For many years now, we’ve had a Christmas tradition and that is to watch the film Bridget Jones’s Diary during the week before the Big Day (as it is known in old-fashioned Urdu, despite being a very short day in the most literal sense). I’m admitting this out loud as I’ve found out that some of you have similar addictions too (which you, like me, prefer to call traditions). Don’t worry, this is not a review of that film, adapted from a book by Helen Fielding of the same name, which in its turn is based on Pride and Prejudice.
The film stars Renée Zellweger in the title role, Colin Firth as Mr D’Arse-y and Salman Rushdie as someone seeming like the best guide to direct you to the closest lavatory. Also featuring Jeffrey Archer as a writer of books, which are “not bad”, B J’s Diary is full of evident and obscure literary references. One of these obscure references has been artfully hidden in the name of a Kurdish freedom-fighter, Kafir Aghani. Aghani, you see, means ‘songs’ in Arabic and Kitab al-Aghani or Book of Songs is a 10th century collection of Arabic songs and poems compiled by the historian Abu al-Faraj Isfahani for the caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aghani Aghani, it turns out, is also the name of a Lebanese music channel). Nonetheless, and despite this subtle cultural reference, I’ve always found the first half of Mr Aghani’s name strangely amusing. Kafir (not to be confused with kaffir, which is a type of lime) is an Arabic word commonly used for an ‘infidel’ or ‘unbeliever’ and, as a very strong term in Islamic societies, it would be a highly implausible choice for a real person’s name. Kafir Aghani’s name, therefore, curiously translates as ‘Infidel Songs’. I am sure that Ms Fielding chose the name being fully aware of the irony.
And while we’re at ironic names, if you allow me one more digression, let me finish this piece with a word on the ‘Begums’, the name of a Bangladeshi family in Zadie Smith’s brilliant White Teeth. Begum is the female equivalent of bey/beg (Mr, sir) in Turkic languages, and means lady. In cultures where the concept of a name shared by an entire family is not as common as in the west, it is not unusual for a woman to have a surname like ‘begum‘. Thus the Begum or the Lady family would be a very implausible name for an entire clan. But again, I’m sure, Ms Smith must have thought all this before she picked the name.
There is a secret name for God, known as ‘Esm-e Azam‘. It holds miraculous properties, according to many adherents of Sufism, but is only known by an elite few. Attar of Nishapur, a great thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet, narrates a fable on this secret name in Mosibat-nameh or The Book of Strife:
‘Someone asked a madman, “Do you know the most powerful name of God?”
“The most powerful divine name is bread,” he replied. “But you are not allowed to say that.”
“Shame on you, o fool! How can God be named bread!”
“I wandered around for forty days and nights during the drought in Nishabur,” he said. “I did not see a single mosque open in all that time. Nor did I hear the call to prayer. There were only shouts for bread. Thence I understood that the most powerful name of God is bread.’
Elsewhere Attar writes in The Conference of Birds:
‘Egypt was hit by a severe drought. People were dying of hunger. The few left with a little life had been forced to eat the dead. A madman, who witnessed all this, looked up at the sky and shouted, “O Lord of the world! Why did you create so many when you could not provide for them?”’
Clearly Attar is hinting that you need to embrace your mad side in order to be privy to the divine secrets (although let’s not overburden the NHS mental health services).
Like most people I have heard my share of conspiracy theories. Some of them try to explain the origin of our species or the flatness of our globe. Some others attempt to refute Armstrong’s big leap on the moon or claim that Israel is behind the propagation of pesky poisonous vaccines. Admittedly, not all of them emanate from unscientific or irrational mind but some are more outlandish than others. I found the one I am relating here particularly bizarre. Its inventor attempts to explain the extinction of vultures in the Indus valley.
But before that I’d like to recount my first close encounter with the formidable giant bird, in fact, with a full horde of them. I was about eight years of age. My brother and I were on our way back from the Quran school when we noticed the gigantic shadows above us. A neighbouring family had dumped a dead donkey in the desolate wasteland behind their house, which had attracted the army of vultures hovering above our heads. We ran home shouting war-cries we had learnt from Conan the Adventurer. A couple of hours later, when we ventured out again, our hearts pounding with excitement and fright, the gluttonous gypses had already turned the carcass into a skeleton.
