It never rains but it pours

LET anything out of the ordinary take place in Lahore and you may be sure that eleven times out of ten we shall be caught with our pants down or if you want to be polite, you can say we shall be caught on the wrong foot.

They say that it seldom rains in Lahore but it pours. Thus it was on Friday morning it rained like the devil and the city found itself left at the mercy of the elements. The rains came and they devastated the city. Generally motorable roads become navigable in a matter of minutes. Rainwater gushed into houses built on even higher than normal plinths. The walled city begged for mercy but the rain gods were merciless. It would be an understatement to say, as the newspapers often do, that life came to a standstill. You will read elsewhere in the press that so many old houses collapsed or were otherwise badly damaged. It was no cloudburst. It was like the tsunami. Only it thundered down from the skies. The Friday rain proved, if proof were needed, that the city had no administration when it wanted it most. But let me say this: Mian Amer Mahmood is the best Nazim in the world and when the time comes, the Lahorites will reelect him with a thumping majority for the services not rendered or for services rendered only unto himself. The living were miserable. How about the dead? How many graves caved in in Miani Sahib and other burial places in the city?

Meanwhile, petrol has gone up. Gas has gone up. The five-rupee note has disappeared. The pay and pension raise announced by the federal and provincial governments has already been washed away before it was given I do not know why but I want to address the Prime Minister as Mr Shaukat Aziz, CSP. And I do not know why he reminds me of the Late Mr Muhammad Ali Bogra and I do not know why some people call him Mr Shortcut Aziz. And I do not also know why some cynics call him Mr Via Bhatinda Aziz. As for me, I have appointed myself his Chamcha-in-Chief. What, after all, is money between friends? So don’t be surprised if an egg (rotten) sells for Rs30 before my next birthday. And if you want to wish me many happy returns, do it with dung cakes and newsprint flowers but don’t please send me any cards.

By the way, you must have been delighted to read in Saturday’s papers that Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi had visited the ‘affected’ areas. What did he have to offer to the affectees? Polite words? Pious words? Meaningless words coming out of an expressionless, unfeeling face? You take your pick. So far as I am concerned, the Chaudhry’s foot knows where his mouth is.

* * * * *

LAST week we saw what Beverley Nichols, a British journalist, thought of the Indian cinema in the 1940’s. Here is the concluding part of “Hindu Hollywood”, a chapter he had written on the subject in his book, Verdict on India:

But the real reason for the Stagnation of India’s Hollywood (which is almost entirely dominated by Hindu capital) is the same as the reason for the stagnation of everything else — religion.

A great majority of Indian pictures deal, in one form or another, with religious or mythological subjects. The camera is permanently focused on the remote past. The screen is literally a shadow screen across which there flits an endless procession of saintly ghosts, whispering the stories of ancient superstitions.

And all this in a land which hums with stories! In modern India, plots grow on every tree; the very air is thick with drama; but none of the drama gets into the studio.

Now and then, it is true, an advanced producer will attempt what he calls a modern ‘social’. Since most of the script-writers are unable to think up any new ideas for themselves, these ‘socials’ are pinched almost in their entirety from old American successes. They lift situations which were originally devised for somebody like Lucille Ball, wearing pyjamas against a background of skyscrapers, and they hand them to dove-eyed young women in flowing draperies, capering through miles of mango groves. The result is, to put it mildly, unhappy. Sophisticated back-chat doesn’t ring true in a saree, particularly when the temple bells are ringing in the distance.

Yet what a treasure trove is waiting for the producer and the script-writer to say nothing of the star!

Here are one or two examples. First, the theme of ‘untouchability’.

Why not take a boy who has been born an ‘untouchable’, transport him to the free air of Britain or America, and let him make good, as thousands have made good before him. (Oh yes, I know all about colour-bar. But the colour-bar is a minor irritation compared with the major slavery of untouchability). Make him rich and famous ...... and bring him back to his native village.

What a theme it would have been for Arnold Bennett! He is not allowed to draw a cup of water from the village pump? Very well — he builds his own reservoir. He is so degraded that the lowest washerwoman will not touch his clothes? Then he builds his own laundry. His children are forbidden to go near the village school? He builds a school of his own and staffs it with the finest teachers in the world.

If only some courageous producer would make a picture worthy of this subject’s tragic possibilities — and damn the box office!

