Category Archives: Books etc.

The course of the Indus and Jehlum, was manmade!

A lesson in forgotten (Pakistani/subcontinental) history….

According to the Rājatarangiṇī (“The River of Kings”), the banks of the Indus were reconstructed by mere mortals of seemingly superb talent!

The Rājatarangiṇī is a metrical historical chronicle of north-western Indian subcontinent, particularly the kings of Kashmir, written in Sanskrit by Kashmiri Brahman Kalhaṇa in 12th century CE (thank you Wikipedia). The work records the heritage of Kashmir and its politics from the epic period of the Mahābhārata to the reign of Sangrama Deva (c.1006 CE), before the Muslim era. The list of kings goes back to the 19th century BCE.

The chronology might be a bit off, but the work is true to whatever was going on in Kashmir somewhere between the 8th and 12th century.

These old works show  that rulers of this era  were some of the most brilliant urban planners, and in fact, the “Golden Age” (of building, planning, writing, and gold, the time of India being the most powerful economic region) of the subcontinent was already over by the time the Muslims landed on its banks.

The good times can only be said to have come back, for just a bit, with Akbar and Shah Jehan and their contributions to art and architecture… but the Subcontinent was over its glory days so much sooner than we think. Anyway, read the lower paragraph in the picture below.

indus-and-jehlum

The picture is from: Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal (Penguin 2012)

Popular Culture and Science Fiction

Image

In 1984 William Gibson wrote the popular science fiction, Neuromancer. The novel predicted the rise of the Internet and the word “cyberspace” thus entered the modern lexicon. Thus popular culture directly impacted the real world and eventually the Internet became a big part of everyday culture. Today it is one of the necessary fronts of social and political change. Here are some musings on science fiction and popular culture theory.

On a side note, popular culture is almost unexplored by modern political theory. Except for Marxist critical theory that calls it the “culture industry,” there are few words written about its benefits. Adorno and Horkheimer, critical Marxists from the 1940s, theorized that mass culture was a political weapon to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests. They predicted the rise of popular mass media, firmly controlled by large corporations and class interests for monetary purposes. There was no purely “public” sphere where people had freedom of choice and opinion. Except of course, in recent time, cyberspace. This explanation of popular culture itself, seems dystopian. Something science fiction is very comfortable about when describing futures. Almost, art imitating life.

Science fiction its self at the outset seems to be a product of the merging of popular culture and scientific innovation.The Atomic Age starts with the year 1903 when Ernest Rutherford, a British chemist and physicist, born in New Zealand, started discussing the possibility of atomic energy. Following this, the first pop culture reaction was in 1914, with the publishing of H.G. Wells‟ science fiction novel entitled The World Set Free in which he describes the finding of unlimited energy locked inside atoms, and presents a story of how atomic bombs are deployed around the world. Such examples, just relating to the bomb are continually repeated. In 1945 the first atomic bombs were created. In 1986 the graphic novel, Watchmen, reimagined the past from the world war to the Vietnam War to Nixon’s America (with one of the protagonists being in total control of atomic and subatomic particles).

*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.
*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.

Then the robot is “that place in science fiction texts where technological and human are most directly blended. The robot is the dramatization of the alterity of the machine, the paranoid sense of the inorganic come to life,” as explained by a theorist*. The confrontation/cooperation between man and machine thus becoming an archetype which has been almost exhaustively explored. This brings me back to the brilliance of Neuromancer, merging so many nodes of technology, before its time, creating fodder for future popular culture. Movies reminiscent of this novel include Elysium… future dystopias with class structure, and small almost mercenary vanguard like resistances. Love.

**Roberts, A. (2000) – “Science Fiction – The New Critical Idiom” Routledge Publishing

Sita’s Story- Sita Sings The Blues

I recently wrote and article on a very interesting film called Sita Sings the Blues. The basic issues I have tackled are culture and culture sharing –Can revered old traditions be reinterpreted? The film is a modern retelling of the Hindu Ramayana and is also a free release. And can a culture become the exclusive right of a specific group? Sita Sings the Blues is a quirky new film retells one of India’s best-loved epics and raises some serious questions.

The discussion in the comments is however highly polarised. Read more here.

After you have read the article, and if your curiosity is sufficiently piqued, you can watch the film here. Or download it. 

If famous books were written by Pakistanis

Begum Chatterjees Whipping

Allah of all things (small and big)

Chanda’s Web

Songs of Blood and Sword ….oh wait Fatima Bhutto already ripped that one off from George RR Martin

Please compare

Bhai Stokers ‘Denguela’
Did anyone know theres a Cambodian-Psychedelic band called 'Dengue Fever'?

Did anyone know theres a
Cambodian-Psychedelic band
called ‘Dengue Fever’?

