Sunday, October 01, 2006

Master Madan - Hindustani Music's Child Prodigy

This post owes a direct debt to Bhupinder Singh's recent entry on his blog. It has inspired me to bring together some scattered items about Master Madan.

Since his untimely death as a teenage boy in 1942, Master Madan has had a persistent hold on the imagination of music lovers in the sub-continent. The combination of his virtuosic vocal ability, his hauntingly beautiful voice and the tragedy of such a promising career cut short by premature death have given Master Madan a unique place in the sub-continent's musical memory. The surviving recordings of his music (eight in total) provide music lovers a taste of Master Madan's artistry and give some sense for why he became a phenomenon at such a young age. Bhupinder's piece provides links to two of his best-known recordings. The poet is Sagar Nizami and the music is by Master Amarnath (elder brother of the filmi duo Husanlal-Bhagatram).

The six other pieces of Master Madan's extant work were introduced by journalist Khalid Hasan in his article in Dawn entitled "The boy with the golden voice" on December 31, 2001. This article also has a great biographical sketch detailing his family background, musical influences and the sad circumstances of his death. The six forgotten recordings were discovered by Khalid Hasan's musicologist friend M. Rafiq. An essay by Pran Neville on Master Madan was published today in India's Sunday Tribune and includes a rare photograph of Master Madan (above and on Bhupinder's post). A lot of the facts in this essay are the same as the Khalid Hasan article but there are a few new interesting details.

I have listened to all six of these recently discovered recordings on the website . Sadly, for quite some time now the links to these recordings on that website no longer work and I hope they will be fixed so we can enjoy these wonderful pieces of music on the internet. More importantly, these recordings should be published so they can get wider circulation. These six pieces include two Punjabi songs; "Ravi de parle kande ve mitra vasda hai dil da chor" and "Baghaan vich peeNgaN PaiyaN". The other four recordings are "Gori gori baiyaaN" and the three bhajans, "Mori binati maano kanha re", "Chetna hai to chet lai" and "Mana ki mana hi maan rahi". The last bhajan (which the website conjectures is in Raag Soraath) is my favorite and is a beautifully melodious piece sung with devotional intensity.

Update: On a recent search on YouTube I found two of Master Madan's ghazals that have been posted by "Rajan". The first ghazal is titled "YuN na reh reh kar HameiN" and the second is "Hairat se tak raha hai jahan-e-wafa mujhe" (title of the second video on YouTube incorrectly has the word "zamana" instead of "jahan-e-wafa"). Enjoy:

YuN na reh reh kar HameiN:

Hairat se tak raha hai jahan-e-wafa mujhe:

Update II: I discovered all known eight songs of Master Madan on this site maintained by Mr. Surjit Singh.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

On the Shortness of Life

In mid June this year I drove up with my family for a short vacation to picturesque Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada. As is my habit when I visit a new place, I started to investigate if there was a decent bookstore near where we were staying in South Lake Tahoe. After some discouraging conversations with people at the hotel, who seemed to believe Lake Tahoe was devoid of booksellers, I finally located "Neighbors Books & Music" on Lake Tahoe Boulevard.

Browsing in the store I came across a slim paperback volume of three essays by the Roman statesman Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD). The first essay in the book is titled "On the shortness of life" and as I read the first essay in the serene environment of Lake Tahoe I was mesmerized. The essay is addressed to Seneca's friend Paulinus, who the essay seems to suggest is a successful public official. Seneca's Stoic philosophy emphasizes the need for men to face the fact of their own mortality and to prepare for death, to treat time as the most precious and irreplaceable commodity and to use this limited resource for reflection and understanding not frivolous pursuits. What amazed me was the incredible relevance of this ancient essay to modern man's existence. Here are a few passages:

"Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours." (Pg. 13)
Seneca is bitingly sarcastic about those who seem to have primarily desired, strived for and attained prosperity.

"All the greatest blessings create anxiety, and Fortune is never less to be trusted than when it is fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers that have turned out well we have to make other prayers ... So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil ... New preoccupations take the place of old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it." (Pg. 28)
"You must retire to these pursuits which are quieter, safer and more important ... In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility." (Pg. 31)
Earlier today I was reminded of Seneca's essay as I was reading a poem called "Next, Please" by the British poet Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985). Larkin, too bemoans our tendency to always look to the future, waiting for our proverbial ship to come in. However, unlike Seneca's essay, Larkin's poem is not a plea for the pursuit of virtue. His poem is just an image of stark realism where the essential truth of human life is only death.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! and how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet they leave us holding wretched stalks
of disppointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Majeed Amjad - The Poet Less Remembered

Inspired by my friend Raza's literary blog Jahane-e-Rumi , I have been meaning to post something on Urdu poets and poetry. In the post-Iqbal era of Urdu poetry there are few greater poets than Majeed Amjad (this is a link to a short bio of him in Wikipedia that I wrote and I would love readers familiar with his work to add to it). Even amongst the lovers of Urdu poetry his name is least likely to be recognized. Reading Majeed Amjad's magnificent poetry I have often wondered how it is that some literary reputations get created from meager contributions but some people forever struggle to gain just acclaim.

In Majeed Amjad's case I think it was a confluence of factors: he was a quiet, reserved introvert with no inclination for self-marketing. He lived away from the literary center of Lahore in small Punjabi towns like Sahiwal and Jhang and never had many influential advocates of his literary merits. But, perhaps more importantly, Majeed Amjad was not an ideological poet affiliated with one or the other group of literary luminaries who could beat their partisan drums on his behalf (Progressive Writers Movement managed to turn everyone who knew the words 'mazdoor' or 'kisan' into literary giants).

However, on to some examples of his wonderful poetry (unfortunately I do not possess any talent for translation so my apologies to those who struggle with literary Urdu).

"Shab-e-Rafta" was the only collection of his poetry published in his lifetime. He wrote a beautiful poem ("Harf-e-Awwal") as an introduction to that collection:

DardoN ke is koh-e-garaaN se
MeiN ne tarashi, nazm kay eewaN
ki ik ik sil,
Ik ik soch ki hairaaN moorat ...

Garche qalam ki nok se tapke
Kitne tarane, kitne fasane
Lakh masaail
Dil meiN rahi sub dil ki hikayat!

Bees baras ki kaawish-e-paiham
Sochte din aur jaagti raateiN
Un ka haasil:
Aik yahi izhaar ki hasrat!

The persistent undercurrent of Majeed Amjad's poetry is a view of life that is essentially tragic (perhaps another reason why it is difficult for the young to embrace him compared to say Faiz's optimistic theme of 'we shall overcome') . Majeed Amjad feels the inexorable cruelty of time in his bones. Life's circle continues with unremitting regularity indifferent to what it leaves behind.

