All posts by mara.ahmed

beyond belief – NYWIFT event at the little

NYWIFT or new york women in film and television’s rochester chapter opened last week with the screening of the documentary “beyond belief” at the little theatre. the film recreates the step by step progression in the story of two 9/11 widows (susan retik and patti quigley) who decide to help afghani women. there are some illuminating moments in the film – the very idea of turning hate into love, of forgiving in order to achieve “post-traumatic growth”, of realizing that we are all connected and that what happens in afghanistan affects us here at home, the concept that all the small, day-to-day decisions we make in our lives cumulatively define who we are in the world, and that our common humanity can transcend even the most striking socio-cultural differences. that’s powerful. the director beth murphy talks about compassion fatigue, a dulled sensitivity to crisis over time. viewers, when faced with a relentless barrage of snapshots showing human suffering all over the world, start to feel helpless and so disengage. this film puts the ball back in our court – instead of feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, we are reminded that every action we take has a ripple effect and can change the course of the world in small but cumulatively potent ways.

as far as the overall documentary, i felt that 9/11 was the star of the film. the grief of the two widows is obviously real and palpable but as patti quigley says herself, she is ready to move beyond her role of 9/11 widow. much has happened since 9/11 – we have invaded afghanistan and killed more afghanis, we have invaded iraq and started a barbaric civil war (more than 655,000 iraqis have died along with thousands of american troops), we have legitimized torture and trampled on basic human rights all around the globe, we have reworked the laws of our country in order to curtain civil liberties, we have discovered that our government is far from being honest and that our media is far from holding it to account. with all the things that have gone horribly wrong since 9/11, shouldn’t we move beyond our role of wounded nation?

i wish that more time had been spent telling the stories of the afghan widows. we only see them as a one-dimensional horde of burqas on cnn. this film could have afforded us a rare glimpse into their lives and suffused them with some depth. there is a little bit of that but not enough. we cannot help but fall in love with some of the afghani women profiled in the film. they are honest and accessible, strong and dignified and possess a calm inner beauty. that’s a face not often seen in the media, a voice not often heard. beth murphy has made a laudable effort to show us another side, let’s hope this is just the beginning.

after watching “beyond belief” the writer june avignone sent me the link to this article she wrote called “the cure we wait for” (sun magazine, march 2003). she talks about 9/11 and compares it to her experience with cancer.

“i am not shocked at all. if anything, i am shocked about how many other people are shocked. i know that there will be a precious moment figurine about all this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. and i know america will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind the correct purchases made at the mall.

and with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get the thief who robbed us of innocent lives, and threatens us still; of hitting larger territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. and the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.

i do not know where all of it is going. i only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. the thief is inside all of us. and part of the cure, at the very least, lies in knowing that.”

is american naïveté a cop-out?

it is well known in the rest of the world that american media are neither critical nor incisive. this is why americans are often described as being naive. in a way it all makes sense:

(1) americans are the most overworked people in the industrialized world. they have surpassed the likes of japan (by two weeks per year) and germany (by two entire months per year)
(2) american public education is sadly deficient. as the gates have pointed out: “what good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?”
(3) american healthcare has not only left huge segments of the population out in the cold, it is ranked 37th in the world in terms of quality even though our healthcare costs are astronomical – almost double the per-capita cost in canada (yet canada’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are better than ours).

what do you expect from people who are overworked, under-educated and without decent healthcare? do they have the time or the ability to navigate multiple news sources (some domestic, some international), parse that information and make up their own minds? the capitalistic system is alive and well. the focus is on producing good workers and consumers, not good citizens.

but are we that helpless? is it that easy to infantilize a nation?

john stuart mill believed that people generally get the form of government they deserve – if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or apathy to blame. it is our responsibility, our duty as citizens, to maximize our intellectual potential in order to make the right decisions. how else can a democratic system be truly democratic and embody the voice of the people?

