Sunday, May 20, 2007

Paradise Lost

The past two weeks I have been trying to find some conceptual framework, some ‘grand theory’ which could offer me an explanation not proffered so far, an angle unexplored, to unpack the current dilemma facing us all. Which ‘basic premise’ remains ‘unextended’ amongst the myriad of hypotheses that have set out to examine what went wrong with Musharraf. One afternoon flicking through the channels I even heard the journo/political commentator Nusrat Javeed offering the grand ‘Eastern beloved’ theory for the Pakistani public relationship with their President. Just as in days of yore our great poets would lament at the intermediaries who wouldn’t deliver their missive to their beloved. A beloved the lovelorn poet had led himself into believing was not as snooty and cold-hearted towards him as everyone assumed her to be. In truth the beloved would have willingly reciprocated his love, but if only. Hamara mehboob tau bura nahee hai, was the plaintive cry. That pattern was replicated in the humble populace relationship with the benign king of old, who was a really decent and kindly old chap come to think of it; he only had evil vazirs (ministers) who conspired sinister campaigns and whispered incantations in the king’s ears against you. So, as Mr Javeed explained, some of us continue to believe that the good President Musharraf is just a misguided guy and it’s the coterie around him that leads him into embarking on the kind of misadventures that he has been suspect to undertaking. I am sure Mr Javeed was trying to hint that we should get out of such mind games and stop making excuses for the gentleman in question. If he had been following daytime TV and Oprah and/or was consuming popular American culture I am sure at some stage he would broken into the golden words immortalized by the show, “He is not that into you, girl!” So dear readers, in the interests of your sanity, it is about time we take off those rosy glasses (that is if some of you still have them on where Musharraf is concerned) and tell ourselves that the man in uniform really doesn’t love us that much.

I have been searching that old bookshelf to find other such ‘gems’ from spaces that I have not visited for some time now to get some answers. I am trying to look into some understanding into what makes President Musharraf prone to enter into (and lead us into) the kind of catastrophes that Pakistan is facing. And the answer came from the American feminist (circa 1970s) Adrienne Rich. I believe Musharraf has a classic case of ‘matrophobia’. The fear of becoming his mother (General Ziaul Haq) has turned him into the monster he is. This October will mark eight years of the well meaning commando in khaki appearing on our television screens in that infamous press conference at Karachi airport. And tell me, for all his talk of bringing in ‘true democracy’ and ‘enlightened moderation’, how have the eight years of Musharraf been different from the ‘eleven years of tyranny’ (aamriyat key giyarah saal)? ...flawed time keeping was just one of the personality traits that the two shared. Perhaps it becomes characteristic of any Pakistani army general when they decide to step into the halls of the Presidency. Personal deadlines like 90 days or 11 years become immaterial. Of course our current Chief of Army Staff has done away with the calendar and defines time as right and wrong, black and white. “When the timing is right, then only then I will take off my uniform.” So what are calendars and watches when it comes to our beloved, eh? President Musharraf for all his doublespeak of being a military dictator but with a difference is a despot who has run roughshod over our lives.

This is Martial Law lite, Musharraf’s supporters assured detractors such as me in the autumn of 1999. Same great taste/quick results but minus the cavities/caveats of personal freedom! But for all his fears of turning into a Zia, our good President has condemned our ill fated nation into reliving the disastrous 80s. Karachi burning, a disastrous Afghan policy, Zia had only expressed his Great Dream of how ‘he would like every organization or institution (in Pakistan) to be transformed into a Deeni Madrassah’ (President Zia’s address to the then Majlis Shoora, October 1982 — leading me into my second hypothesis, surely we should revisit the Ides of March into exploring a possible Ides of October?!), Musharraf has fulfilled that dream of transforming each feature of Pakistani society into one large Deeni Madrassah (religious seminary).

