Thursday, March 31, 2005

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200

Let it be known, the stick has been passed. I woke up from a ghastly post-dinner nap to find this little hot potato in my comments box. Books! Who needs them! There will be no more books. Books spread infection. Books pollute the air. Books consume seven tim . . . but seeing as how Blogistan's favorite baji has ordered me to comply, I must get to it.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Ok, from what I understand this question can mean two things: what book do I hate the most or what book would I like to remember for a long time. Answering the first way, I think probable contenders to the title would be VS Naipaul's literary excursions. The amount of sheer poison that man injects into his writing is unbelievable. He has no respect for the humanity of the people he writes about and he makes no effort to accomodate alternative histories, instead mauling one and all in his characteristically malicious style. I'd stab him in the heart if he had one.

Answering in the second way, I think Baji answered that question really well, so I'll just quote her: If this question is aimed at determining what book I would memorize in order to save it for future generations, I reckon I'd have to go with the The Quran - the edition edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali because those footnotes really help. (I'd also add the interpretation by Muhammad Asad simply because it provides an alternative and enriching perspective that complements the other. You can't read the Quran enough. Especially since it is a text that has multiple reading frames and depending on what mindset you approach it with, you come away with something new and rewarding every time. Subhan-Allah.)

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

No, I don't think so. I was too busy having crushes in real life. There are some fictional characters who I admire, though. Hari, from a poignant little story by Anita Desai, is one of them because he's very real and believable. You know there are hundreds of children like him who go through the same thing all the time and you can't help admire them for their courage and their heroism. (Sade and Femi from Beverly Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth are two more who come to mind.)

The last book you bought is . . .

It's been a long long time since that happy accident. I think it was The Oxford Book of Essays.

The last book you read . . .

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I think most of the readers who come to this blog will already have read this masterpiece so I won't embarass myself by saying how good it is.

What are you currently reading?

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Five books you would take to a desert island

- The Quran; you can never read it enough.

- The Life of Pi; since I'm sort of tired of everybody telling me how good this book is, I might as well find out for myself. And what better place than on a desert island.

- The BFG by Roald Dahl

- Charlotte's Web by E B White

- A bunch of girly magazines; in case I run into a tribe of nerd-eating cannibals, I can distract them with the magazines and make a quick escape. Reading material can be good for more than one thing you know.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Knicq, Najm and Bushra. Because Knicq and Najm are two people who I've had the pleasure of having some very intelligent interactions with and I would be interested in finding out the books that shaped their perspectives. And Bushra because, even though I don't know her very well, comes across as someone who understands both the pleasures and the responsibilities that reading bring.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


"As their lives in New England swell with fellow Bengali friends, the members of that other, former life, those who know Ashima and Ashoke not by their good names but as Monu and Mithu, slowly dwindle. More deaths come, more letters arrive in the mailbox informing them of aunts and uncles no longer with them. The news of these deaths never gets lost in the mail as other letters do. Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed. Within a decade abroad, they are both orphaned; Ashoke's parents both dead from cancer, Ashima's mother from kidney disease. Gogol and Sonia are woken by these deaths in the early mornings, their parents screaming on the other side of thin bedroom walls. They stumble into their parents' room, uncomprehending, embarassed at the sight of their parents' tears, feeling only slightly sad. In some senses Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extremely aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost, those who survive and are consoled by memory alone. Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch. Voices on the phone, occasionally bearing news of births and weddings, send chills down their spines. How could it be, still alive, still talking? The sight of them when they visit Calcutta every few years feels stranger still, six or eight weeks passing like a dream. Once back on Pemberton Road, in the modest house that is suddenly mammoth, there is nothing to remind them; in spite of the hundred or so relatives they've just seen, they feel they are the only Gangulis in the world. The people they have grown up with will never see this life, of this they are certain. They will never breathe the air of a damp New England morning, see smoke rising from a neighbour's chimney, shiver in a car waiting for the glass to defrost and the engine to warm."

- Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Banker

His smile is like a cold toilet seat.
He shakes my hand as if he's found it
floating two weeks dead in a slough.
I tell him I need money.
Tons of it.
I want to buy a new Lamborghini,
load it with absinthe and opium,
and hit the trail out of these rainy hills
for a few years in Paris.
I try to explain
I'm at that point in my artistic development
where I require a long period
of opulent reflection.
The banker rifles my wallet.
Examines my mouth.
Chuckles when I offer 20 Miltonic sonnets
as security on the loan.
Now he's shaking his head, my confidence,
my hand good-bye. "Wait," I plead,
"I have debts and dreams
my present cash flow can't possibly sustain."
"Sorry," he mumbles, "nothing I can do,"
and staples some papers
in a way that makes me feel
he'd rather nail my tongue to an ant hill.
I stare at him in disbelief.
And under the righteous scathing of my gaze
the banker begins to change form.
First, he becomes a plate of cold french fries
drenched in crankcase oil.
Then a black spot
on a page of Genesis.
Finally, a dung beetle,
rolling little balls of shit
across a desk bigger than my kitchen.
Yet even as I follow these morbid transformations
I never lose sight of his bloated face,
the green, handled skin
shining like rotten meat.
But then his other faces
open to mine:
father, lover, young man, child -
our shared human history
folding us into one.
And only that stops me
from beating him senseless
with a sock full of pennies.

- Jim Dodge

Monday, March 28, 2005

Late-night Thoughts

I've never understood why women use make-up. My friends tell me it's because it makes them feel good about themselves but that doesn't make sense because the make-up itself doesn't have any intrinsic biological properties that can affect a person's sense of well-being. It's not chocolate. I think what they mean is that other people's reaction to their physical appearance makes them feel good about themselves. Which would make sense except that these are the same women who exert themselves endlessly to be taken seriously as intelligent people. I'm not sure how anyone can take you seriously when deep down he knows that you have willingly painted and glossed all over yourself in an effort to modify his behavior towards you. Woman don't wear make-up for themselves. They wear it for others. Men and women know that. They are complicit in this deception. And together they goad each other on to their daily disguises; masks which instead of offering protection, make a woman naked and vulnerable. It just doesn't make sense.

Candid impressions

Since I've been asked to record my candid impressions of the events that occurred over the weekend, in which a motley band of bloggers found themselves locked in each other's strange and charming company, I have no choice but to admit the truth. It was incredible! From the wild, and tragic, ride through Sharjah's back alleys to the newfound joys 0f manndi, it was one massive "sugar rush" and I would like to thank my companions for a great time. I would especially like to thank that one person, who I don't want to embarass by naming, who, at a moment's notice, graciously welcomed me into his home and went out of his way to make sure I was comfortable. For those who don't know me, that is no mean feat - karrvakarela, remember? - and that O did it so effortlessly and with such consummate grace speaks so well of his gift for hospitality. Insha-Allah, I sincerely hope this is the start of a beautiful friendship. As for you, crazy person who asked me for my comments (aa bael, mujhe maar), may Allah Subhanahu wa Ta'aala keep your heart as generous and as unfettered by vanity as we've been fortunate to witness.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bad Trip

The Irish writer, William Trevor, describes a childhood journey:

"There have been terrible, ugly journeys that are remembered by me now for different aspects of distress. Races against time have been lost. Delays at airports have triumphantly ruined weekends. Night has come down too soon when walking in the Alps. Theft has brought travel to a halt, toothache made a nightmare of it. Once a ferry mistakenly took off before its passengers had arrived on the quayside. Once the wheels of an aircraft did not come down. "Kaputt!" a German garage mechanic declared of an old A.30 on an autobahn, and that was that.

But the worst journey of my life involved neither hardship, pain nor danger. It was not particularly uncomfortable. I suffered neither undue hunger nor thirst, extremes of neither heat nor cold. What possessed me was dread, and the misery of anticipating the unavoidable.

