Tag Archives: Pakistan

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market

Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market ♦

Khanna Market

The cover of a trader’s association booklet about Khanna Market from the 1990s.

Each of the four big markets in the quadrangle of land bound by Lodhi Road, Nehru Stadium, Aurobindo Marg and the railway line has its own special charm, from the leafy literary appeal of Jorbagh; to the sleepy specialty stores and restaurants of Lodhi Colony Market; to Mehar Chand’s mix of haute and hoi polloi.

But of all the neighbourhood shopping centres on that fringe of central Delhi where the colonial city ended and the refugee city began, the one I visit most often and find most endearing, is Khanna Market. Between the lofty imperial archways of Lodhi Colony and the scattered, built-over remnants of an older city—the Aliganj area, with its Shia graveyard of Karbala, and the Shah-e-Mardan dargah; and the 18th-century tomb of military commander Najaf Khan—Khanna Market provides a prismatic view of the moment when Delhi became the capital of newly independent India, born from the labour of Partition.  It is also immeasurably convenient for erranding.

The oldest and most famous inhabitant here is Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel, an unassuming South Indian joint with roots in the area going back to 1930, well before the market existed. The original Chidambaram, from the town of the same name in Cuddalore, was the cook of a cabinet minister transferred to Delhi. Chidambaram wanted to join the military, but was drafted instead to run a mess for the officer’s quarters at Lodhi Colony, newly built by the British as they cemented Delhi’s position as capital.

C. Kumar, who now runs the restaurant with his brother, says their father “brought idli-vada to Delhi”, and used to feed “100 bachelors”. According to him, the elder Chidambaram believed that “selling food is a sin.”  Over half a century later, the prices and flavours still induce gluttony. Faced with this  sweet trespass—idli encrusted with gritty red masala; golden vada threaded with onion; creamy dahi-vada topped with crunchy boondis, chillies and beetroot; lacy rava dosa folded over shredded coconut confetti or slathered with garlic paste—the loyal regulars demand their sin again and again.

Manmohan Arora, of Arora Store

Manmohan Arora of Arora Store

Chidambaram was one of the first to set up shop in Khanna Market when the area was developed for Partition refugees in the early 1950s, under the auspices of market namesake Mehar Chand Khanna, the politican who eventually headed the Department of Rehabilitation. At Arora General Store, a kirana dukan enlivened by a colourful selection of embroidered borders, Manmohan Arora recalls coming here with his family from Gujranwala in 1947. “We did footpath business also,” he says, “until we got the shop in 1957.”

Arora’s store is tucked away in a neglected crook of shops next to a tiny park across Najaf Khan Road and beyond a cluster of tentwallas, in the so-called “New Khanna Market”. His mine of memories about the market’s heyday include a the festivities of the passing Phoolwalon Ki Sair, the four large gates of Karbala, and a parade for a young Dara Singh;. Back then, it was “four bananas, one anna,” he says.

There are still cheap, filling thrills to be had though, starting from Rs 5 for boiled anda at wholesaler Malhotra Egg Sales. The chhola-kulcha seller behind Trilok paan stand is the most popular of several; sample at your peril the tandoori momos at car-o-bar friendly Peshawari, or the snacks at Ram Singh Bhoj, Krishan Sweets or Bangla Sweet Corner. Burning a bigger hole in the pocket is airconditioned North Indian-Chinjabi restaurant Hot Chimney, which has deep ties to tourist taxi drivers, who take advantage of the market’s free parking and eat the same food at the cut-price Dawat next door. Meanwhile, market stalwart Golden Bakery has a droolworthy selection of cookies, cakes and snackfoods.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

The Hakim may or may not be in.

For home baking needs, there are two chakkis, and the woebegone but chatty owner of Chabbra Floor Mills (sic) was once kind enough to grind almond flour for me on request. (The smaller Bansi Mills is more efficient, but less accommodating.) The meat shops include a reliable Green Chick Chop, but  it’s really Khanna Market’s well-stocked and reasonable produce stores that tip the scales in its favour compared to other markets. My go-to is Puri Brothers, which carries everything from bamboo stalks to banana flowers, and whose owners  provides cooking suggestions for unfamiliar seasonal vegetables like fuzzy “barsati karela”. There are also two decent wine and beer counters.

