Follow by Email

Friday, 24 June 2011

Siliguri: Travelling to the North Bengal University

I don't know when the landscape changes from sun-bleached beige to rain-fed green. Having traveled the breadth of the vast flat expanse of the Indo-Gangetic plain, I look out of the aircraft window and am startled by my first sight of the north Bengal countryside. Gone are the mottled brown fields, scorched by the mid-summer sun and singed by the loo winds, that I had been flying over for the past two hours. Gone too are the sharply etched, broad-but-brown rivers lazily looping through a relentlessly flat terrain. The mild sunlight, so different from the blinding glare I have left behind in sweltering Delhi, glints off the sloping tin-roofed houses and the many big and small rivers as well as scores of ponds and tanks and rivulets. A green haze spreads as far as the eye can see.

As the plane drops altitude, I begin to espy a gently undulating land unfolding a patchwork of every imaginable shade of green. The emerald of tender paddy in the fields, the darker green of the tea plantations, the sombre green of swaying palm trees, and the many shades of absinthe, myrtle, shamrock, jade and olive among the folded earth that I cannot identify from this distance stretches as far as the eye can see. The verdure makes me catch my breath as I am reminded of Faiz Ahmad Faiz's immortal coinage: Kab nazar mein aaye gi bedaagh sabze ki bahaar. ('When will we see the spring of a stainless green?') A purple mist on the horizon signals the eastern Himalayan ranges fabled for their mild climate, rare orchids, alpine forests, azure lakes, ancient temples and monasteries, and breathtaking views of the Kanchendzonga Peak

The international airport at Bagdogra is a busy one for its size, for while Bagdogra itself has little to offer, it serves as a gateway to the hills. My plane disgorges a motley bunch of honeymooners headed to the salubrious climes of Darjeeling, businessmen and entrepreneurs going to the nearby cities of New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, students returning from the schools and colleges in Delhi, traders and executives working for the many tea estates in the region. Several tourist destinations located in the majestic north-eastern Himalayas beckon from a short distance. Darejeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok lure with their heady mix of colonial-era architecture interspersed with Buddhist monasteries, trekking through dense forests and craggy hills, and the delights of rafting and fishing in the Teesta river. Located in Darjeeling district, the town of Bagdogra is remarkably free of all such distractions. After the airport, its chief delight is the North Bengal University where I am headed.

Invited by the Department of History to attend a seminar on Memoirs and History, I have come armed with a paper on 'Roshnai', Sajjad Zaheer's memoir, and the perils of mixing memoir with history. First published in Pakistan in 1956 and in India in 1959, Roshnai was written in the Mach Jail when Zaheer was imprisoned for the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case from 1951-1954. With no access to notes or reference materials, Zaheer covered the period from late 1935 till mid-1947, and wrote a first-hand account of the early history of the Progressive Writers' Movement (PWM) strictly from memory. Cross-checking of several incidents with the testimonies of other writers associated with the PWM as well as other literary and non-literary sources, reveals lapses, omissions, obliterations, inaccuracies and biases. My paper attempts to show that while 'Roshnai' is an important book, even a valuable one, it needs to be read with caution and constant co-relation. While its author is to be lauded for his modesty and self-effacement, he is also occasionally guilty of effacing the contribution of several others or, in describing events and personages, tinting their description with the colour of subjectivity and prejudice. And, so, while 'Roshnai' deserves to be read, it must be read alongside other texts that shed light on the formation and evolution of the PWM. I conclude by making a plea for not merely 'Roshnai' but all memoirs: that they be read as a supplement to history, not as a substitute.

My paper strikes an unexpectedly warm and enthusiastic chord among my listeners. It is heartening to find that my audience - the majority of whom do not understand Urdu and a great many of whom are unfamiliar with Sajjad Zaheer and his literary contributions - is moved by my presentation, so much so that I am given extra time to go into more details. On the other hand, this being Bengal, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. For not only are Bengalis more erudite and scholarly than average Indians but they have more reasons to be aware of the framework of my paper: the Progressive Writers' Movement on which I have fleshed out my argument on the gains and losses of 'Roshnai'. Lest we forget, it was in Bengal that the movement for progressive literature found its most fertile soil and it was in Calcutta that the Second All-India Conference of Progressive Writers was held in 1938. Also, it is but natural that in present-day Bengal - attempting to rise like a Phoenix from over three decades of Communist rule - that the excesses of the Movement should find an instant rapport. (The two delegates from Bangladesh have their own observations to supplement mine, given their experiences with progressive literature.)

An animated discussion follows my paper: on the tendency among writers' groups for a core, ideologically-driven group to emerge; on the perils of a writer's commitment to ideology (in this case Communism) over-riding all other impulses, including literary and cultural ones; on the tendency to divide writers into opposing, and warring camps, i.e. progressive vs. reactionary; on the fallout of invoking art to mobilise and unite people; on the political underpinnings of popular literary and cultural movements; and on the tools of marginalization and alienation employed by writers' blocs against those who deviate or differ from a laid-down 'policy'. I am struck by the fact that the gains and losses of mixing memoir with history can apply just as effectively to mixing art with politics, ideology with literature, culture with politics and many such permutations-combinations. And who better than the Bengalis to know the 'those-not-with-us-are-against-us' brand of politics from first-hand experience!

The delegates are treated to some typically Bengali treats: mach for lunch and dinner accompanied by heaps of fluffy rice and followed by delicious mishtidoi (yoghurt flavoured with khajuriguror palm molasses); self-choreographed naach performed by final-year history students; Rabindragaan sung by no less than the Head of the History Department, Prof Anita Bagchi herself; and on our last evening that most eponymous of all Bengali institutions: the adda organized by the seminar coordinator, the inimitable Prof. Ichhimuddin Sarkar. An adda is an informal gathering where you indulge in some serious gup in the course of an intellectual exchange, usually accompanied with endless rounds of chai and animated, even heated, arguments. Ours starts tamely enough, with the students asking us sedate questions about future academic prospects, but ends up with a volatile discussion on the urgent issue of separate statehood for the hill district and the long-neglected rights of the hill people. As outsiders we are struck by the extent of discontent raging across the Dooars and Siliguri areas and the widespread wish for a separate homeland for the Gorkhas settled and domiciled in India.

Naturally enough, this part of North Bengal, sharing an international border with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh (and Tibet not too far away), has a crucial strategic importance for India. While the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken's Neck is a corridor no more than 20-40 km in width, being the only rail and road link between the Indian mainland and the seven sisters in the north-eastern arm of India it has crucial geopolitical significance. Heavily patrolled by security forces, this part of North Bengal is the cause of much concern: as a future threat perception among India's security establishment and as a worst-case scenario by development experts, social scientists and planners. Barely a week into her office, the newly-elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has raised fresh hopes by promising a way out from the 'Darjeeling impasse' within three months. Already, she has commissioned a mini-secretariat for North Bengal and released a 200-crore budget for the development of this much-neglected region.

The hills are alive with the din of Mamata Di's supporters. I take home packets of fragrant Darjeeling tea, plucked from these very hills. I also bring back memories of a serene, almost jewel-like campus nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas and the snatch of a song recited by our host:

O mero baideshi abandhu re
Ek bar outtar bangla asiajan
Hamar jag khan oerchiajan
Tomar kotha koyajan
Hamar kotha oshunirjan re...

(O my outsider friends
Come to my North Bengal
See our land
Tell us your story
And listen to my story...)

