Tuesday, November 25, 2014



The midwife took me away to a distant village and left me under a tree, in a basket. My foster parents took me up into that tree.

Hercules ‘filtered’ through the kitchen wall one day, but it was not his unconventional entrance or his massive djinn like physique on that occasion that made me stare at him blankly. It was that I was not used to seeing him anywhere except in the study. When I inquired so, he shrugged and walked around the kitchen, peering at the various appliances, finally stopping at the toaster.
“What’s this?”
I allowed myself to reflect briefly on the irony of someone as powerful as Hercules being stumped by a kitchen toaster before explaining and offering to toast some bread to demonstrate, but he took the slice of bread from my hand and held it over his open mouth. I thought he was going to eat it; instead a flame shot out of his mouth.
The smell of burnt toast filled the kitchen, the charred bread fell to the counter and my mother walked in the door. I darted forward to hide Hercules from her view. Although given his size that day, that ought to have been a physical impossibility, but to my amazement, I succeeded. After a few pithy observations regarding the carelessness of grown sons who forgot bread in the toaster knowing its thermostat no longer worked, and injunctions to clean up, my mother turned around and left the room again.
“She didn’t see you!” I exclaimed.
“Neither did you until a few months ago,” he pointed out reasonably.
I opened my mouth to argue, but closed it again. It was true.
He nodded.
“Tell me, do you remember when we first met, and you objected to my attire?”
“I still do,” I said apologetically.
I gestured towards him.
“You’re okay now, but when you’re smaller, the bikini, the veil…”
“But you accepted that I had a right to dress as I liked, that you reacted strongly because one rarely questions something one has always done, and condemns something new.  Didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did,” I agreed.
He had made me realise that was so.
“You were amazed that I could read minds, but within moments you had accepted it and were pushing me to read yours.”
“Yes,” I agreed again.
“In fact, my taste in books was harder to accept than that I was a djinn and talking to you, even stranger than my ability to conjure things out of thin air. You accepted without demur that I was the starving man Bernice Patterson saw on the carpet, that I could appear and disappear as I wished. When you left, you were pondering not over any of that but on how you too could make a difference by means of your writing. Did you not?”
“I did, Hercules, but why are you telling me this? You know it. I know it, its reality. All I asked you was why my mother didn’t see you.”
“Reality, is it? Is that why most people disregard these things? Perhaps it is only what you perceive that is reality? Are all those people that we spoke about, the ones who were killed, burnt, condemned to death because someone said they committed blasphemy, perhaps none of them were, or are real because no one gives them a thought?”
“Of course they’re real. But I hadn’t thought about them until…”
“Yes, until I pushed you to. At least, that does not make mine a pointless exercise, even if you think it was. After all, no one appreciates being forced to think. But does that make these people an illusion till then? That is a dangerous idea, my friend, it leads to delusion. So many people, with separate realities and everything else an illusion makes an illusion of reality itself… but what a compelling, what a terrible illusion it is! It leaves just too much to the imagination.”
An image flashed through my mind, too wild to be entertained for long, of everyone with bubbles on their heads, like goldfish bowls inverted…
“My mother didn’t see me either, but in a different way.”
He said this so quietly that I wasn’t sure if I’d heard it.
“My parents were childless, until an old woman who was good with spells and amulets, gave my mother a staff and asked her to twirl it in a pit lined with dry leaves. She said she would then conceive a child at the end of that month.”
“What a stupid…”
There was both humour and pain in the look Hercules gave me.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”
“My mother agreed but in her desperation for a child, she twirled the stick a bit more enthusiastically than she had been advised and in the wrong direction. Fire came out of its end and the leaves ignited. My father was terrified. He said it was an evil omen. They decided to give away their child if one was indeed born of such methods.”
“My mother fell pregnant with me but she never saw me. I was indeed born of fire. The midwife took me away to a distant village and left me under a tree, in a basket. My foster parents took me up into that tree. Yes, my parents were human and my foster parents were djinns. They brought me up and they told me this story.”
