Thursday, August 24, 2006

Five Good Reasons To Contemplate Resuming A Blog

1. I have a sexy new Vaio. So sexy that it lies in bed alongside me gleaming in the dark.
2. Sarah wants me to. She reminds me at least once every quarter.
3. Sin has left the country and become an investment banker - so I will never know how to shift it onto another site.
4. All the people who know me must have stopped visiting this site for updates.
5. I remember my password.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Dear Friends,

I used to have some idea of who you were, but ever since I allowed anonymous messaging on my blog, I am a little fuzzier. Nevertheless, its been great writing here and receiving your responses. I have made many friends and my world is all the richer for it.

The reason this blog started was too let off a little steam and to be able to write in as uninhibited and honest a manner as I could. For reasons -some within and some beyond my control-I will not go into now, this has now become impossible as many emails, text messages and replies on this site have made it clear that my identity is known. I ignored the first few, but the stream continued. This blog was never addressed to my friends - it was intended as my own space, where I could write secure in the knowledge that I couldn't offend anybody. That, unfortunately, has become more and more difficult. There are days I have wanted to write, but have had to either edit or restrain myself altogether for fear of accidentally causing hurt. As a result I've had to resort increasingly to book or film reviews where I could be less personal.

In these circumstances, I have no choice but to sign off this blog for now. I am convinced that the itch will get to me eventually and that I will reinvent myself on cyberspace. But until that happens I must thank all of you for reading the bilge that I produced over the last couple of months. For your reactions, your humour, your jokes, your critiques and -above all- the caring. Strangers have written to me so often that I feel I have known them all my lives. To this extent, this blog has been positive and I cherish the fact that I ever started it in the first place. Finally, to anybody I may have offended- I apologise unreservedly.

Take care..

My House Speaks To Me

It seems my last post was pre-emptive. Ramzan started with the right, positive spirit as far as I was concerned. Struggled to wake up Saturday morning, 4 am, munched an apple, drank a litre of water and smoked a Montecristo. I even managed to finish the last chapter of Maya Jassanof's "Edge of Empire" and then rolled over and returned to slumber. I was awoken again just before 9. I had the distinct feeling that somebody was going through my cupboards. I looked over my shoulder to see all three wardrobe doors flailing open. Then it all broke loose. The bed shook, the fans swayed. The paintings started to shudder. The old brain went into auto pilot mode. Earthquake. I charged down the stairs remembering only to pick up the mobile and the Beast. On reaching the garden I looked up to see scores of crows cawing manically. I could still feel the ground beneath my feet moving. Minutes passed. Not many but it seemed like an eternity. Eventually the crows stopped cawing and settled into the trees. The rumbling stopped. It seemed to be over. Five minutes later the entire scenario repeated itself. This time round I heard the house groan. Houses have voices, I thought all the way.
The true enormity of what had happened struck me a little later. For the unitiated, Islamabad is in an earthquake zone, so the odd tremor is not an unusual occurrence. In hindsight Saturday's tremors were much worse than those previously experienced. I think I was trying to normalise them all along. Instant television (especially the amazing Geo network in Pakistan) started to relay the news and the true enormity of the quake began to filter into our consciousnesses. A block of flats- a self-styled "tower"- had come crashing down and provided the world's television with a ready image to zoom in on. The Tower was part of an apartment block that had been permitted to be constucted in the mid 90s. The consensus of opinion is that the construction work was shoddy. After all Government housing (which by definition equates with bad construction) survived. I spoke with two friends in the immediate neighbourhood. Both told the same story: they had charged downstairs in their pyjamas within the first few minutes of the first few tremors. By the time they arrived in their car parks, the Tower had crumbled into a series of ugly concrete slabs. The house-of-cards analogy was scaringly accurate.
Every tragedy has a positive side. Some heroes perhaps. This one was no different. I spent Saturday afternoon with a Designer Person from Karachi. As the image of the collapsed Tower played itself out repeatedly I decided I couldn't take it any longer. I marched Designer Person into a car, drove to the supermarket, picked up as many cartons of water and biscuits as we could fit in and drove off to the site. ("Our own Ground Zero" said our very predictable press.) On getting there (no mean feat) I was amazed to see civilians in control of the okace. University students were diverting traffic and residents were physically carrying away rubble. The rudimentary equipment there belonged to the private sector. The police and the khakis were there, but apart from establishing a "presence" for the benefit of television cameras or scratching their balls, they seemed to do little else. ("Hey. It took the Americans ages to get their act together for Katrina- give us a chance" they reacted outrageously.) The other set of heroes are the truly amazing British rescue teams that have managed to drag no less than 26 people out of the wreckage days after the event.
Every tragedy has its jokers. It is amazing how seemingly intelligent people can panic in these circumstances. After my Ground Zero expedition I went to have a much needed coffee with a friend. I could hear his wife talking to friends on her cellphone: "Yes. The Met Office has predicted two more earthquakes at 12 a.m and then again at 3 a.m." I froze. Met Offices the world over have no control over tectonic plate movement. Yes, they have a better idea of hurricanes. But to the best of my knowledge nobody has accurately predicted an earthquake. Another fashionista-cum-bad-taste-event-manager called Designer Person at 9pm. She had no idea that an earthquake had even happened and wanted to discuss a fashion show. Hmmm. I usually con myself into believing that I may be a little more intelligent than some people around me. Now I think I am normal and some people are just incredibly stupid.
ps: Thank you to all of those who messaged, replied and emailed asking about me. I apologise for not replying earlier.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ramadhan Mubarak

