Modernist Urdu poet N.M. Rashed's Iran men ajnabi (A Stranger in Iran, 1957), published ten years after the partition of British India, describes the experiences of an Indian Muslim soldier in the British Indian Army occupying Iran during World War II. Rashed's narrator searches in Iran — the motherland of the Persian language and culture that pervades Urdu — for his cultural past, but what he finds instead is an extension of his colonial present. The Urdu literary establishment at this time was dominated by progressive (taraqqi pasand) critics, who promoted a Hindustani language that bridged the gap between (Muslim/Pakistani) Urdu and (Hindu/Indian) Hindi and deemphasized Persian. These critics opposed modernism (jadidiyat), a movement associated with Rashed and with Indo-Muslim identitarianism, as socially regressive. By setting the poem in Iran and using modern Persian, Rashed confronted a readership for whom those gestures could only be signs of Indo-Persian nostalgia, and the poem was largely misread as a paean to the cultural identity of the East. Yet for Rashed, Asia is not a marker of cultural heritage but closer to what Gayatri Spivak has called a “position without identity” — a geographical category that Iran and India may claim but not fully possess. In Rashed's poem the narrator's ephemeral and contingent experiences of Iran serve as a critique of the two modes of belonging then prevalent in the Urdu literary community, progressivism and Indo-Muslim identitarianism, which he reveals to be ideologies mired in imperial projects. In anecdotes that gleefully lampoon socialist ideology, Rashed's poem represents Soviet internationalism as Russo-centric imperialism. In equally scathing satires of Indo-Persian tradition, the poem exposes the connections between India and Iran made by Western imperialism. Further, it employs rich citations of modern Persian poetry in order to critique an Iranian nationalism based on continuity with a lost imperial past. In place of these ideological structures, Rashed finds in Asia a category too vast and heterogeneous to serve as a collectivity, and he imagines, in vague detail, the emergence of a new man not bound by identity at all. This article seeks to restore this more radically anti-ideological aspect of Rashed's poem while illustrating the potential of Spivak's category for the study of literature.
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A. Sean Pue; Ephemeral Asia: Position without Identity in the Modernist Urdu Poetry of N.m. Rashed. Comparative Literature 1 March 2012; 64 (1): 73–92. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-1539217
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