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The Women of Block 2

(By Aamer Hussein. From Dawn. Link to the complete article given below)

When Shahbano Alvi, my friend and the publisher of my forthcoming book, asked me to give the first of a series of talks she planned to hold at her new bookshop, The Silent Reed, I suggested that instead of a routine discussion of my life and works, we bring together a group of artists (in the wider sense) and journalists to discuss the influence of Karachi, the city we had in common, on our work and practice.

About a dozen of us gathered that July evening. But our conversation spun off in an entirely unexpected direction: our audience was keen to discuss its present fears and future hopes. Looking back at how the city had affected our imagination and our aesthetic remained in the shadowlands of our dynamic, sometimes diffuse conversation.

But a recurrent motif was evident in some our interventions: the continuous presence, over at least three generations, of women in all walks of Karachi’s arts and letters. Asif Farrukhi mentioned the multi-talented Amina Nazli, best known as the editor of the literary journal Ismat and also renowned for her very popular compilations of recipes, whose long career spanned the years from the Raj to the Zia era. Her underrated stories and plays have just been reissued in two volumes that include hitherto uncollected material. Shahbano herself — when her company, Ushba, began to publish a series of gumshuda tehreeren [lost writings] — came upon a family legacy of hidden gems written in the early years of the 20th century by the women of her grandmother’s family: poetry, essays and notably some delightfully wacky mysteries written by Binte Fatima Naqviya, the most prolific among these young women. Most of those talented sisters and cousins migrated to Pakistan, bringing with them their writings to be rediscovered and shared with the public by their descendants.

Read more at the Dawn link here

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Landays

(From Poetry Foundation. Link to the complete article given below)

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

 

The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she’d be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. Poetry, which she learned from other women and on the radio, became her only form of education.

In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet — a landay — an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.

From the Aryan caravans that likely brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago to ongoing U.S. drone strikes, the subjects of landays are remixed like hip-hop, with old words swapped for newer, more relevant ones. A woman’s sleeve in a centuries-old landay becomes her bra strap today. A colonial British officer becomes a contemporary American soldier. A book becomes a gun. Each biting word change has much to teach about the social satire that ripples under the surface of a woman’s life. With the drawdown of American forces in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk when the Americans pull out. Although some landays reflect fury at the presence of the U.S. military, many women fear that in the absence of America’s involvement they will return to lives of isolation and oppression, just as under the Taliban.

Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted a culture, as well as displaced millions of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risqué. Landays are mostly sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family or, say, a harmless-looking foreign woman. Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. Much of an Afghan woman’s life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honor — a gap between who she seems to be and who she is.

Read more at the Poetry Foundation link here


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Book Excerpt: The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher

Qandeel Baloch

Bold’, ‘Shameless’, ‘Siren’ were just some of the (kinder) words used to describe Qandeel Baloch. She embraced these labels and played the coquette, yet dished out biting critiques of some of Pakistan’s most holy cows. Pakistanis snickered at her fake American accent, but marvelled at her gumption. She was the stuff of a hundred memes and Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media.

Qandeel first captured the nation’s attention on Pakistan Idol with a failed audition and tearful outburst. But it was in February 2016, when she uploaded a Facebook video mocking a presidential ‘warning’ not to celebrate Valentine’s Day, that she went ‘viral’. In the video, which racked up nearly a million views, she lies in bed, in a low-cut red dress, and says in broken English, ‘They can stop to people go out…but they can’t stop to people love.’ The video shows us everything that Pakistanis loved—and loved to hate—about Qandeel, ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’. Five months later, she would be dead. In July 2016, Qandeel’s brother would strangle her in their family home, in what was described as an ‘honour killing’—a punishment for the ‘shame’ her online behaviour had brought to the family.

Scores of young women and men are killed in the name of honour every year in Pakistan. Many cases are never reported, and of the ones that are, murderers are often ‘forgiven’ by the surviving family members and do not face charges. However, just six days after Qandeel’s death, the Anti-Honour Killings Laws Bill was fast-tracked in parliament, and in October 2016, the loophole allowing families to pardon perpetrators of ‘honour killings’ was closed. What spurred the change? Was it the murder of Qandeel Baloch? And how did she come to represent the clash between rigid conservatism and a secular, liberal vision for Pakistan? Through dozens of interviews—with aspiring models, managers, university students, activists, lawyers, police officers and journalists, among them—Sanam Maher gives us a portrait of a woman and a nation.

