Transcript of Professor Qadri Ismail Memorial
Eithquan Ismail [brother]
It's been amazing reading the tributes to Qadri, reading about his impact and his generosity. Our family was able to keep up with his exploits during his early career in Sri Lanka, when he was a reporter, but his scholarly career was a bit harder to keep up with. I read some of his early writings, but most of them were above my head. But reading the articles about his impact and reach has been very helpful and valuable to us. [The Department of English gathered student and faculty remembrances for "In Memoriam: Professor Qadri Ismail."]
But for today I want to share two stories from Qadri’s youth. The first one, we go back to the early 1970s. He was around 11 years old. He was invited to go on a road trip with a relative's family. And one night they drove into town very late and found all the food places closed. But they were able to find some bread and bananas for dinner. Qadri had protested, saying that's not what he is used to for dinner. No surprise there. Anyway, about 10 days into the trip, we received a postcard from him. On the postcard, he had chronicled every meal. He had the date, breakfast, lunch, and so on. The bread and bananas dinner was there as well. The meals listed were no culinary tour de force for sure, nothing you would care to write home about. But he did. I mean he could have waited until he came back home to tell us, but not Qadri. He had to write. This was, I submit, his first written food review. Although there was no written opinion about the meals, the postcard was addressed to our mom, not to the whole family. And Mom being in charge of food, the message from Qadri was pretty clear—“Mom, look what I have to endure during this trip.” It was simple, and brilliant. I wish we had saved that postcard; it would have made an excellent entry into a collection of Qadri’s early writings.
The second story, also in the 1970s: he was around 18, still in high school. He had just completed the nationwide university entrance exam called the “A” Levels. He studied, for two and a half years, the four prerequisite subjects for entering medical school and scored admission to the university to study medicine. In Sri Lanka, after the “A” Level exam, there is a gap year from sitting for your exam to entering the university. And during this time Qadri interned at a think tank in Colombo called the Marga Institute. While there, he met a professor who inspired Qadri to reconsider his options.
Now although Qadri studied to get into medical school while in high school, I don't think he felt that was his true calling. I'm not familiar with the backstory of why he joined Marga. Was he looking for a change, seeking inspiration? I don't know. But during his time at Marga he found something which led him to give up medicine, go to Peradeniya, read English, graduate with first class honors, then Columbia, where according to Qadri he really learned how to read, then Minnesota.
So that gap year and change of course was pivotal in his journey to Minnesota. It is serendipitous then that he did that internship during that gap year. So a big part of Qadri’s story is not only about him finding his calling. It's also, at 18 years old, withstanding tremendous family pressure, being brave, to reconsider his future, and being courageous, to give up a safe choice and change course. That made all the difference.
Senath Perera, Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya [undergraduate professor of Professor Ismail]
Folks, it is a signal honour to participate in this poignant event in memory of Qadri Ismail whom I first encountered in 1981 as his senior in the University of Peradeniya, and subsequently knew as his lecturer, academic peer, and friend. There are others here who are eminently qualified to speak about his academic prowess. My intention is to narrate how our friendship developed over time. If I were given two wishes in relation to Qadri, the first would be that he was alive and this meeting unnecessary and the second that I had taught him with my current expertise and experience because Qadri Ismail, who became a consummate teacher, was not easy to teach. In Sri Lanka, graduands with promise are hired as temporary assistant lecturers and required to teach those who were junior to them. Qadri, a brilliant scholar who had reportedly drawn his father’s ire for reading English when he had qualified for medicine, did not suffer gladly those whom he considered intellectually lightweight. Walter Perera, yours truly, a nervous neophyte at the time, found it a trial to engage with Qadri’s challenging, sometimes belligerent questions.
Two weeks after graduating with the first, first class honours in English in decades, Qadri launched a scathing, bridge burning attack on the very Department that had given him that honour in a prominent newspaper, a debate I could not participate in because I was in Canada on a Commonwealth scholarship for my graduate studies by then. At that juncture, I had no interest in pursuing a correspondence with him. However, whenever I published an essay, I would receive a mysterious, unsigned letter with cryptic comments like, “That was a damned fine article” or “I totally agree with you.” My seminal review on A Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies was considered “A bloody good piece but it is bunkum to call it a Sri Lanka expatriate novel. Such a category does not exist.” It was about 15 years later, when Qadri used my essay as a point-of-departure for a chapter in Abiding by Sri Lanka, that I discovered the identity of my “stalker.” These notes were his way of encouraging and providing constructive criticism to the man he had tormented once.
It was on 15th March 2007 that Qadri had his Colin Powell moment. Invited for a public lecture by the institution he had treated with such derision, even hostility, about a quarter of a century before, he formally thanked the Department for the sound education he received therein and regretted his previous iconoclastic stance that had hurt many. The new Qadri Ismail was a revelation. The passage of time, medical worries, a war injury, and professional challenges, had considerably mellowed him. We would meet over a meal whenever he visited Sri Lanka and it was always his treat. I was then editor of The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, and Qadri insisted on submitting the article “Ivan Peries And The Outriggers To Association” which was highly commended by the reviewers. Subsequently, I took up the editorship of Phoenix: The Journal of The Sri Lanka Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, and he contributed a fascinating comparative piece on Shelley, Hobbes and Macaulay, and then, in 2019, perhaps his last essay published in Sri Lanka, “The Yellow Lion: Observations on the Ceylon Flag,” which as I mention in my editorial is a cautionary tale for those marginalized in Sri Lanka. Qadri’s altruism knew no bounds. When I organized the conference, “The Postcolonial in Transition,” and our keynote speaker let us down, Qadri stepped in with little notice and gave an excellent keynote. Then again when Phoenix was on the verge of becoming defunct once the Commonwealth Foundation withdrew sponsorship, Qadri financed two issues. Finally, realizing the difficulties I faced in procuring research material from abroad, he would inquire if there was anything I needed prior to visiting the island and then bring across even an oversized tome like Robert Young’s Postcolonialism!
