Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - The End

Endings are difficult; whether of books, relationships, or a year.

But endings are followed by beginnings and beginnings always come with a great deal of promise.  Or so we like to believe.

Unlike other beginnings in our life (marriage, child birth, relocation) we make a lot of hoopla about the new year and chalk out resolutions which, honestly, are a glorified version of our things-to-do list. These lists accommodate our more lofty ambitions; there is no space for the mundane in it. In fact, they almost read like a film!

Resolutions are mostly egocentric. They revolve around one individual and his/her capacity to make a difference in the world. I am all for achieving greatness but often our lists need reality checks. The new year beckons at us like the Promised Land and we rush to it with stupendously detailed resolution lists. As the year progresses the list is mutilated and, in some cases, completely overhauled.  But then resolutions, like promises, are meant to be broken. Imagine what a perfect world there’ll be if everyone followed their list to the T?! We’ll have the perfect lives; success, love, money, peace, equality, and toned bodies!

As 2011 comes to an end, we look back at a year which was nothing short of a Hollywood block buster complete with revolutions, killings, fairy tale weddings, and scandals. And when the sun goes down tonight I will welcome the new year with this phrase from Iris Murdoch’s, The Sea, The Sea:

“Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?”

Let’s all keep wondering...

Note: Some of the highlights of 2011 on the beanbag. Read about them here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Whew!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

London Kahani

Insha's London

A basement flat in Gloucester Hotel owned by a matronly Mrs.Watson sounds an extremely scary place to live in. And that is exactly where Ibn-e-Insha stayed when he visited London in Sept 1967. I was rather lucky in terms of the location, ownership and view of the apartment where I resided. The magnificent Thames (a little tributary if truth be told) and a drawbridge greeted me each morning while poor Insha Sahib was haunted by the garbage drum and all that inhabited it, both living and otherwise.

Once I had made the all important trip to Big Ben and Trafalgar Square, I found myself on Victoria Embankment every other day. Maybe it was to say hello to poor Nelson, who stands alone while all and sundry pose with the lions. Or to lose myself in the hallways of National Art Gallery; trying to imprint the paintings on my mind or through inadequate words, in my diary.

Besides the National Art Gallery, there are a multitude of museums to explore and maybe, get bored in, especially without company. The British Museum is one such place which I, luckily, did not explore on my own. Like Ibn-e-Insha, we too made a dash for the Egyptian gallery. The whole place is death personified. There are coffins, both with and without mummies, with intricate carvings and symbols along with details of the preservation process the Egyptians used. The star of the place is an extremely well preserved mummy with nails, teeth and even hair intact (on a closer inspection one might even find mummified lice). It was a bit disturbing to see throngs of people around this nameless corpse whose soul, I’m sure, is still searching for peace, maybe within the very walls of the museum.    

Aphrodite at British Museum
Ibn-e-Insha was not duly impressed by the Egyptian artefacts, especially the agricultural tools. According to him archaeologists wasted their time digging up remains of ancient Egypt, most of the items are present and still in use above the ground in our country. I was more interested in the Greek statues, something not present in any form in Pakistan. And it is always better, both historically and optically, to look at stone sculptures of Greek Goddesses in the nude rather than a shrivelled mummy.

Loneliness never hits you as strongly as when you’re taking pictures of yourself with a self-timer. But where the camera has proved itself to be a technological wonder, it is also a nuisance at times. Unlike other picture galleries, Tate Modern does allow photography without a flash. More people, I’m sure, view the exhibits through the camera lens rather than the naked eye.

I was there one day, sitting quietly and contemplating the vivid colours of Monet’s Water – Lilies when in walked a man with a camera and a guidebook. He took one sweeping look at the room, decided Monet was a worthy keepsake, snapped a picture with his digital SLR, took out a smart phone, snapped another picture of the painting and sauntered out of the room to repeat the process. Digital age galore!

But London is in stress, not just over the Olympics but also the dwindling economy. It seems that the case was no different in 1967. Like Ibn-e-Insha I, too, contributed to the economy of Britain by making a fairly large number of purchases. As Insha Sahib said in his book, we have old historical, political and cultural links with England. If we don’t help them in times of need, who will?

P.S: Though I saw theatre plays also, Insha Sahib was lucky enough to see the great Laurence Olivier play Edgar in Strindberg’s, The Dance of Death, at the Old Vic. According to Insha Sahib, Olivier’s acting was a marvel. 

Note: The sketch and all references to Ibn-e-Insha are from his book, Awara Gard ki Diary (Travelogue) 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Two Years on the Beanbag

There’s a great trend in us to celebrate all sorts of dates and occasions. Besides celebrating the usual birthdays, anniversaries and various other ‘days’, by using a bit of imagination one can come up with occasions to celebrate, if not every day, at least, once a week.

