Thursday, November 29, 2007

Satire – What Is to Be Done?

What is to Be Done?

A few readymade revolutionary deals for Mr. Musharraf & Co.

[Picture by Sajjad Ali Qureshi, an eminent photojournalist from Islamabad; text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Ms. Bhutto declares she will not have Mr. Musharraf, and Mr. Musharraf has begun to say he will not have Ms. Bhutto. While they continue to make and unmake their minds, Mr. Sharif has again landed in Pakistan. The entire country is in uproar. What is to be done? Pakistan Paindabad sat down to formulate deals that could lift the nation out of its mess.

Divorces and Dollars

Ms. Bhutto wants to be Prime Minister. Mr. Sharif wants to be Prime Minister. She is from Sindh. He is from Punjab. Together they can break the country. Together they can unite the country. Time for Pakistan's most popular to make tough choices. Both should divorce their spouses. They should then marry each other, jointly contest the elections, dispose off General Musharraf (oohps…President Musharraf), and rule the country as power couple. Imagine how much money they can make together.

The Old Order

Mr. Musharraf should fly – again - to Jeddah and request the Saudi king to recall his buddy, Nawaz Sharif, back to the oasis. He should then fly to Washington DC and request the US Prez to ask Ms. Bhutto to return London or to Dubai or whatever. He should then fly home to the Army House and order the obedient old banker, Shaukat Aziz, to get back as Prime Minister. Believe us, 98.7 percent happy days will be back again.

Give & Take

Due to its foolish romantic sensibilities, Pakistan Paindabad has always nurtured a soft corner for BB. It never wanted Mr. Sharif, her old nemesis, to return. But the man has returned and the reception at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal airport proved he has in him to spoil the party. BB's party (!) But couldn't Punjab da Munda still be persuaded to leave the booty-ground? Actually, there is a way out. Mr. Musharraf should remain as President. While Ms. Bhutto should give away her sprawling Surrey estate and Swiss bank locker codes to Mr. Sharif. Of course, along with a lifetime supply of Paya-Nihari on the condition that he would be away for 20 years. The scheme will work. Trust us.

Call the Casanova

He is sexy. She is Jewish. It's a deadly mix. Cricket star (and ex-lover of numerous Bollywood starlets) Imran Khan should stage a coup with the army's assistance. (They say that Pakistan Army is tired of its ex-General). Once in power, he must banish Ms. Bhutto, banish Mr. Sharif, banish Mr. Musharraf. Appoint Respectable Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry as President. And also appoint Equally Respectable Mr. Shoaib Akhtar as Women Welfare Minister. Meanwhile First Lady Jemima could bridge the divide between Israel and the Muslim world. Ah, a wishful thinking.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Culture - A Specie Called Pakistani Art

Art Scene in Pakistan

Excursions into a little known world.

[Text by Raza Rumi; picture by Umair Mohsin]

This article is exclusively written for Pakistan Paindabad.


The art world of Pakistan is not given the attention it deserves. But amends are being made. Arts Pakistan, or Artspak, is a recently developed website, with an exclusive collection of videos, paintings and photographs that strictly deals with the country's vibrant art scene. The website has been developed by Khalid Sherdil, a civil servant. The gentleman was inspired by Athar Tahir, a senior civil servant who also happens to be a poet. Artspak is very decided about its aims:

Our objective is to preserve the arts, culture and talent of Pakistan. This site is dedicated to the Artists of Pakistan: Painters, Actors, Dramatists, Musicians, Dancers, Singers, Sculptors, Photographers or Writers. If you are an Artist, you can Host your work Free. Just email us pictures/videos of your work and your biography.

My favourite pick in the website has to be the video-clips from Ajoka, a socially aware theatre group based in Lahore. (You may watch the video-clips here.) This is what Artspak say on Ajoka:

Ajoka, which pioneered the theatre movement in Pakistan, was set up in 1983 by a group of young people led by Madeeha Gauhar, a TV actress and theatre director. Ajoka's first play, Badal Sarkar's "Jaloos", was performed in Lahore in 1984, in a house lawn in defiance of the strict censorship laws. Since then Ajoka has been continuously performing socially-meaningful plays within Pakistan and abroad. It has now over two dozen original plays and several adaptations in it's repertoire.

While Pakistan's mainstream art scene is dominated by artists from Lahore and Karachi, Artspak has tried to probe further. For instance, it introduced an artist based in Baluchistan. This was indeed a creditable job of highlighting the styles of that remote corner of the country.

However, the most fascinating bit was the biography of Muhammad Umair Arif, a young male Kathak dancer who has defied his family's traditionalism to become a kathak performer. Under the Mughal rule, Kathak became a highly nuanced chamber art that was patronized by arty rulers for centuries. It has evolved over time as a formidable art form that refuses to fade away despite the pressures of modernity and the need for popular art that is commercially viable. The good thing is that Umair is not the only one. Lahore Chitrkar has emerged another focal point for nurturing and introducing a range of musicians and dancers. Perhaps all is not lost when it comes to art in the land of the pure.