(This article was first published in The Friday Times (Lahore), June 24-30, 2011)

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Aga Khan Trust and Basti Nizamuddin

The area around Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi holds an embarrassment of riches. While the Humayun’s Tomb itself has been declared a World Heritage Site, little is known about the seven centuries of heritage and the many gems hidden in the area surrounding this well-known tourist destination. The earliest Islamic palace building in India, the Lal Mahal, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Balban in the 13th century caused this area to be known as Ghiyaspur. And it was to this Ghiyaspur that the venerable Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya came to stay and built his hospice, known to posterity as Basti Nizamuddin. It was here that he lived and preached a message of love and compassion and came, in turn, to be loved by the people of Delhi as Mehboob-e-Ilahi, the Beloved of God. It was here, too, that he found the rarest of rare disciples, Amir Khusro and together they witnessed the passing of a turbulent era in the history of this city. The first qawwwalis were composed here and it was here that Khusro handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas -- and trained them to sing in a new sort of way.  As a mark of syncretism and a celebration of pluralism, basant came to be celebrated with joy and the whole area decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day.

Sultans came and went, dynasties rose and fell but the hospice, the Basti Nizamuddin, flourished. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya died in 1325 at the venerable age of 87 and Khusro, mad with grief, wrote Gori sowe sej par much pe dare kes/ Chal Khusro ghar aapne, rain bhayi pardes. For seven centuries, his dargah continued to be venerated, people continued to flock to his grave, and to that of Amir Khusro who lies buried nearby. Soon, a cluster of buildings crowded the space around the Dargah and its vicinity – the baoli and Jamaat Khana mosque, Chaunsath Khamba, the grave of Princess Jahanara, Kali Masjid, the tomb of Atgah Khan, the mausoleum of Mirza Ghalib, and a little further away, the Chilla Nizamuddin, the Nila Gumbad, Batashewala Complex, Bu Halima’s garden enclosure, Azim Bagh (now known as the Sundar Nursery), Arab ki Sarai and of course the spectacular buildings inside the Humayun’s Tomb complex. With princes and sultans vying to be buried close beside the sufi saint, soon the area acquired a dense mosaic of Islamic architecture dating from the medieval period to the present times. And with this profusion of building activities, a warren of congested human habitation built around a network of narrow lanes and higgledy-piggledy-houses that flouted all building laws and regulations.
Despite being located in the heart of plush South Delhi, despite drawing pious pilgrims from distant corners of the world, the Basti Nizamuddin area is one of the most congested, most under-developed, most poorly-served ghettos in this otherwise prosperous part of the capital. Roadside eateries jostle for space with beggars and milling crowds. Infested by drug lords, its narrow lanes have bred petty criminals and wasted youth who have had little or no options for education, recreation or employment. In this dismal scenario, the Aga Khan Trust (AKT) stepped in to forge a public-private partnership propelled on the twin engines of cultural revival and urban renewal. The AKT and a slew of government agencies have taken the Basti Nizamuddin area under their wing and initiated a remarkable series of small changes, each of which will, hopefully, in the years to come snowball into something meaningful and lasting. What is more, it will hopefully also hold out a template for similar projects in cloistered communities, communities that wear their backwardness like an impenetrable cloak of defeat and nihilism.
In keeping with the objectives of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme which has undertaken several urban renewal projects in the Muslim world, in cities such as Cairo, Kabul, Masyaf, Mostar, Samarkand, etc. the thrust here is on restoring and maintaining the socio-economic and cultural fabric of a designated area. The idea is to make changes sustainable, that is, historic structures are ‘re-animated’ in the context of on-going social and economic change, rather than as an isolated process. All enabling development factors -- community support, innovative institutional structures, and commercial potential – are harnessed to make change durable. Individual project briefs go beyond mere technical restoration to address the questions of the social and environmental context, adaptive re-use, institutional sustainability and training. More importantly, developmental initiatives are not foisted from outside; instead, as Ratish Nanda, the Project Director, says ‘everything happens according to the people’s wishes.’
Like most communities occupying historic spaces, the people of the Basti Nizamuddin area were initially wary of any deviation from a time-honoured way of life. Despite their disenchantment with elected representatives to provide even basic amenities such as schools, dispensaries, parks, libraries, night shelters and livelihood options, the local population was initially sceptical, to say the least. The scepticism faded somewhat when people realised the AKT was not in the business of throwing away money; it simply wanted to combine conservation, urban improvements and socio-economic development initiatives to achieve the UN Millennium development goals. Nanda – a highly-trained trained and experienced conservation architect – stresses that every component of the urban renewal project was conceived to give something back to the people of the community, that even in straightforward conservation, the attempt was to involve the local population, train volunteers from the community, provide market linkages so that the benefits would remain even after the project would be completed.
Broadly speaking, the projects undertaken focussed on the areas of literacy, livelihood, health, women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability. In simpler words, these took the form of customised projects keeping in mind the peculiar needs of this pocket of urban squalor and neglect in a sea of prosperity and upward monility. For instance, 400 youths and adults were involved in a programme that included adult education, career counselling, vocational training, and skill enhancement. With a focus on women, this included embroidery and dress design and, through the Insha Crafts Centre set up in August 2010, fostering group savings and group enterprise.
Another 500 families were targeted to reach roughly 1000 children in an Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) programme where an existing, poorly-run, ill-attended municipality school was ‘taken over’ and transformed into a model school with state-of-the-art classrooms, trained staff and a whole new approach to imparting education. An English access micro-scholarship programme funded by the US Embassy helps to improve English language skills among 14-16 year old. A Career Development Centre, operating from four rooms in the School, aims to equip young people with computer skills that will help them enter the formal sector through jobs in retail or the burgeoning BPO industry. A Life Skills module covers those areas usually neglected in formal, structured education such as self-awareness, communication skills, team building, creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and coping with stress and emotions.
A community health programme addresses the most pressing needs of a local population that has long lived in abysmal conditions. To make the programme truly broad based, while there is a well-equipped dispensary and diagnostic centre there is also a focus on improving the standards of hygiene by imparting education on unhealthy living conditions, poor sanitation, and waste disposal systems. As in the school, an existing, poorly-run municipality clinic was transformed into a polyclinic with a bustling gynae OPD and increased visits by specialist doctors. An outreach programme seeks to enhance the capacity of community health workers and train health volunteers who can go into the community and speak about pressing issues such as water-borne diseases, the spread of malaria and dengue (rampant in such areas) as well as AIDS/HIV awareness.
With infrastructure being the first casualty of an over-crowded and densely-populated area, the AKT identified a slew of urban improvement interventions. Beginning with a master plan for the entire area, repair and upgrading of sewage lines and hygienic access to sanitation facilities for residents and visitors to the dargah went hand in hand with beautification and landscaping plans. Signages, improved street lights, recharge pits and water harvesting systems, open spaces for cricket matches, even an Apni Basti Mela, heritage walks, community toilet complexes and gymnasium, and a string of cultural events have revitalised the stagnant pool that the basti had become. Groups of trained volunteers take visitors on heritage walks, further instilling a sense of pride and ownership. The first Jashn-e-Khusro programme last year showcased the basti’s rich cultural life – film screenings, exhibitions, qawwalis, academic discussions, poetry readings, even a dastangoi performance drew the city’s chatterati.
A zenana park is about to come up in a pace that had been forcefully occupied by squatters; so is a barat ghar. Trees, flowers, benches, swings shall shortly replace the notorious adda of rag-pickers and drug peddlers. I come away from the basti with the image of the deaf and dumb, one-armed artist busy making a roadside mosaic from bits of coloured glass. A former drug addict, he has been ‘hired’ by the AKT. In his rehabilitation, I see the first glimmer of hope and dignity.
(Rakhshanda Jalil writes on issues of culture, community and literature.)

