The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

Pakistan India

Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]

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Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]

 

Notes

[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma)

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

Zinda Bhaag and Illegal Migration from Pakistan

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Written by Randeep Singh and Kulwindar Singh

Zinda Bhaag is the story of three young men in Lahore: Chitta, Khaldi and Tambi. Chitta plans to migrate to Italy under a fake passport. Khaldi dreams of becoming pukka in the United Kingdom. Tambi has recently been deported from the Ukraine. The West it seems is the promised land, the paradise the bright future, awaiting them.

The roads to though paradise are long and tough. Chitta travels to Europe in a cargo container through Iran to Turkey and into Greece, but dies somewhere along the way. Khaldi is refused all legal routes to enter the United Kingdom. Tambi spent two years in prison in the Ukraine for associating with his boss, a heroine dealer, before being deported back to Lahore.

Illegal immigration (including human smuggling) from Pakistan to Europe takes its route through African, Middle Eastern and West Asian countries, across land and sea. There are networks of agents, translators, lawyers, and informers stationed locally. along the way. The dangers on the way are many and include being defrauded, physical or sexual abuse, abandonment and death from lack of food, water and air. Those who survive do so suffer physical and mental trauma. Those who arrive in their host countries live without social assistance, exploited by their employers and on the edges of society.

Khaldi tries to enter the United Kingdom first through family sponsorship, later by student visa, and ultimately, illegally. The U.K. remains one of the most popular destinations for Pakistani illegal migrants from Pakistan. Many Pakistanis arriving there work in warehouses, kebab shops, off-licenses and butcher shops. Khaldi’s plans first to work as a taxi driver. Failing to enter legally, he takes Chitta’s fake passport, not knowing what his fate will be.

Khaldi is undeterred. Like many, emigration is his chance to be a “somebody.” Khaldi’s mum wastes no chance in reminding him how strapped the family is when so many other young men are wiring money home from abroad. Chitta comes from a poor family and sees no future for himself in Pakistan. Tambi conversely is disgraced for having “returned” to Pakistan without a penny to his name.

While Zinda Bhaag looks at the other motives for illegal emigration – including financial imperatives and lack of opportunity at home – it is ultimately a film about “trying to live a life of dignity and honour and failing.”[1] And while illegal migration has been explored in films like “Le Havre,” “West of Eden” and “Journey of Hope,” Zinda Bhaag deserves attention for the first Pakistani and South Asian film of any note to do so.

[1] Interview with Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, Dharmsala International Film Festival: http://diff.co.in/blog/interview-meenu-gaur-farjad-nabi/

(Na)Pakistan: The Land of the (Im)Pure

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Written by Saeed Umer Abassi

The case for separation of religion and state in Pakistan has been made by atheists, agnostics and non-believers.

I argue that case, as a believer.

In Islam, God is the supreme authority. His Will creates, sustains and destroys the Universe. He is the ultimate judge of human beings based on their thoughts, words and deeds.

What need has this Almighty God for mortals to legislate in His name? What does it benefit Him whose Law is eternal and universal to have the laws of men perpetrate injustice and cruelty?

The teachings of religion on love, benevolence and justice can better politics; but why otherwise corrupt the sanctity of religion with blood, power and greed? Why further divide humanity “in creation of one essence and soul?”

Why do Pakistanis need a state to save their souls when it does not fill their bellies? What need has Islam or God for the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Law and the murder of its people in His name? What has sixty-eight years of Pakistan done in the name of Islam and God?

The Persian sage and poet Sadi remarked in the Gulistan:

Oh! Though above all human though supreme,
Above our every word or deed or dream,
Thy service closes and we quit the Mosque
Yet of Thy meaning, scarce have caught a gleam

If the mosque has failed to bring Pakistan closer to Islam or to God, then nor will all of the Islam-pasand politicians, mullahs and mujahideen of the Land of the Pure.
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Sign this petition for a secular Pakistan
Separate Religion from State. Remove Article 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Declare Pakistan to be a Secular Democracy
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Why Criticizing Islam is Not Islamophobia

Hallaj

Written by Randeep Singh

Writing in the wake of Charlie Hebdo in Al-Jazeera, Abdullah Al-Arian argues that Islam has been “unfairly criticized and ridiculed” by the West for centuries. Such a history, he writes, has prejudiced the West into into painting Islam as illiberal and intolerant.

Islamophobia is a reality. So too are problems within Islam and the Muslim world. Islamophobia should be condemned; but not criticizing or questioning Islam or Muslim societies.

If I criticize Islam for engendering patriarchy, the persecution of minority groups and its smug, supremacist view of itself, it’s because I have criticized Christianity for the same reasons. I oppose Christian organizations for their homophobia, without hating Christianity. I criticize Israel without hating Jews. I criticize Islam without hating it. I am not hating or fearing anyone: I am striving for equality, inclusion and justice regardless of who or what we are.

The fight for freedom of expression is not a clash between civilizations. It has been happening within the Muslim world for centuries. Mansur Al-Hallaj (856-922) became a martyr for proclaiming “I am the Truth (God).” Sarmad (1590-1661) too was martyred for his “heretical” views. Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) challenged the mullah for his sectarian views. In modern times, Nazim Hikmat (1902-1963), Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984) and Naghuib Mahfouz (1911-2006) have all been imprisoned, exiled or censured for their art and political views.

Criticism of the Muslim world as illiberal and intolerant today is likewise vindicated. Just ask Raif Badwai, the blogger who recently received 50 lashes in Saudia Arabia. Or ask Aasiya Bibi, the Christian women who languishes in prison on charges of blasphemy in Pakistan. Or how about Salman Rushdie?

Without change, the Muslim world will become progressively more intolerant and creatively barren. Denying any criticism of Islam produces a culture which is afraid to ask questions and unable to find answers.

Book Review – Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten

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Written by Randeep Singh

Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi: 2013).

Gandhi’s Punjab surveys the history of the region from the decline of the great Mughals to the invasions of Afghan rulers and Nadir Shah to the reign of Ranjit Singh and the British Raj to the creation of independent India and Pakistan in 1947. The book is engaging, commendable for its scope and brings to the foreground figures like Adina Beg Khan, Ganga Ram and Fazl-i-Hussain who are otherwise passed over in Indian histories on the region.

