William Dalrymple on Pakistan

A “Guardian” article by Dalrymple on Pakistan. Hat-tip to Chapati Mystery.


3 movies: Pan’s Labyrinth, Baghban, Transporter (2)

<<<<<<<SPOILER ALERT>>>>>>> 

Svend and I are hopelessly behind in our movie-watching, so we don’t even try to keep up with them as they come out. Still, I try to regularly expose my own inability to keep up with cultural developments by providing rough and ready reviews of books and movies. If you wish to avoid spoilers, – well, don’t read the reviews.


*PAN’S LABYRINTH: This was the best movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s set in Franco’s Spain, and involves the rebel forces and some military skirmishes, but a young girl of about 10 is the central character. She is immersed in the world of books and fairytales, many of them quite dark and somber, and they become her reality in a dark and yet hopeful way. Do not watch this with children, and if you have a sensitive heart or weak stomach, keep the remote handy throughout. There are some very sudden violent scenes in this movie, which are very regrettable. Without them, it could easily have been a great movie for adults and kids. The violence could not only have been veiled, it could have been less gruesome. Except for that, it’s a deeply moving movie for lovers of fantasy and non-fantasy.  Spanish with English subtitles.

*THE TRANSPORTER 2: With embarrassment I admit that I’m an occasional lover of action. I have watched Die Hard many times and when faced with a choice, will pick an action-thriller over a romance or comedy or drama ANY day. Readers may judge me as shallow for this, but I do not approach movies to give me a “slice of life.” Life is sufficient for that purpose. So yes, I enjoyed “The Transporter.” I like Jason Statham’s poker face and his cool, professional, generally unemotional demeanour in that movie. So it was with high hopes that I ordered the sequel on netflix. Big mistake to have hopes of a sequel. In my book, it’s a dud. It screams implausible. Yes, movies are not supposed to be, strictly speaking, “realistic.” But the viewer and the producer have a deal: don’t make it so far away from “realistic” as to insult the viewer’s intelligence. The action, the plot, the characters are implausible. Statham’s character is mawkish from the very start. Not only is he driving a cutesy little kid around (I do NOT sound like a mother, I know) but he is a little too cutesy, and not particularly childlike – he is constantly chattering with the kid, making him promises and telling him to trust him like Amitabh out of the 80’s Bollywood movies. Quite unnecessary, and disappointing for the character. Not just that – but the kid’s mother, within 5 minutes of the movie, appears, and the romantic and sexual tension causes the viewer to depart with her barf-bag in disgust. The Transporter, in other words, has left the building. The worst feature of the movie is the vamp, who does most of the fighting on the part of the unpleasant villain – unpleasant not in an Alan Rickman as terrorist sense, but in an “ew, you’re not watchable on the screen” sense. Rickman as Hans the terrorist is eminently watchable. The villain in this movie is not. The vamp is created for an adolescent audience. She never appears unless she is either naked or dressed in the trashiest Victoria’s Secret has to offer. She fights, runs and jumps in 6″ stilettoes, bras and little boyshorts. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and though probably appealing to a 14 year old boy, reduces everyone else to tears and nausea.

*BAGHBAN: Most readers of my blog know that I am a lover of old desi movies. I rarely watch modern desi stuff, and mostly I wonder if I’m really missing some gems. So I ordered “Baghban” on netflix. I was hard-pressed to think of an old movie that was so heavy-handed as this one. Amitabh and Hema Malini are a loving “elderly” couple, but their love is carried on and on and on to the point of nausea. Plus this movie is a nonstop opportunity for them to not only be the elderly objects of reverence for the younger generation, but also the hot kids on the dance floor. I remember at least 3 annoying numbers when the Hema tucked in her fancy silk sari and hit the floor, and Amitabh started jigging with 6 guys behind him – and they’re supposed to be 60+ with grownup married sons. The disrespectful and nasty treatment by the sons is overdone. The picture of benevolent patriarchy is, as was expected, perfect. And it is patriarchy. The father (Amitabh) is at the center of the storyline, and the mother sort of gets kicked around without getting much credit. The movie is also schizophrenic on its treatment of Western-style modernity. Hema/grandma disapproves of her young granddaughter going out with her boyfriend, yet the boy in America (Salman Khan) cavorts with a miniskirted girlfriend (and that’s all great, say the “parents:” as long as she’s pretty). There is a schizophrenic juxtaposition of dance scenes: badbad granddaughter bopping in a Western-style nightclub, and Amitabh (hero) celebrating Valentine’s Day with a team of youngsters dressed and dancing as if they were in a trashy MTV piece. One is bad, the other is good – and why one or the other? BTW that Valentine’s Day sequence with teddy bears and “will you be my valentine,” all set in an Indian cafe, is sad. The mistreated father becomes a famous Booker Prize winner author, gets hundreds of thousands of rupees, and doesn’t want to look at his sons again. Salman Khan is the growup orphan whose education was financed by the kindness of Amitabh: his canned filial piety is delivered with all the natural emotion of an axe-murderer. His perpetual worship (no exaggeration: he and his wife go for their morning prayers and address Amitabh and Hema’s photograph) weighs heavy upon the nerves: perhaps the heavy-handed unnaturalness of the devotion would be salvaged by a bit of humour, or other emotion.  