Friday, 17 June 2011

Shahryar -- Interview

As India acknowledges Shahryar’s contribution to the world of letters by conferring the prestigious Jnanpith award, the country’s highest literary honour for a creative writer, the poet looks back on a life well spent and counts his many blessings. Surrounded by friends, who are the mainstay of his life, Shahryar wonders:
Iss umr ke safar ka
Kitna taweel rasta tai maine kar liya hai
Aur ab bhi taaza dum hoon, bilkul nahi thaka hoon
Hairat ki baat kya hai?
On this journey of life
I have travelled a great distance
Yet I feel refreshed, and not one bit tired
Why is it so strange?

What is the reason, I ask, for being taaza dum? In reply, he tells me a story. When his first book was published, Ale Ahmad Suroor, the noted Urdu critic, wrote on its blurb: ‘If he remains safe from the danger of takraar (repetition) and thakaan (exhaustion), he will go far.’  Shahryar says he has been ever mindful of the consequences of both: Mujhe thakan aur takrar ka khauf hai. That mindfulness of an early caution perhaps also explains why his output has been considerably less than some of his contemporaries. Shahryar has also managed to retain the freshness and vigour that marked his earliest offerings and made his maiden collection, Ism-e-Aadam (published in 1964), such a runaway success. Despite early critical acclaim and commercial success, he has consistently refused to become a performer playing to the gallery at mushairas. He has also, rather admirably, spurned the joys of a handsomely-paid wordsmith churning out ‘hits’ from a plush Bollywood studio.
While Shahryar’s songs for popular Hindi films such as Umrao Jaan, Gaman, Anjuman and Fasle still enjoy enduring mass appeal and taxi drivers in Mumbai still play Seene mein jalan ankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai?Iss sheher mein har shaqs pareshan sa kyun hai? decades after the film's release and Asha Bhonsle still opens many a concert with these haunting lines from Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan: Yeh kya jagah hai doston, yeh kaun sa dayar hai/Hadd-e-nigah tak jahan ghubar hi ghubar hai – his popularity does not rest on film lyrics alone. Shahryar believes more people appreciate Urdu poetry in India than ever before. Jaise jaise shehri tehzeeb badh rahi hai, Urdu zuban bhi badh rahi hai, he says. Scoffing those who decry the state of Urdu in India, he says he is optimistic about India and about Urdu. He feels the government has done what it can; it is up to the ‘Urduwallahs to do the rest! Till we as a people are not proud of our language, no government can ever do enough. Admitting that he is an optimist he says: Aaj ka din bahut achcha nahin taslim hai/Aane wale din bahut behtar hain meri rai hai (I agree that today has not been a good day/But I am convinced tomorrow will be a better day).
What sets apart Shahryar’s poetry from his contemporaries is the sheer lyricism, the sweet melodiousness that is all the more striking because it is garbed in an everyday, conversational idiom. The relentless probing of his own heart and the human predicament is viewed through the prism of his intensely personal experiences. At the same time, there is none of the stridency and militant ideological onslaught that mars much of modern poetry. Instead, there is a collage of images that tell a story of their own. Sensual, multi-coloured, delicately filigreed, these word pictures – tumbling out of a kaleidoscope of the known and familiar – capture the pathos and alienation of the urban individual with just a few deftly-drawn strokes:
When the rhythm of sleeping eyelashes
            Jostles into wakefulness
And crowded lodgings seem
Like deserted wastelands
When panic unfurls its wings
And all around things flicker and fade
The sound of approaching moments
Seems like the hissing of snakes
At such times the heart
Can think of only one way out –
If only some dreamless window
Were to open quietly.

While Shahryar’s fame rests on the ghazal, he has also written a great deal of nazms. When asked, of the two which genre he favours, he offers an unusual qualification. Contrary to popular perception, he finds writing the nazm far more difficult to write than the ghazal. The ghazal has been around for a very long time; as poets we are familiar with its constraints and we have learnt to speak within its confines, he says. The nazm, with its newness and its boundless freedom, is more challenging. A poet must be more exact, more precise, more sure of himself while writing the nazm. It does not have the safety net of the ghazal’s rhyme pattern to fall back upon. At the same time, it is more difficult to say something new in the ghazal. Therein lies its challenge. Unabashedly personal, in comparison to his ghazals, Shahryar’s nazms reach out to form an immediate bond, claiming a sense of kinship, touching a chord somewhere, evoking the tremulous wonder of dreams. Sample this:

            Tonight the night presented me
With a new dilemma

            It emptied the basin of my eye
Of all sleep
And filled it with tears

Then, it whispered in my ear:
‘I have absolved you of all sin
And set you free, forever.

‘Go, wherever you wish
Sleep, or stay awake
The doorway of dreams is closed for you.’

Whether it is his personal views or his politics (which, incidentally, is pronouncedly left-of-centre), he admits that he sees the good rather than the bad, and is constantly hopeful of a better tomorrow. When the right-wing government was in power at the centre, he wrote: Siyah raat nahi leti naam dhalne ka/Yehi to waqt hai suraj tere nikalne ka (The dark night is showing no signs of ending/ Now is the time, Sun, for you to rise). And when communal tensions rent the country apart and his belief in goodness and humanity was tested, he wrote: Ek hi dhun hai ke main raat ko dhalta dekhoon/Apni in ankhon se suraj ko nikalta dekhoon (My one great desire is to see this night come to an end/And that I may see the sun rise with my own eyes).
Sleep and dreams are a liet motif that runs through much of his poetry. The ability to fall asleep effortlessly and to pass through the portal of consciousness into some magical land of dreams and sip from the fount of a deep, untapped subconscious are recurring concerns. So much so, that two of his collections revolve around these two motifs: Khwab ka Dar Band Hai and Neend ki Kirchein. Yet, dreams and sleep have meant different things to him at different times. Dreams can be joyful or fearful. Sleep can beckon; and it can elude. Dreams can be an escape from unpleasant reality, or they can be a punishment of sorts. When one yearns for sleep and is denied it, it is, for Shahryar, the worst nightmare. And when he has slept soundly and dreamt, he says, he has felt most blessed.
Some of the images he employs, particularly in the nazms, have a dreamy, trance-like quality evoking a mindscape that is personal, yet reaches out far beyond the immediate and the individual.  Shahryrar believes that the poet walks a fine line between the personal and the too-personal. While there can be no poetry without the self, he says, no one can be expected to be interested in the purely personal details of other people’s lives, in the joys and sorrows of others. Some poets have tried to do that, for instance Akhtar Shirani who wrote poetry that was intensely romantic yet extremely personal. But that has never appealed to him. Shahryar’s world view is essentially Marxist and in the debate on Art for Art’s Sake vs. Art for Life’s Sake he is firmly behind he latter due to his belief in the social and political commitment of literature. All good poets, be it Iqbal or Faiz, speak of the world, to the world, he believes.
Yet, one may not always find direct references to his worldview in his poetry. Shahryar has picked up his pen whenever intensely political events have rocked the nation. He wrote Fasadat ki Zubaan Se when communal frenzy gripped the nation; he has written on Ayodhya, Gujarat, Nandigram. But the reader will not always find direct references to these events; instead, Shahryar has chosen to speak in the oblique and the symbolic. Ghalib expressed it best when he said: Hamne yeh jaana ke goya yeh bhi mere dil main hai (I found that this too lies within my heart). A wealth of compassion for human suffering lies within Shahryar’s heart; it comes out and catches us unaware in a rush of images.
Rakhshanda Jalil has translated Shahryar’s nazms in English, under the title Through the Closed Doorway (Rupa & Co., 2004).

