Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Postcard from Ha Long Bay

A Dutch couple, two Pakistani journalists, five British teenagers, a beautiful Portuguese traveller and a Vietnamese tour operator set out to explore the caves of Ha Long Bay. Once they’ve climbed into a subterranean dreamscape of stalagmites and stalactites, there is an earthquake and the cave begins to collapse, threatening to bury them alive. They have to get over their differences and work together to survive. In another scenario, the same people are lounging on a boat. The beautiful, bitchy girl is lying by the edge, with her arm extending into the water when SPLASH, something rises out of the murky depths and drags her in before eating her whole. These are some of the potential summer blockbusters I concocted while sailing up Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of thousands of steep, forested cliffs and islands rising out of a jade green sea. It’s beautiful no doubt, but it’s like dating for looks rather than personality. It gets dull real fast.

Thankfully, the boat oozed personality. The traditional Indochinese wooden boats that dart around these waters with their high sterns and square sails are known as junks. The term would prove entirely appropriate for our vessel, the Cong Nhia. After kicking open the door (the wood of which had swollen and warped in the sea air), we found a cabin the size of a bathroom and a bathroom the size of a shower cubicle. The cabin’s solitary bulb didn’t cast enough light to read by, which turned out to be a blessing, since it also meant one was spared a close examination of the bed sheets. There was no choice but to socialise with the other passengers, a gaggle of cheerful British gap year students and three travellers.

While I’m all for seeing the world, it must be said that I loathe professional travellers. You know who I mean, Europe’s unwashed masses that set out to see the ‘real’ Vietnam/India/Brazil. You find them at the seediest dives in town, trying earnestly to following local customs, eating food that beggars would pass up, bathing sporadically at best – imagining they’re enjoying the ‘real’ city. They wouldn’t dare visit Hanoi’s exquisite French colonial opera house, despite the fact that actual Vietnamese people sometimes do that too. Other than the condescending assumption that one has to live like a pig in order to understand the third world, I hate the falseness of the whole exercise. European travellers only speak to other travellers, they sleep rough but have $1,200 medical insurance. They want the appearance of hardship with none of the consequences.

The insights of the travellers on our boat were limited to calling places 'beautiful' or 'commercial' and referring to entire populations as ‘nice’ or ‘very nice’ (apparently the Burmese are all lovely, quick, someone tell the United Nations). Travellers aren’t interested in reality, they don’t travel to experience countries as locals do, they come for a quick fix of Poverty: The Theme Park and then leave satisfied that it’s lived down to their expectations.

For The Herald, June 2010

Review - Ismat Chughtai's A Life in Words

The Indian publishing market is flourishing. It has recently started laying claim to throwing off its colonial shackles and producing work solely for an Indian market. A critical and not just commercial success is something that is well-received in India; the approval of the English-speaking West is unimportant.

India’s numerous literary prizes, often too numerous to find deserving books to award them to, have yet to really reflect this trend and tend to go to an India as seen more or less from the outside. This is reflected in the general paucity of quality translations from Indian languages. To not offer to an increasingly English-speaking reading market the best of this country’s peerlessly rich, diverse and plentiful canon going back to time immemorial, is, well, plain bizarre. If you think it’s going too far to say it’s the equivalent of not being able to find Charles Dickens in England, then at least allow me to say it’s like not being able to choose from an array of translations of Beowulf. While the dearth of quality translations doesn’t, mercifully, stem from the same reasoning, it is, in effect, like living with Franco’s predilection for banning books.

Shavian moralist: Chughtai’s writing on women and religion was often pegged as controversial.

Shavian moralist: Chughtai’s writing on women and religion was often pegged as controversial.

The first thing one notices on starting the short story writer, feminist, educationalist and iconoclast Ismat Chughtai’s remarkable memoirs, A Life in Words: Memoirs, with due credit to M. Asaduddin’s elegant translation, is how utterly unselfconscious, unaffected and natural the writing seems. It isn’t bogged down with explanations of everyday objects and rituals. There is no positioning of the voice within some sort of global (that is, white) context. One isn’t looking in as if from the outside. The writer is merely the writer and hasn’t taken it upon herself to act also as interpreter. It allows for a wealth of subtlety often lost in subcontinental writing in English.

And subtlety is Chughtai’s forte. Hailing from an educated, liberal Muslim family, the sort that educated their children equally in the Quran, Farsi and Urdu literature, with her elder brother already a well-known writer in her teens, Chughtai is best known for her stories about the lives of middle-class Indian women. If her sensitive, thoughtful work is pegged as controversial, it must also be said that it only causes a flutter among those who adamantly refuse to see the world for what it is. Writing largely on women, religion and the domestic sphere, she neither generalizes nor preaches, as she knows her subject far too intimately for that sort of artless moralizing.

Nevertheless, Chughtai as moralist—and that too of the Shavian school—is a major feature of her life and work. “From a young age we were aware that there was some distinction between Hindus and Muslims. Outward profession of brotherhood went hand in hand with discreet caution... They talked about enlightenment and liberal ideas, professed deep love for each other, and recounted tales of great sacrifice for each other. The English were held to be the main culprits. All this would go on while the elders were secretly nervous about the children doing something that would defile the purity of religion!”

While one would wish to imagine it otherwise, this split between private sphere and public face, between conversational and actual liberalism hasn’t exactly faded into oblivion. Chughtai’s unforgiving eye picks it out in the details. If their Hindu guests weren’t due, “then seekh kebab and roast chicken would have been cooked; lauki raita and dahi bade would not have been prepared. The difference between ‘cooked’ and ‘prepared’ was interesting.”

A Life In Words—Memoirs: Penguin India, 282 pages, Rs 499.

A Life In Words—Memoirs: Penguin India, 282 pages, Rs. 499.

In the first chapter itself, Chughtai, quite casually, while discussing her fiction, puts forward theories over which contemporary feminists are still fighting pitched battles, “If a wife stays with her husband simply because he is her provider, then she’s as helpless as a prostitute.” She disapproves of purdah, but when writing about women, manages to focus on what’s in a woman’s head rather than what’s on top of it.

Her own marriage is a subject largely absent from this memoir, other than her initial reluctance to get married at all, and her husband’s threats of divorce during the notorious censorship trial of Lihaaf. A Life in Words focuses more on her education, her writing, and her struggle to become the first Indian Muslim woman to get both a bachelor’s degree in arts and a bachelor’s in education degree. This is enough for a memoir, but it’s a shame nonetheless. She is so perceptive when it comes to pointing out the myriad ways in which women are oppressed and the way in which they get around this, as in the account of Mangu, the coachman’s daughter, who feigns demonic possession to get away with hitting her mother-in-law when finally tired of being at the receiving end of beatings.

Women manipulate, she deduces, as fairness is often not an option for them. Hers is the feminism, the defiance, learnt from a full engagement with life and not by rote and politically correctly from books, often from entirely different cultural contexts. She advises the reader quite simply to “talk to people”, to engage with them, to ask them questions, to understand the context of their life before attempting to understand them. If only the various Pakistani op-ed writers who present “I asked the driver” as their most profound communication with a class outside themselves, would listen.

Chughtai does not position herself as a crusading truth-teller. She is far too honest and straightforward for the truth to be a special mission; it is, quite simply, the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the moving account of her and Saadat Hasan Manto’s obscenity trials which happened to come up before the same judge on the same day.

She has far more social clout than the beleaguered Manto, and the judge calls her into his anteroom for a private conversation, “‘I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is Lihaaf. Manto’s writings are often littered with filth.’

‘The world is also littered with filth,’ I said in a feeble voice.

‘Is it necessary to rake it up, then?’

‘If it is raked up it becomes visible, and people feel the need to clean it up.’”

In livemint.com March 30th 2012


On the second Karachi Literature Festival

Authors without Border

So let me just get this out of the way right now—there is no similarity between the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), which was held from 11-12 February, other than that their acronyms rhyme, and both are free only in the sense of entry being gratis. KLF—now in its third year—enjoys a fraction of JLF’s attendance and even less of its flash—Oprah Winfrey shan’t be attending any time soon and I suspect even Richard Dawkins would entertain the possibility of it being a cold day in hell were he to find himself speaking there.

There are no glamorous publishers’ parties because, for all the talk of a Pakistani “literary boom”, lucrative local publishing houses can be counted on the fingers of one hand with enough fingers left over to play Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3 on a grand piano. That said, the third Karachi Literature Festival, running over two days and offering 50 or so sessions with participants including Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Mirza Waheed, Ahmed Rashid, Shobhaa De, Mohsin Hamid, Siddhartha Deb, and Mohammed Hanif made for a cracking weekend, in spite of the organizing body’s unfortunate penchant for cliquishness when it comes to some less international figures.

Writer Hanif Kureishi (left). Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Writer Hanif Kureishi (left). Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Proceedings kicked off with Shobhaa De, whose immensely readable pulpy novels can be found front and centre in most Karachi bookshops. “Karachi and Mumbai”, she began, to applause, “are like Amitabh (Bachchan) movies in which brothers are separated at birth”. Diplomatically, she omitted to mention which brother became the cop and which one the robber. It was more depressing than surprising that Hanif Kureishi’s session was relatively ill-attended. Growing up in England I recall Kureishi as perhaps the only British Asian public figure whose often provocative work explored life far beyond the lazy, trite and incalculably popular notion of culture-clash defining identity, as if not being white is nothing short of a crisis. With trademark mordancy, Kureishi related the story of protests by the Pakistan Action Committee upon the release of My Beautiful Laundrette, “They told me there were no homosexuals in Pakistan. Having been fondled all over South Asia I have to say that I wasn’t absolutely convinced”.

What with politics being nothing short of a religion for the middle-aged Pakistani male—it came as no surprise that journalist and policy analyst Anatol Lieven’s panel discussion held at an enormous venue—was still bursting at the seams. From the back of the hall, all that was visible was a sea of balding bureaucratic pates in different stages of eminence, held rapt by the exceptionally—and I thought needlessly—adversarial moderation. While it was a perfectly competent session, if not the most exciting, the Pakistan that one actually lives in was revealed more perceptively in the session about comedy—which is appropriate, given the state of things.

Authorspeak: A session at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012. Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Authorspeak: A session at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012. Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

I can safely say that Satire/Comedy with Ali Aftab Saeed of the Beygairat Brigade, responsible for the phenomenally popular satirical song Aalu Anday, and stand-up comic Saad Haroon was the liveliest and wittiest discussion I’ve heard this year. Too many discussions about Pakistan are steeped in nostalgia and given to hypothetical analyses, strategizing and the inner workings of governance, which most of us have little to do with.