I, too, am going to indulge in this act and raise a toast to myself for my blog turns two today. It was two years on this very day that I wrote the first entry on my blog. Cause for celebration, no? Well, if truth be told, not really. Of course if my blog was ‘the’ best thing in Karachi I would definitely have thrown a grand party with support of my many sponsors (whose ads on my site resulted in tons of revenue for them) and invited my hundreds of followers for a chance to meet me, in person! Since that, unfortunately, is not the case I shall raise a glass of Coke Zero to myself and beanbagtales, alone.

The experience of blogging is actually quite nightmarish. You start off with great enthusiasm, thinking that the world is just waiting for - you. As you type each entry, your mind thinks of the hundreds, maybe even thousands, who will be hanging on to your every word. You rack your brains all day, the process begins as soon as you’re out of your bed (and turn on your laptop before going to the bathroom). You can’t afford not to write, the disappointment of your readers on not finding your golden words gives you goose bumps. But hell, what do you write about every day? You’re not a celebrity and your lifestyle certainly isn’t exciting enough to help generate a post every day. As time passes and your followers don’t reach double digits, your enthusiasm wanes and finally there comes a day when your respective blogging software administrator sends an email informing you of termination of your blog due to it being inactive.

Okay, this possibly is the worst case scenario possible and it’s not all that bad but in these two years I’ve learned that not many people are interested in reading book reviews, film reviews (especially if they’re pertaining to the classic genre), theatre acts or posts without pictures.

Too bad, because that’s what this blog is about! And in case you are a follower, join me in the toast. Cheers!

Monday, October 10, 2011

London, Aadab!

London is an interesting place, to say the least. It has a nice vibe to it. Some cities have this sort of vibe. Karachi has one. Like London, it is a city which accepts you. It’s a feeling akin to settling down in a beanbag; it adjusts to you. Karachi is like that and so is London.

The past two days (I landed on Friday night) have consisted, mostly, of a crash course in underground routes. The first time I looked at the map it appeared exactly what it is in the picture; a lot of jumbled up lines. Or is it my destiny hidden among the seemingly mundane routes of the underground? Surreal.

London’s been kind to me in terms of weather. Sunshine has greeted me each morning (okay, only two mornings so far but that’s good too!) and the forecast for this week looks promising. If it rains I might get really homesick because it is sunny in Karachi (and hot too!).  But like hubby dear says, don’t let the weather be a deterrent to your plans, or something to that effect. I’ll try and adopt his philosophy but it’s difficult to look at the bright side of things when dark clouds are looming.

Reading English literature has its advantages. You recognize places from descriptions in books. Selfridges’s reminded me of An Equal Music, a book I love to bits. For some minutes I stood in front of the store, trying to recreate the scene when Michael spots Julia while both of them are sitting on opposite buses. And somehow, while standing there, I was able to actually feel Michael’s frustration, more so because hubby dear is in Karachi and I love him to bits too!

There are no more pigeons in Trafalgar Square. In fact, I saw more pigeons at Marble Arch than at Trafalgar Square. Talk about disappointments. All my life I have seen pictures of relatives and friends covered with pigeons (and probably pigeon poop!) and I was denied this experience. St.Paul’s Cathedral lived upto my expectations and after seeing it I can totally imagine its importance for the British people during World War II.

There’s so much to do in these two months. This trip is not just about discovering London but also about rediscovering myself. Unfortunately there are no route maps for the latter.

And I don’t know why they have the nursery rhyme about London Bridge. It’s so not worth it!

London Underground:Google Images

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Meeting Mohammad Hanif

‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it’. (Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye)

I decided to go one step ahead of Holden and met the author in person. Liberty Books had arranged a book reading of Mohammad Hanif’s ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ on Sunday evening (25th Sept, 2011). Here are some bits and pieces of his conversation with Muneeza Shamsie about his book, religion and the writing process in general.

M.S: In your first book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Ali Shigri (the protagonist) is thrown in a dungeon where he meets a blind Zainab and the General Secretary of the Sweeper’s Association. In ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’, Zainab is the mother of one of the characters, Noor, and Alice’s father is a sweeper. Was this a coincidence?

M.H: No, it wasn’t a coincidence. I was trying to create a new fictional world which is messed up in a different way. I must have missed Zainab. Maybe there was a kind of yearning for her, the kind people have once they leave their lovers and then want a glimpse of them years later.

M.S: What came first? Zainab, Alice Bhatti or the General Secretary of the Sweeper’s Association?

M.H: These characters (Zainab, General Secretary) were gone and dead in the previous book. Shigri, I saved, maybe for a sequel to write when one is desperate and old and needs money. Alice came first as a glimmer or memory of someone I’d seen once. Her voice came first. She was called something else and then I changed her name and she started working for me. For one and a half year there was just Alice and nobody else, just a nurse in a hospital room.

M.S: Alice refers constantly to her faith in the book...

