Language/Meaning / 26.03.2013

By Hasan Altaf in The Millions: ScreenHunter_150 Mar. 26 15.40 From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work.
Language/Meaning / 24.02.2013

By Hasan Altaf Interviewing Chinua Achebe - the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature - for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe's work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary's attempt to standardize his language's many dialects: The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo. The result: unmusical, "wooden," "a terrible tragedy." Standardizing...

Reflections / 17.10.2012

By Kabir Altaf … ‘Please excuse me,’ Riaz was saying to Brownlow. ‘But you are a little arrogant.’…. ‘Your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has—as you also well know—gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism.’ Here Riaz leaned towards Brownlow. ‘This is why we have to guard against the hypocritical and smug intellectual atmosphere of Western civilization.’  … ‘That atmosphere you deprecate. With reason. But this civilization has also brought us this –' ‘Dr. Brownlow, tell us what it has brought us,’ Shahid said.  …On his fingers he counted them off. ‘Literature, painting, architecture, psychoanalysis, science, journalism, music, a stable political culture, organized sport—at a pretty high level. And all this has gone hand-in-hand with something significant. That is: critical enquiry into...

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...

Language/Meaning / 20.11.2011

By Anjum Altaf ‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’ That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving? Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The...

Reflections / 14.06.2010

By Kabir Altaf She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat. ---Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47 Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.
Novel / 30.07.2008

Chapter 16 “Us and Them (And after all, we’re only ordinary men.)”    It started out as an ordinary day. Cars were plying their routes and pedestrians were rushing to their destinations. By now Samir had dispatched all the pages of the Sahityashastra. On the outside, everything appeared the same. Two schoolboys strolled homewards around noon. As they walked along Chowpatty, they found themselves taking giant steps, as if they were on the moon. Too awe-struck to say anything, they noticed that other pedestrians were also walking that way, with giant steps. They were sliding, gliding, rising into the air, and trailing down again. Anyone looking at Marine Drive and Chowpatty would have observed a strange sight, like a slow-motion film, with people flying a foot into the air and then drifting down, spanning a distance of about six feet. At first, the people were shocked out of their...

Novel / 30.07.2008

Chapter 15 The Politics of the End or The End of Politics   The two weeks in Naperville at Kulkarni’s house had flown by in a blur of activity. The beginning of December had ushered in the first snowfall. Samir saw snow for the first time in his life. He and Asha were returning from the supermarket and had just parked the car by the house. As they emerged into the twilight, the first flakes drifted from the sky. Samir set his grocery bag down and reached out for them, their wetness dissolving in his palms. He stood there, not uttering a word, as the sounds around him subsided. The earth turned white. At first, it was gradual, a patch here, a branch there, a roof nearby, until a luminous glow filled the sky. When Asha stepped on a twig, it snapped with a loud crunch. Neither of...

Novel / 30.07.2008

Chapter 13            Geometric Progression   Aditya Gandhi motioned to Harold to sit across from him on the blue sofa. Harold, surprised, didn’t move. He tried to speak, but words did not form on his lips. “Please have a seat. Forgive this unpleasantness.” “Aditya!” Harold said, summoning his voice. He dropped his suitcase, walked over to the sofa, and sat down. He had regained his composure and now stared back at him. “I hope we haven’t made you too uncomfortable,” Aditya said. “Where are we?” “Lonavala. I suppose you know where that is. It’s a lovely town, isn’t it? A bit spoiled with all the construction activity, of course.” “You killed Meghnad.” “I felt bad about it, but he left me no choice.” Aditya sighed. “He was beginning to make trouble for us, especially with his research into the Sahityashastra.” “And what about Jim and Ajit? Did you kill them too?” Harold said. “I merely planned them...

Novel / 30.07.2008

Chapter 12            Veil of the Vidhi   Half of Bombay was getting ready for Seth’s party. Samir glanced at Asha in her black dress and felt a surge of desire. At eight p.m. it was time to leave. The cruise ship itself, the Vidhi, was anchored at sea, and they had to embark from the Gateway of India in a small boat to reach the ship. When Samir and Asha arrived, they found over a few hundred people there, all waiting for the twenty or so motorboats to ferry them across to the ship. The boats bobbed and pitched back and forth as people leapt from the quay onto the boats. Asha spotted Haresh Chatterjee, her colleague at Columbia, and realized with a start that he had attended Harold’s lecture at the Asia Society, the night of Meghnad’s murder. At just that moment, Chatterjee glanced in her direction, and...