Tagged with " literature"

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 ).


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

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.

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.


How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia


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


Aug 9, 2012 - Tina Fey    2 Comments

James Franco doing things

As a self professed online stalker of the Renaissance man, I got hold of his short story collection Palo Alto quite late – two years after it was published. Sadly, the book did not turn out to be what I was expecting. May be I was expecting something better and was kinda disappointed. He over did the youth angst and drug scene, he was politically incorrect through out the text – mocking fat girls and short kids will not win you brownie points anywhere – the tone was flat and the casual sex was just that – casual. At times even the writer seemed bored with his characters and he just wanted to get it done and over with and because of that, even the reader wanted to get it done and over with.
Did that dampen my OCD with Mr. Franco? Not really. You see I am not a fan of his acting chops or writing proficiency, it is his multitasking skills that I am in awe of. His scholarly pursuits include a B.F.A. in English from the University of California, LA; M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and Brooklyn College; an M.F.A. in film making from Tisch; and he is currently working on other degrees including a Ph.D. at Yale and another post grad degree at Rhode Island School of Design. Phew, I think I just got tired listing them all. The man not only worked and still working on those degrees, he has done all that while being an A-list movie star, a writer, a performance artist, a documentary film maker, a film director, a columnist, a blogger, and a professor – he is teaching a course in film direction at Tisch School of Arts at NYU and he is not even 35 years old.
As a person who is immensely lazy and is wasting her life away doing really mind numbingly boring shit – like reading Franco’s book – people like him seem unreal and at times awe inspiring. I remember someone calling me a fan once, I am not really sure if I can be called a fan, I think I am kinda jealous of him – doing all those things – while I am doing absolutely nothing.
Here is James Franco doing things.
James Franco reading things
James Franco posing as a teacher
James Franco actually teaching a class at NYU
James Franco interacting with his students after the class
James Franco typing things
James Franco the student sleeping during one of the lectures
James Franco at the opening of his art exhibit
James Franco doing things on computer
James Franco reading some more things
James Franco signing copies of Palo Alto
James Franco acting and directing
James Franco doing something, I cant figure out what.
James Franco reading some more
James Franco & Tina Fey, the two multitaskers with an Anime pillow doll, they both wrote shot books though
Jul 27, 2012 - published work, travel, Turkey    8 Comments