Other market gems include the famous Devan’s South Indian Coffee and Tea in New Khanna Market, which has perfumed the environs with the aroma of roasting coffee since 1962. Bhatia Musicals, run by the knowledgeable Sandeep Bhatia, is packed to the roof with lustworthy imported guitars, classical instruments, and technical equipment (don’t miss the giant vinyl record on the ceiling). A bit further off the beaten track is a mysterious staircase leading to the Bareilly Surma Centre, an eye clinic run by Hakim M. Riasat Qadri, who shuttles between Bareilly and Delhi ministering to clients of every faith. The market’s three opticians  and half-a-dozen chemist shops supplement these services. (The hakim’s surma is purely medicinal.)

Khanna Market’s cloth shops sell everything from blankets to bolts of fabric, snugly fitted next to tailors with decades of experience in the crisp lines of sarkari office-wear. Keep an eye out for phulkari dupattas, fifty-rupee blouses, and sharp, pinstripe suits, as well as a dozen tailors, some little more than sewing-machines-in-the-wall, others part of full service shops that also sell fabric. There’s even a cute little dry-cleaning service, Roxy, that advertises four-hour service.

 

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

There are cosmetic shops, a mehendi-walla, at least two places to get your hair cut, a photo studio, shoe shops and appliance dealers. One of several textbook and stationary shops, Adarsh Pustak Bhandar displays both Raj Comics and Akbar-Birbal stories. Sahib Bhai Patang Wala’s shiny hole-in-the-wall is currently stuffed with Holi supplies.

Despite this abundance, Khanna Market is relatively peaceful, perhaps because it’s still the sum of its parts, not a destination. The shopkeepers wouldn’t mind a bit more business though. Kamal Kishore of Kamal Cloth House, which he opened on Republic Day, 1966, told me that his stock of Vardhaman yarn brings in knitters from far and wide in certain months, but the rest of the year is lean. A stone’s throw from the Swacch Bharat-supported Lodhi Colony street art initiative, the little park outside his store, which the shopkeepers once “maintained beautifully with trees and flowers” is now a tentwalla dumping ground.

Sitting in his loft office above a trinket-stuffed Archies, Ravinder Grover, president of the Khanna Market Trader’s Association, told me about low-key “revamp” plans. A few shops have constructed second storeys, and others have the NDMC’s approval to do so. It’s unlikely though that Khanna Market will see anything like what one shopkeeper called “the hijacking by Khan Market people” of Mehar Chand, which is largely unauthorised. According to Grover, Khanna Market has long survived by catering to the needs of civil servants for things of use. Grover said his father, Chamanlal, fed breakfast to “500 to 600 regular customers” at his restaurant in Lodhi Colony Market. Grover’s ran from 1945 to 1974, he said, with milestones like Delhi’s first jukebox and an early “expresso” machine.

Enjoying life at Chidambaram's New Madras Hotel.

At Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel.

Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel 7 Khanna Market, 2461-7702. Meal for two Rs 500.

DCCWS and DSIDC Wine & Beer Shops 80 and 31 Khanna Market.

Devan’s South Indian Coffee & Tea 131 Khanna Market, 2469-4467.

Golden Bakery 101 Khanna Market, 2469-4314.

Kamal Cloth House 125 Khanna Market, 2469-1872.

Jagdish Studio 91 Khanna Market, 2464-7700.

Malhotra Egg Sales 31A Khanna Market, 98919-72531.

Puri Brothers 10 Khanna Market, 2464-0549.

Roxy, 45 Khanna Market, 98190-40769

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, March 23, 2016.

