Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sonia Gandhi by Rani Singh

Edvige Antonia Albina Maino has come a long way since her childhood in Italy. Given the pet name Sonia by her father who once spent time in time in Russia as a prisoner of war, Sonia Maino went to Cambridge to improve her language skills, met Rajiv Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous and longest lasting political dynasty (who had no political ambitions then), married him and lived happily ever after. Except that, things didn’t work out exactly like that and two political assassinations later, Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress Party which currently holds the reins of India’s federal government.

Biographer Rani Singh is a London based journalist who has worked with the BBC for many years. I picked up her biography of Sonia Gandhi in the hope that it would tell me something about the Lady-From-The-Land-Of-Mona-Lisa-With-An-Equally-Enigmatic--Smile which I didn’t know about. Disappointment settled in quite early. On page 3 itself, Rani Singh describes Rajiv as ‘North Indian, aristocratic and tall’. Born to a Parsi father and a Kashmiri Pandit mother, I’ve never heard Rajiv Gandhi described as a ‘North Indian.’ The Nehrus were very cosmopolitan, we are told by Rani Singh, though Indira Gandhi (who herself had married a Parsi) apparently had wanted a Kashmiri daughter-in-law for her son Rajiv.

This biography has evidently been written for a global audience, especially for people who have a vague idea of India and the Gandhi family and Sonia’s role in it and want to know more about all three. Nevertheless, I plodded along and was rewarded to some extent. There were a few trivia I hadn’t known about earlier. For example, I hadn’t known that Sonia’s father didn’t approve of her marriage and didn’t attend her wedding in India. I got to know a lot about Indira, Rajiv and Sonia’s food habits. Apparently one day, Sanjay Gandhi threw his plate across the room because the eggs Sonia Gandhi had cooked for him hadn’t turned out right. However, such gleanings are mere titbits and don’t really make this biography worth reading. Also, Rani Singh leaves some facts unexplained. We are told that Rahul Gandhi lived and worked in London for a while under the name Raul Vinci. Why did he do that? Was there a security threat to Rahul Gandhi in London? Even more intriguingly, we are told that Yaasser Arafat had warned Rajiv Gandhi of the threat to his life, just as Indira Gandhi had given a similar warning to Yaasser Arafat. How did Yaasser Arafat know of a threat to Rajiv Gandhi’s life? Let’s not forget that the LTTE which killed Rajiv Gandhi did have ties to the PLO at one point. No, Rani Singh tells us nothing more, in her book which at times seems to be largely a compilation of quotations from various sources.

Because this biography seeks to explain Sonia’s India to its readers, one gets a prĂ©cis of the various political events that took place in India after Sonia’s arrival. Events such as the spat with Maneka Gandhi are also covered. However, this summary of events is, just like the rest of the biography, written in a one-sided manner which shows Sonia, Rajiv, their children Rahul and Priyanka and to a lesser extent Indira Gandhi in a very flattering light. For example, Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare emergency is described in the following manner: 'The morning of June 25 the threatened opposition protest packed the streets while Indira consulted a prominent lawyer and chief minister who was an expert on the Indian Constitution, telling him that drastic urgent action is required. The lawyer left to read and re-read the constitution and returned with his findings. Indira then asked him to escort her to see the President whom she informed that, as the Indian constitution provided grounds for action when a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances”, Indira and her government had decided to declare a State of Internal Emergency.

There are certain notable omissions. There is no mention of Rajiv’s statement trivialising the anti-Sikhs riots that took place following his mother’s assassination. A few weeks after the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi is reported to have said, 'Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.'

Rani Singh tells us that ‘Rajiv’s death was the most devastating of the three Sonia had experienced in the Nehru side of the family. Yet she now had to lead, to handle the proceedings and only managed it with the support of her equally devastated children.’ Yeah Rani Singh, I was under the impression that Sonia might have been devastated more by Indira Gandhi’s or possibly even Sanjay Gandhi’s death than Rajiv’s! Thanks Rani Singh for clarifying.

