Friday, December 28, 2007

Red Green Black

Flawed though the dream was, for our generation the dying embers of Camelot have finally been extinguished....with tears of happiness we had welcomed what could be one December two decades ago and now with tears of shock we bid her farewell in the December cold.
At a time when many of us had been critical of her Machivellian politics she finally has the last laugh as she becomes immortalized as the slain democrat. I wait for a time when the sudden pain at hearing her name goes away and when remembering her can brings back the smiles and the fondness we all had for her in our own way.. the digs at her accent, the helmet hair, the silk jackets..hum kehtey hain...the energy..the dupatta and a spirit that never was still.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Im posting here the full text of my column which was butchered in The Post today....just to set the record straight so no one thinks I could have written the inspid prose in print today.
My Predicament

Friday afternoon—coffee time, someone comments on “verbal” weapons of the week in the face of more powerful adversaries, I joke about the standard Pakistani quips about the Pakistani military, salute all that moves, white wash all that is stationary. “Loot all that moves did you say”? questions someone down the table over the lunch room din. “Oh this trumps everything” we shriek “Loot, salute all that moves”. Pervez Hoodhbhoy’s quips “Some countries have an army, in our case teh army has a country”. Flashback a couple of decades ago, it is a dholki and a group of school girls are preparing for the evening “friendly competition” of quips and barbs set to tune. Trying to think of a way to get back at the brother-in-law we spoof the then popular laudatory song (for the Pakistani military)...”Pakistani fauj key jawan hain hum” ...we get more and more worked up “rishwat khaney keliye tayaar hain hum”...”korhey marney keliye tayyar hain hum” Pakistani fauj key jawan hain hum...sensitivity is lost on twelve year olds growing up under Zia.

I can honestly declare that I have spent more than half of my lifetime whinging about the men in khaki haven’t I? This as I grew up reading Stephen Cohen’s words “A Pakistani who cannot share equally in the obligations and rewards associated with such a central institution as the military is not truly a citizen in the full sense of the word”. So how could a half citizen (courtesy Zia’s cozy alliance with the beards) and a civilian to boot aspire to be a good Pakistani? And because of the fact that the President during my formative years ruined entertainment for me by declaring to his critics (who protested the predominance of religious programmes on Pakistan Television) very vehemently that ‘a moulvi is stuck on television and will remain stuck’. The military professes ‘to giveth’ (individual freedoms and choices when it comes to what we can watch on TV—has anyone noticed that since the recent crisis facing Musharraf the “blanket ban” on trash across the border has been lifted—let the citizens have “cake” when they cant have the bread of daily freedoms) and not when the army partook in some of the ‘taketh’ (of said choices on TV, our human rights and religious freedoms et al). So which one of us is not one of ‘Zia’s children’ as they call my generation? It is also you and it is definitely me. It is the gentleman who is bringing in Shariah in Peshawar, then Islamabad and now Swat. It is as I said before the student who memorizes the Quran, not because of securing a better hereafter but to assure that much-coveted seat in a medical university in Pakistan. It is the woman who breaks a traffic light and then refuses to roll down the car’s window when the traffic cop taps on the window explaining that she refuses to speak to a namehram. These ‘children’ are the administrators of mosques who refuse paramedics to tend to dying women until and unless their male chaperones give their permission to do so. It is also the President in more recent times who tells us that he is the best person for the job as who else in Pakistan has been given the honor to call to Allah from the Khan-e-Kaaba. Somehow today we all happen to be Zia’s progeny, reaping the lovely fruits he planted for us.

And some months ago it was Maulvi Sarwar? Who did you say? Amazing how short-termed our memories are as we wrestle with a daily plethora of crisis. Last year someone in the print media had expressed the opinion that it was symptomatic of the malaise that has struck Gujranwala—and to this I would add it is suggestive of developments across many other such towns across Pakistan. It is not only Maulvi Sarwar who had his finger on the trigger as he took aim at Zill-e-Huma. All of us were party to the reprehensible actions that took place that afternoon. And by no means we can blame what happened as an aftermath of the Talebanization of the past few years. Or in fact hold responsible the ghost of General Zia that looms over our shoulders and/or his progeny that live and flourish amongst us and in their supreme wisdom take to placing foundation stones in the capital.