To hear about political satire from young people who are very much the product of the current environment was, I thought, a great deal more useful, not to mention entertaining, and certainly the hugely responsive young audience lining the aisles thought so too. The most winning aspect of it was their honesty and lack of bumptiousness. Asked why satirists were so selective in choosing victims—politicians are attacked far more frequently and with far more relish than religious figures or, say, the Inter-Services Intelligence, Saad Haroon responded, “It’s selective because we’re scared”. The response to why he worked in English was “You can get away with a lot more in English because nobody cares”—something very few Pakistanis writing in English for a Western audience care to acknowledge.

The show-stopper, ultimately, was young Saeed, who, when told by an audience member that she was both scared for his personal safety and worried that he’d sell out, answered, and I translate, “I’m also scared for the former and deeply desirous of the latter”.

Often the problem with artists, performers and literati branding themselves as brave in Pakistan is that there are always plenty of people whose daily life involves far more courage than the act of saying something mildly controversial in comparatively safe surroundings, confident of some public support. While I’m sure you can come up with a few examples from your own backyard, from our end I’ll raise you Fatima Bhutto (who naturally was not in attendance, never speaking in Pakistan other than at her book launch a few years ago). I applaud Haroon and Saeed for having the integrity and the good sense to not try their hand at that old chestnut.

Published in livemint.com 17th February 2012


Review - Granta Pakistan

In The Caravan, November 2012

Trouble at Sheikh Villa - on the life and times of Sheikh Amer Hassan

Sheikh Villa is a lean townhouse in the middle of Karachi’s Zamzama, a centrally located grid of streets boasting designer boutiques, shoe shops, expensive restaurants and swanky cafés, with an arms and ammunition outlet calmly occupying a vast storefront between them. In its day, which ran from the early noughties up until the owner’s execution in August 2008, Sheikh Villa was one of the city’s best-known hangouts for people who loosely fell within the parameters of Karachi ‘Society’ (the ‘High’ goes unspoken, and for good reason).

Night after night, the great and the good—by which I mean the affluent, the vaguely glamorous and their hangers-on—could be found here drinking cocktails, exchanging bons mots and lustful glances, and doing the odd line of blow right off the sleek black counter of the bar. The country’s codes of enforced modesty and conspicuous piety do not apply to this cosy club, a fact that everyone has cottoned on to, barring a few sloppy foreign correspondents.

Pakistan’s people’s parties have always comprised the usual suspects: landowners, politicians, scions of industry, high-ranking bureaucrats, generals, colonels and a sprinkling of professionals largely from families of landowners, politicians and so forth. It’s a clique within a clique: high school with real power and some serious lunch money. A running joke is that directions in Pakistan are never given on the basis of road names and house numbers: one is asked if one knows X’s house, then told to take a left from that, till one gets to Y’s house, and it’s next door. If you don’t know the people whose homes form these landmarks, you can’t get anywhere. Literally.

The 30-something host at Sheikh Villa bucked this trend. He appeared to buck all trends. Sheikh Amer Hassan was a dandy—a fey, self-styled eccentric with a penchant for hats, often found withstanding the sticky heat of this seaside city in a three-piece suit and cravat, pipe in hand. Or an extravagantly embroidered sherwani, or perhaps a denim shirt set off by a wide diamanté necklace. His shoulder-length hair was most often seen pulled back in a Transylvanian-via-Hammer-horror style. He stood tall, holding himself in the manner of a man forever in the thrall of the photographer’s viewfinder.

Hassan came from a professional background of lawyers and doctors, a family that qualified as successful but not prominent. This did not stop him from bestowing a medieval coat-of-arms upon his titular residence, a crown atop a golden shield held up at both sides by unicorns. This crest made appearances on his crockery, cushion covers and hand towels. In lieu of a motto, it read: ‘Sheikh Villa, Estd 2002’.

The juxtaposition of the coat-of-arms and the date seems an irreverent masterstroke, the work of someone thumbing his nose at the closed ranks of the old ways. But it was not a send-up, unfortunately. At least, no more so than the characteristics of Hassan himself and his boudoirof a home. One was able to ascertain on briefest acquaintance with the man that the coat-of-arms was sincerely aspirational.

Hassan flattered his guests by honing in on their areas of interest, from parties to poetry, and being all things to all men. In his home, he played courtier, not the one holding court. The walls were covered with framed photographs and documents, including contributions from a few A-listers, the apex being a letter from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, the tail-end some rather dubious Pakistani models and hairstylists, with some of Boney M’s original line-up featuring somewhere in between. Hassan was to the Pakistani social pages what tourists are to the Eiffel Tower: ever-present. He dominated the weekend supplements of the mid-noughties: Hassan having friends over for a soirée in time, Hassan throwing a casual get-together, Hassan celebrating birthdays; his own, his friends’ and, in one inspired spread, his cat’s.

His official website of achievements (and then some) proclaims that Sheikh Amer Hassan, after his graduation from the Bournville College of Arts, became ‘an established name in the British fashion industry’. There is no evidence of this, of course. Even within Pakistan, a place where girls who are photographed on billboards in more than two urban centres can airily lay claim to the term ‘supermodel’, and where arranging a fashion show earns one the title of ‘fashion choreographer’, Hassan’s credentials are met with great scepticism. He was appointed fashion designer for an independent local TV channel for a stint, he had been interviewed as a Pakistani fashion designer by the BBC, but the general consensus was that he had bragged his way into these gigs. A few months before his passing, he excitedly publicised his fashion show in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina—that is, absolutely nowhere, even by Pakistani standards. Following his death, several popular designers went on record to say that the few fashion shows he held featured the work of design students and that his portfolio consisted of clothes borrowed from other designers.


To the dispassionate observer, Karachi may not seem the obvious choice to follow Paris, London, New York and Milan while sizing up global fashion capitals, but people locally seem to have a different impression. The culture pages of newspapers, at a respectful distance from the pages that list the bombs and death tolls, are filled with fashion people: models, designers and the aforementioned fashion choreographers. This may appear paradoxical in such close proximity to the Taliban heartland, but in fact both stem from the same root cause—religion, or, rather, Pakistan’s application of it, along with a determination to craft a decidedly Pakistani identity detached from its own history.

Deemed ‘un-Islamic’—or that other no-no, ‘Indian’—several art forms that once thrived in this region have now gone extinct. The film industry is defunct for all practical purposes, dance has been all but wiped out, theatrical productions and music concerts are few and far between, and art shows are small and hold limited appeal. This gaping cultural vacuum has come to be occupied by God for some people and by conspicuous consumption for others. For the wealthy, there is little to do but wear their status on their sleeve, buy expensive clothes and be seen by others who buy them. While concerts and festivals have been increasingly driven underground by the constant threat of terrorism, fashion remains something that the elite have clung to with great tenacity, revealing the priorities shaped by two-three decades of cultural deprivation.

After the devastating earthquake of 2005, no one batted an eyelid when funds were raised through a concert and fashion show, intended to celebrate Pakistani culture, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Spending is officially an art form, if not the primary art form. In the last few years, the fashion industry in Pakistan has not just retained its clientele but expanded, with national ‘fashion weeks’ becoming the latest trend. And while fashion has grown fat as the arts have grown lean, Musharraf’s media boom and comparatively liberal tenure made it all the more visible in the public eye. His term ended in tears, with the Taliban at the gates of the capital, the judiciary suspended, independent TV channels forced off air, and Pakistan briefly joining that notorious fraternity of countries that ban the BBC. But before the General lost the plot, there was a golden age. Well, ‘golden’ might be overstating it a tad; since Musharraf’s drive for Enlightened Moderation tended to hover at the surface of things, ‘the gilded age’ might be closer to the truth. Along with paving the way for independent broadcasting, taking the country from just two TV channels to over a hundred, his unfulfilled desire for Pakistan to adopt a more relaxed religiosity and his modest economic boom ushered a new class into the spotlight.

Fifteen years ago, if you weren’t part of the soigné set, a night out would comprise a drive to the marketplace to browse shoe shops and bookstores and perhaps have a meal and an ice-cream. Whatever happened at private parties stayed within the confines of those homes. Since that time, the glitterati has outglowed its own spectacle. There are TV channels that exclusively cover red carpet events, and, in imitation of glam events in the West, red carpets have come to roll out for absolutely everything from the opening of a fast food restaurant to a book launch.

It is something of a triumph of style over substance; imitative modernity executed so shabbily, it’s almost touching. This is a homegrown celebrity culture that goes beyond the traditional domain of sports and politics. Those beautiful (or at least affluent-looking) young people you see with their easy air of entitlement and glittering lifestyles are having fun, and in this very country! And so everyone wants a piece of it.

The noughties have seen ‘fun’ become the hot new commodity. In a country where the law calls for prohibition, resulting in a lack of bars, pubs and nightclubs, event management has become another boom industry. Whereas ten years ago, New Year’s Eve for the elite was restricted to charity balls at exclusive establishments, now that media boomers and other professionals have a disposable income too, there are ticketed parties being organised by the dozen, with private bars, imported flowers and fig and brie hors d’oeuvres. ‘Party planner’ is now a profession, and one that mints money. Just as crucially, the old guard, while still exclusively marrying one another, is mingling with people their parents didn’t go to school with, whose family trees they are not familiar with. It is all still a private little world away from the Pakistan of the street, where you can be arrested for blasphemy on a whim, but it is a world that has recently started granting a certain element of social mobility.


An association with fashion, as Sheikh Amer Hassan deduced, was the easiest entrée to that world. He became, in lieu of clothing from his alleged fashion house, his own greatest creation, with his outlandish dress sense, his stylised manner and his over-exposed lifestyle. Famous for being an exhaustively familiar face on the people pages, in the fawning social columns that sang odes to his parties and celebrity guests, and briefly as the host of a fashion-related talk show, Hassan all but out-Warholed Warhol and became the patron saint of nothing. While he was sneered at behind his back, and sometimes to his face, this did not stop Karachi’s pretty people from flocking to his home. Anything for a good time in a country where the only way to entertain yourself is to drink, wear or snort your money.

However, Hassan was dogged by uglier rumours than mere tales of his ridiculous extravagance. Anecdotal evidence from his extended social circle suggested that he had a penchant for young boys. The grapevine went so far as to whisper that part of his income, supplementing his TV stipend, came from supplying young boys to interested parties. Despite the talk, and there was plenty of it, nothing was done. A columnist quipped at a party that this was the country where serial killer Javed Iqbal had to hand himself over to the police after they failed to notice that he had killed an alleged hundred children. Some started turning down Hassan’s invitations, but not enough for the good times to die down at the Villa.