The funny thing about this biography is that it is not an authorised one and the author has not interviewed Sonia Gandhi for this book. One would expect an unauthorised biography to ask all the tough questions and poke into uncomfortable corners. Rani Singh does nothing of that sort. Using a consistently flattering note throughout the book, the reader is given a rose-tinted view of the Gandhi clan as a whole and the Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka sub-clan in particular. The ease with which political dynasties perpetuate in the sub-continent is explained and even justified, but is never questioned. The last one-third of the book seeks to explain why, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Sonia Gandhi entered politics after some initial reticence. According to Rani Singh, Sonia Gandhi was not happy at the way the Narasimha Rao government handled various issues, especially the Babri Masjid demolition. Also, many Congressmen keenly wanted a Gandhi at the helm. Therefore, Sonia Gandhi, who till then was working with a few NGOs which sought to further Rajiv Gandhi’s ideals and dreams, stepped into full-time politics. I can’t say I found this explanation fully convincing. After all, wasn’t it the same Sonia who so desperately tried to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from entering politics because she feared for his life? Now after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the same Sonia is keeping the chair warm for Rahul! Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s induction of Rahul into the mainstream of politics has been gentle. Though many critics are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.

Rani Singh doesn’t bother to analyse whether Sonia Gandhi is justified in controlling power from behind the scenes, taking decisions which the Prime Minister ought to be taking. Power without responsibility is not necessarily a great thing. An unfazed Rani Singh tells us that ‘Sonia’s project for India is grand social legislation and it’s driven by gut instinct more than calculation. For this purpose, she has created bodies entirely new to the Indian polity, made up of outspoken academics……………

Before I end, tell me say that I do admire Sonia Gandhi for her dignity, grace and courage under fire. From what one sees and hears, she is as good a human being and politician as any in this country. There are faults of course, but then, who is without them? In any event, Sonia Gandhi deserves a better biographer than Rani Singh.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now by Deepti Naval

Yes, in case you are wondering, it is the same Deepti Naval. Same as in, the actor (these days one doesn’t use the word actress) who has done over sixty movies. Naval has been published by Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing, which will shortly bring out my novel When The Snow Melts. A few weeks ago, I had attended a book discussion event at the Crossword Book Store in Juhu where Deepti Naval discussed The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now with the even more famous actor Shabana Azmi and had picked up an autographed copy of the Mad Tibetan.

Yes, I knew that Naval has many talents, that she can paint, write and take pretty photographs, but reading is believing and until I finished the first of the eleven short stories that make up this collection, I didn’t really believe an actor could also write. Proof of the pudding is always in the eating, right?

The Mad Tibetan collection reminded me of a dandelion seed, with each story like those small seeds with white whiskers, which when you blow at them, float in the air for a few tantalising minutes, capturing a few fleeting, precious moments, before they are lost forever.

What I liked most about The Mad Tibetan collection was the way it dealt with relationships between men and women. There is mutual attraction, there is tension and some of the feelings are one-sided, but the man is not always on top. Bombay Central is the perfect example of this – Jatin is young and new to Bombay and when the man who befriends him on the train offers him a place for the night, one doesn’t suspect much. Even Jatin’s first impressions on meeting the wife do not arouse one’s suspicions as to what will follow. However, Premonition makes no bones about Vas’s attraction for the woman on the bus. She’s a bit older than him, but she has noticed him and seems to like him. Vas’s premonition of what’s going to happen stays in the background and distracts one from Vas’s pursuit of the woman, which is described so well and doesn’t have an iota of the usual note of harassment.

Tulli is a true story of how Naval made an expedition to a red light district in Mumbai to meet a real prostitute or two, before she played the role of a prostitute in a movie. It all goes off well, till Naval comes face to face with a dreaded pimp, one whom every woman in that brothel was scared of. The pimp is drunk and he mistakes Naval for a new girl in his keep. The two male friends who accompanied Naval are not at hand and Naval is in real trouble until Tulli, the madam she has been talking to, draws the pimp off Naval. Naval tells us that, ‘I stood at the door, unable to move, choked by the scenario before my eyes. The man, ferocious a while ago, was now crumbling in Thulli’s arms. I can never forget her face, the last that I saw of Thulli that night, as we looked at each other: one woman to another, our eyes glistening! I slowly turned towards the dark staircase, then looked back one last time, at Thulli’s world, stunned by the dichotomy…… the absurdity of equation in human bonds.