M.H: I wasn’t interested in a faith vs. faith scenario. People have a very personal relationship with their faith. It varies with age and gender. I was obsessing about the kind of personal relationship people have with their God. I was interested in those shades, when one believes and doesn’t and at what stage of life this happens. The idea was not to make fun of religion because already it is quite cartoonish.

M.S: Alice is a nurse. Is there any analogy with Florence Nightingale?

M.H: I’m not a big fan of Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa although they might be very nice people. I’ve spent time in hospitals like many of us do. I’ve seen these nurses; women working at 4am without any boss or CCTV to monitor them but still doing the best they can. I was impressed by an average professional nurse working in a government hospital.

M.S: And what about Teddy Butt?

M.H: He’s a bit of every man. He has all these urges that get mixed up. He never kind of says what he really feels. He’s kind of hopeless in a way. If you live in Karachi long enough it is possible to meet someone like him, a friend of a friend who pretends to be a sort of gangster. You know the type who’d try to sell you a stolen vehicle or something.

M.S: You had to shut off the journalist in you when writing A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The nature of journalism actually gives you access to people and places. How do these observations creep into your fiction?

M.H: I’m not a crime journalist or a murder scene type reporter. I’ve never reported from a hospital. If you live in Karachi long enough you meet people like rogue doctors who drink and smoke before going in the operation theatre. When you sit down to write, old conversations come into your mind and help in developing the story. As a journalist, you also know when to shut up. But with television now, nobody really shuts up. They go on and on and....

M.S: What impels you to write fiction?

M.H: At the age of twenty, everyone wants to write a book. There’s a certain kind of boy or girl who reads and reads and reads and someday, they get it into their heads that they’ll also write a book like this. It sort of comes from being bookish and boring and self-obsessed. I get bored easily and one way to get over boredom is to sit in a corner and invent stories. It is also a sort of escape therapy from reality. Even if it is for a few years, I am the master of the universe I create.

[The interview and book reading was followed by a book signing session]. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Change?

Change is a scary word. Habit hates change. It does. Habit feels insecure when change comes along. Both are a very strong part of our life; yours and mine. We become slave to our habits and detest any change in them. Our habits age with us and become our masters. They acquire the same kind of power over us that the ‘One Ring’ (The Dark Lord, Sauron’s ring- Lord of the Rings) had on any creature who wore it. When habits become so strong, change takes a back seat. Ironically, change also has a habit of creeping back into our lives; sometimes most unexpectedly.

Change, I believe, is an even bigger part of our lives than habit. With the passing of years we change both bodily and emotionally. Humans are strange creatures. We yearn for change and yet shun it too. From youth to middle age, change is an acceptable part of life. We switch jobs, go abroad to study or work, have children, change schools, change servants, change cars, change houses, and so on. But somewhere at the back of our minds is the thought that this cycle of constant change will end one day, that we will settle down and change will bother us occasionally.  

Life without change is unimaginable. Nature, too, changes and each change gives us a new joy. Habit and change are necessary to keep the balance; too much of one can lead to a very boring existence. 

And no one wants to be a bore. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Esio Trot - a magical love story!

What lengths can one go to win the heart of the beloved? Many a poet and writer have addressed this question in their work and most, if not all, have penned endearing and often, heartbreaking narratives of the lover and the beloved.

Esio Trot has all the ingredients which make it a perfect love story. A lonely man harbours love for his neighbour, a widow. When she faces a problem with a wild creature he comes to her rescue. There is no knight in shining armour routine though for the wild creature isn’t a fire breathing dragon but a mere tortoise and our knight’s weapon is just a metal tube fitted with claws. No fancy armour or sword for Mr. Hoppy.     

Mr. Hoppy is a shy, retired man who lives in the same apartment building as the love of his life, Mrs. Silver. In fact, her flat is just below his. Everyday both of them exchange pleasantries but Mr. Hoppy lacks the courage to express his feelings. Mrs. Silver, a widow, owns a tortoise called Alfie who is the apple of her eye. She dotes on him incessantly. So much so that Mr. Hoppy wishes many a times to exchange places with Alfie.

The great worry in Mrs. Silver’s life is Alfie’s slow growth. She wants the little tortoise to gain weight and become big but no matter how many juicy cabbage leaves she feeds it, Alfie weighs the same as it did when she got him, eleven years ago. She is willing to try anything to make Alfie grow. Her distress over Alfie provides Mr. Hoppy with the perfect opportunity for winning her heart and he puts together a masterly plan that actually makes the tortoise grow!

Dahl, yet again, provides us with two very interesting characters in this book. But unlike his other books for children (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, George's Marvellous Medicine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc.) there is no villain or child in this story. There are no evil aunts or grandmothers and no magical fruit, or factories. There is, of course, a little bit of creativity and innovation involved but then we can’t expect a Dahl protagonist to be just an ‘ordinary’ person.

