Saturday, February 23, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Thinner Than Skin

Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 23 Feb 2013
Author: Uzma Aslam Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of critically acclaimed, award winning books like Trespassing and Geometry of God. Her new novel, 'Thinner than Skin' goes off the beaten track for inspiration. A realm built upon incomprehensible layers of intrigue, violence, fairytales and legends provides the stage. People foraging for a lifeline become the props. And the inevitable soundtrack of radicalism now coursing through every fibre sets Pakistan’s modern heart to an ancient beat.

It is these paradoxes that bring its US-based protagonist, Nadir, along with a German-Pakistani girl, Farhana, on a trek from northern California to the Kaghan Valley. Wesley — the American in the background — is drawn to the mating glacier ritual, which is an actual thing. And their trusty ally/guide Irfan charts the course to their path of self-discovery past majestic mountains and ice encrusted lakes.

Their quest is a perfect pretext to call upon the splendour of the Northern Areas used here as a base camp for the appreciative visitors. Someone recently remarked about a certain Pakistani city that was easy to write about but difficult to live in. Pakistan may not be the easiest place to be these days but this bracing narrative manages to forge a connection with the land’s inimitable spirit with a few precision strokes. The surreptitious shadows shown in Nadir’s rearview mirror provide a frame of reference for the troubling cultural shifts and eroding freedoms.

The book delivers on its promise of a good adventure, using its arresting vision heavily seeped in local colours as leverage. But the author does not rely solely on these outside perspectives and delves deeper into the psyche of the land, bringing the nomads into the fold. Ghafoor and Maryam who pick up the threads, adding shades of ruthlessness to the random ripples of pathos, have intertwined destines with the quartet.

The split narrative coaxes these lonely sentiments to the fore, removing media-sanctioned distortions and allowing other perspectives room to manoeuvre. The author engages with the natives that bear witness to the altering landscape. ‘....the world had tipped unsteadily. It was not a reliable unsteadiness...that leads from pasture to plain, according to the season’s change. This motion had no rhythm. What it had was men in tanks and spies in plain clothes, all showing up at your door demanding to be placated with the sugar you were saving for your children...’.

The compassionate commentary uses the outlines of its uneasy backdrop to compose its heartfelt plea right after the silent denunciation. Using the voice of the indigenous people of the land gives wonderful clarity to the hazy silhouettes. Though her glistening prose illuminates the changing face of Pakistan, the afterglow exposes the debilitating depths and muffled cries.

There are three different strands running parallel: Nadir’s inner turmoil, the superstitious heart of the vale, and the grim ripples from one tragic mistake, each adding to the group’s growing sense of isolation. The shadows cast by the general air of mistrust intensify the trance-like state. While the ‘Queen of the Mountains’ gazes upon drifting wanderers with a chilling indifference, the breathtaking scenery asks for a moment of silence to acknowledge its savage streak. The book peddles its PG-15 imagery to stir up the crowd and takes a few jabs here and there at paranoia associated with the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ to provoke a few rounds of (mirthless) laughter.

The author’s spellbinding descriptions are wondrous to behold; at the same time the lingering sense of menace is hard to shake off. While it may not be easy to comprehend the land’s many moods — a fusion of proud traditions and fickle desires — it takes a really good listener to bring its inherent contradictions to life. Its disarming beauty and exotic contrasts aside, Thinner Than Skin acts as a beacon to these inhospitable looking shores. It has been nominated for Asia’s top literary prize — the Man Asian Literary Prize — and is available in bookstores now.

Update: Congratulations to the writer for winning the inaugural KLF Embassy of France prize 2014, Uzma seen below at the 5th Karachi Literature Award 2014 (7-9 Feb)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Style Diary of a Bollywood Diva

Reviewed for SHE Magazine / Feb 2013
Reviewed by Afrah Jamal
Author: Kareena Kapoor with Rochelle Pinto

A diva and a critic take the stage to tell a story about style.

Retrofitted with a pink and white colour scheme, a confidential tone and helpful sign posts at every turn, this handy looking manual deploys its personal style philosophy to survive fashion-ville. At the helm of this split-screen guide to style haven is fashion columnist Rochelle Pinto and film actress Kareena Kapoor.

This a movie icon’s journey to ‘Size Zero’ land and beyond, where her public and private personas converge to host a confessional and a fashion manifest under a single stylish roof. Here she can present reminiscences about friends, family and beloved stylists, play the shaman, draw up plans to prevent (wo)mankind from committing any more faux pas; and show off her collection of pet designers.

Kapoor’s trendy ‘fixit’ arrives on cue to bring devout fans into the fashion loop and dazzle them with star power as they contemplate the glossy list of do’s and don’ts from the personalized collection of a Bollywood sensation.

I am not an extremist, except when it comes to shoes’ she declares marching off into the glitzy realm of fame, fortune, fitness and fashion where few can follow. Her association with fitness guru & nutritionist to the stars - Rujuta Diwekar helps her slip into the role of a mentor with ease. Liberally sprinkled with anecdotes from the film industry and snippets from her private life, the advice is framed against an attractive looking background of pretty pictures, luxury brands and life lessons.