Other than Tulli, at least two more of these tales are true stories from Naval’s life. Balraj Sahni shows a very young Naval all agog with admiration for the famous actor Balraj Sahni, desperate to get his autograph. Does she manage to do it? Please read this book to find out. D is an incident which could happen to any adult who runs into a school friend after a very long time. It could happen to me, it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone whose memory fails once in a while.

Is Birds also a true story from Naval’s personal dairy? Possibly. The narration is from the heart and the narrator’s pain is contagious. Between Balraj Sahni and Birds, one gets to experience hope and happiness, admiration and anger, sorrow, disgust, irritation and helplessness.

The acknowledgements page at the beginning of the book is enlightening as well as perplexing. So, Ruth Mayberry, the last story in the collection is an interpretation of the life of a dear friend. However, where exactly has Naval planted the bitter-sweet memory from a childhood in Himachal which her Naval’s friend Neeta Bakshi has shared with Naval? My money would be on Sisters, not just because it is set in Joginder Nagar, which I know is in Himachal Pradesh, but also because an aunt of mine once shared a bitter childhood memory with me. Once this aunt had returned home from boarding school for her summer vacations, her hair full of lice. My aunt’s aunt (who looked after my aunt since her parents lived overseas) had taken drastic measures and had her long tresses cut off immediately. Something similar happens in Sisters, but there’s a lot more to that story than the tonsuring of two lice-ridden heads.

The Mad Tibetan which has lent its name to this collection is a story of a …….well, a mad Tibetan whom Naval encountered in Leh. Naval tells us that the mad Tibetan is a bitter old man who is fierce and wild, but when he smiles, he is a child. Like many other stories, the ending is neither happy nor sad. The reader gets to meet the mad Tibetan firsthand and it’s time to move on. Period. The Piano Tuner, the first story in this collection, is also a similar vignette, this time of an old man in Bombay who once played the piano, but now reduced by Parkinson’s, tunes pianos with unsteady fingers. Most of the stories just end with the promise of a new and uncertain day. This is especially true of The Morning After where one finds Lily making a trip to Ghuggar to meet Dolma who seems to have a bad reputation in town. Dolma is dead, but lives on through her son Manu. Lily seems to be total stranger to Dolma and her household, but when she leaves Ghuggar, Manu goes with her and fittingly so. Do please read this wonderful book to find out why Manu should do so.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol I: 1469-1839 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs has been on my reading list for many, many years. Recently I took the plunge and ordered both volumes. Auspiciously, Flipkart delivered them on the eve of Gurpurab. I had expected something on the lines of Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, one of my favourite books, but I turned out to be wrong. A History Of The Sikhs is written in very simple English, without any literary embellishments, as befits straightforward history telling. Very well researched, over one fourth of this four hundred page tome is taken up with appendices, a lengthy bibliography and a detailed index. In the main body of the book, footnotes take up a sizable part of each page.

Sikhism was born out of the conflict between Islam and Hinduism in late-medieval India, when there was a desperate need for a bridge between the two faiths. Nanak was a unique individual who, unusually for Indians of his time, was well-travelled and curious to know more and more. On the foundations laid by Guru Nanak, various Gurus developed the nascent faith through sacrifice and fortitude. Until I finished this book, I had no idea of the amount of bloodletting and massacres that accompanied the growth of Sikhism. Some of it reminded me of stories of the growth of Christianity and its martyrs and saints. The Mughals who followed Akbar started a policy of persecuting the Sikhs. After the murder of the fifth Guru Arjun Mal by Emperor Jehangir, his successor Gurus slowly turned the community towards the path of militancy. Starting with Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Hari Krishen and Guru Tegh Bahadur, Sikh militancy and fortitude grew. It was Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, who formally created the Khalsa and prescribed five emblems (Kes – unshort hair and beard, Kangha – comb in the hair to keep it tidy, Kach – knee length trousers. Kara – a steel bracelet, Kirpan – a short sabre) for each Sikh. Sikh resistance to persecution was now formal.

