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Monday, 16 July 2012


‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills…’

--Psalm 121

Sunlight filtering through tall pine trees creates a brilliant patchwork of dark and shade, green and gold on this serene mountainside. All around me lie crumbling headstones, moss-encrusted and indecipherable, some embellished with fine pilaster work and engraved marble, others unadorned save for an ivy-covered cross. The air is crisp and crystal clear; the springy turf underfoot carpeted with fallen leaves and trailing vines; a profusion of ferns and wild flowers peep from every nook and cranny. I am reminded of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

I am at the Mussoorie Christian Cemetery looking for the grave of Eugenie Catherine West (d. 1895). After much diligent searching and scraping off many a moss-encrusted tombstone we find it. A simple grave and in fairly good condition, it contains the mortal remains of a remarkable woman who embarked upon a brave and selfless cause. She was the first superintendent of the Christian Training School and Orphanage that began with precisely two pupils in a rambling house atop Jaberkhet and was to later transform into the Wynberg Homes and finally the Wynberg Allen School as it is now called. In fact, I am in Mussoorie researching the early years of the school, its contribution to the education of Anglo-Indian children, its provision for orphans and destitutes of European and Eurasian descent. From a purely philanthropic initiative meant to provide quality education in a healthy environment at highly subsidised fees to a professionally-run, high-ranking school, among the best of the hill schools in Upper India, the Wynberg Allen School has had a long journey as it gears up to celebrate its quasquicentennial year.

Partition dealt a severe blow both to the Anglo-Indian community and to the educational institutions set up and managed by them. With a dwindling flock of both staff and students – some having migrated to Pakistan, others emigrated to the ‘Home Country’, still others having found new homes in the Commonwealth countries or in Africa – Wynberg Allen coped bravely with the exigencies of a newly-independent country. Responding to Pandit Nehru’s call of fashioning new temples of modern India, the school strove to adjust with the times that were a’changing. All through the turbulent years of nation-building, it kept producing soldiers, sportsmen and statesmen as well as athletes, teachers and entrepreneurs. And while no longer a school exclusively for Anglo-Indians, it reflected the changing face of the community.

As the school grew and evolved, sadly the city of Mussoorie fell into decline. The former ‘Queen of the Hills’, robbed of her gaiety and grandeur, ravaged by the Mandal agitation and later by the demand for statehood that culminated in the hiving out of the state of Uttarakhand, is a shabby, over-grown, over-congested dump. The picturesque estates of the Anglo-Indians and the rajwadas having changed hands and fortunes, haphazard and unauthorised building activity has irrevocably changed its skyline. Its once-forested slopes are pockmarked with neon-lit hotels and garish spa-resorts. Its arterial road, the Mall that runs from Kulri till the Library, is choked with kiosks selling tacky mementoes you are never likely to want to keep at home alternating with over-priced shops selling winter woollies and hole-in-the-wall restaurants outdoing each other in fleecing hapless hungry tourists. A ramshackle cable car takes you on a clanging journey to Gun Hill; flea-infested ponies offer a shamble along Camel’s Back; rapacious cab drivers take you to Kempty Falls, reduced to little more than a muddy trickle during the ‘season’.

But there is the other Mussoorie, too, one that reveals itself reluctantly to the visitor, the Mussoorie that is carefully guarded by the ‘locals’. This is the Mussoorie of churches, cemeteries, flea shops crammed with collectibles and a community of writers, teachers and other retired folk who live in quaint cottages tucked away among the oak and deodar copses. Sunday mornings are best devoted to service in one of the many old but beautifully preserved churches. Christ Church -- built in 1836 and said to be the oldest church in the Himalayas, with its soaring Gothic roof, stained glass windows, a giant deodar planted by the Princess of Wales in 1906 -- is definitely worth a visit. The richly-timbered voice of Reverend Templeton makes the words of the battered old hymn books come alive even for uninitiated visitors. The Union Church at the mouth of Landour is served by the much-loved Pastor Cornelius and his charming wife who welcome both the faithful and the stray with equal warmth. The two other famous churches are the Kellogg Church and St Paul’s way up in Landour, the latter being a garrison church still bearing pews with grooves to rest the  guns of soldiers during worship.
Once a cantonment and famous for its sanatorium for ailing soldiers, Landour is today a part of the giant amoeba that is Mussoorie. Derived from Llanddowror, a village in southwest Wales and reminiscent of the many nostalgic English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish names common during the Raj, it still retains traces of its once-pristine charm. Unfortunately, the few tourists who take the steep ascent up to Landour go as far as Char Dukan (literally, four shops built on what was the Parade Grounds) and end up eating Maggi noodles and pancakes or peering through a telescope at Lal Tibba. Few bother to take in its other delights: chiefly, a leisurely walk along the circular road that takes you past its serene old cemetery to the American Presbyterian Kellogg Church and Landour Language School set up over a hundred years ago to teach Hindi to missionaries; Prakash’s shop at Sisters’ Bazar to buy home-made gooseberry jam, a sharp cheddar cheese and a still-warm-from-the-oven banana bread; the home of film actor Victor Banerjee, profusely decorated with Buddhist prayer flags and called somewhat incongruously ‘The Parsonage’; and the wonderfully scenic Rokeby Manor named after Sir Walter Scott’s long poem. A brisk walk along the old bridle path from Lal Tibba till Sisters’ Bazar followed by an idyllic lunch at the Rokeby is a perfect antidote to the Mussoorie Blues set off by the clutter on the Mall.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque -- a Bangladeshi partition novel