Tourism of another kind

Alain de Botton writes about the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality in his book ‘The Art of Travel’. Before traveling to a place, most people think about the amazing places they would visit, the exotic food they would eat and interesting people they would meet. The reality could be different; they may not get to visit the places they planned, the food may be disappointing and the people, not very exciting. On the other hand, the reality could be everything they desired but it is always laced with the reality that is not anticipated, like braving long lines at the immigration counter at the airport, haggling with cab drivers in a language they don’t know and their inability to do something as simple as reading a road sign and the subsequent frustration over it.
Before my vacations earlier this month, my level of anticipation was high. I planned a visit to a country that I have always wanted to see – Turkey. I read books about the country; travelogues, stories about the history of the land, influences of Roman and Greek mythology on Turkish architecture, and something as touching as the ode that Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote for his beloved city Istanbul. To say that I was high on anticipation would be putting it mildly. I was anticipating a visit to the Topkapi Palace which would transport me back to medieval times in Istanbul; I would spend afternoons on the beach in Izmir; I would be enthralled by the Sama ceremony of whirling dervishes in Konya; and I was so looking forward to drinking Turkish tea on a balcony one evening overlooking the Bosphorus. The reality was different. Topkapi was so overcrowded that I was literally jostled from one room to another; Izmir was struck out of the itinerary because of a shortage of funds; and the Sama ceremony turned out to be a lot less spiritual and more concert-like than I would have liked. I also ended up drinking Turkish tea not in a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus but in a police station in Istanbul.
Everyone who has ever been to Turkey has regaled me with tales of how Turkish people love Pakistanis and how it is the last place in the world where we are still respected/loved. I lost that illusion a few minutes after I entered Ataturk Airport. The Turkish embassy in Islamabad assured me that I will get a visa on arrival if I have a US, British or Schengen visa stamped on my passport, so the first thing I needed to do in Turkey was buy a visa. The sign told me that I will have to go to Immigration Counter No 2 to get my passport stamped (they have a separate counter for people from Pakistan, India, Iraq and South Africa). I looked for it but the trail of arrows kind of died in the middle of a long corridor, so I came back and asked the help desk. A man here told me that Counter 2 is closed so I need to go to the counter where everyone else is getting their visas. There was a crazy long line at that counter and when after 20 minutes I managed to speak to the visa officer, he told me to go find Counter 2 again. (This man was not authorized to give a visa to a Pakistani.) I asked several people but everyone spun a new tale about visas for Pakistanis. I saw a desi-looking family walking to the same long corridor where the trail of arrows ended and decided to follow them. It turned out that one had to keep going even when the trail of arrows ended to get to the desired counter. When I got there, I saw a few people gathered around a closed counter and some Turkish immigration officials on the other side chatting with each other. I went up to them and asked if the counter was closed. I was told that the counter was indeed closed. I then told them there must be some mistake because I was specifically sent to this counter to get my visa because I am traveling on a Pakistani passport. One of the immigration officials almost snapped my head off for not telling him earlier that I am Pakistani. I wanted to tell him that I was at the counter for only 30 seconds but refrained from pointing it out. I just wanted to leave the airport as soon as I could. I was then given a piece of paper and was sent to another counter to pay for the visa. I came back with the receipt and gave them the passport and then waited patiently for one of the immigration officials to deign to pick up my passport and stamp my visa and entry into their country. I waited, along with that desi-looking family – they were Indians from Delhi – for the officials to finish their tea. After what seemed like an eternity, one of them took pity on us and gave us our passports back, stamped. In the meantime, I cussed up a storm in Urdu/Hindi with the eldest daughter of the family from Delhi about the sterling work ethics of the Turkish Immigration officers at Counter 2.
Meeting a friend who was joining me all the way from Canada and getting a tram to our hotel in Sultanahmet went smoothly. Another friend joined us from Amsterdam later that night. We had dinner and made plans for a blitzkrieg tourism-filled weekend. We started the day with a visit to the Blue Mosque which is every bit as majestic as I anticipated it to be. The difference from the anticipation was the rush of people who wanted to get their pictures taken with every calligraphic inscription and every bulb in the numerous chandeliers.

If the Blue Mosque met my expectations, Ayasofia far exceeded them. So steeped in the history is the place and so different it is from everything I have seen until now that I couldn’t help being mesmerized by it all. Where else would you get to see Quranic inscriptions side by side with mosaic paintings of the Virgin Mary and Archangel?


Where calligraphy of the word Allah coexist with a mosaic painting of Archangel: the main hall in Aya Sofia

Bascilla Cistern, a Bosphorus cruise and a day at Topkapi rounded up our weekend. After a long day in Topkapi, we came out and sat on one of the benches in the courtyard between Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque. My friend needed help in looking for a key in her bag so I put my bag under my left leg and the 60 seconds I spent in looking for a key in her backpack, someone came and stole my bag from under my leg! Yes, there I was, in Istanbul… with no money, no credit or debit card, no passport, no cell phone and no proof of identification, it was like I didn’t exist any longer. After the initial panic, I went to the tourism police office where a gentleman who could speak English refused to believe me; he actually had the audacity to treat me as a criminal and asked me repeatedly if I am sure that I have not forgotten my bag somewhere and am now crying that it was stolen. The policeman was rude, misogynist and quite adept at blaming the victim – just like the policemen back home. After a big hassle, I got the address of a nearby police station where I could file an official report. The policemen at the station desk knew rudimentary English and told us to wait. While waiting he asked us where we were from and when we said we were from Pakistan, he sang JeevayPakistan and said he was doing it to cheer me up. I was looking at him in a state of shock. Never in my wildest imagination had I ever thought that one day, every penny I had on me would be stolen in a foreign land and I will have to hear an impromptu rendition of Jeevay Pakistan in a police station. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction.


