Saturday, December 8, 2012

A web of inspiration?

The artist is a receptacle for the emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web. 
                                                                                     Pablo Picasso

Quote source:

Miss Jean Brodie in Bhurban

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life".

One of the perfect books to read on a holiday...or otherwise. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My thoughts - DSC 2013

The books shortlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature are, minus Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Narcopolis, all about war. The Bangladesh war, the Afghanistan war and the Opium wars dominate the list. And my simple question is, why so much talk of war?!

War, for writers, is a great temptation. Old Tolstoy could not resist it; he even put the word in the title! But even though War and Peace is a brilliant work, it is Anna Karenina which is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. And there isn't any mention of war in it (unless you count Vronsky’s departure right at the end to fight against the Turks).

I haven’t read all the books that were long-listed but the ones I was rooting for had nothing to do with war and everything to do with ego, loss, family, traditions, values, rebellion, failure, defeat, death and of course, love. Although I have a non-war favorite in the short-list, I want to mention two long-listed books which touched me deeply.

Between Clay and Dust- A novel that exposed me to a new world, the wrestlers’ akhara  and the courtesan's crumbling house. It also revealed to me that time and place are, sometimes, inconsequential in the face of emotions, moods and relationships.  

Em and the Big Hoom- A story not just about depression, but about love – unconditional, unquestioning, immeasurable love.

The enduring problems of life are not political; they’re existential, they’re psychological and there are no answers to them, certainly no satisfying answers’. Woody Allen

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Timeless Tales

It seems that Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the author of Tik-Tik, the Master of Time, gave a free hand to his inner child while writing this book.

Tik-Tik, the hero of this story, is not happy on the planet Nopter, his home. He wants to become an adult really fast but on Nopter, the growth rate is really slow. It takes ages to become an adult and Tik-Tik doesn’t want to wait all that long.  ‘The adults of our species enjoyed all kinds of freedom on Nopter. They could eat what they fancied and leave what they disliked untouched. They could stay in or go out at will, and remain outdoors all they wished. All this, of course, was denied to us, the small ones of the species’*.

Tik-Tik is sure there is a solution to this problem and he is determined to make the discovery which shall help him, and other children on Nopter, to grow quickly. He’s assisted by his best friend, Nib-Nib, an intelligent girl who helps Tik-Tik in a number of ways on his crazy mission. Although Tik-Tik is very fond of Nib-Nib, he often ignores her suggestions. He is also not very fond of Nib-Nib’s cat, Dum-Dum, a feeling that is reciprocated by the feline creature. Don’t be fooled by the name because Dum-Dum is no dumb cat and as the story progresses, she has a few tricks up her sleeve (or paw?). The one adult person who is crazy enough to help Tik-Tik in his mission is Grandpa Kip-Kip who, too, tried to grow up faster once, but failed.

The illustrations by Michelle Farooqi bring the whole story to life and make the reading process fun and engaging. This book, in my opinion, establishes Farooqi as a master story-teller, for all age-groups. It might also herald a new beginning for children’s literature in English by local writers.

Tik-Tik and Nib-Nib transported me back to my childhood.  As a child, and especially during early teens, everyone just wants to grow older quickly. I, too, felt the same way as Tik-Tik although I didn’t go to the same lengths as he did! The one character I immediately warmed up to was Nib-Nib. I’ve grown up with two younger brothers and lots of male cousins and boys always think they’re so smart, just like Tik-Tik. And they just don’t seem to lose this habit even when they’re grown men!

Even though I’m not a cat person, I liked Dum-Dum. If cats be so cool, I might consider becoming friendlier towards them in the future (and try to prevent our German Shepard to run after them during evening walks!).

Tik-Tik, the Master of Time, is a sort of sci-fi book for kids with a great story and some very unforgettable characters. It is definitely a better read than books about dysfunctional families in the United Kingdom or USA. I mean, really, would you rather your child reads a book about a girl living in a council house, with her mother, siblings and her mother’s boyfriend?

We need to let out children develop their imagination and creativity by reading good fiction which includes fairy tales, classics, and lots of picture books. Albert Einstein said, ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales’.

I don’t know if Tik-Tik, the Master of Time will make your children more intelligent (though there is a bit of science lesson in it also!) but it will make them think, and laugh and wonder and maybe even get inspired to write their own story. They might color the illustrations or even name their pet Dum-Dum. But above all, they’ll read a story about friendship and adventure – something we all need in our lives no matter how old we are.  

