Miscellaneous / 31.03.2014

By Kabir Altaf In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death. As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled “Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil...

Miscellaneous / 12.08.2012

By Anjum Altaf The relationship between art and life may not have been a puzzle to most but it was to me. And it was not resolved by the debate over whether art ought to be for its own or for life's sake. This was a difference over the purpose or otherwise of art whereas my interest was in the nature of the relationship. At one level, art must reflect life since it cannot exist in a vacuum. But this only opens up a number of questions: To what extent does art reflect life and what might be a measure of the goodness of that reflection? I am concerned here with the novel as a particular form of art. The novel is a story and so in some sense is life. There is, therefore, a natural correspondence between the two. Life, however, is messy, all over the place, and any novel that attempted to reflect it faithfully would be likely to be unreadable. I presume that is the reason I have not been able to read Ulysses despite my best intentions.
Miscellaneous / 09.08.2012

By Hasan Altaf The cards are laid on the table right away in Shehan Karunatilaka's stunning debut novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Graywolf Press). The narrator, W. G. Karunasena - an aging, alcoholic former sportswriter, who has just been handed what amounts to a death sentence (if he limits himself to two drinks a day he can hope for one or two more years) - takes a moment to respectfully rebut the criticism that sports, in this case cricket, have no use or value: "Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value." Pradeep Mathew is in some ways like the great rock novels, the great books about Hollywood: From a specialized world, in this case that of cricket, it's adopted a jargon, a built-in store of legends and myths and stories.
Miscellaneous / 21.07.2012

By Kabir Altaf Fireflies in the Mist, Qurratulain Hyder’s own translation of her Urdu novel Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar, spans the history of East Bengal from the time of the nationalist movement against the British, to the creation of East Pakistan, and finally to Bangladeshi independence. The novel centers around Deepali Sarkar, "a young middle-class Hindu who becomes drawn into the extreme left wing of the nationalist movement, and Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim radical with Marxist inclinations who introduces her to the life of the rural deprived. Their common political engagement draws them into a quietly doomed love affair.  Through their relationship, Hyder explores the growth of tensions between Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims, who had once shared a culture and a history." In his introduction to the novel, Pakistani writer Aamer Hussain notes that Fireflies can be seen as another chapter in Hyder’s epic history of the Muslim presence in the subcontinent, and particularly in the era of the Raj.
Miscellaneous / 01.07.2012

By Kabir Altaf Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable. Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism.
Miscellaneous / 27.05.2012

By Kabir Altaf Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, tells the story of a Wall Street lawyer who employs two scriveners (clerks). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator’s business picks up; he advertises for a third scrivener and eventually hires Bartleby for the position. At first, Bartleby produces high quality work, but one day when the lawyer asks him to help proofread what he has copied, he replies “I would prefer not to.” This eventually becomes his stock response every time he is asked to do any work outside of copying. Eventually he even refuses to do any copying. However, the lawyer finds it impossible to fire him. The lawyer finally does attempt to fire Bartleby, giving him twice as much money as he is owed but Bartleby refuses to vacate the office, saying only that he “would prefer not to.”
Miscellaneous / 15.05.2012

By Hasan Altaf One of the few reliable characteristics of the institutions of the government of Pakistan is that they will only rarely stick to their mandates, that they will only occasionally consider themselves bound to fulfill their theoretical functions - the idea of the "public servant," for example, seems to have passed ours by entirely. Given that the results of this tendency are so frequently destructive, or at best neutral, we should look kindly on Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa's recent bout of poetic inspiration at the conviction of Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court. It's easy to say, as the prime minister's lawyer did, that judges should refrain from adding poetry to their judgments ("especially" their own; maybe Iqbal would have been acceptable?) and just make their decisions and let that be that, but in a country where that is so rarely that, a little bit of riffing off Khalil Gibran is hardly the end of the world. "Pity the Nation," Justice Khosa's addendum to the court's decision, has struck quite a chord.
Miscellaneous / 28.04.2012

By Hasan Altaf The poet Kabir died in 1518, so it is jarring to open a translation of his writings and read the following line: "O pundit, your hairsplitting's/so much bullshit." It is even stranger to look up and realize that the poem bears an epigraph ("It take a man that have the blues so to sing the blues") from the American musician Lead Belly, who was not even born until 1888. A quick scan through the volume reveals more epigraphs (Pound, Coleridge), a dedication (one poem is for Geoff Dyer) and vocabulary that Kabir himself could not have come up with: "Smelling of aftershave/and deodorants/the body's a dried up well…" Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Songs of Kabir is not, it is safe to say, your father's Kabir.
Miscellaneous / 22.04.2012

By Kabir Altaf According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.  However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh's scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa's brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa's mother asked him to impregnate his brother's wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.  Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa's bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes.  Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind.  The next night, it was Ambalika's turn.  She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear.  Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom.  These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela's Book
Miscellaneous / 01.03.2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts - to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background - some of Arundhati Roy's essays, for example, or Joan Didion's - that journalism which gives us both narrative and analysis, the question and some semblance of an answer.