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Apr 22, 2014 - Bollywood, Books, rant, romance    No Comments

The Taliban Cricket Club – a book that ticks every Bollywood cliche known

Life in Kabul has become a sellable literary genre of its own. The success of hauntingly beautiful The Kite Runner opened the flood gates and there is no stopping since then. From fiction to nonfiction to memoirs, if the book mentions Kabul, women abuse and Taliban, chances are that it will get a publisher or two with some decent marketing budget. If a book as shoddily written as Kabul Beauty School can triumph at international best seller lists, then The Taliban Cricket Club should be considered a master piece but boy, is it a bad book or what!

I generally have no love lost for all things Afghanistan and Kabul, probably because I have lived too close to most things described in those books and also because I have been to Afghanistan and I always find the book version of Kabul very unreal and caricature like. I picked up The Taliban Cricket Club at the local library during the T20 World Cup when I was feeling homesick and missing cricket and live tweeting and cursing with my friends and fellow compatriots because that’s always so much fun (and heartache when your team lose). The book, however, turned out to be a major disappointment.

For starters, the introduction of Rukhsana as a spirited young journalist ticked just about every cliché that ever existed about spirited young female journalist. For a person who has been that spirited young female journalist, I found it to be majorly yawn inducing. When we are young and spirited, we do not think everything through like Rukhsana, we do things because we believe in ourselves and the power of written word and the naivety that it can bring about the desired change, but I digress.

The plot is simple. Taliban are ruling Afghanistan and things are awful. One day, they call all journalists, including our brave protagonist Rukhsana, to announce that they are keen on developing an Afghan cricket team. There would be a local tournament with local teams and the best of the best would make up for a national team which will first travel to Pakistan to get trained and would then tour the rest of the world. According to the book, no one in Kabul knew how to play cricket except for Rukhsana, which is the biggest bull shit ever because Pathans from both sides of the border have been mingling each other for long to not know about cricket.

How does our heroine know so much about cricket if she grew up in Afghanistan and living under Taliban? Well, for starters, her childhood friend and betrothed had friends in Lahore who taught him how to play cricket and he in turn taught Rukhsana and then played with her in their compound. Secondly, she went to college in India and played for her college team in Delhi which apparently made her an expert on the game. Rukhsana comes up with the plan to teach her teenage brother and her cousins to play cricket so that they can escape Afghanistan and brutal Taliban regime.

Apart from the rather weak story line, there are things that irritated me to no end about the book. One was this four page long tirade about how cricket is a genteel game that epitomizes fair play and equality. I wonder if the writer is not familiar with competitive sport that is cricket these days. What he wrote about is an afternoon friendly match in a rural England after Sunday lunch where everyone is bit mellow after food and a pint or two of beer. It is not the game where Hansie Cronje lost his life, Mohammed Azharuddin lost his reputation and young Mohammed Amir lost his career but I digress again.

The other thing that got my beef (no pun intended) was Rukhsana’s mother asking her to get vegetables for ‘quorma’. As a person who has cooked ‘quorma’ innumerable times, the only vegetable used in that dish is onion and that too to make gravy. The writer should’ve checked quorma recipe if he really wanted to include that in his book, it would have been better if he had not named the dish or just called it a stew. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but I do get irritated with lazy writing like that.  Is it too much to run a google search when you are writing a book?

If there is a protagonist in the story, there has got to be an antagonist. Zorak Wahidi was that villain – at times so cartoonish that I ended up picturing Teja and Crime Master GoGo instead of this fearsome bearded Taliban minister. When summoned, Rukhsana went to see this minister of vice and virtue with her teenage brother and her cousins. The whole scene where he killed a couple for adultery in front of them and how some other Talib dudes ogled at her brother had me rolling my eyes instead of feeling the terror and muster sympathy for them. As if random killing was not enough, the villain had to seek our heroine’s hand in marriage because that’s what evil villains do, seek hand of fair maidens in marriage when they get a break from killing random people.

Like a true heroine, Rukhsana is not without her share of better suitors. There is Shaheen, her well mannered, well educated, banker childhood betrothed living in USA. He is perfect on paper and Rukhsana kind of knew that she would end up with him but she declined a formal engagement not one but four times because her heart belonged to someone else – an Indian dude – a documentary film maker named Veer. I mean seriously? Have we not all seen Veer Zara already?

The chapters about her learning cricket and them dating in India were meh! Their first kiss was bleh! There was a page long text about Rukhsana’s awakened sexuality and maturity with that one single kiss in the back seat of a cinema in Delhi at the ripe old age of 17 and it was so corny that I wanted to scream like a banshee. I mean Hello! That Veer guy missed an opportunity to bottle and sell the essence of his kiss and becoming the next Ambani.

Among other things, the book tells us that Pakistanis are generally bad people. I know that there is not a lot of love lost between Afghans and Pakistanis but the way it was written, it was clear that it was not written with an Afghan perspective but an obviously Indian one. A good writer needs to find a voice for his or her characters, not force his own voice onto them. Mr Murari – the writer – obviously failed to do that.