Ammi almost 40 and baby has a potty victory

This may not be the most appetizing of subjects, but Raihana had a potty victory today. Svend gets all the credit. Today, August 21st at 8am, baby made her first potty in the potty. Svend took all the initiative (I had delivered a lecture on the subject the day before): he sat with her, reading “The velveteen rabbit” and the slide-and-seek “Shapes” book (which she loves) all the way through until she was done, and she did not get up until a potty had been done.

I suspect the key is to find her when she’s just a tiny bit groggy, when she’s disinclined to run around in circles and would rather just sit somewhere.
As the baby starts potty training, mother is on her way to reading glasses. When the optometrist took no interest in my complaints of poor reading vision, the realization slowly seeped into my mind that reading glasses were available without prescription, and that I’d just have to pick them off a rack, and that a doctor wouldn’t help me with that. It was one of those things that you don’t know, but you sort of gather by osmosis. And so I went for a follow-up eye exam, and realized on the chair that it was a rather wasted visit.

As the baby screamed in terror (freaked either the elderly optometrist or the machinery), the optometrist did make a quip about the big 4-0 though. I had always believed the adage “you’re only as old as you think,” but reading glasses really are not a matter of thought – (though I’m sure I could find some people who could persuade me that it was).

Almost-forty, peering at small print, raising a baby and jump-starting a career, – it isn’t exactly fabulous, but it could always be worse.

Invasion of the baby-snatchers

I know the title is needlessly sensationalistic, but last week, due to an intellectual growth spurt, I felt like Raihana had undergone the experience in the title. Suddenly my docile, sweet-natured, cooperative, gentle little baby girl had turned into a little girl with an ego, a possessive streak, an awareness of what she wanted, and a spark of really quite irresistible determination.

I miss the days when I could bark “No!” from a distance, and she would withdraw her hand from the knives in the dishwasher, the peaches on the table, or the laptop. If she wandered off to the kitchen, and I was in my study, I could call her by name if I got worried that she had been quiet too long, and within seconds she would come pattering along with a question-mark on her face. When she put a coin in her mouth, she did it slowly, with guilt painted large on her face, staring at me the while; as soon as I did “thhoo” (the Urdu version of ptooey), she would immediately spit out the coin on my palm.

No more. She sucks the coin for a good few seconds, with relish, before I stick my finger into her mouth and force her to surrender it. She focuses more closely on the offending task/object at hand than on my “no” and my disapproval.

This also means her eye is brighter, her posture is more erect somehow, she is more of an intrepid explorer, and she is more of an extrovert as well. She is also more sociable with other children – and with Bhalu (her teddy bear) with whom she holds long loving conversations lying in the crib.

I’m still not sure if this is merely a developmental stage, and if it’s a coincidence that it happened in the same week that she started daycare.

Her hugs are still sweet, and she runs to hug me still, but the hugs are just a tiny bit less frequent, and she is less inclined to be lovey-dovey with me if she is preoccupied with a toy or a book.

Life is work and work is life

These days I’m reading “Concentric Circles: Nurturing Awe and Wonder in Early Learning” by Elma Harder (published by Al-Qalam). Dr Ansari at the Islamic Research Institute gave it to me to review for the journal “Islamic Studies.” I’ve only read one chapter so far, but I enjoy it. Without providing a full review – basically because I haven’t written one – I recommend it to educated parents and to teachers of young learners.