From the outset, Gandhi underlines the importance of understanding a common Punjabi identity (‘Punjabiyat’) through centuries of foreign invasion and colonial rule. Unfortunately, his history, coloured by colonial and nationalist historiography, produce a distorted picture of the Punjabi.

In categorizing Punjabis before the 19th century as either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Gandhi replicates the colonial-era practice of classifying Punjabis (and Indians at large) solely by their religious identity forgetting that Punjabis before the colonial era typically defined themselves by their clan, village and caste. Such a categorization overlooks the diversity amongst and overlap between Punjabis and the extent to which they cooperated with one another across religious lines as under Adina Beg Khan, Ranjit Singh or in the Punjab’s Unionist Party.

Gandhi’s chapters on independence and partition moreover largely follow the contours of the Indian nationalist narrative. He adopts a critical tone towards the Muslim League in the making of the Partition without questioning in the same breadth the politics of the Indian National Congress and the British. Such a filtering of history is unlikely to advance understanding between Punjabis of India and Pakistan.

All this despite Gandhi’s reminder to us throughout of  a Punjabiyat symbolized by Farid, Waris Shah, Amrita Pritam and Shiv Kumar. His own history could have contributed greatly to that Punjabiyat and to Punjab studies. One can only hope that Gandhi’s Punjab will inspire more balanced histories on the region in the years ahead.

 

 

 

 

Pakistan’s Gay Community Quietly Breaking Barriers

Written by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai

Actor Assad Khan is part of a generation of young men breaking barriers for gays in conservative Pakistan, where homosexuality is punished by prison or worse.

Assad Khan knew he was different from a very young age. As a child at home he preferred playing with his two sisters rather than his two brothers. At school, too, he gravitated toward playing with girls. “In school I was more secure and happy playing with girls than with boys,” says the 23-year-old, boyishly handsome Khan. As a result of his behavior, he says, his family largely ignored him. “I got a terrible complex as my family favored, and gave more attention to, my brothers,” he recalls.

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As he grew up in Islamabad, reached puberty and realized he was gay, he suffered even more. “Being a gay in a society like Pakistan is not easy,” Khan says. “For a long time, I was frightened of who I was, so I hid my gay status…I acted 24 hours a day.”

Even so, he was constantly teased and harassed for his appearance and mannerisms, even ostracized. His parents and cousins made fun of him. His parents were ashamed to introduce him as part of the family. “At the mosque during Friday prayers I was teased and stared at,” he recalls. “At school and in college other students shunned me and my small circle of friends.”

Now a successful actor and fashion designer, Khan has lived and worked in the conservative and bomb-terrorized northwestern city of Peshawar for the past three years. “I felt that society was telling me I was not one of them, that I was not a proper person,” he says. “But soon I realized that it’s not my fault that God made me gay. So as a young man I came to accept who I was and to be proud of myself.”

He has flourished ever since he made that realization—succeeding against all the odds in homophobic Pakistan, where the powerful Muslim clergy preaches that homosexuality is prohibited under Islam, and where sodomy is illegal under the civil code and punishable by a long jail term (though the harsh sentence is rarely handed down). In the Taliban-controlled territory of the northwestern tribal agencies, the penalty is worse: death by firing squad or stoning. Even the man on the street seems to have no time for gays. A Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries published in early June found that only two percent of Pakistanis believed that “society should accept homosexuality,” second only to Nigeria, which registered a rock-bottom one percent acceptance rating of gays. (By way of comparison, 80 percent of Canadians said they accepted gays.)

While the Pakistani government doesn’t target LGBT citizens, neither does it have much tolerance for the gay community or its issues. Late last month and without comment, Islamabad shut down the country’s first and only gay website, queerpk.com, which was first launched last July. The website’s founder, who goes by the pseudonym Fakhir, says the ban is “unconstitutional and opposes freedom of speech.” But he does not want to pursue legal action as he doesn’t want a confrontation with the government, which could unmask those behind the website whose subtitle is “Know us, Don’t Hate Us.” Fakhir says the site is not “blasphemous or pornographic” but is aimed at educating gays on health issues such as preventing the spread of HIV, and on how to deal with social and family pressures and with depression.

Bucking discrimination, Khan, an ethnic Pashtun who goes by the nickname of Danny, studied fashion design at a college in Islamabad and quickly fell into the growing businesses of fashion, modeling and acting. His acting career got a big boost in 2009 when he was cast in a British film, called Kandahar Break: Fortress of War, which was being shot in Baluchistan, the wild-and-woolly home of his ultra-traditional Safi tribe in western Pakistan. He played a Taliban interpreter with gay tendencies who worked for a British explosive ordinance disposal team that Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime had hired to clear mine fields in 1999.

In 2010, Khan moved to heavily Taliban-influenced Peshawar to further his acting and fashion careers, but chiefly to be closer to his partner. At first he was terrified, afraid of the Taliban and the frequent terror bombings. Every day he cautiously emerged from his hotel filled with trepidation. But he was soon pleasantly surprised by what he found: gays were not as unwelcome and under the gun as he had imagined. On the contrary, he quickly received a vibe that many young men in the ostensibly macho, largely Islamist city were gay or gay-friendly. “In Peshawar I feel like almost every second guy is gay by the way they look and talk,” he says. “On the streets and in the markets I think most people look at cute boys more than at girls.” But, he adds: “Unfortunately gays feel they have to hide their feelings and their true selves,”

Khan and other Pakistani gays say that being gay in Pakistan is not all that unusual despite the ostensibly strong prejudice against homosexuals. “I’ve found that male-to-male sex is more common than you’d imagine in our society,” says Shehzad, a smart, fashionable and educated 25-year-old gay man from Lahore. A June article in Mother Jones magazine confirmed Shehzad’s feeling, reporting that Pakistanis lead the world in Google searches for the terms “shemale sex,” “teen anal sex” and “man f—king man.”

