Friday, April 29, 2005

London Calling-Part the First

This is the first chance I've had to put my aching feet up. Its been a long haul but London has eventually lived up to its reputation. The begining was luxurious though not auspicious. Qatar has a fabulous airline. The seats stretch go all the way -and that's saying more than most people I know. I was able to stretch my six foot frame out flat and - for the first time ever on a flight- I actually managed to get some shut eye. I may even have had the odd dream. Flying will never be the same again.
On arrival, I was "fast tracked" through immigration. The chubby-good natured-gay visa officer even cracked a joke. He could teach his surly French counterparts a thing or two. Hopped on to the Heathrow express and then took a cab to my "hotel." This is where the feelgood factor came to an abrupt end. I went through an umbilical corridor and located my room. This was a damp, flea infested, gloomy chamber with a single bed half the size of my first class seat. Depression overcame me like a spilt espresso on a white table cloth. Time to hit the duty free Chivas.
The next morning was the conference I had arrived for. I tried ignoring the room, changed and fled from it as fast as I could. I hit the first of many coffee places I could find and knocked back a triple espresso on the rocks. More about the coffee invasion of London. Apart from the ubiquituous (and yukky) Starbucks, there are now more coffee joints than loos in this city. I have never had some much (and such good) caffeine in so little time. This is a far cry from the London of my day. The conference was uneventful. My paper seemed to go off well. The Chairman, a Pakistani bureaucrat, even resorted to some T S Eliot. April, according to him, was the cruellest month. This was an allusion to the bucketfuls of rain that were spilling all around us.
I got back to the dungeon and decided I couldn't take it for much longer. I fled and started calling friends at random. International roaming has to be the next best thing to sliced pancetta. I got a hold of one of my formerly marxist (but now new Labour) friends and we agreed to meet at Gray's Inn. I started walking over, vaguely conscious of the fact that I could lose my way. My homing instincts are better than my homo instincts. I made it there in no time. Auto pilot continues to work in my head - I cannot vouch for the rest of the hard disk. On getting there, I discovered I was early and that my feet hurt. They still do as I write this out. I am as out of shape as a bean bag. I sat in the picturesque surroundings and tried to recall the many days I had spent in those very buildings as a struggling student. As I sat there reminiscing, a solitary and very aged figure walked over. Emrys (as he introduced himself) has an invented name and was in the army, based in Karachi in 1942. He went on to become a judge and has roomed at Grays ever since. We chatted for the longest, complete strangers, united by the fact that we were in the same profession. The mouldy hotel room was becoming a distant memory.
The Marxist came struggling up, hauling a bunch of papers. She was having a bad hair day, but seemed none the worse for wear. The bar was closed as it was out of term, so we decided to hot foot it to the Oxo building - Terence Conran's restoration on the South Bank. Despite the absence of a reservation, we got a brilliant table for two looking along the river. The crowd was decided of the champagne socialist variety. Committed, but loving the money. The view was stupenduous. London has certainly cleaned its act up. The buildings have been scrubbed clean and floodlit. The Thames was once the grimiest river in Europe. It may still be as polluted but it looks good. The Marxist and I reminisced about old times. She is besotted with a Judge before whom she appears. Being attractive and "asian" makes her a moving target and she is convinced she will be a marked woman if she takes the plunge. All this is familiar territory. Islamabad is not the only bell jar in the world. I try my damndest to persuade her to jump in. I tried the "we-have-one-life-lets-live-it -to-the-fullest-bit." I'm not so sure it worked, but what the heck. Good food, good wine, good view.
The next morning came with marked resolution. I had warned the Temptress that I was moving into her place the next morning. Either that or I would check myself into the nearest hospital. "Be there at 10" she said. I checked out of the Bastille at 8.30 and was standing outside her flat at 9. She rolled out of bed, bade me a sleepy Hello, rolled back in. Her flat was amazing ...small, but functional, cheery, books, music, magazines and the best coffee machine in the world. My trip had taken a sharp turn for the better. God agreed. The sun came out for the very first time.
(To be continued)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Post Script

The Beast knows I am leaving. He has sulked all day. Nibbled on lunch. Refused dinner. Just in case my plane crash lands somewhere, will someone assume ownership ? He has difficult tastes, eats Lays (Pringles are for plebs!) and likes his water ice cold. He likes his monthly shampoo - but only cold water and Johnsons baby shampoo. "No More Tears". His eyes need to be swabbed once in a while. He sleeps on the bed for a bit, but then marches over to his anointed spot- right in the line of fire of the air conditioning. If only lovers could take his cue.
The day has been a haze. Positively so. I woke up with the distinct sensation of having my toes sucked. It wasn't Hrithik alas. Just the Beast. Next, I checked my phone for text messages. It appears that I promised to write a monologue for an amazing female actress I met last night (when I wasn't ejecting people from the party). And there's nothing like a cold, damp nose to get the creative juices flowing. I did write the piece. Writing a blog is pure pussy. There's something else about text which has to be spoken. The words need to resonate. I am sure that my mono(homo)logue will be rejected. (It commences with "I love balls") but it is better to have monologued and lost than to never have monologued at all.
Finally, there are only two degrees of separation in this country. The best looking man at the party last night (and, in case you want to know, he was not thrown out) was the brother in law of the man I lusted after two years ago. Clearly, I am in desperate need of a bigger canvas.


