Saturday, December 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful From this Angle

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal
Author: Maha Khan Phillips
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 25, 2010 /
Under the Title: Couture served with a side of scandal

Attend a decadent party in the city, document a rural tragedy and dupe a bunch of “angrez” — it is all in a day’s work for the characters created by Maha Khan Phillips. Her debut novel features Pakistan dressed up in couture and served with a side of scandal. This is fiction based on (rarely acknowledged) facts that alternates between rural and urban settings — merrily creating waves in one and unabashedly finding dirt in the other. Using such a varied palette enables her to draw on a wide range of complex themes that are useful in expanding the stage, which looks like a catwalk in the beginning.

The writer takes present day Pakistan — a hub of violence and an increasingly misunderstood region — and draws a composite that will jolt, repel, confound and overwhelm. She has embedded an unvarnished account of Karachi’s nightlife complete with the underground party scene and all that it entails, within a narrative that lures the curiosity seekers but stirs things around to force more urgent issues to the fore. She will also tiptoe past the political underbelly and, at the same time, hit all the notes in vogue — from the mullah and military to fundamentalism and feudalism. Somewhere in this mix are the privileged, happily settled on an oasis of calm, and the poor, living off their scraps.

Her principal character, Amynah, pens a (delightfully indiscreet) gossip column, ‘Party Queen on the Scene’, that “dishes the dirt on the bold, the beautiful and the downright ugly” while trying to come up with a (truly dreadful) “oppressed woman’s novel”. One of Amynah’s cronies has been reeled in by some Englishman and asked to set up a “mock Islamic terrorist training camp on the Waziristan border for Z-list English celebrities” for ‘Who Wants to be a Terrorist’ — a campy reality show for London’s Channel 4.

Monty Mohsin, the smarmy celebrity producer would be aware of the perils of sending wannabe terrorists to the heart of terror land in real life. The fictional world is supposedly operating under the same constraints. But, in the book, duplicity is the name of the (media) game, mastered to perfection on both sides of the fence where the Montys of this world always have a solution. Meanwhile, the oppressed woman is wending her way through the narrative guided by the “Party Queen’s” best friends. The situations depicted here are inspired by real life but taken to ridiculous extremes. Still, the writer makes this ludicrous sounding premise look and sound utterly convincing.

Since Maha provides access to an exclusive club after taking away the filters generally used whenever Pakistan is mentioned, the book is a bold and irreverent trek through (traditionally) forbidden territory that, at times, can be uncomfortable to watch. The book does not bother with niceties and maintains a ceaseless stream of mordant wit to take down whatever or whoever gets in the way. A lot of innocent (and some not so innocent) bystanders get in the line of fire; socialites who hide Marie biscuits in Marks and Spencer tins to serve to “folks who don’t know the difference”, journalists dressed for combat who lap up horror stories about this region and have an exaggerated sense of danger and, finally, the West’s rallying cry for “find that Osama” and the locals who join in the chorus hoping to make a buck.

For all the clever plotting, it is stifling to be in the company of these characters and difficult to root for their success. Set against a backdrop of violence, Beautiful From This Angle is a blunt instrument that silently mocks the culture of benign neglect. Its breezy prose evokes gallows humour, its glossy finish tries to cover up the bitter aftertaste. It does not play safe, nor does it care to conform.

This is a small book that moves at a frantic pace and mines the countryside for every bit of local colour that can challenge stereotypes and yet still convey that keen sense of danger that has become a part of everyday life. Sensitive readers would be appalled by the language — profanity, like drugs and alcohol, flows freely, and some of these characters will happily check little things like morals and integrity at the door. This will give those Karachiites who go through life wearing blinders or blindfolds (or both) a severe culture shock. The jaded, however, might appreciate the candour.

For Maha Khan Phillips, completing the novel was a course requirement from City University London. Since then she has penned a children’s novel The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. Beautiful From This Angle may not speak to everyone but it knows how to make an entrance.

Penguin; Pp 240; Rs 495

2 Pix from Liberty Books/Sarah Haris's Fb Page

Saturday, December 11, 2010

VIEW: Houbara Bustards: dead birds walking? — Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 11, 2010
Published in SHE Magazine Jan 2011

Experts disagree over the exact date when the houbara bustard might join the ranks of the spectacled cormorant, caspian tiger and woolly rhinoceros — but most agree that it is probably headed that way. The houbara has been projected as an aphrodisiac — endangered, protected, doomed — in need of conservation and on the fast track towards extinction. Because, come winter, when Pakistan gets ready to host one class of migratory birds, it also prepares to welcome several dignitaries from neighbouring Arab countries. The houbara comes for the climate; the Arabs come for the houbara. Armed with permits and falcons, visiting Arabs proceed to hunt in designated areas and, if tabloids are to be believed, their sole interest in the sport lies in what the poor bird’s meat contains and not the hunt itself. The tabloids would be surprised to learn that while the royal hunters’ main motivation is the thrill of the sport, the houbara’s preservation is also their major concern. As for the aphrodisiac part, it is not true.

The houbara is under attack on multiple fronts. The birds are endangered not just because of falconry but also due to domestic abuse (illegal netting, trapping and poaching) as well as natural causes. In the netting, trapping and shooting of game birds, the odds are heavily stacked against the prey while the opposite is true in falconry. Only a very agile and well-trained falcon can take down a houbara, which has a better than even chance to escape unscathed. It is this challenge that has made falconry a noble sport, fit for royalty. The houbara may be many things — it is moody, scares easily and is picky about mates (takes three to five years to settle down again). And yes, it is coveted as a game bird, but the hunters vehemently deny that the bird is sought after for its alleged aphrodisiac properties, insisting that for them falconry is more than a sport — it is tradition.

Recently, a very small passage in a local daily was devoted to the environment and wildlife conservation efforts in Pakistan on the UAE’s 39th anniversary on December 2, 2010 that quoted HH Sheikh Zayed (President of the UAE) as saying, “Whatever we take from nature, we return to nature.” The negative aspects of the hunt get annual coverage but the UAE would, for once, like to highlight the positives, beginning with their role in conservation.

According to a report, the UAE is the first country to have initiated measures to protect the endangered houbara bustard; hunting may be their passion but conservation is their foremost concern. If the houbara bustard becomes extinct, their centuries old lifestyle dies with it and they see themselves as one of the principal stakeholders in ensuring survival of the species.

That the houbara has been hunted to extinction in their homeland — the deserts of Arabia — make them empathise with their hosts. The UAE government is funding studies to successfully breed houbaras in captivity and overseeing efforts to have them released in the wild. They have established an ultramodern houbara breeding facility in their own country where houbara chicks are raised and later released into the wild, validating their leader’s claim. Besides, in a conscious effort to conserve the houbara population and prevent over-hunting, the royal dignitaries ensure that the number of hunting teams accompanying the entourage is limited and each hunting party is given a small quota of birds that they cannot exceed during the entire season.

The UAE dignitaries who visit Pakistan for falconry spend a colossal amount of money during their stay. What may appear as frivolous expenditure actually helps stimulate the local economy of one of the poorer regions of Pakistan. They have made sizeable investments in social welfare projects like housing schemes, hospitals and communication networks besides providing other facilities in places like Rahimyar Khan, Larkana and Cholistan, which are their annual haunts.

Some conservationists stock up on ammunition using bleak statistics, hoping to jolt the government of Pakistan into action and persuade hunters to give up their vocation. The same reports paint the Arabs as reckless, indifferent, inconsiderate and above the law. If such tirades continue, the UAE royals will take their hunt elsewhere. UAE, which has been described as “the single largest investor in Pakistan”, has deep ties to the land and its people and their annual trek is out of love for the host country as much as their fondness for the sport. For years, they have roughed it out in the desert, shared their kills with the locals and, of course, brought in much needed revenue — a lot of it. For them, the allure lies in being able to relive the Bedouin lifestyle and stay in touch with their roots.


While the UAE has taken concrete steps to preserve and promote the houbara bustard population, Pakistan must continue to ensure that laws that ban illegal hunting and trapping are strictly implemented. Or else, the houbaras are dead birds walking.

Images taken from
http://image02.webshots.com/2/0/91/20/167909120BLnYkK_fs.jpg
http://desertislands.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/155048houbara.jpg

Saturday, November 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal / Author: Michael Gates Gill
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starbucks had more than coffee on the menu the day Michael walked in. A company that claims its mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time”, was about to offer him a choice of lifelines along with their standard latte. And the man who once hobnobbed with poets, writers and political bigwigs and jet-setted around the globe, happily ensconced in his armour of wealth and entitlement, was going to accept both.