In the end, it was the Indian love interest Veer – the man with magical kisses – who came to Kabul to save the day and win Rukhsana’s  team the cricket tournament which enabled them to get to Pakistan and then run away to other parts of the world. As he was an NRI, he had a wad of Benjamins to help the poor Afghan cousins of the heroine to get them to their desired parts of the world. The fact that the captain of the opposing cricket team was named Waseem (the bad guy of course) and had played for a club in Rawalpindi was not lost on the readers.

The writer Timeri N. Murari is apparently a big writer in India but this book was absolute shit. I can totally picture how he came about the plot. It must have been one long weekend when he watched both Lagaan and Veer Zara on TV and then some news about Talibaan and had some bad idli and sambar and thought, I too can write a saga comprising of various countries and escape from Afghanistan and become next Khaled Hoseini. I mean it has cricket, inter faith cross border romance, Taliban and a feisty heroine, what else would the public want? Errr how about some originality, research and some heart. Honestly, it was one of those stories where you end up rooting for the villain which in this case was the Taliban minister for vice and virtue. Yes, this book made me root for a Talib and that is quite a feat.

I would give this book half a star for the effort it must have taken the writer to sit down and write all 336 pages. The story is clichéd and predictable with boring uni dimensional characters ad really bad narrative. You want to slap the hell outta the protagonist by the end of it.

Mar 25, 2014 - Books, Humour, published work    1 Comment

Little pleasures in little failures

I have never been an ardent fan of memoirs. I find most of them to be either ostentatious tales of a grandiosity that look suspiciously unreal; or very depressing accounts of a miserable life. I’m even less fond of memoirs about an immigrant family adjusting to life in a Western country because they tend to be both fantastical tales of overcoming adversity and depressing accounts of a miserable life. But then, every reader is fickle and so am I. Picking up Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure was a no-brainer because I really liked all his previous work and thought if he could inject some of that levity in his memoir, it would not be half bad. I am glad to say that I was right.

Little Failure is everything I wanted it to be and more. It was insightful; at times funny, at times sad, at times poignant and nostalgic, and at times all of that. Yes, it has both the elements that I don’t like in memoirs – the overcoming adversity and the fantastical – but Shteyngart make them work with his self deprecating humor and honesty. So while you want to wonder about how many crazy girl friends a man can have in one lifetime, the absurdity of it all and his perfect prose would not let you wonder for long and you stay immersed in the story unfolding on the pages.

The book is not just an account of Gary Shteyngart’s life; it is also an ode to his relationship with Russia, his motherland. Most immigrants have this strange relationship with their home countries where nostalgia plays a great part in coloring the memories in certain — at times unrealistic — ways. Shteyngart the writer seems very conscious of that nostalgia and has managed to be both detached and engaged when he writes about Russia. For instance, he writes about his seven-year-old self who was obsessed with Stalin and the Red Army with the indulgent tone that an adult reserves for a child. But when he writes about the Russia that he visited as an adult or the Russia his parents remembered, his connection with his roots cannot be severed, despite his affection for his adopted country.

Though the book is about Shteyngart’s life, his parents feature rather heavily in it and he writes them as multi-layered characters; another rarity, I feel, among memoirs. Yes, they are Gary’s parents but they are also people, with their own sets of qualities and flaws. The distinction that Shteyngart makes in the book between his mother’s and grand mother’s love — one was conditional and the other was unconditional — also indicates his honesty as a writer. If Shteyngart had been more conscious about his public persona — he teaches at Columbia — a lot of things in this book would not have made the final cut. He is either not really concerned about preserving the façade of a serious writer and teacher, or perhaps he is too concerned with creating the image of an unconcerned writer who is not concerned with his image at all. Whatever the case may be, it works for him and this book.

The book is honest and there was no self censor at work, probably because he is a satire writer and for a true satirist, nothing is off limits, not even his own life, especially his own life. Reading his biography would make it abundantly clear how heavily he borrowed from his own life when he wrote his earlier novels.

A particularly beautiful and poignant account is his first visit to a psychiatrist. Shteyngart is certain that therapy does not work. His utter resistance to getting help, despite knowing that he needed that help, is rather magnificent and oh-so-human.

Other memorable vignettes include his struggle with the new languages he had to learn as a kid (English to survive in USA and Hebrew to survive Jewish school), his relationship with his religion, and his substance abuse problems. His parents make a few misguided attempts to make him sophisticated — once it involved a trip to a local theatre to watch a French film, because his father thought it would make him cultured; as it turned out, the film was a pornographic one. His mother has nagging doubts about his career choice; her exact words are: “But what kind of profession is this, writer?” Shteyngart is careful not to overwhelm the reader with details, letting her take the journey along with him, employing prose laced with humility.

Another striking quality of Shteyngart was his detachment with his life. He is an insider to both the countries and cultures after having lived there but he writes about both with a certain degree of detachment – as if he was looking at his life from some vantage point and knew where he was going even though we – the readers know he was floundering and confused at that stage of his life. I guess that comes with having lived that part of life and becoming successful afterwards but not many develop that at any stage of their life and Shteyngart deserves all the kudos for that.

