Under the net

“There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,” said Hugo. “All these descriptions are so dramatic.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I said.

“Only,” said Hugo, “that it means that things are falsified from the start. If I say afterwards that I felt such and such, say that I felt ‘apprehensive’–well, this just isn’t true.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I didn’t feel this,” said Hugo. “I didn’t feel anything of that kind at the time at all. This is just something I say afterwards.”

“But suppose I try hard to be accurate,” I said.

“One can’t be,” said Hugo. “The only hope is to avoid saying it. As soon as I start to describe, I’m done for. Try describing anything, our conversation, for instance, and see how absolutely instinctively you….”

“Touch it up?” I suggested.

“It’s deeper than that,” said Hugo, “The language just won’t let you present it as it really was.”

“Suppose then,” I said, “that one were offering the description at the time.”

“But don’t you see,” said Hugo, “that just gives the thing away. One couldn’t give such a description at the time without seeing that it was untrue. All one could say at the time would be perhaps something about one’s heart beating. But if one said one was apprehensive this could only be to try to make an impression–it would be for effect, it would be a lie.”

I was puzzled by this myself. I felt that there was something wrong in what Hugo said, and yet I couldn’t see what it was. We discussed the matter a bit further, and then I told him, “But at this rate almost everything one says, except things like ‘Pass the marmalade’ or ‘There’s a cat on the roof’, turns out to be a sort of lie.”

Hugo pondered this. “I think it is so,” he said with seriousness.

“In that case one oughtn’t to talk,” I said.

“I think perhaps one oughtn’t to,” said Hugo, and he was deadly serious. Then I caught his eye, and we both laughed enormously, thinking of how we had been doing nothing else for days on end.

“That’s colossal!” said Hugo. “Of course one does talk. But,” and he was grave again, “one does make far too many concessions to the need to communicate.”

“What do you mean?”

“All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond. That’s so even between us–and how much more it’s so where there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one’s so used to this one hardly sees it. The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.”

“What would happen if one were to speak the truth?” I asked. “Would it be possible?”

“I know myself,” said Hugo, “that when I really speak the truth the words fall from my mouth absolutely dead, and I see complete blankness in the face of the other person.”

“So we never really communicate?”

“Well,” he said, “I suppose actions don’t lie.”

……………………………………………………………………………..

“All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.”

(The ‘net’ in question is the net of abstraction, generalization and theory.)

………………………………………………………………………………

In my need to chronicle time, a memory or an event, an emotion or a feeling, I sometimes cringe at the idea that I’m playing to a gallery. How much of what I bother to write about is an accurate representation and how much is written for effect, I don’t know. The above passage from Iris Murdoch’s ‘Under The Net’ encapsulates my vaguely formed thoughts about the subject so beautifully and with such economy.

This is the reason I think I fell silent on my blog for so long. Perhaps this is why I find words to be so inadequate to describe the upheaval, the turmoil, the confusion, the ferment that my brain has had to wrap itself around in the recent past. One wants to make sense of things, one needs to write to gain clarity, one needs to SHARE to find support and validation, to reach an understanding audience….yet…..I wonder how much one manages to convey is raw truth and how much comes across dramatic. I write for the most part, I hope, without guile, I often say too much in my need to communicate. But very often I say too little, due to inhibition, or due to the sheer impossibility of finding the language to describe feelings that at the moment were simply an intimate knowledge of one’s heartbeat.

I had a strange out-of-body-like experience the day after I wrote my last blog post. The baldest possible way I can say it is, Hasan visited me. I can’t say it was a dream because I have never had a dream like this…and I am known for the vividness of my dreams. This felt too real to be a dream. If it was a hallucination, this was a first for me.

The context must be made clear first, if I am to chronicle this event at all. I was absolutely alone at home for the first time in ages. There was no electricity and I was struggling to sleep despite having been sleepless for two days. It was too warm under the blanket but I had to keep myself covered as there were a couple of errant mosquitoes in the room trying to bite any exposed skin they could find. My eyes felt strained from being trained on too many screens for too long. My mind was full of Hasan as I had spent most of my time replying to comments and thinking about all the things I could say but didn’t. I had also had an eerie conversation that night about ghostly visitations with a dear friend who lost her mother seven years ago. She often tells me I will see signs that Hasan is still around.