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A Ghazal by Indira Varma

10 6 2011
Tere naam kya mai'n karu'n sanam, mera naam bhi terey naam hai
Jo dharktey dil ka payam hai, wo payam bhi terey naam hai

Mai'n aseer-e-dil, tu safeer-e-ja'n, tera aana jana hai be-nisha'n
Mera reh-guzar pay qayam hai, ye qayam bhi terey naam hai

Mujhey manzilo'n say gharaz nahi, mujhey simt ka bhi pata nahi
Mera raasta terey naam hai, mera gaam bhi terey naam hai

Meri kaynaat ka her aik pal, terey wasty waqf hai aajkal
Meri sub-ha bhi terey naam hai, meri shaam bhi terey naam hai

Terey ishq nay wo diye hai'n ghum, ke mili bulandi qadam qadam
Ye urooj bhi terey naam hai, ye muqam bhi terey naam hai

Wo jo hichki aaee thi maut ki, ye bata gaee ye dikha gaee
hai salam lab pay jo aakhri, wo salam bhi terey naam hai

Tu bayaz-e-INDIRA dekh le, tera naam aaya nahi magar
Ye kitab bhi terey naam hai, ye kalam bhi terey naam hai

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Story of a Widow -- review

The Story of a Widow, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Picador, 2009, pp 249, Rs 495

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ writes Jane Austen in the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, ‘that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ The same alas cannot be said of a woman of good fortune, especially if she is a widow and not a particularly old or singularly unattractive one at that. Traditional societies have always found it difficult to figure out ways of dealing with widows. While modern times may have seen a lessening of the old hostility and social discrimination, the position of a widow continues to be a tenuous one at best. She walks a daily tightrope between family honour and her own wishes, between playing a role that society expects of her and the one she might wish to play on her own, unscripted and unrehearsed. This tightrope becomes especially fraught if she is not too old and decrepit, that is, if the prospect of romance and a possible second marriage lurks somewhere in the background.

This possibility, faint and frowned upon though it is, becomes the subject of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s slim but evocative novel. Its strength lies not in its daring to explore such a possibility. Others, after all, have written on widow remarriage, most notably Premchand. But Farooqi does so unencumbered by any moral compulsions or social obligations; he simply seizes upon this possibility and teases out a remarkably sensitive story from so slender a prospect. An Author’s Note, appended at the end of the book rather than the beginning, explains the genesis of the story, and the inspiration behind it. Farooqi writes:
The portrait that inspired this story hangs in a house in Toronto. My wife, Michelle, and I saw it when visiting an octogenarian gentleman and his third wife, whose first husband had been dead for many years; his portrait hung above her current husband’s rocking chair. She told us that when getting married she had made it clear that the portrait would stay and that her husband-to-be had happily consented. While he was telling us of his many adventures with women, the portrait surveyed the room with a magisterial air, and I wondered what kind of relationship existed between the two gentleman: one in the chair and the other in the frame.  My thoughts soon became the story of the widow and her new husband.

The Story of a Widow, the story that emerged from this serendipitous sighting of a portrait in a house in Toronto, becomes the story of Mona Ahmed, recently bereaved wife of the late Akbar Ahmad. Set in an affluent Karachi neighbourhood, it also becomes a chronicle of upper middle-class life in Pakistan. Painting on a small canvas with small, deft strokes, Farooqi has, not just told an engaging story but also produced a delightful cameo. The wonderfully kitschy poster-art sort of jacket illustration (by the very talented Moonis Ijlal) notwithstanding, the style of the writing is reminiscent of a miniaturist at work. Written in a somewhat pedantic style, The Story of a Widow is a novel of manners in the old-fashioned (one is tempted to say Austenesque) fashion. Sample this:
Mona’s daytime routine was hardly over when it was time for Akbar Ahmad to come home. Another set of routines would then start: bringing him a hot towel to wipe his face, making tea and pouring it for him after exactly three minutes of steeping, laying the dinner table, and placing three toothpicks and a small hand towel near his plate.

The minutiae of daily life are laid out with a rare exactitude, rare that is for much of South Asian writing in English given as it is to a tendency to perform verbal calisthenics. Those looking for astonishing feats of wordplay or clever storylines shall be sorely disappointed here. As also will be those who, given the usual fare on offer, have come to expect an insider’s view into a closed, exotic society when it comes to writings from Pakistan or by the Pakistani diaspora writers. There is nothing remotely exotic on offer here. Moreover, the emphasis on the ordinary and everyday is refreshing. As is the straight and simple storyline with none of the literary flourishes currently popular on the lit-fest circuit.

After 30 years of an emotionally barren marriage that has produced two daughters – both married and ‘well’ settled – Mona finds herself a widow and, with little time to recover her lost sense of identity, the recipient of a widower’s marriage proposal. The widower, an unsuitable sort who has just moved into her genteel neighbourhood, is an interloper in Mona’s well ordered life and she is at pains to articulate the complex emotions generated by his unexpected proposal. Mona’s sister, Hina, is scathing that a proposal at the ripe old age of 50, should even be considered: ‘Just because there is a proposal does not mean that you have to jump at it.’ Farooqi’s quiet prose takes us into Mona’s troubled mind as she struggles to understand why she must even take it seriously in the first place:
Her marriage with Akbar Ahmad had been an arranged one, with no surprises or unexpected twists. She could not deny that sedateness had its advantages. Even if an illusion, it gave her a sense of control over her destiny. She felt she had no control over how her relationship with Salamat Ali unfolded. Nothing in his demeanor resembled Akbar Ahmad and therefore the image of a husband and a life partner as she knew one. And yet, for the first time, she felt a mysterious and reckless awakening.

Mona, who has missed out on the pleasures of married life, agrees to Salamat Ali’s proposal partly because she wants to discover her self and her needs, but also because she realizes she has no obligation to take anyone’s approval or consent for something that concerns only her. Despite his impertinence, his bold smile, his atrocious taste in clothes, his hideously dyed hair, his brazenness that borders on the vulgar, Salamat Ali brings a breath of fresh air into Mona’s staid life and stirs an awakening in her body. Gentle but stubborn, Mona negotiates the near-unanimous disapproval from her entire family – her two daughters and their husbands and in-laws, her sister and her husband, her aunt and uncle. Of these various reactions, Farooqi’s depiction of the complex reactions of the two daughters is interesting. The older daughter, Tanya, is overtly hostile; the younger, Amber, is cautious, protective, concerned for her mother’s well being. Farooqi probes, gently and unobtrusively, the mixed reaction, especially among the daughters. Is it, he wonders, ‘the natural reaction of a child trying to protect the image of a parent in her mind?’

