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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.
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.”
By Anil Kala [I saw Amir Khan’s show on Indian TV about child abuse with some interest. I suppose I qualify for victim of child abuse therefore the interest. My case appears curious in the sense I don’t feel I was abused at all. I am telling this story so that we do not lose sense of proportion in demanding punishment for offenders. Remember some fellows asked for death penalty for rapists.] When I look back through the hazy tunnel of time, picture of this curious but very vulnerable kid crystallizes in clear focus. Even though that kid was me in distant past, I can’t quite identify with him anymore for we have moved so far apart in character and attributes that he could be just any vulnerable child. Yet, I know this child very intimately; a shy fellow, fidgety when meeting strangers but compensates that with extra effervescent with those he was familiar. When alone strange thought would occupy his mind making him abruptly look around to check if he was queer! But, for now, I am drowned in an overwhelming urge to reach out and take him in my protective cover.
By Anjum Altaf Dear Students, One of your colleagues sent me the following message:
Respected Sir… I would like to request that you please send out a list of books that you think are crucial for 21st century students like us to read. The reason I am asking so, is that during the holidays I would like to do something beneficial and constructive. While there are many books available on the internet and at bookshops (like Readings or Ferozsons, etc.), I wouldn’t exactly know which books are best for me. So could you please send out such a list of books as I believe that a person of your experience and knowledge would be a better judge on which books students should read. I would like to also suggest that while deciding on the books, give us books on a variety of issues, like let's say some on religion, some on history, some autobiographies and so on.
You have no one to blame but yourselves!
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.
By Irfan Husain Over the years, billions of dollars in foreign aid have been poured into Pakistan’s social sector. Nevertheless, literacy remains stubbornly below 50 per cent, and life expectancy at birth is at 66 years, 164th lowest in the world. So why this abysmal and sustained failure by successive Pakistani governments and international donors in solving these perennial problems? After all, other similarly placed countries have made great strides in both critical areas. Sri Lanka, to name one, has long had a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, and life expectancy there is above 75. One reason is our prodigious birth rate: Pakistan’s population has grown around six times since Partition, climbing exponentially from around 32 million in 1947 to close to 190 million now.
By Kabir Altaf As the lights come up at the beginning of "A Tryst with Destiny", a screen projects news footage of communal riots in India. We see clips from the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, protests in Indian-administered Kashmir, and an interview with Jaswant Singh in which he lays the major responsibility for the Partition of British India on Nehru and the Indian National Congress.  As these news clips fade out, Gandhi and Nehru step on stage and begin discussing their roles in Partition.  From the outset, the play asks the audience to reflect on the question: Was the Partition of India worth the bloodshed that accompanied it? What price did India have to pay for Independence? "A Tryst with Destiny", performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre in Washington DC, was written by Amita Deepak Jha, a locally-based psychiatrist and medical researcher.
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.
By Anjum Altaf I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided. While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration.