Zia Mohyeddin column
Fifty years ago
I was, for a brief period, a dogsbody, a sort of assistant to the stage manager at the Bromley Rep. Technically, I was meant to be an understudy and help with the book, that is to say, be a standby prompter, but I found that I was required to shift the scenery, lay out the props, go round collecting mugs, many with broken handles, from all the remote corners, rinse them, run out to get milk, make tea, go out to the bookies next door to lay a wager for the leading lady on the 2:30 at Goodwood, and be ready with an Alka seltzer for the leading man. The day never ended, but I didn’t mind, largely because the stage manager, Geoffrey Coombes, was an exceedingly likeable man who never bossed me and would cheerfully take on almost any chore himself, if I wasn’t around.

Rooted in culture

By Moazzam Sheikh


Nain Pran
By Mudassar Bashir
Publisher: Suchet Kitab Ghar, 2010
Pages: 204
Price:Rs 200

It is heartening to see that despite all the hurdles writers and scholars writing in Punjabi in Pakistan face works keep trickling in.

I recently got my hands on Mudassar Bashir’s latest book Nain Pran, his first collection of short stories. All in all, it is an enjoyable little book with its share of successes and shortcomings. On the up-side, each story starts off with a promise and, even if the promise remains somewhat unfulfilled, Mudassar Bashir has learned the technique to hold reader’s interest by a two-pronged strategy: the textual quality of the prose and his intimate knowledge of culture and society which has shaped his subject matter.

The dominant vernacular of every story flows in the Lahori register and that should make his stories easier on the eyes and ears of an average urbanised Punjabi speaker who’s never read a Punjabi book before. The colloquial aspect of the narration and dialogues similarly makes the stories quite enjoyable. He is sensitive to the art of opening a story. A few examples would illustrate the point:

Or read this:

His stories pick up momentum without wasting much time, and as he takes the reader deeper into the cultural milieu of various class structures that make up Lahore, his diction becomes quite delightful. In a story titled Guddo, look at the conversation between mother and daughter:

There are countless moments like the above example in his stories that make the reader intimate with the characters. It is to the writer’s credit that he can use the colloquial effectively and yet move across various registers. His sentences skirt stiltedness and his prose, in general, has rhythm. His prose gathers a rare charm when he handles humour, yet he manages, if not always, to stay away from clichés when dealing with matters serious or philosophical. Although he is more at ease with male characters and the world they inhabit, his treatment and study of female characters is also three dimensional, be they a policewoman, a mother, a cheating wife, an actress of a bygone era from the red light district area, or simply a peripheral character as he creates one in Pabandi which is perhaps the best piece in the collection.

The story takes the world of kite flying as its backdrop and introduces a constellation of characters that revolve around a middle-aged character by the name of Bhaa ji, the kite seller. Shahbaz, one of the side characters who follows a set routine of showing up at Bhaa ji’s shop and hang about till his sweetheart emerges from her house to go to college, walks past the shop and just as she is about to embark the bus, throws a brief glance at her lover. Mudassar has caught something subtle and elusive here and that brings the best in fiction to mind. The story also brings to mind Intizar Hussain’s classic Phir Aaye Gi.

Bashir’s fiction in Nain Pran is primarily rooted in realism, and while he tackles different topics ranging from marital affairs to sexual politics to art and culture to language politics, there is only one story where he dares to enter his characters head’s -- Doraan which is about a man who find his life sexually unfulfilled and is willing to pay for sex. When that moment arrives he finds himself incapable of handling the pressure that comes with such a lifestyle as society has shifted to conservatism. It is an interesting story, but Bashir reveals a tendency to avoid melancholic or tragic endings with a few exceptions. To make matters worse the activist in him also lifts his head at wrong places. There is also an indication of influence of Indian and Pakistani cinema, not to mention an itch to end the story on a parting line. In future, that should be minimised.

A very delightful, humorous little story Kaka is almost ruined with one paragraph of rhetorical speech about what makes one a mother and that too by the mother. Editorial help here would’ve done a great favour to the story.

Bashir needs, also, to bring more modern techniques into his fiction, and expand the scope of his subjects. So far, what he has treated are all safe territories. Bashir and his contemporaries need to venture into the forbidden, dangerous zone. It is only there that the mettle of writing is really tested, the elasticity of a language put to the stretching limits.