Before he was assassinated, Guru Gobind Singh charged a mystic named Lachman Das to continue the resistance against the Mughals. Renamed Banda, Lachman Das achieved great success and the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah had to order a general mobilisation of forces to counter Banda who outlived Bahadur Shah. However, Bahadur Shah’s successor Jahandar Shah wore Banda’s forces down and captured him. Torture and execution followed as was the norm for captured Sikh leaders.

The Sikhs and the Marathas contributed to the decline of the Mughals. After the Mughals became weak, the Great Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded India, lured by its fabulous wealth. Nadir Shah’s invasion broke the back of Mughal rule in India. On his way back to Persia, Sikh bands plundered Nadir Shah’s baggage trains which were loaded with loot. The Sikhs liberated many Indian prisoners who were being taken to Persia by Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah was followed by the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani (also called Abdali) who invaded India nine times. Initially, Abdali’s main enemy was the Mughal ruler who for a brief period took assistance from the Sikhs in fighting Abdali. However, Abdali’s fifth invasion was meant to crush the Marathas who were helping the Mughals fight the Afghans. The Marathas were trounced by the Abdali’s Afghans in Panipat on 14 January 1761. The Sikhs stood by and watched. Muslims of northern India, the Rohillas and Shujauddaullah, the ruler of Oudh helped the Afghans. It was indeed a period of shifting loyalties.

After a while, the Sikhs became powerful and soon they were the most prominent power in the Punjab. Until the Sikhs became powerful, the tortures visited on Sikhs were abominable – entire villages burned and pillaged, mass public executions, usually at the horse market, victims, despatched from this earth with blows from wooden mallets, children of leaders like Banda hacked to death in front of their parents. The Harimandir at Amritsar was blown up so many times and the sacred pool filled with the entrails of slaughtered cows. Each time the indomitable Sikhs would clean up and renovate the Harimandir and the sacred pool. Abdali’s sixth invasion led to what the Sikhs call the Vadda Ghallughara, the great massacre, when in February 1962 a fleeing group of 30,000 Sikhs were attacked and most of them were killed. Within a few months of the massacre, the undaunted Sikhs had inflicted a defeat on the Afghan faujdar of Sirhind and by that autumn, they had cleaned up the Harimandir in time for Diwali. The Chhota Ghallughara or lesser massacre had taken place in June 1946 shortly before Abdali’s first invasion. The Sikhs had killed the brother of Lakhpat Rai, the Mughal Viceroy, in the course of fighting. In retaliation, around 7,000 Sikhs were rounded up and killed.

Khushwant Singh tells us that the story of the Sikhs is the story of Punjabi nationalism and consciousness and it is easy to see why it should be so. Other than the Sikhs who were all Punjabis, no other Punjabi community, neither the Hindus nor the Muslims, carried with them a Punjabi identity. Finally when Ranjit Singh created his empire, it was an inclusive one and Punjabis of all faiths were welcome in it. At the height of its power, the Sikh Kingdom under Ranjit Singh included Kashmir and Ladakh.

Even though the Sikhs fought to clear Punjab of all outsiders such as the Mughals and the Afghans, they never considered joining up with the Marathas to fight the British. During Ranjit Singh’s time, a Maratha – Sikh alliance did appear to be a faint possibility, but neither party was willing to take the first move. It is tantalising to imagine what could have happened if such an alliance had been worked out and used to fight the British. No, let me not digress and travel to a dream world – there was no such alliance. In fact, even when Ahmad Shah Abdali was fighting the Marathas during the Third Battle of Panipat, in which the Marathas were trounced, the Sikhs were only curious bystanders. The Sikhs even fought brief battles with the Gurkhas. Khushwant Singh does not bother to explain the obvious – that at that point in time, there was no concept of Indianness anywhere in the sub-continent.