Ramadhan Mubarak! Mubarak and greetings to everyone - the fasters, the cynics, the rationalists, the post-religious, the sheepish, the indifferent, the jaded, the confused, those who believe, those who don't, those who won't, those who will, those who can't and those who can, - much love to all of you. Mubarak mubarak mubarak. May your month be filled with light...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

She Works Hard For The Money

Put the word "sex" into the title of a book, put a Rubenesque nude onto the cover and subtitle it: "500 years of adultery, power, rivalry and revenge and you're sure to have a bestseller on your hands. Sex with Kings is not for the serious historian- or even the sex afficianado. It is, however, a highly amusing, lighthearted romp into the world of mistresses. Well European mistresses actually. Naturally, the French come out tops in all of this with the English coming in a respectable second place. The Germanic states manage alright but Southern Europe gets a right drubbing. If Ms Herman is to be believed (and that is a tough call) then the Spaniards and Italians spent several centuries producing dour, rosary clutching princesses who were invariably married into the royal houses of Europe and therefore, effectively begged the Kings in question to take mistresses.
This is a gossipy account of history and I'm not sure Ms Herman has quite the right credentials for it - she was a publisher for a NATO related journal in a previous incarnation. Nevertheless, her slightly shaky rendition of history is not without its moments. You don't even have to read the book (just see the pictures) to learn that you do not have to be beautiful to be a mistress. That role model of mistressdom- Madame Pompadour- looks positively dumpy. Clearly looks were not of prime importance in being selected as a mistress. Apparently, the women in question had minds-or at the very least the ability to keep their monarch's minds engaged and away from the dreariness of running a kingdom. We also learn that many of the women were not sex godesses. Madame Pompadour was actually frigid. Her successor, Madame Dubarry, was an accomplished prostitute, so perhaps she made up for this deficiency.
In order to qualify as a vaguely succesful royal mistress, one would have to have the ability to communicate and sympathise with one's monarch. Camilla Parker-Bowles'success may have stemmed from her having a sympathetic ear for Charles (avec a gin and tonic) while Diana was puking down toilet bowls. The French "regularised" the role of the mistress- she had a title, a stipend, royal apartments and a role to play - from the usual patroness of the arts to (in some cases) a role in the cabinet or even on the battlefield. The job description isn't quite as laid back (pun intended) as it may seem. There was a fair amount of work involved in all of this though not without its rewards. Mistresses were rewarded with jewels and estates, though some fared pretty badly. Lola Montez (the mistress of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria) escaped but forgot to take her goodie bag with her. The Brits seemed to have had a penchant for performers-Nell Gwynn, Lillie Langtry- who generally got a raw deal.
In many cases, mistresses arrived with husbands who had to be given jobs, which kept them as far away from the royal court as possible. Others arrived with children and then produced more "bastards" given the general state of contraception. It seems about as far away from the sordid Lewinski world we live in today. Camilla, perhaps, is the last classic mistress in the true sense of the world. And her great great grandmother (Alice Keppel) was also a royal mistress. The French-as always-got the last word. President Mitterand kept a mistress for the longest and produced a daughter while he was at it. And there was no great mystery to it either. The French just thought it was too boring to make an issue out of it- while the Americans rabbited on about some dodgy stains on a blue dress. Sex with Kings is recommended for any wannabe mistresses- I'm waiting for the definitive frothy history of gigolos now.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Nicotine Dreams