* Excerpt from the book

Shades of Autumn

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I blog, therefore I am.

Three years on the blogosphere calls for some celebration so the blog gets a make-over. Yaaay! 

It’s always fun to walk down memory lane and today, I am raising a toast to all my doings on the beanbag.  Many things happened here. There were musings about teaching, a job I have temporarily called quits, of its joys and tribulations. In case you missed it, I was lucky to host a Literary New Year's Party right here and had many interesting authors as guests including Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf and even Ibsen.

One of the most interesting events on the beanbag was the 15/15/15 challenge which had me reading faster than a bullet train. There was talk about married life as Hubby dear and myself celebrated our first year of marriage (read here) and even, you won’t believe it, an alien invasion!

Although a discussion on aging is depressing, especially among the female gender, we can’t run away from the inevitable. Here are my thoughts on reaching the infamous big 0 which, honestly, comes in our life a little too quickly. Don’t you agree?

Go on a pictorial journey with me and explore a bit of Lahore. In case you haven’t found time to read it, see Hubby dear playing the cursed Oedipus Rex, in pictorial form, here.

Lastly, I leave you on the beanbag with my first impression of London and some recollections  of both Ibn-e-Insha and myself of London, here.

There are whispers of change, both on and off the beanbag, as I raise a toast of dark chocolate (since there is no Coke, zero or otherwise in the house) to three years of tales on the beanbag.

Care to join?

The new look of beanbagtales - a celebration of the old and the new. 
Photograph: Author

Friday, November 2, 2012

Addictions are Escape

I didn’t even realize I was trying to escape, since the past month, till this very moment. Every other day, depending on how fast I was, I was running away from reality into other worlds through the cheapest, most effective form of escape – reading.

It is a most successful method. You must try it. Of course, there are chances you might get hooked onto this readscape (a very lame attempt on my part to combine read & escape) and so, if you have even the slightest tendencies of forming addictions, read no further. If you choose to, welcome!

Reading, literally, shuts you out from your surroundings. You might be anywhere and yet you are only where the words are; on a cliff with Howard Roark, looking for Aunt Agatha’s dog in a hotel room with Bertie Wooster, stuck in a tree with Winnie the Pooh, in a space egg with Tik-Tik, or in India during the Mughal Era – you can be in any which place except at the airport, in the car, in a waiting room and even the loo (a prolonged mental absence is not really possible here but you get the point). You put your life on hold. Your worries, pains, defeats, failures, and even responsibilities drown in the sea of words.

I don’t just shut my surroundings; I get sucked into the story and adopt its surroundings.  Sometimes leaving is easy, I just jump into another book and befriend a new set of characters. Sometimes I have to crawl out and drag myself away. The worst is when I don’t want to let go and end up leaving a part of myself in the books I love. And whenever I want to re-live that part of me, I open the book again and get sucked right in.  Therefore, I avoid re-reads.

What is said about the power of the written word is true. Books have immense powers. If you have stifled a sob after reading a book or felt a knot tighten in your stomach while going over a paragraph or maybe put the book aside because you can’t take the suspense/terror/pain/joy anymore, you have a fair idea of their strength.

This is one of the things that makes reading dangerous and very, very addictive. And I am an addict.

But now, sadly, I need to take stock of my addiction. I need to learn to let go of the stories I read so that I can create my own. I have to make room for the characters I create, in my own words, and leave the others inside their stories, between the pages of their book, on the shelf. They’ll always be there but only when I open the book and allow them to help me escape. 

But..I need to finish my current dose. It's the last one. Promise. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Hungry Tide - a Review

‘A fascinating, moving novel of one man’s ambition against the forces of nature’.

This one-liner appears on the cover of the book but I beg to differ from it. This is not a story of one man or for that matter, any man (or woman). The protagonist of this book, I feel, is its setting, the Sunderban or “the beautiful forest”.  Yes, it is the story of Kanai and Piya, Fokir and Kussum, Nirmal and Nilima but their stories exist only because of the Sunderban or the ‘tide country’.

The Sunderban is 'a complex ecosystem comprising one of the three largest single tracts of mangrove forests of the world. Situated mostly in Bangladesh, a small portion of it lies in India'. (Source: Wikipedia). This natural wonder is explained in great detail by the author in the very beginning, "A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine-looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos. Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage often impassably dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles".