Puttar Haris and the Search for Halal HamOh God, where do I even dig up these disturbing images from??

            Oh God, where do I even dig up these disturbing images from??

Fahrenheit 404 or How Pakistan shut down its internet, rewrote history textbooks and censored female parts everywhere

The Devil wears Bata

Exploding Mangos of Wrath

Where the Radical Islamists Are

The Kite Ban-ner – and other stuff Shabaz Sharif banned in Punjab

The life and time of Enid Blyton

I found this essay below while browsing goodreads.com written by someone who has read Enid Blytons biography. What a wonderful tribute this is to one of the most read children’s authors in the world. I put this here in a fit of nostalgia, for children today are wholly unfamiliar with the type of good wholesome literature that was fed to my generation in the 1990s. And I feel a little sad that people even five to seven years younger than me are unfamiliar with Enid Blyton.

I blame  this shift on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The first Potter book came out when I was eleven and I got on the bandwagon when I was twelve, but by that time I had already gone through hundreds of pages of Blyton (and LM Montgomery of Green Gables) as had many of my friends. But let me clarify that I love JK Rowling books to a fault and can pick up the juvenile Captain Underpants novels and enjoy them. This is not to say that books like Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Artemis Fowl etc are inferior, just that the volume of values with which Blyton imagined her stories has never been repeated (odd expression, volume of values, but I can’t think of a better description). I suppose I can say the same for Tintin and Asterix comics, and maybe The Hardy Boys and Hitchcock’s Three Investigators for boys and those older than me… beloved characters that we suddenly lost track of at the end of the 1990s.

As an adult one can always go back to old literature, as literature for adults does not lose its charm with age. Unfortunately, if one misses out on more child worthy works like Blytons, it is a lost space that cannot be explored or appreciated again.

The biography pictured here is a bit hard to find, though BBC is planning a biopic starring Helena Bonham Carter (but sadly I can never think of her as anyone else but Marla from Fight Club).

Enid Blyton could be called the Barbara Cartland of Children’s Literature. They both wrote voluminously and both received the scorn of their critics. However,in my books, there is one vital difference: Enid was a GENIUS!! 

Her biographer, Barbara Stoney, agrees that “her stories are repetitive, lacking in characterisation and limited in their vocabulary” among other ‘faults’. But she also points out that librarians and educationalists who were among her severest critics from the 1950’s onward, by the 1970’s, having become aware of the falling literary standards,”realised that no other author appeared capable -to the same degree- of writing the kind of stories which would encourage a child to take up a book and read it through to the end. This resulted in more of her work appearing on school and library shelves…” from which her books had been banned. 

Banned!!! 

But her sales increased!!! 

Her countless fans having had their source cut off by adults simply went to the bookstores and bought what they wanted. 

THIS is Children Power!!! 

Enid was not only a Genius of a Storyteller. Firstly she was a Genius of a Teacher. 

Early in her teaching career from 1920 she had realised that her talent for writing would enable her to reach far more children – and teachers. Poems, songs, stories and plays as well as articles for teachers were already keeping her busy outside of classroom duties. Editing and writing Teachers’ Manuals and Journals, Nature Study articles and lesson outlines some of which she herself illustrated, retelling Biblical Stories and Classic tales, graded rhythmic movements and dance steps, history and geography – these and more flowed from Enid’s imagination and pen. She claimed as her audience the tiny-tots of Kindergarten to adolescents, as well as their teachers. 

Finally she was accused by the Get-Enid Brigade of the mid-50’s that she used ghost writers and that she was dead!!! Then there was the suspect relationship between Noddy of Toyland and the more elderly BigEars!!! But however dubious adults found Noddy, he led Enid into the new realms of writing for pantomine, theatre and television. 

Yes, Enid continued to flourish. 

Her ‘Enid Blyton Magazine’ spawned four clubs through which children were able to assist Blind Children, Spastic Children, a Children’s Home and Sick and Injured Animals. 500,000 children made up the clubs. 

Enid stated her aims: 

“I’m not only out to tell stories, much as I love this – I am out to inculcate decent thinking, loyalty, honesty, kindliness, and all the things that children should be taught.” 

And this influence was worldwide. 

Enid herself did not always measure up to what she wanted to inculcate either as wife, mother or friend. Often those who can so clearly point the way are unable to advance far along the way themselves. Nor did she ever seem to find the deep spirituality she obviously thirsted for through any of the traditional Christian churches. 

In 1991, almost twenty years after her death, Enid remained the most successful children’s writer of the 20th Century with approximately 8 million of her books selling annually worldwide in 27 languages. And the Sunday Times included her name in “1,000 Makers of the 20th Century”. However in that same year Enid’s name “did not feature in that year’s list of approved books for the National Curriculum.” But again the children had voted!!!”…she was one of the three most borrowed children’s authors from British libraries announced that year. (The works of the other two – Roald Dahl and Rene Goscinny, who wrote the Asterix books – did not appear on the list either.)” 