I found Khushwant Singh’s descriptions of Ranjit Singh and his empire to be fascinating. The parallels between Ranjit Singh and Emperor Akbar are too obvious to be ignored. Akbar was an illiterate man who enjoyed beauty, music and literature. So did Ranjit Singh. Just as Akbar was of a short stature and non-descript appearance, Ranjit Singh too was not famous for his looks. Khushwant Singh describes him as a man of medium height, slight stature, spare frame, wiry as though made of whipcord, with dark-brown complexion, one eyed, his face pitted with small pox scars. To top it all, he had a long grey-beard. We are told that once Ranjit Singh’s Muslim wife Mohran asked him, ‘where were you when God was distributing good looks?’ When you were occupied with your looks, I was busy seeking power,’ answered the monarch.

If you wish to read a very good biography of Akbar, you could turn to Dirk Collier's The Emperor's Writings, which was published very recently.

Like Akbar, Ranjit Singh was also a superb horseman who usually spent 10 hours of the day in the saddle. Ranjit Singh too did not let matters of State prevent him from enjoying women, he had many wives. Unlike Akbar though, Ranjit Singh was a hypochondriac who was constantly on the lookout for cures and medicines. To know more about this fascinating ruler, please read this wonderful book.

Sikhism sought to be a faith which did not have many of the faults which Hinduism had. How far did the Sikhs succeed in this endeavour? A pointer to this would be the fact that after Ranjit Singh died, four of his wives committed sati. Khushwant Singh (quoting other sources such as the Lahore Akhbar) describes Ranjit Singh’s funeral thus: ‘Having arrived at the funeral pile made of sandalwood, the corpse was placed upon it. Rani Guddun sat down by its side and placed the head of the deceased on her lap; while the other ranis with seven slave girls seated themselves around, with every mark of satisfaction on their countenances. ......... The Brahmins performed their prayers from the Shaster ........the priests of the Sikhs did the same from their holy scripture called Granth Sahib and the Mussalmen accompanied them with their Ya Allah! Ya Allah! The prayers lasted nearly an hour. ........... At 10 o’Clockm nearly the time fixed by the Brahmins, Koonwa Khurruck Singh set fire to the pile and the ruler of the Punjab with four ranees and seven slave girls was reduced to ashes.

I found this banal description incredibly saddening. Ranjit Singh was a great ruler and Sikhism was meant to be a simple religion without unnecessary rituals, still eleven women had to be killed on Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre! I think I’ll need a lot of light reading before I tackle Volume 2.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif – Book Review

Mohammed Hanif is a Karachi based journalist and writer who once trained to be an officer in the Pakistani Air Force. Hanif achieved fame through his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. It was also the Best First Book from Europe and South Asia for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Hanif’s signature satire has not deserted him in Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti. Not only is it strong as ever, it is at times overwhelming, especially when mixed up with sarcasm, poverty, pain, violence and nastiness, the one human being to another type of nastiness. The story and plot of Our Lady is very simple. Body builder Teddy Bhatt meets pretty nurse Alice Bhatti, they get married on a submarine and then they don’t live happily ever after. Of course, it is not as simple as that. Teddy Bhatt the body builder also happens to be a police tout. Pretty nurse Alice Bhatti is a Choohra, slang for both Christians and sanitary workers in Pakistan, since a majority of sanitary workers in Pakistan seem to be Christians. At least, Alice Bhatti’s father is one.

A nurse who had her nursing education interrupted on account of a stint in the borstal, Alice is a fighter to the core, the type which fights with one’s nails and fists and if needed, a razor blade, rather than with guns or bombs. The borstal stint came about because Alice was literally left holding a cut vein with a pair of tweezers in an operating theatre when the surgeon had a coughing fit. Alice seems to have been at fault and the patient did die, but the reason Alice ended up in the borstal was more because she was, with some justification, accused of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to murder. We are not told if Alice actually wanted to murder the surgeon, but she did aim the marble flower pot at his head and break his nose and four front teeth. We are told that at her bail hearing in the sessions court, ‘Alice Bhatti carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles. She treats the policewomen as if they were her personal bodyguards, and she looks at the judge as if to say, how can a man so fat, so ugly, wearing such a dandruff covered black-robe, sit in judgement on her?