I didn’t know what to say, but Hercules understood, I think.
“When someone does what my parents did, it is only because of something beyond their control. I have learnt this. Like you, they were unable to accept something outside their ken. It is a prison you live in. I wanted to break down the doors for you.”
Suddenly, I understood why he had come down that day, why he looked the way he did.
“You’re going?”
He looked around, and then smiled at me.
“I have been here a long time, and I don’t mean to go yet. But yes, a person can go in more ways than physically move to a different spot. What I came to do was to remind you that sometimes we forget what we are taught, that we can change ourselves inwardly. It makes a difference. You see, what we achieve inwardly changes outer reality.”
I smiled back at him.
“You said that?”
“No, Plutarch did. Know him?”
And then he disappeared. I never saw him again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014



Atop his pint-sized body, on his normally clean shaven face now without a veil, were the most outsized moustaches I had ever seen; bushy, black and shiny, upturned and pointy at the ends.

I hadn’t seen Hercules in a while, and I wondered how djinns celebrated Halloween, perhaps by pretending to be human. I, myself, had celebrated Halloween by putting on a Rehman Malik wig and a pair of Asif Zardari grinning dentures.
I found him on a stool, and he was made up to look human. Atop his pint-sized body, on his normally clean shaven face now without a veil, were the most outsized moustaches I had ever seen; bushy, black and shiny, upturned and pointy at the ends.
Before I could say anything, Hercules struck a ‘Ta-da’ pose on the carpet in front of me.
“But… but…” I stammered, groping for words, and was surprised when Hercules beamed at me.
“That’s right. Although I understand that his real name is Shahid Nazeer or Aziz, not Gullu Butt at all. Isn’t he scary?”
It’s usually Hercules who finds me funny (amongst other things) but this time, it was I who collapsed onto a chair, laughing, while Hercules looked on, surprised.
“What’s so funny?” he said, genuinely taken aback.
“I can’t believe you find him scary, that’s what!”
“How can you not find him scary? Not the man, he is nothing, it’s what he stands for that’s terrifying.”
“And what is that?” I asked, now trying to understand the reasoning behind what Hercules had said.
“I didn’t think even you would be so obtuse. Here’s a man with nothing beyond a foot of facial hair to recommend him, who is now a national celebrity with claims on the airwaves that those who deserved them were never allowed. Abdus Salam was probably never on air for as much as hundredth the time this man gets only because this man broke a few windscreens with a stick… drat, I forgot, I should have one.”
He snapped his fingers and a stick appeared by his side.
“Doesn’t that tell you something about yourself and your countrymen?”
“It tells me that we, like nine tenths of the world, are suckers for sensational news.”
“And what does the celebrity status of a person like Mumtaz Qadri tell you? If this man, this punk who must spend half his morning shaping his moustaches, and cozening up to the powers to be, if he gets 11 years in prison, shouldn’t Qadri who killed a man in broad daylight in front of witnesses and actually boasted of the fact, shouldn’t he be executed right away? Instead, a death sentence has been handed out to him, but it still has to be acted upon. It’s doubtful it ever will. There he lives in that cell of his, another of your celebrities, directing operations and meting out his brand of justice, having more people killed by proxy for acts that he calls crimes. There’s even a mosque dedicated to him!”
In his agitation, Hercules stalked up and down, gesturing as he spoke and throwing his hands about. The days were getting warmer, and as he became more heated, the tips of his moustaches wilted; then the moustaches disappeared altogether, and his veil reappeared, but he kept on pacing.
“Butt is an ordinary man, one of many in a family, who had illusions of grandeur. He was harvested and led into doing their dirty work for them by others, and for this crime, which was little more than stupidity on his part, okay a bit of vandalism too, he, not his instigators, must spend a decade in prison while they ‘tut tut’ and look sanctimonious, taking credit for ‘justice’ achieved. Ha! People died as a result of their schemes. People shot each other, murder, and it’s this moustached vandal who gets 11 years. And this happens all the time, yet you don’t find it scary?”