Repulsed by the traditional perception of a widow (as ‘someone who deserved society’s pity’), Mona decides to accept Salamat Ali’s proposal, albeit under certain conditions, namely, she would continue to live in her own house, maintain her financial independence and continue to have the portrait of her dead husband on the living room wall. Salamat Ali agrees to all her conditions with alacrity and moves in. That he turns out to be a bounder and the marriage ends in a rather expensive divorce is another matter. If anything, the divorce helps Mona to repossess herself and reclaim her life. Unwittingly, Salamat Ali helps Mona find the contentment that she has always sought, one that she thought she would find in the second marriage.

As one closes the book marveling at Mona’s transformation from a submissive hausfrau to an independent self-aware woman, one is struck by something altogether new. Is Mona’s Karachi the same Karachi of popular perception (popular, that is, for us in India) – a city torn apart by ethnic and linguistic strife held hostage by? With its rose scented gardens, its balmy air, its gardens abloom with peonies and lilies, where women drive and go for walks in neighbourhood parks, shop in malls, go to the cinema alone, order Chinese takeaways and drink jasmine tea in their well-ordered drinking rooms – all of it seems familiar and known.  As familiar to us in India as the other sights and  sounds of the city -- such as the water-logged streets, power breakdowns, clogged drains and, best of all, Chinese restaurants that offer continental dessert menus!

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

Farewell, Husain sahab

We mourn you, Husain sahab, with these lines from Bahadurshah Zafar, the exiled poet who like you lamented:
        Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e-yaar mein

If only the powers-that-be would make amends now, and let your body return here to be buried in this soil!

PS: Pl see the op-ed I wrote for the Indian Express, New Delhi, 14 March 2010 shortly after the conferment of Qatari nationality on M F Husain. It is titled  'Secular Indian Muslim' in this Archive.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Life's Too Short -- Review

The Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing from Pakistan, Faiza S. Khan and Aysha Raja (eds), Hatchette India, 2011, Rs 395, pp.122.

A situational comedy on BBC 2 featuring the life and times of a showbiz dwarf, titled rather cleverly Life’s Too Short, caught the imagination of an unsuspecting public in 2010, spawning a range of events pegged on the near-universal appeal of this catchy phrase. However, nearly a year before the BBC sitcom, a group of young people in Pakistan decided to launch a nation-wide hunt for new literary talent; they chose to bill their contest – open only to Pakistani writers writing in English – as Life’s Too Short: For a Long Story. A distinguished panel of judges whittled down the 800 submissions to a shortlist which was eventually published as the Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing from Pakistan. The Editor’s Note explains the impulse behind the contest thus: ‘This publication came about as an exercise in curiosity. While Pakistani fiction in English comes into its own, and Pakistan takes shape in the global imagination due to a clutch of trailblazing authors, precious little is being done within the country to encourage and promote, or for that matter, discover new talent.’ With a first prize of Rs 100,000/- it managed to do just that.
Refreshingly different from the usual anthologies, the writers included here – almost all lesser-known and therefore new to Indian readers -- make a pleasant change from the usual suspects. What is also different is the multiplicity of voices and concerns emerging from this slim collection. Naughty and playful, bold and daring, provocative and combative, smart and sassy, reflective and insightful – there is much here to read and savour. Moreover, this new brood of writers – presumably mostly young – hold the promise of a new generation of Pakistani writers who will, hopefully, mature into abler chroniclers of the lives and times of their compatriots, abler that is than many of the present lot who have begun to produce writing that is almost of a kind. While it is always instructive and useful to gain insights into a troubled country, surely any country (no matter how troubled) has more to offer than glimpses into violence and extremism. The Life’s Too Short Review shows us the ‘other’ Pakistan in finely-etched cameos of the everydayness of life.
Sadaf Halai, winner of the first prize for ‘Lucky People’, paints a meditative and minutely-detailed portrait of middle-class ennui and envy for those who occupy the higher echelons. Living in a genteel but firmly middle-middle class enclave of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Asma finds herself voyeuristically drawn into the life of her cigarette-smoking, westernised, rich, young tenant who opens a new world of spinach quiche and modern art. Confronted not merely by the class difference but the possibilities that life can hold, Asma faces her hitherto buried (or unacknowledged) frustrations and aspirations. Rayika Choudri’s ‘Settling Affairs, which was judged second runner-up, is also a poignant study of middle-class manners. A faithful servant watches the neat sorting, packing, dividing of his Begum Sahiba’s household after her death. Told from the point of view of the servant, Zaheer, the story unfolds the dismantling of memories and memorabilia as the son and daughter of the deceased ‘settle’ her affairs and sack her servant away with ‘three months’ pay and the promise of good recommendations’.
There are other stories, too, such as a light-hearted look at a hair-colouring job gone wrong (‘Mir Sahib’s Hairdo’), or the nostalgia and dread of the diasporic Pakistani (‘Ruth and Richard’), or the mumbo-jumbo dispensing holy men at shrines who prey on young boys (‘The Six-Fingered Man’), or the indescribable sadness of a young couple who bury their still-born first baby in a foreign land. A story that stood out for its steadfast refusal to wallow in pity and false sentimentality is ‘The Wedding’. It recounts the coming of age of a young girl who knows life will hold out none of the treats, trinkets and toys that girls her age cherish.
Apart from the new fiction that comprise the entries for the contest, the book also includes, somewhat inexplicably, a photo essay, an extract from a graphic novel and a translation from a popular ‘pulp’ serial in Urdu. While the editors may have done well to have stuck to the short-listed stories, the last extract – entitled ‘Challawa’ – is a brave new look at lesbian love by one Sabiha Bano whose identity and gender remains a mystery. With the contest for this year having been announced, one looks forward to the second volume of the Review.
(Rakhshanda Jalil has edited Neither Night Nor Day, a collection of short stories by Pakistani women, HarperCollins, 2007).

Thursday, 2 June 2011


Diddi: My Mother's Voice, Ira Pande, Penguin, 2005, p 216, Rs 250.