john stuart mill

dov and ali

just saw this play reading at geva theatre. “dov and ali” was written by anna ziegler and describes the relationship between a precocious muslim student of pakistani descent and a jewish high school teacher. both are unduly burdened by their fathers’ religious dogmas and we witness some of their conflicted emotions. whereas dov reacts with lassitude by simply avoiding life’s big questions (and decisions), ali becomes a strident mouthpiece for his overbearing father. dov and ali are simultaneously drawn to each other and repelled by the recognition of their own fear and self-doubt in each other’s psychosis. ali is mortally afraid that the world might not be black and white, as his father says, and that the quran’s directives might not be enough. is being “right” more important than being “happy”? although he strikes dov as being sure of himself (and of everything else) we suspect that it’s self-hate that’s making him lash out. dov on the other hand professes that he has a mind of his own and chastises ali for being a fanatic, yet we sense that his own convictions are half-baked at best.

the dialogue between these two characters is sharp, funny and fast-paced. there are many references to william golding’s “lord of the flies” which serves to pit what’s good for the individual against what’s good for society.

the play’s turning point is based on ali’s relationship with his sister sameh. sameh acts both as the play’s narrator and one of its characters. in her asides she gently reproves ali for something he did, becoming more and more agitated as the play progresses. she also reveals her love affair with a liberal muslim boy mo (short for mohammed) and we are slowly led to think that it did not end well and that ali had something to do with it. she appears as a character in flashbacks and as a ghost-like apparition in ali’s dreams. ali finally confesses to dov that he led his father (and uncles and cousins) to sameh and mo and that she was packed off to pakistan as a result. this has been ali’s torment – his guilt and the loss of his sister have torn apart his family. the girl’s end is left unresolved. our only clue is that she now lives with an aunt in pakistan and all she does is pray – this led an audience member to think erroneously that she might have been sent to a convent. in fact, there is no concept of any types of convents in islam.

dov’s trajectory from traditional to modern is tracked through his relationship with a “blonde” (there is frequent mention of her hair color) white girl. she definitely believes in being happy above anything else – a symbol of western-style jettisoning of religious orthodoxy?

although i found the play interesting (more should be written about the interplay between different religions and cultures, especially in a country where we are proud to describe ourselves as a melting pot), much of it was hackneyed and one-dimensional. i liked the verbal sparring between dov and ali and the not-so-apparent similarities which are nevertheless explored. but did ziegler have to throw in something as corny as “israel should not exist – the jews stole it” and play into the already over-propagandized stereotype of the jew-hating muslim? maybe she was being facetious, but sometimes one has to wonder, do we always have to go there – the lowest common denominator of our so-called “free” mainstream media coverage which is sold in bulk and therefore cannot afford nuance or novelty. for some reason, in my unwaveringly idealistic mind, i hold artists to a higher standard. rather than pander to pre-existing stereotypes why not turn things around and present a topsy turvy picture of what people perceive as reality. in my opinion, that is true art.

stereotypes abound in this play – from the fanatical quran literalist, to the emotionally-distant orthodox rabbi, from the blonde blue-eyed voice of tolerant modernity, to edward said as a proponent of arab victimization in full view of palestinian suicide bombers. you will be happy to know that tossing the hijab is still very much the means to female empowerment and as a pakistani-american, i was interested to know that being sent to pakistan is the ultimate kiss of death.

all in all, it reminded me of your average story in the ny times with all its comforting clichés and facile generalizations. it’s no coincidence that ziegler’s writing process for this play started with newspaper clippings and the endeavor to write something “current”. this is why many audience members were confused about sameh’s destiny, thinking that she must have been killed because of “all the stories in the news”. five years after 9/11 and the ensuing media blitz which divided the world into those who were with us (and like us) and those who were against us (and different from us), it is time to get beyond our narrow view of what “others” are like. i think that american audiences are ready to undertake that journey.

terrorism – flip side of imperialism?

in his book “the last mughal”, william dalrymple talks about how india went from a london-like, ‘culturally, racially and religiously chutnified’ melting pot where westerners (or so called white mughals) went native and lived in relative racial and religious harmony with local indians during the early days of the east india company, to the arrogance, racism and violence of 19th century raj. he attributes this unfortunate shift to two things:

‘one was the rise of british power: in a few years the british had defeated not only the french, but all their other indian rivals; and, in a manner not unlike the americans after the fall of the berlin wall, the changed balance of power quickly led to undisguised imperial arrogance. no longer was the west prepared to study and learn from the subcontinent; instead, thomas macaulay came to speak for a whole generation of englishmen when he declared that “a single shelf of a good european library was worth the whole native literature of india and arabia”.

the other factor was the ascendancy of evangelical christianity, and the profound change in social, sexual and racial attitudes that this brought about. the wills written by dying east india company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. by the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. in half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new indian caste – the anglo-indians – who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.’

this is how india moved ‘from a huge measure of racial intermixing in the late 18th century to a position of complete racial apartheid by the 1850s’. in his article “the last mughal and a clash of civilizations” (new statesman, october 16, 2006), dalrymple draws a parallel between the forces at work in 19th century british india and those affecting world events today:

‘just like it is today, this process of pulling apart – of failing to talk, listen or trust each other – took place against the background of an increasingly aggressive and self-righteous west, facing ever stiffer islamic resistance to western interference. for, as anyone who has ever studied the story of the rise of the british in india will know well, there is nothing new about the neo-cons. the old game of regime change – of installing puppet regimes, propped up by the west for its own political and economic ends – is one that the british had well mastered by the late 18th century.

by the 1850s, the british had progressed from aggressively removing independent-minded muslim rulers, such as tipu sultan, who refused to bow before the will of the hyperpower, to destabilising and then annexing even the most pliant muslim states. in february 1856, the british unilaterally annexed the prosperous kingdom of avadh (or oudh), using the excuse that the nawab, wajid ali shah, a far-from-belligerent dancer and epicure, was “debauched”.

by this time, other british officials who believed in a “forward” policy of pre-emptive action were nursing plans to abolish (emperor) zafar’s mughal court in delhi, and to impose not just british laws and technology on india, but also british values, in the form of christianity. the missionaries reinforced muslim fears, increasing opposition to british rule and creating a constituency for the rapidly multiplying jihadis. and, in turn, “wahhabi conspiracies” strengthened the conviction of the evangelical christians that a “strong attack” was needed to take on the “muslim fanatics”.’

this became the breeding ground for the great mutiny of 1857 (what we in the sub-continent call the war of independence). the mutiny was disorganized, ruthless and bloody. on september 14, 1857 the british squashed the mutiny and exacted fierce revenge on the local population.

dalrymple continues:

‘today, west and east again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as a religious war. suicide jihadis fight what they see as a defensive action against their christian enemies, and again innocent civilians are slaughtered.

as before, western evangelical christian politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of “incarnate fiends” and simplistically conflate any armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil”. again, western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked, as they see it, by mindless fanatics.

and yet, as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalises a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east: the histories of islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. in a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. the venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.’

last mughal emperor: bahadur shah zafar

les chansons de mon enfance

these are the songs of my childhood. like proust’s famous madeleine, these songs unleash such a vivid pastiche of memories that i’m transported to the heart of europe, early seventies, my mother in bell bottoms and giant sunglasses, my dad with long sideburns in a three-piece suit, my sisters hardly old enough to be in pre-school, my brother just a baby. i am overcome by nostalgia. this feeling of sadness washes over me – i feel like we have all lost something.

my favorite by far is gérard lenorman’s “michèle” which interestingly enough is about lost love, about how things seem simpler when we are young. it’s also very french – i too miss “les cafés joyeux, mêmes les trains de banlieue”. here it is (could only find it in this unfortunate karaoke video):

then there is “angie” by the stones:

and of course there’s elton john’s “goodbye yellow brick road”:

more in my next post!

yert.com (your environmental road trip)

while shooting our documentary about moderate muslims in america, my friend (and cameraman) jae wilson and i met mark dixon and ben evans at spot coffee, downtown. this was last year. they were filming their own documentary called your environmental road trip. in their own words, “it’s a year-long eco-expedition through all 50 united states. with video camera in hand and tongue in cheek, we’re exploring the landscape of america’s unique approach to environmental sustainability”. we interviewed them and they interviewed us. they wanted to shoot outdoors. it was late at night and painfully cold. i was telling them how i’m allergic to hummers. they used a tiny bit of that conversation in this video clip. check them out at www.yert.com . they’re funny and what they have to say is important.

the battle of algiers

gillo pontecorvo’s 1966 film is a perfect example of italian neorealism with its documentary-style veracity, on location casbah scenes, non-professional algerian arab actors and its undeniably socialist heart. the film is about the algerian war of independence against french colonial rule. it strives to be balanced in presenting such controversial (and currently relevant) issues as hubris and abuse of power on the part of the colonist, humiliation and revolt on the part of the colonised, the use of terrorism to advance a cause, the use of torture to elicit information, western empirialism, extrajudicial executions, racism, violence, and the role of the press in selling a military campaign. the making of the film is truly a coup de force. its message is thought provoking. by refusing to take sides or using a pre-conceived frame of reference, it gives viewers the ability to draw their own conclusions. i found the film to be an experience, an education. it is not easy to break the human spirit – even with the best military accoutrements in the world. the forcible repression of others creates a natural imbalance that can only last for so long, and it leads to nothing but tragedy for all those involved. but was it hegel who said that we learn from history that we do not learn from history…

the battle of algiers

brice marden and abstract art

peter schjeldahl’s “true colors, a brice marden retrospective” (new yorker, nov 6, 2006) starts with something the artist once said: “it’s hard to look at paintings. you have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body”. that struck a chord – it reminded me of a short piece i wrote about why i love modern art. check it out under prose.

brice marden’s cold mountain painting

volver

saw pedro almodóvar’s “volver”, a story about mothers, daughters and the indomitable female spirit. the film is beautifully shot and a perfect vehicle for penelope cruz’s talents. having worked with almodóvar before, the actress and director seem to have a unique bond. there is a level of trust and affection which makes it possible for cruz to blossom in front of our eyes into something strong and luminous. her charisma is greatly diminished by formula-driven, coldly procedural anglo-saxon films. here we see her as never before. she is in her element. the film is a mix of magic and realism, a supersaturated dreamscape. the colors are warm and vivid, the camerawork meticulous and obsessively focused on cruz. her performance is brought into relief by her beauty and fearlessness. with this film, almodóvar has perfected his craft and given us a visually luscious chef d’oeuvre that celebrates his love for women characters in all their splendor and complexity.

volver

peace, propaganda and the promised land

saw this film at the anti-war storefront on monroe avenue, in rochester. being a hyphenated american who moved to the u.s., as an adult, from one of the oldest parts of the world, i was born with a healthy dose of skepticism in my blood. i know that governments lie, that the press can skew reality, that there is such a thing as propaganda. the middle east conflict is a case in point and so is the war in iraq.

“peace, propaganda and the promised land” is an excellent documentary that explains the step by step process of filtering information and using a mammoth PR machine to manipulate public opinion. many cannot accept this so-called mind control, especially when it applies to an open, free market society like ours where the unrestricted flow of information forms the very basis of our economic/political system. this too is a mirage. the only difference between american-style minutely researched, consumer-savvy, impeccably packaged, and innocuously dessiminated propaganda and soviet-style, grainy, no frills attached, in your face, badly executed propaganda (much ridiculed during the cold war), is in production values. ours is simply better quality. like a carefully flavored smoothie it goes down easy and feels good once it’s been ingested.

but i will let you decide for yourself. if you’ve never read noam chomsky, robert fisk or alexander cockburn, this documentary might be a true eye opener for you. i found it on youtube. here are the first 2 parts, there are 10 in total.

