Interview with Bina Shah

27 Jun

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well-received novel, Where They Dream in Blue, that cataloged the return of an expatriate to Karachi. Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Ilona Yusuf.

Biographical

How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged; I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn’t understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story ‘1978’ in Blessings, where this young boy grows up in the Zia era—the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the US. You spent your “early years” in Virginia and then upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What took you and your family to Virginia and what brought you back? What was their attitude towards your choice of profession?

My father was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, and that is why we went there. We came back when he completed his studies, five years later. My parents are many things to me. They were young when they had me, and in a sense, the three of us have grown up together. They challenge me in ways that nobody else does; they are supportive of me but they will never let my head get too big. My mother, particularly, is good at deflating my ego! They are extremely pleased that I have turned out to be a writer because they see how happy it makes me. My dad always said I should be a writer and he never lets me forget that he was right. :)

What was your experience like attending an all women liberal ‘Liberal Arts’ college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivaled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Your book ‘Where They Dream in Blue’, published in 2001 deals with an ABCD’s visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? More generally, how hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back to Pakistan in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the specific challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there’s a universality that applies to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977, when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me – a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and came back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the technology ‘scene’ in Pakistan at that time and how it has evolved in the past decade?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year, and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world” – and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”. Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.

Authorship

The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, were men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, “Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories” in reference to the story ‘Going Fishing’. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists? Can you expand on the reasons behind it?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle-class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafé on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

“In the novel, there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for the portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, the man from within and from without.” Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize-winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of worldview, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. (Cela) And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more behind what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to ‘understand’ the world and often ‘fail’ to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed Of Human Bondage as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of a facet pertinent to the question and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start this question by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer, I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber cafe, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is “centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge’.” In response to which you said, “I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways.”

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge” – which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra Publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means “the red”. It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century “crimson castle” or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name ‘Al Hamra’ as an apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.

Karachi

The late nineties were a tumultuous time for Karachi with MQM boycotting elections, political turmoil, and violence. Karachi has again recently been in the grip of a maelstrom. In the interim the number of Afghans has multiplied, Karachi beach has suffered a major oil spill, the political alliances have turned topsy-turvy, and the economy has sputtered on. Can you talk briefly about the past ten years in the political life of Karachi?

I am not comfortable commenting on politics, so I will take a pass on this question.

Since you are an author, it would be interesting to raise this question with you. I have traveled to Pakistan twice and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across some good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest? (Mayank)

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi; they’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they are relaxing, inviting places, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I am sure.

Every great city leaves some an imprint on the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that is fairly obvious from my work!

Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture? (Mayank)

It is not a case of ‘either/or’. It is a case of ‘and’. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Just following up on the title of your novel, “Where the dream in blue” – what color would you pick to describe Karachi? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There is a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui’s new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you are really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you have got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed? (Mayank)
The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I am sorry I cannot give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting? (Mayank)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!

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The interview was conducted via email. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for style and content. Questions ending with ‘Mayank’ were posed by Mayank Austen Soofi.

Interview (pdf) with Camilo Jose Cela from which the quotes were drawn.

Interview with Bapsi Sidhwa

13 Jun

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of Cracking India and The Crow Eaters. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

What does your name Bapsi mean? Who gave you the name?

My grandmother doted on the British. She gave me what she thought was an English name. Ironically, an English woman asked me, “You’re quite dignified. How come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?” They said it was definitely not an English name.

I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I am reconciled to it now. It’s short and easy to remember in the US.

I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny. But it is hard to disinter facts from fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a Catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?

Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition — he had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of ten siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio, the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition, thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I have used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I have fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India. Lenny is not me, perhaps my alter ego.

A novelist is expected to be both, an insider, and an outsider. How did each of the following things that made you an outsider affect your writing — contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, your short stint in India in your youth and your contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to the US.

That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of your question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure — I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me. It gave me a sense of belonging I had never experienced. I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.

Lahore and City of Sin and Splendour

Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, captures the book (or the city)? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and there is Badshahi mosque, but I felt the book was more about people and their ‘undying’ love for food.

It is called ‘Beloved City’ in Pakistan. But I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.

How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?

I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.

How much of the book is — to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers — an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?

Lahore is not just the city of my youth — till the late nineties, I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs to go hungry.

You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?

To me she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spends nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and her thought process still reflect the culture of that city. She moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.

Other Books and such

Usually, films are based on books. But your new book “Water” was based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This was also your first book which was a world away from your typical setting — no Pakistan, no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate on the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?

Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation because she wanted me to write the novel in three months, to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village, before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard. I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.

I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.

You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?

I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of, are grist to my mill, like Flaubert, who famously said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I am almost every character in my books.

Pakistan and being Pakistani

Your novels “Cracking India” and “The Crow Eaters” captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In “The Pakistani Bride”, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?

