Tuesday, October 28, 2014


October 29, 2014   http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/24578/series-2-the-djinn-part-1-who-are-you/

I did as he wished, making him promise he'd come back for a chat again. He agreed and walked back into the stand.

The Pattersons, an English couple and previous owners of my grandparents’ house, had returned to where they had come from when their countrymen left India. There’s a picture of them on the landing; she is sitting on a deck chair in shorts while he is hanging over the back in white flannels with a chota peg in hand. Both of them appear to be sun-streaked blondes, the “dahling”, coffee party types.
My grandmother, on the other hand, modelled herself as the ideal woman in her Bahishti zewar (heavenly ornaments) which meant that the sun rose in my grandfather’s… well from his ear, give or take a letter, and set there too. My grandmother’s hair was not sun-streaked because it never saw the sun.
There were huge, old trees everywhere in the neighbourhood; many would be surrounding my grandparents’ green shuttered house as well. The English couple’s yearning for sunlight had obviously been overridden by the heat of their adoptive enslaved land and thus they decided to let the trees be. And since legend has it that djinns occupy massive, old trees, a djinn was said to live in this house.
The idea of a djinn’s presence made each successive occupant of the house rather nervous. Even though I had discovered a letter, dated June 1942, in a drawer expressing the occupant’s fear of a presence, it was exciting enough to render the house conspicuous. The letter read,
“I never go upstairs alone unless I have the houseboy with me…”
Our relatives called my grandparents’ house a “Jinnon walla ghar” (house of djinns) and the reflected glory gave my grandfather, rather a quiet individual, a degree of importance amongst his acquaintance.
No one had actually seen one of these djinns, until in the light of one slatted afternoon. I was feeling a bit drowsy and so I left my computer to entertain myself by trying on my grandfather’s hats, which hung on an old wooden stand in the corner. I discarded a khaki pith helmet in favour of a white one and then tilted the base of the stand to inspect a drawer that had been built into its base, perhaps for softer caps or scarves. Tilting the stand made one of the hats slip off its peg, which fell to the ground with a thunk. I slipped it back onto the hook but it fell again as I moved away. I bent to pick it up yet again and noticed the stand wobble a bit. Thinking the floor under it may be uneven, I edged the stand onto another spot and a voice peevishly said,
“Don’t keep doing that! You’re making me dizzy!”
Hats skittered across the floor as I let go of the stand. A figure all of six inches high fell out of the drawer. A large black veil with a gauzy inset for the eyes covered its face. Below this, the creature wore a bikini and a pair of large black and white spats.
Theatrically holding a hand to its forehead, it said,
“I’ve never felt more shaken in my life!”
It stood up, tripped over the veil and fell onto a hat, squashing it flat.
“What…are you? A djinn?”
I found it hard to believe it.
“But you’re tiny!”
Childhood tales and visions of djinn – a gigantic moustachioed personage with a ‘Ho Ho Ho’ voice –died a mocking death.
“No, I’m a hat,” he sneered. “And what does size have to do with anything!”
“Why are you dressed like that?”
I wished my words unsaid even as I spoke. I added hastily,
“I mean are… are you cold? Should I get you something warmer?”
“Djinns never feel cold,” he said loftily. “And these belonged to my first people,” he gestured towards the bikini and the shoes, “And this to your grandmother,” pointing towards the veil.
Before I could stop myself, I asked,
“Nothing of my grandfather’s?”
“I live in the middle of his hats!” he snapped. “He used Brylcreem, you know, lots of it! I don’t need more of him!”
“But aren’t you a man… I mean a man djinn… so the bikini and the veil?”
“Yes I’m a male, what of it? Must you be a woman to wear a bikini? Your grandmother would be thrilled,” he snickered. “And do you ever know who’s behind a veil?  What does that matter then?”
I gestured my assent.
“If you have to wear something of my grandmother’s, why not wear it around your neck or your waist though?”
“What good is a veil around my neck?” he scoffed.
“What good is a veil across the face?” I shot back, “except to get tangled in your feet and make you fall down.”
I realised that was a bit below the belt. But he shrugged,
“I’ve always worn it. You never question something you’ve always done.”
“That’s true,” I said, thinking of some things myself.
“And you often condemn what you’ve never tried,” he added.
“Have you ever worn a veil?”
I shook my head.
“Or a bikini?”
I shook my head again.
“Of course not.”
He spread out his hands in a gesture that said ‘Q E D’.
“But I don’t think anyone should wear it either,” I persisted. “I know you say if I don’t wear them, I’d condemn them but I’m not condemning them, just questioning them.”
“Well, that’s a refreshing change at least. So what’s wrong with a bikini?”
The djinn settled back on his hat, clearly humouring me.
“Well… it’s… it’s a bit unsanitary,” I said, unsure of what to say or how to say it.
“Only if I sit on your lunch,” he said nastily. “And the veil?”
“It’s impractical,” I said, on surer ground.
My mother defended her veil-less state often enough
“You tripped…”
“Yes, I tripped,” he said bitterly. “And so?”
“So, that probably happens all the time,” I said. “So you can never plough a field or ride a horse or work in a factory if you have a cloth hanging off your face.”
“Like there are factories and horses and factories behind every peg in my stand,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Yes, but what if there were?” I persisted. “You could never work in them.”
“Right now mister, I wish only to have a cup of tea and my afternoon nap. Kindly pick up that stand and let me back inside.”
I did as he wished, making him promise he’d come back for a chat again. He agreed and walked back into the stand but popped his head out a second later.
“You don’t even know my name!” he said mockingly.
He was right, I asked him what it was, but he laughed.
“You couldn’t get past my clothes. You’re all the same. Ask me next time.”
He waved, and this time he was really gone.
Part II of  Series 2: “The Djinn” will be published on Wednesday, October 28, 2014. Stay tuned to see how the story unfolds!