Then just one Eid ago a group of harassed family members had no choice but to march to Pakistan’s khaki heartland to deliver a protest, however the city’s administration swung brutally into action to crush such imprudent thoughts of challenging who really rules Pakistan. Though last December was marked by Musharraf’s attempts towards “enlightened moderation” a half hearted bill of passage for the Women’s Protection Bill and then a nod towards civility with female cadets present at the change of guard at the Quaid’s tomb come December 25th. A Sikh cadet pops up to show that finally an enlightened and moderate state is in place and the ghost of Zia has passed but alas at heart our state and our nation is still the feudal monster that it was and we do not like our ‘little people’. So as beleaguered relatives gathered to register their resentment of another Eid approaching with no news or in fact acknowledgement of their beloved family members being abducted by the security agencies (for the life of me I cannot use the words ‘picked up’ as our beloved citizens are ripe pumpkins for the picking as the agency wallah comes a harvesting), they were humiliated on the streets of Pindi for even dreaming that they lived in a democratic state where citizens can walk up to an officer and submit a letter bearing their grievances. All pretensions of respecting womenfolk are just that, an exercise of self-posturing—as the heartrending photographs in the newspapers next day have shown. Pakistan’s girl child pleads with her hands folded, beseeching a policeman to let go of a brother. Spare me the tired expressions of living Quaid’s dream; my life is a nightmare of reading of women and minors fainting by the road side as policemen cane their loved ones. So you may have your charade of parading characters on our television screens uttering platitudes that we respect our women, of contingents of ‘smart’ or otherwise women laying wreaths and changing guard at the Quaid’s tomb, but there is no fooling the world—the Pakistani state does not respect women.
But now I am going through a moral conundrum as we view Pakistani military jawans kept hostage by militants in a “retributive” turn of events—they too I realize are confused, while others in Waziristan might not have been so lucky, in Swat captured troops are released, but they too mumble their quandary “we cant say bad, for they too are our Muslim brothers”. I for one have to keep my waspish tongue in check as I observe the fury unleashed on the face of the Pakistani military now, Tarbela Ghazi yesterday, Sargodha today. Sadly the saviours of our soul as the Mard-e- Moman and Mard-e-Haq took upon himself and his comrades over the past years, those who promise to usher in an Islamic revolution on the seas and oceans, “with growing confidence and growing strength in the air ..whatever the cost may be, on the beaches… on the landing grounds…in the fields and in the streets, in the hills” (apologies to Mr Churchill as I play around with his words) have now been struck by the same viper that they fed with our blood and tears.

My heart grieves as I write these words, I know I cannot chastise the military for a while as they too (albeit the innocent non commissioned officers, the foot soldiers and cadets to date) suffer the choices of the elite.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Jab We Met

Oh I succumbed despite all my Saturday evening "apostate" intentions of reducing my visits to the cine-temple.
So I met this really cool female and I found myself trying my level best to "channel" just like her inner-our I find out that she is pretty nonchalant about not watching a particular release (when I usually have a such an apologetic air about me on missing a film ...For a change I didnt have to say please forgive me...dont judge me...I was having my leg amputated or something close to it, dont judge me if i sniffle if I havent watched a Friday release and its already mid-week) So I ask the house guest why she does not watch Indian cinema, frankly why not? and she replies oh we really dont watch movies, it has never occured to my husband and me to watch a film( or words to that effect) Wow!! ..later in the evening I had to confess this to someone that Shahrukh Khan might not even have washed off the grease paint from his face when I start pacing up and down in the theatre foyer or haranguing the DVD guy to get a copy as soon as possible for us.
All this while I thought I was going to detoxify my life but kiya kejiye moths to a flame or lovelorn seamen to a siren ..we are going to be there. And Jab We Met was worth falling off the wagon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

False messiah

Matters have reached a stage when we cannot even attempt to indulge in clichéd phrases. I do not think I can get away any longer with stringing words along lines that Thursday evening witnessed the port city of Karachi – our mini-Pakistan – reeling under the throes of a bizarre case of déjà vu, as another round of senseless violence struck the city. For when has violence made any sense? And pray would assigning meaning make it any less futile! Is there any meaning to lives lost? Déjà vu – at times read as ‘remembering the future’. So did in the blazing afternoon sun of May 12 the spectre of the night of Thursday rise? Our destinies continue to spiral out of our control, the ghoul of evils to come hold sway, as we stumble to devise meaning, to point fingers, to appoint guilt. Tragedy visits us, no matter where we live, what we are doing, trying to find some comfort and succour as we mourn the dead.

They have announced that there will be three days of mourning. Three days for now and endless weeks later, as the city will remain paralysed with residents held hostage within their homes. Shutters across the city forced to be pulled down. And then to count the moments go by, bated breath every time the Princess Royale, the King’s Party, or our President-in-Fatigues choose to visit the city? With an education system that remains paralysed by all the scheduled holidays, compensatory holidays for every year the Ruet-e-Hilal committee gets it wrong, strikes and protest days as those in power play their cat and mouse games, this is all the city’s young need to have enforced gaiety that the Prodigal Daughter returneth and now this mourning.

Can the city and this country accommodate all these centres of power? I am still trying to comprehend these shifts in power – who calls the shots in the different neighbourhoods of Pakistan now? Like mini fiefdoms, Rawalpindi ends where GHQ begins, Islamabad ends where Aabpara et Lal Masjid begin. Karachi begins where Masroor and Faisal end. I have seen it happening before in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy when a fatwa was issued by offices in Peshawar (I refer here to the million dollars or so bounty for the death of the Danish cartoonist). And when Lahore wanted to decide how the ‘investigation’ into Copenhagen is conducted and the appropriate punishment to the offenders be meted out. How can one explain why what is decided in Lahore tries to counter the power and judicial structures in Copenhagen? How groups in Karachi threaten decisions taken in the corridors of Islamabad? Ghassan Hage, an academic at the Sydney University, reminded me of the parallels when he explained the paradigms operating for the migrant Muslims. Being Muslim is now a ‘transnational idea’, the British Pakistani on the streets of London in the late 80s would have announced that he would follow what the Ayatollah in Iran is saying rather than the laws of Britain regarding the freedoms of a certain writer. ‘I am a nation of the exiles from Dubai and Saudi Arabia and not the Pakistani state’ is what I believe is being uttered in the streets of Karachi right now.

