Friday, December 21, 2012

Legends -- Personal and Traditional

Legend has it that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was so impressed with an aerobics display by school students in Korea that he came back and ordered it to be replicated in Pakistan. This show was successfully staged in Islamabad on 14th August, 1976 which motivated Bhutto to ask Punjab’s Education Secretary to hold a similar affair in the provincial capital. The whopping estimate of 3 crore for the Lahore event, to be staged on 23rd March, 1977 involving 20,000 school children put the Punjab Education Ministry in a unique quandary since it did not have the legal right to spend more than a crore on an event of this nature. The Secretary’s consternation trickled down to his staff, one of whom –Dr. Kibriya, Chairman Punjab Text Book Board – assured him that 3 crores was an exorbitant amount and entrusted with the task he could do it within 50 lakhs. The Secretary looked skeptical and the subject was dropped. A few weeks later, however, he handed the Chairman a cheque of Rs. 1 crore from the Chief Minister’s Office along with a letter making him in-charge of the event. Dr. Kibriya reiterated his pledge of working within 50 lakhs upon which the Secretary transferred 59 lakhs of the total amount to the Chairman’s personal account. The show was staged impeccably on Pakistan Day as promised at a total cost of 34 lakhs. The burden of a surplus 25 lakhs of taxpayers’ money in his account weighed heavily on my taaya, Dr. Kibriya’s conscience. He wrote a letter to the Secretariat requesting them to return this money to the national exchequer but his letter was taken as a joke and dismissed. Soon the Education Secretary got transferred and a new one took his place. Dr. Kibriya kept sending reminders to every subsequent Secretary till such time as he retired from his post with the amount still lying in his National Bank account at the Secretariat. Finally one Secretary who knew him personally paid heed to his queries and relieved him by taking the money off his hands.

These and other such legends were told with great relish on occasions my father’s family got together. My father and uncles— the first daastaan-go I heard growing up—delighted in the stories they weaved of their lives, planting themselves unabashedly in the center as swashbuckling slayers of authority, deadly-honest romantic ideologues and achievers against all odds, who prided themselves not on their proximity with the rich and powerful but in taking them on. These central narratives collided with my father’s own fight as a young man against his eldest brother’s disdain for the humanities as a suitable career for a boy born in poverty, complicating the overarching central daastaan of my family, immediate and extended.

A wish to rediscover these oral narratives (having passed from my life since my taaya’s death and due to a lifestyle revolving increasingly around the keyboard) took me to the aptly titled ‘Daastaan Goi—The Lost Art of Urdu Storytelling’ on two consecutive days last weekend. Following closely on the heels of Naseeruddin Shah’s packed ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’, the country’s ‘cultural capital’ seemed to be suffering from theatre-goers’ fatigue, or maybe bragging rights of attendance at the Rahat Fateh Ali concert at Lahore Gymkhana trumped these relative unknowns from Delhi. Whatever the case may be I walked into a half-full Hall II presenting a stark contrast to the capacity crowds Shah and co had attracted at double the ticket price just a week ago. Interestingly, Daastaan Goi’s ethos turned out to be quite similar to Shah’s Motley Theatre group – same sparse set, similar focus on theatrics of the spoken word and a comparable fervour for bringing Urdu’s dying heritage to a larger audience.

The invitation cards stated that daastaan-gos Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain would present Daastaan-e-Ameer Hamza and Daastaan-e-Chouboli that evening. The debonair Mahmood Farooqi walked on to the stage in regular attire beforehand, however, to clarify that they would only recite the Rajasthani Daastaan-e-Chouboli that evening, a tale that he promised would fill us with nostalgia for the land it had sprung from. Before going offstage to change into his performing gear Farooqui instructed the audience on the adaab of the mehfil—the audience were to express appreciation only with waah waahs. Clapping would be considered the equivalent of tomato throwing in certain other traditions. This marked out the evening as magical and distinctly Eastern even before it started.  A short while later, now dressed in white kurta pyjama with a traditional white cap and a similarly attired Daanish Husain by his side, Mahmood Farooqui unfurled Daastaan-e-Chouboli.

Instead of evoking any special feel for Rajasthan the daastaan seemed to be set in an Eastern Neverland of cheerful polygamy that could be situated anywhere from Baghdad to Delhi to the fervent sexual fantasies of male story tellers who must have helped hone this daastaan over the ages. Despite this, Thakur, the male figure who sets the tale in motion becomes progressively marginal as the story moves forward, almost ending up as the fool, while increasingly the women surrounding him arouse sympathy, awe and romantic desire. In the grand tradition of heroines who escape the limitations of their fate through male disguise, the female protagonist of Daastaan-e-Chouboli dresses up as a fresh, appealing young man who endeavours to make the stubborn but beautiful princess Chouboli speak four times in one night to win her hand in marriage. Twenty four virile young men have tried before her but none has had the wherewithal to crack Chouboli’s cool emotional exterior with the weapon of storytelling. Enter our protagonist, combining Rosalind’s heart and Scheherzade’s wit to reaffirm within the daastaan the importance of being able to tell a gripping daastaan. She narrates such fascinating tales with endings so contentious that Chouboli cannot help but speak up to set the narrative straight.