It is not every day that a former creative director of J Walter Thompson (JWT) who has a Yale education and leads a charmed life steps down to take the place of a Starbucks barista only to find that it was actually a step up in life. As ludicrous as this sounds, How Starbucks Saved My Life insists on turning the classic rags to riches story on its head.

Michael is someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth (he is the son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill), who discovers the secret to happiness only after he crosses over to the other side of the divide doing work that, according to him, would have appalled his entitled and arrogant self. Knocked off his comfortable perch at 53, he fell a long way down, losing balance upon re-entry.

This is the story of how a fallen star who lived for work and let his true priorities go astray found his bearings in a famous coffeehouse that offers its guests (there are no customers) a rich experience, and its partners (as every employee is called) a nurturing environment.

Starbucks, an international coffeehouse chain that welcomes all new partners with coffee sampling and coffee stories is the unexpected star that upstages the mighty JWT. JWT, which is the “largest advertising agency in the US and fourth biggest in the world” is the one in need of an image makeover before this saga ends.

Working as a barista might not be everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it proved to be an ideal “pick me up” for one Michael Gates Gill. Michael, or Mike as he is now known, recounts his adventures, first as the king of advertising and later as a pawn in the service industry. He reminisces about the past when his cloak of invincibility was still intact and he seemed to have a firm grip on things, yet, upon closer examination, he notices that his supposedly picture perfect life was riven by fault lines. Pondering over his background that “put him on an upward escalator reserved for those few affluent, properly educated, well spoken, well dressed peers who would never stop ascending”, he acknowledges that he would never have left voluntarily. He uses the book to condemn not just the soulless corporate machine that evicted him after 25 years of loyal service but also his lifestyle choices responsible for driving a wedge between him and his priorities. After being escorted out of JWT, he recalls how missteps were greeted by a cheering squad, fear was the driving force and clients loved to see them trip up.

At Starbucks, on the other hand, he finds that “both partners and guests agreed that everyone deserved to be treated with respect and dignity”, which is a far cry from the Fortune 500 companies he had encountered that “spent lots of money and time writing and publishing high sounding mission statements and never practised the corporate gobbledygook that they preached.”

Mike observes that his superiors at Starbucks have no problem serving subordinates, “turning the traditional corporate hierarchy upside down”. He discovers benefits at every turn, working with people who never order but request and is pleasantly surprised when guests appear to show genuine concern about partners.

The writer happens to be the original Mad Man (reference to the AMC show Mad Men about an advertising agency on Madison Avenue set in the 1960s) and bears an uncanny resemblance to its lead character, Don Draper. He does not pretend to be an innocent bystander at JWT and, afterwards, mentions that as he moved past an old colleague, he was also “moving beyond other remnants of his past more arrogant self”. He admits to his own failings (as a family man) and pleads guilty to harbouring secret prejudices; this is not just an angry rant against a corporation that left him out in the cold.

Every now and then Mike takes a break from ripping apart JWT and entertains with vignettes from their vault. Through the book he can take down his old company without worrying about lawsuits and endorse Starbucks without being dismissed as a PR man. In 2011, Tom Hanks will don the green apron to play Mr Gill in the movie adaptation of How Starbucks Saved My Life.



Gotham; Pp 272

Saturday, November 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's SpyTechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda

Wallace, Robert (Author) and Melton, H. Keith (Author)
with Schlesinger, Henry R. (Author)
Foreword by George J. Tenet Former Director CIA

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / 06 Nov 2010, under the title: I Spy With My Little Eye

Some in the intelligence business have been dismayed to find that they have been using gadgets relegated to spy museums long ago. As agencies operating under the espionage banner usher in a new era of covert warfare, asking the public to admire their enterprising nature may not be wise. Getting the agencies to set aside their secrecy clause long enough to admit to their past may not be possible.

The ‘top gun of OTS’ CIA’s Office of Technical Service have been engaged in a battle of wits for half a century and their stories are worthy of attention. An insider’s look at the world of espionage especially OTS or ‘America’s Q’ and its fearsome capabilities besides being a cause for concern for rival agencies is a chance to observe ‘history in the making’ through the eyes of bit players deployed on the technological frontlines.

Ripple effects of an American intelligence failure can be felt all over the globe - ditto for intelligence manipulation. OSS (Office of Strategic Studies) even when it was lightly dismissed as the ‘bastion of aristocrats and bankers’ during WWII had its fingers in several covert pies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia; its successor has been cast in a more sinister light.

Stanley Lovell(credited with playing the role of the dreaded Professor Moriarty of the OSS) who also wrote about technical aspect of intelligence in another book ‘Spies & Stratagems’ and initially considered the idea of subversion to be un-American, would go on to oversee the creation of a clandestine arsenal for use by ‘soldiers of underground resistance movements, spies and saboteurs’.

Now Robert Wallace, a former director of OTS gives away what were once valuable trade secrets and are still deemed classified by CIA given that all but three chapters of his (originally approved) manuscript ended up on the cutting room floor so to speak. While the fast evolving capabilities may have rendered technology that was considered revolutionary for its time obsolete, spooks, being spooks are reluctant to part with expired blueprints.

Wallace, a career intelligence officer finally managed to get the document past censors (making voluntary changes) all the while insisting that this is a non inflammatory history lesson. He claims to have lifted the cloak of secrecy surrounding the CIA and its operations without demonizing the agency or the President or leaking classified information for that matter. CIA can agree to disagree here.

Devices with built in spy capability are ubiquitous now so T-100 mini camera / pen series or BUSTER the infant texting device are no longer the star attraction; but the ingenuity (and cunning) that went into perfecting tradecraft, and the bold initiatives launched under technological constraints are. This is a detailed guide to Uncle Sam’s intelligence strike force launched against communism with a few tantalizing glimpses into their efforts in the ongoing anti terror campaign against the Al-Qaeda.

The remarkable story of OTS - ‘the organization that did not just make magic, it made magic on demand’ has its share of ‘Mission Impossible’ moments with more than a few ‘Get Smart’ situations thrown in. Deciding to recruit feral cats by bugging them to spy on an Asian head of state in the mid 1960’s appears to have the stamp of Maxwell Smart (from the classic spy comedy) yet the ‘Acoustic Kitty Project’ was an all too real albeit failed experiment. But the value of intelligence provided from behind the Iron Curtain by a senior Soviet military intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Oleg Penkovsky, (featured in a book ‘the Spy who Saved the World’) that supposedly ‘led to American denying Soviets a foothold in Western hemisphere’ cannot be questioned. Nor can the Soviet’s ability to repay the favour.

It gives readers a fair idea of the Soviet paranoia, the risks CIA agents ran operating right under the ever vigilant KGB’s inquisitive nose and the challenges techs (technicians) encountered bringing in a silent technological revolution as they struggled to match (and eventually overtake) the brilliance of their counterparts. Whether it is applying the dramatic Skyhook technology recently featured in Dark Knight – the movie, equipping a helicopter with night vision capability and quiet mode or using a jack in the box head to ditch surveillance and applying covcom(covert communication) to establish links with U.S. POW prisoner of wars in North Vietnam.

The book delves into the Q’s inner sanctum sharing operational details and imagery leading readers to fully appreciate the arcane world of ‘shadow warriors’, the transformative effect of emerging technology and the role (good) intelligence plays in gaining that decisive edge over adversaries. ‘Spycraft’ takes place in a universe where the nerdy Q saves the day with a dash of bravado, a pinch of guile and a smidgen of savvy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, the Politician Imran Khan, The Biography / Author: Christopher Sandford

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 23, 2010

Someone recalls seeing the ‘legend’ from a distance once at a duck shoot. An Imran Khan sighting generally sent mortal men, women, children and tabloids into frenzy.

Not here.

As this chap sheepishly admitted, “a fighter pilot’s ego will rival that of a highly sought after cricketing legend.

And so Imran remained seated in the car seemingly oblivious to the trio while they stayed rooted to the spot pretending to gawk at the ducks.

No duck has stolen Khan’s thunder before or since.

Imran Khan’s popularity can be gauged by a passage that claims that dignitaries from other Commonwealth countries reportedly asked to see two things, one of which was our great Khan and the other was the Khyber Pass.

Over time, Imran Khan would go through several transformations, moving effortlessly between international phenomena, ‘dream catcher’, ‘good Samaritan’ and ‘King of hearts’. He would come to be recognised as one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of test cricket, “who led the national team to become the best and most bellicose side in the world notwithstanding its internecine rows.

