Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


COLUMN: From East to West and back

April 29, 2012

After journeying long in the world of arts and literature, including fifty years of stage and film acting and directing in England and America, Zia Mohyeddin has now chosen to collect himself and recount his years vibrant with significant experiences. So we have from him a volume called A Carrot is a Carrot, defined as a collection of “memories and reflections”.

The first and foremost is the memory of “dead leaves pulled along by the wind in the heat of the day”. With this memory haunting him he finds himself in his ancestral town, Kasur. It should be taken as an imaginative journey in the past.

He yearningly remembers the day he dared to explore the mysteries of that deserted narrow lane, which appeared to be a maze. How thrilling it was to find himself at the end of the maze under the sway of a mixture of sounds — the cries of the hawkers, the urgings of the sherbet sellers, the booming of the ganderiwallas, the tingling bells of the bicycles. He is now in the bazaar. What a vivid description of the place.

“The acrid odor of tobacco and gur lying in open sacks was soon overtaken by the aroma of freshly roasted grams. The cloth shops with their bolts of shiny silks and cotton gave off a whiff of vetiver; a few yards away was the soothing breezy fragrance of sherbets, which again dissolved into the tangy spicy fumes of fried aubergines. And once you moved down the street away from the cloth shops, it was fenugreek, fenugreek all the way”.

And how vividly he recollects the family members settled in Kasur, his eldest sister “who felt that she had an inherent authority on me”, aunt Ruqaya, “who had a kindly face and sad eyes. She had been suffering from all kinds of ailments but she did not whim or groan like my other aunts who were eternally complaining of swollen abdomens and sharp pains in their backs or their necks,” and aunt Ruqaya’s husband “Mianjee, my tall turbaned uncle, [who] rarely spoke”.

But most vividly comes to him the amiable image of his father. “In the best years of his life — after he burnt his English clothes and joined the Khilafat movement — he wondered a great deal in and around what was then known as Poona, trying to acquire musical knowledge from the gurus that lived in Maharashtra”.

Deeply devoted to music he was the most happiest when Punjab University announced that music would be part of its curriculum. “If that was one of the happiest days of my father’s life, then the day the music department was closed soon after the establishment of Pakistan was one of the saddest”.

From Kasur to the England of the 1950s and from tall turbaned Mianjee to Dylan Thomas is a long way. But the young Kasurian is seen moving with ease and confidence amid the crowd of London and BBC. You can recognise many famous poets, dramatists, theater actors, film directors, such as Dylan Thomas, Louis Macneice, Tennessee Williams, E.M. Foster. And Zia Mohyeddin is seen rubbing shoulders with them. “Tennesee Williams came into my dressing room offering a limp hand… He did not talk much except to say that Foster was lucky to have found me”.

And, lo, he meets the legendary Leila Matkar. “Her long hair that reached well below her waist, her Mogul miniature eyes, and her perfectly sculpted nose had made her into the darling of portrait painters. David Lean, the great movie director, must have been taken in by this quintessence of oriental beauty”.

In this book we come across two finely written portraits, one of Zia’s father Khadim Mohyeddin, and the other of Leila Matkar. But he is careful to tell us that he always stood at a respectable distance from the magical Leila, who with her chaste Urdu had come from Hyderabad.

After drinking deep in the rich Western tradition of arts and literature Zia comes back to his land and is aghast to see that “the performing arts were confined to horse and cattle show and fine arts to calligraphy — at an official level, that is”. He adds that almost a quarter of a century ago, dance had been declared a “Hindu thing”.

Zia had returned to his land after spending time in the free world and moving among the enlightened brains of that world. Armed with a new understanding he was finding it hard to reconcile with those appearing to him as frogs in a well. In fact, he detected something wrong in our national thinking, particularly with reference to culture, arts, and literature. “Seminars on culture,” he says, are fussy, time wasting procedures. “We shall not resolve anything unless we understand that what constitutes our ‘culture’ includes a relish of pursuits that become forbidden from time to time”.

However, he has a prescription for our ailment: “What we need are a few courageous eccentrics amidst us. Eccentrics are non- conformists and are vital for the health of a society”.