“Of course, it’s wrong, Hercules, very wrong, but isn’t ‘scary’ rather a large word for this?”
“It is an inadequate word! You let these incidents happen, you let each go by in the midst of talk shows and hype and then you wonder why there is little democracy and no justice in your homeland!”
“Honestly, I didn’t realise you felt so strongly about this.”
“How can I not,” he said in an even voice. “The injustice here grows like fire and burns in the same way. There is that poor Aasia woman, sentenced to death. This moustached idiot is likely to be out of prison before long but who knows what her fate will be and that of others like her. Recently, a couple were killed for alleged blasphemy, beaten and burnt to death in a kiln, as if it were not enough that they were  slaves, bonded labour! Is your religion so fragile that it cannot stand up to a few careless words? And you people are scared of djinns! What can be scarier than this brand of ‘human’!”
He dropped onto the sofa and covered his face with his hands. I sat down beside him, but shot up again, realising I sat on the edge of his veil, tugging his face down to his knees.
“Why do you wear that thing?” I asked irritably. “Look, now its dipping into the ashtray.”
I pulled the other edge of the veil out of the ashtray and dusted it.
“What I wear is my business.”
He looked up and there was almost a fierce expression on his face.
“It becomes your business only if I use it to impress you, to fool you, to make you and others think of me as better than yourselves.”
“And they are doing that out there, aren’t they,” I said sadly.
He looked at me and sighed.
“You’ll learn just how much,” he said, and this time he pulled my sleeve out of the ashtray where it had come to rest.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Published in the Desi Writers Lounge biannual magazine: Papercuts
Volume 13 'Metropolis'
October 2014


Killing Five People and Injuring Fifteen Others

I was aware of the glances and the whispers that followed me into the room; they were meant to be noticed, meant to be heard. As a people we do not refrain from trespassing, nor are we known for our lack of presumption.
“If only the bone had broken that way,” muttered the surgeon examining the stump. He rotated his hand as if he was unscrewing a jar to nine o’clock. “I’ll have to give it a slight point here, to provide a hold.” The tip of his finger barely touched the bone and I winced. There was no pain any more but the very thought of touching that bone, that pointless projection that blanches in the face of its sudden exposure hurt. That is where the bullet had embedded itself and burst outwards in a frothy red flowering like the petals of an obscene camellia seeding my body. They had to pick out those cold metal shards from wherever they had buried themselves awaiting a bloody spring, another chance to burst through my skin with buds of steel, bony stem and fleshy leaf. For now, all I saw was a pale core surrounded by pink flesh like a bloodless face staring through a hole in the ruined wall of a house.
As for the point, is there ever any point in such violence, such pain? Do you understand the difference between pain and hurt? The pain has stopped but it will never stop hurting.
“Oh, well,” the surgeon clicked his tongue and turned to write on my file. I saw the little diagram he drew of a line crossing a leg mid-way between the knee and the foot and the little arrows that indicated the way something was meant to turn.
My story is the same as the story of so many others in this city, differing only in meaningless detail. Yesterday there was a Neelofer, the day before a Sayeed. It was all the same to the finger that pulled the trigger which may have pulled it for the first time, the third, or the tenth—who knows, except that I stood in the gun’s range in the bazaar then. For me it was the first and the last time and every time in between.
What did he see, the man whose finger pulled that trigger? Did he see me or did he just aim to hit anyone and I was just there, the hapless anyone on whom fate spat that afternoon? What does it matter? It certainly did not deter him even if he did see a fifteen year old in school uniform and satchel twirling the ends of a long pony tail around her finger. This I remember because that is what I always do when I am impatient and I was impatient then. It was after school and I was hungry and there was a man turning a corn on the cob down the parking lot. The coals glowed red in the little metal basin on his cart, sparks showered the cold air as he coaxed the glow into flames with a small, tattered fan in his hand.
