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Unpublished piece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’├ętat 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

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