I am glad that I knew the rebellious, firebrand Qadri Ismail in the 1980s and the kinder gentler version I reconnected with in later years. The one toughened me up as an academic, the other led to a friendship that endured. I recall our conversation in his hotel room in Colombo two days before he left Sri Lanka for the last time. We discussed at length his next project on his other passion, the game of cricket, which he did not live to complete. As some of you may know, the 22-yard playing area between the wickets in cricket is also called the turf. I can think of no better way of ending my tribute to Qadri than by employing the oft used but still relevant quotation found in cricket obits, “May the turf lie gently over him.”
Rob Nixon, Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Family Professor in the Humanities & the Environment, Princeton University [graduate professor of Professor Ismail]
Thank you to everybody who has enabled this occasion.
I'm going to talk, primarily about the Qadri that was very formative for me, the Qadri of the 1990s when I was just starting out as an assistant professor at Columbia, and Qadri was a graduate student. We soon found that we had a number of connections. We had both come to the US on Fulbright scholarships. We were both somewhat bewildered by the customs and mores of the locals and had to negotiate those cultural changes. We had a passion for cricket, a shared passion for cheap Scotch, which was the only kind we could afford, and a passion for South Asian cooking, of which he was a maestro, and I was a rank amateur.
When I think of Qadri, I don't think of him in a one-on-one meeting; I think of him in a crowded room, in those days still often smoke-filled. He was tremendously convivial. He loved to cook and entertain, to pour drinks, to introduce people to each other. We had so many remarkable gatherings, mostly the postcolonial graduate students at Columbia, and a couple of us junior faculty, my wife Anne McClintock, myself, and a few others.
And when I’d see him across the room, I would see his readiness to laugh, and the way that one of his shoulders would bounce up and down in an inimitable fashion. I would hear his voice. I would hear his strident warmth, if that makes sense. He had many gifts, but one of his gifts was for being affectionately argumentative. And that was something I particularly appreciated at the time. When I’d arrived in the US a couple of years before Qadri, I'd spent my first two years in Iowa, a time which was very enriching for me in many ways. But I did stumble on a number of occasions with the local customs by being argumentative and forthright, and realizing that that was the end of a friendship. Coming from South Africa, like Qadri I was very used to argument as part of friendship, as opposed to something that could risk a friendship.
And when I think of Qadri’s opinionated-ness, it's a complicated thing. He was full of passion for social justice, so some of it was principle. Sometimes he would play the devil's advocate to test your argumentative abilities, or abilities to defend the position. Although I've never seen him teach, I would imagine he might have carried some of those strategies over into the classroom. But above that I also felt that his affectionate argumentativeness was also connected to his sense of a kind of social obligation: that if you could get a rise out of people, you could raise the intensity level of a group. Something exciting was going to happen. He made me feel normal in that way, because that was more like the culture I'd grown up in.
I also think of it very much as part of an exceptional cohort of postcolonial graduate students in the 1990s at Columbia, which was quite an inimical environment for those students. Because I wasn't terribly distant from them in age, I really appreciated them as friends, and as mentors, and the capacity of those students to do a lot of peer-to-peer mentoring. There was an extraordinary efflorescence of talent, and those people like Qadri went on to get excellent jobs across the country.
Qadri was brave, intrepid as a journalist. He was also not afraid of disagreeing if he felt you had misspoken. The very first graduate course I ever taught, Qadri was in, and while he would praise me on certain occasions, other times he would say, “That’s absolute bullshit. I totally disagree with you. You shouldn't have said that.” There can’t be many graduate students who had the courage to tell Edward Said that he felt that he neglected gender in his analysis of imperialism. And so he was bold on many, many fronts.
I really miss his embracing humanity. He was a very, very generous spirit. I felt all along that what he loved most was to be cooking for a crowded room of friends and acquaintances, the hubbub of that room filling the air, Qadri’s voice carrying across the room, looking out to pour drinks for people, as he himself edged towards perhaps another late-night polemic. He was just such a dear, dear friend and exemplar of humanity. He's left a lasting impression on so many people, myself included.
Just before his totally unexpected death, he and I had had an exchange about his book on cricket. He was writing about Tony Greig, the famous captain of the England cricket team, who had been very generous to Qadri in an early encounter. Tony Greig had happened to grow up in South Africa, near where I grew up. So Qadri and I got into a long exchange about cricket and the history of pineapples, and you don't want to know about that. But it was typical of him that he had some strong opinions about those connections.
He is sorely missed, and I've been thinking about him every day since he's passed. Thank you.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University [graduate professor of Professor Ismail]
I will begin with a line from another Sri Lankan student of mine, Arjuna Parakrama, very much Qadri’s comrade. I don’t know if he will be with us today, or if he will read the whole poem. Here is the opening line:
Never again that shoulder-shaking laugh from you —
“Shoulder-shaking laugh.” How vivid is that. There’s our Qadri. I can hear him.
Just another line from Arjuna, and then I’ll speak for myself. At my age, it is easier to speak through my students. Here, then, is the next line from Arjuna to Qadri:
Breaking rules was as easy as was brilliance for you.
Yes, breaking rules and brilliance.