But, Bashir shows tremendous promise. I know he is drawn to history and research, and the historian and researcher in him must not be allowed to subjugate the imaginative in him. Richness of cultural detail should not be a rein to check Bashir’s future flights of imagination. Next time, go wild!


A kinder humanity

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
By Karen Armstrong
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pages: 240
Price: Rs. 745

Karen Armstrong has established herself as a voice of reason with her balanced and poised arguments in favour of harmony between world religions. Her latest venture builds upon her vast knowledge in the field and prescribes twelve steps that every individual should follow in order to lead a compassionate life.

Given the title, your first reaction might be that Armstrong has become adventurous and has followed the fad of management books by publishing rules that claim to provide instant gratification. Fortunately, the book is not a deviation from her typical style and is a sincere effort to advise people on measures that may help them improve their ability to interact with others. Armstrong accepts that there is no silver bullet that can achieve these lofty goals and advises readers to follow her teachings gradually and observe the benefits over time.

In the signature Armstrong style, the early parts of the book focus on religious beliefs. She discusses the ultimate paradox of religion: how all faiths prescribe compassion yet most people forego compassion when religion is a basis of dispute. This lays the foundation of why compassion is so essential in the modern world even though it significance is easily overlooked. Armstrong also dwells on the interpretation of compassion and laments that it is too often taken as synonymous with pity. She chooses to define compassion not in terms of special efforts to deal with underprivileged people but in terms of empathy and relating to people on both a personal and national level.

Each of the twelve steps has a full chapter devoted to it as the author describes a step, justifies its importance and explains how to make it an integral part of your life. Chances are that after reading the book, you won’t have all the steps at your fingertips. You may even feel that several of the steps were so similar that they did not warrant a complete chapter to themselves. But such is the power of Armstrong’s writing that nearly every illustration will strike a chord and you will find yourself nodding along with her persuasive arguments. At times, it seems the central message of the book is not so much how to be compassionate to others, but just how to find peace with yourself. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn is that personal happiness is the first step towards being able to be in harmony with the society around you.

Armstrong’s suggestions are often concrete and practical. She makes several suggestions with regards to techniques that are easy for many of us to adopt and will probably make a tangible difference in our lives. She encourages people to make lists of significant items such as the good they see in themselves. She urges us to extend compassion through simple and achievable means such as just forcing ourselves to give time in our lives to others. One of the most intriguing suggestions is making a hobby out of learning more about a country of choice. While it may seem like a trivial idea, the author makes a strong case for how most of our understanding of foreign cultures is defined by stereotypes and it is not until we are forced to learn the truth that we realize just how little we know about them. 

Given Armstrong’s reputation as an intellectual, it is no surprise that the text is laced with references to anthropology, development biology, philosophy and literature. She compiles a solid mix of empirical research, historical and psychological analysis to support her conclusions. She presents Socrates as the living spirit of the compassionate soul and wishes that like the Greek philosopher, we all would accept the limits of our knowledge as a first step towards respecting the beliefs of others. You are guaranteed to learn a great deal about the origins of human thought through reading this work and will probably come out feeling quite a bit smarter.

In truth, there is nothing revolutionary about the ideas in this new book. Chances are you will not be moved deeply enough to re-assess your behaviour and make an effort to be a more compassionate person. But it exudes optimism and will probably leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. In truth, anything written by Armstrong is worth consuming for the sheer weight of analysis and compelling writing style. The book is barely over one hundred pages and packaged attractively with an aesthetically pleasing cover. There is nothing provocative about the title and it might just make the perfect gift for those who are fans of books like Chicken Soup for the Soul and looking for a soothing read.



Zia Mohyeddin column
Fifty years ago

I was, for a brief period, a dogsbody, a sort of assistant to the stage manager at the Bromley Rep. Technically, I was meant to be an understudy and help with the book, that is to say, be a standby prompter, but I found that I was required to shift the scenery, lay out the props, go round collecting mugs, many with broken handles, from all the remote corners, rinse them, run out to get milk, make tea, go out to the bookies next door to lay a wager for the leading lady on the 2:30 at Goodwood, and be ready with an Alka seltzer for the leading man. The day never ended, but I didn’t mind, largely because the stage manager, Geoffrey Coombes, was an exceedingly likeable man who never bossed me and would cheerfully take on almost any chore himself, if I wasn’t around.

