Goodbye, 2013. Thanks for the books.

At the beginning of 2013, I promised myself I would read 30 books. Come December, I didn’t really make it – 4 books short of the gold – but I did manage to read 26 stories, and I thought I would share them with you. It’s not uncommon to see our social media feeds bursting with status updates about how successful someone’s year has been, so how many amazing things they’ve done. I thought about how I remembered 2013, and was surprised to find, it was through these books.

I started the year with East of Eden, which skyrocketed to the very top of my Favorite Books Ever list. It’s a retelling of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, and beyond that, it’s a story of life. There is so much beauty simply in the way the book is written – Steinbeck really pulls you into this world that is simultaneously profound and gritty, giving you the feeling that you’re learning something phenomenal, but leaving you with more questions than you’ve managed to answer. There is love, betrayal, devotion – on both a micro and macro level. The one thing I took away from the book was the story of the Hebrew word Timshel, which roughly translates into “thou mayest”. It was with that reaffirmation of choice – that we have the power to make decisions in our lives, whether to choose good or bad – that set the course of my entire year – one that would change my life, thanks to the books that guided my way.

After East of Eden left the taste of morality and betrayal in my mouth, Quasimodo taught me true compassion, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Having watched and loved the animated Disney interpretation as a child, I wanted to sing with Esmeralda, and swing from Notre Dame’s royal heights with the bell-ringer, but I was in for a surprise. The story is heart-breaking, with Esmeralda and her lover a far cry from the jovial couple Disney showed me. Quasimodo is no humble giant, but a monster and a simpleton with a heart. His caretaker is part evil villain, but part human, and in a gut-wrenching moment of shock, I was able to relate to his troubles. There is evil and magic and a consistent tearing away at your heart, until at the end, Quasimodo is dust, but you are still bleeding raw.

With two classics in my 2013 backpack, I turned to more contemporary fiction. Next stop: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared. Yes, that is the entire title. This lickety-split story of adventure had a wholehearted feel that had me chuckling the entire time. I’ve written a full-fledged review on it, and you should give it a click.

And so the year went on, one book leading to the next, with memories tied to each one. When a dear friend visited from abroad, she brought me Looking for Alaska, when I was suffering from insecurity issues, I read Valley of the Dolls and took shelter in Anne’s unwavering self-confidence. When I was complaining about my bout with gastritis, The Fault in Our Stars made me take back every ungrateful word and forget about my fever as I learned about love. On the same note, The Last Original Wife reminded me not to take any of my relationships for granted, and Empty Mansions made me grateful that I was not burdened with extravagant wealth.

So what did I do in 2013? I lived 26 adventures. I learned 26 lessons. I started paying less attention to the internet and more to my family. I stopped wasting money and time. I strengthened my relationship with God and pushed aside insecurities. In 2013, I lived, and I don’t regret a single page of it.

What did you read in the past 12 months?

P.S. There will be a full book of each of the books I read in 2013, one a week, every Monday.

Wishing you thrills and tear-stained pages,
Zainab

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?” ”To shrug.” - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the title so accurately sums up the entire book. The setting is Sweden, and that’s just a backdrop to the narrative – the life and adventures of a very unlikely hero – Alan Karlsson –  a man who ran away from his old people’s home (via a ground floor window) and “disappeared”.  Now unlike the poor people at the home, we the readers are privy to what he does next: setting out on a journey where he steals a suitcase which turns out to contain a fortune that was paid over to a group of bikers by a Russian organized crime syndicate as payment for a drug deal. Following this bit of jolly good fun, there’s a hard-to-believe but just so amazing that you can’t help yourself story of drug dealers trying to get back their money, and the local police starting a Sweden’s Most Wanted-type hunt for Allan, who has, by now, been declared a triple-murderer.

As the book progresses, a bunch of really interesting but uniquely flawed characters (and also an elephant) somehow manage to join Allan on this tour-de-force, staying one step ahead of the police throughout the book, and cultivating lasting bonds of friendship at the same time. Flashbacks of Allan’s life and how he somehow, completely by happenstance, managed to be in the right place at the wrong time and helped influence a number of events and changed the course of twentieth century history are sprinkled throughout the novel.

One of the first things that came to mind when I finished the book was that it had ended up being much longer than I had initially expected, because how much can you really expect from an 100-year-old gentleman who climbs out of a window?

Well, Jonasson proved me wrong, for Allan Karlsson is not your typical 100-year-old man, and this book will prove it to you. In some reviews about this book, people have compared Karlsson to Forrest Gump. I beg to differ. Throughout the time I was reading the book, I didn’t once thought of Forrest Gump, or make any comparisons. (Maybe I haven’t seen Forrest Gump enough times).

I enjoyed reading this book because it’s very cleverly snarky, and with so many historical figures thrown in you’ll lose track of how Allan came into contact with them. For history buffs, this is a joy ride for the mind. From President Truman, to Johnson, to Nixon, and then across the world to Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Il-sung AND Kim Jong-il, their Communist frenemies Stalin, and Brezhnev, Allan’s story is unbelievable and over-the-top. But the fact remains that, sometimes, life can be so unbelievable, it has to be true.

The book follows Allan through his past and present adventures and makes the reader feel kind of bad that they haven’t had a coffee with at least ONE former communist leader (what kind of life have I been leading, anyway??) unlike Allan, who has sung, danced, drank, ate, AND had coffee – with a lot of them. Add to that Allan’s love for vodka, his gift of gab, and know-how with explosives, and you got yourself a story-teller par excellence. His story is all our stories at one time or other, (except for the absurdly funny murders of characters who had it coming) and I can’t wait for another book from Jonasson.