Black Ice, by Mahmudul Haque, Translated by Mahmud Rahman, Harper Perennial, Rs 199, pp. 123+ PS section.

 ‘Everything becomes a story one day.’ So begins the PS section of this Bangladeshi contemporary classic. Its writer, Mahmudul Haque, is credited with fashioning a new idiom and a distinctly modern sensibility in the post-1947 writing coming out from what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Haque (1941-2008) belonged to the ‘twice-born generation’, those, that is, who experienced the trauma of birthing a new nation not once but twice over. Moving from Barasat on the outskirts of Calcutta to Dhaka as a small boy, he was assailed by not only new sights and sounds, but an altogether new sensibility. Being slapped by a school teacher for failing to wear the Jinnah cap, he struggled to find meaning in an irrevocably changed world. Later, during the siege and fall of Dhaka in March 1971, he witnessed the looting, killing and destruction that preceded the birth of a new nation that was expected to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old. Each event, each new phase in his life and his country’s, each new milestone spurred him to write. Everything became a story one day.

Black Ice, first published as Kalo Borof in 1977, is quite evidently the work of a child of the partition. It carries the scars of leaving behind people and places once so dear and familiar but now accessible only in dreams.  The relentless nostalgia of its protagonist, Abdul Khaleq, brings to mind another young man, Zakir, who too had to leave his home in India in search of a new one across the border in Intizar Husain’s seminal work, Basti (written in 1979 but set in 1971 when the war clouds loomed large over the sub-continent). But Mahmudul Haque is not Intizar Husain and Black Ice is not Basti. Despite the detachment of the protagonists, the tone of quiet aloofness of the narrator, the dream-like motifs, the ceaseless journeying into the past, the invoking of an innocent childhood free from bias and fear and the sullying of that innocence, Basti and Black Ice are as unalike as apples and oranges. Black Ice has none of the allegorical richness that leavens Intezar Hussains narrative, nor the directness but haunting simplicity of Husain’s elegant prose. Possibly, there is something about Husain’s prose itself that remains intact and unharmed by translation. Not having read Haque in Bangla, I cannot tell, but I am struck by the comparison and the fact that it is an unfavourable one.

Vanished days never come back and time past is passed forever. While Khaleq, and perhaps Mahmudul Haque himself might acknowledge this, everywhere in Black Ice, the past hangs heavy, threatening to overwhelm the present. Why is this so? The answer is provided partly by Mahmudul Haque himself in an interview with the young Bangladeshi writer, Ahmad Mostofa Kamal, appended at the end of the novel in the PS section. The writer’s mother, he confesses, had not wanted to leave her home outside Calcutta to come to Pakistan; she had, in fact, even begun to build a new house in West Bengal. Her (two previous) visits to Dhaka had led her to conclude that only barbarians lived there, for she had seen no women moving about in public and, in her opinion, a place where women were not allowed to move freely could only be inhabited by barbarians. Yet, the communal tensions grew to such an extent and it became difficult to even step out of her home that she was forced to move to the new Muslim homeland with her children, leaving a part of their being behind. Decades later, while ostensibly claiming that there can be no love for ‘a birthplace that forces its children to leave’, Haque breaks down and his voice ‘cracks with anguish’. The hurt, evidently, is too deep. In Intezar Hussain, there is no hurt; just a bewilderment that something as grotesque as the partition happened. Round and round, like a kite with a cut string, Husain’s story drifts and soars, backwards and forwards, flitting between then and now but with no trace of bitterness.

Khaleq, a teacher in a mofussil town, finds time hanging heavy on his hands as he copes with the ennui of living in the backwaters and coping with the harangues of a demanding wife. He sits down to write about his life, especially his childhood. He remembers Puti, the girl who spoke to fish and birds, his friends Jhumi and Pachu, the vendors who came by selling shonpapri and dalpapri, the Hindu neighbor who bought him roshmonjori and pantua, his elder brother Moni Bhaijaan who loved Chhobi  Di and had left, taking with him her ribbon as a keepsake, promising to return but never did. Khaleq remembers, also, leaving his home in West Bengal, taking a ferry, setting off on a hijrat to a new land when life became impossibly fraught in the old one.

