Thursday, December 19, 2013

Festival redux

Festival redux
Khyaal Festival attendees enjoy the pleasant November air
One would have thought the Lahori literary pie too small to be sliced two ways, and one would have thought right judging from the turnout at last weekend’s Khyaal Festival of Arts and Literature. Marketed less aggressively than the LLF eight months ago and sprung without warning upon a city yet to wake up to its annual winter quarter of cultural activity, the festival had little time to announce itself before it had come and gone, resulting in what appeared like lifest fatigue.
First I heard of the festival was from a writer friend invited to conduct a session. Second and third I heard of it was also from writer friends invited to conduct sessions; that is how small the world of English fiction writers and readers in Lahore is. In this scenario sustaining two large-scale events of a similar nature doesn’t seem feasible, unless the smaller one distinguishes itself in ways the one with greater money and support cannot perceive.
Mohsin Hamid and Mira Sethi:
Despite all efforts to wake up early on a Saturday the first session I managed to attend started at 2PM on day 1. Conducted by Mira Sethi, this well-attended session was surprisingly enlivened by Mohsin Hamid’s wit and persistent refusal to answer anything straightforwardly. Surprising, because I had never quite imagined Hamid as a wit, having read Moth Smoke a decade or so ago; a book I don’t particularly recall for its humour. Mohsin met the articulate and well prepared Mira’s desire to dabble in political commentary with disarmingly amorphous yet well thought out positions on a variety of issues. A good hour for Mohsin fans and non-fans alike.
Manto and Faiz’s grandson:
Readings from Manto turned out to be Salman Shahid sitting in a weak pool of light on a darkened stage reading a Manto short story off a page, accompanied by a sitar-player arbitrarily weaving in and out of the narrative. Considering last year’s stellar performances by Naseeruddin Shah’s theatrical troupe that brought Ismat Chughtai’s stories to life in the same hall, this unrehearsed fumbling was rather a sorry affair. English literary festivals insistent on inserting token Manto, Faiz and Intizar Husain sessions in the name of Urdu representation need to put more thought into making them more engaging.
Slipping out of Hall 1, I went into the concurrent session between Musharraf Ali Farooqui and Ali Madeeh Hashmi called ‘Micro Narratives’. Ali Madeeh, grandson of Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a psychiatrist and writer with a debonair air, the sartorial elegance of an 18th Century English nobleman and Punjabi-inflectioned Urdu curiously dissonant with the rest of his demeanour – the very embodiment of the Faiz-Alys legacy. One would have liked to hear more of him; as it was, Farooqui’s talk of micro-narratives goaded my Twitter-shaped attention span to quit the hall for the open air.
Outdoor stalls sold Lahori doodad: kettles and mugs painted with truck art; hand-knotted carpets, paintings, and some of the few books I saw at the venue (at education NGO Simorgh’s booth) – all looking a bit wistful despite the loud music’s attempts at masking the forlorn air of a festival lacking attendees. Sunday, though, saw a lot more milling about this area when young intellectual aspirants inadvertently walked abreast placard carrying participants of a ‘Dengue mukaao’ campaign sponsored by the Punjab government and spearheaded by Zakoota from Ainak Waala Jin.
Feryal Gauhar and Intizar Husain
‘Since I have worked in the Shahi Mohalla…which is not to say I operate from there…’ studded with such self-deprecating witticisms, Feryal Gauhar’s was a delightful session that Raza Rumi was wise and experienced enough to allow Gauher to take charge of. Never having heard her speak before, nor having seen ‘Tibbi Gali’, clips from which she showed during the session, I particularly enjoyed this one.
Raza Rumi talks to fans before the launch of his book 'Delhi by Heart'
Raza Rumi talks to fans before the launch of his book ‘Delhi by Heart’
By the end though I did slip out to attend the last fifteen minutes of Khaled Ahmed and Intizar Husain in Hall 1. Expecting neither to be particularly stimulating, a notion based on my aversion to dry prose and abstract symbolism in short stories, I was taken aback by my own ignorance. In an intellectually sophisticated exchange Intizar discussed the artificial divide between Hindi and Urdu, questioned whether the term ‘saqaafti yalghaar’ (cultural invasion) has any meaning and insisted that if it does then Pakistan’s cultural invasion of India is as impactful as India’s cultural invasion of Pakistan (albeit committing the crucial fallacy along the way of equating Urdu only with Pakistan). Discussing Iqbal’s misra, ‘shamsheer-o-sanaa avval, taaoos-o-rubaab aakhir’ (sword and hymn first, zither and lute last) he said the West had proven this notion wrong by making concurrent cultural and military progress. This segued into Khalid Ahmed’s musings on what shape our culture would take in the wake of a countrywide consensus in favour of the Taliban, a doomsday scenario Intizar didn’t yet find credible.
Pakistani film and television:
Irritants like moderator Shehnaz Sheikh’s cluelessness about the debate surrounding Waar aside, Bilal Lashari’s presence and the audience’s ability to question him directly made the ‘Waar and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi’ session a compelling one, though organizers need to take active control when audience members’ ‘questions’ turn into lengthy, self-serving monologues, the bane of all such events.
Amir Munawar, Vassay Chaudhry, Shehnaz Sheikh, Kamran Lashari and Bilal Lashari taking audience questions
Amir Munawar, Vassay Chaudhry, Shehnaz Sheikh, Kamran Lashari and Bilal Lashari taking audience questions
Vassay Chaudhry, script writer of Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, rued not being able to turn the film into a sentimental India vs. Pakistan match for lack of a bigger budget. Lashari said his success confirmed that a majority of Pakistanis agreed with Waar’s world view. While both these gentlemen have the right to pander to public tastes and exploit them for commercial gain it was hard not to be disappointed by the hardboiled cynicism of artists so young.
Sarmad Khoosat in next day’s session on Pakistani drama was more willing to self-analyse, defending himself not by pointing to commercial imperatives but by talking of small acts of defiance such as the refusal to include dialogues against certain forms of art in his commercially successful play Shehr-e-Zaat.
Sarmad Khoosat, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Haseena Moin and Sarmad Sehbai at the Pakistani Television Drama session
Sarmad Khoosat, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Haseena Moin and Sarmad Sehbai at the Pakistani Television Drama session
Farida Khanum:
Farida Khanum and Ali Sethi ended the festival with a session that was undoubtedly its highlight. Hall 1 finally filled up to full capacity where a resplendent Farida Khanum sang many of her best-loved ghazals A cappella. Ghulam Ali who had come as an audience member was called on to the stage by the moderator as a mark of respect This made for a slightly too-many-singers-spoil-the-concert scenario but Farida Khanum’s bursts of singing made all other facts dwindle into insignificance. Spontaneous applause from the audience, talk of Radio Pakistan, Z A Bokhari, the evolution of ghazal singing in Pakistan, anecdotes about the recently deceased Reshma and Sethi’s tracing of both Ghulam Ali and Farida Khanum’s musical histories to the eight hundred year old tradition of Hazrat Amir Khusro turned this session into a truemehfil.
Farida Khanum delights the audience
Farida Khanum delights the audience
The Khyaal Festival produced value by bringing the debates surrounding Pakistani literature and performing arts to a platform other than English newspapers, though the real task for any such festival is to take these voices to a truly diverse set of audiences. Neither the LLF nor the Khyaal Festival have yet shown much interest in tapping public school and university students to come and participate; to listen to concepts and ideas they would be hard pressed to access in the mainstream television and Urdu press. The real challenge for both festivals lies in that direction.
Published in The Friday Times on 8th November, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Main Hoon Shahid Afridi

