This essay argues that the politics of partition encourages an ever specialized particularism that also undergirds identity politics. In such a world of particulars, we become what our identities proclaim us to be. While accepting that differences exist, universalism interrupts the ontological claim of particularity in order to posit a noncausal relation between what we do, think, eat, wear, profess, on the one hand, and what we are, on the other. This interruption of ontology leads also to an eruption of the many layers in which we live our lives—across sexes, genders, religions, and borders of all kinds. Arguing that differences are universal while ontological identities are not, this essay considers the role of Muslims in relation both to the Partition of India and the concentration camps at Auschwitz. In addition to making the case for a non-Enlightenment notion of universalism, this argument also expands the ambit of what we consider “queer.” Partitions of all kinds are premised on a binary opposition of the norm and the antinorm. By suggesting that we reconsider the discourse of partition in relation to the lived reality of universalism, this essay makes the case for a queer universalism that haunts the seemingly rigid binaries of identitarian partitions.

A fable: Universalism and Partition were neighbors, though never good friends. Universalism would go about its business without bothering to itemize personal interactions or economic bills. A woman was not assumed to be a woman because she wore a skirt, and a man was not understood to be a man because he wore his hair short; Universalism assumed universally that while differences existed, no one particular could ever fully define a person or an issue. Partition would follow universalism closely, and wherever it spied an opportunity to make a windfall—political, monetary, emotional—it would move in for the kill. Working on people’s particularities, Partition used those to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. Not content with making gains in Universalism’s wake, Partition decided to ratchet up the implications of its logic and urged people and ideas and desires to declare independence from one another. Partition set itself up in opposition to Universalism. What Universalism traversed with indifference, Partition pinned down with identity. And so it went until a time when Partition convinced the people in its thrall to pretend to live with more finality and absoluteness than they actually did. When a sufficient number agreed to this game, Partition decided to carve up the world. Armed with geopolitical and ontological victories, Partition worked to give the very idea of Universalism a bad name. And so it came to pass that Partition ruled the very real pretend world in which money and power and advantage and disadvantage were carved up oppositionally into ever smaller parcels. Universalism continued to describe a reality in which people are not identities, but its insight was ignored. And so they lived unhappily ever after.

The burning question in relation to queer theory today is whether or not its capaciousness has gone “too far.” Does queerness have a specificity that can be grounded in particular bodies and practices? Or is everything (and therefore nothing) queer? Another way of asking this question is if queerness is a particular or a universal. Is it bounded by and to an essence, or does it allow us to vacate ontology? What do we mean if we say that queerness vacates ontology? And how can we even speak of queerness if there is no spandex within which it can take shape? If queerness is a thing, then to whom or what does it belong? What is the particularity of queerness?

Let us take, for instance, the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 that pitted against one another entities that had for centuries shared lands, languages, and cultures. This partition has the advantage of not being considered typical fare for queer theorization; in other words, it seems explicitly to be outside the ambit of queerness, suggesting in fact that not everything is queer. But it also has the advantage of theorizing the relation between the particular and the universal that is the subject of this essay’s queer speculations. Geopolitical partitions work on the same principle as sexual, gendered, racial, and ethnic partitions: the very idea of a partition insists on an opposition between two wholes that are presented as holistic despite having just been butchered in two. Indeed, partition between India and Pakistan assumed the separation of poetic desires, sexual longings, quotidian cooking, and diverse religions that had extended across both sides of the border. Even more, it assumed that these newly separated particulars justified the formation of new states. Suddenly, and in strange twists, the two strands of a double helix were forced apart with great violence, and each strand proclaimed itself an identity that was oppositionally supreme over the other. From both sides, this identitarian violence was directed not just at an enemy state but also toward the sexual politics of a religion notoriously impossible to pin down. In the lead-up to and aftermath of 1947, Hinduism was equated with chasteness and non-Western sexuality, while Islam was described as the province of homosexuality and pederasty. But equally, Hinduism was considered the domain of the luxuriant sensuality of the Kama Sutra, while Islam was cast as the strict religion that shunned Western sexualities (including homosexuality). So Islam was both strict and decadent while Hinduism was both perverted and chaste. Neither religion can be unwrinkled, let alone made consistent, yet each was cast in 1947 as supporting the identity of an entire nation and people. The two religions needed to be distinguished—once and for all, fundamentally—from each other in order to provide the basis for the partition of India and Pakistan.

Each country was thus created around a religion that was deemed to be the norm, with the antinorm located in the country next door. But neither norm could ever be complete and consistent. If anything, the partition of India and Pakistan demonstrated fully that a norm can never be normative—it fails to cohere around itself. Indeed, the role of partition—and partitions in general—seems to be to occupy a pretend coherence that can enact great violence in its name. How can one, let alone two, nations be founded on the basis of religions that are universally allocated characteristics so arbitrarily?1 Clearly, normativity in this instance is not based on numerical strength or weakness alone; if it were, then the numbers would have settled the matter once and for all and there would have been no need for continued offensives between the two countries and the two religions. But any time we have two entities with which to contend, we are in the realm of continual struggle because the normativity of the one can never be taken for granted; it needs repeatedly to produce itself. And it can only produce itself if it creates an antinorm against which to assert the necessity of its independence. But separating normativity from its opposite is always a failed enterprise: as the attempt to separate Hinduism and Islam makes clear, there can never be either a norm or antinorm entire of itself. Partition between the norm and antinorm is brought into play to secure the very thing that cannot exist outside the realm of incoherence. In such cases, partition is the name for imposing coherence on chaos and foisting identity on multiplicity; it is the name of a politics whose currency is normativity and antinormativity. Such a currency is never full, but it thrives on the illusion of fullness.