Reading Diddi while on holiday in the Kumaon mountains, later writing this review and e-mailing it from a poky little internet cafe across the lake from the house where Shivani lived for 15 years, has been an evocative experience. The sights and sounds of the mountains she loved so dearly are all around me. The lilting pahadi voices, the broad smiling faces, the women sporting bright red tikkas, the sound of temple bells drifting across the hills and dales are all there. What is missing, or perhaps hidden from sight by the hordes of tourists swarming these once pristine mountains, are the jewel-like characters that stud Shivani's writings, characters that she fleshed from real-life people who lived among the terraced fields and high-walled Brahmin households. What is gone most certainly is the way of life that she once knew and lived and the time-honoured social order that had begun to crumble in her own life time.
Diddi: My Mother's Voice by Ira Pande is, in many respects, an unusual book. For one, it speaks in many voices. There is, above all others, a singularly individual and highly idiosyncratic voice, the voice of Gaura Pant who adopted the nom de plum of Shivani. There is also Shivani the novelist speaking through the many characters she created in her short stories and novels. Leavening what would otherwise be a personal and fictional landscape, is the voice of a socially conscious being speaking through newspaper columns, essays, obituaries and travelogues. Then there is Ira Pande, the daughter, Ira Pande the translator, and Ira Pande the sutra dhar of this complex, many-stranded, multi-layered mise en scene. The narrative flits not just between voices but dips between past and present, between memory and fiction, between what was real and what seemed real.
Early on, Ira Pande explains the somewhat bewildering title: "Perhaps because we called our mother Diddi, elder sister, our relationship with her was always somewhat ambivalent. More than a mother she was for us a difficult sibling, an eccentric, much older sister who belonged to a different generation." In doing so, Pande sets the tone for what turns out to be an engaging tribute to a mother, a writer of near legendary proportions, a woman who delighted in breaking the mould yet paradoxically revered time-honoured traditions. In the process, Pande also provides a record of the proud families of Kasoon Brahmins and their struggles to cope with changing times when the old order began to yield to new.
Pande describes, often tongue firmly in cheek, what it was like growing up with a mother who was a writer, and a famous one at that. Shivani was never like other mums; she was this larger than life persona, one who leapt out of every line, every page she wrote, someone "who used up all the oxygen in a room". It must have been exhausting business, no doubt, keeping pace with that brilliant mind, razor-sharp wit and vast learning. Pande also ventures to give an explanation for the choice of pseudonym, a sort of alter ego, a synonym of Shivani's real name, Gaura:
            "'Shivani' at first seemed like a mask that gave her an assurance because of its anonymity but, as I read on, I realised it was much more. Diddi was actually two people, and she used the two personas as identical twins do: to confuse and confound. Like them, she had mastered the art of switching from one to the other so seamlessly that even she did not know any more who    she was... And yet there was a core of Diddi that   remained inviolate and secret all her life. She hid her      pains and fears from everyone -- even herself. Her    writing was for her a way of recording people and events that she could not bear to speak about."
Called Queen Lear by her other daughter, Mrinal Pande, there was an aura of almost destructive independence about her. She lived life on her own terms, refused help from all quarters, including her children, and lived with a retinue of faithful but eccentric servants in a flat in Lucknow. "Like Samson shorn of his locks, Diddi lost her energy when surrounded by placid people." And she needed that energy to write the stories that she wrote almost till her end, studding her narratives with characters and vignettes from the life around her.
Life, no matter how mundane, provided Shivani with a rich lode of incidents that she would one day weave into her stories. But it is her childhood and early years spent in Almora that forms the backdrop for her fictional universe. Faces from her past seem to shake her and ask: "Why have you not written about me?"  These include Vaishnavi, a nun who roamed the hills calling out Alakh mai, bhikhsha de!; the syphilitic Rajula who showed up periodically singing the Riturain songs of spring; Lohani ji the stentorian tutor and  manager of the household; and numerous colourfully loony aunts and uncles.
Born in 1928 in Rajkot, Shivani lived a peripetic and eclectic life travelling among the princely states. A disciple of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, she was educated at Shanti Niketan. Her style of writing is influenced by Tagore, by the lilt of Rabindra sangeet, by the thinking-out-of-the-box style of education given to her by legendary teachers such as Hajari Prasad Dwivedi and Abanindranath Tagore. Shivani told her stories simply and told them well. She wrote freely and fearlessly on issues that were often considered taboo by genteel society. Her novel, Chaudah Phere for instance, deals with the relationship between a daughter and her father who has married twice, shunning her mother. Her heroines were strong-minded and almost always beautiful (she admitted she could never write about ugliness in either locale or character!) Her best-loved works are: Krishnakali, Apradhini (a collection of interviews with women serving life sentences); Yatriki (a travelogue) and her two-part memoir (Smriti Kalash and Sone De). Her literary output was amazing — about 40 published works, and hundreds of articles and columns she undertook to write because she needed the money.
For those who knew her work and loved her, Diddi: My Mother's Voice presents a portrait of the woman behind the famous name. For the generation that might not have read her in Hindi, it previews a bold and exciting voice that transcends her time and age and retains its relevance and resonance. Neither fully memoir nor biography and certainly nothing as grim as an elegy, this is a lively attempt at recreating a voice that was vibrant and a persona that was nothing short of exceptional.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer and translator.)

Manto -- A Story in Translation

Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

The riots of 1947 came and went. In much the same way as spells of bad weather come and go every season. It wasn’t as though Karimdad accepted everything that came his way as God’s will. No, he faced every vicissitude with manly fortitude. He had met hostile forces in a head-on collision – not necessarily to defeat them, but simply to meet them face to face. He knew that the enemy outnumbered him but he believed that it was an insult, not just to him but to all mankind, to give in in the face of trouble. To tell you the truth, this was the opinion others had of him -- those who had seen him take on the most savage of men with the most amazing courage. But, if you were to ask Karimdad himself if he considered it an outrage for himself or all mankind to admit defeat in the face of opposition, he would no doubt fall into deep thought – as though you had asked him a complicated mathematical question.

Karimdad knew nothing of addition-subtraction or multiplication-division. The riots of 1947 came and went. People began to sit down and calculate the loss of lives and property. But Karimdad remained untouched by all this. All he knew was this: his father, Rahimdad, had been ‘spent’ in this war. He had picked his father’s corpse, carried it on his own shoulders and buried it beside a well.

The village had known several casualties. Thousands of young and old had been killed. Many girls had disappeared. Several had been raped in the most inhuman way possible. Those who had been inflicted with these wounds sat and cried – they cried over their own misfortune and the heartless perpetrators of these crimes. But Kaimdad did not shed a single tear. He was proud of his father’s valiant fight to the finish. His father had single-handedly fought 25-30 rioters armed to the teeth with swords and axes. When Karimdad had heard that his father had fallen down dead, after bravely fighting off the attackers, he had only these words to say to his dead father’s spirit: ‘Yaar, this isn’t done. I had told you to always keep at least one weapon handy with you.’

And he had picked up Rahimdad’s corpse, dug a hole beside the well and buried it. Then, he had stood beside the grave and by way of prayer said only this: ‘God keeps count of vices and virtues. May you be granted paradise!’
Whoever heard of Rahimdad’s brutal murder cursed the savages who had butchered him, but Karimdad never uttered a word. Karimdad had lost several ready-to-harvest crops. Two houses belonging to him had been burnt. Yet, he never added these losses to the loss of his father. He would simply content himself by saying: ‘Whatever has happened has happened due to our own fault.’ And when someone would ask him what that fault was, he would remain quiet.

While the rest of the village was still grieving after the recent riots, Karimdad decided to get married -- to the dusky belle, Jeena, on whom he had been keeping an eye for a long time. Jeena was grief stricken. Her brother, a strapping youth, had been killed in the riots. He had been her only support after the death of her parents. There was no doubt that Jeena loved Karimdad dearly but the tragic loss of her brother had turned even her love into heartache; her once ever-smiling eyes were now always brimming with sorrow.

Karimdad hated crying and sobbing. He felt frustrated whenever he saw Jeena looking unhappy. But he always refrained from admonishing her because she was a woman and he though his rebukes might hurt her aching heart even more. One day, he caught hold of her when they were both out on their fields and said, ‘It has been a whole year since we buried our dead. By now even they must be weary of this mourning. Let go of your sorrow, my dear. Who knows how many deaths we have to see in the years ahead. Save your tears for what lies ahead.’

Jeena did not like his words. But because she loved him she thought long and hard over what he had said. In solitude, she searched for the meaning behind his words and, at long last, came around to convincing herself that Karimdad was right.

When the subject of Karimdad’s marriage to Jeena was first broached, the village elders were against it. But their opposition was weak. They had grown so weary of the constant state of mourning that they no longer had the conviction for any sort of sustained opposition. Therefore, Karimdad was duly married. Musicians and singers were called. Every ritual was performed. And Karimdad brought his beloved home as his legally wedded wife.