Pakistan's most popular sporting hero, its most sighed over actress, Islamic sentimentalism and spades of melodrama. Can you think of a more potent mix for a commercial Pakistani film? Neither could Vasay Choudry, the writer of Pakistani cinema's latest offering, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue. I want to roll it around in my mouth to savour its newness; to enjoy the liberty of using it in casual conversation without people inching away from me like I'd suddenly declared I'm a feminist. Does anyone remember Shaan, Syed Noor and Saba Hameed ringing in the demise of Pakistani film (whatever existed of it previously) if Indian movies were allowed to be screened here? Well, I wouldn't want to be those guys right now, forced to munch on humble-popcorn while hordes of people queue up outside cinema houses, ushering in what looks very much like a re-emergence of Pakistani film.
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Article Box
When I was young, cinemas only closed down in Lahore, or existed within the dreamlike confines of my Archie comic collection; now new ones open up in upscale localities, complete with options for salty or caramel popcorn and seats that aren't tattooed with paan and chewing gum. Old establishments around Laxmi Chowk offer the same films at cheaper fares instead of barely disguised porn to stay alive.

In this context commercial viability is a crucial factor, so it is hard to blame the creators of Main Hoon Shahid Afridi for a film that often comes across as a cynically assembled formula for commercial success. What Bollywood actors are to India, cricketers (and cricketers alone) are to Pakistan, so if you are going to take the risk of financing a Pakistani film, you could do worse than have Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's biggest and most instantly recognizable star, in your title. I must confess I was expecting some kind of biopic, but if the story could be confused for somebody's life it would have to be Mohammad Asif's, not Shahid Afridi's.

Pakistani cinema, I love how the phrase feels on my tongue

Akbar Deen, played by an aging Humayun Saeed (can somebody please stop him from starring in every single project he finances?) is deeply in love with his wife (a heavily botoxed Mahnoor Baloch) and son. These minor matters, however, are not allowed to stand in the way of some Middle-Eastern nightclub prancing with a semi-clad Mathira, who, in a forgettable item number lays on the sultry like a 70s Helen on steroids. Deen's shenanigans are meant to be seen through a quaisi-kosher, boys will be boys lens in the light of his declaration that he sees his wife's image in all women he is tempted by. This is the line upon which our forgiveness for his transgression is meant to hinge; and one that nicely sets up a dream sequence within the item song for some little-black-dress action from Mahnoor Baloch. Never having met any blue-blooded male who is impervious to her appeal, casting her is another commercial coup, one that was well exploited in the movie's posters, despite Baloch being nothing more than a pretty prop (one who can't dance at that) throughout.

Why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation?

From there onwards, the film becomes an almost direct rip-off of Chak De India with bits of Lagaan thrown in for good measure, its seeming purpose the fulfillment of Hamayun Saeed's (self-financed) dream of playing (a poor man's) Shahrukh Khan. Where Chak De India relied on the unity in diversity trope to rouse patriotic sentiment, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi seems confused about which particular aspect ofPakistaniat to exploit for maximum emotional appeal. It starts off with a lesson on religious tolerance by pitting a Talibanesque pathaan fast bowler against a church-going Christian wicket keeper, but then constantly vacillates between xenophobia and strident religiosity on one hand, and tolerance and brotherhood of all mankind, on the other.

Its strengths lie in an exploration of Pakistani class differences and cricket's ability to be the great leveler; the last grounds upon which a young Pakistani boy from a small town can still dream big dreams. While watching I was reminded of something I have often wondered: considering its state-of-the-art sporting facilities, why has Aitchison College, Lahore given only three players to the national team in the 66 years since Pakistan's creation? There is an attempt, however flawed, in Main Hoon Shahid Afridi to ponder this question of Pakistani cricketing talent emerging largely from the lower socio-economic classes. If it had stuck to that, instead of trying to be everything to everybody, it could have been a tighter and more plausible film. As it stands, it is engaging enough, and dare I say, quite decent for a Pakistani movie. That will do. For now.