This emphasis on stories as the most effective weapon in the armory of the romancer reminded me of a paragraph from Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire. I came back home and looked it up to find that it reflected exactly the spirit of both Daastaan-e-Chouboli and the art of Daastaan-Goi:

“Passionate love has nothing to do with any obvious attributes of the lover – class, intellect, looks, character. It has everything to do with the stories the lover can tell. When the stories are stirring, complex, profound – like great fiction they need never be crudely true – then so is the love.
The stories lovers tell each other are tales about themselves, their past, their future, their uniqueness, their inevitability, their invincibility. Stories about their dreams, fantasies, the nooks and crannies of their fears and perversions. Those who can tell their stories with power create powerful love. Those who can’t never know the emotion.”

In this both Farooqui and Hussain succeeded marvelously. The waah waahs in the hall flowed freely at each bit of verbal trickery, every plot twist; egged on, I suspected, not just by the beauty of the story and its masterful rendition but with a certain self-aware delight at giving daad in a manner so archaic, so sophisticatedly unpunjabi; the spectators tickled by their own role-play as audiences from a different time and space.


Tales that my father and uncles told never touched on love and romance, topics too debauched to be dwelt on in front of children. The details of their youthful exuberance emerged only amongst whispers and nudges from the more gossip-oriented retellings of the female members of the family. No grand personal narratives were ever heard from the mouths of the women, cementing the daastaan in my mind as strictly a male affair. Daastaan-e-Chouboli’s greatest personal gift to me was to turn that framework on its head.


The next evening at The Avari was a very different affair, not just because the daastaan narrated that day was a modern-day one but also because the expensive charity event catered to a crowd different in its eliteness from the one at Alhamra, the financial elite as opposed to merely an intellectual one. The irony of attending Mantoiyat (a collation of Manto’s life from different sources) within the luxurious entrails of a five-star hotel seemed lost on most of its fashionable attendees. The need to relate to the artist’s personal life, however, has never been a pre-requisite for enjoying great works of art, thus most who attended seemed to enjoy this break from whatever they otherwise do at such dos. Manto’s three daughters were also in the audience for this recital, clearly something the daastaan-gos themselves considered an honour.
Mantoiyat, literally and figuratively, did not have the magic of Chouboli. A friend was disappointed in it as merely an oral retelling of all he had already read in print, but for people like me, (who, I imagine were in the majority) familiar only with Manto’s major works and some sketchy details of his life, Mantoiyat was a literary treat. It placed the legend within his context, casting astonishing light on his life’s achievements amidst formidable difficulty. For me personally, Mantoiyat’s greatest strength lay in bringing to life a supporting cast of literary satellites who often get overshadowed by the giant fame of Manto and Chughtai.

For those with intellectual pretensions Manto and Faiz are Pakistan’s Che Guevaras, icons whose mere names symbolize rebellion and romance. Their fame in Pakistan rests on precisely the opposite reasons to officially patronized authors like Iqbal. While conservatives pick and choose from Allama’s poetry to perpetuate his holier-than-thou image, Manto is romanticized by liberals as the perpetually colourful sympathizer of prostitutes, fighter of obscenity trials, despiser of boundaries and speaker of truth to power. In these distilled portrayals the three-dimensional man is often dismissed as an inconvenience, never allowed to be less than larger than life. The daastaan technique, however, allowed Mahmood Farooqui and Daanish Hussain the freedom to dwell on the domestic Manto, with his concerns for his wife and daughters and his in-depth pregnancy advice to Ismat Chughtai, delightful little details literary criticism and political ideology have little room and taste for.
The daastaan was concluded by Majeed Amjad’s poem on Manto, the man whose verses my father never manages to recite without being overwhelmed with emotion, who is inextricably associated in my mind with my father’s lifelong efforts to bring him to the limelight. I’ll leave you with this poem in Sarmad Sehbai’s English translation:

 Tossing the empty bottle he shouts,                                                          
‘Oh world! Your beauty is your ugliness.’                                                  
The world stares back at him                                                                  
Their bloodshot eyes rattle with the question                                          
‘Who nabs the pillar of time                                                                        
By the noose of his drunken breath?                                                      
Who dares to break into dim corridors                                                        
Of twisted conscience?                                                                            
Who intrudes upon poisonous dens                                                            
Of demonised souls?                                                                        
Through icy glasses his rude glance                                                                    
Chases us like a footfall                                                                            
Foul monster!’                                                                                        
Bang! Bang! 

A version of this was published here in The Friday Times

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ismat Apa ke Naam

Naseeruddin Shah received a standing ovation from the capacity Lahore crowd at The Alhamra Art Centre on Saturday. This was before he started performing. Those pouring into Alhamra’s Hall No. 2 since 5 pm to watch the ‘Naseeruddin Shah plays’  knew little more than that they were dramatizations of the great Urdu writer Ismat ChughtaI’s short stories and that Naseeruddin Shah was performing in them. The latter was enough for most.