Years later, travelling with his wife deep into the countryside, he revisits Louhojong, the spot where he had boarded the ferry and is reminded yet again of that fateful night of migration:

Everything becomes a story one day. Louhojong, Louhojong! For the first time in his life, that cry had pierced his ears in the deep of the night. Beside him stood Moni Bhaijaan, in his pocket a ribbon, on the ribbon the fragrance of hair, in the fragrance such sorrow, in the sorrow so much love, in the love so much of their childhood.

In the PS section, Haque recalls how Bikrampur, beside the Buriganga, fascinated him. When the monsoons flooded the low-lying plains and the river became a vast expanse of glimmering water, he would take long boat trips down the river, exploring nooks and corners of the lush countryside. His friendship with boatmen, sharing their simple but delicious meals, meeting people who travelled from one house to another by boat, as well as the lush green forested hamlets beside the river soon became a recurring motif in his novels. In Black Ice, the area around Ichapura appears as a fantasy world, an escape from the rigours of a humdrum meaningless life. The doctor with whom he took some of these boat trips, appears as Doctor Narhari, the conscientious, hard-working country doctor, an idealized yet human figure.

Khaleq is able to find intellectual companionship in his adult life;the emotional connection with people and places, however, seems to be missing. The generosity and wisdom, the freedom and innocence, the pluralism and syncretism of his childhood was destroyed, forever, by the partition. What came in its place – aloofness and rootlessness – is the only legacy for these midnight’s children. Boat rides on the river allow an occasional escape but not a return; there is no going back, at least not for ever. The only certainty, Black Ice seems to be suggesting, is hopelessness and alienation.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Masooma by ismat Chughtai -- a review

Masooma: A Novel, Ismat Chughtai, Translated from the original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi, Women Unlimited, 2011, pp. 143, Rs250.

Squeamish readers would do well to stay away from Masooma, for this book was not written for the faint hearted. Its writer, Ismat Chughtai, never one to pull her punches, is out to draw blood. The wit and gentle humour of earlier stories, the ones based on her experiences in Aligarh and the smaller provincial towns of Upper India, is entirely missing here. A gritty anger and a biting realism combine with a keen eye for detail to depict not merely the dark underbelly of Bombay (as it was then called) but also scratch the mask of sharif culture and expose its desperate poverty.

Ismat wrote voluminously till she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1988. Her formidable body of work comprises several collections of short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage, radio plays as well as stories, dialogues and scenarios for the films produced by her husband Shahid Lateef as well as others. Much of her non-film writing was autobiographical; if not directly related to her own life, it certainly stemmed from her own experiences as a woman, especially a middle-class Muslim woman. Some critics, like Aziz Ahmed, have viewed this as a flaw rather than strength, objecting to the constant, overwhelming presence of Ismat herself in all that she wrote.  Regardless of Ismat’s own larger-than-life persona, while it is true that her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context and not merely within the confines of the zenana. She wrote stories (such as Jadein) and plays (Dhaani Bankein) on other issues such as communal tensions, issues that did not concern women alone, but issues that can be viewed from a unique perspective because they come from a woman’s pen.

Like many of her fellow-travellers in the progressive writers’ movement, Ismat proved over and over again that she was a progressive more by inclination than indoctrination. We see evidence of this in almost her writings; in Masooma too we see Ismat depicting the effects of a world cleft by social and economic injustices upon the life of a young girl. The trade of women and the commodification of a woman’s body, she seems to be saying here, is a direct consequence of human frailty and lust but also of poverty and inequality.

However, Masooma – written in 1962 when the influence of progressivism had considerably waned and the core group within the PWA no longer held its members in thrall -- differs from her other writings in several notable respects. One, the overwhelming presence of Ismat herself – noticeable in her early works – is absent here. Yes, she draws upon her experiences in the film industry; yes, her impressions are refracted through the prism of her own experience; and yes, she continues to be more interested in women than in men. But here, she has managed to camouflage her presence. The story of Masooma, a girl from a wealthy and respectable family from the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, takes centre stage. Also, in the telling of this story of a girl’s descent into prostitution, how innocent Masooma is sold by her aristocratic mother to keep the home fires burning and how this girl from a decent family turns into Nilofer, a mistress who changes hands till she becomes no better (or worse) than a common prostitute, and her mother too is transformed from a haughty begum to a seasoned madam, Ismat sheds her coyness and her tendency to use allusion rather overt descriptions.

While Ismat had always written bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society, till Masooma she had not written anything that can be described as overly ‘sexual’ – not even in Lihaaf. Given her interest in sexual matters, and the fact that both she and the original bête noir of Urdu – Manto – had been hauled up by a Court in Lahore on charges of obscenity, comparisons between the two have always been inevitable. Noted writer and critic Intezar Husain has drawn an interesting parallel between these two enfant terribles of the Urdu short story:

‘Where Ismat moves away lightly after making a passing reference to (such) a subject, Manto is like the naughty boy who flings open the door, claps his hands and say, ‘Aha! I have seen you!’