Where there are people, there are stories and in this bleak and somewhat scary landscape there is a story of refugees, massacre, women trafficking, and tiger attacks, folk-tales and superstitions. The principal characters of the novel are Piya, Kanai and Fokir. Piya is a young cetologist of Bengali heritage who has come from USA to conduct a survey on the marine mammals of the Sunderbans. While in search of the Irrawady dolphin she meets and befriends two completely opposite men, Kanai and Fokir.

Kanai, a translator by profession based in New Delhi, comes to Lusibari (a fictional village)on the request of his aunt Nilima. Nilima, or Mashima, runs the Badabon Trust in the village. She wants Kanai to look into the contents of a sealed packet which her late husband Nirmal, Kanai’s uncle, left him in his will. The sealed packet contains a diary which describes in detail, among other things, the incident of Morichjhapi or Marichjhanpi, which is mostly remembered today for the massacre of 1979. (For more details of the actual incident read here).

Fokir, on the other hand, is a local fisherman. Illiterate and simple, Fokir is one with the mangrove forests. Unlike Kanai and Piya who have come to the tide country to seek something, Fokir belongs to this land. Both Kanai and Piya are dependent on his knowledge for their survival and are connected to him, Piya more so as Fokir is her guide and it is he who rescues her, leads her to the dolphins and saves her life. "Love flows deep in rivers" and Piya does develop feelings for the uneducated fisherman who is both married and a father. Language does not act as a barrier but draws her  closer to him for she believed"..speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being".   

The author has divided the book into two parts; The Ebb and The Flood. The flow of the narrative follows these two words to the letter. The first part drags a bit in places where there is a lot of scientific details about the dolphins (some of the details are fascinating though). The pace of the book is faster in the second part where there is more action due to interaction among all the characters. 

Woven into the story are a lot of rich details of life in the mangrove forests. How the wildlife, especially the tiger, affects the lives of the people. This is a land where even the mere mention of a tiger is considered an ill omen. As the author said in an interview (read the entire interview here): The mangroves are so thick you can’t see the tigers but the tiger is always watching you’.

At the heart of this book is the search for identity. It is more obviously stated in case of the Morichjapi settlers who demand from the authorities at one point, “Who are we? We are the dispossessed”. Nirmal is also haunted by questions of identity which is obvious from the notes in his  diary, “Who was I? Where did I belong? In Calcutta or in the tide country? In India or across the border? In prose or in poetry?”  

The tide country affects both Kanai and Piya and at the end of the book both characters change considerably from the people on the train station in the opening chapters. The only person who remains unchanged is Fokir, a man who belonged to the Sunderbans; body, heart and soul. 

It is a moving and very well researched novel and its simple prose makes it a pleasing read. Reading about the mangroves inspired me to conduct a little search on the mangrove forests of the coastal areas of Sindh. WWF has a detailed research on the condition of our mangroves which is available on their website. It is sad how we are destroying (and have destroyed) this amazing ecosystem but in a country where not much value is put on the lives of humans, there is very little hope for both the mangroves and the wildlife which inhabits it.

Book Cover: Google Images
Note: Excerpts from the book are in italics.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Chérie formelle est-ce?

The other day I was told my blog was ‘too formal’.
‘Explain please’, I asked in a sort of nonchalant manner while my entire defence mechanism started working double-time.
‘It lacks masala and the style is too formal and it’s almost always about books’.
It is in moments like these when I unleash my thunderbolt wielding, Greek goddess alter ego.
‘If you want masala, watch television'. (or read Fifty Shades of Grey!) 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sights & Sounds of Karachi - Morning scene

The city of Karachi was, once upon a time, known as the city of lights. At present, it is the city of no-lights, and almost no-delights.

As the sun rises and its rays penetrate through the grey smoke which permanently hangs over the city, all Karachi’s faults are exposed. Ours is a plain city; blemished and tarnished by years of abuse and neglect. And at no time is this more prominent than in the mornings when the entire city, with its sins, is bathed in golden rays of sunshine.

The look of the streets in the morning varies according to your location in the city. In some residential areas the streets bear the same look every day. Sweepers, their dark complexions in complete contrast with their bright orange jackets, sweep (or pretend to) the dust from one corner of the street to another. The milkman (an almost extinct species in the more affluent parts of the city) and the newspaper boy make their daily rounds.  Birds chirp merrily in the trees, crows circle around some burnt garbage and there is the occasional barking of a stray dog. Nothing seems out of the ordinary on this rather typical bourgeois street.