A documentary on Faiz Ghar began the evening exactly at 6, as stated on the invitation card, after which the Bollywood star strode on to the Alhamra stage to great applause, cutting a charismatic figure. White-haired and elegant, Shah’s crisp Urdu diction (peppered with only an occasional smattering of Hindi) distinguished itself immediately in a country officially the flag-bearer of Urdu in the sub-continent but with an urban population increasingly indifferent to the language. Heeba Shah, the first of the performers walked on to the stage, coffee mug in hand to begin narrating ‘Chhui Mui’, the tale of an upper middle class shareefzaadi ‘s protected upbringing that renders her nature so delicate she is incapable of taking her pregnancies to full term and providing her in-laws with a much-desired heir. Bhabhijaan, as she is called by the young but precocious narrator, is juxtaposed with a wretched harlot who gives birth to her child in a train compartment with an ease and unabashed pride that horrifies the shareef khaandaan looking on. Bhabhijaan is so affected by the spectacle that she miscarries once again. The performance and the writing blended so seamlessly it was difficult to say you hadn’t just witnessed a play with an ensemble cast instead of a short story recited by a single person. This sense of the stage peopled with a variety of characters and not just a single narrator only grew with subsequent performances.

Ratna Pathak’s narration of Gori Bi and Kaley Mian turned out to be a virtuoso performance, restrained and mellow. Pathak allowed Chughtai’s words to take centre stage, letting them weave a web of their own without permitting imposed theatrical compulsions to interfere with the narrative flow. The injured pride of a dark man married to a fair woman finds release in a refusal to consummate the marriage unless the bride lifts her marital veil herself, an unheard-of travesty in the strictly mannered mughal setting of the story. Chughtai’s sharp pen reveals the psychological wounds society inflicts not just upon women but also men who do not fit into prescribed norms of beauty, and the fallout of such societal attitudes on individual lives.

In the last and longest performance of the evening, Nasseruddin Shah starred as a lonely, middle-aged nawaab fighting hopelessly against the charms of Laajo, a generous and promiscuous young woman who comes to work at his house. Shah took the crowd along on a raucous jaunt of irreverence and lasciviousness with obvious personal delight in the portrayal of the nawab’s sexual yearnings, kept from degenerating into bawdiness by Chughtai’s refined, literary Urdu. Marriage sounds the death knell to romance in this story; the nawaab and Laajo’s state of romantic Eden destroyed by the shackles of an institution for which Laajo is singularly unsuited. Once the unhappy interlude of marriage is gotten over with, however, and the nawaab divorces Laajo, they return to their happy state of coupledom without many qualms.

The largely upper-middle class, English-educated audience that shows up for such events reveled for two evenings in the dexterity of the Urdu language. I felt a pride I rarely feel these days about anything indigenous. For two days The Faiz Foundation made Lahore feel pre-9/11, pre-Sri Lankan cricket team attack, pre-Rafi Peer Theatre Festival closure, and within the confines of the theatre, perhaps even pre-1947. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Writing Harry

Straight from Pakistan's 7-0 drubbing by Australia at the Olympic Park, still wearing my green Pakistan cricket team t-shirt, I took the tube to King's Cross St. Pancras to catch The British Library's 'Writing Britain' exhibition. I didn't think wearing a particular team's t-shirt right in the thick of Olympic season would be considered any kind of curiosity. But it was. For the first and only time in London I got a lot of pointed glances on the street, mostly amused. I suppose with the racist slur 'Paki' in England, a Pakistan tee becomes an automatic statement, intended or not.

There isn't an English writer I can think of who wasn't represented at the 'Writing Britain' exhibition, except P.G Wodehouse, and that is a notable omission. I took many pictures of the rivetting things on display but was made to delete them all by a rather rude security guard, who I was predisposed to view as racist considering the aforementioned Pakistan t-shirt. So, I have no pictures to share of John Lennon's scribbles or Jane Austen's neat but illegible handwriting.

However, there is this picture of a small portion of the 6th chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that The British Library made available on its site:

I love the way Rowling has doodled those inverted hearts around the margins in that squiggly, childlike fashion. It is a glum realization that these insights into writers' personalities will no longer be available in the age of the word processor. For me the most fascinating aspect of this particular manuscript was the bits Rowling had crossed out. What made her do so? Also, Hedwig was called Widicombe at this time!
I noted down one chunk of text that Rowling had crossed out, since I found the hows and whys of it so fascinating. Here it is:
"He fixed a piece of paper on the wall with the days left before September the 1st marked on it and he ticked them off every night. On the 31st of August he thought he'd better speak to his uncle about getting to King's Cross next day, so he went down to the living room where the Dursleys were watching a quiz show on television."

The difference between the first and final draft of the first page of Hanif Kureshi's The Budha of Suburbia was a soothing sight for any aspiring writer. The first was horribly amateurish, the final one polished and captivating.

There was so much to see that despite spending nearly 3 hours inside I couldn't really process everything properly, at least not without the aid of pictures to remember it all by, or visiting often to really interact with all it offered. But it was a temporary exhibit so even if I were a permanent London resident I would not have been able to access all of it whenever I pleased. And this all was apparently just a fraction of The British Library's treasures. I have no clue why they keep it all hidden away most times and what the point of this whole proprietorial attitude is.