In retrospect, I must have fallen asleep around 5 am or so. What I remember is being awake in the dark stillness and reaching out my arms. And then I saw Hasan, and he was with me, and I have no words to describe what I felt in my heart. I just held out my arms and he came over and gave me the biggest hug I ever got from him and I kissed his forehead, and then he was lying down right beside me, and I just stared at him in what felt like wonder and disbelief. I remember being overwhelmed with a feeling that can only be described as happiness. I think we talked in telepathy. Time had stopped…..it could have been a short while or it could have been hours. But what seemed like too soon, he got to his feet and was standing at the foot of my bed and I thought, “Where are you going Hasan?” And Hasan had that usual nonchalant yet reassuring look on his face as he replied, “I just need to go out for a bit,” and he gestured toward the door, but then I watched him as he went out of the window and stood on the ledge right outside before walking along it and disappearing. I got up to see where he had gone to, and my window was the window that was mine when I lived with my parents. I couldn’t see where Hasan had disappeared to but when I looked down, I saw a stray dog sitting calmly….and I think I felt reassured.

Dawn had broken when my eyes opened and I lay absolutely still, listening to my heartbeat. If I use language to describe what I felt at that moment, I would say I felt confused, fearful, happy, horrified…and so bereft. I felt so aware that Hasan had been with me just now, that he had just left the room. I half expected to see him climb back in when I looked at my own window, but the blinds were down and the curtain was drawn. I can’t describe the physicalness, the intensity of what I went through then. Deliriousness mixed with pain. Convulsive sobs. I’m thinking hard right now, to be accurate about then.

This is what I believe: Hasan came to give me a good proper hug because we had been awkward about hugs. That was one of the first real regrets that tugged painfully at my heart when my brain tried to comprehend reality. I also believe that he was on the verge of turning into a young man who was okay with hugging his aunts, me in particular. I think I can live with this. My sisters and I have had the whole metaphysical conversation about the deceased visiting those who have let go. Fatu is jealous because Hasan seems to be visiting everyone in their dreams except her. But then, she has had her own share of Hasan-related ‘signs’. I want to write all about those too. Closure? I don’t know what that means really. But there, I said it. I’ll still wish we could have danced the awkward aunt-nephew dance some more.

To talk or not to talk? That is the question.

 

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Downward spiral

Today the bubble seems more fragile than ever. I didn’t feel like smiling when I woke up.

Wedgies during the night can do that to you.

Why did I ever think having a landline on my bedside table was a good idea? The only people who still call me on that number are mood-dampeners, invariably while I’m still asleep.

I scribbled myself a to-do list with a board marker on a white board I dragged out of Amu’s room. Something about erasing chores as I accomplish them is thrilling.

Amu hijacked the board. She suddenly realized she really needed it to write a schedule for herself to follow for test week.

I told her she could take the board if she could transfer my chores on paper. She did so.

But I lost my enthusiasm. It just didn’t feel the same to scratch out my chores on paper.

Bored two evenings ago, I wandered around the house looking for inspiration, stopping at the bookshelf.

Skimming halfheartedly, my fingers reached for a book of verses by an Urdu poet. Something told me it was time to read it.

Reading wilfully at first, my interest deepened as I came across lines that resonated. I lugged the fat and heavy Urdu dictionary off the shelf, turned on a bright lamp, donned my reading glasses, armed myself with a pencil, and proceeded to look up meanings of obscure words and phrases. Soon, the pages were peppered with little notes, as nerve centres in my brain sparked.

I found myself smiling, even laughing out loud at times, sheer delight at understanding, recognizing…

I should have recognized this enjoyment as something sacred. I should not have shared. I should not have read aloud and expected my voice to be clear, ringing.

‘You’re embarrassing yourself,’ she said.

