Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reading Khaled Hosseini


And the Mountains Echoed
A Review 


‘Out beyond ideas
Of wrongdoing and right doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.’

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ begins with a Rumi quote. Khaled Hosseini keeps this promise and does indeed usher the reader into a field where there is no right and no wrong, where ‘cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.’ Many readers want to know: “How this third novel different from his previous two?” Well, one big difference is that unlike the ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ there is no untarnished hero, no irredeemable villain. There is only life, and circumstance, and the reader is set up to ponder over rather than judge each character.

Part of Hosseini’s brilliance lies in the firmness with which he pulls together the strings of the Mashreq and Maghreb until, in flat defiance of Kipling’s prophecy, that twain finally meets. He uses English as the deft medium but the novel defies the classical western tradition of the ‘story arc’. That is, there is no simple “exposition, conflict and resolution”. Instead, from his very first chapter, Hosseini proceeds in the timbre of the ancient storytellers of the east, spinning many different tales, sometimes leaving the listener at the clutching throes of one before tumbling headlong into a totally different other. Of course the tales are connected. A character from one tale sometimes appears in another (as in the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights). And they all emerge from a common womb.

That womb is Afghanistan. Protagonists may spill in from Greece or spill out into France and America, but a merciless Kandahari wind blows through their lives wherever they are. Though it is about Afghanistan, this is not a book about war. In the voice of one of his characters, Hosseini explains: “I need not rehash for you the those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled…” The war may thunder on in the background but the real stories are of separation and pain, of sibling rivalry and forbidden love, of duty, identity and complicated parent-child relationships that span a lifetime.

The reader will meet leg-revealing, cigarette-smoking Nila, who rebelliously scratches erotic poems with her pen and also Parwana, who bears none of the lightness that her name implies. The reader will meet humanitarians who rush in to heal Afghans from the war and watch how they manage, in the process, to heal themselves. Above all, the reader will question, whether a little girl whisked off to Paris or a little boy pampered in an ivory tower were better off than children who faced the poverty and war. As we can expect from life, and from the great literature that mimics it, there is never an easy answer.

Yes, it is possible to find flaws in ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ starting with the clumsiness of the book-title itself. Readers who are used to plots that provide instant gratification or satisfying resolutions will have a bone to pick with Husseini’s refusal to create neat little endings to the wounds he gashes open. The multiple sub-plots can feel distracting, especially to readers who prefer to finish their novels in one sitting. And of-course readers who dislike crying will be downright mortified. By the time she reached the last sentence, this reviewer had raw eyes.

How many stars for this book? As many as shine down on the deserts of Afghanistan. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What now, Imran?


Dear Imran,

We bought the T-shirts, donned the bandanas, waved the flags. We flew in from London and New York. We tweeted, face-booked and blogged ourselves into the world. We trolled like gangsta’s (and sometimes like jackasses, but hey, we’re new at this; we’ll learn finesse). We dragged our grandmothers out to vote.  We clutched our hearts and cried without shame when the anthem reverberated through D-Block. Yes, Skipper. We rocked the voter turnout.

But at the moment, we’re in a little bit of pain. Because most of us don’t—uh—we don’t belong to KPK. As TV screens showed the celebratory firing on the streets of Peshawar, we felt a little left out. We also felt something else: slight unease We troll, yes, but—uh—we wouldn’t have fired AK-47’s at your victory. Most of us don’t own guns and the only turbans we’ve ever worn were chunri (on that one cousin’s mehndi). Our sisters wore the Karma-inspired kurtas (not a light blue shuttlecock burqa) to the polling station. And thrilled though we are that you won in KPK, we kind of want to know: Who voted for you there, Skipper? How did their vote count more than ours, when we love you no less? You couldn’t defeat the nihari-grubbing Shareefs but you plastered Bilour? You don’t even speak Pushto, Imran Khan-Niazi! How come MQM harassed Karachi voters but no bomb went off at a Peshawar polling station?

Don’t get us wrong, we love you no less. We’re reaching for the nausea bag when reading Sharmila’s tweets to Maryam Baji. We’re quietly bearing the peeli taxi and bullet train jokes. We’re biting our lip and looking away when, each time we leave the house, the gawandian da bacha sings “Shikari khud yahan shikar ho gaya”.

We’re sulking quietly but we’re wondering: What now, Skipper? Our cousins in Peshawar are taunting us with pictures of a glittering Dubai-esque skyline with the caption, ‘Naya Peshawar.’ Is that true, Imran? Will you really develop Peshawar till it rivals Dubai? Some of us are so tired of PML-N taunts that we’re ready to learn Pushto and migrate, if you are. But some of us (especially if we’re girls who’ve actually been to Qissa Khwani Bazaar) are worried. We’ve heard that you made a deal with the devil in those parts, that you think that the gardens of Peshawar will be rebuilt by talking with the Taliban.

