“Kerala history is learned mainly by non-Keralites” – Dr Ausaf Ahsan

By Najiya O, TwoCircles.net,

Dr Ausaf Ahsan is the managing editor of Other Books, an independent book publishing and distribution initiative, based in Kozhikode. It was founded by academicians, students and social activists in 2003.The Other Books distributes over 70 publications of over 90 publishers in different countries, including The Other Press (Malaysia), Islamic Book Trust (Malaysia), Left Word Press (India) and Zuban (India) etc. The books dealt by the Other Books range from contemporary international politics and media to Dalit and Muslim culture and politics, history, religion, gender, etc. Some of the noted titles published are English version of the historic ‘Tuhfat at Mujahidin’ by Sheikh Zainudhin Maqdoom, Imam Khomeini’s ‘Jug of Love’, ‘Why I am Not an American’ by Malcolm X, ‘Mystic Mist’ by Abu Ilham, ‘Educational Empowerment of Kerala Muslims’ by Prof U Muhammed, ‘Ayyankali: a Dalit Leader of Organic Protest’ by M Nisar and Meena Kanadasamy etc. An ardent lover of Edward Said and his book ‘The Orientalist’, Dr Ahsan spoke to TwoCircles.net recently about various matters such as history, gender etc.

How did the idea behind ‘Other Books’ come up? What all books are published by ‘Other Books’?

I did my graduation and post graduation in dentistry from the Manipal University. There we had a group called ‘book room’. We were a group of book-lovers who met at a masjid nearby and discussed about books and new ideas. The idea behind this group was that many books that we wanted were not easily available. So we felt that others also would be having the same experience. So, we collected rare books and distributed among us and other book-lovers. This was the first step that led to the formation of ‘Other Books’.

Here in ‘Other Books’ we have books about Dalits, Muslims, Afro-Americans, women, etc – the issues of all those called as subaltern by the mainstream. We have books about mysticism also, as it is sidelined though within Islam itself. There are several issues and problems in all these factions, whether we admit them or not. And most of them get their room in the secular space, but for Muslims. So basically we are a Muslim publisher, and we are not apologetic about it. And we love to provide space for all the subaltern groups.

Dr Ausaf Ahsan

We have published around 30 titles already. And 26 are in the pipeline now – going to be published soon. We give importance to all those subaltern titles which are given much space in the mainstream. We do not publish fiction much, we give importance to serious in-depth books.

About new researches and books..

Some of the books we are going to publish are ‘Fat’hul Mubeen’ by Qadi Muhammed, who was a contemporary of Sheikh Zainudheen Maqdoom. The book includes the defeat of the Portuguese at the hands of Muslims and the Nair Hindus of Kerala. Another book is about Sheikh Fadl Thangal, who was the son of Mampuram Saidalavi Thangal. He was a brilliant person who knew Arabic and Turkish languages very well. He was exiled from Kerala and he went to Turkey. Later he became a governor in Turkey.

‘Other Books’ has published and is planning to publish books about the history of Kerala, especially Malabar. Why is Kerala history studied mainly by non-Keralites and not by Keralites?

Kerala and its history are being studied by non-Keralites, especially westerners. We have been in the field of publishing for the last eight years. There are many reasons for the lack of scholarship among Keralites:

1. Here internet is the main source of information. That is only secondary source. Primary sources are available in Arabic-Malayalam language only, which is a combination of Arabic and Malayalam in which spoken Malayalam is written in Arabic script. That was the script used by Kerala Muslims for a very long time. But now, nobody knows this language and so reading the primary sources needs one to learn Arabic-Malayalam. Students should be interested to learn history also.

2. Malayalis, and especially Muslims, read well and a lot, but only superficially. If I don’t read any of the six Muslim-owned newspapers, people doubt if I am a real Muslim. There are a lot of newspapers, weeklies, magazines etc by Muslims alone. But serious reading is hampered by this influx of publications. Also, most of them deal with only what matters to them directly.

3. Travelling is very basic in research. But in Kerala, even men are hesitant to travel.

There are historic and internal weaknesses that affect our study of history. We can’t blame the westerners for all our backwardness. We have to do something. Mappila Muslims are mainly into the field of teaching alone. Others just sit at home and are not using their brains. And then we lament that we are not coming up.

How do Kerala Muslims see their history?

The sense of history of a people can well be understood from the museums of that people. And also by how they preserve their historic relics. The historic relics of the Mappilas of Malabar are decaying and nobody cares. I mean, the Muslim community does not care.

There is an old book in an old mosque in Tirur which can be read horizontally and vertically. If read horizontally, it is a book of fiqh. And if read vertically it is a book of literature. Such a wonderful book was written by our ancestors when there was no computer. Such a great piece of history and literature is now in a mosque, without being preserved in any museum.

Some of the titles published by Other Books

The Indo-Sarasan architecture was introduced in the mosques of Kerala in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Good ventilation, minarets and high roof were the importance of this architectural style. The Palayam Masjid at Thiruvananthapuram was the first mosque in which the new architecture was experimented. But that changed the very face of the mosques in Kerala, which were earlier built on the Keralite style of architecture for ages.

(TP Kuttiamu Sahib, Ausaf Ahsan’s grandfather, was the only chief engineer in the state at the time and he introduced this new architectural form in Kerala.)

The westerners studied us in the colonial time itself. It is called orientalism. History, sociology and all other disciplines were introduced to us in the English language. And now, we are studying them (westerners) as well as us. At the same time, they have not stopped studying about us. Miller’s ‘Mappila Muslims of Kerala’ is still the best book on Kerala Muslims.

Many people visit ‘Other Books’ from different parts of the world, such as one from the Concordia University in Canada, another from the Michigan University, an Egyptian woman studying in Germany, then a Japanese lady. All of them visited us to know more about Kerala Muslim history, about the Muslim life of Kerala.

At the same time, now we are studying them also. The Other Books is going to publish a book on 9/11 by NM Hussain. That is a way of us studying them (West). Now that we are studying them as well as us, this is coming to a balance, though it may take 50 – 100 years for this to come to a clear balanced condition. When we write about Muslims, this is not for Muslims alone. All can read them. Our publications are mainly about sociology and politics, and not about religion and divinity.

‘Other Books’ has published books about women also.

There are issues regarding women, whether we agree it or not. And they are not very easily dealt with by men alone. The ‘Other Books’ published the Malayalam version of Amina Wadud’s ‘Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective’.

When a woman wants to acquire a PhD, problem comes on how to take care of house and kids (in the case of married ones). There are no crèches attached with universities in Kerala. When a woman says she is married, it is seen as a crime if she wants to do research. But still, nowadays women are apparently more educated than men. Men want to complete studies soon and go for any job to earn. So they don’t study much.