In the poem "KunwaN", the water wheel symbolizes the perpetual circle of time and the water carrier, symbolizing the divine, watches this passing of time and its ravages with complete detachment:

KunwaN chal raha hai! magar khet sookhe pare haiN, na fasleiN, na khirman, na dana
Na shakhon ki bahein, na phooloN ke mukhre, na kalioN ke mathe, na rut ki jawani ...

KunwaiN wala, gaadi pe leta hai, mast apni bansi ki meethi sureeli sada meiN
KahiN khet sookha para reh gaya aur na us tak kabhi aai pani ki bari
KahiN beh gayi aik hi tund rele ki fayyaz lehroN meiN kayari ki kayari ...

Aur ik naghma sarmadi kaan meiN aa raha hai, musalsal kunwaN chal raha hai
Payape magar narm rau us ki raftaar, paiham magar betakan us ki gardish
Adam se azal tak, azal se abad tak badalti nahiN aik aan us ki gardish
Na jane liye apne dolaab ki aastinoN maiN kitne jahaaN us ki gardish

RawaN hai rawaN hai
TipaN hai tipaN hai
Yeh chakkar yuhiN jaawidaN chal raha hai
KunwaN chal raha hai

I could go on but the last poem that I would like to quote in this piece is "Maqbara-e-Jahangir". I was particularly reminded of this reading the poem Raza has posted on his blog with an allusion to Shalimar. Notice the wholly different tone of Majeed Amjad's poem. His reaction to this beautifully historic sight is a deep sadness as he sees human beings (gardeners, people picknicking etc.) in this serene setting either struggling to get through the day or wholly oblivious to this fleeting existence.

Khurdre, maile, phate kaproN meiN boorhe maali
Yeh chaman band, jo guzre hue sultanoN ki
HaddiaN seench ke phulwariaN mehkate haiN
Ghaas kat ti hai ke din in ke kate jate haiN ...

Teen sau saal se mabhoot khare haiN jo yeh sarv
In ki shakheiN haiN keh afaaq ke sheeraze haiN
Saf-e-ayyam ki bikhri hui tarteebeN haiN
In ke saaye haiN keh dhalti hui tehzeebeN haiN ...

MarmareeN qabr ke ander, tahe zulmaat kahiN
Kirmak-o-Moor ke jabroN meiN salateeN ke badan
Koi dekhe, koi samjhe to is eewaN meiN jahaaN
Noor hai, husn hai, taz'een hai, zeebaish hai
Hai to bus aik dukhi rooh ki gunjaish hai

Update: (December 15th, 2009)

An extremely rare recording of Majeed Amjad reciting his own poetry. This is recorded at the residence of Mr. Mazhar Tirmazi in Farid Town, Sahiwal on November 13th, 1973.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Garrison Keillor - The Man from Lake Wobegon

I have been a fan of Garrison Keillor's radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, for several years now but I have never been able to pinpoint the show's precise charm. Somehow a wonderful broadcast is created by the combination of Keillor's soothing, pitch perfect radio voice, the melodious, pastoral folk music and the show's general atmosphere which transports the audience to a time, place and rhythm of life that the frenzied modern soul yearns for. This magical atmosphere is given concrete shape by Keillor's unendingingly fascinating, everyday vignettes of his midwestern "hometown" of Lake Wobegon; the town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above-average".

Sam Anderson wrote a wonderfully insightful piece about Garrison Keillor not so long ago that is a must read for afficionados.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Imran Khan - Ever the Lone Ranger

Interesting interview with Imran Khan in the Sunday Observer. The piece captures Imran's essential persona; fiercely independent, consistently principled and completely committed but a little self-righteous and indeed somewhat politically naive.

It has to be said that, despite his muddle-headed 'spirituality' that sometimes brings him close to despicable elements like the Jamaat-e-Islami, his ideas for Pakistan's political system are fundamentally sound. He is most insistent on an independent judiciary, election commission and accountability bureau; all institutions whose strengthening is critical for Pakistan's democratic advancement. Despite his early support for Musharraf, he is now vehemently opposed to military's role in government. In Pakistan, there is almost no disagreement in thinking circles now that as long as military remains the dominant force on the Pakistani political scene, democracy has little chance of taking root.

Imran's instincts in the arena of foreign policy are reflexively anti-western and many times flawed. Of course, there is plenty wrong with Musharraf's self-preserving genuflection to the West and a harder Pakistani line toward the west if it is in its national interest (such as free trade agreements, opposition to the roughshod execution of the 'war on terror' etc.) is entirely appropriate. However, Imran's public utterances extolling local virtues and criticisms of 'kala sahibs' seem to me a raw reflection of his personal evolution from a playboy to a politician and not any well thought out views about the virtuous life or a hard-headed understanding of foreign policy goals and objectives.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Physics - The Wait for a Breakthrough

Interesting essay in the NY Times by Dennis Overbye. The essay expresses the angst that despite many steps forward over the centuries culminating in the Standard Model (that nailed the relationship between strong, weak and electromagnetic forces), physics is stuck since the 1970's. Physicists still cannot explain some of the most basic quandaries about the universe.


In words that still haunt me, Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, once wrote, "When a child asks, What is the world, we literally have nothing to tell her."

My own daughter, Mira, just turned 4 and she is not asking me what the world is made of, quite yet. I've managed to keep ahead of her so far, if only by reading a page ahead in the dinosaur books that occupy bedtime, but the time is coming when she will be calling me and the world's physicists to account.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Islamic Reformers in the West - An interview with Tariq Ramadan

The July issue of Prospect magazine has an interesting article about Muslim reformist thinkers in the West. There is also an accompanying interview with Tariq Ramadan who is a western Islamic scholar currently at Oxford. Interestingly, he is the grandson of Hassan-al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I have long believed that Muslim majority societies are so oppressed and intellectually stifled that it is highly unlikely that Islam's reformation will begin anywhere in the heart of the Islamic world. The intellectual vitality needed to lead Muslim thought into the 21st century will come from Muslim scholars in the west; people who are trained in intellectually curious and open societies in which free inquiry is protected and one's cozy notions are challenged in a cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas. It is people like Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir (african-american imam), Tariq Ramadan, Ziauddin Sardar and Abdolkarim Soroush who are likely to lead this movement.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

Today the guest on Terry Gross's NPR radio show Fresh Air was the former US poet laureate Billy Collins. He has recently collected and published recordings of poetry read by the poets themselves. Billy Collins introduced a poem called "Those Winter Sundays" by an African-American poet named Robert Hayden. It is a beautiful poem. The poem is a son's belated acknowledgement of his father's love. It is a melancholy remembrance of his youth when he is unable to penetrate the veil of appearances to understand the nature of his own father's feelings. The burdens of the father's responsibilities grind him down every day, perhaps make him bitter and angry but the love too is real, polishing shoes and driving away the cold.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Argumentative Indians - A Conversation

I just discovered this wonderful conversation between Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie conducted on April 30th as part of the PEN New York World Voices Festival. You can listen to the entire conversation here.