When I labeled my generation as ‘Zia’s children’, I thought the malaise was restricted to my age group alone – that somehow the generations following us were free of the warped minds that were our burden. But perhaps I spoke too soon, as young minds today grow as fearful and suspicious of anything different, of plurality, of anything that challenges their idea that there can be only one guide, ‘a one truth fits all’ guide to religious interpretation. That there is only one ethnicity, theirs alone, which is ‘the right one’ and the good one and there is no need to interact with others. This year President Musharraf, who happens to be the Chief of Army Staff Musharraf, and is also introduced as Pervez Musharraf, Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University, successfully put the last nails in the coffin of that University (QAU). The university was the last bastion of free thinking when it came to public universities in the country – when those who could escaped to the world of private universities that have mushroomed in the past five years, QAU still groaned along trying to provide a progressive environment to students from all over Pakistan. When Razia Sultana, a teacher in the History Department, was chastised so violently regarding her choice of head covering, we all knew that the idyllic QAU of yore was just that, a pleasant memory of “a moment in time, a point in space”. And then last Monday President Musharraf’s twisted games left us bereft of one of QAU’s favorite sons, Syed Hammad Raza. Hammad was a friend, a mentor to so many of us. Clichéd as it may sound, but Hammad was the good Pakistani, that Jinnah (the namesake of our alma mater QAU) spoke about in his address to the Constituent Assembly. He was above caste, above sectarian affiliation, above his ethnicity. The anger that his murder invoked in all of us reminded me of other incidents when we would be consumed with fury regarding some political development and Hammad would counsel my friends in the way he did. It was Hammad who taught me that following a path of ‘purifying’ one’s culture from the Other would turn us schizophrenic and to acknowledge the plurality of voices that formed our common past. He was the voice of rationality, of justice, of fairness in action – the very same reasons that perhaps the twisted minds that took his life abhorred. He had a brilliant mind, he had as Pankaj Mishra wrote elsewhere, “The charisma of people we can’t place easily, people who come out of no known background, and who dazzle us by the unexpectedness of their talents.” Farewell dear friend, you will be sorely missed.

Today there is no difference between you, Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor and the one who preceded you. The transformation of your coterie into Mr Hyde is complete. In taking Hammad’s life you have bereft Pakistani society of the same enlightened moderation that you had made your ‘cause celbere’

Sunday, May 13, 2007

we have been really bad children

I had read of someone writing a play once about a dog that ran away from this squabbling couple as he thought he was the raison de'etre why his 'mom and dad' were divorcing...I think Mush is trying to tell us that if we were on better behavior, he and the CJ wouldnt be so acrimonous..and would have kissed and made up a long time ago.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Can your kids come out and play with mine

I have realised that to rope in 'volunteers' I have to use the playground mom routine to succeed...get someone who knows someone with kids (read Pashtun contacts) my (age/group/gender) and hope they get along..which seems a welcome break from my tactics of the past week...channeling all the skills of a Pakistani Lothario ...hanging around at shopping centres, trying to locate Pashtuns..'aap mujh (my project) sey friendship kareyngey'.

Friday, May 04, 2007

my state of mind

today and tomorrow.....

Thursday, May 03, 2007

No One Is Looking At Me!!

Feeling soooo blue this weekend...its getting ever so frustrating getting together Pashtuns living in Melbourne who would be willing to be interviewed (read my first blog ever for more on this)...why does the question 'will you be willing to participate in my project' read as 'would you like to store some fertilizer for me in your garage'?