So in Karachi the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) turns on the men in black, turn on the men in khaki, embrace red, green, black, turn on men in beards. A while ago the MQM asked of President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to ban the Jamaat-e-Islami and remove the NWFP government for supporting political and religious unrest in Sindh. (In the aftermath of the bomb blasts on the Sunni Tehreek, the MQM legislator Kunwar Khalid Younas had declared that Qazi Hussain Ahmad should be held responsible for “protecting terrorists and suicide attackers”. For him the NWFP government had to be accused of totally failing in maintaining peace, of protecting the life and property of the people of NWFP, and beyond, and that it does not deserve to continue to rule NWFP.)And now?

With all the sureties of fool-proof security, whose head should roll?Meanwhile, from the pulpits of Karachi and recesses of NWFP we have voices clamouring for Benazir to be declared an enemy of Islam, considering her vows to continue with Washington’s project. This for them is their definition of doing political Islam in today’s times. I have written elsewhere how in other Muslim societies, political Islam and even the term ‘jihad’ could rather have been translated as doing away with inequities. The term ‘corruption’, instead of being translated as ‘moral corruption’, could have been read as economic violence. To ‘fight against all evils’ would be the sins outlined in Islam and not just physical violence against those who believe in causes other than yours.

And what can one say about the Prodigal Daughter? I admit her smile and tears still move the public, she plays to them walking down the steps weighed down with Imam Zaman. Hopeless romantics, they queue up for a glimpse of her face. What kind of self-destructive love is this that draws them still? She has let down this love before, but they still hope. And now as the camera moves slowly on the mangled twisted wrecks, the fires still smouldering on trampled confetti of rose buds, identity papers charred red black green, now stained the crimson of blood.

Do you remember the Shia Muslim sect Qarmatians whose particular worldview was one that every phenomenon has and will repeat itself in cycles, so that each incident is replayed over and over again? I can interpret it in my own pessimistic way that ‘no matter how much things change, they seem to remain the same’. So how soon will it be that Ms Bhutto reneges on her Faustian bargain and utters her earlier words: “Noting the most devastating and traumatic experiences that our nation experienced under military dictatorships that played havoc with the nation’s destiny and created conditions disallowing the progress of our people and the flowering of democracy. Even after removal from office, they undermined the people’s mandate and the sovereign will of the people; drawing history’s lesson that the military dictatorship and the nation cannot co-exist – as military involvement adversely affects the economy and the democratic institutions as well as the defence capabilities, and the integrity of the country – the nation needs a new direction different from a militaristic and regimental approach of the Bonapartist regimes, as the current one.” And now how does she view them?

But for how long can I chant this litany of my distress. Can we revisit Ghalib? “Dard-e-dil likhoo kab tak jaoon unko dikhlaoo. Ungliyan figar apnee khama-khoon-chuka apna” (Ghalib). Translated as, and very loosely translated as, by me: “When do I stop writing of the pain that wrenches my heart? Should I show my Beloved these bruised fingers of mine – the writing-reed that drips of my blood?” So I ask of you how much blood has to flow in this long night of ours, for how long do the blood-shot eyes of Karachi beseech of the heavens for dawn to come for them?

But we trudge along. False heroes and heroines, demigods visit us promising us that they are our messiah. Decades ago, Faiz had told us that:“We are told,Your new dawn is already here;Your tired feet need journey no more...But there is yet no relief in the darkness of the Night;No liberation yet of our souls and our minds,So let us keep marching, my friends,We have yet to find our Elusive Dawn.”So dear readers, it is going to be a long night yet. Can we still hope that there is light at the end of it?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Oct 18 and counting

Dard-e- dil likhoo kab tak jaoon un ko dikhlaoo
Ungliyan figar apnee khama-khoon-chuka apna (Ghalib)

(Loosely and I emphazie very loosely translated as: When do I stop writing of the pain that wrenches my heart Should I show my Beloved these bruised fingers of mine..the writing-reed that drips of my blood)

I admit her smile and tears still move the public...hopeless romantics they line up for a glimpse of her face...what kind of self-destructive love is this that draws them still? She has let down this love before, but they still hope....

Mangled twisted wrecks, a trampled confetti of rose buds identity papers charred red black green now stained the crimson of blood. How much blood has to flow in this long night of ours, for how long do my blood-shot eyes beseech of the heavens for dawn to come...