The politics of particularity that undergirds partitions assumes—violently—that a normative ontological wholeness can be assigned to a (religious) particular. Such a politics—as exemplified by the partition of India and Pakistan—not only encourages arbitrary partitions but then insists that these partitions be converted into natural identities, that intertwined entities be separated into normative and antinormative essences. The movement from particular to identitarian is a peculiar one because it assigns wholeness to a part and assumes identity over what is only arbitrary. It is in this sense of being translated from a part to a whole that partition becomes cognate with particularity. The particular—what the oed defines as: “Belonging to or affecting only a part of something; partial; not universal”—gives us a predicate on the basis of which a thing is allowed to be a thing; a particular permits a being to be ontologically recognizable with reference to that particular. So, for instance, blackness is a particular, as is homosexuality, femininity, baldness, and so on. Particularity, like partition, assumes metonymically that a part can stand as and for a whole. In doing so, particularity forgets its own fragmentariness in favor of identity; it takes on the mantle of wholeness by ignoring the theoretical insight that would see the whole punningly as a hole, bereft of integrity rather than filled with plenitude. Particulars are universal. We all have them. Indeed, “we” wouldn’t be ourselves if we didn’t have a set of particulars by which to be identified. But it is a far cry from having particulars to imagining them as identities. And it is a giant leap to assume that having something in common makes identitarian comrades of us all. Particularity is the norm only in a system that values normativity and therefore encourages antinormativity in order to bolster its own particular. This cycle of division and opposition undergirds the particularist argument for the specificity of identity.

If partition speaks the language of the particular norm that has to be opposed to the antinorm, then universalism speaks Esperanto. This universal language is not the opposite of Partition; it does not fall prey yet again to the idea of a coherent norm that can and should be opposed. Instead, universalism allows that differences exist in the world and are very real. It resists, however, the idea that these differences can ever be made to cohere into a norm and then into an identity. Universalism is not the opposite of Partition inasmuch as it does not pretend that partitions do not exist. Rather, universalism asks us to take even more seriously the idea of partitions that do not cohere, and it does so universally. Universalism does not describe the condition in which everyone has the same plenitudinous particular thing. Rather, universalism in the sense I am using it here is not tantamount to wholeness, to the “insistent teleological imperatives and future-oriented acts” that Lee Edelman has described as politics’ pretext (Berlant and Edelman 70). Instead, what is universal is the ontological impossibility of partition, the impossibility of norm and antinorm alike. Our current political dispensations persist in positing the particular integrity of an entity as its most pressing characteristic, but there is not a single particularity that is unique. What remains singular, however, and queer, is this nonfixity of the particular.2

Consider, for instance, the idea of an India and a Pakistan divided along the lines of religion. This partition has been enforced by making religion the normative particular that defines the whole. But particulars of religion do not translate into normative identities; instead, every such norm always has a queer remainder, a reminder that the norm is universally an impossibility. What, for instance, do we make of Hindus who live in Pakistan and Muslims in India? (Despite the bloodbath that surrounded partition, these communities persist and flourish.) How do we explain that many of the holiest sites of the Sikhs are in Pakistan? Or that Hinduism is a retrospective designation for a wide variety of social practices and that subcontinental Muslims are descendants of religions whose traces they often continue to bear? That most Indians and Pakistanis derive from Central Asian tribes, Greeks, and Persians? Who is the Pakistani Muslim and who is the Indian Hindu? If these are normative ontologies created for political expediency, then they are also continually disrupted from both within and without. Even as the disruptions are rarely acknowledged, they are lived every day. Particulars do not add up to identities: identity is universally more than the sum of its parts and therefore universally less than a solid ontology.

Any reconsideration of the politics of normativity and antinormativity will thus have to reconsider the regime of the particular. In the name of establishing normativity, our current marketplace of particulars encourages the opposition it needs in order to survive. If we are to break this endless cycle of ontologized partitions, then we need to think universally about what we may term partitions in all, refusing to make difference coherent, self-identical, or the basis for identity. Even as it acknowledges that differences abound, universalism does not gather them together as the foundation for partition. Instead, universalism is the realm in which the fact of social, cultural, religious, sexual difference does not take away from the reality that we are all different even from our “own” differences. As Alain Badiou suggests in his study of Saint Paul, “The universal is not the negation of particularity. It is the measured advance across a distance relative to perpetually subsisting particularity” (Saint Paul 110, my emphasis). Particulars exist and they cannot be translated into norms or ontological identities. Universalism is a movement across partitions that does not privilege any one particular as a basis for ontology. Instead of dismissing partitions, it allows us to universalize partition as the condition within which we all labor.

Equally, universalism does not consist in undoing partition or posing the antinorm; it does not propose an opposite action with which to counter in Newtonian fashion the force of the partitive. Indeed, undoing partition would suggest a belief in an originary whole from which we have declined. This is the biblical view of the world as it is the view of Plato’s Aristophanes on love. But a universalist understanding of partition, far from suggesting that partition can be undone or separated out and rejected, insists that it can never, in fact, be full. Partition does not and cannot part, just as it does not and cannot fill. Indeed, universalizing the particular as paradoxically being nonontological can shock us out of our current ways of thinking about ontology and epistemology. A partition that suggests absolute oppositional difference between particulars also reveals a universal that never belongs. People continually wander between states of emotion and being and politics; the migratory flow across borders gives the lie to ontological identities based on geographical particularities, and vice versa. Partition may claim to separate one entity out of an other, but the truth of our lived realities is that we are both one and the other. If a universal names not an attribute that can be owned by a particular group, but rather a characteristic that marks all political beings, then the condition of being unwholesomely partitioned is universal. Universalism insists on straddling, on standing athwart ontological categories that divide up the world and the people in it. Shunning politics’ desire to be absolute, universalism points out instead the “structural antagonism” that denies wholeness to particularity; it fractures the notion that particularity can be the normative basis of a nation-state or even just of a state of being.

