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

Sufi Music Festival at Peeru's

To say that Lahore seems to be slowly recovering from the terrorist attacks that ground all its cultural activity to a halt a few years ago would be to tempt fate, and if there is one thing I have learnt as a Pakistani, it is to keep optimistic hopes for the future to a minimum. Luckily for us, the people at the Rafi-Peer group have always held a less pessimistic view of things, remaining constantly involved in carving a livable present for the people of Lahore.

After the initial shock of cracker bomb blasts at the World Performing Arts Festival at Alhamra Cultural Complex that brutally ended a decade of vibrant International and local performances, the Rafi Peer people took most of their work to their outlying café, Peeru’s, which  is where their latest Mystic Sufi Music Festival was held. Peeru’s is a long trek for most Lahoris, so we got out early on the second day of the festival and reached well before time to a now fortressed Peeru’s. Last time I had been it was a charming, open space on the outskirts of the city. Now it is sealed on all sides with high, concrete walls and huge metal doors. Hazards of making a living through art in the ‘cultural capital’ of the city.

I was glad to find that once inside, the open grounds, wrought iron chairs and macabre puppet décor still retained their allure. Walking past shops selling quirky folk trinkets we arrived at the clearing for the festival itself, the stage swathed with bales of cloth in Alif Laila fashion, topped with a small dome. Opting for the farshi nashist in front and watching people trickle in slowly, we were assured by the organizers that the evening would start on time regardless. Exactly at eight, the first qawwals, whose names were unfortunately left unannounced, began proceedings. Particularly unfortunate since they were better than many of the advertised acts that figured on the festival brochures. Their one qawwali, a mashup of a Ni Mayn Jogi De Naal and the ever popular Akhiyaan Udeekdiyaan, proved an impressive beginning to the show.

The last strains of their harmonium mingled with Usman Peerzaada’s voice welcoming the crowd to The Mystic Sufi Music Festival, the synonymous sufi and mystic probably cobbled together to provide dual protection against the satanic influences of just plain old folk music, and to make the festival palatable to diverse audiences. This cynicism was frequently upended by the four days of music itself that provided a robust blend of spirituality, romance, heretcism and playfulness in a potent subcontinental mix honed over centuries. While the organizers may have felt the need to speak the rhetoric of Islam to appease the ghosts of potential terrorists lurking in the shadows, the crowd responded equally enthusiastically to both ‘Allah Hoo’ and ‘Sharaabi Mayn Sharaabi’.

The charming Bushra Marvi from Sind, dressed in a psychedelic, Shazia Khushkesque traditional ghagra, was the second act that night. Her voice, however, could not quite live up to the expectations raised by her striking appearance, though in choosing the familiar ‘Maahi yaar di gharoli’ she managed to elicit some response from the half -capacity crowd. Zarsaanga, the KPK stalwart also seemed lacklustre, partially because the rock concert speakers often overpowered her melody. They sound system seemed particularly excessive on a day the venue wasn’t full to capacity.

Shaukat Dholya from Chiniot performed next with his drumming partner. What a delicious name that, encompassing his passion, profession and identity, a living embodiment of the sufi concept of oneness: Ranjha Ranjha karday ni mayn aapay ranjha hoee. It is impossible to imagine a similar union of music and being in the western musical tradition, where a rockstar by the name of David Singer or John Drummer sounds like an absurdity.  Usually percussion alone leaves me a bit cold, especially if unaccompanied by a more melodious instrument, but the peaks and troughs of Shaukat’s beats created an elaborate, transporting rhythm that echoed boundlessly without being monotonous. The two dholiyaas came together on the stage, foreheads nearly meeting, beating their drums each to each in a perfectly synergetic visual and stylistic crescendo. As if this wasn’t enough, Shaukat added another layer of spectacle to an already spectacular performance, swiveling his drum around his neck like a hula-hoop, then adding his partner’s in a magnificent conjuring feat that combined spinning himself, his drums and his beat in flawless harmony.

The only international participant of the festival, the Syrian Ahmed Altir from Aleppo joined the two drummers next with a graceful dance reminiscent of Turkish whirling dervishes. Ahmed’s romantic foreignness and more elegant, but no less skillful whirling, made for an engrossing contrast with the earthy dhamaal dancers of sub-continental shrines, but his biggest draw was a light-bulb dress with components that could be taken off to twirl umbrella-like above his head in varying degrees of difficulty. Ahmed got warm response from the crowd and he was the only artist to perform on all four days of the festival.