The village had turned into a vast graveyard a year after the riots. When Karimdad’s wedding procession wound through the village amidst shouts and cries, some villagers were initially scared. They thought it was a ghostly parade. When Karimdad’s friends told him about it, he laughed loudly. But when Karimdad laughingly narrated the incident to his new bride, she shivered with fright.

Karimdad took Jeena’s red-bangled wrist in his hand and said, ‘This ghost will haunt you for the rest of your life… even the village sorcerer will not be able to rid you of me with his witchcraft.’

Jeena put the tip of her hennaed finger between her teeth and mumbled shyly, ‘Keeme, you are scared of nothing!’

Karimdad licked his brownish-black moustaches with the tip of his tongue and smiled, ‘Why should one be scared of anything?’

The sharp edge of Jeena’s grief was becoming dull. She was about to become a mother. Karimdad saw her blossoming womanhood and was pleased.

The first Eid* came. Then the second one**. Karimdad celebrated both festivals with fervour. The rioters had attacked his village twelve days before the last Eid when both Rahimdad and Jeena’s brother, Fazal Ilahi, had been killed. Jeena shed copious tears in memory of both. But in the company of one who resolutely refused to harbour any trace of sorrowful memories, she could not mourn them as much as she would have wanted to.


By the time Muharrum* came around, Jeena made her first request to Karimdad. She was dying to see the famous horse and taziya during the procession. She had heard a great deal about the procession from her friends. And so she said to Karimdad, ‘Will you take me to see the procession if I am well enough?’

Karimdad smiled and said, ‘I will take you even if you are not well… and this son of a pig as well.’

Jeena hated the way he referred to her unborn baby. She would go into a huff whenever she heard it but Karimdad’s tone was, as always, so loving that it transformed Jeena’s anger into an indescribable sweetness and she would wonder how so much love could be stuffed into that awful expression -- ‘son of a spig’.

Rumours of a war between India and Pakistan had been floating for some time now. In fact, it had become a near-certainty shortly after the creation of Pakistan that there would be war between the two countries. Though no one in the village knew exactly when the war might break out. Whenever someone asked Karimdad about the imminent breakout of hostilities, he would answer briefly and succinctly: ‘It’ll happen when it’ll happen. What’s the point of thinking about it?’

Jeena was terrified at the very thought of war. She was, by nature, a peace-loving girl. The smallest tiff between friends made her unhappy. In any case she had seen enough looting and killing during the last riots. Terrified, she asked Karimdad one day, ‘Keeme, what’ll happen?’

Karimdad smiled and said, ‘How would I know whether it’s going to be a girl or a boy?’

This sort of rejoinder always made her mad but she would soon get caught up in Karimdad’s banter and forget all about the war clouds gathering over her head. Karimdad was strong, fearless and completely in love with Jeena. He had bought a rifle and learnt to take perfect aim. All this combined to lend courage to Jeena but every time she heard idle gossip from a scared friend or loose talk among the villagers, her fears would return.

One day, Bakhto, the midwife, who came to check on Jeena everyday, brought the news that the Indians were going to ‘close’ the river. Jeena didn’t know what that meant so she asked Bakhto, ‘What do you mean by closing the river?’

Bakhto answered, ‘They will close the river that waters our crops.’

Jeena thought for a minute, then laughed and said, ‘You talk like a mad woman … Who can close a river; it’s a river, not a drain.’

Bakhto gently massaged Jeena’s distended belly and said, ‘I don’t know… I have told you what I heard. They say the newspapers are full of it, too.’

‘Full of what?’ Jeena found it hard to believe.

Bakhto felt Jeena’s belly with her wrinkled hand and answered, ‘That they are going to close the river.’ Then she pulled down Jeena’s shirt and got to her feet speaking in the tone of one who knows, ‘If all stays well, the child will be born ten days from now.’

Jeena asked Karimdad about the river the moment he stepped foot inside the house. At first, Karimdad tried to fob off her insistent queries, but when Jeena kept repeating her question, he said, ‘Yes, I have heard something of the sort too.’

Jeena demanded, ‘What have you heard?’

‘The Indians are going to close our river.’

‘But why?’

‘So that our crops are ruined.’

By now Jeena was convinced that rivers could actually be closed. So all she could say, a bit helplessly, was this: ‘How cruel those people are!’

Upon hearing this, Karimdad smiled after a moment’s pause. He said, ‘Forget all this… Tell me, did Bakhto come?’

Jeena answered listlessly, ‘She did.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She said the baby will be born ten days from now.’

Karimdad hurray-ed loudly, ‘And may he live long!’

Jeena showed her displeasure and muttered, ‘Look at you, rejoicing at a time like this… when God knows what sort of Karbala* will be visited upon us.’

Karimdad went away to the village centre where almost all the men from the village had gathered. Everyone was clustered around the village headman, Chaudhry Nathu, and was asking him questions about the closing of the river. Someone was busy showering abuse upon Pandit Nehru, another wishing every manner of mishaps for him, and yet another was resolutely refusing to admit that the course of a river could be changed at will. And there were some who believed that whatever was about to happen was a punishment for our own misdeeds and the only way to avert the calamity that hovered overhead was to go to the mosque and pray.

Karimdad sat in a corner and listened quietly to the talk that swirled about him. Chaudhry Nathu was the most vocal among those who were abusing the Indians. Karimdad turned restlessly from this side to the other as though acutely frustrated. Everyone agreed on one thing: that closing the river was a dirty, low-down trick, that it was a petty, unscrupulous, extremely cruel thing to do, that it was a sin that matched the one perpetrated by Yazid.

Karimdad coughed a couple of times as though preparing himself to say something. But when yet another shower of the choicest profanities erupted from Chaudhry Nathu’s mouth, Karimdad could no longer contain himself. He cried out, ‘Don’t abuse others, Chaudhry!’

A terrible mother-related profanity got stuck midway in the Chaudhry’s throat. He turned and looked strangely at Karimdad who was, at that moment, busy adjusting the turban on his head.

‘What did you say?’

Karimdad answered in a low but firm voice, ‘I said: Don’t abuse others.’

Chaudhry Nathu spat out the profanity stuck in his throat and turned aggressively towards Karimdad, ‘Abuse who? How are they related to you?’ And then he looked around and addressed all those who had gathered in the chaupal. ‘Did you hear, people? He says don’t abuse others… Ask him: How are they related to him?’

Karimdad answered patiently, ‘Why would they be related to me? They are my enemies, what else?’

A loud, strained sort of laughter tore out of the Chaudhry’s throat with such force that it shook the hairs of his moustache. ‘Did you hear that? They are his enemies. And should one love one’s enemies, son?’

Karimdad answered in the tone of a dutiful son answering an elder, ‘No, Chaudhry, I didn’t say that. All I said was: Don’t abuse others.’

Karimdad’s childhood friend, Miranbakhsh, who sat next to him, asked, ‘But why?’

Karimdad spoke directly to Miranbaksh, ‘What’s the point, yaar? They are trying to close the river and ruin your crops and you think you can abuse them and even the score? Does it make sense? One abuses when there is no other answer.’

Miranbakhsh asked, ‘Do you have an answer?’