Change your location to the opposite end of the city and the morning scene is a complete antithesis of the above. Sunlight might reveal a few bullet marks in your courtyard wall and maybe some bullets, too, thanks to the wedding in your neighbourhood the night before. There is no electricity because the transformer caught fire during the celebratory firing in the wee hours of the morning. The street outside your door is filled with remnants of the wedding; chicken bones, paper plates, tissue papers, golden tinsel and condoms. Stray dogs and cats are all over the place, gnawing at the bones and fighting with each other. Nothing seems out of the ordinary as long as you and your family are alive.  

In case your house is located on the same street as a school, regardless of your geographical location, you will be under house arrest till the school starts. Every nook of the road is covered with school vans playing loud Indian music, honking at pedestrians and other drivers to find a spot right in front of the gate. Unless the school is slightly upscale, you might find the road blocked a little longer as the van drivers take their breakfast in the nearby local tea- shop and compare notes about fares.

There are some streets in this city which are blocked to public thanks to embassies and politicians. There are other streets where the rich drive by homeless people; the former in their shiny cars while the latter are curled up in tattered blankets. Here, also, you will, occasionally, find body bags behind garbage dumps in the corner of the street.

Most streets in the city are broken or encroached. The latter are occupied by all sorts of people; vegetable vendors, card readers, quacks offering a cure for all diseases known to man, book sellers, stalls of social workers, masons, carpenters, beggars and even lawyers. The street is their office, their source of livelihood and in some cases, their entire world.
There are blood stained streets during Eid-ul-Adha, and betel stained streets throughout the year. Some streets have pavements while others are barely paved. Some house the rich and famous while others wound through shanty towns. Each street is different but the sun rises for all and its rays illuminate the world for all living creatures in the city, regardless of which side of the bridge their street is.

I wrote this piece for a competition by British Council to celebrate the birth centennial of Charles Dickens. Inspired from his work, Sketches by Boz, the piece was titled Streets by Morning. I am, and this is pretty ambitious thinking on my part considering my recent period of inactivity, planning to do some sketches of Karachi - of the people, the places & generally, mundane events. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Where I was...

Changing houses is a good exercise to take stock of life especially if you’re like me and have chronicled your life through possessions. Sifting through the stuff while moving house recently, I came across ‘relics of my past’; books, picture frames, letters, toys, diaries, broken crayons, scribbled pages, forgotten knick knacks. And that’s where I was these past two months, in other places, other times, pouring over the stories of my possessions. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Books and more...

I almost stole a book, once, from a library in Rawalpindi. It was a beautiful copy of Dombey and Son; I’ve never seen one like it again, with paper almost silk to the touch. I had kept a track of the book for months – it was never issued, except by me. It won’t be missed, I thought, and the theft will only come to surface when a yearly audit happens. Who knows where I’d be by that time? I held the book for a long time, justifying my action and finally walked out, without the book.

It was my first and last attempt. Do I regret it? Well, I have mixed feelings but if I speak in all honesty, I do. And please don’t start on the ‘others-will-read-it-too’ lecture because I’m sure it’s still at the bottom of the shelf, dust gathering on those silken pages. People hardly read Dickens (in this part of the world) and most of the ones who do usually read the more popular titles. A case in point is yours truly, who read Bleak House ten years after first reading Dickens only to realize that this was his best book.

The memory of the unsuccessful theft came a few days back when I was dusting my shelf and took out my, rather boring, copy of Dombey and Son. Of course when it comes to books, looks hardly matter. Yet over the years I have managed to accumulate numerous copies of the same book, owing to the cover, and at times, the cover alone. Mostly I am a sucker for first editions and sometimes, one finds these gems, lying under a pile of dusty books, in old book bazaars. It is hard to describe the rush of joy on finding such rare treasures. Open display of joyful feelings is best left for later if you desire a good (read: lowest) price. Among the many gems in my small library is a copy of The Brothers Karamazov (first edition by The John C. Winston Company, 1949) with an introduction by Somerset Maugham. I snatched this book from the hands of another customer with the pretext of having a look, turned around and bought it. I have no shame when it comes to books. Besides, I did him a favor.....(evil laugh). 