I was twelve years old on the morning of 28 April 1941, returning to boarding school by bus, from the town of Enniscorthy in the south-east corner of Ireland, to Dublin. Some time the previous January I had made this journey for the first time. I had waited with my brother outside the paper-shop where the bus drew in at the bottom of Slaney Hill. Our two trunks and our bicycles were on the pavement; other members of the family had come to wave good-bye. Too excited to say anything, we had watched the red and cream-colored bus approaching on the other side of the river, crossing the bridge, then slowing down. We had egg sandwiches and Toblerone. Our spirits were high.

On this second occasion I was alone because my brother was ill. Otherwise everything was apparently the same. People had come to wave good-bye, bicycle and trunk were hoisted on to the roof of the bus and secured beneath a tarpaulin. A washbag and anything else necessary for the night was packed into a small suitcase known at the school as a pyjama suitcase. But everything was different also, dogged by a grim unease that the thirteen weeks following the first occasion had inspired. Journey to hell, I said to myself as the conductor handed me my ticket and my change. "How're you doing?" he enquired, red-faced and cheery. Bleakly, I told him I was alright.

By the time we reached Bunclody the odor of long-boiled cabbage that hung about the school's kitchen and dining-room was beginning to mingle with the bus's exhaust fumes. By Kildavin, the noise of the play-yard echoed; by Tullow, Monsieur Bertain was striking the blackboard in a fury. In Rathvilly the sarcastic science master was in full flow.

An old man had halted the bus at Ballycarney crossroads and now sat beside me, shredding a plug of tobacco. He wore a cap and a rough grey suit, neither collar nor tie. He had entered the bus with a brown-paper parcel under his arm, greeting everyone as he made his way alon the aisle. He was travelling to Dublin to see his daughter, who'd just been taken into hospital. He whispered hoarsely, telling me this. The parcel contained a nightdress he'd borrowed from a neighbour. "She sent me a wire to bring a nightdress," he said.

When my brother and I made the first journey to school our delight had increased with every mile. There would be dormitories, we had been told; games we'd only heard about - cricket and rugby - would be played. A shopman in Enniscorthy who'd been at this school assured us that we'd love it, since he had loved it himself. We imagined the playing fields, and the day boys arriving on their bicycles every morning, the boarders companionably going for walks at the weekends. Going for walks, and visits to the Museum and the Zoo, were mentioned in the prospectus. So was the excellence of the food, attention paid to health and well-being, the home-from-home atmosphere. The motherliness of the housekeeper was not mentioned, but we'd heard about it from the shopman. He said the masters were a decent lot.

"You're off for the two days?" The old man had coaxed his pipe to smoulder to his satisfaction and was emitting billows of acrid smoke. He didn't listen when I told him I was going back to school, but continued about his daughter being admitted to hospital. A worse misfortune had occurred in the past, when she'd married a Dublin man.

"He has her short of garment money," the old man said. "That's why she sent the wire." His daughter had two broken legs. She'd been on the roof of a hen-shed when it gave way. She was lucky she hadn't been killed.

It was a sunny day. The side of my face next to the window was warm. Cows rested in the fields we passed, not even chewing their cuds. A few stood on a riverbank, drooping over it, too lazy to drink. Primroses were in bloom.

"Plenty more for anyone!" The stern voice of the motherly house-keeper echoed, as the other voices had. In the middle of each morning the entire school congregated in the kitchen passage and received a bakelite tumblerful of soup. It was a yellowish color, with globules of grease floating on the surface. Chunks of potato and turnip sank to the bottom, and an excess of barley made the mixture difficult to consume: you had to open you mouth as wide as you could and tip the tumbler into it, feeling sick while you did so.

"A right gurrier," the old man said. His daughter's husband had ordered her up on the roof to repair it. "Roasting himself at the range while she's risking her limbs on old corrugated iron. A lead-swinger from Tallagh. Useless."