Last night I caught a glimpse of my ugly side. We were all at a friend's birthday party. Yes, some people persist in celebrating advancing age! It was all 30 or 40 something, well organised, plenty of music, dancing, conversation and what passes in these parts for Beautiful People. Everyone there had been invited and the guests had been meticulously chosen. The Brunette called up the night before panic stricken about the perilously low number of single men on the list. That half of them were gay (or potentially so) didn't help much either.
Come the night of the party. There I am dancing madly (or as madly as my creaking joints allow) when I notice that there are some people who look as though they do not belong there. This was not quite the hip-hop crowd, yet there were about a dozen kids with baseball caps and t shirts and pierced body parts queueing impatiently at the bar. The Brunette arrived panic stricken. "Crashers. We have to get rid of them. Help." Damn. I've had some weird jobs in my time, but being a bouncer doesn't rank among them. Our first approach was civilised. Three of us politely went up to the Crashers and inquired if they had been invited. If so, by whom ? No replies were forthcoming. They marched off with their drinks. Hmmmm. This was not working. Civility had lost the day- or the night actually. More desperate measures were called for. I pulled the plug on the music.
Silence. A friend stepped up onto a table and said "Will the crashers please leave the party." On that cue, commando style, five of us circled the intruders and marched them out single file. The leader of the gang, pleaded that he was the cousin of one of the guests. Tough. The music resumed. The kids left. I peeked out of the gate and saw another thirty lolling about outside. Jeez. And I thought I didn't have a life. I looked back and saw a Mock-Manhattan crasher on her cellphone: "Hey, yaar. This is a great party. You guys have to get in somehow." That's when I lost it.
"You fucking bitch. How dare you stand here uninvited, trying to sneak some more of your pals in. Which fucking slum do you live in? What's your name ? And what do your parents do? Do you have parents? If you don't get your fucking ass out of here in the next fucking two seconds, I'm going to fucking throw you over the fucking gate." To put this prose (?) into context you should know, that I'm the kind of guy who uses the "F" word once a month-if that. Clearly, I'd blown my annual quota in a few sentences.This was blind rage. Ms Mock Manhattan charged out as fast as her stilletoes would let her.
Later that night, I wondered what it is that makes people barge into situations where they are not required. Heck, I call my closest friends to make sure they're free before I land up. 21st century recreational time is a precious commodity and I'd like to decide how I spend it. I would never dream of going where I have not been invited. If I'm taking an uninvited friend over, I call and clear it with my hosts. Yet, there is a generation of imbecilic freeloaders out there, who assume they have a God given right to enter any place on the basis of a tenuous relationship with one of the guests. I can understand the poor crashing weddings to eat free food. But this is the Honda Civic/FCUK/Diesel/D&G crowd. Even scarier, they have crash techniques worked out. The idea is to enter two at a time so that the hosts do not detect a sudden influx of unwanted guests. Yuk.
On a brighter note, I'm off to London at the crack of dawn tomorrow. Hopefully, greater civility lies in store for me there. I'm not lugging my notebook there, so (for my four faithful readers) this blog may become a little erratic. Fear not. I shall return.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro is not the kind of man I'd like to be seated next to for dinner. I first encountered his Pale View of the Hills many moons ago. It is a haunting tale set in post-atomic Nagasaki, which happens to be his hometown. (He moved to England at the age of 5). Next there was the truly weird The Unconsoled which can best be described as a child going crazy with a remote control. The action moves unchecked through time, characters appear, disappear and reappear as though lost in a dream. Then there was The Remains of the Day about life "downstairs" at an English country estate, subsequently filmed with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro's new novel. To label it "futuristic" would be a misnomer. It is set in Hailsham, an imaginary establishment in rural England. Languorous descriptions of pastures, trees, cows and vegetation dictate that this is not Arthur C Clarke territory. Nor is this quite Huxleyland. The venue is a cloning farm, where parentless individuals are reared as future donors for organ transplant. The characters have no surnames, because they have no parents in the strict sense. As with all good novels there is a triangle at work. Tommy, Ruth and Kath (the narrator) are residents at Hailsham. Tommy and Ruth are an item. Kath and Tommy have chemistry going. Living as a "donor" embodies certain rules. One of these, requires the characters to give up their creations (art, poetry) to the establishment for display in a "Gallery." I will not give the rest of the plot away.

The novel works at different levels for me. At one, it is the story of memory. Of childhood. Of the tenuousness of recollection. Kath, the narrator, reads The Odyssey and Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, both classics of rendition. Unfortunately, the subjects of memory and recollection encroach upon Kundera territory and I have to confess that MK does a much better job of it. At another level, there is a statement about the value of Art. The characters are imbued with a sense of having to donate their organs to others and face certain death. Their donations to the Gallery represent the giving up of their souls. Or do they ? Does the artist give up just a little bit of himself when he parts with a work of art ? How representative of the artist is the art ? Is it a mere contrivance ? Or something more ? So many questions, so little time.

