Thursday, 25 December 2014

And Never Would...

I saw you,
Sitting there peacefully
Scribbling something,
eyes unfocused, life turmoiled
trying you were,
to listen yet ignore,
the stirrings, somewhere inside,
But I heard them,
somewhere in the distance,
and I assure you,
that you can trust them,
and that you can go after them,
and that you can love them,
Just as I do.
Though you don't know,
and never would.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Aag ka Darya (The River of Fire) by Qurat ul Ain Haider- Book Review

If a novel forces you to stop now and then, and consider your own life and its extensions and from where it got extended, then there should be no doubt about the eloquent depth of that novel. The story creeps inside you, bit by bit, until it permanently extends itself inside you. For me, such was the experience of reading Aag ka Darya. It demanded a great deal of effort to read it in Urdu, for like most fourth generations of the post-colonial countries, our attachment with and command over our language is pretty shallow. However, such was the eloquence of this novel that the whole mental structure of Urdu got redefined for me, of what Urdu can be and can contain. In short, the effort was well worth it, both in terms of meaning and linguistics.

The novel starts with the Urdu translation of 'The Dry Salvages', a poem by TS Eliot. The emphasis of the poem is on reincarnation, of how the past repeats itself in the future. This theme is carried out throughout the novel by Qurat ul Ain in great depth.

The story starts in 400 BC, the age of Chankya, the first Indian philosophical giant the implementations of whom's political and religious philosophy kept the subcontinent united and under control. Qurat ul Ain Haider's emphasis is on the portrayal of such rule from the lenses of the most native people, the subalterns if you will; a theme that is persistent through out the novel. Gautam Nelamber is the character she conjures up to personify those lenses; a character in pursuit of knowledge in the Hindu traditions. He finds himself at various hamlets and is bothered by the questions whose horizons lie outside the theological and philosophical discourses that he is taught. Here comes another major theme of this novel, rather a question. Is their an end to loneliness? Is a man destined to be lonely? During the course of over 2000 years of incarnations, the philosophies of Buddhism, colonialism , Hinduism , Marxism , Islamism and Nationalism are frequently used in the contextualization of the plots. If loneliness is a philosophy, then it is the major philosophy behind which all the other philosophies find their place.

And thus we advance through the ages, the questions as persistent as ever, the characters being reborn and their thinking being redefined according to time and space, yet the questions persisting and piercing as well. We get to see a very realistic and unbiased discourse of the narratives cultivated in the minds of ordinary citizens regarding colonialism, independence and post colonialism. At times, Haider also offers insights from the mind of those who are oppressing people. That may be a minor theme as well, how the oppressed or how the people who were so ideologically against oppression tend to do the same things, being molded by the obvious question of surviving in a better way. She also depicts the dilemmas of idealists who have to give up their cherished beliefs of equality and welfare when faced with the practical questions of earning a livelihood.

A novel that evolves in the grey area and does not talk in absolutes is a pretty rare thing in Urdu, and for that Urdu will always be grateful to Qurat ul Ain Haider. Halfway through the novel, I started relating it with 'One hundred years of solitude', the theme of the same repetitive patterns of incarnations being the common factor.But for me, the weaving around of different ideologies around the lives of ordinary people, portraying the effects of those ideologies on the outlook of their lives and then again how these ordinary people observe the even more ordinary or rather impoverished people in the context of those ideologies was something truly spectacular and something that gives it an edge over one hundred years of solitude.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Just Not The End

So this is that part of the year again, when the sun closes itself down and the unsaturated tears of some unloved mystery surround the atmosphere like a mirror. And that mirror brings out the unloved, unseen, unverified part inside of us to light, so that we can become aware of it. That awareness is beautiful for it is painful. It is beautiful because it indicates that stirring inside the abyss that we are, as if it is at the end of the metamorphosis, but not just the end.

It’s excruciating, yet exquisite when you are at a place which is just not the end.

You can see the light that stretches out in front of you, but you have to see the infinite darkness that you have overcome in pursuit of that light. Somehow, you tend to develop a strange fondness for that darkness. They don’t have a word for feeling attachment to bad memories. They call it nostalgia when you remember the happy times in the face of darkness. But we still don’t know what to label ourselves when we remember the other than happy times in the face of happy times.

Somethings linger longer than you would have suspected.

You thought that the choice will be easier once you were there. You thought that the stretching of your hand will be the most natural thing once the distance is the length of that arm. You thought that when you’ll have the strength to break the shell, watching that crack appear on the shell will be the first thing you'll want to see. You thought that when you’ll have the freedom to speak from a place of meaning and stirring, you won’t hesitate. You thought that when the sea was in the sight, touching and feeling the waves would be the only thing on your mind.