The power books wield is grossly underestimated. It’s not just an avenue of entertainment but a time portal which, at a turn of a page, can transport you from Mount Olympus to Mr. Wonka’s chocolate factory. But very few are willing to take the plunge from one world to another via the written word, opting instead for re-runs on television and/or throwing birds at strange contraptions. (Although I must admit, quite sheepishly, that I too, fall victim to the allure of killing green pigs).

But seriously, when was the last time you read a book? A book which made your heart race or one which had you rolling on the floor, hysterical with laughter? When was the last time you carried a book with you everywhere? And that one book, which you read slowly, because you didn’t want it to finish, ever? The book which inspired you to write or the one which made you suffer an inferiority complex? Maybe there was one which had you stay up late, because putting it down was physically painful?

Are books a part of your life?

[This post was  for World Book day, April 23rd, but the visit of an un-expected and unwanted guest delayed it]. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The brief hiatus in my writing was brought about, partially, by a visit from Miss Procrastination, an old acquaintance. Though she pretends to be a friend, nothing can be further from the truth. She does everything in her power to keep me away from my writing work and I must admit, succeeds at it too. Even though she loves to take all the credit, she owes her success to me for it is my own fear which prevents me from putting pen to paper. My own fear being fear of failure and it is, at the moment, the biggest demon in my life which I cleverly avoid by keeping the company of the accursed Miss Procrastination.

This fear is so great that whenever I sit down to write it is with this conclusion in mind that the finished product will be mediocre. Since my mind is made up the result, also, is never good. I have provided my fear with complete access to my mind, heart and soul and in doing so, killed my self-belief and replaced it with loathing. So that everything I write, I hate. This was especially true over the last month and in the search for an escape from this fear I came across this.

‘Until you know who you are you can’t write’ – Salman Rushdie

Questions started pouring into my mind. Who am I? As a person and as a writer? Are they two different beings or one? Am I an honest writer? Is there any other fear which has me in its grip? Should I write with the blue pen or the black one? Do I finish the incomplete projects even though the new ideas are more exciting? Will I ever be able to produce a good work of writing? Why am I afraid of going through the process of creation?

The last question was my Eureka moment. I am running away (sprinting it seems) from the actual physical pain of writing which involves isolating myself not just from the external environment but from my non-writer self (which tempts me to play Angry Birds Space). I am running away from re-writing and editing, from spending days on a single page or chapter, from finding the right words which will lend expression to my characters’ feelings, from abandoning an attempt at a story even though it has an awesome title, from sleepless nights and feverish anxiety…and above all from discovering the truth -do I have what it takes?

There was no relief in this discovery – only a sense of shame and guilt, followed by anger.

This mixed plate of feelings helped me overcome my fear and I have banished the demon from my writing kingdom. With the demon gone, Miss Procrastination, too, has become redundant. She packed her bags and left a few days back to inhabit, I’m guessing, the dwellings of some other artist.

It’s very quiet around here now and although no writing revolution has come into my life yet, I have managed to put pen to paper.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

And Then There Was Lawn

It is that time of the year.

The time when outdoor signage companies, lace sellers, tailors and dyers make a lot of money.

Yes, it is that time of the year.

The time when women all over the country go into frenzy over lawn suits which, at the end of the day, is mere cloth. Nothing is more important than the acquisition of this mere cloth and  mind you, buying it is no ordinary matter. It requires courage (to make way through throngs of women), physical strength (for pushing others), good voice projection (to make yourself heard at the counter), and consistency (to display the same physical and mental prowess in each exhibition).

Step outside your house and your eyes will feast on (besides the usual trash in Karachi) beauties on all shapes, sizes and manner of billboards. Each beauty, local and foreign, is trying to exude charm, style, sensuality, originality and a solution to all life’s problems. Their awkward and some very suggestive poses have made lawn suits the equivalent of Victoria’s Secret. The prints, too, are mind boggling. A lot of them can be used for camouflage, especially against bathroom tiles. Others can merge effortlessly with minibuses. Some remind me of Lollywood films; a bit of everything and still not worth it.

The prices of these suits is another story altogether. This item of everyday wear is priced exorbitantly, prices range from Rs. 2k to Rs.5k, and yet there is no dearth of buyers. Is this need fulfilment or are these exhibitions fuelling the monster of materialism? Women want more variety, more brands, and more clothes in their wardrobe.  Inability to buy or wear a particular designer print earlier than others leaves them bereft. If an alien species landed on this part of the planet to study human behaviour, they won’t have much to write about the majority of women in Pakistan. Show me a woman who doesn’t love clothes – I, too, love adding to my wardrobe but there must be a balance between need and desire. Over the past few years this balance is tipping, at an alarming rate might I add, which speaks volumes about the nature of our society.