 

Published: March 24, 2016

Crash of Civilisations

City of Spies ♦

By Sorayya Khan
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, 239 pp., Rs 295 (PB)
ISBN 978-93-83064-78-6

city of spies

Pakistan was scorchingly hot during the summer of 1977, the narrator of City of Spies recalls: “the newspapers were filled with worry that rain might never come”. And the persistent Cold War chill in relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union only meant that the politics of the subcontinent were simmering too. A day after the American Embassy in Islamabad celebrated its country’s independence, things finally boiled over. As some of the worst floods in its history hit Karachi, the papers reported that General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had imprisoned Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused of election rigging and murdering political opponents, and declared martial law. The General’s photograph was splashed across the front pages, with his eyes “cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride”.

In the decades since then, historians have researched, in depth, the transformation of Pakistan under the eleven years of Zia’s rule, as well as substantiated many of the open secrets about the international influences that allowed his regime to flourish. Several novelists have also attempted to unearth the gritty truth of life from beneath the heavy monolith of dictatorship, to describe how things changed, incrementally but irrevocably, as the State and military became further entangled with religious extremist groups and foreign superpowers. In his satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohammad Hanif channeled the comedic voice of a fictional junior air force officer to retell the story of Zia’s death – and suspected assassination – in a 1988 plane crash. In her very different debut, In the City by the Sea (1998), the London-based author Kamila Shamsie described the cost of Zia’s ruthlessness on the life of a child growing up in Karachi.

Sorayya Khan’s third novel combines elements of both these seminal books: her first-person narrator is an 11-year-old girl, Aliya Shah (rather unfortunately characterised as “a different Malala” by Amitava Kumar in a cover blurb). Aliya is the “half-and-half ” youngest child of a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who believes that “being white is… being whole. And knowing it”. She is also keen enough to understand that her mother has become “brown” by “being married to my father… though, of course, you couldn’t tell by looking”.

In an essay on “The March of the Novel Through History” (Kenyon College, 1998), Amitav Ghosh, whose novel The Shadow Lines (1988) resonates in the pages City of Spies, wrote that to describe one’s environment, “one must somehow distance oneself from it… one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation”.

Like Ghosh’s landmark novel, City of Spies is a story of dislocation with diasporic dimensions, freighted with questions of national belonging. But unlike The Shadow Lines, or Kamila Shamsie’s sweepingly international Burnt Shadows (2009), Khan’s book is rooted in a particular place and time. Her characters do not range too far and wide, even if the causes and consequences of the things that happen to them in the 30 months following Zia’s coup spiral out from Islamabad, the titular city of spies, to places like Teheran and Cazenovia, New York.

Aliya is certainly a character at odds with her environment, but her moment of dislocation occurs as prologue, before the story begins. The Shah family is uprooted from Europe when Aliya’s father, bound by a patriotic sense of duty, leaves his United Nations job to head a Pakistani government agency. The family settles in what Aliya’s grandfather (a protagonist of Khan’s previous book, Five Queen’s Road, set in the aftermath of Partition) calls the “fake” city of Islamabad, a city that pales in comparison to his beloved, history-soaked Lahore.

Aliya’s self-conscious thoughts about her identity, and her observations, are a useful lens through which to view the rippling effects of the General’s political machinations in the public and domestic spheres of Pakistan’s capital. She is mostly able to keep the two halves of her life – the Shah household and the American School where she studies – separate. But as a sensitive pre-teen, she is also aware of the tension flowing through Islamabad’s wide, empty streets. In her eyes, the city is a playground for several strange games. There’s the competition for dominance between the cars marked by Soviet and American diplomatic license plates, surrounded by the clamour of a bevy of less identifiable plates from smaller countries, the pawns of this board. From the vantage of her seat on an incongruous yellow school bus, Aliya also has a ringside view of the spitting game the American boys play, targeting hapless Pakistani passers-by. Aliya cringes, but is unable to stand up to her schoolmates.“A small part of me believed that Pakistanis deserved to be spit upon,” she remarks. “I wasn’t proud of this, of course…”

These road games provide a neat dramatic setup for the tragedy at the centre of the novel, an event that causes Aliya’s discomfort to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. Hanif, the young, Bhutto-obsessed son of the family servant, Sadiq, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Aliya discovers that the car was driven by the mother of her American best friend, the accident becomes conflated in her mind with the fate of Pakistan. Her personal loss – sharpened by guilt at her inability to have communicated with Hanif when he was alive – becomes a political one. “With the hit-and-run accident on an Islamabad street, Anne Simon had behaved in her personal life the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted without, for the most part, suffering any consequences.”

Khan writes this death with heartbreaking subtlety, keeping it from lapsing into a cliché plot twist by revealing the details of the accident to Aliya in bits and pieces, as the adults around her attempt to censor the information. City of Spies is not a particularly long novel, but Khan’s tight rein on its pace and artful ratcheting up and down of action make the consequences of the accident appear to slowly unfurl in the characters’ lives, even as the months pass swiftly by. (There are also many lovely distractions along the way, such as the juxtaposition of various cuisines: Aliya’s mother’s European baking; the imported junk food from the commissary stockpiled at her friend’s house; and Sadiq’s cooking, which makes her house smell “like Pakistan” to an American visitor.)

As Aliya begins to view Hanif’s death, compounded by Bhutto’s hanging, in geopolitical terms, she begins to see herself as Pakistani, despite being alienated by language and class from most of her fellow citizens. “Knowing who’d killed Hanif made the spaces in my life fall into each other like collapsing sand tunnels. It would be impossible to separate them, reshape them and restore them to the way they had been.”

In an attempt to give the accident some meaning, Aliya begins to secretly learn Urdu, with Sadiq’s help. Their friendship, built over convincing, though halting, dialogue, is just one of the tenderly drawn relationships between Khan’s memorable, sympathetic characters. In a way, her simple but emotionally packed story is an attempt to depoliticise the personal, or at least to find hope in the power of communication between two people to subvert the structures of power in which they exist.

It takes years for Aliya to understand that learning a language is only one aspect of this sort of communication. After a riot, spurred by suspicions of American involvement in a siege in Mecca, results in the burning of the American Embassy, a rift forms between Sadiq and the family. At the time, Aliya thinks of the riot as another kind of game: “I was suddenly reminded of Klackers, the game of two balls suspended on a string. When one ball hit the other, the klick-klack sent it careening. Countries were connected to each other the same way, which made our world a very scary place.”

Aliya’s thoughts – and the event itself– recall the reflections on a different riot, on the other side of the subcontinent, by the narrator of The Shadow Lines as he tries to “learn the meaning of distance” while drawing circles on maps. Attempting to “imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle” that could bring people at its centre “pouring out into the streets”, he comes up with “none, that is, other than war”.

“My parents tell me that we are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them,” the grownup Aliya tells us in the prologue, “The war of my story, the war we shared long ago, whether we knew it or not, is the Cold War.” Riots, the civilian violence often engendered by war, are real and inexplicable —“to look for words” beyond the simple description of these events “would be to give them meaning… a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” cautions the narrator of The Shadow Lines. But Khan also wants to suggest the possibility of a thaw; of reconciliation through communication, however imperfect. In her story, the city may be full of spies, and people prone to making mistakes, but they are also capable of forgiveness and surprising humanity. In her attempt to square Pakistan’s dire news headlines with the minutiae of life, there is a plea for giving people the benefit of the doubt, for faith in sanity even in the face of madness.

Originally published in the September-November 2015 issue of Biblio.

Published: November 9, 2015

Going off script

A cross-border blog spreads the word of South Asian literature ♦

Shiraz Hassan

Shiraz Hassan

In India, Pakistani writers in English are considered common property. Their books are often published here first, and writers like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam frequent our literary festivals. But when it comes to contemporary Hindi or Urdu fiction crossing the border, the script barrier can be more difficult to surmount. Shiraz Hassan, an Islamabad journalist with the Urdu daily Jehan Pakistan, decided to start transliterating and posting Urdu and Hindi stories online last August. He told us about the challenges and rewards of running Kahani Khazana, a literary blog in the two languages.