If one has to use a common adjective to describe all of Ishiguro's novels it has to be the clichéd but accurate "haunting". In "Never Let Me Go" what is haunting is the submissiveness with which the characters face their ultimate fate. There is only a hint of revolution when a teacher at Hailsham fails to incite a rebellion and leaves. For the rest, it is Business as Usual. There is not a trace of the horror of one's ultimate fate. At one level, there is a fatalistic nihilism at work. At another, there is a statement of the callousness of the human soul. I was going to add "in the 21st Century" to the last sentence, but then I remembered that there is nothing in the novel to give it a sense of time or history. Incidentally, this is not a novel about the ethics of cloning. Ishiguro sensibly leaves that question unanswered.

The title sequence involves Kath listening to a song with the lines "Baby, baby, never let me go." Her 12 year old mind assumes the song is about a woman with a child which she is reluctant to leave. To an unseen observer, the scene reflects the inability of the child to let go of the world that is destined for her. Haunting.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

20 Hours From Home

My head aches. And, yes, there is a drowsy numbness as though of champagne I had drunk. I left town on Wednesday afternoon. Caught a shuttle to Karachi, only to discover en route to the airport that I had been booked on economy as that is what my clients were traveling. With me, traveling anything below business is purely a human rights issue. I do not fold over into pieces like a paper doll. My legs do not fit into seats designed for “normal” people. Unbeknown to me, salvation was at hand. The private airline was one I had helped create many years ago. “But, Sir, you cannot travel economy.” “Alas, I must. My cheapo clients are packed in there already.” “No question. Here’s your first class pass.” And so it goes.

Cut to Dubai. I get there at 2 am in the morning. Life is full of second chances, and I think it fair to give Dubai one too. My 20 hour stopover did not give the city enough time for a fair hearing. But sometimes broad brush strokes are a better indicator of opinion than studied response. First, Dubai has changed. The sheer tackiness I had encountered on previous visits seems to be toning down. Yes, there are instances of shrieking bad taste, but these are visible throughout the world. The Emirates Tower(s) where I had my meetings were “handsome”. Second, (possibly first) there is an amazing tolerance, which is a rare commodity in the Muslim world. I am not talking about the overt signs (booze, Ukranian hookers et al) but the manner in which people from all over the world are given a fair employment opportunity. And they look none the worse for it. Had we employed even half the number of Keralans, Tamils, Philipinas, South Africans and Koreans in Pakistan there would have been an outcry beyond belief. Our inherent xenophobia would have frothed to the surface like a surly cappuccino.

On the downside, Dubai has been taken over by crass (read Western) commercialism. There is virtually nothing to remind you of the city-state’s origins, no matter how humble. The focal point in my life seems to have been a gi-normous Lancome poster which I saw everywhere I went. There is a twee attempt to arab-ise: the odd palm tree or camel depicted in neon. There are few, if any, locals to be seen. Apart from immigration at Dubai airport (which seems to be run by fifteen year olds taking a break from prep) you never see an Emirati. This is unsettling. Should they be preserved like the Panda ? On the other hand there is a profusion of Global business types and Essex-style Juicy Lucy clones running all over. I can take them in London ..but in the middle of a desert ? Or (more likely) in the middle of dessert ?

On the positive side, my Dubai appetite has been whetted. Emirates (business of course, darling, there’s no first to Pakistan) is a pretty good airline. Three hours go by in no time on a diet of just champagne. Oh, yes. There’s enough eye candy in Dubai to last one a few days at least. I did tell you I was fickle.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Getting Out

I feel horribly pompous cross referring to my earlier blogs (all two dozen of them) but I did once write that Pakistan was a difficult country to leave. Today proved it. I applied for a Schengen visa on the fifth of this Month. Thirteen days later (today) I was given an appointment. I got there at 9 am and was told to take the bus which “officially” brings visa applicants to the Embassy. But why should I drive around the block when I can just walk in? The policeman smiled and let me through. Hey, this could be my lucky day. An hour later a person bearing an alarming resemblance to my “fruit wala” (not just en visage- clothes, demeanour, everything) arrived with a list. I discovered I was number 43 and my turn arrived at 11.30. Shit. I drove home had some freshly brewed coffee, lit up a numero duo and went through the papers.

On returning, there were even more people there. The bulk of them were either hapless Afghan refugees or students looking for a way out. The numbers had moved into the twentysomethings. Not fast enough. The office closed at noon. Affirmative action was called for. I marched through the gate (security guard chasing me) and held up the official list. “This says 11.30. It is my turn NOW.” The Pakistanis on display behind the gate were prime specimens of our carefully cultivated underclass. Shabby, rude and inefficient. Eventually, after shuffling through several metal detectors I was allowed into the Holiest of the Holies.

