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

Monday, May 16, 2011

Frere Hall comes back to life!

Eight years of American siege ends. 

Karachiites are free to visit Frere Hall after the re-location of the US Embassy. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Birthday Little Miss and Mr.Men!

Today marks the 76th birth anniversary of the creator of the adorable Little Miss and Mr.Men, Roger Hargreaves. His doodles bring a smile on my face when I have my tea, each morning, in my Little Miss Naughty mug, or when I put my Little Miss Chatterbox bookmark between the pages of P.G.Wodehouse books; these doodles never fail to bring out the child in me. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The mail that Obama wrote...

Wikileaks just got hold of the following mail which was found in Osama’s inbox.

Dear Osama,

USA is in trouble. I am in trouble. In fact, I am in more trouble than my country. And you are not making things easier for me. Your demands are becoming too much for me and Biden. Even I wasn’t invited to the wedding so how could I procure passes for your wife and yourself? And since you have so many wives (with all due respect), two passes were insufficient for you. Yes, I am going to meet the Queen next month but I will not show my displeasure on your behalf. You were not the only one who felt left out. And such a show they made of it. I have half a mind to have my special staff dig out some monarchy in the US also.

I am in distress over your demands. No, I cannot have Steve Jobs make a customized iPad for you. If your iPhone isn’t working, switch to Blackberry. It is amazing and we can always stay in touch on the bb messenger.

As you know Osama, 2012 is re-election year and things are not going smoothly for me. The Republicans are kicking my ass and since nothing much has changed as far as our policies are concerned (both at home and abroad) the ‘Yes, We Can’ strategy will not work next year. If I lose, Michelle plans to stand in the presidential elections in 2016. She’s gotten this wild idea after seeing her name in the ‘TIME’s 100 most influential people’ list. How come you didn’t make that list?

It is time, Osama, to put your loyalty to the test. To tell you the truth, it was President Bush who gave me the idea of writing to you in the first place. I need to win the election next year. I didn’t particularly like Bush’s strategy so I’ve been racking my brains and I’ve thought of the perfect plan. Only your death can now make the American public love me and my new re-election branding.

I can’t disclose the details in the mail; Wikileaks might get hold of it. My team will get in touch with you soon.


Disclaimer: Wikileaks has no idea of such an email. Nor does anyone else, including the author.