Amartya Sen is an intellectual of extraordinarily polymathic abilities. A 1998 Economics Nobel Laureate, Sen has engaged with issues that demonstrate an impressive breadth outside of his professional field of specialization. His autobiographical essay on the Nobel site is worth scanning to get both a glimpse of an awe-inspiring life and to sense the presence of a kind and decent human being. His recent book "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny" is getting widely reviewed these days and this exchange of letters with Robert Kagan on Slate about the new book demonstrates Sen's serious engagement with ideas and the criticism of his work. Ultimately what makes the exchange unsatisfying is the lack of Kagan's knowledge and preparation on the subject.

I have never read any of Sen's larger works but "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity" is on my current short list.

Orhan Pamuk - Freedom to Write

On April 25th, Orhan Pamuk gave the PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Memorial Lecture at Cooper Union's Great Hall in New York. The trancript of Pamuk's lecture is reprinted in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books. Here is a excerpt I found beautiful and was pleasantly surprised to see the same extended passage quoted by Robin Varghese on 3quarksdaily.


I always have difficulty expressing my political judgments in a clear, emphatic, and strong way—I feel pretentious, as if I'm saying things that are not quite true. This is because I know I cannot reduce my thoughts about life to the music of a single voice and a single point of view --- Living as I do in a world where, in a very short time, someone who has been a victim of tyranny and oppression can suddenly become one of the oppressors, I know also that holding strong beliefs about the nature of things and people is itself a difficult enterprise. I do also believe that most of us entertain these contradictory thoughts simultaneously, in a spirit of good will and with the best of intentions --- It is because our modern minds are so slippery that freedom of expression becomes so important: we need it to understand ourselves, our shady, contradictory, inner thoughts, and the pride and shame that I mentioned earlier.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Mute's Soliloquy - Pramoedya Ananta Toer Passes Away

"Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?" Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's greatest writer died on April 30th at the age of 81. This courageous writer spent 17 years of his life in prison during Suharto's long oppressive tenure. His great Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, House of Glass) was written down years after he originally told the story of Indonesia's independence through the eyes of the Javanese woman Minke to his fellow prisoners night after night in captivity. His autobiography, "The Mute's Soliloquy" was published in English in 1999 and described the suffering in his prison on Buru island. Here's a tribute by Salil Tripathi in the New Statesman and an obit in The Guardian.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Naushad - An Icon Departs

The great music director Naushad passed away on May 5th, 2006. Naushad was arguably the finest composer in the history of Indian cinema. This is not a claim to be made lightly, for the golden era of Indian film music that started in the 40's and lasted into the 60's, produced some extraordinary talents: Master Ghulam Haider, Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash, Roshan, Khurshid Anwar, S.D. Burman, Jaidev, Madan Mohan, Salil Chowdhury. Even amongst these giants, Naushad's mastery in the use of classical forms in film music was unparalleled.

There is no better example of his wizardry than his songs for the film Baiju Bawra. Rafi's masterpiece "man tarpat hari darshan ko aaj" in Raga Malkauns is legendary. As the story goes, Naushad wanted Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to sing this song but he demanded a hefty amount. Naushad convinced the producer to pay this princely sum but when Naushad went back to the Ustad he doubled his original ask. At this point Naushad turned to Rafi and had him practice and rehearse diligently so he could sing this difficult song. The Ustad upon listening to Rafi's version of the song supposedly expressed admiration and acknowledged his surprise that someone outside the gharana tradition ("attai") could sing so well. There is also a great jugalbandhi on this soundtrack between Ustad Amir Khan singing as Tan Sen and Pandit D.V. Paluskar singing playback for the title character of Baiju.

Scanning the obituaries of Naushad in Indian newspapers was sadly disappointing. There was not one English newspaper that did any justice to the man's legacy or his charming, civilized personality which was reflective of old Lakhnavi tehzeeb. The Telegraph's obit had some personal reflections from people like Dilip Kumar but most pieces were a dry recitation of easily found facts. It would be heartening to see the day when great sub-continental artists finally get insightful evaluations of their lives and work, not the generic praise laced with platitudes.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Of Mangoes and Memories

Today's travel section in the NY Times has a story on the explosion of mango mania in Mumbai during the summer months. The story transported me to the hot summer days of my childhood and adolescence in Lahore and to the memories of feasting on the rich variety of mangoes, my mother chastising me for eating too many and chasing them down with glasses of ice cold "lassi". For Lahoris, the appearance of particular varieties of mangoes were the markers of different phases of the long, drawn out and brutally hot summer. Large, deep yellow Sindhri mangoes were the first to appear in May but the much prized varieties arrived later; Langra, Chaunsa, Saharni, Dusehri, Anwar Ratol. These distinctive names evoke stories of their provenance no longer remembered or half-forgotten places of their origin.

After coming to America in the late 80's, the new world overwhelmed the memory of mangoes along with much else. Imagine my disappointment when after spotting a mango in a supermarket in Pennsylvania and convincing myself that paying an arm and a leg was worth experiencing that little flavor of home, I tasted the insipidness of a fruit that bore no resemblance to the real thing. I gave up on mangoes in America that day but with the expected arrival of mangoes from the sub-continent, perhaps I will get to taste again a quintessential experience of my youth.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Nature vs. Nurture - Freakonomics Style

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's article, "A Star is Made" in the NY Times Sunday magazine argues based on research done by Anders Ericsson at FSU that talent is overrated as a predictor of performance. In practice expert performers in surgery, ballet, tennis or most any other activity are made not born. Much like their approach in their best-selling book Freakonomics (and the interesting related blog) they start with an anomalous fact ("most elite soccer players are born early in the calendar year") and their hypotheses about the answer leads them to understand the imporatnce of deliberate practice as the dominant factor in explaining performance differences.

Some excerpts:

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Juan Goytisolo - A Spaniard in Marrakesh

Imagine my surprise this morning when the normally uneventful stroll through the Sunday New York Times yielded this fascinating portrait of a Spanish novelist I had never heard of.

Juan Goytisolo is a character lifted off the pages of a magical realist novel. He is a Spanish expatriate novelist who has lived in the Jemaa el Fna neighborhood of Marrakesh for 25 years, has a scholarly interest in Sufi Muslim thought and Arabic and Turkish grammar and is an outspoken public intellectual who regularly writes for the Spanish newspaper El Pais. His tangled sexual identity adds more color to the portrait: he is a homeosexual who lived for 40 years with a French woman he says was her only love and today shares the quarters in his Marrakesh home with two Morrocan brothers and their three children.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the profile:

"You can't understand Cervantes or Fernando de Rojas" — the presumed author of the 15th-century comedy "La Celestina" — "without knowing they were both converted Jews, on the periphery of Spanish life. The regard from the periphery to the center is always more interesting."

Tariq Ali, --- describes Goytisolo as "the exact opposite of V. S. Naipaul. Naipaul came from Trinidad, a tiny colony, to the center of empire, and became an empire loyalist. Juan is trying to recover the vanished glory of an Andalusia which was destroyed by Catholicism. I'd say he's on the main track of history at the moment."

For Goytisolo, there are two worlds, and the gap between them is getting dangerously wide. There is the world he loves — the world of public storytellers, open-air cinemas and wandering saints, a world born out of an extreme poverty that both troubles and fascinates him. --- Then there is the developed world, in which elections are free and children no longer die of curable diseases but human relations are diminished, homogenized. "For many years, I've felt we were struggling for a world that would be impossible for us."
"Struggling for a world that would be impossible for us": what a striking phrase that expresses an essentially tragic view of life. On reading this I was reminded of the lyrics of Rabbi Shergill's song "Jugni" about the emptiness of much urban life amongst the frenzied dash for material possessions.

Jugni ja pohnchi Bambai
Jithe saunda koi nahin
Sab labhan cheez koi
Kisse kisse nu labhe
Jinnu labhe oh bechain
Matthe vat fir usdey painh

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City"

I just started to read "Maximum City", Suketu Mehta's widely praised book about Bombay. It is a promising beginning and I hope to comment on the book in a future blog. In Mehta, the city of Bombay seems to have found an acute observer and chronicler of the multi-layered charms and exasperations of this crazy metropolis. All great cities have the capacity to marvel and horrify but not all are fortunate enough to find a writing talent adequate to the task of capturing their vibrant depth.

A quote early in the book that particularly resonated:

"Each person's life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and destroys everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen." (Suketu Mehta in "Maximum City", pg.6)

More later ----

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Confirmation hearing circus

In the March 13th issue of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm has an essay on the recent confirmation hearings of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. For Supreme court watchers these hearings have become a subject of significant angst. There are suggestions that these proceedings have become such an elaborate but worthless spectacle that they should be scrapped entirely and that confirmations should directly proceed to Senate for a vote.

Janet Malcolm's essay is relatively ho-hum with a somewhat whining tone of partisan indignation. It does not manage to be particualrly illuminating; a bit of a disappointment as I expect greater insight from a practicing psychoanlayst and the writer of the wonderful collection of essays "The Purloined Clinic". However, there are flashes of thought provoking ideas:

An excerpt:
Roberts was much given to affirming his fealty to "the rule of law." He said, "Somebody asked me ... 'Are you going to be on the side of the little guy?' And you obviously want to give an immediate answer, but, as you reflect on it, if the Constitution says that the little guy should win, the little guy is going to win in court before me. But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well, then the big guy's going to win, because my obligation is to the Constitution." The cases that are the glory of the Supreme Court history are the cases where the little guy won; the cases that are its shame are those where he lost. The Constitution doesn't say who should win. Nine people do.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Edward Said remembered

Just came across the speech given by Professor Akeel Bilgrami (Professor of Philosophy at Columbia) at Edward Said's memorial service on September 29th, 2003. It is a nice tribute to one of the great intellects of our time. Said was a public intellectual in the European sense, of which there is no real American equivalent; a publicly celebrated figure in the mold of a Berlin, Foucault or Derrida. If it was not for his courageous and consistent demand for justice for the Palestinians, he would almost certainly have received the acclaim he so richly deserved in his adopted country.

Some excerpts from Bilgrami's memorial speech:

There are a very few intellectuals --–Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, and Noam Chomsky come to mind in the English-speaking world--- whose writings and whose lives provide a kind of pole that thousands of people look toward so as to feel that they are not wholly lost or marginal for possessing instincts for justice and humanity, and for thinking that some small steps might be taken towards their achievement. Edward Said was, without a doubt, such a man. The daze and despair so many of us here at Columbia feel, now that we have taken in that he has gone, is only a very local sign of what is a global loss without measure. And to think of what it must be like for his own brutalized people to lose him, is unbearable.

Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures. The connections he made in even our most canonical
works, between the narrations of novels and the tellings of national histories,between the assertions of an author and the assertion of power by states, between the unconscious attitudes of a seemingly high-minded writer and some subtle illiberal tendency of social or national prejudice, drew to the study of literature numberless students who, out of a quest for worldly engagement, or more simply out of a cosmopolitan curiosity, demanded just such an integrity of words with morals.

S. Asad Raza's tribute to Said on the second anniversary of his death is a touching and more personal portrait. Here Said is the beloved and brilliant teacher with great power to inspire but also to induce dread. This is the portrait of the teacher as a heroic figure that I have always found so deeply attractive. From Mr. Chips to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to members of my own family this noble role has had a persistent hold on my imagination.

Some excerpts:

In 2003, as a graduate student in English at NYU, I rode the subway up to Columbia each week for a seminar with Said, which turned out to be the last one he taught. Wan and bearded, Said would walk in late with a bottle of San Pellegrino in hand and proceed to hold forth, off the cuff, about an oceanic array of subjects relating to the European novel (Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Sentimental Education, Great Expectations, Lord Jim, etc.), alternately edifying and terrifying his audience. He had an exasperation about him that demanded one to know more, to speak more clearly, to learn more deeply in order to please him. Some found the constant harangues too traumatic for their delicate sensibilities; I loved to have found a teacher who simply did not accept less than excellence. It was a supremely motivating, frightening, vitalizing experience. In a class on Robinson Crusoe, a fellow student became confused about the various strands of eighteenth-century non-conformist Protestantism, prompting Said to irritatedly draw a complex chart of the relations between Dissenters, Puritans, Anglicans, etc. Similar demonstrations of the sheer reserves of his knowledge occurred on the subjects of the revolutions of 1848, the history of Spanish, and the tortuous philosophical subtleties of Georg Lukacs' Theory of the Novel, among other things. Said had a whole theory of the place of nephews in literature (not the real son, but the true inheritant), and he made himself his students' challenging, agresssive, truth-telling, loving uncle.

One day, Said yelled at me publicly for misprounoucing my own name. I had Americanized its proununciation for the benefit of a visiting professor, John Richetti, who I was questioning. "Your name is Us-udth!" Said cried, "It means lion in Arabic! Never mispronounce it for their benefit!" (Richetti was an old friend of Said's and found being characterized as one of "them" highly amusing; I ran into him a year ago and we laughed about it.) Afterwards, Said walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. "Sorry about that. We can't change ourselves for anyone. Opposition," he intoned, quoting Blake, "is true friendship." That encounter marked a turn for me. I began to visit Said in his office, waiting while he took phone calls from friends like Joan Didion, and telling him about my work. He had the special ability to make one feel that one could achieve anything - maybe it helped that he set the bar so high himself. Despite his heavy criticism of my use of certain theoretical vocabularies he had moved past ("the merest decoration," he called them), the last word of his handwritten comments on my paper inspired me and continues to inspire me: "Bravo." As a favorite aphorism of his from Gramsci goes, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Yet, during this period, he would intimate to me that things were not optimistic with his health at all. One day he declined my request that he read a chapter I had written, saying only, "I don't have time. You know, Asad, I'm not well." The unsentimental, factual tone of resignation told me everything I didn't want to know.

