Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

‘Perchance to dream..’: Creating literary masterpieces from dreams (Column: Bookends XCVIII)

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Do you recall where you went or what happened to you while sleeping last night? Did you see fondest wishes come true, or something you dread? Were you among friends or strangers and in a normal and ordinary millieu or one surrealistic and bizarre? You may not recall much of your dreams once awake, save some confused fragments that mystified, enraptured or disturbed you, but these visions have inspired or form the basis of some of the most famous literary works ever.

Dreams, most simply, are a progression of images, ideas, and emotions occurring involuntarily in certain phases of sleep, but their content and purpose has not been understood to any level of certainty, despite best efforts of thinkers from the fields of science, philosophy and religion down the ages. For those interested, see Sigmund Freud’s seminal “Interpretation of Dreams” or his former disciple Carl Gustav Jung’s “The Practical Use of Dream-analysis” (in “The Practice of Psychotherapy”) or “Dreams”.

In literature, dreams as inspirations, settings or plot devices are wide-ranging, right down to J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

Among the oldest is Roman philosopher-politician Cicero’s Socratic dialogue on contemporary politics, “De re publica” (54-51 B.C.). Its sixth and final book “Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream)” has legendary soldier Scipio Africanus Minor thus told his future by his late illustrious grandfather, Scipio Africanus.

Medieval English literature like William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (late 14th century) freely made use of dreams to advance plot, and in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (c.1595), dreams are what the two pairs of lovers and poor Nick Bottom – whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey – imagine their adventures to be after awaking from enchanted sleep.

But at the finale, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow/Puck tells the audience: “If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear./And this weak and idle theme,/No more yielding, but a dream..”

Mary Shelley is said to have dreamt the idea for “Frankenstein” (1818), while a nightmare about a “vampire king” rising from his grave, caused by a too-indulgent dinner of mayonnaise-covered crab or lobster inspired Bram Stoker to write “Dracula” (1897) – though he had been researching vampire folklore for seven years.

Robert Louis Stevenson tried to find story ideas and material from his dreams and it was one of them that inspired “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886). As a story goes, his wife, seeing that he was having a nightmare, woke him but got no thanks – for ending it as things were getting interesting. Stephenie Meyer has admitted the idea for “Twilight” (2005), the first of her vampire romances, came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003 about a human girl and a vampire who was in love with her but also thirsted for her blood.

But the most famous work with dreams is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson alias Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871), which, unlike many of their ilk, follow the ‘logic’ of actual dreams, with flexible transitions and causality.

Visions, of both the past and the future, are significant in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s chronicles of Middle Earth and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where they can also reveal the truth (if our boy wizard had remembered a dream in Book One, it would have gone easier on him).
Some most imaginative use of dreams are in three separate works of engineer-turned-master storyteller Nevil Shute.

“An Old Captivity” (1940) has pilot Donald Ross, on an air survey mission of Greenland for an Oxford don, go into a coma where he dreams he and Alix (the don’s daughter who has come along) were once slaves aboard Viking chief Leif Ericson’s sailing expedition and had travelled up to North America where they left a stone, with their names carved on it. Later, they find it too!

Set in the Australian outback, “In The Wet” (1953) has ill Anglican priest Roger Hargreaves tending to an aged dying ex-pilot Stevie in 1953 when he dreams of a situation three decades hence where Stevie is a decorated Royal Australian Air Force pilot, who aids Queen Elizabeth II deal with anti-monarchial sentiment in Britain. In the end, the narrative shifts back, Stevie is dead and an exhausted Hargreaves tries to make sense, a task more difficult when the child who will become the future pilot is brought to him for christening.

Also set in Australia, “The Rainbow and the Rose” (1958) has pilot Ronnie Clarke, trying to save retired senior Johnnie Pascoe who has crashed on a medical evacuation mission and is seriously injured, dream about the latter’s chequered life while resting overnight in Pascoe’s house after his first attempt to land a doctor there fails.

So if you have literary ambitions, remember your dreams, or wish they get more colourful!

(28.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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The world’s most popular festival – and the writers who revived it (Column: Bookends XCVII)

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It is the world’s most well-known religious and cultural festival, celebrated worldwide – including even by those who are not adherents of the faith. Many sentiments and customs attached to it have become common worldwide – even where there is no snow, evergreen conifers to hang lights and decorations on, or a chimney for a nocturnal gift-giver to enter. But Christmas celebrations, as we know them today, are quite recent developments – and it is some 19th century authors who were responsible.

