I know how men in exile feed on dreams

26 September 2014
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To the accompaniment of songs, poetry and history, Raza Rumi spent a bittersweet evening with fellow exiles exploring the state of his banishment

Raza rumi and neelam

Neelam Bashir and Raza Rumi

“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” ? Ovid

I sat there, on a wooden deck with a motley crew under the summer sky. Deep into the suburbia of Maryland this was a spontaneous get together with a diverse group of Pakistani-Americans. The sorted, integrated types not at odds with the ‘evil West’ as we know it back home. Yet, they were exiles, dislocated in their own way. This was a strangely intimate evening with so many stories that merged into a moment of connection, a nameless bond.

Noreen and Amjad Babar – old residents here – are great hosts. Their home, an open house in all senses, hosts all the progressives across the length and breadth of the United States. That evening when we all congregated perchance, it was a melee of writers, poets, doctors and journalists of Pakistani origin. This was also the weekend when the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) was holding its annual convention.

Far from home

Pakistani American doctors hold a huge festival every year where they congregate, network, vent and even make matches for their hybridized children.

This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan

I was invited to speak at a panel organized by Karachi’s Dow Medical College Alumni (formally known as the ‘Dow Graduates Association of North America’) that attempts to raise the unpopular issues of extremism and progressive change in Pakistan. This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan. Most notably, Dr Mehdi whose assassination did not even invite a simple statement of condemnation from Pakistan’s so-called ruling ‘democrats’. The panel was great: Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, poet-writer-journalist Hasan Mujtaba and the bold columnist Dr Taqi. Haqqani amused the audience with his wit and exceptional command over Pakistan’s history. Only a few bilingual speakers can match his erudition. (more…)

Away from the ‘homeland’

9 May 2014

In the past one month, my friends and associates from across the globe have reached out. I am grateful to them. Now that I am out of Pakistan I am safer. This is a trade-off. Choices. Again. Security versus identity. Belonging or choosing a migrant’s life. I have yet to think about these issues and hopefully the mist will clear itself.

I was deeply touched by what the eminent poet and my friend-muse Fahmida Riaz wrote in her commentary on the recently held Islamabad Literature Festival:

…It is no ordinary city or town, our capital. Only weeks ago there was a blast here that killed many people; and just last month, one of its prominent citizens, Raza Rumi, barely escaped death in a car attack. Last year Rumi was the life and spirit of the festival, moderating many sessions, but this year he was nowhere to be seen.

And then this email that pierced into a corner of my being:

Yes, I heard about it. Yes, I also read about it. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how to react to it. Should I pick the phone, say a few words of concern and take a sigh of relief? Or should I sit back, grim and bear it? It took a long time to sink in despite the fact that it sounded familiar. I’ve lost friends (we all have lost friends at some one point in life or the other) but I really can’t afford to lose another. Each time I hear the sound within earshot, I am shaken. I feel weak in the knees while writing this!
I called you today – your number was powered off. I was looking for you at the ILF 2014 but couldn’t see you anywhere. Where are you? How do I connect with you? …
Meanwhile, take everything easy. I can’t stop thanking God for returning you to us. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Best, ….


What do you read, my lord?

30 July 2013

My book will be launched this Saturday. I can say that its going to be a big day in my quest to become a writer. Those in Delhi are invited. Click the image for the full picture and details.

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.” ~Shakespeare

Invite (Delhi by heart) 5x7 inch Final



The heart divided

27 June 2013

Here’s an excerpt from my book ‘Delhi, by heart’ that was featured in TFT


I am not sure how I met Bunty. It was perhaps through a reference from the office during one of my early work-related visits. Bunty Singh, brother of Sunny Singh and Goldie Singh, became my guide and companion. Sunny and Bunty have set up a mini empire of rental cars through investments made by Goldie who lives in Germany and is married to a “good” German girl. Bunty, a boisterous, internet-savvy young Sardar, found me to be somewhat like him. We spoke in Punjabi, often using lines that would quite miss those outside the ‘Punju’ realm. And we both were equally fascinated by each other-the thirty-something grandchildren of Partition.

So after an hour of awkward client-service interaction, Bunty decided to befriend me. It was just the right thing to have happened I guess. How else would I know a real Sardar? Most of my interactions with Sikhs took place when I was a student in the UK decades ago.

However, as soon as there was mention of Partition, there was a palpable unease. It was only after a day or two that he confided how half his family was butchered at a railway station.

To use Amrita Pritam’s words:

Who can guess

How difficult it is

To nurse barbarity in one’s belly

To consume the body and burn the bones?

I am the fruit of that season

When the berries of Independence came into blossom. (Translated from the Punjabi by Harbans Singh)


Farewell, Dear SM

9 June 2013


“Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come…”

Salma Mahmud, or SM as we called her at TFT, quietly left us last week. I can imagine her, part-disdain and part-panic when death would have walked up to her, announcing that it was time to change her residence. She was not unfamiliar with change or moving around as her life journey was always full of surprises, drama and anguish.

Salma ji was the eldest daughter of MD Taseer, the great poet-intellectual of early 20th century Punjab, and older sister of the brave and unforgettable Salmaan Taseer. Our acquaintance began as colleagues at TFT when SM was working as an assiduous and creative editor. We would correspond half a dozen times a day, and then we started to talk regularly, even when there was no work to discuss. SM was awfully funny and irreverent, and had great taste in literature. It is a separate matter that she also loved reading what she herself called “trashy novels”. I would encourage her to review them for TFT, as I found the idea most exciting that a woman who had read everything under the sun could take a break and enjoy racy and “fun” books.