Little Failure is also the story of how U.S.A has moved forward as a country, from the McCarthy era, where expressing left-leaning views could land a person in jail, to 2014 where a Russian Jew immigrant is one of the most celebrated writers in the country; despite having professed his childhood love for Lenin, the Red Army and all things Soviet.

Even though the first half could do with some serious editing, the book is highly recommended for readers who must have their sentences crisp and perfectly formed; anything else that you take from the book — the humour, the poignancy, the nostalgia, the issues with identity and self- actualisation — is a bonus.

PS: His book trailer — yes that is a thing in publishing world these days — was hilarious. It featured James Franco, Rashida Jones, and Jonathan Franzen and mocked everything; the publishing industry – including his own publisher, hipsters in New York, free trade coffee and the judgment that comes with ordering non-free trade coffee in a hipster café, the angst of a college-educated white man, the use or abuse of the word zeitgeist in literary criticism, Canadians and of course James Franco. I am impressed that he managed to get hold of Jonathan Franzen to play his therapist. I mean, Franco would do anything, but to get Franzen on board was rather impressive — almost as impressive as writing this book.

First published in Sunday Guardian 

Mar 8, 2014 - Books, Media, Pakistan, Writing    4 Comments

Urdu literature and regressive thought

A few weeks ago The Friday Times published a profile on Abdullah Hussein, the writer of Udaas Naslain and several other critically acclaimed novels. The interview was refreshingly candid, perhaps because people of my generation associate Urdu language with regressive thought, the fear of the unknown other and a very strict code of religious morality. We are aware of the whole Progressive Writers’ Movement and have read progressive texts produced before our times but it is something of a historical footnote in our lives and less of a reality.

The reality that we grew up with is that Deputy Nazir Ahmed’s Mirat-ul-Uroos is part of our school curriculum and Umera Ahmed’s Peer-e-Kamil is the undisputed best seller in contemporary fiction. One basically is a manual on how a shareef Muslim woman should behave at all times and the other is a woman’s rebellion from her family so that she can become a more pious and shareef Muslim! There is something oxymoronic in the rebellion to follow a religion more strictly but then Urdu literature is replete with oxymoronic expressions.

The non-fiction best sellers in Urdu are many volumes of Javed Chaudhry’s collection of newspaper columns and Qudratullah Shahab’s autobiography Shahaabnama. I personally think that they should be considered fiction as Chaudhry borrow heavily from fictional tales of kingdoms that never existed and Shahab’s life sound like a fantastical journey, complete with travels to the west and religious discovery, but I digress.

The gist is that contemporary popular Urdu writing is laden with overt religiosity, regressive thought and a tunnel vision of the world. To read an interview of a novelist of renown who so casually shuns what is supposedly “correct” and “moral” is almost as uplifting and energizing as seeing Urdu literature that is modern and progressive.

“A shareef admi cannot become a real writer. Philandering is one of the virtues of great minds, not because it is a virtue in itself but in the sense that it breaks taboos and to be a good writer you need to break social taboos. To create is to negate the existing order.”

This liberating statement runs contrary to all the exorbitant stress on sharafat in our society, especially in Urdu culture. Punjabi pop culture has icons like Maula Jatt and Noori Natt, the Gujjars that grace cinema posters on Lakshmi Chowk and the hefty women who unabashedly seduce men in fields. In Sindhi literature an abstract spirituality reigns supreme. People who talk and write in English are less obsessed with straitlaced thought, but when it comes to Urdu even its prostitutes (Umrao Jaan) are full of rakh-rakhaao and tehzeeb.

For me and a lot of people like me, Urdu has become synonymous with Iqbal’s mard-e-momin or Nazir Ahmed’s Asghari leaping out of the pages and telling us what it is like to be a morally upright person. Yes, there are Manto, Kishwar Naheed and Ismat Chughtai, but their text does not direct the norm. It is in this context that I was quite surprised to read Altaf Hussain’s (MQM leader) Falsafa-e-Muhabbat that actually dared to suggest that homosexuality is not an aberration, and that society should accept the LGBT community because everyone has the right to love.

To see Abdullah Hussain declare that “he is free of organized social and religious values” is refreshing because we are used to censoring ourselves rather diligently and rightly so. After all, in a country where any lunatic can come up and gun you down for expressing solidarity with a poor woman facing trial on blasphemy charges and be considered a hero, declarations such as this can label you a murtid and you may end up with a bullet – or 36 – in your chest.

First published in The Friday Times

The amazing escapades of a “dreadful human being”

Marketed as “a deeply unworthy book about a dreadful human being”, Worst.Person.Ever. is actually not that unworthy. Written by Douglas Coupland, a very prolific Canadian writer and visual artist, this is a book that is written in the Biji style; a genre of classical Chinese literature that reads like a notebook of a person recording incidents of the believe-it-or-not variety.

Raymond Gunt, our protagonist (who, for the most part, acts like an antagonist) has enough incidents of the believe-it-or-not kind around him. He is an unemployed, middle-aged, B-unit cameraman who is about to be kicked out of his apartment when he is offered a job; to shoot a Survivor-styled reality show in Kiribati. Not only is he offered a job, he is given the option to bring in his own minions. As none of his acquaintances would have agreed to play his minions, he chooses a homeless person with whom he was in an altercation a few days earlier. Here enters Neal, a homeless man who lives in a Samsung cardboard — he is impressed with the quality of Samsung TV boxes and considers them the best form of shelter for homeless — on the streets outside a Russian massage parlour. He always carries a valid passport, though, for a chance like this. Despite being dirty and homeless, Neal is a bit of a ladies’ man and a diehard The Clash fan. Together, they board the flight from London to L.A. and then on to Honolulu and Kiribati for a journey filled with one spectacular misadventure after another.

Gunt is quite horrid; he kills a man — albeit accidently — by calling him fat multiple times and offering him his share of food, causing his blood pressure to hike during a flight. He is also the only literate man on the planet who misspells Harry Potter’s name and writes it with an ‘e’. He is not too big on tipping waitresses either. Though he does not seem like a godly creature, he writes letters to “The Gods” in his head, often complaining about the things that are happening to him.

It is evident from the very first chapter that in addition to being the “worst person ever” Gunt is also the most politically incorrect person and mocks everything from Duran Duran to reality TV to Billy Elliot to vitamin supplements and airline food. In addition, he hates hybrid cutlery and would rather stay hungry than use a sporf (sporf = spoon + fork + knife), a knork (knorf = knife + fork) or a spork (spork = spoon + fork ).

cutlery

yups, the book came with illustrations and captions

For a presumably polite Canadian, Coupland has written Raymond Gunt, a potty-mouthed Brit with enough mastery. Critics may say that this brand of irreverence is not new; after all we are living in the age of Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and The Hangover’s many child-like men. I find this book and its characters a lot more endearing, however. Despite being a jerk, Raymond Gunt suffers from healthy doses of self-doubt, which make him more real and relatable. Neal has absolutely nothing but his confidence makes him almost fantastical.

The novel comes with neat little boxes throughout the text, explaining people, things, countries and music bands to the uninitiated, in a mix of Wikipedia-style language with a touch of sarcasm. There is really not much to the plot. The novel is more about the narrative, the dialogue and Raymond and Neal’s escapades along the way. Those who liked the British film Withnail & I and would understand this kind of storytelling, though it is a lot more lewd than Withnail & I.

Though the book is a fun read, it is a little too packed. There is so much happening at such an alarming speed that if you put the book away for a couple of days, going back to it and recalling everything that has happened before would be a tad difficult for some readers. Perhaps I am easily entertained or partial to typically profane British witticisms (I have spent far too much time admiring Malcolm Tucker and his inventive insults in TV serial Thick of It and the film In the Loop), but I find this book funny. I believe most readers will find it funny if they can disregard the gratuitously vulgar language. Funnily, I am not the type who normally overlooks linguistic vulgarity but everything that Raymond and Neal said did sound funny enough to ignore the expletive-laden language. In any case, flawed characters with their own sets of peculiarities — though Gunt has more peculiarities than Sachin Tendulkar has centuries — are a lot of fun to read.

Most of us, though familiar with our idiosyncrasies and nasty habits, make excuses for ourselves and think that we’re not all that bad. We always blame our road rage on other incompetent drivers. We blame laxity at work on bad bosses or unimaginative work (surely one must not seek creativity in a profession like accounting; creative accounting can land one in jail) and justify reciprocating with cheap gifts because that particular aunt was stingy when she bought our wedding gift 15 years ago. Raymond Gunt, the protagonist of Worst.Person.Ever, is genuinely unaware of any such flaws and firmly believes that he is a nice person. A massively flawed person so honestly unaware of those flaws is actually quite refreshing.

You will either love it or hate it; a middle ground is unlikely here. The book will probably not win any awards, but it will make you laugh out loud if dark comedy is your thing. As a pop culture enthusiast with an appreciation for English absurdity, I loved this book. The text is hilarious, wicked and oh-so-terribly English. What else can you ask from an unworthy book?worst-person

PS: If you wanted something more, there is a nuclear explosion in the mix to get rid of a Pacific Trash Vortex in the middle of that ocean. Yes, that is the American way of dealing with garbage.

PPS: When the book came out last year, someone (probably or a marketing staff minion) came up with a twitter handle of Raymond Gunt but it died an early death when they forgot about its existence after 16 measly tweets.

PPPS: Pacific Trash Vortex is actually a thing. It exists. It is about the size of Texas and some of the plastics in the trash vortex are so sturdy, they will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw that trash.

First published in Sunday Guardian

Iqbal’s Muslim Superman

In the past 65 years, the idea of Pakistan has been academically and dispassionately discussed many times. Unfortunately, it has happened elsewhere, not in the country; which is kind of ironic, considering that it is one of the only two countries of the world that were created on the basis of ideology. Bearing in mind that the idea of Pakistan is not a popular topic of debate in the country, Rubina Saigol’s The Pakistan Project: A Feminist perspective on Nation and Identity is commendable, for it not only discusses the idea of Pakistan, but it does so from a feminist perspective, which is even rarer.