In Masooma, Ismat is flinging open that door with a vengeance. We have far more references to ‘such subjects’ here than in any of Ismat’s other works. If anything, we see an Ismat deriving an almost vicarious pleasure when she depicts the debasement and moral descent of Masooma, with insouciant references to trysts in seedy hotels where people watch French films and perform unimaginable acts of abomination! The incorrigible gossip in Ismat causes her to leaven her narrative with generous dollops of spicy snippets about real film stars and real events. Having worked in the film industry herself and known at first hand the seedy goings on between needy starlets and avaricious hangers-on and the unsavoury nexus between producers, directors, financiers, she flavours her story with a robust realism.

‘What a strange place this world is!’ she mock sighs and then embarks upon a rambling digression about Mazhar, the son of a degenerate nawab who, like so many other young men and women with stardust in their eyes, had flocked to Bombay but with his money robbed and youth faded is now a peddler of young girls, supplier of every whim, ‘indentured to the fancies of an ageing heroine’. Somewhere, this seemingly rambling tale hides a stinging observation, sharper than the sting on a scorpion’s tail:

‘When someone who has been the object of toadyism himself has to turn around and become a toady, then there’s no more to be said. He was now well versed in the subtle craft of toadyism.’

And, elsewhere, the mock-sermonising hides a sardonic realism:

‘So many avatars and prophets struggled, lost, and relinquished their lives while trying to teach lessons of goodness; evil is interesting and exciting while goodness is like chewing tough metallic marbles…But this was not the fault of evil or goodness. The fault lay with the artificial society in which she had been raised. There was fasting, namaz, Haj, and zakat – but there was also whoring and vice carried out in secrecy.’

Ismat’s language – always her strength as a story teller – is different too in this novel. Here, she uses biting satire as a tool to sharpen her depiction of social realities and give an extra edge to her pithy, flavoursome, idiomatic language, the begumaati zuban that she herself knew so well. In her hands, Urdu had acquired a new zest, a special zing that made it more readable than ever before; in Masooma she shows how it is also better equipped to reflect new concerns, concerns that had been hitherto considered beyond the pale of literature. Also, her Urdu is full-bodied and vigorous, redolent with the flavours of Bombay, its sights, smells, sounds so different from the genteel world of chaste Urdu speakers of Upper India.

As we witness a revival of interest in Ismat with several translations into English crowding our shelves, we must pause to take note of the translator’s role in the continued popularity of a writer. Ismat is particularly blessed in having in Tahira Naqvi a devoted and able translator. With several Ismat translations behind her, Naqvi is emerging as the most faithful voice for Ismat in English.
This review was published in The Biblio, May-June 2012, New Delhi.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Fatty -- A Biography of Zohra Segal

Sometime in the year 1361 a Jew from Afghanistan, named Quais, travelled to Medina. There, he converted to Islam and began to call himself Abdul Rasheed Quais. A couple of centuries later, his family settled in the area of Roh in the North West Frontier Province. Known as Rohilla Pathans, they eventually made Rampur, a princely estate in the United Provinces, their home. Zohra Segal, veteran film and theatre actor and dancer, traces her lineage to Abdul Rasheed Quais; she attributes her kanjoosi (miserliness) to his being a Jew and her stubbornness and courage to the pure Rohilla blood flowing in her veins! An affectionate – and astonishing candid – biography by her daughter, Kiran Segal, brought out by Niyogi Books to coincide with Zohra Apa’s 100th birthday tells us all this, and much more.

Called Fatty, the title is an instant giveaway, as is the cover photograph showing the actor (in the role of Mrs Pong in the film The Primary English Class) poised to deliver a karate chop! Clearly, this will be no hagiographical account, no loving but earnest tribute by a doting daughter, no rose-tinted view of an extraordinary life, no soft-focus portrait of a stage and cinema thespian. Kiran is an especially gifted dancer and a Padma Shri awardee, but she is not a writer. She admits as much early on. But by virtue of having a ringside view of her mother’s life and having chosen to live with her for much of her adult life (in a ménage a quartet along with her daughter and her daughter’s daughter, i.e. four generations under one roof), she is also uniquely placed to write about the many ups and downs in her mother’s life, her quirks and eccentricities, her struggles and tragedies, her moods, in short all it takes to make her tick. There is empathy, yes in this telling of a mother’s life by a daughter; there is ample love, too; but Fatty makes no attempt at glorification. The portrait that emerges from the daughter’s pen is not of Saint Zohra but of Mother Courage meets Ma Baker. But then, surely, you can expect no less of someone who called her father Dost and her mother Fatty.

