Monday, June 4, 2012

Review - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson

Our introduction to Scarlett Johansson's character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells us that she's a film student who's just completed a twelve minute film about why love is hard to define. Most of Woody Allen's works are that film, not least this latest offering. On summer hols in Barcelona, we meet Vicky (Rebecca Hall) an earnest bluestocking responsibly engaged to a dependable (if lacklustre) partner, and Cristina (Johansson) a perky blonde libertine keen to discover herself through self-induced romantic torment. That they are stock characters of cinematic cliché isn't lost on a director of Allen's sophistication. Their personas are deliberately reduced to types, emphasised further by the hilarious commentary provided by the narrator's voiceover (which tells us, for example, that right-on Vicky is studying to complete 'a Masters in Catalan Identity'). Throw in another stock character, Latin lover Juan Antonio (Xavier Bardem), an intense artist (but of course!) and a seducer so candid and reasonable that it seems uncouth not to go to bed with the man. It is a conclusion reached sooner or later by both girls.

Vicky is seduced somewhat reluctantly (but in record time) while Cristina gives herself with extravagant abandon hoping to induce some tumult within. While Vicky subsequently resigns herself to humdrum married life, Juan Antonio proceeds to embark on a live-in relationship not just with Cristina but also his ex-wife – wild-haired, mad-eyed artist Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). They settle into a threesome very much in the manner of Sartre, du Beauvoir and Bianca Bienenfeld. All of them find love but none of them keep it. Come to think of it, Woody Allen films aren't about how hard love is to define, they're about how hard it is to stomach.

There's something fitting about this film being shot in Spain. The golden architecture in the languid Barcelonan light suits this languidly paced venture. Allen's pace hasn't changed over the years; it's delicate and thoughtful, what modern cinema-goers impatiently refer to as 'slow'. It was unremarkable in his 70s heyday, when films were known to breathe and think, today it seems positively European. This is not a movie hurtling towards a conclusion; it meanders quietly in one direction and then the next, with characters spending at least as much time thinking as acting. Allen's got milder with age and there are moments when the film meanders a tad too long, verging on aimless loitering. It could be said that too many couples spoil the broth (along with the aforementioned, there's also a Patricia Clarkson subplot I shan't even bother trying to touch upon). While it's never dull, the film doesn't seem to commit to one idea, and aims to cover too much ground. This is, I suppose, the problem with trying to make cinema out of a philosophic debate, is romantic love sustainable? Still, the script is word-perfect, and Rebecca Hall makes an utterly charming new avatar of Diane Keaton, anxious, pensive, and with an eerily Allen-esque sense of delivery. The Latin lovers, Cruz and Bardem are fun to watch but comic-book incendiary, and clearly borrowed whole from Almodovar. Johansson is perfectly adequate, and given nothing complicated to do. Though she brings a certain freshness to the role of sexually precocious ingénue, the more I watch her movies, the more I suspect this eminent director may be thinking with his pants in casting her three times in a row.

Within the warren of the storyline, Allen explores his customary concerns, including the bohemian neuroses of a particular social milieu and the impossibility of love. It's all familiar terrain; Allen has built a career on the affectionate (and self-deprecating) lampooning of pseudo-intellectuals and artistic self-discovery. Love, he concludes, is ever unattainable. It's only sexy if it's complicated or unrequited. Once you're in a relationship, the grass is always greener in someone else's bedroom, and if you shun romance altogether, well, then you're miserable anyway. The happiest couple in this movie are the destructively passionate Bardem and Cruz, who simply cannot be together – I don't mean they make scenes in restaurants, I mean people get stabbed when these two argue. As Cruz explains about her relationship in what is essentially the moral of the story, "It'll always be romantic because it cannot be complete." This is the sorrow at the heart of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it is this uncomfortable revelation about the nature of romantic love that lingers. It has been a running theme of Woody Allen's for some thirty years now (one wonders how it escaped the attention of Mia Farrow) and was articulated most memorably by Diane Keaton in Love & Death: "To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review - Our Lady of Alice Bhatti in TNR

Jonathan Swift in Karachi

by Faiza S Khan

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

by Mohammed Hanif

Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95

A FEW CHAPTERS into Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, the titular protagonist relaxes on a stretcher between shifts at the chaotic Karachi hospital where she is employed as a nurse. On the wall behind her, a torn poster reads, Bhai, your blood will bring a revolution. Someone has scribbled under it with a marker: And that revolution will bring more blood. Someone else has added Insha’Allah, in an attempt to introduce divine intervention to the proceedings. Some more down-to-earth soul has tried to give this revolution a direction, and drawn an arrow underneath and scribbled, Bhai, the Blood Bank is in Block C.

One could reasonably suspect that this “more down-to-earth soul” is the author Mohammed Hanif, making a Hitchcockian cameo appearance, for it seems to be just this gift for applying logic to absurdity that has allowed him to compose a comical love story out of a frothing, roiling sea of rage in an extravagantly dysfunctional society. And this is not one of those uplifting, life-affirming stories of love, salvation, and the innate dignity of the human condition amidst suffering and degradation, either. No, here the ceremony of innocence is officially drowned. Drowned? People are wading through the water trying not to get electrocuted.