There's a huge debate raging in Bollywood which raises some interesting questions. According to the Times of India the central government has imposed a ban on scenes in Indian cinema which show the characters smoking. The response has been mixed with Mahesh Bhatt challenging the directive in a court of law. Comment rages on the Indian press with people saying that a classic like Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Key Khiladi (The Chess Players) could never have been made if the characters were not allowed to puff away liberally at their hookahs. In fairness to Bollywood, smoking has never been such a big deal and most recent films at any rate refrain from characters lighting up. If anything, smoking has been portrayed negatively as something only bad guys do. Think of the villain lighting up a cigar or cigarette replete in his dark glasses (in an indoor shot) with his trademark chinese silk dressing gown. Or the vamp (the glorious Helen) with her blonde wig tossed back, cigarette in one hand and some garishly coloured liquid in a wine glass. Good guys only smoke if they're intense, confused or just plain off-the-wall. In the 60s and 70s Indian cinema (especially that of the "art house" variety) borrowed from its western counterparts and entire films were shot through a haze of smoke. The commercial hit of the 70s, Hare Krishna Hare Ram (with its drug infested soundtrack) could never have been made. That trend has since diminished as "healthy" actors and actresses have taken centre stage. Smoking doesn't quite fit into their clean living, gym toned, sugary sweet worlds. Put simply, its just not cool any longer.
But does all this need a government ban? First things first. What is the role of cinema in society. Is it to depict an aritificial Utopia or to hold a mirror up to society, warts and all? If cinema shouldn't encourage "bad" things, then surely smoking is only the tip of the iceberg. What about violence, terrorism, rape, alcohol...err chewing gum? Where do you draw the line? Second, there historic authenticity. Would it be possible to make a real film about Mr Jinnah without showing his trademark pipe? Or to show nawabs in 19th century Oudh not smoking a hookah? Third-and I think, most importantly-is the role of the state in relation to art. Should the state be the custodian of its citizens in matters such as these? There is now near global consensus on the harmful effect of cigarette advertising on television, but this argument is circumscribed by the logic that young children have easy access to this medium and may be seduced. Can it be said that young children have access to cinema on television (there are at least four or five cable channels devoted exclusively to Bollywood) and the same logic extends. I think not. The role of the State needs to be defined and minimised. I'd sooner have public pressure to get me to stop smoking-not Big Brother.
Lets personalise things a little. My father smoked till about a decade ago and my childhood memories are peppered with his 555 boxes and cartons. I abstained till I got to college. All my friends smoked and I succumbed to the temptation. Yes, I am an adult and I know it's bad for me. I've read the health warnings, watched the documentaries and coughed and choked my way through it all. So what would make me give up? A health scare- been there done that. Negative social pressure? It works. I don't smoke in front of my parents (though they know) or in houses where the hosts would prefer I didn't. I don't smoke in Clients' offices or in some restaurants. I never smoke where there's a No Smoking sign. Yes, the pressure is mounting and I may give up pretty soon. But I'm not going to give up or resume simply because Bollywood thinks so. But then I'm never the target for any of this. *sigh*