Told in a fairly chronological fashion, the book traverses Zohra Apa’s roots in Rampur, her education at Saint Mary’s Convent in Lahore, and the fact that her schooling and upbringing were such that she became ‘nothing but an Anglicised snob; even now she dreams in English!’ The years with Uday Shankar’s dance Academy in Almora and subsequently with Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre in Bombay are accompanied by rare photographs, making an era come to life. Dressed in stylish sleeveless blouses and exquisite handloom saris, the two sisters, Zohra and Uzra, appear in these pages like two resplendent creatures. Bohemian yet khandani, culturally rooted to India yet global citizens, they travelled the world and lived life according to their terms all through the 1930s and 40s. Much of Fatty covers similar ground covered by Zohra Apa herself in her autobiography, Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and screen (Women Unlimited, 2010). Taken together, we get a portrait in different stages of its making: of An Artist as a Young Woman; Glory Days of Dance and Travel; Personal Tragedy followed by Long Years of Struggle; and now the Lioness in Winter. The indomitable courage to go on, the impishness of youth after a life spanning a century, the perseverance and long hours of daily practice all this combine to make Zohra Segal what she is.

For all the fame and accolades that she now enjoys, Zohra Apa is no stranger to tragedy and hard times. First, there was the Partition that split her family, with most of her siblings choosing to go to Pakistan, including her younger sister, Uzra who had travelled the world with her during her days with the Ravi Shankar Academy and later with Prithvi Theatre. The elder sister, Hajra Begum, a member of the Communist party of India and married to Dr Z A Ahmed stayed back, as did Zohra. But by post-partition, the Glory days of dance and travelling theatre were over. After Zohra Apa’s husband, Kameshwar Segal, a talented painter, actor, dancer and set designer committed suicide in 1959, Zohra Apa moved to Delhi to teach dance at the Delhi Natya Academy. In 1962, she moved to London and took whatever work was available to fend for herself and her two young children. These were years of hard work for little rewards. Zohra Apa recalls these years in her autobiography with not a trace of bitterness; if anything she wears them as a badge of courage and endurance. To sustain herself and her two small children, she took whatever work that came her way in London, including that of a dresser at the Old Vic. With great good cheer, she records the time when she accepted her first tip from an actor she was helping dress:

‘All the Nawabs of Rampur and Najibabad must have turned in their graves that night! And yet, later, I began to look forward to the extra odd pound per week and even enjoyed the sensation of guilt which this recently acquired vice induced!’

Stardom eventually came her way and fame nudged her out of the drudgery of backstage work when a string of roles in mainstream English films and television series began to come her way. Her role as Lady Lili Chatterjee in Jewel in the Crown was followed by the hugely popular Tandoori Nights on BBC. Now, of course she is used to sharing screen space with the leading actors of the Hindi film industry: Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya rai, Salman Khan, Preity Zinta, et al.

Fatty’s real strength lies not in its narration of the facts of Zohra Segal’s life, many of which have been narrated with equal fidelity to detail by Zohra Apa herself. I think where Fatty scores is in its author’s candidness. Here’s a sampler:

On her mother’s incorrigible flirtatiousness, Kiran writes:

‘Even now when she is flirting or being naughty with the opposite sex, I cringe; my brother and I really suffer! Had I not been her daughter, I would have also enjoyed her comments, like everyone else. But, being her daughter, I just can’t and very often when she is uttering these embarrassing comments to an interviewer, if I am in the same room, I just walk out.’
And elsewhere:

‘Ammi is just like a child at times. You’ve got to see her when guests are at home and she has dressed herself in a new outfit…She actually comes down the stairs as though she is making an entry on stage and laps up all the praise when her presence, outfit, and so on are admired with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’! Not one for being shy, she can easily talk to anyone if she wants to and also snub anyone if she is not interested – something which I can never do!’

‘Ammi has two very bad habits – one is blowing her nose at the dining table and the second one is when she does not let you even sit down and take a breather when you come home. She starts straighaway with whatever has to be done, or any message that has to be given!’

Having had the opportunity to meet Zohra Apa on several occasions and to invite her for some of the programmes organised by me for Hindustani Awaaz, I have always wondered at her amazing youthfulness and vitality. Kiran’s book reveals the secret: a disciplined life with large doses of hard work and good humour. On her hundredth birthday, we can only say: ‘Here’s looking at you, Zohra Apa! Salut!’

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Scent in an Islamic Garden

‘Scent is the food of the soul, and the soul is the vehicle of the faculties of man.’

--Hadith attributed to the Prophet of Islam

One has heard of literary history, social history, to some extent even economic history culled from literary sources but seldom a horticultural study based on literary texts. Ali Akbar Husain, an architect and a teacher of architectural studies undertakes this novel venture. The result is a delightful pot pourrie of disciplines: history, architecture, landscaping, poetry, horticulture and, given the context, Islam. Scent in an Islamic Garden: A Study of Literary Sources in Persian and Urdu is a remarkable book for another reason, too. It focuses scholarly attention on a largely neglected part of Islamic India: the Deccan.