We'd have giggled, my brother and I. We'd have listened to all that with pleasure if we'd heard it on our first journey to school. We'd have egged the old man on.

"Dooley's coming up!" the conductor called out. "Anyone for Dooley's?"

The early morning, when you first woke up, was the worst. You lay there listening to the noises coming from the three other beds - someone muttering in his sleep, someone softly snoring, the bedsprings creaking when there was a sudden movement. There were no curtains on the windows. The light of dawn brought silhouettes first, and then the reality of the room: the fawn-top blankets, the boarded-up fireplace. You didn't want to go back to sleep because if you did you'd have to wake up again. "Get out of that bed," the Senior Boarder ordered when the bell went. "Out at the double, pull the bedclothes back. Quick now!" He glared from the sheets, his acned features ugly on the pillow.

"Isn't that a grand day?" a woman shouted into the bus when it drew in at Dooley's, a wayside public house. She pushed a parcel in and the conductor ambled down to collect it. A grand day, he agreed. When the bus moved on, the woman stood there, waving after it, smiling in the sunlight.

The Upper Fifth Bully used to pretend he was going to brand you, He'd out a poker in the open fire in the Fourth Form and two of his butties would hold your arms and legs, a third guarding the door. When the poker was red-hot it would be held close to your cheek and you could feel the heat. "Don't blub," the one with the poker warned. "You'll get it if you blub." The sarcastic science master was a one-time amateur boxer, known in ring-side circles as the Battling Bottlebrush, something to do with the effect of the aggressive instinct on his hair. It was sleeked back now with brilliantine, as tidy as the rest of him. He lived with his mother, and was said to be as gentle as a lamb with her.

The Irish and Geometry master lived in the school itself, in an attic room festooned with rugby togs he'd pegged out to air. He was a tall, brisk, brown-suited man with a narrow brown moustache. He played rugby for wanderers and often on a Saturday afternoon we went to Lansdowne Road to watch him, hungry-looking on the wing. Otherwise he was heard more than seen, the melancholy playing of a violen drifting down the uncarpeted stairs or through his open window. The masters were said to be ill-paid.

"Two broken legs." The old man had twisted himself round to address the woman in the seat behind.

"God help her," the woman sympathised.

On the bus I closed my eyes. It might crash, and I might be taken to the hospital like the old man's daughter, instead of having to comtinue the journey, on my bicycle, out to the suburb where the school was. "Don't be a child," the Senior Boarder had a way of saying if you couldn't eat something or if you didn't want to play the boarders' game of catching a tennis-ball when it rolled off the roofs of the outhouses, wet and dirty from the gutter water.

"That's shocking altogether," the woman behind me indignantly exclaimed. "She could have been lying there dead."

If the bus crashed there might be instant blackness, and you'd be lying there dead yourself. You wouldn't know a thing about it. You'd be buried in the graveyard by the church, and everyone would be sorry that you'd been made to go on this fateful journey. Little Vincent would snuffle all night when he heard the news. "Don't be a child," the Senior Boarder would snap at him.

The bus stopped in Baltinglass and I thought I'd maybe get out. I imagined slipping away and nobody noticing, my bicycle and trunk still under the tarpaulin, carried on to Dublin. I imagined walking through the fields, warmed by the sun, not caring what happened next.

"Did you ever hear the like of it?" the old man asked me. "No more than twenty-five years of age she is."

I shook my head. I said I never had. At breakfast there were doorsteps of fried bread, one for each boarder, not crispy, as fried bread was at home, but sodden and floppy with fat. The Senior Boarder poured out tea that tasted of metal. "What's this?" the housekeeper sniffily demanded, examining your darned pullover. She'd never seen worse darning, she declared, and you remembered your mother threading wool through a needle and then carefully beginning the small repair.

The bus arrived at the first straggle of Dublin's outskirts, then pressed relentlessly on through Templeogue and Terenure and into the city proper. When it finally drew up on Aston Quay it felt for the first time like a friend, its smoky, hot interior like a refuge I'd never valued. "Are you right there, son?" The cheery conductor wagged his head at me.