Saturday and Sunday saw the place buzz with a more festive feel as visibly greater numbers turned up over the weekend. Despite that, it was hard to shake off the feeling that deprived of the grand cultural stage of the Alhamra, the festival had been robbed of a lot of its magic and reach. Nonetheless, a group of first time festival attendees sat on my left and giggled away, hushing each other from time to time in a suitable display of coltishness and reverence. A girl with gorgeous long curls banged her head to Mithu and Goonga Saaein’s drums and in the grand old tradition of Pakistani parenting 4-year-olds frolicked around the lawns at midnight on a Sunday. More than the somewhat insipid performance turned in by Pappu Saeen on the third day, Goonga and Mithu Saaeen captivated the audience on the last day, exciting the audience into clapping and smiling and creating a communion of strangers that is becoming increasingly difficult to experience in this city of confined spaces and suspicious insularity.
Of my favourite acts of the next two days, one was the saarangi player, Israr Nabi Bukhsh.  Saarangi is considered a difficult instrument and is on the verge of extinction due to a lack of patronage. The festival brochure stated this fact but despite that the sarangi player was only given one song to play. He chose the popular tune Dama Dam Mast Qalandar but a bias against instrumentals by a strongly lyrical populace meant the performance was perceived as merely an instrumental filler which people used as an opportunity to catch up with their smart phones. A pity, but an expected response in an age where folk music needs to be served with healthy dozes of fusion and glasses of Coke in order to be noticed.
Saaein Zahoor, a crowd puller, was captivating with his Toomba but a bit overshadowed by some of the other spectacular performances in the festival. Also perhaps because the more commercially successful sufi singers have been commercialized by Coke Studio but the likes of The Shajo Rag Faqirs who have been performing at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in the traditional manner that was created by the Shah himself 400 years ago and which they consider a sacrilege to tamper with, retain a more ‘exotic’ charm.
Surrayya Khanum was another easily recognizable face who delivered a surprisingly soulful rendition of Maae Ni Mayn Kinnu Aakhaan followed by Bulleh Shah’s poetry that never fails to be relevant to our current situations:

Haaji loak Makkay val jaanday, saaday dil vich nau sau Makka
Vichay Haaji, vichay gaaji, vicha chor uchakka

(Haajis go to Mecca but I have Mecca within my heart
Haji, sinner, thief, pickpocket all reside within me)

The heavily decked, sinewy Krishan lal Bheel from the deserts of Sind and the light, feminine sounds of the Bazm-e-Liqa troupe from Hunza, Chitral and Gilgit showcased two opposite spectrums of our land’s diversity. While PTV had for years tried to foster this kind of unity through provincial dance tableaus, the organic performers of this festival did a lot more to bring home to me the vastness of Pakistani cultures. Akhtar Chinaar Zehri’s Balochi, Bazme-e-Liqa’s Burushuski and all manners of strange languages, cultures, dresses and music all a part of Pakistan that from Lahore seems like a homogenized country solely obsessed with politics and revolutions. That is what the Rafi-Peer people have always done remarkably, opened my eyes to a world beyond my own, from a time when they brought artists from all over the world to perform theatre in Lahore tonow that they have been restricted to showcasing only local talent. A lot has been said about their alleged financial fraud due to which they have lost all sponsorship and had to curtail the list of performances from abroad;  all I know is they are one of the few who have kept Lahore’s cultural identity alive over the decades, and for that alone I am indebted to them.


The LLF City

Fears of a Lahori elite schmoozefest coupled with the counterintuitive idea of a festival about reading, essentially a solitary activity for solitary people, had me sceptical about the first ever Lahore Literary Festival. However, the two days of the event ended up charming me for several reasons, chief among them the festivity they returned to the Lahori spring.

Watching my bevy of students, who had recently been assigned Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ as extra reading, brave the pouring rain to get their pirated copies of his book signed at all costs must also have gone some way towards the softening of my stance. A sea of black LLF-logo umbrellas bobbed from Alhamra’s Hall I to II, from the grounds to the food stalls, helping stave off the downpour while keeping the determined spirits of culture-seekers and people-watchers alive. Nothing less than this level of organisation was required to smoothly pull off a festival of this magnitude, attended by 30,000 people over two days.

