Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THEATER REVIEW: Karachi The Musical ‘Haar Na Mano’ (Don’t Give Up)

Published in Daily Times / Wednesday, November 30, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

Though Karachi of the shiny flyovers, sprawling malls and violent impulses has been billed as the star, the one with the Spartan tastes, colourful khokas – and, of course the violent impulses steals the show. That tough neighbourhood with the dusty streets and a no-go sign hung at the gate – that is Lyari; home to odious bandits, obscure boxing coaches, soccer aficionados and predatory politicians. Folks might say there is little of value in this wilderness. But for a brief moment, they will greet this troubled piece of land with a hearty cheer instead of an involuntary shriek thanks to a sweet musical extravaganza that welcomes them aboard its famed boxing clubs and, by default the dreaded hood for a show and tell.

Lyari, in its latest incarnation serves as the backdrop of a new stage play that recently concluded its three-week run at the Karachi Arts Council. Nida Butt & Hamza Jafri’s brainchild - ‘Karachi – the Musical Haar Na Mano’ proceeds to dress the restive heart of the city in festive shades making it fit for company. A bracing trip through the mean streets of town to explore its boxing scene inevitably goes through the underworld. The green boxer from out of town – a disheartened coach living in the past – the wicked don with his wicked, wicked ways - these form the outer perimeters of a classic tale.



Because a love of sports binds all together in an unholy trinity – the play noisily pounces on Lyari’s passion for boxing to drown out the disconcerting sound bytes. The director’s decision to line up some tried and tested themes – courage determination, redemption, faith, only to toss them in the vortex generates the requisite compassionate tone. The audience yanked from its comfort zone, is hustled along quickly to the ring where the true action lies and then thrust in the midst of a tug of war. By the time they realize that this version has been sanitized for stage, they will be knee deep inside no mans land, breathlessly watching punch drunk citizens prepare for the ultimate fight.

According to a local newspaper, one man who runs a boxing club and helped the cast acclimatise found the depiction a tad sensational for his taste. That bandit with the bounty on his head – the one who aspired for the Senate seat and was hailed as a local celebrity; now that was sensational. His glowing epitaph delivered by well respected public figures – again sensational. The saga looks tame when compared to Lyari’s real life shenanigans. The musical sidles up to these outrageous looking charges but then veers off to explore a more promising lead that opts for ‘family drama’ over ‘family’ drama. The team’s biggest achievement is perhaps that by taking down the customary barricades they allow both sides to bond with the lovable underdogs over, of all things - a round of boxing.

Now boxing – real or imaginary may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Nida Butt’s direction elevates it to an art form worthy of the yelps of delight that were reportedly overheard. One does not need to be a die-hard fan to share the adrenaline rush. Or be from Lyari to relive its recurring nightmares. The echoes of terror are fairly widespread. Maybe this is one of the reasons this tale resonates, because for all their differences – the same brutal strain runs throughout the city.

While it is impossible not to dwell on these violent tendencies however, before anyone spirals into darkness, the play enlists the help of the city’s indomitable spirit to pry apart its soulful centre from the malevolent gatekeepers. Which means that the most jarring notes from the hood have been toned down. Without being lightweight, the writers’ employs irreverent humour and a brisk pace to keep audiences engaged. Using some nimble footwork this carefully crafted comedy allows tragic undercurrents to seep unchallenged but retains its playful tone and upbeat mood. Seen through a romanticised haze, this artist’s rendition softens some of the rough edges infusing a whiff of fantasy and a bit of forced glamour to partially mask but not completely suppress Lyari’s deadly urges. Whatever is visible does not apologise for its grotesque features. Nor does it hide its true nature.

Nida Butt is an old hand at theatre. This happens to be her first attempt at an original production that relies on Urdu. This simply told story quietly ensures that the message ‘Don’t Give Up’ resounds across both the hood and suburbs. Live singing and dancing is a high wire act and a rich musical score, near perfect casting and an engaging narrative arc proffer a convincing counter argument to advocates of bigotry. From the smouldering opening montage that shimmers with intensity to the buoyant finale that ripples with hope – Lyari is ‘the’ place to be this year. Karachi - the Musical Haar Na Mano reportedly takes its bold voice on a nationwide tour in 2012.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published n Daily Times / Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Author: By Steve Inskeep

This is ostensibly the “story of a single day in Karachi’s life” — a city that remains in a violence-induced stupor for the most part of the year now. The choice of the day is perplexing since it happens to be the Ashura (10th day of Muharram) incident circa 2009 when a bomb ripped through a procession and ensuing violence ripped apart the community. High-profile tragedies like the one chosen to be this book’s centrepiece have complex backgrounds, and unresolved endings. Isolating a single bloodcurdling note from a lavish production can be restrictive. Here, however, life and death are constants — one brings the city’s narrative to a standstill but also spawns multiple plotlines — and as the writer will demonstrate, not all with tragic beginnings.

Steve Inskeep is the host of NPR’s ‘Morning Edition’ and recipient of the 2006 Robert F Kennedy journalism award. His quest, it appears, is to understand a city through its violent history where death is a recurring motif and resilience is the base colour. This unorthodox approach invites readers inside the epicentre of an ethnically torn heartland, to a venal world where many might fear to tread and few would want to. It helps unearth the different faces of (political, religious, ethnic) terror and the numerous challenges of living in an instant city — viewed as being “stable in a massively unstable way”.

His debut novel takes advantage of this convoluted design to explore an unstable compound in various stages of development — the Karachi that could have been had General Ayub Khan’s specially imported Greek planner prevailed and the Karachi riven by divisions — in the clutches of land grabbers and political thugs.

But other sounds filter through — whispering about the city’s early dreams based upon a “scientific study of human settlement” and the present day nightmare inspired by some dystopian novel. Some emanate from the former mayor’s “office full of dreams” — rush past the airport road once envisioned as the “Champs Elysée of Karachi” and now a signal-free corridor and fall into silence upon seeing its unrealised grand ambitions gather dust. Others reveal the intricate make-up of an instant city showing how “everything that makes it vibrant also makes it violent” while admitting that “swift disorderly growth creates room for corruption and organised crime”.

The Karachi that Steve Inskeep encounters with its witch’s brew of problems, obfuscating officials and rich heritage thrives in the midst of this horror. The jump back in time to the city’s “short but crowded past” — combined with a striking cameo courtesy of its murky underworld is topped off with a generous mention of the city’s irrepressible spirit and its spiritual centre.

In this compassionate group portrait of thirteen million odd citizens, one can find the peculiar characteristics shared by the typical Karachi-wala living on the edge and governed by fear — that of finding amusement in the grimmest of circumstances.

This intense study builds upon the oft repeated tale of power and perfidy, mixing pathos and sly humour to eviscerate, empathise with, divine, and contemplate. The stories featured here underscore the threats to the world’s rapidly growing metropolis Steve refers to as a listening post that can take in a global conversation.

There have been other incidents before and since the Ashura bombing — enough blood and gore to cripple any infrastructure -- but the writer circles back to that one day searching for interconnecting tales of murder and mayhem to delve deeper into the very heart of darkness.

While seeking the pulse of a modern city with medieval leanings, he stops to find irony in the fact that “half the inhabitants...of a nation founded by a lawyer live in the realm of the extralegal”. And, to discover what the post-partition drop from 51 percent Hindu to 2 percent really meant for a city that became less stable as it became less diverse.

Instant City pays homage to the common man, its architects of change idly walking past the ones of destruction. This then is a tale of two Karachis. Sadly, only one of them shows promise.

Penguin Press; Pp 304; Rs 1,195