Pakistani gays like Khan and Shehzad say the country is rife with hypocrisy. “I know that some Pakistani policy makers practice gay love in private, then go out and make laws against gays,” says Shehzad. Khan agrees: “I know that some Pakistani politicians of all parties, including those from religious parties, are interested in gay men,” he says. “Even some men who teased me for being gay suddenly come on to me when we are in a quiet spot.” “If you heard the names of the prominent members of Pakistani society who are gay, you wouldn’t believe your ears,” adds Chaudhry Javid, a 28-year-old gay man who works for a foreign aid agency and lives in a luxury apartment in Islamabad.

Still, Javid keeps his sexual orientation in the closet, hiding it from his family and friends, and claiming it is too early for him to reveal himself. “If we come out, our families will cut us out like a cancer,” he says. He adds that he’s ashamed that he can’t tell his parents that his best friend is also his sexual partner whom he loves. “I suffer when I lie to my parents describing him as just a good friend,” he says. Shehzad, too, says it’s too early for him to come out. “Society doesn’t accept us,” he says. “I don’t dare to go public.” Faisal Khan, a 28-year-old government bureaucrat in Peshawar, says he would get fired or worse if he came out. (He is not related to Assad Khan.) “I cannot expose myself,” he says. “People in the office would use it against me and I’d lose my job.” Faisal Khan says he doesn’t dare visit his family’s home village just south of Peshawar for fear the Taliban would find out about his gayness and capture him, causing a scandal for his family.  Nor would he dare to confess his sexual persuasion to the mullah at his mosque. “He would probably send me to the Taliban who would make a kebab of me,” he says.

Even so, Faisal Khan and other Pakistani gay men see hope in the future as they sense that public attitudes are slowly changing. For starters, people are beginning to tolerate unmarried young men and women congregating together in public. If the public is beginning to accept men and women dating, they reason, then eventually gay relationships will also be tolerated. Wearing a suit and red tie and sporting long black hair, Faisal Khan points to the numerous heterosexual couples sitting together in a modern University Town café in Peshawar, talking and laughing as they eat western food and listen to rock music. “Look, these boys and girls are here in public without any hesitation or fear of society or the Taliban,” he says. Javid says that a decade ago you would never see young men and women holding hands in public. Now it is almost common in the cities. Ironically, it’s not uncommon, and not viewed as homosexual behavior, for young men to hold hands in public as they walk—it’s a customary sign of friendship.

But there are still strict limits. In rural, traditional Pakistan there is a clear separation of the sexes as boys and girls are forbidden to meet in public. Yet in the tradition-bound confines of the countryside, it is easier for gay Pakistani couples to congregate in public than for mixed-sex couples. “It’s normal for a group of men to hang out together so no one can bother us,” says Javid. “But in some traditional areas, boys and girls going out together is still a sin against society and our religion.”  Javid adds that viewing homosexuality as a sin, as most Pakistanis do, is absurd since there is no victim. “Aren’t the rampant corruption in our society and the killing of innocents by the Taliban greater sins?” Javid asks.

For most gays in Pakistan, society’s views are not changing fast enough. So for now, they are forced to live largely an underground existence. They point to the many and lavish subterranean gay parties as the highlight of their social lives. “These weekly underground parties keep us happy,” says Shehzad. “Here we have a place to enjoy ourselves hidden from the Taliban, the government and the police.” Organizing these extravagant, gay parties in Islamabad and Peshawar has become a good business for Assad Khan. He says that many of the parties he organizes cost $5,000 or more to cover the expense of renting a large, posh house or reception hall, providing private security, live bands, food and drinks and paying off the cops. Partyers pay an admission charge, allowing Khan to make a profit. “Islamabad is a city famous for the biggest number of gay parties,” Assad Khan says. “The number of these parties, and the number of gays attending, is increasing, even in Peshawar.” He also helped organize a summer music festival in the mountain resort of Swat this past summer in the face of Taliban threats, and he plans to bring fashion shows to conservative Peshawar soon.

Although it may be premature, Khan is trying to organize a gay rights movement capable of standing up to the Taliban, the politicians and aggressive Pakistani cops. As a result of his efforts, he has received anonymous, threatening phone calls and has escaped an attempt to kidnap him at a wedding reception not long ago. But he remains unshaken. “We have to defeat the concept of fear and terror,” he says. “Everyone should have the right to live as they please. No one has the right to dictate to us.” He adds: “I want to be a leading voice for gay rights and protection.”

But he quickly emphasizes that his push for gay rights stops short of campaigning for the legalization of gay marriage. “We don’t want to push for gay marriage, only for our human rights,” he says. Most other gays steer clear of any gay rights movement, fearing retaliation. “The Taliban and other extremists will target any gay rights movement,” says Shehzad. “It’s too dangerous to get involved.”

Originally published in The Daily Beast, October 30, 2013: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/30/pakistan-s-gay-community-quietly-breaking-barriers.html

Bollywood has run out of Punjabis

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One of the odder facts about Bollywood is who runs it. India’s Hindi film industry is located in Bombay (from whose ‘B’ we get Bollywood). But the two largest communities of this city have little to contribute to the movies.Gujaratis and Marathis are together some two-thirds of the city’s population. Gujaratis dominate most of Bombay’s commerce, including the large capital market, while Marathis run the state and administration efficiently. In Bollywood, however, there’s little sign of either community.Yes, we can point to a great Gujarati actor (Sanjeev Kumar) here and a great Marathi singer (Lata Mangeshkar) there. But they are exceptions.

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation’s biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India’s television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood’s Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi’s culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus – Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Now here’s the problem, actually two problems. First: Bollywood’s Punjabis are removed from the land that nourishes them. Punjab’s cultural capital is Lahore, and most Bollywood Punjabis haven’t ever seen it. Gulzar, whose real name is Sampooran Singh, told me that he didn’t want to return to his native Jhelum. He said he had left an idyllic place and had held on to its memories, which he records in his lyrics. But he’s exceptional and carries his world with him. People like Karan Johar, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan are all Bombay yuppies, whose first language is English. The dialogues are all written in Roman because few read Urdu or Hindi.

Second: While Partition sent the Hindu Punjabis to Bollywood, Lahore’s Muslims are lost to it. The Punjabis of Lahore possess something that all India loves, and that is a high culture in Urdu. This is why Bollywood will always be made in a language that both India and Pakistan recognise as their own.