Lessons from Hell

But how does politics so frequently manage to manipulate the particular into providing the basis for partition? How does partition work? What goes into a partition? What gets taken out, ravaged, savaged, bloodied, battered, maimed, murdered, lost? What happens to a soul that straddles the nations, desires, and religions of Hindustan, a term that historically covered present-day north India and Pakistan?

Two poets from different historical moments occupy the same hell and speak of all these issues: such is the conceit of the novel titled Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell. Bengali novelist Rabishankar Bal weaves a story that is both about the lives of two eminent writers—Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan “Ghalib” (1797–1869) and Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955)—and also about a nation and a language that became two nations and two languages. The protagonists are both masters of Urdu. Both have witnessed tumultuous times. Ghalib went through the 1857 Indian soldiers’ mutiny against the British (also known as the First War of Indian Independence) and Manto through the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Both are pivotal moments in the history of Hindustan and the city of many names—Dilli, Dehli, Delhi—that served for much of that time as its capital. In its meandering historical course and its passionate poetic musings, this novel talks about the great folly of ontologizing partitions, a folly played out mostly in the rise and fall of Delhi. The canvas of the city, with its many languages and its varied desires, provides Dozakhnama with a backdrop against which to theorize a universalist refusal of particularist identity.

We could not ask for a better interlocutor than Ghalib in a discussion of Delhi’s universalist appeal. In the novel, Ghalib dislikes the court culture of Delhi; his special scorn is reserved for Zauq, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah’s favorite poet, who comes across as nothing more than a toady of power. But that scorn does not prevent Ghalib from lamenting the demise of the culture, the tehzeeb, that Delhi had nonetheless created: “Just like me, Dilli has also been destroyed repeatedly, only to be back on its feet each time. Sometimes I feel that the lord wrote our destinies—Dilli’s and mine—with the same quill” (135). And: “To me, the death of Delhi was the death of adab and akhlaq” (498). In her study on Urdu poetry, Frances Pritchett quotes a similar anecdote:

[Altaf Husain] Hali, recited at [a] Lahore mushairah [as early as the 1870s] an elegy that mourned the irretrievable loss of the old world of Delhi: “Oh friend, don’t speak of Delhi as it used to be, / I cannot possibly bear to hear this story.” Hali identified the loss of the poets of the pre-1857 generation in Delhi with the loss of poetry itself: “Poetry is already dead, now it will never live again, friends, / Don’t torment your heart by remembering and remembering it.” (39)

The death of Delhi features prominently in the morbid Ghalib’s narrative, not only because the death of Delhi has foretold the death of culture, but also because Delhi’s fall marks the death of a syncretic fabric in which people were indifferent to whether the tapestry was woven by Hindus or Muslims. At the time of Partition, “there were approximately a hundred million Muslims in the subcontinent, more than one person in five” (Jalal 5). Hindus and Muslims in Delhi lived together as neighbors, friends, relatives, coworkers, activists, freedom fighters, lovers, poets, while also remaining Hindus and Muslims. None was denied their particularity, but no particular was allowed to acquire ontological status. Delhi’s universalism in the novel does not lie in disallowing difference; it lies in an indifference to difference.3 Delhi’s inhabitants do not form a happy ensemble of multicultural coexistence; instead they perform the impossibility of a particular ever being able to translate into a self; they live the impossibility of a norm ever emerging out of a particular.

Indeed, the novel holds off on the political triumph of particularism for as long as it can; one would not be able to tell which way this story of partition would go if one did not already know. Dozakhnama frames itself endlessly: it pretends to be a long-lost novel written by Manto about Ghalib in which the narrative takes the form of stories within stories and dreams within dreams. The dream stories are told to us by the narrator who does not himself read Manto’s Urdu script and thus has to get a translator to help him get the job done. There is a sense, therefore, of this manuscript coming to us from behind a temporal and linguistic veil, speaking in a different tongue of a different time that is strangely analogous to the language and time in which the novel itself is set. The narrator’s trajectory parallels that of the novel’s (non-Bangla) reader since Dozakhnama has been translated from Bengali into English. The narrator in the novel has a translator to assist him in his task of narration, but the conceit of the novel is that Ghalib and Manto are speaking to one another without intermediaries. There seems to be something universal in the language they speak that does not dwell on the particularities of translators and narrators. This universal names not the specific language of their discourse, but rather the fact of fractured communion itself. The novel gets its light from two lamps that shine at different moments in the history of Hindustan: its protagonists speak of history and literature and love and life and death in different times and in different tongues. These tongues and times and peoples are different, but none of these differences interferes with the universality of difference. We are told repeatedly that temporal and linguistic and spatial particulars have been translated, that they have moved across borders that cannot and do not contain them. And this fact of translation prevents us from according absolute ontological status to any moment or space or language.

But the politics of absolutism militates against the lived culture of nonabsoluteness that spreads across the two countries. Manto puts this most poignantly at the start of the novel when he begins with the end of Partition: “The world has never seen so much killing, so many rapes, so much treachery, all of which began in 1947 on the pretext of there being two nations; today, you lie in a grave in one of those countries, and I, in a grave in the other” (20). Standing in a long line of Hindustani poets and intellectuals, Manto positions himself as Ghalib’s intellectual heir. The line linking the two across time and space has been violently cut by partition. Later Manto asks, again in the context of 1947: “Does hatred erase all memories? Perhaps. Or else how could the hatred during the riots have erased so many centuries of memories” (472)? For Manto, memories are like migrants who wander across borders and do not remain within any one. The danger of Partition for him is that it threatens to wipe out all these migrants in favor of the settled state. That the partitioned state is far from settled, though, is evidenced both in his yearning for Hindustan and in Ghalib’s love of a syncretic Delhi. Ayesha Jalal describes this longing: “Looking at the other side of partition entails cutting across the communitarian morass and foregrounding the cosmopolitanism of everyday life that bound people belonging to rival religious communities both before and after the severity of a forced separation no one had quite envisaged, simply because there was no precedent for it in India’s history” (89). But even more than cosmopolitanism, this longing is evidence of a universalism that has not been undone by partition. It is useful to clarify that universalism is not the same thing as cosmopolitanism, even though the two terms might share aspects in common. Cosmopolitanism does little to unsettle identity, while universalism is essentially about the refusal of identitarian essence. Ghalib and Manto long less to be cosmopolitans, then, and more to be returned to a state of nonontological universalism.

Two people divided in time and by politics are united by a love of wine, women, and song. Both are insufferable intellectual snobs: Ghalib thinks he is second only to Amir Khusrau, the poet credited with being the creator of Urdu in Hindustan. And Manto assumes his writing alone can capture the pulse of the world. Both writers love Urdu even though Ghalib repeatedly states that Farsi is the superior poetic language and Manto consistently failed his Urdu exams in school. The choice of language is itself fascinating, since Urdu names not a language specific to a time, place, and people, but an amalgamated set of tongues that moves across all these borders. As Muhammad Husain Azad eloquently describes the language that first made an appearance in the Delhi Sultanate of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, “[T]he tree of Urdu grew in the soil of Sanskrit and [Braj] Bhasha, [and] flourished in the breezes of Persian” (qtd. in Pritchett 140). No one knows quite when Urdu first “started,” but the Sufi poet Amir Khusrau is most often acknowledged as its progenitor—except the language in which Khusrau wrote was not called Urdu. That name was an invention of the nineteenth century when one of the outcomes of British rule was the growing divide between Hindus and Muslims. Until the end of the eighteenth century, Hindi and Urdu were both known as Hindustani, with precursor names like Hindavi; after that date, however, Urdu became the new language increasingly identified with Muslims,4 with Hindi understood as the tongue of Hindus. The former language was understood to have more Farsi, the latter more Sanskrit. Despite this enforced schism, Urdu continued to be the language of all of Hindustan until well into the twentieth century, and the prime minister of India in 2013 was still writing his Independence Day addresses to the nation in Urdu since that was the language of instruction in which he, a non-Muslim, was raised. Urdu replaced Persian as the official language of Hindustan—even in the princely states of Kashmir and Hyderabad—in the 1830s because it was deemed the language in which education could most widely be disseminated.5 As both Ghalib and Manto remind us in the novel, Urdu was and continues to be a composite language, cutting across lines of community, religion, class, region, and nation.

One of the consequences of this syncretism was a nation united by language, by which I mean not the “India” created by the British that now includes South India as well, but a “Hindustan” that comprised North India and Pakistan. This was one nation despite there being, or even because there were, so many religions in it. Dozakhnama is filled with countless examples—countless—of casual friendships, political alliances, poetic exchanges, love trysts between Hindus and Muslims. These examples do not testify only to the fact that people from different religions got along with one another. They testify as well to the fact that people were not defined on the basis of religion; a particular was not allowed to weave the fabric of ontology. It is this universalism that was destroyed, beginning with the 1857 mutiny and culminating in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. The British response to the 1857 mutiny was bloody and relentless, and most damagingly, ontologically divisive. As Pritchett notes: “The Rebellion of 1857, together with its brutal, destructive, and long-lasting aftermath, marked the real end of aristocratic Muslim culture in North India. The effects of this deep slash […] have been so profound that it is impossible to enumerate […] all of them” (28). While Hindus were technically allowed back into the city of Delhi in early 1858, “[I]t was not until November 1859, more than two years after the Muslims of Delhi had been expelled from their city [that they were given permission to return]—and the city to which they returned was irrevocably transformed” (20).

Won at a very high price, the British battle for Delhi in 1857 proved decisive for their policy of divide and rule, a policy that forcibly separated people whose interests had hitherto been common. Dividing Hindustan on the basis of religion, the British started a whole slew of programs—from separating populations within a city to rewarding one community over another and thereby increasing the competition for resources, to instituting separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims—in order to dull opposition to colonial rule and establish ontological differences where there had been only particularities. It is an irony of the postcolonial moment, of course, that both India and Pakistan, once united against the British, have now fully taken on this investment in ontological absoluteness as their own. Such a postcolonial embrace of the logic and violence of partition is the reason why Manto in the novel spurns the opportunity to make money by claiming refugee status in the newly formed Pakistan: “Here the country had been partitioned because of misguided politics, and was I supposed to cash in on this and become a rich man overnight? It wasn’t possible to stoop so low” (511). Echoing Ghalib’s cries of despair after the bloodbath of 1857, Manto says of 1947 that it “was not just the Partition of India, not just Hindustan ki taksim, this was also a partition of friendship” (464). Ghalib finds succor only in friends in 1857: “If we survived […] it was because of a helping hand from three or four people. The lord gave me this one invaluable asset—human beings. In times of distress, someone or the other always stood by me. Hira Singh and Shivjiram Brahman were like my sons, my pupils—they helped me in many different ways. Shivjiram’s son Balmukund helped me too. And Hargopal Tafta sent money from Hyderabad whenever he could” (474).