‘This is crappy. How can you have the patience for it?’ said she.

It takes so little to be derailed. Such few words to throw you into uncertainty.

I had thought I would spend a few days doing just this. But I have not picked up that book since.

don’t mean to be pretentious or anything, but…..

Yes, two months went by without a peep on my blog. I did continue to read posts by my multitudinous bloggy friends though, sometimes leaving a comment, sometimes not.

As for me, I just felt I didn’t have any words, though sometimes my mind would register something as blogworthy, yet writing about anything seemed superfluous, not to mention time-consuming. I guess I was allowing myself to revel in laziness and not beating myself up about it.

My shoulder/neck problems stemmed from over-usage of my laptop. Even the physiotherapist told me this. And of course, it should have been obvious that I needed time off from sitting propped on an elbow while lying in bed.

So I ended up reading a lot, sitting up straight, wearing my reading glasses. Finally finished ‘The Corrections’ (by Jonathan Franzen) and I have to say it was absolutely brilliant. It took me a long time to read it, firstly because it is more than 700 pages long, and secondly because it was having a strange intense effect on me. It was just that good. Far be it from me to give you a book review at this point though. Just, trust me on this….read the book if you can. You listening Harsha? 🙂

I’m happy to report a most strange yet delightful series of coincidences too, the first of which is this.

Since some time last year (or perhaps even the year before) I have been feeling the urge to read Urdu. You might think it strange that I’d say something like this, being a Pakistani, having lived here all my life, speaking the language. You’d think I must have read Urdu books all my life, but no, that is not the case. My knowledge of Urdu writers and poets amounts to a big fat zero. This is a sad consequence of having studied under the Cambridge board of education.

I have grown up reading English literature only. Perhaps that is why I have always felt like an alien, an outsider in my own country. I don’t/can’t identify completely with the greater Pakistani/subcontinental culture, observing things around me with somewhat of a sense of detachment..it never helped that I belong to a communal sect that encouraged the speaking of Gujarati over Urdu, which was doomed for me to be not a second language, but a third language. It didn’t matter while I was growing up, except that essays in Urdu didn’t exactly trip off my tongue, but I felt a sense of quaintness in being perceived as something other than an Urdu-speaker, just by the way I pronounced the Urdu ‘r’…..the one with the ‘toi’ on top. I never got that right until someone pointed it out to me, and since then I’ve made an effort to pronounce it correctly.

So you see dear readers, I live in a bubble within a bubble. But I am mesmerised by the fluidity, the ease, and the complete unselfconscious assurance with which pure Urdu speakers wax eloquent. I know I can never be like them, but despite the tiny eye-straining font, and my debilitating lack of understanding of a lot of Urdu words, Project 2012 was to educate myself in my own language and I would do so by starting off reading the Mantonama, penned by the controversial and highly acclaimed Saadat Hasan Manto. (A good friend was kind enough to loan me his copy 🙂 ) 

Mantonama is a compilation of short stories and happens to be the first proper Urdu book I have ever read after the textbooks we did at school. I have already read a few stories and been surprised at the ease with which I could read them. I didn’t need to consult the dictionary even once!

But here’s the strange coincidence. 2012 has been declared the Year of Manto and marks the centenary of Manto’s birth, celebrated not just in Pakistan but also in India.

I had no clue about this when I decided to start my Urdu book-reading project with one of his books. 🙂 

Perhaps listening to the articulate and erudite Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s niece, at the Karachi Literature Festival earlier this year had something to do with piquing my interest further, because really, I didn’t know much about Manto or his style of writing, or his subject matter, or even the fact that he was prosecuted for writing ‘obscene’ things. Ayesha Jalal says ‘He wrote what he saw, and took no sides.’

I was warned by my friend that reading Manto will have a strange effect on me and he was right. After picking my way through a few stories, I was decidedly disturbed.

I had to lay the book aside for a bit, and pick up another book that I thought looked intriguing, and was also being highly acclaimed these days in literary circles.

‘The Wandering Falcon’ has been written by Jamil Ahmad, an 80-plus year old man. Here’s something about him.