Talib-e-Ilm to HUM hein, Skipper. Take a good look at your latest voter. Ok, maybe we’re a little scared of getting ‘garmi mein kharab’ but when we sit home under the UPS-fan, we cram for exam after exam. We’ve studied World History and Political Science. We know that Appeasement has never worked, not when Chamberlain tried it with the Nazis and not ever since. We understand that your win in KPK places a bigger challenge for you than the Shareefs’ win in Punjab places on them. Their motorways are built. Their Metro buses are running. Their niharis are flowing. But we’ve heard that the lights have stayed off in Peshawar for years now. We want to know, really: Can you switch them on again? Will trees be replanted? Will hospitals be rebuilt? Will girls be allowed to go out to school, the way their mothers were allowed to go out to vote?

Yes Captain, I see you weren’t expecting my questions, not after I gushed my school-girlish support for you a couple of days ago. This is Naya Pakistan and you’ve created a monster. You didn’t just create first time voters. You carved out a new quality of electorate, one that asks questions. New questions, harder questions, questions from more directions will spill out of the drawing rooms and into social media, into the streets, into D Block. We’ll ask more questions from you and we won’t stop asking them of the Shareef baradaran either. But rest assured, if you need our help to create some answers, we’re standing alert and attentive, wondering how to help. Don’t underestimate your voter in loyalty nor intelligence and initiative, Captain. We pride ourselves on being a new kind of party-supporter: we’re not peasants in rural areas. We don’t belong to just one province. We already have laptops.

We gave our loyalty to a party in 2013. We’re ready to learn how to help that party become bigger and better and stronger. For the next five years, we’ll be hunting the lion—for a flaw in its policies and its work ethic.

Count on us, Skipper. We aren’t going back to sleep.

Hareem. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Voter Turnout


Dear Imran,

I was a schoolgirl in the 80’s and I know you. I remember the excitement of the Brookebond ad, the value of your autograph. I remember the pages in slambooks dedicated to you. I know who my boy-cousins and chacha’s were pretending to be when they swung a bat over their shoulders and sauntered onto a cricket pitch, the way a teenage Waseem Akram used to look at you. That’s right, Skipper, my generation remembers all that.

I also remember the day your beaming face lifting the World Cup was banned from national TV. My nineties-born boy cousins were named ‘Imran,’ they live with that name today. I remember one of Jemima’s earliest interviews when she said she knew her husband ‘was popular in Pakistan—but she had no idea he was this popular.’

‘Bimbo,’ I thought…along with the rest of the women in this country. ‘Where did you come from?’ Who could like that woman for marrying…and then leaving…Imran Khan… ‘No Hugh Grant ever matched up, huh Jem?’

I watched with unease when you were ridiculed in politics, when flibbertigibbets like Nadia Khan could smirk publicly at you. When you shed the playboy shirts and donned the awami suit. You made my heart sink with your vote on the Women’s Bill. I winced as you talked about the Ahmedis. ‘Who is he, really?’ I wondered. But my eyes were also opened by the way my students—now men in their 20’s—began to attend your jalsas. And then, when my sister skyped in to tell me that my seven-year-old nephew all the way across in Liverpool, dropped his plastic cricket bat and began sobbing loudly, heartbreakingly, at the sight of your bloodied face being carried away from the forklift. It’s happened all over again.

One nation held its breath at precisely the same second, last night, when you tumbled off that forklift, Skipper. We held our breath and reached for each other, de-ja-vu washing over our hearts. You’ve made us hold our breath countless times before: West Indies, India, Sharjah, the World Cup. But not quite like this. We exhaled together when we heard you were ok, ignoring partisanship to look each other in the eyes to read the same thought: We cant afford to lose…this man.

There was nothing play-boyish, nothing glamorous about your face looking out at us from the hospital bed. There were 60 years etched in those lines, pain in those puffy eyes. But it gave us goose bumps to hear what you had to say. I never watched cricket. I never believed in politics. Until you, Skipper. For years, I’ve heard the drawing room talk lamenting our leadership crisis. Last night, despite ourselves, we saw a Leader.

I disagree with you on so much but you make me determined to fight for it all. If you get elected, someone might actually listen. Looking at how you’ve persevered through the last 17 years till all turned to look twice: this makes me believe in democracy in a way that the Bhutto legacy or the Shareef baradaran never could. I’m coming to believe in democracy, thanks to you, Skipper. For so many years, we’ve waited for a moment to feel our collective heartbeat, for a moment to celebrate. Beneath our sarcasm and skepticism, our blood—though these days it trickles rather than flows—remains forever, green. 