The book details historical perspectives on the cultural nationalism of Pakistan. What makes this analysis different from other such endeavours is that it examines the body of work of four pre-partition Muslim scholars who tried to come up with the idea of Muslim womanhood and Muslim manhood, following the anarchy and upheaval caused by the war of 1857 and the loss of the Mughal throne.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, though considered an advocate of women’s education in present-day Pakistan, was of the view that women should not be taught “geography” as they are not active in public spaces in any capacity (economic, political or social) in a non-familial way. The emphasis was on containment of women to the more traditional roles of mothers, wives and daughters.

The other writer whose writing Saigol deconstructs is Deputy Nazeer Ahmed. His novel Mirat-ul-Uroos is considered a guide on “how to be a good Muslim woman” for over a century and if its status in Pakistani pop culture is any indication (it gets remade every few years in a television serial and is part of secondary school curriculums), it remains extremely relevant. Saigol states that unlike Syed Ahmed Khan, Nazeer Ahmed believed that women should be taught secular subjects, because a well-rounded education makes them outstanding mothers and good administrators who run their homes smoothly. But he too believed in keeping Muslim women away from the public sphere. His book states many times that a good Muslim woman must never consider herself equal to a man.

Saigol concludes this section by discussing Muslim manhood, as imagined by Akbar Allahabadi and Allama Iqbal. Both consider Muslim nationalism rooted in past glories, machismo and conquest. Akbar Allahabadi blamed all the social and economic evils on women shunning purdah and entering public spaces, and linked nationalism with controlling women’s mobility.

Just like Allahabadi, Allama Iqbal’s poetry also glorifies the distant past of Muslim colonialism. For him, the idea of nationalism was rooted in the exploits of “mard-e-momin” — a Muslim man, or a Muslim Superman as Saigol likes to call him — of the past who conquered lands and had control over women’s sexuality. With British colonisation of South Asia, that masculinity was lost and could only be regained by reviving the glory of past Muslims; rediscovering faith and regaining control over sections of society that are not mard-e-momin, i.e. women  and children. Saigol firmly believes that these ideas of masculinity and femininity espoused in the poetry of Iqbal and Allahabadi have greatly impacted the gendered consciousness of Pakistan.

Saigol cites examples from Pakistani text books about how women have been viewed; not as direct citizens, but as subordinates to men who enjoy primary citizenship rights. As state and nationalism are both very masculine in the Pakistani context, men are its natural citizens who mediate relations between state and women. Saigol points out that in Pakistani curricula; citizenship is constructed around the concept of masculinity. The father is the head of the family; he brings home the disposable income, pays taxes and makes economic decisions. There is mention of respect accorded to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in the society, but not to women in general. Male identity has rights; female identity is defined in terms of duties, to ensure that they stay confined to traditional roles that enable social and sexual regulation.

No piece of academic literature that discusses feminist perspective on Pakistani nationhood and identity would be complete without a mention of how the constitution categorically denies its female citizenry some basic rights. Saigol cites the usual pieces of legislations like the law of evidence, Qisas & Diyat. Law of evidence considers the value of a woman’s testimony in a court of law half in comparison to that of a man. Qisas & Diyat also diminish the value of a woman’s life by half. Naturalised citizenship is also shackled with constraints of gender. A male Pakistani can marry a woman from any part of the world, and she would be granted naturalised citizenship. A foreigner married to a Pakistani woman would not be accorded the same right.

Saigol’s book is praiseworthy for many reasons. It not only critically examines the poetry of Iqbal — the national poet, hence an untouchable figure — but also quotes Azad’s prediction about Pakistan’s future Balkanisation. It raises questions that many in a religiously conformist state like Pakistan are afraid to ask. It questions the standard feminist perspective of viewing everything with a secular lens, and points out instances where women are trying to forge an identity within the religious framework — at times supporting patriarchy — but creating a space for themselves nonetheless. It questions if women should give up the idea of citizenship in a state that views citizenship in terms of masculinity. It questions the idea of creating a hostile Other in the curricula — usually a religious minority or ethnic minority — which gives rise to further masculation of the idea of state. She tackles a tricky subject without drama and comes out with an academically sound, cogent and coherent feminist perspective on Pakistani nation and identity. This book is recommended to everyone who is curious about Pakistani ideology, the role gender plays in the construction of that ideology, its historical roots and how that ideology came out of disorder and is creating more chaos.

But if The Pakistan Project should be admired for just one reason, in my opinion it would be coining the term “Iqbal’s Muslim Superman.”

Originally written for The Sunday Guardian

Book Title” The Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity

Writer: Rubina Saigol

Publishers: Women Unlimited/Kali for Women

Pages: 388 Rs. 650

Email encounters of the other kind!

I get emails – almost anyone who exists in the virtual world gets emails – even if when they do not share that email address with anyone, they still get emails from Nigerian investor wanting to invest in their business and their email provider’s admin. I, unlike other people, get weird emails and I am not talking about spam here.

The emails I get are all not just weird, they cover a very broad range of spectrum. They could be people asking me to give them Urdu language tuition (never taught Urdu in any of my lives and though I speak it fluently and enjoy Urdu literature like any other enthusiast, I cannot teach Urdu Grammar to save my life – sarf-o-nahu anyone?), people sending marriage proposals after reading my articles (they are almost always men from India with a couple of random rishtas from Middle East but I have a feeling that they too would be Indian men), aunties seeking education advice for their sons and daughters (I am supposed to be awesome at fooling universities into providing grants and waiving fees – which I am obviously not – otherwise I would be enrolled in some kind of doctoral program instead of working and dreaming about a life where I would be rich enough to be idle) and people inviting me to expensive “Lawn” exhibitions (people in Pakistan would know what that phenomenon is, the rest don’t need to worry about that and those who know me must wonder why I get those invites considering how sartorially challenged I am).

The point of this whole tirade is that I get weird emails and should not be shocked when I get offers of digital qurbani (slaughtering your goat via skype) and “exclusive” dating services specializing in highly qualified brown people, but nothing prepared me for the email that was waiting for me this morning in my inbox. I actually went WTF out loud on my morning commute – much to the chagrin of an Asian lady sitting next to me at my very unladylike language.

The text of that email was

“I am working on a fiction book which includes a female character’s experiences with online dating. The woman is in her late 40s. I am soliciting stories from women who have dated online. I need unusual, weird, crazy, scary stories. Your name will not be used. Specifics will be changed to protect your privacy. You will NOT be paid for your story.

If you are a single woman – divorced, widowed or never married – who is 40 or older and have met and dated men via online dating websites, please contact. Since this is a Christian novel, stories have to be clean stories. No sex or deviant behaviour, no use of alcohol or drugs and no bad language please. Like I said earlier, keep it clean.

I mean really?

I tried to muster some outrage because the sender thought I was over 40 and over eager (no disrespect for those who go for online dating) enough to have an okcupid profile but come on! How can one not laugh at the message that is clearly bonkers? You want stories of online dating but no salacious details! Why would anyone want to read a book that has nothing going for it? I mean I am no pervert who would want to know details that should not be shared but if you take the bite out of life then what else is left? Would people actually shell out money to read about the stories of online dating for women over forty if it is going to be about creeps stalking your facebook profile, some hand holding of non-platonic kind and group sessions about Jesus saving your sorry selves? That book sounds like a snoozefest even before it is written.

Is there really a market for Christian romance out there? Probably in the Bible belt. I, for one, never thought there was a market for mommy porn but 50 shades proved me and the rest of the snooty people wrong. Who really knows what people actually want, Christian online romance may turn out to be the next big thing, after all Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember was not only a best seller, it also launched Mindy Moore’s rather tame acting career.

Sep 18, 2013 - Books, Personal    1 Comment

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love

To say that I loved ‘Ten things I’ve Learnt About Love’ by Sarah Butler would be an understatement. Yes, I loved it but I also felt that I have lived that book, that life, those choices and those regrets.

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I checked out the book because I liked the cover. It is styled as a list and even though I am not a person who makes lists, but I am drawn to them so I picked up the book. The two protagonists – Daniel and Alice – are both lost and looking for something. Alice has returned to London just in time to say good bye to her dying father and Daniel is a man looking for a daughter he’s never met. Every chapter is alternately narrated by Alice and Daniel and starts with a list of ten things which tells us a lot about the characters. It is also my favourite part of the book. I think it helps if we make lists – even if we just want to share them with a shrink.

Reading it was not only emotional but also personal. Let me admit that there are way too many similarities between me and one of the protagonists of the book Alice, for me to feel even remotely neutral about the book. We both lost our mothers when we were very young and then lost our dads at about the same age. We both were youngest daughters and have this weird love hate relationship with our elder sisters. Just like Alice, I too had to sort my dad’s house after his death and then had to put it up on sale. Doing that in a grievous state is perhaps the single most difficult thing that I ever had to do so while I was reading it, I was reliving that time of my life.

I too lost the only home I knew with Dad’s death. It made me reassess my relationship with everything – my work, the rest of the family, my city because when you lose that one anchor that has kept you connected with the rest of the things in your life, you are lost and would be floundering and grappling with the very idea of a home and a sense of belonging. This book is all about that.

It is beautifully written poignant tale where you need to take time between chapters to think and contemplate and ask questions. The characters are not nice nor are they black and white – they are real – like most of us with a bit of good, a bit of bad and a sprinkling of oddities that makes us human and fallible. It’s a sad book yet it still is infused with hope. It is about affection and human connection, about identity that we attach to persons and home and about the hunt for something to hold on to.

It’s a love story but not a typical one. It’s a love story where you both wonder and search for something at the same time. It is also an ode to the city of London which is perhaps the most engaging character of the book.

I am giving this book a solid five star recommendation; readers who want everything spelled out would perhaps give it a two. Other readers may not feel the same connection with the book that I did because Alice and Daniel are not the most likeable characters out there, and you may not feel the same way about London as I do, but I would still like you to give it a try. It’s a great read for self reflection.