I met him in 1991, when he had just moved to English from International Studies. In the very first course he took from me, I noticed that absolutely rare gift, a passionate gift of reading. That’s what kept us tied at the heart. He shared his reading of life, unsharable here, personal and political, intellectual and imaginative. He taught my material, as I regularly taught from his second book, Culture and Eurocentrism. He started writing his dissertation with me and, although it didn’t work out because of time constraints, our intellectual exchange remained secure, as Ajay Skaria knows. Amir has mentioned the brewing work on the Declaration of Independence as an immigrant document. I had shared with him my idea, for what it is worth, of Aristotle’s mercy (elein) and phobia (phobos) toward the other as coming from the fact that he was a metis, a person from Stagira, who could not be buried in Athens; although we must not sentimentalize the metis as we do these days. An unfinished conversation.
In that moving published tribute, Amir Mufti has mentioned the deep feeling of a South Asian connection. I shared in that feeling, which drew in Iqbal Ahmad, Ajay Skaria, Arjuna Parakrama, Sonali Perera (her words “irrepressible Qadri”), and the Subaltern Studies group, South Asian historians laying bare the underside of nationalist and orthodox Marxist historiography. It is under their auspices that I spent time with Qadri in Colombo. I remember him in his sparkling white tennis clothes. We took walks along residential streets, discussing the surviving “ordinariness” of life in violence, recalling Njabulo Ndebele’s powerful thinking.
I entered Columbia at the tip of “the graduate students coming out.” It would be useless here to say why I was never quite at ease in the Columbia way of things. As my friend and ally Edward W. Said said to me: “You have inched your way up to the East coast.” And here Qadri was protective of me. Again, not sharable stories, although I have often shared them with my friends and acquaintances, including a Black woman from South Bronx day before yesterday. I came from Iowa, Texas, Emory, Pittsburgh – and the style was one-on-one equal-to-equal friendship with graduate students—and Qadri, Ritu Birla and Brent Edwards fell into that mode without effort. With Qadri I went here and there in the City, talking, looking, eating, always mindful, of the millennial conflictual coexistence, postcolonially ripening into violence, between our two groups, emerging even in the silly jokes about him eating BLT-s and me hamburgers. We talked about Buddhism and the Dhammachakka being our so-called sign for secularism and multi-religionism; so bitterly betrayed.
On one of these occasions we went to the old World Trade Center towers, had a nice meal at the first floor mall in one of them and then quickly bought a light speedo shell for me. That coat, now thirty years old, is the exact right weight over a heavy sweater upon the back of a motorbike in wintertime in the tail end of the Jalpaiguri Hills, where I am obliged to use that mode of locomotion at least twice a year. Because of the low level alienation from Muslims in that area, all my cohorts there have heard of “my friend Qadri Ismail.” The shell lies folded in my almari in Calcutta. And now, when I put it on on the 19th of November, I will be in his embrace.
John Mowitt, Professor in the Critical Humanities, University of Leeds [colleague]
I really struggled, trying to think about how to approach this act of memorialization. Qadri’s death still, as you put it Andy, feels very close, so close I wasn't quite sure I could talk my way through any sort of eulogy. So, I've resorted to a device. And that is, I'm going to approach this as though I'm thumbing through a shoe box of photographs. I will call them “snap thoughts,” because they're not really images. I am mindful of the fact that I have been asked to do this in five minutes, so I will try to do it with dispatch.
So, the first of these snap thoughts is what I will call “Qadri as collector.” At a certain point in our friendship, he began to express a very keen interest in and passion for Sri Lankan painting. In particular, Jagath Weerasinghe’s paintings, which he began assiduously to collect, began commenting upon and soon engaging me in some quite fascinating conversations about, to what extent the concept of textuality might be relevant to working with visual images. In what sense are they “legible?” At a certain moment, he moved within Minneapolis from one high rise to another. And in the second high rise, he began to display his collection—very conspicuously, you couldn’t walk into the place without seeing the artwork. The very first thing actually that caught my eye, aside from noticing what new things he had collected since moving from one place to the other, was that on every wall, the painting displayed, or the print in some cases, was very aggressively off center. I commented to him, “Is this deliberate?” And he said, “Well, I think you were among my very first friends to insist upon the importance of Derrida’s ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,’ which contains a still resonant critique of the concept of ‘the center.’” Hmm. So, he was hinting that this was an homage to reading that piece and the importance it had in our conversations. All the art being off center “said” this to me each and every time I visited there, and I, I've carried this with me, obviously, since then.
Second snap thought: “Qadri as a white man.” This is a difficult one, a difficult thought. This is the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in my office at the University. And my wife called me on the phone to say, “Have you seen what's going on in Manhattan?” I was ignorant of what was going on in Manhattan. But fortunately, my office was located in Folwell Hall right next to the media center. I quickly went in, turned on a television, and decided to start watching and following the event. It wasn't long into that experience that I heard a very hushed knock on my door. It was Qadri. I have never seen him so ashen, so terrified, than when I saw him at the door. He said, “You must take me home, you must protect me.” There was no blood in the man's face; it was deeply startling. I pulled him into my office. I said, “You wait here; I'm going to get the car, and I will take you home.” I pulled the car around and I took him to the second high rise, which he lived in at the time, and we sat silently together en route. We got to the circular drive through of the building. And he reached over, and he grabbed my hand, and he said, “Thank you.”
