From Tehrangeles to Kashmir

For most residents of Southern California, the large Persian community in Westwood's "Tehrangeles" is just another example of US immigration history.

By Nile GreenNovember 2, 2015

From Tehrangeles to Kashmir

Kashmir’s Contested Pasts by Chitralekha Zutshi. Oxford University Press. 368 pages.

IF SOMEONE ASKED YOU what Los Angeles has in common with Kashmir, you might prepare yourself for the punch line of an off-color joke. The answer, in fact, is that both are among the many unlikely outposts of the Persian language. For most residents of Southern California, the large Persian community in Westwood’s “Tehrangeles” is just another example of US immigration history, just some leaves of Persian sabzi in the salad bowl. From an American perspective, this is natural enough: the West Coast is a jigsaw of such ethno-linguistic enclaves. But if we shift our viewpoint a hemisphere east toward the middle of Asia, and turn the clock back a century or so, we can see that contemporary Tehrangeles is an anomaly as well as a norm.

It’s the hyphen in “ethno-linguistic” that makes Los Angeles Persian an anomaly. Because for most of the past millennium, Persian wasn’t an ethnic language any more than English is an ethnic language today. It was a lingua franca, a cosmopolitan language used by different peoples trying to communicate with one another as far apart as London and Beijing. The anomaly, then, is that in Los Angeles, Persian is only spoken by Iranians (albeit Jewish and Armenian as well as Muslim Iranians). More common in Persian’s past was the opposite of what that hyphen implies: Persian was not a uniquely Iranian idiom, it was a language shared across many ethnic boundaries. Before the spread of nationalism across Asia in the early 20th century cemented the model of “one nation, one language,” the old formula had been “one linguistic group, many ethnicities.”

But Tehrangeles reflects a different historical norm, because the presence of Persian in a global city — a hub of migration, a crossroads of cultures — was common for most of the language’s history. Outside of such Iranian ethnic enclaves as Los Angeles and Hamburg, today Persian is spoken only in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and a few cities of Uzbekistan, with Iran having by far the largest number of native speakers. But between 1100 and 1900, Persian plotted an altogether wider cartography that, at different times, encompassed what is now India, China, Turkey, Central Asia and, at its farthest reach, Eurasia’s island edges in Indonesia and Britain. Echoes of that fleet-footed, pre-national Persian linger on some of the bookshelves of Tehrangeles today, where stores such as Shirkat-i Kitab stock the occasional safarnama, or travelogue, on India and China. But for the most part, that wider history is forgotten, even by native speakers.


Amid this linguistic amnesia, Chitralekha Zutshi’s new book reminds us of one of Persian’s most neglected former enclaves: Kashmir. Between 1846 and 1947 a Muslim-majority princely state ruled by Hindus under the suzerainty of British India, Kashmir has, since 1947, been ruled as part of India, a claim contested not only by Pakistan (which wants Kashmir for itself), but also by various persuasions of indigenous Kashmiris, some of whom dream of a Kashmir free from both India and Pakistan. The result of these counterclaims was that the Shangri La of 1960s hippiedom celebrated in Led Zeppelin’s incongruously noisy Kashmir became a warzone for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The bomb blasts reflected and exacerbated the politicization of Kashmir’s history, most crucially the linked questions of where and to whom Kashmir belonged. Much of the history written about Kashmir has been cast in this political mold, picking over these fierce debates from which Kashmir’s Contested Pasts takes its title. But Zutshi soon heads in far fresher directions, looking at Kashmir through the historical writings from the region itself over the much longer stretch of three and a half centuries.

It is hard to overstate the interpretive significance of this move for Kashmir Studies. Not only does the study of Kashmir’s self-histories outflank the historiographical behemoths of India and Pakistan, but by focusing on texts in Persian rather than (earlier ones) in Sanskrit or (later ones) in Kashmiri, Zutshi’s approach also outmanoeuvres the competing claims of Hindu and Kashmiri nationalists. For Persian — which Zutshi argues functioned in Kashmir as both a cosmopolitan and vernacular language for Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims — forms a literary middle ground from which to view Kashmir’s past.

In recent years, scholars working on various Asian regions have participated in this rediscovery of Persian-beyond-Iran. Constructing an alternative geography from that of modern nation states, various researchers have articulated a vision of what they call the “Persianate world.” In Zutshi’s hands, Kashmir stakes its claim as a province of that less bordered planetary letterscape. The primary context for her book is the revival over the past 20 years of the study of “Indo-Persian,” a somewhat vaguely defined term referring to Persian texts from South Asia whose study has so far neglected Kashmir. A second context is the more recent turn toward the study of self-histories, that is, the ways in which people represented their own past in different periods.

Over the past decade, this has become a flourishing field of study with particularly rich harvests for texts in Persian, whether from Iran, Afghanistan, or even China. In these respects, Zutshi’s decision to use Persian sources to write “a chronicle of the historical imagination in Kashmir” is of a piece with the work of, say, Rian Thum on Chinese-ruled Xinjiang, previously reviewed in LARB. What sets Zutshi’s book apart from most of this work is her attempt to plot Persian’s changing coordinates in relation to other languages of the historical imagination in Kashmir, namely Sanskrit, Urdu, Kashmiri, and eventually English. Just as a linguist wandering through LA’s Westwood might hear conversational code-switching between Persian and English, so has Zutshi tried to approach Persian not in isolation but in colloquy with the other idioms of its Kashmiri context.