Friday, September 14, 2007

This Week in History

In the past week the anticipation surrounding Britney's forthcoming performance at the VMA awards was matched only by how eagerly many awaited ObinLaden's forthcoming "video missive"...somehow when "twas the night before September 11" rolls around little souls at media channels all over the world hang out their stockings anticipating a visit from the bearded one.

the day after if anyone was keeping notes..ObinL won both the "visual appearance" and "performance" gongs...its remarkable what watching a season of Queer Eye and a trip to your friendly colorist can do for your media friendliness.

Monday, August 27, 2007

wake up and smell the coffeeeee

I have realized that we all need wake up moments in life—a moment that clichéd as it may sound life decides to take you by your shoulders and shake you out of your complacency. For some time I have been a victim, albeit a grudging victim, of the “everything is well” syndrome that has intoxicated most of my compatriots; that all is well with our nation sixty years in its existence, of the importance of optimism and turning a deaf ear to all the negative propaganda that is a mischievous conspiracy on the part of Pakistan’s enemies. This August 14th in Melbourne, at the stroke of 10am in the morning when many in Pakistan were asleep, I standing in the consulate of a Schengen state awoke to a redefinition of what a meaningful life and freedom means for a Pakistani abroad. “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. My sincerest apologies to the soul of Jawaharlal Nehru and his offspring for so liberally distorting his landmark speech to articulate my frame of mind that August morning. As the visa officer brought out a separate sheet of paper and asked me for an undertaking that I had never falsified my travel documents, undertaken terrorist training (as if!) and the piece de resistance my travel history to certain countries and regions in the past three years (transit not counting). And well pride of place (perhaps a cosmic present from the heavens for all we have subjected the world to in the past sixty years) in the list of sad, bad, countries was our beloved country Pakistan. Yes, it is not the ubiquitous Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and the usual gang of terrors alone, there it was in black and white have I travelled in the past three years to Pakistan, tick please. Kashmir and Chechnya were listed as regions, probably not to embarrass their central governments. There was Philippines, which seemed like an afterthought, and the United Arab Emirates that should worry all the jockeys and horses the Emirates group sponsors courtesy their involvement with the Melbourne Cup ....

But my pet greeve for this week is not the duplicity in attitude towards the United Arab Emirates, it is the sorrow experienced on a particular day when I was in the mood to celebrate a day of political maturity (60 is a sobering year) and a moment of arrival for my country on the world scene. Well arrived our country has and with style and fanfare. Albeit it is in all the wrong pages and lists—to be topping the list of short stop-over or leg-overs while your flight prepares to visit the Axis of Evil is no good news.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Light bulb moment!

Being a Pakistani abroad brings upon you a set of responsibilities that you might never have volunteered for when you applied for that passport—at times you realise you have been reduced to performing the duties of a quasi-almanac of all things South Asian for the greater community. I have noticed that the frequency of queries posed to me have increased substantially in the past month—perhaps the flurry of announcements in the media for a season of programmes devoted to our 60th year anniversary is one reason everyone has “woken up” to our part of the world (or it could be that people do listen in to the US Presidential Debate after all and want to know more about us before we are bombed to kingdom come). However amongst all these queries—some quite irritating, there are the occasional “gems of wisdom” which make me examine my assumptions and come up to clichéd as it sounds some “light bulb” moments of my own regarding the state of affairs in Pakistan.
One such question was the ubiquitous query regarding the life of women, single women at that in Pakistan. The particular “pollster” was quite keen that I do not refer to women in Karachi, Lahore and the cosmopolitan centres but single women living in small town Pakistan and beyond, where the veneer of civilization fades and our tribal loyalties become paramount. Could women have functioning (as Pakistanis define it) lives on their own, he asked? Could they live independently? Would their community allow them to earn as they please and spend it on their selves? To sum it up how self-sufficient could they be? It is obvious that there could only be one response to that question—and how it would be interpreted in turn by the investigator and what he could derive about the state of affairs for the Pakistani woman in 2007. But then these questions did set me thinking and I had to rephrase my initial response. In Pakistan today—and the way our society functions who can survive as an individual? Do our communities allow for anyone to make it on their own? Is an individual’s opinion ever taken seriously and at the risk of repeating myself is personal initiative ever encouraged? Where is the respect for reason, where is the tolerance for someone who wants to march to their own drum, and where is the assurance that every individual can have an equal opportunity to excel? This is something that cuts across gender and therefore one has to realise that before evaluating the state of (women) affairs in our country.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

to which i should add 'mind of a married man'...have not been able to utter the words "happy endings" with a straight face ever since!