Fast forward to twenty years later and you would be lucky to find a single vulture in the entire country. Some people say that it is due to the toxic weed-killers applied on large scale on crops, which affected the meat of the local fauna to such a degree that the entire species of vultures, those natural cleaners of environment, was gradually wiped out. I cannot remember whether it was a wedding ceremony or a funeral in my neighbourhood, but certainly an awkward social gathering, where K. Khan, who happened to be seated on my table, queried me suddenly whether I had noticed that all the vultures had vanished from the skies.
“You know why it is?” he enquired.
“I’m not too sure…Erm.”
“Well, it’s Israel, innit?”
“Of course. They’ve sold all the vultures to Israel.”
“And what does Israel need them for?”
“To train them to crash into fighter planes, in case they have a war against Iran,” he explained patiently.
“Wow, that’s pretty whacky even by the standards of conspiracy theories,” I thought. It did not, however, surprise me how like many other anti-semitic conspiracy theories, I’d heard before, the road always led back to Israel.
Are you a great man or woman who likes to throw aphorisms and quotable quotes around? If so, do you ever get annoyed or upset or angry when someone attributes a saying to you that you didn’t utter yourself, especially when such a saying is banal or vulgar or perhaps just not in your style? Do you think Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi or Confucius would get irked if they were informed about the amount of atrocious banalities being attributed to them today on the democratic internet? It seems that Ghalib, one of the best Urdu poets, did when people (never as talented as he) wrote poems in his name and somehow smuggled them into his Divan (a book of poetic works). I have a letter by Ghalib open before me from March 1858, which offers an unusual glimpse into the poet’s life – it is Ghalib swearing. However, it is still Ghalib, the epitome of the Mughal refinement and culture, and thus even the profanities sound poetic. In Ghalib’s own words:
Kitne shirin hein tere lab ke raqib
Galian kha ke bemaza na hua
(How sweet are your lips that
My rival did not even taste bitterness in your obscenities)
Here I am transliterating and translating some interesting bits of this unusual letter:
“Ye ash’ar jo tum ne bheje hein kis walad-uz-zina ne dakhil kar diye hein?…. Khulasa ye hei ke jis mufsid ke ye sh’er hein us ke baap aur dada aur pardada par la’nat aur vo haftad pusht tak walad-ul-haram. Is ke siva aur kya likhoon?”
“Which child of extra-marital congress has added the verses [to my Divan] that you have sent me? … In short, curses on the father and the grandfather and the great-grandfather of whosoever the corrupted man was who fabricated these verses and he is a child of illicit relations for soixante-dix [Ghalib uses the Persian word here, which may aptly be translated in French] generations. What else can I write?”
On another instance, Ghalib seems to show a rare insight into the conventions of cursing. The story goes that Ghalib once received a letter by an opponent, which was full of swearwords. Instead of exploding in a rage, he told a student who was present there that the writer lacked the etiquette of swearing. “The owl [idiot] does not even know how to swear. One does not dishonour a 72-year-old man’s mother. If you want to upset a child, swear about his mother, if you want to vex a young man, swear about his wife and if you have to offend an old man, swear about his daughter.”
Pakpattan (Sacred River-Bank) is a city in Punjab, famous for the shrine of a 12th century Sufi, Baba Farid, more commonly known as Ganj-e Shakar (Treasure of Sugar). The legend goes that a merchant once passed through Baba’s city with a caravan of camels laden with sugar. When Baba asked the merchant what his camels were carrying, he mockingly replied, “salt,” and upon reaching his destination, discovered that the sugar on his camels had turned into salt. The merchant hurried back, the legend continues, to apologise to Baba, who magnanimously turned the salt back into sugar.
Baba’s shrine has two large gates, Nuri Darvaza or Gate of Light and Bihishti Darvaza or Paradise Gate. There is a common belief among the faithful that whoever passes through the latter will have their sins (however grave they may be) washed away, thus ensuring an entry to paradise. There is a caveat (like in most patriarchal cultures): no woman is allowed to pass through the gate, or even enter the shrine. The rule was changed, however, to allow the late prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in the shrine. As elsewhere, it is generally one rule for one and another for the rest.
The gate remains closed for most of the year and is only open during the death anniversary of the Saint. This narrow opening to the paradise attracts throngs of believers to the fabled threshold. In 2011, 27 men died and over a hundred were injured during a stampede at the door to paradise. At least they died with the consolation of a blissful afterlife.