Celebrated from the third century A.D. onwards, the festival was however banned in Britain in the mid-17th century after the advent of the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell (the closest the country came to be being ruled by Taliban/an Ayotallah, as John O’Farell notes in his irreverent history of England). Though celebrations revived after a generation, it was not the same.

In US too, Puritans banned Christmas, and after the 13 colonies won independence, fell out of favour as a “British custom”.

So how did the idea of Christmas time as a holiday season, the home celebrations and feast, the gift-giving and exchanges, the idea of a “Christmas spirit” – exemplifying forgiveness, charity, generosity and redemption, Santa Claus and all come?

Three authors – two Americans and one British – had quite a part to play.

The first was American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859), known mostly for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow, but also an essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat.

The two tales alluded to appear in his “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” (1820), a collection of nearly three dozen essays and short stories, of which just half a dozen relate to America.

Among the others are several about ‘Crayon’, Irving’s lightly-disguised literary alter ego, in Britain where he also attends the traditional warm-hearted Christmas celebrations.

These are “Christmas” , where Crayon reflects on the festival’s meaning and its celebration, “The Stage-Coach”, about travelling to a country manor, Bracebridge Hall, and being invited to stay for Christmas, “Christmas Eve”, on celebrations at Squire Bracebridge’s home, “Christmas Day”, having the ‘old, traditional’ festivities continue at Bracebridge Hall, and finally, “Christmas Dinner”, where Crayon enjoys old-fashioned hospitality at the Bracebridge Christmas dinner table.

The book, originally published in serial form in 1819-20, was immensely popular and slowly led to revival of Americans’ interest in Christmas.

It was also helped when the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, by an anonymous author, was published in 1822.

Better known by its first line: “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, it sees a man, wakened by noises while his wife and children sleep on on Christmas Eve, looking out and seeing St. Nicholas’ eight reindeer-pulled flying sleigh land on his roof. Nicholas enters through the chimney with a sack of toys, and the father sees him filling the children’s Christmas stockings, and they share a conspiratorial moment before the saint bounds up the chimney again, after wishing everyone: “Happy Christmas”.

This poem helped to create a standard image of Santa Claus, including his appearance (“dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot”, “His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,/His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry” and “He had a broad face, and a little round belly/That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”), the night he visits, his method of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer (“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,/On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen”); and that he brings toys to children.

The author was Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a professor of oriental and Greek literature, as well as divinity and Biblical learning at a leading Protestant seminary in New York, who in 1837, acknowledged he was the author and had written it for his children.

But the author who is most closely associated with the Christmas spirit is Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-70), who did the most to create it, especially through his novella “A Christmas Carol”, published on this day in 1843.

The story of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge (“Bah! Humbug!”) and his transformation into a gentler, kindlier man after being visited by the ghosts of his former business partner and of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, it was written in a bid to deal with his mounting debts and not only became a resounding success but made Christmas what it is today. (Read Les Standiford’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirit”, 2008).

But Dickens had more writings on Christmas – “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” in “The Pickwick Papers”, “The Chimes”, “The Cricket on the Hearth”, “The Battle of Life” and various stories in journals “Household Words” and “A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire”.

Now you know whom to thank when you wake up on Christmas and find your sock filled!

(20.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Bagpipes at dawn and other challenges for Scottish soldiers (Column: Bookends XCI)

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Can a story about soldiers in peacetime be of any interest for an ordinary reader? What attraction could a fairly predictable routine of a regimented life, with repetitive tasks and drills under stern discipline, have for civillians? But remember “Humour in Uniform” in “Reader’s Digest”?

Soldiers too can find themselves facing situations for which no training or manual can prepare them – this young officer is tasked to manage a football team, change a baby’s nappies, guard a haunted fort, defend regimental honour in a general knowledge quiz, and have the dirtiest soldier in the world under him.

All this – and much more – was the lot of author George MacDonald Fraser, who was commissioned as an officer towards close of the Second World War (after serving in the ranks during the Burma campaign). And luckily for us, he thought it would make for some good stories.

Even as the first installments of his eventually most famous work were appearing – the Flashman series about a cowardly, lecherous anti-hero in various trouble spots throughout the 19th century – Fraser also penned a collection of “fictionalised” stories of life in a Highland regiment.