The evening before, the festival was declared open by the Chief Minister of Punjab who, in an attempt to distance himself from the legacy of General Zia, rued the disappearance of strolling couples on The Mall Road, the Parsis who once formed part of the Lahori landscape and the lost cultural vibrancy of the city and gave his support to this attempt at the revival of Lahore’s cultural landscape.

Tariq Ali’s well-attended keynote speech threw the festival open to the public on the morning of March 23 and in a subsequent session the famous left-leaning intellectual declared his intent to vote for the PTI, an announcement that was apparently met by a hallful of cheering Lahoris. Far from the madding political crowd, however, I attended a session with barely thirty people in attendance, that of Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka on his DSC Prize winning first book, ‘Chinaman — The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’. Moderated by Owen-Bennett-Jones this was an excellent session to attend. Shehan turned out to be just as disarmingly charming as his book and Jones asked him all the right questions, a circumstance that made the pedantic audience’s ‘questions’ even more painful to bear.

The first man who got up did not allow any qualms about clearly never having heard of the book to hinder him from announcing his credentials as Assistant Professor of English at a local college and a member of its Literary Society, no less, in a loud, authoritative tone before asking Shehan something unintelligible. Nonplussed by this attack, the sprightly student volunteers quickly handed over the mike to a middle-aged woman who turned out to be a member of the same cult and pressed on even more urgently about the aforementioned literary society whose mere membership seemed to confer a sense of accomplishment upon its members.

Meanwhile Shehan looked on bemusedly. If there was any residual doubt left in my mind for the need for such a festival, it was cleared up by this practical demonstration of the service such platforms render in updating foggy old professors beyond Hardy and Frost.

Speaking of old, the Lahore in Literature session was marred by an excess of very old and frail panellists (Bapsi Sidhwa, Intizar Hussain and Pran Neville) who should have been balanced out by a few younger faces. Sidhwa, whose work I have a healthy regard for, suffered from a lack of preparation for the session, launching into a never-ending excerpt that did not seem to have any direct bearing upon either Lahore or its Literature.
Rafay Alam the moderator, being young and polite, failed to take the proceedings into his hands as the droning panelists refused to acknowledge the need to connect with the audience. This is where the conflict between the written and spoken word reared its head, writers aren’t meant to be performers and they cannot be judged on the basis of their ability to read their works in a manner as engaging as their writing.

Sometimes though, this is reversed. Moni Mohsin’s accented inflections while reading from her ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’ enhanced the flavour of her writing brilliantly. The satire session in which she read her work, in fact, turned out to be the best session of the day. The crowd roared at the banter between Mohammed Hanif, Shehan Karunatilaka and Shazaf Fatima Haider facilitated by the irrepressible William Dalrymple. Each of the writers read out a humorous piece from their writings, some bawdy, some satirical which made for a light but thought-provoking session.

‘The Literature of Resistance’ session saw a video message from Arundhati Roy being played on the screen. For me its star attraction was Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh who spoke with great clarity and grace about the problems of being a writer attempting to explain a conflicting situation to the outside world. BBC’s Lyce Doucet was also a star attraction on this panel who spoke about her experiences reporting the Arab spring and her views on Lahore and Pakistan.

If there is one thing the festival did for me, it was to dispel the myth of the writer as unattractive nerd slaving away in a corner on his laptop, unwilling and unable to communicate with a world beyond his words. Most of the authors I listened to, with the exception of the very old ones, were savvy crowd-workers with ready wits and charming personalities, often quite different from what one might have imagined from just reading their works.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, for instance, with his gora looks and accent made for an odd contrast with his subject matter, i.e. the lives of ordinary villagers in rural Punjab. William Dalrymple whose works I haven’t read I had always slotted in my mind as a historian (the word conjures up very dry associations), so his affable charm came as quite a surprise. Writers like Mohammed Hanif and Musharraf Ali Farooqui dispelled my notion of authors as self-obsessed narcissists unwilling to engage with the less accomplished.