Published in The Friday Times (August 30 - September 5th, 2013)

Vege Delight

Bari Eid (Eid-ul-Adha just doesn’t roll down us old timers’ tongues quite as smoothly) cannot hold a candle to the breezy, bangle-full joys of the Chhoti. Less mithaai, no Eidee (that being a good or bad thing depending on whether you are on the giving or receiving end) and an overdose of animals bleating pitiably from all intersections of my otherwise violence-free neighbourhood don’t exactly goad me to go celebrating in the streets.
Plus, I am that rare breed of Lahori – a non-meat eater. Having ‘converted’ just 6 months ago though, I doubt I have yet been officially anointed to the smug upper crust of humanitarian do-gooders to make a self-righteous lecture on the benefits of not killing animals permissible. So I’ll lure you with food instead.
The author at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton
The author at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton
Now that you are stuffed up to the tip of your food canals with the brains and guts of a variety of slaughtered animals it might be a good idea to scale back with some healthy vegetarian meals, which contrary to popular belief can be located in Pakistan with a little bit of effort, at least in the bigger cities.
The idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important
One of the difficulties of choosing a vegetarian meal here is that most times chicken isn’t even considered a form of meat. Try ordering a vegetarian dish and waiters and restaurant managers will attempt to pass off anything with chicken and bits of vegetable thrown in for colour as ‘vegetarian’. Admittedly, in a country where human life is cheaper than poultry the idea of vegetarianism can come across as a bit self-important. Most reactions move somewhat along the lines of George Orwell’s indictment of vegetarians, who in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) called vegetarianism an affront to decent people and the obsession of the ‘food crank… out of touch with common humanity’. It was, he thought, a symptom of the hijacking of the socialist cause by ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, pacifist, and feminist in England’.
Hmm…don’t think Orwell and I would have got along ragingly.
Margherita pizza
Margherita pizza
Luckily, (for those who rely on famous people quotes for arriving at ideological decisions), George Bernard Shaw made an equally strong statement in favour of vegetarianism a few decades before Orwell, one that sits well with ‘food cranks’ like me. When asked in 1898 why he was a vegetarian, Shaw gave a typically outspoken answer:
“Oh, come! That boot is on the other leg. Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I battened on the scorched corpses of animals, you might well ask me why I did that.”
“My will contains directions for my funeral, which will be followed, not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow-creatures. It will be, with the single exception of Noah’s Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind yet seen.”
Vegetarian version of the Korean Bibimbap can now be enjoyed in Lahore
Vegetarian version of the Korean Bibimbap can now be enjoyed in Lahore
Even if your wish to engage with non-meat dishes has nothing to do with sparing other living beings from harm, you could choose to spend meat-free days, weeks or even months for a number of good reasons, ranging from the environmental, an attempt to detox your body from hormones and chemicals often found in meats, to simply getting away from the constant heaviness of meat-abundant food.
Eating out:
The roadside dhaaba:
Nihaaripaaemaghaz and takaa tak might be the immediate images the idea of Lahori food conjures up, but there are certain non-meat dishes too that are an intrinsic part of its food culture. No lazy Lahori Sunday is complete without halwa puri or chanay kulchay. Ironically, the best I have ever had outside of the old city are from a place in Cantt called Zakir Tikka.
Since turning vegetarian I have become a troublesome dinner companion; friends have to be mindful of vegetarian options on the menu before choosing a restaurant. Over the course of time, however, I have learnt that one can wangle a vegetarian dish or two out of most establishments, though not all these dishes or restaurants are made equal.

Lahore’s Andaaz restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian dishes in the city
Lahore’s Andaaz restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian dishes in the city
The best daals and sabzis are found at roadside dhaabaas. It’s hard to vouch for the quality of the cooking oil or the hygienic conditions under which they are cooked, but purely in terms of taste, none of the high-end eateries can come close to the daal and karak tandoori roti combination of the local dhaaba, that too at dirt-cheap prices.
Online entrepreneurs:
Ghar ki Murghi:
Interestingly, one of the very few people in the food business in Lahore who provide serious vegetarian options are an up and coming online food service Ghar ki Murghi. Operating largely off their Facebook page, these young entrepreneurs are catering to a niche market most big restaurants don’t really consider worth their while. With a jazzy menu offering ‘Toofani Tamaatar ka Cut’ and ‘Maskhari Mirchi Saalan’ to the newly introduced ‘Lajawaab Lasagne’ with a vegetarian option, Ghar ki Murghi is expanding the Lahori food connoisseur’s taste buds to include a variety of flavours that can be just as satisfying as meat.
Halwa puri - a staple Lahori breakfast
Halwa puri – a staple Lahori breakfast
Simple Dimple:
In the same vein, Karachi based food service Simple Dimple offers a tofu option for almost everything on their menu, something sadly missing from even the most high end restaurants in Lahore.
High end restaurants:
The first time I was introduced to paneer tikka was in a Dubai food court: I returned from the ladies room to find my staunchly vegetarian friend cheerily tucking into what looked very much like a full plate of chicken tikka. The texture and taste was so ‘realistic’ I couldn’t tell for several minutes that it was in fact made of cottage cheese; hence my vexation at never having been able to find an equivalent in Lahore. The only two places in Lahore that serve paneer tikka are Mirchi and Andaaz. The one at Mirchi doesn’t deserve to be called by that name, but like everything else at Andaaz, their paneer tikka is rich and succulent.
Andaaz is the only restaurant in Lahore that has a full menu of vegetarian dishes, possibly because of tourists who can be found more readily around the Badshahi Mosque than anywhere else in the city. Besides the paneer tikaa, their daal makhni is a treat.
BBQ Tonight:
The Gulberg branch of BBQ Tonight serves the best Paalak Paneer this side of the Ravi, and a Hummus of just the right consistency and taste, something that cannot be said for any other I have had outside of the Middle-East.
Here and there:
Several restaurants have one or two vegetarian dishes on the menu that make them worth a visit. The new Korean restaurant in Lahore, Udon House serves a delicious vegetarian Bipimbap and a decent vegetarian soup, though it doesn’t have any equivalent of the fried bean curd served by the Korean in Karachi. You can find fresh vegetarian sushi at Fujiyama and the same at Sakura as well as a great (though small serving) of a tofu appetizer on skewers (with a very difficult name I always fail to recall).
There is CafĂ© Upstairs’ mushrooms-in-white-sauce appetizer and stuffed green peppers, margherita and vegetarian pizzas at most pizza joints, Fatburger’s vegetarian burger (the only vegetarian burger in Lahore I know of), Polo Lounge’s divine Summer Salad, Salt ‘n ‘ Pepper’s trusty old assorted salad, Dampukht’s vegetable biryani (with the crunchy goodness of cashew and hints of sweetness from kishmish) and of course desserts anywhere, most of which contain no meat content.
Sabeen Mahmud of T2F
Sabeen Mahmud of T2F
Oftentimes people give up on vegetarianism as a lifestyle option for the lack of support amongst friends and family. I draw great sustenance from fellow ‘grass-eaters’, one of whom is Sabeen Mahmud, founder of T2F, a space for intellectual discourse in Karachi. Sabeen says:
“I became a committed vegetarian on 6th September 2011 right after burying my kitten, Tetris. I made a decision to choose compassion over killing. I started thinking about my food choices and realized that what I choose to eat is intrinsically linked with my ethics and world view. By not buying meat and chicken, I have also withdrawn financial support from the ecosystem of animal cruelty.
My favorite vegetarian eating out options in Karachi include Mirchi’s chaats, Cool Inn’s dosa, BOT’s aaloo paratha, Tipu Burger’s daal bun kabab, Spicez’s vegetarian Sindhi biryani, and T2F’s vegetable panini.”
So if you’re in either Karachi or Lahore, get out there and try something new.