In true Gallic manner, this was a small Genet-esque cell, with three chairs, some form of air conditioning and black one way glass. A tiny aperture opened to reveal an attractive but disembodied male Gallic face swimming in a sea of ether. “Bonjour/Good Afternoon” I chirped in my best “bi” accent to the displaced visage. “Bonjour” replied the glassed in features. I could see eyes, a nose but no hair or ears. This was beginning to seem like one of those funfairs at which freaks are trapped in glass cages. “Listen, Monsieur,” I continued, I need my passport back soon as I am in Dubai for a day tomorrow.” “No problem. We will give IT to you today.” That’s where the English language showed up its deficiency. I thought the “it” referred to my passport avec visa. He meant it sans visa. He also decided that he need photocopies of my passport. “It doesn’t say so on your website.” “Well, we still need them.” “Is there a photocopier here ?” “Yes, but you can’t use it.” “Can I pay for it?” “Non.”

I returned to the Embassy for the third time that day. This time I brought oranges for the cops. One good turn deserves another. Another trip and we'd have been on first names, if not closer. On getting in, past the smelly outer periphery, I was back in the middle circle of Inferno. Worse. There was a Pakistani sitting there. For those of you who haven’t discovered this already, nothing is worse than a local working for a foreign mission. These are people who believe they are not just on their way to acquiring nationalities but also white skins, yellow hair and blue eyes. “You had a Schengen visa in 1996, why didn’t you go ?” “Err I changed my mind.” Disbelief. I had allowed a visa to lapse. A bit like pissing on the Mona Lisa or farting through Mahler’s Fifth. It was then I was informed that I would get my visa but no earlier than when I had planned to return. I will get it just to spite them.

Friday, April 15, 2005

HOw Uber Got His Groove Back

I am finally beginning to discover the dying art of self assertion. In an earlier blog I sounded off about F, a friend who treated me shabbily. Or should I say I had allowed myself to be treated shabbily by F. Things are now hunky dory. I played “cold” for a couple of weeks. The penny has dropped. He’s been calling every day this week. I’ve been returning late from work, and last night there was a big bowl of the most scrumptious strawberries and whipped cream to boot, all with the compliments of F.

If only life were that simple. You solve one problem and then create another. Last night a bunch of us were invited to a tedious diplo drinks do in a lavish ambassadorial garden. The sort of thing one grudgingly attends to prove that one is alive. We had agreed to leave the event no later than 8 pm and decided to meet at an anointed spot. I strolled in and mixed till I was ready to drop. Just as the old smile muscles were ready to call it a day, a divine stranger walked up to introduce himself. Let’s call him the Charmer. In the course of conversation, I discovered that the Charmer was Hopelessly Heterosexual (surprise, surprise) but available. I decided to introduce him to my sexy female friend (the Brunette). She was caught unaware and hastily devoured a large fish finger. Licking the mayo off her lips, the Brunette stuck her hand out to the Charmer. For reasons which still elude me, her stiletto shot off and landed in the middle of our “space.” There we were. The unshod Brunette. The Charmer with hand out. That’s when trouble appeared.

“IT’S WELL PAST 8. WE AGREED TO MEET OUTSIDE. WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE.?” That was M, one of my closest friends. I balked. The Charmer and the Brunette looked at me sympathetically. I muttered something, excused myself and left. Later, outside I said, “You will never address me in that tone of voice in public.” “But you were late.” “Yes, I was fifteen minutes late. You could have whispered something to me instead of embarrassing me.” “You’re too tall to whisper to.” “Heck, I haven’t grown overnight.” I refused to give up. The upshot: a message of apology (or as near to an apology M can give) on my telephone.

So where is this leading to ? To put it mildly, I’ve allowed myself to become a wimp- a doormat of the lowest order. I come from a family of arch-confrontationalists and, as a result, I have developed a phobia of scenes, drama, trauma and whatever else constitutes normal family activity. This has led me to accept behaviour from my closest friends, which really should have been nipped in the bud. There has to be some balance to all this. I do not want to recast myself as the Mother Of All Ball Breakers. On the other hand I think the Day of the Doormat has come to an end. Phew. I feel so much better now.

Ps: I am still working on getting the Charmer and the Brunette together. Watch this space.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Urdu and Me

This piece has been prompted by a fragment of Urdu poetry on a friend's website. My relationship with Urdu has been fragile at the best of times. I was born into an age of post colonial inferiority. Although I recall speaking some form of Urdu at a fairly early age, the really interesting things seem to be happening in English. I was actually given an English nanny, though she seems to have faded away pretty quickly. Urdu was a prosaic footnote on a very English page.

Just as I was settling into this vaguely uncomfortable bilingualism, I was taken to Dacca (as it was then spelt) where Bengali entered my life. I am told I had a passable speaking knowledge of the language. I cannot remember a word of it. Then it was on to London as an eight year old, where English rooted itself firmly in my soul. So firmly, that it would be impossible to uproot it. Like acid on an etching. I entered the world of Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Beano comics with a vengeance. English was here to stay.