The task of finding the real Khan has fallen to Christopher Sandford — biographer to the stars. He brings Pakistan’s chequered cricketing history to life in his ‘book of revelations’ by following a man who commanded the respect and adulation reserved for superstars; a man who has lived under the harsh glare of publicity without getting singed for nearly four decades. And a man accurately defined as the figure head of a sporting renaissance, which had direct and dramatic results on national self-confidence.

Sandford’s previous subjects have ranged from music stars like Sting, Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain to acclaimed directors like Roman Polanski. His decision to add “the unquestioned tsar of Pakistan cricket” comes at a time when Imran is re-sharpening his tools for political office.

Other self-portraits are available in the market such as The Autobiography and its sequel, All Round View, but biographers are not touch up artists. Although a word in the original title of this book that nicely summed up Khan’s off screen antics as a ‘player’ has been toned down to a more sedate ‘celebrity’, the content has not. Judging by the comments on the internet, the book has already created quite a stir by apparently hinting at a possible (brief) liaison between Pakistan’s — now deceased — female ex-premier and the cricketing giant while both were at Oxford. The writer, however, opines that the two were nothing more than “good friends.

Imran of yore, seen here, complacently sipping milk in a British pub while getting ready to ascend the rickety ladder to success, cuts a dashing figure. He was not only perceived as the sole architect of wins but also the chief cause of riots as the flamboyant front man of the Pakistani cricket team known for his colourful lifestyle who eclipsed his team-mates.

His friends and foes come forward to pay glowing tribute to “the world’s most creative and hardest working bowler who never stopped thinking about his game.” In Sandford’s words, he provided a firm hand on the tiller along with runs and wickets and put the steel in his team. On duty he is described as a “joyless, single-minded leader who expected one to live up to his own high standards.” Then there is the “benevolent dictator ”who “came to enjoy loyalty if not always the unbridled affection of his men in a way hitherto unknown in his country’s 30 years of test cricket.

When faced with match fixing charges, he wagered all the money from other conquests to ensure a win and would own up to at least one ball tampering charge, stubbornly arguing that “seam doctoring was an ancient technique” and that all great bowlers were guilty of sharp practices.

Revisiting Imran’s old stomping grounds with Sandford is a rare treat. He has a keen eye and a ready wit jumping in to correct misapprehensions or challenge Khan’s memory. He charts the meteoric career trajectory of the man by referencing all aspects of his life — from the good and the bad to the terribly awkward.

The book spends a fair amount of time on the field, which the cricket enthusiast will find invigorating. The rest will be distracted by the bits exposing the Pakistani domestic cricket scene as a world where cricket was far from being a ‘gentleman’s game’ given the “on field exchange of pleasantries with numerous references to the players parentage and to their female relatives.

The writer erroneously believes that Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup win might have catapulted Imran straight to the presidential office. Let us just say that the local political scene suffers from an inherent design flaw where the term ‘fair and free’ seldom goes with elections. Imran — the cricketing giant — emerged as a unifying symbol for his country once; his debut as a politician has many categorising him as a polarising figure. A lot has changed since the time he was dubbed a lady-killer to the moment he stood accused of sympathising with lady-killers. This Imran is busy dispelling the impression that he is a Taliban apologist. Neither Imran is controversy-free. Both are featured in the book.

HarperCollins UK; Pp 384; Rs 795

Saturday, October 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Who Assassinated Benazir Bhutto / Author: Shakeel Anjum

Thank you Dost Publication for the review copy
First Published in Daily Times / 09 Oct 2010

Reviewed by - Afrah Jamal

It is not every day one finds the author of a book about murder himself implicated in a triple homicide. In our part of the world, however, it could simply mean that the ‘suspect’ was too snoopy for his/her own good or simply stepped on some VIP’s toes. Fortunately, it was the latter case here (he fell out with the Islamabad police) and an exonerated Shakeel Anjum shakes off the stigma of a murderer and dons the garb of a detective. He is, after all, a crime reporter who has been associated with a local English daily for a long time and has clocked 32 years in the arena. This provides him with the requisite credentials to dive into the deep end but it may not necessarily give him groundbreaking investigative journalistic powers to ferret out the truth about Benazir’s assassination. Yet, this is exactly what the author claims to have done.

The purpose of the book is ostensibly to unveil the ‘real’ culprits of a high profile political assassination caught on camera, by taking it apart — one frame at a time. It will revisit the scene of the crime from every conceivable (and some inconceivable) angle to determine what he calls the “causation of death”. At the time of the incident, the international media was rife with speculations; some wondered about a possible low-level military involvement, others looked towards the northwest, trying to pin down militant outfits. The local media mirrored the mood, adding a few spicy details of their own; but a good portion of their time slot was devoted to hypothesising about how the victim died (lever or gunshot). Though the militants topped the list of suspects while shadowy hands were a close second, the case was never satisfactorily resolved despite the intervention of foreign experts and swearing in of the deceased’s own party.

The primary controversy at the time centred on the ‘cause of death’. The writer leads with this line of inquiry, probably because of the contradictory statements issued by the authorities in charge. Scotland Yard ruled death by lever (head injury as a result of the explosion) and a local expert from the Joint Investigative Team, Major (retd) Shafqat discredited the theory while his team sided with the Yard. This gentleman (referred to here as an FIA forensic expert who has no parallel in the subcontinent) happily accuses Scotland Yard of ‘result fixing’, to match the government-sanctioned verdict.

Since the shooting preceded the bomb blast, covering up the possible existence of a bullet wound served no purpose and it did not impact the search for ‘who’. The presence of a concealed sniper could have justified the frenzy, but the shooter stood in plain sight. The book, however, frets about this ‘how’ and uses the controversy as a springboard to launch bizarre theories. The writer’s take on the lever/gun situation will confound many but his argument that creating such doubts was a ploy on the government’s part to hijack the PPP’s sympathy vote will floor all.

While he tries to arrange all facts meticulously, bravely declaring that “it is not hard to make a hypothetical conclusion that clearly indicates who was behind this bloody assassination”, he falters in his quest. All he really does is add to the list of suspects instead of whittling it down while accusing all three governments of being complicit in the cover-up; these include the PML-Q, the interim set-up, and the PPP.

Because the crime scene was compromised, suspects annihilated, an autopsy prevented and obvious security lapses witnessed on each side, many like him will hesitate before putting some obscure militant organisation on the stand. The writer is right to be concerned with the odd behaviour of the investigative bodies, but he has not mastered the art of objective reporting. Consequently, even if there is any idea worth pursuing here, it requires a salvage crew with the patience of a saint to retrieve it from under the pile of scrap.

It is probably the first time a sentence like “pulling cosmetic rabbits out of a grinning bag” will be seen anywhere and hopefully it will be the last time a CIA director is quoted saying words like “slain dead” with a straight face. It should also be the only time a book like this is allowed to assassinate the English language, what with its appalling grammar, absurd headings (‘Yarders findings disbelieve’), misspelling, poorly worded/incomplete sentences and repetitive paragraphs. But, in some later edition, even when all these horrific mistakes are corrected, a book that vacations in conspiracy theory land, backtracking to retrieve old ideas, retelecasting them ad infinitum, ad nauseam, brings on spatial disorientation.

The only relief comes in portions not concerned with crime solving that reproduce an interview with the deceased given at the Academy of Achievement (Washington DC), documents the global reaction to the murder and draws parallels with the Hariri assassination (the Lebanese prime minister).

In the end, the real culprits need not worry. There is a vacant lot next to two other high profile assassination cases: Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (1951) and President Ziaul Haq (1988). And they are still pending.

Published in Daily Times (Saturday, October 09, 2010)under the title: A collection of whodunits

Dost Publication; Pp 290; Rs 495

Saturday, October 2, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music/ Compiled & Edited by Asif Noorani

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 02, 2010 / under the title: National Treasure

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

(Thanks to Asif Noorani Sahib for the words of encouragement & Liberty Books for the signed copy)

13 June 2012: Rest in Peace Mehdi Hasan (1927-2012)

A quick perusal of Mehdi Hasan’s life will reveal that he was anointed the ‘Emperor of Ghazals’ and ensured that the earliest foundations of Pakistani music would also be the strongest, that his voice easily broke through the cultural barrier and that he was a mechanic before he was a legend. Anyone desirous of taking a closer look at the musical maestro who dominated radio, television and film and ruled the local airwaves for several decades would have been disappointed.