Published in The Friday Times (18th to 24th October, 2013)

Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words

When I first received a copy of Karachi - Our Stories in Our Words I was tempted to compare it favorably to another book of a similar nature, the Bapsi Sidhwa-edited Lahore: Beloved City, whose dull, dim cover Karachi's vibrant and abstract counterpart instantly trumped. Unfortunately the most interest I could muster in this book began and ended at its cover.

"Edited" by Maniza Naqvi (a term I assume is used loosely by OUP, since the book is riddled with innumerable typos starting with the Editor's Note itself), Karachi doesn't seem to have benefitted from much editing. The Editor's Note tells us that the stories contained therein were a result of a competition announced in tandem with the Karachi Literature Festival. Hundreds of stories were received out of which the 99 included in this book were deemed printworthy. Giving credit where it's due, if this is the standard of the stories eventually published, going through all of them must have been no mean task. A pat on the back of the editors who read them all! Unfortunately, none of these foot soldiers are credited, and neither are the translators of stories from Sindhi and Urdu. Did Maniza Naqvi do all this by herself? The book doesn't say.

Violent death is persistently used for effect

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This book's dearth of big- name contributors had me favorably disposed but my optimism lasted only until the first five stories, which proved that "youth", rather than heralding freshness of vision and inventive zeal had been used here as a cover for amateurish storytelling. All the writers seemed bent on ticking the litany of what they assumed were grave and important Karachi subjects, poverty being the great favourite, unceasingly dealt with in the pious, moralizing tone of those who have never really experienced it firsthand. The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways, ceaselessly guilt-tripping all the rest of us for our comfortable, shallow lives that can never soar to the heights of piety that are the sole purview of those at the receiving end of the evil rich. Such black and white depictions are found on almost every page of this book, motivated no doubt by some desire to improve society through moralistic messages better suited to social activism than literature.

The book's dearth of "big" name contributors had me favorably disposed

Another pet theme is bomb blasts and shootings, none of the writers seem to have any nuanced insights into the geneses or outcomes of terrorist acts. The depictions here are the work of febrile imaginations assuming an artificial empathy with subject matter they are no closer to than the average TV viewer halfway across the country. Nary a nuanced character one can relate to or be moved by. Violent death is persistently used for effect or to lend some perceived shock value to a story's conclusion. Within the course of two pages (the average length of most of these stories) we meet a character, get choked by depictions of her absolute goodness, after which she gets shot in a freak accident meant to leave us blubbering in our reading chairs. The only tears they produced in me were at the thought of all these people now being legitimately able to claim they are published writers.

The poor in these stories struggle on in their righteous, unfailingly moral ways

Thank goodness then for Soofia Ishaque's story The Reprieve: No Bikini But Plenty of Attitude, the only standout story in the collection, and one that manages to avoid the ham-handedness and juvenility of the rest. A simple narration of a day out on the beach, it successfully captures the contrasting social and economic currents that make Karachi so complex and dynamic without beating us over the head with those themes. Here gunpoint robbery is treated with none of the melodramatic histrionics of the other stories, but with a quiet nod to the nonchalance engendered by repeated exposure to mugging and theft, and the desperate abandonment in the pursuit of fun only those from a repressed, violent society can truly appreciate. Other half-decent efforts included Rumana Husain's The Victoria Waala, Fiza Hasan's Tea or Coffee? and Asma Siddiqui's Pearl. Certain passages from a few other stories resonated here and there but were often marred by the writer's inability to use them for the larger benefit of the story.

Another strange aspect of this book is that it shifts mid-way from fictional stories to personal narratives without any warning, which leaves the classification of this book as a collection of short stories in doubt. Overall, Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words would have benefitted from cutting its length by half and showcasing a higher standard of writing instead of cramming the book with page after page of mediocrity, the kind my teaching instincts tell me would fail even to score an A in a good high school English class.


Published in The Friday Times (June 14th - 20th, 2013)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going it Alone

Sabahat Zakariya went to independent candidate Saira Dar's corner meeting and ended up musing about middle class morality and the meaning of these elections

My worn Nokia handset peeled its trademark tune on a drowsy Sunday afternoon. A quick peek identified the caller as one Ms. Saira Dar. Bracing myself to hear the worst from a friend who had been a colleague at Aitchison several years ago and with whom the extent of my relationship ever since has been an accidental run-in at the local cinema, I hit the answer button. A call from a friend long missing usually means one thing, divorce-validation - a service divorcees provide as preliminary counselors and water-testers for those contemplating the plunge. Her monumental news, however, turned out to be of a variety I had not anticipated-a breathless announcement of her candidature from my constituency, NA-125. Full marks on the surprise factor. I have lived in NA-125 for the past 17 years but confusion over voter registration and polling stations has meant I have never cast my vote. This year, with an upgraded NADRA infrastructure, calls for registration well within time and a savvy technological network of verification I am finally in a position to take my politics off twitter and into the polling booth. But getting ambushed by an independent candidate wasn't quite how I had envisaged spending my first precious vote. If personal relations be the criteria then my cousin, the PML-N candidate from my constituency, would be the default choice, but my virgin vote was a responsibility I was taking seriously and I had no intentions of casting it away flippantly.