The point of this syncretism in Dozakhnama is not to suggest that Hindus and Muslims lived happily together until the British arrived (though they might have). The point, rather, is to present a world in which particularities did not support ontologies. Good relations between Hindus and Muslims were not predicated on anyone “being” a Hindu or a Muslim; they existed, rather, in the universalist belief that particularity does not equal identity. The British initiated several lethally effective policies to combat such universalism, and finally particulars were made to support normative states during Partition in 1947. A (Muslim poet like) Mirza Ghalib writing a paean in praise of (the Hindu holy city of) Kashi, a (Muslim) Saadat Hasan Manto being provided safe escort home through the riots by (the Hindu actor) Ashok Kumar—these were the people who died in 1947, who had been dying in Hindustan since 1857. A Delhi that was home to Urdu and Hindi, Hindus and Muslims, was torn apart repeatedly. In Manto’s description, in what became one of his great short stories,

[T]he death that visited us during the riots was not the lord’s gift, my brothers. There was no funeral prayer for them, no janaza, you can still hear their unfulfilled souls fluttering their wings […] the rattling of the chains on their arms and legs can be heard […] Kasim [who does not know which body is that of his murdered daughter’s—the one he found dead upon returning home or the one he killed in revenge for his daughter’s murder] still wanders around the streets of Old Delhi, shouting [his daughter’s name], “Sharifan … Sharifan …” (494)

Manto also narrates the tale of finding his acquaintance, Sahai, dying on the streets of a riot-torn Bombay: “I could also have been killed in the Bombay streets like he was. That was a time, my brothers, when there really was no difference between being dead and alive. One day Manto’s friends saw off his corpse on a Karachi-bound ship” (496). It is only Manto’s corpse that moves to Karachi because Manto the writer, poet, Muslim, Indian has already been killed by Partition. This partition strikes the death-knell of nonontological particularity; its insistence on identitarian vivification unironically kills Manto’s universalism.

Wan at the prospect of still more destruction ravaging Delhi, Ghalib echoes the plight of Manto’s Bombay when he describes the fate that was almost visited on the Red Fort in 1857: “Some Englishmen had suggested blasting the fort off the face of the earth with their cannons and razing the Jama Masjid to the ground. A palace and a church named after Queen Victoria would be erected in their places” (498). This supersessionary impulse—designed to partition religions and regimes, to create a norm and an antinorm—exists only with the belief that every particular can be made to ascend to the level of an absolute identity.6 Christian symbols can replace Islamic ones because suddenly it isn’t enough for people alone to have identities; buildings, too, need them. Everyone scrambles to own the paradise that is etched on the walls of the Red Fort: “Emperor Shahjahan had two lines of Amir Khusrau’s poetry inscribed on the walls of the Diwan-e-Khas of the Qila Mubarak [the Red Fort]—‘Agar firdaus bar rue zamin ast, hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast.’ If there is heaven on earth it is here, it is here, it is here” (424). Khusrau wrote these lines about Kashmir, and they were then transplanted to Delhi, but for the British, paradise needed to have an English passport; it needed to be identified as British and Christian. From being a utopian no-place, paradise had to be made into a particular place with a particular religion and a particular owner.7

Instead of asking for the issue of new passports, universalism argues that in undivided Hindustan, we retained our particularities as Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, pagans even as we were bound together by nothing in particular. Or rather, that these particulars were never wholes unto themselves; they were always shadowed by the trace of the other, the neighbor, the interlocutor. We could claim culture, language, and food as binding factors, but as soon as we proffer something that binds as opposed to something that separates—in this instance, religion—we open up a race of particularities where each particular vies to be the most important and wholesome one. Instead of offering a series of particulars with which to oppose the partition enacted by religion, universalism insists that we already live divided lives. Promoting any one of our particulars to the level of a universal is a disingenuous act that spawns violence in its wake. A universal can be filled with particulars, but a particular should never be universalized. Such a universalism would allow us to hear the echoes of Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit in Khusrau’s Farsi quotation about heaven on earth. The linguistic divide, so spuriously laid over the religious divide to legitimate both linguistic purity and communal hatred leading up to partition, was foreign to Ghalib’s Delhi and Manto’s Hindustan. Dozakhnama gives us these unending stories about the end of a world that it nonetheless assures us can never end: “No, my brothers, the story doesn’t end here. Does any story ever end so easily? Even the story has a demand of its own, doesn’t it? It’s not an orphan who can be abandoned anywhere you want to” (222). As Ghalib and Manto tell us from the depths of hell, the story of Hindustan goes on. Its syncretism may have been battered and bruised by the excesses and the drains of 1857 and 1947, but it continues to speak in a mongrel language that is the stuff of epic tales—so much so that both Lahore and Delhi (twin cities before partition) are considered home to and by people across the subcontinental divide. As the Lahori Raza Rumi put it recently: “I am not lonely on planet Delhi” (1).

Der Muselmann

This mongrel, migrant language that lives on is the language of universalism. It is not always recognized as such, though, submerged as it is by the language of identity. If partition has succeeded in climbing up on the back of universalism, then we must remember that its success is only relatively recent and by no means complete. The current triumph of partitioned particularity is universalist in the Enlightenment sense of the term; it is one difference pretending to be absolute. Indeed, it believes completely that the idea of identitarian difference itself is universal.8 Such a notion of universalism is most compatible with our current obsession with particularity since both assume that a particular can be made into an ontological whole. Universalism in the Badiousian sense, however, focuses on the inability of any particularity to ascend to the level of a universal. Instead, universalism names the impossibility of having any particular assume ontological wholeness. Even at a glance, there is not a single aspect of our lived lives that conforms to the strictures of normativity or particularist identity: men act like women, women behave like men; skin color undergoes changes of perception; facial features are willingly rearranged; religions get converted; languages are acquired and lost; boundaries of nation-states are transgressed; and global finance makes paupers of us all. As Edelman points out: “The change that politics makes lies rather in keeping the question of relation (to oneself, to others, and therefore to politics) open to the negativity with which relation is bound up—and open, therefore, to the irony of attempts to totalize politics or community” (Berlant and Edelman 114). Even as politics might base itself in ontological absolutes, it in fact opens the door to particulars that ironize the absolute self. Such irony repeatedly, universally, undermines the attempt to forge a normative ontology out of a particular. If the norm names a particular that can only be shared by a chosen few, then it also names, inevitably and ironically, the thing that faces the excoriating force of noncoherence. Keeping open the question of whether or not the self can ever coincide with itself, universalism is the language for all because it is the language of the not-all. Its support of the norm is therefore as tenuous as its support of the antinorm, indebted as both categories are to the notion of a fixed and knowable identity. Indeed, for Badiou, universalism tears through knowability because it irrevocably shifts the protocols by which we know and on the basis of which we create epistemologies: “There is no acceptable ontological matrix of the [universal]” (Being 190).