In any case, just to chronicle it for myself:

  • First edition of Five on Kirrin Island Again by Enid Blyton.
  • A draft of William Blake's 'Tiger' written in his personal journal that originally belonged to his late brother.
  • Manuscript of Persuasion opened to a description of Bath, a passage I clearly recalled from my reading of the novel (so particularly thrilling).
  • Philip Larkin's handwriting. I have written in the notes in my diary that I'm uncomfortable with the notion of author as rockstar. And so I am, but this exhibit turned something that could have been an exercise in mere celebrity-worship to a lesson in history, since it chronicled England's changing landscapes through the writing it showcased.
  • Manuscript of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle's handwriting (though not a Sherlock manuscript.
  • Virginia Woolf's neat handwriting from a chapter of  'To the Lighthouse'.
  • The manuscript of Thomas Hardy's Tess, a text I read in my MA and I kind of love/hate.
  • The strange, strange manuscript of James Joyce's 'Uleysses', all crossed out in red and blue crayon through which the words were still legible. 
  • Manuscript of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss turned to the last boat scene. The scene where the author kills Maggie off and reveals her inability to deal with the larger than life female character she had created.
  • There was also something by Dickens that I wasn't able to look at clearly since the menacing bodyguards had called out time.
  • An unbelievably meticulous manuscript of Alice in Wonderland with elaborate cartoony drawings by Lewis Carroll. 

I loved this little line I read at the exhibit. It made me think of all the marginalized:
Berger notes how 'poor and therefore uneasy districts...are pushed in the imagination of those who are prospering, further away than they really are', and thinks 'today's Islington is far closer than it used to be'.
(Islington being a London neighbourhood considered a dump at one time, but now a hip and happening place.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Lighter Side of London

England exerts a hold over the imagination of many a youth as the mythical land of tea and scones, where children frolic in and out of enchanted woods, men in funny costumes march on stage sprouting unintelligible English, criminals run amok in lamp-lit streets ready to be nabbed by the most famous detective in the world, and polite gentlemen in coats and ties applaud crisp cover drives on the lush green fields of Lord’s.

With so many stimuli to pique one’s fancy, who with the capacity to recognise the English alphabet (and some with even less) can resist the thought of visiting the land of our ex-colonial masters?

I am no exception to this desire. A desire thwarted not too long ago by the British embassy’s childish refusal to recognise my brown memness (the female equivalent of the brown sahib in case you didn’t know) and refusing me a visa. This year, though, in due recognition of my services as guardian of English language and literature in an Allah-forsaken commonwealth state, the British Embassy, nudged along by the British Council, sent me back a duly stamped passport in time to avail my scholarship for a short course at the King’s College, London.

And thus I ended up there for six weeks this summer.

The British Summer
The first, most pressing and inescapable fact, about London is its weather, which is more unpredictable than Prince Harry. No wonder the British seem obsessed with it. Many outdoor events announce themselves with the caveat, “subject to weather.” My first three weeks there were marked by persistent rainfall, not the kind that in Lahore prompts children to splash in puddles and dance and sing in the streets, but a slow, constant presence that permanently weaves itself into the fabric of everyday life.

In London, necessity, not fashion dictates the carrying of a large bag at all times, with umbrella, sun cream, cardigan, sunglasses and other such seemingly disparate accoutrements to brave the notorious four-seasons-in-one-day weather of the city. I watched ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ production at Regent’s Park Theatre in cold conditions under an intermittently pouring sky, but the rain wasn’t considered heavy enough to cancel the show. The dauntless actors went on prancing and lying flat on the wet stage in their skimpy garments, spewing mouthfuls of Early Modern English without missing a beat. I came to realise that they brave the rain the same way we deal with long summers filled with loadshedding, after a while no matter what the conditions, you just have to get on with it.

One of the things you want to do most when you are in the land of The Beatles and the bard is to soak up the culture. West-End musicals cost an arm and a leg but not one to be daunted by difficulties, I decided to attend at least one for the experience. I bought my tickets online for 30 pounds, a steep amount for one who earns in Pak rupees, but managed to soothe myself with thoughts of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Well, it did turn out to be one.

Image taken off the net by some lucky people close to the stage
I found myself gasping for oxygen on the top tiers of a theatre as high as a football stadium with one pound worth of rental binoculars next to every seat. Along with the distance from the stage the dividing bar in front of me assured that I had to crane my neck to catch the little dots on the stage singing and dancing with what I am sure must have been great gusto. Thankfully, the acoustics of the hall did not discriminate against the poverty stricken. The toe tapping numbers of Franki Valli and The Four Seasons and the lively electronic backdrops made for an enjoyable experience overall.

Shakespeare's Globe before the start of a performance
I had slightly better luck at Shakespeare’s Globe where you can buy ‘groundling’ tickets for five pounds apiece at the added physical cost of standing for the whole length of the performance. But at least it means that you are right in the middle of the action. Due to no fault of the impeccable Richard III production, I felt I needed to rest my tired feet after the first hour of non-stop standing. I hadn’t even managed to make myself fully comfortable before an elderly woman, who bore too strong a resemblance to my convent school teacher, came rushing out of the stands to haul me back to my feet.