Another subject which cries out for dramatic treatment is the institution of ‘purdah’ — the Muslim tradition which compels a man’s wife to cover her entire body in a thick veil for the whole of her life, so that no other man may ever see her. It is not for me to criticise this custom — we may well leave that to the Muslims themselves, whose more advanced members attack it bitterly and consistently. They describe it as cruel, morbid, unnatural, unhealthy, crippling to the body and torturing to the mind. They call it an evil relic of the dark ages of women.

What a theme for a film — for a hundred films — the rending of the veil, the struggle to the sunlight!

But in order to make the most of these dramatic riches you must have a producer who is something of an iconoclast; he needs bite and speed and punch, he must have the spirit of attack.

There are such producers in India, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among them must be mentioned Sohrab Modi, who recently showed me his film ‘Sikander’, which deals with the Indian invasion of Alexander the Great. This is a virile picture, with pace and flair, well up to the standard of that old masterpiece ‘The Birth of a Nation’. Another highly intelligent producer is J.B.H. Wadia, who made history with ‘The Court Dancer’, India’s first motion picture with English dialogue. However, even ‘The Court Dancer’ cannot be called an unqualified success. It has some poetical photography; but to Western eyes its popular star Sadhona Bose is regrettably heavy on her feet, and its English dialogue is startlingly jejune. For instance, on numerous occasions, the only verbal come-back to a dramatic statement is the bald interjection ‘Oh!’ The effect of this is unintentionally comic. ‘Darling, they are coming to kill you’, says the hero, or words to that effect. ‘Oh!’ replies Miss Bose. It is not an inspiring monosyllable, delivered in bulk.

Yet both Modi and Wadia have touches of genius; both are determined to devote their lives to lifting Indian films out of the slough of despond into which they have sunk. Their task will be a stern one. The attitude of most of their contemporaries, even when they attempt to face up to the ancient tragedies with which their country is beset, is one of weary resignation. For example:

A Hindu Maiden had a Muslim brother! And in their Holy friendship was embodied a Nation’s Sigh! So runs the advertisement of an important film called ‘Bhalai’, which is a big box-office success. Need one say more? It is a theme that calls for blistering satire, and all it gets is a sigh. It is all very well to advertise a star like Ramola as ‘The Ist girl of the Indian Screen’, or to ape the jargon of Hollywood in the publicity of Winayak’s ‘My Child’ (‘A skyful of stars! An eyeful of spectacle!! A soulful of sentiment!!!’) In spite of this veneer of modernity, the religious element creeps in almost invariably, and needless to say, it is coloured by the personal religious prejudices of the producers — most of whom are Hindus.

As a result, there is practically no honest film criticism in India, with a very few honourable exceptions, the critic’s pen is twisted according to his caste, his creed, or his political convictions.

Let me hasten to add that these statements are fully substantiated by Indians themselves. ‘Films criticism in India is either a matter of blackmail or of bribery.’

It was one of the chief publicists of Indian films who said that; I omit his name to spare him embarrassment.

‘There is no honest film criticism to be found in the whole of India. There is no newspaper or magazine which cannot be influenced. Nobody attaches any value to films reviews.’

It was a Hungarian, F. Berko, who said that (he did not say it in India, of course, but in an American movie magazine).

‘The world’s low’ — ‘a collection of journalistic sewer-rat’s — ‘clowns with dirty fingers.’ These are only a few of the epithets which Indians have coined for their own brothers of the critical profession.

This is a gloomy picture, but it is not an ungenerous one, and though it is painted by an Englishman, it is not as dark as that which is painted by some Indians themselves, who seem to have lost all hope of advancement.

I myself have hope, very great hope, and in spite of all that has gone before I believe the Indian screen may have a brilliant future. Why?

There are many reasons. Three will suffice.

The first may sound trivial but is actually important. Until recently, all Indian films were of quite intolerable length; fifteen thousand feet was nothing out of the common. The audience demanded it. So intent were they on getting their money’s worth that they would sit in silence through a whole list of credits, unmoved by the names of the stars, the authors, the directors, only to burst into wild applause when the length of the film was flashed across the screen. 15,487 feet. Whoopee! That meant the film must be good.

The war has put a stop to these inordinate longueurs, owing to shortage of celluloid, government has issued an order that no film may be more than 11,000 feet. And though the audience chafes, and mutters that this is yet another example of the brutality of the British Raj, the producer — and the intelligent filmgoer — heaves a sigh of relief.

That is a negative reason for hope; it shows that Indian films can get into step with modern ideas, even if it takes a war to bring this miracle about.

