This is not an obituary in the formal sense. Nor is it an appreciation of Aijaz Ahmad’s life and work. In the days to come, we will engage with his important and enormously erudite corpus, as we come to terms with the loss of one of the most important and influential Marxist thinkers of our times. The wound is too fresh to be able to take stock of what has been lost. In lieu of that inventory, this is a public expression of private loss that is at once intellectual, political, and deeply personal—but one that I know so many others in their own way also are experiencing.
I first met Aijaz Ahmad (“Bhaisa’ab”) in New York around 1985. I had tagged along with Bruce Robbins, his colleague and friend at Rutgers University, and Michael Sprinker, his soon-to-be editor at Verso, with whom he developed a warm and close friendship, to have dinner. I was at the time a graduate student, awkward and awestruck in his presence. Bhaisa’ab put me at ease and also put me to work. Together we put the finishing touches to a delicious meal he had prepared in advance. It was a perfect evening: Hindustani classical music playing in the background, the aroma of the meal wafting through the air, and ferocious debates about everything, especially Althusser. Heaven surely had nothing better to offer! I daresay that anyone who has seen Bhaisa’ab, head tilted, with a glass in hand, speaking with unhurried deliberation till the early hours of the night, will ever forget that experience. I certainly won’t.
Over the years we saw each other intermittently --in the US, in Canada, and in India. Along with his children—Ravi and Adil—we embarked on many an adventure. This was before we had smart phones and scolding apps to guide us. We would start out with a plan but would get lost in the bewildering maze of Boston and its surroundings. In contrast to my growing agitation, Bhaisa’ab remained ever unflustered. “We are not lost,” he would insist. “Even if we don’t get to where we were going, we will get somewhere.” Of course, we always did get somewhere and had a great time wherever we ended up: eating lobsters in Provincetown or an inedible meal at a roadside diner.
Aijaz Ahmad was born near Muzaffarnagar, UP, in British India, in 1941 (“I don’t really know the date of my birth,”) and was tutored at home till he attended high school.** As a child he read voraciously—a habit that he retained till the very end—whatever was available in his (“pinkish”) household. His family moved to Lahore, Pakistan, in the 1950s. He attended Forman Christian College, reading Literature and Social Sciences, particularly Economics and History and then completed a Masters in English. His political, intellectual, and activist commitments, which began in Pakistan, sharpened in the US through his involvement in two of the most consequential movements of the 1970s--the Black Liberation Movement and the anti-war movement. It was also during this time that his study of Marx, Marxism “and anti-imperialist archives of various hues” —begun “furtively…in Pakistan”—was to become extensive and intense.
His writing career began in Pakistan and through the 70s and 80s, he published widely (in Urdu) on politics and political economy of Pakistan, West Asia, the Iranian Revolution, Political Islam. He wrote poetry, translated other poets into Urdu. Most of that writing is scattered in various journals, unavailable in English, or simply lost. What exists in English alone is prodigious. For a time, he lived and worked in the US, then moved to India in 1985 “looking for a political home.” It is a matter of wrenching irony that he was forced to leave that home, never to be able to return. He taught at various universities in the US, Canada, and India. At the time of his death, he was Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.
In sifting through his books and essays, one word comes to mind: magisterial. Politics were his central concern, and whether analysing the rise of Hindutva, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab spring, or the October revolution, one cannot but be struck by the extraordinary erudition across disciplines, ranging far beyond the fields of English and Comparative Literature, where his work (in the US) is often debated, too often unfairly. Since the publication of In Theory he rarely wrote about literature, apart from the remarkable and lengthy piece “In the Mirror of Urdu,” and, more recently, some equally remarkable essays on “world literature.” In these later essays, he took up again the problematic he had outlined in, “Indian Literature” (In Theory), arguing that we need a different conceptual organization than those practiced in Comparative Literature departments. This new conceptual mapping should be undertaken, he cautioned, “not as an act of political piety,” nor for “some will to systematization.” Instead of the nation-state or the literature associated with such a formation, we should gather together the many voices, genres, creative-imaginative expressions (“these multiplicities of enunciative capacities”) that arose as a “conscious undertaking by writers who wished to connect the production of literature with an indivisible emancipatory project across the world.”