Umair Arif


Artspak is a welcome endeavour. While it does need further consolidation and some re-arrangement, it provides a good introduction to the diversity and colours of Pakistani arts. My good wishes to the website.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

“Writing a Novel is Like Ejecting an Infant from Your Uterus” – Interview with Shandana Minhas

Shandana Minhas Vs Pakistan Paindabad

Frank talk with the Karachi-based author of Tunnel Vision.

[Interview and pictures of the book launch ceremony by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Welcome to Pakistan Paindabad, Ms. Minhas. What does your first name ‘Shandana’ means?

Glorious pimple. No. Glory and intelligence.

The First Novel

How challenging it was to write your first novel at 29?

It’s like having a baby, ejecting an infant from your uterus is excruciating, but the body forgets. I guess I’ve forgotten, because in retrospective the challenging bit as I remember it was getting it typed- I still write by hand on paper- and getting it published.

Why the name Tunnel Vision?

Because the protagonist and everyone around her suffers from it.

Your novel has been set in the 80s when General Zia was in power? Do you feel external events (like dictatorship etc.) have a power to create deep impact in the personal lives of ordinary people?

Actually it’s not mostly set in the eighties, just some flashbacks are, but all the people in the novel, in fact everyone in contemporary Pakistan has been and continues to be fundamentally affected by military dictatorship.

Being a woman author from Pakistan, I had expected you to write about terror, Islam, purdah and of course mangoes. But there is not much of that. How would you sell the book to western readers?

Who said ‘presumption is the mother of all screw ups’? My only loyalty is to the story. As a storyteller you don’t choose the story, the story chooses you.
Why would I sell the book to western readers?

Is it that Tunnel Vision could only have been set in Karachi?


In what ways Lahore is better than Karachi? And why would you still prefer to live in Karachi? Can we say that Karachi is your muse? What places in Karachi are especially friendly towards writers?

Lahore vs Karachi is a pointless debate. Different cities, different rhythms, different souls. Enough said. I prefer to live in Karachi because it is my home. And yes it is, or rather has been my muse. As for whether there are places in Karachi that are particularly friendly towards writers, there are places in Karachi that are particularly friendly towards everybody and places that are particularly hostile towards everybody, and the friction inherent in that juxtaposition of extremes is what makes Karachi a great place to write in.

In recent years Karachi has witnessed a resurgence in the number of coffee and tea houses that used to be watering holes for intellectuals from previous generations, but whether the new trendy cafes popping up everywhere are about cultural revival or just conspicuous consumption remains to be seen.

New bookstores are also opening up. And one can never have enough bookstores.

Why does your first novel not have a Pakistani publisher? (Tunnel Vision is published by an Indian publisher.)

A question better addressed to Pakistani publishers.

The Writing Life

When did you start writing? Did your folks feel comfortable with your career choice? Is this a ‘full-time job’? When did you start making money out of your writing?

I have no conscious memory of when I started writing. I remember the first thing I wrote that was published. It was in class six. We were given the line ‘stop the world I want to get off’ and told to run with it for a class assignment. My teacher submitted it to the school magazine. That led to a cushy alley job churning out bad love poems for lustful ninth graders who wanted to impress somebody or the other. That, and last minute answers to essay questions for people who hadn’t done their homework. Then I had a sudden attack of ethics. Or possibly taste. What’s the difference…

It is not a job so the issue of whether it is a full time one does not apply.

My parents thought one could never make a living from creative writing in Pakistan. They were right.

You have written extensively for websites like Chowk. Has that helped in your writing? Are there any tips (or experiences) you can share with bloggers aspiring to become published authors?

I have written for and continue to write for Chowk. Chowk has been an intrinsic, invaluable part of my growth as a writer because it enabled me to pursue my craft without commerce upsetting the equation.

I’m not sure I have anything of value to share with bloggers, other than keep writing. Except when it gets annoying. Then stop. Seriously, I think blogging is a form unto itself and as someone who has never done it I feel uncomfortable pontificating about it.

Do you have personal quirks when you sit down to write?

Many. The right pen. The right paper. The right size of paper. The right sound. The right silence. Clipped nails. I could go on…but little children might be reading this.

You started and finished Tunnel Vision within a year itself (2005). How much rewriting did you do?

Very little. I was fortunate in that Renuka Chatterjee - who was then chief editor at Roli Books - sliced and diced it for me when I submitted it to her and constructed a vastly more readable book out of the text I gave her.

Please tell us about your family life? When do you work? Do you keep a strict schedule?

My family life is my family life. It impacts my work only in terms of the time I have to write, as in sometimes I need desperately to write but circumstances do not permit me to. Because I have two small children I am hardly ever the boss of me. Which is possibly a good thing.

Which authors have made a difference to your life? Which books do you feel especially close to?

Charles Bukowski, John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, and Dostoyevsky are authors I keep returning to because I find comfort in them. Books I feel close to? I’m not sure what that means. I remember books I feel kicked me in the head, books that either changed or confirmed the way I looked at the world. The Lord of the Flies was one, The World According to Garp another, The Sorrows of Young Werther, One Hundred Years of Solitude etc. Then there are books I admire. Closer to home are novels like A Suitable Boy, English August, and The Kite Runner.