peace propaganda and the promised land, part 1:

peace propaganda and the promised land, part 2:

the film was introduced by judith bello. read more about the post-screening discussion moderated by judith on her blog under “reviewing the presentation and jenin jenin” (aug 11, 2007). she talks about “an individual in attendance who persistently and emphatically interpreted every assertion back into the standard frame of information, the very frame that the film was designed to discredit”. i attribute that to ignorance but also to the staggering power of language – our thoughts and ideas are constrained by the linguistic and therefore conceptual framework we are given. i was reading “weasel words” by john lahr (new yorker, dec 19, 2005) a review of the harold pinter double bill (including “the room” and “celebration”) and some of lahr’s comments jumped out at me. he talks about pinter’s obsession with the “psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance. blindness, as pinter has dramatized it over the years, is something internal. the habit of not seeing is for his characters a sort of narrative device, an evasion of self-awareness that allows them to sustain their stories of themselves; the very syntax of their speech carries them ever farther from a real understanding of their emotions”.

susan b anthony’s house in rochester

last week i took my parents and daughter to visit susan b anthony’s house on madison street, in rochester. susan b anthony was a consummate activist – she lobbied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, women’s suffrage, education reform, temperance and a myriad other causes close to her heart. at a time when women were struggling to find a voice, susan b anthony’s speeches held sway over generations of men and women and changed the socio-political landscape of our country. she was arrested in 1872 for casting a vote in the presidential election. this is the speech she delivered in court in defence of women’s right to vote:

“friends and fellow citizens: i stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. it shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, i not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all united states citizens by the national constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

the preamble of the federal constitution says: “we, the people of the united states, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the united states of america.”

it was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the union. and we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. and it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot.

for any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. by it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity. to them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. to them this government is not a democracy. it is not a republic. it is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the saxon rules the african, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household – which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.

webster, worcester, and bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the united states, entitled to vote and hold office. the only question left to be settled now is: are women persons? and I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against negroes.”

frederick douglass was one of her lifelong friends. the bronze statue of susan b anthony and frederick douglass having tea in the park by laos-born sculptor pepsy kettavong is located across the street from anthony’s house. it is life-like, life-size, accessible and bang in the middle of the neighborhood where she lived. it’s genius. the house itself is being renovated and slowly restored. but what really brought susan b anthony back to life for us was the knowledge and passion of our excellent docent annie. as rochestarians, and even more so as american women, we should all be proud of anthony’s legacy.

susan b anthony

manto’s masterpiece: toba tek singh

manto – a quick blurb: master of the urdu short story, controversial, wrote about sex, incest, prostitution, tried in pakistani courts for obscenity, died in penury of alcoholism at the age of 44. the force, unflinching honesty and hard-edged realism of his writing have warranted comparisons to d.h. lawrence.

here is “toba tek singh” a manto short story that encapsulates the horror and confusion of india’s partition in 1947. it has been translated in english by khushwant singh:

Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides. After high-level conferences were held a day was fixed for the exchange of the lunatics. It was agreed that those Muslims who had families in India would be permitted to stay back while the rest would be escorted to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had migrated from Pakistan, the question of retaining non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan did not arise. All of them were to be taken to India.

Nobody knew what transpired in India, but so far as Pakistan was concerned this news created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum at Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments. A Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, “Don’t you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors.” Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions.

Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, “Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language.” The Sikh gave a knowing smile. “But I know the language of Hindostoras” he replied. “These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!”

One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, “Pakistan Zindabad!” with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious.

Not all the inmates were insane. Quite a few were murderers. To escape the gallows, their relatives had gotten them in by bribing the officials. They had only a vague idea about the division of India or what Pakistan was. They were utterly ignorant of the present situation. Newspapers hardly ever gave the true picture and the asylum warders were illiterates from whose conversation they could not glean anything. All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan?

One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, “I don’t want to live in India and Pakistan. I’m going to make my home right here on this tree.”

All this hubbub affected a radio engineer with an MSc degree, a Muslim, a quiet man who took long walks by himself. One day he stripped off all his clothes, gave them to a guard and ran in the garden stark naked.