Saturday, October 4, 2014



Soranus, a Greek physician practising in Rome in the 2nd century AD wrote about patients presenting with soft bones and terrible deformities. Frustratingly, he didn’t know what caused this. The patients he observed had ‘rickets’; the name first appeared in 1634 in a record of deaths and casualties among the people of London.

In the 20th century a deficiency of Vitamin D, and therefore low calcium absorption was identified as the cause, since Vitamin D enables the absorption of calcium. Rickets, a childhood disease, is the severe form of this deficiency.
Vitamin D also keeps the immune system working, therefore a deficiency of Vitamin D could be a contributing factor towards other diseases as well such osteoporosis, dementia, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, several autoimmune diseases, cancer, psychiatric disorders, obesity, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma and other pulmonary dysfunctions.
It was also discovered in the twentieth century that an adequate exposure to sunlight, which is easily absorbed by the skin and contains abundant Vitamin D, is a free and simple cure for this deficiency. Startlingly, Vitamin D deficiency is very common in Pakistan.  In this sun drenched region this is like running out of ice in the Arctic Circle.
Prevention and cure are unfortunately not simply a matter of improving the diet. Food as a source of Vitamin D is relatively less important because Vitamin D occurs naturally in very few foods. Cod liver oil contains high but still insufficient levels. Other foods such as egg yolks, certain fresh fish and mushrooms also contain Vitamin D but you would need for example more than ten eggs from un-caged hens daily for your requirements. In some countries Vitamin D is added to cereals, margarine and orange juice, but not in Pakistan.  In this country the bulk of the population lives below the poverty line and few people have access to healthy or sufficient food.  To expect them to afford, say, cod liver oil is like Marie Antoinette’s suggestion of cake for the poverty stricken French masses.
Luckily Pakistan is blessed with abundant sunshine. The best way and free way to get Vitamin D therefore, is for every man, woman and child with an average skin colour to expose as much skin as possible to the sun for several minutes a day.  The amount of sun required for persons with fairer skin is less, because fair skin absorbs the sun more easily and is prone to serious damage as a result of over exposure to the sun. For both though, the requisite Vitamin D in the blood is a minimum of around 20 (ng)/mL.  The ideal winter level is approximately 35-40 (ng)/mL.
Treatment is of course at the discretion of a physician who can explore the reliability of a blood test result in the presence of other factors. However, broad new guidelines indicate that the average Vitamin D requirement is 1000 IU per day.
Many Pakistanis have no choice except to toil in the sun, still, acquiring fair skin appears to be a national obsession, one that even respected public figures capitalise on.  People resorting to bleach and skin whitening creams and soaps are unlikely to expose themselves to the sun.
There is also the cultural taboo against women baring much skin. Therefore:
Doctor to a patient who is severely deficient in Vitamin D: ‘Which part of your house receives the most sun?’
Patient: ‘The roof.’
Doctor: ‘Well then, I want you to sit on the roof with your shalwar pulled up to the knees and your sleeves above your elbows for some time every day. It’s better if you do this in the morning because morning sunlight is most beneficial.’
By his own reckoning the doctor had dealt rather well with the matter, because the woman, covered from head to toe in a black burka could hardly be advised to don short sleeves in public.  But, the patient laughing mirthlessly reminded the doctor that he reckoned without the testosterone filled head of the household.  She was, she said, never allowed on the roof which is overlooked by three neighbouring houses.
Until the matter is dealt with on other fronts therefore these recommendations can only be reiterated, that a person with Vitamin D deficiency should eat foods rich in Vitamin D, but more important, he or she should expose as much skin as possible to sunlight every day as mentioned earlier. Male patients should be able to comply easily; women must find a spot not overlooked by another house, out of bounds to male servants, inaccessible to male visitors and then comply with these crucial instructions if so permitted by the resident testosterone.
The following advice should be taken ONLY following professional medical guidance: As per current guidelines, in addition to exposure to sunlight persons with Vitamin D deficiency should take a 50,000 IU tablet of Vitamin D plus the regular requirement of Calcium once a week for four to six weeks, and then drop the dose to 50,000 IU every eight weeks for as long as supported by continuing blood tests.
As an alternative to the expensive tablets a vial of Vitamin D meant to be injected may be taken orally if the vial is broken with care and the liquid strained.
Women in purdah should use light coloured fabric, in as light a weave as possible to permit some sunlight through the layers of cloth to the skin.  Given their many constraints the people of Pakistan obviously need to work on their religio-social priorities and then manage as well as they can. In most countries the government would help, but perhaps it’s best not to go there for now.