When Karachi awoke on 30 August 2008 to find that Hassan’s body had been discovered at his home, bound, gagged and shot twice in the face and once in the head, people were shocked but not necessarily surprised. Two brothers, 19-year-old Saad Farooq and 23-year-old Ameer Hamza, students from a town in Punjab, were arrested for his murder. Statements in the papers varied, but the boys’ confession claimed that Hassan had tried to rape the younger brother. A leading broadsheet said that Hassan bartered sexual favours on the promise of making the boy a model. The Sheikh Villa regulars went mysteriously quiet and were at pains to distance themselves from their former friend. Hassan’s was an ill-attended funeral, in sharp contrast to a typical night at his swinging pad.

The boys were arrested with what seemed like overwhelming evidence: bloodstained clothing, records of phone calls to and from Hassan in the early hours of the morning just prior to his murder, and, if that wasn’t enough, a smoking gun. The evidence was deemed insubstantial, however, and in 2010 they were both acquitted, without a fuss, with barely a mention in the papers or in social circles. In a country steeped in the politics of revenge, there is a comfortable consensus that Hassan “had it coming”. A member of the bureaucratic elite, who doesn’t wish to be named but was a regular at Hassan’s gatherings, says that he believes the boys come from a feudal Punjabi family and that there was no way the clan was going to let their children be charged with “the death of a nobody” like Hassan.

If Hassan is representative of the beginnings of a New Pakistan, set on its path by Musharraf’s media boom, it appears Old Pakistan will triumph over it every time. Sheikh Amer Hassan’s website, which is still up and running, seems simultaneously deluded and prescient in its sign-off to the page celebrating his home: ‘Oh, I so very truly love life in this post-partition subcontinent now called Pakistan where life can be so exciting… and everything so possible. Pakistan is the place, the ultimate land of opportunity. Thank you, every one, for being part of my fantasy called Sheikh Villa.’

Published in Five Dials and openthemagazine.com

Review - Aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower

One of the most successful debuts of recent years, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger was alternately lauded for exposing the seamier side of the Indian success story—as if he were a journalist with breaking news—and criticised for the hypocrisy of attempting to create a protagonist inhabiting a vastly different social strata than the author’s—somehow missing the point of fiction being the ability to make things up convincingly. With few exceptions, the most notable being Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s scorching literary critique for theLondon Review of Books, the response to The White Tiger, as is too often the case with critical responses to writing from outside the Western world, tended towards being anthropological rather than literary, weighing up India rather than Adiga. Perhaps this can explain to some extent why his latest book places far greater emphasis on its message than on its execution as a novel.

In Last Man in Tower, Adiga expounds on his usual subject, the India beneath the glitz of the much-vaunted economic boom. A fat tome weighing in at over 400 pages, and billed as a cracking thriller, it’s hinged on a simple premise: a somewhat dodgy real estate developer wishes to knock down a creaky Mumbai apartment block, and all the residents—barring one—are eager to pocket the generous compensation package for moving out. As he becomes the only thing standing between the tower-dwellers and a lucrative deal, his situation progresses from being merely inconvenient to downright dangerous. Of course, it’s not really about interpersonal relationships souring due to the promise of cold hard cash, it’s about the number of people being forced out of their homes and what’s being done to the city in the name of progress. We know this because, not wanting to take any chances, the author tells us: ‘How many were being forced out of their homes—what was being done to this city in the name of progress?’

Tossing aside conventional fiction writing rules that encourage authors to ‘show and not tell’ the reader, leaving them to infer meaning themselves, it’s all tell-time and no show-time in Last Man. Sometimes, Adiga is even considerate enough to explain his viewpoint repeatedly, in one paragraph, just in case we were dropped on our heads as infants: ‘New financial buildings were opening every month… and the lucre in their vaults, like butter on a hotplate, was melting and trickling into the slums, enriching some and scorching others among the slum-dwellers… a few lucky hut-owners were becoming millionaires… others were being crushed… wealth came to some and misery to others.’

In a similar vein, characters aren’t really people so much as transparent plot devices with different names. As seen on theatre programmes, Last Man opens with a cast of characters. It provides their names, ages, professions and location in the building, and 400 reluctantly turned pages later, one doesn’t know a great deal more about them. The sleazy developer, for all the airtime he gets, remains a cliché, complete with a long-suffering moll who stays with him in the hope of landing a role in the movies. The cleaning lady fares even worse; ‘Her life was a hard one’, we’re told, something we could potentially have deduced ourselves.

As for the tower-dwellers, at best one knows what some of them eat, how they decorate their homes. We’re familiar with their daily routines, yet they fail to materialise into real people. Try as one might, one cannot imagine them, any of them, as anything above and beyond a sketchy description on a page. Towards the end, Adiga attempts to insert shades of moral ambiguity, an attempt that fails since one would have to care for it to matter. The paper-thin characterisation leaves one with a sneaking suspicion that the author disapproves of the residents, hence the lack of empathy that would have brought them to life.

The exception is the protagonist, presented as the last vestige of another type of India—retired schoolteacher Yogesh Murty, who goes by the solidly respectable title of Masterji. Adiga desperately wants us to know that he’s The Good Guy. And so, Masterji is introduced as having ‘a dignified bearing’. A few paragraphs later, we are informed that he ‘accepted his lot with dignity’. In addition, he is an atheist who teaches children science for free, drinks tea with labourers, says nice things about Muslims and single working women with male friends, is recently widowed, and, sealing the deal, had a young daughter fall from a crowded train to her death. I suppose this has the potential to be quite moving were it not for the rank sentimentality—‘the child that he made, the tracks unmade’.

Sentimentality, ultimately, is this book’s downfall. It doesn’t descend into the mawkish so much as live there, occasionally coming up for air. As a racy thriller, it has all the right ingredients—a plot with an urgent sense of momentum, a vibrant and challenging city as a backdrop, a broad spectrum of characters from across the country—that offer an opportunity to dig deep into all that is good and bad in modern India. Only, it isn’t written as a thriller. Adiga cares too deeply for the loss that comes with advancement to approach it that way. Last Man in Tower is written as a morality tale, which, along with being considerably less thrilling than a thriller, is also utterly unsustainable at this length.

The book isn’t helped by Adiga’s partiality for similes and metaphors, equalled only by his seeming inability to construct a halfway decent one. There is one rather fun line, all the more memorable for being the lone spark of wit and style: the woman whose ‘voice always had its knickers down’. Still, it doesn’t quite make up for the cupboards whose ‘doors gave way suddenly to let books and newspapers gush out with traumatic force, like eggs from the slit-open belly of a fish’, nor the woman washing dishes who ‘removed one wet utensil after the other from the foamy water, like a psychoanalyst extracting submerged memories’. Then there is his observation of the old and the new sitting side by side in the supermarket where ‘glitzy plastic satchels of instant Chinese noodles and malt powder twinkled beside the bananas like nouveau-riche cousins’. The most bewildering analogy is saved for the central character: ‘Amidst the silent germination of schemes and ambitions all around him, Masterji sat like a cyst, looking at the rain…’. Of this man apart, at a distance from material and even emotional concerns, we are told a few pages on that ‘the hypodermic needle of the outside world had bent at his epidermis and never penetrated’. One can’t help but point out that if he had indeed been like a cyst, this would not have been the case.

Published in openthemagazine 23 July 2011


More Than a Woman - On Polygamy

The Pakistani male’s predilection for second wives has been splashed about in the news a fair amount this year, starting with the claim that 80 per cent of the country’s parliamentarians had a spare wife tucked away somewhere, followed by the disproportionate, nay, fetishistic interest in cricketer Shoaib Malik’s nuptials. While the inability to be satisfied by one spouse isn’t, I confess, the world’s most admirable quality, it was nevertheless surprising to read a column in a local newspaper recently equating the practice of polygamy to suicide bombing. Reasons cited for the outright denunciation of one husband to several wives were limp at best—social awkwardness, an innate sense of ‘wrongness’, and the desire to disassociate oneself as much as possible from the dating habits of the Taliban. Now, I’m generally reluctant to criticise anything consensual that takes place in the private sphere, even more so when the unspoken basis of the argument rests on the assumption that conventional monogamous relationships are not just righteous but also equal. Would that this were the case.

Unlike the widespread and very pleasant Christian ideal of marriage—made in heaven, till death do us part—Islam’s less sentimental system is more recognisable as realpolitik, given to practical concerns such as pre-nuptial agreements and divorce clauses, centuries before these same things became all the rage in America. Much as one may wish it otherwise, monogamy, even after millennia of indoctrination, can still more fairly be described as common rather than natural, hence the hysterical eagerness of pretty much every culture on earth to force it down your throat. As far as I can see, the distaste aroused by polygamy isn’t directed at a man for having more than one partner, what with bounders, cads and loveable rogues having historically cut romantic figures in the public imagination. The public discomfort comes from the tacit, blanket assumption that being a second wife or allowing your husband a second wife is an act of complete subjugation. To rail against polygamy, then, is to suggest a quick cosmetic fix for a far more deeply rooted problem. It is, of course, the rights of women that require urgent improvement, and one’s revulsion would be better served there.

An account of a polygamous marriage in an Abu Dhabi-based magazine recounted, last year, the experience of a woman who felt humiliated that her husband had taken a second wife of the same age as her daughter, undoubtedly much like the humiliation endured by, say, Mrs Silvio Berlusconi or Mrs Charlie Chaplin or Mrs Robin Cook. The reporter agitated repeatedly against the practice of allowing men more than one wife, not once mentioning that the alternative would not be happily ever after, but either infidelity or abandonment. The woman ought surely to be allowed to choose her poison. If the wife in question were economically and socially empowered (mind you, several financially independent women opt for polygamous partners) she ought to be able to walk out, if she does not wish for her husband to remarry she ought to be able to deny him this permission or then divorce him, or for that matter, inform him that she’s leaving him for her young lover on the side. None of her problems relate to polygamy so much as the lopsided distribution of power between the sexes and the less than joyous realities of human nature. Incidentally, with no money and no social clout, does one really imagine that women in conventional marriages of two are not as much at risk of abuse and humiliation as those fending off other wives?

Amongst the urbane, it is strangely adulterers and philanderers who are considered more socially palatable than polygamists. This is not due to an intrinsic difference in conduct but instead because of our attitude to those double standards that we are accustomed to. In sophisticated circles, we cling to the comfortable and familiar hypocrisy of being able to turn a blind eye to extra-marital (or supra-marital, as the case may be) activity. It’s harder to do when accompanied by a nikkahnama.

