Unveiling the Ideology of Dissent

A conversation with Mosarrap Hossain Khan, the founding editor of Café Dissensus

Dr Mossarap Hossain Khan

A popular online journal called Café Dissensus kept cropping up on my Facebook page every now and then till curiosity drove me to delve further. In this exclusive, we meet one of the founding editors, Mosarrap Khan, who brought the journal to life with Mary Ann Chacko in New York almost seven to eight years ago. Now Café operates as an independent magazine of culture, literature, and politics, publishing writers and novices, bringing out well edited issues.

Dr. Mosarrap Hossain Khan completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Burdwan and the University of Hyderabad respectively. He obtained a doctorate in South Asian literatures and cultures from the Department of English, New York University, USA, in 2018.

His most recently published academic essays have engaged with the question of motherhood in the literary productions around Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) and the role of literary/filmic representation as an alternative archive of the Partition of India. He is currently co-editing (with Dr. Mursed Alam) a book, Mapping Muslim Life in West Bengal: History, Politics, and Culture and has completed translating Sankha Ghosh’s three partition novellas. Both these proposed books are now undergoing or about to undergo review with a university press. In addition, he is about to start work on converting his doctoral dissertation into a monograph. His research interests include South Asian literature and culture, postcolonial theory, theories of everyday life, religion and secularism, and Muslim life in West Bengal. His creative writings and political commentary pieces have appeared on various popular portals. He is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.

In this interview, we focus only on his work and contribution to a journal that so many of us love, Café Dissensus.

How old is Cafe Dissensus? When and how was it ‘born’ in New York? Why did you move to India?

Café Dissensus was founded on February 15, 2013 in New York City, USA. However, we bought the domain sometime before that.

Until 2011, I was never inclined to or thought of writing for a popular publication, although I had started posting on my personal blog from mid-2010. However, those were sporadic posts on topics ranging from the literary to the political. In 2011, I was moved by the Anna Hazare movement and wrote a piece. It went unpublished.

In the middle of 2012, there was a violent demonstration held by Muslims in Mumbai to protest again the Rakhine riots. I had been regularly following Indian newspapers and wanted to write something on the issue. One evening I sat down and wrote up about 1000 words on a whim and sent it off to Newslaundry which was a new portal at the time. To my surprise, it was published. However, the final edits to the piece left me dissatisfied, as it was given a ‘liberal Muslim’ tone to suit the ideology of the portal.

This made me think about creating a platform where we could write on issues of our choice and in a manner, we were comfortable with. In more contemporary language, you could call it an effort to create an independent platform.

Online publishing was still at a nascent stage in India. Barring the already established newspaper portals and magazines, and a couple of blogs, none of the news portals that operate today existed at the time. Since print publication was not an option given the cost and infrastructure involved, I thought of tapping the potential of the online space. I broached to my then partner, Mary Ann Chacko, who is still the other editor of Café Dissensus, and bought the domain for the magazine. However, we dithered for next year or so as we juggled our PhD and other academic responsibilities. It was only toward the end of 2012 that we started planning about the first issue of the magazine.

We spoke to our friends who could contribute to the first and future issues of the magazine. We were surprised by the very positive and encouraging response we received from them. That’s how the first issue of the magazine was published on February 15, 2013 on the future of Indian Muslims. In that sense, the theme of the first issue came from the article I wrote in 2012. After we published the first issue, we applied for the ISSN from the US Library of Congress and we received it by the middle of 2013.

The blog of the magazine, Café Dissensus Everyday, started on March 4, 2013, as we thought we needed to engage more regularly with the other events happening around us.

I moved back to India by the end of 2016 and since then Café Dissensus has partly operated from India, as Mary Ann was still in the US. Café Dissensus was transnational at the time in its location, if we could say this in the age of World Wide Web. It still is transnational in its spirit and ideas.    

What is the difference between operating from NY and India? Is there a difference, considering it is an online magazine?

As an online portal without any physical infrastructure, there isn’t much of a difference really, barring different time zones. Being away from India also gave us the mental space to engage with ideas that sometimes becomes difficult in a ‘noisy’ place like India. The other difference is, of course, the glamour associated with anything that comes out of the West! Many of our readers and contributors still think we are based in New York City. Technically, our ISSN is still registered with the US Library of Congress. In that sense, we are in some way connected to the US. When I moved back to India, the idea was to keep it operating as a quality space for ideas. And we do have contributors from around the globe.   

How does your magazine operate? Do you have many working on it? How many in your team?

When we first started the magazine, we did set up an editorial board with friends and acquaintances. Over time, Café Dissensus has very much operated like a revolving door, barring the editors! We did and do have people in different editorial roles for a while and then they moved on. Bhaswati Ghosh was literature editor for a while, Rashida Murphy worked as a Books Editor, Urba Malik acted as a political editor. Murtaza Ali Khan still remains our Films Editor. Also, Adil Bhat has remained as an associate editor. We also took on board some interns from time to time. Since we don’t generate any money from the magazine and we are not able to pay, it becomes difficult to burden them with work and retain quality people. The revolving door policy has worked so far. However, we wish we could have a permanent team that would unburden me to some extent. Let’s see how the future unfolds.  

Your logo says, “we dissent”. What is it you dissent? What is your intent?