Passage to Delhi

Varanasi Ghat, 2005

Varanasi, 2005

We manage to reserve the last seats on the evening train out to Delhi and hurriedly sit down on the first that are vacant. While the railway official looks up a seat for me in his charts, the man sitting opposite me stares at me in visible dismay. I had queued up behind him as he had furtively purchased the last copy of this week’s Spatik (the weekly Outlook’s Hindi publication) at the bookstall in Varanasi’s railway station. This week’s cover story was about middle class Indian women buying sex and he had been looking forward to a good read this evening.
That I had dropped down right in front of him was causing him visible discomfort as he tried to nonchalantly flip through the magazine. He gives an embarrassed half-smile in goodbye as I move to my allotted seat a couple of rows down the compartment.
As I settle down for the evening, I catch snippets of conversation from the seats behind me. Our railway compartment has the Japanese boys I met in the cinema. A group of sales representatives are returning to Delhi and rib their friend every time his cell phone rings. They tease another when he buys a popular women’s magazine. Kiya kijiye cosmetic firm may hain and its competition tau dekhna hoga. Behind me I can hear two professors from Benares Hindu University discussing the conference they will be attending in Delhi. As one of them pores through the newspaper he excitedly points out a news item about a proposed relaxation of rules in applying for a visa to Pakistan. The other has wanted to go to Lahore for a while and is eager to read the column. As the two debate the merits of visiting Lahore over Karachi, I, in a fit of Pathan nationalism, introduce myself so to include some city from the NWFP in their proposed itineraries. We discuss the state of affairs at the Benares Hindu University. The university is recovering from the turbulence it had gone through in the eighties. I have questions about Varanasi: the paradox of it generating so much revenue through tourism, pilgrimage and industries and the visible lack of infrastructure. A stocky safari suited man sitting with them has included himself in our conversation. He runs a sari business in the city, but is a Benares Hindu University alumnus. He feels left out every time the conversation shifts to the academic and tries to steer it towards discussing the city. He is a frequent day-tripper to Delhi. At the moment he has decided to ease out from selling Benarsi saris for a while and is stocking up his Delhi store with cheaper synthetic Chinese imports. He is unperturbed when I ask him about the fate of the Benarsi weavers. Their time will come he assures me. Delhi fashions are so temporary.
The monsoon rains pour down on Delhi as I leave the railway station. I have always had mixed feelings about this city. For me, its "city of culture" visage is only a thin veneer camouflaging the city's bawdy inner self. The reminder of "what (violence) lies beneath "comes up in the oddest places. I would find myself discussing the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi with a group of colleagues in a housing colony (near the under-construction site for the games), we are drinking tea and deliberating on urban planning and would suddenly realize that the apartment building we are sitting in has been the site of the most horrific of the 1984 Sikh killings. You try to enjoy the beauty of the Mughal section of the city and try to forget poor Dara Shikoh’s fate at the hand of his brother. The latticework of the white marble pavilion in the Delhi Fort is beautiful till you remember Shah Jehan, his daughter’s unfortunate paramour and the cauldron of steaming bath water on the fire.
I venture out towards the Old City. I haven’t visited Nizamuddin’s shrine for a while. One sidesteps the puddles in the street after the early morning rains. Roadside stalls sell traveling bags and the ubiquitous white crocheted caps. Ghalib Academy has been done up since my last visit and is now offering computer classes in Urdu calligraphy.In the narrow side lanes leading up to the shrine, the stalls are spaced closer. Under bright overhead lights, there is a chaos of roses, incense, sugar treats, qawali CDs. Men pull at your sleeves, jootey utaro, jootey utaro. But after a month of buying a tray of offerings in lieu of their guarding my shoes I have wised up. As I take off my shoes at the kiosk at the entrance, I look over the crowd within. Women read their rosary in the compound or hold on to the grill frame enclosing the saint’s grave as they beseech the saint for a favour. Men who can enter the inner shrine take their offerings inside. The qawals that congregate outside Amir Khusro’s shrine haven’t settled down yet. A khadim at the shrine is most courteous and spends some time helping me locate Princess Jehan Ara’s grave. Shah Jehan’s beloved daughter, she was Dara Shikoh’s loyal ally and much envied by the siblings Aurangzeb and Roshan Ara. She experimented with Persian verse, raised beautiful gardens and is the mind behind the construction of the Chandni Chowk area.
Outside, bread shops try to sell you tokens that guarantee a requisite number of the swarming beggars being fed nans. It is an efficient Delhi system catering towards your aspirations, towards benevolence, and none of the area’s ‘not so hungry’ dumping the food in the alleys. I want to hang around to find out how the stallholders and the beggars divide the proceeds from the sale of tokens. However, I cannot stay for long as men lead up goats with overfull bladders to where you stand. The goat stares at you steely eyed as the keeper urges you to curry merit by feeding it some foliage. It is hard to order mutton at Khadims after this encounter. But other hardened Delhi souls are unsentimental regarding the predicament this encounter poses.As I pore over the menu, on the next table a swarthy gentleman bellows into his cell phone that he has a visitor from Lahore. The visitor cajoles him to visit Peshawar, bahut pur sakoon jaga hai. Phal, meva, ek haftey may surkh safaid hojaayengey. He inquires about the history of the restaurant. Do all kinds of people come here or just Delhi Muslims? He tries to make eye contact with our table and I debate whether to quash his fantasy of a cross-border romance, or keep the fact that we share a postcode unknown.
On my way home my car passes through Janpath. As one pavement seller cautions regarding an approaching policeman, the others are swift to wrap up their wares before he descends, swiping his cane. The tableau continues, as they are toughened to his blows, and they quickly return to the pavements after a period of time. The lane of women stallholders selling their colourful Rajasthani silks is more organized. They have set up a more permanent establishment. However, the monsoon sky is unmerciful and as the heavens pour down, they implore the straggling group of shoppers one last time.