Following is an excerpt from Donald Sturrock’s book, Storyteller –The Life of Roald Dahl, on Esio Trot.

‘Quentin Blake described it succinctly as a “love story set in two rooms”. Blake felt the narrative was built largely around Roald’s feelings for Liccy*, and that there was a great deal of his creator to be detected in Mr. Hoppy’s penchant for ingenious and imaginative problem solving”.


And if you want to win over the woman of your dreams, above is a magic spell that can help, provided she owns a tortoise!

*Liccy was Roald Dahl’s second wife. 

Images: Google 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

J. & Me

Jaundice and I were companions for two weeks. Jaundice played host while I lay on my bed, trying to ignore its antics but not succeeding much. After a few days, though, it lost steam and lay around, sulking. Recently it’s tired of my company and pays a visit occasionally. Not that I miss it much and I hope never to see it again. Not only did it drain me and leave me weak and sick, but also because I became confined to my bed and became a prisoner of the telly. I watched it all; re-runs of movies on HBO, cooking shows prior to iftar, all kinds of stupid Indian films, and lots of reality shows (including Wipe Out) on AXN.

My Ramazan came to an abrupt halt because of jaundice. Karachi, too, it seems was suffering and its pain was greater than mine. This Ramazan has to be one of the most deadliest and dramatic in terms of terrorism and politics for Pakistan. Is our country plagued with a disease which is incurable? Or have we turned a blind eye to the suffering of our motherland? One day the whole city comes to a standstill and the very next day life resumes at its normal pace. Are we resilient or have we become numb to the happenings around us? Question marks everywhere but no answers seem to be forthcoming from any quarter.

I need to rest now otherwise J. might just pay me another visit. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ramazan Reflections

Ramazan is the month of peace, prayer and reflection. At least that is what all the television channels propagate all day long. If morning shows weren’t enough, they’ve made special sehri and iftar shows to hammer 'goodness' into us besides the original responsibility of making us telly addicts. But from what I’ve observed these past ten days, reflection is certainly not on our priority list (prayer is, usually, by default and peace is a novelty, at least in Karachi and...London!).

The act of going hungry from dawn to dusk gives us a license to do anything. It means we can lax at work, break traffic signals, shout at others on the road, get cranky for no reason and generally act high and mighty, especially in company of those not fasting.

These behavioural changes are not limited to the duration of the fast. Come iftar time and we morph into different beings. Food is the only thing worth fighting for and, if need be, dying for. Everything on the dinner table occupies a space on our plate and we gulp it all down with lots of sherbet and water. Ramazan, it seems, is the holy month in which we exercise two of the seven deadly sins to the maximum; greed and gluttony.

Greed steals the limelight from the other sins during Ramazan. For a vast majority fasting translates into one word: Eid. All our energies (the little that are there during the day) are spent planning for this festival. We are grateful for HIS blessings, especially monetary ones. Our principle concern, though, is mostly about clothes; there must be three separate dresses, at least, for the Eid festivities. If possible, maybe squeeze in some furniture and new crockery; what better time to put everything on display than Eid? So we spend our Eid bonus even before we get it, thanks to our little plastic companion. And we justify our excessive spending using the premise of fasting. Aren’t we crafty? I wonder who we think we’re fooling?

It’ll be a grand idea of Ramazan came twice a year. Lawn brands will have a ball; collections for summer, mid-summer, and three Eids! All the musicians who have become religious and can’t sing for a living will have work. And there’ll be no traffic on the roads during the usual evening rush hours, in case you want to experience how it feels to drive at 140mph on the roads in Karachi.  

And maybe, with Ramazan twice a year, people might just reflect once.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The one lesson that you take away after reading this book is, “Don’t Panic”. Not even if you wake up to find bull dozers surrounding your house ready to break it down or when you are told by your alien friend, whom you took for a regular human all these years, that the planet Earth will get vaporized in two minutes.

Hilarious is the perfect word to describe this book.  Another perfect word is outrageous. Actually, the book is full of some of the craziest stuff. Arthur Dent, a regular guy, wakes up on a regular Thursday morning, only to come across the most irregular happenings. The local authorities want to demolish his house to build a bypass. To make matters worse, Dent’s friend Ford Prefect comes up the very moment when Dent is trying to stop the demolition to inform him that, well, appearances can be deceiving. Prefect is an alien, and a hitch hiker, who landed on Earth while on a research trip for his book (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, what else?!) and got stuck for a good fifteen years. On this Thursday morning, he finds out, through his alien gadgets, that the Vogans (a really ugly alien form) are coming to destroy the world and he has around two minutes to save his friend’s life.

What happens next is a crazy adventure in which Arthur and Ford find themselves imprisoned in an alien ship, thrown into space and then picked up within 30 seconds by another alien ship, The Heart of Gold. On board this ship is Marvin (a depressed robot who absolutely hates life!), Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, and Trillian, a slim, darkish humanoid. And to help Arthur make sense of this new life is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “an electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s its job”.