But my grievance doesn’t end here. This influx of designer lawn is also the death of creativity. They have assumed the role of Big Brother (and here I’m referring to Orwell’s 1984) and dictate the details of the dress to the last stitch. With the shirts come inadequate yards of ugly lace or satin strips. Unlike the West, where one can buy separate pieces of an outfit in a catalogue, here the whole three piece suit is a mandatory buy. The nightmare actually begins once the outfit is bought, stitched and ready to wear. Women live in perpetual fear of spotting a clone once they step out of the house in their so called ‘exclusive’ lawn outfit. Oh, the irony of it all!

There is no doubt that lawn is a must for surviving the searing, sweaty heat of the summer months.  And as more and more designers and textile mill owners step into the game each year, this lawn phenomenon is only going to get bigger, wilder, and crazier. Expect lawn prints based on television dramas (I can’t believe nobody has come out with a Humsafar theme yet!), truck art, city themes, Mughal art and wild animals. And if anybody decides to do that, I’d like some lawn designs inspired from literature, both English and Urdu please. A lawn print inspired by Tilsm Hoshruba – now that will be worth every penny!

P.S: Don’t stifle your individuality by following the herd even if it is that time of the year. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oscar for Pakistan. What now?

Ms. Chinoy's Oscar win is a cause for great jubilation. She has shown the world that there is more to Pakistan than drone attacks, terrorists and corruption. This award, unfortunately,will not solve any of our problems but it has, temporarily, given us hope that all is not lost. 

Will this win, which is a source of inspiration for us all, bring any positive change in our country, in us?  Will there be any funds made available for film makers who don't have the monetary means but possess the talent? The Prime Minister has announced the highest civil award for Ms. Chinoy, but what of the victims? Above all, what of the law which lets the men go around free while the women suffer forever more?  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday Mr. Dickens!

The first Dickens’ book I read, at age nine, was an abridged version of Oliver Twist. Oliver’s tragic story was probably my first exposure to tragedy in literature. I cried tears of joy when everything fell into place for little Oliver and all was well in the end. All was not well for my younger brother though; whenever he complained about food I put forth the example of the poor orphan boy who was denied a second helping of an excuse-for-a-soup. My brother never read Oliver Twist.

Reading David Copperfield was easier and a little less emotional although I remember being immensely saddened by his wife Dora’s death. I still remember the illustration of David carrying his feeble wife up the staircase, she being too weak to climb. I was mortified by her death, blamed Agnus for it and didn’t re-read the book till much later.

But it was Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham who fascinated me the most and made me a Dickens’ fan. Estella’s beauty and her mannerisms affected my young mind and I tried to be like her (maybe still am). Both Miss Havisham and Estella were unlike women I had read of in literature (which at nine years old was limited to Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew) or knew of in real life, minus a few exceptions of course. Unlike Oliver and David, I wasn’t rooting for Pip and this feeling for him hasn’t changed still.

Even though Bleak House is the one Dickens’ novel I like best, it was Dombey and Son which almost made me a thief. It was lying on the bottom shelf of a library in Pindi when I first discovered and issued it. A hard cover, un-abridged version with the original illustrations on the most silky smooth paper; it was love at first sight. I read it five times just to check if anyone else besides me got it issued. Oh, if only I had hidden that book under my shawl on that cold December morning! I know, deep down, that if I pay a visit to that library even now, I shall find the book issued only five times. Okay, that sounds a bit filmi but yes, if I go there now, I’ll definitely steal it. Theft detectors and conscious can go to hell!

I plan to re-read all his books this year and maybe, just maybe, I might discover the secret which makes his writing relevant to readers around the globe even now, 200 years on. 

Coming soon: Dickens' on the beanbag

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Albert Camus - The Outsider

 ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure’.

This is the sort of opening line which is discussed, torn apart and chewed at in creative writing workshops. And it is just the beginning of this bizarre novel.

The Outsider, also known by the title – The Stranger, is an unusual piece of work. And Meursault, the protagonist, is a very unusual sort of man. You’ll either dismiss him as a jackass or become his huge fan, strictly depending on your age. To me he came across as a callous young man who is completely indifferent to everything in his life be it love, sex, death, murder, or injustice.