What she lacked in shrewd political planning, she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech

But vote or no, Saira, the former art teacher-turned politician's is an interesting story. Often in our zeal to talk about the more tangible oppression of rural women, the moral niceties that chain the women of the middle class are overlooked with a swift brandishing of their MA degree as incontrovertible proof of their liberation. Those with any insight know the truth to be far more complicated. The unstated expectations of middle class morality are often as binding as feudalistic and overtly religious expressions of absolute forbiddance. To be a wife and mother who is neither the poor worker nor the Birkin-toting daughter of a rich feudal is to swim in a murky netherland of wifely duties and structured expectations that are incompatible with the fluid energy of political life. The allegiance to the middle class code of conduct is threatened by the personal ambitions of a woman with neither the excuse of avenging her father's death nor the luxury of her family's minions conducting her election campaign for her. Saira told me that her intent was initially met with great resistance by her husband and son, on the pretext that she would end up making a fool of herself, but she persisted -from what I could tell once I met up with her - with considerable personal cost to herself. With her poise and refined convent-girl air it was hard for me to imagine her as a hard-boiled candidate who could get down and dirty in Pakistan's murky political arena, but her story intrigued me, and I decided, out of rather selfish reasons - the need to find out more about my constituency and to make an informed decision about my vote - to follow her on her campaign trail.

The next day I rang the bell of Saira's mother's austere house in a shaded old street of DHA Phase 1. One dupatta-clad woman and the candidate herself ushered me into an echoingly empty house. Her mother was away visiting her son in Dubai, providing Saira with 'a room of one's own' to conduct her affairs away from the domestic pressures and naysaying of her husband's place. Piled into her Cultus we set off for Nishat Colony, one of the poorer neighbourhoods of NA-125, where an old family painter of hers had organized a corner meeting. Poking fun at her own lack of resources Saira felt her low budget would be the key to capturing the people's love and trust. Just as I inwardly scoffed a little at her naivette she made a small joke that illustrated her point well:

'I used to have a Suzuki FX a few years ago and this beggar was constantly bothering me with solicitations for money. A huge Prado stood right next to my car, so I asked her why she didn't go beg from them instead, "Magar baaji ghareebaan nu hee ghareebaan daa dard honda ae na" (but sister, only those who are poor themselves can understand the pain of the poor) came the beggar's reply'. Laughing over this anecdote Saira expressed the hope that a similar kindling of solidarity with the poor would propel her to victory in the elections.

By this time (end of April) she still didn't have any pamphlets or posters and the ones she had ordered were sepia; coloured ones being too expensive to afford. She felt that the only areas she could possibly cover were those with some family or friends of her domestic staff and didn't even hope to attempt to visit her whole constituency. No seasoned political journalist myself, even I could tell that this amount of effort was not enough to win a national assembly seat, but here we were passing through the labyrinthine streets of Nishat Colony, festooned mainly with PML-N candidate Kh. Saad Rafique's banners, going to a poor man's house who apparently had enough faith in the woman to have put together a corner meeting for her. Soon we reached the painter's dimly lit, single-roomed quarters in the middle of a narrow alley. A slightly torn poster of Christ plastered on one wall, a couple of chairs and a charpoy neatly placed beside another, and a verandah with cracked cement floors where a couple dozen relatives and neighbours had converged to hear Saira speak. What she lacked in shrewd political planning she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech without becoming a caricature of the dais-thumping politician. The poor people she had come to address seemed swayed by her ideas that centered on working for the welfare of the poor, providing them with education and the vague but effective promise of returning their dignity to them. Obviously pleased and honoured by her visit, most of the women present immediately pledged their vote; female solidarity, something in her manner or the fact that she had 'honoured' them with her presence being enough to convince them to pledge allegiance, making me marvel at the arbitrary nature of these decisions, amongst the poor as well as the educated middle classes who pride themselves on casting their vote on rational and logical bases but often whose own conclusions are no less instinctive and emotional.

A few of those gathered admitted that PML-N's Saad Rafique had helped build the streets around their area but that they still did not want to vote for him since he hadn't 'shown his face' to them in the past five years. As Saira spoke about the need for universal education a man piped up to say that the young lad standing next to him had completed his BA but could not find a job anywhere. The quagmire of degrees but no jobs, streets but no exit from grinding poverty, suddenly seemed too overwhelming and complex to navigate and I couldn't escape the oppressive feeling that to change anything fundamental for these people is a nigh impossible task.

Poorly thought through as it may be, the candidature of someone like Saira Dar is demonstrative of the impetus PTI's emergence as a viable force has given to individuals from normally apathetic, educated urban middle class backgrounds. Suddenly in Pakistan, politics is no longer a dirty word associated with feudals and industrialists alone, independents like Jibran Nasir in Karachi and Saira Dar in Lahore are placing their faith in a system that so far those of their background had considered too broken to even attempt to fix. And there is some hope in just that fact.

Though, in an unguarded moment while talking to me, Dar told me had she felt a sense of empowerment and genuine respect in teaching she might not have taken the political route, a sad reflection on how far we still need to go for the emergence of a genuinely naya Pakistan, one that will emerge from an attitudinal change within ourselves, not just a cosmetic change of leadership.

Published in The Friday Times May 10-16, 2013

Bahaar Aaee

On the day the Christians of Badami Bagh were brutally punished by their Lahori neighbors for yet another cooked-up blasphemy, a gloomy Sabahat Zakariya went to hear Tahira Syed sing Faiz's poems at the Alhamra Arts Center. She was pleasantly surprised 

I was under the impression that Lahoris don't appreciate serious music, that's why I've always performed in Karachi, but this audience has really surprised me."