Then it was back to Karachi. That's where it all began. I discovered to my horror that while I could speak some form of Urdu, I had no idea what the kids were writing. Worse still, the books opened the wrong way round. I will never forget the shame of being handed out a qaeda (primer) while all the other pupils sniggered. They were reading text. I was reading alphabet. The horror. The horror. In those days Urdu books were printed on blotting paper. Black text on smudgy newsprint. The content was even less inspiring. Pithy essays on personal hygiene, the Mughal Emperors and the horrors of masturbation. (Kidding.) Concurrently, my English books were opening up new worlds for me.

Crisis point was reached when I discovered I needed to pass my Urdu 'O' level (or whatever they call it now) in order to get my certificate. Having barely passed every Urdu exam, I knew that action was called for. I bought my first Urdu dictionary. I tried reading Munshi Prem Chand. Halfway through I discovered I was really reading Hindi. Ooops. I switched to the essays of Patras. This was easier.. For the next year I slept with the dictionary. I would learn three new words a day and endeavour to use them. I got through the exam. With a straight A .My Urdu teacher was apoplectic. Hey, this wasn't beginning to look so bad after all.

Fast forward. I have since tried reading (and have immensely enjoyed) bits of Ghalib and Iqbal. It is all very slow and tedious. I have to understand each word. Somehow, the enjoyment of it all is enhanced with this effort- when one savours every word. Unlike English, where the image of the word enters one's consciousness surreptitiously, through the scullery - Urdu knocks politely on the front door.

Cut to Delhi. I am part of a delegation milling around the stunningly impressive Presidency. Suddenly a compact man emerges, puts his arm around my waist and engages me in conversation in the most flawless Urdu imaginable. I gulped. I was talking to I.K Gujral. The Prime Minister. Deep breath. I think I did a fairly good job. Nowhere near him in fluency and diction. Still not bad.

Today I speak Urdu with a level of unease. It's not as bad as it was. Sometimes the words come exactly the way I want them to. Other days, I struggle and resort to English equivalents. Urdu and I seem to have made our peace.

(bad) Joke

Did you hear about the schizophrenics' convention ?
Anyone who was everyone came.

Another Country

My undying love for Karachi has been dented a little over the last few days. Karachiites out of their natural habitat are not unlike Henry James’ Americans fumbling their way through Mother Europe. There’s a strange glassiness that infuses into them. Is it the glut of chlorophyll, oxygen, ozone or just mere displacement? I have had the pleasure of the company of no less than three Karachi friends in almsot as many days. Here follows a top ten of some of their more memorable reflections. Gentle Reader, treat this not as a harangue. I do still love them dearly.

Islamabad is sooooo suburban.” Err Yes. But doesn’t a suburb presuppose an “urb”?
I couldn’t possibly live here.” Nobody’s asking you to.
What I really mean is, how do you manage to live here?” I do. I kind of enjoy being in a city with four seasons, utilities that work, and a fairly literate population. That doesn’t stop me from hating it at times.
Where’s the traffic?” There is traffic. We just have more miles of road per person than you guys do.
The houses are kind of …err small.” Conspicuous consumption is looked down upon by many people.
This restaurant wouldn’t survive in Karachi.” It’s not planning to travel there.
Do you think Vinny is prettier than ZQ?” Who are these people ?
Dubai is so much closer to Karachi than Islamabad.” Yes. But how much black-and-gold Louis Farooq can you put up with?
I could do with a Big Mac right now.” Cool. Fancy driving 400 kilometers to Lahore?
The men here are so much better looking.” Yes.

Friday, April 08, 2005

It's A Little Bit Funny - This Feeling Inside

Years ago, I was working with a project team which included H, a young banker. He was not my “type” – to the extent I have one. He was way too short for one. The ‘tache was bothersomely Fauji. The manner was a shade too aggressive for my liking. But there were some plus points. A great body – gay men have x ray vision when it comes to these things- and a smile to die for. One day, he screwed up majorly on some documents. For reasons which I have yet to fathom, I stepped in to rescue him. That, as the line in Casablanca has it, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Anyone who has had the energy to plough through this blog will by now have deduced that I am fatally attracted to men who are Hopelessly Heterosexual. Alliteratively, H was HH. I did my damndest to create an “interest”. This included introducing H to the fine art of wine drinking – his iron constitution never allowed him to get drunk. I also gave him the mother of all reading lists – he read as much as he could. I tend not to despair in these situations. Mere attraction is enough to keep me fuelled. Or as the advertising slogan had it – Getting There is Half the Fun. To cut a long story short, H eventually left for a series of countries eventually arriving in London. I heard some tale on the grapevine about his getting married (damn) and then divorced (phew). We lost touch.