Dozakhnama gives us a glimpse of the havoc wreaked by a partition that separated Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Parsi by disacknowledging the impossibility of having religious particularity define ontology. Such impossibility was alive and well in Hindustan until early in the twentieth century; since that time and well into the twenty-first century, an official investment in assigning ontology to particularity has deepened, with the predictable violence following in its wake. This is not to say, however, that universalism suddenly disappeared from the scene in 1947. It is to suggest, rather, that the partitive politics of particularity has succeeded in demonizing the notion of universalism even as it elevates itself into a universal. Universalism in the nonontological sense has been forced underground politically despite the fact that it describes the way we live our lives. Partitioning Hindus and Muslims also created Hindu and Muslim as separate ontologies. Indeed, the 1940s seems to have been the decade in which the ontological separation of Muslims gathered momentum worldwide: India and Pakistan did it as did Palestine and Israel. Generations of coexistence were signed away with the mark of a colonial pen. This desire for religious identitarianism predates the formations of Israel and Pakistan, of course. In Dozakhnama, it goes back as far as 1857, and in European history, it dates at least from the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from Spain in 1492.

But the question, of course, is not about the historical start date of an ontologizing of particularity; it is about whether a partition can ever fully drown out universalism. Ghalib and Manto find a way of communicating despite their particular differences, and they communicate about particulars that have been forced into identities with great violence and at considerable cost. Two Muslims discuss what it means not to have their religion determine their identities and what it means to live in a country in which particulars do not add up to ontologies. Their universalism militates against owning an ontological particular. Like Islam, homosexuality, too, is not a particular that can ascend to ontological wholeness. Universalism refuses to ground the queer in sexual identity even as it highlights the queerness of not cleaving to particularity. As such, queerness names—equally across religion and sexual preference—that which is singular in not being single. What’s queer about Ghalib and Manto is their ability to recognize and sympathize with longings across borders, to refuse the logic of particularity in relation to desire; to keep the door universally open rather than shutting it behind their backs; to think of desire as that which moves across rather than being confined to sexual acts and identities. This is a queer theory without normativity and antinormativity; it suggests instead a universal provenance in which norm and antinorm do not feature as the lead characters.

What would such a queer universalism look like? Probably both overfamiliar and not familiar enough. Consider Primo Levi’s account of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, in which he mentions the existence of a class of people known as der Muselmann. Picking up on this strange mention of “the Muslims,” Giorgio Agamben theorizes what Muslims were doing in the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Der Muselmann named “[t]he untestifiable, that to which no one has borne witness” (Remnants 41). This person was “a being from whom humiliation, horror, and fear had so taken away all consciousness and all personality as to make him absolutely apathetic” (Homo 185). This “Muslim” went by several related names in other camps: “[I]n Dachau they were ‘cretins,’ in Stutthof ‘cripples,’ in Mauthausen ‘swimmers,’ in Neuengamme ‘camels,’ in Buchenwald ‘tired sheikhs,’ and in the women’s camp known as Ravensbrück, Muselweiber (female Muslims) or ‘trinkets’ ” (Remnants 44). The Muslimificaton of those destined to die, of those seen as having given up hope, can have several antecedents. Levi suggests that the kneeling posture of these men and women might visually have suggested Muslims at prayer. But the signifier of “Muslim” cannot be explained that easily. If everyone, or almost everyone, in the death camp seems destined to die, then why single out der Muselmann as being the closest to despair?

One answer to this question might lie in the fact that Muslims have for more than a century been demoted to occupying the bottom of the political heap; they have been singled out as the enemy for a variety of nations and peoples. Divided India is only one example of such a demonization. But there is also a fantasy being played out here in which the self is made other by being called a name deemed the opposite of the self. When one is in the throes of despair and needs desperately to find some succor, it is both comforting and horrifying to find a person who is even more despondent than oneself. Der Muselmann thus names the person who is worse off than the person also destined to die, and at that point such fine distinctions seem as crucial as the difference between life and death. “The Muslim” seems to name the most wretched of all beings, that whom one never wants to be or become—both inside and outside the camp. As Agamben points out, “[I]t is certain that, with a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews” (Remnants 45). The conversion of Jews to Muslims at Auschwitz seems to have been a terrifying prospect. Even and especially when the inmates might not fully have understood the meaning of der Muselmann, no one wanted to be him.

This lack of identification is interesting not least because it is premised fundamentally on a deep identification. The norm does not oppose the antinorm; it is its close kin. After all, the people being deemed Muslim are Jews. As Gil Anidjar points out by means of an anecdote:

I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material [on der Muselmann] in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, “Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the word Muselmann means Muslim.” She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic that one could claim that a word is not a word, not that word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of “Mussulman” or “Musselman” for the word “Muslim.” But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this “recognition” possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that “Muslim” is another term like “Canada” or “Mexico” (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken.

If the word Muselmann really had nothing to do with Muslims, then why the outrage at the suggestion that it does? Perhaps because there is retrospective shame at having termed Jews Muslims? Or perhaps because there is fear that Jews and Muslims might in fact be indistinguishable from one another? Does a partition need to be asserted only when a failure of identity begins to seem universal? As Agamben notes, “The entire population of the camp is, indeed, nothing other than an immense whirlpool obsessively spinning around a faceless center. But […] [a]ccording to the law that what man despises is also what he fears resembles him, the Muselmann is universally avoided because everyone in the camp recognizes himself in his disfigured face” (Remnants 52).