But that un-stretched hand, that confided existence, those repressed words and that wave less life lives inside you, breathing slowly in the face of its antithesis yet being consistent.

And then you are hit with an even stronger and scarier realization. That that strangled hand did not want to stretch. You did. That shell didn't want to break. You wanted the cracks. Those words of meaning wanted to stay inside. You were adamant to them being heard. That longing for the sea didn't want itself to end by seeing and touching the waves. You did.

Capital Why OO You.

That pain and wanting wanted more pain and wanting instead. You wanted a logical conclusion.

And now when you stand in front of that logical conclusion, you realize how divorced are you from every pain and wanting you have identified yourself with in your life. You derived your strength and a sense of identity from them, yet you were not the same as they were. You were always something bigger and incomprehensible for them and for yourself.
That awareness of enormous intricacy and strangeness lying ahead is what strangles your hand. The strength has to come from something different, something reflective of the beautiful ambiguity that lies ahead. Fear can’t provide that strength, for fear can fight, but it can’t create. It can’t be pain either. Pain can react, but the reaction towards intricacy and strangeness can never be the extension of the soul.

That is when you have to make the journey backwards one last time,yet this time differently, so that you can find the strength to go beyondwards.

Every silently won battle has to be honored. Every act of grace, done or being done to, has to be revered. Every blade of grass that was supporting your weight when you stared at the piercing sun has to be noticed and felt.  

I don’t know what lies at the end for I am not there yet. I don’t if I’ll ever be. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Painting (Short Story)

I hit him across his innocent, rosy face and within a second, the eyes that were glittering with excitement were shining with tears. I spent another hour telling him how worthless he was in my eyes and that he would never mount to anything in life. I made it abundantly clear that he was a disgrace to his parents who were naive enough to spend money on his education. He left my room with a heavy heart, and tears dripping on his cheeks like a waterfall, that finds a new direction after breaking some rock. I knew that what broke were his dreams. His only sin was to ask me if he could sketch a painting placed in my office because he loved to draw and sketch. He told me that he had always admired that painting a lot. He also told me that he wanted to become an artist someday. That was enough to set me off. And I did it for his own good. After all, I was his teacher and it was my responsibility to make my students practical. I was allowed to employ any means to do that. Since ancient times, teachers in the sub-continent have tortured their students so that life may not torture them and I was to carry that tradition of affronting students both verbally and physically, so that they may learn the stark realities of life beforehand.

I was busy justifying myself when my eyes fell on that painting. People who visited my office often praised that painting. It portrayed a secluded grassland, surrounded by mountains with a tree in the middle. There was a white-painted bench under that tree with a table in front. People said that that landscape gave them the impression of unbounded serenity and peace; something that was in direct conflict with the heated and loud discussions that were carried out here. I was so accustomed to berating people that they often thought that this painting ought to be a misfit in my office. How could someone, who could not resist even a little bit of criticism or creativity or anything out of the box buy such a piece of art which was clearly very expensive.

Of course I didn't buy it. I created it.

I still remember the time I painted that landscape. Those hours just went by like a boat that is carried by the waves towards its perfect destination without having to change the sails all the time. It was so effortless, so natural to hold a brush and interact with the canvas in the company of colors. Someone once asked me the reasons as to why I wanted to paint?’ ‘Well,’ I said with a smirk ‘you don’t ask why someone wants to breathe, right? ‘

It was a fairly convincing reason for me, but that kind of reasoning was unable to convince my father who needed to see tangible and instant benefits for doing anything.

From a very early age, he tried to incorporate within my mind that my world should be restricted to the books taught at the school and the Holy Book taught at the madrassa. Anything beyond that was sacrificing the prospect of a bright future by wasting time today. His firm belief was that there should be visible and instant benefits for doing anything and if that was not the case, it was not worth pursuing. He applied that principle in every area of his life; from his family and friends to his work place. He stopped me from playing any kind of sports or participating in any extra-curricular activity because he thought that such activities diverted my attention from education. I hated those restrictions placed upon me because I wanted to excel, to explore the world around me and to connect with that world. But I couldn’t voice my desires. Because for him, that was disobedience and he didn’t like it at all. If anything went against his will, he resorted to violence; both physically and verbally. And he didn’t stop there. He would call me in front of his friends (who were obviously like him) and would spend quite some time telling them how worthless and ungrateful I was. His friends would join in too, and every second spent there was filled with examples narrating the misfortunes of people who disobeyed their parents like that. After every such session, I could not sleep at night for those words echoed in my head and didn’t let go of me. So whenever I ventured to do anything other than what I was supposed to do, that stream of events of humiliation flashed through my mind and I instantly stopped, thinking of the sleepless nights I had to endure because of that.

