Theorist in Exile

I first met Aijaz Ahmad in London in the mid-1990s. We ran into each other by chance. As I was introduced, he immediately said, ‘You have a very unusual name. No one from Uttar Pradesh is called Vinayak’. Only a local would make such a comment. Many men from north India of my father’s and grandfather’s generation had noted the anomaly between my firmly north Indian last name and my first name, which has its roots in western and southern India. Ahmad was the last person I met who made this observation; that generation is now mostly gone. What Ahmad said next was more striking. He explained that Vinayak, one of the names of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was his favourite Hindu deity: a seeker of knowledge, a remover of obstacles, a consumer of intoxicants. But he lamented that the Hindu right’s appropriation of Ganesh now made it impossible for him to view the deity positively.   

It was fortuitous that Ahmad and I ended up teaching at the same university nearly twenty years later. Ahmad had arrived under adverse circumstances. The election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 meant that his Indian visa had not been renewed. His criticism of the Hindu right had finally caught up with him, not to mention his name and Pakistani identity. He could no longer live in the country of his birth. Instead, he had to return to a metropolitan university in the ‘belly of the beast’ – Che Guevara’s phrase that Ahmad often cited. He arrived at University of California, Irvine as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature in 2016. I am sure the irony of moving to an institution that was a major site for the ‘theory’ of which he had long been a critic was not lost on him. Nor the fact that he was now living in a city that wholeheartedly embraced the culture of late-capitalism – one that that Slavoj Žižek has described as the strangest place on earth.

Ahmad had experienced displacement at a young age, when his family moved from the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar to Lahore, Pakistan. The formation of India and Pakistan as newly independent nation-states occurred in a period of great tragedy and violence that Ahmad described as a ‘communal holocaust’. The generation that lived through it never forgot their histories of forced migration. Very few returned. Ahmad, though, was different. He left Pakistan when he found himself in political trouble for questioning General Zia-ul-Haq’s military coup in 1977. But he was not allowed to live in India until he acquired another citizenship; in his case this meant moving to New York and becoming a US passport holder. Ahmad later resided in India for many years on short-term visas. Government policy stipulates that any individual who was once a Pakistani national cannot become Indian again – at least on paper. Living in India also complicated Ahmad’s re-entry into Pakistan; it was no longer possible for him to return for any length of time. The Radcliffe Line arbitrarily drawn on a map as the permanent border between India and Pakistan divided the people of both nations for posterity.

It is not surprising then that alienation is a key theme of Ahmad’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, he was best known for his translations and interpretations of Urdu poetry, especially his work on Mirza Ghalib, considered by some to be the greatest Indian poet of the nineteenth century. There is a personal inflection to his description of Ghalib as a ‘tragic poet’, ‘surrounded by constant carnage’ in a world undone by British domination and the decline of early-modern Mughal courtly culture. Ahmad was acutely sensitive to the historical conjuncture in which Ghalib no longer felt he belonged, describing his life as ‘unbearable’. Equally sympathetic to those forced into exile, he was a fierce protector of the historical legacy of Marx, especially from postcolonial scholars who dismissed him as an Orientalist, a racist, or worse. Ahmed argued that these critics had failed to read Marx’s writings on India (or elsewhere) carefully or systematically enough, countering that his analysis was far more complex and radical than most of the anticolonial leaders of the period. ‘Expecting more from a German refugee who spent much of his pauperized life in nineteenth century London strikes me as somewhat unfair’, he wrote.

The defence of Marx was part of a broader project. As an essayist extraordinaire, he spent several years writing critiques of what was popularly known in the Anglo-American academy as ‘theory’, which were collected in his most famous book, In Theory (1992). For Ahmad, the theoretical formations of postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism were characterized by a retreat from socialist politics into ‘fashionable’ discursive strategies – their theory not only distanced itself from historical materialism but sought its undoing in the name of dismantling all grand narratives. Ahmad also sharply criticised those postcolonial writers who used ‘exile’ as a metaphor for all ‘Third World’ immigrants irrespective of their circumstances. Some, he argued, were engaged in‘an opportunistic kind of Third Worldism’, whereby wealthy, educated immigrants living in the diaspora for reasons of professional aspiration neglected to distinguish between themselves and those forced to flee their homes for fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Ahmad lamented that this ‘inflationary rhetoric’ had entered the writings of literary theorists who claimed marginality as a strategic subject position in their work.

In Theory received a great deal of attention as a major intervention in Marxist cultural criticism, and for its trenchant critiques of Fredric Jameson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. This was softened – or at least that is what Ahmad thought – with a comradely gesture to his interlocutors: ‘Suppression of criticism, I have come to believe, is not the best way of expressing solidarity’. Criticism was ultimately intended to bring them together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The book provoked a furore, with many condemning its combative tone as well as its insistence on linking Marxist political economy to the study of literary theory. Ahmad regretted that his criticisms were misconstrued as personal attacks, and he emphasised that he celebrated parts of the work of those he criticised. What he found more disappointing was that many of these detractors failed to engage with his central arguments about ‘Third World Literature’ and ‘Three Worlds Theory’ ­– not to mention his essay titled ‘Marx on India’.

In Theory was followed by a second volume of essays, Lineages of the Present (1996). This included an autobiographical introduction in which Ahmad identified himself as an exile and perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his departure from Pakistan, describing the ‘painful cultural price’ of renouncing Urdu as his primary language. He also made clear that the bricolage of essays reflected a personal story about his life: each represented a specific moment of his intellectual and political development. In particular, the collection charts his growing concern with the rise of the Hindu right and the ideology of Hindutva. The demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992 had been a major turning point. If Mirza Ghalib had experienced the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmad witnessed the beginning of its historical erasure. The collection also included literary engagements with Urdu writers, as well as a critical analysis of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx that became the leading Marxist response to deconstruction at the time, alongside a defence of Gramsci from cultural theorists whom Ahmad felt no longer interpreted him as a revolutionary socialist.

The book marked a transition of sorts, as Ahmad’s attention increasingly shifted towards journalism and current affairs. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s project was expansive: US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Russian concerns about NATO, Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, the domestic economy of China, the persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the global financial crisis. The rise of India’s Hindu right though concerned him most intimately. He argued that there were ‘structural connections’ linking the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in India with what he called the ‘communal fascism’ of Hindu nationalism, and a new, globalized form of imperialism. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, India witnessed a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 would establish Modi’s credentials as the next leader of the BJP. Ahmad described the period as reflecting a ‘culture of cruelty’. His work elucidated how the legacy of the communal holocaust of 1947 persisted into the new century.

At Irvine, Ahmad was initially reluctant to discuss the difficulty of leaving India once again. The last time I met him we were on a panel together at a South Asian Studies conference before the Covid breach, where speaker after speaker denounced the idea of ‘South Asia’ as a neo-colonial construction. Many anticipated that Ahmad would maintain his combative position against postcolonial studies as he had done for many years, but instead he opted to share his life-story of multiple migrations and displacements. He described himself as a political exile who could no longer return to India or Pakistan. South Asia meant something to him that others in the room could not know or understand. Now, in an echo of what he had written in the 1970s about Ghalib, his world was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Ahmad never returned ‘home’. He died on March 9, 2022.

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘A Gift of Memory’, NLR I/237.