July 17, 2018

Of Honour and Hope: Sanam Maher's The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is riveting stuff

More than a year after she made her last video or uploaded her last photograph, we are not done talking about what Qandeel did.

I’m so, so glad Sanam Maher wrote this book, because someone needed to. Pakistan is, let’s face it, a country bursting with issues that we don’t talk enough about. We’ve got more problems than we can count, and on top of that, we’ve got those who will choose to ignore our problems in favour of pointing at other countries and screaming ‘but they’re so oppressive/racist/RAPE CAPITAL!’ because apparently if we’re bad, all that matters is that we not be the worst.

But I digress. I’m glad someone wrote this book because the only places where we discuss the horrors of being a woman in Pakistan are the bland, overused stock phrases of newspaper articles. I’m glad because a smart, insightful look at the Pakistani social media scene in the form of a full length book is a very rare thing. I’m happy because the writing was controlled and the narrative structure well-formed. It was organized and not boring at all and it talked about all the right things without veering off into melodrama or too many facts one after the other. And mostly, I’m ecstatic that there were whole chapters dedicated to people like Arshad Khan (the Chaiwalla, for those who never bothered to learn his real name) or Nighat Dad, cool woman personified.

I thought the whole book would be about Qandeel herself. That’s what everyone who has seen the TV show about her life says, as an excuse to not read this text. But it isn’t, not really. Maher’s focus is not just on the linear life path that Qandeel followed but also all those who are affected by her, who interacted with her, orbited in her circuit. It’s about people who looked up to Qandeel as a role model or those who lost their credibility by affiliating with her. The focus of the story constantly circles wider, talking about people who, like her, shot to fame on social media, or like her, knew what cyberharrassment felt like. The woman who was in charge of the investigation after Qandeel’s death, the man who trained Qandeel in self defense, the parents who registered an FIR against their son, the woman who worked as a model and wanted to follow in Qandeel’s footsteps, the man who introduced Qandeel to the modelling business. They all feature in detail, talking about their own selves and most of all of how stark a presense Qandeel was in their lives.

Overall, though, it feels sort of pointless to talk about the content of the book itself, because doesn’t everyone already know about Qandeel? We’ve, after all, seen most or at least some of her interviews or YouTube videos. We all remember Mufti Abdul Qavi and the offer to Shahid Afridi and the appeal to Imran Khan. Most of us also remember when Qandeel’s real name was revealed across all the channels and the absolute madness that erupted every time her name was mentioned after that. But the way Sanam Maher has tackled her source material is extraordinary. I don’t claim to have read a lot of nonfiction, and memoirs or biographies have never managed to retain my interest, but Maher isn’t interested in just Qandeel’s life. We talk not only about Qandeel but about the society in which she lived and how it in turn was obsessed with and horrified by her. And by horrified I mean enough to have been happy when she was murdered. And enough to threaten Saba Qamar, the actress who willingly chose to portray Qandeel in a TV serial based on QB’s life.

Qamar reportedly received death threats for taking on the project and when the Express Tribune ran a trailer for the new series on its Facebook page, the post was flooded with hateful comments. ‘Like Qandel’s murder, Saba Qamar should also be murdered in the same way,” one male commentator wrote while another called Qandeel and Qamar ‘strippers and prostitutes’.

Maher’s work is also unflinching in its depiction of the media that some argue are what contributed to her death. If not the actual murderers, than accomplices for certain. It wasn’t, seemingly, the shame of what Qandeel had done, but how widespread that fame became, that led to her brother killing her. Our media isn’t exactly a responsible and conscientious medium on its best days. The slightest hint of a controversy is enough to send them into a mad frenzy. Once Qandeel’s real name was revealed, pictures of her passport appeared on almost every channel.

If Daily Pakistan is responsible for what happened to Qandeel, then so it every other newspaper and TV channel that ran a story on Qandeel’s real name and where she was from.

Other equally horrible stuff crops up elsewhere as well. The honour killing laws and their treatment, and the fact that they haven’t actually managed to make any substantial changes in the number of deaths.  Cybercrimes and how Nighat Dad is spending her days dealing with the utter craziness that is Pakistan’s web. Social Media, and how fame from these sources can be dangerous and toxic. The modelling industry, and how it crosses over into blatant prostitution. The villages where women are killed for any number of ridiculous reasons. Patriarchy and how it dictates the life of the majority of Pakistan’s population.

"We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing."

I think the only thing that makes me sad about the existence of this book is that the people who should be reading it are probably not going to. I know loads of people who picked the book up and looked horrified at the (very cool) illustration of Qandeel’s face. And these are the very people at whom I wanted to shove the book to force them to read it. I feel like there’s a very tiny crowd, the ones who defended Qandeel in the first place, who’ll read this book and actually learn from it. The rest of Pakistan, misogynistic and patriarchal, will continue living in ignorance. And that is the saddest thing about this whole endeavour.

