World Writers

“Lahore broke my heart”

5 October 2014

Author Reema Abbasi spoke to me about her travels across the country while researching for ‘Historic Temples in Pakistan’. Some excerpts from the conversation.

Reema abbasiReema Abbasi with her book

What was the inspiration to author a book on Pakistani temples?

For the last 10 years my reporting, columns and editorials concentrated on socio-political issues with a strong focus on secular values already enshrined in Islam. The tide of Islamism eclipsed Pakistan’s happy confluence one grew up in. So I felt it was time to make a concrete contribution through a topic that fused history through antiquated symbols of unity — which, in this case, belong to the ancient faith of Hinduism — and an essentially tolerant populace that believes in humanity and the pull of history.

This is why the book is “Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience” as it documents structures that can challenge time and shuns the idea of the supremacy of any singular faith. Every call to prayer demands respect.

Your book tells us multiple stories. The temples are endangered but there are positive stories as well. How would you give an overall view?

By and large, Pakistan and its communities deserve much praise for the upkeep of these age-old treasures. Many are now heaps of stones such as Tilla Jogian or Suraj Kund, but then disuse does that all over the world. Our over a year long journey across the country was an eye-opener. It sprang one surprise after another and assailed many presumptions with Kali Ki Gali in Peshawar, Shivala Mandir in Mansehra, a pujari’s words in Pindi:  “Yeh mutthi bhar dehshatgard kitna bigaar leingay?” to name a few.

But Punjab broke my heart, especially Lahore, a jewel layered with many diverse eras, has forced its Hindus to live with the greatest of burdens – false identity. They live lies by adopting Christian names.

Has the Sindh government proven to be a better guardian of the Hindu places of worship than other governments? Or is it the same story everywhere?

Sindh has done a tremendous job of maintenance, restoration, and reverence, so has Balochistan with Hinglaj and much of KPK honours its shrines. Punjab has lost over 1000 pre-historic emblems to neglect, greed and bigotry. (more…)

I know how men in exile feed on dreams

26 September 2014
Comments Off

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…)

Pakistan’s Dueling Military Cultures

8 September 2014

Ccristine fair

C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Pakistan’s military has been in the global spotlight for several decades. Within the country, it has shaped both state and society, including arbitrating key decisions — from foreign policy to economic management. A large number of Pakistanis view it as a “guardian” of the state. Yet, scant scholarship exists on the institution itself and the roles it has played. Instead, hagiographical accounts from Pakistani authors (mostly retired military officers) and media commentary that often overlook the important questions dominate the discussion.

Two new books published in quick succession have expanded the debate and provide new insights into the workings of the Pakistani military. The first is a provocative assessment by Dr. C. Christine Fair entitled Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War and second is Aqil Shah’s in-depth study, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan. Both books extend the scope of research by relying on the military’s own literature, and by bringing to light lesser-known dimensions of the internal norms and processes that determine its organizational culture and outlook. (more…)

Books, bombs & mangroves (on the fourth Karachi Literature Festival)

7 March 2013

In its fourth year, the Karachi literature festival (KLF) has become a public event that brings together the cosmopolitanism and the fissiparous identities of Karachi. One of the greatest consolations of today’s Pakistan is the quiet yet formidable growth of this festival as a cultural marker. Such has been its influence that Lahore – otherwise deemed as the cultural centre of Pakistan – has now kicked off its very own literary festival.

The fourth KLF was a bigger event than its past lives. The list of organizers and partners has also grown over the years, but the credit for weaving it all together belongs to the indefatigable Ameena Saiyid, MD Oxford University Press. Little wonder that the world continues to recognize her contributions, as Saiyid was recently conferred the Knight of the Order of Arts & Literature by the French government.

KLF attracted thousands of people from Karachi, and beyond. This time, I noticed that the majority of the attendees were from the younger generation, with a large number of schoolchildren involved in a parallel world of books, storytelling, art and simple fun activities. Of course, a liberal bubble is always deceptive, and on day two the tragic incident in Quetta – which killed and injured hundreds of Hazaras – shook the participants. Despite the action packed days, the Hazara killings loomed large and most sessions articulated a strong condemnation of the ghastly massacre.

The festival started with another, albeit lesser, tragedy. Gulzar ji, the celebrated Indian poet, lyricist, and filmmaker, decided not to attend KLF after his brief sojourn in Lahore and his birthplace Dina. Prior to KLF, I had been most excited about conducting a session with him and another formidable talent, Vishal Bhartwaj, the avant-garde Indian filmmaker. The last time I had met Gulzar ji was at Ghalib’s birthday celebrations at Delhi, where I walked with him like a shamelessly smitten fan. Ameena Saiyid read out Gulzar ji’s letter in which he had apologized for his absence by saying, “Mujh se naraaz na hona” in his simple and evocative style. The wretched Indo-Pakistan politics continues to haunt cultural exchanges. Perhaps it was the post Afzal Guru scenario played up by the so-called security experts, or his emotionally draining trip to his birthplace that rendered him incapable of further staying in Pakistan. Either way, it was the curse of history that kept us all away from listening to Gulzar ji. Apparently, he composed this couplet upon his return to India, in a spirit of defiance: “Shehr-e-Pak mein agarche ghar banana mana hai; qabr ik basana chahoon main wahan toh kyun nahi” (Even though it is prohibited to build a house in a Pakistani city / I could wish for my grave to be built there).