William Dalrymple, writing the Introduction to the book, rightly notes:

‘By any standard, anywhere in the world, the Deccani civilisation that reached its most remarkable flowering in sixteenth century Hyderabad was rich and remarkable. Yet it remains astonishingly little studied. So dominant are the Mughals in the historical memory of India, that the different Deccani sultanates have been almost completely forgotten outside a small group of specialists and scholars. Almost all visitors to India visit the Taj Mahal and learn about Shah Jahan, but few visit Bijapur, Bidar, or even Golconda, and fewer still read of the no less remarkable doings of Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi sultans.’

In setting out to correct an old wrong, Ali Akbar Husain not merely brings to life the architecture, culture and contribution of the Deccani sultans but also places before us the significance of the garden in the current of Islamic thought. An earthly analogue for the life in paradise that awaits the Momin, the garden is a recurring image in the Holy Quran. The Paradisal Garden, the promised abode of the true believer, known by different names such as Iram, Firdaus, Jannah, is none other than the primordial garden that Man lost through sin but whose image is recoverable from the anima mundi. Descriptions of fair maidens, immortal youths, gushing fountains of cool waters, trees laden with fruit, gentle hills beneath which rivers flow – evoke not only  images of plenitude and freedom from want but also of shade and rest and reward.

Over time, these images acquired near-mythic proportions and found reflection in different art forms in different parts of the Islamic world. The gated gardens of Cordova and Moorish Spain, the funerary gardens centred round a tomb or mausoleum of the Mughals, the classic formalism of the char bagh (the four waterways representing milk, honey, wine and water) and the intricately-worked pavilions and fountains of Andalusia – each has sought to replicate an imagined space, each has introduced local elements be it in the choice of plants or the demands of topography and landscaping.

In the crucible of the Deccan, we find a strange experiment taking place. An intermingling of Hindu elements with Islamic motifs, an admixture of Hindu art with Islamic architecture, an overlay of a Persian mizaj over an intrinsically Indian design sensibility combined to create an exuberant Indo-Islamic atelier. The forts, tombs, palaces and pavilions dotted across Hyderabad, Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, etc. bear ample testimony to this synergistic flowering. And the gardens surrounding this built heritage were splendid examples of private and public spaces. Since most of these gardens have disappeared in the maw of urbanisation, what remains are references to them in Persian and Urdu literary sources. Husain’s perusal of Deccani masnawis to extract nuggets of information is, therefore, a singular contribution.

The choice of plants, trees, shrubs and herbiage – both indigenous and naturalised – as also the medicinal and aromatic properties of each are spelt out in detail. Flowering trees like kesu, amaltas, kadamb, nagkesar; fruit-bearing ones such as jamun, mango, amla, banana, kathal, shahtoot as well as pomegranate, citron, orange, lime, shaddock, fig, grape, phalsa; scented flowers such as rose, tuberose, chandni, mogra, chameli vie for space in these scented Islamic gardens of the Deccan with medicinal plants such as kafur, sandal, firanjmushk, etc. Two major seventeenth-century Deccani masnawis, Mulla Nasrati’s Gulshan-e-Ishq and Abdul Dehalvi’s Ibrahim Nama, further the analogy between the garden and the world. The fragrance from these scented gardens lingers in lines such as these:

            Nazr ke rang dene kun har yek gul rang ka kasa

            Muatr mann ke karne kun kali har huqqa parmal ka

            (To brighten the eye, each (flower) was a cup colourful

            To perfume the heart, each bud was a box of parmal fragrance)

Also read:

1.     Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra, London: Thames and Hudson 2006.

2.     D. F. Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007

3.     Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, London: Heinemann

This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, July 2012.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Woh kagaz ki kashti woh barish ka pani…

Once upon a time, till not very long ago, we used to have the Monsoons. Now, barring coastal areas, in most cities across Upper India, we have the Rains. The difference is not simply one of etymology but of a change in lifestyle, urban planning, global warming, shifting weather patterns, in short a whole new cityscape that bears only a passing resemblance to what once was. The Monsoons are a glorious burst of rainwater, preceded by damp masses of moisture-laden clouds scudding across the skies, bringing darkness at noon and followed by days upon days of uninterrupted deluge. The Rains, or the rainy season, is a much shorter affair bringing waterlogged streets, traffic jams and irater-than-usual city-dwellers.

Having said that, there is no denying that the average person living in North India looks forward to the end of June more eagerly than to any other phenomenon – natural or otherwise. Several cities have a designated date for the arrival of the Monsoon; in Delhi, for example, it is always 29 June. The first chaste encounter of cool water and hot earth, grey sky and parched land, is preceded by severe dust storms followed by an occasional drizzle that brings the temperature – usually hovering at 46 degrees or so – down, but it leaves everything – including your mouth, nose, ears and eyes -- covered with a fine, powdery dust. For weeks before, the city pages of the dailies are filled with reports from the Met Office. There is speculation everywhere. People talk of nothing but the unrelenting heat that smothers everything like a dense blanket. Water tables dip alarmingly low, taps run dry, hot gusts of loo wind sear, roads bake and homes give off heat even at night. Will the Monsoon keep its official ‘date’ or will it make us wait? How far has the easterly and westerly arms of the Monsoon progressed across the length and breadth of India? These questions take precedence over all else, even exam results and university cut-offs, as everyone waits with breathless anticipation!