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Gramatically Purrfect

The readfest continueth. There are times in life when books take over completely. There are others when books lie forlornly on my bedside table begging to picked up. There is no method to my reading madness. I can devour stacks of books in a go and then there are dormant weeks where even flipping through Vanity Fair seems a chore. I have tried to gauge how it works, but there are no determinants. It just happens.
Next on my reading list was Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses. Ms Shamsie writes well and I have read pretty much everything she has written. Her backdrop, invariably, is Karachi - a city I remember with terrific fondness. She writes about a world of which she has first hand knowledge- Karachi's elite Defence and Clifton areas, the people who inhabit them and the political background of Pakistan at the time. She has no qualms about not creating characters beyond this charmed circle and I laud her for it. There are writers who visualise life "across the bridge" and rarely (if ever) do they get it right. Broken Verses tells the tale of an England-returned thirty one year old woman with a dramatic past. Indeed, so dramatic that it threatens to take her over completely.
Aasmani Inquilab (an unreal name if ever there was one-it means celestial revolution) works in a private television company and dwells on the life of her mother (an activist/feminist during the Zia regime) and her mother's lover (a revolutionary poet) both of who have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Aasmani relives the past when her mother's friend (a "retired" television actress) revives the past by returning with coded messages and a television performance which is based on her mother's mannerisms. I will not give the rest of the plot away, though I must confess that by the end of it my willing suspension of disbelief was hanging by a hair- and that too at the latent lesbianism running through the end.
My only problem is that each time I read a Kamila Shamsie novel, I come away feeling horribly jealous that I do not belong to her Karachi. For one, her characters (even the peripheral ones) are grammatically perfect. And they are all so clever. Their jokes are all about Gingko Biloba being a character out of Lord of the Rings. Their relationships are tortuous but they are endowed with the power of articulate self revelation. Even their fights are upmarket- they huff and sniff but never really let their guard down. They play word games, mind games and generally seem like the kind of people I'd like to meet (but never do) at a cocktail party. They only ever talk to each other - domestics waft around like lost spirits. They occasionally freeze themselves so badly that the sexual tension is unbearable. Is this the Karachi I knew? At many levels it is. But at others it doesn't suceed. For one, the wonderful cultural mix that is Karachi is Moulinexed into a bland puree. The eclectic speaking styles of the many "tribes" that make up Karachi are lost in a unified Karachi-Grammar-School-meets American-University-voice. The "Mummies" and "Daddies" have dark, hidden secrets which come tumbling out like toys from a cupboard. Having said all of this, Ms Shamsie writes with a studied passion. And I shall be there in the queue when her next book comes out.

Monday, September 26, 2005


I've just been on a massive readfest. Clearly the superficiality of "events" I've been attending has been getting to me. I started Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell two weeks ago and ploughed through its thousand odd pages with rapt attention. It tells of a battle royale between two magicians in England during the 19th century. I was initially put off by its description as a "Harry Potter for grown ups". Clarke writes in the manner of a latter day Austen or a Thackeray. She has an incredible imagination but writes intelligently-and restrainedly-about beliefs in magic over the years. There's a Dickensian feel to her London and she does manage to pepper her narrative with real life figures- The Duke of Wellington and Byron among others. It's not a kid's book by any stretch of the imagination though its not great literature either. What did fascinate me was the "western" view of magic when compared with our more "desi" variants. Both views of magic have an uneasy relationship with religion and can be downright sinister. The big difference is that magic in the "West" is now toned down to UFO's or the "unexplained." There are still large chunks of humanity in this part of the world who continue to believe in the power of magic. Even in a country like Malaysia, with its skyscrapers and other symbols of affluence and modernity, the talk would eventually turn to spirits, demons and black magic as part of an everyday reality.
The characters in Louise Brown's The Dancing Girls of Lahore certainly believe in magic. Maha, the central character, is convinced that she is the victim of black magic because the first wife of her husband has cast a series of spells on her. Several trips are made to shrines in Sindh and in Lahore to rid herself of these and to cast equally venomous spells on the first wife. Brown writes affectionately of Lahore and the women of the "Diamond Market" - the red light area. The problem is that the characters she befriends are anything but affectionate. Apart from the odd spark of genuine emotion they come across as a bunch of manic crones intent on making the best of their lives. Yes, these are women who have been dealt a miserable hand and it would be unreal to expect them to shine through. Brown is an academic and tells her story without being patronising, judgmental or vaguely romantic- the sordidness of it all comes through in her graphic descriptions of rats running through houses, excrement all over the place, drug addicts and public urinals. There is a sense of history - the older prostitutes in discussion of how the profession has fallen to .....well, a profession as opposed to a time honoured series of arts in which young women were trained. Her friends include khusras who are either transexuals or transvestites but are not homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They are effectively substitute women. The sad part of it all is that there is no way out. The men and women portrayed here are trapped in their little walled-off city with the luckier ones making it to Lollywood or the Gulf States. Sigh.

