review
Subtle and spiritual
Amarjit Chandan's essays are imaginative, interpretive and speculative
By Nadir Ali
Genius in the arts -- visual, performing or literary -- is different from the Mensa variety. It is about sensitivity and sensibility. These two sterling qualities -- along with being a restless soul -- are Amarjit Chandan's forte: what else would make a creative genius?

Brash, refreshing
H. M. Naqvi invokes passion, a sense of camaraderie and nostalgia for one's homeland in his stunning debut novel
By Huma Imtiaz
Home Boy
By H. M. Naqvi
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Pages: 217
Price: Rs 825
9/11 had disastrous consequences for the world. A tragedy unlike none other, or at least that's what one thought at the time, the day was quickly followed on by two invasions that have led to disastrous consequences for the world and for George Bush's autobiography, ludicrous travelling restrictions and visa woes. But nine years later, the spate of bad literature and films revolving around 9/11 have made one wish they lived in the Stone Age, so that they would never have to read or hear another fictional tale of a Muslim in the U S overcoming the odds in a world that was firmly divided and torn apart by hatred following that moment when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre.

Zia Mohyeddin column
"If I, O Indra, were like thee…"
I went to China at a time when Mao Zse Dong was god and Chou-En-Lai his messenger on earth. Huge portraits of the god (dressed in the uniform of a Chinese foot soldier) were installed everywhere. His red book was the bible that every Chinese carried in his pocket.

 

 

review

Subtle and spiritual

Amarjit Chandan's essays are imaginative, interpretive and speculative

By Nadir Ali

Genius in the arts -- visual, performing or literary -- is different from the Mensa variety. It is about sensitivity and sensibility. These two sterling qualities -- along with being a restless soul -- are Amarjit Chandan's forte: what else would make a creative genius?

He does not adhere to form and format in his poetry, like all other modern poets, but he often quotes from folk, classical and most often from Granth Sahib, where meters and rhymes are a rule. Why did he choose to put the title "Light Essays" i.e. Komal Lekh in Punjabi? Komal in Sanskrit means soft, tender, young, delicate, immature, fragile, brittle, sleek, supple, placid, mild, gentle, pleasing, agreeable, sweet or low (as in a musical note) etc. Chandan has all of those qualities, but he is also a serious, earnest, vital, robust, perceptive and knowledgeable writer. He is a veritable one man bridge between East and West Punjab writings in Punjabi and also between the old, classical and modern writings in Punjabi.

Light essay or Komal Lekh is some silly Punjabi professor's idea of fixing a format, which may be akin to "causerie" (babble in French) format. Occasionally, Chandan does tip his hat to the format, but since he wears a pugree, he does not quite stoop to that level. These essays are -- imaginative, interpretive and speculative -- often profound and poetic.

Chandan's experience and subject matter is quintessential Punjabi history. He was a Naxalite leftist activist in the 1970s, and also edited an underground magazine Dast?vez. After suffering solitary confinement, harassment and constant threats to his life, Chandan fled to England in 1980 and has lived there ever since. He is a professional full-time writer and photographer. He worked in the related fields in Punjab and England. He is a renowned and very prolific poet in Punjabi and his poetry as well as prose books have been published in India and Pakistan. The books under review have been published in Pakistan. He visits Lahore often and has many friends there.

The first major essay "Rut Lekha" in the first book, and repeated in the second book, is an essay about a poem of Najm Hosain Syed, arguably the best Punjabi writer of our times. Chandan obviously wants this essay to be highlighted. Najm says: "Kattain charh gaya aye. (The month of Kartik -- mid October till mid November -- is here.). Chandan's interpretation is subtle and spiritual, which is the essence of poetry writing and reading. But criticism/interpretation has to be more. The poem seems to hint at the Soviet October Revolution. "In this month I heard cranes used to come" and "City is once again on edge" and the lines are political statements. "Two, rain drops – tears? – falling on window pane joining and moving on…" is a very obvious lament and hope of a revolutionary. I do hope Chandan is not a renegade Marxist. Or am I a zealot?