Yet it is not linguistic interaction as such that Zutshi wants to uncover, but rather the kinds of narrative interaction that suggest the interaction of texts as a whole. She explains: “Persian narratives adopted and adapted the regional myths outlined in the [earlier] Sanskrit texts that drew Kashmir into wider subcontinental mythologies […] to cast them in the universal idiom of Islam.”

What she is dealing with is one of the classic interpretive dilemmas of Eurasian history: detecting distinctly local dimensions of (Islamic) religious and (Persian) literary systems shared by far wider regions. The string Zutshi carries to lead her through this hermeneutic labyrinth is her model of “cosmo-vernacularity” by which she argues that Kashmir’s Persian histories were the “product of a finely tuned balance between the cosmopolitan and the vernacular.” The crux of this model is the way Kashmir’s history-writers tried to claim the cosmopolitan idioms of Persian and Islam to celebrate the particularities of Kashmir “as a sacred space — a paradise on earth.”

Ironically, this also involved the cooption of older Sanskrit (that is, Hindu) myths about the creation of Kashmir. For Zutshi this was less ironic than it was a characteristic feature of the intertextual flows she hopes to reveal. And here lies the implicit challenge of her linguistic approach to political or ethno-religious periodizations of history. For the “cosmo-vernacularity” of Persian saw the language used not only by Kashmir’s Muslim rulers, but also by its Sikh and Hindu sovereigns.

It’s here that the ambition of the book becomes clear. There is now no shortage of studies of Indo-Persian, and from the desks of Purnima Dhavan and Rajeev Kinra we even have recent monographs on Sikh and Hindu Persian. But most such studies focus on specific groups and shorter periods (mainly the two centuries of Mughal rule), while Zutshi widens her focus to follow Kashmiri Persian from the middle of the 16th century to the turn of the 20th. This longitudinal approach widens the horizons of the Persianate World, not only in spatial terms into Kashmir, but temporally too by showing that Persian didn’t retreat with the shrinking Mughal Empire, but flourished in the region till modern times.

Over the course of six chapters, Kashmir’s Contested Pasts covers the long life of Kashmiri Persian as a “cosmo-vernacular” vehicle for history. Each chapter focuses on a particular period from the 16th-century sultanate to the postcolonial present. Echoing the method of other recent historiographies, Zutshi defines her approach to her sources as being “to probe their internal temporal frames and modes of authentication.” What matters, then, is not fact and truth, but representation and imagination. In each chapter Zutshi selects four texts for close readings to reveal the particular concerns of each era’s history-writers. Her chapters’ periodization works well with this approach. Sixteenth-century writers of hagiographies under the last hurrah of the Kashmir Sultanate (1346-1586) were primarily concerned with documenting the spread of Islam in Kashmir, for example. Through their “blending of factually oriented history and the mythic mode within a single narrative frame,” these miraculous tales of Muslim saints were in turn “interwoven” with various claims of political rule.

In this way, the texts of the sultanate period encouraged readers to make the subtle semantic leap from conceiving Kashmir as a sacred Muslim space to accepting it as a political territory controlled by Muslims. Then, in the succeeding era of Mughal rule (1586-1758), a new generation of histories displayed Kashmir’s “uniqueness, and hence distinctive position” in the Mughal imperium by drawing on what their writers now saw as an earlier localized tradition of histories in both Persian and Sanskrit. As a result, the new chroniclers sought “to reposition Kashmir in relation to the Mughal Empire” by articulating claims about the rights and privileges of local aristocratic and religious elites, whose presence in the region predated the Mughal conquest. The historical imagination had important political consequences, then, as it “asserted their right over defining how the entity [Kashmir] itself would be imagined.”

The political situation became still more volatile during the 19th century, which saw transitions between Muslim Afghan, Sikh Punjabi, then Hindu Dogra rule. Moreover, the rise of two vernacular languages — Kashmiri and Urdu — meant that rather than drawing on an earlier but substantially defunct Sanskrit tradition, Persian now faced more lively literary competition. Upping the historiographical ante still further, colonial orientalists from British India began promoting pre-Persian Sanskrit texts as the only reliable sources on Kashmir’s past. And so, by the 1850s, Persian found itself at a crossroads, at “the intersection of a variety of linguistic currents and ideological influences.” Nonetheless, the 19th century saw more Persian histories written in Kashmir than any other period, a fact that in itself challenges familiar periodizations of the fall of Indo-Persian.

All this makes for the book’s richest chapter. The 19th century’s diverse “linguistic ecology” allows Zutshi to live up to her promise of showing Persian in conversation with its linguistic rivals, which as the century wore on included English as well. Texts such as the Tarikh-i Hasan (“Hasan’s History”) thus drew on colonial statistical data, while the Urdu Tawarikh-i Guldasta-i Kashmir (“Bouquet of Kashmir’s Histories”) conceived the region through a new global imaginary that included America and even Polynesia!