When we started, the idea was not to align with any particular ideology, as is often the practice among publications. We wanted to propagate the idea of ‘dissensus’ (Jacque Ranciere’s word) for the strengthening of democracy, that is, move beyond the idea of ‘consensus’ being the cornerstone of democracy. As Ranciere says, dissensus or difference builds a stronger democracy. In that sense, ‘we dissent’ implies resistance to dogmatic ideologies of both the Right and the Left. I have had cases in the past where one of our well-wishers chose to castigate Café Dissensus for critiquing the Left because people think a progressive platform should be silent about one particular ideology, while tearing into the other. In these deeply polarised times, it is important to be critical and speak truth to power. We, at Café Dissensus, publish pieces that critique the excesses of any ideology.    

You have guest editing. What is it you look for in a guest editor? Why have guest editing? Does it add to your journal?

From the very beginning we had planned on having guest editors for our issues. There are multiple reasons for this. First, if we are to edit all the issues in a year, it would become an onerous task with our teaching, research, and academic writing commitments. Guest-editors take that burden off us. However, we editors also edit some of the issues.

Second, guest-editors bring in wonderful diversity to the table. Since they have been already working in interesting areas, Café Dissensus acts as a site to tap into their current work – research and otherwise – and showcase it to our readers. I would say, guest-editors bring in a diversity of approaches that enrich the magazine.

Third, we are able to build a network of scholars, academics and writers because of guest-editing. We have forged wonderful relations with some of them who have edited issues more than once. The idea is to create a large family of thinkers. I don’t want to take any individual names, but we are thankful to all our guest-editors for enriching Café Dissensus over last so many years. However, there are downsides to working with guest-editors, as some have backed out at the last moment, despite their issue being scheduled. This is part of the process and we take it on our chin and move forward.

When we invite someone to guest-edit an issue or evaluate a proposal sent to us by a potential guest-editor, we look for novelty and do-ability. We are always open to new ideas that we could explore in some depth. While most of our guest-editors have been academics, we also have writers and other practitioners edit issues for us. We welcome people with compelling ideas to edit an issue for us.   

Sometimes you become a part of literary festivals. Exactly what happens there? I remember seeing you host an IIT festival.

Recently, we were part of the IIT Kanpur annual fest, Antaragni. We were approached by the literary society at the institute to partner with them. Since we can’t sponsor any of the events, we acted as their media partner. We circulated information about the literary component of the fest and carried the prize-winning entries in the fest. This was a very positive experience as we already cater to a younger readership. We are open to such collaborations in future as well.

What are the things you look for in a submission?

We look for novelty of ideas, a critical eye, and a compelling writing style. We don’t restrict ourselves to any particular set of ideas. Since we deal with ideas, the ideas presented in a piece must excite us enough to publish it. We don’t really look at the contributor generating/writing up/presenting that idea. What I mean is that an idea is more important for us than the person presenting that idea. We try to avoid publishing the same hackneyed pieces we see floating around us. We do publish some literary pieces in Café Dissensus Everyday, too.    

Who are your contributors and who are your readers?

Ans: We have contributors from across the spectrum of academics, researchers, writers, artists, community organizers, etc.

Well, it is very difficult to say who our readers are! I guess our readers also come from a large cross section of people including the ones I mentioned already. Sometimes we do receive appreciative messages from our readers belonging to different strata of society.  

I remember one of your guest editors did a book with your content. Do you bring out books too? Tell us about it.

So far, a couple of our issues got published as books, edited by Debaditya Bhattacharya and Nishi Pulugurtha. These books have come out from established publishers. In fact, I am currently co-editing (with Mursed Alam) a book based on one of our issues (albeit in an expanded and academic form). So far Café Dissensus has not been able to publish them as books on its own. However, I will not rule out the possibility of launching our own imprint in future to publish some of these issues as books.

You are an academic. Please tell us how you juggle time between editing and teaching. Is it tough? What is it you learn from bringing out such a journal? Is there a learning?

It’s an extremely difficult task to juggle between all that I do: full-time teaching, researching, academic writing, editing, management of the magazine, etc. I guess being a bit of a workaholic helps! The whole editing process has helped me immensely in a being a better reader and writer. Then there is the other aspect of interacting with people and managing the show. There are times when we face rejections and there are times when we are jubilant for being able to publish a good issue or a good piece of writing. It’s all part of the job I do.      

Do you write often? Why or Why not?

I did write a lot for first five years or so, especially for Café Dissensus Everyday. It was primarily to keep it alive when we still had to build credibility and trust. I write occasionally now as we have quality contributors writing for us. These days I write only when I am compelled by an idea.

What is the future you see for Cafe Dissensus? And yourself?

We will reach our first milestone in February 2023 when we complete our ten years! When we started, we had no idea we will reach this stage. Café Dissensus started as a fun act and I still have a lot of fun editing it. Since there is no commercial aspect to it, it allows us leg space to publish whatever we are convinced about.

However, we do have a plan to build an integrated, reader-friendly website of international standards. The idea is to bring Café Dissensus and Café Dissensus Eevryday in one platform. Also, we are thinking of the possibility of registering it as a trust so that we could raise some donations to run the show. However, I am not sure when that is going to happen. These are plans at this stage.

As for me, I have a wish. Before I shut it down or die, I wish to run it for one day as a mainstream, commercial platform to see what it feels like! As of now what keeps me going is what an 18-year-old recently wrote to me when she pitched an article, “It will make the planet a better place to live in.” That kind of idealism about the role of writing inspires me.  

How lovely! Thank you Mossarap for taking the time to answer our questions.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.



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