It was a relatively quick read, being only 180 pages long, but it had my imagination completely captivated. I still feel in thrall of the harsh beauty of the world he has described in his book, a world not too far from my own….

The Wandering Falcon reads almost like a collection of short stories too, woven through with the story of Tor Baz, an orphaned boy, who wanders nomadically through the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan, those forbidding tribal areas that seem to have defied all attempts at being governed.

This book is a must read. It is written simply, but with attention to detail, and is sure to leave a lasting impression on your mind. I can’t recommend it enough!! 

And now that I am done with it, I shall go back to reading Manto…..with perhaps a bit of Jaun Elia thrown in to liven things up a bit. Maybe there will come a day when I’m very very old, that I shall be able to quote poetry with flair and construct complex sentences and speak them the way they should be spoken.

Masochism

It took me three months to read ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’, my first Doris Lessing ever.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it is not the kind of read that you ‘enjoy’. But it definitely had an impact….like a series of punches to the stomach. I found myself crumpling into tears and even putting down the book to sob for a little bit at times.

In part one, the book is an up close and personal look at aging and old age, and all the infirmities and neuroses that go with it. It is about how the old cope. It is about compassion, without the sap and the sugar-coating, written in the first person by the protagonist, Jane, a successful and attractive magazine editor. Her vitality and strength stands in sharp contrast to the vulnerability of 90 year old Maudie Fowler, the woman whose fury is what holds her together, the fury that courses through her veins and keeps her alive. Jane encounters her in a grocery shop and is drawn to being her ‘friend’, going over to her poor filthy home to ‘visit’ and made that a pretext to look after her as much as she could, talk to her, listen to her, until Jane becomes the only thing Maudie looks forward to in her day.

There is a particular passage in the book that really struck me (there have been several really good ones) and it is this:

‘I am sitting here in my dressing gown by the electric fire. I should clean out this flat. I should really wash my hair.

I am thinking of how Maudie Fowler one day could not trouble herself to clean out her front room, because there was so much junk in it, and then she left it and left it; going in sometimes, thinking, well, it’s not so bad. Meanwhile she was keeping the back room and the kitchen spotless. Even now she does her own chimney once a week, and then scrubs the grate, brushes up the dust and cinders—though less and less thoroughly. She wasn’t feeling well, and didn’t bother, once, twice—-and then her room was not really cleaned, only the floor in the middle of the room sometimes, and she learned not to look around the edges or under the bed. Her kitchen was last. She scrubbed it and washed shelves, but then things began to slide. But through it all she washed herself, standing at the kitchen table, heating water in the kettles. And she kept her hair clean. She went sometimes to the public bath-houses, for she had told me she liked going there. Then she left longer and longer between washing her hair……and then she did not wash her clothes, only took out the cleanest ones there were, putting them back grubby, till they were the cleanest; and so it went on. And at last, she was upright in her thick shell of black, her knickers not entirely clean, but not so bad, her neck dirty, but she did not think about it, her scalp unwashed. When they took her to hospital, they washed her all over and washed her hair too. She sometimes thought humorously, when they cart me off back to hospital, I’ll get another proper wash! But she, Maudie Fowler ,was still there, alert, very much all there, on guard inside that old witch’s appearance. She is still there, and everything has collapsed around her, it’s too difficult, too much.

And I, Janna, am sitting here, in my clean, scented dressing gown, just out of my bath.’

In part two, Jane falls unexpectedly in love for what seems like the first time. She is over fifty years old now, still attractive, but no longer young. Love brings her joy and anguish in equal measure, and life throws her curve-balls in the form of some unlikely antagonists, who seem to mirror and echo her past, perhaps..? Middle-aged love is a different game altogether, especially when two established lives come together and must reconcile themselves to the baggage they bring…

Here’s another passage that I loved:

‘So vulnerable are we, so easy would it be to blow what we have apart. A word could do it; a word or a look does often rip aside our enjoyment in each other, leaving us fumbling, so that we both scramble with words or a movement to cover it all over, talking about something else, making up nonsense as we do, for the pleasure of words, words, the game of them; or we get up from where we sit in a pub or on a pavement and we walk rapidly away from where the danger was.