Apparently modern groundlings aren’t allowed to rest their legs in pursuit of Shakespearean entertainment. Rather unfair when you compare it with the privileges their 16th century counterparts enjoyed who were at liberty to hurl shoes and tomatoes at the stage if the bard failed to live up to their expectations.

When one thinks of London, its architectural wonders always figure alongside, and celebrated marvels like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and The Tower Bridge are worth every bit of their global hype. Only problem is you have to squint very very hard to blur the ugly backdrop of utilitarian tower blocks from the 1960s and 1970s against which these architectural icons stand today. Atop these unsightly office blocks reside cranes permanently frozen at grizzly angles, suggesting that post World War II Britain’s aesthetics also plummeted with its fortunes.

This hodgepodge of architecture makes for an incongruous city with flourishes of ornate beauty amid clusters of Soviet-style functionality. The 21st century architectural contributions include the phallic Gherkin and the all glass and steel Shard, built with Qatari money. If your premier cultural city looks to the Middle East for aesthetic inspiration, you don’t really need the stock market to indicate your downfall.

London’s architectural incongruity is symbolic of the city which is, by no means, some quaint bastion of Englishness today. It is a huge metropolis where people of all types exist alongside in a cacophony of cultures, languages, races, orientations and religions.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the London underground, London’s complicated and sprawling subway system, where you often run into mixed race, mixed orientation couples from a range of ethnicities; or occasionally catch Asian women wearing garish saris, or shalwar kameez full of bling, probably off to some formal function or wedding, with not a person in their vicinity batting an eyelid. I remember being particularly in thrall on the tube one day when I came across a woman in a hijab bent over her little Quran, muttering its verses fairly audibly under her breath as the one on her right nonchalantly flipped through her copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

All fantasies that are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to collide with reality are bound to adjust and change shape, and so my experience of the living, breathing London both diminished and enriched the land of my romantic imagination. Dr. Johnson said about London, “Tired of London, tired of life.” I am glad to report that my six weeks there proved that for all their rough patches, I am tired of neither.


A version of this piece was published in The News on Sunday on 9th September 2012

London via Lahore

I didn’t heart London. Not immediately at least. Quite a betrayal of the expectations that decades of literary Anglophilia and jetsetting friends had raised. In my nebulous imaginings London had figured as the quaint antidote to the impersonal Big-City ala New York; a big city, of course, but with a small-town feel and a traditional heart. The six weeks of summer I spent in the living, breathing London both undermined and reinforced these distant stereotypes of the land of my romantic imaginings.

The first three weeks I spent attending a course called Shakespeare in London and the next three soaking up the rain in 'the cultural capital of the world'.

London lacks one grand all-encompassing view that could define the city for outsiders, something akin to the New York skyline that you can take in in one sweeping gaze from across the Hudson. The muddy Thames, a glorified BRB canal to my Lahori eyes, flows in a long stream instead, cut across at regular intervals by bridges that allow views of the city in pockets. The fairytale architecture of Tower Bridge, the colossal St. Paul’s Cathedral dominating a mass of ugly office towers sprouting cranes, and the spectacular contiguity of the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben calling out time to this most historic yet modern of cities. Ugly 20th Century structures built post WWII jostle against intricate Victorian arches, while recent contributions like the phallic Gherkin and the towering Qatari-built Shard weave the 21st Century into this city’s ever-evolving fabric. However soul sucking its fast-shut glass ‘windows’ and its anxious Dubaian obsession with height, there is a certain fascination in beholding the Shard rent London’s clouds asunder, like a triumphant reverse cultural strike into the heart of colonialism. All this combines to make London a dreamlike mish-mash of architectural influences not immediately aesthetic or congruous, but stimulating in their diversity.

And that is a good metaphor for London in general. To one used to the monochromatic culture of Lahore the sheer scale of London’s diversity is staggering. Mixed race and mixed orientation couples on the tube, punks in Camden, dhoti-clad Hindu priests in Leicester Square chanting and drumming in a circle, and bearded group of men called ‘Team Islam’ sloganeering in the middle of Bond Street, all make London. 

Yet for such a diverse city there is something remarkably subdued in its make-up. People are famously polite but not friendly; culture thrives but there is little spontaneous show of it. There is so much going on simultaneously that it is impossible to catch it all; even then there is a curious surface sterility that clings to the clouds that perpetually overhang London’s air. Excitement and enthusiasm rarely spill over to its streets, remaining confined within pubs, bars, clubs and theatres, occasionally managing to break free with the help of weekend alcohol. This inability to have fun without being inebriated struck my middle class Lahori sensibilities as particularly odd, raised as I have been on unfettered dancing and singing at weddings, fuelled only by months and years of unchannelized sexual energy more potent than tequila shots.  