“She was eight feet tall, so dazzlingly beautiful that you could not fix your eyes on her for more than a few seconds. I was returning late from a wedding on my motorbike, Princess, when I saw her standing alone near a cemetery. She asked me in eloquent Urdu to give her a lift and for some reason, I could not say no. After a while, I noticed that the back wheel was growing heavy. I stopped to look and noticed that her feet were turned backwards and I instantly realised that she was a chureyl (demon).” Thus claimed the majority of the (allegedly) true stories that the readers used to send to the Sunday edition of Akhbar-e Jahan (World News). After skimming through the pictures of brightly-dressed socialites located at the heart of that colourful magazine, I would eagerly fly to the segment redolent with the stories of supernatural.
I never questioned the widespread occurrence of the inexplicable, eerie phenomena, scattered everywhere around me. My aunts had a little chest in which they kept the auburn bark of a tree, which they used as an intimidatory device sometimes. “Eat your greens or the djinn (genie) of the chest will be very angry.” There was an abandoned house in our neighbourhood with a starved acacia tree peeping over one of the walls and everyone in my class knew that it was one of the favourite hotspots of the local djinns. A haunted house was known locally as a heavy house or a house with sayah or shadow.
Around that time one of my neighbours with a repute of playing hooky, started having fits, during which he would swear like a heathen in a very deep voice. After regular doctors proved to be incapable of diagnosing his condition, a spiritual amil (agent) was recommended to the family. A drowning man clutches at a straw, as the saying goes. The helpless family took Shizo to the spiritual sage, who straightaway declared that the lad was possessed by djinns. “He urinated on one of their kids under a tree and they are taking their revenge.” He took a dramatic pause before continuing, “I can cure him but that will require the sacrifice of a billy goat. A black one!” For some odd reason, all witch doctors demanded a black he-goat as the compensation for their labours. A few months and at least half a dozen black goats later, Shizo stopped having fits, when his elder brother suddenly discovered a relation between the occurrence of his fits and some exceptionally tricky school tests.
I have lived in the west for over a decade now, where supernatural is resurrected every year as a part of the feast of halloween. I sometimes wonder if there are still any heavy houses in the east and whether men still ride with gorgeous demons in desolate suburbs.
One of the regular visitors to my childhood home was, I remember vividly, a middle-aged woman who talked ‘funny’ and collected litter from every household in our street. To this day I don’t know her name and doubt that anyone else in my family (or for that matter, any other family in my street) did either. Her visits were categorically brief and she rarely stopped to chit-chat. Nonetheless, we kept a special teacup for her – in case she would ever want to stay for a cuppa one day. The thing with this special cup was that it was never used by anyone else (or by her, as far as I can remember). At some point, I discovered that our rubbish-collector, like all the other rubbish-collectors, sweepers or sewage-cleaners in the city, was Christian. Now I don’t know whether it was their profession or their being non-Muslim that the cleaners of the city had to be served tea in special cups. It could be both – but there was certainly an idea of ‘dirtiness’ attached to them. That was my first encounter with Christians.
Later, when I went to the high school, our religious studies teacher told us that it was forbidden to greet Christians (or any other non-Muslims) in the prescribed religious way (salam). “Do not say ‘salam aleikom‘ to them unless they do it first,” he advised. I found out that their forefathers – who had allegedly come from the untouchable caste of Hinduism – had converted at the hands of British missionaries in the colonial times – perhaps to escape the injustices of the Hindu caste system. Unlike the majority of people in my city, Christians or Massihis did not speak Lahnda but an eastern dialect of Punjabi – so they must have migrated from somewhere in the eastern Punjab – perhaps after the Partition to run away from the bloodshed.
There was a separate neighbourhood and a special cemetery for Christians, with the abodes of both living and dead being adorned with crosses. The only time I visited one of their homes was with one of my friends, R. He was an employee of the city municipality as a clerk in the sewerage department, and thus had many Christians as his acquaintances. “I might partake in some wine-tasting,” he warned me before we stepped into the home of two of his colleagues. “You’re welcome to join us.” Christians were exempted from the alcohol ban that affected Muslims in Pakistan. The men greeted us reverently – out of respect for their boss or our religion, I cannot be sure – and took us to a cot in the shady verandah. The walls of the Massihi home were decorated with the kitschy and gaudy portraits of Mary and other Catholic icons. “Please, Khan sahib,” one of the men brought a bottle of wine and a glass for my friend, leaving me to wonder whether they too had a special glass for their Muslim visitors.