Hanif’s new novel, which follows on his wonderful debut, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, centers on Alice Bhatti, a janitor’s daughter and a Christian in a country increasingly consumed with fanatical bigotry. (Last year Pakistan witnessed the assassinations of the Governor of the Punjab, and the Minister for Minority Affairs, for daring to speak up on behalf of Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian community.) Alice is a Pakistani “untouchable,” if not formally by caste as in India, then by default. With hypocrisy being religious zealotry’s most natural ally, she is not quite untouchable enough; the pious Muslim men who refuse on principal to share a drinking vessel with her have no such qualms about trying to cop a feel on the bus.

Hers is not a piteous tale of victimhood, though. By the time we meet the twenty-seven-year-old Alice, she has already done time at a juvenile correctional facility for assault, and later, when sexual favors are demanded of her at gunpoint, she takes a razor blade to her attacker’s favorite appendage. Not that she deliberately puts herself in these situations, mind you. Street-smart and self-possessed, she makes every effort to keep her head down, having spent “not a single day” working in Accidents & Emergencies, “when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.” Even without following the news, “it seemed the city was full of serial killers.” She knows better than to have expectations of legal recourse, observing that “nobody was surprised; there were no police detectives sitting around matching clues, no parliamentary subcommittees discussing ways of saving this endangered species.”

Hanif’s magnificently acerbic critique of the sorry state of women’s rights in Pakistan is possessed by a Swiftian spirit. Alice “looks at these battered bodies on the floor of the A&E and tries to figure out the rules of this sport.” She “thinks she’s identified the type of woman who attracts the wrong kind of attention, who stumbles from one man who wants to slap her to another man who wants to chop off her nose…” As a result, she “tries to maintain a nondescript exterior,” avoiding eye-contact and conversation, along with precautions such as walking around rather than leaping over puddles as “any act that involves stretching her legs may send the wrong signal.” In addition she “never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.”

But she does accept a proposal of marriage—throwing caution to the wind, as marriage has been known to be a leading cause of grievous bodily harm and death among Pakistani women. While the Muslim groom, Teddy Butt, seems to make for an unlikely beau—he falls on the somewhat unreconstructed, not to mention mildly deranged, side—he is an oddly endearing man, in fact the novel’s most endearing character. While we see plenty of Alice, she is a surefooted heroine who can sometimes be so sensible as to verge on the remote. We get Teddy warts and all. He is a body builder (“Junior Mr. Faisalabad”) and a police informant. The job options that he has rejected include bodyguard to rich kids and fitness trainer, which seem to him “a bit effeminate.” With “almost no flair for physical violence,” he himself is not a killer, merely one who provides “valet parking for the angels of death”; his experience of escorting one such victim to his grave makes for one of the novel’s high points.

Teddy is made flesh and blood by his vulnerability, by his almost constant air of mild bewilderment. Alice, at the bottom of the food chain, is able to take a coldly analytical view of society. Teddy has so far not felt any great need to do so. He has formed his code of conduct, his understanding of human nature, in particular of sexual relationships, from what is considered the norm for a Muslim man in his position. His worldview is an amalgam of snippets he can retain from newspapers and dodgy advice administered by his police squad colleagues. And so he is deeply bewildered. His experiences with “romantic love” are so barbaric as to induce pity for him along with the women in question. “Twice he has come close to conceding love. Once he gave a fifty-rupee tip to a prostitute” and another time he “only pretended to take his turn” with a prisoner offered to him after being gang-raped by the police.

During his courtship of Alice, hopped up on love—an inexplicable new emotion—Teddy fires a bullet into the air, which causes a car accident, mobilizes a lynch mob, and manages to set off a three day riot leaving scores dead. Its telling is as amusing as it is tragic for being an entirely plausible scenario in a city where countless numbers are routinely lost to utterly random violence, a city where everyone seems pent up enough to eternally be a hair’s breadth away from erupting.

As for Pakistan’s upper classes, they make only rare appearances in this novel, and always as vile sexual predators, insulating themselves from Alice Bhatti’s life with small battalions of private guards, hidden away on the other side of doors that close with “a discreet, expensive VIP click.” Our Lady of Alice Bhatti inhabits a world where “I found a baby in the main drain at the Ideal Housing Society” is an acceptable opening gambit over a meal. It is a world where a fading, cancer-ridden woman’s son is asked by the hospital to check if his mother’s dead yet, as the bed is needed. All the animals that wander into the story are maimed, bloodied, and mad with hunger, with half-torn ears and protruding ribs. This is no place for those who rely on the goodness of human nature, or indeed, the humanness of human nature. Hanif’s disgust is evident throughout, “Beggars were trying new tricks every day, pretending to be white-collar workers fallen on bad times … to soften hearts that had hardened in the face of the bottomless greed of half-naked children and droopy, blind old women.”

Innovatively structured, in loose, almost episodic chapters, every section of the book has its own self-contained narrative. While Hanif’s humorous colloquial tone and his deftness at juxtaposing brutality and farce are his biggest gifts, the jokes are occasionally piled on too thick. There are moments when the temptation to apply a mallet to a nail already hit on the head would have been better resisted. But these are quibbles. In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel dealing with these themes would run the risk of turning didactic and self-righteous. But Hanif’s skewering wit and his acute journalistic sense of observation consistently shine through. This is a brisk, biting narrative, entirely shorn of sentimentality and exoticism, and fuelled by an anger born of deep compassion.

Faiza S. Khan is a Karachi-based columnist and literary critic, and editor-in-chief of The Life’s Too Short Literary Review: The Magazine of New Writing From Pakistan.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Between Clay and Dust review

Musharraf Ali Farooqi's novel Between Clay and Dust reviewed in The Caravan Magazine, May, 2012

On the first issue of Hello! Pakistan

The Hottest Place in Hello! 