I remember the time when I first laid my hands on a paint brush. I was in 6th grade and there was a compulsory drawing course which included painting. When I told my father that I needed some bottles of paint and a brush for that class, he instantly became furious and told me to do without it. So I attended that class without having any sort of equipment. The teacher took me to the principal and narrated the whole problem. The principal called my parents and talked about how they were constantly ignoring the needs of their child. I was standing nearby and I could see the expressions on my father’s face. I desperately wanted the Principal to stop right there but he carried on for quite some time, commenting on my uniform that was patched and boots that bore more stitches than leather.

I don’t want to go in details of what happened when we returned home. Long story short, I got bruises all over my body, a swollen eye and a few bottles of paint along with a brush. It was worth it.

The next day, the teacher asked me to have additional classes with her because I had missed quite a lot and needed to cover the syllabus in order to pass. The first thing I was asked to draw was a plant. The minute I started sketching the outline, I felt a certain jolt of excitement that I had long forgotten. I became so immersed in that work that my teacher had to clap in front of me to have my attention. ‘Time’s up, little champ’ she said, smiling, ‘And wow, that is amazing. I can’t believe that you did it.’ That sketch was displayed as the best class work.

I returned home, excited beyond measure, bursting to tell my tale. I told my father about it who remained impassive at first. I was called to his room later that night and he made it very clear that he had no interest whatsoever in either I excelled in that class or not and that I ought not to indulge too much in such activities. He also told me that he won’t buy me any new paint bottles for the rest of the year, so I had better be careful about how I used my supplies. But all of those warnings didn’t matter to me. I just told him that I would be having extra classes after school because I had missed a lot of stuff. With a grunt, he told me that he had no problem with that.

I couldn’t sleep that night too. But for the first time in my life, it was because of excitement and not of endless thoughts of being humiliated in the near past.

The next day, I again excelled in that drawing class. In the extra class, the teacher asked me to do something different. She told me to paint whatever I wanted to. I told her about the restraint I had on my resources. She lifted a piece of cardboard placed on a table beside me; a tray of paint bottles were on that table. ‘Do whatever you want with whatever is on that table and in your hands’ she smiled.

The afternoon that followed was the best time I had ever spent.

I started painting, despite everything that was piled up against that passion by my father. That teacher encouraged me a lot, seeing within me as someone who could really excel in that field. She lent me her room and some resources to do that. I was euphoric and really thought that I could break free of those chains that bound me, those that were imposed upon me since I was borne, the chains I felt were around for generations. I really thought that with every stroke of brush, I was making those chains weak.

Until one day, the chains I thought I had weakened with my brush strokes fell on me with all their might and all of this got lost; once and for all.

I used to hide my paintings in the store room. One day, while looking for his old office documents, my father discovered them. I was in high school back then and was hoping against hope that my father would allow me to take admission in an arts college. When I returned home that day, there were a lot of people sitting in the drawing room; his friends along with some family members but the moment I saw all my paintings staked in the middle of the room like a pile of skins of some slaughtered animals, my heart skipped a beat.

That afternoon, he shouted at me everything a father should never say to his son, no human being should ever say to another. He told me that I was a thief and a traitor. That I stole his money and time and expectations and abused them. That I was an ultimate disgrace to him and the whole family because I didn’t obey them. As if that wasn’t enough, he started hitting me in front of all those people sitting around. I always thought that being hit in front of a lot of people would be the ultimate pain.

The thing that happened next actually was.

He burned all those paintings that day in front of everyone else in that room and told me that if he ever found me near a canvas and a brush, I might as well leave the house.

I saw all those colors burn alongside the only moments of joy I ever had. I found out how cheap and worthless were they after all, both the colors and those moments. That ultimate humiliation of those colors and moments and the subsequent pain ensured that I never even touched a brush for quite some time.

Many years after that incident, when I became a teacher and was on my own, I tried to paint again. The moment I picked that brush, that drawing room, those people ,that hitting, those words, that pile, that fire and those colors flashed like a night mare and for the first time in my life, I couldn't manage to put anything on the canvas. I stared at the canvas with my hands shivering, unable to extend the brush to the bottle of paint and then again to the canvas.

I guess it all got lost in that drawing room, among those people, and in that fire.

I heard about the death of that teacher who first encouraged me to draw. I thought that I had better go and condole with the family of the departed. When I got there, her eldest son handed me a package and told me that her mother had asked him specifically to give it to me. I opened it and there was this painting I had long forgotten about, something I painted for a competition but had left it there for her consideration. I touched the canvas and my skin was met with the uneven layers of paint. The faint tint of the lost joys was still there. I didn’t know what to do with it. It reminded me of something I was, that got lost.

I decided to place it in my office, so that it may witness the pain and humiliation it caused me getting transferred ahead, the cycle continuing. The chains were still intact, stronger than ever, and I was strengthening them even further.