“The General Danced at Dawn” (1970) has many unforgettable characters – the apparently easy-going but perceptive colonel, the effervescent adjutant, the pessimistic padre, the meticulous sergeant-major, and so on. Fraser appears as Dand McNeill (a play on regimental motto “Bydand” or standfast in Gaelic), while others also appear under different names.

“Monsoon Selection Board” details his torturous route to officerhood and efforts to fit in his new regiment, posted in Libya, in “Silence in the Ranks” – which also introduces the dirtiest soldier – Pvt. J. McAuslan: ” … he lurched into my office (even in his best tunic and tartan he looked like a fugitive from Culloden who had been hiding in a peat bog) …”

Among the funniest are “Play Up, Play Up and Get Tore In” where MacNeill, shepherding the battalion football team around the Mediterranean, has to deal with a naval officer gambling heavily on the team including with official funds, “The General Danced at Dawn”, where a general on inspection likes their Highland dancing, joins in and attempts to set a record – for which, by dawn, are drawn in the neighbouring Fusiliers, military policemen, an Italian cafe proprietor, a few Senussi tribesmen, and three German prisoners of war, “Night Run to Palestine” about commanding an overnight troop train to strife-hit Jerusalem, and not only having to look out for Zionist saboteurs but also interfering seniors, women auxilliaries, a chaplain worried about morals, an army wife with twins and an Arab Legion soldier who locks himself in the toilet (as MacNeill learns on coming across a small group singing “Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be?” outside) and “McAuslan’s Court-Martial” – a study in inspired, clever advocacy – while the presiding officer finds the abuses very interesting!

“McAuslan in the Rough” (1974) has, among others, “Bo Geesty” where MacNeill’s platoon manning a fort on Sahara’s edge, finds strange things happening when they try to drill a well, “Johnnie Cope in the Morning” about being woken every Friday by the band going full blast outside but also about a new recruit (a Negro) wanting to join the band and the complicated discussions – one of the funniest passages in English – it entails (he is eventually allowed), “General Knowledge, Private Information” about the quiz contest where McAuslan saves the day, “Parfit Gentil Knight, But” about McAuslan falling in love, and “McAuslan in the Rough”, where the battalion back in Britain, gets drawn into a golf challenge – and the slovenly McAuslan is the caddy for the impeccable regimental sergeant major.

“The Sheikh and the Dustbin” (1988) has among others “Captain Errol” where a new officer is so nicknamed since he resembles actor Errol Flynn, and has the same casual, reckless approach – until a crisis pops up, “The Constipation of O’Brien” where a night exercise descends into farce, the title story about the battalion saddled with an Arab rebel from contiguous French territory till he can be shipped back to the Devil’s Island, and “The Gordon Women”, a superbly comic tale involving poachers and illicit distillers set in Scotland. Finally, Fraser writes about meeting the colonel, now an octogenarian, and both reminiscing how some of the most improbable stories are the most true and the colonel (identified as R.G. Lees – who was second in command at the Japanese POW camp whose story inspired the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) stumping him by correctly identifying all the characters.

A valuable picture of the postwar world as the British empire was in retreat and a whole way of life was changing, the books are an engaging account of an army that fought throughout WWII and emerged victorious. They are also among the funniest.

(08.11.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Laughter on the pitch and pavillion: Cricket in its humour (Column: Bookends LXXXVII)

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It now figures in fiction for all the wrong reasons now – controversies, conspiracies, crimes and even worse, distracting amorous dalliances, but cricket, in the days when it was still a gentleman’s game and not a money-spinning, over-analysed entertainment spectacle, had an honoured place in English literature, with some great authors and avid players writing about it – some tickling the funny bone mercilessly while at it.

Humour, did you think? What role does it have in a game chiefly requiring superlative skills, agility and power, of an ability for inspired, intricate stroke play, or dispatching thunderbolts at the batsman or beguiling him with spin?

An initial look is not promising. Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt played the game but didn’t write on it, nor did it figure humorously in writings of J.M. “Peter Pan” Barrie and his team ‘Allahakbarries’ (named on a mistaken belief that the religious invocation meant “Heaven help us”) comprising Jerome K. Jerome, A.E.W. Mason, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.W. Hornung (whose gentleman-criminal Raffles was an ace cricketer), H.G. Wells, A.A. “Winnie the Pooh” Milne and P.G. Wodehouse (save maybe “Picadilly Jim”).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey actually solves a crime during a game in “Murder Must Advertise” (1933) and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quintet has a most unsettling account of its origins. Laughs also don’t figure in more recent works, be it Anuja Chauhan’s “The Zoya Factor” (2008), Joseph O’Neill’s haunting “Netherland” (2008) about a lonely Dutch business executive in post 9/11 New York finding a sense of belonging by joining a cricket club, Tarquin Hall’s “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken” (2012) or Timeri N. Murari’s “The Taliban Cricket Club” (2012).