“Saira, will you please look at this? You will say later that I didn’t ask you before I bought it,” my mother was saying, exasperated, trying to get me to look at a sweater in her hand.
“Yes, yes it’s nice,” I said, eyeing the corn alone. I could smell it from there, a smoky sweet smell. I could hear the crackling, too, sharp popping sounds as the kernels burst in the coals.
“Is it a nice blue?”
“Yes, yes a very nice blue!” I said watching the corn being handed to a customer. My fingers twirled my pony tail into a tight knot as something red and woolly was thrust angrily in front of my face almost touching my nose; a bright red sweater, not a blue one at all. I pouted and turned to face my mother just as something exploded and red covered my head and splattered all over my mother’s terrified face and she screamed and screamed and implored me to wake up and say it was red, red, and not blue.
“Yes, yes, I like it, it’s red,” I murmured. I heard movement all around me and smelt something pungent, like dead squirrels. I will never know why that analogy forced itself into my mind and still does when I think of that time or anything associated with it, dead squirrels darting, tails flicking, frantic, screaming, jumping, dead, shattered, bits scattered, red, all red. And oh the flames, how they burnt my leg, cracked my bones and splintered my toes. I moaned and reached out to grasp the pain, to hand it to someone else, anyone, but they pulled back; they cried out and gripped me and pulled my hands back with sharp needles and little tubes. They pulled me away and someone fanned my face with a little fan, wiped my forehead and sprinkled iced water on my face.
“It hurts! My leg,” I heard a voice moaning, and I knew it was mine because it was shaped like a squirrel and smelt like one. I heard my mother weeping again until someone threw a sweater in my face and I slept.
It was a long while later that I was able to get up, a time that was separated from the past by the presence of legs and nothing but legs: thin legs, fat legs, legs with shod and unshod feet, running, dragging, stumbling, climbing, all of them beautiful, but none of them mine except the one on my right, bewildered and lost and refusing to support my weight. I wept and told it to remember me, the same person it had supported all these years but it slid from under me and threw me to the ground, petulant, distraught. And I? I was not distraught. I was cold, and terribly calm. I was a squirrel, dead, shattered, bits scattered, red, all red not blue, but calm. Everyone else saw me as Saira, the school girl injured in a parking lot when unknown assailants fired into the crowd and escaped, killing five people and injuring fifteen others. AFP/ Reuters/AP/APP/Agencies.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014



I saw a man lying on the floor who wasn't there before. He was the skinniest, most emaciated man you ever saw

One day, I showed a letter to Hercules which my grandmother found in a drawer of this house.  It was dated June 1942.
“Dearest Lily,
It’s been a while since I wrote. The cook was away and we were at the club every day because nothing can persuade me to cook in this heat. All stoves are wretched of course, but these ones much more so. My respect for Indian haunches increases whenever I see our cook, all 200 pounds of him squatting at that blazing furnace for hours doing whatever it is one does with kedgerees and curries. And then if you please, he rises as easily as though off a sofa. I believe it’s those native toilets that people use here. You won’t believe it but one of the people Donald met actually takes a hookah (that’s one of those bubbling cigarette things on a stand with a long pipe I took for Mum when we were home last) and a newspaper with him, much as you or I would take a book. Quite a balancing act.
Speaking of balance, I’m wondering if I’m losing mine, mentally speaking, but you mustn’t tell Mum about this. I’m telling you because I have to talk to someone or I’ll go insane, if I’m not already.
You know those trees around our house? Donald and I would have turned up our toes a long time ago in this bloody heat if it weren’t for them. They believe here that spirits or djinns live on trees and I remember Gran saying the same thing, and honestly, I wonder if both of them may have a point. Because you know, every time I’m downstairs and Donald doesn’t have the blasted wireless on, I can hear bangs and creaks from above, as if those spirits had come down off the trees for a bit of a knees up upstairs.
The only wood in houses here are the doors, and the odd bit of panelling which our lot has made fashionable. So there is nothing to creak and no one besides us to bang around, so I have no idea what’s happening. I mentioned it to Donald but he put it down to the usual woman’s stuff. Someone should really get Winnie Churchill to pass a law against such statements.
Yesterday, I had to go up and make sure the guest room was clean for June and William; they’re over for the weekend. Usually I never go upstairs unless I have the houseboy with me, I’m too scared; but both he and the cook were away and the aaya is down with the collywobbles (they conspire against you, truly) so I had to go up by myself. And, my dear, I found my entire stock of linen, even those broderie anglaise covers that Mum gave us on the floor, as if someone had been throwing them around! I stormed into the study to check that room as well, and as soon as I opened the door, I realised that something was amiss there too.
Lily, it is so hot these days. I spend the whole day in those sun dresses you and I bought together in Chelsea. We’d be in Simla now if it weren’t for that absurd man who wears a towel; our boys suspect he has some kind of mass protest or something up his sleeve and they had to stay back to defuse it but perhaps I should not have mentioned this. Anyway, I didn’t want to leave without Donald, so we’re both stuck in Lahore, and it makes no kind of sense that when I went into the study it felt so cold in there, like the middle of December. I shivered and went to draw the curtains aside, to let in some sun, but they drew back across the window again, by themselves! And Lily, as I was coming back across the room, I saw a man on the floor who wasn’t there before… you either believe me or you don’t… he was the skinniest, most emaciated man you ever saw, as though he had not eaten for a month. His ribs stuck out and every bone was visible. He was dying. I cried out and ran towards the door and on the door there were words in a red liquid (blood?) They said,
‘Famine comes. Quit India.’
I screamed and ran down for Donald and made him follow me upstairs. He went into the study ahead of me, turned around and said, ‘What?’ I went in then, but there was nothing there, no man, no words, no cold. And then of course, he started going on about woman’s stuff again. I made him shut up and listen, but he still talked over me. It was only when I told him about the words ‘Quit India’ that he quietened down, very suddenly, as though they meant something to him.
Donald told me to go over to the Maynard’s while he went to the office for a bit. That was yesterday and he’s still there. I came home this morning because today they all came back, the cook, the houseboy and the aaya. But I think I might ask Donald to think about selling and moving back to England. I’ve had enough of this country. Maybe we’ll be together for Christmas, what do you think? I’m dying to have crumpets again.
Your sister,
I looked at Hercules. He hadn’t said a word.
“Was that you on the floor?” I asked him. “And did you write those words?”
He looked at me, his gaze steady without a trace of the mockery it normally held.
“If your countrymen were starving, enslaved and oppressed would you be that man? And would you write such words?”
I lowered my eyes. My countrymen. There was no famine, but close… and were they any less enslaved and oppressed?
“I would,” I said.
“Well then,” said Hercules. “Go write.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014




Every year in the British Houses of Parliament a gentleman called ‘The Black Rod’ carrying an ebony stick (engraved with a motto: Shame be to him who evil thinks), wearing black buckled shoes, silk stockings and black breeches marches up to the door of the Commons chamber.
His job is to summon the Members of Parliament to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech at the traditional State Opening of Parliament ceremony. Well, the door of the chamber opens only to be slammed shut in the Black Rod’s face and is not re-opened until the Rod has knocked on it thrice with his stick.
The above is a re-enactment of an incident that occurred in 1641 when King Charles I entered the House of Commons accompanied by armed guards to arrest five members of Parliament. The King believed that these men were plotting against him and he tried to arrest them on a charge of treason.
This set off a chain of events that resulted in the Civil War, and in King Charles l losing his head, literally. The re-enactment symbolises the Commons’ refusal to be pushed around by the Monarch or any member of the House of Lords, it symbolises in short the independence of the House of Commons. This independence is underlined by the members of that House of Commons making their noisy way in a disorderly group to the House of Lords to hear the monarch’s speech.