I have just finished writing a collection of short stories. I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.

Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel “The Crow Eaters”, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978, the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?

I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan, in fact, my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published The Crow Eaters in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis gradually accepted it.

The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.

Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?

Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the UK, India, and Pakistan: he is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.

Living in the US, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?

I have a US passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in America and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit ‘Cracking India’ had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.

A ‘novel’ medium

Naipaul has talked about the end of the novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?

The novel is thriving. There is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.

Milan Kundera recently wrote that the novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. It can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity. History, on the other hand, is an exercise in sense-making when none exists.

There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and affect, even in the most irrational-seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views. One usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course, no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.

Azhar Nafisi in her novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel – where each character has a voice. Nafisi, in my mind, fails at the task herself, as all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? What do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?

The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel looses its value as a narrative.

Lastly

I am often struck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should be do to keep some of these traditions alive?

The partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But storytellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new mythmakers.

I am struck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?

I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I myself don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.

While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?

The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Ms. Sidhwa’s Favorite Books: Pickwick Papers (Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster), Palace Walk (Naguib Mafouz), The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller),
Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Waiting For the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), Things Fall Apart (Achebe), The Last Mughal (William Dalrymple), Poems — Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke), The Essential Rumi (Translations by Coleman Barks and Joyn Moyne), Urdu Ghazals (by Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Zauk, etc.), Short Stories, essays and novels by Saadat Hasam Manto & Ismat Chugtai, A House For Mr. Biswas (V. S. Naipaul), The Mimic Men (V. S. Naipaul [I like almost everything by Naipaul]), An Angry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), The Collected Short Stories of Kushwant Singh (Kushwant Singh), Difficult Daughters (Manju Kapur), An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma), Arranged Marriages (Chitra Divkaruni), Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai), Meatless Days (Sara Suleri), The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (Moyez Vassanji), Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Everything by P G Wodehouse, Thrillers by John la Carre, Ken Follett, etc.

Some of the questions are by Mayank Austen Soofi, who blogs at The Delhi Walla.

Sidhwa’s Lahore, A Lovingly Embroidered Family Heirloom

21 May

Every great city deserves a worthy admirer. Lahore has just found one. Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited volume is a tribute to the city, a celebration of its landmarks, its cuisine, its gourmets, its brutalizing summers, its people, and its stories.

The book strikes an immediate rapport. It is akin to being invited to a Punjabi family gathering. Reading it, I felt, alternately, like a kid sitting on the lap of his maternal uncle and being told stories about the city, a young adult guiltily listening to adult conversations about brutal episodes from the city’s history, and an objective adult reflecting on the city’s history and politics.

There is a warm intimacy that suffuses each of the stories in City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore. The emotional immediacy comes from familiarity with subjects and surroundings. And from the naturalistic storytelling. Authors rarely go beyond what is known. It is an important talent. For authors are often tempted by superfluous cleverness. Here, they practice the Jane Austen method of writing — they write honestly, perspicaciously, and often with great wit about what is known, without flirting with the unnecessary or the arcane. It is grounded writing. The authors use words that are well worn and apt, not those with peripatetic grandiloquent pretensions. The resulting atmosphere is educated and homely.

I have never been to Lahore. Yet the city stands alive in front of me. Though I don’t eat meat, I savor the morning Nihari with Irfan Hussein. I share the pain of partition with Ved Mehta and Sadat Manto. I celebrate the indomitable spirit of Ismat Chugtai. I stand ringside as Bina Shah describes the long-standing tussle between Karachi and Lahore. And I wear my heart on the sleeve when I read Urvashi Butalia’s Ranamama. (Butalia’s phrase, “cracked pistachio green walls” perfectly describes the color of the walls of some subcontinent homes.) I admire the honest revolutionary spirit of Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. How did he know the story of Pakistan before it was ever written?

Third World
Many of the big cities in South Asia are shabby and poor and slung in unending mediocrity. The heat is often brutalizing and the atmosphere, dusty and arid. Trees and grass struggle to take root in face of hot summers, scarce resources, and petty corruption. Globalization, self-serving politicians, immigration, sprawl, and poverty presses from all sides. Yet the cities thrive in crevices, in neighborhoods and families, in visits to each other’s houses, in stories exchanged, in chai, and love. People exchange stories with their doodhwallahs (milkmen) and their kaamwaalis (maids). Everything is held together by talking. It is these relations, these conversations, the unsaid courtesies, that Sidhwa celebrates in her book.

Colonial Rule
The British Raj left its mark on Lahore. Kim’s gun haunts the hollow haunches of the emaciated old city. The gardens and separate civil line quarters for the English are a vital part of the city’s social topography. But more importantly, the Raj has scarred Lahore psychologically. Chastened by West that races ahead, and surrounded by pockmarked skeletons of pre-English architecture, Lahoris are unsure of what to make of their heritage.