It is no accident this book sold over 750.000 copies in Sweden, where it also won the Swedish Booksellers Award and has been in the Dutch bestseller’s list for nearly a year.

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“I shall destroy capitalism! Do you hear! I shall destroy every single capitalist! And I shall start with you, you dog, if you don’t help us with the bomb!’

Allan noted that the had managed to be both a rat and a dog in the course of a minute or so. And that Stalin was being rather inconsistent, because now he wanted to use Allan’s services after all.

“There are only two things I can do better than most people. One of them is to make vodka from goats’ milk, and the other is to put together an atom bomb.”

“Allan thought it sounded unnecessary for the people in the seventeenth century to kill each other. If they had only been a little patient they would all have died in the end anyway.

“Julius didn’t want to use the freezer unnecessarily because it used a hell of a lot of electricity. Julius had of course hot-wired it, and it was Gösta at Forest Cottage farm who unknowingly paid, but it was important to steal electricity in moderation if you wanted to keep taking advantage of the perk for a long time.”

 

Maps for Lost Lovers

As summer 2013 rolls out, all fiery hot sun and sponge-cake skin, it’s easy to want to curl up with the latest thing to hit the shelves, a light, feel-good with red high heels on the cover, and a spicy rebel inside, but we all know that summer is about adventure. Whether it’s trying new things or getting better at old ones, summer is about throwing your heart out there into the world, and the perfect way to do it is to pick up Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. The man is an artist with words. This sentences are crafted to contain the most dense imagery I have come across in a long time. It’s easy to pack high-power intensity into words – shock, strain, burn, pain, breaking, shattering – but to wrap delicacy and beauty in words depicting pain and heartbreak – well that is something Aslam masters, and that I hope I can one day learn to do.

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“The neighbourhood is a place of…intrigue and emotional espionage, where when two people stop to talk on the street their tongues are like the two halves of a scissor coming together, cutting reputations and good names to shreds.”

The story is torturous, without ever stating its trauma in open words. The subtlety and elegance within which desperation, pathetic feelings, and the grungy, small blaze of love are given to the reader is beautiful. I found myself, highlighter in hand, running a neon stripe across twistings of phrases, uniquely designed sentences that I had never read before. Adjectives strung together to describe a world I had never ever considered to be there. It wasn’t London, it wasn’t England – it was the hearts of Aslam’s characters, fused together, their feelings and wounds used to create a reality.

“He would drift through the house in search of the coolest spot to read through the long summer afternoons that had a touch of eternity to them, altering the arrangement of his limbs as much for comfort as for the fear that his undisturbed shadow would leave a stain on the wall.”

Most reviews on this book talk about the issues discussed in its pages – fundamentalist Islam, backward thinking, ignorance and arrogance molded into a lifestyle that causes many great pain, sin and tragedy, punishments and murders – and it is through this plot line that the author really reaches into your heart and seems to clench a fist around it, but what really stole my attention and earned my admiration was the way the linguistics help to accomplish this goal. Often, when reading a “pulling my heartstrings” kind of novel, we are drawn to a s specific character, we can relate to something they are going through, we sympathize with them, and come to detest who we identify as the “villain character”. But in Maps, I was taken to a world I knew nothing about. I did not grow up semi-impoverished, feeling like an alien in a white man’s world. I was not bound by strict social stigma or the prying eyes of whispering aunties. So for me, Maps was an unknown land.

“Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself.”

Despite that, Nadeem Aslam gave me a story that reached right into my core. There was no single character I could hate or love. There was no one I could specifically champion – because these characters weren’t “good” or “bad” guys. They were human, and like all of us, they had evil and goodness shining out of every pore. For each characteristic that I loved about one, there was also some element that I wasn’t very comfortable with. This 4D character personality effect, combined with the inspiring use of language to lift and carry the story, to pause it when the reader needs some time – the balancing of passive passages and dramatic sequences – was astounding.

I was gripped the whole way through, my heart in shambles when it was over. Bravo, Mr. Aslam.

I’d like to end with another quote from the book:

“All great artists know that part of their task is to light up the distance between two human beings.”

And this act, this reaching across to his readers, Nadeem Aslam achieves perfectly.

 

The Islamabad Literature Festival

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The Islamabad Literature Festival, hashtagged on Twitter as #IsbLF, is the latest in a series of literary events taking the country by storm. I had the opportunity, this Labor Day, of driving over to Margalla Hotel, and attending a series of enlightening talks. Having recently attended the Lahore Literature Festival (#LLF), I had high expectations. ILF boasted the likes of Kamila Shamsie, Shehryar Fazli, Zia Mohyeddin, Osman Khalid Butt and names that have become familiar to those at LLF: H. M. Naqvi, Mohammed Hanif, etc. Some particularly delightful bits included the fabulous stand up comedian Beo Zafar, and one-woman-show Nimra Bucha, who performed Mohammed Hanif’s thought-provoking play, A Dictator’s Wife.

“Making fun of dictators is not such a big deal – it’s just, you know, fun.” – Mohammed Hanif

My day started off with Kamila Shamsie, an author I have heard so much about. She published her first book when she was 14 (all the aspiring writers in the room gasped with a mixed sense of jealousy and elation when this was announced) and is now working on her sixth book, which is set in Peshawar. She spoke to us about her experiences as a writer, and how she felt a sense of duty to do right by her characters. Reading a passage from her work in progress, she spoke of the extensive research that was involved when writing about a city and place that you don’t know, ex: Peshawar in the 1930s, and how oftentimes, when writing about the past, versions of the present before you can become distracting. Something that particularly resonated with me, as an aspiring novelist, was her concern for young writers feeling influenced by the political and economic conditions of the country today. “I worry that it makes them feel pressurized or restrained,” she said, and to quote Ilona Yusuf, a commentator at another session, “writers need to tell the truth, and self-censorship will kill the novel”.

Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie

The next session I attended was titled “Afghanistan & Pakistan: Conflict and Extremism” with a distinguished panel: Riaz Khokhar, Zahid Hussain, Mohammad Amir Rana, and Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. With this bureacratic-academic panel on stage, the political debate was lively and kept everyone in the audience hooked. From interpretations of the Afghan struggle, to Pakistan’s interests in the neighboring country, not a topic was left unexplored.

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It was the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and A Case of Exploding Mangoes that I went to see next. Mohammed Hanif had delivered some lively speeches at the Lahore Literary Festival, and I was not about to miss out on his ribald humor here in Islamabad. With commentator Navid Shahzad, whom Hanif reffered to as his childhood crush, Hanif first explored the character of Alice Bhatti – “I wanted to write a superwoman sort of character.” – and then moved on to the more serious issue of missing people in Balochistan. Speaking of his new pamphlet, a series of six case studies detailing the tragedies taking place in Balochistan today, Hanif called out to the audience to realize the reality of the situation. Balochistan is not a past history that has yet to be told, but a current story that we can still change –  that was his message.

“To ban YouTube is the most stupid thing any government in the world can do.” Ahmed Rashid

M. Hanif
M. Hanif

The lunch break was a series of exclamations at the outrageous prices – Rs. 270 for a small sandwich with some sort of orange paste in it, and nothing else. Rs. 60 for a water bottle that is normally available for Rs. 20. And Rs. 300 for a biryani that has the smallest possible chicken piece in it. A fellow IsbLF attendee said, “That’s a baby chicken leg. It makes me feel a paedophile just to look at it.”

By far the best session of the day was Selected Readings in English by Zia Mohyeddin, in which the renowned dramatist read out from his own work, A Carrot is a Carrot. With an austere British accent dancing daintily around the humor in the passages he read, Mohyeddin kept the audience on its feet for the entire 60 minutes he was reading, with Punjabi and Urdu interludes sparking laughter. As a first-time listener, I was immediately fascinated, and ran to the book stalls after the session searching for a copy of the text.

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“Sometimes there is the notion that there is not a big enough market for English language literature in Pakistan. But I don’t believe that.” –  Muneeza Sahmsie

The How to Write a Novel session was the last of the day. Authors H. M. Naqvi and Irshad Abdul Kadir shared their own writing styles and work ethics with the audience and then went on to talk about the methodology behind how they chose or came to know their characters. I’m itching to pick up a copy of Home Boy after hearing H. M. Naqvi say, “I don’t wish I could write like Dan Brown, but I wish I could sell like him.”

The day ended with Nimra Bucha’s performance of A Dictator’s Wife. The audience stood shoulder to shoulder outside the hall in desperate anticipation for over an hour as the set was prepared. No one was spared the pushing and discomfort associated with being much too close to much too many people at any particular moment in time. The doors opened suddenly, and the press of the crowd threatened to trample an old man at the front. After the audience had settled, Ms. Bucha started the show, when a pesky gentleman in the back repeatedly interrupted with frivolous comments. She was forced to break character a number of times to appease him, and when this did not stop his antics, she even threatened to walk out of the play. That was what it took to get him to take a seat quietly and let the audience enjoy the performance.

The play itself was a sharp insight into the behind-the-scenes life of a dictator in a developing country. It showcased the wife, often forgotten in the background, losing the man she married to power and the media and obsession with nuclear codes, her resentment eventually building up to irreparable heights. It highlighted a new perspective, and really got me thinking about the man beneath the uniform – what’s really behind the public figure? Sure they love and are loved, have passions and worries and clothes besides that brown and green army dress? It was enlightening, to say the least.

Nimra Bucha
Nimra Bucha

All in all, though a notch or two below the Lahore Literature Festival, IsbLF was a resounding success.

 

The Wandering Falcon/Pakistani novelists

 

I love novels, biographies, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics – everything. It is rare that I am not carrying around my latest read wherever I go. Unfortunately, despite many positive reviews and glowing praise from friends and teachers, I’ve never been fond of literature written by Pakistani authors. I often find it stereotypical – talk of Pakistan’s colorful trucks, rickshaw culture, the inevitable mention of paan, dhotis, and the evils of the Hindus - and cliched. It’s this mournful picture of Pakistan painted again and again, with slightly different hues. What makes that work original? Almost nothing. How do those stories contribute to Pakistan, or to the world of fiction? They barely do. When is someone going to break the mold and write about Pakistan, but in a unique and interesting way?

The answer is now. Jamil Ahmad’s book, which I started reading with reluctance, soon won me over. The prose is subtle, straightforward. There is no over-use of adjectives as is found in many Pakistani novels – as if trying to prove that they have command over English – and there is a sense of serenity that prevails over the entire story. We are led, carefully, delicately, and honestly through the landscape of the Afghan-Baloch area, and introduced to the lives lived by tribesmen, their wives, daughters, and children.

The Wandering Falcon with its intertwining plot and near-to-home characters and settings proves to be a highly believable read. Staying away from the overly-commercialized page turner phenomena that books these days have become, Jameel Ahmad does a realistic job in depicting the life of tribes in Pakistan from Balochi nomads to the tribesmen and the customs of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah.