The face that cannot be looked at has become over time the face that must be unveiled and forcibly seen. The fantasy of being both Jewish and Muslim is forcibly converted into the identitarian difference of being separately Jews and Muslims. The Jews who suffered most in the camps became Muslims, and then after the war the Muslims (these Muslims?) were deemed to be the enemy in need of being repelled. This is a curious line that gets drawn from universalism to partition. One might consider the possibility that the Muslimization of Jews in Auschwitz might have engendered an empathy born of universal suffering. Indeed, the desire to establish a partition despite suffering terribly at the hands of the partition separating Jew from Aryan, neighbor from neighbor, might at first seem baffling. But the division of Palestine, like the division of India, has institutionalized such a partition, ontologizing religions that have coexisted for centuries. Rather than acknowledging that coexistence is premised on an indifference to difference, history instead seems now to be invested in valorizing partition as the natural outcome of difference. Even as universalism brings together particulars only in their universal nonfixity (the very opposite of an Enlightenment universalism that insists on elevating one particular to the status of a universal), history has insisted on the reign of absolute ontological difference.9 The irony—that difference should universally have replaced universalism—is missed by the advocates of ontological difference. And so the clash of identifiable particulars is allowed to stand as the final word in politics today.

Universalism has thus been supplanted by a regime of difference that ignores the universality of particulars that do not cohere into identity. This regime of necessity pits the normative against the antinormative because it depends on absolute opposition in order to sustain its own logic. A theory that would undermine this opposition by dwelling incessantly on the idea of noncohering particulars would be both queer and universal: queer because universal. Such an argument might at first seem counter-intuitive. How can something universal also be queer, given our current understanding of queer as the thing that runs aslant of the normative and our long-standing association with the universal as something normative? If we consider that queerness—at a minimum—refuses the predeterminable cohesion of identity, then we are immediately in the domain of the universal. If we accept further that queerness resists the regime of identitarian truth, then we can theorize a universalism that is in significant ways different from the Hegelian notion of the perfection of the German State. Universalism as the political thing that makes particulars fail to cohere; universalism as the idea that spurs longing across borders; universalism as the notion that allows intellectual ferment: these are the domains of the queer. The universalism of noncohering particulars is queer, then, because it shows up the futility of using partition as a bulwark against the migration of peoples, ideas, and desires. Ghalib and Manto’s longing across the India-Pakistan border and camp inmates’ recognition of the Muslim in the Jew are indicators of the universal that cannot be ontologized by partition.

The separating out of der Muselmann, then, performs violence to a queer universalism: “For the prisoners who collaborated, the Muslims were a source of anger and worry; for the ss, they were merely useless garbage. Every group thought only about eliminating them, each in its own way” (qtd. in Agamben, Remnants 43). Even though Agamben warns that “[s]imply to deny the Muselmann’s humanity would be to accept the verdict of the ss and to repeat their gesture,” this denial has in fact been the basis of ferment in Israel and Palestine since the end of World War 2 (Remnants 63). Anidjar points to the parallel between the “sick man of Europe” (this is what the Ottoman Turks used to be called), who appears in nursery rhymes and political pamphlets alike as a source of fear, and the Muslim in the camps:

[T]here is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, “I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used….” It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.10

The horror of forgetting that religion—or any particular—need not equal ontology is the single most important basis for and consequence of partition. Jalal notes a similar, forced forgetting on the Indian subcontinent: “Partition has only accentuated the problem of identity for Muslims. Although Pakistan was created as a Muslim homeland, fewer Muslims live there than in India or Bangladesh. Memories foregrounding religious differences and the violence perpetuated in their name run the risk of erasing other forms of belonging and sharing cutting across communitarian lines” (4). The ubiquity of partitions—a commonality that should bring us together in our universal queerness—is instead compartmentalized so that some parts are considered whole and in need of protection from similar wholes that exist elsewhere, in other faces and in other places. Such partitioning is unending precisely and ironically because it can never be complete. And so all political efforts are trained toward maintaining a watertight basis for partition by repeatedly equating particularity with ontology with the norm. These efforts have to be maintained in a constant state of emergency in which all particulars justify identity and all identities justify partition. Philosophers term such a state of siege a limit situation in which the exception is made into the norm. Pointing to such a state in Nazi Germany, Agamben notes:

All the witnesses, even those submitted to the most extreme conditions […] recall the incredible tendency of the limit situation to become habit (“doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets used to it”). The Nazis so well understood this secret power inherent in every limit situation that they never revoked the state of exception declared in February 1933, upon their rise to power. […]

Auschwitz is precisely the place in which the state of exception coincides perfectly with the rule and the extreme situation becomes the paradigm of daily life. (Remnants 49)

When the exception is made the rule, normativity becomes a dangerously capacious category. In this guise, it may seem like it achieves the status of a universal. But even when the norm aggrandizes itself as containing both itself and every exception to itself, it actively invests in maintaining the notion of the norm that can and must be distinguished from the marginal. The exception to the norm is not officially the antinorm; instead, it is deemed to be the thing against which the norm needs to rise up, and it does. In such a state of emergency, there is no antinorm that cannot be contained, but equally, there is no norm that might not suddenly feel the heat of executive displeasure. There are and always will be in this schema poles of normativity and antinormativity even as they might change places from time to time.

In a universal world, however, there is no room for a norm or an antinorm because of the universal impossibility of normativity. What stands in the way of fulfilling normativity is a stubborn queerness that insists instead on desire exceeding identity, crossings outnumbering borders, and particulars outweighing ontologies. This is a queerness that does not set itself up in opposition to the norm; instead it refuses both norm and antinorm alike as being too restrictive and pandering to a universe of particularities. Queer theory limns instead a world that nips normativity in the bud by showing up the impossibility of its bloom. The norm emerges as the result of a bloody partition that positions the antinorm as its opposite. But queerly, the norm born of partition fails to have an identity cohere around itself; it is too marked by its others ever to be self-sufficient. If a world of particulars insists on the normative difference between India and Pakistan, then a universal world refuses to accord normative status to either and thus refuses also to bestow antinormativity on either.