——————————————-

I can’t help drawing parallels between the helplessness of Maudie, and the difficulties my own parents face as they get older. There are so many things that my Mom can’t deal with because of a frozen shoulder and loss of feeling in her fingertips due to spondylytis, not to mention arthritis. She struggles with her clothes and has had accidents in the kitchen, burning herself terribly, overestimating the strength in her fingers while picking up a pan full of scalding hot tea. My mom, who has created so many beautiful things with her capable hands…

And my father never goes anywhere without his cane, has accepted the loss of muscle mass in his legs, valiantly trying to counter it with exercise and more protein in his diet. My father, the weight-lifter, the boxer…the man who never thought twice before taking on arduous DIY jobs around the house, now relies increasingly on his Man Friday… and I so wish I could go over and take care of them all the time.

——————————————

I’m glad I read ‘Diaries..’, though it had to be in small doses, and I do recommend it very highly. It’s all very interesting and detailed, and beautifully, terribly realistic.

Nevertheless there came a time a few days ago when I decided I had to read the last 100 pages over two days and finish the damn thing so I could move on to another book that wasn’t quite so gut-wrenching.

Trust me then, to pick up a collection of short stories by Nadine Gordimer, the first of which was about an injured pigeon that can’t fly which gets badly mauled by a playful dog and has to be killed to put it out of its misery.

*Sob*.

What about you? Ever read a book in spite of yourself?

Things that go bump in the night.

I was tempted to pick up ‘The Little Stranger’ (a book by Sarah Waters that actually made the cut for the Booker in 2009) despite being warned it was a spooky ghost story. If truth be told, my fascination with spooky stories wore off a long time ago. Subjecting yourself to reading or watching something that evokes fear is just a way of setting yourself up to a host of psychological issues, and when one spends many days alone in their house, it’s just not worth the thrill. Who needs to be scared of dark rooms and shadows? But my sister Fatu (who read the book before I) said it was a good read and I allowed myself to fall into the trap, as of course, once you start reading you can’t really stop; she did warn me, however, that all her dormant fears had sprung to life.

the cover

This only served to pique my curiosity however, and now I find myself a little more than halfway through the book. Here’s the gist so far. The Ayres family -mother, son and daughter – live in a once-glorious but now decaying Georgian house in rural Warwickshire. The family struggles to keep pace with a changing society and to make ends meet by selling chunks of their estate in post-war Britain. A middle-aged doctor is called upon to treat a young maid at the house, and as the novel progresses we find him becoming more a sympathetic friend to the family than a medical man who wants to help by treating the war wounds of the son.

The general atmosphere and layout of the huge house (Hundreds Hall it is called) sets the backdrop and mood for the story that unfolds little by little.  It is dark, and imbued with a sense of tension underlying the apparent calm. We get the first taste of impending doom with a horrible incident that takes place about 97 pages into the book.

Without giving away too much of the plot and the story, it seems that the Ayres family is haunted by something. Roderick (the son) is tormented by sounds that go unheard by his sister Caroline and his mother and only Betty the maid shares his sense of foreboding. Strange marks appear on the walls and ceiling of Roderick’s room, and he is inexplicably injured in the dark by open doors that were meant to be closed, and heavy furniture that positions itself mysteriously in his path causing him to trip and fall. Various items from his wardrobe disappear, only to reappear in strange places, and his shaving mirror (as he stares in mounting horror) scrapes across a stand and launches itself at his head and shatters into pieces. Naturally, his conviction that there is a malevolent presence in the house is met with disbelief. The only logical explanation seems to be mental illness caused by a combination of post-war trauma and the stress caused by financial crisis. The poor boy is removed to a mental institution after he is suspected of setting fire to his own room, an event that smacks to the already spooked reader of something decidedly bizarre.