Third snap thought: “Qadri as Muslim.” I think many people here will know the incredibly powerful journalism that he has produced over the years about the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka, but there are many things about him that didn’t fit, and I think Rob was pointing to this moments ago, I mean he loved to drink, drink a lot. Loved to smoke, didn't particularly pray, didn’t fast. There were many things about him that made you wonder what role identifying as a Muslim played in his life. Obviously, when he came to my door on September 11, he was precisely terrified for these kinds of reasons. However, when we spent time together in Cape Town affiliated with the CHR we did not live terribly far from the Palm Tree Mosque in the city center. We would frequently walk past it during one of the various calls to daily prayers. I was always struck by the fact that what one encounters, at the end of the prayer, is the surge of urban mendicants, gathering, waiting for those coming out, seeking alms. Qadri would invariably walk up behind those exiting from the mosque and empty his pockets into the hands of those waiting for the faithful. What was so striking was the extent to which they were startled that he was coming to them from the outside of the mosque. But it was, it was just the point at which I said, “Yes, I get it, now I get it.”
I'm aware that I'm running out of time here so there are a few snap thoughts here that I will leave in the shoe box: “Qadri as Brown Woman,” “Qadri as Animal,” “Qadri as Ex.” But I do want to end on, I don't know what it is exactly, it might not even be a thought and it isn’t in the box. But I just want to say: “Call me Ismail, adrift on the coffin of a dark, deep friend, who has bestowed upon me a tale, an impossible tale to tell. I will struggle with that, but I am incredibly grateful that he's given it to me.” Peace.
Jani Scandura, Associate Professor of English, University of Minnesota [colleague]
For the past few weeks, walking through the halls of our new department building, I have seen Qadri’s face on posters advertising his memorial. I walk down the hall. There is one. I turn the corner. Another. I am teaching in class and spot one on the wall. It is both comforting and unsettling. It often makes me stop. It is not his most recent face. The glasses he wore more recently were red. He was slimmer. But still, his shirts were pressed, his shoes polished. It is the face I know well and often how I picture him. His brows are slightly wrinkled in thought—a bit wry beneath that. His mouth is poised to speak. I hear his voice, “Well, my dear chap,” which, of course, was not something he ever said to me. He always called me simply Jani.
I first met Qadri on my campus visit when I was interviewing here fresh from grad school. He took me out for tea, had read my writing sample, every word it was clear. And he had thoughts…. I stayed at his place when I returned to Minneapolis to find an apartment. He was my colleague, my comrade, my close friend for over two decades. I remember when he came back from Sri Lanka after a leave. He had been single on departure and came back married to Shreen. He was there when I got pregnant, served as an uncle to my son, encouraged his art, helped him choose colleges, and write his college essay. I remember when Zac was still an infant and we were having dinner at his place when he still lived in that small apartment downtown. As usual, he was cooking. I looked down at Zac, he called him Z-man, and his eyes were full of tears not because he was cranky, but because the spices were too strong.
The truth is I don't feel equipped to "memorialize" Qadri. I don't know how he "should" be remembered by the University, the English department, or anywhere else. Qadri hated history, hated nostalgia and false sentiment, although he certainly had a tender side. He would be suspicious of anyone reading him—summing him up as this, that, or the other thing. He was suspicious of unifying narratives. Qadri was anything but simple. But sometimes simple. He was a pain in the butt; he was stubborn and unrelenting. He was generous, he liked design. “I have a good life,” he would say. “I have my friends.” He had Sri Lanka, the country he loved and worried over. He didn’t get to Paris. We bickered like siblings. He said what he thought, no soft peddling. He was loyal. When he loved you, you knew it. He was in your corner; he didn’t play games. It just was. It just is.
Last summer, the English department moved from the decrepit Lind Hall to a renovated Pillsbury. Our offices are newer, but smaller, with less shelf space. The day I found out that Qadri died, I had been planning to go into the office to pack for the move. I needed to cull books. I finally went in 10 days later. The building was empty because of the pandemic, because the semester had ended, because everyone else had already packed. Before I left, I walked down to his office. The door was closed. Our offices were next to each other for many years (eventually I escaped the basement because the darkness frightened me—and I feared mice.) His office was always in perfect order. He culled by habit, something, he told me, his grandfather had taught him. I asked him if he tossed things he later needed. “Sometimes,” he said, “but not often.”
On his office door, all that was left that day were three tiny clippings taped onto an old name plate where most of us posted office hours. I peeled them off the door and put them in my wallet. They are with me now. The first was cut from a newspaper, an American wide-receiver who shared his name, though not the spelling. The others came from fortune cookies. And this is what they said:
Qadry "The Missile" Ismail
"Big words often hide small ideas."
"Talking does not teach."
A friend of mine, who sadly knows about these things, told me recently that grief is tedium. You wake up in the morning and say, “Oh yeah, still here.” And the next day you do it again. And then again. And then again. Still here.
Ajay Skaria, Professor of History, University of Minnesota [colleague]
The last time I saw Qadri was Friday, April 30 this year. It was our first meeting since the beginning of winter the previous year, towards the end of fall. We had met for lunch a few times outside in the courtyard of his apartment complex, and then over winter we just talked on the phone or on Zoom. But now it was more than a week since the second [Covid] shot, and he had decided to begin doing again one of the things he loved most, as so many others have already said—cooking lavish spreads for his friends.
I'm here in Minneapolis because of Qadri. We met first in 1995 in Colombo at a workshop. Gayatridi was also there, and we spent quite a lot of time together, all of us. And in 1998, when the job was advertised in History and Global Studies here, he was the one who persuaded us to apply. Both Shiney and I were somewhat hesitant: leaving warmish Charlottesville for Minneapolis did not seem such a good idea.
He invited us over before I applied, and it was in his faculty housing that our daughter Aru climbed her first stairs. To cut a long story short, he persuaded us, and there I was, that evening in April, so many years later, having found in Minneapolis an extraordinarily welcoming community, a community of which he was a primary anchor. He looked frail that evening, but perhaps I make too much of that retrospectively.