I was appalled at his casual attitude towards his mother’s death. How can a man be cold and indifferent at his own mother’s burial? He’s either naive or brutally honest and as the book progressed I realized he was a bit of both. As other characters entered the story in quick succession it became obvious that this lack of interest is directed towards everyone and everything. At certain points, especially with regard to his job, he comes across as a rebel; a man not bound to any relationship, personal or professional. Had I been younger and a boy, I might just have idolized him.

There’s his girlfriend, Marie, who he actually starts dating the very next day of his mother’s funeral. A heartless bastard and that, too, both towards the dead and the living. ‘Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn't mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing - but I supposed I didn’t.’

At work, Meursault turned down a chance to leave Algiers and work in Paris. ‘I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other. He then asked if a ‘change of life’, as he called it didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed one’s real life; anyhow, one life was as good as another and my present one suited me quite well.’ So much for ambition!

I found hints of another rebel, Darashikoh Shezad (Moth Smoke), in Meursault. Both of them reach the same end but in different ways.

Another character is the pimp Raymond, his neighbour, with whom he strikes an unusual friendship. Meursault might be crazy but he’s not a crook and a liar, while Raymond reeks of crime. When Raymond asks Meursault to help him punish his two timing mistress, he agrees, ‘I wanted to satisfy Raymond, as I’d no reason not to satisfy him.’

Reading this book made me realize how we tend to ignore the consequences of our actions. No matter what we do or say, with whatever intention, it can be used against us anywhere and not necessarily in a court of law. The main theme of the novel is conformity. Meursault refused to conform to the norms of the society; he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, he didn’t want a promotion, he didn’t regret his crime. He was an outlaw. Society feels threatened by a person who doesn’t follow their established rules and standards. And such a person is either banished, or executed.

Death, execution, and religion are the dominating themes as Meursault comes to term with the consequences of his action. He is an outsider at his mother’s funeral, at his trial and remains one till the end. 

‘It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.’ 

This has to be the most absurd book I've ever read. Ever. 

Image: Google

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brand Talk: I am not a Gorilla

Anger is an emotion which we’re all familiar with regardless of age, height, weight, social status, race, creed, sect and gender, especially gender. And even though men are the ones who display their anger in the form of fist fights at the first opportunity they get, it’s the fairer sex who’s the ugly gorilla in the ad of the sickly sweet, excuse for a chocolate, Cadbury’s Perk (ad at bottom).

I am not a gorilla. I am a woman. Yes, I get angry, especially when I’m hungry but THAT does not make me a chest pounding, hairy creature with huge nostrils. A fire spitting dragon maybe but definitely not a gorilla!

Here are the problems I have with this ad. Firstly, there is the setting. The typical rishta aunty, the larki walay (parents of the girl) and the prospective in-laws. The former two are  singing praises of the girl in a manner similar to professional salespersons selling a new product to a difficult/moody customer while the latter are impatient to see the 'product' itself so that they can make their own judgment. When will we rid ourselves of drawing rooms where girls walk in holding neatly arranged cups of tea on a tray?

Stop portraying women in stereotypical roles! If you want to show an angry woman, why not show her in the role of the boss, screaming at her team?  What? It hurts your male ego? Admit it. You don’t have the balls to show women in a power position. And please don’t give me the bull about target market because a). Girls don’t eat Perk because it is sweet and full of calories (and tasteless) and increases their weight and b). Children usually eat it and they’re probably going to be more interested in an ad which they can relate to (they’re not stupid) -  not one with a girl their elder sister’s age. Sibling rivalry, you know.

My second problem is with the gorilla. I know Cadbury’s Dairy Milk has this one great ad in which a gorilla plays drums while listening to Phil Collins but this gorilla thing can’t work for you in all your campaigns, can it? Girls, usually, are sugar and spice and all things nice. Maybe you wanted to show how a simple, nice, obedient girl can turn into a monster when she’s hungry. Okay, but why a gorilla? Why not a tigress? And please don’t give me a Charles Darwin Theory here about selecting an animal which is closest to humans because I’m not going to buy it.

Tigers are sexy.

My third problem is with the premise that girl turns into monster when hungry. So are you implying that, when angry, men grow wings and halos appear over their heads? I’ll like to see such men because most of them, in our country, look like gorillas anyways, anger or no anger.