His was a distinctive voice with a complex yet precise use of language and memorable turns of phrase (“Every country gets the fascism it deserves”). In his writing and his speeches, he displayed an extraordinary mastery of facts, histories, theoretical frameworks, a superb fluency with Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Gramsci, and the Marxist archive. Whether one agrees –as I do—or have disagreements with particular formulations or emphases, it would be hard to deny the conceptual clarity of his analysis and the lucidity of his prose. Beyond the incisiveness of the analysis, the encyclopedic knowledge, the ability to synthesize vastly different bodies of work, what I also have admired is his language-- that is to say, the sentences themselves: the spectacular use of what he described as the ability of the compound sentence to “express a multi-dimensional perception within a single grammatical construction.” The long, compound sentences, with the build-up of clauses, straining to encompass the sedimented complexity of history, culture, events, analysis are instructive not only as style but as a method: to express complex phenomena complexly without losing the clarity and accessibility of prose; that theoretical and analytical writing need not be lifeless, dry, turgid. In reminding readers of the US anti-war movement’s utter failure to address the question of justice for Viet Nam, he wrote, “Vietnam was simply left with little more than hunger and horror to redistribute, and with no power, not even remotely, to seek as much as an iota of reparations.” Whenever I teach In Theory, I ask students to reflect on the simmering rage which the full stop at the end of the sentence is barely able to contain.
His sentences equally could be allusive —a way to manage, I think, the deep wounds of a forced peripatetic life. Sometime in the early ‘90s, he gave me a cache of his meticulously labelled Hindustani classical music cassettes. I have them still, though my cassette player has long ago stopped working. When he moved back to the US, I offered them to return them to him. “Cassettes?” he repeated with great amusement. So, I offered books: “I know that you have had to dismantle your library several times as you moved from the US to India and now back to the US.” He wrote back, “Various dismantlings have surely had ravaging effects. I have had to buy the same books over and over again.”
I am struck by how much is left unsaid in that spare, oblique sentence: “Various dismantlings have surely had ravaging effects.” Or what hurt remains unspoken in “I have had to buy the same books over and over again.” He was never one to display the wounds of repeated uprootings. Instead, he paid sharper analytical attention to the conjunctural, to the dialectic of the givenness of historical circumstances that opens and forecloses possibilities, in order to provide a history of the present. In place of self-pity, he sought to “tell the tale of the tribe, as it were, objectifying what is at another level a deeply felt personal loss.” One catches an occasional glimpse of the enormity of loss in some of his writing. Political conditions in Pakistan had forced him to relocate to the US and in so doing he had paid the “painful cultural price” of having to write exclusively in English. “That this price should become all the more exacting after my return to India and in the course of my residence in Delhi, the historic home of the language, is an irony of unspeakable proportions.”
Since he was sardonic about the old cassettes, I reminded him of my offer of books. He sent me a list: ‘I just came upon a note … to remind myself of some books I used to have and now need for some writing. I am sure there are more such notes scattered through my haphazard notebooks.” I was delighted to be able to send him some of the books. A small and inadequate recompense for all I had received from him over the years.
Bhaisa’ab could be prickly and abrupt. A fierce, often angry combatant, especially against crude and tendentious distortions of Marxism, when he disagreed, he let you know—quite sharply. For the most part, though, he was a man of enormous personal charm, kind to a fault to those whom he loved; a man who appreciated music, poetry, food, and wine and to whom the old-fashioned but richly layered word adabi—the confluence of refinement, graciousness and decency--applies perfectly.
He also was generous with his time. In 2017, I invited him to a symposium I had organized with a colleague, and despite ill-health, he agreed to attend. What clinched the issue was the fact that Malini Bhattacharya, a comrade and friend from India also would be attending. Returning to India, even for a visit, was no longer a possibility for him. The symposium would be the only opportunity, he said, to meet up with a comrade. I had not seen him in some years, and I noted the physical changes with worry. But his intellectual energy and acuity were undiminished. In delivering the keynote, he spoke for an hour without notes, pausing only to take a sip of water or to suppress a cough, and offered a complex, eloquent analysis of the architecture, resonance, and significance of the October Revolution.
It is difficult to accept that he is gone; that so important and consequential a voice of the Marxist left is now silent. When the news of his passing began to circulate, I started to receive messages from former students, colleagues at various institutions, and like-minded friends in the profession, all expressing a similar sentiment. “I did not know him personally” the messages began, “but In Theory was a lifeline in Graduate School. And continues to be so.” Vijay Prashad put it well when he wrote, “It is impossible for me to think without thinking alongside the work of Aijaz Ahmad.”
To me, Bhaisa’ab was an extraordinary mentor and friend. He had sustained me through dark times with his affection. I looked up to him as much as I also looked to him whenever the world seemed to fall apart, whether politically or personally. Sometime ago, trying to help me through a period of distress, he had said, “The thing about bad times is that they always end.” And I, refusing solace, had retorted “To be followed by worse times.”
For once, regrettably, I am right. My world, and the world of countless others, is so much the worse without his presence.
*I leave this Ghalib line from the title untranslated, because Aijaz maintained that Ghalib was untranslatable.
**Most of the biographical information is from Nothing Human is Alien to Me. LeftWord Books, 2020.
This obituary was originally commissioned and published by Prabhat Patnaik at Social Scientist. We are thankful for the permission to republish it here.