The beauty of the text shines through its simplicity. It’s beautifully written, with a clear, plain-to-see acceptance. There is no harsh judgement in Ahmad’s book, as you often find in Pakistani literature. He is not apologizing for the way Pakistan is, for the way people are, for the way things happened in the past. The writer leads us through this journey with calm acceptance, if not fondness for the way of these people. He shows their difficulties and troubles in a similar way – not demonizing their enemies, but allowing the reader to judge. He is your tour guide, reserved in his judgement, but open with his heart, on a trip showing you the hidden beauty of Pakistan.

The part of the book that I loved was a young girl is married off to a man with a show bear. He had trained the bear to dance and earned his money from putting on shows. For the girl’s family, this was a fortuitous marriage – a man of independent means! A joy, a pleasure – they had done well by their daughter. The man takes his wife to a town, where they have only enough money to rent a single room, which the bear sleeps in at night. The woman can only use the room when the bear and man leave in the morning; husband and wife sleep outside. One day she asks her husband why the bear uses the room, and he says “I can get another wife, but not another bear.”

This section of the book woke me up. I stopped, re-read it. This is not the story of a man being cruel to his wife, or the story of ignorant parents selling their daughter to the highest bidder (common themes in many Pakistani novels), but it is the simple truth of their reality. Jamil Ahmad shows us how thankful we have to be in our own lives. The girl’s parents were overjoyed because in their simple world of limited means, this man represented financial stability and relative ease of life for their daughter. They had her best interests at heart, and did what they could for her. The husband was not being chauvinistic and rude to his wife – he was speaking a simple truth. That bear was their livelihood. It needed to be protected. If hurt or stolen, or if it ran away, neither of them would have any food, much less a room to use during the day.

Reading through, one anticipates all the meshwork of stories to develop into some tangible shade of character being evolved; perhaps a strong personality or a rudimentary dervish even, but nothing of the sort happens. It is unclear whether it was the intent of the author to display the events in a harsh light of reality (objective reporting), or whether it was failure on his part as a storyteller to arrive to an end derived from the plot elaborated. Having said that, the book does have some great moments (e.g. the character of the exceedingly unorthodox Mullah and the mixture of feelings he ignites is very genuine), and the depiction of events with just the right amount of background information to the extremely complex life of the Pakistani tribesman and his customs is commendable. Seeing Ahmed’s attempt, one is heartened to note that Pakistan’s contemporary literature is headed in the right direction.

The book was an eye-opener, and a splendid debut for someone entering the writing world in their seventies. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words.  Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.

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Note: This post was written in collaboration with Shafa’at Gillani, a fellow bibliophile and respected colleague at the NUST Business School.

 

 

Watching TV in Bombay, or Kingston, or Dhaka

Zadie Smith‘s first novel blew me away, but where exactly? The book starts of with an attempted suicide - definitely gripping. Throughout the book, Smith uses words to her advantage. No skimping, no summarizing. No sir, she uses simple, direct words in abundance. The result of which is clear, sharp mental pictures. Even the characters are embellished in this simple style. Alfred Archibald Jones. He attempts suicide in a Cavalier Musketeer, like a fallen angel, on Cricklewood Broadway.

Then there’s the mock-heroic feature of the novel. The characters, the situations, all compared to something larger, more elegant, more in vogue, and then systematically broken down to reveal pitiable, grungy characters. That the novel focuses on the troubles of immigrant life is obvious, but why it focuses purely on the unflattering, morose, disgusting side of life in North London is left to the reader to understand. Immigrants are portrayed as dirty. Our introduction to Hussein-Ishmael in the first few pages is almost completely dominated by pigeon excrement. His language is rough. He has a personal vendetta against pigeons – “shit-making bastards”. He swipes at them with a broom in what the author turns into a gross parody of cricket.

“It was cricket basically – the Englishman’s game adapted by the immigrant, and six was the most pigeons you could get with one swipe.”

It’s almost as if Smith houses within her an immense hatred of all things immigrant. Words with negative connotations are used with the greatest generosity. Big, dejected blob.

Another flowery character, Samad Miah Iqbal, the Ick-ball, is soon introduced. The book parodies not only the travails of two men who are at best, leftovers, unwanted remains of a war long forgotten, but also how their prospects refuse to improve. Samad’s old country ideals of being a Mussalmaan are rejected and angrily mocked by his children; one becomes a fundamentalist merely to prove a point, the other becomes an atheist to oppose the very same. In an attempt to define themselves, these immigrants through away the only real definition they have. Because raised in London, they have changed. They are now part and parcel of the grunge they encounter on a daily basis. Blending in with the graffiti and their father makes every attempt to ‘save their souls’, they rebel continuously. But Samad Miah is also diseased. He too has given up what identity he possessed. How can he blame his children for falling prey to Inglistaan when he himself drinks forbidden alcohol? He also cheats on his wife – with an English woman, no less. Arranged marriages are harassed as an institution. The book is clear in the following: The woman who falls prey to them will be cheated on, ignored, and will live a lonely life as a seamstress  - literally for Alsana Iqbal. Her children will be taken from her, along with any happiness in life, and she will subsist on a minimum-wage income in an alien country.

It is not only the Bengalis who are taunted, though. Archibald is reflected the waste of English society. He folds paper for a living (dead-end job), his wife leaves him (dead-end relationship), he marries a woman 20 years his junior (another immigrant, who used him as an escape) and now eats greasy food at a greasy, filthy pub every day and waits for life to end.
Clara Bowden and her whole Jamaican clan with her, are poked fun at as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Zadie Smith brings in a little of the Armageddon concept in, almost as if to say, See these silly, backward newcomers? See the silly things these lower middle class, wastes of society believe?

Cynicism shines clearly through the storyline.

“And the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma…”

“…We have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombaby or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop. Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – its something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it – original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better. A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals – that they can’t help but re-enact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign. It will take a few replays before they move on the next tune.”

Amid the ridicule of accents, the desire to be gangster, to be accepted into the world of the perfectly structured Happy White Family – from a black girl’s painful attempt to rid herself of her African curls, to an Indian boy’s baggy jeans and rough language – Zadie Smith brings to mind the image of a hapless, trying so hard to survive when everything seems to be going wrong, pathetic-ness. To read the book as someone who has been an immigrant is to be shocked an amazed at the harshness with which they are treated in the novel. A purely hopeless image is painted – one that seems to numb the mind.

The eccentricities of the writing are classic, wonderfully placed to entice the mind and keep you reading more – for the novel is a lengthy one. It’s a book I enjoyed reading, but I always ended up wondering if it was written out of spite, or just pure hate.

 

A Tale of Two Cities

What if your greatest act in life is to be killed?

Tale of Two Cities is a classic novel by Charles Dickens. Normally, I try to stay away from classics – this was the first I’ve read in around three years. All I remembered from when I was a kid attempting to dig through the never-ending tale of Moby Dick but a good friend convinced me that we would tackle classics together. This book was the first on our list, and it was a breathtaking journey. When two literature students spend a month slowly reading through such an adventurous novel, well, there’s nothing short of a literary adventure in the making.

The novel is based around the French Revolution (the mother of all revolutions in modern history) but it doesn’t just jump into the blood and gore right away. Instead, Dickens opens with a beautiful sentence – an extremely long sentence – depicting the times, the plight of the French peasantry as the aristocracy so daintily trampled all over them in the pre-Revolution years.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

A large portion of the book focuses on the pre-revolution period, slowly combining various story lines in the most subtle ways, and softly highlighting the mistreatment of the lower classes and the grandiose indifference of the rich. Often, when you read a classic novel, you read it more for the beauty of the mechanics than for the actual story line, but Dickens makes the plot line just as intriguing by introducing and maintain a connection with several protagonists. (To read more about what I mean by the “mechanics” of a novel, skip to the next paragraph.) We are introduced to Charles Darnay, a man who abandons a life of frivolous debauchery among the French aristocracy to earn an honest day’s bread as a French teacher in England, his subsequent love interest, a wrongfully imprisoned doctor who is barely hanging on his sanity, and an uppity lawyer with a sniveling little assistant. These characters lead completely separate lives and are brought together by the most deliciously unexpected plot twists, resulting in moments of catastrophic anxiety for the readers.

So what were the “mechanics” of this novel? Well, by using the word “mechanics”, I mean the way the novel functioned – how the story plays out with regards to the novel’s structure and how the development of the various characters ties in with the unraveling of the plot. Dickens proves his mastery in this regard by doing something that many modern-day novelists seem to have forgotten – he does not tell the reader how to connect the dots. Instead, he just lays the dots out and continues on his way, a merry story-teller till the end, and waits for you to pick up the pieces. Rather than stating the obvious, Dickens decided to have faith in his readers’ ability to keep speed.

Another aspect of the novel that I quite enjoyed was the polite way in which characters were mocked. The whole ‘the elite mistreat the poor‘ thing has been done so many times. Countless articles, novels, and documentaries have drummed this into our head. Studying the conflict perspective (conflict theory) in my university Sociology course this semester was really the last nail in the coffin for me.

Conflict theories are perspectives in social science that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group, that critique the broad socio-political system, or that otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservativism. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast historically dominant ideologies. It is therefore a macro level analysis of society. Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory… 

- Wikipedia

Now instead of just bashing the thoughtlessly evil aristocracy with abstract words and preaching to his audience, Dickens takes you on a journey where you are auto-zoomed in and out various situations. In each scenario, certain characters come together and a scene is enacted. Then it is up to you to draw your conclusions or if you are particularly pre-occupied (perhaps your mother is yelling at your or your house has suddenly caught fire, or a man is offering to sell you his socks in exchange for a cookie) not draw any conclusions at all.

The two cities mentioned in the title are of course France and England, and many unflattering parallels of social life are drawn between England and France throughout the novel. The characters’ stories traipse back and forth so frequently that you almost forget there weren’t airplanes back then.

So that’s what I loved about the novel. It was a wonderful experience, and the adrenaline rush I got off of studying it in such depth (I couldn’t show you all my depth in one blog post without giving away all the spicy bits) that I have now embarked on a 22-book commitment to classic novels. Here’s to good literature!

For all your true bookworms, and those of you who have read the books, my friend Faria Kalim compiled a list of points to ponder. Whether you use this to help you with an English course of just exercise your mind, I guarantee it’ll get your brain juices flowing.

