Monday, November 24, 2014

Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi: book review

Between Clay and Dust (2013) commences in 1950 in Pakistan, just after Partition from India.

In 1935 Ustad Ramzi won the highest wrestling title in the land. He is now the custodian of an akhara for wrestlers. The akhara (training academy) is where men become men - where “a man made of clay came in contact with his essence.” But the future of the sport is uncertain and training academies are declining.

Adjacent to the akhara is a private cemetery where Ustad Ramzi’s unfilled grave lies waiting for him. He has no wife, nor children because he "vowed to remain celibate to achieve perfection in his art.”

Gohar Jan was an accomplished singer and incredibly famous. She now has her own kotha (training academy) - once the largest and most famed in the land - where girls receive instruction in the arts of musical entertainment. So serious was the pursuit of the arts that if the trainee girls fell in love, they had to choose whether to leave the academy or to leave their romance. Gohar Jan herself had never married because she remained committed to her art.

Ustad Ramzi makes regular visits to Gohar Jan’s academy where he could “understand how music could quieten the aggressive humours of his soul.” He passes on custodianship of his academy to his brother, Tamami, 20 years his junior. But the academy soon falls into disarray.

Gohar Jan’s academy is losing its high-class appeal too – it smells of dampness, the carpets are musty, dust is gathering, fewer people are attending, and the music rooms become quiet. She retains her faithful long-time servant, Banday Ali, even though he is addicted to opium. Malka, 23 years old – whom Banday Ali found as a baby left on the academy’s doorstep, and raised by Gohar Jan when the local orphanage could not take her – wanted to stay at the academy. Malka was pretty but she grew up to be “cold and reserved” – and Gohar Jan had never allowed her to perform. Gohar Jan encourages Malka to become Hayat’s bride and leave the academy, which she shuts down. Now Gohar Jan has to come to terms with solitude without Malka and without clients.

Ustad Ramzi has a bout with his younger brother. Tamami feels as if his strength has been proven when he defeats Ustad Ramzi. Now the hero of the academy, Tamami competes in further wrestling matches despite the constant pain in his joints. He takes drugs to relieve his agony, but his match with Imama brings unintended consequences.

Gohar Jan is surprised when Ustad Ramzi visits the academy – hadn’t he heard that it had closed? There was no-one to perform for him. Not wanting to send Ustad Ramzi away, Gohar Jan picks up the sitar and plays.

The area where they live is re-zoned into a commercial district, and investors are interested in Ustad Ramzi’s and Gohar Jan’s properties. They are now both retired, and are both faced with a major decision – to sell their training academies (their homes) or not.

Farooqi’s novel is about the shift in the lives of two once-famed individuals, now in their ‘twilight’ years: the shift from fame to obscurity, and authority to loss of power. Their skills are no longer sought after or valued, just as the old government before Partition gives way to a new regime, with major changes and restructuring.   

Bare writing depicts bare emotions. Restrained writing depicts the restrained and disciplined lives of Ustad and Gohar. Farooqi explores themes such as avoiding humiliation, retaining integrity and identity, and the realization of the two characters that their strength of body and discipline are declining. The writing is poignant, sad, and wistful. With interesting characters and themes, this is a powerful story simply told.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda: November 2014

Annually, since 2007, around 800 thought-leaders from around the world meet in the United Arab Emirates in November for the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda (the News International, November 19, 2014).

Incorporating around 80 Global Agenda Councils on a wide range of topics, the WEF summit is recognized as the world’s largest brainstorming event.

Each year the WEF documents trends related to challenges and opportunities for the upcoming year in their report, Outlook on the Global Agenda. This year the report outlined 10 global trends facing the world over the next 12-18 months (compiled and ranked using the Delphi method).

The ten global trends included:
  • deepening income inequality
  • persisting jobless growth
  • rising pollution
  • increasing occurrences of extreme weather events
  • increasing water stress
  • emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases
  • weakening of representative democracy (and a disconnect between citizens and the officials that represent them)
  • increasing backlash against globalisation (and the retreat to nationalism and regionalism)
  • increasing lack of global leadership
  • increasing transformational opportunities related to technology, science and innovation

Saturday, November 22, 2014

In the City by the Sea by Kamila Shamsie: book review

In the City by the Sea (1998) begins on the roof of Hasan’s house in Karachi, Pakistan. Hasan is 11 years old, living with his artistic mother, Ami, and his lawyer father, Aba. “The family’s unspoken rules had it that this was Hasan’s territory, as sacred as Ami’s studio or Aba’s crossword-chair.”

On the roof Hasan observes a young boy on a nearby roof, kite flying, “not for one moment turning [his] eyes away – not to blink at the sun … not even to watch for the roof to end.” Hasan sees the boy fall. The boy’s fall becomes a constant image in Hasan’s head. “The time it took him to fall from roof to ground seemed an eternity, longer and longer each time Hasan replayed it in his mind.” Hasan feels guilty. He thinks the boy’s fall to his death is his fault: “getting so involved in making the kite fly, because he knew I was watching.”

Hasan’s uncle, Salman Mamoo, whom Hasan idolises, tells Hasan, “before I wanted to be a cricketer, I wanted to be an astronomer.” But he entered politics. He was arrested for treason and placed under house arrest. Hasan could visit as often as he liked. He takes books for his uncle to read: a star gazer’s guide, a cricket book, the novel Lord of the Rings, and a textbook on mathematics.

Three months later a new President was elected. Hassan liked Zehra next door. She was two years older than Hassan, with a black dog called Ogle. Hasan thinks the new President’s spirit has been imprisoned inside Ogle. The dog and the President have the same birthday; they both have a scar over their left eyebrow; they fell ill at the same time; Ogle’s left paw was bandaged at the same time as the President’s left hand was bandaged; and “while the President’s speech was broadcast live on television, he and Ogle scratched their ear at the same moment.”

His uncle was taken from house arrest to prison. “Now Hasan knew what anger was.” He remembered how his uncle was revered as a politician - people cheered him as “the saviour, the future, the only hope.” Now he was in prison, about to be tried in a military court for treason. But the anger came from the fact that “Salman Mamoo’s imprisonment didn’t even get a page six side-bar” in the newspaper.

This is a novel of a young boy coming to terms with change – with his feelings of guilt about the death of the kite-flying boy, with the imprisonment of his uncle, the changing political landscape within the country, and his changing relationship with Zehra. Delightfully told - it reveals a boy’s interactions with family and friends – and whom he confides in during difficult times.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein: book review

Another Gulmohar Tree (2009) is a tale within a tale – or rather, the intertwining of fable with fiction. Hussein commences in poetic fashion with three Pakistan fables in the first chapter, Usman’s Song. Usman is a young Pakistani boy guarding his family’s fields, sheltering from the heat under a gulmohar tree “flowerless but green.” He shares his meagre food with a little green frog that perched on his knee. The heat makes him sleepy and he dreams of the tree’s golden flowers falling on him. Two simultaneous fables are interwoven within Usman’s Song. One is of a deer wandering into Rokeya’s garden – she shelters from the rain under a gulmohar tree. She sees a frog and hears the distant echo of a young boy singing. Her mother warns her not to make a pet of a wild animal. The last fable is of a farmer’s three children who woke a sleeping crocodile. They had to keep a promise to the crocodile to stay safe. Home was far away where the boundary was marked by a gulmohar tree.

The gulmohar tree is the name of the tree in India, Nepal and Pakistan – for Australians it is known as the flame tree (Delonix regia), and for others it is the royal Poinciana or the flamboyant tree. With large red (and yellow variety) flowers, when in bloom, the tree is strikingly beautiful.

The second, narrative chapter, Another Gulmohar Tree, describes Usman Ali Khan, a 19-year-old newly-married writer on a year’s secondment from Karachi to the foreign desk of The Daily Telegraph in London in 1950. Lydia Javashvili is a 30-year-old illustrator, the daughter of a half-Georgian √©migr√© and a Catholic Scottish mother, awaiting finalization of her divorce. Usman and Lydia meet at a socialist seminar. There was no romance, only a promise to “keep in touch.”

Two years later, on an impulsive whim, Lydia travels by boat to Karachi to visit Usman. Usman’s wife had died, and he proposed to Lydia. At the “brief, unsentimental wedding ceremony” Lydia “in perfectly comprehensible Urdu, said, I, Rokeya, accept.” Usman couldn’t conceal his surprise at her Urdu, her new name, and “without asking” her conversion to Islam. Thus their life in Pakistan begins. Three children later, and with her at work, and Usman’s change from newspapers to writing stories, Rokeya too ventures from illustrating children’s stories to writing her own novel. This changes everything for Usman. “At night, he was again plagued by those odd dreams that had made him shake himself awake in his youth: he was climbing a ladder to the sky which ended in an empty space … and was left dangling in mid-air.”

He took to sleeping on a pallet on the veranda. “Companionship and inspiration, not dependency and duty, were what he wanted.” He leafed through Rokeya’s sketch book which she left on the veranda, “open and fluttering in the morning breeze,” and sees “her bright impressions” of their garden’s gulmohar tree in full flower. He walks barefoot towards it. It was not in flower. What is she noticing that he is not?

Gently written, it is a short novel of love that changes over time, beginning not from an abundance of passion and excitement, but gradually warming and evolving with its own memories of togetherness. Hussein explores togetherness as a couple with individual dreams and goals, and their convergence or divergence – layered with the love of two people from two different cultures, one who sacrificed all to live with the person she couldn’t forget, and the other coming to terms with the person he met with the person she’d become.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Life like Other People's by Alan Bennett: book review

A Life like Other People’s (2005 first published, 2009 edition) is the prolific British dramatist, author, and actor’s autobiographical novel, written at the age of 62. Bennett (1943-) writes an amazingly honest account of his grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles – of their depression and dementia.

He begins with his mother, Lilian, and her depression in 1966 and the way his father, brother, and himself cope. He is living in London, but travels to Leeds to visit whenever it gets worse. She has fears – she has delusions – she has moments of unreason. “And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depresson was not madness.” But no doctor was prepared to say how long her depression would last. After six weeks of what his father called “this flaming carry-on” she voluntary admitted herself into the ‘mental hospital’ in Lancaster for the first time.

Bennett’s description of the ‘mental hospital’ is harrowing and sad, but there was always some hope. In the eight years between the onset of his mother’s first depression and his father’s death in 1974, she was admitted to hospital half a dozen times, three of those times she had electro-convulsive therapy. There were long periods of remission, months, and years even.

Through his mother’s depression, he learns of the death of Grandad Bennett – he did not die in the manner he was told.  His two aunts – Kathleen and Myra – were not without troubles of their own either. For Myra, the war was a godsend; she enlisted in 1945 and travelled the globe. Myra married Stan, 10 years her junior, but in 1964 he was flown home from Malaya (now Malaysia) suffering inoperable cancer and died soon after. Kathleen and Myra were constant companions until the eve of Kathleen’s retirement from work when she is “courted and briskly married by an elderly widower from Australia. It’s a turn of events which takes Kathleen as much by surprise as it does everyone else.” Kathleen sells the house and travels the globe with her new husband Bill while the former globetrotting sister “lives in a succession of briefly rented rooms” which exude hopelessness. Myra’s death takes everyone by surprise, diagnosed as asthma. After a lengthy Pacific cruise “something begins to happen to Aunty Kathleen’s head.” Doctors diagnose Alzheimers and she is admitted to hospital. One day she wanders off, and the author finds her dead in the woods. She’d been lying on the path for six days.

The person Bennett was most worried about – his mother – outlives everyone. She died in 1995, 19 years after her husband.

Incidences of lives ended by suicide, dementia, and sudden illnesses are told in a way that makes the reader understand the hardships of depression – not only on the person, but on the family. Sometimes there was compassion, but mostly there was not. Not because they were cruel or heartless, but because it was so unknown – and not discussed. The secrets family kept from the public and each other are revealed – secrets borne by shame and unfamiliarity, and yet so familiar in the Bennett family.

Bennett’s autobiography was written at a time when he was diagnosed with cancer – with the expectation that he would soon be dead, and it would be posthumously published – which explains the openness of feelings and thoughts. And if readers recognize their own families, as many will, the book will serve to add to their understanding of having a loved one ‘not right in the mind’ in a poignant, but also often comical way.