Unfortunately, there is no young Gulzar in Bollywood today, and there has never been another Manto. Our supply of Lahoris has run out.

The Punjabi provided the firepower of Bollywood, but he needed the space to express himself. Manto discovered this after Partition. Sitting in his lovely house, Lakshmi Mansion off the Mall, I thought of how much of a Bombay writer Manto was. He may have been Lahori but he belonged to Bombay. Bombay has always been India’s most liberal city because the dominance of mercantile Gujaratis and efficient Marathis has made it so.

But Bollywood dearly misses its Punjabis, and awaits the day it can get them again.

Written by Aakar Patel. Originally published in the The Friday Times (July 22-28, 2011): http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20110722&page=9

 

The State of Jammu & Kashmir vs. Union of India

Disclaimer: This is not a legal document, judgement or academic opinion on the legality of the accession of Kashmir to India but rather an attempt to bring together some facts and legal principles pertinent to the accession question and have the reader come to his or her own finding through further inquiry if necessary.

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Was the accession of Kashmir to India legal?

Facts

On August 14 and 15, 1947, India and Pakistan gain independence. The rulers of the 565 princely states of British India have to decide to join either India or Pakistan. The Maharaja Hari Singh is the ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and does not make a decision as to which country to join.

On October 22, 1947, Pathan tribesmen from Pakistan invade Kashmir. The Maharaja of Kashmir appeals to India for help.

On October 26, 1947, the Maharaja flees Kashmir and arrives in Jammu. Also on or about October 26, 1947, the Maharaja meets with a representative of the Indian Prime Minister and signs the Instrument of Accession. On October 27, 1947, India troops arrive in Srinagar (Kashmir). Recent British sources indicate that the Indian PM’s representative did not reach Jammu until the morning of October 27, 1947 by which time Indian troops were already arriving in Srinagar.

Issues:

  1. Did the Maharaja act of a free mind when he signed the Accession?
  2. Did the surrounding circumstances influence the Maharaja’s decision?
  3. If so, did those circumstances influence the Maharaja’s decision-making ability in such a way that he cannot be said to have acted of a free mind?

The Law

I look at three legal principles relevant to the issues above.

The question of duress: duress is legally defined as a situation where one party exerts pressure unlawfully on another party to compel that party to do something that he or she would ordinarily not do. For duress to apply against India, India would have had to have done something unlawful, such as threaten to use violence against the Maharaja, his family or threaten to seize his property and hold it ransom. The use of suggestion or persuasion on the part of India does not qualify as duress.

The question of undue influence: undue influence occurs in relationships where one party exerts pressure on a weaker party so as to overpower the will of that weaker party and thereby induce an agreement. In this case, India would have had to do something to influence the Maharaja – including making military aid to him conditional upon his signing the accession instrument – which was short of actual force, but stronger than mere talk, resulting in the signing of the accession.

The question of unconscionability: an unconscionable transaction is an agreement that no right-minded would ever make and no fair-minded person would ever accept. In this case, there would have to be an inequality in the bargaining power between India and the Maharaja of Kashmir. If there was, then the Maharaja also would have had to have made an improvident bargain, that is he would have had to sign the accession (for military aid) without proper regard for the future.

If that were the case, there arises a legal presumption of unconscionability against India which India would have to rebut.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Ganguly, Sumit, “Conflict and Crisis in South and Southwest Asia”, in Michael E. Brown, ed., The International Dimensions of Internal Conflict, Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press, 1996a, pp. 141-172.

Ganguly, Sumit, “Explaining the Kashmir Insurgency: Political Mobilization and Institutional Decay”, International Security, vol. 21, no. 2, Fall 1996b.

The Problem of Pakistan

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“Meri tamir mein muzmir hai ik surat kharaabi ki”

In my being lay the seed of my destruction (Ghalib)

Ulema in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan recently banned women from entering bazaars unless they were accompanied by a close male family member or “mehram.” For many, it seems like one in a long line of laws, edicts and fatwas in Pakistan including the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, the blasphemy provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code and the enforcement of Muslim religious practices – enforcing zakat, fasting during Ramzan and prayer times – as if God, the Qur’an and all the masjids in Pakistan weren’t enough.

Curiously, many Pakistani apologists of the country’s Islamization of law and politics blame Zia while praising the secular legacy of Jinnah. But the the Islamization of Pakistan is a cause of and not a consequence of the Zia era. The “Islamic” character of Pakistan – as sanctioned by the country’s state-sponsored scholars – is inherent in the idea of the Pakistan itself.

First, what is the difference between a country founded as a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state? While I agree with Hamza Alavi that the movement for Pakistan started off as a movement for Indian Muslims to protect their community interests in a Hindu-majority country, the line between a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state became increasingly  blurred as the years went by. In “Now or Never,” published in 1933, Chauhary Rahmat Ali, refers to Muslims as a “millat” with its own distinctive culture, tradition, social code, economic system and laws of inheritance, marriage and succession.

Despite his much vaunted secular credentials, Jinnah also referred to Islam as not just a religion but a civilization and a way of life and exhorted his followers that Pakistan was not simply a question of political independence for the Muslims of India but the means through which “the Muslim ideology” could be preserved in the subcontinent. After 1947, Jinnah exhorted an audience at a speech he made on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday to prepare themselves to “sacrifice and die in order to make Pakistan (a) truly great Islamic State.”

Second, Jinnah’s death in September 1948 paved the way for those who believed Islam should be the guiding principle of Pakistan. The “Objectives Resolution” adopted by the Constituent Assembly in March 1949 provided that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna.” Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan went on to declare that “the state will create such conditions as are conductive to the building of a truly Islamic society, which means that the State will play a positive part in this effort.”

Third, the Constitution of 1956 named the new country the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” What was an “Islamic Republic?” Who qualified as a Muslim? Even before 1956, Sunni Muslims had called on the government to have Ahmadiyyas declared as non-Muslim, resulting in the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of 1953. The country’s first education minister, Fazl Ur Rahman, declared that Pakistani education would be permeated and transformed by “Islamic ideology.” Liaquat Ali Khan’s official injunction on obeying Ramazan resulted in angry mobs attacking restaurants and hotels who cooked and served meals during the day.