One man, however, will lament the fact that “no book, good, bad or indifferent, on the greatest exponent of ghazal gayeki (singing) of the late 20th century is available in Pakistan or elsewhere”, before setting out to correct this grave oversight.

Those lining up for a proper biography of our national treasure can settle for the next best thing in the form of a quick sketch heavily tinctured with nostalgia. Mehdi Hasan’s extraordinary career has now been transferred to canvas with a few masterstrokes in Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music.

Asif Noorani pays homage to a living legend in a now familiar format that invites members of the Mehdi Hasan fan club (contemporaries, journalists, actors, composers, writers, etc, from both sides of the divide) to come and reminisce with him about an exceptional artist and his phenomenal legacy. He adds rare images, a letter from the former Indian prime minister, a poem and excerpts of old interviews, along with a list of Hasan’s best known work to make this exercise more enticing.

Trying to fit a mega star’s extensive achievements into a petite little volume can be challenging. But this is the second time such a technique has been used. An insouciant approach — first tried with a cricketing legend (Shahid Afridi) — still manages to capture the essence of the subject.

Over the years, Mehdi Hasan’s music has dazzled the subcontinent, constituting an important pillar of the cultural bridge. He quietly conquered the Pakistani music scene with a steady flow of musical hits from the 1950s till the late 1990s and can be credited with hundreds of film songs and ghazals. Incidentally, Noorani sahib disagrees with the singer’s royal sobriquet and points out that his contributions have not been restricted to just one genre (ghazal) and he has explored both classical and semi-classical sides, including kaafis, film and folk music.

Praised for precision and lauded for professionalism, some try to explain the inexplicable effect the singer’s voice appears to have on those ignorant of the language but who were still carried away. One reasons that this may be because of a “voice that transports them to a world where meaning becomes subservient to the magic of the words”, adding that this voice comes as close as it is possible to a state of sama (trance). Another raves about his exceptional abilities and incredible range.

Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music relives the glorious days while dwelling on his craft; how he would compose in real time and frequently improvise in front of a live audience; how he could manipulate the meaning of the verses by knowing which word to stress and possessed a deep understanding of Urdu poetry; why he never sounds monotonous (because of extensive training and drawing inspiration from other ragas) when others of his generation do.

The sentimental journey into Mehdi Hasan land comes with two audio CDs, one of which features ghazals (live versions) as the compiler is convinced that Mehdi Hasan is best heard when ‘live’. Asif Noorani had the unenviable task of selecting a few stellar performances from many outstanding numbers but he also has the privilege of preserving the precious legacy. He explains that only six tracks could be included to retain the integrity of the ghazals (he refused to snip away originals) while 14 film numbers, a kaafi, an Urdu translation of Heer and a thumri are crammed in the second disc. Noorani sahib has recently compiled/edited a coffee table book on Shahid Afridi (Boom Boom Shahid Afridi) and previously co-authored Tales of Two Cities with Kuldip Nayar.

There are instances where the book lapses into Urdu and it would be helpful to include translations. Snippets of information provided within offer tantalising glimpses of a gifted boy who once performed for the Maharaja of Baroda while inches away from earning a title of his own, a singing sensation at the apex of his career, and an ailing man who is done playing national hero and suffers like the rest of his subjects at the hands of the KESC. Mehdi Hasan may have been silent for a decade but the subcontinent continues to reverberate with the exquisite sounds from a bygone era.

Available at Liberty Books; Pp 80; Rs 695

Can be ordered from Desi Store

Monday, September 27, 2010

VIEW: Just Say No…. to IDP’s? - MQM's IIIrd Strike (June 2009)

Unpublished piece

A strike call to protest the IDP’s arrival in Sindh, issued by virtual unknowns – JSQM, had been set for 25 May 2009. MQM’s initial support and subsequent withdrawal late Sunday night (24 May 2009) came too late for the strike to be called off – but in time for them not to ‘strike out’ completely. In baseball terms, however, this would be MQM’s third strike. First a deposed judge (barred for bringing in Marching lawyers); recently a fiery Cricketer turned politician (barred for bringing a peace rally) and now displaced people (barred for unwittingly bringing excess baggage of the Taliban).

As compassion and aid pours forth from all over the world for victims of Pakistan’s biggest humanitarian disaster, this very public display of hostility is bewildering. MQM reps were hauled in by talk show hosts to explain. Glib talking politicians nimbly danced around, careful not to admit wrongdoing, loathe to take responsibility, yet, eager to defend their flimsy pretext for lending support, ultimately, denying having given any. It was not pretty.

To MQM, Karachi is not a logical choice. No arguments there. A nationwide dispersal of the displaced is not an ideal scenario. Settling them near their home is obviously preferable. Can IDP’s be stopped from wandering far and wide especially if they do not have relatives to take them in? Not according to the three C’s we generally abide by - Constitution and Common courtesy!

MQM also sees sinister designs in this move. Other provinces share Sindh’s apprehensions about letting the IDP influx spread. Other provinces did not take it out on their people or allow City life to be paralyzed, public property torched or innocents murdered in the guise of a Strike that never was. While, the danger of infiltration and fear of de-stability is all too real, the rest of Pakistan has accepted these risks. The discovery of a Taliban commander living among IDP’s at the beginning of the exodus, capture of 23 suspected Taliban in subsequent days hiding in plain sight in other IDP camps and possibility of more having merged with fleeing residents in the ensuing confusion proves that this is not an irrational fear. With the arrival of IDP’s, security will be an issue. Ethnic divide could widen. And they may decide to stay on. Even so, these are insufficient grounds for keeping them out. Protecting Karachi is an admirable sentiment. At the cost of serving Pakistan is less so.

The concern for this city’s security is touching but unnecessary. Karachi is no stranger to violence. It may not have been hit by terrorists as often but bullets start flying at the slightest provocation. Such is the fickle nature of things here. If this little charade was meant to scare off poor wandering IDP’s from flying South, it failed. This has only steeled Karachi’s resolve to play host.

Sindh eventually bowed down - albeit with bad grace.

And so, IDP’s are Southward bound, perhaps driven by poor condition of camps elsewhere or attracted by better job prospects. But it is unlikely that they will find either at the so called Dubai of Pakistan. The new camps will not be any different. They could even be worse. And we are in recession. For all the talk about the IDP’s sacrificing their present for our future, no red carpet treatment awaits them in camps anywhere. Unbearable heat, mismanagement and now a frosty reception does. There are just too many of them. And, the nationwide call for ‘all hands on deck’ has been slightly muffled by other calls with less than noble agendas.

Image1 from: http://pakistanidps.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/idp_camps_hubs-small.jpg
Image2 from: http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/unhcr_idp_camps_swabi_afp-300x168.jpg

Saturday, September 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Estranged Neighbours: India - Pakistan (1947-2010) By General K M Arif

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Dost Publications for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 25 Sep 2010 under the title: Dreaming of an elusive peace

General Arif admits that he is a “soldier by profession and peacemaker by choice”. The peacemaking side hastens to the battlefield to clear the air and maybe mend some fences while the soldier in him is ready to launch a verbal offensive. He does intend to bury the hatchet but not before evaluating the number of times this hatchet has been wielded in the past by the powerful nation of India against a flailing state of Pakistan. There is a third side — that of the pragmatist who intends to bring Pakistan back in alignment with its stated polices.

South Asia is frequently in crisis mode and Estranged Neighbours studies the inherited problems, shared dilemmas, post partition woes and regional complexities faced by both nations. General Arif witnessed the partition, was President Ziaul Haq’s chief of staff and spent nearly 40 years in the army. He got a front row seat in the coup d’√©tat staged by Zia and observed the crumbling pillars of democracy up close and personal. But here he is a staunch supporter of democratic principles and values the freedom of the media, even going so far as to devote an entire chapter to media paradoxes and suggesting that citizens be allowed to observe both sides of parliamentary debates and not just be fed the approved sound bytes.

His latest book defines new parameters but prefers to cover old ground — a lot of it. The writer examines all the problems faced by Pakistan, hurdles cast by India and the opportunities lost by both. The general also offers advice to resolve the persistent water, energy, security and economic crisis and help change Pakistan’s political culture, referred here as a relic of colonial past. He quotes multiple instances to show that the overarching fear of Indian aggression is not irrational and as many instances to demonstrate that failure to address domestic problems poses an even graver threat to national security.