Karimdad paused for a minute, then said, ‘The question is not mine alone; it involves thousands upon thousands of people. My answer can not be everyone’s answer. In such situations, one can come up with a satisfactory answer only after careful consideration. They can’t turn the course of the river in one day. It’ll take them years. Whereas here, you are taking just one second to vent your pent up venom against them in the form of expletives.’ He put one hand on Miranbakhsh’s shoulder and spoke with affection. ‘All I know is this, yaar: that it is wrong to call India unscrupulous, petty and cruel.’

Instead of Miranbakhsh, Chaudhry Nathu shouted, ‘Now hear this!’

Karimdad continued to address Miranbakhsh, ‘It is stupid, my dear friend, to expect mercy or favour from the enemy. When war breaks out and we begin to cry that they are using a bigger bore rifle, or that we are dropping smaller bombs while they are dropping bigger bombs, I ask you in all honesty, are such complaints right? A small knife can kill just as effectively as a big knife. Am I not telling the truth?’

Instead of Miranbakhsh, Chaudhry Nathu began to think, but he quickly became vexed. ‘But the issue here is that they are going to close our water… they want to kill us of hunger and thirst.’

Karimdad removed his hand from Miranbakhsh’s shoulder and addressed the Chaudhry, ‘When you have already declared someone as your enemy, why complain that he wants to kill you of hunger and thirst? If he doesn’t drive you to your death from hunger and thirst, if he doesn’t turn your green fields into arid wastelands, do you think he will instead send you pans full of pilau and pots full of sweet sherbet and plant gardens and groves for your leisure?’

This only aggravated the Chaudhry. ‘What is this nonsense?’ he asked furiously.

Even Miranbakhsh asked his friend softly, ‘Yes, yaar, what is this nonsense?’

‘It isn’t nonsense, Miranbakhsh!’ Karimdad spoke as though trying to explain things to his friend. ‘Just think, in a war the two parties try their hardest to defeat the other side. Just as the wrestler who grids his loins, as it were, and enters the ring, and tries every trick in the book to bring his opponent to the ground.’

Miranbakhsh nodded his tonsured head and said, ‘Yes, that’s true.’

Karimdad smiled, ‘Then it is all right to even close the river. It may seem like cruelty to us; but for them it is perfectly acceptable.’

‘When your tongue begins to loll and hang to the ground with thirst, then I will ask you if it is acceptable. When your children cry for every morsel of food, will you still say it is okay to close the river?’

Karimdad licked his dry lips with his tongue and answered, ‘I will still say the same thing, Chaudhry. Why do you forget that only they are not our enemies; we too are their enemies. If we could, we too would have shut off their food and water. But now when they can and are going to close our river, we will have to think of a way out. But what’s the point of useless abuses? The enemy will not sprout rivers of milk for you, Chaudhry Nathu. If he can, he will mix poison in every drop of your water. You might call it cruelty, even barbariism, because you don’t like this form of taking life. Isn’t that strange? Before the commencement of war, should the two warring parties lay down a set of conditions and clauses, a bit like a nikah? Should we tell them not to kill us of hunger or thirst but that they are welcome to do so with a gun and that too a gun of a certain bore?  This is the real nonsense… Think about it, carefully and coolly.’

By now Chaudhry Nathu had reached the far limit of his frustration. He shouted, ‘Someone get a slab of ice and place it on my breast.’

‘You expect me to get that too?’ Karimdad said and laughed. Then he patted Miranbakhsh on the shoulder, got to his feet and left the chaupal.

As he was about to cross his threshold, he saw Bakhto coming out of the house. She saw Karimdad and a toothless smile appeared on her face.

‘Congratulations, Keeme! You have been blessed with a healthy baby boy. Think of a suitable name for him now.’

‘Name?’ Karimdad thought for no more than a second and said, ‘Yazid – Yazid.’

Bakhto’s mouth fell open with surprise. Whooping with joy, Karimdad entered his house. Jeena was lying on a string bed. She looked paler than she had ever before. A bonny baby lay besides her, busy sucking his thumb. Karimdad looked at him with a glance full of love and pride. Touching his cheek lightly with a forefinger, he said softly, ‘My little Yazid!’

A faint shriek escaped Jeena as she squealed with surprise, ‘Yazid?’

Karimdad looked closely at his son’s face, inspecting each feature carefully, ‘Yes, Yazid. That’s his name.’

Jeena’s voice sounded faint, ‘What are you saying, Keeme? Yazid…’

Karimdad smiled, ‘What’s in it? It’s only a name!’

All Jeena could manage was a brief: ‘But whose name?’

Karimdad answered with perfect seriousness, ‘It needn’t be the same Yazid. He had closed the river; our son will open it.’

The above story is from Naked Voices, Stories and Sketches by Saadat Hasan Manto, Translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, Roli Books/India Ink, New Delhi, 2008.

Naked Voices - Stories & Sketches

*  Within 50 years of the Prophet’s death, the small community of Muslims was torn by conflicting claims to leadership. The governor of Syria, Mu’aviya, opposed Ali and wrested the Caliphate from him. His son, Yazid, carried the enmity forward by demanding allegiance (bay’ ah) from Ali’s son and successor Husain. When Husain – son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad -- declined, Yazid issued an unequivocal call: Surrender or Die! Surrender meant recognition of Yazid and the power he had wrongfully wrested. For Husain both were unacceptable; instead, he chose willing sacrifice of himself, his family and supporters.
It was the year 679 AD -- seventy men held out against 4000 in a desert named Karbala, approximately 70 km from Kufa. Rations dwindled, men died in battle, children were slaughtered and the enemy closed in on the small, besieged group. On the eighth day of battle, water supply was cut off. The river Euphrates glimmered in the distance but the way was barred. Ill, hungry, dying of thirst, the bedraggled but valiant group faced battle on the fateful tenth day, the day called Ashura, when all perished save for three male members and some women and children who were paraded till Damascus to be presented before Yazid. Quite naturally, then, Yazid is one of the most hated figures in Islamic history.
* Called Chhoti Eid in the Urdu original, meaning ‘small Eid’ referring to Eid ul-Fitr that comes after the month of Ramazan.
** Called Badi Eid in the Urdu original, meaning ‘big Eid’ referring to Eid-uz-Zuha or the Feast of the Sacrifice which is celebrated in memory of Abraham’s sacrifice of that which was dearest to him, his son Isaac.
* Muharrum is the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar. The incidents of Karbala happened during this month. Shaam-e-Gharibaan (Eve of Sorrows) on the night of the ninth day of Muharrum is a poignant cathartic occasion for remembrance. By Ashura, the tenth day, the matam or mourning reaches a frenzied climax: processions are taken out, the faithful walk on live coals, flay themselves with chains and whips. Alam, a replica of the standard or pennant carried by Husain in battle, is carried at the head of the procession. The Panja, an emblem in the shape of the open palm signifying the panj tan paak, the Five Holy Ones, namely, the Prophet, Fatima (his daughter), Ali (her husband), Hasan and Husain (their sons) – and the Taazia -- an elaborate construction of paper, tinsel and other finery replicating Husain’s tomb – are included in the procession for ‘burial’ at Karbala. Any city with a sizeable population of Shia Muslims has its own ‘Karbala’ to bury both the annual Taaziya and serve as burial ground for Shias.  All over north India, both Shia and Sunni Muslims participate in these Muharrum processions. Crowds gather to watch them, and in rural India occasionally the ‘spectacle’ overtakes the solemnity of the occasion.
* Karbala, here is a metaphor for vicissitudes, troubled times, when there might be shortages of food and water.