On the street I strapped the pyjama suitcase on to the carrier of my bicycle. I dawdled over that; I watched the old man who'd sat beside me crossing the street, the brown-paper parcel containing his daughter's nightdress under his arm. Other passengers from the bus were moving away also. I mounted my bicycle, a Golden Eagle, and rode into the traffic of Westmoreland Street. The trunk would be delivered to the school later, with all the other trunks.

Arrival is an end, the journey over, a destination reaxhed. That is usually so, but on this occasion journey and destination were one; this time there was no sigh of gratitude from the weary traveller, no long-earned moment of relief. My Golden Eagle carried me only to a realm in which the highways and byways were sealed against escape, a part of hell in which everyone was someone else's victim.

Irrelevantly, trams clanked by. Crowds bustled on the pavements. "How delightful to see you again!" the science master sneered already, and the Senior Boarder drove his elbow into a passing stomach. Mechanically, as though I had no will, my feet worked the pedals. When a red light demanded it, I applied the brakes, obedient in all things. Already I could hear the Irish master's violin. I could taste the yellow soup.

I turned out of Harcourt Street and into Charlemont Street and later crossed the Grand Canal. My egg sandwiches and Toblerone remained uneaten. The chocolate would have melted into my pyjamas and washbag; dully, it passed through my mind that the motherly housekeeper would have an excuse to say something harsh almost as soon as she saw me. Slowly, I turned into the short avenue that led to the school. I rode past the carpentry hut and pushed the Golden Eagle into the bicycle shed. I walked through the play-yard, continuing the endless journey."

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

- Philip Larkin

Monday, March 21, 2005

Questions for Waleed

Haan bhai, here are your qoschins:

1. If you could invite any five people in world, from Paris Hilton to the Imam at the Masjid-e-Haram, to your house for dinner, who would they be? And what would you serve?

2. Shakespeare once wrote, "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." How do you feel about red socks?

3. If you could go back in time and change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

4. You are a houseguest in the home of a venerable and respected elder. Waking up for Fajr in the morning, you are intrigued by a strange and animal noise coming from the general direction of the living room which you follow only to the discover a precocious five year old grandchild lost in a trance to the dubious enchantments of MTV. Mortally wounded by his misdirected enthusiasm, you ask the child to switch it off and join you for prayer to which he responds with a succinct, "Kith my ath!" Your next move would be?

5. E E Cummings once wrote, "Deeds cannot dream what dreams can do." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Please explain why.

Simplicity and faith

It's amazing how memories sometimes surprise you at the most unlikely moments. I was looking up cinema timings for The Incredibles last night when I remembered someone telling me about an aunt of hers. I think I even blogged about this wonderful lady who never went to the cinema for fear that if death were to come to her there, how would she face her Creator? I don't know very many people like her, with such strong and abiding faith, and I couldn't help wondering how, as time passes by there will be even less and less of her kind left for us to learn from. The world is quietly being emptied of these wise and elegant people and with their departure is lost to us the very simplicity and faith we are so desperately in need of in these loveless days.

A Day in the Life of . . .

So I call up this one friend and he's not answering the cell so I figure he's busy working. Irritating but, hell, I suppose everyone needs to have a hobby or something and he probably enjoys doing whatever he does. Work's not such a big thing with me. I prefer to stay at home and mooch off my parents. It's a happier pastime than waking up every morning, scrubbing and bleeding yourself in that satanic ritual of getting ready for work and then hauling yourself off to some no-name office to consort with a bunch of busy-body losers all in the miserable hope of collecting a few pennies at the end of the day. I mean, who the hell would want to do that when you can stay at home and watch Oprah? Crazy people, I tell you.