The one thing Douglas Adams does, besides writing a very humorous book, is to provide us with the answer to life, the universe, everything. It’s 42.

Read more on aliens on the blog here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Enter the World of Suspense - Jassosi Dunya

Enter the world of Jassosi Dunya - ' an intricately demented world of larger than life villains, mad genius detectives, and beautiful femme fatales,' 

These lines are from the blurb of the English translation of Ibn-e-Safi's book from his Jassosi Dunya novel. Who is Ibn-e-Safi? To many in the subcontinent he is the creator of memorable characters like Imran and Faridi who featured in books full of suspense, mystery, adventure and romance. 

I have, unfortunately, not read a single one of his 116 novels in the Imran series or the 125 novels in the Jassosi Dunya series. I got hooked onto the great dastaan (story) of Tilsm Hoshruba at the tender age of eleven and thus, ignored Ibn-e-Safi. In my teenage years I read Asfaque Ahmed's Inspector Jamshed's series which was very entertaining, and unlike Ibn-e-Safi's books, easily available at bookstores. 

So after all these years, what made me think of Imran series again? Hubby dear and myself happened to stumble upon an English translation of one of his books. We did buy the book but why read a translation when we know the original language and thus began my quest to read all the books in the Imran series. And what better time to start than July, the month of his birth and death anniversary. 

I'm not sure how I'll go about this reading project but I have to read all of the Imran series books first and get hold of their artworks too. In case you are an owner of one of these books, and don't want them, please feel free to donate. And if you're a fan, join in. Read the novels with me (will post details soon) and leave the link of your blog/review in the comments section. Let's revive the work of this legendary Urdu writer.

Images: Google 

Friday, July 15, 2011

James and the Giant Peach - 50 years and counting!

An orphan boy accompanied by a grasshopper, a centipede, a glow-worm, a spider, a silkworm, a lady bird and an earthworm cross the Atlantic Ocean atop a giant, juicy peach. This crazy mix of characters features in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, and this year marks 50 years of its publication.

For a book to remain in publication for 50 years is no small feat. But what is it about James, his friends and the giant peach that has entertained children (and their children!) around the world for 50 odd years? All great books share one common thing; a powerful story. The story and its ability to resonate with the reader is what makes a book, well, immortal!

And this book has exactly that, a powerful story. James Henry Trotter, the protagonist, is an ordinary boy. He lives happily with his parents in a beautiful house near the sea. Life is perfect for little James till the day when his parents, while on a visit to London, get eaten by an angry rhinoceros who has escaped from the zoo. The very absurdity of this accident lends it humor although, for a child, it is somewhat scary. 

Alone in the world, James ends up living with his villainous aunts -Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. In almost all of Dahl’s books, the characters, and especially the villains, are very strong. Their personalities reek of evil; their looks, actions and manners of speech all spell BAD GUY. There are some amazing villains in literature and many in Dahl’s own writings but none are so mean, ego-centric, greedy and repulsive as Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.

“Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy over boiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, and she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked”.

Quite ghastly aunts!  

James spends three long, miserable years with his aunts. During all this time he is not allowed to meet or play with any other children or go to school. He can’t even accidentally bump into another child because his aunts live on top of a hill where no one happens to drop by (sounds pretty draconian!). One fine day, when James is feeling awfully miserable, an old man in  'a funny dark-green suit' gives him a bag full of magic beans along with lots of instructions. He promises James that on swallowing the beans "marvellous things will start happening to you, fabulous, unbelievable things - and you will never be miserable again in your life". If only beans could actually do that!

Magic turned James’s life topsy turvy, quite literally. The peach was his magic lamp and genie in one and along with his insect friends, James escaped from his horrid aunts and their “queer ramshackle house on top of a high hill in the south of England”. Along with him escape seven creatures of the soil, which came across the magic beans, and on swallowing them, became the same size as James. They included the musical Old-Green-Grasshopper, the nine spotted Ladybird, the emotional Miss Spider, the timid Silkworm, the quiet Glow-worm, the ego-centric Centipede and the blind Earthworm. The relationship between the insects, especially the centipede and the earthworm is very amusing. Each creature uses his/her ability to protect the peach and themselves from danger which includes a shark attack and an awful row with the cloud men.

But all’s well that ends well and after a very adventurous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the peach and co. land smack in the middle of New York, on an “enormous silver needle sticking up into the sky” (the Empire State Building). They become heroes and spend the rest of their lives, happily ever after, in New York.

USA is the happy land where James and his friends lead their lives as heroes. UK, on the other hand, is the land of the villains, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, which they leave behind forever. After reading Roald Dahl’s biography, this doesn’t appear strange because Dahl, himself, had a soft spot for New York. As a young RAF officer, during World War II, he was posted in New York where he made many friends and rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty. As a writer, too, he found support and fame in America before United Kingdom. 

