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.

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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?’