Dredging up the past and focusing on India’s hegemonic desires serves an important purpose: it allows him to demonstrate that Pakistan has not been sent into paroxysms of paranoia and makes it easier to explain away its obsession with shiny new military hardware and nuclear toys. It also tries to take the heat off the one that is always in the hot seat by dragging another’s skeletons out in the open while clarifying Pakistan’s position on Kashmir — South Asia’s personal nuclear flashpoint.

But past sins are easier to prove than present misdemeanours and it is difficult to determine if there is any evidence of enemy clandestine activity that will actually stand up in court. Pakistan has found it harder to convince the world of Indian involvement and the charges of sabotage ‘reportedly’ carried out by Indian agencies and ‘financial, material and political support extended to local dissidents’ mentioned in the book do not appear to affect the international community. India, on the other hand has gotten better at this game of ‘spy catching’.

The list of grievances against India is a mile long including cutting off Pakistan’s water, money, hardware, slicing off a chunk of its territory, starting the nuclear arms race and secretly harbouring the hope that partition was a temporary condition. He is equally voluble when it comes to British treachery and the inequitable division of assets. Pakistan’s side includes trying to ‘free’ Kashmir, initiating Operation Gibraltar and allowing weak statesmanship to endanger its national interest. At some point he will call both nations ‘blameworthy’ but the bulk of the blame is laid at India’s doorstep while the majority of ire is directed at Pakistan. This trust deficit has not sprung up overnight but while the book tries to prove its biggest neighbours intent hostile, the responsibility for the downfall of local institutions is all laid at Pakistan’s doorstep.

It begins with an accusatory tone and ends on a hopeful note. Whatever hurdles have been created by the ‘devious’ neighbours and/or unreliable allies, even the general cannot deny that present day Pakistan has gambled and lost some of its prestige and most of its recent troubles are self-inflicted. He calls his country a wounded nation hurt by friends and foes, riddled with injuries of insult, neglect and arrogance inflicted by dictators and democrats; judges and generals; bureaucrats and the media.

General Khalid Mahmud Arif, a recipient of Nishan-i-Imtiaz and SBt, is the author of Working with Zia: Pakistan Power Politics, 1977-1988 and Khaki Shadows: Pakistan Army 1947 to 1997 and is the co-author of three more books. Estranged Neighbour has been laced with a heavy dose of history and shows why the animosity has lasted as long as it has. It is a handy guide for academics and history buffs.



Dost Publications; Pp 339; Rs 595

Sunday, September 19, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Dead until Dark /Author: Charlaine Harris

First Published in Daily Times - Saturday, September 18, 2010

Published under the title: Playing for high stakes

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

All the books in the Southern Vampire Mystery series have the word ‘dead’ in the title, a female lead with moxie as the protagonist, a mystery at the core and the un-dead community as its star attractions. The media is saturated with vampires these days but instead of dying from overexposure, this proves that they are stronger than ever.

Charlaine Harris adds another dimension to an old tale, tweaking the mythology to imagine a world where vampires have risen again. This time they have a stake in society instead of the other way around and no longer need to skulk around in the shadows or hunt humans for that matter. Freshly recognised, at least in the US, out of the coffin, into the open, teetotaller vamps owe their new found freedom to the Japanese whose alternative nourishment plan involves synthetic drinks.

These un-dead run true to type with their fangs, drinking problem, ruthless nature, immortality, fear of splinters and inability to hold down a day job (the word ‘sun’ still translates to ‘extra crispy’ in the un-dead dictionary). While humanity will always be seen as a tasty treat, even the living dead cannot discount the importance of good PR, which is why they are trying to play nice by ‘mainstreaming’ in an attempt to blend in and live the dream.

This premise captured the fancy of screenwriter Alan Ball who developed the Sookie Stackhouse series for television. HBO’s ‘True Blood’ just ended its third (grisly) season and has been picked up for a fourth. The TV script is not completely faithful to the books and characters done away with in the series are alive and well onscreen. The gruesome Southern Vampire Mysteries, like its television adaptation, cannot be classified under ‘wholesome’ entertainment.

Though vampires are the principal attraction, the relationship between two misfits — a telepathic barmaid called Sookie Stackhouse who is not exactly the belle of the bar and tall, dark and very dead Bill Compton — newest resident of Louisiana — is central to the first book. The story is told from Sookie’s perspective, a spirited narrator who is refreshingly blunt, occasionally witty and consistently entertaining. She can come across as a teenager at times, instead of a strong willed woman in her mid-twenties, but perhaps this is due to her social status or lack of a degree or both.

Citizens fear the mainstreaming vampires and the seemingly harmless barmaid; vamps for obvious reasons and Sookie for her ‘gift’. Despite her supernatural connections, or perhaps because of them, she has a flair for getting into scrapes.

The story begins a few years after the vamps came out and while the world is done reeling from the aftershocks of this earth-shattering revelation, the ultra-conservative Deep South has not. That the un-dead can now walk among the living is an interesting departure but the living do not have to like it. Former bad guys are trying their best to be law-abiding citizens (second class citizens, but still). Humanity is making an effort to be tolerant of the newest members of society and society is having a hard time accepting their pledge at face value. Neither is succeeding very well. If all this sounds familiar, it is because human history is replete with instances of bigotry and worse.

Harris’s creations have a dual purpose. They serve as metaphors for minorities, and stand in for bloodthirsty monsters. Like any other minority, their specie is regarded with suspicion and faces discrimination but, like all good monsters, they hold the power to turn the tables any time. Vampires, whether they are underground indulging in their favourite pastime or out in the open playing politics, are still vampires. And humans are still paranoid creatures who are easily spooked. Both species have a great capacity for evil. The writer magnifies the horror as she lets fear of the supernatural stew together with the baser instincts of mankind to release the noxious fumes of intolerance and draws parallels between the real and fictional worlds.

In Sookie’s universe, all the supernatural beings have converged in one place and familiar characters from myth/legend/folklore show up from time to time giving a richer feel to this macabre set piece (and vampires some competition). For all its light-hearted demeanour, the never ending Bill-Sookie-Eric drama or the depiction of vampire politics and power play, darkness permeates every aspect of the series. These books are unsuitable for the young adult section.

The New York Times’ bestselling author Charlaine Harris is an established crime fiction writer and has penned other mysteries like the Harper Connelly and Lily Bard series. Dead until Dark has won the Anthony Award for best paperback mystery, 2001. The tenth Sookie Stackhouse mystery titled Dead in The Family came out this May and there are three more to come.

Ace Books; Pp 326; Rs 495

Saturday, September 4, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief / By Rick Riordan

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, September 04, 2010

Reposted at Liberty Books Blog

Published under the title: Of gods and men
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Olympian gods and goddesses are not the best role models; their moral compass is frequently out of order and no one dares suggest they get it fixed. The (stormy) age of the gods was great while it lasted but it is over. Rick Riordan reawakens the gods, gives them another shot at (eternal) life with a brand new home, creating a new legion of heroes and heroines in the process. He then combines all these elements to launch his fantasy series making mythology the centrepiece and family values the essential pillars of his newly redesigned universe.

How do these extinct entities fare in a (literary) world already overrun with vampires, witches, werewolves and wizards? Set in the present day, Riordan’s young adult fantasy novel tries to survive the onslaught of other supernatural beings by giving neglected Greek gods a clever makeover. The original Mount Olympus is still in Greece. Olympus, however, has been relocated. Their gods and goddesses currently reside above the modern day US while their half-human, half-god offspring live below — most of them in blissful oblivion of their divine origins or hero status.

Demigods running around in Manhattan saying, “Oh my gods”, being stalked by monsters and going on dangerous expeditions just like their predecessor Hercules is an intriguing premise. Except that readers coming off J K Rowling will be immediately struck by young Percy’s resemblance to his British counterpart.

If Percy Jackson feels like an extension of planet Rowling, it is probably because the major threads holding the plot together appear to have fallen straight out of her wizarding world: a regular child, special abilities, a training camp for half-bloods, a destiny. The similarity is strongest in The Lightning Thief, and subsequent books might touch upon Garth Nix’s Abhorsen accidentally before falling back on Greek legends, but they try very hard not to encroach too obviously upon Rowling territory. They do not always succeed but they do try.

Percy is the American narrator with a droll sense of humour who follows the traditional path of a Greek hero. He is a special case, not just because he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia but also because he suffers from a “divine” condition. One of his parents happens to be a god and he is not the only demigod in the neighbourhood. (The term ‘exclusive relationship’ seems to be missing from the god dictionary; ergo the rising demigod population. Now if one has ADHD and dyslexia combined, they may or may not have descended from the gods but all descendants of Olympians share this problem.