She goes out of her way to establish her credentials as the 'girl next door' with her proclivity towards all things comfortable, fondness for French fries and an unfortunate tendency to get into trouble. One minute she is the ‘Chubby Chica’; the next she declares the secrets of a ‘Desi Stunner’- her ‘Dear Abby’ side is always on stand-by mode. Trading Louis Vitton’s for a cotton Kaftan at home and opting for sensible shoes during travel (paparazzi be damned) are meant to make that pedestal less intimidating. That she can no longer shop in her beloved city because of her elevated stature and must jet set off to London, Paris, Milan or Dubai to satisfy those cravings is filed away in the flip side of fame.

Names like Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen and Christian Louboutin make up a diva’s fashion inventory. Whenever possible she adds high street labels like Mango, Top Shop or Zara to the conversation to make mere mortals more comfortable.

An exhaustive list of Kapoor’s go-to designers, must have accessories, and a tour of favourite travel destinations is topped off by a behind the scenes look at the regimented lifestyle and the meticulous planning that goes into making a star. She brings out that trove of helpful little tips to nudge the uninitiated in the right direction divulging beauty secrets along the way.

Redundancy can seep in at times. Because she worked with Rujuta Diwekar to achieve her famed look, there are portions that are derivative of Diwekar’s ‘Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha’, mixed up with backstage footage of fantasy lifestyles and caviar dreams.

The occasional bout of irreverence tries to keep this bulky endeavour that holds all her style secrets, upright. As she documents numerous fashion crimes and impales the offenders for breaking sacred commandments, the narrative keeps expanding to accommodate the essentials of good living.

It uses bite-sized doses of style, grooming, relationship advice and image control to hold little nuggets of wisdom. There is a prescription for almost everything in here and many of these ‘how-to’s’ or ‘must haves’, like an in-depth study of a nice stretchy vest, for instance or the kind of tote to tote around the office, would perhaps appear ‘superfluous’ to the savvy reader.


Sum Up: This lightweight paean to fashion renews the lustre on a diva’s greatest (style) hits collection and rummages determinedly through all those closets for the perfect makeover.

The Style Diary of a Bollywood Diva’ is available in stores now.

Images Courtesy of:

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
-
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)


Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective of her Shia-Syed lineage, proudly waving the Bhakuraj banner while circling around a trio of eligible grandkids. There is still some mileage left in ‘universally acknowledged truths’ and casual strolls past the maddening fishing expeditions preceding ‘I do’s’ become the basis for Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel.



M Hanif (L) with Shazaf Fatima (R) at Karachi Literature Festival 2013

How It Happened’ is told from the youngest sibling’s perspective who observes the indefatigable grandma happily ensconced in the past, as storm clouds conjured by Haroon Bhai – the favorite grandson and resident rebel Zeba Baji gather to overturn her orderly world. It is the perfect vantage point for such a feisty narrator who documents the elders ‘unwelcome and uninvited’ intrusions, frequent hissy fits, and the endless variations of their family tree in the arsenal used to counter the new century. The aroma of authentic flavors assails the senses - the people posing for their mug-shots have compelling arcs and mirthless moments are reworked to provoke grim laughter.



Shazaf Fatima at T2F at the TRA Meeting

These side-trips to abandoned corners of memory lane while amusing also serve to illustrate the pathways once hailed sacred now haunted by ghouls leftover from the ‘The Arranged Way of Life’. Hunting for ‘The One’ as per the slightly racist grandma’s playbook is not pretty and involves going through the archaic motions that rank all incoming prospects on the same superficial curve. Shazaf may not have intended it as such, but ‘How It Happened’ can be read as a delicious takedown with a narrative that registers the hypocrisy and horror with venomous satisfaction.

Her pen is merciless.

Mama’s boys and spineless wimps are served up with relish. One suitor is described as a ‘hideous, giggling hobbit’ in a scene reminiscent of Mr. Collins versus Elizabeth Bennet. Another enters with a dainty step ‘like a ballerina trying to twirl on an egg shell’.

Shazaf tosses in random carcasses of decorum left in the wake of predatory mammas on the prowl at marriages and ‘majalis’ (religious gatherings). But she adopts a smart approach with a story that simultaneously puts the rebel generation in a stronger position without exactly leveling the old fashioned platform upon which they were raised. Nothing escapes her eagle eye – not the inappropriate trolling, and harrowing trolley sessions – that mark the lair of our elusive Mr./Miss Perfect, nor the ‘Shallow Hal’ inspired blinders used by cringe-worthy specimens of humanity ogling from a safe distance. Haroon and Zeba’s ordeal drives a polite stake through the farcical climate.

At times it feels dated not just because the sphere of influence the elderly lady wields may appear straight out of a time capsule; the timeline itself swerves and parts of 1990’s keep encroaching with VHS tapes of Perfect Strangers, Evel Knievel, GI Jane Posters and cordless phones. Unexpected time jumps aside, the ripples from generational clashes leave aside space for a wonderful array of characters to keep the levity meter running. From ‘Fati Phupps’, the indomitable aunt who snorts at traditions, and the strong-willed but remote Zeba defiantly facing down the charging herd of grandma approved matches, to the youngest sister patiently cataloging the fate of incoming suitors - and accompanying melodrama.

With its sassy core and stirring imagery – the story marches straight into the path of stern sentinels manning the matrimonial front and demands that they join in the merriment.