Zia Mohyeddin column
Underrated and underestimated
Urdu digests might not be taken seriously, but readership ranging from 0.5 to 2 million per month, make them a formidable literary influence
By Adiah Afraz
Women writers of popular fiction in Pakistan have a long way to go before they create female characters that truly represent the quintessential Pakistani woman. In a world where the pronoun "she" has won the linguistic battle against some inclusive masculine lexis, in our part of the world, the same pronoun is struggling under a heap of stereotypes and sexist double standards that bewilder and frustrate the liberal reader.
According to Iqbal Book Corner, there are 15 popular monthlies in circulation, out of which 7 are for women. They have titles that speak volumes about their content: Khawateen (Women), Shua (Ray), Kiran (Ray--again!), Pakeeza (The pure), Anchal (The veil), and needless to say, are dominated by women writers. The nature of fiction is commonly scoffed by high brow intellectuals for a superficial treatment of reality, a lopsided stance on gender issues, and a somewhat comic practice of code switching to (grammatically) incorrect English. With their love centric romantic short stories and sermons on the virtues of safeguarding womanly virtues, they provide enough evidence to suggest that when it comes to gender roles, Pakistani women continue to be willing victims of twisted double standards.
For starters, these digests feature glamorously decked up young models on their covers, and yet deride the same traits in their female characters. There is almost always a negative portrayal of fashionable, English speaking women, while fashionable English speaking men form a typical hero figure.Confusion about the role of religion and culture persists, whereby on one hand romance of any sort is strictly off limits in an ideal world, and yet even the most puritan of veiled young women will think nothing of dressing up for weddings and letting cupid unabashedly do his work. A stereotypical "good girl" when approached by a man, is ideally transformed in to a jittery bundle of nerves. She stammers and stutters in response to what the feminist would call plain harassment by the male protagonist. On the other hand, if she is self-assured enough to gain the upper hand, then she is bound to be too forward for her own good.
In one of the new novels titled Pul-e-Sirat, being serialised in Pakeeza digest, the central character is a burqa clad young girl, epitomising strict religious conduct, yet the writer on many occasions lets the veil slip and the male protagonist is made to gawk shamelessly, in complete violation of the religious message the writer is all along trying to convey. Worse still, the all pure damsel seems to enjoy the male attention, falling in love on the spot. If one is to buy the common outlook held by the editors of these magazines that the purpose of these stories is instructive as well as didactic then the juxtaposition of a romance in a puritanical setting is hardly justified
Experts comment that prolonged suppression leads to willing subservience verging on low self esteem. Probably our cultural veneration of women's subservience is the reason why our women writers present men as highly superior, overly dominating beings who think nothing of resorting to physical violence, on the slightest of provocation. In fact, such acts are presented as natural prerequisites for taming of the shrew. Shaheena Chanda Mahtab, whose novel Jaan was serialised in Anchal magazine is a classic example of impunity for the male ego. The writer glorifies the infatuated love of a teenager for an older woman. The obsessive lover grows up to be rigid and violent and yet his acts are defended as those of a thwarted lover. Even his sexual assault on a minor girl is justified by the writer because the girl was allegedly "promiscuous" enough to walk into his room at midnight, and hence deserved to be raped!
It is safe to conclude that the writer probably doesn't realise that rape is a crime; punishable by death in most cases, and under no circumstances should be glorified.
All in all, despite the flaws, Urdu digests have readership ranging from 0.5 to 2 million per month, making them a formidable literary influence, generally underrated and underestimated. To quote Amtal Saboor, assistant editor Khawateen Digest, "The perception that this literature serves only the middle class readership, is wrong. We have readers from every walk of life, including the elite class." A scrutiny of letters to the editors section in these digests corroborates the claim of varied readership. There are letters from young girls, college students, middle class homemakers, socialites, and professionals, all in one way or the other professing their loyal readership. Women write from remote villages and small towns where cable TV has not found its place, explaining how these digests serve as a window to the outside world. Like Indian soap dramas, and Sunday market stalls, they have women hooked. According to Amtal Saboor, our popular literature has a noteworthy international demand. Monthly subscriptions are sold out and content is even reprinted without permission in certain parts of India where Urdu literature is popular.
A recent development is that more and more stories out of these digests are being dramatised by television producers. As Amtal Saboor says "Our magazines are a prominent item on many a TV producers' work tables because it is in these magazines that they find the plots for their next hit drama serial."
Sifting through piles of these digests one can see that the reason for this popularity is in strong narrative technique and engaging story lines, and not gender dynamics. There are even occasional gems that give one the notion that the hope for reform might not be dead after all. 18-year-old Namra Ahmad, an upcoming writer, can be singled out for her liberal approach. Her female protagonist is a trekker, and has a mind of her own, a fact that most of the readers do not particularly like. "Your female lead is proud and not very likeable", writes one reader in the fan mail column, emphasising the point that we are conditioned to see women in subservient roles.