Till last night. I was on my way out for dinner when he materialized on my doorstep. The Prussian ‘tache was no more. More profoundly, there was a new personality lurking beneath the skin. Many years in London (arguably the most civilized city in the world) had changed him beyond recognition. Like me, his bank had fallen in love with him. An English tutor had been hired (at 300 pounds an hour) to improve his English. His clients had introduced him to the opera, boat races and fine dining. His dress sense had shifted from Jinnah Market to Bond Street. The smile was still as piercing as ever. I relented. Dinner could wait. We talked and talked and talked. Ok. I’m not as truly, madly and deeply attracted as I was during the last round. Still, there was the odd ember which I had forgotten to stamp out. He goes back to London very soon, but has offered his flat to me while I am there. Do I take up the offer? Or just write it off as yet another fantasy/delusion which I should rid myself off? Is it just the same old HH in a new wrapper ? Ah well. At least there’s something to think about before I go to bed tonight.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Rouge Trade

I barely made it to the last performance of Moulin Rouge in Islamabad last night. I got there at five minutes to eight, but couldn't see a single vacant seat. Nor could the dozen odd friends I was with. In a fit of extreme good nature, we agreed to sit in the aisles. This is torture for bony bottoms like mine. Lots of legroom but(t) tough.. This was an "interactive "production with actors strolling over the theatre, so we'd have to shift occasionally to let people through.

It takes a brave man to put up a musical which has (not very long ago) been the subject of a successful film and a pretty good soundtrack. Braver still, to tackle this with a cast of 18 year olds (or thereabouts) and a very limited budget. There was one static set and one costume change at the very end. Not the makings of great theatre, but I must confess that I truly enjoyed the production, sore butt notwithstanding. First, amateur theatre has come a long way since I trod the treadboards. Some of the dialogue would have excised by self imposed censors. Heavens - there was also something approximating a kiss. Second, the youthful cast tended to ham their way through many of their lines. But its OK to ham one's way through Moulin Rouge. Indeed, almost mandatory. The film's dialogue was so cringingly Godawful, that I had to hit the forward button to be saved by the next delicious musical number. Third: Teen Spirit. There is something to be said for youthful exuberance when one is surrounded by jaded, faded, degraded fortysomethings.

The director (the oddly named Shah Sharabeel) took some liberties with the script, which could have been cut by at least another twenty minutes. This is clearly a case of the aching butt ruling the head. The musical numbers were largely taped but this became less of a problem as the show went on. Not a bad way to spend two hours. Not bad value for money at five hundred rupees a ticket. And there is some kind of theatre in the city - no matter how rudimentary.

The only horrific part of the evening were the long directorial speeches. One at the beginning asking the audience to go to the loo NOW. And one at the end introducing each extra, cue reader and actor by name. The pain in my butt was excruciating now. I stood up. A bouncer tried to get me to sit down. "My ass hurts. And if you don't let me out now I'm going to piss all over you." The crowds parted. Like Moses I glided through. A day later I'm still aching. I was flipping through the cast of characters today. The delightfully beautiful Franco-Pakistani actor playing Christian was called - wait for it- BUTT.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Natural High-ness

What is it about pageantry that keeps us so preoccupied? I have already sounded off on the March 23 parade. Different grand events are streaming into my living room: the Pope's grand funeral (pity they have no subtitles for the Latin bits) and the not-so-grand wedding of Charles and Camilla on Saturday. Our friends the Americans, not to be left behind, have the Michael Jackson trial which (courtesy Fox TV) has its own peculiar rituals. Do we admit that we are still deeply fascinated by the accompanying visuals even though we profess to live in the age of liberte, egalite and fraternite? I vow never to watch this stuff and yet I do so compulsively - a slave to my baser instincts.

I was in Lahore many moons ago to chase up yet another failed relationship, but also to watch a world cup polo match. I was accompanied by A, an Amreekan friend who was horrified as I walked into the VIP enclosure with no tickets in hand. (The trick lies in keeping your nose in the air.) During the break, he pointed to an amazingly beautiful grey haired, sari-clad lady checking her lipstick in a compact. (Do compacts still exist?) It was the Maharani of Jaipur. "Gee. A real maharani?" Yeah. As real as they come.

It was in this mode that I tackled Maharanis by Lucy Moore. It's been a rough week so far and I needed something that would not fray the old nerves any further. Ms Moore has picked on the Maratha royal houses (who gave us wonderful titles like Gaekwad and Holkar) with the spotlight on Baroda, Cooch Behar and Jaipur. The tales are entertaining enough, the narrative bursting with adjectives and enough colour and spectacle to keep the most ardent royalist enthralled. But where's the substance? Sadly, there isn't any. Once the party's over (and for some it ended fairly quickly) there was a bunch or sad, well-dressed, not-very-intelligent people left over who were neither representative of the "native" peoples they ruled over, nor of their British overlords of whom they were faded dusky representations. Moore is at pains to point out how involved the Nawabs and Nawabettes were at the forefront of the independence movement, the establishment of schools and hospitals, the emancipation of women etc. I think she overstates the case. Come on. These self same people were keeling over with champagne poisoning.

There is no shortage of displaced nobility in Pakistan. One of Moore's sources lived in Islamabad till he died a few years ago. I have yet to meet anyone quite so disconnected from reality-quite so delusional. There was a true born-to-rule mentality at work- not to mention the accoutrements of the past: royal titles, seals, a sense of precedence and, above all, sheer superority. "Stupid. They are all stupid" he would intone whenever something disagreeable was encountered. The Indian branch of his family resigned themselves more readily to the decline in their fortune.