  1. Dark vs. light – Madame Defarge vs Lucie – the two main female contenders.
  2. Mrs.Pross kills Madame Defarge unwittingly , ‘for love’. Is it still murder or is it justified?
  3. Power of women – Sydney dies for Lucie, and Madame Defarge has wrought evil during the French Revolution, is ready to kill Lucie and Manetter, and does not heed her husband’s objections to the murder of innocents. The same gender which is the epitome of a homemaker can also produce a murderer. The theme of opposites is found everywhere in the book
  4. Golden hair – why is it such a big deal? Does this tie into the whole light vs. dark and purity/innocence thing?
  5. The superlative degree is characteristic of Dicken’s writing:
    “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
  6. Contrast between the Marquis and Darnay. Marquis’s beauty is described in terms of great fragility – which raises a few questions in our mind. Does the Marquis stand for the nobility? If so, does Dickens’ imply that the nobility is just as terrible, beautiful and fragile as the Marquis? Clearly, the arrogance that pervades them all is a most definite cause of their downfall:
    “We have so asserted our station, both in the old time and in the modern time also,” said the nephew , gloomily, “that I believe our name to be more detested than any name in France.”
    “Let us hope so,” said the uncle. “Detestation of the high is the involuntary homage of the low.”
  7. We must also remember that although Lucie is described as the most helplessly innocent and beatific female alive, (possibly a great offence to the feminists of today) she is the quintessential female of Dicken’s time. Even during the sorrow of her husband’s captivity, she does not falter from her duties: “She was truest to them in the season of trial , as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.” And is otherwise, it is said of this paragon : “Although the Doctor’s daughter had known nothing of the country of her birth, she appeared to have innately derived from it that ability to make much of little means, which is one of the its most useful and most agreeable characteristics.”
  8. Dicken’s style: Elaborate, verbose, with significant crescendos and diminuendos. Example: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon , that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
  9. Irony : “It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee and it was too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown-as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it – as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitable coming…”
  10. Humour – Example: Sydney to Barsad: “I could not better testify my respect for your sister than by finally relieving her of her brother.”
  11. Also, characters of Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher.
  12. Religious references: Perhaps a significant part of morality to Dickens’ is to have faith and belief in God, which is why Carton soothes himself at the end with references to the bible: “I am the resurrection and the life, said the Lord…” There may have been a contrast in Dickens’ mind between Christ who according to Christian faith, died for the sins of his people, and Carton who died to atone for his. There are also countless references to meeting in Heaven.
  13. Foreshadowing may include a comparison between Manette being “recalled to life” and Carton serving his purpose by being recalled from it.
    “You have been the last dream of my soul.”  And she literally is, also.
  14. Climax – the horror of being convicted by his own father-in-law.
  15. Does Carton truly reach is his pinnacle at the end of the book? Or is the real tragedy that a man who had finally begun to realize the worth of his life simply gave it away for another man? Or does Carton’s real achievement lie in the fact that he gave his life away for a cause that he deemed was worthy, and thus was content with his end, as he considered his life well-spent.

 

The Rishta Auntie Reading List

Every young, twenty-something girl (and often younger in rural areas) in Pakistan notices that moment – the moment when her mother’s friends transform from The Nice, Jolly Aunties to Ruthless, X-Ray Scanner-at-the-Airport, Rishta Aunties. Now, instead of patting your head amicably and pinching your cheeks with big smiles of affection, The Rishta Auntie keeps her distance when greeting you, to critically analyze how you carry yourself. Oh, will you rush forward to greet her with enthusiasm? If you do, you’ll get points in the ‘Behavior’ section of this exam (Achi tarah milti hai baron ko.), but lose marks in the ‘Graceful-ness’ section. She doesn’t know how to carry herself, na. 

Will you step forward politely and kiss her cheeks in the repetitive mwah mwah mwah that we all attempt to copy from old French movies? If you do, she might decide you’re too WesternizedAllah maaf karey. (God forgive us.) Will you nod at her timidly, carefully positioning yourself one step behind your mother? This is a double whammy. Not only will you be considered shy, innocent and sweet (all good things), but you’ll also be awarded a bonus point for showing a submissive, respectful inferiority to your mother. You see, this is translated to mean that you will probably treat your mother-in-law the same way.

Whatever move you make, The Rishta Auntie will, after responding, start with your face and work her way down, marking off a secret checklist she has in her head. Good-looking, tick. Dresses modestly, tick. Carries herself well, tick. Nice dress sense, tick. Depending on what she’s looking for, this auntie will rate you on a ten-point scale. If she’s liberal and progressive, she’ll like you better if you’ve got blow-dried hair carefully arranged and a nice nude shade of nailpolish on, with designer heels and a dupatta casually laying across your shoulders. If she’s looking for a humble bride, she’ll want your eyes downcast, your hands folded together on your lap, and your most significant contribution to the conversation to be ‘Jee’ or ‘Yes, auntie.’

Your mother, of course, will be either beautifully oblivious to this entire process or will spend the entire meeting carefully positioning you to appear to be the most delightful, accomplished, charming young woman under the sun. Maliha ko to roti bhi banani aati hai. Kal raat ko zabardast khana banaya tha iss ne. Maliha auntie ko batao na. (Maliha knows how to cook roti too. Last night, she cooked us a delicious meal. Tell auntie about it, dear. Go ahead.)

After hearing several troubled stories from friends recently assaulted by this particular brand of Auntie, I decided to put together a small reading list for our beloved match-making, soul-sucking, X-Ray scanner. It’s so small, in fact, that there’s only two books on it: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Here’s why I picked these two:

Pride & Prejudice

This is the story of a girl who is one of many sisters, with a mother eager to marry them all off, and a father who can’t afford to keep them much longer. In a society that judges every woman by an impossible standard, the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, manages to avoid a proposal her mother desperately wanted, but which was not to her liking. She also finds the man she wants to spend her life with, overcomes personal as well as familial problems in order to find true happiness, and ends up better off than any of the other girls in town.