The other two reasons are most positive. The first concerns the Indian actors themselves. They form the true riches of the Indian screen. They have a born sense of drama; it is as natural for them to act as for thrushes to sing. We mentioned above that a girl may be given a star role a few days after her first screen test, and that nobody sees anything odd in it. Well, there isn’t anything odd in it. She is a star and — though it sounds incredible — she has very little to learn.

Unlike his Western prototype, the Indian producer has to be constantly curbing his actors and actresses; their features are so mobile, their gestures so eloquent and their emotional equipment so rich and spontaneous that his task is to dampen the flame rather than to add fuel to it.

Moreover, the country abounds in magnificent types. There is no finer male specimen in the world than the Pathan. In the streets of the big cities you will see droves of lovely girls, with the huge eyes, the small chins, the delicate noses and the frail but firm figures which are the dream of the casting director. As for the eccentric types — the fanatics, the clowns, the wizards, the grotesque — India has them by the millions.

And the other reason why Indian films may one day flash brilliantly across the world’s screen? I have already indicated it. It is hidden deep in the eyes of Mother India herself; it is written in every wrinkle of her ancient face. Mother India is the world’s greatest story-teller; her legends are inexhaustible, and every league of her sum-scarred territory has a tale to tell, of blood or of passion or of sacred fire. And now that at last Mother India is awakening, to all this store of ancient history will be added the thrill of history in the making; the air will be strident with the echo of snapping chains and rending veils. It is for Mother India herself to walk out of her ancient prison, which is so largely of her own making, to breathe the fresh air and think the free thoughts of the new world, and then, to translate them into terms of art.

Can she do so?

I think the answer is ‘yes’

Strange technique to woo allies

IT WAS Pat Boone who claimed in an instructive song of the 1960s: “The more you deceive them the more they like your technique.” The Americans, it is evident, milked the technique to exhaustion in their militarist diplomacy, except that they often chose to bludgeon their would-be allies where deception did not succeed.

Sometimes they just abused their quarry. That President Nixon and Henry Kissinger disliked Indira Gandhi intensely is not news. Calling her a witch and describing Indians as bastards, as Washington’s officially released papers revealed last week, was but a minor fallout of the Cold War in which India was a Soviet ‘lapdog’ and Pakistan a ‘poodle’ of the Americans.

But when it came to invectives the Americans did not spare even their own — what some historians would call comprador allies — such as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh-led Janata Party that ruled India from 1977 to 1979.

One such occasion was in 1978. After the confidential one-to-one conversation between President Carter and Prime Minister Desai on January 2, all the delegates were gathered and a select group of media were ushered for 30 seconds. According to Jagat Mehta, the then Indian foreign secretary, the NBC correspondent had a “long, vulgar looking microphone” which picked a whisper between Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance saying that the old so-and-so Desai had been rigid on non-proliferation.

The mike picked up the part — “When we get back, we must write him another letter just very cold and very blunt?” — without even the correspondent’s knowledge. But as the pool had pledged to share all reports, the remark was disseminated to the entire media presence and the news was broken to the delegates at lunch at the American Embassy.

There is nothing particularly wrong about holding strong private opinions in diplomacy. And just in case anyone is looking for a racist angle to the way senior American officials tend to regard their Indian numbers, they should consider the muck that surfaced (not for the first time) between the US State Department and the British Foreign Office during the Falklands crisis. Alexander Haig’s description of Lord Carrington as a “duplicitous bastard” is part of a well-known Anglo-Saxon tradition.

People have endured far worse. After the 1857 uprising, when news reached Britain that the “Hindoos” had “boiled alive an English girl in pure ghee,” retaliation was savage. The Times of London proclaimed: “every tree and gable-end in place should have its burden in the shape of the mutineers’ carcass.” One huge banyan tree was “decorated with 150 corpses”. A contemporary version of these old habits would be Fallujah or Guantanamo.

But all this does not explain the claim presented by a recent opinion poll concerning some alleged support Indians have given for the American occupation of Iraq. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, while anti-Americanism in Europe, Middle East and Asia continues to surge as a result of the US war in Iraq, India has strangely enough proferred a positive opinion of the Bush administration.

The survey by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project, said to be conducted among nearly 17,000 people in the United States and 15 other countries from April 20 to May 31, has revealed that America’s image is strongest in India.

“Fully 71 per cent in India express a positive opinion of the United States, compared with 54 per cent three years ago,” the survey of 15 countries conducted by the centre says. The revelations are simply shocking and in all probability not true.

Interestingly, it shows relatively mild people such as the Canadians as exuding negative views about their allies, with most labeling Americans as “rude, greedy and violent”.