We worked on Sundays as well, setting up the new production which opened on a Monday. On Sundays the golden-hearted Coombes shared his bread with me. He would cut me two thick slices from his large white loaf and give them to me with a wedge of Wensleydale. It saved me a couple of bob.

The word “shambolic,” very popular in the fifties, described Geoffrey Coombes perfectly. He was tall and gangly and was always at odds with his body. His lower half never knew how to co-ordinate with his upper half. He had a problem with his retina which caused his spectacles to become moist so that he had to take them off and wipe them thoroughly every now and then. For those few moments when he took his glasses off, his eyes looked opaque like boiled eggs.

Combes had given up whatever ambitions he had had as an actor and decided to work backstage. He was probably the most unselfish man I had ever come across in the profession. He was in love with the theatre and everything and everyone around it. He never bad-mouthed anyone, not even actor-laddies. Actors who had run out of their money by Thursday --  Friday was the pay day --  knew they could touch him for half a crown.

Coombes thought I was cut out for something better than an ASM and so after three months he persuaded me to leave the Rep and seek my fortune in the great white world. If it hadn’t been for Coombes I doubt if I would have had the courage to face the actor’s fate --  the unbearable certainty of remaining unemployed for long stretches of time.

The years that followed were tough. Acting work came my way sporadically, but I was lucky enough to find some directorial assignments. And it was during the run of my production of Nod Coward’s Hay Fever at the Guildford Rep that I met Frank Hauser who instantly cast me in Passage.

A Passage to India arrived in the West-End in 1960 after an extensive tour. It was my first big international success. In those days successful West-End plays were usually transferred to Broadway. The American impresario, Lawrence Langner, decided to present ‘Passage’ on Broadway.  He didn’t want the London cast. There were enough English actors (expatriates) who had settled in New York and The American Equity --  actors’ union --  was deadly against the idea of importing English actors for supporting parts. For the central part (in which I had made a name for myself in London), he had lined up Ben Gazzara, who was a big Broadway star.

Unfortunately for him, E.M.Forster put his foot down. He categorically stated that he would not allow his work to be staged in New York unless I played Dr. Aziz. Langner had to give in.

I fell in love with New York --  Manhattan rather. There were smells on every corner, hot dogs, fried onions, bagels, Italian sausages, chestnuts, all wrapped in the warm subterranean steam breathing out of the pavement. Each block gave off a different aroma.

People rushed about as though the consequences of not doing so would be too terrible to contemplate. I used to go on leisurely walks along Madison Avenue stopping to look at almost every shop window. One day a woman dressed in a wrap straight out of the pages of Vogue, actually, told me to move along as she sped past me.

I was new to the vagaries of show business on Broadway. And I had never realised how important “billing” was to actors in America. (Billing is the order in which an actor’s name appears on a playbill, a theatre marquee or an ad in a newspaper, above or below the title of a play). The blandishments of billing were so irresistible that managements frequently offered the actor a choice: less money but bigger billing. Actors accepted this because they equated billing with status. In New York billing was a cult.

Three days before “Passage” opened on Broadway, Gladys Cooper insisted that her name alone would be billed above the title on the marquee. She was represented by William Morris agency, one of the two biggest --  MCA was the other --  theatrical agents in the United States at the time.

The bigwigs of Williams Morris would have had no problem in carrying out the wishes of one of their esteemed stars. They would have approached the producers, Group Theatre Inc., and given them the ultimatum. High powered agents like William Morris loved nothing better than wrangling with managements over ‘billing’ and percentages, but there was a fly in the ointment. William Morris had also taken me on as a client. In fact they were the ones who had drawn up my contract which stipulated that my name, too, would be up in lights above the title of the play.

The head of William Morris went to see Miss Cooper and told her that they were contractually bound to have my name up in lights. “Oh fiddlesticks,” she said, “you will do as I tell you. Don’t put his name up just yet.” Then, very shrewdly, she added, “Look, this play doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to that young man. He is going to get all the notices. He will be the toast of Broadway and you will then add his name to mine. Tell him from me it’ll be far better for him this way.”

She was right. Events took place exactly as she had predicted: My name went up in lights, along with Gladys Cooper on the second night and I got much more attention than I would have had if it had been there all the time.

Did she do it for my good? I don’t know, but I doubt if anyone understood the ego-centric show-business world of Broadway better than her.

to be continued


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