There is a long definitive essay on political poetry and on Pash, one of the best poets in Punjabi of the last century, again a Marxist. Pash was also an admirer of Najm's. When a friend, Ijaz Syed, told Pash that he had met Najm's at Lahore, Pash kissed the hand that had touched Najm's.

Be that as it may, for a believer like me, I liked best, an unknown widow Satwant Kaur's interview in Nukta -- a lady who saw her husband after more than eleven years, with an eleven-year-old son. I would make that a must read for every Punjabi. It encapsulated the Punjabi history and experience of a century. Only Chandan could give such a gift to us.

Apparently, the sensual writings and pieces celebrating the human body are Chandan's favourites. He calls writing one of his favourite love poems among dozens of long and short pieces, a "Ghatna." (Happening) It is a very simple, down-to-earth love poem of Santokh Singh Dheer, --Prem Sum?rg (Path of Love) -- is a fine poet and short-story writer of Punjabi. But down-to-earth and simple is the most complex exercise in poetry.

How do I cover more than twenty-nine many layered essays and photos that are essays too, in a thousand words? I will wind up the first book with trivia, a piece on Raj Kapoor. No, Chandan is a serious fan. Only I am being trivial when correcting him that Nargis (my favourite) and Raj Kapoor appeared in fifteen and not eighteen movies together, as Chandan wrote. Raj Kapoor is not a Punjabi. He belongs to and was born in Peshawar. His grandfather was a tehsild?r of Samundari (district Faisalabad), where Prithvi Raj was born. Films are my "Ghatna" too. We shouldn't take away Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor from Peshawar; two of the brightest stars in the film firmament.

In the second book Likhtam Parhtam, he has repeated his piece on Najm Hosain. The opening long piece is about Dheer's poem, already mentioned above. There is an essay on a short story by Zubair Ahmad, a good upcoming writer of Punjabi from Lahore. He is a friend of Chandan's and mine. Why not? RL Stevenson said: "Our writings are secret letters to our friends. Public is just a generous patron that (hopefully) defrays the cost of mailing". Knowing Zubair Ahmad's work, these are the best pieces that were ever written about him.

Chandan is open and candid about everything. His quotes from Punjabi folk are too risqué to be quoted in a newspaper. Chandan criticises both the priests and Marxists for being hung up about sex. Not quite! Lenin said when someone complained about peccadilloes of a comrade: "What are we fighting for in our revolutionary struggle?" Mao ditto, "I haven't looked at a woman without lust in my heart". That won't impress a Naxalite like Pash or Chandan. Even the books of religion have some very explicit passages, so have Rumi and Waris. Pash too showed some naïveté when he said that cadaver of Waris Shah should be removed from Punjabi. Or did he, as well as Chandan, only read the old admixture versions of Heer Waris Shah or some version in which, like Dr Baqir's edition, they removed the risqué passages of Waris Shah?

The best and longest piece in the second book is "Dhee" (Daughter). He condemns Punjabis' preference for having sons and female foeticide and glorifies daughterhood. He quotes some of the best poetry on the subject. The longest poem is "Parul" from the great folklorist of the South Asian sub-continent, Devinder Satyarthi. "Parul" is a Bengali name of girls, which among other things means a sister of seven brothers.

Amarjit Singh Chandan is a true "daughter" of the soil, "A son like seven daughters" as they say in Punjabi. He is a militant feminist. There is a rite in the West Punjab called "Dheean" (a rite of daughterhood). Here we have frequent cross marriages among villages. "Dheean" means gifts from a bride to all the brides, old and young, from the paternal village. As an honorary "daughter of Lahore" (hereby conferred) Chandan in these two prose books and two previous books of poetry has paid his "Dheean" to fellow "honorary daughter" and real daughters of Lahore. We two, Chandan and I, belong to this sorority of Punjabi writers. I only quote a brief piece from a poem "G?rgi" by Puran Singh about his daughter:

 

Naked is the water lily ,

Naked is the sun naked am I,

naked is the sky.