“The Goat, the Sofa & Mr Swami” (2010), R. Chandrashekhar’s matchless synthesis of politics, diplomacy, bureaucracy and cricket – which is what the sport is now – does however succeed with its riotous finale in a Delhi stadium.

The first humorous treatment is in Charles Dickens’ rollicking, voluminous debut “The Pickwick Papers” (1836), whose chapter seven sees the Pickwickians at the Dingley Dell Cricket Club vs All-Muggleton game. Also introduced is the game’s first commentator, who – to give him credit – is admirably succinct “Capital game-well played-some strokes admirable.”

Mr Jingle, with his singular speech, has also played in the West Indies: “Warm!-red hot-scorching-glowing. Played a match once-single wicket-friend the colonel – Sir Thomas Blazo – who should get the greatest number of runs – won the toss-first innings-seven o’clock A.M.-six natives to look out-went in; kept in-heat intense-natives all fainted-taken away-fresh half-dozen ordered-fainted also-Blazo bowling-supported by two natives-couldn’t bowl me out-fainted too-cleared away the colonel-wouldn’t give in-faithful attendant-Quanko Samba-last man left-sun so hot, bat in blisters, ball scorched brown-five hundred and seventy runs-rather exhausted-Quanko mustered up last remaining strength-bowled me out-had a bath, and went out to dinner.”

Pune-born Archibald Gordon (A.G.) Macdonell’s neglected classic “England, Their England” (1933) has, also in its chapter seven, a match pitting a London team against locals in a Kentish village, with a titanic contest between a fast bowler and a soft-looking but lusty-hitting author – and what happens when the bowler feels compelled to make a supreme effort but the umpire feels mischievous. It sadly is too long to fit here but if you can’t get the book, Ruskin Bond-edited “The Rupa Laughter Omnibus” has it.

But high levels of sportsmanship were not always seen.

A minor unlikable character in Thomas Hughes’ “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (where cricket plays a major part), arch-cad Flashman (who got his own series courtesy author George MacDonald Fraser), is once prevailed to play for the alumni at Lords and performs the game’s first hat-trick – dismissing Nicholas Felix, Fuller Pilch (the greatest batsman of his time) and Alfred Mynn by skill, sheer luck, and straight cheating. “I’m not sure that the sincerest tribute I got wasn’t Fuller Pilch’s knitted brow and steady glare as he sat on a bench with his tankard, looking me up and down for a full two minutes and never saying a word,” he records in “Flashman’s Lady” (1977).

Adrian Allington’s “The Amazing Test Match Crime” (1939) lampoons not only the game but English society and crime too as Europe’s most notorious gang “The Bad Men” (including an Englishman damned for knowing the rules but not playing by them) scheme to disrupt England’s final test match against Imperia to decide the Ashes but are foiled by an unlikely and unexpected protagonist.

The antagonistic Herecombe and Therecombe village sides play a match that lasts till midnight but only see two balls bowled – and the first where a fielding side appeals against poor light. You can learn what happened in “The Bad-Tempered Cricket Match” in “Herbert Farjeon’s Cricket Bag” (1946).

Don’t dismiss all these as anachronistic curiosities but a testament to a pastime now reduced to a tense occupation by unconscionable commercialisation.

(11.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Policing books – from the inside (Column: Bookends LXXXVI)

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In this universe, England is now a republic and the United Kingdom doesn’t exist (next door is the Socialist Republic of Wales), the Crimean War raged until 1985, time travel, cloning and genetic engineering exist (dodos are common household pets and Neanderthals resurrected) but not personal computers or jet aircraft, cheese is exorbitantly costly, a shadowy corporation exerts great influence, and literature, especially classical, is revered – and has an entire police department devoted to its service.

Then we learn there is a dimension within literature where all books are “constructed” and also house the characters who, aware they are in a book, act out their roles when being read but live their own lives the rest of the time. And the line between these two worlds can be crossed – by some.