"Mad Men" starts soon before I kill that off.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Kiss of Death

I seriously think I have the kiss of death where TV programs are concerned...I only have to warm up to one and they either decide not to renew the series...or Foxtel takes it sweet time screening new episodes....or Jennifer Aniston wants to make movies.
I guess its a sign of SERIOUS AGING (on my part)...if the voice over on my TV announces "coming next CLASSIC FRIENDS episodes"...when did it become the Golden Girls sitting around at Central Perk??
So far Ive said good bye to Frasier, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Friends, Will and Grace, Judging Amy....if Big Love gives up on me I am going to pull the plug.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mapping Melbourne

Remember when as grad students in the field you got members of the community to draw 'neighbourhood maps' for you and at some stage you would tut tut and shake your head in dismay as how all the men were marking out the way to the liquour store/tea stall, local bank, shops et al and how women drew water wells, where they were getting wood from, hospitals, their children's school ....I realised that if someone were to ask me to map my city lately I should have a more circuitous route than drawing a straight line from 'ass print on couch' to 'tram stop' to 'uni' avoiding sites of PPP (Pigeons, Public Displays of Affection, Puppyjhappi Punjabis).
PPP killed the travel star.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Paradise Lost

The past two weeks I have been trying to find some conceptual framework, some ‘grand theory’ which could offer me an explanation not proffered so far, an angle unexplored, to unpack the current dilemma facing us all. Which ‘basic premise’ remains ‘unextended’ amongst the myriad of hypotheses that have set out to examine what went wrong with Musharraf. One afternoon flicking through the channels I even heard the journo/political commentator Nusrat Javeed offering the grand ‘Eastern beloved’ theory for the Pakistani public relationship with their President. Just as in days of yore our great poets would lament at the intermediaries who wouldn’t deliver their missive to their beloved. A beloved the lovelorn poet had led himself into believing was not as snooty and cold-hearted towards him as everyone assumed her to be. In truth the beloved would have willingly reciprocated his love, but if only. Hamara mehboob tau bura nahee hai, was the plaintive cry. That pattern was replicated in the humble populace relationship with the benign king of old, who was a really decent and kindly old chap come to think of it; he only had evil vazirs (ministers) who conspired sinister campaigns and whispered incantations in the king’s ears against you. So, as Mr Javeed explained, some of us continue to believe that the good President Musharraf is just a misguided guy and it’s the coterie around him that leads him into embarking on the kind of misadventures that he has been suspect to undertaking. I am sure Mr Javeed was trying to hint that we should get out of such mind games and stop making excuses for the gentleman in question. If he had been following daytime TV and Oprah and/or was consuming popular American culture I am sure at some stage he would broken into the golden words immortalized by the show, “He is not that into you, girl!” So dear readers, in the interests of your sanity, it is about time we take off those rosy glasses (that is if some of you still have them on where Musharraf is concerned) and tell ourselves that the man in uniform really doesn’t love us that much.

I have been searching that old bookshelf to find other such ‘gems’ from spaces that I have not visited for some time now to get some answers. I am trying to look into some understanding into what makes President Musharraf prone to enter into (and lead us into) the kind of catastrophes that Pakistan is facing. And the answer came from the American feminist (circa 1970s) Adrienne Rich. I believe Musharraf has a classic case of ‘matrophobia’. The fear of becoming his mother (General Ziaul Haq) has turned him into the monster he is. This October will mark eight years of the well meaning commando in khaki appearing on our television screens in that infamous press conference at Karachi airport. And tell me, for all his talk of bringing in ‘true democracy’ and ‘enlightened moderation’, how have the eight years of Musharraf been different from the ‘eleven years of tyranny’ (aamriyat key giyarah saal)? ...flawed time keeping was just one of the personality traits that the two shared. Perhaps it becomes characteristic of any Pakistani army general when they decide to step into the halls of the Presidency. Personal deadlines like 90 days or 11 years become immaterial. Of course our current Chief of Army Staff has done away with the calendar and defines time as right and wrong, black and white. “When the timing is right, then only then I will take off my uniform.” So what are calendars and watches when it comes to our beloved, eh? President Musharraf for all his doublespeak of being a military dictator but with a difference is a despot who has run roughshod over our lives.

This is Martial Law lite, Musharraf’s supporters assured detractors such as me in the autumn of 1999. Same great taste/quick results but minus the cavities/caveats of personal freedom! But for all his fears of turning into a Zia, our good President has condemned our ill fated nation into reliving the disastrous 80s. Karachi burning, a disastrous Afghan policy, Zia had only expressed his Great Dream of how ‘he would like every organization or institution (in Pakistan) to be transformed into a Deeni Madrassah’ (President Zia’s address to the then Majlis Shoora, October 1982 — leading me into my second hypothesis, surely we should revisit the Ides of March into exploring a possible Ides of October?!), Musharraf has fulfilled that dream of transforming each feature of Pakistani society into one large Deeni Madrassah (religious seminary).

