down our noses, or shall we, must we, engage? Shall we not ask ‘how might past institutions and practices have been different from what they were?’6 Shall we just forget about justice, that always elusive destination? Can we?


Words, then, are part of the problem, part of the solution, and finally hardly recompense for acts of wanton cruelty – in the valleys of Kashmir, Muslim neighbourhoods of Gujarat, the forests of Orissa, the chawls of Mumbai, the camps of Chhatisgarh, the slums and traffic lights of Delhi, the soil of Vidarbha, the hills of Manipur (remember Irom Sharmila?) What can attention to detail and research, or dance, mean under the circumstances?

Nandita Das’ film Firaaq, set in Gujarat in the summer of 2002, has a moment when the ageing Khan Sahib decides against his usual Saturday music performance. His admission of defeat – sirf saat suron mein itni kabliyat kahaan ki aisi nafrat ka saamna kar sakein (how can seven musical notes face this collective rage) – suggests an era has come to an end. Then his helpmate reminds him of a fundamental need for music, for hope, for survival.

Riyaaz, Saadhana, Taiyyari are the practices, life practices, that sometimes ease the burden of listening to the news. They hearken to a state of order; art is respite, not refuge. Like the practices of history-writing, these practices might offer that aha moment of insight, and sometimes solace; they might even feel empowering. For their possibilities, for their affirmation of life, this is a saadhana that must not end.


* I am grateful to Mrinalini Chakravorty for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I would also like to thank Ananya Vajpeyi and Asim Rafiqui for an invitation to write differently from the way I ordinarily would. I alone am responsible for the essay.


1. Quoted in Neeti Nair, Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Harvard University Press and Permanent Black, 2011, p. 77.

2. Ibid., p. 124.

3. Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ in For Freedom’s Sake, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 148.

4. Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Farewell’ in Ali, The Country Without a Post Office: Poems 1991-1995, Ravi Dayal, 1997, p. 8.

5. Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Amnesty or Impunity? A Preliminary Critique of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC)’, Diacritics 32(3-4), Fall-Winter 2002, pp. 33-59.

6. Allan Megill, ‘Epilogue: On the Current and Future State of Historical Writing’ in Axel Schneider and Daniel Woolf (eds.), Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 5: Historical Writing Since 1945, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 684.