In this universal world, Manto gets the last word:

I’ve always felt that Mirza and I are two mirrors facing each other. Within both the mirrors is an emptiness. Two voids staring at each other. Can voids have a dialogue between themselves?

[…] Mirza is lying far away in Dilli, in Sultanji’s graveyard near Nizamuddin Aulia, and I, in Lahore, in Mian Saheta’s. It was the same country once, after all; no matter how many barbed wires there may be on the surface, in the depths of the earth, it’s one country, one world. Has anyone been able to prevent the dead from talking to one another? (14–15)

The voided poets of Hindustan who tried to avoid partition now commune with one another through barbed-wire fences. Far from making them flesh and blood people with “real” feelings and sufferings, this passage emphasizes the emptiness of universalism.11 The universal does not endow one with any particular characteristics, nor does it take them away. Instead, the universal washes over partitions by dwelling in particulars that do not add up to identities. After all, it is only voids, Manto implies, that can have a dialogue with one another because it is only voids that can refuse both the identity and partition of lands, peoples, desires, and religions. The story of partition is the story of a plenitudinous normativity. In a parallel universe, in the conversations between the voided Ghalib and Manto, universalism crosses borders without endorsing any one. It raises only “the universal flag of flaglessness” (Ghosh 49).

Notes

1

The historian Ayesha Jalal asks the question in this way: “[How can] the contours of the cultural nation creatively and broadly construed [be made to] map neatly onto the limited boundaries of the political nation” (12)?

2

Why, then, is the realm of the political so invested in the work of identitarian partitioning? What is the threat against which it opposes a seeming plenitude? In Sex, or the Unbearable, Lee Edelman suggests: “Far from being at odds with the fissures that irony occasions, politics performs the ceaseless, eventual eruption of irony itself (where irony expresses the non-sovereignty we encounter in our status as subjects of language). In that case politics might be redescribed outside its insistent teleological imperatives and future-oriented acts. It might be seen, that is, as the insistence of a structural antagonism that undoes the totalization of meaning to which it seems to aspire” (Berlant and Edelman 70). Despite being performed in the name of unification, Edelman suggests that politics is propelled by a “structural antagonism” that allows un-meaning to erupt into the midst of totalitarian unity. Such un-meaning undermines the very basis on which partition positions itself politically; it threatens to undo the ontological coherence that has so convincingly been laid over incoherent particularities. But rather than being the opposite of politics, this threat is, for Edelman, at the heart of politics itself. The division between meaning and un-meaning is both the thing that constitutes the realm of the political and what politics needs to disavow in order to consolidate its role in the world. Such a consolidation depends on a dichotomous schema in which an enemy (the antinorm) has to be nominated in order to secure the self (the norm). The irony to which this gestures lies in the fact that even as politics depends on the nonsovereignty of the other, it insists on positing sovereignty for and as itself. The most important thing about political partitions, therefore, is not that they exist, but rather that they cannot acknowledge that they exist only arbitrarily; they depend on recuperating particularity as a solid entity. In such a politics, partitions are made to signify as meaningful rather than arbitrary, permanent rather than mobile. According to Edelman’s analysis, we need a politics that is cognizant of the partitions within seemingly solid entities, especially those partitions within the identitarian self that have been cleverly elided in order to maximize the opposition between nations/cultures/desires. If the irony that undermines political sovereignty were to be incorporated into political discourse, then we might be able to acknowledge the nonintegrity of all wholes and their parts.

3

See my forthcoming book Indifference for more on the notion of indifference to difference.

4

For more details, see Faruqi and Datla.

5

From Zaban-e-Urdū-ē-Muallā, the language of the military camp, or the language of the residence of the elite; even in its etymology, Urdu traverses a wide range of possibilities.

6

For the challenge mounted by the palimpsest to the supersessionary impulse, see Harris.

7

Paradise can only ever be a retrospective formation tied to the idea of loss. This is why Milton’s classic is called Paradise Lost. But this dream of a plenitudinous space is a fantasy: there is no such place as paradise. Even as partition insists that its division is the institution of paradise—a loss that leads to full gain—universalism suggests that paradise can never be gained. Instead, the cut into paradisal partition is cast in universalist discourse as the cut that continually severs ourselves from ourselves. In stark contrast to the Cartesian notion of a reinforced and verifiable ego—the psychic equivalent of paradise—universalism insists that partitions disrupt rather than consolidate ontology. In a universal world, the Hindutva claim that all Muslims are “really” Hindus would hold no water (a fantasy of religious reconversion underlies the right-wing desire to undo partition).

8

See my Unhistorical Shakespeare.

9

See Pierre Macheray:

To situate the subject at the limit, to identify it by its difference, is in a certain way to think about its singularity, to think about it as “self” […]. In a way, it is to treat the individual as something completely singular, by detaching it from every relation to an external universal represented by the existence of everything it is not and all the others it is not. But it is clear that to reflect in this way the singular outside of the universal, as constituting an independent and preexisting order amounts […] to returning to the illusion of the [Enlightenment] universal, to reproducing it in the opposite sense. (98–99)

10

Insisting that Muselmanns and their traces are to be found widely in Europe before the Second World War, Anidjar discusses a children’s song in Germany that cautions against drinking coffee—“the Turk’s drink”—because it will make German children “sick”:

The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, a Muselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire (“the Turk”) to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of “the Turk.” Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.

There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children’s song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure.

11

See Erving Goffman’s essay, “On Face Work,” in Interaction Ritual, where he says: “Universal human nature is not a very human thing” (45). Elsewhere, he notes, “The normal and the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives” (Stigma 138).

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