The 500-strong crowd at the Alhamra Arts Center could have taken offense at this declaration of Tahira Syed's. Or they could have accepted the backhanded compliment for what it was. They chose the latter, bursting into self-congratulatory applause at their role in this timely revision of the songbird's take on their city.

It was a day when outside endorsement of Lahore's benign spirit was bound to be lapped up hungrily. Just a few hours before the concert, a poisonous mix of self-righteousness and discontent had unleashed itself on a hapless Christian neighborhood of Lahore, leaving in its wake more than a hundred burnt houses and hundreds more permanently charred lives. Under those circumstances, Adeel Hashmi's delicate interweaving of Faiz's letters and poetry with Asad Anees's grand piano made the Alhamra hall seem worlds removed from the pyromania of Badaami Bagh. This being a Faiz event, there was every reason to suppose that troubles other than love would be brought up, and so they were by Adeel Hashmi, who began the show with a moving speech addressing the pall that had descended on the city since morning. Sitting in the audience and looking around, I couldn't escape the depressing feeling that much like English-language writing in Pakistan, liberal rhetoric at a ticketed cultural event is permanently stuck in a vicious cycle of preaching to the converted. Several couples -presumably parents of the Lahore Grammar School students who had presented the opening act of the night - got up and left even before Hashmi had time to finish his speech and launch into his recitation. I couldn't decide if it was their apathy that defined my city's spirit or the enthusiasm of the four hundred-odd people who enjoyed a Saturday night of music until the end.

Like English-language writing in Pakistan, liberal rhetoric at a ticketed cultural event is stuck in a vicious cycle

Adeel Hashmi, with his ability to smoothly transition between comedy and serious matter, and then to combine the two where necessary, is a valuable Faiz Ghar asset, reminiscent of his uncle Shoaib Hashmi in this as well as matters of stage presence and crowd handling. Both are fortunate in having evaded the comic actor's affliction of not being taken seriously once they make the switch, what with Faiz's grandson handling his poetry with an earnestness that adds merit to what might seem a nepotistic selection. The only thing that jars at the now frequent Faiz Ghar events is their insistence on promoting Faiz and Faiz alone. His legacy as a poet is now extremely well-established. Surely Faiz Ghar can afford to branch out into the exploration of other members of Urdu's beleaguered creative fraternity in ways as attractive as the marketing of Faiz, an endeavour that would also be very much in line with the giving spirit of Faiz the man, one who openly ranked Hafeez Jalandhari among the greatest poets of his time, despite the latter's varied and vicious personal attacks on Faiz's character. The recently held Daastaan-Goi, Shyam Benegal Festival and Motley Theatre events suggest that Faiz Ghar will branch out into supporting the creative arts in general and not just stick with Faiz alone, which is a heartening development. This new direction, however, was not visible at this particular concert, which seemed to have straitjacketed Tahira Syed into singing Faiz and Malika Pukhraj alone, marring the spontaneous flow of an otherwise excellent evening. Why it needed to drag in Alys Faiz as an alibi for the concert never became clear to me, especially considering that a tribute to Alys Faiz had been performed a couple of weeks before on the same stage and Faiz's birthday had also been celebrated a week before with the traditional Tina Sani evening. The inclusion of Malika Pukhraj seemed suspiciously like a condition of Tahira Syed's for appearing on the Faiz Ghar platform, and the addition of Alys Faiz an attempt at offsetting the focus on Syed and Pukhraj.

Not only does Tahira Syed look as fresh as ever, her voice is just as perky as it was many years ago

I was expecting to enjoy the Malika Pukhraj section, since so many of her songs are part of the collective consciousness of Pakistan's PTV generations. And I was not disappointed. Not only does Tahira Syed look as fresh as ever, her voice is just as perky and strong as it was many years ago. Lo Phir Basant Aaee proved an excellent choice for the first song, evoking both the joy of spring on a balmy March evening and the pang of Lahore's severance from its centuries-old past with the banning of the Basant Festival. Syed also peppered her chatter between songs with some well-placed humour. moving into Riaz Khairabaadai's ghazal Hum bhee piyayn tumhayn bhee pilaaeeN tamaam raat with this quip: 'Of course, prohibition mayN tau yeh mumkin naheeN hae. Magar yeh pehlay ki gaaee huee hae', shifting immediately afterwards into the pahaari folk tune Allah Bailuva Ho, leaving me marveling at this seamless celebration of God and booze in our poetic traditions.

The Faiz section, which I was a bit apprehensive about, having never heard Tahira Syed sing him before, turned out to be quite a joy, especially since it contained three "new" compositions by Arshad Mehmood who was also in attendance. Go sab ko baham saaghar-o-baada tau naheen tha, yeh shehr udaas itna zyaada tau naheen tha, a ghazal I am familiar with through a home recording of Arshad Mehmood singing it himself was my only disappointment. Mehmood's own voice is much more suited to the tune as well as the pathos of the poetry, so I couldn't stop comparing it unfavourably to the original version. Add to that Syed constantly pronouncing 'zyaada' as 'zaada', and it made for something like a low point in the evening.

At the very end, one audience request which was neither from the Pukhraj nor the Faiz canons was accommodated after special permission was granted by Muneeza Hashmi upon Tahira Syed's coaxing. A rousing 'Jhaanjhar Phabdi Na' ended an overall fantastic evening that I couldn't yet again help but feel grateful to the Faiz Foundation Trust for.

Published in The Friday Times of March 15-21, 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

Where's the change?

At noon I stood at a deserted Liberty roundabout with two other friends who had come along with me for the ride, both jalsa virgins there to absorb the atmosphere. But there was no atmosphere (or too much of just the atmosphere) to be had at this early hour so we did what any self respecting PTI-supporter would do in such a situation, we drove down to Espresso; can't undervalue the need for a hearty breakfast on one's march towards inqilaab.