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, Asimov, Frank Herbert, George R R Martin, that’s my escape. Ray Bradbury also.

And then there is poetry. And then this will be the never ending answer, so onwards!

All your heroines are named Ayesha. Why this fixation?
I have no clue. It was a compulsion. With Tunnel Vision I hope I’ve achieved catharsis. Or exorcism.

The Country and its Writers

with family

Is it true that Pakistani authors writing in English usually hail from privileged backgrounds?

What is a privileged background? How does one quantify privilege?

Okay, let's talk something else. Non-Pakistanis often believe that it must be difficult there for a woman writer to freely write about issues she feels strongly about. Is there some truth into it? Also, are woman writers expected to discuss ‘relevant’ womenly issues in their writing?

Nobody can stop anybody from writing freely about anything they wish to write freely about. Whether they will find avenues for distribution is a different matter. And I think the retrenchment of independent publishing houses and the internet has made it possible to sidestep entirely the agendas of the current gatekeepers of the distribution of art (or crap, either way). And sometimes doing something worthwhile, pursuing truth, has to be its own reward.

I think there is possibly a slight expectation - again from those who market and distribute rather than those who create or express - for women from our part of the world to discuss ‘women-ish’ issues in their writing. I think the best way to deal with those expectations is to ignore them altogether.

What themes appeal to young Pakistani authors nowadays?

Again, in my experience you don’t choose the story or the theme but rather it works the other way around. There are similarities though, a pattern emerges: the effects of myopic leadership, dictatorship, of oppression, or repression, of institutionalized misogyny, of religious bigotry, of social and economic inequity. In the literature of women from south Asia I have often noticed an absent father figure, or protector, for all the patriarchy etc women often do what they do independent of the financial and emotional support of the men who are supposed to sway benevolently over them.

Having said that, I would also like to see a time where one does not have to be either a man or a woman writer but simply a writer.

And sometimes I could just kill for a good murder mystery, or a werewolf stalking the lanes of Landi Kotal…

What contemporary writers in Pakistan do you always make it a point to read? Any Pakistani author who has inspired your creative process?

I make it a point to read Mohsin Hamid and Feryal Gauhar. The creative process is inspired by emotions not by people. Other people are just one of the conduits through which we experience emotion.

Can you suggest a list of books which would help us to understand the contemporary Pakistan in all its complexities?

If I understood contemporary Pakistan in all its complexities I would probably not be driven to write about it.

Thank you for talking to Pakistan Paindabad, Ms. Minhas.
You're welcome, Mayank.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Emergency Column - Pervez Musharraf Arrested My Mother

But he is losing the match.

[Text by Maryam Arif, a Pakistani law student in New York City]

The phone rang. My friend from Buffalo said, “Congratulations, Musharraf has imposed emergency.” My friend is not much of a political analyst. The emergency was a big joke to him, as it was to the Pakistan Television Network. While private news stations gave updates on the “breaking news,” the state-controlled channel pretended nothing was the matter. It was song, dance, and Quranic recitations as usual.

My friend was genuinely more concerned about the Pakistani cricket team’s tour to India. But cricket was not in my mind. I was thinking about how the already unstable state of affairs in the “land of the pure” was about to change again.

I learned that in the next few hours.

I called my mother back home in Lahore to confirm the news which was not unbelievable but still a little unexpected (don’t you think?). After all, Benazir Bhutto was back to resume power. We had come to believe that Musharraf and Benazir had already decided the result of the up-coming election and would stage the ballot box drama as per schedule.

Oh, but what to do about the defiant judiciary? The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, had been proving to be such a menace – demanding to know: where have “missing people” disappeared to? When would Musharraf take off his uniform? Why does Musharraf hold on to political office when it is unconstitutional? Preposterous. Who does Mr. Justice think he is? Teaching Musharraf the law? Mr. President makes the law, so what if he was never voted into office.

Anyway, the judges rebelled. An upset Musharraf imposed the emergency. This was not the first time a General has imposed an emergency in Pakistan, but this time there is resistance. My mother was actually on her way to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan when I called her. She said she would talk later in detail.

I called again that same night but no response. Meanwhile I heard news of people getting arrested. Images of lawyers being dragged, beaten, tear-gassed in the streets of Pakistan gave me heartache and a throbbing head. The only source of information coming from Pakistan at this time of high anxiety is internet, and it was by no means reassuring. I watched a video. A political activist was being dragged away from his wife. “Leave him,” she shrieked, as the police grabbed him by his arms. “Give me a minute,” he protested, “she is pregnant.” Reuters captured the couple, tight in embrace, as their world fell apart.

My mother, too, was arrested. With her were seventy other peace activists from the office of the best known human rights organization in the country. Senior journalists, human rights activists, members of civil society organizations were kept behind bars for three days; moved from jail to house arrest to another jail; and to the court in between. My mother was instructed to sign a letter begging for forgiveness. She refused. Families of many imprisoned activists held candle light vigils, shouted anti-Musharraf slogans and sang revolutionary songs.