On the second day of the festival three back to back sessions left me with little energy to do much else post-lunch so I decided to sit out the rest of the afternoon on the Alhamra steps reading, people-watching and soaking the sun’s rays after a long week of rain and dreariness.
That my city allowed me to do that, for once, without any prying eyes or groping hands was cause enough for celebration, add to that people listening to authors, buying books and engaging with ideas without a bomb blast in sight and I was a happy trooper.


The Night Bookmobile

The ‘adult’ graphic novels at The Last Word stick out for their neat, hardbound calm among the dizzying jumble of superhero comics, baiting the desultory afternoon browser to pluck one out just for the joy of engaging with a beautiful book. I pick Audrey Niffeneger’sThe Night Bookmobile. A woman in a bright blue dress and crimson nail polish clutches an open book to her heart; eyes squeezed shut, a strained expression on her face most often associated with fervent prayer. Behind her from floor to ceiling stacks of vibrant books fill a room that’s too snazzy to be a library, too sombre for a bookshop. This is a book designed with the express purpose of enticing bibliophiles and the trick is working on me. Between the fishing out of the debit card for a (relatively) cheap book I had picked out earlier and the last wistful glance at the room’s enchanting motley, I lean over and grab this one I cannot afford. I decide it’s worth the purchase for the cover alone.

The lyrical quality of the jacket echoes in the novel’s poetic style which opens with its protagonist wandering the streets of Chicago ‘at that quiet time of morning when the cicadas have given up but the birds haven’t started in yet’. Wandering aimlessly to clear her head after a fight with her long-time boyfriend she chances upon the Chicago Version of the Alif Laila Book Bus blaring ‘I Shot The Sherriff’ from the corner of a street. Against her better judgment she engages in a conversation with the bus driver who invites her in with a card that reads ‘Night Bookmobile—Hours Dawn to Dusk’. The room she slips into is subdued and pleasant, smelling of ‘old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog’; books stretch out endlessly within it. All the ones in the first shelf are children’s books, some have catalogue numbers on their spines, others don’t, and the numbers seem to belong to different systems. She wonders if Mr. Oppenshaw, the bus driver and librarian has been running around stealing books from different libraries. Further exploration of the library leads to the discovery that all the books on its shelves are familiar ‘from Jane Austen to Paul Aster, from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook to college biology textbooks’, even her personal diaries. That’s when Mr. Oppenshaw tells her that the bookmobile is a complete collection of everything she has ever read in her life, a concept as fascinating to the protagonist, Alexandra, as it would doubtless be to anyone who is an avid reader. At dawn the librarian promptly turns her out after which the next appearance the bookmobile makes in Alexandra’s life is nine years later. Thus the stage is set for a rather fascinating tale of magical realism and fantasy.

The urge to own books and the ways in which our reading defines us is at the core of The Night Bookmobile. Imagine being led to a place that contains every single word you have ever read including cereal boxes, periodicals and newspapers, even your own diaries. Imagine a librarian whose sole job it is to keep track of all that you read and keep updating your personal collection of books accordingly. How would that change your reading choices? What kind of connection would you feel for a person accessing all your thoughts in the form of all you choose to read and write, however discretely? For those captivated by alternate worlds where does fantasy end and reality begin? Do books bring us greater clarity or further confusion? What we read, what we highlight and what we leave unread can be as intimate as our dearest thoughts and it is a fascination with all these ideas thatThe Night Bookmobile successfully manages to capture in its first half. All the more disappointing when such an intriguing concept is left criminally underdeveloped and the book fails to explore any of the questions it raises in any depth.  Hardly has the book begun when it ends, the text not even as long as most short stories, leaving its overarching metaphor dangling and incomplete, but despite that the nocturnal ambience of a big city that it evokes so movingly, the life of a lonely woman increasingly consumed by the books she reads, a dreamlike Chicago of late rainy nights, music concerts, baseball games and a fantastical night bookmobile that comes and goes of its own whim; the narrator's almost imperceptible sexual tension with the balding, asexual-looking eternal librarian- a distant, ethereal man who knows her more intimately than anyone else, and the idea of a place filled with all the books you have ever read and thus been shaped by, is enough to call this a good purchase. 

The Night Bookmobile is like walking through someone's dream, with all the escapist thrill and incompleteness of one. A dream you don't want to let go of as you lie there in the early morning twilight zone between sleeping and waking, vainly fighting against the demands of the real world pressing down upon you.


First published in The News on Sunday here