In his last decade, as the situation in Palestine and Israel worsened and beloved friends such as Eqbal Ahmed and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod died, I know Edward felt more alone in the world. With his passing, though we try to forget it, the world has equally became an emptier, lonelier place. Without the superbly contradictory, fearfully charismatic, bravely heartfelt Edward Said, it is also a far less cosmopolitan place.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The quest for Justice

"Beneath the rage in the Mideast" in Sunday's New York Times is a great piece of insightful journalism. Michael Slackman gets to the heart of the problem when he cites the lack of justice, accountability and even rudimentary control over their lives as the primary reason that has the Muslim world ablaze. These conditions are in great measure responsible for the sustained rise of Islamists.

Western governments, due to a complex web of geopolitical and economic reasons, are simply unable and unwilling to do the right thing consistently. When they step in selectively for reasons that often seem dictated by their own immediate interests, they fail to win over anybody. In addition, thugocracies in the Muslim world channel the internal anger at the 'infidels' amplifying grievances real and imagined. That many of these unpopular, incompetent and oppressive regimes have leaders who are ostensibly "moderates" and allies in the western eyes only serves to discredit the very ideas that the West needs to promote (rule of law, tolerance etc.). Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak, the kingdoms of the middle east are the worst possible emissaries of western values when they themselves have cynically held on to power by hook or crook and have delivered nothing to their populations by way of institutions.

For the West to eventually win, what is simple-mindedly called, the "war on terror", its not just the promotion of freedom and democracy that is important; the West has to be seen as a friend of common Muslims not their corrupt dictators.

Excerpts from Michael Slackman's article:

"It has reached to the point where Egyptians do not feel entitled to anything, and all they want is justice," said Ibrahim Aslan, a leading Egyptian writer. "Across history, in literature, Egyptian peasants asked for justice, not for freedom or democracy. Just justice. Social justice."

Islamists promise not just piety, but an end to corruption and misrule. That challenge helps explain the eagerness of established governments to pursuethe conflict over the Danish cartoons — to increase their own credibility on religious issues and resist the Islamists' rising popularity.

The sinking of the ferry is a case study of this dynamic. More than 1,000 people drowned. By Friday, more than 600 bodies had not been recovered. At least 1,000 people continued to stand vigil on the streets outside a hospital along the Red Sea. It had taken more than seven hours to launch a rescue operation. Worried relatives had been greeted at the banks of the Red Sea by riot police who beat them back. For days, people sat on the street, under the sun, waiting for any information. And the state-run media tried to turn the whole matter into a public relations victory for President Hosni Mubarak."

Ayaz Amir in Dawn under the heading "Denmark: Wrong Target" makes a similar argument. The first half of his column reflects a confused view on the issues of free speech but the second half makes some pertinent points about the wretchedness of the status quo in the Islamic world and why the U.S. ultimately cannot afford to be serious about its "freedom and democracy" rhetoric. It costs too much in the short and medium term.


"Why is there such a gulf between rulers and ruled in the Muslim world? Because both exist on different planes, rulers for the most part acting as US stooges, the masses yearning for some form of redemption. No wonder, when given the chance, the masses strike a blow against the status quo, voting for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or for Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories.

Nothing is more fragile or more rotten in the world of Islam than the status quo. The Americans should never press their luck with democracy in the Muslim world because if democracy arrives — something on which I am not betting — American influence will go out of the door. The necessary condition for American hegemony over Muslim oil is Muslim autocracy. One serves the other."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Reactions to the cartoons - continued

Michael Kinsley in his "The Ayatollah Joke Book" basically gets it right in today's Slate. Again, as a born Muslim I find the cartoons offensive, gratuitously provocative and motivated by far less noble intentions than the defense of free speech (instigating racial hatred among its base intentions). But the principle of free expression in the West needs to be defended clearly and forcefully. The grotesque idea of cartoons of Hitler and Ann Frank in bed together (which I have not seen) shows the intellectual and emotional immaturity of the reaction but also goes to show that the West ultimately does tolerate free expression. Despite the deeply offensive nature of both the Hitler cartoon and an Iranian newpaper's shameful contest to prolong this tawdry episode, I don't see many Jews burning Iranian embassies and baying for Muslim blood.

Some excerpts:

"Meanwhile, whatever point these European Muslims were making with their cartoon of Hitler and Anne Frank is more or less disproved by their very exercise. No one tried to stop them from putting the cartoon on the Web. The notion that jokes about Anne Frank are beyond the pale is provably false. "

"Of course it is not Western values that are trampling freedom of expression: It is the ayatollah's own values, combined with the threat of violence. The other problem with his little joke about double standards, and with the whole supposedly mordant comparison between denying the Holocaust and portraying the prophet, is that the offended Muslims do not want a world where people are free to do both. They don't even want a world where people are not free to do either, which would at least be consistent. They want a world where you may not portray the Prophet Mohammed (even flatteringly, slaying infidels or whatnot) but you may deny the Holocaust all day long."
Also, here's a reasoned view (from behind a subscription firewall) from the other side. I don't wholly agree with Mr. Sethi because the self-censorship examples he provides are not a justification for curbing speech. They should be fought against even in the West. However, he is right that Muslims have become an easy target since 9/11 and the most acceptable overt prejudice in the West today is against Muslims. Ridiculous statements that people like Franklin Graham and General Boykin have made in the U.S. such as calling Islam a wicked religion would bring massive official denunciations (and sackings) if made against the Jewish people. Najam Sethi in the Friday Times in his editorial "Dangerous divides" writes:

"What, we might ask, is the status of the notion of “freedom of expression” when Western journalists are blithely “embedded” with invading imperial armies and truth is the biggest casualty? What about “freedom of expression” when self-censorship is applied to enshrine new notions of “political correctness”, as for example in not describing blacks as “niggers”, or Jews as “Shylocks”? What about “freedom of expression” when the law of defamation is slapped on publications which unfairly taint someone’s reputation? What about “freedom of expression” when entrenched notions of “The Holocaust” are challenged and challengers are accused of anti-Semitism, as would doubtless happen if a rabbi had been shown in the cartooninstead of Prophet Mohammad? How can they say that their “freedom of expression” is curtailed if they are asked to desist from demonizing the Prophet of Islam when it is not curtailed by the defamation of a lay Westerner? Since when and under what law has “freedom of expression” become an absolute and sacred right regardless of responsibility, truth and the fundamental rights of other peoples? Nor do we need to reproduce the offending cartoons to determine whether it is right to print them or not under the guise of “freedom of expression”, as some newspapers have argued, when we can describe the nature of the offence (as we have done here) perfectly adequately in words and leave it at that."