Pride and Prejudice is the story of a British family at a time way back when all the gossiping nosy neighbors and society as a whole considered a woman’s reputation of the utmost importance. Women were expected to behave in certain, predefined ways, and heaven forbid anyone ever try anything radical. (shudder) Stepping outside these predefined social norms meant ostracism for herself and her family. It was a disgrace to a family’s honor to have an “outgoing” young woman in the house. Does this sound familiar, ladies?

Just like in modern-day Pakistan, Austen’s England had clearly-defined class lines, clearly represented in characters such as the Bennets, who are a middle-class family, and socialize with their “superiors” such as Darcy, Bingley and Wickham, but are very are clearly their social inferiors. The author satirizes class-consciousness, for example in the character of Mr. Collins, who spends all his days sucking up to his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins is a bit of an extreme, but it’s important to note that he’s not the only one to think this way. His conception class structure is shared by almost all of the characters – Mr. Darcy, who is very proud of his lineage; Miss Bingley, who is just downright disdainful towards anyone lower down on the social ladder; and Wickham, who is desperately trying to do anything he can to get enough money to chill with the big dogs.

Also, there are some important lessons to be learnt:

Your daughters are not ducks sitting in a row, waiting desperately to be married.
Sometimes the one that looks perfect, with his shiny red coat and overwhelming attractiveness, may not be the best one for your daughter.
Give your daughter time to think it through. This is her life, her future. It needs to be her decision.
The right rishta will roll around eventually. True happiness is out there for everyone, and sometimes you just have to have a little faith.
Sometimes it’s the men with a million apparent flaws who are good at heart, and willing to make an effort to reach happiness. They might not seem appealing in the beginning, but in the end, they’re gold. So give the ugly ducklings a chance.

And lastly, just to drive my point home, I’d like you to watch this lovely video, recommended to me by another blogger, and a dear friend, Maha Kamal. Check out her blog by clicking here.

Jane Eyre

From the very start of the novel, Jane’s character possesses a sense of her self-worth and dignity, a strong commitment to the values of justice and principle, a trust in God, and a passionate disposition. Her dignity and integrity are continuously put to the test throughout the story and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself so as to find contentment. When hunting for your son’s blushing bride, Rishta Auntie Ji, remember that there is more to value in a woman than just how many chapatis she can make or how well-dressed she may be.

Give others the benefit of the doubt. Being on the defensive doesn’t do anyone any good.

Because she was treated badly as a child, one of Jane’s deepest fears is that she will never feel truly welcomed and at home. Part of the reason she falls for Rochester is because he is the first one who has offered her love and stability.  Jane is desperate to belong somewhere, to find “kin,” or at least “kindred spirits.” At the same time, she desires autonomy and freedom. She needs to have an independent sense of self, while feeling supported by a family structure. In truth, this is what many young girls are looking for. Even those coming from loving, stable homes desire to fit in well with their husbands and adjust to a radically different new life. Many times, brides are expected to live with their parents-in-law and this can make the transition even more difficult. Rishta Aunties have a list of things they require their young daughter-in-law to be, but can sometimes forget their own role. There’s a reason it’s called “mother-in-law” – because you’re supposed to act like a mother and that love and affection needs to translate into a healthy relationship with the newest member of your family.

She doesn’t have to be a supermodel to have a good heart.

In her search for personal freedom, Jane goes through this whole phase where she doesn’t know what type of freedom she wants. Rochester is the love of her life, and could bring her wild happiness, but by being his mistress she would be sacrificing her dignity and integrity for the sake of her feelings. St. John Rivers presents another problem. She could travel the world and do lots of good, but this freedom would also constitute a form of imprisonment, because she would be forced to keep her true feelings and her true passions always in check by being with him, a man she did not love.

Young girls just starting their married lives might not always know what they want. Girls on the rishta circuit, as I like to call it, may have a vague idea of happily ever after, but for many, this is something that is not practically outlined. It’s important for these girls to find a balance, and it’s important for The Rishta Auntie to appreciate that some balance is necessary. It may make you happy to have a daughter-in-law who obeys your every command, like Rivers would expect of Jane, but she would not be happy, and this goes against what marriage is supposed to be – a joyful union. Aunties should know that everyone has a right to personal freedom, and that if you trust them, people usually know how to make the right choices.

Despite his stern manner and not particularly dashing appearance – I mean, it’s not like this is Brad Pitt we’re talking about – Edward Rochester wins Jane’s love. Although Rochester is Jane’s social and economic superior, and men were widely considered to be naturally superior to women in the Victorian period (and still are in Pakistan today), Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal. This is what is most important in any marriage – that two people are compatible. It’s time to do away with old notions of male superiority and both parties need to respect and care for each other’s feelings. You must not clump two people together into a life that neither of them can be happy in because they’re beliefs, ideas, and feelings are not compatible.

And on that note, here’s to happy aunties, blessed rishtas, and less wounded hearts!

 

Battle of the Books: Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings

Frodo Baggins vs. Harry Potter (353/365)
Frodo Baggins vs. Harry Potter

After months of being barraged by friends to grab a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I finally gave in and decided to read the trilogy. It starts off simply enough, and a fabulous fantasy world is slowly constructed around the reader, carefully helping him through the many levels of the story. The first book is interesting, engaging, and exciting. The second book was slower, harder to read, harder to retain interest in, and by the time I got to the third book, it was like I was wading through a bog. Needless to say, I had lost interest. I found the meticulous detail tiring and unnecessary, the lengthy explanations of the simplest actions wearisome and found myself flipping through pages, trying to figure out how long it would take for me to complete the chapter.