And finally when the Rains come lashing down -- not the short-lived drizzle of the pre-Monsoon shower but the real thing -- the city lets out a collective sigh, as though it has been holding its breath all through the long harsh summer. A sort of hissing sound, as the earth takes in the full impact of the water, is followed by a long breath of relief from a city sweltering under the merciless sun. You can hear it when the first fat drops of water fall on parched earth. Or, when the skies open up as though someone has pulled a plug. Or, when the rain falls in endless sheets of water. That is the time when even the city, no matter how blythe and blasé, begins to show traces of its kinder, gentler self. Perfect strangers look at the pouring rain and smile at each other. Others stretch out a tentative hand to capture tremulous drops of water, marveling how this liquid beauty has transformed the city within minutes. But as I said before, the Monsoons we used to have were an altogether different affair from the Rains. They lasted from end-June, raining vigorously till August, then sporadically in September and then again in October when the retreating Monsoon winds would bless vast tracts of land across Upper India one last time before the onset of winter. Now, with changing global weather patterns and over-crowded, over-congested cities, the rainy season is less clearly defined.

Having grown up in Delhi, I remember the Monsoons of my childhood as a period of unmatched joy. Cycling back from school (yes, there was a time when children could actually cycle on the roads of Delhi, that too main roads!), I remember getting drenched in the rain and coming home with soaking wet school textbooks. But it was compensated with piping hot bhutta bought from the road side. Being young, it was fun to get wet in the rain and watch others sheltering under the giant neem and jamun trees that lined the roads. Later, it was a treat to pick the fallen plump jamun berries from the road or to buy some from the vendors who tossed them in tangy masala and served them in little cups fashioned out of leaves. Another family favourite during the Monsoons, was driving through pouring rain to have chaat at Sweets Corner. The joy of pani-puri, aloo tikki or dahi papri was no match for home-made pakoras. Or going to the India Gate Lawns where one could run and dance, romp and play in the rain with complete abandon, for everyone else – young and old -- was doing the same. I remember boating in the shallow canal near India Gate, upturning the boat and standing in waist-high waters with a bunch of can-get-no-wetter school friends!

Now, as I wait expectantly for the rains, I draw solace from reciting rain-related poetry to evoke the old magic. Reading Bikat Kahani, the baramasa by Afzal Jhinjhanvi, I am transposed to a world of love and longing associated with barkha bahar, the rainy season :

            Ari jab kook koel ne sunayi

            Tamami tan badan mein aag lahi

            Andher rain, jugnu jagmagata

            Oo ka jalti upar tais ka jalata?

            Ah, when the cuckoo sounds her cooing

            It sets my body aflame

            The glow worm glows in the darkness of the night

            Why does it burn one already on fire?

The virahini of the baramasa feels the pain of separation most keenly in the month of saawan for it is during the rains that men traditionally stayed home or came back as business was slack possibly because roads became un-passable. Tradition also demanded that a young bride would be called to her parents’ home when her brother would be sent to fetch her at the beginning of the season; shortly after a token visit, she would return to her husband’s home and resume her conjugal life. When there is a departure from this time-honoured way of life, when the woman finds herself alone and bereft during the months of the rains (traditionally said to last for a chaumasa, or four months), then the dark clouds, the call of the koel, the darts of rain, the smell of damp earth, the dancing peacocks, the blood-red birbahuti insects, remind her that all other women are with their husbands while she is not; she is reminded of seasons past when she had enjoyed the plentiful rains with her beloved and is tormented by the thought of his dalliances elsewhere. Different baramasas used this repertoire of images in different ways. Here’s a sampler:

Papiha de namak ghaavon ko ke pee

            Ghari sa har ghari doobe mera jee

            (The cuckoo pours salt over my wounds and tells me to drink it

            While all the while my heart sinks from minute to minute)


            Asaarh aaya ghata chhayi gagan par

            Rasawat man mera rasiya sajan par

            (The month of Asaar has come, the clouds cover the sky

            My heart pines for my feckless beloved)

But for me nothing can beat Chitra and Jagjit Singh’s evocation of bachpan ka sawan when it comes to recapturing those magical days of long-gone childhood.