Today, two years after her death, the conversations still continue in the same veins, with the same groups saying the same thing. To us, she’s either a fighter, taking on patriarchy and misogyny front and centre, a woman who escaped the clutches of a horrible marriage and made a life for herself, or she is a wanton woman, an insult to our culture and a threat to our religion. Even with all the adoration and the vitriol poured on her in tandem, she still fascinated, with scores of Pakistani audiences unable to look away from the sort of drama the name Qandeel Baloch could stir. These two teams represent not just those whether we were with or against Qandeel but are also extensions of the Pakistani mind set, in conflict with itself over everything.  Here’s hoping that this book changes the landscape in terms of making everyone a little less ignorant about the realities of the world we live in. Definitely recommended.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

July 11, 2018

Of Jinn and Justice: Musharruf Farooqi's supernatural short story makes for great Islamic fantasy

Reading The Jinn Darazgosh was an interesting experience, because until recently the entirety of my exposure to jinn stories included the Disney version of Alladin. A genie that came out of a magic lamp and granted three wishes sounded like a brilliant concept, right up until last year, when my exposure to the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories as well as the trilogy Bartimaeus Sequence exposed me to a whole new side of the differently-spelled ‘djinn’.

The former anthology tackled djinns as both protagonists and antagonists in stories which showed them as more than creatures whose sole purpose was to fulfil the whims of fickle humans. The latter trilogy introduced me to the idea of levels of djinns as afrits and marids with varying powers and purposes. Around discussions with my best friend about the course she was planning to teach about these supernatural creatures as well as the recent burst of publication of books about djinns, I’ve come to realize that there’s a whole world out there beyond elves and dwarves when it comes to supernatural creatures.

Farooqi’s story tackles a side of fantasy that I wish I had read more of. In a world where jinn creep into the heavens to overhear the angel’s plans and come back to tell those who pretend to portend events, a jinn named Darazgosh works for an augur named Sarob. With augurs all over the world using these jinn to spy on angels to predict the future, Darazgosh is entrusted with the same tasks. He, however, gets more involved than allowed in his curiosity to see how what the angels have said will come to pass, setting off a whole chain of events.

Darazgosh went away after witnessing those events, but every night he returned to watch what went on in those places, and to await the time when God’s decree would be fulfilled.

Most of this story is told in a format I like to call the old-school-dastaan way of narrating. The dialogues are limited, and most of the narration in in the form of stock paragraphs that relate what happened in simple and clear language. With two lovers fated to die in the far distant future due to rains in the here and now, we follow the jinn as he keeps track of how these events come to pass.

It’s not a simple, one-generation narrative, with a story starting and ending with the life of one person. In keeping with the large-scale narration, the actual hero and heroine are the grandchildren of the people with whom we begin our story. An unhappy couple with a wife who bears a miracle child lead to our hero, whereas a verdant tree and the birth of a baby girl lead us to our heroine. Decades pass in the matter of minutes as people give birth and grow older, as deaths are faced and fates changed, and the next chapter begins, with Darazgosh watching over it all.

He again sent for Darazgosh and said to him: “Find out once more what is being said in the heavens and bring me the news!” Darazgosh again returned, and said: “The angels in the heavens say that the fortune of the kingdom is tied to the two slaves gifted to the king by a courtier.”

The story, which seeks to describe how the jinn were locked out of heaven, culminates in Darazgosh playing a more active part in the events than he is allowed. With an omnipresent narrator and a certain emotional distance from the story itself, this is not one of those tales where you judge them on how closely you felt for the characters or how three dimensional they were. Given that you barely get to spend a large amount of time with anyone beyond their functionality to the tale itself, what’s more important is the story, and how things lead to another. And overall, this makes for an okay reading experience. It’s not the best story I’ve ever read, and I certainly won’t remember it a month from now, but it also wasn’t a complete waste of my time, and I didn’t have to struggle to finish it. For reference, I’d suggest everyone should read this brilliant article by the author, where he talks in detail about the Islamic concept of jinn and their background. Recommended.

July 04, 2018

Of Children and Closure: Soniah Kamal's The Party Giver is the best entry in this anthology

(This is Review Part 3 of the Anthology titled Breakups)

Finally, a prose piece worthy of being added to an anthology. Kamal’s work is well-written and haunting, a good piece of literature amongst all the other mediocre entries. Focusing on a complex, intricate topic – the death of a child – and doing justice to it is a feat, and for once it has actually been pulled off.