The only clue to the erroneous conclusions of the survey comes from the fact that it was conducted nationwide in all countries except in India, Pakistan and China, where it mostly covered urban areas.

Some relief here, otherwise India’s powerful US-baiting communist parties and their other Left Front allies, not to forget the nationwide Maoist movement as well as the majority of liberal opinion reflected in left-leaning centrist politics, would have stood accused of colluding secretly with President Bush. The Pew survey also would make the Indian parliament, which passed a resolution against the invasion of Iraq, look very unrepresentative.

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh braces to embark on some vague and yet unexplained strategic mission to embrace American militarism this month he would be fulfilling the mission of most recent Indian rulers — though not necessarily of its people — to keep the Americans in good humour at any cost.

He will of course be aware of the fact that his country has virtually agreed to joint policing of international waters with the United States in the 10-year defence agreement signed between the two governments in Washington. This is a far cry from the days in the Indira era when New Delhi was telling the Americans to vacate Diego Garcia and to declare the Indian Ocean as a nuclear weapons free zone.

The new defence agreement is being seen as a “back-door entry” for India into the US-led 11-nation Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The PSI includes the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Australia, Japan, Poland and the Netherlands. Asian and African countries have kept out of the initiative so far.

The Indian Navy earned hostile reactions from Malaysia, Indonesia, and even China, when it responded to a US suggestion for joint patrolling in the Malacca Straits. But if we can put up so easily with abusive American friends, it can’t be too difficult to find an agreeable approach with jeering and contemptuous neighbours.

* * * * *

IMRANA, a Muslim woman was allegedly raped by her father-in-law. The maulvis of Deoband rushed to declare her marriage with her husband who is father of their five children as null and void. The so-called fatwa has triggered a huge debate, at par perhaps with the one concerning Shahbano, the Muslim divorcee, when the mullahs forced the Indian parliament to overturn the Supreme Court judgement on alimony. But film writer and poet Javed Akhtar wants the Deoband fatwa to be carried out on one condition. “According to Islam, the man who committed the rape should be stoned to death. Are you prepared to carry out the sentence on the rapist?” Akhtar asked a representative of the Deoband maulvis, smiling in the belief that he had clinched the point. But he was to be surprised. Yes, came the answer from the maulvis. Deoband, they said, will be fighting for such a law to be enacted in India. Run for cover Javed Akhtar.

—Email: jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Dwindling Iranis

A few years ago we lamented the disappearance of ‘Malabari’ restaurants. Now it seems that we have to write a requiem for Irani restaurants as well: the few that have not closed are struggling for survival.

Irani restaurants with their marble-top tables and black chairs used to be meeting places for people engaged in different professions. Frederick’s Cafeteria in Saddar, for instance, was the rendezvous for punters on race days. All you heard were how the races went and comments on the day’s proceedings. In most cases the bills were picked up by the winners of the day.

Then there was Eastern Coffee House, which had once been India Coffee House, and then Zelin’s Coffee House (not to be confused with Zelin’s Corner in the old El-Markaz building). Finally, when an Irani bought it, he rechristened it as Eastern Coffee House. This was the rendezvous of writers, artists, student leaders and some idlers who didn’t fall into any other category.

Cafe George, which was bang opposite Eastern Coffee House, was known for its mouth-watering mutton patties and palatable biryani. It was frequented by those whose main concern was good food. But there were some regulars, too, one of whom was an elderly Parsi gentleman who would wear a jacket even when Karachi was going through a sultry phase.

There were and there still are two kinds of Irani restaurants. The A class have waiters serving you tea in a teapot, with milk and sugar separately (it is called special chai) and present you with a bill in a saucer.

Khairabad Restaurant on the corner of Dr Ziauddin Road and I.I. Chundrigar Road and Cafe Darakshan on the corner of M.A. Jinnah Road and Garden Road fall in this category.

The B class Irani restaurants serve you tea ready mixed with sugar and milk. You could also have light tea without milk and sugar, known as Sulemani Chai. No one knows why it is so called. In these restaurants the payment is made at the counter and no tips are given to the waiter, who shouts out the amount you have to pay. “Kot waley saab ka bees rupya”, “Maulana ka pundra rupya” and “Lal qamees waley ka bara rupya”,” the waiter will say.

One common point about all Irani restaurants, past or present, is that they would all be at the meeting point of two roads. They would occupy one corner of a building.

Barring one or two Irani delicacies, most Irani restaurants served Pakistani meals. Cafe Victory on South Napier Road, once the Fleet Street of Karachi, was known for its steaks. This was where most journalists had their lunch, but when newspaper offices shifted to other places, Cafe Victory closed down.