The London authorities’ compulsive need to contain culture within designated boxes means that street musicians have officially been consigned to busking spots like tube stations, and coves underneath bridges, lending a very British regimentation to a spontaneous and romantic European activity. Musicians play as commuters rush past them, with the more benevolent checking their pace to drop a coin along the way. Spaces where you can sit and enjoy music, like West End theatres and concert halls, are prohibitively expensive, although I did attend a marvelous collaboration between The London Symphony Orchestra and the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra at The Royal Festival Hall at a fairly cheap price. The most enthralling aspect of London’s music scene is the classical music recitals at prominent churches; the delicious thrill of experiencing a place of worship come alive with the sound of secular music. While high art is readily and freely accessible in the city’s magnificent art galleries and museums, screevers (pavement artists) captured so vividly in Mary Poppins and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London have disappeared completely. Their place has been taken by high profile graffiti artists like the subversive Banksy and the dubious Mr. Brainwash whose glamorous mural of The Beatles currently graces a corner of Holborn. Next to it is a giant graffiti portrait of the queen carrying a paintbrush and pot. The paint from the paintbrush reads: God Save the People. Ye olde British irony lives on.

Less flags, more medal tables, please
The scale of London’s subcultures, neighbourhoods and commercialism make it impossible to collect the city under one banner, even if that banner is as big as The Olympics. Perhaps why being in the city during the event wasn’t half as exciting or glamorous as many on the outside may have imagined it. Walking around Central London I was often hard pressed to tell that the world’s biggest sporting event was taking place in the same city. Pubs and bars had dedicated screens relaying the Olympics and they were often full with people catching the day’s action; newspapers and television channels devoted a great chunk of space to the games, but outside on the streets London went on as usual, hardly any different from before. There were no big screens in central squares relaying major events live—the two there were anxiously tucked away from all sight, one somewhere within the sprawling belly of Hyde Park, the other on a nondescript patch of grass next to Tower Bridge, possibly hidden away in fearful anticipation of Olympic scrooges who might accuse the government of letting the event interfere with their daily lives. Not an altogether unexpected reaction in a city where the word ‘tourist’ is used as a pejorative. No central square carried electronic or manual boards updating medal tallies, or anything really to alert the casual passerby to the monumental presence of London2012. It was impossible not to compare it to the drumbeats, music, dancing and Mall-road celebrations accompanying even live screenings of cricket matches in Lahore.

But then again, it is also impossible not to compare the sexual harassment my friends and I have always experienced at the Gaddafi Stadium to the polite indifference of London streets. On my second day in the city I spent a night all alone amongst a sea of tents in Wimbledon. Camping overnight is the modus operandi for scoring tickets to the world’s premier tennis event, if you are not royalty or particularly well connected, that is. Lying alone under the clouds in a strange city I spent a chilly night contemplating the difficulties of being able to feel so free in my own country. Another day on Westminster Bridge, balancing my bag and maps as I paused to consider where I wanted to go next, I suddenly caught myself marveling at the ease with which I stood there, just stood there as waves of men and women passed me by without a word or wink in my direction.

This state of marvelous non-intrusiveness, however, cannot be achieved without sacrificing warmth at the altar of privacy, creating a catch-22 of sorts— a lack of opportunity to strike spontaneous friendships even as it provides safe passage to the single woman exploring the city alone. There’s a whiff of 18th Century hierarchical propriety about social interaction that dictates maintaining a distance from anyone you haven’t been properly introduced to; as opposed to the random-person-on-the-street-is-equal-to-uncle-aunty culture I’ve grown up around. There’s nothing like a safe distance from your own culture to develop quite the romantic feeling for it. Some days on the tube, frustrated by the sight of yet another person plugged into earphones staring into the middle distance, my Punjabiness would goad me into thigh-slapping the nearest and asking her salary, husband, number of children or reasons for lack thereof.

Vicky, the amazing tour guide 
If an opportunity does arise to communicate with any of the locals in a ‘propah’ setting, the wonderfully understated British sense of humour can liven up the dreariest of English days. On a trip to Oxford and Windsor our very British tour guide, a middle-aged, kindly looking lady regaled a busload of students with a wicked stream of hilariously irreverent commentary on the history of England, shocking my Pak-Studies/Islamyat nurtured sensibilities to the core. Whether it took a self deprecatory, humorous turn or an academically researched one in museum exhibits I often encountered a willingness to acknowledge England’s historical atrocities, an awe inspiring experience for citizens from a country that has yet to to grasp this form of patriotism. I recall coming upon several admissions of the English persecution of Catholics at the British Museum’s Shakespeare Exhibition and The British Library’s Writing Britain exhibit. I read the following in the Merchant of Venice portion of the Shakespeare exhibition:

‘Venice fascinated the English as a fashionable city, and an open society with a multicultural population. It was also open to criticism, and by defining what was foreign, the English began to know themselves.’