It’s all okay when one is reading a spooky story in daylight. I, for one, propped it up as I treadmilled at the gym, and 30 minutes passed so quickly I didn’t even notice I was done. So compelling is the book,  I’ve been going through my chores as quickly as I can so I can get back to reading; not because the book is a page-turner, but because I need to know what will happen next. I’m just taking time off to write this blog so I can share an inexplicable event that occurred late last night.

It was around 1:30 am, and all was quiet in the house. I was the only one awake. The allusion to paranormal activity in the book was playing on my mind, so naturally I was glad Huz was asleep next to me but felt a twinge of guilt about Amu who was all by herself in her room. There were a couple of things I needed to do before hitting the sack that involved me stepping out of my room, but with the irrational fear of the occasional coward, I didn’t feel like opening my room door. While I was debating what to do, there came the unmistakable sound of something heavy come crashing down in the living room. I guess this is how the heroine in a scary movie feels as her instinctive need to protect herself is overthrown by the curiosity of knowing what’s going on, and I found myself walking to the door and turning the handle to open it. My first thought was of a burglar tripping over something, and with my heart beating terribly fast, I braced myself to confront a strange face.

There was no one in the living room, but the movement of the curtains blowing lightly with the breeze from the balcony door made me flinch. I walked past the dark study (pushing out thoughts of a hand reaching out to grab me) to switch on the lights, and it was only as I glanced at the living room wall and saw the vacant space there that my blood froze and the second, more sinister thought crawled into my head.

A large framed painting that hung in the middle of the wall was now lying on the floor, surrounded by the debris of broken framing and a screw that had prised itself loose from its bearings. Surprisingly, the glass had remained intact.

My skin prickling with goosebumps, the air thick with an unnameable fear, I walked with unbearable slowness back to my room and closed the door behind me. Huz had slept through it all, but as I crept into bed he suddenly opened his eyes and said,

‘Did the phone just ring?’

Story of a dead saint.

There is an odd structure covered in blue and white tiles bang across the cricket stadium that overlooks my kitchen balcony. The only thing that makes it imposing I suppose, is the height at which it is situated, as the architecture is hardly worth mentioning. It has been a landmark for years and years, and I wonder if the man buried there has any idea of his own posthumous miraculous powers…

Everyone knows the Mazaar. It is revered as the final resting place of Abdullah Shah, a Sayyid, direct descendant of the Prophet, tracing his lineage back to Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet.

The funny thing is, I always thought Abdullah Shah ‘Ghazi’ was a local Sufi saint, so I am amazed to learn that he was actually an Arab and the story goes something like this:

Abdullah Shah was around 40 years old when he travelled to Sindh in 760 A.D, bearing horses from Iraq (for trade purposes presumably, since he was a merchant). He was given a warm welcome by Raja Dahir (who was a big shot of sorts around these parts) as he was impressed by his nobility. (Raja Dahir had a soft spot for fleeing Sayyids, who were being persecuted left and right by those nasty Umayyads)

So Abdullah Shah made himself at home here in Sindh, and proceeded to preach love, tolerance and politeness, teachings that smacked of Sufism of the early days. But not for long. Hajjaj bin Yousuf, governor of Iraq and an Umayyad to boot, sent word to Raja Dahir to hand Abdullah Shah over to him, as he was becoming too popular and Hajjaj bin Yousuf couldn’t have that. Raja Dahir turned out to be chivalrous and honourable, and sent word back to Hajjaj along the lines of  ‘Never! thou dastardly dog!’  It was against all rules of honour to break the vow of protection and sanctuary, so Hajjaj bin Yousuf was forced to send his 17 yr-old nephew, Mohammad bin Qasim, to make short work of  Raja Dahir and his little army, who died fighting to protect the Sayyids.

 

battling it out with Raja Dahir

 

In the meantime, Abdullah Shah was on a hunt, something he loved to do, in what is present-day Karachi. In those days, Sindh teemed with wildlife, and I’m sure Abdullah Shah had a good time hunting down ibex, gazelles and blue bulls and deer. But the hunter became the hunted, and Abdullah Shah was outnumbered by some unknown enemy whom he chose to fight rather than submit to, and this is what gave him the title ‘Ghazi’, meaning ‘victorious’. Except he was killed.