Do you suppose the day will ever come when our traditions will reflect (in such humorous, interesting ways) our independence from whatever it is we need to be free from now, something we need to commemorate?  Let’s take it province wise.
In the KP, many, years from now on a declared public holiday, the following ritual might possibly take place: starting in Karak all the way to Peshawar, a group of women, and women alone will march boldly through streets and bazaars decorated with buntings and flags for this occasion.  Heads held high, the women will push away any man who tries to stop them, and several will try to bar their way, but only ritualistically.  New groups of women will join the procession along the way and those who are tired will stop, to be elaborately feted by onlookers. Until at the main gate to the Peshawar University, the gatekeeper, a man with a long beard tries one last time to bar their entrance.  The women surround him will laugh as a body, whereupon he covers his face with a wail, and stands aside to let them in. This will be a symbolic reference to the time, perhaps a hundred years earlier when the elders and scholars of the community dared to stop women from leaving their homes without a man, or from getting an education. The day will be called Malala day. It will also be a national holiday.
In Baluchistan, years from now, will be a sort of pantomime in which young men are wrestled to the ground by others dressed in what looks suspiciously like military uniforms. Accompanied by boos and dodging the occasional tomato from spectators, the attackers will take the young men, now hooded, away with them. The crowd re-assembles that same evening to watch the same young men spring out at their captors and take them away to jail where everyone eventually gets together for a celebration. This day will be called Recovered Person’s day.  It will of course celebrate a time when persons no longer go missing in Baluchistan
In Sindh will be ceremonies in which shops and other businesses will have their doors knocked on by men, who when the door is opened stick out their hand, obviously demanding money. In a gesture strikingly like the Black Rod re-enactment, each shop keeper slams his door in the man’s face, leaving him to face a rain of squishy tomatoes from the crowd. This day will be calledBhatta day, to commemorate freedom from the time businesses were forced to pay ‘protection money’ and there was no official protection from this extortion.
In the Punjab there will be a street event like an obstacle race open to all citizens. Participants will be required to bypass various large transport containers and plaster lions to reach certain nominated tandoors, where the winners receive halwa poori on the house. Nothing galvanises a Lahori as much as the prospect of halwa poori and they almost all get around the containers one way or another.  The provincial government initially objected to the prize, saying that to feed so many people was exorbitantly expensive, but nothing else would satisfy the public; the government had to give in and agree to feed practically the entire city because by the time these events take place you see, governments in this country will be more representative than they are now, and particularly in matters such as these they will knew where their duty lies. We all know what this is meant to commemorate. Let’s just wait for the story to complete itself.
Meantime in Islamabad an annual tradition, the oldest of all, occurs just prior to the Budget speech. Just as the Prime Minister reaches out to pick up the papers on which his speech is written, a man dressed as The Common Man marches up to the podium and pours a cup of oil all over the Prime Minister’s palm. This is meant to recall the time when government officials were used to having their palms greased. The tradition is that when the oil is poured over his palm the Prime Minister must strike himself on the forehead with his dirty hand in eternal penance on behalf of his office, bow to The Common Man, and say, ‘Nawazish!’ After this he is free to proceed with details of the budget, his dripping oily forehead a reminder for him to be honest with the nation’s funds. Oh and this event will be called the ‘Chai Pani routine’. By the time all this happens, no one will know exactly why this name sounds so right, but it just will.




By Rabia Ahmed - 

SUN MERE BANDHU RAY: The Musical World of S.D Burman by Sathya Saran

Sachin Dev Burman … we know him as S.D Burman … is the singer and composer who gave us ‘jalte hain jiske liye’ and other such memorable music almost until the day he died in 1976. This is his biography, published this year by Harper Collins India. The author is Sathya Saran, an Indian journalist, herself a consulting editor for Harper Collins India. The book takes its name from another of Burman’s songs, composed and sung in 1959 by Burman himself for the movie Sujata.