Another Muslim inmate from Chiniot, an erstwhile adherent of the Muslim League who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly gave up bathing. As his name was Mohammed Ali, he one day proclaimed that he was none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Taking a cue from him a Sikh announced that he was Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. This could have led to open violence. But before any harm could be done the two lunatics were declared dangerous and locked up in separate cells.

Among the inmates of the asylum was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that Amritsar, where the girl lived, would form part of India. He roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani. When the talks on the exchange were finalized his mad friends asked him to take heart since now he could go to India. But the young lawyer did not want to leave Lahore, for he feared for his legal practice in Amritsar.

There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?

There was a Sikh who had been admitted into the asylum fifteen years ago. Whenever he spoke it was the same mysterious gibberish: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.” The guards said that he had not slept a wink in all this time. He would not even lie down to rest. His feet were swollen with constant standing and his calves had puffed out in the middle, but in spite of this agony he never cared to lie down. He listened with rapt attention to all discussions about the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan. If someone asked his views on the subject he would reply in a grave tone: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the Government of Pakistan.” But later on he started substituting “the Government of Pakistan” with “Tobak Tek Singh,” which was his home town. Now he begun asking where Toba Tek Singh was to go. But nobody seemed to know where it was. Those who tried to explain themselves got bogged down in another enigma: Sialkot, which used to be in India, now was in Pakistan. At this rate, it seemed as if Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, would slide over to India. Perhaps the whole of India might become Pakistan. It was all so confusing! And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely disappear from the face of the earth one day?

The hair on the Sikh lunatic’s head had thinned and his beard had matted, making him look wild and ferocious. But he was a harmless creature. In fifteen years he had not even once had a row with anyone. The older employees of the asylum knew that he had been a well-to-do fellow who had owned considerable land in Toba Tek Singh. Then he had suddenly gone mad. His family had brought him to the asylum in chains and left him there. They came to meet him once a month but ever since the communal riots had begun, his relatives had stopped visiting him.

His name was Bishan Singh but everybody called him Toba Tek Singh. He did not know what day it was, what month it was and how many years he had spent in the asylum. Yet as if by instinct he knew when his relatives were going to visit, and on that day he would take a long bath, scrub his body with soap, put oil in his hair, comb it and put on clean clothes. If his relatives asked him anything he would keep silent or burst out with “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.”

When he had been brought to the asylum, he had left behind an infant daughter. She was now a comely and striking young girl of fifteen, who Bishan Singh failed to recognize. She would come to visit him, and not be able to hold back her tears.

When the India-Pakistan caboodle started Bishan Singh often asked the other inmates where Toba Tek Singh was. Nobody could tell him. Now even the visitors had stopped coming. Previously his sixth sense would tell him when the visitors were due to come. But not anymore. His inner voice seemed to have stilled. He missed his family, the gifts they used to bring and the concern with which they used to speak to him. He was sure they would have told him whether Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. He also had the feeling that they came from Toba Tek Singh, his old home.

One of the lunatics had declared himself God. One day Bishan Singh asked him where Toba Tek Singh was. As was his habit the man greeted Bishan Singh’s question with a loud laugh and then said, “It’s neither in India nor in Pakistan. In fact, it is nowhere because till now I have not taken any decision about its location.”

Bishan begged the man who called himself God to pass the necessary orders and solve the problem. But ‘God’ seemed to be very busy with other matters. At last Bishan Singh’s patience ran out and he cried out: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the mung the dal of Guruji da Khalsa and Guruji ki fateh jo boley so nihal sat sri akal.”

What he wanted to say was: “You don’t answer my prayers because you are a Muslim God. Had you been a Sikh God, you would have surely helped me out.”

A few days before the exchange was due to take place, a Muslim from Toba Tek Singh who happened to be a friend of Bishan Singh came to meet him. He had never visited him before. On seeing him, Bishan Singh tried to slink away, but the warder barred his way. “Don’t you recognize your friend Fazal Din?” he said. “He has come to meet you.” Bishan Singh looked furtively at Fazal Din, then started to mumble something. Fazal Din placed his hand on Bishan Singh’s shoulder. “I have been thinking of visiting you for a long time,” he said. “But I couldn’t get the time. Your family is well and has gone to India safely. I did what I could to help. As for your daughter, Roop Kaur” –he hesitated– “She is safe too in India.”