After dinner, in desultory conversation rendered introspective by too much wine, we speculated over what we should do in the future. He wondered if he should go back to Sri Lanka. I told him he had little place in the viciously majoritarian society that Sri Lanka had become, perhaps projecting onto him my own anxieties about my place in India.
Earlier in the day we had gone out to Lunds, and he had bought steak to cook for dinner. And then before and during dinner, we argued, and argued, and argued. I don't know any longer the details of what we argued about, but it does not matter. You know, I think I have never disagreed as much with any personal friend on the Left, as I often did with Qadri. It was something truly exhilarating, truly wonderful—the thrust and parry of our intense disagreements. There was a certain pleasure in that; it was a crucial element of our intimacy.
And the disagreement, as Rob Nixon was pointing out, was by no means unique to our friendship. It was an extraordinary gift that he gave to all. For what marked Qadri above all, I think, in almost all of his relationships, was a combative generosity. I say “gift” and “generosity,” because that combativeness was also the offer of a certain equality. It took you seriously. It was an invitation to argue back and so clarify one's own line of thinking, or abandon it if need be.
This indiscriminate gift was perhaps what sometimes made Qadri such a striking figure on campus, and such an exacting one. For he gave this gift of disagreement indiscriminately, offering a certain intellectual equality to all his interlocutors and forgetting that many of his interlocutors found this offer of equality from somebody as brilliant as him itself somewhat unnerving, intimidating, aggressive, because you are being asked to defend yourself.
After all, most people here learn, as part our liberal mannerisms, to practice a fictitious equality of polite disengagement when they encounter arguments amongst their colleagues that they consider shoddily conceptualized or articulated. I sometimes see that, like other forms of liberal equality, this fictitious equality may sometimes be necessary, even enabling. But Qadri would have none of that. He insisted on treating the fiction as real, and on treating others as equals by demanding that they explain what they just said, and that demand could be very, very unsettling for those who've got unused to being asked to explain themselves.
Of course, this generosity also quickly surrendered its combativeness, especially where he sensed vulnerability in any form, or where he loved with the same gusto that he brought to all other aspects of his life. This other generosity he succumbed to especially with our kids, as with Divya and Vinay’s kids. In our family, he was the authorized defier of authority.
When our daughter Aru wanted a Barbie doll, when she was four, and we did not want to get it ourselves, we asked him to give her one, thus leaving our authority sort of in place. And when we went over to his home for dinner as a family, he made it clear that the parenting rules would no longer apply. So our son Anvaya when he was younger loved to visit his uncle because that is when he could have as much candy as he wanted (Starbursts, to be precise, which Qadri always had a fair stock of in the early years), so much so that for some years he addressed Qadri as Candri.
Perhaps then it was the other way around. The gusto he brought to his arguments was also the gusto with which he loved those dear to him, with which he cared about the world around him, with which he cared for social justice. It is because of this gusto that I wonder whether I should say, “Rest in peace, Qadri.” That seems so inappropriate, right? He was not ready to go. He had mellowed much, it is true, but there nevertheless was also a new kind of restlessness, and he was relishing the new voice he was finding in the cricket book.
Maybe with Qadri, it is not inappropriate to talk of restless peace.
Vinay Gidwani, Professor of Geography, University of Minnesota [colleague]
As some of you know, the T-20 cricket world cup is underway. Sri Lanka are no longer in contention. But yesterday, they officially knocked out the defending champs West Indies from semi-final contention, in a blazing display of bat and ball. An all-round performance. “Aaanh, Vee-nay! Are you following the matches in Dubai, machang? I was up all night watching! Sri Lanka were sooperb, man, absolutely soo-perb! Too bad they left it so late!”
That’s the phone call I expected to receive. And thrown in for good measure… fierce grumblings about the city elections in Minneapolis and the governor’s election in Virginia, and perhaps a snide remark about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unusually well-trimmed beard for the COP26 conference in Glasgow…
I imagined that phone call from Qadri. Of course, it never arrived. It will never arrive. Nor will his dramatic emails fired off at 5:16am or 5:38am, the man’s brain springing into action every morning, without fail, while most of us are dead to the world.
“I wrote two good pages today”, he would say, if asked. “Chapter 3 is nearly done. I’ll share it with you when it’s finished. Want to know what you think.” Of course, that too never arrived. That hasn’t stopped me from envying his work discipline. I write in a gush; afraid my thoughts will go amiss in the torrent. Qadri? Methodical, measured, mining his deep well of words to assemble them just so!
Time will probably dull the pain of his departure. But it’s never going to heal it. He is gone. A man who lived life with zest, with so much more to say and so much more to give—and yes, so much more to cook and so much more to eat!—gone. Full stop.
We have all experienced the loss of a loved one and found ways to deal with it. This feels different. A subtraction. So many unfinished conversations, the mesh of time permanently out of joint.
He had a way of insinuating himself into your life, didn’t he? I remember when I first met Qadri, soon after arriving in Minneapolis, more than 20 years ago. Our first conversation, in the basement of Wilson Library, felt like an interrogation. As if he was sizing me up. Later, it was clear that he was.
I can picture him thinking, “What to make of this guy who says he is a social scientist, who refuses to disavow the empirical but also embraces Marx and Althusser?” And on my part: “Who is this very clever and condescending guy, clearly skeptical about what I do but still wants to keep the conversation going? Read Spivak, he says. Yeah, I have. Read Derrida, he says. Ok, I will.
I was guarded. He was generous. Many memorable dinners followed.
Qadri was never shy in inviting praise. Two bites into a sense-awakening fish curry he would pipe up, “So, what do you think? You haven’t said, you fuckers! The fish is just a bit overdone, but it’s still pretty good!” All of us seated around the table would nod, then greedily dive back into the rice and fish.
Qadri’s affections soon extended to the whole family. He doted on my wife, Divya.
Qadri, as many of you know, could be militantly anti-vegetarian. And as savage in disparaging the concoctions of lesser cooks as was in garnishing praise for his own culinary talents. Divya was the one vegetarian cook who consistently escaped his wrath. He lavished praise on all her concoctions. They became fast friends—joined by food, affection, humor, and secrets.
He was also the most doting and democratic uncle our two children will ever know (as he was to Ajay and Shiney’s children, Aru and Anvaya, and to Jani’s son, Zach). Dinners at 112 Eatery (his treat) or his special lamb curry at home. Their relationship was one of utter fidelity and honesty. In his company, they were always made to feel equal.
Well, almost always. Two years ago, when our older son Aseem was applying to colleges, Qadri offered to work with him on his essays. The terms were strict and non-negotiable. He was the teacher, Aseem the apprentice. Equality be damned! Qadri would not intervene in the actual writing. He would simply do what he did best – keep exposing the defenses of a text until Aseem was able to produce a draft that could withstand Professor Ismail’s withering scrutiny. “I will teach you how to write,” he declared.
It must have been the fourth or fifth draft of Aseem’s “Why Columbia University?” essay. This was Qadri’s verdict: “This is bullshit, Aseem, and as we both know by now, you know when you write well, so I am not sure why you've sent it to me. It’s all over the place … Send me something when it feels right.”
Aseem treasures that email. He isn’t at Columbia. But he has become a good writer.
Qadri could be gregarious. And he was generous to a fault. But even with his best friends, there were always realms that remained deeply private. He shared what he wanted. When he wanted to. Or not at all. His life was a maze of compartments. Some open, some shut, and some whose existence has only come to light after his death.
It’s fair to say that all of us who knew him saw different sides of him. The cricket fanatic. The political junkie. The fearless journalist. The public intellectual. The luminous scholar. The unapologetic purveyor of theory. The polemicist who thrilled in puncturing the imperial pretensions of nations, disciplines, and autocrats. Playing with words one moment, wielding them as weapons the next. Alert to their power and to their deceptions. The passionate and, yes, sly teacher who delighted in unsettling his students even as he delighted in their accomplishments.
I could go on: The intimidating mentor. The unrestrained critic. The provocateur par excellence. The abrasive friend.
He wasn’t an easy person. But he was the most loyal and generous friend I have known.
I miss him. I know we all do.
Mauritz von Bever Donker, PhD in English alumnus, University of Minnesota; Research Manager, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape [graduate student]
I was honoured when I received the email from Andy, asking me if I would say a few words at Q’s memorial service. At the start, I’d like to thank everyone in the English Dept at Minnesota who have taken the time, and the care, to arrange this memorial service. I’m sure that many of us have had informal, and difficult, memorials scattered across the globe—I have read with tears and laughter the letters shared through the Qadri memorial group on Facebook—but there is something about remembering him here, even if virtually, under the auspices of an English Department, that carries an irony and a weight that is fitting to him.
I first encountered Qadri through the advisor for my Masters degree in History, Premesh Lalu, who famously returned from the USA with a Sri Lankan accent, after completing his PhD with Q on his committee. I was working on questions of history and nationalism, and Premesh gave me Qadri’s Abiding by Sri Lanka to read. This text left a lasting impression on me, not least because it spurred me to undertake my doctoral studies at Minnesota. When I arrived in Minnesota in the September of 2007, I called Qadri after taking a couple days to settle in, and was confronted immediately by his demand as to why I took so long to make contact, and then, immediately, “Do you need a rice cooker?” This double demand, I have since learned, was an expression of something not many people readily associated with Qadri: care. He had a reputation, if you will, an aura of brutal honesty and forthrightness, which led many to steer a path far wide of him. Those of us who opted differently soon discovered that that gruff exterior framed a carefully considered, committed, and honest, teacher, someone who, once in your corner, would never leave it. Of course, this did not mean that he would gloss over failings or disagreements: Q never suffered fools, and he would never suffer his students becoming fools, either.
Qadri, of course, was more than Minnesota. He had an arch of his life that always circled close to Sri Lanka, and as grad students we would joke that we could measure Qadri’s mood by how close or far he was from a visit. Q was like a sunflower in that field, and when that part of his life came to a close, the tears and grief were a palpable presence that touched everything.
For several of us in South Africa, Qadri became an integral part of our annual winter school programmes at the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC. He would present his research, engage the research and papers of our colleagues and graduate students, marking the space with his generosity and very frank critique. Accusations of “cultural relativism,” for example, kept many on their toes; sliding, sadly, right past those who never had the patience to read. This, above all in the academic space, was the task that Qadri set for himself and which he demanded of his students: reading. A gift, which was always on offer.
I don’t know what I will miss more about Qadri. I already miss his ever-present willingness to give an honest reading; I miss his commitment to a political project that opted to take care of the limit of the critique of eurocentrism; I miss his wit, his passionate commitment to the humour that makes life livable, and his more recent embrace of the aesthetic; I miss lunch with Qadri, his excitement at seeing peacocks in Cape Town; I miss his desire to abide by a problem, and to see that problem in its reading; this list can go on.