The Harry Potter series are easier to relate to mostly because they take place in a world very similar to our own, only amplified with magic and a few new creatures. It’s not much of a stretch for our imaginations. On the other hand, LOTR’s adventures take place in Middle-earth, which is wildly different, with only a few similarities. It is a vast world, riddled with diversity, strengths, weaknesses, and above all, millions of shades of color. In fact, Middle-earth acts as a game board, the fundamental landscape against which all the adventures of Bilbo, Aragon and Gandalf take place. Some even argue that the books are really about Middle-earth, and that the characters are secondary – important in how they affect and change that world.

One reason Harry Potter stories are easier to like – it’s essentially a beautiful, happy world, full of sparkles and the loving Weasley family, only periodically interrupted by a bad guy. The stories are primarily focused with a narrow lens – Harry and Hogwarts. In a way that the Potter novels never did, LOTR encompassed a wide-lens view of a variety of different creatures, communities, ways of life. Part of its genius rests in how well-organized it is for such a large scale endeavor. The story is told from different perspectives, in different places, at different times. With Harry, we follow him around on his adventure, seeing what he sees, and only what he sees. The idea that possibly, we could all by Muggles, surrounded by a magical world. Could Aragon be around the corner? No. Could Harry Potter’s grandson be around the corner? Who knows. It’s much easier, but lacks that beauty that LOTR has so successfully harnessed. Tolkein invented a completely new language, “The Elvish Tongue”, which includes a number of dialects such as the one spoken in Mordor (he was a linguist as well as code breaker in WWI).  Did you know there is not one race or person in LOTR that doesn’t have its own written history?  Did you know that “The History of Middle Earth” includes every event leading up to his biggest series, LOTR and afterwards as well?

Maybe my generation no longer has the patience to appreciate what has been lauded as “one of the very few works of genius in recent literature” by the New RepublicMaybe we have become too addicted to the ease with which we can flip through television channels, podcasts, songs on our iPods, to understand the joy that comes from fully absorbing and understanding a work of literature. With our camera phones and BBM, we hardly know what it is to wait. And as they say, good things come with time.

But J. K. Rowling would beg to differ. I grew up with Harry Potter - loving it, living it, dreaming it. I had every book the second was available. I poured over them, night and day, in anticipation of what happens next. I was one of those kids who pretended their pencils were wands, and went around ‘bewitching’ everything around me. I yearned to be as beautiful as Fleur Delacour and have eyes as green as Harry’s. I wanted to be as smart as Hermoine and as ingenious as Fred and George. When Dumbledore died, I ran to my mother, novel in hand and eyes wide with dismay. My friends and I would have long debates about what the next book would bring – would Harry actually die this time? Was Neville Longbottom the real Chosen One? 

LOTR became the gold standard of the fantasy book genre when it was published back in the 1950s, and almost every fantasy novel since then can be said to have some similarities. The Potter books certainly have some parallels as far as the characters are concerned: Gandalf/Dumbledore, Sam/Ron, /Harry, Sauron/Voldemort. However, there are some differences that may contribute to why I fell in love with HP while trudging through LOTR. Harry begins the series as an eleven-year-old boy – close to the age most of his fans were – and ends it having just become an adult – again, in sync with his fan base, whereas our beloved Frodo begins LOTR at age 33 (old man status: reached). This also gave Harry the advantage of being crushable for the little girls – I mean, green eyes, black hair, tragic past and amazing powers? How did all those little pre-teen girls stand a chance, especially once the movies (although terrible) came out. Maybe LOTR lost out because it was written at a time when society hadn’t, as a whole, fallen quite so far into the gutter as it has these days. It’s also to remember here that Tolkein wasn’t writing for a children/young adult audience. Overall, though, just as much as LOTR is about Middle-earth, it’s languages, races and legends, the Harry Potter books are focused on their characters, and why the books are named after the main hero, as opposed to the history that is LOTR, which is named after the main villain.

I don’t know if it was the easy prose, or the dream-come-true atmosphere of Hogwarts, but Harry held my interest through 7 books. Lord of the Rings? Not so much. I may just be the only person in the world writing a negative review of the Lord of the Rings, but I’ve got to be honest. It just didn’t captivate me the way I expected it to. Maybe I had just heard so much about how great it was that I expected too much. Maybe I wanted another Harry Potter-magical moment, something that is now long gone, along with my magic pencils and childhood fantasies. Maybe I’m too grown up, or not grown up enough.

In a way very similar to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, the LOTR books demand focus, determination to finish them – loyalty. With Harry Potter, it’s the fast-paced action and adrenaline rushes that keep you reading. In LOTR you need to analyze, form opinions and actually think about things – the characters are far more complex and developed. Some easy examples are Gollum, Éowyn and Boromir and Denethor. They were certainly not one-dimensional. Harry Potter himself often comes off as a horribly clichéd boy, orphaned, newly found to be magical, living with horrible relatives and filled with just a bit too much teenage angst. At Hogwarts, you know the Weasleys are good guys and Voldemort is a bad guy. The only real character twists come towards the end of the series with Snape and Dumbledore.

Either way, the trilogy is written in meticulous (or artistic) style, and though there’s many loose ends – so much is vague – the lengthy appendices make up for that. The hard to pronounce names just made it more awkward for me, but reflect the true diversity and un-seamless nature of the real world. Here’s to bold-faced honesty: I did not like The Lord of the Rings, but I understand why most people do, and I think maybe I just wasn’t ready to invest the attention it needs when I read it.