FOR ALL the coverage it has received in Pakistan and in the international press, anyone might think Hello! Pakistan — neither Pakistan’s first glossy social magazine, nor Pakistan’s first international franchise — means something. That is the only possible explanation for the miasma of self-righteousness that rose to greet it from some quarters. As the situation in the country deteriorates, a spot of frivolity — like the publication ofHello! or the country’s numerous fashion weeks — is received within Pakistan in one of two ways, both of which induce murderous rage in your humble correspondent. It is either hailed as a triumph of progressiveness despite being limited to a fraction of a fraction of the elite who are already as progressive as they’re going to get or then greeted with outrage as an insult to the poor and the suffering.

Somehow, I suspect the beggar child feebly scratching at the car window is least concerned with whether one is sprawled in the backseat reading a lifestyle magazine or Das Kapital. Naturally, it is right to be appalled by the gaping chasm between rich and poor but do then remember it each time you dole out a half of your cleaning lady’s pay for a meal at a nice restaurant or switch on your air conditioner or plan a vacation or go to the hospital or buy bottled water; and not just at the publication of a magazine that merely showcases an aspect of society that exists and will continue to exist whether or not it’s chronicled by Hello!.

That said, turns out much of the pre-emptive scoffing directed at the advent of Hello! has been entirely justified. I’ve spent much of the past few years on the edge of my seat poised to take violent umbrage to the international media’s coverage of the Pakistani elites’, shall we say cultural activities, eternally (and disingenuously) juxtaposed with the Pakistan of the Taliban. In this instance, the foreign press has, against all odds, taken a relatively sophisticated approach, crediting the magazine with being one of the many Pakistans that co-exist. I suspect, what with Hello!’s pages intended as the stomping ground of millionaires, of pop and film stars, polo players and minor royals who shan’t ever ascend anything but a ski slope — even the most sensationalist journalist would feel a tad sheepish trying to seek out meaning in it. But never you mind, that mantle has been taken on by the magazine itself.

The publishers note reads: “It is unfortunate that, of late, Pakistan’s image has been dulled by the shadow of bad press.” Silly me, then, for naïvely thinking Pakistan was to blame for Pakistan’s image. The editor’s note continues in much the same vein, in fact, what Pakistan looks like from abroad forms the running theme of this premier issue. Now, call me shallow, but I buy Hello! for the gracious drawing rooms, and the antique chandeliers, for photos of the well-heeled on holiday, for details of their gratifyingly vulgar weddings. Instead, I get a cover story on Sean Penn speaking on humanitarian efforts in Badin, our sole Oscar winner (who speaks very well but has already been interviewed at great length) on what her documentary means to the country, designers Sana Safinaz commenting on the country’s perceived radical image, Vikram Seth and Shobhaa Dé on how much Indians and Pakistanis really love each other, and an interview of Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, who I believe earns a medal for Most Diplomatic Soundbyte of recent years, “I think it’s a wonderful country. And yes, it has problems, but then even in Spain we have problems”.

That's all well and good but one can’t help but wonder what this is doing in a publication sold to Pakistanis in Pakistan who presumably form their opinion of the country by living in it. I’d wanted to resist the temptation of quoting Lionel Richie but when it comes to its target market one must ask, “Hello!, is it me you’re looking for?” I fear this is the editorial team’s attempt at making good on their threat of being a “socially responsible” publication as they’d stated in an earlier press release. God only knows why, when one requires them to be a great deal more sassy, ballsy and unapologetically decadent if they’re to put together the entertaining piece of fluff that is required of them.

For Tehelka Magazine, April 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Postcard from Ha Long Bay

A Dutch couple, two Pakistani journalists, five British teenagers, a beautiful Portuguese traveller and a Vietnamese tour operator set out to explore the caves of Ha Long Bay. Once they’ve climbed into a subterranean dreamscape of stalagmites and stalactites, there is an earthquake and the cave begins to collapse, threatening to bury them alive. They have to get over their differences and work together to survive. In another scenario, the same people are lounging on a boat. The beautiful, bitchy girl is lying by the edge, with her arm extending into the water when SPLASH, something rises out of the murky depths and drags her in before eating her whole. These are some of the potential summer blockbusters I concocted while sailing up Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of thousands of steep, forested cliffs and islands rising out of a jade green sea. It’s beautiful no doubt, but it’s like dating for looks rather than personality. It gets dull real fast.

Thankfully, the boat oozed personality. The traditional Indochinese wooden boats that dart around these waters with their high sterns and square sails are known as junks. The term would prove entirely appropriate for our vessel, the Cong Nhia. After kicking open the door (the wood of which had swollen and warped in the sea air), we found a cabin the size of a bathroom and a bathroom the size of a shower cubicle. The cabin’s solitary bulb didn’t cast enough light to read by, which turned out to be a blessing, since it also meant one was spared a close examination of the bed sheets. There was no choice but to socialise with the other passengers, a gaggle of cheerful British gap year students and three travellers.