The gods, on the other hand, have exchanged their togas for pinstriped suits but they are the same immortal, (if a little careless) vengeful beings. As the title suggests, Zeus, King of the gods, is missing a lightning bolt — the one he used to pose with (see old pictures). And unless it is returned, he and Poseidon will go to war and that would be a pity, especially since the divine headquarter is now in New York City, atop the Empire State Building.

Why New York one might ask? As Chiron, the centaur (former trainer to Hercules), helpfully explains, the heart of fire or Western civilization has never been stationary and now rests comfortably in the land of the free.


The book is about Percy’s thrilling escapades, at camp and in the real world and monsters from ancient Greece drop by occasionally to prevent things from becoming too boring. This particular demigod will get a quest, discover his true lineage, embrace his destiny, etc, etc. But, as a mortal, he speaks like any disaffected teen, goes to a private academy for troubled children in upstate New York, and tries to deal with parental issues. The quests become more serious with each passing year and usually the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

This is a who’s who of Greek mythological creatures from the highly acclaimed Medusa, Chimera and Cyclops to less well-known Empousa (vampire demon) and the Kampe. Now, many of them had already been vanquished by Greek heroes of yore but they have (considerately) returned for an encore performance, because monsters never truly die.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is the first of five books. It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2005 and won the Red House Children’s Book Award. The series leans heavily on action, is fast paced but not very lengthy. The movie version that had a slightly longer title (Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), took liberties with the plot, casting an older boy, editing out major characters and basically rewriting the entire ending.

Percy Jackson’s adventures conclude in Book Five and Rick Riordan has already moved on to Egyptian mythology. The demigods are not quite ready to leave and Olympian adventures will continue in a spin-off called The Lost Hero, out by October 2010.


Penguin; Pp 400; Rs 425
Available at Liberty Books

Images Courtesy of: http://www.smashinglists.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Percy-Jackson-and-Olympics-The-Lightning-Thief.jpg

http://uberduzi.com/files/movie_PercyJacksonTheOlympians.png

Saturday, August 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage / Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Committed picks up where the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love left off. Elizabeth Gilbert is still travelling but not solo — on a quest but not for the same reasons. The last time she went into exile to Italy, India and Indonesia, it was self-imposed and involved food and spiritual enlightenment. The latest one to Southeast Asia, however, has been brought on by circumstances beyond her control and is about facing her deepest fear head on.

The title of this memoir may be Committed but Elizabeth has not gotten over her dread of matrimony. She has been committed to the institution of marriage before and has no interest in going back. Thus far she has successfully evaded capture and is determined to do anything — anything at all to avoid “going through that apocalypse”. Details of that particular ‘apocalypse’ can be found in the pages of her previous book — Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia, recently turned into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.

While she is content to be in a long distance relationship with a foreigner, her government, sadly, is not. And so Elizabeth Gilbert is “sentenced to marry”. By the US Department of Homeland Security no less and unless she complies, the US will close its doors to her man. Permanently. Suddenly, she is forced to come to terms with her scary marital history and make peace with the idea of marriage.

It gets worse. Soon, any American interested in marrying an outsider will have to undergo an FBI investigation. Thus begins an agonisingly long wait and an obligatory return to a nomadic life. Elizabeth uses this unexpected break to her advantage, raking through her private history and public records to determine “what this befuddling, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is”.

As their travels take Elizabeth and her fianc√© off the beaten path, she will make a solitary journey armed with the works of eminent matrimonial scholars to better understand her “inherited assumptions, the shape of her family’s narrative and her culturally specific catalogue of anxieties”. She argues that she must be vigorously persuaded because matrimony has not always been kind to women. This involves extensive time travelling to explore the primitive notions about marriage and divorce. Turns out that marriage was not always considered sacred even within Christian tradition, (they resisted for at least 10 centuries) and this discovery alone allows her to stop stringing together the terms sin and failure with divorce and finally let herself off the hook.

Elizabeth, who has been watching the women in her family “adapt, adjust, glide and accept”, is painfully aware that her advantageous childhood has been built on the ashes of her mother’s sacrifices. She comes across some alarming statistics claiming that a long, happy, healthy, prosperous existence awaits married men who are the sole beneficiaries of this union.

She will also embark on parallel journeys to decipher the modern interpretation of marriage while closely examining its evolutionary nature, which she believes actually ensures its survival. This is nice because it really needed to change. In Europe, a nasty practice known as ‘coverture’ forced women to renounce their legal rights and property, “doubling a man’s power as his wife’s evaporated”. She further observes that combined with the strict anti-divorce policies of the church, marriage became an institution that entombed and erased its female victims — especially among the gentry. Trace amounts of this troubling ruling could be detected as late as 1975 and prevented married women (like Elizabeth’s mother) from opening checking accounts or taking out loans without their husband’s written permission.

While she wanders through the pages of history, learning new facts (apparently, even a seagull that supposedly mates for life has a 25 percent divorce rate) and putting the marriages of her friends and family on the stand, Elizabeth must also introduce marital customs of distant lands. This is a part travelogue, after all. In the hills of northern Vietnam, for instance, reside the Hmong, convinced that it does not matter whom one marries “and with rare exceptions, one man is pretty much the same as another”. Their depressing worldview has held them in good stead thus far.

The writer, on the other hand, duels with her deep seated insecurities and reveals the sort of marriage she is likely to have — “wifeless, motherless and husbandless” — which simply means that neither would be obligated to fulfil the traditional role of housekeeper or breadwinner. It also means that she will proudly defend the decision to join an “Auntie Brigade” instead of enlisting in the “Mommy Corps”. Members of the exclusive brigade will be pleased to learn that they are in great company — Tolstoy, Capote, Lennon and the Bronte sisters, all raised by doting aunts.

Elizabeth freely admits that the point of the whole exercise is just to talk herself into tying the knot. And this leads to an elaborately crafted, highly illuminating, (delightful) discourse between a sceptic and western marriage.

First Published in Daily Times under the title of 'For better or worse' 28 Aug 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Viking Adult;
Pp 285;
Rs 1,150

Available at Liberty Books

BOOK REVIEW: EAT PRAY LOVE: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

Author: Elizabeth Gilbert /Reviewed for Liberty Books Blog by: Afrah Jamal

Link to Liberty books Blog: EAT PRAY LOVE: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia



A magazine assignment took a 30 something woman from NY to Bali where a ninth generation medicine man prophesied her return. She keeps her appointment because he said she would but also makes fresh plans; putting her old life on hold, signing up for an extreme religious experience in India and enrolling in language courses in Italy – because she realized she should.

‘Exhausted by the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of hasty choices and chaotic passions’, Elizabeth Gilbert will leave the ruins of her former life (nasty break-up & all) and head out into the wilderness for some very unusual R&R. Her spirits demand an instant pick me up and a dramatic makeover.

This voyage of self discovery requires that she take a year off, trading in the comforts of home for the comforts of Europe and the discomfort of the third world. Somewhere in another book she has described her foray into the unknown as ‘an experiment with solitude and self accountability’. Most people seeking spiritual rehabilitation probably would not have plotted such an elaborate course to enlightenment. Most people might also have had some trouble lining up eager publishers willing to purchase their book about these experiences beforehand. Moreover, they would think twice before taking their private demons out for a public walk.

Elizabeth is different. Not only does she provide an unflinching portrayal of her post break-up self but she also allows readers to accompany her on a retrieval mission starting from the dreary base camp littered with the debris of wrecked relationships all the way to the summit. And she still manages to make most of it sound funny, which is remarkable.

Here is someone struggling to find her way back, first through food, then with meditation and finally with love and more meditation. She engages in conversations with the Almighty, herself, her mind, invisible dead Guru’s, visible Balinese healers etc. She falls head over heels with a pizzeria in Naples and makes friends with people who have names like Luca Spaghetti (no offence intended). She talks to herself in a notebook, and the notebook talks back.

Indonesia is about learning to ‘hold steady in this chaotic world’ from the good Balinese – global masters of balance. Italy is simpler. The closest Elizabeth gets to art is in the ‘National Museum of Pasta’ which is fine since she just intends to savour their ‘beautiful food’ and rich language. India is, of course reserved for that all important transcendent experience (that will ‘transport her from portals of the universe’ taking her to the centre of God’s palm). At every terminal she checks in demons along with her baggage. After each stop, she summons a new-found spiritual discipline to vanquish these unwelcome travel companions.