Our protagonist, a mother of a young boy, is all set to host her son’s fifth birthday, but the complicated past of losing her first born to another birthday party ten years back keeps dragging her away from the present. Told in quick, fluid shifts between past and present, Kamal, who herself is the mother of three kids, has written this story with just the right amount of emotions to keep you invested without making you restless or bored with heartbreak. And even though I don’t necessarily believe that one has to live through an experience in order to write about it – one doesn’t need to be a mother in order to be able to write about a mother’s love -  the excellence of expression shown through Kamal’s words are undeniable.

The party, a two hour affair, are our heroine’s husband’s ideas. He’s determined to make a new life after the death of their first child, and our heroine’s relationship with her husband is an important part of the story, in a surprising turn of narrative that I liked. Usually stories about the death of a child, especially written from the point of view of the mother, seem to completely ignore the existence of the father.

He’d held her to a promise she’d forgotten which was that she was his wife first and then a mother, that marriage came before children, that she had to allow him a second chance at parenthood even if it was a second chance neither he nor she had asked for.

At such a short length, I’m always surprised when short stories manage to resonate so much, but Soniah Kamal is clearly an author to look out for. I’m glad to hear she already has a novel published, which means there’s good literature that I can now add to my TBR list. Definitely recommended.

June 27, 2018

Of Diversity and Dreams: Aisha Saeed's Amal Unbound makes for great reading for kids

Malala Yousafzai, a globally-recognised Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, has inspired countless discussions, panels and articles. She now inspires Aisha Saeed’s latest novel, Amal Unbound.

However, while Yousafzai has spoken at international forums and been interviewed by multiple famous personalities, Saeed’s protagonist achieves none of that level of fame. That, explains Saeed, is precisely why she wrote about Amal, the eponymous heroine of our novel, because other than Yousafzai, millions of young girls fight every day for their right to have an education, but their efforts are neither documented nor praised and it is imperative that we celebrate all our heroes, named and unnamed.

In Amal Unbound, 12-year-old Amal lives an ordinary life in Nabay Chak, a Pakistani village which, thankfully, doesn’t portray the stereotype of dirt poor and bathroom-less existence that most books featuring subcontinental villages do. Amal pursues dreams of a bright future with diligence at her school; she is one of the star pupils and is excited about the ability to progress as she studies. Real life, however, appears in the form of a mother suffering from post-partum depression — although the word is never explicitly mentioned in the story, in a smart move on Saeed’s part, for that level of awareness is rarely present in Pakistani metropolitan cities, much less in small villages. With three younger sisters, it becomes Amal’s responsibility to look after the household and the family as their mother recuperates, forcing Amal to keep missing more and more days of school. The drudgery of cleaning and cooking and her frustration with a mother who refuses to leave a dark room pushes Amal to take a few moments of breathing space, so she heads to the market for an impromptu shopping trip. An accident with a car belonging to her village’s ruling family serves as the catalyst that takes the story forward.

Taking inspiration from real life, Saeed has drawn our villain as a manipulative, cruel landlord whose all-seeing eye and heavy taxes on the villagers control many of the families in Amal’s neighbourhood. In Pakistan, the word of the landlords is often taken as law and their dictates rule the lives under their thumb. Amal’s accident with Jawad Sahib, the tyrannical son of her village’s landlord, culminates in her showing defiance in public, refusing to hand over a pomegranate that Jawad Sahib wants. As punishment for her disobedience, Jawad Sahib shows up at Amal’s house the next day, displacing her from the warmth of her home to his wealthy estate where she is fated for a life of indentured servitude. Faced with no choice, Amal becomes the handmaid of the mistress of the house, a woman who was once part of the village, just like Amal. As Amal struggles to learn how to fulfil her duties in a household where she is essentially a servant, she clashes with a young girl Nabila, who feels replaced by Amal’s presence. She also finds a secret library from where she can borrow books and begins giving alphabet lessons to one of the younger servant girls, Fatima. It is in these intricacies that Saeed’s book comes to life, drawing Amal for us as a three-dimensional figure with fears and apprehensions as well as desires and dreams.

Saeed does a great job of showing both the gravity of the situation while keeping the readability intact and the flow smooth. As a novel for middle-grade readers, the language is simple and clean, even when the topics handled are heavy and the subject matter full of depth. In portraying complicated relationships, such as that between Amal and the woman she serves, Saeed proves a deft hand at balancing the nuances of such connections.