Her husband Mahmud Sahab was a great companion of hers, a man infinitely proud of his learned wife and fully involved in her writing.

SM was born in Kashmir when Dr. Taseer had started his career as an educationist. In an interview she told me: “My father was the essence of love and affection. I can’t recall any cross words, except just once towards the end of his life, when he was an ill person, and he apologised to me afterwards. He lavished lovely presents on us, especially books, which he bought all the time. Beautiful Japanese art books, for example, as well as the usual classics and Enid Blyton. Wonderful dolls came for us from FAO Schwartz, the legendary toy shop, when he visited New York in 1948.” The 1940s were a turbulent as well as a deeply enriching decade for SM as she imbibed the literary milieu in which her father was a shining light. At the same time she also discovered the existential and social “aloneness” of her father despite his stature as a poet.

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Dr. Taseer took a Pak-nationalist line after 1947 which isolated him from some of his “progressive” writer friends. One cannot for long begrudge men of letters for the political choices they make. SM carried her childhood and all the great cities she lived in with her wherever she went. Her memories of Dehli, Simla, Srinagar and Lahore became the lens with which she viewed the world, art and beauty. Lutyens’ Dehli and the Lodhi road bungalow, where she attended dinners held for luminaries such as EM Forster defined for her the idyll of life. But the Partition and its tragic aftermath changed her life.

By 1950, MD Taseer was dead, leaving lots of ideas and poetry but little inheritance for the family. SM’s English mother Christabel (sister of Alys Faiz) took it upon herself to raise her children and provide them with all they needed. SM studied at the Kinnaird College before pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Edinburgh. Like her father, SM turned into a seasoned teacher of the English language and literature and taught in the Gulf and Pakistan in various institutions. Till her last she was dedicated to education and was affiliated with the Beaconhouse National University. (more…)

A season of quotes

30 January 2012

Never a dull moment. And, increasing requests for quotes, opinions and reactions. Sometimes I wonder if it makes a difference? I am putting some of these quotes in a purely self-indulgent moment.

Most recently, this story in Washington Post by  quoted me. Entitled “In Pakistan, coup looms but does not strike” here is my feel-good view:

“There is an enlarged democratic space,” said Raza Rumi, a newspaper columnist who counts himself among the optimists. “So this is an interesting moment. The government may or may not survive . . . but the assertion of the civilians is inspiring.”

DNA on Pak government getting ready to face the top court. Here:

Raza Rumi, a leading Pakistani columnist, said the elected executive and unelected institutions had “entered into a logjam”.

He said, “The parliament will debate a loosely worded resolution on constitutional governance while the Supreme Court will hear two important cases that can potentially endanger the future of the civilian government.”

Rumi noted that the military had reportedly decided to back the apex court.

“Clearly, the civilians have gained some ground as the military, despite its power, has refrained from launching a coup,” he said.

Columnist Raza Rumi suggested that state institutions needed to find a way to work together. “The best option for all players is to work out a formula on power-sharing where the elected and the unelected arms of the state can coexist within their respective constitutional jurisdictions,” he said. (more…)

Marta Franceschini: H Nizamuddin Auliya’s devotee

25 January 2012

The dargah

This message cheered me up. Amazing that some of us have never met yet there is a bond we share – the calm space in Delhi where a 13th century mystic is buried. I am posting Marta’s letter with her permission below:

Hi Raza Rumi, I wonder if you remember me. Some years back I sent my essay on Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulyia to your site, and you very dearly published it. I had found you on the net, actually I was attracted by your name due to my deep passion and admiration for Mawlana Rumi. But at that time – not a very bright moment of my life, I must say – I didn’t realise who i was sending my message to, neither where. Actually, I discovered only very recently that you really exist, and live and work in Pakistan. Your name appeared in my possible connections in Linkedin, which I joined not long ago thanks to the insistence of a friend. I clicked on your name instinctivly, and later I forgot to go and check your profile and so on. But coincidences are not there for no reason, so few weeks back, while I was travelling with my daughter Sofia in Maharashtra, I read an interesting article on Pakistan on the Hindu, and…there, your name again! Could it be the same Raza Rumi of my essay long time ago? I started to put together the pieces, went back to linkedin, and yes, here you are! Zabardast!

Visitors in the heatI am writing you from my barsati in New delhi, where now I live doing my 2′ year MPhil at JNU in Medieval History. So, you see, the Saint has kept His promise, and brought me back here, after so many years: 24, to be exact. You can probably imagine my overwhemilng joy for such a reunion. Of course, it happened all very “casually”: my daughter went to study in Canada, and I decided to came back to Delhi just for a three months visit. I met so many people, one in particular you may know, Yousuf Saeed of Ektara, who introduced me to Sunil Sharma, who introduced me to Najaf Haider of JNU…I told him about my idea of research, he suggested me to try the admission at JNU. I did. I was accepted, out of every expectation. I packed and moved to my beloved Delhi. This was August 2010, and I was 52 years old. Since then, no matter all the hurdles I had to face, I am the happiest woman of the world. I go to the dargah at least twice a week, but often I end up there also every day. I’d like to tell you more about what has happened inside of me since i came back here – my real home, I feel – and about many other things, and maybe I will do one day, inshallah!

Anyway, I feel the desire to let you know where I am, and what I am doing, and to express you my gratitude for having linked my name to the Saint’s name, when all this was not even imaginable. You brought a real sparkle of light in the dark, at that time. Thank you from the heart, truly. 
In case you come to Delhi, and if you have time and will, please do not esitate to contact me: I would love to meet you.
All the best, Khuda Hafiz, Marta Franceschini

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