Bishan Singh kept quiet. Fazal Din continued: “Your family wanted me to make sure you were well. Soon you’ll be moving to India. Please give my salaam to bhai Balbir Singh and bhai Raghbir Singh and bahain Amrit Kaur. Tell Balbir that Fazal Din is well. The two brown buffaloes he left behind are well too. Both of them gave birth to calves, but, unfortunately, one of them died. Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do.”

Then he added “Here, I’ve brought some plums for you.”

Bishan Singh took the gift from Fazal Din and handed it to the guard. “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” he asked.

“Where? Why, it is where it has always been.”

“In India or Pakistan?î

“In India no, in Pakistan.”

Without saying another word, Bishan Singh walked away, muttering “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhyana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun.”

At long last the arrangements for the exchange were complete. The lists of lunatics who were to be sent over from either side were exchanged and the date fixed.

On a cold winter evening truckloads of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from the Lahore asylum were moved out to the Indian border under police escort. Senior officials went with them to ensure a smooth exchange. The two sides met at the Wagah border check-post, signed documents and the transfer got underway.

Getting the lunatics out of the trucks and handing them over to the opposite side proved to be a tough job. Some refused to get down from the trucks. Those who could be persuaded to do so began to run in all directions. Some were stark naked. As soon as they were dressed they tore off their clothes again. They swore, they sang, they fought with each other. Others wept. Female lunatics, who were also being exchanged, were even noisier. It was pure bedlam. Their teeth chattered in the bitter cold.

Most of the inmates appeared to be dead set against the entire operation. They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place. Slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ were raised, and only timely intervention prevented serious clashes.

When Bishan Singh’s turn came to give his personal details to be recorded in the register, he asked the official “Where’s Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?”

The officer laughed loudly, “In Pakistan, of course.”

Hearing that Bishan Singh turned and ran back to join his companions. The Pakistani guards caught hold of him and tried to push him across the line to India. Bishan Singh wouldn’t move. “This is Toba Tek Singh,” he announced. “Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dyhana mung the dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.”

It was explained to him over and over again that Toba Tek Singh was in India, or very soon would be, but all this persuasion had no effect.

They even tried to drag him to the other side, but it was no use. There he stood on his swollen legs as if no power on earth could dislodge him. Soon, since he was a harmless old man, the officials left him alone for the time being and proceeded with the rest of the exchange.

Just before sunrise, Bishan Singh let out a horrible scream. As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

saadat hasan manto

you can read more about the partition of india in pankaj mishra’s book review in the new yorker. it’s called “exit wounds” – the legacy of indian partition.

india’s partition in film

last night i saw “garam hawa” (scorching winds) again. this film, based on an ismat chughtai short story, was released in 1973. it depicts the aftermath of india’s partition by focusing on the emotional and physical displacement of families. balraj sahni plays the lead role. he is an actor of immense stature. he was born in rawalpindi (now pakistan) and studied english literature at government college, lahore (just like both my parents, who graduated in 1964). government college lahore is the oldest college/university in pakistan. it was established in 1864 by the british and was affiliated with calcutta university. gottlieb wilhelm leitner (professor of arabic and mohammedan law at king’s college, london) was the college’s first principal.

sahni was unusually brilliant. he was an actor of great talent, an award-winning writer, a politically engaged man who believed in equality for all. in garam hawa he portrays an everyday muslim. salim mirza is a small shoe manufacturer living in his ancestral haveli (large mansion) along with his extended family. the time is post-partition, the place agra, india. one by one his family members leave for pakistan in the face of increasing discrimination and dwindling opportunities. salim sticks to his guns and refuses to get uprooted. however, things soon start to fall apart. he is evicted from the haveli, he is unable to obtain business credit, he is accused of being a spy, he is harrassed. the final straw is the suicide of his daughter, after she is abandoned by two successive suitors who move to pakistan. sahni imbues salim with much dignity. he is upright, honest to a fault and has the patience of a saint. his calm devotion to old-world principles, when that very world is disintegrating around him, is powerful and moving.