Delhi and Lahore
Delhi is seen as Lahore’s twin. The cities have similar climates, both are (or, used to be) Punjabi dominated, have similar histories, similar old-new city Raj-inspired distinctions, and similar heartaches of partition. One can easily find flavors of Delhi in the book—the ‘gates’ of the old city, the civil lines area, the colonial bungalows, the partition stories, and the oncoming McDonald’s culture. In getting to know Lahore, you learn about Delhi.

Contemporary Conditions and History
He whose light shines only in palaces
Who seeks only to please the few
Who moves in the shadow of compromise
Such a debased tradition, such a dark dawn
I do not know, I will not own

Dastoor, Hajib Jalib
Lahore has suffered from the vicissitudes of the people in Islamabad and Washington. The onslaught of globalization and technology, unleashed without prior thought, continues unabated. People try to craft their lives around one technology while being led by their noses to the next. It is unsettling when you stop and take stock of all that will be lost to time.

The Elite Lahore
The remembrances of a city and the love of a city only come naturally to those with time for leisure. To that extent, this book is about the padshahs of Lahore. The book is an ode of the ruling class to itself, to its culture, and to its landmarks. Yet, often, the book is much more than that. The everyday street is never far in this book. The everyday street may not have the kaamwaali in it, but it does have the patang baaz, the halwais, the rickshaw wallahs, and more. It is that everyday street that I carry in my heart.

“Restoring state authority” in Waziristan

6 Jan

Currently, a US-supported (or more accurately US mandated) military campaign is underway in Pakistan to bring the tribes in Waziristan under government control and to weed out ‘insurgents’? Pakistan has deployed 12,000 military and paramilitary soldiers along with helicopter gunships and fighter jets to prosecute the campaign. The violent campaign, being waged at the behest of US, is using, has taken over a thousand lives. Government forces have been accused of using Napalm against villages that don’t cooperate with the military.

Efforts to “restore state authority”? [Ayaz Amir, Dawn] in Waziristan are likely to backfire much like the Pakistani efforts to do the same in East Pakistan in 1970-71. The ham-handed manner with which the military is going about managing the campaign is likely to create more resentment among the tribal areas, already disillusioned with Pakistan’s Punjabi-landlord dominated the political scene.

The military campaign has been so under-reported in press not only because it is being fought on a difficult relatively uninhabited terrain in a third-world country but also because the area has become really dangerous for the journalists. Recently the Daily Times reported
“The Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) on Friday expressed “no confidence”? in the federal government’s ability to ensure the security of journalists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and appealed to international media rights groups to help them (tribal journalists) arrange for a “temporary shelter”? in a third country.”

The military operations in the province being carried out at the behest of US are creating a wave of resentment against the Pakistani government and the US within the area and the country at large.
Updated 1/15:The recent US military strike killing 18 people, including 5 women and 5 children has fueled widespread protests. The “missed” strike was ostensibly launched against Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Updated 1/17: Continued controversy over US air strike. Zaffar Abbas reports on the issue for BBC.

Waziristan:
It is a small mountainous area north-west of Pakistan and abutting Afghanistan. The region has been independently administered by tribes since 1883. Waziristan is split between North Waziristan and South Waziristan (formerly Wana). The relation between Waziristan and the Pakistani government have been tense for many years with many attempts by the government to enforce more control. The relations have come under severe pressure of late with Pakistani government under pressure from the US sending in repeated military parties to weed out Al-Qaeda sympathizers. Read more: Why Waziristan cannot be conquered by by A. H. Amin at Media Matters

Here’s a partial list of media reports on Pakistani military’s continuing action in Waziristan:

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Facts About South Asia

19 Aug

South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and about 40% of the world’s absolute poor—people living on less than $1/day. Imagine the lifestyle of an American earning $1/day and you will get a window into the poverty described by these figures.

India is home to nearly half of the illiterate population in the world. The adult literacy rate in South Asia (49%) is behind sub-Saharan Africa (57%) as well as that of Arab states (59%). To make matters worse, South Asia’s current annual expenditure on education is 1.9% of GNP. In contrast, military spending in the region is 3.8% of GNP and is as high as 7% in Pakistan which has 50% more soldiers than teachers. A brief zoom in on Pakistan’s education system…. what indeed are people fortunate enough to afford an education are taught? According to a report by an independent government agency, SDPI ( Sustainable Development Policy Institute. See Link at Bottom), ‘facts’ like “Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam.” and “The religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things — Hindus did not respect women…” have been included with the general objective of inculcating “Love and aspiration for Jehad, Tableegh (Prosyletization), Jehad, Shahadat (martyrdom), sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr)”

Due process of law is often quoted as a key ingredient for a free society. With over 20 million court cases pending at the end of 2002, India doesn’t even pretend. More stark crime statistics in India include—over 1 million people in jail waiting for trial, and a conviction rate of about 1%.

Links
SDPI report on Pakistan Education System (pdf)
World Literacy of Canada