As always, what kept my interest in all of this is the intermingling of cultures. The memsahibs come off-stereotypically- as a bunch of shrieking vultures. (In a hilarious interlude, Lutyens is quoted as saying that one of Vicereines would have put bay windows into the Parthenon given half a chance.) The evolution of the sari is another case in point. The local Nawabettes took to wearing petticoats in imitation of the Colonialettes. The "modern" sari was tied to look as much like a ballgown as possible. And the first chiffon saris were scandalous - akin to wearing diaphanous underclothing. Trivia aside, there is little to recommend in Maharanis. Indeed, I felt an indescribable sadness when I put it down. Time to find something really trashy to read.

I Love Italics

I Love Italics
I Love Italics
I Love Italics

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Radio Daze

Co-hosting a radio show, I am discovering, is a bit like having sex. Just a teeny weenie bit. It gets better over a period of time. As I haven't had sex in more than a teeny weenie time, I am relying on recollection. The show started off as joke - and I am glad it has remained a private joke. We were asked to critique the content of an FM radio station. I kind of -sort of - implied-insinuated that all radio in Pakistan was white, rock oriented, red (wheatish?) necked, and whiter than white. Uhun. So what's the solution ? "You need soul. Jazz. Blues. Music that speaks from the soul. Not from the sound lab." "Can you do a demo ?" The rest, as they say, is geography.

Trying to do radio in the twenty first century is not as easy as it sounds. The studio here is microscopic - the leg room is positively economy plus minus some. The walls are the shade of rotting tangerines. Soundproofing chemicals make the eyes water. The equipment is fancy and sexy - OK, I know I haven't had sex in some time. Even the flat screen displays are beginning to look erotic. The trax (as "we" call them) are heard over the week. I now have over a hundred hours of music on my notebook. (Windows occasionally reminds me that it is malfunctioning as I have too many files out there.) I also have brilliant friends (where would I be without them?) who supply me with inspiration, cds, ideas and all else.

And then there is my co-host. We fight, squabble, bitch, gripe and - sometimes- debate what should or shouldn't go into the show. The process is becoming typical - I listen to music the week through. If I like a track I hit a magic button and it goes onto a hot list. About a dozen of these are culled and sent to Co-Host. We meet Sunday, about an hour or two before we go live. Over mugs of tea, angst, family dramas (hers, not mine) we decide what goes on. A quick playlist is prepared. The rest is all chemistry. For sixty minutes we have to figure out what to say in between. People think we script the show. We don't. Yes, once in a while, she or I will say "What do we talk about next?" The other replies, "Chill. something will happen."It does. Always. Without realising it, we have comfortably slipped into the cool personas inhabited by our songs.

The highlight of tonight's show was a jazz standard called Bye Bye Blackbird by Rachell Ferrel. Live. Skat. Jazz at its best. I sit behind my enthusiastic (but not terribly efficient) sound engineer. The track started. Rachell's live/impro/skat reached orgasmic proportions. He reached out for his headphones. Swung his swivel chair back. Stuck his arms out. His expression said it all. He felt good. One down. Another hundred and some million to go.

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies

If memory serves me -and it does so decreasingly- Jane Austen once likened herself to a Chinese miniaturist working painstakingly on a small piece of ivory. When you think about it, her novels are really all about women in search of the right guy. Hmmm. That means Jane and I are roughly on the same trajectory. WMD = Waiting for Mr Darcy. Having extracted that kernel of truth, it is easy to see how Emma became the basis of Clueless. The novels of Alexander McCall Smith are similar. For one, they are all set in Botswana. Not a country many of us would claim to know much about. They are not corny epics of the Uhuru or Zulu variety. Despite their cheesy covers, the novels (while being rooted in Africa) successfully transcend the exoticness of their location.
As with Austen's piece of ivory, AMS has a fairly limited canvas. His protagonist is one Precious Ramotswe, a Botswanean lady of "traditional build" who drives a "little white van." She is married to one JLB Matekwoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Precious was previously married to Note Mokoti, a jazz musician and, therefore, a cad, a rake and a bounder. Her father (Daddy Ramotswe) was an expert in cattle - Botswana's largest export being meat- and taught her a thing or two about human nature. Precious also happens to be the owner of the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency - the subject of the first novel. Her partner in (the solution of) crime is Grace Makutsi, a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College- having passed with 97%- and the owner of the Kalahari Typing School For Men - the subject of a later novel.
This may seem like a load of unnecessary drivel. In fact, it is the framework which drives McCall Smith's novels. The books themselves deal, on the surface, with small town crime - what the blurbs call everyday domestic drama. In fact there is a fine moral tension which acts as a driver. So fine, that if you blink, you may actually miss it. McCall Smith, being a lawyer, (ahem) knows the subtle difference between moralizing and morality. He plays the point subtly and with great humour. There is the yearning for an earlier time, when life was much simpler, values (supposedly) more evident:
"Mma Ramotswe was horrified when she read in the newspapers of people being described as consumers. That was a horrible, horrible word, which sounded rather too like a cucumber, a vegetable for which she had little time. People were not just greedy consumers, grabbing everything that came their way, nor were they cucumbers, for that matter. They were Batswana. They were people."
The tone wavers from the downright domestic to the positively revolutionary:
"It was a strange feeling, she had always thought; feeling the breathing of another, a reminder of how we share the same air, and of how fragile we all are. At least there was enough air in the world for everybody to breathe; at least people did not fight with one another over that. And it would be difficult, would it not, for the rich people to take away all the air from the poor people, even if they could take so many other things? Black people, white people: same air."
Ok. It's not Lawrentian prose. But after you read the kind of stuff I do all day, it is refreshing to not have to dabble in pretentiousness. Anything that makes you smile in the age of passport columns has got to be good. Right?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

