Taste of chilli
A novella that deals with humanity, exploitation and social and economic inequity
(Aaj’s issue # 66)
By Khalid Toor
Publisher: City Press, Karachi
Price: Rs 300
By Moazzam Sheikh
Khalid Toor’s novella Mirchi (published in Aaj’s issue # 66) opens with protagonist X ruminating on the Buddhist concept of stone and ripples in a pond and then reluctantly showing discomfort and disagreement with the essence of the parable. Yet he cannot deny the attraction he feels for it. It has clung to his mind, he admits, as if it were a kitten’s claw.
There arrives for him a letter from his brother, a field engineer working for an oil company, announcing the death of Zaigham Khan, the contractor, who succumbs to stomach ulcer, puking blood.
"Zaigham Khan’s face emerged -- broad, fair and red, with a spacious mouth exhibiting big nuswaar-stained teeth, the two front ones crooked; he was short and stocky. It appeared as if his upper torso was disproportionately bigger than his lower body; fat-nosed, eagle-eyed, brows thick, eyes staring in every direction restlessly."
During vacations, the protagonist would visit his brother, and now remembers Zaigham Khan’s boisterous demeanour when inviting him for booze. He admits to having overcome the fear that society dumps on people, "my belief that alcohol was simply food," but not the one generated by his mother. So, in short, no booze tasting for our man! The story deals with one particular trip, perhaps his last, when our protagonist’s conscience is pitched against that of his nemesis, the story’s moral antagonist, Zaigham Khan, the contractor who nets young Pathan boys -- aging from 12 and onward -- maintaining he’s helping them and their family by giving them employment while cutting short their loafing around.
"Saheb, I am not dishonest!" he spoke as he sucked back his saliva. "I pay them their wages without fail. I send it back to their parents. Here I give them bread, clothes. They used to live like aimless vagabonds, there in Sarhad, playing marbles and walnuts. I put them to work. I did it!" His hand would rest on his chest.
That may be true but what the main character witnesses with his own eyes does not concur with the rhetoric and defence provided by Zaigham. There appears to be too much cruelty and misery in the lives of those young boys for him to shake off. In a remarkably concise manner, we share his observation: "Wherever a road had to be fixed, the boys’ camp would be pitched. The tent turned into a town, pickaxes and other dark work tools lay scattered outside every tent, each with a stake or two dug outside. Tied to each stake would be a donkey circling it like a cow. As the stake hit the animal’s face after the rope shortened in length, the animal would circle in the other direction, left to right, right to left, going round and round pressing on its own faeces.
He complains to his brother about the work conditions, "They’ll contract tetanus…" only to be laughed at by the brother. Zaigham Khan tries to bury the subject when he explains, "O saheb, they are germs themselves. Nothing’s going to hurt them."
The novella, however, acquires its title, and burning intensity, from the food the boys eat at the end of the day’s hard work: the red chilli crushed to powder and cooked as soup which they eat by dipping roti in its watery sauce, night after night. Once a week the menu changes to allow for a dish of boiled black chickpeas. Our protagonist is stunned. One of the cronies of the contractor tries to reason, probably half in jest, "Mind-blowing is this chilli thing. As one eats it anger seizes him. That anger brings power to the body. And when the power has arrived, the boys work their pickaxes with maddening ferocity, lift and carry rocks shovel after shovel." The protagonist is thoroughly repulsed. He forgoes the special food that’s going to come from the contractor’s home and insists on eating chilli. The experience of the dispossessed is described, as he shares their meal, with biting realism: "The bread had hay mixed in it and the acerbity of the hot chilli had burned my tongue, nostrils, eyes, throat and chest with one morsel .My eyes became drenched with sweat. Every drop seemed to have acid in it. As soon as I drank cold water, I felt my eyesight had been badly affected. Everything appeared wrapped in fog."
The protagonist steps across the line that divides the two classes. He refuses to sleep at the guest house as well and learns the dangers the boys face at night as they make their bed in the forlorn wilderness -- from snakes to hyenas to wolves. One worker boy, whose foot is swollen, it turns out, had voluntarily offered his own body to the snake to bite due to harsh and depressing work conditions. The protagonist goes through a moral transformation. Chapter ten brings the hero and the villain face to face. A long dialogue follows that deals with humanity, exploitation, social and economic inequity, laws of nature and law of men, human suffering, Islam and God. Their conversation ends on a comic note however, leaving the protagonist sad and irritated, as Zaigham Khan suddenly shrinks the entire exchange to the ridiculous, "I have understood it now. You think Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and Christians are all equal? O man, say it in plain language, you are a member of Bacha Khan’s party, but he’s a traitor."
"What rubbish!" I shrieked with exasperation, "I have nothing to do with politics!"
But of course everything is political! There are two remarkable things about the novella under review: one, it turns the "other" and its suffering into the main subject of the story while at the same time avoiding exalting the self-righteousness of the protagonist. Two, the realism and the prose and by extension their depth! The author manages to strike a fair balance among the various components of the book; the philosophical, the political, the socio-economic, the human; all compliments the thrust of the main narrative. The diction is modern and editing is fairly good, except for a minor slip here and there, which should be avoided.