Aah, the exhibitions. The only thing in London that made me feel like I was from a third world backwaters were the museum exhibitions I attended. Nothing else made me feel so completely at loss for a corresponding home-grown experience. Not Shakespeare at The Globe for I had seen Omair Rana’s world class Hamlet in Lahore; not the rousing rendition of Ode to Joy that almost made me do bhangra in the aisles at The Royal Festival Hall, for in Lahore I had seen the sun rise to the strains of the sitar at The All Pakistan Music Conference. London’s parks have no match but at least the picturesque Lawrence Gardens provided a point of reference. The decade of international fringe theatre the Rafi Peer Theatre Festival had exposed me to, the Mamma Mia I spurned because I had already seen a production back home. The human prop I spotted in Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park because I had already seen that trick in Shah Sharahbeel’s Phantom of the Opera. I held an earphone to my ear at The British library to hear a professional actor recite The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in exactly the same Middle-English accent that my university teacher, Sir Khalid Masood Siddiqui had so assiduously acquired and recited to enthralled students from urban and rural Punjab at the Punjab University. But when it came to the British Design exhibit at Victoria & Albert Museum or Writing Britain at The British Library, all attempts at drawing a Pakistani parallel came up empty handed. All of my grand cultural experiences in Lahore, I realized, were results of tremendous personal efforts, unlike London, where governmental patronage and interest gives museums unprecedented scale and resources.
Shakespeare exhibition at The British Museum

I went to The Shakespeare Exhibit at The British Museum as a sort of pedagogical duty. I came out many hours later, senses abuzz, to collapse on the front steps of the museum, staggered by the scale and depth of all I had just seen. This was no dull academic lecture or a redundant book of literary criticism, this was literary history as it ought to be, made to sing through a skillful amalgam of technology, art, history, design and human interest stories. At The British Library exhibit, themed around British landscapes over the centuries, I strolled through a who’s who of great British writing celebrated in manuscripts ranging from T.S Eliot, R.L Stevenson and William Blake to John Lennon, Hanif Kureshi and J.K Rowling, while at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s British Design exhibit a sequined David Bowie jumpsuit winked at me next to a mash-up of iconic British videos and pop art. 

Wherever I went, I carried Lahore around with me. Why is the Lahore Museum as decayed as its artefacts, I wondered. Why hasn’t anyone at the Quaid-e-Azam Library thought of fusing manuscripts with recitations and graphics to showcase the shifting landscapes of Lahore? Where is our Museum of Culture that dynamically chronicles our musical heritage from Noor Jehan to Junoon? In a country beset with poverty and terrorism these might seem like disingenuous questions, but surely warrant greater thought than futile Guinness records that restrict identity to jingoism alone. The Empire is nearly 70 years in the past now, leaving behind a debris of easy, feel-good nationalism that requires no hard work, no research, no spirit of intellectual inquiry to arrive at a secure, confident identity.

London made me rue what Lahore could have, should have been. I didn’t want to stay there forever; I just experienced a subtler, more helpless desire to transpose all I loved about it back home.


A version of this was published in The Friday Times on 26th October 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Our Cities and Theirs

A great deal of self-righteous anger is expressed in our parts whenever something offensive to our religious sentiments is aired in the West, but calling a poor Christian 'choora' or ridiculing Hindus for believing in more than one god is considered perfectly kosher (as a manner of speech). How many times have I heard people laugh at the ridiculousness of worshipping a god you created with your own hand, thus subjecting Hindu religious sentiment to the most literal of interpretations but bursting into flames (literally) at similar criticisms directed at Islam.

I have never seen anything in our surroundings, in the mass media or our education system that actively promotes tolerance or respect for others, instead, I have often seen people carelessly throwing around derogatory terms like 'kaafir' and feeling self satisfied in their smug piety. Then there is the persecution complex that imagines every wheel in the Western machine working overtime to destroy the great citadel of Islam, or blaming Colonialism/Imperialism for every ill that exists in the Muslim world today, conveniently throwing the blame on foreign shoulders and absolving ourselves of all responsibility.

While in London (yes, I am still on London, will be a while before I am done) I came across many images the equivalent of which would be impossible to see in Lahore (or most other parts of Pakistan). Can you imagine a woman in a bus in Lahore wearing a sari and a bindi reciting the Ramayana aloud? I can't either. It's not like she would be immediately attacked if she tried, it is just that that space for diversity just seems to have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk.

Shab-e-Baraat morning. One woman recites from the Quran as the other sits beside her and reads Fifty Shades of Grey
Advertisement at Leytonstone Station on the central line
Outside a Unitarian church. It would be nice to see a similar sign outside a mosque.
At the British Museum. Trying to imagine art from the Hindu or Jewish world celebrated on a governmental level in Pakistan
A conciliatory Islamic ad breathing peacefully alongside one for the Damien Hirst exhibit at Tate Modern
Outside a primary school in Stoke, Newington. An attempt, an amateur one, but an attempt at least, to be inclusive
Polish figures outside St. Martin in the Fields Church in Central London

An attempt to understand the other in one of the most prominent churches in central London


All of the above does not suggest everything is perfect in the West, it is only to say that there are sustained and high level attempts at tolerance and humanity which are unfortunately not visible in our part of the world. What is visible here is a clear case of a majoritarian people becoming more intolerant, bigoted and xenophobic by the minute. Even if many of the silent ones are decent people in their personal lives they still help facilitate and abet hateful beliefs about others. There are no equivalent, tangible symbols of tolerance as above, or even an attempt at them in any of our cities.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Of Kindness

Shop window in Brighton
I thought I was the last person on earth who still insisted on using the word kindness, without blushing. The word (and concept) seems to have fallen out of favour, especially among those who fancy themselves clever, since it reeks so much of.. moralizing; you know, that other hopelessly dated idea. So, it was a pleasant surprise to come across words like kindness and good deed as often as I did in London. I draw a blank trying to imagine New Yorkers employing such vocabulary and admire the Brits even more for retaining their peculiarly polite identity to date. Good to see them embracing their twee so unabashedly. I had feared it had all but died with Enid Blyton.

On the tube every day, I often used to come across this good deed feed on the free paper called The Metro. However saccharine it may seem at first glance, I always found it refreshing to read in the largely impersonal confines of the tube. Small acknowledgments of human connections and random acts of kindness can make the underground experience warmer than it usually is.

One other acknowledgment of this that I saw was in the form of art work called Stories of Kindness on the Tube by Michael Landy. I tried to get as many pictures of these stories at central line tube stations and trains as I could. They celebrate little acts of kindness and put them on public view without shying away from using the word. I love that. A lot of them are 'kindnesses' perceived from the Western eye, things like strangers talking and lending emotional or (some form of) physical support on the tube.

I am sure in Pakistan people often give and receive such kindnesses without finding them particularly remarkable. I sound doubtful about it though, because as a woman I am outside the sphere of true public existence. Even my public life is led behind private doors of cars, offices, schools and shops. However, at times when car tyres go flat in the middle of a road or you end up in a Lhr-Isb Daewoo or an airport lounge, (the only places I can think of where relatively middle class women can find the opportunity to engage with others), you often find people willing to help and chat, in fact here the problem may run in the opposite direction, friendliness taken to the level of nosiness or harassment. What we lack is the kindness of letting others be when they require it. Or the kindness of polite words like sorry and thank you. The latter seems to be lacking even on forums populated by the more educated, such as Twitter. I see selective thank yous and engagement from journalist types who deem themselves too important to respond to the riff raff (namely those who cannot help them get a leg up in their careers). To paraphrase a favourite quote, the true test of a person's character is his behaviour towards those who are of absolutely no consequence to him.

I seem to have digressed a bit, so I will let you read through stories of kindness on the tube as seen from the eyes of Londoners. A city as big as that celebrating things so small. That really makes me respect London.

I love this one, a genuine act of self sacrifice on the part of a complete stranger
Humour saves a boring train ride
They're the same everywhere

'Change' in London has greater value. Coins tend to go further than they do in Pakistan
I've done that at times when I forgot to pick up The Metro at the station
The same happened when my sis-in-law and I took my niece out on the town in a buggy. At every flight of stairs someone stopped and helped us carry the buggy with the child in it
This happened to me. A man woke me up at Newbury Park because he felt I might sleep through my stop. I was going till the end of the line so there wasn't anything to worry about, but still, I appreciated his concern
This has happened to me in Lahore, bag full of money returned to my address by Ehsan Chappal Store. They called Zaidi's from a receipt in my bag and took my address from there. Quite remarkable, the lengths they went to.
People just randomly talking to each other is a bigger deal in London than in Lahore
I think this happening in a van to Shahdara might not be quite as remarkable
In Pakistan naani and daadi's names and professions would have been exchanged within this time
Connecting wordlessly with a stranger is one of the great pleasures of living in a big city
Flowers save the day anywhere in the world

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Another London

They don't exist in the catalogue versions of the city. You never see them on BBC or TripAdvisor's coverage of London. Jet-setting friends return without ever making any mention of them, yet in the actual city you come across these homeless everywhere. They are nowhere near in number to the throngs of beggars that crowd the traffic signals of Lahore, but the impact of their loneliness, guilt and visibly broken spirits is somehow greater on the soul. Perhaps because the beggars in Lahore are usually assertive, soliciting money actively, even aggressively, tapping on car windows with force, sometimes even throwing the coin right back at you if it doesn't live up to their expectations. In London they just huddle on the edge of a tube station or street corner trying to shield themselves against the city's cold evenings, feebly calling out to passersby for a coin; many too ashamed to attempt even that. They invariably wear a far away, glassy look and an acute sense of having failed in a world that lays so much premium on winning. It is perhaps the contrast with their surroundings that makes their plight more readily moving, or it could be my personal immunity to the everyday sufferings of our own poor, part of an endemic cycle of injustice and hardship that everyone but the very elite are protected from. I fear romanticizing their plight, but in Lahore, beggarwomen often form a curbside community of females more loose-limbed than their middle class counterparts, their children tearing about on roundabouts, fighting and sometimes laughing amongst themselves, living some form of community on the very fringes of society. London's homeless, however, exist in complete isolation.

On Millennium Bridge

Holborn. I could have taken another, less fuzzy picture, but it seemed callous to let him catch me photographing him, so I just made do with the first click. The manner in which he just sits there conveys enough.

Behind Embankment

A woman sleeping on the pavement near King's Cross Station
Waterloo bridge
Tottenham Court Road