This is the Land of Spirits,

Only nakedness becomes

here,

Naked is all beauty and naked (Manifest) is God

alone

Naked am I, the Whole Truth, the flood of fire.

 

There is a long piece on a poem "Oorha Roti" by Surjit Paatar, who after Pash's martyrdom is a major poet in East Punjab. It is a very moving story poem, also very socialist. Story poem is characteristic of our epic poems and generally of Punjabi poetry; it sets it apart from the ghazal like poetry that only plays with rhymes. The story, briefly, tells of a Bihari immigrant labourer's daughter who is going to school to learn Punjabi, while the Punjabi village head's grand children are riding their car to go to the city English school. How language follows money. How the alphabet is related with the bread.

There is also Ajmer Rode's beautiful poem "Surtie" in the piece on Dhee. But I feel Chandan's favourite would be "Wasal Pura" by Kailash Puri. "Wasal" is lovers meeting, physically and spiritually consummated.

Yesterday we two had died.

Our lips our breaths joined and played the flute...

 

You may find difficulty with the Sanskrit words. The language of the Sikh scriptures uses the same idiom. You will miss some the best poetry in the world if you are daunted. Read on and it becomes easy. Chandan helps with referring Bhai Kahn Singh's Encyclopaedia Mah?n Kosh in foot notes.

There is a short poem of Chandan's that has been put on a 40-foot granite in a public square in a London suburb by the Poetry Society of England:

Far far away on a distant

planet

There lies a stone unseen

unturned

It can only be seen with

closed eyes

As you see your loved ones.

 

Both books are available from Saanjh Publishers 46/2 Mozang Rd Lahore.

 

Brash, refreshing

H. M. Naqvi invokes passion, a sense of camaraderie and nostalgia for one's homeland in his stunning debut novel

By Huma Imtiaz

Home Boy

By H. M. Naqvi

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India

Pages: 217

Price: Rs 825

9/11 had disastrous consequences for the world. A tragedy unlike none other, or at least that's what one thought at the time, the day was quickly followed on by two invasions that have led to disastrous consequences for the world and for George Bush's autobiography, ludicrous travelling restrictions and visa woes. But nine years later, the spate of bad literature and films revolving around 9/11 have made one wish they lived in the Stone Age, so that they would never have to read or hear another fictional tale of a Muslim in the U S overcoming the odds in a world that was firmly divided and torn apart by hatred following that moment when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre.

So when I was handed a copy of H. M. Naqvi's debut novel Homeboy, I was mentally prepared to deal with 200-odd pages of clichés, self-righteousness and a justification of Islam. But Naqvi's book is anything but clichéd, and reading it was one of the most enjoyable few hours I'd had in recent time. Naqvi's Homeboy is a book about many things; it's a brash, refreshing take on life in the United States, the ties that bind the desi community together, the sense of loss that one carries with them all the time when they move abroad. But more than anything else, it is a memorable story of the three Pakistani homeboys: AC, short for Ali Chaudhry, Jimbo aka Jamshed, and our narrator Chuck aka Shehzad.

Initially reminiscent of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights Big City with its description of the drug and alcohol-fuelled highs in New York, Naqvi's Homeboy quickly moves on to the problems that befall the three protagonists in rapid succession, and the hell they enter into, whether of their own creation or courtesy federal agents. Naqvi uses humour, wit and utter honesty when penning conversations between the friends. And the friends themselves are wonderfully lovable characters; AC seems to be crazy, full of intelligence, yet with a strong sense of loyalty that is his most redeeming quality. Jimbo represents the insecure one, torn between a parent's wishes and his own loves, for music and for his girlfriend, nicknamed Duck. The characters are endearing in their own unique way:

"AC would tell you that he had reorganized his collection according to personal relevance: 'Should Dante take precedence over Ghalib,' he had asked rhetorically, 'just by virtue of his name? That would be ridiculous, chum.'"