It’s not just Alice, all other characters in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti are equally unique, slightly eccentric and exceptional, but very much believable. Teddy Bhatt has a job which pays well, but he has irregular hours. A tout who hangs around with the Gentlemen's Squad or G Squad, Karachi Police’s version of Indian encounter specialists, Teddy’s job is to provide ‘valet parking for the angels of death’. When his boss, Inspector Malangi wants to kill someone, it’s Teddy who holds down the victim. When Malangi wants a thumb, Teddy’s provides one. His own. When a prisoner is taken on his final journey, it is Teddy who keeps him quiet and under control. ‘When all else failed, he would tell them cricket jokes, mostly about Imran Khan and his real bat, and they would laugh till their torture wounds would start bleeding and Teddy had to calm them down.’ The G Squad treats Teddy well. They arrange for Teddy’s wedding on the submarine and there’s a warm-up party at a safe house the night before the wedding where Teddy gets to go first with the girl hired for the night.

When Teddy goes to meet Alice and propose to her, he carries a Mauser with just three bullets in it.

Alice’s father Joseph Bhatti, in addition to being an expert on clearing clogged drains, cures stomach ulcers by reciting verses from the Holy Quran, a lit candle balanced on the patient’s tummy. Teddy’s father was a physical education instructor, a strict disciplinarian, a man who would make his wife take off her earrings every morning and give it to him to carry to his school and bring it back, just to make sure no one kills her for her earrings when he is away. Then there’s Noor, Senior Sister Hina Alvi (who is a Christian despite her Musla name), Dr. James Pereira and a few others, each of them as eccentric and interesting as the others.

French Colony where Alice grew up and from where she manages to escape after her marriage to Teddy is not the nicest place in Karachi. Descriptions of French Colony are scattered throughout the book. Here’s one of them:

Alice Bhatti walks past the shop owned by Jesus Bhatti, who sells cigarettes, milk and, when business is bad, pints of his own milk at the Sacred. Next to the shop is an empty shack from where the only entrepreneur in French Colony used to operate, stealing manhole covers and then selling them back to the Corporation. The open drain is clogged, its surface shimmering with all the plastic bags dumped in it. When Alice Bhatti was still a student, she used to mull over this question: if half the population of French Colony is responsible for clearing the garbage from the whole city, how come they can’t keep their own streets clean? Now she knows better and walks carefully trying to avoid the open sewers. She observes a gang of cats jumping the drain, playing a lazy game of catch.

Even more than in A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif shines a spotlight on Pakistani society, the way it treats women, its Christian minority and anyone without influence and money. There are numerous anecdotes within Our Lady of Alice Bhatti which drive home this point. For example, when a young relative of a VIP patient whom Alice nurses, points a pistol to Alice's head and orders her to give him a blow job, Alice starts to comply and gets the flaccid member ready, but as soon as the blood vessels fill up and it elongates, she slashes it with a razor and calmly suggests that her tormentor go to "Accidents" for help. However, Alice has reason to be worried, because there is no formal complaint filed against her, which suggests that a private revenge is being planned. Senior Sister Hina Alvi helpfully suspends Alice for two weeks, with full pay mind you, in the hope that it would mollify the man and his relatives.

Hanif writes well, extremely well. When Teddy messes up and a prisoner escapes from his control, Inspector Malangi does not scream at him. Instead, he takes him out for breakfast and insists that Teddy eat and eat well and eat some more. The reader actually feels Teddy’s anxiety as he shoves the omelettes, toast and tea down into a quivering tummy. Towards the end, I was rooting for Teddy and Alice though I knew that they were both doomed. When the end comes, it is tragic and doesn’t really make much sense, but then, human behaviour does not always make sense, does it? The plot starts unravelling only from the middle of the 230-odd page book and events move rather fast after that. There were times when I found the sarcasm a mite too much and the darkness too depressing. Nevertheless, Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti is a good read, as good as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Taste of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara

A few years ago, on a lark, I wrote a collection of ten short stories set in Simhapara, a fictional village in Kerala. Published on Epic India Magazine and later on Winnowed, I thought it would be a good idea to have the links to these stories in one place. Here they are:

1. The Boy Who Killed A Rainbow

2. Hundred Rupees

3. A New Beginning

4. A Difficult Decision

5. A Pristine Landscape

6. New Kid On The Block

7. Bad Hair Day

8. The Hidden Smile

9. The Family Heirloom

10. A Suitable Father

Friday, 4 November 2011

Steve Inskeep’s “Instant City: Life And Death In Karachi” – Book Review

Recently a friend pointed me to a Wikipedia page which showed Karachi to be more populous that Mumbai. According to this wiki page, Karachi has a population of 12,991,000 people whilst Mumbai has only 12,478,447. That got me interested in knowing more about Karachi and few clicks of the mouse and a week later, Flipkart delivered Steve Inskeep’s Instant City into my hands. I now realise that the list I had found on Wikipedia does not take into account surrounding suburban areas. As Inskeep himself explains at the end of Instant City, ‘cities are usually discussed in terms of their metropolitan areas – the central city plus suburbs and other outlying areas linked by commuting’. By this yardstick, Karachi had a population of 13.1 million in 2010, while Delhi had 22.1 million and Mumbai had 20 million.

On 28 December 2009, a bomb blast hit a Shia Ashura procession in Karachi killing scores of people. Inskeep’s story about Karachi, strictly non-fiction mind you, revolves around this blast. Who could have caused it? ‘What really happened on 28 December 2009?’ Inskeep wonders and explores various possibilities. Instant City’s blurb goes to the extent of stating that it is ‘the story of a single day in Karachi’s life.’ This isn’t exactly true because Inskeep’s excursion into Karachi is a free-flowing jaunt not restricted to the bombing of the Ashura procession on 28th December 2009. Nevertheless, for a big part of the book, the blast plays a central role.

Inskeep’s writing style reminded me of Dominique Lapierre’s and Larry Collins’s various masterpieces like O Jerusalem, Freedom at Midnight and Is Paris Burning? Instant City is a similar masterpiece, though at 250 odd easy-moving pages, it is not as voluminous and some of its descriptions do not have the depth of a Lapierre/Collins book.

By the time one reaches the middle of Instant City, it becomes obvious that Inskeep in unlikely to lead his readers to a grand ending where the identity of those behind the Ashura bomb blast is revealed. Instead, Instant City gets more and more interested in matters such as growth and decline of cities in general and Karachi’s metamorphosis in particular. Towards the fag end of the book, after visiting a locality in Korangi where the street level has risen steadily on account of clogged drains and encroachments, we hear Inskeep say, ‘On that street I finally understood what happened to those ancient cities I had seen; this must have been roughly the way Babylon went underground, and the way that cities were layered on top of cities at Sirkap. Great empires and grand dreams were buried by simple entropy. Bad drainage. Failure to clean the sewers. Failure to pick up the garbage. Failure to look after the neighbors [sic]. Failure to respect the greater good. Failure to govern. Failure, in short, to find workable solutions to chronic problems.

However, Karachi wasn’t always destined to be a city with so many problems. After Pakistan was formed, Karachi became its capital. President Ayub Khan had grand plans for Karachi. Soon after the military coup which brought him to power, he picked up a shovel and laid the foundation stone for Karachi’s first suburb. Constantinos Doxiadis, a highly reputed planner, was put in charge of the construction project at Karachi. It was a difficult job since Karachi was not a clean slate and Karachi was flooded with refugees who had fled independent India. An undaunted Doxiadis tried to ‘create communities where poor people could thrive. He planned buildings that would function efficiently in Karachi’s intense heat. Schools would take advantage of traditional South Asian methods of climate control. They would have perforated concrete walls to increase air flow, as well as wind catchers on the roofs...... He left spaces for gardens in front of and behind houses...... He opposed importing Western construction practices.

However, Doxiadis’s dreams and plans didn’t really work out for Karachi. The poor moved into every nook and cranny they could find. They had to look after themselves, since it was obvious that the powers-that-be didn’t care for them. Ayub Khan himself started to feel that Karachi had too many problems and moved the capital to Islamabad, which was also designed by Doxiadis. To know more about how Doxiadis’s plans went awry, do please read this brilliant book which tells Karachi’s story from the time of Jinnah till the present.