A wonderful assortment of friends, family and well wishers are stationed throughout bringing basket loads of humour, advice and insight. There will either be a Richard, Elizabeth’s Texas Yogi – helping her become more anchored or Iva, her Lebanese friend back home, who comes with ‘an Iva-only Bat-Phone to the universe & an open-round-the-clock special channel to the divine’ making her understand the mysteries of the world.

An article called ‘The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon’, chronicling Ms. Gilbert’s experiences as a bartender became the basis for ‘Coyote Ugly’ – the movie. And now the quest for divine communion and Italian food that drove her halfway across the world is the basis for another.

ISBN: 9781408810101

No of Pages: 382

Price: Rs. 695

Available at Liberty Books

Monday, August 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: THE POWER BY RHONDA BYRNE Reviewed for Liberty Books Blog

Review posted here : The Power

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal


Like Po the Kung Fu master wannabe discovered in ‘Kung Fu Panda’ – there is no secret ingredient, so shall the readers. The power that has created such frenzy lies in one word.

Rhonda Byrne believes everyone has power over their circumstances, and yet their lives careen out of control. Throughout history, anyone with a good life has, knowingly or unknowingly, used the ‘Power’. The rest are oblivious to its life changing potential and mope around sadly.

The premise here is simply – if you want something – it is yours for the taking; health, wealth, happiness, career, successful relationships – all yours.

Finding this power does not require any major suspension of disbelief. Ancient records attest to its existence. It manifests itself in the form of inexplicable moments like a charmed life, that incredible comeback, a miraculous recovery, an unexpected stroke of good fortune. Those who have seen it in action may know it by different names – will power, faith or serendipity.

For Ms. Byrne it is simpler. The secret that the world has been waiting with bated breath to hear is the love that resides within each of us.

Wait what? Love! At first the revelation comes across as a bit of an anticlimax. All the secrecy, that incredibly moving you tube video, the label announcing that this is the ‘handbook to the greatest power in the universe’ – that was about l’amore?

Rhonda does not refer to love in vague terms but equates it with other forces of nature like gravity or electromagnetism. Their existence is indisputable and love happens to be in the same category but is far more formidable.

This love is not just a feeling but a positive force, the only one of its kind and governed by laws of attraction which happen to be the most powerful laws in the universe. Properly harnessed, it can give complete control over every little aspect of life. She assigns extraordinary powers to emotions. ‘Positivity’ begets ‘positivity’, and vice versa.

Apparently, this is science and not some kind of voodoo. “Whether your thoughts and feelings are good or bad, they return as automatically and precisely as an echo”. She asserts that such emotions have magnetic frequencies and this magnetism attracts everything towards you. Feelings also determine the polarity of this field (good feelings = positive frequency of love), attracting people, events and circumstances that happen to be on a similar frequency. Job (3:25) backs her on this. “For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me”.

It is like that old adage “you are what you eat”, only here “you are what you feel” and what you feel is what you get. Taking feelings off auto pilot is therefore recommended because reacting to the negative with bad feelings attracts more negativity. She then takes it further – one can have anything just by visualizing it. “Imagine it, feel it, receive it.” Personal experiences follow on the heels of this startling observation.

This sounds suspiciously easy. One just has to be happy and give happiness to receive happy things, and by occasionally wishing peace and goodwill for mankind, ones hearts desires will magically appear at the door?

Well, yes. And no.

There is a process. Using ‘The Power’ calls for engaging with the Universe and making it a part of every day life requires major adjustments. One must take hate, greed, envy, malice, irritability, despair, doubts & insecurities out of business and put love in charge.

This is not the first time Rhonda Byrne has made such claims. A few years ago she came across a secret that had been passed on through centuries. Sharing that knowledge in her bestseller (appropriately named ‘The Secret’) made her an instant phenomenon. That knowledge has reportedly transformed tens of millions of lives across the globe. ‘The Power’ unearths patterns in seemingly random events adding another layer to the tale.

As for financial security that everyone craves but not everyone gets – her analysis is that majority of the worlds’ wealth is in the hands of a few percent and redistributing the money will not alter this ridiculous fact. Money will find its way back to a select few who magnetize it back to them. “The force of love moves all the money and riches in the world and it moves it according to the law.”

The solution? “Change the way you feel about money, the amount of money in your life will change. The better you feel about money, the more money you magnetize to yourself”. Apparently desire for money is not enough. Money will stick only if it is not being repelled by ones insecurities. Constantly worrying about it is a repellent. Generosity is always nice.

Her guide to getting career, relationships or health back on track advocates letting love dictate terms instead of other emotions. She is joined by historians, prophets, philosophers, scientists, poets and playwrights who appear to have some inkling of the Power’s potential.

So if people were to subscribe to this notion, they would go around being nice to everyone – all the time. They would stop complaining and be grateful for every little thing. They might get their dream house, job, spouse, car, horse, life simply by willing it. They would be able to manipulate their age and take control of their health by reprogramming their bodies. Jet lag, for instance would be a thing of the past. Mind over matter would always be in style. Sporadic acts of kindness would be the rage. Man would be one step closer to finding salvation.

‘The Power’ promises to help everyone who has a rendezvous with destiny, keep their appointment just by changing their outlook.

Available at Liberty Books

Published Date: 17/08/2010
Format: HardBack
ISBN: 9780857201706
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
No of Pages: 270
Retail price: Pound £ 14.99
(Rs. 1,872.40)
Price: Rs. 1,495.00

Sunday, August 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Bridging Partition: People’s Initiatives for Peace Between India and Pakistan

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Book Edited by Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian with Kamla Bhasin, A H Nayyar and Mohammad Tahseen

Published in Daily Times / Aug 21, 2010

They have been locked in a near permanent state of confrontation for six decades, stopping only to make feeble overtures of peace to pacify onlookers. These 63-year-olds have great reserves of animosity left over from 1947. They renew their peace pledges often but test each other’s patience daily. And they get flustered easily, which makes them the two most predictable nations in the neighbourhood. When they are not exchanging words, they are exchanging fire. If nothing else, cyber armies from both sides have been seen invading ‘enemy’ websites. With their history of violence and a tendency to overreact, many wonder if Pakistan and India can ever break the pattern and maybe, just maybe, consider the merits of peace instead of dreaming about the spoils of war.

Both nations have a rich culture, an admirable stockpile of weapons to wave in each other’s face and unresolved issues dating back to partition. They are similar in many ways with an appalling record of skipping greys when it comes to relating history, a selective memory and an embarrassing tendency to get carried away at arms expos. Each of them has made great strides over the years in developing that stockpile at the expense of the poor while making sincere looking attempts to heal the breach.

Their citizens, on the other hand, have made greater strides in cultivating relationships and devising creative little ways of bridging the divide. People are weary of the perpetual stand off while the world is just plain scared.

This is a thought provoking collection of essays by prominent social activists, scientists, journalists, scholars and military men from both sides who declared peace on their respective neighbours a few decades ago. They are not alone and introduce readers to likeminded individuals who feel the need for some intervention and have taken it upon themselves to exploit the strengths and shared heritage to bring their people closer. These brave souls engage in candid discussions, freely admitting their collective faux pas. This frankness gets some into trouble with their own.

Since the 1990s, such forces have ‘defied the divide’, actively seeking an alternate lifestyle to the one thrust upon them by their political representatives. Beena Sarwar equates these attempts to streams “nourishing the land — heading towards a river, skirting obstacles, being replaced by others when they dry up, effective in strengthening the peace movement but still counting upon the political will to succeed.” A former head of the Indian Navy continues to believe, much to the dismay of some, that they need a new approach to convert the traditional confrontation method to one of cooperation and convergence. Here are individuals who have their own interpretation of the ‘greater good’.

Mubashir Hasan, founder member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) calmly states that the ruling elites from both sides are genuinely afraid of peace breaking out between them. Apparently, the status quo benefits vested interests and both nations cannot seem to coordinate their peace talks; when one is willing, the other is not.

The states’ priorities may have gotten a little mixed up on the way to the negotiating table. Their people, however, have proven to be surprisingly committed to the idea of peace. Citizens have been battling prejudices, blasting away propaganda, tearing down walls of distrust and establishing neutral zones to engage each other in meaningful dialogue. They also have a formidable arsenal of their own and are not afraid to use it. Their combined assault has yielded results in the form of ‘India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative’, allowing retired senior military men and their wives to meet with their counterparts in 1999 and 2000 for instance. Other peace networks like ‘Pakistan Peace Coalition’ (1999) and ‘Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace’ (2001) have been active in both countries while civil society initiatives, coalitions and single-issue organisations provide requisite platforms to foster ties. They have made remarkable progress in crossing borders through performing arts and mobilising the common man. Sandeep Pandey and Sanat Mohanty share memories of the peace march from Delhi to Multan (2005) that describe moving scenes witnessed at every turn of their historic journey.