Finally, they were released, but more people were arrested. More protests, more people have been detained under charges of terrorism; more civilians brought to trial in military courts. The “emergency” is creating more “terrorists.” Guess what that means? The U.S. military aid continues to flow in the form of dollars that feed the hungry military economy.

But there is hope. The protest led by lawyers and students is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history. The judiciary inspired the lawyers; the lawyers inspired the students; and the students are awakening with a vengeance. Beware Musharraf, you are losing the match.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Opinion - Iqbal, Islam, and the Emergency

Our poet had envisaged a different Pakistan.

[Text by Raza Rumi; picture from Iqbal Academy]

In November, Pakistan commemorates Allama Iqbal’s birth anniversary with the usual lip-service. The key messages of the poet seem to have been lost in the maze of officialdom. This is further exacerbated by the hijacking of Islam and politics by vested interests, not to mention the recent events that have shook us all.

Iqbal opposed exploitation, Mullahism, emphasised the principle of movement in Islamic thought; and highlighted “Ijtehad” (re-interpretation) of Islamic teachings through a modern parliamentary framework. Alas, all of that is nearly forgotten.
For instance, he was clear about the layers of exploitation:

The world does not like tricks and
Of science and wit nor, their contests
This age does not like ancient thoughts,
From core of hearts their show detests.

O wise economist, the books you write
Are quite devoid of useful aim:
They have twisted lines with orders strange
No warmth for labour, though they claim.

The idol houses of the West,
Their schools and churches wide
The ravage caused for, greed of wealth
Their wily wit attempts to hide

The questions that Iqbal raises in his poetry are universal and deal with the larger issues of Man’s relationship with God and the Universe. This is why his poetry does not address any particular group, but the entire Muslim Ummah. He has inspired Muslims with the realization of life and urged them for self-reform and self-actualization by searching for their khudi or self.

After centuries of stagnation, Iqbal was a voice for reformation within Islam. Shah Walliullah had tried to open the debate but Iqbal represented the twentieth century consciousness of modern Muslims. Iqbal is therefore known across the Muslim world, widely read and quoted. Pity that in the homeland that he dreamt of talking of ijtehad threatens many a fatwa mongers. In Zarb-e-Kalim, he sings:

Your prayer cannot change the Order of the Universe,
But it is possible that praying will alter your being;
If there is a revolution in your inner Self
It will not be strange, then, if the whole world changes too

In the famous series of lectures – The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam – Iqbal held:

“...but since things have changed and the world of Islam is to-day confronted and affected by new forces set free by the extraordinary development of human thought in all its directions, I see no reason why this attitude (finality of legal schools) should be maintained any longer. Did the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasoning and interpretations? Never...The teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessor, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”

Maulana Rumi and Iqbal communicated a shared message: de’dan day’gar amuz, shan’idan day’gar amuz (learn to see and think in a new way). As Suroosh Irfani writes eloquently:

“this message sums up an outlook of life as a forward assimilative movement, even as one remains rooted in an Islamic heritage. Indeed, the message arose in a historical context when old certainties were crumbling and the new were struggling to be born: Rumi lived at a time when the Muslim world was traumatised by Mongol invasions, while Iqbal’s was a time of awakening of the colonised masses that eventually led to the independence of India and Pakistan.”

What Pakistan appears today is not the dream that Iqbal articulated for a separate homeland for Muslims of India. The extremists waving their flags on government buildings and propagating a version of Islam that Iqbal resisted, while the peaceful activists are behind bars. I digress: The vision of the Quaid for a modern, democratic Pakistan where rule of law was to prevail has also been undermined. Somehow, I have been thinking of Habib Jalib - wish he was alive today - here are a few verses by him from a poem entitled Youm-i-Iqbal:

Log uthte hain jab tere ghareebon ko jagane
Sab shehar ke zardar pahunch jaate hain thane
Kehte hain yeh daulat hamein bakhshi hai khuda ne
Farsudah bahane wahi afsaane purane
Ai shair-e mashriq! Yehi jhute yehi bad zaat
Peete hain laoo banda-e mazdoor ka din raat

When we arise to wake the poor, the have nots
A beeline to the police station they make, these wealthy sots
They say that God this wealth to them allots
Oh these trite excuses, oh these dusty plots
Night and day the working men’s blood they suck, o poet of the East
These congenital liars, with the vileness of a beast

(Translated by Fowpe Sharma and Urdu transliteration by Hasan Abdullah)

It is time to reclaim Iqbal and save him from the clutches of forces that have been attempting to maintain the status quo; and promote obscurantism. His vision starts from the self and then reaches for the society and the Universe.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Karachi Life - A Gay Man's Diary, Part I

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Being gay in Pakistan's biggest metropolis.

[Text by Jalaluddin; imaging by Mayank Austen Soofi; the picture is not of the author]

These are edited excerpts from Jalaluddin’s Tuzk e Jalali.

"My blog is a place where I am who I really am."

04 Ramazan 1428

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good desktop computer must be in want of a laptop. I seem to be going through this very period in my life.