Before Zia, it was under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure that Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims in 1974, setting a precedent of using religion as a means of electoral gain. What Zia may have done may have been unprecedented, but the the 1949 Objectives Resolution, the speeches and writings of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali and Liaquat Ali Khan if not Jinnah himself and the Constitution of 1956, all helped lay the foundation on which Zia could erect an Islamic State.

Written by

Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Stephen Hay ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (1988).

Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence (1990)

Choudhry Rahmat Ali, “Now or Never” (1933)

Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (2009).

Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Women in Karak barred from leaving home without Mehram,” in Dawn, July 20, 2013: http://dawn.com/news/1030354/women-in-karak-barred-from-leaving-home-without-mehram

The Story of Kainat Soomro

Outlawed-in-Pakistan

In 2007, Kainat Soomroo says she was walking home from school in her hometown of Mehar, Sindh. She went into a store to buy a toy for her niece. While looking around in the store, someone covered her mouth with a handkerchief. She fainted.

Kainat claims she was kidnapped and raped by four men over the next three days. After the third day, she escaped back to her family. Her father tried in vain to report the matter to the police. She was declared an outcaste by the local jirga (council). Her family was told to redeem its honour by killing her.

Instead, her parents defied the jirga and fled with Kainat and the rest of the family to Karachi . There they enlisted the help of a lawyer and of the NGO-group War Against Rape (W.A.R) who helped them bring the four men to trial.

The men were acquitted however as there was no evidence corroborating Kainat’s oral testimony. A month later, Kainat’s brother was murdered by unknown assailants. One of the accused rapists, Ahsan Thebo, claims also that Kainat married him during her captivity, though some suspect this was a tactic to avoid criminal responsibility since marital rape is not a crime in Pakistan.

Kainat and her family now live in poverty in Karachi and have suffered repeated threats on their lives including Thebo’s threat to take Kainat back or kill her. Yet Kainat remains undeterred:  “I want justice, I will not stop until I get justice.”

Her case is currently under appeal.

Written by Randeep Purewall.

http://www.war.org.pk/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/pressroom/press-release-outlawed-in-pakistan/

Film Review – “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

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Starring: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Haluk Bilginer. Directed by Mira Nair. (130 mins).

Reviewed by Randeep Purewall

The film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel took three years to adapt for the screen. Whereas Hamid’s novel centered on two characters, the protagonist Changez Khan and an anonymous American, in a Lahore café, Nair’s film adaptation is a full-charactered narrative shot which shows the protagonist leaving Lahore (filmed in Delhi) to pursue an education and career in the United States where he lives the American Dream in New York City until 9-11. He returns to Lahore, becoming a professor.

The lead is played by Riz Ahmed who did well as a streetwise Brit and jihadist in “The Four Lions.” As Changez, Ahmed does well enough as someone searching for himself but falls short in scenes such as his having to leave America, moments otherwise rich in dramatic potential which would have underlined the torment of the character’s being American, Pakistani and Muslim.

His limitations are all the more apparent when he’s is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast including Liev Schreiber as Bobby, the American in the Lahore café, Kate Hudson as Changez’ partner Erica and a superb Kiefer Sutherland as Jimmy, Changez’ Wall Street boss. Turkish actor Haluk Bilinger is a revelation in a small but seminal role as a publisher in Istanbul who compares Changez to the Janissaries, Christian children taken from their homes and trained to fight in a Muslim army only to reconquer and destroy the homelands where they were born and nurtured.

The film is stunningly shot with searing images such as the one above. After being stripped and probed by American airport security, Changez looks through opaque glass at footage of the Twin Towers coming crashing down along with his American Dream. Nair uses music to great effect too. In one of the film most poignant scenes, Changez looks at men performing namaaz in the Suleyman Mosque in Istanbul while a boy looks back at him. The scene erupts in a clash of drums in a explosive mix of Khusrao’s “Mori Araj Suno” and Faiz’ “Rabba Sachiyaan,” highlighting Changez’ inner turmoil.

Amongst growing student protests over the presence of Americans in Pakistan, Bobby urges (Professor) Changez to control the protests: the white man tells the brown man or Muslim man to “do the right thing.” Nair say she wanted the film to start a dialogue but she provides an answer instead. Reading a eulogy at the funeral of a friend killed in the protests, Changez prays the youth of Pakistan will let their inner lights shine with a force greater than the suns’. Perhaps that is the Pakistani dream which Changez asks his students about in an earlier scene. Only for many Pakistanis, the dream is to send their kids to the West, have them score good jobs there and perhaps go West themselves.

6.5/10

“Cinema for Change” – Addressing Violence Against Women

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The South Asian Film Education Society (S.A.F.E.S.) hosted its first “Cinema for Change” film festival from April 19 to April 21, 2013. The theme: “Addressing Violence Against Women.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Guest Filmmaker, Samar Minallah, appeared at the opening night by Skype from Pakistan. Her documentary, “Swara: A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” looked at “swara,” the practice of using unmarried girls as compensation to settle disputes between families.  The practice of “swara” in the film of the same name, typically takes place as follows. One man kills another man and the family of the man who has been killed wants compensation from the murderer. The compensation takes the form of a girl, transferred from the family of the murderer to the family who would otherwise seek revenge. The girl is then expected to live in the “other” family as a daughter-in-law.

The practice of “swara” is well-known in North-West Pakistan and in other tribal communities and stopping it, Minallah admits, can be dangerous. The murderer (whose family pays the girl as compensation) is “let off the hook;” stopping that compensation would mean that the murderer must otherwise pay for his crime which, Minallah notes he will typically go to any lengths to avoid. Although Minallah acknowledges the challenges in fighting “swara,” she has helped bring awareness of the issue to the public and to policymakers through short public service-announcements. She also works to sensitive the police to the problem after the practice was made illegal through legislation passed in 2004. A growing number cases of “swara” moreover are being reported and addressed through public interest-litigation (200 cases were reported in 2011).

swara

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The second day saw the screening of “Common Gender” (2012), a Bangladeshi activist-documentary on the life of the hijra (intersexual) community of Dhaka and the violence underlying the social process of gendering. The two other films were “Afghanistan Unveiled” (2007) and “Provoked” (2006).