Jul 6, 2013 - Books, Personal    6 Comments

There is more to life than childish pursuit of happiness

There are more bad writers than there are good writers, just like there are more boring people than really interesting ones, it is like the law of nature – or something akin to it. What is tragic – at least in our times – that people prefer to read the truly awful ones instead of the few decent writers that are out there.

I could not care less about those who write vampire and werewolf stories or those who write badly written but best selling mommy porn, we all know that it is crap and it will go down in history as such. It is the pseudo intellectual philosophical babble that people try to pass as literature that gets my goat. What irritates me even more than popularity of best selling pop philosophy is the use of words like iridescent and constant optimism it spreads.

The world is a dark dark place, life is a bitch and then you die and after that there is an endless vacuum. Yes, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, in fact many do not even get to see the end of the tunnel so why can’t people get their heads around that and be content with misery which in my opinion is a natural state of being.

Why there are more people who read and actually believe in the garbage spewed by Coelho than someone like Kafka?  A line like this – “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it” – is nothing but merely a line, the universe continues to function like it should; however, “There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe… but not for us” is not just a line, it is the truth.

Here is to accepting truth and living with loneliness, sadness and misery. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact this constant pursuit of happiness is rather childish and looks okay only on a Hallmark greeting card.

 

 

PS: Started writing this post on Kafka’s birthday but got sidetracked and started reading the metamorphosis once again. Now go and buy a decent book and read it and reflect. You guys owe it to yourselves.

 

Jun 20, 2013 - Books, Reading    4 Comments

A coming of age story like no other

Golden Boy

When people have been reading for as long as I have, they develop a way of picking up books. They have genres that they like, certain writers they want to read again and again, recommendations by friends and critics or something as random as an interesting title that they must browse through. I use all of the above methods and they have worked for me most of the time. However, the only reason I picked up Golden Boy was that it was set in England and I like stories set in England. The writer Abigail Tarttelin is not someone I have ever heard of, the title was ordinary and the cover was okay but boy, what a book! I think it turned out to be the most profound read of the year – at least for me.

Golden Boy is the story of Max, a sixteen year old who had everything going for him, he was smart, popular, good looking, gentle, kind, good athlete, wanted by girls, respected by his mates, loved by parents and adored by his little brother. Life couldn’t be more perfect, but all started going downhill after a nasty incident, which made him realize that his life is ruled by a secret and how he must protect it to attempt to live a ‘normal’ life.

I generally don’t like books or movies that are centered on a family or push family values probably because I grew up in a country that is not too keen on individualism and the society presses on familial obligations a little too forcefully. The way traditional family is thrust upon us by popular media is also a major turn off but the way Abigail Tarttelin has woven this story – it is in first person by six major characters – is simply beautiful. Despite being a story of a family and what they had to go through collectively in the aftermath of a shocking incident, it is also the story of six individuals Max, his younger brother Daniel, his parents Karen & Steve, his girl friend Sylvie and Dr Archie Verma, told through their voice so that the reader is not influenced by just one voice and constructs and interprets the story the way s/he wants to.

I am not really a crier. If anything, I am one of those people who laugh at most inopportune times. My friends think I should not attend somber events and funerals because I cannot be trusted not to laugh. I don’t cry at romantic melodrama in films and find most of it cheesy, but I cried – cried a bucket load of tears – for Max the protagonist of this novel and one of the most endearing characters that ever leap out of the pages of a book. How can one not empathize with the Golden Boy who is about to lose his halo and has no clue how he has been wronged and he continues to blame himself for it all.

There is no verbosity or philosophical tone to the text, probably because most of the story is told to us by teenagers and a 10 year old, but there is introspection. And the characters – they just break your heart. I wanted to jump into the book and hold Max’s hand and tell him that he is great and wanted to shelter him from everything. How often do we get to feel that way about fictional characters?

The mastery of the writer is amazing, even when she is quoting stuff from Wikipedia in the book – and she did it twice I think – the heart of the story makes up for it. She wrote about Maltesers and STDs and autumn in the same line and somehow made it melancholic and heartrending. Tarttelin has discussed things like motherhood, loneliness, identity and the quest for someone of your own, the idea of ‘normal’, the insecurity of living under the perfect older sibling, the inability of parents to make decisions about their children, the fondness of an older sibling for the younger brother with utmost honesty. Above all, she has created a coming of age story like no other. She has created a world so real that you not just know what each and every one of them are going through, you actually get it.

I read Golden Boy in four days, could have read it in a lot less time but I took breaks in between to cry, to muse, to assess my life until now and think about the choices I have made and to wonder if I was in situations like any of the characters how would I behave. Yes, this book hits you so hard that you are compelled to pause and ponder.

The book taught me the value of empathy and compassion and how badly we need it without even knowing it. I am one of those people who give books to others – usually younger people – when I want them to think about things that I consider important. From now on, Golden Boy would be the book that I would recommend to everyone because we all need to open our hearts a little more, accept the other and unknown and just be gentle and kinder in general. The book affected me in a way very few things have; it made me want to be more open hearted, more loving and a better human being.