02 Ramazan 1428

My parents did drag me to Islamabad two weeks ago to see their friends’ daughter. I always knew that I have to get married one day or the other. Too many expectations from people who are affected by my life. Besides, my mother would nag the fuck out of my life if I don't marry. Since I am gay (and what the fuck else not), I knew that for me any girl would be the same as any other girl. Since this makes my choice useless, I let my parents decide.

15 Ramazan 1428

My engagement recently was a result of such a decision. For the past six years I have known that I could never lead the life of my choice. My father would have considered it a complete loss of face to have an only son who is gay. My mother would have felt that I have been led astray and that I would ruin my life. Two people I care about would have had the rest of their lives devastated. And I could not have accepted it because it would haunt me that I am the reason for their pain. So, the only way for me to go was to die. Not physically. Just that Jalal is becoming a separate person from me.

17 Ramazan 1428

It is as if my whole life has come crashing down around me. Questions that I asked myself and dreaded for the past ten years are in front of me again. Can I please lead my own life without fatally hurting everyone around me? Can I please be gay and my family accept me for it and let me live like that? And my sisters’ marriages are not sabotaged and their married lives not destroyed? And my parents’ position of respect and honour in our society is not destroyed due to my leading a gay life?

19 Ramazan 1428

Jalal, will you please stop fucking staring at men’s crotches you are talking to.

24 Ramazan 1428

There have been so many issues that I have had to deal with lately. My engagement and the prospects of my life have not been decided by me but dictated by others. Or perhaps dictated by my knowledge of the expectations of others. Expectations that I know are held so dear that I would not want to hurt them.

24 Ramazan 1428

Ok, ok, ok. I know I am 27 and moving swiftly towards oblivion and should start cutting down on starch in my diet. But, I am still a young man, and I have needs.

06 Shawwal 1428

Two powerful bomb blasts have hit the procession of Benazir Bhutto. More than 120 have died as I sit here and write this. With trembling hands and wet eyes.

09 Shawwal 1428

It seems that my current phase of depression has been going on for quite some time.

17 Shawwal 1428

At first I thought that I was having my periods and that had thrown me completely out of my emotional balance. But then I remembered that men don’t have periods. Perhaps I have been extremely depressed because of my being gay in Pakistan. No acceptance within my family or society. No chance of leading a gay life. No chance of being happy by not leading a gay life.

21 Shawwal 1428

State of Emergency has been declared in Pakistan on the orders of the Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf.

29 Shawwal 1428
Coming Out

So, I finally came out to my father. Late last night.

[Click here to read the second part of the diary]

Thursday, November 08, 2007

“Repressive measures have led to some spectacular literature in Pakistan” – Interview with Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil

The editor of a new anthology of Pakistani short stories on the country’s vibrant writing scene.

[Interview and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Rakhshanda Jalil has taught English at the universities of Delhi and Aligarh. She recently edited neither night nor day, a collection of 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan. The book has been reviewed in these pages. Ms. Jalil talked to me at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University where she works as Media and Cultural Coordinator.

Welcome to Pakistan Paindabad, Ms. Jalil. Your anthology of short stories by women writers from Pakistan has 13 stories. But 13 is an unlucky number?

There was no design in it. It could have been 12. It could just as well have been 14. There was actually another story which I wanted to add in the collection. About a boatman and his angst in a time of plenty when the river is in spate and he is earning more money than ever, yet he is deeply troubled. I thought it was a most unusual story and did a good job of busting the myth that women write about ‘womanly’ things. Unfortunately, the author needed more time to work on the story and we were ready to go to press, so it fell through. But, really, there is no significance about the number.

There is also no significance to the chronology of the stories. There is no common theme (or any popular stereotype) uniting the stories. My purpose was to show the diversity. You will find ghost stories as well as romances in this collection.

Why the title: neither night nor day?

It is taken from one of the stories, the one by Sabyn Javeri-Jillani. It seemed apt for the collection. It indicates that ‘in-between space’ that a lot of women occupy in their daily lives, neither fully ‘this’ nor fully ‘that’. It also hints at the coming together of contraries – again, something that the lives of women exemplify so beautifully everyday.

Why women writers from Pakistan? Why not just writers from Pakistan?

Yes, perhaps my next anthology can be short stories by writers from Pakistan (laughs). As for neither night nor day, I had intended to pick up stories by women. But I was quite certain that the selection should not deal with women’s issues alone. It should interest all readers regardless of gender. Also, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one such collection (by Pakistani women writers) available in India; it is called And the World Changed and it has been published by Women’s Unlimited.

How come this interest in Pakistan?

I was a Visiting Fellow at the Academy of Third World Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia University from 2004-05. I was fascinated by the politics of languages which made me curious about the supremacy of Urdu in Pakistan. I observed that it has done to the languages of Pakistan what English has done to the bhasha literatures in India. In India, English was a foreign language that imposed itself on provinces speaking their own languages. Something similar happened in Pakistan. Do you know, till the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the majority of Pakistanis spoke Bengali? Yet Urdu, essentially a foreign language to regions that eventually made up Pakistan, was imposed willfully and vigorously. It lead to language riots not just in Dhaka but in many parts of Sindh and Balochistan.