I don’t seem to have reviewed a single humorous book unless you count ‘Happy Things in Sorrow Times’ as such, and that was ridiculous, not humorous, a kind of foolish, mirthless third cousin. This month therefore I’ve chosen ‘Hyperbole and a Half,’ a book by Allie Brosh.  Actually, its full name is: ‘Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened.’ If I didn’t review it now, the name alone should tell you something.
Brosh decided in 2009 to become an internet blogger. ‘This was a horrible idea for too many reasons,’ she writes, ‘but the decision wasn’t really based on logic.’ So Allie started her blog which you may find at hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com.  ‘Things sort of spiralled from there,’ said Allie, which means that the blog, with its combination of humour and primitive MS Paint illustrations, became a huge success. When in 2011 she went offline for more than a year thousands of fans agonised over the reason and were delighted when she resurfaced in 2013, to announce that she was putting together a book, and this is that book, a graphic novel, published in October 2013 by Simon and Schuster.
A book however was only one reason for Brosh’s disappearance. The other was a severe bout of depression.
Several well known persons have struggled with depression; you’d know Kurt Cobain was depressed by his lyrics, you can imagine Dostoyevsky with depression, and definitely Edgar Allen Poe.  Many have employed humour so effectively that depression is not evident, Douglas Adams who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, and Stephen Fry of Jeeves fame, and Mark Twain.  Allie Brosh writes about her depression and discusses her suicidal urges and feelings of despair.  ‘I just woke up one day feeling sad and helpless for absolutely no reason,’ she writes.
This candour is one reason for the popularity of her blog and this book. Psychologists have called it the ‘most insightful depiction of depression to date’. Readers who suffer from depression, and there are many, relate closely to her writing.  She speaks of her adulthood and her childhood, of panic, of motivating herself to action by means of fear and shame, and about the times she cannot bring herself to do simple tasks.  She tells how returning a movie once became an insurmountable challenge: ‘surely I have more control over my life than this. Surely I wouldn’t allow myself to NEVER return the movie.’ But that’s exactly what happened. ‘After thirty five days, I decided to just never go back to Blockbuster again.’
‘Most people can simply motivate themselves to do things,’ she says, ‘but not me. For me motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it…I never know whether I’m going to win or lose until the last second.’
In spite of this she is hilarious, and her crude illustrations extremely expressive. In an incident where her mother baked a cake for her grandmother, Allie describes how she tried to get at the cake by every means at her disposal, until finally her mother locked it into a room. Allie managed to break in and eat the entire cake then spent the entire evening in a hyperglycaemic fit.
The funniest sections of her book prose and graphic are those that deal with her two dogs, simple dog, and helper dog. Allie and her husband got ‘helper dog’ to make life more interesting for ‘simple dog’ and ended up making life challenging for them all, if you can imagine a dog crouching in the corner of your room at night, rigid as a block of wood, just staring at you all night long. The helper dog moreover, as far as Brosh can tell, believes firmly that other dogs should not exist. That they do fill her ‘with uncontrollable, psychotic rage,’ and throws her into a hysterical fit of ‘scream barking,’ (I love that term and have lost count of the times I have been able to apply it since).  But ‘’she can’t do anything to prevent the world from containing dogs, so instead, she is determined to make sure that no other dogs enjoy existing.’’
Hyperbole and a Half: the book became a New York Times bestseller and remained on the NPR Non-fiction Bestseller list for twenty nine weeks.