How did you come up with the idea for a Hindi-Urdu exchange?
The idea developed when I started studying Hindi in Punjab University, Lahore. In Pakistan, though many people understand Hindi – as Bollywood films and TV soaps are quite popular – Devanagari is considered “alien”. As far as the film or TV industry is concerned, it isn’t an issue, but for literature lovers it’s the biggest hurdle. So I learned Devanagari and tried to read Hindi stories. After reading “Naukar Ki Kameez” by Vinod Kumar Shukla in Urdu, I thought more Hindi stories should be translated. So, I just started, keeping in mind that there is a treasure of stories written in Hindi and Urdu, both in India and Pakistan, by well-known, lesser-known and even unknown authors. Most of these stories are a mirror image of the prevailing circumstances of the people living in the two countries, which comprise a common South Asian culture. The readers may appreciate that there are barely a handful of words that need actual translation.

Why short stories?
We deliberately chose stories and not poetry, as poetry can still be shared through mushairas. In this regard Ilmana Fasih, an India-born friend based in Canada helped me kick off this project.

What were the technical difficulties of setting up the blog?
Managing a blog in Urdu is very hectic, as Windows systems do not support Urdu script well. We have to use Unicode scripting, which is hard to read for some. People suggested using JPEGs of the Urdu in Nastaliq, which is easy to read. But then there were problems in designing the web page. In Pakistan, Hindi typing software is not available, so I have to rely on Google transliterate. For Urdu I use Urdu InPage software, then convert the text into Unicode for web. The idea is to put the same story in both Devanagari and Urdu in a single post.

What are your editorial criteria?
The basic criterion is writers who started writing post-Partition. Most people in India and Pakistan know about Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chandra, Ismat Chughtai and others. But what happened after that – how prose literature developed in India and Pakistan – is a big gap. In Pakistan, literature about Partition is just one aspect. We saw the fall of Dhaka, martial law, political turmoil and terrorism – all these have their effects on literature. What Hindi writers wrote post-Partition, and are writing nowadays, we have no idea. When I got the chance to read the Hindi stories, I found that they are very much like ours. The stories I picked for Kahani Khazana are mostly narratives of our society – the political turmoils, poverty; few of them are related to India-Pakistan relations. After reading Wajahat Asghar’s “Aag”, one cannot identify whether it is a Pakistani story or an Indian one.

Who are the authors so far?
I selected Rasheed Amjad, Mirza Athar Baig and Muhammad Mansha Yaad – renowned and well-established Urdu writers, but not many people know them outside Pakistan. Selecting Hindi stories was a hurdle. Several Indian friends suggested names. I found the short stories of Wajahat Asghar, Vishnu Prabhakar, Usha Priyamvada, Anindita Basu, Sushant Supriya and Anand very catchy and relevant.

Did you consciously decide not to include English translations?
The prominent names of Urdu and Hindi literature have been translated into English. Contemporary literature has also been translated, and many Indian and Pakistani writers write in English. My idea was to explore Hindi and Urdu contemporary literature without killing the taste of the language. If you are reading a Hindi story in Urdu, it is almost 100 per cent what the writer wrote and wanted to say; it’s just like reading the original text.

Do you think Hindi (and Urdu) in India and Urdu in Pakistan face similar challenges?
In Pakistan, Urdu literature is being ignored at several levels. Though Urdu is compulsory until 12th grade, it is not a breadwinner language like English. But there are still many writers who are writing in Urdu. I can say that Urdu is facing almost the same kinds of challenges Hindi is facing in India. At the recent Lahore Literary Festival, almost all the sessions were in English, most guests were English-writing and speaking, and just a couple of token sessions were dedicated to Urdu.

Do you know other online cultural initiatives that connect people across borders?
The Internet has opened wide the doors on both sides of the border. Sometimes, some random person messages you, saying that he read your articles and it’s his first time interacting with a Pakistani. It happens. Social media has provided this opportunity for people to share thoughts. Aman ki Asha [The Times of India and Jang Group’s campaign] also played a good role in this regard. Other than that, Pul-e-Jawan (across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Romancing the Border and Folk Punjab are online groups that are playing a commendable role.