The Muhajirs brought with them Urdu -- a lot like English that came with the angrez to India and thrived at the cost of regional languages. So, really, my interest in Pakistan is not in its geo-politics but in the politics of its language(s) which is a lot like in India. Except that in India, we rue the oppression of Urdu whereas in Pakistan, it is Urdu that is the oppressor!

Initially I wanted to edit a collection of stories written in the regional languages of Pakistan such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Siraiki, etc but could not find collaborators. And I didn’t want to access these stories twice or thrice removed through English or Urdu translations.

How did the present collection take shape?

A couple of years ago I was editing a website for the British Council Division (in India) that dealt with South Asian writing. Once, we did a special issue dedicated to women writers from Pakistan. I couldn’t use everything I had trawled and collected, and was left with the feeling that a lot of this material ought to go into a book. Bina Shah’s The Wedding of Sundri, was first used in the website but I liked it so much I wanted to use it again.

I had met a lot of people on the internet, gathered a lot of email ids, and generally established contact with a lot of women – some living in Pakistan, others of Pakistani origin but living in different parts of the world. Some were known names in India and elsewhere; others were virtually unheard of. I asked them to send me stories, which they did with much enthusiasm and eventually I was able to shortlist these 13 stories.

Incidentally, after having edited this collection, I have become an ardent devotee of the internet and the huge world it opens up. I have managed to stay in constant touch with the women who have contributed to this collection – something that I could never have done in the old days of snail mail.

How did you select stories?

As I have explained in my Introduction, my criteria have been somewhat pedestrian, in the sense that I deliberately set out to choose ordinariness as my anthem for this collection. I do believe that by celebrating ordinariness we celebrate life as it is known and lived by scores of real people. I have always maintained that there is a great deal to be said for the Commonplace – for it is often a most reliable barometer of a society and its people.

Is there any story in the collection that touched you in a special way?

She Who Went Looking for Butterflies by Zahida Hina left me with goose bumps because I’m a mother with children still young enough to be clingy in a way that only small children can be. Zahida Hina’s story is about a woman on death row who is spending the last moments of her life with her sleeping child before she walks to the gallows. We do not know why the woman is being sentenced to death. Perhaps there are political reasons. We don’t know whether she is a murderer, a thief, or an adulteress. But the power of the story is such that the author has made the cause of the punishment completely irrelevant. The grief of the mother makes everything else secondary. The power of the pen is such that sometimes it can make the real so completely surreal.

Considering Pakistan’s troubled past, and present too (dictators, religious extremism etc.), how have events in the country’s contemporary history influenced its literature?

Suppression doesn’t break the will of the people. If anything, it produces inspiring work. Poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, and Fahmida Riyaz are some of the many writers who instantly come to my mind. Is it surprising that Pakistani literature blossomed in Zia’s time?

Let’s talk of Baluchi poetry. When suppressed during the years when Urdu was being imposed at the cost of regional languages it went underground and took roots within. Despots must understand that repression works the other way round. The infamous Hudood Ordinances too gave birth to some spectacular poetry. We Sinful Women, a collection of poems by seven women poets, is one such example.

I understand you wanted to bring out the diversity in Pakistani literature. Was that difficult? What do most writers in Pakistan write about anyway? Which are the popular themes? Are there some tired predictable subjects that you confronted again and again? In other words, are there any stereotypes?

The stereotypes are in public perception, not in the writings per se. Publishers, in turn, are guilty of perpetuating stereotypes in the (mistaken) notion that they sell. But people want new things to read. As a reader I am quite sick of the same boring stories, especially in those predictable collections of women writers put together by women editors who keep flogging the same dead horses. I wanted stories that stayed clear of those gloomy, dismal subjects that are (again mistakenly) considered popular.

Also, I think it is ridiculous that people should assume women’s writing is of over-riding all-consuming interest to women readers alone. Do you think Black writing is meant for a Black readership or Dalit writing for Dalit readers? So why have these silly assumptions about women’s writing which does no good except perpetuate stereotypes of the worst kind.

You had the opportunity to interact with several authors while editing this collection. Are most writers from a privileged background?

In earlier days, English writing by women in Pakistan was for the privileged. The writers themselves were from upper class families and they spoke about concerns for the like-minded women. More often than not, these women had been educated abroad. Even now the better known, more established names are those who live abroad or have studied abroad. But it is changing. I have noticed a change in the profile of the writers. If I am not mistaken, the present generation of women writers, especially in English, came from diverse backgrounds.

What, according to you, is the uniqueness of contemporary literature in Pakistan? What special place, if any, it occupies if seen in a global context?

I shall confine my remarks to the contemporary literature in English and Urdu from Pakistan, since I am familiar with those rather than the regional language literatures. I find more women from Pakistan writing about things typically of Pakistan and about Pakistan. Refreshingly, they speak more openly about issues that were traditionally kept under wraps. Equally significant is the way they use English, appropriating it and indigenising it for their own needs.