"If all this is clear enough, what is the “freedom of expression” fig leaf all about? The answer must lie in what is meant to be conveyed by the cartoons. In brief, the cartoons depict the Prophet of Islam as a “terrorist” (his turban is shaped like a missile), like Osama bin Laden, meaning thereby that the 1.5 billion followers of Prophet Mohammad are also terrorists against whose “religious civilization” an unremitting war must be waged by a “secular civilization”. "

"Equally, it must be admitted that the violent reaction of the Muslims all over the world has been unfortunate. It is one thing to protest the word and quite another to burn down embassies and threaten to kill people. Once again the image on television screens feeds into the stereotype of modern day Islamic terrorism and plays into the hands of its agents-provacateur."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lahore - City of Sin and Splendor

S. Asad Raza's essay on Lahore in posted on their site on Monday, February 6th:

Dispatches: Lahore

Lahore is perhaps the most underappreciated city in the world. The widespread ignorance of the charms of such a beautiful, complicated, and historically important city is sad, though unsurprising, given Western conceptions of the Muslim world - India has droves of tourists, while Pakistan has virtually none. Most of its natives, and most Pakistanis generally, rightly regard it as their country's most cultured metropolis, but even this acclaim does not go far enough. Lahore is the conservatory of a lost world whose traces have been largely erased from more touristic destinations, like Delhi and Agra - I will come to the reasons for this below. The world in general has few cities that interweave so seamlessly a great vitality today (the city is about the twenty-fifth largest on the globe) with an unbroken and luxurious history (spanning the last two millennia). Only in Lahore do you find the sepulcher of the legendary Anarkali, the star-crossed dancing girl buried alive for her love of the young prince Selim (the film Mughal-e-Azam is a version), inside the dusty Archives of the Punjab Secretariat, which was a mosque that the British whitewashed, and is now decorated with portraits of British colonial governors. Layers and layers: it's that kind of place.

Beyond its Mughal grandeur, landscaped gardens, and Sufi shrines, beyond its dense bazaars, colonial museums and Parisian boulevards, beyond its kebabs, nihari (shank stew) and sarson ka saag with makai ke roti (mustard greens with cornbread roti), beyond the G.T. road, the insane rickshaw driving and Kipling's cannon Zamzama, there is a part of Lahore that I believe is one of the most culturally important districts in Asia: the Walled City. To cross the threshold of any of the gates of its unbreached walls is to cross into a truly unique zone. There is simply no other city anywhere that has preserved the mixture of influences that produced the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries' great cultural flowering in this part of the world. In Fatepur Sikri (near Agra), you can see an abandoned capital that records the intermingling of Muslim, Hindu, mystical, secular, imperial and local influences that were synthesized during the reign of Akbar, the greatest Mughal. In Lahore, you can see what that intermingling actually looked like, rather than merely its reflection in elevated architecture. Traverse the walled city from one gate to another, get lost, and find your way back out. It's an experience of incredible density and richness.

There are also moments of great solitude to be found amidst the clamor. Wazir Khan's Masjid might be the most beautiful mosque in the world (Wazir Khan was a friend and trusted ally of the emperor Shah Jahan, and shared his love of building - the hamaam, or baths, he built on the palace grounds are also worth a look). To find it isn't so easy: you must notice an unmarked little stone gateway off to the side of a cacophonous street full of utensil bazaars and giant steaming woks of milk for tea. To enter the mosque of Wazir Khan after that fray is to enter a heterotopia, an "other space" as moving as there is. The noise dies away and a thousand pigeons flocking from side to side of the courtyard animate some sixteenth-century spirit. It's a haunted, benevolent place. Then back out towards children clinging five to a Vespa, their dads weaving desperately between knife sellers and kebab wallahs, dodging donkeys and low-hanging arches.

Another religio-cultural influence that Lahore possesses in greater quantities than any other city is that of Sufism. The mystical sect of Islam is commemorated with hundreds, maybe thousands, of shrines to Sufi saints, many of which are difficult to find. One nestles just outside the colonial-era King Edward Medical College, which resembles a sort of hot-weather Hogwarts. These shrines, in any case, are fascinating to see if one's experience of Muslim culture is limited. They are a proof of the mutiplicities of Islam and a rebuke to the repulsiveness of any orthodoxy that wishes to curb their crazily blissful peacefulness. The Sufi, of course, are also responsible for qawwalimusic, and Lahore is full of qawwali performances. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the famous Pakistani vocalist, was a Punjabi, and at the shrines you imbibe something of the flavor of the intoxicating gentleness that defined him.

The capital of Punjab, Lahore was strategically important for many of India's rulers, becoming under the Mughals an imperial city and gateway to Afghanistan and the frontier. The most lasting mark of Mughal rule is the imposing Badshai Masjid, an enormous mosque built by Auranzeb (the son and imprisoner of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal) with an adjoining fort and extensive gardens. There is also a Sikh temple sitting next door - the sight of Sikhs openly coming to and from a place of worship inside Pakistan is a heartening one. You can eat the aforementioned Punjabi mustard greens and cornbread roti from little shacks right outside the Shahi Qila's walls. And I highly recommend that you do. Here you'll also find Coocoo's, a famous old restaurant decorated with portraits of the women who ply these streets at night. It never seems to be serving food, but eating in Lahore is a humbler thing anyway. The nihari shops at the walled city gates are worth braving (disregard cowardly gastroenterologists): shank meat buried in embers, simmered overnight and topped with fresh ginger, chilies, coriander and lime juice is about as good as eating can get. The chicken karhais of Lahore, cooked to order with pieces of stringy, tasty chicken and served with the best naan, are also, for me, a pinnacle of gastronomy, expressing Punjabi zest directly and eloquently. These are, after all, the people who invented bhangra.

Funnily enough, the reason for the unique preservation of Lahore's walled city is largely luck. Certainly equivalent districts existed in other cultural capitals of North India, most notably in Delhi and Lucknow, the two centers of the high culture of Urdu poetry. Sadly, both cities' inner districts were razed completely in 1857, as payback for the Revolt against British rule. Lahore remained untouched. What the British did by burning down those cities but leaving the great Mughal structures was something roughly like destroying London except for the Tower and St. Paul's: the trademark "high" points of the city survived but none of the textures of its lived reality, the influences that suffuse a city's culture, its streets. In Lahore, by contrast, you can see what tourists can only imagine at the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal: the dense, complex, and still vital operations of an inner city bursting with markets, shrines, mosques, food, dancing girls, riotous children. That's what makes Lahore different: its history is sometimes worn on its sleeve and sometimes hidden within, but never is it advertised or reified. It's lived.