 

Excerpt

The video from Murree has been viewed thousands of times. By the end of the year, the words ‘How I’m looking?’ would be the first phrase mentioned in an article about ‘10 notable quotes that defined Pakistan’s entertainment scene in 2015’. Qandeel would be called an ‘insta-celeb’. People are turning to Facebook and Twitter to find the ‘How I’m looking’ girl and they want more and more of her videos. They like to laugh at her.

Mec says he has never seen anything like it in all the years he has been in the industry. He would think about that video when she was no longer around and would wonder what people had seen in it. He would remember that Afghan woman who had been on the cover of a magazine in America and then became famous all over the world. ‘It was her eyes,’ he would say. That was it. ‘That’s what got everyone. Show people something different. They don’t want to see the same old stuff.’

Qandeel disagrees with him on how her career can progress. He takes her to every single event, books her for any show he can and introduces her to everyone they meet. Sometimes she complains that all of it is a waste of time. People take photos with her at these events, but she isn’t getting paid for that. She doesn’t just want to make friends—she is looking for connections.

She stumbles across the Facebook profile of a man in Karachi, Mansoor, who had been a model when she was just a girl in Shah Sadar Din. His Facebook feed is full of photographs taken at dinners and parties with girls Qandeel has seen on TV. She recognizes some of the names from his friends’ list. He seems to have the connections she needs. She sends him a friend request. He is used to these requests from strangers, usually women, who hope that he knows all the right people and will be able to help them break into the fashion industry. In fact, it happens so often that he now has a policy of asking any girl who sends him a friend request on Facebook for her phone number to confirm whether she is indeed an aspiring model or an actress, and not some man who is trying to fool him. The ones who willingly give their phone numbers are legitimate. Qandeel sends him her phone number.

‘Hi must talk to you,’ he texts Qandeel. ‘Call now.’

She is travelling. She is unable to speak with him then. ‘Let me come too then I talk.’ He notes that her English is not very good. ‘Take care.’

They continue to exchange messages and soon she is affectionately calling him ‘baby’ and ‘jaan’. When she tells him she is back in Karachi and feeling lonely, they meet for the first time and he takes her to a friend’s house so she can have some company. She messages him on WhatsApp late at night and asks, ‘What are you doing?’ He is usually fast asleep. She likes Dubsmash, an app that lets users lip sync phrases or songs, and sees that the video from Murree has also become popular there. She sees actresses and singers mimic her words in videos that they post to their social media feeds.

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The rare women in the rare book trade

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway picks up the phone and receives a solo lunch-party invite intended for her husband, from another woman. Clarissa puts down the phone and reels over “the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered.”

Mrs. Dalloway, a book about an aging woman who is no longer valued by society, has increased in value as it has aged. The corrected 1928 typescript, with Woolf’s musings scribbled on its pages, now sells for £27,500. What is a woman worth as she ages? What is a book by a woman worth as it ages? The answers are braided into the realities of the book trade, which is still an old boys’ club. As you’d expect, the expensive books are by men: Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway. “No twentieth-century women command those prices,” said Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers. “Woolf tops out in the mid five figures, and Gertrude Stein and Zora Neale Hurston are relatively cheap.”

Although it’s true that old white men have always run the large, moneyed, century-old rare-book trade—buying and selling books for a living—women have made enormous inroads as private and institutional collectors. Things started shifting in the seventies. Second-wave feminism gave women a voice, and female collectors started patching the historical holes by seeing value and relevance in objects that men had ignored. When you put your gaze on a manuscript and call attention to it, you create value in the eyes of others. Curiosity creates a market.

Read the complete article at the Paris Review link


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Book review: Woman to Woman Stories by Madhulika Liddle

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Woman to Woman Stories

Title: Woman to Woman Stories
Author: Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 176
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The title of Madhulika Liddle’s 2017 collection, Woman to Woman Stories, draws us into sororities with the whispered promise of shared secrets. One could think, conveniently enough, of images culled from life, literature, movies – the murmur of shared afternoons, coffee table chat, restroom gossip or the giggles, chatter and tears of a morning spent amid pickles and spices drying in the sun, the aroma mingling with the salt and tanginess of the telling and the sun-warmed terrace… woman to woman. Yet, the title beguiles, for the book’s cover lays out a warning within this seemingly casual – the shadow of death, of violence, of abuse, of beauty that could slip through the fingers any moment. This then is no book of snug tales; these are stories of being a woman, of beauty and hope perhaps, but primarily of the underside of her life and lived experiences.