Even though it is a book for children, I loved re-reading and listening to the audio book narrated by Andrew Sachs. There are many things you can take from the book no matter which age you are. James is an amazing boy. Maybe it is his misfortune which shapes him into a compassionate young fellow who is not just intelligent but brimming with optimism. His innovative solutions and readiness to help others is very admirable, especially in a seven year old. His friends, too, are pretty amazing creatures. This just goes to show that friends can come in any shape or size, but as long as they’re at your side through thick and thin, it doesn’t really matter what their color/race/creed/status is. And of course, never stop dreaming because dreams do and can come true. All it needs is a lot of belief and a little bit of magic!

Images: Google

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray - a Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of the books which I was itching to read. I’ve read a bit of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of being Earnest, An Ideal Husband) but it was this novel, his only one, which I wanted to get my hands on. I found it quite disappointing.

The story is pretty straightforward; Dorian Gray, described as ‘this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made of ivory and rose-leaves’ sits for a portrait for his painter friend, Basil Hallward. This life-size portrait is a striking image of the beautiful young man but it distresses Dorian and he makes a wish, a Faustian bargain. His wish is to retain his eternal youth, to remain unscathed by the ravages of life while his portrait bears the brunt of old age.

And so it happens. Dorian befriends Lord Herny Wotton, a friend of Basil Hallward, who quite unintentionally has a bad influence on the young man. Dorian takes in his words quite literally and makes them a sort of bible for his actions. “That is one of the great secrets of life – to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul” (Lord Henry). In gratifying his senses, Dorian loses sight of all morals and adopts a debauched lifestyle. But the excesses of his lifestyle leave no mark on his demeanour because according to the wish, it is Dorian’s portrait that must bear the brunt of his wrong doings.

1945 Film Poster
The book reads like a suspense/mystery novel; I read the novel at breakneck speed to find out the end. It did become a drag in some places, especially when Lord Henry or Basil Hallward decided to deliver sermons, greatly varying in nature, to Dorian Gray. We know, from the author’s description of the portrait from time to time, of Dorian’s evil ways but their exact nature is never revealed. Does Wilde leave it to our imagination? Or are we supposed to keep Wilde’s own life in mind while reading the novel?

The hero of the novel is the portrait – its fate is what interests the reader most. How does each wrong act of Dorian Gray affect the portrait? It is the sinister nature of the portrait that, I believe, has made The Picture of Dorian Gray a popular novel.

Thankfully, such wishes are not granted, otherwise most people in Pakistan will have their portraits done. 

Photographs: 1945 film poster (Google Images)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wonder Woman in Dubai!

I've been very lazy in taking pictures but today's buy inspired me to take out my camera (about time too!) and snap away. My absolute buy of the holiday are these books, which include The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M.Cain), Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel), The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabakov), What We Talk about when We Talk about Love (Raymond Carver), Time's Arrow  (Martin Amis) and the absolutely stunning Wonder Woman bobble head!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

After 7 Days on the beanbag I think...

...Vacations are funny creatures - they come once in a while with immense expectations and we grab onto them for life; immortalizing them in photographs and souvenirs.  We want to relive those few days forever and ever more. Ideally, we want to shed our old skin and become a new 'me' in a span of a few days.
I'm on vacation these days. And although I don't want to admit this, even to myself, but I'm hoping to shed some skin too (considering the way I'm eating I doubt I'll shed anything). 
Only the next seven days will determine whether this vacation does turn out to be a life changing experience or just another vacation.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Wandering Falcon - A Review

Jamil Ahmad, the author of the book in question, was a discovery of ‘Life’s Too Short Literary Review’, a short story competition by and for Pakistani writers. This is Ahmad’s debut novel and revolves around the lives of people in the tribal areas of Northern Pakistan before the Taliban.

The book was tipped by Guardian as ‘one of the hottest debut of 2011’. Though I enjoyed the book, it was far from being hot. A little warm maybe, but definitely not hot (even though it is sizzling in Karachi). Maybe my feelings have to do with the last book I read, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was fast paced, fascinating and quite hot.

The Wandering Falcon actually shares some similarities with A Visit from the Goon Squad; it is a collection of short stories, which are linked yet separate. It is the story of a young boy,Tor Baz (Wandering Falcon), who is almost the protagonist. His parents are stoned to death in the very first story on charges of adultery. As we witness his growth from a frightened child to a confident man, we get a glimpse of different facets of tribal life. Ahmad has littered the entire book with tribal anecdotes and stories which both lend authenticity and give an insight into the customs and traditions of the people who, to most of us, are merely victims of drone attacks.