Event Mismanagement

It's Monday morning and the first rushes of caffeine and nicotine are begining to take effect. The weekend is now panning out in its true perspective. It has had some highlights and many many lowlights I'd prefer to forget. Among the latter is an "event" I was coerced into attending. What is it about fashion shows and the South Asian psyche? In all my years living away from Pakistan I was never ever (not even once!) invited to a fashion show. To my mind, these were specialist events where clothes horses, serious buyers, students, journalists and fashionistas mingled. On my return to Pakistan I gravitated towards a crowd of designers because they were "interesting" and, I must confess, because they were gay. We had a strange camaraderie given that my work is light years removed from the heady, tempestuous and often superficial world of fashion. I suspect that most of my friendships within that celestial galaxy have survived because I don't belong to that world. I have survived years of intergalactic battle by simply remaining silent and ducking the odd laser missile. My friends (and their shows) continue to thrive because the fashion-show-as-entertainment-syndrome is too deeply embedded to be discarded.
Anyways, back to the "event." I keep calling it an event, as what I witnessed defies more precise description or definition. A few days before I was invited by the chief designer and I tried to shrug him off by demanding an exclusive table. "I don't want to sit at the arse end of the room with a pillar or flower arrangement or a begum bouffant obstructing my view." My hopes were dashed. "But ofcourse, darling. You shall have the most exclusive table there. Just make sure that you bring the Transylvanian Ambassador and his wife." Damn. The Devil does wear Prada. And in exchange for a good table I had to bring an irrepressibly dull diplomat and his wife. I roped in Lady M for good measure and for good moral support. "This is going to be disastrous. It's not even C grade. I'd give it a D minus" she hissed in the car. This did not augur well.
We walked in through the usual slipshod security arrangments and were guided to a table right next to the catwalk. I could have reached out and tripped a model had I so desired. Well this was exclusive. Actually it was so exclusive that there was no one else on the table. We were in Social Siberia. At an adjacent table sat a group of men with high pitched voices and eyebrows to match. "Who are they?" I enquired. "Fashion journalists" I was informed. The show started. The clothes, in all fairness, were yummy. So were some of the models. The fashion journalists shot out their Nokias and began taking pictures. Damn. I thought they would have used old fashioned ring bound notebooks and pencils. I am so passe, I thought. The odd shriek from their table signified assent of the highest order while a collective frown of pencilled eyebrows meant the opposite. Hmmm. This wasn't quite so bad. Even Lady M was on the verge of upgrading this from a D minus to a C plus. Then it all went horribly wrong.
An MC (or "compere" as they're known in these parts) took to the stage. "I want CRAPPING" he implored. "There is not enough CRAPPING here." The Transylvanian Ambassador shifted uneasily on his chair. The MC then leapt off the catwalk to begin interviewing bewildered members of the audience for instant reactions to the show. Wisely, he kept away from the Valkyrian journos and tackled a few benign begums instead. "We lurved it" they gushed effusively. Having done the rounds, he then hopped back onto the catwalk and announced the arrival of a special guest from "across the border." Wow. I thought of all my favourite beauteous Bollywood types. Saif? Hrithik? Even Shahrukh would do at a pinch. No such luck. An unknown entity dressed not unlike a Lahori hooker took to the stage. Hang on. She wasn't dressed like one. She was one. For the next thirty minutes we were rivetted by her hip jerking/boob thrusting/crotch lurching/lip pouting/eyebrow raising "performance." Lady Transylvania leaned over and whispered "What kind of dance is this? Classical?" "Well, yes" I replied. "It is classical in a sense. It's a classic prostitute number." Errr. "Prostitute?" she asked as though she had misheard. "Yes. Prostitute. Hooker" I added by way of clarification. Silence.
The table conferred (well, all four of us really) and decided that a diplomatic exit was called for. My host caught us on the way out. Disappointment was writ large across his face. "Was it really bad?" he asked. "Nope" I said with a half smile, "It wasn't merely bad. It was horrendous." I couldn't lie. On the way home Lady M asked what I disliked most about the "event.". I thought about the plethora of defects I could chose from. "The hooker, I think." She asked why. "Dunno. I found it distasteful that a bunch of young people would resort to hiring a prostitute, tarting(!) her up and passing her off as an across-the-border import. I found it deeply offensive. These are the same people who rabbit on endlessly abourt womens' rights. And there they were crapping through it all." She looked at the receeding lights in my rear view mirror. "Let's give it an E minus then."