The next chapter breaks the rhythm of its predecessors by looking not at a quartet of Persian texts but at a single Sanskrit work, Rajatarangini, and its dual appropriation by colonial orientalists and Indian nationalists. The writers of Persian histories, we are told, had understood Rajatarangini not as a single text but as an “embodiment of Kashmir’s indigenous narrative tradition.” By contrast, the orientalists edited the various manuscripts of Rajatarangini down to a single critical edition and then praised it as the sole reliable source on Kashmir. The result, Zutshi argues, was to “relegate” the Persian histories to “merely imitative status.” As a consequence, by the early 20th century Persian not only lost ground to the increasing production of histories in Kashmiri, Urdu, and English, but also, at the level of reception, found itself being read less and less. And so, Zutshi declares, “the orientalist project contributed to the ultimate decline of Kashmir’s Persian historical culture.” The phrase has an all-too-familiar flourish. After claiming only in the previous chapter that the 19th century was Persian’s most productive period in Kashmir, it is a disappointingly derivative interpretation of the many new texts her research has brought to light.

Taking us through the 20th century as far as the 1990s, chapter five turns to the question of a public sphere, and traces the important transformations caused by technological and political change, especially the adoption of print and the seizure of Kashmir by newly-independent India. Here the prose often flounders through long abstract sentences about the formation of a “narrative public,” though the key ideas about Persian’s interaction with Kashmiri and Urdu texts, both oral and written, are valuable. After all, whether in Srinagar or Tehrangeles, Persian has co-existed and collaborated with many other languages. Few scholars have Zutshi’s ambition to dare decipher that hubbub.

From the overlapping narrative public of the earlier 20th century, we are finally taken to the “divided public” formed by the ideological battles around the ascent of Hindu nationalism. Central to this split in the historical imaginary was the divisive pouring of every aspect of India’s (and hence Kashmir’s) past into a two-bit matrix of Hindu or Muslim. Yet as Zutshi explains, her survey of centuries of Kashmiri histories shows that “there was no necessary correlation between Hinduism and the Sanskrit tradition and Islam and the Persian tradition, even as late as the late nineteenth century.” The lesson of Kashmir’s Persian histories in the present, then, lies in their ability to “narrativize the past in ways that are less divisive” than those promoted by the Hindu right.

Overall, the great strength of the book is its empirical heft, its recovery of so many unknown works of Kashmiri Persian along with their literary interlocutors in Sanskrit, Kashmiri, and Urdu. The fruit of years of bibliographical sleuthing, this is a major contribution in itself. Zutshi is far less successful when it comes to theorizing. The most theoretical chapter, on the reception of the texts, centers on the definition of Kashmir as a “historically aware society” in a way that begs the question of whether there ever was (or could be) a society that was not, in its own terms, historically aware. Elsewhere Zutshi resorts to bland tautological statements about “how significant stories were to Kashmir’s narrative tradition.” And despite promising to show how “place-making and evocations of landscape were critical aspects of historical practice,” the theme is nowhere properly developed. There is the occasional generic reference to Sufi shrines and water sources, and repeated invocations of Kashmir as a “paradise on earth,” but we are given little sense of place in the concrete and particular.


Kashmir’s Contested Pasts brings to light one of Persian’s many former enclaves across the length of Eurasia. Yet despite the linguistic trails that connected Kashmir to Central Asia especially, the book’s geography is narrowly national in remit. There is no reference to neighboring China, where Persian long flourished just over Kashmir’s northern passes in Kashgaria. Nor is there mention of Afghanistan, even though Srinagar lies closer to Kabul than to Delhi. This is a major omission, not only because Afghans ruled Kashmir for 60 years (and claimed it as Afghan land for far longer). But because Afghanistan — that similarly highland polity on the edge of British rule — managed to hold onto Persian as the linguistic glue of a multi-ethnic society in a way that Kashmir did not. There are good reasons, then, for thinking about Kashmir in parallel to its long-term linguistic partners in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and China. Instead, framing the region soley through reference to India shows the hold of the national imaginary — what Sunil Khilnani called “the idea of India” — over even the most far-sighted historians. This is a pity, because thinking about Kashmir through the rubric of Persian helps us denaturalize both Indian and Pakistani national claims over its long-contested lands, as over its long-contested past. There can be no half-way house for writing post-national histories.

The point is not to diminish Chitralekha Zutshi’s achievement in this groundbreaking book. It is to show the mental obstacles we must surmount when using languages, not nations, as frameworks for history. We must re-think, perhaps profoundly, the maps we carry within our minds. Thinking about Kashmir, or elsewhere, through the pan-Asian lingua franca that was Persian challenges us re-draw history’s boundaries and contours. When we do so, neither Kashmir nor Tehrangeles seem anomalous. Instead, they appear as norms among the many non-national homelands of Persian.


Nile Green is Professor of History at UCLA. His latest book is The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!