Some of them very farigh Turkish policemen.
And, as if that was not enough, random policemen would come, talk to the guy at the desk, look at me, nod their heads, smile, laugh and then leave. Freaked out as I was, I just stood up and asked him why no one was filing a report on my behalf and why everyone was coming and looking at me like a circus animal. I was told that they were waiting for an official translator to sign off the report and that I looked like some Turkish singer who apparently was only popular with the policemen (nobody told me anywhere else in Turkey that I look like a pop singer) and that is why they all wanted to see me. One of the over-eager policeman even shook hands with me as if I was the local celebrity. So flabbergasted was I with this turn of events that I actually complied. This is something I would never have anticipated before I embarked upon my travels.


The next day was spent at the embassy getting a new passport made. They charged me 168 dollars – which is kind of ironic because I was robbed of every single penny and had to borrow money from friends for everything. I later learned that the embassies are supposed to help such victims and have a special fund with which they pay for your passport and stuff. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I am still grateful to the embassy staff for being courteous and making me a replacement passport the very same day.

Apparently this chori chakari is so commonplace in Istanbul that the embassy folks were not in the least bit surprised when I went to get my passport made and regaled them with my sob story. The fellow there asked me – very calmly – if it happened at Taksim Square or Sultanahmet. When I told him that it happened at Sultanahmet, he wisely nodded his head and said that that’s where most of the passports of Pakistanis were snatched. They get around 5-6 stolen passport cases every week. The day I got my passport made, there were three other Pakistani guys who were mugged in the alleys next to Istaklal Street.
If you think it was not shocking enough, on my way back to Pakistan, I learned that I cannot get through the regular immigration counter. They have a separate immigration desk at Ata Turk Airport for people whose passports have either been stolen or lost! You need to show them a copy of your police report; your newly minted very expensive passport, they write the date of your entry on your boarding, stamps the exit on your passport and viola, you are free to go back home. A special desk for people with stolen/new passports! How bizarre is that?
The usual crime scene: the tram that travels from Taksim Square through the length of Istaklal Street
If anyone had told me before I embarked upon the journey that I will end up spending a day at the Pakistani Embassy in Istanbul and would be shaking hands with over-eager Turkish policemen who thought I was a celebrity lookalike, I would have laughed out at the ludicrousness of it all.
Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the longer version.
PS: Special shout out to Saima and Karan for bearing with a very gloomy and morose me in Turkey.
PPS: Sorry for not warning you earlier, this is a rather long rant. 
May 10, 2012 - Writing    2 Comments

All the symbolism that people say is shit

I read.

I was a more voracious reader in my younger days, staying up till 4.00 am reading everything I can get my hands on. Now, I am more selective about what I read, takes a lot longer to read and try and savour the things I read. What remained unchanged all this time is my admiration for a certain Mr. Hemingway (I was giddy with pleasure when I found out that Hemingway is portrayed in all his creative glory in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). I am reading his “On Writing” these days and loved what he had to say about his “Old man and the sea.”

“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

I only wish there were more honest and less pretentious people in the world who would have the courage to say things like this.

Here is to the likes of Mr. Hemingway.

Feb 24, 2011 - published work, Society    23 Comments

Hum dekhain gay …

As someone who read up on 20th century revolutionaries quite a bit – although my readings were for mainly non-revolutionary reasons – I used to cringe every time I spotted a finance undergraduate or an aspiring MBA candidate in a Che Guevara T-shirt at my college campus in England. The irony of it almost never failed to hit me. Most of these kids were middle-class (in the British sense) or upper-class (in the Third World sense) whom Che would have shot without blinking his revolutionary eyes. But as we have all been forced to concede, Che is popular today not for his philosophy or political practice but for his face, i.e. as the quintessential postmodern icon, which means (relatively) different things to (relatively) different people.