In another passage, as a character is spewing vomit on the street, Naqvi's sarcasm and wit shines through, even when describing an event that would make one wrinkle their nose up in distaste:

"As we made our way out of the alley, we passed the pool of chewed bits of sausage and watery red onions that my VP had spewed out. 'Charming,' AC remarked, pinching his mustache. 'Mixed media on, ah, asphalt.'"

Naqvi skilfully tackles the various themes of his book. There are the poignant moments, as Chuck remembers the difficulties of his childhood, his mother and the city of Karachi. Naqvi reminds the reader of the strings that bind us, and pull us towards home, and the crisis of identity that one perhaps did not have to face pre-9/11, but in a world where one is defined by their religion, colour of skin and the colour of their passport, is a crisis that has made us constantly defend our identity and the religion we were born with, whether we liked it or not. One, not so long ago, moved abroad in search of a better life, a great education and above all, a chance to start fresh. Sadly, thanks to George Bush, Osama Bin Laden and their merry followers, that is no longer a possibility. Wryly, Chuck recalls how different things had once been.

"As Thanksgiving was around the corner again, Lawrence had informed me that he would be 'delighted' to have me once again. Last time his mother had said, 'He's so well-mannered.' 'Maybe,' she mused, 'it's because he's Mooslim.' Those were the days."

While Naqvi is to be congratulated for a stunning debut, one must also felicitate him on successfully portraying the confusion and chaos that now surrounds Muslims in the United States, and in particular Pakistanis. Where one had only to deal with the dilemmas of family back home and the yearning for kebabs (to which Naqvi dedicates a wonderful paragraph), now they also have to answer for the mistakes committed by a few proclaiming themselves to be paragons of Islam and invoking terror as a response to mistakes committed by the West. In all, Naqvi's Homeboy is a worthy addition to one's bookshelf, and a sign that perhaps the release of great English-language fiction from Pakistani authors will not be limited to a yearly occurrence.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

 

Zia Mohyeddin column

"If I, O Indra, were like thee…"

I went to China at a time when Mao Zse Dong was god and Chou-En-Lai his messenger on earth. Huge portraits of the god (dressed in the uniform of a Chinese foot soldier) were installed everywhere. His red book was the bible that every Chinese carried in his pocket.

Wherever I went I was served tasteless, lukewarm tea. My interpreter, who accompanied me everywhere, only drank hot water. "Chairman Mao" had decreed that drinking hot water was good for China.

But this display of hero-worship was nothing compared to the scenario in North Korea which was then governed by Kim-Il-Sung. His statues were planted in every square, park and playground. He was sculpted as a massive, broad-shouldered man with a visionary look in his eyes. My North Korean escorts bowed, deferentially, every time we went past his statue. This was thirty eight years ago.

Political leaders of the Third World like to have their portraits displayed at strategic points in a metropolis. Colonel Gaddafi waves triumphantly at an unseen crowd all over Tripoli; so do the Karimovs and the Nazarbayers, but this happens mostly in countries which are dictatorships. Lo and behold my surprise, when I saw in Lucknow, last week, enormous bill-boards, carrying the portrait of a mannish looking lady, on every crossing and roundabout. On some roundabouts there were three or four similar bill-boards placed in a semi-circle, allowing no room for competition. My hosts informed me that this was the portrait of the Dalit Leader, Mayawati.

In India today it is not politically correct to refer to members of the lower castes as Shudras or Chandals. People who do not belong to the three castes, the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaisyas (supposed to have descended from the Aryans) are now called Dalits. The Dalits have now become a political force to be reckoned with, thanks to individuals like Mayawati, who now rules the province of Uttar Pradesh of which Lucknow is the capital.

