25 July, 2014 / Ramazan 26, 1435

“[Rani] sits up and looks all set to listen to my next story. ‘Tell me, Sheikhu, are these all true stories, as you say?’ ‘Honest to goodness,’ I assure her.”

Rani has good reason to be sceptical. I have lost count of the number of times I looked up while reading a particularly outlandish passage and wondered to myself if what was written could really have happened. We all have our share of crazy relatives and strange friends, but Sheikhu’s near and dear ones are just a tad too outrageous to be true. Right?

From Pagaal Kutta Uncle and Catty Auntie to Uncle Tom and Auntie Saudi, the cast of characters in Pittho’s World by Murtaza Razvi covers the whole spectrum of cracked. There is the colleague at work whom everyone called A.B.A.J. because no one had the time to pronounce his real name, Abdul Bahauddin Alauddin Jalaluddin. A distant aunt, Pittho, of the book’s title, insisted that her late arrival at their home was due to the mischievous jinn Brum-brum Chawk who made her walk around in circles. It was only when Khwaja Khizr appeared and guided her way that she was able to finally arrive at her destination.

And then there is the successful rockstar cousin whose mother had run off with a family servant. “When Bia’s end finally came, Deedee dashed back from Bombay to attend the funeral. But by the time he managed to reach Lahore, his stepfather had already buried his wife, depriving Deedee of her last ‘face-seeing’ as it is called in Urdu. This only went to confirm the allegations Deedee had made about his stepfather, and everyone’s sympathies lay with the rockstar. Thus jolted, he went on to release a new album named after Bia, the title song — Bia-o-Bia, tu ne kya kiya — of which went on to become a universal hit.”

True or not, most of the stories are hilarious. And certain passages will remain etched in the memory for a very long time. An example: “Of all of Dada’s friends, it was Aga Razik who wore the very thick glasses whom I remember for his eccentricities. He used to publish an almanac which used to tell you what special Islamic or Hindu or Sikh day fell on what day of the Gregorian calendar. He also made predictions of things to come, and whenever a major event occurred, he would remind his colleagues at the Dera how far back in time he had predicted it. Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon was one such event. ‘I see Neel-i-Bazuzore on his way to capturing a heavenly body very close to our planet,’ he had predicted. ‘Neel’ in Urdu means indigo, and ‘Bazuzore’ was a direct translation of Armstrong.”

But the star of the entire piece is by far and most clearly Sheikhu’s paternal aunt, Apa. She is an incredibly strong woman and the narrator’s admiration for her knows no bounds: “Apa had acquired a reputation for being quite lethal with her tongue. That was perhaps her only weapon against her outmoded parents. If they had been allowed to cajole her into acquiescence, she never would have been the free woman she became … She contested the election to the provincial legislature while living in the house of parents who wouldn’t dream of sending their women out to vote.”

Among her many attributes is that she is able to swear a blue streak whenever the occasion called for it — and of course the occasion called for it very often. During the war with India in 1971, she fearlessly commanded the drive from Lahore to Rawalpindi without once paying heed to the sirens blaring overhead to warn of an imminent air attack. “Apa had forbidden everyone from jumping out of the van. ‘If we’re meant to die,’ she said, ‘we might as well die in our seats instead of dying in the dung-filled fields, where kites and dogs will feed on us.’”

Almost as admirable as Apa is the author’s steadfast commitment to storytelling almost throughout the book. Considering the late Murtaza Razvi’s journalistic background, it would be no surprise if he had slipped into reportage mode. But aside from offering some analysis of the events of 1971, the MQM-Pakhtoon turf war, the Bushra Zaidi incident and the Zia years, he has managed to resist the overwhelming urge to provide facts and figures to readers.

What he could not resist, however, is making the ever contentious Karachi-Lahore comparison. A Lahori by birth, Razvi openly and repeatedly declares, through Sheikhu, his admiration for Karachi, his home by choice: “Here was a place you could be who you naturally were, evolve into who you wanted to be; your immediate geography or the people around you required no conformity on your part. Rather than a melting pot, this was a salad bowl, in which every ingredient retained its individuality and formed one big, diverse whole. It was lovely.”

While Karachiwallas will love to read his praises for their city, Lahoris will sense his pride in belonging to the historic city which was adorned by Mughals and visited by Sufis. Like Sheikhu, Razvi was a proud graduate of Lahore’s Government College which counts such illustrious persons as Pitras Bokhari, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sufi Tabassum, and Allama Iqbal amongst its alumni.

Lahore’s close proximity to “the big, fat neighbour next door” also inspires a sense of bravado — mixed with a sense of humour: “In 1947 we wished India had gone away from our lives, but it refused to budge. So did we. Despite all our efforts, Lahore managed to get only 14 miles away from India. It has gone no further since.”

Readers are treated to cultural references from Pakistan, India, and Iran, as well as the etymology of words in Farsi, Punjabi, and Urdu. The usage of Saeen, Ambrriye and Babul are easy to accept, but the history of Ballimaran must be read with a pinch, no, a whole sack of salt: “In loving memory of the late Ruswa Delavi, the great poet of the Delhi School. This home for displaced women is named after the historical neighbourhood of Old Delhi, where Mirza Ghalib, the greatest Urdu poet, breathed his last in the latter half of the 19th century. Ballimaran was the name of the original settlers of the neighbourhood in Delhi because they were known to kill stray cats ...” Pittho’s World may not necessarily be comprised of true stories, but they are all, without a doubt, well-told ones.

Pittho’s World By Murtaza Razvi Harper Collins, India ISBN 9788172239343 220pp.

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