When I labeled my generation as ‘Zia’s children’, I thought the malaise was restricted to my age group alone – that somehow the generations following us were free of the warped minds that were our burden. But perhaps I spoke too soon, as young minds today grow as fearful and suspicious of anything different, of plurality, of anything that challenges their idea that there can be only one guide, ‘a one truth fits all’ guide to religious interpretation. That there is only one ethnicity, theirs alone, which is ‘the right one’ and the good one and there is no need to interact with others. This year President Musharraf, who happens to be the Chief of Army Staff Musharraf, and is also introduced as Pervez Musharraf, Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University, successfully put the last nails in the coffin of that University (QAU). The university was the last bastion of free thinking when it came to public universities in the country – when those who could escaped to the world of private universities that have mushroomed in the past five years, QAU still groaned along trying to provide a progressive environment to students from all over Pakistan. When Razia Sultana, a teacher in the History Department, was chastised so violently regarding her choice of head covering, we all knew that the idyllic QAU of yore was just that, a pleasant memory of “a moment in time, a point in space”. And then last Monday President Musharraf’s twisted games left us bereft of one of QAU’s favorite sons, Syed Hammad Raza. Hammad was a friend, a mentor to so many of us. Clichéd as it may sound, but Hammad was the good Pakistani, that Jinnah (the namesake of our alma mater QAU) spoke about in his address to the Constituent Assembly. He was above caste, above sectarian affiliation, above his ethnicity. The anger that his murder invoked in all of us reminded me of other incidents when we would be consumed with fury regarding some political development and Hammad would counsel my friends in the way he did. It was Hammad who taught me that following a path of ‘purifying’ one’s culture from the Other would turn us schizophrenic and to acknowledge the plurality of voices that formed our common past. He was the voice of rationality, of justice, of fairness in action – the very same reasons that perhaps the twisted minds that took his life abhorred. He had a brilliant mind, he had as Pankaj Mishra wrote elsewhere, “The charisma of people we can’t place easily, people who come out of no known background, and who dazzle us by the unexpectedness of their talents.” Farewell dear friend, you will be sorely missed.

Today there is no difference between you, Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor and the one who preceded you. The transformation of your coterie into Mr Hyde is complete. In taking Hammad’s life you have bereft Pakistani society of the same enlightened moderation that you had made your ‘cause celbere’

Sunday, May 13, 2007

we have been really bad children

I had read of someone writing a play once about a dog that ran away from this squabbling couple as he thought he was the raison de'etre why his 'mom and dad' were divorcing...I think Mush is trying to tell us that if we were on better behavior, he and the CJ wouldnt be so acrimonous..and would have kissed and made up a long time ago.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Can your kids come out and play with mine

I have realised that to rope in 'volunteers' I have to use the playground mom routine to succeed...get someone who knows someone with kids (read Pashtun contacts) my (age/group/gender) and hope they get along..which seems a welcome break from my tactics of the past week...channeling all the skills of a Pakistani Lothario ...hanging around at shopping centres, trying to locate Pashtuns..'aap mujh (my project) sey friendship kareyngey'.

Friday, May 04, 2007

my state of mind

today and tomorrow.....

Thursday, May 03, 2007

No One Is Looking At Me!!

Feeling soooo blue this weekend...its getting ever so frustrating getting together Pashtuns living in Melbourne who would be willing to be interviewed (read my first blog ever for more on this)...why does the question 'will you be willing to participate in my project' read as 'would you like to store some fertilizer for me in your garage'?

Passage to Delhi

Varanasi Ghat, 2005

Varanasi, 2005

We manage to reserve the last seats on the evening train out to Delhi and hurriedly sit down on the first that are vacant. While the railway official looks up a seat for me in his charts, the man sitting opposite me stares at me in visible dismay. I had queued up behind him as he had furtively purchased the last copy of this week’s Spatik (the weekly Outlook’s Hindi publication) at the bookstall in Varanasi’s railway station. This week’s cover story was about middle class Indian women buying sex and he had been looking forward to a good read this evening.
That I had dropped down right in front of him was causing him visible discomfort as he tried to nonchalantly flip through the magazine. He gives an embarrassed half-smile in goodbye as I move to my allotted seat a couple of rows down the compartment.
As I settle down for the evening, I catch snippets of conversation from the seats behind me. Our railway compartment has the Japanese boys I met in the cinema. A group of sales representatives are returning to Delhi and rib their friend every time his cell phone rings. They tease another when he buys a popular women’s magazine. Kiya kijiye cosmetic firm may hain and its competition tau dekhna hoga. Behind me I can hear two professors from Benares Hindu University discussing the conference they will be attending in Delhi. As one of them pores through the newspaper he excitedly points out a news item about a proposed relaxation of rules in applying for a visa to Pakistan. The other has wanted to go to Lahore for a while and is eager to read the column. As the two debate the merits of visiting Lahore over Karachi, I, in a fit of Pathan nationalism, introduce myself so to include some city from the NWFP in their proposed itineraries. We discuss the state of affairs at the Benares Hindu University. The university is recovering from the turbulence it had gone through in the eighties. I have questions about Varanasi: the paradox of it generating so much revenue through tourism, pilgrimage and industries and the visible lack of infrastructure. A stocky safari suited man sitting with them has included himself in our conversation. He runs a sari business in the city, but is a Benares Hindu University alumnus. He feels left out every time the conversation shifts to the academic and tries to steer it towards discussing the city. He is a frequent day-tripper to Delhi. At the moment he has decided to ease out from selling Benarsi saris for a while and is stocking up his Delhi store with cheaper synthetic Chinese imports. He is unperturbed when I ask him about the fate of the Benarsi weavers. Their time will come he assures me. Delhi fashions are so temporary.
The monsoon rains pour down on Delhi as I leave the railway station. I have always had mixed feelings about this city. For me, its "city of culture" visage is only a thin veneer camouflaging the city's bawdy inner self. The reminder of "what (violence) lies beneath "comes up in the oddest places. I would find myself discussing the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi with a group of colleagues in a housing colony (near the under-construction site for the games), we are drinking tea and deliberating on urban planning and would suddenly realize that the apartment building we are sitting in has been the site of the most horrific of the 1984 Sikh killings. You try to enjoy the beauty of the Mughal section of the city and try to forget poor Dara Shikoh’s fate at the hand of his brother. The latticework of the white marble pavilion in the Delhi Fort is beautiful till you remember Shah Jehan, his daughter’s unfortunate paramour and the cauldron of steaming bath water on the fire.
I venture out towards the Old City. I haven’t visited Nizamuddin’s shrine for a while. One sidesteps the puddles in the street after the early morning rains. Roadside stalls sell traveling bags and the ubiquitous white crocheted caps. Ghalib Academy has been done up since my last visit and is now offering computer classes in Urdu calligraphy.In the narrow side lanes leading up to the shrine, the stalls are spaced closer. Under bright overhead lights, there is a chaos of roses, incense, sugar treats, qawali CDs. Men pull at your sleeves, jootey utaro, jootey utaro. But after a month of buying a tray of offerings in lieu of their guarding my shoes I have wised up. As I take off my shoes at the kiosk at the entrance, I look over the crowd within. Women read their rosary in the compound or hold on to the grill frame enclosing the saint’s grave as they beseech the saint for a favour. Men who can enter the inner shrine take their offerings inside. The qawals that congregate outside Amir Khusro’s shrine haven’t settled down yet. A khadim at the shrine is most courteous and spends some time helping me locate Princess Jehan Ara’s grave. Shah Jehan’s beloved daughter, she was Dara Shikoh’s loyal ally and much envied by the siblings Aurangzeb and Roshan Ara. She experimented with Persian verse, raised beautiful gardens and is the mind behind the construction of the Chandni Chowk area.
Outside, bread shops try to sell you tokens that guarantee a requisite number of the swarming beggars being fed nans. It is an efficient Delhi system catering towards your aspirations, towards benevolence, and none of the area’s ‘not so hungry’ dumping the food in the alleys. I want to hang around to find out how the stallholders and the beggars divide the proceeds from the sale of tokens. However, I cannot stay for long as men lead up goats with overfull bladders to where you stand. The goat stares at you steely eyed as the keeper urges you to curry merit by feeding it some foliage. It is hard to order mutton at Khadims after this encounter. But other hardened Delhi souls are unsentimental regarding the predicament this encounter poses.As I pore over the menu, on the next table a swarthy gentleman bellows into his cell phone that he has a visitor from Lahore. The visitor cajoles him to visit Peshawar, bahut pur sakoon jaga hai. Phal, meva, ek haftey may surkh safaid hojaayengey. He inquires about the history of the restaurant. Do all kinds of people come here or just Delhi Muslims? He tries to make eye contact with our table and I debate whether to quash his fantasy of a cross-border romance, or keep the fact that we share a postcode unknown.
On my way home my car passes through Janpath. As one pavement seller cautions regarding an approaching policeman, the others are swift to wrap up their wares before he descends, swiping his cane. The tableau continues, as they are toughened to his blows, and they quickly return to the pavements after a period of time. The lane of women stallholders selling their colourful Rajasthani silks is more organized. They have set up a more permanent establishment. However, the monsoon sky is unmerciful and as the heavens pour down, they implore the straggling group of shoppers one last time.

Negotiating Chennai

Shore Temple (Mahabalipuram), September 2005

Marina Beach (Chennai), September 2005

Though astrology forms an important part of society all over India, I am in Chennai to explore the Nadi astrologers who are unique to South India. These astrologers claim to be custodians of ancient palm leaf manuscripts that were originally scribed by sages known as Rishis. Though based in Vaitheeswarankoil in Central Tamil Nadu, many have moved to Chennai in recent years. The sages claimed that they had put down a prophecy for nearly every soul in the world, of their time and later. If there is one for you, you find your way to one of the sage’s descendants, and if not, well! there was never a prediction meant for you. Reading the tales of earlier visitors getting their car breakdowns before they reached the town of Vaitheeswarankoil, losing their way into the town or ‘mysteriously’ running into a Nadi astrologer has always fascinated me. So I ask my local hosts to do the ‘reconnaissance’ for me before I arrive in the city.

Chennai is overwhelming and clichéd as it may sound, very, very foreign. Compared to other Indian cities it is very conservative, and while I am in the city, students at the Anna University were protesting the stricter dress codes being imposed upon them. As Chennai prepared for the upcoming Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive meeting in the city, where the party would most probably lock horns with the ‘parent’ organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, I was more involved in arranging matters of a more ‘celestial’ kind searching for a Nadi astrologer. I am running out of time and cannot wait till my name edges on the waiting list of a more popular one.