This is the setting for the seven volume (so far) Thursday Next series, a rollicking meta-fictional, fourth-wall breaking romp through books, genres and tropes – classics, police procedurals, espionage, science fiction, comic fantasy, conspiracy theories, apocalyptic scenarios and even fairy tales – as author Jasper Fforde (b.1961) delves into the workings of imagination and literary inspiration, the relationship between fiction and its audience and the mechanics (and magic) of reading.

“The Eyre Affair” (2001) introduces the doughty, appealing and resourceful Thursday Next, a 36-year-old single, Crimean War veteran, working in 1985 London with SpecOps 27, the Literary Detectives (or ‘LiteraTecs’), the agency responsible for dealing with forged or stolen manuscripts and literary works. Wounded in an attempt to capture mysterious criminal mastermind Acheron Hades, she seeks a transfer to hometown Swindon (on the advice of a future version of herself).

Hades has meanwhile begun to kidnap characters from fiction for ransom – with Jane Eyre his latest victim. Thursday finds a way into the book and in a fiery encounter on Thornfield Hall’s roof, kills Hades while also rewriting the ending to reunite Jane and Rochester (or the version we know). She later also ends the Crimean War, traps her unwanted Goliath Corporation partner in an Edgar Allan Poe poem, and marries her estranged fiancee.

The series really kicks in with “Lost in a Good Book” (2002), where Goliath have eradicated her husband from the timeline to blackmail her into rescuing their trapped operative. Learning to read herself into a book, Thursday finds herself in the 26-floor Great Library, which contains all published English books, and is inducted into the book world’s police – “JurisFiction”, which comprises operatives both fictional such as the Cheshire Cat (now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat due to redrawing of county boundaries), and non-fictional. She does Goliath’s bidding but is double-crossed, while there is Hades’ vengeance-seeking sister, an insidious political conspiracy and a looming end of the world to be dealt with.

Facing multiple threats in her world, Thursday, now pregnant, takes refuge in an unfinished detective novel in “The Well of Lost Plots” (2003), or a 26-level world beneath the Great Library where unpublished or unfinished works exist. There she has to keep her memory of her missing husband alive, train a couple of generics, and unearth what the ‘Book Operating System’s’ latest upgrade will entail for reading.

After two years as JurisFiction chief, she heads back to the real world with her two-year-old son Friday in “Something Rotten” (2004). Tagging along is Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, on a fact-finding mission. But out there, another huge political conspiracy is on, getting her husband back is tricky, her mother is hosting guests like Otto von Bismarck, she ends up being targeted by an assassin and the Minotaur, and the fate of her country and the world depend on her surviving a trip to the Underworld and winning a croquet match (here it is not the genteel sport you were thinking).

The next three, set over a decade in the future, comprise a new arc, slightly edgier and much more confusing with paradoxes of time travel and identity abounding. “First Among Sequels” (2008) deals with her struggle to convince her son, “now a teenage cliche” to take a job, tackle dramatically plunging attention spans that impinge reading and deal with her two book versions. She even doesn’t appear until the end in “One of our Thursdays is Missing” (2011), where the narrator is her book version. “The Woman Who Died a Lot (2012)” sees a recuperating Thursday deal with a new set of problems including a revived Goliath. The story will continue in “Dark Reading Matter” but its current status is unclear.

Don’t dismiss Thursday’s exploits as a book-lover’s wildest dreams come true or a multitude of puns, also read them for a trenchant satire on issues like corporate greed, our celebrity-obsessed, reality show watching culture, devious politics, proliferating bureaucracy and other ills of our world!

(04.10.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Non-conformity Zindabad! The poetic protesters of Pakistan (Column: Bookends LXXXV)

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With intermittent spells of military rule while civilian governments, when in place, ranged from authoritarian and/or inept, Pakistan’s polity has not been very kind towards its people through most of the country’s history. But a resilient spirit of opposition always persisted despite all attempts at repression – and a few intrepid Urdu/Punjabi poets were right in the vanguard.

A hybrid language that developed to let the subcontinent’s disparate peoples communicate with each other while used (in a more refined version) by the elite, Urdu, with its courtly background and wide intelligibility, is well suited for expressing protest – with courtesy! And poets were quick to use it – though they suffered for their effrontery!

Urdu’s first satirist Jafar Zatalli’s ridicule of Aurangzeb’s inept successors led to one of them, Emperor Farrukhsiyar, condemning him to death in 1713. His fate didn’t deter his literary successors.