While I’m all for seeing the world, it must be said that I loathe professional travellers. You know who I mean, Europe’s unwashed masses that set out to see the ‘real’ Vietnam/India/Brazil. You find them at the seediest dives in town, trying earnestly to following local customs, eating food that beggars would pass up, bathing sporadically at best – imagining they’re enjoying the ‘real’ city. They wouldn’t dare visit Hanoi’s exquisite French colonial opera house, despite the fact that actual Vietnamese people sometimes do that too. Other than the condescending assumption that one has to live like a pig in order to understand the third world, I hate the falseness of the whole exercise. European travellers only speak to other travellers, they sleep rough but have $1,200 medical insurance. They want the appearance of hardship with none of the consequences.

The insights of the travellers on our boat were limited to calling places 'beautiful' or 'commercial' and referring to entire populations as ‘nice’ or ‘very nice’ (apparently the Burmese are all lovely, quick, someone tell the United Nations). Travellers aren’t interested in reality, they don’t travel to experience countries as locals do, they come for a quick fix of Poverty: The Theme Park and then leave satisfied that it’s lived down to their expectations.

For The Herald, June 2010

Review - Ismat Chughtai's A Life in Words

The Indian publishing market is flourishing. It has recently started laying claim to throwing off its colonial shackles and producing work solely for an Indian market. A critical and not just commercial success is something that is well-received in India; the approval of the English-speaking West is unimportant.

India’s numerous literary prizes, often too numerous to find deserving books to award them to, have yet to really reflect this trend and tend to go to an India as seen more or less from the outside. This is reflected in the general paucity of quality translations from Indian languages. To not offer to an increasingly English-speaking reading market the best of this country’s peerlessly rich, diverse and plentiful canon going back to time immemorial, is, well, plain bizarre. If you think it’s going too far to say it’s the equivalent of not being able to find Charles Dickens in England, then at least allow me to say it’s like not being able to choose from an array of translations of Beowulf. While the dearth of quality translations doesn’t, mercifully, stem from the same reasoning, it is, in effect, like living with Franco’s predilection for banning books.

Shavian moralist: Chughtai’s writing on women and religion was often pegged as controversial.

Shavian moralist: Chughtai’s writing on women and religion was often pegged as controversial.

The first thing one notices on starting the short story writer, feminist, educationalist and iconoclast Ismat Chughtai’s remarkable memoirs, A Life in Words: Memoirs, with due credit to M. Asaduddin’s elegant translation, is how utterly unselfconscious, unaffected and natural the writing seems. It isn’t bogged down with explanations of everyday objects and rituals. There is no positioning of the voice within some sort of global (that is, white) context. One isn’t looking in as if from the outside. The writer is merely the writer and hasn’t taken it upon herself to act also as interpreter. It allows for a wealth of subtlety often lost in subcontinental writing in English.

And subtlety is Chughtai’s forte. Hailing from an educated, liberal Muslim family, the sort that educated their children equally in the Quran, Farsi and Urdu literature, with her elder brother already a well-known writer in her teens, Chughtai is best known for her stories about the lives of middle-class Indian women. If her sensitive, thoughtful work is pegged as controversial, it must also be said that it only causes a flutter among those who adamantly refuse to see the world for what it is. Writing largely on women, religion and the domestic sphere, she neither generalizes nor preaches, as she knows her subject far too intimately for that sort of artless moralizing.

Nevertheless, Chughtai as moralist—and that too of the Shavian school—is a major feature of her life and work. “From a young age we were aware that there was some distinction between Hindus and Muslims. Outward profession of brotherhood went hand in hand with discreet caution... They talked about enlightenment and liberal ideas, professed deep love for each other, and recounted tales of great sacrifice for each other. The English were held to be the main culprits. All this would go on while the elders were secretly nervous about the children doing something that would defile the purity of religion!”

While one would wish to imagine it otherwise, this split between private sphere and public face, between conversational and actual liberalism hasn’t exactly faded into oblivion. Chughtai’s unforgiving eye picks it out in the details. If their Hindu guests weren’t due, “then seekh kebab and roast chicken would have been cooked; lauki raita and dahi bade would not have been prepared. The difference between ‘cooked’ and ‘prepared’ was interesting.”

A Life In Words—Memoirs: Penguin India, 282 pages, Rs 499.

A Life In Words—Memoirs: Penguin India, 282 pages, Rs. 499.

In the first chapter itself, Chughtai, quite casually, while discussing her fiction, puts forward theories over which contemporary feminists are still fighting pitched battles, “If a wife stays with her husband simply because he is her provider, then she’s as helpless as a prostitute.” She disapproves of purdah, but when writing about women, manages to focus on what’s in a woman’s head rather than what’s on top of it.

Her own marriage is a subject largely absent from this memoir, other than her initial reluctance to get married at all, and her husband’s threats of divorce during the notorious censorship trial of Lihaaf. A Life in Words focuses more on her education, her writing, and her struggle to become the first Indian Muslim woman to get both a bachelor’s degree in arts and a bachelor’s in education degree. This is enough for a memoir, but it’s a shame nonetheless. She is so perceptive when it comes to pointing out the myriad ways in which women are oppressed and the way in which they get around this, as in the account of Mangu, the coachman’s daughter, who feigns demonic possession to get away with hitting her mother-in-law when finally tired of being at the receiving end of beatings.

Women manipulate, she deduces, as fairness is often not an option for them. Hers is the feminism, the defiance, learnt from a full engagement with life and not by rote and politically correctly from books, often from entirely different cultural contexts. She advises the reader quite simply to “talk to people”, to engage with them, to ask them questions, to understand the context of their life before attempting to understand them. If only the various Pakistani op-ed writers who present “I asked the driver” as their most profound communication with a class outside themselves, would listen.