I had been an inadvertent and spontaneous attendee at the last PTI rally in Lahore and the joyous spirit of that day and the unique way in which I experienced my city was enough to goad me to return, as reporter, observer and latent hopeful for change. Wearing an Imran Khan t-shirt that I was coaxed into by a PTI-jiyaala friend who has been volunteering for the party from early morning to midnight for the past two weeks, I constantly shifted gears between laughing along with my politically skeptic friend, there just for the anthropological experiment, and my passionately devoted, single mindedly inqilaabi pal.
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Around 1 the roundabout began stirring with some burger activity (not talking about the food any longer) and a truck and few jeeps laden with the usual chest-thumping Insafians went off to Defence to gather greater momentum while the eight of us piled into two cars and made our way directly to Minar-e-Pakistan. The streets were nearly deserted in comparison with the 30th October rally that had clogged the Mall Road, which meant that we reached the Government College roundabout in no time, near where we parked our cars to walk all the way to the Yaadgaar (as Minar-e-Pakistan is known in Lahorispeak). I remember many, many more women on the streets walking towards the ground last time and men shouting at others to pave way for them. I also recall an atmosphere much more festive and considerably more inclusive, a spontaneous overflow of people from all walks of life instinctively coming together for a change that at that very moment they were helping shape into a viable and vibrant possibility. This rally in comparison was a more hard-nosed affair with an assortment of political workers, loiterers and party-goers making up the bulk of the crowd.

Compared with the last one, this was a more hard-nosed affair with an assortment of political workers, loiterers and party-goers making up the bulk of the crowd

Outside Minar-e-Pakistan chaos reigned and we (seven men and one woman) were directed to the 'family entrance' (family in Pakistan being a loose term for any kind of group containing a woman), choked with men of all variety trying to push their way in as the police tried to push back from the other direction. Calling my reporter's wit into action I sandwiched myself between two of my friends and using them and my PTI flag and stick as protective shields staved off pinches and gropes to finally be able to thrust myself past the beeping gate into the Minar-e-Pakistan ground. This being the price a Pakistani woman has to pay for wanting to participate in public life.

Once inside, the scenes in the ground also seemed more anarchic to me than last time. In the vast 'family enclosure' that we found ourselves in there was the usual variety of young, affluent PTI supporters but less flag-waving, sunglasses toting Defence aunties than before. Religious slogans came fast and thick from the loudspeakers with a recording of Imran Khan reciting a chunk from Surah Fateha a particular favourite, only to be interrupted for azaan break with the following impassioned plea for respect from the emcee, 'after all, all of us here are Muslims', the irony of the jalsa ground being a stone's throw away from the accursed Joseph Colony completely lost on him (and a crowd drunk on the rhetoric of change).

Imran spent the first fifteen minutes cementing his Islamic credentials

Once I felt I had absorbed enough of the crowd around me I decided to go forth on my own and make my way to the elevated press box to capture an aerial view of the crowd, something I hadn't been able to do last time. Almost everyone readily made way as I brandished my press card in front of me and threaded my way through the crowd only to be confronted with barbed wires and a long alternate route from outside the gates to legitimately get to the press container. Loath to get anywhere near the gates again, and that too alone, I agreed to be led by two men who took me safely through a complex maze of trampled wires and enterprising short routes to the press container, once again safely through to my destination thanks to the benevolence of men.
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The ocean of people and flags that I witnessed from above was well worth the effort. If this crowd was not any bigger than last time's then it was certainly not any smaller. From my elevated vantage point I could see hundreds and thousands of people amongst a sea of thumping flags stretching out as far as the eye could go, with the grand Badshahi Mosque sprawling in the background and the lit Minar-e-Pakistan rising high in front of me. It was a sight. But a sight woefully marred by the messages that emanated from the political stage. Abrar-ul-Haq's 'new' song for the occasion, 'Imran Khan de jalsay tea ajj mera nachnay nu ji karda ae' sung to the tune of an Indian Punjabi number 'Saun di jhari de vich teray naal nachnay nu ji karda ae' proved to be the best metaphor of the night for me -tweaking a few words to an old tune does not a new and original song make.

The change Imran Khan talks about never addresses any of my concerns as a secular, female citizen of this country

There was a parallel to be drawn between Abrar passing off someone else's song as his or watching Salman Ahmed set the same old Junoon riffs to repeated chants of InshAllah and Shah Mehmood Qureshi's desperate and thoroughly cynical attempts at rousing the crowd with anti-India and anti-Bangladesh (a new low even for him) rhetoric. In every aspect of this year's rally it was visible that the idealism of a year and a half ago had been replaced with manipulative attempts at realpoiltik, spearheaded by old hands like Qureshi who think that they can win popular support by moving the crowd's basest metals, all a far cry from Strings' Mayn Tau DekhooN Ga whose sincerity had drawn even cynics like me to go misty eyed at the last Lahore rally. Instead this political gathering delivered spent old musicians trying to revive their careers through political injections and out of touch old politicians falling back on rhetoric from the '80s that sounds hopelessly outdated post widespread mainstream and social media attempts at people-to-people harmony.

Imran Khan, whose sincerity I trust but whose political vision I fear, came on to the stage when a real downpour was beginning to look imminent. According to my PTI friend that prompted him to mutilate his speech which would otherwise have focused on hardcore agenda issues first rather than the rhetorical 'promises' all of us were subjected to. He spent the first fifteen minutes cementing his Islamic credentials, something he found of greater import than the actual manifesto PTI was meant to unveil that day. In an uplifting moment during his speech, though, the breeze picked up and people instinctively raised their flags to the wind creating a soaring ocean of stiff flags fluttering strongly against the gust, but soon the drops began to fall. Imran Khan is perhaps the only public figure in the country who can inspire people to stand in the pouring rain to listen to him finish his speech but after 10 minutes the rain became so hard and driving people inevitably fled for their lives.

Perched atop a steel container with the freezing wind and rain slapping me hard across the face I scrambled to find the makeshift steps in the dark that would get me one step nearer to exiting the grounds. Someone thrust a cardboard container into my hand as they saw me shivering in the cold and in a futile attempt at staving off the cold I wrapped it around myself while I blindly made my way in the dark. Yet again a man came to my rescue, guiding me safely out of the grounds in an otherwise menacing atmosphere full of testosterone and frustrated energy let loose. In the following days I read that a lot of women had not been quite as lucky as I, facing severe sexual harassment at the hands of fellow ringers of change.