Popular literature all over the world is considered to be the choice of the masses, of people with ordinary tastes and ordinary means, something that an unsophisticated reader has chosen for pleasure. Thus intellectual stimulation is not to be expected, nor is a required ingredient of even a best seller. On the other hand, the same popular literature is also considered to be an expression of cultural identity. As regular input for receptive minds, it has the power to shape goals and values, all the while developing perspectives and identities.
Where we deride the western popular literature for its risqué content and imported cultural values, one feels that there is a need to look inwards at our own literature and the kind of stereotypes we support and uphold.
Christopher Sandford's new biography tries to decode the maze of contradictions that make up the charismatic Imran Khan
By Huma Imtiaz
By Christopher Sandford
Christopher Sandford's biography of Imran Khan doesn't divulge information that hasn't been written about or hinted at in numerous articles about Khan; but rather it is more exhaustive in its account of, as the book's blurb suggests, Imran's coming of age as a cricketer, a celebrity and a politician.
The book begins from Imran Khan's childhood, his time spent at his residence in Zaman Park, Lahore, and travels through decades of his cricketing career, his fundraising and establishing Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and then to his political career. Sandford attempts to strip away the layers behind the man's stoic expression and enigmatic expression, and dig down deep into discovering what made Imran Khan the man he is today.
The book successfully chronicles the making of Khan the cricketer, and with its engaging writing style peppered with juicy and insightful anecdotes, Khan's progression as a lanky, erratic and raw player in the Aitchison cricket team to the captain who helped Pakistan win the World Cup in 1992. Milestones like the development of Khan's interest in politics, after a meeting with a member of the Baloch Marri clan, and dealing with the loss of his mother, are accompanied by colourful descriptions of life in England, Pakistan and accounts of overseas matches. The drama and intrigue that took place in the board rooms and court houses, Khan's domineering influence over the selection of the team and his unwavering schedule: a run in the morning, no alcohol and his social lifestyle, all make for an entertaining read, although at times repetitive for one familiar with Khan and Pakistan.
Sandford's biography of Imran Khan is not without its healthy dose of masala, a vital ingredient when one talks about the illustrious Imran. Sandford alleges that the late Benazir Bhutto and Imran had an affair, or were quite close when at Oxford. Later on, according to an unnamed source cited in the book, Khan's mother even suggested Bhutto's name as a potential match for her son, but nothing came of it. Numerous former girlfriends are interviewed, one who describes Imran as not macho, but exclaims, "He courted me."
Imran's personality, his anger, determination and controlled moods set the tone of this book. One reads of Imran's aloofness from his team mates, his determination to undergo hours of practise, his punishing schedule, and his meticulous research of the game he wanted to excel at. From examining weather conditions to training in the nets, one begins to understand how Khan became one of the best all-rounder cricketers in the world.
Stanford mentions how Khan's sense of style progressed and matured over the years. The story of Khan's style makeover, recalling how Dar, a renowned stylist, helped create Khan's leonine mane look, along with improving his wardrobe, makes one realise how different Khan was from his contemporaries in the Pakistani cricket team.
The book also examines Imran's personal beliefs and the impact on his lifestyle; Sandford's description of an anecdote where a county cricket player offered Imran champagne, only to be thanked and told, "I drink milk", is delightful, as is the following excerpt, which attempts to describe the kind of star power Imran held over millions of fans all over the world.
"Omar's nephew, the British born writer Hanif Kureshi, had a taste of this phenomenon in the mid-1980s when, on his first visit to Karachi, he came across an '18-year-old kid strung out on heroin, dancing around and pointing to his quite prominent erection, which he referred to as his "Imran Khan"'."
The book is not without its mistakes; in one instance, Sandford describes the Sindhi attire of ajrak and mirror-embellished caps as the national dress. Nevertheless, Sandford's research is commendable; he has taken the time to explain Pakistan's society, the political and social structure, and the psyche of the people, which is extremely useful for readers who are unfamiliar with Pakistan. The book also serves as a reminder of how the world of cricket has evolved over the years, with its scandals (racism, match fixing, biased umpires) to the institution of county cricket, one-day internationals and commercialism.
All criticism aside, Sandford's biography of the "Lion of Lahore" is a worthy attempt to record the evolution of Imran Khan, from a nobody in Lahore to a superstar who, despite all his failings, maintains a star power that no one in Pakistan has been able to reach as yet. The book is sure to delight cricket enthusiasts, along with Khan's millions of fans who have attempted to emulate his cricketing prowess, his luck with the ladies and may even help silence his critics.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
B is for Bandook
I am not a political animal. I never have been and I doubt if I ever will be. It doesn't mean, however, that I remain unaffected by whatever happens in my country. I echo the thoughts of one of Chekhov's protagonists, Tregorin: "I love my country; I love the people. I feel that if I am a writer I have an obligation to deal with the people, with their sufferings. And I do write but…" Whenever I have put something down on a paper I, like Trigorin, feel that it is inadequate, ineffectual and worthless.