Having grown up in Lahore, Asad Raza's beautiful evocation of that wonderful city is enchanting. My gratitude to him for enabling a walk down memory lane and giving this unique city another articulate voice.

On my visit to Lahore last year, I visited Masjid Wazir Khan inside Delhi darwaza and can't improve on his description of its peaceful beauty. Also visited the Faqirkhana museum inside Bhati darwaza. It is a shame how infrequently I visited the walled city while growing up in Lahore even though my Phuphi lived inside Lohari darwaza. Whenever we went to see her, my father would park our red Volkswagen near Naimat Kada and we would walk into the androon shehr. I still remember a feeling of entering another world of people who looked different and seemed more frantic, houses and shops that looked like they had been built for Lilliputians.

I find it heartening that Lahore is being rediscovered by its many natives who live there or have left for foreign shores and more is being written about the city in and outside Pakistan. Yasmeen Lari's Heritage Guide on Lahore is a treasure (with maps drawn by the author) and she deserves rich tribute for exploring the "layers upon layers" of Lahore so systematically. Bapsi Sidhwa has just edited an anthology of writings on Lahore called Beloved City (to be published outside Pakistan as the "City of Sin and Splendor"). Pran Neville's memoir of pre-partition Lahore is also a valuable read about aspects of the city that have vanished (including his recollection of a performance by K.L Sehgal). There are some interesting new works in Urdu as well including a well researched book on Lahore's historic cemetery Miani Sahib and the leading lights of the city who are buried there. I think the book is called "Lahore ke Mashaheer". Another interesting book is Chishti's book on "Lahore ki Zaaten aur un ki Rasoomaat". Perhaps, on another occassion I will put on this blog a list of books on Lahore I have been able to discover over the last couple of years.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Muslim reaction to Danish cartoons - Rage against impotence

The Muslim reaction to the provocative cartoons published in Denmark has reached absurd levels. From this reaction one would think that the biggest problem in the world plaguing Muslims is a few ill-conceived cartoons published in an insignificant newspaper in an insignificant backwater of Europe. The New York Times today has a somewhat nuanced story about what is increasingly sounding like a dialogue of the deaf.

As a secular humanist and a cultural Muslim this has been a sad and dispiriting episode. Beyond the merits and deficiencies of the arguments on the various sides, to me, this widespread Muslim reaction is a rage of the impotent, powerless and humiliated.

This is a muddle-headed response of a civilization whose glory days are in the distant past but whose children are still raised with the conviction of the superiority of their belief system. For all the verbal emphasis on the greater importance of the after-life, the adherents ultimately also desire the benevolence of God in the here and now. However, in its bones the Muslim world knows that in every possible way Western societies have won the worldly battle. The West has delivered freedom and prosperity for its citizens. In contrast, a vast majority of Muslims continue to live in oppressive and desperate conditions. This cognitive dissonance mixed with the historic memory of the real and perceived injustices meted out to them by an assertive, confident and expanding western civilization since the 18th century are key contributors to the current state of Muslim impetuousness.

Obviously it is true that the billion plus Muslims are not a monolithic whole and there are vast differences amongst them but for all the talk about marginalized Muslim moderates, ultimately what we have here is a clash of civilizations. I believe that a majority of Muslims in the world (including in the West) are in varying degrees hostile to the West's values on moral and political grounds and this clash will continue to dominate the headlines for years and decades to come. The reaction to the cartoons just demonstrates that the cognitive dissonance in the Muslim mind is leading it toward destructive nihilism. There will be lot more rage and violence before the beginnings of a new order.

But what is to be done? The Economist is spot on in its editorial this week called "The one thing Bush got right" . Ultimately constitutional democracy is the only path which slowly, tortuously and by fits and starts will eventually chart the path toward a more stable Muslim world. My problem with the administration is that their approach has been neither consistent nor nearly energetic enough. Pakistan and Egypt are the glaring examples where the US is making a mistake by siding with unpopular but friendly strongmen, weakening the countries' political structure. This is bound to backfire. Behind the reluctance to spread the democratic message has been the concern about Islamists taking over but unless these societies are given an opportunity to grow up the current dynamic will continue to prevail. Muslim societies need to take responsibility for governing themselves and have a right to make their own mistakes so they can evolve more mature polities (even if it entails some short and medium term costs for the West) . In this context I do not necessarily despair about the election of Hamas. Given sufficient time and freedom to make their own choices but being held accountable for them (as David Brooks would say), the Muslim world will eventually find its footing. The spread of constitutional democracy in the Muslim world is the only long term antidote to its current virulence.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pankaj Mishra and self-reflection in a rising India

I always eagerly await Pankaj Mishra's essays in the New York Review of Books. His writing is crisp, his style and substance unerringly fair-minded and his worldview broad and mature even as it is firmly rooted in India. His three part article on Kashmir (first, second, third) back in the fall of 2000 is a superb work of clear-headed but empathetic journalism and helped me understand more about that heartbreaking conflict and its human costs than the millions of words that have been spilt by the media outlets in India, Pakistan and abroad. I have not yet had a chance to read any of his books (An End to Suffering; The Romantics; Butter Chicken in Ludhiana) but if they reflect anything like his sensibility as a reviewer they will not be a disappointment.

In contrast to the writings of Mishra, reading Indian newspapers is a deeply disappointing experience if, like me, you believe that India's emergence as a mature economic power will be a boon for South Asia. As seen through the prism of India's newpapers, any early signs of mature and thoughtful self-reflection within India's elite is sadly absent. There is a fairly vibrant civil society in India and one would expect to see more Indian intellectuals who can hold the mirror to society, question revered historic shibboleths and try to understand the future of India as a nation. Indian intellectuals abroad are increasingly doing this. Ashis Nandy, Gyanendra Pandey and Ashutosh Varshney have done good work on partition and its human and psychological impact. Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are also engaged in a serious conversation about India's future but thinking coming out of India is still largely triumphalist rhetoric. My hope is that this will change over the next few years as India becomes more comfortable with its new status as a world power. If that turns out to be untrue and India follows a more virulently nationalistic path, the world in general and South Asia in particular will be the loser.

Memories of old Bollywood

Khalid Hasan in the Friday Times remembers Nargis, the great Indian actress of the 40's and 50's (full article behind Friday Times' subscription firewall). Khalid Hasan's reminiscenses about film, music, poetry and South Asian personalities and institutions are unfailingly interesting. In a culture where the genre of memoir is so impoverished, his articles are a worthy effort at preserving the memory of many bhoole bisre log.

