Hunt recently used her platform as the President of the American Historical Association to argue strongly against "presentism," a historiographical approach that seeks to both explore and explain the past in the context of current concerns. Instead, history, from the Huntian point of view, is a sphere of "difference" to be studied and approached on its own terms. One of the most delightful aspects of Ansari's Life After Partition is its contribution, even if unintentional, to this debate. The work triangulates the twin poles of the presentist question. Solidly grounded in the excavation and exploration, for its own sake, of a particular time and place, it nonetheless unequivocally speaks to matters of pressing contemporary importance, revealing how history is inherently linked to, and informs, the present.
Life After Partition investigates what happened in the province of Sindh and in Karachi, its major port city, in southeastern Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947, when vast numbers of people of different languages, religious customs and interpretations, rituals, ethnicity, and regional place of origin both moved into and out of the area. Ansari interrogates the tensions between region/center, urban/rural, landed/ landless, and migrant/settled, laying out the impact on, and response of, the state and its democratic and authoritarian institutions. Specifically, the book shows the category of the "Indian Muslim," upon which the state of Pakistan was founded, to be highly problematical, loosely knitting together a wide range of competing and contested interest groups. In this sense, Life After Partition is a parochial history, albeit one that engages constructs of interest to scholars across temporal and spatial boundaries.
But the reach and relevance of Ansari's work is not so limited. In the very specificity and nuance of her study, she uniquely provides new perspectives on ongoing and emergent disputes. Take, for example, her discussion of an episode in which Fareed Jafri, editor of the English- language Civil and Military Gazette, came into conflict with right-wing, religious parties and the Urdu-language press for defending the principle of religious tolerance (108). Jafri was forced to resign from the Council of Pakistan Editors, but as a parting shot, he wrote that "a press which is controlled by mullahs, self-interested capitalists, feudal lords, illiterate businessmen, unscrupulous politicians, cannot and must not be allowed to run riot on our already confused social order" (109). The pertinence to events of global concern in 2006 and 2007 is unmistakable. Another illustration of the way in which Ansari's specifically located inquiry also resonates with broader themes and questions of present-day urgency is the book's analysis of the 1958 Karachi Municipal Corporation elections, in which "mal-administration, mismanagement, nepotism and corruption" afforded the rightist religious party, the Jammat-i-Islami, the opening to win on a platform of "practical solutions" to Karachi's "physical and moral" ills (172, 179).
The past, as these two examples demonstrate, is not a mere "sphere of difference." It is, rather, a construction of knowledge that marks certain places and times as unique in some way but inflected by the common current of humanity nonetheless. This stream of sameness makes history, always removed in some sense from its interpreters, a looking glass through which interpreters can learn about themselves and their moment in time, even if not intentionally. Life After Partition tacitly acknowledges this facet of its argument with a final chapter that is at once an "epilogue and conclusion," a place where past and present (and future) are intertwined.
This book is a tight and detailed study that provides broadly applicable lessons regarding the repercussions of the failure to provide for basic human rights and needs in a free and just environment. It is a well- researched, narrowly focused piece of scholarship with wide interdisciplinary (and disciplinary) and political ramifications.
1. Lynn Hunt, "Against Presentism," Perspectives (May 2002), at http://www.historians.org/ Perspectives/issues/2002/0205/0205pre1.cfm.