Published by openthemagazine.com 19th April 2010


On the first Karachi Literature Festival

The first Karachi Literature Festival served various purposes, not least of which was providing a calming oasis in the Karachi papers between the headlines ‘Bodies Found in Gunny Bags’ and ‘Man Booked for Wife’s Murder’. Held at the distinctly seedy and fairly remote Carlton Hotel, (a place to take note of if one is planning to conduct an adulterous affair with one’s secretary), preceded by only three days of modest publicity, it is a testament to the gameliness and enthusiasm of Karachi’s reading public that this gathering was fairly well-attended, with some of the bigger names, such as Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, filling out the halls.

Organised principally by the Oxford University Press under the aegis of the British Council Pakistan, the two-day event brought together some of Pakistan’s best known authors writing in Urdu and English, along with a few Britons of Pakistani origin, NDTV’s Sunil Sethi and British biographer Victoria Schofield representing international voices. Most conspicuous by their absence were literary agents and publishers. Pakistani fiction in English may have become sexy abroad but still isn’t published domestically. While it’s true that the KLF was held at a time when public spaces are steadily receding, it would still have been nice to read more local coverage of it that didn’t lean so heavily on the tiresome and increasingly inevitable framework of ‘it’s a triumph that anything other than terrorism takes place in Pakistan’. I so look forward to the day when cultural activities in Pakistan can be judged on merit rather than the apparently astonishing fact that they exist to begin with.

The weaker sessions were those where the moderators attempted to put words in the authors’ mouths, insisting for example, on one occasion, that the act of writing was by necessity a political issue whereas the writer had merely wanted to put out a good yarn. While it’s true that the role of literature is far greater than mere entertainment, cultural dialogue in Pakistan quite often squeezes out the role of pleasure entirely, reducing the art of literature to a glorified picket, with fairly essential matters such as writing style left languishing by the wayside.

A session that survived its moderator was called ‘Literature and Humour’ and featured Sarfraz Manzoor, British Asian columnist, documentarian and author of memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock & Roll. After reading some fairly amusing excerpts from his book, he mentioned a programme he’d made on the topic of comedy in the Muslim world, posing the question why Muslims aren’t funny when our mothers are at least as neurotic as those of the Jews. He hypothesised that this was related to a culture that placed great stock in saving face, along with levels of touchiness that didn’t encourage humour. This is partly true, and truest when it comes to the enormous sore spot that is religion, which a zealously cultivated hypersensitivity has rendered no laughing matter. The Islamic world, as it stands now, is never going to produce Woody Allen (“Not only is there no God, try finding a plumber on a Sunday”) or Groucho Marx, who, during the Crucifixion scene in Jesus Christ Superstar, shouted out, “Well, that’s bound to offend the Jews”.

That aside, Pakistan at least has a long and accomplished record of comedic writing in the vernacular, and increasingly in writing and performances in English. That this fact hasn’t reached Manzoor in England is partly due to the limited amount available in English and crucially, the limited amount that translates well outside of the cultural parameters from which it sprung. Added to this is the sad fact that while the British themselves are known for their dry wit, their appetite for comedy from their immigrant populations hasn’t evolved all that much over the years. British Asian comics, Muslims in particular, still cater very much to stereotypes involving second generation British Asians coping with the backwardness of hick parents rooted in the old country. The terribly clever sketch showGoodness Gracious Me pulled it off with great aplomb. Others have not handled this material as well. Attempts at breaking out of this one shtick have proved difficult while the weakest shots at it (portrayals of Asian shopkeepers with funny accents, not to mention the horribly heavy-handed gags that formed the representation of the Bengali community in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) have gone down a storm. The social structure has grown more sophisticated but this clapped out comic formula has failed to do so. The reason for this, I fear, is that by and large the British public are perfectly happy being entertained by their minority communities as long as they’re still laughing at them.

Published in openthemagazine.com 24th March 2010


The Devil Wore Purdah - On Pakistan Fashion Week

While Pakistan goes directly to hell, being a fashion designer remains one of the few professions by which one can still make an honest living. Even in these dark days, good designers—and several of Pakistan’s are exceptionally talented—are still in high demand. There is a school of thought that rather drearily considers aesthetic refinement a somewhat frivolous distraction and bangs on about fiddlers and Rome—“How can you think of a clutch bag at a time like this?” I’d agree, if the option, on an average evening, was popping out for a bite to eat and perhaps saving the country on the way home. The wedding season is an especially lucrative time. Brides-to-be order lavish, often outrageously expensive, joras because, after all, it’s still their special day; also because it’s considered bad taste to simply paste your bank statement to your forehead.

Whether or not “Who are you wearing?” is, in fact, the most fatuous question in the English language, the fashion industry generates jobs and does its bit to keep enterprise afloat, with textiles claiming a significant percentage of Pakistani exports. With this in mind, Karachi Fashion Week was held recently, showcasing the work of 32 Pakistani designers, the largest, but by no means only, event of its kind in the country. Occurring amid postponements and last minute changes of venue due to security concerns, for reasons that surely don’t require stating, it was eventually held at Karachi’s Marriott hotel, the Islamabad branch of which was brought crashing down last year, killing over 50 people. Every night for four nights, eight designers sent models down a blazing white runway in everything from shalwar kameez and gharara to skirts, jeans, shorts and, in one instance, something that looked suspiciously like my bedroom curtains, only worn with a belt, baring more or less the same amount of flesh one might expect to see at an opulent private party.