KLF, otherwise, kept me pretty occupied with an eclectic variety of sessions, some of which I moderated. The first one was with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s about his new book; ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian scientists speak out.’ Hoodbhoy has compiled this book with this question which he reiterated at the KLF: “Are we safer today than before we acquired the nuclear bomb?” Sadly the answer can only be in the negative as Hoodbhoy reminded us all. This was a spirited session with a huge, enthusiastic audience, endless questions and a generous dose of Hoodbhoy’s wry witticisms. To one of my earnest questions, he asked me to hold on and told the audience how telling it was that Dr. Qadeer Khan (who flaunts the fatherhood of Pakistani bomb) had joined hands with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Having spoken at an earlier book launch in Islamabad, I found the difference between the two audiences staggering. In the patriots’ capital, many hyper-nationalists undermined Hoodbhoy’s worldview, but most at KLF agreed with his position[s]. (more…)

Books in the times of jihad

20 December 2012

sibf2After a hiatus of nearly a decade, I found myself in the United Arab Emirates, also popularly imagined as ‘Dubai’ in Pakistan. I was traveling with a group of Pakistani writers, poets and photographers to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). I had been visiting the various UAE airports in transits over the last many years but never knew how this country, prospering with petrol dollars and supported by hardworking South Asian labour, had turned into a kind of modern paradise of consumerism, success and gold. More importantly, the UAE is now a melting port of various nationalities and cultures – a bit of a contradiction, given the puritanical reputation of Saudi Arabia and the historical narrations of Arab supremacy over the non-Arabs.

It was both exciting and disconcerting: displays of capitalist victories, thousands of poor South Asian workers, yet the promise of services, multiculturalism and some measure of tolerance. Perhaps these changing dynamics of the Emirati society are linked to events such as SIBF – a huge, multitudinous, undertaking involving 140 international publishers, agents and related crew, and for the first time, writers from South Asia. Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qassimi, is a unique Arab ruler for his interest in books and investments in publishing industry are rare traits in an Arab monarch. I trust that the Sheikh holds a doctorate and is an avid reader himself. I could not help wondering if he would have some positive influence on our ruling elites, whose relationship with books is far from enviable. The SIBF was held at the humungous Sharjah Expo Centre – a post post-modern building, with an amorphous architectural identity, but lots of space accommodating over 600,000 visitors of nearly all the nationalities that live in the UAE. South Asia and Pakistan received a special focus, and a brilliant ensemble of Pakistani writers attended the 10-day long festival at different occasions. (more…)

Book review: An ambitious undertaking

19 December 2012

Pankaj Mishra’s new book is an ambitious undertaking. “From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals who Remade Asia” traces the lives and works of three Asian intellectuals who were at the forefront of several resistance movements in times when colonists had occupied countries and exercised almost absolute intellectual power.

It is a fascinating narrative, which challenges the Eurocentric version of ‘the truth’ and claims “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of Asian and European empires”. Mishra focuses on Jamal-al-din al-Afghani (1838-1897), a renaissance figure who was a formidable critic of the Western intellectual ascendancy, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a thinking journalist who was a proponent of Confucian ideals, and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), an epitome of the great Bengali renaissance and the awakening of Indian consciousness.

Thus Mishra constructs a powerful account of how white men once “conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible”. Mishra’s personal identity has gradually espoused the cause of internationalism. He lives in the West and travels to the East as an ‘insider’ thereby picking up the threads of societies in transition which most Western writers are unable to fathom. Al-Afghani, for example, argued for intellectual resistance to the hegemony of the West, which unfortunately has been distorted to the extent that today rationalized use of violence has entered the battle of ideas. The Muslim world has a lot to learn from al-Afghani, whose legacy has been squandered over time. In a way, Mishra’s book comes as a major source of reviving the public debate on today’s ‘Muslims versus West’ real and imagined conflict. (more…)

“What the heart is like” – a poem by Miroslav Holub

9 December 2011

Today, my friend Khalid Mir told me rather casually that he had been reading poems by Miroslav Holub. I had heard his name; and when K sent me this poem, I could not resist posting it here. Have read it again and again. For sometimes, I tell myself similar lines – of course in a highly unpoetical fashion. Yesterday,  I tweeted this verse from Ghalib: “Meri kismat meiN gham gar itna tha. Dil bhee ya rab kai diye hote“. Indeed many different ways to understand the heart and the one below is unique for its gritty imagery as well as playfulness.

Officially the heart

is oblong, muscular,

and filled with longing.

 

But anyone who has painted the heart knows

that it is also

 

spiked like a star

and sometimes bedraggled

like a stray dog at night

and sometimes powerful

like an archangel’s drum.

 

And sometimes cube-shaped

like a draughtsman’s dream

and sometimes gaily round

like a ball in a net. (more…)

Next Page »