The film “Provoked,” is based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman in the United Kingdom who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her husband in 1989. Her conviction was set aside in 1992, partly through the help of the women’s advocacy and outreach group, Southhall Black Sisters. The judge noted that because of years of  abuse, Kiranjit suffered severe depression and battered women syndrome; her mental responsibility for the act was thus “diminished.” She had also been “provoked,” but was unable to retaliate right away because of her mental state. Her case (R v. Ahluwalia) changed English law, leading to the setting aside of convictions for battered women in 1992 and thereafter.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In “Saving Face,” we hear the stories of two survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan, Zakia and Rukshana. While highlighting the brutality of the attacks and their affect on the women, we see how the problem is being fought through cooperation between reconstructive surgeons, policymakers, lawyers, the media and NGO’s is key in bringing perpetrators to justice and helping women rebuild their lives.

In “Bol” (2012) Meghna Halder presents a short-film in three parts through masks, puppetry and shadows. Whereas the “The Cyclist” looks at the facelessness of the Indian Muslim woman who died in a bomb blast in Bangalore, “The Rape” looks at how two women went missing in Kashmir and were presumed to have been raped and disposed of by the Indian Army. In “The Mask,” Meghna presents the story of a man who wakes one day to find his face has been stolen. All three films were layered with meanings, teasing one’s interpretations.

While the issue of violence against women is ongoing and oftentimes distressing, I admire the filmmakers’ use of film as a medium for raising social awareness of the problem. In Minallah, we saw an example of the activist film-maker who has continued to make films despite risk to herself. In three films, we saw how individual and community activism can bring about social change such as the passage of law against “swara” and acid-attacks in Pakistan or the precedent-setting case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia in the United Kingdom. While the struggle continues, the SAFES has hopefully played its own part in presenting “cinema for change.”

For a list of all films shown and descriptions, go to: http://southasianfilm.blogspot.ca/

‘Barbarism in Cultured Soil: Rushdie’s Great Pakistani Novel’ by Shehryar Fazli

Still banned in Pakistan

I.

SALMAN RUSHDIE’S THIRD NOVEL, Shame, which will turn 30 next year, may have an unenviable legacy. Squeezed between its author’s two most famous books — and two of the most famous books of the 1980s — Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses — it is seldom given its due in discussions of the author’s body of work, nor does it find much space in his recently published memoir, Joseph Anton. Yet, even with the recent ‘boom’ in Pakistan’s literature, it remains the most ambitious English-language novel about that country, yet to be surpassed in scope, inventiveness, and humor.

It also remains banned in Pakistan.

So, first, a word about my own copy of the novel: it’s a 1984 Picador edition, with the Urdu word for shame, ‘sharam’, written as if by hand with Typex in Arabic script above the English title. I say ‘my’ copy, but it in fact belonged to my father, who bought it in the 1980s at a secondhand bookstore in Islamabad. What’s peculiar about this is that General Zia-ul-Haq’s military government had banned Shame in Pakistan, a decision that attracted more attention to the book than the dictatorship intended, and induced several Western capitals to ship copies to Islamabad through the diplomatic bag for their envoys to read. Once done, these people would sell their copies to one of the many used bookstores in the capital.

There was another book in those years that also made the rounds through these same cramped passageways: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s If I am Assassinated, which the ex-prime minister wrote from his cell after Zia’s coup. When Zia closed down the printing press that was to print the book, stapled photocopied manuscripts found their way to secondhand bookstores, through which they would circulate widely, even years after Bhutto was hanged, in 1979.

It is amusing to consider these two books, hooked to the same life support, moving clandestinely in the political capital together, under Zia’s nose. Shame, after all, is in part a fictionalized account of the Bhutto-Zia relationship. The story of this particular copy is also apt not only because censorship and suppression are such vital themes in Shame, but because an equally important element is the stuff that evades or finds a way around censorship, the thing that won’t go away — including the words of a dead prime minister.

In the simplest terms, the novel is about the transformation of a country’s identity, the rise and fall of two men, the civilian leader Iskander Harrapa and the dictator-to-be Raza Hyder, fictional parallels respectively of Bhutto and Zia, who try to control the process, and the tragic outcomes of their missions. Its raw material is the history of Pakistan. At first glance, the book’s oft-quoted description of Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind” seems mischievous and intended to provoke. But the failed dream here is an oppressive one: it is the dream of Urdu-speaking migrants who, after Partition in 1947, had to govern an essentially foreign nation, feeling compelled to impose a neat formula — the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ‘one nation, one culture, one language’ — onto a diverse, unwieldy polity. The dream disappoints because the country is too multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, too multidimensional for the imposition.

Shame’s narrator argues, “It is possible to see the subsequent history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed.” This duel forms the novel’s locus. Throughout, the censored and stifled rise to the surface, whether in the real-life secession of East Pakistan and insurgency in Balochistan against a brutal state, or in the gruesomely murderous acts of Sufiya Zinobia, General Hyder’s underdeveloped and repressed daughter. And then there is the deposed Iskander Harrapa, refusing to be quiet even after his execution: “O unceasing monologue of a hanged man!” Hyder wails as he starts hearing the dead prime minister, head still in the noose, taunting his executioner, “Never fear, old boy, it’s pretty difficult to get rid of me. I can be an obstinate bastard when I choose.” That voice goes on harassing Hyder “from the day of Iskander’s death to the morning of his own, that voice, sardonic lilting dry […] words dripping on his ear-drum like Chinese tortures, even in his sleep.”

There are other duels, too: between civilians and generals; between private passions and public customs; between the imagination and censorship; and, of course, between honor and shame. There is also a duel between fact and fiction. Ostensibly, Shame is a fantasy, the country in it “not-quite Pakistan,” everything not-quite real. Mixed into the fantasy, however, are passages of memoir, essay, and commentary on the actual Pakistan. Describing his intentions, the author says, “I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking, my last words on the East from which, many years ago, I began to come loose […] It is part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands.”