On hearing of Qadri’s sudden passing, many here had beautiful words to say. More of us were simply stunned in grief. We are still in shock. Led by Premesh’s impetus, there is now a penguin in the reserve just outside Cape Town, that has Qadri’s name, together with a little red book under the arm. We will keep reading, laughing, as the ripples of Qadri’s short life keep moving. Having cheated death once, Qadri did get to write not just one book, but several. While Qadri has left early, to avoid the rush, the postcolonial reader is left, to pour themselves a scotch.
Marley Richmond, English major [undergraduate student]
In one of my first days of class with Qadri, I answered a question without thinking. Within my answer, my words were something along the lines of, “Well, colonialism was stupid.” As I finished what I was saying, Qadri walked from the front of the classroom, through the semi-circle in which we always arranged our desks, and looked out the window.
I obviously stopped talking, confused by this response.
If you’ve had a class with Qadri, you might have an idea of the lurid joke he told at that window.
He went on to explain that colonialism was a lot of things—brutal, dehumanizing, violent, inhumane—but it was not “stupid.” At the time, I was shocked by Qadri’s bit, and his blunt response to my words. But in the three years since that class, I have genuinely thought more carefully about what I say, and I remember that moment both for its crass humor and its truth that every word we use holds meaning.
Therein lies the heart of why Qadri was such an influential figure in my life, and surely those of so many other students; Qadri wasn’t afraid to put on a show, but he never lost the lesson to his humor. He asked us to engage. And when we did so without thinking, he wasn’t afraid to call us on our bullshit. He let me argue with him. Yet he was patient, and taught us again and again until we understood. It was obvious that he really cared; not just about theory or analysis, but about us.
The relationship between student and professor is an odd one; I was just one of Qadri’s many, many students, and yet he touched my life with unquantifiable meaning. All the same, there is no way that, in five minutes, I can do justice to Qadri’s impact on me and the rest of his many students.
Some of you today have talked about how Qadri learned to read at Columbia. I learned how to read in Qadri’s class. I would venture that I am not the only student who Qadri taught how to read, nor the only person’s worldview that he shaped. In fact, he was a nexus of community in the English department. I deeply appreciate his advocacy for underrepresented students and work toward increasing the diversity of the program and its curriculum. I hope that that work continues in his honor and in the interest of the students he advocated for: all of us.
Beyond his lessons, Qadri’s dry humor, stories about cricket, and all-lowercase emails without any semblance of punctuation made him infamous for his quirks, too. Qadri didn’t sugar coat his lessons. But when I reread my notes from class, I find tidbits of his jokes that replaced that sweetness and showed us that his heart was just as vast as his brain.
At the end of last school year, I wrote Qadri an email. It starts with my gratitude for his teaching. “I learned so much from you,” I told him. I also wrote about a book I’d read because he taught it in another class, and even though I wasn’t there to hear his thoughts, I valued his lessons that I’d heard from others. But I never sent this email—I don’t know why.
There are a good number of things I wish I could tell Qadri, and a great many more questions I want to ask him. But above all, I wish I had sent him that email and thanked him for teaching me so much. And I hope that we can all share the lessons he taught us.
Open Mic Tributes
Fiaza Haniffa [aunt]
Yeah, I just have to say two things about Qadri. He was my nephew, and the first one of the next generation. I share an incident that happened when Qadri was two years old. His mother and I, we were talking to this old lady. She must have been in her late 80s. And we were chatting loudly, while he was playing on the side with his truck. We were talking about a lot of topics, and then the lady just said, “Look at this fan. This is so dirty.” And she was complaining that she couldn’t keep it clean. Then Qadri, this little boy playing with his toy, just said, “You know what, why don’t you paint it black? Then it won’t bother you so much.” And this what it showed me then, what a brilliant brain he had here at only two years old.
And this is the next thing I would just like to share with you. When he finished his first book, he gave me a copy. I read the first page, and I called Qadri and said, “This is not English that Iunderstand. When you write something in English, please give me a copy.” When he comes to my house he always requests a particular meal. I am so nervous to cook because he’s a great cook. But the last time he came, I cooked it for him. And he said, for the first time, “Fiaza, I can’t abuse it, it’s good.” So I remember that all the time. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts.
Lucas Paulson [student]
I was an undergraduate student of Qadri’s. I’ve just been very hurt and sad, but I’ve been also trying to read my way through his books, which even when I had him there to talk me through and walk me through was difficult. But I think everyone who had him as a teacher would agree and feel that they have so many questions that they still want to ask. Every time I think that and every time I feel that, I also remember the way he taught, which was to make me find the answer. That’s such a gift to have and I’m just very, very grateful to have known him and to have cross paths with him.
Drue Schwitters [student]
I was actually in the same class as Marley. And then I took another class with Qadri the spring before graduating. I’ve learned so much from him. It was just a really great way to learn for me—the way that he constantly pressed students and argued with them and poked holes in what I said. But throughout it all that never bothered me or hurt me or anything because he so clearly cared about his students and cared that we learned from him and became better thinkers and better readers. It was just such a delight to learn from him because of that despite his abrasiveness. It was wonderful. I remember after a particular class that everybody was kind of feeling a little bit weird about, we were all fighting and arguing. I was leaving Lind Hall, I’m going out the back door, and I saw Qadri holding this little tiny dog wearing a sweater. And so I think of how loving and caring he was just summed up in that.