Education, and the need for educating oneself, is a constant refrain in the story. Young Fatima latches onto Amal as a teacher, eager and willing to learn the alphabet with Amal’s patient help. This in turn ignites a desire and awareness in Amal about being able to teach herself. This dream is further encouraged by a young teacher at the Adult Literacy Centre set up in Amal’s village. Although ostensibly under the aegis of the ministry of education, the building and start-up costs were provided by Jawad Sahib’s father. Because of this the villagers, afraid of their landlord and his corruption, stay away. With elections approaching and the centre lying empty and desolate, Jawad Sahib sends Amal there, hoping that when media personnel come snooping they won’t raise a hue and cry about the empty chairs. This leads to Amal’s encounter with a young male teacher who dreams of educating the masses, but has no one to teach.

The Literacy Centre and the young professor help Amal when she discovers her master’s depth of corruption. When rumours of a crime Jawad Sahib committed reach her ears, she can either keep her mouth shut and pretend she knows nothing, or step out of her comfort zone and, with remarkable bravery, do something about it. It is through this decision that Saeed’s heroine becomes worthy of her narrative: she is not only kind and empathic to those around her, but also willing to speak out against wrongdoing.

As lessons go, Amal Unbound teaches children all the right ones: through her slowly developing friendship with Nabila it shows that patience and kindness can win over the hardest hearts. Through her persistence to keep reading, by borrowing books from Jawad Sahab’s library, it shows that having a dream and working hard for it is rewarding. And through her bravery in reporting a crime, it shows that even though one might be scared, it is important to speak out against injustice.

With the author’s background as one of the founding members of the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign that was widely discussed on social media, it’s great to see more desi protagonists populating our shelves. The campaign was launched in 2014 by a group of authors, Saeed included, to draw attention to the appalling lack of diversity in children’s literature and advocated “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people.” With books such as Amal Unbound, it seems possible that readers from South Asian countries, as well as children of immigrant parents, have a greater chance of seeing their own cultures and habits represented in the literature they read.


This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 24 June, 2018.

June 26, 2018

Of Drones and Death: Mohsin Hamid's Terminator is all types of pointless

Sometimes when I read Mohsin Hamid, I can’t tell if I actually like his stuff, or if my admiration is just a by-product of all the praise the world heaps on him. This is a sort of bizarre upending of the usual high-expectations road which makes me dislike what might be quite passably good writers. But with Hamid, I’m balancing on the uneasy line where I can’t separate the author from the words.

With his short story The Terminator, Hamid takes on Pakistan’s more dangerous areas, which have already been done to death in literary formats, so it’s not like Hamid is doing anything new. Told from the point of view of a young boy, the story is primarily about our nameless protagonist’s encounter with a drone, and at such a short word length, that really is all that it’s about. 

There ain't many of us left. Humans I mean.

Drones have slowly killed off a major part of the population of the area where the boy lives. The politics behind the presence of the drones themselves are irrelevant to this story. Not once does Hamid mention the larger world view about the arguments for and against these killing machines. With our perspective clearly centred on our protagonist, what is more relevant is his father’s death at the hands of such a drone. 

You can't see 'em at night. Sometimes you can't see 'em in the day neither. But you hear 'em all the time, huntin'. They'll go away for days. Sometimes weeks'll go by and you ain't heard 'em once. Then they'll be back and there'll be a burial.

Mohsin also slightly touches on sexism and social hierarchies, in the way that you can’t escape it when you read about tribal areas, with their dangerous gender stereotypes. 

They said you'd better run when you hear those machines comin'. But what do they know. They're just girls. They get so scared sometimes they go pee inside when they're supposed be asleep and Ma has to thrash 'em. I only done gone pee inside once, and 'cause I'm the man now Ma ain't thrashed me much that time.

But that’s all just social commentary on the side. Our main story is about how our boy is heading out in the dead of the night with another young friend with a dangerous plan in mind. Grabbing a hidden Kalashnikov and a mirror to use as a distraction tool, the boys want to bring down a drone. 

And of course, wanting to bring down a drone with a Kalashnikov that you don’t know how to operate and a broken mirror that might or might not reflect properly is never a good plan, as is proven in the sudden and terrifying climax. And even though I knew what was coming, because this plan was idiotic in the extreme, it makes for an interesting discussion. With a father dead and a village emptied by these drones, do plans made out of desperation and anger need to be well thought out? And even more, since we never actually hear the boy have an internal monologue which focuses on his feelings about the dead father or the lost friends, does the unspoken take away from the story, or add to its depth?

It’s hard to decide what Mohsin Hamid was trying to do when he was writing this story. Because on the one hand, it’s not that great. The language is a mess, the ending feels too abrupt, the characters too sketchy and paper thin. On the other hand, maybe the minimalism has a point? Maybe this is an earlier piece of writing? Maybe I don’t need to justify bad writings by good authors, and accept that sometimes they just aren’t that great.

My point is, I didn’t see the point of this story. It wasn’t well-written, and it served no purpose. For someone who wrote Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s hard to see what this piece of writing was meant to say. I’d say give this a skip.