In Pakistan too, after the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007, a new generation of urban youth has become enamored with the idea of revolutionary change. For them the closest thing to a homegrown, feelgood, postmodern iconoclast is the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The man and his poetry have become one big symbol of the underdog, the idealist, as well as the man or woman who is willing to suffer for a cause.

On the occasion of Faiz’s 100th birthday, many events were organized across the country to celebrate and commemorate his life and work. I was quite pleasantly surprised to see so many young people turning up at different venues to celebrate someone who consistently supported causes that were dangerous then and are passé now, and who wrote in a language that is no longer considered fashionable.

But my delight experienced an early demise after a series of unfortunate events that have led me to believe that Faiz is celebrated – just like Che – as a symbol rather than for what he actually believed or practiced. I have by now met too many wannabe revolutionaries who print out Faiz’s avant-garde anthem ‘Hum dekhain gay’ in the Roman alphabet and call themselves Faiz aficionados. Reading Faiz, or for that matter any great Urdu poet, in the Roman script alone is a sacrilege, but for such people to claim to be an authority on his very vast repertoire of outstanding work, when they have only a chorus in mind, is both hilarious and infuriating.

I recently met one such specimen of a Faiz fan at a Faiz fest (fittingly, if you’ll forgive all the effing). The interaction, though it was mercifully brief, convinced me that Pakistanis can trivialize just about anything. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

Boy: Isn’t Faiz awesome?

Me: I believe he is.

The Boy: Isn’t his revolutionary work great.

Me: I am not sure what you mean by revolutionary work but I assume you are referring to his poetry against tyranny.

Boy: Yeah. So what do you think about his work.

Me: I have not read a lot of Urdu poetry and cannot compare his work with others but I truly admire Faiz’s ability to relate his internal, subjective world to the larger world and the fact that his empathy for people transcended geographical boundaries…

The Boy: That’s cool. He wrote for people from other parts of the world?

Me: Yeah, he wrote for the Palestinians and the colonized Africans and he showed compassion for Bangladeshi people when no one dared to do so. Haven’t you read Aye Arz-e-Falasteen?

The Boy: I can’t read Urdu. My family recently moved back from England.

Me: How have you read Faiz if you can’t read Urdu?

Boy: Oh I haven’t read him. I only know the revolutionary bits like “Bol ke lub azad hain teray” and “Hum dekhain gay.” You know we sang them during the long march and all! They are freakin’ awesome.

Me: Errr… but you do realize that Faiz is a lot more than those two “revolutionary bits” as you have called them…?

Boy: Yeah but those are the ones that matter

That boy is not alone. During my stint as a teacher of undergraduates, I came across many students who were filled with a similar zeal and wanted to change the world through Faiz’s poetry. It’s quite interesting that for such Pakistani students Faiz is the only symbol of liberation from oppression and exploitation. They are not familiar with other poets of the time, such as Josh Malihabadi, Noon Meem Rashid or Habib Jalib, to name a few. In fact, during my class on popular social movements, Jalib was referred to as the “dude who wrote songs for the Band Laal.” Jalib must have been somersaulting in his grave after that.

Most young people who claim to be impressed by Faiz’s poetry are familiar only with his famous poems; and they don’t even understand those. During one of our discussions, I asked my students about their views on Faiz’s employment of the Arabic term Ana-al-haq (or ‘I am the Truth’), attributed to the martyred Sufi Mansur Hallaj. I was looking for a response about the political struggle, about how Faiz may have tried to relate it to the personal quest for self-actuation. But it drew a blank from all my students except one. When I pointed out that Ana-al-haq has been used in one of the most popular anthems of our times – none other than their “favourite” Faiz poem, that’s right, you got it, the one that goes ‘Hum dekhain gay’ – I was bombarded with excuses that ranged from “Urdu is very difficult to understand” to “the poetry was against people like Musharraf and Zardari and not about religion.”