This book made me realize how easily we put people into boxes and label them; ‘people living in the tribal areas are terrorists who live their lives according to barbaric customs’. The author tries to change our perspective with each story. There is the story of Tor Baz’s mother who runs away with her lover, because her husband is impotent, and remains in hiding for six years only to be hunted down by her father and husband. Or that of the gypsy tribe consisting of women, children and cattle, who are shunted between the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, only to be mercilessly shot down in the name of law. Or the young woman who fears her husband might bring in another wife on the insistence of his mother because she has not borne him a son. Or the woman who is married off to a man who cares more for his dancing bear than his wife.

Jamil Ahmad has told, through his work, that there is more to the people living in the Northern areas of Pakistan than Taliban. It is the tale of honesty and bravery, of hardships and trials, of loyalty and treachery. Most of these stories depict the misery and poverty which hangs over them, day after day and their struggles to make ends meet. Some of the very moving and disturbing stories are those of the women, who always end up paying the price for mistakes men make. No matter where a woman lives; in the city or in the mountains, much of her suffering is common.

The timing of the book is perfect and I’m sure it will gain attention in the West. Each story is linked to the other through various characters and yet can be read separately also. Tor Baz features in most of the stories and through him we meet the subedar Ghuncha Gul, the two faced Mullah Barrerai,  the mountain guide Sher Beg and his daughter Sherakai, and Shah Zarina among others. 

Even though The Wandering Falcon did not leave me in awe, but unlike other books which have come out in the recent past by Pakistani writers, this collection of stories is both fantastical and yet, very real at the same time which made it an enjoyable read.  

“One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions”.  [Excerpt from the book]

Monday, May 23, 2011

After 7 days on the beanbag, I think...

...that the movie you must watch this week is Fast Five, the fifth movie in the Fast and the Furious series. And the best place to watch it, in Karachi, is at the Atrium Cinema in Saddar. In case you haven’t been there yet you are missing out on one of the best things that has happened to Karachi recently (besides the book fair at Frere Hall). You can sink into purple couches which line the waiting area and soak in the cinematic atmosphere while munching on delicious honey roasted popcorns. The reasons to watch Fast Five are the same as the last four; sexy cars, sexy women and sexy Rio. After watching this movie, you might get tempted to emulate Vin Diesel but in Karachi it’s impossible, unless you’re a mini bus driver.

Talking of movies, hubby dear and myself also saw The Fighter last week. Based on the true story of a boxing champion and nominated for an Oscar in various categories, the film failed to impress. It made me realize that almost all Hollywood movies nominated for Oscar this year were either true stories, animations or remakes like The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Fighter, True Grit (remake), Toy Story 3, and The Social Network. The biggest movie industry has run dry of ideas? Or does the audience want to watch feel-good movies where the underdog comes out the winner; something they all want to relate with. I’m no expert at movies but the most memorable movies (both art films and Hollywood ones) which I’ve seen did not, always, end up happily ever after.

But what does really end happily ever after? And why are we always searching for it? Isn't being happy enough? Why are we so afraid of grief, pain, loss, change? I think unhappiness is the bigger villain. We, as humans, can and do overcome grief or loss (brought about by a tragic event like death; devastation due to war or a natural disaster, divorce) or change (both intentional and unintentional) but what we impose on ourselves in unhappiness. The spectrum can range from ‘didn’t get the job I wanted’ – ‘ I don’t have a better car/house’ – ‘ We can’t go on a vacation abroad like everyone else’ – to - ‘I can’t buy this bag/shoe/jewellery’. These wants which we convert into needs are the impediments to happiness. In this day and age of consumerism, unhappiness is rampant. I’m also a victim of this, some of the times, but I’ve realized that if it is the bag I carry that will make someone like me, that someone is just not worth the effort.

Sounds like I'm on the road to self-actualization? Far from it, I’m afraid. There are times when I succumb to the consumerism monster and end up indulging in retail therapy. But it doesn’t bring me real joy. Real joy is in simple things like sharing a moonlit night on the terrace with hubby dear or sitting on the steps of the staircase in Frere Hall with the mural of the great Sadequain in view or reading a good book.

Which reminds me, when was the last time you read a good book? Or any book for that matter. Maybe you don’t own a comfortable beanbag in which you can snuggle in and read?! There is no bigger misfortune than being literate and not reading. I don’t know how so many of you hope your children will become readers when they don’t see their parents with a book, ever.

The ever glamorous Imran Khan was in town this weekend. His party, Tehrik-e-Insaf, staged a protest against drone attacks and so far, from what I’ve seen on TV, it was a success. It goes to Imran Khan’s credit that people braved the heat (Saturday was the hottest day in Karachi in 20 years) and drove out to support him. Is he the change this country needs? If we can make someone shameless like Zardari, our president, we can definitely give a chance to Imran Khan. And according to Wikileaks, he is the only person in Pakistani politics who is not for sale. So do yourself a favour, and vote in the next election.

Have a safe week; look for joy in the simple things and if you can’t find it, look harder!