Woh kagaz ki kashti woh barish ka pani…

This article appeared in The Tribune, Chandigarh, 1 July 2012

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Review of 3 books by Arab writers

Running as a refrain through these three books – all by Arab women writers and all published in India by Women Unlimited – is a haunting sense of nostalgia and longing. An ode to a world that once was but is no more, each looks back with wistfulness and regret for all that has been lost; but what is more, none seem comforted by a future that holds either relief or succour. The only flashes of colour in an otherwise grim and forbidding landscape belong to the past, the only relief lies in escaping a present that is ominous and forbidding. What, then, is one to make of such a bleak world?

Enormously depressing in one way, the three books are also, oddly enough, hugely uplifting. Displaced, deprived, discriminated, dispossessed these voices might be – weary from trading home-grown despots for foreign ones and vice versa -- each one of them is determined to be heard. The note of defiance, of speaking out, of bearing witness rings out sharp and clear. Possibly, that is their only victory in a world that appears arraigned against them. In reading their words, in listening to their voices, we – regardless of caste, creed, gender and nationality – find common cause with them, establish a bond of solidarity across the black and white lines of a printed page that sets apart their lives from ours. I would like to believe that is all they wanted when they set out to pen their stories: simply to strike a chord somewhere with someone and, as one narrator puts it, in ‘trying to remember as correctly and completely as possible’ record all the suffering and ignominy they had experienced and known.

That no lofty literary ambition propels the writers of these stories is evident from even a cursory reading. The over-riding impulse appears to be to dig into a vast oral archive, to tap into a racial memory that is as old as time, to shake the tree of anima mundi and to record, store and conserve for posterity all that remains on its withered stalk. Memory, for these writers, therefore is a literary tool and the past a mise en scene just as the use of the first person becomes a necessity in most cases.

Dreaming of Baghdad by Haifa Zangama is a searing memoir of imprisonment, torture, humiliation and eventual exile during Saddam Hussain repressive regime. Dipping between past and present, then and now, her home in Iraq and her exile in London, Zangama takes us into the torture chambers of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and describes the Iraqi people’s struggles against the Baath Party and the terrible scars that remain. Written over a period of eight years, during the Iran-Iraq war, it is the first-of-its-kind account by a radical woman activist from Iraq. As Zangama says, in writing this book she has ‘tried to write about the lives and deaths of a group of young people who were able to foresee the horrible damage that the Iraqi regime was inflicting on its people long before the First and Second Gulf Wars. We were able to see beyond the present and predict the imminent deterioration of Iraq, despite its resources and huge oil wealth. Or maybe because of that. Everything around us indicated our own inevitable demise, but we tried…In writing this book, I felt I was paying a debt long overdue to my friends.’

The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat is a tribute to that which should have been saved and protected but was not. Ravaged Beirut, the site of many a pitched battle for possession since time immemorial, is the setting for one man’s near obsessive-compulsive recollections of not merely the city as it once was but a whole way of life that appears to be forever gone. Niqula Mitri, son of an Egyptian mother and an Orthodox Christian father, inherits both his father’s love for textiles as well as his shop in the city’s old quarters. As his parents die, his neighbourhood is shelled and looted, his shop is burnt to cinders, he appears to be the only man alive in a city that once throbbed with life. As he wanders in a hallucinatory daze through souqs, down boulevards, past mosques, cemeteries and churches, even through a maze of sub-terranean passages, foraging for herbs and berries to keep body and soul together, he brings to life not merely the city he loves so well but reveals – layer by layer – many stories connected with the city that was once the hub of civilisations. Because he loves textiles, he sees the world through the cloth he had once stocked in his shop: ‘a stitch of air’ that is Venetian lace, the shimmer of brocade, the allure of satin, the smoothness of Damascene silk. The analogy of the weaver and weaving is everywhere for, as Mitri tells us, ‘spinning, weaving and sewing are not simply metaphors that help us to see how creation is reflected, to understand its past and how it came to be; they are not helpful only, as Plato said, in understanding that the world pivots on a sort of spindle of diamonds…No, it is more, for the politician is the artisan who crafts the social fabric…The techniques that go into cloth making are in essence like the planning and construction of a city..’ He goes on to conclude: ‘Ignorant are those who do not know the magic of the thread and the curses that the fabric may bring.’

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile & Home, edited by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh, explores the idea of Palestine, of what it means to be Palestinian -- whether at home or in exile -- and the past, present and future of being Palestinian. An eclectic set of contributors – poets, novelists, artists, critics, activists – probe, contest, debate, reflect, introspect on the many meanings of these two words: home and exile. For Karma Nabulsi, a child of the revolution, exile is a ‘lost time’, a time when Palestinians were separated from their own revolutionary history. For Rana Barakat, denial of entry into her homeland, spells a state of suspension: belonging neither here nor there. Escape or voluntary flight means ‘portable absence’ to some, whereas for others there is a Palestine that never truly was! Wry, candid, poignant, Seeking Palestine is a tribute to a people who no matter how displaced and dispossessed remain nevertheless determined.

This review appeared in The Hindu, Sunday, 1 July 2012