One learns of the challenges that lie ahead for peace brokers and the obstacles they have to overcome trying to pitch their peace plan to the sceptics. These essays also examine the benefits of ‘waging peace’ ranging from economic prosperity (by allowing corporate sectors a stake in each other’s economic pie) to regional stability (demanding a South Asian nuclear weapons-free zone).

Though their attempts are continually thwarted, the citizen diplomacy movement can take heart; Bridging Partition asserts that their contribution has helped shape policies and build networks that change lives and perspectives. Visa restrictions notwithstanding, they have managed to get their message across, reaching out to mend fences and construct a durable framework that does not fall apart every time there is some little ‘incident’. There is no shortage of goodwill needed to keep Operation Peace going.

Published under the title: Waging peace — Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Saturday, August 14, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar Author: Amarinder Singh

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times under the heading: Lahore Durbar in free fall

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.

Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on his own governor for a horse. A beautiful Persian horse, but still a horse.

The Lahore Durbar, in Ranjit Singh’s time, constituted what is now Pakistan (minus Sindh and Balochistan). He is perhaps best known for putting the Sikh army on the map and, of course, his love for empire building. The Last Sunset... studies the rapid deterioration of the empire forged by a ruler who combined “cunning, treachery, ruthlessness with diplomacy and military might” to carve out a glorious kingdom, a formidable army and a reputation to match. In the brief but dramatic portion devoted to his life, the writer manages to capture the grandeur of his court (decadent lifestyle and all) and the fickle nature of alliances from multiple perspectives.

It would take just 10 short years for this Durbar to fall apart. The principal portion of the book focuses on major military campaigns between the Sikh and British troops in the post-Ranjit era, as the empire he had so painstakingly built with the help of the much admired Sikh Khalsa Army, raised on European lines, began to fray around the edges. Soon the soldiers, considered to be “the finest material in the world for forming an army” by W G Osborne, military secretary to the governor general of India, would be pitted against the British (1845-46 and1848-49), the court was to become the epicentre of political intrigues (led by a royal) and Punjab would finally be annexed to the British territory.

Amarinder Singh is from the royal family of Patiala. He was ADC to GOC-in-C, Western Command,in the 1965 war between Pakistan and India and later served as a member of the Parliamentary Defence Committee. His previous books include Lest we Forget: The History of Indian Army from 1947-65 and A Ridge Too Far: War in the Kargil Heights 1999. This Maharaja-turned-soldier-turned-politician records the glorious beginning and not so glorious ending of Ranjit’s Lahore in this meticulously detailed account, cramming maps, order of battles with military strategies and tallying British accounts with what little is known of the Sikh side. He also examines Ranjit’s army that had become the de facto ruler of his state after his death and the conspiracy hatched from within to cut it down to size.

He exposes the cold-blooded role played by the regent — Her Highness Maharani Jinda Kaur (Queen Mother) — as she sent her soldiers into battle ostensibly to defend the kingdom. Faked intelligence was used (which works every time) to rile up the unsuspecting troops, who became convinced that the British Army was coming after them. It was a dangerous gamble but the Maharani hoped to come out as a winner. The Sikhs lose, she gets to stay on as regent; they win, she becomes even more powerful. According to the writer, this was a calculated move designed to clip the wings of a powerful army (a familiar complaint in this part of the world) and strengthen her tenuous hold in the bargain. He notes that though the Sikhs were decisively beaten in the four battles of the war, “but for the regent, her wazir, C-in-C and a mad British officer, Lord Gough’s defeat was near certain”. While the Maharani courted the British and connived against her state in the first war, the blame for the next major conflict is placed at the British doorstep. The author asserts that the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie simply used the Multan revolt as a pretext to carry out his expansionist plans and intended to “do away” with the Lahore state long before the second Sikh war.

The story concludes with the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and the epilogue continues the story of the exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh and his mother, the resourceful Maharani. The Last Sunset... is the tragic saga of a Durbar in free fall, starting from the first Anglo-Sikh war, where Lahore escaped annexation by the British but came under their supervision, to the second, where the British found themselves in the untenable position of both governing and attacking the Durbar.


Roli Books; Pp 344; Rs 1,395

Available at Liberty Books


Published in Daily Times - Site Edition Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday, August 7, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs

Published in Daily Times / Aug 07, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Muhammad Yunus with Karl Weber

In the early 1970s when an academician from a third world country came across the victims of a moneylender, he did what good Samaritans usually do in such circumstances: he took charge, paid off their small loan, securing a temporary release. Then the academician did something many probably would not have done. He decided to put the affected community members (residing in rural Bangladesh) in charge and sought a permanent end to their financial woes. Since the only government-sanctioned weapon needed to combat this menace (banks) flatly refused to help (and the good Samaritan was neither a millionaire nor a magician), he decided to forge one on his own.

That a paltry sum of $ 27 could make such a difference in 42 lives caught in the moneylenders’ net led to the development of an intriguing concept, one that advocated that extending a financial lifeline to those deemed to be non-creditworthy makes good business sense. So, under the direction of academician-turned-humanitarian Muhammad Yunus, the first Grameen Bank was set up.

A financial institution that introduced the concept of micro-credit, lending tiny sums of collateral-free loans to destitute families (mostly women), does more than simply bail them out of trouble. This was a bank for the poor and owned by the poor, giving them a real shot at life and setting them up with economic opportunities in the bargain, besides of course putting the exploitive members of society out of business.

Muhammad Yunus’s work was not finished; other problems beckoned him and he made it his life’s mission to change the foundations of a useless system, one social business at a time. Muhammad Yunus, now a veteran, has a new vision and in “Building Social Business.....”, he looks back at past achievements and ahead at future possibilities. But first he sets out to explain his precious concept to the mystified public, who are hearing the term for the first time.

A social business model is devised with a twist; it does not recognise the traditional lines set by conventional businesses, and takes profit out of the company equation. Except for the profit part, a social business is just like any other business and modelled on the same principles. But, as Muhammad Yunus will tell you, it is very different from other charitable institutions.

He goes to great lengths to differentiate between charities, cooperatives (co-ops), NGOs, foundations or the corporate social responsibility side (CSR) of businesses and his pet projects. A social business is self-sustaining, the needy are the sole beneficiaries, and anyone can be a social businessman; starting small is encouraged, research is imperative, and “impatience” can be a virtue. Also, social benefit and profit are compartmentalised; the twain shall never mix and the poor take all.

One man has made a sustainable business model that quietly challenges the established ways of doing business. It already has a global seal of approval, having been emulated all over the world. He admits that his idea does not signal the end of profit maximising businesses, but widens the playing field, giving “new options to the consumers, employees and entrepreneurs and raising social awareness among the business community”. Where other systems have come close to crashing or, in the case of developing nations, failed on a spectacular scale, Yunus can put his string of successes on display for those shopping for new ideas.

After the successful field-testing of financial services, he branched out and partnered with other companies to launch projects like Grameen Danone (offering nutritious food products), Grameen Veolia Water (solving the arsenic laced water supply problem by providing clean drinking water), and Grameen Healthcare, while creating jobs in the process.

Social business has many admirers: Adidas, BASF, Intel, Otto GmbH are some of the major players involved with Grameen projects. But it has not always been smooth sailing for the banker to the poor. He includes the lessons learnt from his 40 years experience, and takes aspiring social business owners through the steps of not only building a successful business, but also rebuilding society in the process. He also leaves behind a nice little template for motivated individuals ready to take their first idea for a spin.

Yunus may be an astute (social) businessman, but he also has a savvy side. He is quick to point out that working for any social business does not mean lowering one’s standards, for they offer employees competitive salaries and benefits; it simply means not profiting from the poor. Social business owners normally step in where governments fear to tread. The global ambassador of the poor teaches humanity how to take their natural altruistic impulses forward properly. M Yunus has a Nobel Peace Prize 2006 (shared with Grameen Bank) to show for his efforts, and is already playing around with the building blocks of a new poverty-free world order.



Published under the title of : Business with a catch —

PublicAffairs; Pp 256; Rs 1,795