[Note: While I was editing this piece, Karachi was rocked with bomb blasts at a naval base, PNS Mehran, at 10pm. We, yet again, become victims of America’s war on terror and pay the price. And then America has the audacity to tell us we’re not doing enough to combat terrorism. It’s America who is the biggest terrorist and we are bearing the consequences of their brash actions].

Pakistan Paindabad!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Guide - A Review

Writing a book review is a little tricky; how do you talk about the story without revealing too much or too little? The Guide is just such a book.

Guide film poster - 1965
A lot of people, myself including, are familiar with the hindi movie, ‘Guide’ (1965). Starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, this movie boasts of some great songs which include ‘Aaj phir jeenay kee tamana hai’, ‘ Gata rahay mera dil’ and ‘ Piya tose naina lagay reh’, to name a few. What I didn’t know was that the storyline of the movie was based on R.K.Narayan’s novel, The Guide.

Narayan is one of the leading figures of early Indian literature in English (read more about the author here). His prose is simple but arresting, his characters are memorable and his writing is littered with symbolism. At least that’s how I felt after reading this book (which happens to be the first of his works I’ve read).

The Guide is Raju’s story; a young man living in the fictional town of Malgudi who transforms from a tourist guide to a spiritual one, completely by chance. Raju is an uneducated tourist guide with the gift of gab. He is popularly known as ‘Railway Raju’ among the many tourists who come to visit the historical sites at Malgudi from all over India. His placid life takes a dramatic turn when Rosie, a beautiful dancing girl, comes to Malgudi with her husband, Marco (Raju gives him this name owing to his tourist garb), an anthropologist. Rosie is very unhappy in her marriage; her husband is more interested in old ruins than in his young wife. Also, he frowns upon her passion for dance. She finds love for her and her craft in Raju and so bewitched is he by her that he throws all caution to the wind and becomes her lover. In the process he not only loses his vocation as a tourist guide, his shop at the railway station, his home but also his self-respect as all and sundry in his town come to know of the affair, including Marco. Even Raju's mother leaves him after he refuses to turn out Rosie from the house, who on Marco’s departure from Malgudi, turns to Raju for shelter and help.

Unlike Raju, who is an uneducated boy, Rosie is both educated and talented. Dancing is her passion and she places it above everything. She forces Raju into arranging dance acts for her and thus, from a tourist guide, Raju becomes her manager. Money starts pouring in but a distance comes in between Raju and Rosie. He feels jealous of her many admirers and wants her to concentrate on her dance only. Differences creep up between the two as Rosie tires of Raju’s constant scrutiny and demands. An unexpected letter from Marco’s lawyer to Rosie leads Raju to commit forgery for which he is arrested and sentenced to prison.

So how does he become a spiritual guide? It is because of Velan that he assumes this role. Velan, a peasant, finds Raju sleeping in the village temple (having nowhere else to go, this is where he is resting after his release from prison) and mistakes him for a swami or a learned man. Soon the entire village throngs to Raju for solution of problems. They treat him with reverence and bring him gifts and other offerings. He plays the role of the holy man to perfection and enjoys this easy going existence. But he is put to the test when drought hits the village and surrounding areas. He must pray and fast for twelve days – a daunting task and one which Raju cannot escape from. Will he fast for twelve days? Does it rain on the twelfth day? Narayan leaves these questions unanswered.

It is interesting to note how Narayan uses symbolism throughout the novel. The construction of the railway station denotes prosperity yet for Raju the train carries lust and, finally, destruction, in the form of Rosie. Raju is a young opportunist; uneducated yet street-smart. The railway station provided him the opportunity of becoming a tourist guide. Rosie’s dancing abilities was his ticket to wealth and success. And finally, the opportunity of becoming a swami at a time when he had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The "Serpent Girl" (Guide - 1965)
Although Raju is the protagonist, Rosie’s character makes a strong impact on the reader; she is quite the femme fatale. For all her mood swings and helpless gestures, she is a feminist to the core. She rises above all odds, an unhappy marriage and an over bearing lover, to live the life of her dreams; as a dancer. She continues, with greater success, her dance performances even after Raju goes to jail. She is, in a way, the “serpent girl” who casts a spell on Raju and then, like the king cobra, whose dance she wants to watch as soon as she steps off the train, fills his life with venom. 

Zia Mohyeddin
What makes this book a great read is its simplicity. The story moves smoothly with no dramatic twists but enough drama to keep you wondering. Each character plays a role, big or small, in shaping Raju’s life. Narayan’s magic lies in his ability to create a story out of simple everyday situations. His themes are universal; failure, love, success, fulfillment of dreams, money, power. And it is this universality which resonates with the reader. Thanks to mel u at The Reading Life for posting Narayan’s short story which led me to discover this amazing author.

A little more trivia on The Guide; our very own Zia Mohyeddin played the role of Raju on stage in Cambridge, London in 1961. Read more about it here.

Photographs: Google images