Besides, why would any girl, and especially one with such a temper, marry a wimp? And trust me, any guy who sits between his parents on the sofa is a wimp with a capital W!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Cat of Colette

I’m not very fond of cats and the title of this book, which has a slightly sinister feel to it, filled me with foreboding. This cat, I thought as I settled down to read, is going to create trouble.

The Cat revolves around three characters; Alain, his Chartreux Saha and Camille, his fiancée. They are stuck in a sort of love triangle as the females, cat and woman, vie for Alain’s unconditional love.

In Saha, Colette has created a very strong character. She is an intelligent creature who has very distinct likes and dislikes. Her features, especially her yellow eyes, are extremely expressive, ‘those deep set eyes were proud and suspicious, completely masters of themselves’. She knows her mind and more importantly, she knows her master’s mind. Being extremely close to Alain, she dislikes Camille who reciprocates the feeling and considers the cat her rival, especially after their marriage.

‘Oh! The alterations! Don’t tell me you’re interested in those alterations! Admit’ – she folded her arms like a tragic actress – ‘admit that you’re going to see my rival!’

‘Saha’s not your rival,’ said Alain simply. ‘How can she be your rival,’ he went on to himself. ‘You can only have rivals in what’s impure’.

Alain, being an only child, is spoiled and pampered by his mother and the elderly servants.   He cherishes his solitude to an extent where the thought of sharing his childhood home with Camille is sacrilegious. His obsession with his garden, his bedroom and his cat borders on madness; he thinks more about the cat’s feelings than his wife.

The relationship between husband and wife is almost non-existent. ‘It was towards the end of June that incompatibility became established between them like a new season of the year’. Except for their love making there is, otherwise, a void between them. He is scared and a little disgusted with his wife’s amorous advances and sexual needs. Even though he admires her boldness and her beauty, he finds his cat a more attractive partner.

By the end of the story, it is not just the cat you hate, but Alain too. Attached to his mama’s strings, he refuses to grow up and accept his responsibilities as a married man. Saha, like the garden and house, is an embodiment of his childhood. And since Camille was not a part of it then, she is not welcome now.

Colette is best known for her novel Gigi (currently on my reading list) but The Cat is an enjoyable read also. The details of the cat; her thoughts, her expressions, her movements, her reactions were almost a revelation to a non-cat person like me.

Colette, too, owned a Chartreux called “La Chatte” (she-cat). 

"The cat is the animal to whom the Creator gave the biggest eye, the softest fur, the most supremely delicate nostrils, a mobile ear, an unrivalled paw and a curved claw borrowed from the rose tree." (Colette)

Photograph: Google Images

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Memory of Ibn-e-Insha

Dear Insha jee,

Today marks your 34th death anniversary. There was almost no mention of you in the morning news on any television channel. It is heartbreaking but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that PTV is no longer supreme. In fact, it is on the list of endangered species as far as television channels are concerned. We have, now, many private channels spewing news, views and abuse all day long. Since you will not add to either their viewership or ratings, thus you are ignored while a filmi award show and half clad Brazilian models feature in headline news.

Don’t let the above mislead you. Pakistan has not changed much in the last 34 years. It has in some ways, but not for the better. We are still entangled in an identity crisis on provincial, sectarian and religious grounds; a pastime that, at all levels, keeps the entire nation busy. Individual welfare precedes national interest. Besides praying for roti (bread), kapra (cloth) and makan (house), we’ve added electricity, gas, sugar and water to the list also. Religious tolerance is at its worst.  The national flag, though, retains the white colour for minorities but it seems that’s all we have for them now.

Your residence in North Nazimabad is a short walk from a friend’s place. When in London I saw a house, in Notting hill, with a plaque, ‘George Orwell lived here’. Nothing of that sort is done in our country, except in graveyards. The only other plaques installed around the length and breadth of the city are in commemoration of new roads and bridges and have names of dead, ousted or exiled politicians and dictators. A country which does not celebrate its writers, artists, thinkers and philosophers lacks a soul. Did we ever have one, I wonder, in the first place?

But all is not lost Insha jee, Imran Khan is going to become prime minister and fix all our problems. What did you say? How can a sports man become a politician?

Anything is possible now Insha jee. But not all that is possible is good.

P.S: Aap achay waqt main kooch kar gaye...