Woman to Woman Stories is Madhulika Liddle’s shout out to listen, and to listen with care, with humour when needed, with compassion, anger, love, empathy. These are stories told without frills, as in ‘Ambika, Mother Goddess’, not an unusual narrative, the kind that screams out to us daily from television screens and newspaper headlines – the rape of a minor in a nondescript alley of her city. Her life, it is obvious, was never hers to live, a continuum from her mother to her and to her new born daughter. The narrative doesn’t overtly ask the question but leaves its shadow in the reader’s mind, a question that rises to the surface with frightful intensity because of its possibility: will Ambika’s daughter live a similar narrative?

The initial stories are told with an apparent simplicity that shouldn’t fool the reader. As one progresses into the collection, the stories are less innocent, the emotions more tangled, complex. Told primarily from the perspective of a child at play, ‘Mala’ meanders through a house and the spaces that surround it, hinting innocuously at human lives and their equations, with just a sliver of a threat hanging around it. When the threat materialises, it is conveyed harmlessly but leaves behind its resonances, the discomfort stronger for the casual way in which it is inserted into the structure.

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Book Review: Mirror Image by Rama Gupta

By Dr Usha Bande

Mirror Image

 

Title: Mirror Image.
Author: Rama Gupta
Publisher: Prabhat Prakashan, 2017
Pages: 238
Price: Rs. 500/-

 

Rama Gupta’s Mirror Image is a collection of 17 stories written in a simple narrative style, depicting realistic and actual scenarios and experiences that most of us past middle age go through (or have gone through). As the title indicates, the stories are a reflection of life; they focus on the spontaneous response of the main characters as they encounter small quirks of fate that have great implications in their lives. These are stories of men and women, mostly from urban upper middle-class but some represent different age groups and class like ‘Sumangali’ and ‘Bye-Bye, Blackbird’. The point of view is primarily that of the female narrators; the narratives delve into the psyche of men, women and children and as such, the portrayal revolves round how the principal characters respond to the attitudes and events in their lives.

Rama Gupta started writing these stories after her retirement, a time when many would close the logbook of an active academic life. Not Rama! She has always had dogged determination and ambition to do something new. In that sense, this is a big wish come true.

Of the seventeen stories, two stories fall neatly into the rapidly growing diasporic experience. The experiences of immigrants in a multicultural country like Australia are outlined in ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Darkness under the Blazing Sun.’ One more story that is set partly in India and partly in Australia is ‘The Love of a Good Daughter.’ The average reader can easily feel the wistful, quiet sadness of the overall situation, and a reader familiar with the immigrant experience knows the truth behind the emotion of a parent who sees his/her child withdrawing into a shell; a well-settled man suddenly feeling lonely and helpless during a calamity, or a daughter settled in Australia being callously negligent of her mother who has come to help her with her new-born. Aannant gains his composure when the floods recede. Seeing river Brisbane flowing in its usual smooth rhythm, Aannant, after days of uncertainties, understands the significance of connectedness as he decides to help people to fight the aftermath of the devastating floods.
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The Ties That Bind: Lisa See’s China Dolls

Michael Magras on China Dolls: LARB

You can’t help feeling bad for authors of popular works of women’s fiction. The literary landscape is freckled with graveyards that may as well bear signs that read, “Here lie writers who get no respect.” In one quadrant are the science fiction and fantasy writers. Authors of historical fiction occupy a similarly sized plot. And then there’s women’s fiction, the creators of which are consigned to fringe status even if they don’t further seal their fate by intersecting with another maligned subgroup: ethnic fiction. If you’re an American woman who writes commercially successful works about close-knit families from foreign cultures, good luck getting the esteem you seek.

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Essay: Women — Vulnerable to violence

At a time when a shocked India is dealing with the allegations of rape against a high-profile writer and editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, Dr. Usha Bande throws some light on an ugly reality: the rampant violence against women in the Indian sub-continent.

sea-of-innocenceViolence is a lived reality of a woman’s life that she alone experiences, suffers and endures. No amount of words can explain the pain and terror it causes because it is an experience that is personal. In a short story entitled “It was Dark” by Shashi Deshpande, a nine year old raped girl is in shock and when asked about the incident she can only repeat “it was dark”. This darkness is the subjective experience of every traumatized woman who falls a victim to violence be it sexual, domestic or social.

Violence against women is a hydra-headed monster that refuses to listen to reason; it is not intimidated by law; it refuses to make a retreat and that is why we need multi-pronged approaches to eliminate it. Violence, aggression and cruelty, wife bashing, rapes, acid attacks, murders and torture – indeed, this surfeit of violence is becoming more complex and manifest day by day. What reaches us is far less than what actually takes place and goes unreported.

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