These intrusions, where the narrator (Rushdie or not-quite Rushdie, it’s difficult to tell) speaks and explains himself, are integral to the structure. He says that with his intermittent visits to his family in Pakistan, he “learned Pakistan in slices” — and that’s how he gives us the story. Instead of the perforated sheet of Midnight’s Children, we have “fragments of broken mirrors,” which the author holds up and in which the world ofShame is reflected to us. Throughout, we see him adjusting the angles to refract a little more or a little less. The difficulty in discriminating how much is real and how much is fantasy and manipulation is part of the novel’s tension.

II.

It is difficult to resist the temptation to compare Shame to the now thrice-Booker-winning Midnight’s Children. In a 1995 piece declaring Saul Bellow’s 1953 Adventures of Augie March the Great American Novel, Martin Amis wrote: “Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago.” Similarly, if there is such a search for the Great Indian Novel, the trail went cold after the publication of Midnight’s Children in 1981. And it would indeed seem implausible that a novel about Pakistan would reach the same peaks as this earlier masterpiece.

At the risk of fidgeting with already tenuous definitions, it does seem that some countries have earned the Great Novel and some haven’t. The deserving nation at minimum evokes a sense of vastness, idealism and possibility, even if the promise is ultimately disappointed. This befits America and India, as it did Britain and Russia once upon a time. Meanwhile the shrunken land of Pakistan seems to have a more modest mandate, the intimate novel with small cast, of which there has been an excellent supply since at least the Lahore-based novelist Bapsi Sidhwa’s work in the late 1970s. In this century, Pakistani writers have taken a piece of their country’s territory and extracted all that they can from it, often brilliantly: Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (Lahore), Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (rural Punjab), Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (the tribal borderlands), Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (life in the military). Shame, however, goes for broke; it wants the whole nation.

The first few chapters alone go through a rich inventory of the idiosyncratically Pakistani: the three rebellious, irreverent matriarchs in Quetta; a brandy den in the same city; the cantonment school; the corrupt customs officer and post-office man; the eccentric maulana who rides around town on a scooter “donated by the Angrez sahibs, threatening the citizens with damnation”; tribal borderlands; rural Sindh (with a seamless description of its large, almost-desert landholdings: “In these parts, horizons serve as boundary fences.”); and a humorous exposition of the layers of secret deals behind Karachi’s Defense Housing Authority, a result of which “nobody ever questioned how it came about that the city’s most highly desirable development zone had been allotted to the defense services.”

There is great comedy — the corrupt customs officer, for example, throws his daughter out of the house when he “suddenly found that his empty customs house was too full to accommodate a daughter whose belly revealed adherence to other, unacceptable customs”; and pithy, pitch perfect meditations on the condition of Pakistan’s elite that recall Rushdie’s earlier career as an adman: “Little (except freedom) was denied him”; “You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail.”

Rushdie is also a master of South Asian accents and verbal mannerisms: when, for example, a character asks, “For what you begums want this lock-shock now?” Or when another speaks of “eighteen-inch stiletto blades, sharp sharp,” and another berates, “God knows what you’ll change with all this shifting shifting.” “Dontyouthinkso” becomes one word to reflect its common quirky South Asian usage. As such instances become more frequent — “biskuts” instead of biscuits, “filmi types,” a character describing a crude child as “the junglee boy”— one can share Rushdie’s delight in retooling our vocabulary.

Translations from Urdu are chosen both for comedy and insight: there is the restive Needle Valley, after Balochistan’s Sui district (the word ‘sui’ meaning needle); and a newspaper named War, a translation of jang, which is the name of one of the country’s top media groups and their main daily newspaper, its name such a part of everyday discussion that we sometimes forget its literal meaning. The Urdu term for the man-to-man hug of greeting, galai se milna, sounds charmingly absurd when translated into “allowing their necks to meet.”

He gave us this mix in Midnight’s Children, too, but there’s something else in the tone here that distinguishes the two novels. Returning to Bellow for a moment, the great American writer supposedly found his voice when, seeing water gushing from a fire hydrant, he decided to adopt a literary style that reflected a comparable surge of elements, employing it for the first time in Augie March. The writing in Midnight’s Children could be described in the same way. Throughout, there is a sense of one story or character or place leaking all over the next. In his recently published memoir, Rushdie described it this way: “India was not cool. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he [Rushdie] would try to find that language.”

Shame, meanwhile, is a much smaller, tighter work, in part a reflection of its author’s idea of Pakistan: not hot, not loud, but closed, censored, its possibilities more restricted. Instead of Saleem’s invocation to himself on the first page, “Oh, spell it out, spell it out,”Shame’s narrator prefers leaving “many questions in a state of unanswered ambiguity.” Yet, concealed underneath is nevertheless the same messiness and energy that we find in the earlier novel; the water is still in the hydrant but the internal pressure always high, causing bursts now and again. This gives the sentences a fresh, tantalizing volatility.

Some of the book’s best moments are indeed when Rushdie condenses his material. Harappa’s period in power, for example, which a reader familiar with Bhutto’s rule in the 1970s may expect to be covered in several long chapters, is instead captured in a single paragraph that runs for four pages. It is depicted through 18 embroidered shawls, classified by theme. For example, a slapping shawl:

Iskander a thousand times over raising his hand, lifting it against ministers, ambassadors, argumentative holy men, mill-owners, servants, friends, it seemed as if every slap he ever delivered was here, and how many times he did it [] see upon the cheeks of his contemporaries the indelible blushes engendered by his palm.

On the next page, elections shawls:

[O]ne for the day of suffrage that began his reign, one for the day that led to his downfall, shawls swarming with figures, each one a breathtakingly lifelike portrait of a member of the Front, figures breaking seals, stuffing ballot-boxes, smashing heads, figures swaggering into polling booths to watch peasants vote, stick-waving rifle-toting figures, fire-raisers, mobs, and on the shawl of the second election there were three times as many figures as the on the first […] and of course he’d had won anyway, daughter, no question, a respectable victory, but he wanted more, only annihilation was good enough for his opponents, he wanted them squashed like cockroaches under his boot, yes, obliteration, and in the end it came to him instead, don’t think he wasn’t surprised, he had forgotten he was only a man.

Seven years of revolutionary, autocratic government compressed into four intense pages.