Chughtai does not position herself as a crusading truth-teller. She is far too honest and straightforward for the truth to be a special mission; it is, quite simply, the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the moving account of her and Saadat Hasan Manto’s obscenity trials which happened to come up before the same judge on the same day.

She has far more social clout than the beleaguered Manto, and the judge calls her into his anteroom for a private conversation, “‘I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is Lihaaf. Manto’s writings are often littered with filth.’

‘The world is also littered with filth,’ I said in a feeble voice.

‘Is it necessary to rake it up, then?’

‘If it is raked up it becomes visible, and people feel the need to clean it up.’”

In March 30th 2012

On the second Karachi Literature Festival

Authors without Border

So let me just get this out of the way right now—there is no similarity between the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), which was held from 11-12 February, other than that their acronyms rhyme, and both are free only in the sense of entry being gratis. KLF—now in its third year—enjoys a fraction of JLF’s attendance and even less of its flash—Oprah Winfrey shan’t be attending any time soon and I suspect even Richard Dawkins would entertain the possibility of it being a cold day in hell were he to find himself speaking there.

There are no glamorous publishers’ parties because, for all the talk of a Pakistani “literary boom”, lucrative local publishing houses can be counted on the fingers of one hand with enough fingers left over to play Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3 on a grand piano. That said, the third Karachi Literature Festival, running over two days and offering 50 or so sessions with participants including Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Mirza Waheed, Ahmed Rashid, Shobhaa De, Mohsin Hamid, Siddhartha Deb, and Mohammed Hanif made for a cracking weekend, in spite of the organizing body’s unfortunate penchant for cliquishness when it comes to some less international figures.

Writer Hanif Kureishi (left). Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Writer Hanif Kureishi (left). Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Proceedings kicked off with Shobhaa De, whose immensely readable pulpy novels can be found front and centre in most Karachi bookshops. “Karachi and Mumbai”, she began, to applause, “are like Amitabh (Bachchan) movies in which brothers are separated at birth”. Diplomatically, she omitted to mention which brother became the cop and which one the robber. It was more depressing than surprising that Hanif Kureishi’s session was relatively ill-attended. Growing up in England I recall Kureishi as perhaps the only British Asian public figure whose often provocative work explored life far beyond the lazy, trite and incalculably popular notion of culture-clash defining identity, as if not being white is nothing short of a crisis. With trademark mordancy, Kureishi related the story of protests by the Pakistan Action Committee upon the release of My Beautiful Laundrette, “They told me there were no homosexuals in Pakistan. Having been fondled all over South Asia I have to say that I wasn’t absolutely convinced”.

What with politics being nothing short of a religion for the middle-aged Pakistani male—it came as no surprise that journalist and policy analyst Anatol Lieven’s panel discussion held at an enormous venue—was still bursting at the seams. From the back of the hall, all that was visible was a sea of balding bureaucratic pates in different stages of eminence, held rapt by the exceptionally—and I thought needlessly—adversarial moderation. While it was a perfectly competent session, if not the most exciting, the Pakistan that one actually lives in was revealed more perceptively in the session about comedy—which is appropriate, given the state of things.

Authorspeak: A session at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012. Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

Authorspeak: A session at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012. Photo: Maaz Khan/ British Council Pakistan

I can safely say that Satire/Comedy with Ali Aftab Saeed of the Beygairat Brigade, responsible for the phenomenally popular satirical song Aalu Anday, and stand-up comic Saad Haroon was the liveliest and wittiest discussion I’ve heard this year. Too many discussions about Pakistan are steeped in nostalgia and given to hypothetical analyses, strategizing and the inner workings of governance, which most of us have little to do with.

To hear about political satire from young people who are very much the product of the current environment was, I thought, a great deal more useful, not to mention entertaining, and certainly the hugely responsive young audience lining the aisles thought so too. The most winning aspect of it was their honesty and lack of bumptiousness. Asked why satirists were so selective in choosing victims—politicians are attacked far more frequently and with far more relish than religious figures or, say, the Inter-Services Intelligence, Saad Haroon responded, “It’s selective because we’re scared”. The response to why he worked in English was “You can get away with a lot more in English because nobody cares”—something very few Pakistanis writing in English for a Western audience care to acknowledge.

The show-stopper, ultimately, was young Saeed, who, when told by an audience member that she was both scared for his personal safety and worried that he’d sell out, answered, and I translate, “I’m also scared for the former and deeply desirous of the latter”.

Often the problem with artists, performers and literati branding themselves as brave in Pakistan is that there are always plenty of people whose daily life involves far more courage than the act of saying something mildly controversial in comparatively safe surroundings, confident of some public support. While I’m sure you can come up with a few examples from your own backyard, from our end I’ll raise you Fatima Bhutto (who naturally was not in attendance, never speaking in Pakistan other than at her book launch a few years ago). I applaud Haroon and Saeed for having the integrity and the good sense to not try their hand at that old chestnut.

Published in 17th February 2012

Review - Granta Pakistan

In The Caravan, November 2012

Trouble at Sheikh Villa - on the life and times of Sheikh Amer Hassan

Sheikh Villa is a lean townhouse in the middle of Karachi’s Zamzama, a centrally located grid of streets boasting designer boutiques, shoe shops, expensive restaurants and swanky cafés, with an arms and ammunition outlet calmly occupying a vast storefront between them. In its day, which ran from the early noughties up until the owner’s execution in August 2008, Sheikh Villa was one of the city’s best-known hangouts for people who loosely fell within the parameters of Karachi ‘Society’ (the ‘High’ goes unspoken, and for good reason).