In modern times, “Shair-e-Mashriq” Allama Iqbal, in “Shikwa” (1909), addressed his protest to the highest authority conceivable (“Shikwa Allah se khakam badahan hai mujh ko”) and Faiz Ahmed “Faiz” displayed quite an anti-authoritarian stance – e.g. ‘Ham Dekhenge’ (and Iqbal Bano’s live, spirited rendition in 1985 at the height of Zia-ul-Haq’s reign).

When Iskandar Mirza and Ayub Khan’s military coup ended Pakistan’s first turbulent spell of democracy, the new dispensation came under attack – by poets too. In 1959, a year after Ayub assumed sole power, a poet in a ‘mushaira’ being broadcast live from Rawalpindi declaimed: “Kahin gas ka dhuan hai/Kahin golion ki baarish/Shab-e-ahd-e-kam nigahen/Tujhe kis tarah sarahein”.

The programme was abruptly taken off, the director transferred and the poet jailed. It would be the first, but certainly not the last prison term for Habib Ahmad “Jalib” (1928-93).

He attacked Ayub’s 1962 constitution in “Dastoor” with its uncompromising refrain: “Aise dastoor ko/Subh-e-be-noor ko/Main nahi maanta, Main nahi jaanta” (reprised in subsequent stanzas: “Zulm ki baat ko/Jahl ki raat ko/Main nahi maanta, Main nahi jaanta”, “Is khule jhoot ko/Zehn ki loot ko/Main nahi maanta, Main nahi jaanta” and finally “Tum nahi charaagar/Koi maane magar/Main nahi maanta, Main nahi jaanta”)

The prevalent crony capitalism inspired: “Bees gharane hai abaad!/Aur croroon hai nashaad!/Sadr-e-Ayub zindabad!”

In Yahya Khan’s time, Jalib, addressing his portrait at a mushaira, said: “Tujhse pehle wo jo ek shaks yahaan takht-nasheen tha/Usko bhi apna khuda hone ka itna hi yaqeen tha”. A latter work bemoaned: “Dakuan da je saath na dende pind da pahredar/Aj pairaan zanjeer na hondi jeet na hondi haar/Paggan apne gal wich pa lo turo pet de bhar/Chadh jaye, te mushkil lehndi bootan di sarkar.”

In Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s time, the peremptory summons to a prominent actress to perform for the Shah of Iran at the prime minister’s Sindh mansion led to the iconic: “Larkane chalo/Warna thaane chalo/Apne hoton ki laali lutane chalo/Warna thaane chalo/Jism ki lauh se shame jalane chalo/Warna thane chalo/Gaane chalo/Warna thaane chalo.”

Zia-ul-Haq was pilloried in “Zulmat ko Zia” (literally darkness to light): “Is zulm-o-sitam ko lutf-o-karam/Is dukh ko dawa kya likhna/Zulmat ko zia, sar sar ko saba/Bande ko khuda kya likhna”.

Jalib’s Punjabi counterpart was Chiragh Deen “Ustaad Daman” (1911-84), a legend of pre- and post-1947 Lahore whose creed was: “Istage te hoyi te asi Sikandar honde han/Istage ton thale uthriye te asi Qalandar honde han/Jab ‘Daman’ ulajh jaaye hukumat se/Te asi chup-chap andar honden han”.

He made his first trip to jail, when at a mushaira early into the Ayub era, he recited: “Sadde mulk diyan maujan hi maujan/Jithe dekho faujan hi faujan”.

Further trouble came when Daman questioned Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: “Ae ki kari jaanaa, ki kari jaanaa/Kadi Shimle jaanaa hai, te kabhi Murree jaanaa/Ae ki kari jaanaa, tada tar jaanaa hai, tada toos jaanaa hai/Jithe jaanna hai, ban ke tu jaloos jaanna hai/Kadi Cheen jaanaa, kadi Roos jaanna hai/Kadi ban ke Amriki jasoos jaanaa/Oye ki kari jaanaa/Laae khes jaanna, khichi dari jaanaa hai/Qaum da tu kaddi phloos jaanna hai” (as recited by new “Khabar Naak” host Naeem Bokhari in a recent episode). A police raid on his house led to “bombs” being found and it was jail again.

