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View from US: Fifty shades of longing

August 26, 2012

Do not visit the commonplace, aka nostalgia, we are often scolded. Break this rule we must. When the present is arid, how is one supposed to celebrate the day when we can eat, drink and be oneself?

Today, my column lacks a narrative, an image, a story on Eid in America. If the landscape is barren; the feelings are flat. Home is where the heart is, they say. Our hearts are often times in faraway places that hold our roots, relatives and much more. I have trawled through the trajectory of time spending many Eids that the lunar cycle has thrown up — from snowy winters to sizzling summers — in America. Even written about them. Almost all unremarkable. Last year, I went to the Islamic Centre that is two towns over from where I live in New Jersey. I offered my prayers, looked at people around me, smiled vacantly and came home.

The only thing to cheer me was the magnificence of that morning, the last day of August. It’s beauty was divine. And of course, cups of coffee whose count I was not bothered with. It was Eid and to celebrate life was heavenly.

Flashbacks I remember return today: the shades of henna one applied on one’s palms with crazy extensions on the back of the hands and forearms. The application rendered one momentarily paralysed with feet and their soles covered in mehndi. No, one was not competing with the teenaged nieces but only trying to be a sport. Tariq Road on Chand Raat was a must.

Daughter in tow, not yet a teen, I became a free spirit, driving along Drigh Road (that’s what it was called then), only to brake when a parking space got spied. I didn’t mind the mad traffic nor the heat and dust of the evening. Our agenda had only one point — fun.

As morning arrived, the front bell began chiming. Neighbours showed up. Gota, kinari and the jingle jangle of matching glass bangles took over the day. More than beauty, there was a wholesomeness of spirit, conviviality and joy on men, women and children’s faces. Only Eid had the power to draw out the best in us. Even the mandatory calls on the bosses of spouses were acceptable. It was expected of one to go wish Eid Mubarak to the boss. The compulsory chore over, rest of the day was as and what and where one wanted to do and go.

Eids in Islamabad were sterile. The Capital showed a haunted look. Residents left for their homes elsewhere. There was not much to do either, other than drive around aimlessly, notice an acquaintance’s home, stop to drop in. The hosts would be pleasantly surprised but greet us like long lost buddies.

“We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds,” says Haruki Murakami in his book Kafka on the Shore. “There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. New styles, new information, new technology, new terminology. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are somethings we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.”

But memories are passé today.

America, nay the world is currently seized with something else. An erotic novel called Fifty Shades of Grey. Written by a British author of insignificance, it has been on the New York Times bestseller’s list for months. The three part series — Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, have sold 40 million copies around the world. Thirty-seven countries have bought the book rights, setting a record as the fastest-selling paperback of all times, even beating the Harry Potter series. Author Erika Leonard, who uses the pen name E.L James is married and has two teenage sons.

Anticipating rejections from publishers, she self published the novel as an e-book. It soon got picked up by well-known publishing houses and a bidding war to win the printing rights began. “My only dream was to see Fifty Shades of Grey in a bookshop — the explosion of interest has taken me completely by surprise,” said James. Describing the Fifty Shades trilogy, she said “This is my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”

There are many libraries in America who have banned the book calling it pornography. “We would not like to have such books in our home,” say many. No wonder, the book’s sales are phenomenal on Kindle e-book reader. “I like to read it and be done with it,” commented a woman friend, who is curious to know what the contents of the trilogy are but is embarrassed to own it in print.

Time Magazine included E.L James in its annual list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” The world then has moved on, preferring fantasies to memories. I recall the words of a teacher in creative writing at Harvard who told the class: “If you want to write a memoir, it has to be brutally honest, chilling enough to become a page-turner!” He was hinting at something bizarre, whim-wham that would entertain and shock at the same time. No thanks, I shuddered.

Why is reality such a turn off? Why does the world hanker after make-believe fiction that breaks through barriers of disbelief in the mind, enough to blow people away? To shock, thrill and excite the fantasies of the mind. Science fiction has readily done the needful and seduced writers and filmmakers. Simply put sci-fi is a “A genre of fiction in which scientific and technological issues feature prominently, especially including scenarios in which speculative but unproven scientific advances are accepted as fact, and usually set at some time in the future, or in some distant region of the universe.”

The sci-fi film Hunger Games caught the fancy of the world this year, becoming the first film since Avatar to bag the first place in the US box office for four consecutive weekends. But the latest ‘craze’ is Dark Knight Rises, released last month. It has become the second  highest-grossing film of the year. The young and old hunger after something freaky, unearthly and shamanic to satisfy their fifty shades of longing. Not all of us are on board, of course. The past is our fifty shades of longing.