Like Bhutto, Harrapa is deposed in a coup by his until-then sycophantic army chief Hyder; elections are postponed; and Hyder, with his ally the motor-scooter maulana whispering in one ear and the ghost of the hanged ex-prime minister taunting him in the other, and facing women-led insurrection on the streets, becomes an Islamizing dictator.

The novel’s penultimate chapter is titled, “Stability,” the word here of course offered not to suggest genuine peace and harmony, but as the main imperative of dictatorship, a response to the “danger of permitting the imagination too free a rein.” It in fact leaves out five crucial words, revealed later to complete General Hyder’s motto: “Stability, in the name of God.” The chapter begins with a synopsis of a play about the French Revolution featuring Georges Danton who, after playing a lead role in overthrowing the monarchy, is guillotined during Robespierre’s Terror because, in this version, “he is too fond of pleasure.” His indulgences are subversive, whereas the demands of the French public at the time are for order: “The people are like Robespierre. They distrust fun.” And hence the play’s lesson is that the duel between the epicure and the puritan forms “the true dialectic of history. Forget left-right, capitalism-socialism, black-white. Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that’s the game.”

It’s also a blood sport — and Shame is by far Rushdie’s most violent novel, climaxing in this blood-spattered chapter. As the dictatorship seeks “stability, in the name of God,” it has to oppress the public while appearing to be fulfilling the public’s needs. But all stability of this kind, even if it’s in the name of God, proves fragile. General Hyder, proving himself alas to be “only a man,” is overthrown by a terrorizing mob that may or may not be inspired by his repressed daughter, Sufiya. The final section is appropriately titled “Judgment Day.”

III.

The heroes of Rushdie’s novels are tragic because they believe or dream themselves to be larger than they are. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem envisions himself as the embodiment of the Indian nation, and the one causing historical events. Gibreel in The Satanic Verses dreams himself into the archangel. But these are, of course, fantasies, exposed by the end. India, for example, carries on with or without Saleem.

Shame’s declared ‘hero’, Omar Khayyam, never entertains such delusions: he accepts a peripheral role in history, watching “from the wings, not knowing how to act.” But the danger is that people who do influence the times, the Hyders and Harrapas, are just as average. Unlike Saleem and Gibreel, when they enlarge their roles, the consequences are severe.

History was old and rusted, it was a machine nobody had plugged in for thousands of years, and here all of a sudden it was being asked for maximum output. Nobody was surprised that there were accidents.

Those accidents leave long-term traumas, both external — separatism, secession, executions — and internal, as symbolized by the innocent Sufiya’s transformation into a murdering Beast that prowls the very “heart of the respectable world.” While iron rule may produce the trappings of stability and civility on the surface, it fails ultimately to conceal the novel’s innermost secret: “the impossible verity that barbarism [can] grow in cultured soil.” This revelation exposes and undoes the history-workers.

Towards the end of the book, when Raza Hyder has fallen, his wife Bilquis posits: “Once titans walked the earth.” And she reats, “Yes, titans absolutely, it’s a fact.”

“Now the pygmies have taken over, however,” she confided. “Tiny personages. Ants. Once he was a giant,” she jerked a thumb in the direction of her somnolent husband, “you would not believe to look, but he was. Streets where he walked shook with fear and respect, even here, in this very town. But, you see, even a giant can be pygmified, and he has shrunk now, he is smaller than a bug. Pygmies pygmies everywhere, also insects and ants — shame on giants, isn’t it? Shame on them for shrinking. That’s my opinion.”

The ideas in the two passages quoted here crest in a later novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, to produce one of the finest passages in Rushdie’s work:

A tragedy was taking place all right, a national tragedy on a grand scale, but those of us who played our parts were — let me put it bluntly — clowns. Clowns! Burlesque buffoons, drafted into history’s theatre on account of the lack of greater men. Once, indeed, there were giants on our stage; but at the fag end of an age, Madam History must do with what she can get.

Although the country in this case is India, this treatise could just as easily summarize the tragedy in Shame.

IV.

More than for any other writer of his time, duels from Rushdie’s fiction find their way into real life. Shame is no exception. It is indeed eerie to read the author/narrator musing on the value of the Danton play in the “age of Khomeini,” when, at the end of that decade, Rushdie himself became arguably the most emblematic victim of that Age. At an earlier point, the author says that if he were writing a realistic book about Pakistan, that book “would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing!” Fortunately, he contends, “I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken, either. What a relief!”

Well, not quite. Realism showed through the fairy-tale, the military did get upset, and the book was banned. But if the narrator here underestimated Zia’s discriminating ear, he also overestimated the state’s ability to fully ban a book. Copies found their way around the regime. And almost 30 years later, the duel continues. Despite significant progress, free expression still contends against state censorship, winning a round here, losing one there. Recently, in the aftermath of an anti-Islam film trailer that provoked riots across the Muslim world, the government in Islamabad blocked Youtube, which remains inaccessible as of the writing of this essay. Meanwhile, insurgency and brutal military suppression continue in Balochistan, the army continues to interfere in politics, and Zia’s Islamization has proven very tough to reverse. If Shame’s political substance makes it relevant reading today, its language, inventiveness, and storytelling force will ensure its importance as a literary work even if — fingers crossed — those issues stop being current.

Despite coming under 300 pages, Shame is a big novel that goes for big ideas, about the individual and power, about state force and its limitations, about the imagination under authoritarian rule. It’s also a kaleidoscope, the broadest and liveliest yet, of this country’s complicated personality, full of pettiness and corruption and tragedy, but also rebellion and defiance and wit.

Given the great energy in Pakistani writing today, it would be hasty to say that the trail for the Great Pakistani Novel has gone cold. The 21st-century books mentioned earlier explore such diverse themes as immigration, conspiracy, bureaucracy, class divide, gender roles, army rule, tribal code, city life, proving how rich the material is. It’s possible that another big book that tries to encompass all of it is already in the works, and this possibility, this feeling that the Pakistani novel is still on the rise, is what makes this period in the nation’s literature so exciting.

But in the meanwhile, if searching for such a book, search no further than Shame.

[*] An earlier version of this essay appeared on theindiasite.com.

From Los Angeles Review of Books
http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type&id=1182&fulltext=1&media#article-text-cutpoint
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uddari@live.ca
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