The sad reality of our times is that Faiz – the revolutionary is expropriated by everyone and anyone who thinks Faiz’s words can serve their purpose, especially by people against whom most revolutions are targeted. From right wing politicians to rich kids who are sent to liberal arts colleges abroad on money their parents made by running sweat shops, Faiz is the poet everyone loves to recite to lend credence to their rhetoric. In 21st century revolution loving Pakistan, Faiz’s popularity among a certain section of society represents ignorant kitsch which should not be taken seriously. During a recent protest, some of such Faiz lovers who espouse revolutionary ideas expressed displeasure at marching with trade union activists because they did not smell good.

Reciting Faiz in a party or to quote him in a blog or to join a facebook page can never replace real activism. Real activism means de classing yourself and to give gut and blood to the ideology we believe in. In this day and age when “idiology” has replaced “ideology” how many of us can remain true to what we believe in and are willing to walk in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s formidable shoes.

A slightly edited version of this post has been published in The Friday Times


Jan 9, 2009 - Uncategorized    17 Comments

Screening the Sacred

While looking for some online reference material for an article I am writing, google lead me to a book called ‘Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film’ by Joel W. Martin, Conrad E. Ostwalt Jr.; Westview Press, 1995. 194 pgs. Because I have Questia membership, I tried locating it there and this is what Questia had to say:

Your account profile indicates you’re located in a country where Questia does not have the publisher’s permission to allow you access to this particular publication. Less than 5% of our publications have this restriction so we encourage you to search for an alternative publication or update your profile to correct any error in your country of residence.

We cannot even read about screening the sacred in another country! I wonder who is responsible for that. Is it the publishing house or the or the vile PTA that has put its foot down and does not want anything immoral to reach its audience?


Dec 16, 2008 - Uncategorized    37 Comments

Sugar daddy and Mr. Darcy

Just about everyone I know (that’s all of you my three friends and four acquaintances – dad doesn’t count because he is obviously biased) has been on my case that I should write fiction because they think I can do it. To be frank, I can do a lot of other stuff such as stay in bed the whole day, sleep with mascara on and eat a jar of nutella with spoon, but I have been never prompted to do any one that.

Honestly, I too hold a very high opinion about my writing skills and think I would be the next Helen Fielding/Zadie Smith/Kamila Shamsie – all rolled in one – if I do write. The problem is, I am not disciplined enough to write something substantial. The best I do manage is either this blog, or a few random articles I write for newspapers. For the past three years, I start something that is inspired/stimulated by whatever is going on with my excruciatingly dull life, write a couple of chapters and then lose interest. A friend suggested that Karachi is not loving enough to inspire creativity (he lives in Lahore and marvels at how Karachiites survive the pace of life) but we all know that it ranks way on top when it comes to flimsy excuses.

I have always blamed my zodiac sign for lack of focus in my life. I am Sagittarius and I read somewhere that Sagittarians are extremely flighty and cannot concentrate on anything for long. I just discovered that good ol’ Ms. Jane Austen was a fellow Sagittarian and if she had curbed her typical Sag fickle behaviour and sat down long enough to pen not one, but six novels and some other works, than I can do that too. The problem is, I have a pretty demanding job and whatever time I have apart from work, I spend it commuting. The woman who created the man most women would want to date – that’s a certain Mr Darcy for you – could not have done that while running a million errands every weekend and driving miles to and back from work during the weekdays. The problem is, I need to work to pay the bills, so I will continue to drive the length and breadth of Karachi – back and forth – in pursuit of livelihood and that great novel that I have in me will die with me.

I think I need a sugar daddy to pay my bills, the luxury of not working and the guilt of actually having a sugar daddy who pays my bills will prompt/jolt/nudge/push/shove me into writing fiction.

On a side note, if I ever get disciplined enough to actually write a novel, my hero would be nothing like Mr Darcy. Austen’s Darcy was twenty-eight years old, fairly good looking (or as good looking as a man can be in coattails and frilly shirts), quite judgmental and concerned with social status. My protagonist would be older, way cooler, non conformist to the core, far more intelligent, witty and street smart. In short, a 21st century thorough bad boy.

December 16th is Jane Austen’s Birthday.