In the evening, after dinner, my host, Vishal Tandon, a highly civilised actuary, was kind enough to drive me on a conducted tour of "New" Lucknow, paved and walled and colonnaded with the pink stone quarried and fetched from Mayawati's mountains. The stone is slightly lighter in shade than the Jaipur pink and can only be described as the Lucknow coral. He stopped at a point to show me an amazing statue -- statues I should say -- of Mayawati and her mentor and guru, Kanshi Ram.

"There is an interesting story about these statues", said Tandon, "Kanshi Ram was a man considerably taller than Mayawati who is short, shorter than a short-sized woman." (My mind raced back to the time when I had an audience with Kim-Il- Sung who turned out to be a short, fat man wearing, permanently, a bovine expression). "Well," Tandon went on, "When the statues were unveiled for her, at a private viewing, Kanshi Ram appeared to be towering over her. A close adviser told her that this would look incongruous in the eyes of the public so she ordered that the guru's statue be shortened -- and it was".

In the dim light the statues that stood a few feet apart looked less imposing than they might in broad daylight. Mayawati stood resolutely. In her left hand was a handbag which she held by the strap.

"Did you see the handbag?" Tandon asked, as we drove off, "It is a Louis Vitton bag."

(In the hotel in which I stayed in Bombay, the night before, there was a Louis Vitton shop and I had noticed that their bags were priced at Rs 77000 and upwards).

"And why would a leader of the poor and deprived communities wish to be immortalised by carrying a Louis Vitton handbag? I wondered.

"Ta key is ko dekh kar sab pundit log jalen," he answered with a chuckle.

"She has a sense of humour"

"I wish I could say that," he said, "A sense of humour requires a degree of intellect and she has never shown any signs of that. She is goaded by an intense desire to make the superior castes bite the dust. I wouldn't mind if she spends state money on projects which help the Dalits lead a better and a more fruitful life but she squanders crores and crores on these absurd monuments."

"But do you think with all her follies she is likely to be returned to power?

"I don't know about that," he said, "but even if she didn't, the trust gap between the Dalits and the traditional ruling classes would widen".

I was curious to know how this could happen in a country generally considered to be a prized democracy. "The fault" he said after a while, "lies with us, Brahmins. We should have woken up to the fact that the world was changing around us a hundred years ago but we didn't. You must understand that Hinduism possess an astonishing capacity for compromise from time immemorial. It has lived in a state of compromise between pantheism and theism, materialism and spiritualism democracy and autocracy life affirmation and life negation." He paused, "I must not bore you with our philosophy"

"No please go on," I urged.

Tendon explained patiently that the Brahmins became the highest representatives of priesthood, about 2500 years ago, The Brahman divinity was the Hindu supreme god under the name given by the Brahmins. They performed all the rites but they showed no interest in the higher development of religion of the people. They were not occupied with ethics; power was the only object of their thought. Hindu thought was governed by the notion that man must devote himself to the aim of seeking redemption from the world. The early Brahmins were worldly people who had a family to look after. So they lived for their families and their possessions until their sons grew up and established their own households. They then resigned from the world and devoted their lives to asceticism and meditation.

With the passage of time the Brahmins claimed for themselves power which was of the same nature as that of the gods. They believed that the sun would not rise if they failed to celebrate the sacrifice of fire in the early morning. They supplicated the gods to bestow on those who provide the sacrificial gifts, wealth and great success in all their undertakings. He quoted a hymn from the Vedas:

"If I oh Indra, were like

thee the only lord of wealth,

then would he who sang

my praises be the owner of cows."

Tandonjee's discourse was fascinating. I thought I had gleaned enough about the Hindu philosophy from the works of Nirad Chaudhuri, but I was wrong. I must take up a translation of the Upanishads.. Trouble is that one lifetime is too short a span.

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