Night after night, the great and the good—by which I mean the affluent, the vaguely glamorous and their hangers-on—could be found here drinking cocktails, exchanging bons mots and lustful glances, and doing the odd line of blow right off the sleek black counter of the bar. The country’s codes of enforced modesty and conspicuous piety do not apply to this cosy club, a fact that everyone has cottoned on to, barring a few sloppy foreign correspondents.

Pakistan’s people’s parties have always comprised the usual suspects: landowners, politicians, scions of industry, high-ranking bureaucrats, generals, colonels and a sprinkling of professionals largely from families of landowners, politicians and so forth. It’s a clique within a clique: high school with real power and some serious lunch money. A running joke is that directions in Pakistan are never given on the basis of road names and house numbers: one is asked if one knows X’s house, then told to take a left from that, till one gets to Y’s house, and it’s next door. If you don’t know the people whose homes form these landmarks, you can’t get anywhere. Literally.

The 30-something host at Sheikh Villa bucked this trend. He appeared to buck all trends. Sheikh Amer Hassan was a dandy—a fey, self-styled eccentric with a penchant for hats, often found withstanding the sticky heat of this seaside city in a three-piece suit and cravat, pipe in hand. Or an extravagantly embroidered sherwani, or perhaps a denim shirt set off by a wide diamanté necklace. His shoulder-length hair was most often seen pulled back in a Transylvanian-via-Hammer-horror style. He stood tall, holding himself in the manner of a man forever in the thrall of the photographer’s viewfinder.

Hassan came from a professional background of lawyers and doctors, a family that qualified as successful but not prominent. This did not stop him from bestowing a medieval coat-of-arms upon his titular residence, a crown atop a golden shield held up at both sides by unicorns. This crest made appearances on his crockery, cushion covers and hand towels. In lieu of a motto, it read: ‘Sheikh Villa, Estd 2002’.

The juxtaposition of the coat-of-arms and the date seems an irreverent masterstroke, the work of someone thumbing his nose at the closed ranks of the old ways. But it was not a send-up, unfortunately. At least, no more so than the characteristics of Hassan himself and his boudoirof a home. One was able to ascertain on briefest acquaintance with the man that the coat-of-arms was sincerely aspirational.

Hassan flattered his guests by honing in on their areas of interest, from parties to poetry, and being all things to all men. In his home, he played courtier, not the one holding court. The walls were covered with framed photographs and documents, including contributions from a few A-listers, the apex being a letter from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, the tail-end some rather dubious Pakistani models and hairstylists, with some of Boney M’s original line-up featuring somewhere in between. Hassan was to the Pakistani social pages what tourists are to the Eiffel Tower: ever-present. He dominated the weekend supplements of the mid-noughties: Hassan having friends over for a soirée in time, Hassan throwing a casual get-together, Hassan celebrating birthdays; his own, his friends’ and, in one inspired spread, his cat’s.

His official website of achievements (and then some) proclaims that Sheikh Amer Hassan, after his graduation from the Bournville College of Arts, became ‘an established name in the British fashion industry’. There is no evidence of this, of course. Even within Pakistan, a place where girls who are photographed on billboards in more than two urban centres can airily lay claim to the term ‘supermodel’, and where arranging a fashion show earns one the title of ‘fashion choreographer’, Hassan’s credentials are met with great scepticism. He was appointed fashion designer for an independent local TV channel for a stint, he had been interviewed as a Pakistani fashion designer by the BBC, but the general consensus was that he had bragged his way into these gigs. A few months before his passing, he excitedly publicised his fashion show in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina—that is, absolutely nowhere, even by Pakistani standards. Following his death, several popular designers went on record to say that the few fashion shows he held featured the work of design students and that his portfolio consisted of clothes borrowed from other designers.


To the dispassionate observer, Karachi may not seem the obvious choice to follow Paris, London, New York and Milan while sizing up global fashion capitals, but people locally seem to have a different impression. The culture pages of newspapers, at a respectful distance from the pages that list the bombs and death tolls, are filled with fashion people: models, designers and the aforementioned fashion choreographers. This may appear paradoxical in such close proximity to the Taliban heartland, but in fact both stem from the same root cause—religion, or, rather, Pakistan’s application of it, along with a determination to craft a decidedly Pakistani identity detached from its own history.

Deemed ‘un-Islamic’—or that other no-no, ‘Indian’—several art forms that once thrived in this region have now gone extinct. The film industry is defunct for all practical purposes, dance has been all but wiped out, theatrical productions and music concerts are few and far between, and art shows are small and hold limited appeal. This gaping cultural vacuum has come to be occupied by God for some people and by conspicuous consumption for others. For the wealthy, there is little to do but wear their status on their sleeve, buy expensive clothes and be seen by others who buy them. While concerts and festivals have been increasingly driven underground by the constant threat of terrorism, fashion remains something that the elite have clung to with great tenacity, revealing the priorities shaped by two-three decades of cultural deprivation.

After the devastating earthquake of 2005, no one batted an eyelid when funds were raised through a concert and fashion show, intended to celebrate Pakistani culture, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Spending is officially an art form, if not the primary art form. In the last few years, the fashion industry in Pakistan has not just retained its clientele but expanded, with national ‘fashion weeks’ becoming the latest trend. And while fashion has grown fat as the arts have grown lean, Musharraf’s media boom and comparatively liberal tenure made it all the more visible in the public eye. His term ended in tears, with the Taliban at the gates of the capital, the judiciary suspended, independent TV channels forced off air, and Pakistan briefly joining that notorious fraternity of countries that ban the BBC. But before the General lost the plot, there was a golden age. Well, ‘golden’ might be overstating it a tad; since Musharraf’s drive for Enlightened Moderation tended to hover at the surface of things, ‘the gilded age’ might be closer to the truth. Along with paving the way for independent broadcasting, taking the country from just two TV channels to over a hundred, his unfulfilled desire for Pakistan to adopt a more relaxed religiosity and his modest economic boom ushered a new class into the spotlight.

Fifteen years ago, if you weren’t part of the soigné set, a night out would comprise a drive to the marketplace to browse shoe shops and bookstores and perhaps have a meal and an ice-cream. Whatever happened at private parties stayed within the confines of those homes. Since that time, the glitterati has outglowed its own spectacle. There are TV channels that exclusively cover red carpet events, and, in imitation of glam events in the West, red carpets have come to roll out for absolutely everything from the opening of a fast food restaurant to a book launch.

It is something of a triumph of style over substance; imitative modernity executed so shabbily, it’s almost touching. This is a homegrown celebrity culture that goes beyond the traditional domain of sports and politics. Those beautiful (or at least affluent-looking) young people you see with their easy air of entitlement and glittering lifestyles are having fun, and in this very country! And so everyone wants a piece of it.

The noughties have seen ‘fun’ become the hot new commodity. In a country where the law calls for prohibition, resulting in a lack of bars, pubs and nightclubs, event management has become another boom industry. Whereas ten years ago, New Year’s Eve for the elite was restricted to charity balls at exclusive establishments, now that media boomers and other professionals have a disposable income too, there are ticketed parties being organised by the dozen, with private bars, imported flowers and fig and brie hors d’oeuvres. ‘Party planner’ is now a profession, and one that mints money. Just as crucially, the old guard, while still exclusively marrying one another, is mingling with people their parents didn’t go to school with, whose family trees they are not familiar with. It is all still a private little world away from the Pakistan of the street, where you can be arrested for blasphemy on a whim, but it is a world that has recently started granting a certain element of social mobility.


An association with fashion, as Sheikh Amer Hassan deduced, was the easiest entrée to that world. He became, in lieu of clothing from his alleged fashion house, his own greatest creation, with his outlandish dress sense, his stylised manner and his over-exposed lifestyle. Famous for being an exhaustively familiar face on the people pages, in the fawning social columns that sang odes to his parties and celebrity guests, and briefly as the host of a fashion-related talk show, Hassan all but out-Warholed Warhol and became the patron saint of nothing. While he was sneered at behind his back, and sometimes to his face, this did not stop Karachi’s pretty people from flocking to his home. Anything for a good time in a country where the only way to entertain yourself is to drink, wear or snort your money.

However, Hassan was dogged by uglier rumours than mere tales of his ridiculous extravagance. Anecdotal evidence from his extended social circle suggested that he had a penchant for young boys. The grapevine went so far as to whisper that part of his income, supplementing his TV stipend, came from supplying young boys to interested parties. Despite the talk, and there was plenty of it, nothing was done. A columnist quipped at a party that this was the country where serial killer Javed Iqbal had to hand himself over to the police after they failed to notice that he had killed an alleged hundred children. Some started turning down Hassan’s invitations, but not enough for the good times to die down at the Villa.

When Karachi awoke on 30 August 2008 to find that Hassan’s body had been discovered at his home, bound, gagged and shot twice in the face and once in the head, people were shocked but not necessarily surprised. Two brothers, 19-year-old Saad Farooq and 23-year-old Ameer Hamza, students from a town in Punjab, were arrested for his murder. Statements in the papers varied, but the boys’ confession claimed that Hassan had tried to rape the younger brother. A leading broadsheet said that Hassan bartered sexual favours on the promise of making the boy a model. The Sheikh Villa regulars went mysteriously quiet and were at pains to distance themselves from their former friend. Hassan’s was an ill-attended funeral, in sharp contrast to a typical night at his swinging pad.

The boys were arrested with what seemed like overwhelming evidence: bloodstained clothing, records of phone calls to and from Hassan in the early hours of the morning just prior to his murder, and, if that wasn’t enough, a smoking gun. The evidence was deemed insubstantial, however, and in 2010 they were both acquitted, without a fuss, with barely a mention in the papers or in social circles. In a country steeped in the politics of revenge, there is a comfortable consensus that Hassan “had it coming”. A member of the bureaucratic elite, who doesn’t wish to be named but was a regular at Hassan’s gatherings, says that he believes the boys come from a feudal Punjabi family and that there was no way the clan was going to let their children be charged with “the death of a nobody” like Hassan.

If Hassan is representative of the beginnings of a New Pakistan, set on its path by Musharraf’s media boom, it appears Old Pakistan will triumph over it every time. Sheikh Amer Hassan’s website, which is still up and running, seems simultaneously deluded and prescient in its sign-off to the page celebrating his home: ‘Oh, I so very truly love life in this post-partition subcontinent now called Pakistan where life can be so exciting… and everything so possible. Pakistan is the place, the ultimate land of opportunity. Thank you, every one, for being part of my fantasy called Sheikh Villa.’