How do you plan to keep Kahani Khazana going?
Kahani Khazana is running on a volunteer basis. I am translating more stories, Ilmana is helping, and some friends proofread the Hindi. I would like to include Punjabi stories also, as Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi, and the Gurmukhi script is used in India. It’s just a matter of time until you see Punjabi stories in both scripts at Kahani Khazana as well.

Kahani Khazana is online at www.kahanikhazana.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 12, 2013

Charred minars

Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie surveys the world from Guantanamo to Peshawar in an interview ♦

kamila-shamsie

(Photo: Mark Pringle)

Extending from the callousness of the Nagasaki bombing to the compassion of a spider whose web hid the Prophet Mohammed, Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, won praise from critics for its scope and detailing. Shamsie’s characters survive (or succumb to) three historic tragedies, travelling from Japan to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York over six decades. Despite its peripatetic plot, Burnt Shadows is tightly written, with rich relationships. It is a provocative rendering of the strong forces of history and the resilience of love. While Shamsie’s novel deals with political events and though her home country (she now lives in the UK and the US) is embroiled in conflict, she affirmed in her email interview that she is, above all, a novelist.

Where did the idea for starting the story – with a Japanese woman as its central character and the Nagasaki bombing as its central event – come from?
I had a vague idea of writing something around the Indo-Pak nuclear tests and/or the threat of nuclear war in 2002. And my central character was going to be a Pakistani whose grandmother was Japanese and had survived the bombing in 1945. This would give the character a different way of thinking about a nuclear age to most of the people around her. But very soon after I had that idea – and before I could start to develop it in any way – I thought, who is this Japanese character who survives a nuclear holocaust and how does she end up in Pakistan? And I knew the story had to follow her through the years before getting to her grandson. As it so happened, the plot (as it always does with me) twisted away from its original notion so there was no grandson at all, and Indo-Pak nuclear confrontations become only a very small segment of the book.

Did it feel like a brave step to you, to render American and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan so explicitly?
I don’t actually say very much in the book about America’s political relationship with Pakistan beyond the fact that America and Pakistan worked closely together during the Afghan war of the 1980s… I don’t think this is a disputed historical fact. That both Pakistan and America were following their own agendas and were quite suspicious of each other doesn’t seem particularly controversial either – though for specifics on the US-Pak relationship I relied on two books: Afghanistan – The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin and Ghost Warriors by Steve Coll. And no, I don’t think of myself as being particularly courageous; and I don’t think I’m committing to one version of a political truth. Within the novel different characters have different ways of viewing history and politics.

Burnt-Shadows-by-Kamila-S-002The novel ends in 2002, with the fallout of the event (9/11) that bring us to present day. How do you see the present geopolitical situation in light of the events of Burnt Shadows?
Well, the novel starts with someone about to be shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. I’m glad that’s no longer something that’s likely to happen! So that’s one good thing. But the whole War on Terror world, with its accompanying rhetoric and fear, is still very much among us – and likely to remain so for a while. And the longer it goes on, it seems the more people both from within “Islam” and within “the West” believe that the other is intent on destroying them. We are still in that situation. I wish we weren’t.

Do you see any way for “the world to stop being such a terrible place”?
Those words are spoken by a character in a moment of deep despair. It doesn’t reflect my view, which is that the world is never only one thing. Look in one direction you see terror, look somewhere else you’ll find hope. A few days ago in Pakistan, it seemed there was nothing but terrible news to be found. And then just recently, the two-year-old lawyers’ movement for the independence of the judiciary ended in victory – it’s a reminder that civil society has a role to play, and can take on even the most powerful.

Where do you see the possibility for redemption in Burnt Shadows?
Near the end of Burnt Shadows there’s talk of “the spider dance”, which the two central families engage in with each other. In one version, it’s full of betrayal and bloodshed; in another version it is characterised by love and friendship, and support.

Does the “promise of democracy” apply to Pakistan?
If I’ve learnt anything about Pakistan, it’s that it is an unpredictable place. As for “the promise of democracy” – well, democracy is a deeply flawed system of governance. But it’s so much better than any other option that we really have to find a way to stick with it.