Now that I’ve read a chapter of this book and a few pages of Goffman’s “Stigma,” and responded to 6 emails, I need to return home to take over the baby shift. I love the baby but I do miss having an entire day to work with. Granted, before the baby I used to spend a certain number of hours playing at ebay, craigslist, a couple of mailing lists, and even browsing (without shopping much) malls. After the baby one must be far more economical in the choice of activities, so that one can get work done.

I do declare that the word work has taken over my entire life. Since I moved to the US, I swear this must be the word I have heard/spoken the most. Work is all. Work is the soul, the mind, the body. Work is direction. Work is meaning. Work is life. Work is me. Work is you. Work is everything.

Work is our means of connection. Work is our way to avoiding connection.

Work is what we use to eliminate all non-work. Work is the empty space we create. Work is what we use to fill the empty space with.

I’d better get back to work. This blog is only partially non-work.  

Bilingual baby

Today at last the hot and humid heat of Northern Georgia bore fruit, and we had a rainstorm. It was quite delightful, except items of patio furniture and branches were flying outside.

As I cuddled Raihana during her nap (she started daycare this week, and is still adjusting, so I am cuddling her more than usual to compensate for my guilt) – as I cuddled her, I heard rattling against the window. It was hail. Hail in August.

I had to go out to check. I almost felt like bringing the baby outside to show her hail. According to the rules of OPOL (one person, one language), I speak Urdu with her (except sometimes when I am upset, which is counter-intuitive), and Svend speaks English with her. If nothing else, this would have been the perfect opportunity to introduce her to the Urdu word “zhala-baaree” (hailstorm). 

“Zhala-baaree” is one of those words that you rarely ever use in conversation. Still, you need it in the primer because the letter “zh” rarely occurs in the beginning of words. In fact it rarely occurs in words in general, except for polite poetic words like “mizhgaan” (eye-lash).

“Zoy” is another one of those letters that the primer deals with awkwardly. It usually features the word “Zuroof” (containers), and features pictures of dishes, bowls, pitchers, and so on, so it is not terribly self-explanatory to a young child. “Zwaad” is also an embarrassment: it always features the picture of an old man, with the word that usually works as an *adjective* (upsetting the noun-centric world of primers) “Za’eef” (frail and elderly).

I chose a few minutes of quiet relaxation over introducing “zhala-baaree,” of course. She can do without “zh” in general, I think, though we’ll be working on that soon enough.

This week, I have wondered about the possibility of handicapping her in the immediate short term at daycare: she doesn’t have much intimate familiarity with the English words food, eat, drink, water, milk, out, come, play, read, and so on. Does this make her daycare experience worse than that of the other children who come prepared with those words?

I don’t think that the problem will continue for very long, even if it does. Even 3-4 hours a day with peers and Montessori teachers, immersed in English, will suffice to bring her up to date with those language skills.

In a world that does not favour Other languages, Urdu will probably have to start competing for attention very soon indeed. And not just the “zh” words.

“Personal” and “professional” blogging

At one point in time, I decided that this blog was going to morph into an academic, public blog that could be perused by colleagues (and – shudder – students) without giving my entire personal profile away.

Since then, every time the desire to blog seizes me, I have decisions to make. This topic is too emotional; that one is too “maternal” and “unprofessional.” This is too “personal” to be public.

My own research and writing focuses on the reality that is hybridity: how we are, e.g. Muslim and American and academic and religious and music-lovers and Pakistanis and pasta-lovers, all at the same time. To produce this performance for the public eye, however, I feel like I cast upon my own thoughts an Othering gaze, judging my own thoughts by masculinist criteria.  

We immigrants learn to privatize our thoughts and feelings, responding to “how are you” with a jolly “Great!” soon after we cross the Atlantic. Especially in the public space of the virtual world, which has many crossover spaces occupied by colleagues, we cannot afford to perform “personal” lives – the messy lives involving parenting, marriage, family, finances, etc. unless they square with some academic “purpose” – cultural critique/ analysis or theory.

Still, in the dangerous world of blogging, there is much peace of mind involved in not blogging about sadness, frustration, untidiness, confrontations, and other markedly unprofessional things. You are rewarded with peace of mind by your closing down shop as a person. Unfortunately it closes down a community too – one that is a rewarding exercise for all participants. The community has to be a secret trusted one, because the public gaze cannot be trusted to be benign in intent at all times.