What can I say which hasn't been said by all the thinking people who have devoted column after column about the impending doom that awaits us?
The impending doom is really not that far. Hundred of thousands of teenagers are being indoctrinated every day to lay down their lives for the "greater glory of Islam." There are now over 20,000 madrassahs in the country; each one with a number of students ranging from a hundred to over six thousand. Assuming that the average number of students in each madrassah is only 200 -- and I am being extremely conservative -- we have four million madrassah-trained "graduates" every year.
Now, let me extend my conservatism and say that only one percent of these are the real Jihadis, hand-picked, professionally coached and thoroughly brain-washed, to be a part of the ever-increasing suicide squad. We are now talking about a force of four hundred thousand new suicide bombers every year. Not all the armies of the entire world (and the CIA/FBI combined) can wipe them out for these robots have been trained to operate singly or in pairs. Also, they are now disguised as burqa-clad women, as clean-shaven university students, or as young police recruits.
Apart from the hardened zealots who come out of seminaries, the manipulators of this new breed of "God's army," keep their eye on the ever growing number of young, deprived teenagers in the cities and provinces. These youngsters suffer from such abject poverty that you wonder what they have to lose when they already have nothing. Oddly enough, they spare the Mafia-controlled battalions of small children in big cities dodging the lethal traffic, banging on the windows of cars and whining until the traffic lights change.
There has been an explosive growth of madrassahs in the last ten years. Has this been a source of worry for the state, the administration or our intelligence agencies? Not really.
In the wake of 9/11, the West -- America, in particular -- raised a hue and cry about closing down the madrassahs. We made a few half-hearted attempts to scrutinize their modus operandi and declared that most of them did not preach terrorism and that there was no way we could stop children from receiving religious instruction.
Five years ago, the then president of the country came under great pressure about the madrassahs. He promised to crack down on them. After a survey of some sorts it was decreed that henceforth their curriculum would be reformed and that along with religious instruction they must include modern sciences, mathematics -- and the study of English. Some of the madrassahs agreed to conform to the reforms; others did nothing about it.
The reason is not hard to find. The thinking of our policy makers at the time was that so long as the madrassahs and the Taliban they spawn exist, the West would remain jittery. If we were to crack down on them in all seriousness and wipe them out (a highly optimistic notion) the million of dollars that continue to be poured into our coffers might dry up.
They did crack down on one madrarassah and that turned out to be a disastrous operation. The Lal Masjid, a seminary within the heart of the capital Islamabad, was a hot-bed of extremist thinking. It was training not just male students, but a large number of females as well. The state and the security organisations had proof positive that hundreds of terrorists had taken shelter within the large compound of the Lal Masjid complex. For months we heard several television channels tell us that arms were being smuggled into the complex.
The State, at last, did take action and the madrassah was raided. It was a messy affair. Hundreds of people, including the security forces, died. It was made out to be a success but the after-effects were gruesome. The huge cache of arms and armaments which had been captured from within the compound was, for some bizarre reason, dumped in a police post not far from the compound. A few weeks later the police post was raided by the terrorists who not only recovered the arms but killed a good number of policemen as well.
I am not sure about this but it was probably after the government's decree that students of religious schools must also be taught English, that a primer was compiled. Dr. Pervaiz Hoodabhoy a professor of Atomic Physics, and one of our most enlightened thinkers pointed out in an interview that the primer was now in circulation in almost all the madrasssahs. Here is part of the alphabet.
A is for Allah
B is for Bandook…
T is for Takrau…The picture illustrating Takrau (collision) is a jet airliner crashing into the World Trade centre.
How come this was never brought to the attention of the minister for Religion Affairs (whose ministry imposed the new conditions under which madrassahs could operate)? Perhaps it was and he ignored it, good-humouredly, believing, quite sincerely, that at last an effort was being made to acquaint the madrassah pupils with the English alphabet.
"O pity it is
That 'tis not the learners, but the learned
Who are purblind…"
It has been some months since the army went into Swat with their gunship helicopters to clear the area of Taliban. The head of the army has claimed "significant successes". He has also said that with the help of the nation and the media, he could end militancy for all time. The implication of his statement is quite clear. Unless the people of this country fully support the cause, mentally and emotionally, the war against the militants is a futile exercise.
How can the nation help? The vast majority of the nation is crippled by soaring food prices; they have no electricity, no education. They live in sordid slums and they have seen their hopes of a better future betrayed time after time. Can they be expected to be emotionally involved in a war against the Taliban who are, after all, fellow Muslims? As for the media, it is certainly not unanimous in its condemnation of the Taliban. The question we should ask is not whether we can defeat the terrorists, but whether we really want to.