Negotiating Chennai

Shore Temple (Mahabalipuram), September 2005

Marina Beach (Chennai), September 2005

Though astrology forms an important part of society all over India, I am in Chennai to explore the Nadi astrologers who are unique to South India. These astrologers claim to be custodians of ancient palm leaf manuscripts that were originally scribed by sages known as Rishis. Though based in Vaitheeswarankoil in Central Tamil Nadu, many have moved to Chennai in recent years. The sages claimed that they had put down a prophecy for nearly every soul in the world, of their time and later. If there is one for you, you find your way to one of the sage’s descendants, and if not, well! there was never a prediction meant for you. Reading the tales of earlier visitors getting their car breakdowns before they reached the town of Vaitheeswarankoil, losing their way into the town or ‘mysteriously’ running into a Nadi astrologer has always fascinated me. So I ask my local hosts to do the ‘reconnaissance’ for me before I arrive in the city.

Chennai is overwhelming and clichéd as it may sound, very, very foreign. Compared to other Indian cities it is very conservative, and while I am in the city, students at the Anna University were protesting the stricter dress codes being imposed upon them. As Chennai prepared for the upcoming Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive meeting in the city, where the party would most probably lock horns with the ‘parent’ organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, I was more involved in arranging matters of a more ‘celestial’ kind searching for a Nadi astrologer. I am running out of time and cannot wait till my name edges on the waiting list of a more popular one.

On the morning of the meeting, Barnali, who is putting me up confesses that she is sceptical about the whole process; and also knowing how conservative the community is, I should keep the Pathan (read Muslim) of the Aneela on the low .... unsure as she is whether they would search for a prediction about a ‘non-believer’. Our particular astrologer lives in a sleepy by-lane in a Chennai residential area. As we take off our shoes, I see a ceramic relief of the Khana-e-Kaba put up on a wall, further inside is a crucifix, so contrary to what Barnali was preparing me for this Nadi has no 'racial profiling' in place for his business. The astrologer puts down mine and my mother’s name in his register, the combination of my Punjabi sounding name and my mother’s anglicized one makes him wonder for a minute. For all practical purposes he concludes that I am a good little Hindu revert, and looks approvingly. The next order of business is to take a print of my left thumb. This will be matched with those on the ancient palm leaves to find a match and a corresponding prophecy for me. As I am left to pore over a one-page list of generic questions that I would like him to answer, the astrologer retreats to a back room to pray to his gods before he looks for a match. The minutes tick by as Barnali and me dissect the list of questions to have a better insight into what the average Chennai housewife is worried about. His prayers done, I am invited to sit in his office while he searches for an audio cassette player, the one that should have recorded my session (the price involves an audio recording of the prophecy, if any of The Post readers are interested!) has stopped operating. While he searches for the palm leaf and probably a player, I while away my time in his office. An audio recording of prayer chants in the background. Flowers, most probably from his morning prayer, are placed reverently on every ‘technical’ or ‘work’ instrument -- the telephone, his pen, his books, aah! none on the errant cassette player, so that’s the culprit! After fifteen minutes he pants his way into the room and mops the sweat off his forehead. Searching for palm leaves is perhaps a strenuous business, and asks me to return the next day. There isn’t a match for me in his offices, but if he sends one of his students to the temple town of Vaitheeswarankoil, I might have a reading later in the week. It is impossible for me to negotiate my departure from the city and so I leave him disappointed. For a) who wouldn’t like to know what evils they have committed in a previous life, b) would commit in the next, what prayers they should follow to atone for their past and future sins, c) how many siblings do they really have, yes that caught my interest when we went through the list, and finally how many cycles of birth left to go before reaching nirvana....I didnt want to find out I was entering my last cycle what with episodes of Season 10 for Frasier left to go.