Burnt Shadows, Penguin, Rs. 425.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2009.

Published: April 17, 2009

Fragments of beauty

Attiya Shaukat at Anant Art Gallery ♦

Bits & Pieces II

Bits & Pieces II

Lahore-based Attiya Shaukat’s miniature-style paintings on view at Anant Art Gallery are sensitive and intelligent works. Like several Pakistani artists nowadays, Shaukat draws on contemporary themes and symbols in her miniature paintings. Her work stands out, though, for its experimental montaging of symbols and compositions and for her inspired themes.

Shaukat was admitted to the Lahore College of Arts for textile design, but once she saw the miniature paintings done by senior students, she said, “I decided to switch to that medium within my first year.” According to her, the number of students concentrating on this subject is on the rise, as is the interest in modern miniatures both in Pakistan and India.

The paintings in this exhibition roughly correspond to two themes. The bulk of the works are expositions of the show’s title In the Flick of a Second. These paintings stem from a spinal injury that Shaukat suffered in 2003, which left her legs paralysed. Like Frida Kahlo before her, Shaukat turned her physical pain into fragmented visual beauty, and these paintings are a record of the various aspects of her injury, surgery and recovery.

Recurring images tie these paintings together. Bones, nerves, steel, feet and flower petals create a personal symbolic language that nevertheless communicates her pain and recovery with visceral clarity. A series of paintings titled “First Steps” are extremely simple – in one, there are just four feet foraying onto the corners of a page. Yet, the simplicity also reflects Shaukat’s struggle to return to painting. “I had to learn to hold a brush all over again,” she said.

The motif of a five-petalled flower with one discoloured or blackened petal becomes a symbol of deformity, useless limbs, and a youth cut short by fate. In other paintings, Shaukat uses petals to symbolise the unacknowledged “delicacy of the spine” and the restrictions of the human body. “Chained” is a self-portrait in which the figure’s torso is held immobile by a Kangra-school flower that looks like an unravelling spine. A ghosted chain roots the waist to a finely rendered blue petal, which anchors the elements of the composition.

Other paintings in this series foreground the process of surgery and recovery. In “Within Brackets”, steel girders frame a straight rod in the bottom two-thirds of the painting, while two backwards pointing feet peek out of a panel on the top third. Thick-yarn stitching adds to the composition, and a painted crimson petal stretches from a thread with a smattering of red drops around it. In other paintings, an arm of a fan, seen as if from a bed, turns into a curved knife. In “Don’t You Dare Open It”, two panels are stitched together down the centre, recreating the tension of taut pain and the uncertainty of surgery.

There is no doubt that these works convey strong emotions with a mature subtlety and delicacy. But it is the few works that are not related to the title theme that really showcase Shaukat’s artistic capabilities and breadth of thought. In these paintings, Shaukat explores political and societal themes, as well as stories taken from illustrated manuscripts of the Mughal era, such as the Akbarnama. Collectively titled “Bits and Pieces”, a few of these works depict the Iraq War. The strength of these works is the cubist fragmenting that Shaukat introduces into her miniature figurative paintings, which create puzzle-like compositions. In one painting, George Bush’s face peers over shard-like vignettes of chained men in traditional miniature style; in another, bones and knives fade into upturned bowls and cuts of cloth.

A series of paintings inspired by red-light districts show that, besides personal and universal suffering, Shaukat has an eye for depicting the various pleasures of life as well. A lusciously red street scene with electric lights and the sign “Broadway” is suspended over a miniature-style female figure reclining on a couch, which is sliding away in sections. In another work, dancing girls are painted with a tender delicacy to highlight their beauty and grace; at the same time, the composition is unsettled by the jigsaw sections and disconnected limbs.

These varied paintings are the real indication of Shaukat’s resilience and ability to move on. But more than that, they demonstrate a rich imagination and a sense of curiosity, which have influenced both her choice of subjects and her style and, we hope, will continue to do so.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007.

Published: May 1, 2007