Jimmy Ismail [cousin]
Tony Anghie, Professor of Law, University of Utah and National University of Singapore [friend]
Let me begin by thanking Minnesota for organizing this event. I would like to express my condolences to Auntie Fazeera, to Luthfiya and Eithquan and their families, and to Shreen. It is wonderful to hear and share all the tributes to Qadri. Qadri and I have been friends since the age of six. We went to St. Thomas’ Prep school together, meeting in grade one. And it has been a special friendship, because by the time we were in grade four, we realized that we shared this strange, inexplicable ambition, the ambition to become a writer. This was a peculiar ambition, because in Sri Lanka, as Eithquan points out, ambition was all about becoming a doctor or a lawyer or cricketer (and of course Qadri loved cricket). Reading became a central part of our lives, and Qadri and I made our way through the canon together. And for us, the canon began roughly in grade two with Enid Blyton. I know that a post-colonial reading of her work would present it in a somewhat unfavorable light. But I want to make the argument for Enid Blyton because without her we might never have begun that journey, that then took us on to Agatha Christie, to PG Wodehouse, and beyond. We regularly visited the wonderful secondhand bookshops in Bambalapitiya, and Wellawatte in search of books. We studied English literature together, as it were, even though he was studying in Peradeniya and I at Monash in Australia—this was because we were continuously exchanging our views on what we were reading and studying. Qadri of course was brilliant, and not just in humanities subjects. He won admission to the medical faculty studying science subjects, a real achievement, given the extremely competitive entrance exam. He famously caused multiple crises by taking the unprecedented step of switching from Medicine to Arts in order to study English. But to me it wasn’t at all strange that he decided to study English, because I think that was his calling right from the beginning.
There are many things I could say about Qadri, but I just want to focus on his unfailing hospitality because to me it was through his hospitality that he expressed his personality, and, in a way, his politics as well.
So I can think of his hospitality at all these different stages of my life.
I stayed with Qadri and his family in their house at 13th Lane when visiting Sri Lanka in 1984. The Kollupitiya area was his home. Even during his last journey to Sri Lanka, he stayed in the Renuka hotel, returning to those roots.
Then there was his hospitality in Peradeniya when I stayed with him and his friends, including Revantha Sinnetamby, and attended lectures with him. One was a memorable lecture given by Professor Ashley Halpe on Buddhism and King Lear. And it was during this visit that he announced to me “I'm going to study with Edward Said.” It seemed a distant almost fantastic ambition but of course, Qadri was very single minded, and he made that ambition a reality. Then there was his hospitality in the United States. When I first came to the United States, I arrived in New York and went directly to Qadri’s apartment near Columbia—an apartment he shared with Aamir Mufti. I stayed with him many times in New York. And, so it was very fitting that the only time I met Edward Said, one of my heroes, was when Qadri took me with him on one of his visits to Professor Said.
As many of you have already said, he was sometimes a difficult person. Our friendship had its ebbs and flows, but it survived mainly I think because of our shared background. He was also a formidable critic. And that, of course, was a reason why his opinion of my work was especially important: because I knew it was honest. And his views were also especially important because he, we, knew where each of us came from, the shared beginnings, I suppose, and the journeys we had made through the canon and then our meetings at different stages of our lives and careers in Sri Lanka and New York and Minnesota and many times in Sri Lanka in between.
It was another of Qadri’s great talents that he could write at so many different levels for very different audiences. Some of you have mentioned the difficulties of reading his scholarly work—but please read his journalism, which is pointed and clear. Qadri was a fearless and fiercely independent journalist. And I do not want to go into politics of Sri Lanka as this is not the occasion to do so, but I just want to say that if we look at the current state of Sri Lanka, his overall analysis has been unerringly correct. He got it right.
I just want to end, because I could go on. One of his first books is called Unmaking the Nation, a collection of essays he co-edited. He sent me a copy and inscribed it for me, and the inscription was: “In remembrance of the smithies of our souls—and other portraits yet to come.” Many of you would recognize this quotation, from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the famous and poignant words of Stephen Dedalus: “and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” There is a lot to unpack here—given Qadri’s views on race and nationalism and his efforts to expose and dismantle the pretences of nationalism. But Portrait had made a deep impression on both of us. Qadri was a fierce critic of nationalism, but he loved Sri Lanka. It is no coincidence that the title of his book was, precisely, Abiding by Sri Lanka. His vision of Sri Lanka was developed and outlined in his writings as a journalist and as a scholar. And he created a different, personal Sri Lanka, through his hospitality, his wonderful cooking, his generosity, and even—particularly—his penchant to interrogate and challenge. Qadri would surely resist the labelling, as he hated any form of reductionism or sentimentality, but thinking of it now, the off-hand, ironic allusion to Joyce did reveal something about Qadri and his life, his efforts to be, in his own inimitable way, a writer of conscience, profoundly concerned about justice and telling it as he saw it. He would have been 60 this week in November, 2021. Thank you.
Muiyad Cader [friend]
Andrew Elfenbein, Professor and Chair of English, University of Minnesota
Malik has a great story in the chat to that I hope people can have a chance to look at. I’ll just read it: “When I was sixteen and half, a teenager, Qadri came to visit us for an extended period. He was the big cousin, all caps, so I didn’t really know him, but I found out that he had written a particularly penetrating piece about the government, I think, and in fear of his life he fled to Zimbabwe, of all places. This was a very striking thing to me. Not that he would fleet to Zimbabwe, but it showed me as a young person that there are people out there who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe.”
I would just like to say on behalf of Qadri’s family, thank you. As I said earlier, we didn’t know much about his life as a scholar; as a lot of our relatives have said, it was tough slogging through even a page. Some of the articles of course about Sri Lanka and other places were much easier to digest. But we appreciate all the tributes that everyone who’s here wrote, not only the Facebook page but in newspapers and other scholarly articles. That was very helpful very valuable for us in understanding what he did in his scholarly career, so thank you again for this. I miss him every day and the conversations we used to have.