I spend the afternoon pursuing my ONE TRUE LOVE that has never let me down (unlike Indian astrologers who failed to include me as they were cataloguing souls).... I am in Chennai’s film studios. Though the MGR Film Studio, which I really wanted to explore is one big parking lot at the moment, the AVM studio which was still open for business was not a disappointment after all. The film industry in South India is the largest in India, though most of the business in Chennai has moved to the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. Film stars are big in South India, with many a devoted fan building a temple for their favourite star. Many retired film stars become politicians. MGR and Jayalalitha have been Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers in recent times. On the afternoon of my visit, I am lucky to see three productions (though horribly B-grade) on the floors. As I sign my name for a security pass, I scan the list for earlier visitors; surprisingly most of them are from Nordic countries. Many of them have been roped in as extras; if you are very lucky you can be an ‘evil’ British soldier, who can punch the male protagonist in the stomach. I follow the street signs to different sets; there is a ‘rich man’s house’, a ‘police station’, ‘poor man’s street’ and the omnipresent Central Jail and court building. A portly convict with the most amazing moustache and gold chains sweats his way from a police van and repeats the shot patiently till he gets it just right. A crowd of visitors jostle to get a closer look; he is apparently a local star, and will we be seeing him at the Chief Minister’s residence in the near future? Bricks in most cases weigh down the film equipment; many of them are working on limited budgets in the film city. Behind me, an over bleached gangster’s moll is part of a scene of revelry being shot on ‘poor man’s street’. After every shot of her being generously drenched by watered down tea masquerading as beer, she chastely puts on a shabby terry cloth dressing gown and morosely sits in the corner picking her hair. However, when I see the screen captures on the director’s TV screen, her face is lit up with an inner glow and she goes through her steps enthusiastically.

The Marina Beach in Chennai is the only quiet spot I can retreat to in the morning, and locals describe the day the tsunami took early morning joggers and swimmers unawares. After some time, the city sounds and pollution reach me. I am exhausted deciphering the city’s chaos and beat a hasty retreat to Mahabalipuram just two hours drive away. Mahabalipuram, with its beautiful rock sculptures and Pallava influences is awe-inspiring. A Bihari security guard lets me photograph the famous shore temple even though it’s near closing hours and his superiors are bellowing in the background. He sees me as a quasi-comrade, as I am not South Indian and complains about the host community and the food. He misses his earlier job at the port, working for a firm importing cars. He has most probably tried smuggling some of the pieces of the now disused temple; alas! they seem too heavy for him to budge. A Bohra family gingerly steps its way into the sea. As the sun sets, the universe seems at peace for a second.

Considering it has to lug a moniker like Living Room, it was about time I did some housekeeping and gave it an image more befitting its name...and visit more often.

To date it has been more 'store'' than living... archiving my travel notes et al.