Thank you for talking, Ms. Jalil.
You are welcome, Mayank.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Honey, How We Shrunk Musharraf's Emergency

Ripping apart international media's mis-coverage of Pakistan's crisis.

[Text by Gaurav Sood; image designed by Mayank Austen Soofi]

On Saturday, November 3 (Pakistan time), genuinely apatehtic Western journalists took to telling the world about how ‘Pakistan’s Musharraf’ - You know it is nice of them to clear up whose Musharraf they are talking about for it is not always clear - had declared emergency. In doing so, they paid as much attention to a third-world dictator enacting Martial law, as they have in some time.

The calamitous event was reported with the usual combination of scant detail, high impact graphics, half-baked (sometimes skipping the oven all together) analysis, all topped with alarmist rhetorical flourishes that may give you a heart attack if you don’t watch out.

The news day actually started a day earlier with reporting about speculation, and government warnings against speculated action. US, proudly and staunchly backing Musharraf at least since a day after that calamitous day in 2001, warned their pet dictator ‘against martial law’(San Jose Mercury News). When the threat of declaring martial law grew, the ‘world grew concerned’ (Guardian) simultaneously. And when a ‘desperate Musharraf’ (Trend Information, Azerbaijan!) declared emergency, it left US in a ‘tizzy’ (Calcutta's Telegraph), as it ‘reel[ed]’ (AFP) under the blow.

US immediately took umbrage and issued ‘condemnation’. The ‘world’, not to be left behind, ’roundly condemned’ (Duetche Welle, Germany), ’slammed’ (Earthtimes, UK), and ‘rapped’ (The Province, Canada) General Sahib.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went further. Wanting ‘Pakistan to evolve as a democracy’, she appealed for a return to the ‘constitutional course’ (Bloomberg) even as the phrase "cruel and unusual punishments”, in US’s own constitution, was being debated to see if ‘coercively inducing a drowning sensation’ met that criteria. All this condemnation must have left Mr. Musharraf chagrined.

It was a ‘Sad day for Pakistan’ (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) when an ‘out of control’ (Nation Multimedia, Thailand) Musharraf chose to launch a ‘coup within a coup’, and put Pakistan under his ‘iron fist’ (The Standard, Hong Kong – an area that reels under the iron fist of its own big brother).

The wordsmiths at India's Hindustan Times online division found time to craft the smart aleck headline “Under General Anesthesia” to describe the events of ‘Black Saturday’ (Malaysia Sun).

On that ‘black’ day, Western journalist’s thoughts didn’t stay long with people in Pakistan, as reporting on martial law gave way to more pertinent matters like ‘threat of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands’, and ‘War on Terror’.

After all, the concerns of the media are solely determined by what (and how) they can best pander conditional on what is available. The pavlovian reactions to international crisis, the cues media uses to determine when to cry fire and when to cheer, are all rather simplistic - Democracy is good, autocrats are bad.

Forget then that sometimes ‘enlightened moderation’ is the best alternative. Ignore too that nothing has changed substantively in Pakistani politics – control still wrests with the general. After all it was only a ‘coup within a coup’. Banish any thoughts that Benazir, the incomparable, ran a regime true to her name - only if in levels of corruption.

I misstate my point, as I often do, for people who know little don’t need to deliberately ignore. They simply write. Till a new story appears and fuels a new news cycle, provides more cause for alarm, and more time to run ads.

It appears that Pakistan has had its day in the sun. New York Times is not waiting with baited breath; there is a cell phone jammer in the market that can stop the person sitting next to you from yammering while you try to read about Paris Hilton. (Number 1 story on NY Times website at the time of writing this column) Yeah, Ms. Hilton is back. Bye bye Pakistan.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Satire – Full Text of Mr. Musharraf’s Emergency Proclamation

Mr.Musharraf's emergency address to the nation

Illegally obtained by Pakistan Paindabad.

[This piece is co-authored by Gaurav Sood and Mayank Austen Soofi]

Following is the text of the Proclamation of Emergency declared by General Pervez Musharraf on 3rd November, as released by The Khufiya Press of Pakistan, an army-run news agency.

WHEREAS there is visible ascendancy in the activities of Benazir Bhutto, Supreme Court judges, and news channel correspondents;

WHEREAS some members of the Pakistani society are working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature of the United States of America;

WHEREAS there has been increasing interference by pesky journalists in army affairs, adversely affecting Military Inc.’s economic growth, in particular;

WHEREAS constant interference in executive functions, including but not limited to the control of terrorist activity, has weakened the writ of ISI;

WHEREAS Intelligence Agencies have been thwarted in their activities and prevented from pursuing disobedient politicians;

WHEREAS some kidnapped people were ordered to be released resulting in loss of government’s reputation;

WHEREAS army generals were not allowed to take over the judicial duties after hijacking the executive and legislative functions;

WHEREAS the Government is committed to the independence of the Taliban and the rule of Pentagon and holds BB in low esteem, it is therefore of paramount importance that the Honourable Begum confine the scope of her activity to Bilawal House and not assume charge of streets;

WHEREAS the humiliating treatment meted to me by some newspaper columnists has demoralized Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and senior government functionaries;

WHEREAS a situation has thus arisen where the Government of the army cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution and as the Constitution provides no solution for this situation;

AND WHEREAS the situation has been reviewed in meetings with the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Chiefs of the Armed Forces, Vice-Chief of Army Staff and Corps Commanders of the US Army;

NOW, THEREFORE, in pursuance of the deliberations and decisions of the said meetings, I General Pervez Musharraf, Chief of the Army Staff, proclaim Emergency throughout Pakistan.