Published in Five Dials and

Review - Aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower

One of the most successful debuts of recent years, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger was alternately lauded for exposing the seamier side of the Indian success story—as if he were a journalist with breaking news—and criticised for the hypocrisy of attempting to create a protagonist inhabiting a vastly different social strata than the author’s—somehow missing the point of fiction being the ability to make things up convincingly. With few exceptions, the most notable being Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s scorching literary critique for theLondon Review of Books, the response to The White Tiger, as is too often the case with critical responses to writing from outside the Western world, tended towards being anthropological rather than literary, weighing up India rather than Adiga. Perhaps this can explain to some extent why his latest book places far greater emphasis on its message than on its execution as a novel.

In Last Man in Tower, Adiga expounds on his usual subject, the India beneath the glitz of the much-vaunted economic boom. A fat tome weighing in at over 400 pages, and billed as a cracking thriller, it’s hinged on a simple premise: a somewhat dodgy real estate developer wishes to knock down a creaky Mumbai apartment block, and all the residents—barring one—are eager to pocket the generous compensation package for moving out. As he becomes the only thing standing between the tower-dwellers and a lucrative deal, his situation progresses from being merely inconvenient to downright dangerous. Of course, it’s not really about interpersonal relationships souring due to the promise of cold hard cash, it’s about the number of people being forced out of their homes and what’s being done to the city in the name of progress. We know this because, not wanting to take any chances, the author tells us: ‘How many were being forced out of their homes—what was being done to this city in the name of progress?’

Tossing aside conventional fiction writing rules that encourage authors to ‘show and not tell’ the reader, leaving them to infer meaning themselves, it’s all tell-time and no show-time in Last Man. Sometimes, Adiga is even considerate enough to explain his viewpoint repeatedly, in one paragraph, just in case we were dropped on our heads as infants: ‘New financial buildings were opening every month… and the lucre in their vaults, like butter on a hotplate, was melting and trickling into the slums, enriching some and scorching others among the slum-dwellers… a few lucky hut-owners were becoming millionaires… others were being crushed… wealth came to some and misery to others.’

In a similar vein, characters aren’t really people so much as transparent plot devices with different names. As seen on theatre programmes, Last Man opens with a cast of characters. It provides their names, ages, professions and location in the building, and 400 reluctantly turned pages later, one doesn’t know a great deal more about them. The sleazy developer, for all the airtime he gets, remains a cliché, complete with a long-suffering moll who stays with him in the hope of landing a role in the movies. The cleaning lady fares even worse; ‘Her life was a hard one’, we’re told, something we could potentially have deduced ourselves.

As for the tower-dwellers, at best one knows what some of them eat, how they decorate their homes. We’re familiar with their daily routines, yet they fail to materialise into real people. Try as one might, one cannot imagine them, any of them, as anything above and beyond a sketchy description on a page. Towards the end, Adiga attempts to insert shades of moral ambiguity, an attempt that fails since one would have to care for it to matter. The paper-thin characterisation leaves one with a sneaking suspicion that the author disapproves of the residents, hence the lack of empathy that would have brought them to life.

The exception is the protagonist, presented as the last vestige of another type of India—retired schoolteacher Yogesh Murty, who goes by the solidly respectable title of Masterji. Adiga desperately wants us to know that he’s The Good Guy. And so, Masterji is introduced as having ‘a dignified bearing’. A few paragraphs later, we are informed that he ‘accepted his lot with dignity’. In addition, he is an atheist who teaches children science for free, drinks tea with labourers, says nice things about Muslims and single working women with male friends, is recently widowed, and, sealing the deal, had a young daughter fall from a crowded train to her death. I suppose this has the potential to be quite moving were it not for the rank sentimentality—‘the child that he made, the tracks unmade’.

Sentimentality, ultimately, is this book’s downfall. It doesn’t descend into the mawkish so much as live there, occasionally coming up for air. As a racy thriller, it has all the right ingredients—a plot with an urgent sense of momentum, a vibrant and challenging city as a backdrop, a broad spectrum of characters from across the country—that offer an opportunity to dig deep into all that is good and bad in modern India. Only, it isn’t written as a thriller. Adiga cares too deeply for the loss that comes with advancement to approach it that way. Last Man in Tower is written as a morality tale, which, along with being considerably less thrilling than a thriller, is also utterly unsustainable at this length.

The book isn’t helped by Adiga’s partiality for similes and metaphors, equalled only by his seeming inability to construct a halfway decent one. There is one rather fun line, all the more memorable for being the lone spark of wit and style: the woman whose ‘voice always had its knickers down’. Still, it doesn’t quite make up for the cupboards whose ‘doors gave way suddenly to let books and newspapers gush out with traumatic force, like eggs from the slit-open belly of a fish’, nor the woman washing dishes who ‘removed one wet utensil after the other from the foamy water, like a psychoanalyst extracting submerged memories’. Then there is his observation of the old and the new sitting side by side in the supermarket where ‘glitzy plastic satchels of instant Chinese noodles and malt powder twinkled beside the bananas like nouveau-riche cousins’. The most bewildering analogy is saved for the central character: ‘Amidst the silent germination of schemes and ambitions all around him, Masterji sat like a cyst, looking at the rain…’. Of this man apart, at a distance from material and even emotional concerns, we are told a few pages on that ‘the hypodermic needle of the outside world had bent at his epidermis and never penetrated’. One can’t help but point out that if he had indeed been like a cyst, this would not have been the case.

Published in openthemagazine 23 July 2011