He was buried near the coast of the Arabian Sea, and has since then been revered as a saint. That makes his shrine about 1400 years old.

Today, the area is a mess of devout people, flower vendors, beggars, drug addicts and roadside astrologers complete with green parrots; food is always distributed there as alms to the needy and as blessings for those who prayed to Abdullah Shah Ghazi to intercede with God on their behalf.  They say Karachi has never witnessed a cyclone or other tropical disaster because of the blessing of this shrine. Many people claim to have been granted their wishes after praying here, but what good is a miracle that doesn’t involve water? Here’s the mother of them all, listen to this. There are a number of wells along the coastal area where people draw up water to use for their own various purposes, except for drinking, since the water is always brackish. But the well at the shrine of  Abdullah Shah Ghazi always produces fresh water and if that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.

It’s just a stone’s throw away from me, those stairs leading up to the shrine, but I have never dared to venture there myself. People travel to get here from all parts of the country to pray at the dargah, setting up camp in shady spots on the surrounding sidewalks, and become part of the teeming masses always to be found there. Everyone is welcome, even the ones who’d rather use drugs to induce a feverish trance-like state. At times it gets pretty festive, especially when the Urs (death anniversary) draws near, when men wearing bright petunia-yellow kurtas, white dhotis and dramatic turbans beat clamorously on their drums and devotional music and qawwali blare out over the multitudes from numerous loudspeakers, for three days. I’m sure there’s plenty of dancing too. Throw in the odd snake-charmer, performing monkeys and cotton candy and you have a perpetual carnival-like setting.

Who’d ever think that a member of the Banu Hashim tribe of Arabia, a descendant of the last Messenger, would find his way to the deserts of Sindh, die here, and be remembered forever in so lively a manner? Heck, the kids even get a school holiday! 🙂

 

sunset from my kitchen balcony

 

Of those who ‘sell love and save dreams’

I always feel bereft when I find myself in the purgatory that exists between the finishing of a good book and the search for the next. It is a refractory period. The imagination pulls itself out of the world it was immersed in, the neurons regroup and only then can they begin to respond to a new stimulus, a different author, a different world.

I was browsing through heaps of books in an old book store, when I came across a well preserved, hard bound copy of ‘The dancing girls of Lahore.’


Dancing Girls of Lahore

It isn’t as if the topic is a new one, or that I haven’t watched documentaries about prostitutes in Pakistan. I suppose the reason I was tempted to read it was because (a) the book was in REALLY good condition (always a temptation to pick up in an old book shop), and (b) it was written by a non-native, a British academic and anthropologist called Louise Brown.

It tickled my imagination to think that this woman, this pretty, red-headed, long-maned ‘goree’ actually spent four years on and off, living with and documenting the way of life of the inhabitants of the brothels in the seediest areas of Lahore: Heera Mandi….(arguably) the source of most of the actresses in Lollywood.

I expected the book to be educational, but I never imagined it to be quite so entertaining, even hilarious at times. I loved the perspective of the author as an observer, the way she presented our culture and our people back to us, but in a carefully unskewed way. The places and the events she describes could very easily become sordid, not that they aren’t, but somehow the reader manages to transcend the sordidness and the poverty and see things clearly for what they are. Sad, funny and overall, inevitable. We’re all faced with similar survival struggles, some struggles are just more epic than others. And the homosexuals and the drug addicts, the prostitutes and their children live a marginalised existence in our society, denied the compassion and the understanding of those born in different circumstances.

Now when I see billboards with some well known faces associated with our film industry, I almost feel as if I know them, and where they’ve come from. I am struck by the awareness that these women have escaped their fate and come out winners. It’s weird, but I actually feel they deserve to be applauded; they have worked hard and suffered and survived and what’s more, they have achieved fame. They exist, and they fulfill a need, and if they can make some money out of it, why the hell not? Why the derision and the censure?

If you don’t agree with me, read the book. Then we’ll talk. 🙂