Burman was born in 1906 in Comilla to a royal family of Bengal. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Burman dropped out of University while doing his Masters to train as a singer.  He started by teaching music, composing for plays and films, and singing both classical, and songs for films.
In a decision for which it must never have stopped kicking itself, Burman and K.L Saigal were both rejected by His Master’s Voice (HMV) and were both signed on by its competitor, Hindustan Musical Products. 
K.C Dey, Manna Dey’s uncle, was one of Burman’s music teachers. Saran’s description of the most important lesson Burman learnt from Dey is striking. One evening, she said, he decided to sing in the dark. He shut the doors and windows and let the dark take hold of him. He covered his eyes to ensure that no light fell upon the closed lids. Then, sitting cross legged with his tanpura, he shut his eyes and started to sing.
‘He had never sung like this before. He could feel every note vibrating in his body, swirling through his arteries and coursing through his veins, clear and separate, then welding in the other to form the raga.’ The exercise helped him understand how his teacher sang the way he did, because of course, K.C Dey was blind. ‘He gave his music what eyes could not have given it, emotion. He sang with his heart.’ 
Burman remembered this lesson all his life; he did give his music his heart, and his undoubted talent brought early recognition.  He had a distinctive singing voice which has been described as nasal, but can also be described as ‘haunting’. It had the simple carrying quality of a fisherman’s song that floats across the water to the river bank. 
Burman married his student Mira Dasgupta, herself a talented musician. Saran wonders why her singing talents were never used by her husband: ‘Was it a classic case of not seeing a gem so close to home due to creative short sightedness, or a question of market preferences?’
Burman also wrote about himself in a slim volume called Sargamer Nikhad, but the book is in Bengali, and he was a musician, not a writer.  Neither, unfortunately is the author of this book.  She is however a successful editor and journalist, and has received several awards for her journalism, which is how she manages to convey a certain atmosphere in this book, and does tell you all of the above and more about Burman’s life, about his family and childhood, the influences on his talent, his marriage and career.  She also provides interesting details about many of the songs sung and composed by this phenomenal man, making it one of the few books a reader sings his way through.
This is Saran’s second book. She has also written a biography of Guru Dutt.  When she came to write this one, she says she ‘put aside everything I had read as notes and interviews. I listened to the songs, I let myself listen to the world around me as someone who heard only the music in every sound, and the book began to take shape in my mind.’  She had decided, she said, ‘on a new approach to the narrative altogether.’
Unfortunately that approach results in a haphazard narrative that includes odd unrelated interludes, and switches narrator with little warning. The appendix however contains quotes, snippets of interviews, opinions of Burman and his music, recollections and anecdotes, all of which would have been better incorporated into the main body of the text.  But never mind.  You will, if you read this book, learn a fair bit about a wonderful singer, and will as mentioned before sing your way through the entire book.  How often can you say that about a book? Not often at all.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THE DJINN (Part 2): HERCULES (fiction)


“You can read minds!” I gasped again. “Yes, but I'm also big on Harry Potter,” he muttered

Having met the djinn once, I was looking forward to meeting him again. So a few days later, I went into the study and knocked on his ‘door’, the drawer at the bottom of my grandfather’s hat stand.
“What?” responded an irritable voice.
I opened my mouth, intending to ask him to please come out, before recalling that I didn’t know his name. What does one call a djinn in the absence of a name? Djinn sahib? Djinn ji? Or plain and simple ‘djinn’?
He saved me from this dilemma by appearing just then, all six inches of him, complete with bikini, spats and veil.
“The name is Hercules,” he said. “And if you want to talk, sit down.”
I stood up with the intentions of pulling up a chair and almost fell into one that had mysteriously appeared behind me. The large chair was not even from this room.
“How… did you?” I gasped.
The djinn raised his eyebrows.