People I Would Like To Be

It is not often that I am envious of other people’s lives. I think I have found my own niche, my groove or my rut – depending on my line of vision. Last night I found myself in the company of two men with a life (as opposed to a “lifestyle”) I truly envied. (As Neil Simon aptly put it in California Suite “I have a life not a lifestyle”.) My hosts, A and F are two friends who live “out in the country.” For the uninitiated this means any place which is more than a six or seven minute drive – that being the time it takes one to get most places in Islamabad. Having psyched myself for a long (read twenty minute) drive to get to dinner I set off. The roads in that area have been repaved (even though there is nothing for miles around) as several very very very very important people have bought land in that territory. Wild horses – yes, even studs – wouldn’t get me to shift there. Islamabad is barely “citified” on my scale. I am told that the guests of honour are "exotic."

John F is a Californian archaeologist. George M is an Australian architect based in London. I have no idea what the nature of their personal relationship is, though there could be more to it than meets the eye. They have collaborated on a number of ventures and have around thirty books to their credit on Amazon, including several on South India. They spend a quarter of the year in John F’s Manhattan apartment. The next quarter is spent at George M’s flat (there are no apartments in London!) which opens right on to the Opera House in Covent Garden. The third quarter is spent at a house in Goa coupled with visits to various sites in India. The remaining time is spent taking tourists through Central Asia and India or on special assignments. The special assignment which brought them (in transit) to Pakistan was a trip to document whatever Islamic architecture there is in Urumqi and Kashgar in Xingiang Province. Yes, South China Airlines has a rickety service which connects scintillating Islamabad to humming Urumqi.

All of this brings me to the very static nature of my life right now. I have been unable to get to Karachi for the last six weeks, while there are people gliding through continents with the frequency of my trips to the local supermarket. Part of the problem is the Little Green Book which nobody wants to affix a visa onto.(Who cares how many columns my passport has, when nobody is interested in reading it ?) My Brit Visa took around two months to acquire. My Schengen is coming via a recommendation from Europe. I refuse to risk a random application. What is the world coming to? Pakistan is a notoriously difficult country to leave. And other countries are now becoming notoriously difficult to enter. An old school friend lives in London and is determined to see as many countries of the world as possible. She has visited 47 (or was that 57?) already and called from Gabon last week. She has a Little Blue Book, however, which makes these random fantasies materialize. My wanderlust will have to take a back seat for a while.

Despite all this moaning I am still on track to leave for London and Paris in the near future. Will I make it? Watch this space.


I am very allergy ridden these days. I spent decades in Karachi inhaling sulphur dioxide and lived to tell the tale. Then I arrived in Islamabad and discovered the kind of havoc a little stray pollen can wreak. This year has been particularly bad as pollen counts have reached record highs. I am sorely tempted to buy those surgical masks that the Japanese wear. Alas, this is where vanity kicks in. They are really nasty looking and come in three colours: white, baby-boy blue and baby-girl pink. I will have to wait till Burberry begin designer masks.

D was over from Karachi and we did two reasonably quiet dinners, both of us being inundated with work The first involved D, me, a Pakhtun banker from Peshawar and a journalist formerly from Karachi. Dinner 2 involved D, me, an Italian Pakistani, a South African economist and a Karachi businessperson. All these men are gay. The wonderful thing about homosexuality is that it cuts through the various divides that exist in Pakistan and brings together an eclectic mix of people. Considerations like age, province, social class, educational background etc. become fairly meaningless. Sexuality is the common denominator, the glue which brings it all together. The mix can either be a mélange or a biryani depending on how you blend the basics.

The sexuality-as-glue formula has pros and cons. The big pro is that I end up meeting people I would “normally” never have met in my work or my social life. My metro hetero friends are always going on about the “interesting” people I have around me. The big downside of the sexuality/common denominator is that sometimes it takes a little more than being gay to bring you closer to someone you really like. Gay chalk and gay cheese still retain their essential otherness. In the long run, I’d sooner take the risk and have the possibility of meeting new people.

Urban Pakistani life tends to work in a series of bell jars. There is really no café culture at work (though Karachi is bravely on its way there). Bars are out of the question. Strangers rarely strike up conversations with each other. Hey. People don't even smile at each other. There is a social complacency at work – married couples being the worst offenders. Decades later, many continue to hang out with school friends. A bit like having one’s youth lacquered or bronzed- the school yard dynamic crazily foisted onto a much later era. Hang on. It is in this sense that gay life has distinct advantages. Social freedom prevails. Things like this put the happy into gay. Peace.