Academic journal article Borderlands

Self-Dissolution, Politics and the Work of Affect: The Life and Death of Sufi Baba

Academic journal article Borderlands

Self-Dissolution, Politics and the Work of Affect: The Life and Death of Sufi Baba

Article excerpt

I first met Sufi Baba in 1985, while doing doctoral fieldwork among the Ansari weavers of Barabanki, a district in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Sufi Baba was a local healer and mystic as well as a cycle mechanic. He was also ambiguously placed in relation to the Ansari weavers, being considered by them to be a member of the community, but one who often violated its understanding of the relation between the genders. In writing about him, I had argued that his practices were premised upon making a space available for a consideration of the feminine. (1) Sufi Baba's practices were set against formal self-definitions of the Ansaris as a group, as much as they demarcated the differences between Ansari claims to an Islamic heritage and his acts of individual piety. (2) The mystic's practices, personified and oriented towards recognizing the other, flowed in two directions: in everyday life, Sufi Baba was a traditional doctor, providing medicines for ailing women; during the festival of Chahullam, he invited male Ansari opinions of his relationship with women, specifically prostitutes. (3) In Chahullam he enacted an androgynous self by embodying the grotesque and evoked the ridicule of Ansari men.

Re-visiting the life of Sufi Baba in this paper, I focus now on the way in which his practices of worship were recast by the destruction of the Babri mosque in neighboring Ayodhya in December 1992. (4) More appropriately, I will argue that the political affects discharged by the demolition of the mosque, specifically those of humiliation and the experience of tyranny, reconstituted Sufi Baba's subjectivity. In a predemolition moment, the move between curing women in everyday life and embodying the grotesque in word and deed during Chahullam established Sufi Baba as a member of the community. But through another practice and language that departed from the authoritative framing of Sufi Baba within the Ansaris, the destruction of the mosque and the consequent 'reform' of the Ansaris as Muslims, made him redundant. He could not find a mode of addressing loss and had descended into despair. (5) In showing how a national event came to inhabit the life of an individual the article describes a world that was lost in the destruction of the mosque.

The argument of the article is in two parts. While retaining the object of my earlier study--an understanding of Sufi Baba's modes of worship in the everyday and during Chahullam--I show, first, that these practices, to the extent that they were part of his present, established a distinctive idea of the witness. This mode of witnessing was found in his understanding of the term shahid (witness) and its concatenation with other terms, notably shahadat (recitation of the faith). He called this notion of witnessing his raz-o-niyaz (the secret prayer of god) and often said that his aim was to become 'useless in this world' (mujhe is dunya men nikamma banna ha). There was a touch of the unusual in these statements, for when I visited Barabanki in October 2007, his son told me that Sufi Baba had died in December 2006--he had become majzub (drawn to god and thus mad). (6) In becoming majzub, Sufi Baba's practices moved towards a decomposed self, but one that was achieved through an affective tie with the other. Second, I hold that the embodied practices of dissolution were oriented to the future anterior: in their content, they were a presaging that could not be fully stabilized in an occurrence or language. By a future anterior, I mean that his practices made no promises of a future that could be predicted from the present. Instead, they attended upon what would have happened as a result of his work of providing cure in everyday life and clowning during Chahullam. The progression from worship to majzubbiyat (madness) was achieved through the work of affect. As I understand it, affect resides neither in a subject nor sign. It is bound to temporality as succession rather than juxtaposition. …

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