Way to go Abigail Tarttelin, you have created an amazing piece of literature that will profoundly affect a lot of your readers and you have done it at the tender age of 25. I cannot recommend this book enough; seriously, go buy your copy now.

 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

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As a reader, I am not particularly fond of the term ‘coming of age’. As a writer, I try not to use it at all because what can be more clichéd than using the phrase ‘coming of age’, but if one reads Mohsin Hamid’s latest book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” one is forced to use a term as corny as this.

Let me start by saying that there is no love lost between the author and I. I found his first book rather ordinary. Hamid was descriptive in Moth Smoke and his protagonist was odious, obsessive and had no redeeming qualities. He became introspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist; the tone was improved greatly and the monologue in which the novella was written dominated the reader in such a way that it required great effort to see beyond the protagonist’s point of view. With ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ Hamid presented his readers with a prose that is beautiful, lyrical and profound.

Guardian called him Pakistani Fitzgerald – I would not call him that because the respect I have for Fitzgerald is the kind that is reserved for dead people who are way out of your league. Mohsin Hamid is not that – for starter, he is alive, a fellow countryman and much closer to me in age. But he sure is in a league of his own – heads and shoulders above most other sub continental writers who put far too much emphasis on the story and a lot less on nuance, tone and style.

The book is about an unnamed character that moves from an unnamed village to an unnamed city, attends an unnamed university and falls in love with another unnamed character in Rising Asia. The defining feature of this book perhaps is the fact that it is written in second person.  The writer talks to ‘You’ in the book and you are not really sure if he is talking to ‘You’ the protagonist or ‘You’ – the reader. It engages the reader in a way that they feel like a part of the narration – at times even a character.

The appeal of the book lies in its style for its story is fairly common – there is rural urban migration, boy meets girls, boy falls for girl and of course there is that rags to riches element as well. The style transcends the story, its characters, its period and its location. The characters did not have names or addresses which gave the text a whimsical feel and brought the reader – no matter what their age, location or the reality is – closer to the protagonist.

The characters are believable, relatable and it was perhaps the only book I have read where I – the reader – had empathy for each and every character of the book for there were no heroes or villains. The woman who wanted to be with her husband in the city, the boy who was sent to work as an apprentice at a spray paint shop to supplement the family income, the girl who escaped her family, the boy who understood the loneliness of his widowed father, the widowed father who did not know what to do with all the spare time he had and the woman who wanted to win the affection of her husband and then completely lost interest in him are all real people – even the minor characters are dynamic and have many sides to them.

There are three main female characters in the book and though they all belonged to different generations and approached life differently, the common factor was that they were braver and ballsier than a lot of men around them. Women in Hamid’s book are such amazingly fierce and independent characters that you cant help but root for them – even when you do not agree with their course of action.

The book is more enjoyable because of its contradictions. This is a novel but it is written like a self-help book with appropriately titled chapters such as “Move to the City”, “Don’t fall in Love” and “Have an exit strategy” and it does not let go of any opportunity to mock the self help genre. It praises the vitality of youth but has just as tenderly dealt with old age, frailty and mortality. There is a subdued longing for a love that got away and admiration for a spouse in a marriage of convenience. There are dreams tinged with pragmatism and practicality laced with romance.  It values the connection that a person has with his clansmen and with his land but it also appreciates the anonymity that comes with abandoning the roots and relocation to a bigger city.

Some books start well but loose the plot later, some peak in the middle and some have great ending. This one starts with a promise, maintains the momentum throughout and ends just as well as it started. Last paragraph of the last chapter has dealt with death not as something morose or romantic but as a transition that is keenly anticipated because the life before that death was well lived.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia satisfies a reader like very few books do. It is a love story; it has action, drama and elements of political thriller. Most refreshing is its moral ambiguity, everything that is produced in Pakistan is sermonized to the extent that all joy flies out of it, Hamid’s characters are as free of such restraints as they can be in Rising Asia.

The first lecture of Creative Writing 101 would tell you to write about what you know best. Most writers do that and excel, they deviate from what they know and do not do too well. For instance, Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini was in great form in The Kite Runner because the book had traces of a life he has lived but he fell flat in A Thousand Splendid Suns and his characters became a sad combination of cliché and caricature – if that is even possible. Hamid is amazing because he is at his best when he writes about something that is quite far removed from his own life experiences. His background is urban and cosmopolitan – unlike his nameless protagonist – and he probably has never set a foot inside a public university in Pakistan where getting a room in the boys hostel means bowing down to the student wings of the political parties yet he nailed the details, the aspirations, the fears and the emotions perfectly.

Though a novel, ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ did become a self help book for me for it tells me how to write a poignant story and how to be ruthless with one’s own work because it is fairly obvious that the writer has written a lot more but chose to present his readers with this edited version. Such restraint is admirable in anyone but more so in a writer. I was a reluctant reader and read Mohsin Hamid’s first book three years after it came. He got me interested in his work with the second one and completely won me over with the latest offering. Needless to say, this one comes highly recommended.

Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the unedited version

 

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