I am 37 and I’ve never voted. This morning, I sms-ed my ID and noted my polling station. This morning, I fished around in my ilmari for a green dupatta to iron for the 11th.  This morning, I let Junaid Jamshed sing ‘Inshallah…’ in my car as I dropped my daughter to her school. Even though I boycotted his lawn this year over his comment that women shouldn’t drive, even though I share no beliefs with that man, I clutched at the steering wheel and joined my voice with his: InshAllah…InshAllah. Voter turnout will determine the election? Well then. This voter will turn up.

‘Come on, Imran.’ I remember the way the commentators used to say it as the crowd’s feet began to thump in the stands, soft and so slow at first, then louder, much louder, gaining speed…as you gained speed. ‘Come on, Skipper.’

You have a people to lead.

Sincerely,
Hareem.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Addicted to Scrabble


It feels like all my life, I’ve carried a Scrabble board under my arm, looking for someone to play with. It’s a lonely feeling when you cant find a Scrabble partner—kind of like knowing a language that no one else will speak to you in.

“Will you play with me?” I beg my husband.

He shudders. “No. I can’t stand the game. And I don’t want to play any game with you, you’re too competitive.”

“That’s why it’s called a game…it is meant to be competitive,” I huff and walk off.

“Will you play with me?” I beg my eight-year-old.

“No, Amma, you never let me win,” she says.

“If someone “lets” you win, it’s not winning at all,” I try to explain to her but I can see I’ve lost her attention.

“Do you play Scrabble?” I’ve asked friends, acquaintances, relatives… their responses have not been encouraging.

“I have better things to do.” (What could be better than Scrabble?)

“No, but since you have time, I need your help with this other thing…” (Run!)

“I can’t play now, my drama is on.” (You prefer to watch a Zee-TV Soap about redundantly hysterical saas-bahu relationships over the queen of games? I pity you. But more, I pity myself for being in the same err…country as you.)

Deprived as I’ve been, you can imagine, therefore, why, when I found “Facebook Scrabble for Users of the World excluding the USA and Canada” I went a little overboard, playing over a hundred games in the first 4 days alone.

“Have you been crying?” my husband’s uncharacteristic concern at the breakfast table, as he attempted to peer into the puffy slits that were once my eyes, caught me off guard.

“No. Why?” I asked stupidly. Of course I didn’t want to tell him that I’d been up playing till 5:30 a.m. but his suspicions were roused. The next time I sat at the laptop, he crept up behind me.

“Who’re you playing with?” he barked, peering over my shoulder at the screen.

“Sagar from India. Check out his tattoo,” I said, careful to hide the laughter from my voice.

“Great. Have fun,” he said, equally careful to hide the irritation from his, but I wasn’t fooled.

“Amma just finished playing with Anna, Bilal, Christopher and Pauline,” piped up my daughter. Her favorite activity now is settle down next to me and size up various Scrabble opponents from their thumbnail profile pic, begging me to open up their Facebook pages so she can have a better look. “They all lost except Pauline.”

“How many games has your Amma played today?” he asker her.
“Many, many,” came the traitorous reply. “She’s been playing since I came home from school.”
Yes, I’ll admit it openly, I’m addicted. Just like I’m addicted to carbs and flossing and other generally good things.

On a serious note, Scrabbling has opened up a whole new world for me. For instance, I can tell tons about a person by the way they play Scrabble. Do they generously open up the game, with six-letter words that blaze brave new trails across the board? Do they risk allowing you to score by opening up a “red” triple-word score space? Contrary to belief, these are not necessarily marks of the gullible player, but of the true sportsman. Also contrary to belief: taking risks that open up the game doesn’t mean your partner will win (he needs skill and the right tiles for that)—but it certainly means it will be a better, more interesting game. There are players whose words will conservatively hug yours, scared that if their letters foray into open space, you’ll rob all the double-word score spaces and win. These are the players who’ll jeopardize any chance you could have at a triple word score by making a three letter word that blacks the space forever (Small hearted player:If I cant score this, neither shall you! Me: I’m going to whup your ass anyway. Watch yourself loooose.)

About a hundred matches into the game, I’m realizing that I’ll never stop.

More on this later. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tree Wall Mural


So Bresh wanted a mural on her room wall. B says she is done with all things pink. But this tree from www.decorpad.com caught her eye.


Step One was to have the base walls painted Light Mulberry. When that dried, we lined out the trunk. B has never understood the point of monkey bars, nor deigned to ever climb one but she scrambled up onto the rickety paint-scaffold quite casually. I, on the other hand, was not too enthusiastic.


 


But once up there, who wants to come down again? This is not the most flattering angle for a photograph, with my kameez tucked into my shalwar but, well, that's me posing recklessly.



The next couple of days, whenever B announced, 'Ama, I'm Boooooooored," I'd hand her a paintbrush and a can of green paint and she'd climb up the scaffold and paint in a few crooked leaves. I, meanwhile, added branch upon crooked branch.

































































Here's a look at the final product. 
For the finishing touch: We stuck on some reflector birds.


AS DONE AS IT WILL EVER BE