the film, made on a tiny budget, is shot cinéma vérité style. as bollywood films go, it is way ahead of its time. shot handheld for the most part, on location in a small neighborhood in agra and starring a slew of unknown actors (except for sahni of course), the film strives to be as realistic and authentic as possible. the script by kaifi azmi anchors that effort. surprisingly enough, garam hawa became a big commercial success. rather than take sides, it illuminates the hardship and pain of people being wrenched from their past, from their lives. it works at a very intimate level and is therefore much more effective in bringing people together by talking about their humanity.

the partition of india is an important and tragic chapter in human history. in india and pakistan, it triggered an explosion of literary and artistic works that tried to capture some of its anguish and trauma. more about that in my next post.

balraj sahni

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal is this great urdu and persian poet. he was born in 1877 in punjab, pakistan. he wrote prolifically about politics, economics, history, philosophy and religion. his poetry is powerful and inspiring and earned him a knighthood. this is one of my favourite stanzas from jawab-e shikwah, the second part of the poem “shikwah” (man’s complaint to god, which expresses muslim anguish in the face of 20th century problems). “jawab-e-shikwah”, which literally means answer to complaint, is god’s directive to the muslim community to stand on its feet and set in motion a process of active self-realization.

here god addresses man in the following words:

“art thou alive? be eager, be creative,
like me encompass the whole universe,
shatter into pieces that which is conventional,
bring forth another world out of your imagination –
he who lacks the faculty of creativity
is nothing to me but an unbeliever and an agnostic”

imagery in poetry

here’s a great article on poetry, written by gary smith, that uses one of t. s. eliot’s poems as an example:

Preludes by T.S. Eliot

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This poem was written in 1917, when there was a worldwide critique and questioning of the values of contemporary western civilization. Due to many factors, especially the First World War and the economic depression, many artists, poets and philosophers felt that modern industrial civilization had lost its sense of meaning and direction. There was a general criticism of the status quo. Preludes falls within this ambit. In this poem, Eliot describes the modern city as a vacuum of meaning and uses imagery to intensify this feeling.

The first lines suggest a feeling of decline and despair. How does the imagery help to achieve this effect? Notice the use of “winter” images. Winter is usually associated with a lack of growth and a loss of vitality. The poem is suggesting that the modern city is in a state of “winter” and has lost its direction and vitality.
The poet builds on this image to suggest a further delineation of the modern state of mental societal decadence. The image of ” smell of steaks” paints a picture of a polluted and mundane environment. The fourth line emphasizes this feeling of loss of vitality coupled with urban squalor. The day, and the society, is associated with an image of a burnt-out (read loss of energy) cigarette end.

The poet carefully couples images of decadence with images that we usually associate with the modern urban milieu, like steaks and cigarettes. He places these ordinary images into a context that suggests a criticism of the modern world and lifestyle. The point is again emphasized with another image of decadence and dirt in “The grimy scraps”.

The image of ” withered leaves” again points to the winter motif and paints a clear picture of death and decline. Always remember that the poet is not only referring to leaves here; he is using this image, through association, to connect to the general idea of loss of meaning in the modern urban world.
The second stanza intensifies its attack on the modern world. The first two lines clearly express the idea that modern life is little more than a drunken hangover. The feeling of personal and social decadence is strengthened by the images in these lines:
“The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer”

The final image of the second stanza achieves a brilliant but shocking image of the essence of the poem.
“One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.”
This image presents us with a particularly clear impression of the intention of the poem. We can imagine all the people repeating the same meaningless actions. They all raise ” dingy shades” to greet the day. Note the use of the adjective to describe the shades, which again points to the sense of squalor and decadence of the modern city. More importantly, this image suggests a sense of repetitive meaninglessness. Throughout the poem the poet uses the images to bolster and construct his impression of the modern city. Once the function of these images is understood, then the meaning of the poem becomes clear.

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