2. I hereby order and proclaim that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan shall remain in abeyance.

3. This Proclamation shall come into force at once.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Book Review – Searching for Sister Pakistan

neither night nor day

neither night nor day, 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

When reporting on “the most dangerous country in the world”, it is tempting to only look at suicide bombers, ethnic riots, and military coups. Why bother about Pakistanis who carry on through the ordinary dramas of life. Isn’t real life boring?

In journalistic accounts real people are usually absent, only appearing intermittently in pro forma scripts as part of homogenous crowds of ‘victims’, ‘supporters’, ‘middle class society’, ‘tribals’, or ‘fundamentalists’. Occasionally memoirs and travelogues peek deeper, but then they are exceptions.

It is here that fiction can exercise its redemptive power and bring fully formed human beings back into society’s portraits. A novelist isn't manacled to obligations that bind bad journalists. Instead she can freely employ her observations, insights, and sensations, encountered in everyday world, as raw material for her work. Curiously, this invented world can be more real than the real world. For instance, Karachi in Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography has more life than the Karachi of Owen Bennett Jones’ Pakistan – Eye of the Storm. Shamsie’s city has lovers, social divides (the characters live on the right side of Clifton Bridge), and family secrets. Jones’ metropolis unravels the volatile equations among Pukhtoons, Sindhis, muhajirs, etc. While both these profiles are essential to understand the city, Karachi of the novel is more fulfilling.

Expecting to find just this kind of fulfillment, I picked up neither light nor day, a collection of 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan. That Pakistan has no international literary rock star like Arundhati Roy or Alice Munro meant that the decision by Indian editor, Rakshanda Jalil, to come up with the idea of producing an anthology of women writers from there took some daring. Ms. Jalil, who has taught English at the universities of Delhi and Aligarh, presently works as Media and Cultural Coordinator at Jamia Milia Islamia University in the Indian capital. She writes in the introduction:

My concern in this book has been to present as complete a picture of the everydayness of life as it is lived and experienced by Pakistani women…The criteria for selection rests not so much on name or fame or technical virtuosity in the craft of the short story but on telling as many stories as possible in as many styles as possible…

This is a scary start. My primary purpose in books is to seek pleasure. I may try not to care about the author’s name and fame but I do expect technical elegance. Short stories must bring the moment alive; their characters must strike a quick rapport; and the language must be intelligent.

The opening story is refreshing. Plans in Pink is set in Karachi. Instead of dwelling on typical Karachi issues - crime, muhajir-pakhtun divide, etc., author Kiran Bashir Ahmad sneaks out a fragment of Christian life in the city. Mrs. D’Souza’s daughter has found a gora husband in Australia through Internet, and is happy to be relieved from her mother’s clutches. But Mrs. D’Souza has no plans of ending up like “graying old wives…who amble forward…up the drive of the Grand play the same old Mah-jong or chess or bridge…” She plots to follow her daughter Down Under.

In Leaves, Khaleda Hassan’s protagonist, wife-mother-and-grandmother Rahela Nasir, muses on Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters as she accidentally meets a friend from college days. He has drastically changed “except for the scar on his cheekbone, below his left eye.” Next day she expects to see him again and instead of draping herself in a chador (as usual), she picks out a presentable shalwar suit from her wardrobe.

However, emphasizing only the ‘normal’, like-you-and-me aspects of Pakistani society, conceals part of the truth. There remain a few social evils that are unique to Pakistan that cannot be ignored. Like honor killing.

In The Wedding of Sundri, one of the most moving stories in the collection, author Bina Shah narrates the story of a 12-year-old who is married to a groom almost double her age. The fearful child is sent off in a bus to her new home, and to a tragic finale.

Not all stories are based in Pakistan. The title story is neither here nor there. Sabyn Javeri-Jillani’s protagonist lives in London but neither is she able to relate to fellow Pakistanis nor to Brits. She feels naked as she notices hejab-clad girls in a Biryani shop. Her English husband does not share her passion for Bollywood films. He seals his clothes in plastic if she cooks a curry, and spreads a plastic sheet on the dining table if she sucks on a mango.

On reaching the 13th story, I realized that the eclectic mix will help readers understand this complicated country. The stories draw us into the inner lives of Pakistanis. The literary finesse too is a consideration. Each tale is smartly structured, different in its theme and together they give a sense of various sub-layers that has fashioned this society. I turned over the last page with an unhappy feeling that life in this part of the world is struggling to rise but is being constantly pulled down by dark forces. It is neither night nor day.