Reading Enid’s magical adventure story “The Treasure Hunters” to my Year 4 class back in 1978, I could see its limitations which however simply evaporated as one got caught up in the story. The day I finished the book after several weeks of reading I will never forget. As I sadly closed the book I was deluged with a chorus of cries from the children :”READ IT AGAIN!!! READ IT AGAIN!!!” Yes, I had tears in my eyes then, and now as I type this. 

There. A nice departure from my tirades on Pakistans economy and politics.

Lahore in 1893

A map from 1983

DHA and cantonement hardly existed. Most of the population doesn’t even venture into the actual ‘city’.

From KK Aziz book, The Coffee House of Lahore http://pakistaniat.com/2010/11/12/coffee-house-aziz-lahore/

Wallowing in sadomasochism- Book Review ‘History of Hate’

History of Hate, Kaniska Gupta. Rupa & Co, 2010. 198 pages.

There is merit to be found in the vivid imagining of such a problem and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes

In Review, Pakistan Today, 6th February, 2011.

Greed for money or power has been what traditionally has led to human nature showing its nasty side, but there are other sides to pain like anger, revenge and then pain for pleasure. Causing suffering just for ‘viewing pleasure’ is a very different aspect of human relations and there is no denying that it exists. Kanishka Gupta’s ‘History of Hate’ is rightly about ‘hate’ expressed through cold calculated harm that two individuals inflict on the people of their Delhi neighbourhood.

This odd couple, Sonny a middle-aged housewife, and Ash a would-be writer in his twenties with suicidal tendencies, have something in common that brings them together. Both being unhappy with life hate the happiness of others and love to watch people suffer by their brutal acts. Their victims keep adding up to include Sonny’s paralysed mother-in-law, a seven-year-old mute maid, a pregnant mother, couples in parks, Sonny’s own sons, and even ultimately Ash by Sonny’s hands. Sonny and Ash have no remorse about the lives they destroy. The victims are punished in strange ways, there is no rage involved, plans and traps are laid out for an almost voyeuristic thrill.

Before you try to pick up this book, beware that you may not be able to understand the motivations of the lead characters or relate to them, unless you have had irrational urges to hurt or humiliate people.

You keep reading till the end, waiting for the realisation that these two characters might have redeeming quality; that the book would give some satisfactory emotional, physical, spiritual justification for the sick crimes of its antagonists/protagonist, but the only explanation one can reach is that Sonny and Ash are sadistic and disturbed. Gupta frames Sonny’s excuse for her mental state as her middle class poverty and jealousy of the success of other people, while Ash’s excuse is that he is a homosexual.

These are not unique problems; there are people in the world who suffer more without it leading to such troubled behaviour. Yet the book touches on the issue of sadism, though not a valid diagnostic category, yet an accepted personality disorder and an important issue in social life to explore.

Kaniska Gupta has tapped into a niche market, where such a dark subject piques the curiosity of people. The content being good or bad is a matter of opinion, of course, but it is definitely a unique piece of work. Of course, there have been other books that have explored disturbances of the human mind like ‘Lolita’, ‘Perfume’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, all of which have achieved a cult status. In comparison ‘History of Hate’, though a flawed piece, and maybe not as stellar, may well have the same fate in India.

This unapologetically unpleasant narrative has been well received by many readers and since others have enjoyed this book there needs to be a serious effort to understand why. With its cringe worthy content, it is not a book for everyone to stomach and was rejected by many publishers in India until Rupa publications gave it a chance.

‘History of Hate’ was long listed for the yearly Man Asian Prize that is reserved for literature from 27 Asian countries (including Pakistan); a great achievement for a young writer.

There must be a serious attempt by critics to understand its appeal. With the ambitious title, the book should have explored the dimension of self-hate, and maybe given Sonny and Ash some semblance of normality so that a reader could accept them as multidimensional humans. If our antagonizing pair are ‘in so much hate’ with the world, are they happy with who they are as people and what is their relationship with their self?

Sonny’s character though more despicable is easier to grasp. Ash seems more complex and less threatening than Sonny and remains a bit of a mystery. The power dynamic between the two could have been formulated better. Do they actually love each other or hate each other? It is unclear whether, in their very brief “history”, their hate for other people’s unhappiness could have extended to their relationship with each other.

The author has said elsewhere that: “The novel… is a strong critique of the sadomasochistic, voyeuristic nature of all social interactions.” The book seems not so much a critique as a narrow documentation of the issue. And this is fine as well; there is merit to be found the vivid imagining of such a problem (maybe for the first time by a South Asian writer) and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes.

–Saadia Gardezi is a political economist based in Lahore