But this reviewer has a quibble or two. The deafening silence of the feminine voice throughout the narrative undermines the essence of the novel. The economic and societal problems are patriarchal in nature and it needs to be punctured by female voices as artistically as possible. My other serious issue has to do with the author’s failure to draw a distinction between the protagonist and the author when making careless comments about Mohammad Khan’s facial unattractiveness despite the main character’s fondness and affection for the poor man. Khan’s face makes him believe in the "existence of Hanumanji" and one of his other brothers, a Veterinary doctor, would mention Java Man, while the sister, a Zoology teacher, would suddenly remember Darwin’s Origin of the Species! That’s a pretty messed up family, I reckon. Throughout the novella there’s nothing to support that our hero has such a tilt of the mind. A writer of Toor’s caliber must think very clearly about such insertions and if no purpose is served, they should be edited out.
Furthermore, it is a sad commentary on the Urdu literary scene that a fine writer such as Khalid Toor can fall prey to obscurity. If it weren’t for Ajmal Kamal, who re-published his novel Kaani Nikah to critical acclaim (Aaj: issue 63), none of us would have the good fortune of relishing literature at its best.
Riddles and facts
A new book by two experts makes it clear that there is an immediate need to revisit Counter
By Aamir Riaz
Pakistan:Terrorism Ground Zero
By Rohan Gunaratna & Khuram Iqbal
Publisher: Reaktion Books, London
Price: Rs 1245
From FATA to Karachi, Pakistan is continuously under the reign of terror. The target area is being shifted to the Southern port city of Karachi, where almost 90 percent of NATO shipments land, including vital oil. It was reported by Asia Times in its 12 August 2008 issue, "New Al Qaeda Focus on NATO supplies." Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero published from London in late 2010 too proves that fact. The work is co-authored by a Sir Lankan expert on counter terrorism and a young Pakistani. Rohan Gunaratna is a member of the Steering Committee of George Washington University’s Homeland Security. He is also Senior Fellow both at Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy’s Jebsen Centre for Counter Terrorism Studies and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, Oklahoma. The co-author Khuram Iqbal worked as senior analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore for three years. The book is a record of detailed analysis of the myriad insurgent groups working in Pakistan. Founder Director of the Combating Terrorism Centre at the U.S. Military Academy General Russ Howard said "this important work explains the terrorism complexities of Pakistan like no other book on the market".
"Counter Terrorism" is the latest of terms to describe the world and it can be compared with "Counter Communism" and "Counter Revolution" of the Cold War era. The world has witnessed the killings of thousands of intellectuals, writers, journalists, artists and peace activists in the name of combating Communism or Counter Revolution. Have we learned from such experiences of the past? When we check it at home, it seems that Counter Terrorism is heavily dependent on military solutions.
Counter Terrorism, however, has come under criticism over the accuracy of analysis and for misrepresenting facts. One fine indigenous example is linking al Qaeda and Taliban with 19th or 18th century Muslim leaders and their ambiguous viewpoints. For the consumption of their cadres, Islamists reinterpreted history and developed a thesis for their historical continuity. Some-times such reinterpretation expands into centuries, yet any researcher can detect historical jumps in it easily. Mujadad Alif Sani(1564-1624), Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707), Shah Wali ullah (1703-62), Syed Ahmad of Rai Bereli(1786-1831), Jamiat Ulma Hind (1920), Jamiat Ulma Islam (1945) and Taliban (1992) cannot be treated as a united and contiguous whole by any means. Those who read original texts regarding these movements or personalities can easily find conflicting and 180 degree opposite views among them. It proves that counter terrorism initiatives are revolving around only military solutions rather than exploring them thematically.
In their introduction, the authors point out some reports about the presence of terrorists of Chinese origin in the FATA, especially the Uighur militants whom the Chinese government has long considered a security threat. That’s why in his recent visit, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao advices "double standards should not be employed". He is the first Chinese leader to address a joint session of Pakistani Parliament. "Terrorist activities in Pakistan are very complex and we have to view Islamabad’s pressure objectively," said Ye Hailin, an expert on Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The authors then give a 70 page detail and uptodate account of 12 organisations that have violent extremist groups. It includes LeT, LeJ, Jundullah, SMP, JeM, and MQM. Including MQM in the list may surprise some people, yet the authors are bold enough not to compromise on it. "The National Memorial Institute for preventing terrorism (MIPT), funded by the US Homeland security department , considered MQM a terrorist organisation and brackets it with dozens of other Pakistan based militant outfits". The authors also point out commando training of some MQM members by Sri Lankan Tamil separatists and South African mercenaries in the 1990s. The case is complex because MQM still holds Karachi and won the elections in 2008 in Karachi.
Americans want to leave Afghanistan in the next four years. From Karachi to FATA, Pakistan is in trouble due to extremism and terrorism. The most important battle in the "War on terror" is being fought in Pakistan. The book reveals intensity and complexity of the matter in detail. Leaving Pakistan alone in this horrible situation will repeat the 1990s. Who will be the ultimate winner? What will be the scenario regarding regional and global peace? Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero makes it clear that there is an immediate need to revisit Counter Terrorism initiatives.
