The doctor’s diagnosis

October 19, 2014

As a researcher and documenter, Dr Mubarak Ali has moved away from "events history" to a history of consciousness -- the manners, customs and traditions of the majority of people who are classed as the poor

The doctor’s diagnosis

Dr Mubarak Ali has spent a lifetime writing, teaching and developing the discipline of historiography, but his complaints against this country are truly novel, for he says, people here write too much poetry, the poor are so romantic, and then this business of opiates being their religion, the mystical tripping, trapping.

Unintentionally, he creates an imaginary of a sublime and immaculately stoned people and not the angry, bigoted lot we are known as internationally.

This perspective is revised in two of his books out this year -- Learning from the History and The Power of History -- that immortalise the ephemeral newspaper column, some of them expanded into articles and debates. Here he reasserts himself as a public intellectual, a people’s historian writing in the simplest possible language in modestly produced publications on history as an attempt to understand the present.

An evening spent with the doctor is invariably peppered with a lot of Ghalib, so his complaint against poetry is possibly because there is not enough critical thinking being done here, hence little attention to the humanities and the social sciences, especially to the writing of history. A significant part of the two books is a discussion on the problems of historiography in this country.

Perhaps no one other than Dr Mubarak Ali has paid as much attention to the way we produce knowledge, especially how we frame ourselves in history. His critical analyses of the discipline and public spiritedness often made him stand against his own interests when he started circulating hand written books against the changes being made to history during Ziaul Haq’s regime.

His writing alienated university authorities and cost him his job while the surveillance by State agencies increased as an inadvertent acknowledgement of the power of ideas. He often regales guests with stories of how he would invite them in for a cup of tea, the intelligence personnel doggedly standing outdoors in inclement weather.

Ali has much to say on the role of the intellectual in societies like ours. There are many people today who are considered intellectual -- writers, poets, artists and historians of the State who promote nothing but themselves.

When the General’s regime dismantled institutions of higher learning by hounding out qualified teachers, changing curricula, and banning student unions, private universities stepped in for the kill. What they offered was how to become a part of the global capitalist system -- courses in business, law, economics, computer sciences -- with a token nod towards history, sociology, philosophy.

According to the doctor, such an education is not meant to produce scholars with an independent bent of mind and the intellectual here is left with no recourse except for dissidence, to suffer penury and exile. And exile it has been for Dr Mubarak Ali who was considered an "outsider" in Hyderabad despite his life-long work on the Sindh province, and an outsider in Lahore too to the academia in the Punjab, including the community of historians.

In his work on education, he says, without independent, academic critique, the field is open for all manner of power elites to take over the interpretation of culture and history to suit their own interests. Without a grounding in critical history, the average individual is left with fewer and fewer choices to either look forward to becoming part of corporate capitalism and seek immigration, or to look backward at some glorious militarist past and become a militant in the mountains.

Over the years, Dr Ali attempted to revise the dull curricula in schools and wrote children’s books to inspire and revitalise the teaching of history. For new curricula to be designed, he opposed ambitious government projects and insisted on the training of history students in research methodology with a critical, anti-imperialist perspective.


From Lahore, Dr Mubarak Ali started his publishing career and set up a parallel Tarikh journal that regularly organised conferences in several small cities. The scale was always austere but it encouraged new writing and perspectives from younger historians and people working in other disciplines such as anthropology, politics and economics.

The doctor has much to say on the role of the intellectual in societies like ours. To be sure, there are many people today who are considered intellectual -- writers, poets, artists and historians of the State who promote nothing but themselves. Even novels in English are often funded by people with foreign agendas as are films and arts, sprouting an entire genre that is now called "post 9/11 art".

As for non-government institutions, they cater all research to foreign donors with little concern for or engagement with the people who are derogatorily dubbed "the grassroots", no doubt to be trampled upon. There is no dissemination of such knowledge that is produced for power and not against it, writes the doctor.

Although he started his work as a study on the Mughals and their form of governance, Dr Mubarak Ali has since moved away to more contemporary historiography. Like other scholars of Subaltern Studies, he is committed to writing a history from below, of the poor and the marginalised, instead of history from above as a documentation of the rule of kings and princes and their wars of acquisition. As a researcher and documenter, he has also moved away from "events history" to a history of consciousness -- the manners, customs and traditions of the majority of people who are classed as the poor.

He writes of how the custom of bathing every day was what European knights encountered when they invaded Palestine. Beguiled by the hot, soothing, perfumed public bathing houses they found there, they took the custom back with them to England where Church fathers initially opposed it as a Muslim custom, punishing people found guilty of bathing on a Friday. Only later, when Europe was ravaged by plagues and pestilence was bathing accepted as a necessity to maintain personal hygiene.

He speaks of the ceremonies of tea, of presenting cut flowers, chrysanthemums and oranges coming from China and Japan. As for coffee drinking, it originated in Ethiopia as a sacred plant that gave peace of mind, wisdom, brought on rain and grass. It was carried from there to India by the usual suspect -- the Sufi saint or travelling fakir -- where it was picked up by Dutch colonisers.

As for habits of eating, the doctor writes how in the Indian subcontinent, in cultures that were Buddhist and later among Muslim mystics, eating well was not considered a virtue. Retaining some hunger was the etiquette of the time, necessary for clear and deep thinking while feasts were for the affluent and wasteful kings, among them the Mughal epicureans.

In the chapter on the history of laughter and smiling, the doctor writes about how it was looked down upon by philosophers like Erasmus and other social thinkers as a habit of "common people". Strictly prohibited to women of "good breeding", nobles and religious leaders, the injunction was to keep "a stiff upper lip" to maintain distance between the classes. Seventeenth century portraiture of such people still bears testimony to the fact where Leonardo de Vinci’s smiling Mona Lisa was a grand breakaway from tradition.

So only the poor smiled and laughed out loud through their hunger. But in popular iconography, Christian saints smiled and Buddha smiled, as did several Hindu gods and goddesses who were conceived as far more mischievous, flirtatious even.

Perhaps this is enough for the learned doctor to revise his prognosis on the romantic poor, with their opiates kicking in.

Learning from the History (302 pages)
The Power of History (272 pages)
By Dr Mubarak Ali, Fiction House, Lahore
Price: Rs700

The doctor’s diagnosis