So anyways, after I hang up on this guy, I call up another buddy of mine to get the four-one-one on our weekend plans. I love weekends. It's like, the whole week you stay at home and watch TV and then the big beautiful weekend rolls by and you have a reason to live again. The malls are brimming with loony teenagers, freshly released from the auguries of innocence and into the tumultuous world of hormones and other juvenile afflictions. They're quite a sight, these daft young fools, hand in sweaty hand, earnestly devoted in their pimply love for each other. It makes you wonder sometimes how we all managed to survive that terrible age, puberty, with all its scars and riddles, its vast arsenal of chemical torments, and still emerge unscathed and as fresh as newly driven snow. It must be one of the miracles of life. Or make-up perhaps. There's no end to the wonders a good apricot scrub can pull off.

So anyways, I call up this other buddy and he's not picking the phone up either and I'm like, what the hell! Is this like an epidemic of working sickness or something. I mean, what's wrong with you guys! Just because you have wives and children and bills to pay and mouths to feed, it doesn't mean you can't take a couple days off a week to have a good time. Or at least answer your phone. What's the point of it all, anyways? Why are you working so hard if you can't even enjoy the paltry fruit of your labours by kicking back and watching Oprah reruns? Is life really that bad that you have to sign your soul off to the corporate devil and stick your head in the meat grinder. These guys, I tell you. I wonder if the little puppies at the mall, these days found cloyed in love, will turn out to be worker slaves as well, chained and shackled to their matchbox cubicles, dismally eating last night's leftovers out of tupperware boxes with plastic spoons. The mere thought is enough to make you want to smother yourself in Belgian chocolate.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Interview Game

Here's how you can play the interview game:

1. Leave me a comment saying "interview me." The first five commenters will be the participants.
2. I will respond by asking you five questions.
3. You will update your blog/site with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions. (Write your own questions or borrow some.)

The Questions
1. You seem to have an endless supply of and appreciation for poetry. Do you have any favorite poets or poems?
2. As a fellow movie buff, what movies would make your top ten list?
3. What is the single biggest difference between life in the U.A.E. and life in Pakistan?
4. What work of fiction have you read over and over again?
5. If medicine was not the path you were to follow, what would be?

1. I think it's very difficult to actually set down a list of favorite poets because all poets write about pretty much the same things - it's just the way they dress their thoughts up that varies. The difference between any one poet and another is not in the themes they choose to write about but the style in which they explore those themes. And even that changes as writers go through their phases and acquire new attitudes and affectations. Poets are generally very fickle people and it's a good idea never to take them seriously. (I think it was WH Auden who once wrote that all poets, by the very nature of their preoccupations, are polytheists.) So, no, I don't have any favorite poets but I do have some favorite poems, one of which is this.

2. As a fellow movie buff, I cannot understand how you would think it is even possible to confine a lifetime of gluttonous viewing into a pithy little list. The mere suggestion makes me want to run out and watch the first movie that comes my way. And fall in love with it.

3. Air-conditioning.

4. The BFG by Roald Dahl.

5. A mattress-tester. Definitely a job in which my natural talents would allow me to flourish. Either that or an anthropologist. But since you cannot tell your parents you want to be an anthropologist without having them rush you to the hospital to have your head examined by your neurosurgeon uncle, who incidentally happens to be married to your pediatrician aunty, medicine was a convenient back up. What I hadn't expected was how much satisfaction it would bring me. Just goes to show how little you know yourself at 17.

Right, who's next?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Lest we forget . . .

Chachu shared a story at dinner this evening:

There was a very poor woman who had two sons. Her husband had died a while back and now one of her children was very sick. They'd been living with great difficulty, paying for whatever medicine they could afford and still the child didn't seem to be getting any better. Seeing his brother, the boy who was well asked his mother, "Amma, bhai kab maray ga?" (When will my brother die?)

The woman was surprised by the boy's question. "Kyun pooch rahay ho?" (Why are you asking?)

The child, hungry for so long, replied, "Jab Abba maray thay tau khaana aaya tha . . ." (When father died, there was food.)

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