Aamir Riaz is a researcher & editor
It was a different class of passengers on a direct flight I took from Islamabad to London. We were meant to arrive at Heathrow at six in the morning. Everything went reasonably well, and at a quarter to six we were hovering over London. I began to look forward to an English breakfast: loads of thick cut marmalade on a generously buttered piece of toast after wolfing down a steaming hot grilled kipper.
I don’t normally indulge in breakfast of any kind (a piece of dry toast or a slice of melon is all I can manage on most days) but there are times when I have a strong urge to unfold a freshly starched napkin and tackle haddock or kidneys or a plateful of fluffily scrambled eggs with a dollop of caviar. Most hotels in England do an excellent breakfast, and on this occasion, I knew I would reach mine just in time to catch the aroma of freshly baked bread.
The plane circled a few times over Heathrow and then suddenly turned left and began to gain height. "We wouldn’t be able to land," the voice over the tannoy informed us, "because of poor visibility; we are now going north to Manchester." A cold shiver went down my spine. Manchester is a good four to five hours drive from London; even if we arrived there at 7 in the morning, it would be well after mid-day before I could get to London, assuming I would find a car waiting to transport me. I was meant to be having a costume-fitting session at 10:30 in the morning. By now my appetite for breakfast had gone.
We landed at Manchester with a thud. It was a bad omen for we were told that we would have to remain seated on the plane. Initially, I welcomed the news because I hoped that we’d be on our way to London soon after day-break. Alas, it was not to be. Darkness gave way to a grey and weepy morning. Time stretched; we sat.
Within a few hours every particle of food and water on the plane had been consumed. The toilets were stinking to high heaven. Ground staff at Manchester airport was at last summoned to bring in air fresheners and do some cleaning. What on earth was going on? People asked the bedraggled crew who were as nonplussed and considerably more exhausted than the passengers.
Word at last came from the oracle, the Captain himself: the crew would be leaving the aircraft as soon as a fresh crew - on its way from London - reached the tarmac. Eighteen other flights had been diverted to Manchester and the local civil aviation authorities refused to accept any more passengers in the lounge which was already filled with thousands of travellers.
There was an air of disbelief. How long would we be expected to stay on a plane with no water and the bathrooms smelling worse than dead fish?
The natives turned restless; someone complained of palpitations. Was there a doctor in the house? asked the senior steward. A man sitting not too far from me got up morosely and went to see the patient. Murmurs began: the airline can’t do this to us. We are starving, was the first cry.
I don’t know what went on between the cockpit and the control tower but an hour after the first signs of rebellion, during which people frequently went out and stood on the platform attached to the mechanised ladder ? and were shooed back to the plane ? two or three men in Burgundy overalls came up with bread rolls and bottles of mineral water. They doled them out like nuns distributing alms to tramps. The bread was stodgy and there were about three and half slivers of shredded cheese buried in the centre. I thought of my ordeal at Oran and sighed.
I do not think it was the poor quality of food that did it, but now there were loud noises. Someone said, for all to hear, that henceforth, and he swore on his mothers’ grave -, he would never travel by the National carrier. "Who do they think we are, bloody criminals to be kept in a cell? We are citizens of this country; we have our rights. I am going to get down and I’ll see who stops me," and he marched towards the exit door, followed by a few stout-hearted individuals. The hefty looking guards standing on the platform outside the exit door stopped them and told them to go back to their seats. Sheepishly, they walked back, murmuring vague threats.
An announcement followed from the cockpit. "This is your captain speaking. I have been asked by the Aviation authorities to tell the passengers that any attempt to leave the plane will be resisted physically." He then switched to Urdu, "Aap ko hathkari bhi laga saktay hain or police kee band gari main dal saktay hain" (They might handcuff you and pack you off in a black Maria). The mobile ladder was removed and the exit door was brought down and bolted from inside. The first assault on authority was repulsed.
But as soon as the Captain with his entourage in tow, appeared near the exit door, the rebel leader and his posse pounced upon him. There was an almighty furore. Why, he demanded was the captain leaving? Weren’t we his charge? Why was he abandoning us? Who did he think we were? Sacrificial lambs? Stray donkeys? Did we not need rest and relief?
The Captain tried to be reasonable. He tried to explain that he had gone beyond the call of duty by remaining on the plane for seven extra hours. The rebel leader by now was incensed. Did the captain think that he and the other passengers had not suffered enough? He held the Captain by the arm, whereupon the captain reacted like a scalded cat. "How dare you touch the Captain? I am the Captain. I am the Captain. How dare you touch the Captain… I will have you sent to prison," he was now frothing at the mouth. There were fisticuffs. Others intervened. The door was opened to allow the crew to leave and then shut again.
There was now nothing left to do but to muse over the plight of air borne passenger who are hijacked. You could rush and yank-open the door, be heroic and jump from the plane on to the concrete tarmac. Perhaps the rebellious ones were about to do just that when the door opened, and much to everyone’s surprise we were allowed to leave the plane. By now it was nearly six in the evening. For the first time in my life I was unable to maintain a professional engagement.