Within the fabric of Karachi’s story, there are a number of smaller stories woven in. For me, the best was that of Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the Edhi Foundation, the leading charity in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation runs a fleet of ambulances which race to every accident or bomb blast site. It also runs homes for the destitute, animal shelters, public kitchens and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts. Abdul Sattar Edhi is a Mohajir, an immigrant to Karachi who started with very little and even now has very little – he still lives with his in a single room. In light of all this, one would think Abdul Sattar Edhi is as close to a saint as one can get. But hold on, Inskeep shows his readers the various facets of Mr. Edhi which makes one pause a bit, especially the admission by Mr. Edhi himself that he is ‘mentally disturbed person’ and the information that Mr. Edhi takes medicines such as Tegral 200 which is used to treat, inter alia, manic depressive psychosis. The best part is the diatribe from his wife Bilquis Edhi who tells Inskeep what a lousy husband she has got. Did you know that Mr. Edhi had, after a decade of marriage to Bilquis, taken in a second wife who eventually left him? Inskeep (rightly in my opinion) tells us that Mr. Edhi, 85 years old at the time of Instant City’s release, is ambitious, though his ambition ‘involved no outward sign of material success’. The insight into Mr. Edhi is yet another reason to read this wonderful book.

I have always been fascinated by the Muttahida Quami Mahaz, once called the Mohajir Quami Movement, MQM for short, a party which seeks to represent immigrants from India and Bangladesh. In Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven talks of the MQM in tones of awe, as he explains how the MQM has built itself into the most powerful group in Karachi, amidst so many animosity and hatred towards the Mohajirs. Inskeep does not share Lieven’s sense of admiration for the MQM, though he concedes that MQM has managed to unify the immigrants who did not have much in common and created an ethnic group out of thin air. Instead, Inskeep devotes more space towards the excesses of the MQM as it seeks to keeps out other immigrants from Karachi and battles the almost equally secular Awami National Party, founded by the Frontier Gandhi and which represents Pathan interests in Karachi. Mustafa Kamal, the Mayor of Karachi, an MQM party man who rose up from humble beginnings, represents the ruthlessness as well as the efficiency of the MQM, a party which recognises merit and allows individuals without patrons to rise up from the ranks. Mustafa Kamal battles to modernise Karachi and make it an IT hub, but one fine day, the post of Mayor is abolished in all Pakistani cities and the good fight comes to an end.

Inskeep’s tome has space for a host of other characters who are no less interesting that Edhi. There’s Ardeshir Cowasjee, the son of the most famous shipping magnate in Karachi, who even now writes columns in the Dawn, fighting the degradation of the city he was born in. You get to meet Sharfuddin “Bobby” Memon, the owner of Lighthouse Cinema and the Head of the Citizen’s Police Liaison Committee. In a blast from the one, you get to know of K. Punniah, editor of Sindh Observer, who returned to Bangalore shortly after the Partition, unable to accept a Karachi which turned its back on its Hindu inhabitants, and died of a heart attack. Tony Tufail, peddler of dreams, built a casino using know-how imported from Macao, but it never got the final licence to take off, thanks to Zulfikar Bhutto’s compromises with Islamic fundamentalists and his ultimate overthrow by Zia-ul-Haq. And there are numerous committed private individuals like Adnan Asdar, Dr. Seemin Jamali, the Incharge of Emergency Department at JPMC Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre and Perween Rahman, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, who keep Karachi afloat amidst so much hopelessness.

Inskeep’s concluding chapter is for all practical purposes a Sermon on the Mount for the denizens of Karachi. ‘Karachi’s diversity is an asset in a world that is fractured along religious lines. If, for example, Karachi’s Christians and Hindus were fully and openly welcomed into public and commercial life, they would effectively become ambassadors for Pakistan. They could explain the country to its detractors, providing a bridge to non-Muslims in India and the West. If religious minorities could say convincingly that they lived in freedom and security, they would compel the world to think differently of Pakistan.’ A big (non-alcoholic) toast to that prayer from Inskeep. Ameen!