While the extent to which the exercise stimulated the economy remains to be seen, its effect on international media was instantaneous, with the event resulting in writers going head to head to claim the journalistic equivalent of the Golden Raspberry Award. It was with some bewilderment that one read in the papers the next day of the display of a bare back and some thigh hailed as “snubbing the Taliban”, regardless of the fact that it was done in a private, carefully contained environment filled with people who were not remotely like the Taliban, i.e. socialites, designers, buyers and the inevitable twerp in gigantic sunglasses in the dead of night. There was the de rigueur cliché of how daring it was to see skimpily dressed models in a society where women generally cover up, entirely omitting to mention that distinctions exist between those people who cover up and those who don’t, and fashion models fall quite clearly into the latter category. One scribe wrote of how heroic it was to show exposed navels while war is simultaneously waged in Waziristan, as if these two are somehow connected, as if, perhaps, the navels were being bared in Waziristan or that the war would be won should the military choose to spend its budget on tank-tops rather than tanks.

The executive at the helm of the event joined the dots in a rational manner, saying, “The more jobs you generate, the fewer suicide bombers there are likely to be,” but not everyone quoted from the fashion industry came off so well. One designer lamentably laid claim to being “a very brave woman” for displaying her clothes on a catwalk at a five-star hotel in a country where women have been known to be murdered, maimed, mutilated and on occasion buried alive, where girls’ schools are routinely attacked and where, even at the best of times, women’s rights, outside of a tiny income bracket, are limited at best. Another designer called it an act of defiance in the face of the Taliban, glossing over the fact that fashion shows do in fact take place with some regularity in Pakistan, and if one must intellectualise this, then it could more honestly be described as a display of affluence in the face of a nation torn apart by the gaping chasm between rich and poor. Why the foreign media can’t ask Pakistani designers questions about their work and why they, in turn, yield to the temptation, like Miss Universe, of providing a sound bite on world peace is beyond me.

Published in openthemagazine 9th November 2009

Take a Chance on Me - on ABBA in Karachi

The lady who runs the local beauty parlour is terminally chatty and warm with a ribald sense of humour (apparently there’s some sort of unofficial collective of women who run local beauty parlours, all coached in these same traits), the sort of person who oozes homespun wisdom at every opportunity. Her life is a Dolly Parton song, complete with husband who done her wrong, pretty daughter with a knack for choosing the wrong man, good-for-nothing son shacked up with some tramp, and a laundry woman who consistently returns less bed linen than she collects.

Still, she doesn’t let any of this get her down, and is almost inhumanly good-natured. Recently, however, she worked herself into quite the huff upon learning that I was not planning to attend the latest show in town, the ABBA-inspired West End musical, Mamma Mia! She accused me of not supporting the arts in Pakistan and gave me a thorough finger-wagging as to how ‘the future of the country depends on you young people.’ If the future of the country depends on me singing along to Chiquitita, then I can confirm, we’re doomed. And it’s not just the parlour. I find myself avoiding large gatherings in general this week as the social pressure mounts to explain my lack of interest in Mamma Mia (“but it’s a huge production, in Karachi! I can’t believe you’re not going!”). I’ve tried to explain that unlike Mallory and Mt Everest, I can’t go just because it’s there. I like both theatre and song, just not together, like people who don’t care for their meat and vegetables to touch on the plate. My aversion to the genre is interpreted as faint hostility towards arts and culture, never mind that the popular musical is intended as pure spectacle and this one is as culturally enriching as people in spandex singing ABBA can be.

In London, the rising tide of musicals irks me no end (can’t swing a Cats! without hitting one), driving out real plays and killing more modestly budgeted productions. In Karachi, the problem is quite different. Due to the sucking void that is the performing arts landscape, the mere advent of a sparkly West End show, largely starring amateurs with day jobs, takes on the significance of a major artistic event, with some quarters of the press receiving it as cultural salvation and the revival of the Pakistani stage. I’m sure even ABBA would have had the grace to blush. I first encountered Mamma Mia during its original run at London’s Prince Edward Theatre in 1999. I had been around the corner when the pub next to the Prince Edward, heaving with Mamma Mia pre-show attendees, was targeted by nail-bomber Daniel Copeland (oh, I so miss the good old days when things were blown up by Neo-Nazis), killing three. Since then I’ve enjoyed ten blissful Mamma Mia-free years till it reared its sequined head again as the closing film of the otherwise solidly respectable Kara Film Festival. And for the next fortnight, it’s out (and proud), showing at the capacious Karachi Arts Council.
There’s been much ado about how audacious the act of staging this production is in the first place, and this much is perfectly true. It’s a brave, brave thing to flash a low neckline on stage, or to erect billboards showing three girls dancing within sneezing distance of Hakimullah Mehsud and the Army of Darkness. But reading it as a sign of liberalism and progressiveness would be to entirely miss the point of how alienated the upper classes are from everyone else. (When asked if she was catering solely to the elite at Rs 1,500 a head, the organiser is purported to have said, rather brilliantly I think, “I bloody well hope so.”).

Incidentally, reports of the production are, by all accounts, great. The female lead has a strong voice, her co-star is RADA material, and the mere thought of live orchestras always unaccountably fills me with joy. Some five years ago, the Pakistani musical revolved around an inept Islamabad-based producer who, confronted with the dilemma of finding or training singers, hit upon the novel idea of using a tape recorder instead, producing shoddy yet depressingly successful show after show. My congratulations to the producer of Mamma Mia, who has drastically improved the standard of what is acceptable to a paying audience in Pakistan. The ratio of breathless reception to entertainment deprivation, however, remains a matter of speculation.

Published in openthemagazine.com 17th October 2009