Daman also provided the best requiem for 1947. “Bhanve mouhon na kahiye, par vicho vich/Khoye tusi vi o khoye asi ve aan” and ending: “Lali akhiyan di payi das di ae/Roye tusi ve o, roye asi ve aan”. Its recital during his India visit reduced Pandit Nehru to tears.

The point is lost if we treat them as Pakistani poets only and forget the larger message of politicians and their hubris is not confined to their country but has wider application in the region and especially now!

(27.09.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

Pakistan’s Mrs. Malaprop – courtesy Moni Mohsin (Column: Bookends LXXXII)

By Vikas Datta (08:31) 

Stock characters, based on a nearly universally understood stereotypical personalities, actions or manner of speech, can suddenly emerge in the most unlikely of places and being too well known for any original use, find their merit in satire. Like this Mrs. Malaprop incarnated in modern-day Lahore, whose exploits and sentiments are a skewering indictment of her class not only in her country, but are as easily transferable to a similar segment in its eastern neighbour, or with some changes, across the globe.

Pakistani journalist-turned-author Moni Mohsin (b.1963) is the progenitor of the well-off, but shallow and vacuous “Butterfly” who only wants a good time and expects everyone recognises her. We can imagine her indignant squeal at being asked to introduce herself: “What? What do you mean, ‘who am I?’ If you don’t know me than all I can say, baba, you must be some loser from outer space. Everyone knows me. All of Lahore, all of Karachi, all of Isloo – oho, baba, Islamabad – half of Dubai, half of London and all of Khan Market and all the nice, nice bearers in Imperial Hotel also…”

Derived from Mohsin’s newspaper column, “The Diary of a Social Butterfly” (2008) introduces Butterfly who lives in Lahore in “a big, fat kothi with a big, fat garden in Gulberg, which is where all the khandani, khaata-peeta types live”, is married to Janoo from a landed family but “very bore” for liking “bore things like reading-sheading” and who can be very “sarhial” (literally burnt, figuratively spoil-sport) at times – for her. They have a teenaged son Kulchoo, whose voice is getting “horse”.

Proud that her “bagground is not landed”, she went to Kinnaird College, “where all the rich illegible girls go while they are waiting to be snapped up” and is “very sophisty, smart and socialist”. So are her friends Mulloo, Flopsy, Furry and Twinkle, most of whose husbands are “bank defaulters but they are all very religious and upright otherwise”.

But Butterfly is not only a Pakistani version of Mrs. Malaprop, who ambled onstage in 1775 in Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and had her misuse of words to comic effect (“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”; “…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile”) immortalised as “malapropisms”.

In her mix of English, mangled English, and anglicised Urdu, Butterfly also offers a satirical view of Pakistan in the first dozen-odd years of the 21st century through an upper crust woman’s prism – though the brand of satire is the Horatian gentle, mild mockery, not the Juvenalian abrasive method.

It is achieved partly, by starting every monthly entry (from January 2001 to December 2007) with a serious national development, juxtapositioned with Butterfly’s activities – eg. February 2001: “Restoration of assemblies in March likely/Butterfly attends six parties in two days”. This is normally the practice till the ending when the assassination of Benazir Bhutto leaves our blithe spirit depressed too.

Butterfly flits back in “Tender Hooks” (2011) which has a different structure – daily entries and a specific plot – finding a suitable bride for her divorced cousin Jonkers after being emotionally blackmailed into the task by her maternal aunt. But Butterfly is not at her best with strains in her own marriage while her cousin has his own ideas. The headings of this account, beginning in end September 2009, give a flavour of what Pakistan is going through, without the parallel activity of our heroine, who ultimately proves that she does have a conscience and a good heart.

“The Return of the Butterfly” (2014) goes back to the original format – eg. March 2008: “Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif agree to form coalition government/Butterfly discovers Janoo’s favourite colour”). This shows her at the most hilariously dense – her husband wants a ‘green’ car and she proposes others before her son suggests the most environmentally viable way would be to retain the old car but use it less – leaving her aghast. “Father tau was already crack, now son is also following in his footsteps. It’s all to do with hereditary and jeans, I’m told… Some people inherit lands, some inherit Swiss bank accounts, some inherit kothis, others inherit factories and firms and political parties…. and what does my son inherit from his father? A cracked head.”

The Butterfly series, published by Random House India, are a wickedly comic satire but should not be let go at that only. It is satire’s unerring attribute that its target is far wider from what it appears to be. But do we have the courage to ascertain how much it concerns us?

(06.09.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)