On the morning of the meeting, Barnali, who is putting me up confesses that she is sceptical about the whole process; and also knowing how conservative the community is, I should keep the Pathan (read Muslim) of the Aneela on the low .... unsure as she is whether they would search for a prediction about a ‘non-believer’. Our particular astrologer lives in a sleepy by-lane in a Chennai residential area. As we take off our shoes, I see a ceramic relief of the Khana-e-Kaba put up on a wall, further inside is a crucifix, so contrary to what Barnali was preparing me for this Nadi has no 'racial profiling' in place for his business. The astrologer puts down mine and my mother’s name in his register, the combination of my Punjabi sounding name and my mother’s anglicized one makes him wonder for a minute. For all practical purposes he concludes that I am a good little Hindu revert, and looks approvingly. The next order of business is to take a print of my left thumb. This will be matched with those on the ancient palm leaves to find a match and a corresponding prophecy for me. As I am left to pore over a one-page list of generic questions that I would like him to answer, the astrologer retreats to a back room to pray to his gods before he looks for a match. The minutes tick by as Barnali and me dissect the list of questions to have a better insight into what the average Chennai housewife is worried about. His prayers done, I am invited to sit in his office while he searches for an audio cassette player, the one that should have recorded my session (the price involves an audio recording of the prophecy, if any of The Post readers are interested!) has stopped operating. While he searches for the palm leaf and probably a player, I while away my time in his office. An audio recording of prayer chants in the background. Flowers, most probably from his morning prayer, are placed reverently on every ‘technical’ or ‘work’ instrument -- the telephone, his pen, his books, aah! none on the errant cassette player, so that’s the culprit! After fifteen minutes he pants his way into the room and mops the sweat off his forehead. Searching for palm leaves is perhaps a strenuous business, and asks me to return the next day. There isn’t a match for me in his offices, but if he sends one of his students to the temple town of Vaitheeswarankoil, I might have a reading later in the week. It is impossible for me to negotiate my departure from the city and so I leave him disappointed. For a) who wouldn’t like to know what evils they have committed in a previous life, b) would commit in the next, what prayers they should follow to atone for their past and future sins, c) how many siblings do they really have, yes that caught my interest when we went through the list, and finally how many cycles of birth left to go before reaching nirvana....I didnt want to find out I was entering my last cycle what with episodes of Season 10 for Frasier left to go.

I spend the afternoon pursuing my ONE TRUE LOVE that has never let me down (unlike Indian astrologers who failed to include me as they were cataloguing souls).... I am in Chennai’s film studios. Though the MGR Film Studio, which I really wanted to explore is one big parking lot at the moment, the AVM studio which was still open for business was not a disappointment after all. The film industry in South India is the largest in India, though most of the business in Chennai has moved to the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. Film stars are big in South India, with many a devoted fan building a temple for their favourite star. Many retired film stars become politicians. MGR and Jayalalitha have been Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers in recent times. On the afternoon of my visit, I am lucky to see three productions (though horribly B-grade) on the floors. As I sign my name for a security pass, I scan the list for earlier visitors; surprisingly most of them are from Nordic countries. Many of them have been roped in as extras; if you are very lucky you can be an ‘evil’ British soldier, who can punch the male protagonist in the stomach. I follow the street signs to different sets; there is a ‘rich man’s house’, a ‘police station’, ‘poor man’s street’ and the omnipresent Central Jail and court building. A portly convict with the most amazing moustache and gold chains sweats his way from a police van and repeats the shot patiently till he gets it just right. A crowd of visitors jostle to get a closer look; he is apparently a local star, and will we be seeing him at the Chief Minister’s residence in the near future? Bricks in most cases weigh down the film equipment; many of them are working on limited budgets in the film city. Behind me, an over bleached gangster’s moll is part of a scene of revelry being shot on ‘poor man’s street’. After every shot of her being generously drenched by watered down tea masquerading as beer, she chastely puts on a shabby terry cloth dressing gown and morosely sits in the corner picking her hair. However, when I see the screen captures on the director’s TV screen, her face is lit up with an inner glow and she goes through her steps enthusiastically.

The Marina Beach in Chennai is the only quiet spot I can retreat to in the morning, and locals describe the day the tsunami took early morning joggers and swimmers unawares. After some time, the city sounds and pollution reach me. I am exhausted deciphering the city’s chaos and beat a hasty retreat to Mahabalipuram just two hours drive away. Mahabalipuram, with its beautiful rock sculptures and Pallava influences is awe-inspiring. A Bihari security guard lets me photograph the famous shore temple even though it’s near closing hours and his superiors are bellowing in the background. He sees me as a quasi-comrade, as I am not South Indian and complains about the host community and the food. He misses his earlier job at the port, working for a firm importing cars. He has most probably tried smuggling some of the pieces of the now disused temple; alas! they seem too heavy for him to budge. A Bohra family gingerly steps its way into the sea. As the sun sets, the universe seems at peace for a second.

Considering it has to lug a moniker like Living Room, it was about time I did some housekeeping and gave it an image more befitting its name...and visit more often.

To date it has been more 'store'' than living... archiving my travel notes et al.