Some excerpts:

Sunil Dutt buried her, as she had willed, next to her mother Jaddan Bai in Bombay. Her grave bears the name she was given at birth: Kaniz Fatima. Her great friend in Bombay, Qurratulain Hyder, wrote to me after Nargis died: “Yes, Nargis has left us all immeasurably sad. She was a part of the time of our growing up, a time that is itself now mythological. Her old movies, when one watches them on television now, look quite amateurish, but how romantic they seemed then! She moved ahead in life with tremendous grace and dignity. And when she died, she died as a major national figure. She was a fascinating woman who had no hang-ups about her mother’s origins. In fact, the last time she met me, I recall her telling me that her mother was such an independent woman that once when the Nawab of Rampur, who was celebrating his birthday, asked her to dance on a takht-e-rawaan , a platform that moves with a ceremonial procession, she refused. She was a great admirer of her mother and it was her desire that she should lie next to her and among those who stood silently praying as she was being lowered to earth was Sunil Dutt.”

Sunil Dutt, who came from Jhelum, died last year.

Saadat Hasan Manto, recalling his meeting with Nargis in 1946, writes: “There was something very playful and innocent about her. She would blow her nose every few minutes as if she suffered from a permanent cold. This was captured in Barsaat as one of her endearing traits.” He also writes about the two younger sisters of his wife Safia, who while on a visit to Bombay, befriended Nargis. One of the sisters is Zakia, the late Hamid Jalal’s wife and Shahid and Ayesha Jalal’s mother. I asked Zakia Jalal some years ago what she remembered of Nargis. This is what she wrote back: “You have asked me about our meetings with Nargis. I can only tell you that when we saw her first picture Taqdeer, my sister Rafia and I just fell in love with her. The public reaction was that she would not make it to the top because of her looks. People said that she had a long face. Anyway, we sisters were dying to talk to her. We dared not ask Bhai Saadat to get her telephone number for us. We asked Agha Khalish Kaashmiri for it and he got it for us. We called her and we just clicked. We told her that it was difficult for us to visit her, so it would be nice if she could come. She agreed and the very next day, she came to Safia Apa’s house with her mother Jaddan Bai. There was nothing more exciting for us, but that very day, Bhai Saadat decided to come home early. We were terrified but he was very nice to Jaddan Bai and they got along very well.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Of pit bulls and profiling

Malcolm Gladwell has the seeds of a new "Tipping Point" and "Blink" like book in his latest New Yorker article. The piece explains how individuals and organizations rely on generalizations to make decisions and how this process is necessary but fraught with difficulties. Picking the right categories for generalizations is critical to the success of the outcome.

Some excerpts:

"A doctor could, with some statistical support, generalize about men of a certain age and weight. But what if generalizing from other traits—such as high blood pressure, family history, and smoking—saved more lives? Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fences—or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?"

"Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”"

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Southall - A taste of South Asia

Interesting little piece in yesterday's New York Times travel section on the London desi neighborhood of Southall (NY Times requires registration for web access).

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The marvel that is the web

When a couple of years ago, John Doerr (a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins) said that the web is underhyped I chalked it up to standard silicon valley hyperbole. However, the ever evolving ways in which the internet continues to transform how we consume information and entertainment and conduct business compels me to admit that he was right.

Just recently, I have discovered two wonderful sites that present and filter information from some of the best periodicals in the world. 3quarksdaily and the Chronicle of Higher Education's Arts & Letters Daily are a dream come true for anyone trying to find the best writings on Science, Literature, Philosophy, Art and any other topic that would pique a thinking person's interest. Some of 3quarksdaily's editors are of Pakistani origin which, rather quaintly, induce in me some feelings of pride. Good work Raza family and your fellow editors and contributors!!

One other precious resource that I have enjoyed immensely is SAWF's classical music site. Rajan Parrikar's scholarly articles on the various ragas are superb (even if like me you can only understand them in bits and pieces). The explanations come alive with all the light, semi-classical and classical music clips that provide examples of performances in those ragas. There are many rare gems of music in his archive. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan's sublime thumri in Jhinjhoti ("piya bin naahin aawat chain") is a personal favorite. Before discovering this treasure trove of music I had never had the opportunity to listen to many of the masters of the Hindustani classical tradition: Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, Bundu Khan, Amir Khan, Salamat Ali Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Mallikarjun Mansur, Roshan Ara Begum, Zohrabai Agrawali, Vilayat Khan, Bismillah Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan etc.

I will return to talk about my favorite writing on Hindustani classical music at some point: Lutfullah Khan's "Sur ki talash", Daud Rahbar's "Kuch batein sureeli see" and Sheila Dhar's "Here's someone I would like you to meet".

Saturday, January 21, 2006

International Cinema

Chatting with a friend at work over lunch recently, we somehow ended up on the subject of films. Despite my fondness for good cinema, the conversation with Ranjan reminded me of how few of the films by the iconic filmmakers of international cinema have I actually seen. I have not watched any of the movies by Goddard, Bergman, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Fellini or Malle and only one or two by Truffaut (400 Blows), Hitchcock (Rear Window), Welles (Citizen Kane) , Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali) and Kubrick (Clockwork Orange).

I am hoping to take more time this year to watch some of the greatest films by the masters. The next few films on my list are The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica), North by Northwest (Hitchcock), A Bout de Souffle (Godard) and Kurosawa's Rashomon. I hope to be back with my thoughts on these films at some point.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Roberts era begins

In Gonzalez vs. Oregon today, the Supreme Court upheld the Oregon physician assisted suicide law in a 6-3 decision with Roberts, Scalia and Thomas dissenting.

There were a few interesting features of today's decision that begin to sketch the contours of the court's Roberts era. If Alito was already on the bench the vote count would have been 5-4 making Kennedy the central swing vote in this decision. Dahlia Lithwick in Slate paints a convincing picture of Kennedy's critical position at the center of this court.

Despite Roberts' vote in this case (joining Scalia's dissent) his views on federalism remain unknown. Is he likely to follow Rehnquist's lead by more often seeming to set limits on congressional authority or will his commitment to federalism principles be more selective like Scalia? Ann Althouse makes some interesting points about the case on her blog.
"It's quite interesting that the majority is made up of everyone who voted in favor of congressional power in the medicial marijuana case, plus O'Connor and minus Scalia. That means only O'Connor took the strong federalism position in both cases. And only Scalia sided with the government in both cases"

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Why this blog?

I intend this blog to be a collecting point for my musings. Reading, listening to a piece of music or engaging in an all too rare stimulating conversation have often sparked these reveries in the past. I hope that this blog will be the catalyst for a more disciplined approach of capturing these thoughts for myself.

At a PARC forum event in Palo Alto that I attended last week, Dr. Marty Tenenbaum informed the audience that an astounding 12 million blogs already existed in the blogosphere by the summer of 2005 (when he stopped counting). Despite my late arrival to this already crowded party, the jotting down of these first few words still feels like the start of something personally significant.