As for the popularity of Irani restaurants, none can beat Lucky Star Restaurant — the neighbouring bus stop is named after it. That is true also of Cafe Liberty on Tariq Road. Even though the restaurant downed its shutters two or three years ago, the area around the corner of Tariq Road and Allama Iqbal Road is known as Cafe Liberty. Old habits die hard.

Meaty matters

Now that 3.6 tonnes of turtle meat bound for Vietnam has been confiscated by the customs department, a blame-game has started. If it is finally determined that the meat was that of green turtles, the Sindh wildlife department would be in the dock. It is after all their responsibility to ensure that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — to which Pakistan is a signatory — is enforced in the province.

But if it is determined that the meat was that of freshwater turtles — also found in Punjab — the Sindh wildlife department may escape the blame. (Since the consignment was being smuggled out by a Lahore-based firm, the possibility that it came from Punjab cannot be completely ruled out.)

One thought that the authorities would ask a third party to determine the species of turtles whose meat was being exported illegally. But in a move that defies logic, they have asked Sindh wildlife department experts to do the job.

Now, if the provincial wildlife department says that the meat was that of green turtles, it would be exposing itself to criticism. And if says that the meat was that of freshwater turtles, it may be accused of seeking to evade responsibility.

Analysts maintain that Sindh wildlife department experts are not as independent as they should be and recall how it had been cowed into silence when one of its officials had disclosed at an international seminar how a large number of turtles are drowned when they get caught by the fishing nets of deep-sea trawlers.

When countries that import seafood from Pakistan expressed concern over this, the official was asked to explain by the authorities why she had disclosed a closely guarded secret. Since then, the Sindh wildlife department remains tight-lipped about turtles and fishing nets and deep-sea trawlers.

Coming rains

The moment clouds hovering over the city begin to darken, the bureaucracy starts making perfunctory efforts aimed at dealing with a rain emergency situation. Invariably a meeting is called to discuss how various government departments will swing into action the moment it begins to rain. They then figure out how they will coordinate their efforts and pool their resources.

Cynics read news stories about such meetings with a wry smile. They have seen all such bureaucratic measures coming to naught too often to be impressed by the solemnity that marks these meetings.

They know that if/when a torrential rain lashes the city, prolonged power breakdowns will occur, snarl-ups will hold up traffic for hours, gutters will overflow, rainwater will stand on roads and telephone connections will go awry.

Such inconveniences notwithstanding, the citizens of Karachi eagerly wait for the monsoon rains — as indeed do people in other parts of the baking subcontinent. For two nights running, there was a spatter of fine rain, like spray from the sea. Now for the real thing, everyone hopes.

A new book

There is good news for the admirers of the late Mushfiq Khawaja: a book edited by him is being posthumously published. This is a diary kept by his father, Khawaja Abdul Hai, a well known scholar who specialized in Islam and Iqbal.

The diary contains insightful observations on some of the leading 19th-century intellectuals of the subcontinent. A close friend of Iqbal’s, Mr Hai is reported to have shed invaluable light on some of the hitherto unexplored aspects of the great poet’s personality.

The late Mushfiq Khawaja busied himself with the editing of the diary during his last days as he struggled with a fatal disease that overpowered him in February. Scholars who saw him at close quarters say that the diary is the first of many books to be published by his family.

— By Karachian

email: karachi_notebook@hotmail.com

Opinion

Women and autism
16 Apr 2021

Women and autism

Different assessment tools are needed to define and measure the subtle ways in which autistic women cope with the world around
Beyond the ban
Updated 16 Apr 2021

Beyond the ban

Formal bans do not translate into substantial dents.

Editorial

Ban is no answer
Updated 16 Apr 2021

Ban is no answer

The ban will not dilute the narrative that fuels the party, it may even fan it.
16 Apr 2021

Slow recovery

THE pace of growth in large-scale manufacturing output continues to slow down, with LSM production contracting by...
16 Apr 2021

Ramazan profiteering

WITH the month of Ramazan underway, people have begun to feel the effects of galloping inflation even more. Prices...
Afghanistan exit
Updated 15 Apr 2021

Afghanistan exit

Afghanistan has suffered for decades as powerful local players have refused to compromise and have insisted on hogging power.
15 Apr 2021

New census

EARLIER this week, the Council of Common Interests approved the controversial National Population and Housing ...
15 Apr 2021

With no place to go

No matter where one looks, one can’t escape the heartrending sight of scores of children of all ages begging, ...