“Are you asking me ‘how did you’? as in modus operandi, or once again do you refer to my size?”
I hastened to reassure him, and a line from a favourite writer floated into my mind. But before I could quote it, he said it for me.
“All right, I know, size is no guarantee of power.”
“You can read minds!” I gasped again.
“Yes, but I’m also big on Harry Potter,” he muttered.
A six-inch djinn, who lived in a hat stand, wore a bikini and a veil, read Harry Potter and could produce chairs out of thin air. Was life bizarre, or was life bizarre?
“The only thing that’s bizarre is all the preconceived notions you have,” he said acidly. “You are the most ‘conditioned’ person I know.”
It was my turn to feel nettled.
“What do you mean?”
“Well look at you. You find it odd that I live in a hat stand, and that I wear what I do,” he gestured towards himself. “You find it amazing that I can conjure a chair into this room from somewhere else. But Inuits live in lumps of snow, many people wear veils and bikinis – although not together, which is hardly my fault – and conjuring a chair from far away has been done before. No, the thing you find the least amazing of all is that I am a creature neither you nor your relatives have ever encountered before. Why is that?”
I swallowed, never having thought of it like that before.
“Have you ever read your Book?”
At the look of incomprehension on my face, he snorted and added irritably,
“The Quran, laddie. Specifically, the verse which speaks of my ancestors and how they brought the Queen of Sheba’s throne into the Prophet’s presence in the twinkling of an eye, complete with her. They weren’t any lightweights in those days.”
There was no mistaking the note of pride in his voice, although it was uncertain if he had been referring to the Queen or to her throne.
I bit my lip. His habit of reading my mind was disconcerting.
I tried to recollect the particular verse in the Quran, the one about the Prophet Solomon’s dominion over creatures, including djinns, and how they had brought the Queen and her throne to him from across the seas in the twinkling of an eye.
“So which part of it says that the djinns were large ‘ho ho ho’ creatures?”
I blushed at his words. That, exactly, had been my previous conception of djinns, one that I had to abandon briskly when I met this one.
“One presumes…” I began lamely.
“That’s because we can transport heavy things. We are physically big and heavy too,” he finished for me. “You know, if I may give you a piece of advice…”
“I’m sure you will, whether I want it or not,” I said bitterly.
“You see? There are times when you are right, it just goes to show as I was about to advise you that its worth your realising that the world is full of people more than willing, indeed insisting on filling your head with ideas which have no basis. And that is one of them.”
Now I was confused.
“Which one?”
“The one about djinns being very large. Well some of us may be, just like there are all sorts of humans.”
The word ‘unfortunately’ floated almost tangibly between us.
“But it doesn’t follow that it is necessarily so. There are things you have no conception of,” he added, with an almost unbearably superior look on his face.
“It’s a natural enough mistake,” I said defensively.
“Natural is as natural becomes,” he said. “You must remember that when you read, read with your mind, not just your eyes, and with your mind wide open. Just as you cannot read with your eyes shut, reading with your mind closed to possibilities, to options, is a stupid, impossible thing to do.”
“So what do you suggest, how should I read… things?”
“Whilst you read in another language and about another time, you will need some help, naturally. But why allow anyone complete dominion? Why allow them to take over your mind and lead you into minutiae? To push you into views you and your brain would never accept if allowed to function as a team?”
I willed him to read my mind, to explain, to give me a solution to problems I was unwilling to put into words and he did, to a very small extent.
“There is no blasphemy in questioning things, even people,” he said, his voice gentler than I had ever heard it. “Questioning is how you learn. It’s better than learning by being fed the words and being made to gabble them back. That in fact is the blasphemy.”
He stood up and stretched to his full height, half way up my calf. Then he clicked his fingers, my chair disappeared and I fell on to the carpet.
“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters, you know,” he said. “So tell me when you’ve defeated Voldemort for me, will you?”
He waggled his fingers at me, and was gone.