That is the strongest impression I took away from the whole experience, that the change Imran Khan talks about never addresses any of my concerns as a secular, female citizen of this country, as a woman who wants to experience public space without fear, an individual who wants the business of religion and state to be separated or at least not have self-righteous religiosity thrust upon me as the one-size-fits-all panacea for all human beings. I desperately wanted to believe in the change, I really did, for myself, for the country, for the sake of friends with immense faith in Imran Khan, but too much at this jalsa pushed me in the opposite direction.


Published in The Friday Times (March 29 - April 4)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Chinaman and Spiderman

The News on Sunday asked me to write very briefly about one favourite book and film in 2012. Here are my picks:

If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you. — Excerpt from Chinaman.

I first heard about Chinaman from a tweet by Mohammed Hanif, a befitting introduction, considering this is the funniest and most mould-breaking South-Asian novel I have read since Hanif’s own debut, ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’.
If you are a cricket fan (by which I don’t mean the kinds who crawl out of the brickwork before every Pakistan-India T20 match), this book will thrill you with its humorous references to the game’s legends and unknowns, commentators and controversies. The elderly narrator and his best friend come to blows over whether Muralitharan chucks, cricket games ‘overlap like stories’ in a Sri Lankan park, euphoria lifts a divided nation upon a world cup triumph. But even if you aren’t a huge cricket fan, Karunatilaka’s irreverent insights into life as it is lived every day, full of disappointments and little heartbreaks and the small ways in which we fail ourselves and others around us, is a profound and imminently readable treat.  
Like any good piece of fiction this one too is essentially about life, which in this case also happens to be cricket.


I am not a prolific movie watcher partially because I only like watching my movies in the cinema. Since Pakistani cinemas are partial to big budget thrillers, I rarely catch a Hollywood film in genres I would prefer.
Having never seen or read anything Spiderman, I tagged along with a friend to watch ‘The Amazing Spiderman’, and was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t garner as much media hype as other superhero films this year like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ or ‘The Avengers’, and more knowledgeable friends tell me it wasn’t the best Spiderman movie either. But I loved Andrew Garfield’s reticently sexy Peter Parker — a more desirable 21st century incarnation of the nerd, as well as the surprisingly leisurely pace of this superhero movie.
Relying less on CGI effects and more on the sensitive high-school hero, who is just beginning to discover his powers, ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ resonated with me in several ways. I enjoyed how the movie used the superhero mask sparingly to help the audience relate more directly to the character, reflected best in the climactic moment where the hero removes his mask to help rescue a frightened child from a car perched fatally on the edge of a bridge. Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, a capable science student, who is Parker’s intellectual equal, also added a great touch to the movie. It is sad that it turned out to be the lowest grossing Spiderman movie ever.

Litfest Day 2: For the love of literature

Lahoris thronged Hall II at 9:30 on a Sunday morning to hear Mohammed Hanif speak about The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are. The crowd’s enthusiasm was presumably not shared by the session moderator Rashed Rehman however, who failed to show up, prompting the organizers to hastily replace him with HRCP Director I.A Rehman whose self-deprecating sense of humour proved to be the only bit of relief in a session fraught with guilt-by-association for the Punjabis in attendance. A visibly affected Hanif set aside his one-liners for this one and dwelt at length upon the plight of the missing persons in Balochistan whose families’ continuous protests outside the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad press clubs have been met with a stony silence by the media. That Hanif himself couldn’t risk discussing the political reasons behind the kidnappers’ motives remained an inescapable irony, however, forcing him to talk about the issue purely in terms of the personal toll it takes upon families. The establishment’s brutal crackdown on what is essentially a separatist movement remained the elephant in the room everybody tiptoed around though there was no shying away from criticism of the army in general, made especially scathing by an Urdu/Punjabi poem penned and recited by Hanif that sought to burst the myth of the ‘Punjabi army’, replacing it with the idea of the institution as a monolith that serves the sole interest of the institution itself. Despite its refusal to mention the Balochistan separatist movement one couldn’t help feeling that just the holding of this session was a bold move on the part of all involved.

Hall II emptied out the moment star attraction Mohammed Hanif exited the stage leaving a handful of people who stuck around for the ‘Narratives in Urdu Fiction’ session with Khalid Toor, Ali Akbar Naatiq and Musharraf Ali Farooqui. A good choice for moderator for this one, Ali Madeeh Hashmi comfortably straddled the Urdu/English divide, enabling him to reach out to the more ‘burger’ members of the audience without alienating those who actually knew something about the subject at hand. Khalid Toor’s reading of his story about a couple of villagers on a buffalo cart attempting to seek shelter from a strong wind proved a superb introduction to his work. The aandhi , not a full blown tornado nor just merely a strong wind, is so indigenous a phenomenon and Toor’s capturing of the rural idiom in a young boy’s voice so authentic that one couldn’t help but rue the possibility of a complete disappearance of such narratives because of the marginalization of local languages. Both Toor and Natiq laughed off such fears, however. Toor refused to ghettoize himself on the basis of the language he chooses to express himself in calling all literature the literature of the world, regardless of language or place, whereas Naatiq felt that the Urdu language is in a more healthy state than ever before thanks to the news and drama boom in the country. The festival, organized for and by the elite, with its inordinate stress on the English language bothered neither author as much as it did the 60-70 people in the audience.

Next session on another Urdu writer, but one who has been embraced by the English-speaking elite in droves, filled all of Hall I. Simply titled ‘Manto’, Ayesha Jalal’s session on her celebrated uncle also served as a vehicle for introducing her upcoming book ‘The Pity of Partition’. In a rather bizarre twist, Jalal’s defense of the idea of Pakistan riled up certain members of the liberal audience who attacked her vociferously for defending the Pakistani ideology.  Even the usually abrasive Jalal had to take a few steps back to try and parry the blows. Ali Sethi, the moderator, stepped in at this point to defuse the tension with his characteristic humour and the eventful session came to an end.


Published in The Friday Times here