A Fleeting Encounter with Salman Rushdie

A shorter version of this post was originally published here at The Guardian



Image for Salman Rushdie - Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

So a few days ago Salman Rushdie actually walked up to me and said “Let me sign this book for you !”

To be fair, a few minutes earlier my friend Garima and I had shown up uninvited, outside his office, just as he was leaving. After he politely requested us to visit him the following week, we found ourselves waiting with Mr.Rushdie besides the elevator, which needless to say, was in itself quite a surreal experience. We obliquely tried to look busy, babbling all kinds of nonsense among ourselves, just so that we wouldn’t look stupid in front of him.

This is when he saw me holding a copy of his book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights and was thoughtful enough to walk over with a pen in his hand, to sign it. “That’s a very unusual way to spell Zeynab !”, he commented with an immediate familiarity to my name as I spelled it out for him, before moving on to sign Garima’s copy of Midnight’s Children. To state the obvious we were floored not only by this gesture but also his humility in reaching out to two ostensible graduate students, who had just mustered enough courage to walk up to him moments earlier.

We had chanced upon the idea of visiting Mr. Rushdie quite accidentally, when one fine day Professor Suketu Mehta casually mentioned in class how Mr. Rushdie had complained to him once that no one bothered to visit him during his office hours. Following Professor Mehta’s encouragement to ‘just walk up to him’, also being edged on by the fact that the possibility of ever being able to speak face-to-face with Mr. Rushdie in his office in the future  was almost next to none,  we then came up with a plan for this seemingly absurd and unreal meeting. It would be an understatement to say that it was the most unplanned ‘plan’ ever made. Apart from having a vague recollection of Professor Mehta mentioning the office hours as being between 4-6 pm on Tuesdays, we had no way to confirm if he would be in his office or even available to meet that day and we had no clue where his office even was. Most importantly, we had absolutely no idea what we were going to say to him!

The look of disbelief on the poor 6th floor office assistant’s was priceless. “We are here to see a Professor but we don’t know where his office is and we are not exactly sure what his office hours are. Can you let us know if he is here now ?”… “Is he expecting you ?”…. “No”…  Did you email him? “….  ” No” …”Does he know you?”…”No”…” What’s his name?”….”Salman Rushdie”. And of course, on cue, the entire 6th floor office staff turned to stare at us unbelievingly. “Is this for real?”, we hear some one mutter under their breath. Others simply gave us looks which bordered between amusement and sympathy. We had just done the unthinkable, it seems. Of course, no one just shows up asking to meet Salman Rushdie.

As the assistant , who clearly did not seem to know what to do with us at this point,  tried to weigh her possibilities, it seemed quite imminent that we were likely to be turned away. “Actually Professor Suketu Mehta told us to visit him and he mentioned that Mr. Rushdie is accessible to all students during his office hours on Tuesdays after 4”, I suddenly decided to offer by way of explanation to add some credibility to our suspiciously unusual inquiry and to somehow get out of this exceedingly uncomfortable situation. “Oh, in that case you guys can go in now. His room number is 222”.  And so it happened.



Girls at Dhabas and the Politics of Dissent

Recently came across this interesting image from the very middle-class environs of Mini-Market in Lahore, through rather celebratory tweets and posts on the Pakistani social media sphere.  The captions on the wall read ‘Freedom for All’ in Urdu with a broader script reading ‘fearless’, though its not overly clear if the intended message seeks ‘freedom’ for women to pass time leisurely or the ‘freedom’ for their images to appear publicly , or if the act of posting the graffiti itself is ‘fearless’ and if the images of the women in it are being shown as being fearless. Any which way the odd juxtaposition of these young, seemingly Westernized women  with a group of obviously under-privileged children came through as oddly out of place and an uncomfortable exercise of bringing something private into the public, a reaction that the painters are possibly aiming for. These images were painted across various cities in Pakistan as a part of the Fearless Pakistan campaign as a collaboration with the larger group Girls At Dhabas (GAD), started by a small group of young, urban, educated and affluent women in cities like Karachi, Lahore , Islamabad and Pindi. In the following days the idea behind this image became clear with the announcement of the Meet to Sleep campaign taking place in Pakistan, again at the behest of the GAD.

If the GAD and its collaborative umbrella groups’ members want to reclaim public spaces for women, more power to them. However rather than being a site of dissent, what this image captures looks more like a space of subversive spectacle. In what ways do the ideas of ‘women taking siestas in public spaces to reclaim them’ or the public images of women casually lounging around town become  vehicles of empowerment? Of course they attract attention, but are they getting the right message across? Will taking public naps or pasting these images publicly around town actually allow the young women of GAD to ‘reclaim’ public spaces? There is no dearth of commercial posters showcasing female fashion models in all kinds of poses, featured in every part of every city of Pakistan. By the same logic, given the large presence of these commercial advertisements with female models, women should have reclaimed public spaces in Pakistan a very long time ago. I sincerely admire the spirit and the underlying thought behind these efforts, however these approaches seem very problematic and superficial to say the least. Adding snazzy captions to such campaigns and images claiming ‘freedom for women’ may not bring freedom or agency in any real sense of the word but in a farcical way may end up objectifying women much in the same way as the commercial entertainment world does, an end which the GAD is  hopefully not working towards. Continue reading

Nargis Fakhri and the Tale of Two Print Mediums

Recently #NargisFakhri was trending on Pakistan’s social media for an unlikely reason. Turns out a visual from the Fakhri’s recent Mobilink campaign was ‘unsuitably’ placed on the front page of various Pakistani Urdu newspapers. (Possibly by the same genius marketing wizards who frequently place giant public billboards of women wearing halter tops and spaghetti straps in locations where one would likely never see women without their chadors and dupattas, often leading to adverse public reactions). The incident generate a controversy strong enough for Fakhri to publicly put out an  an official statement condoning the placement of the visual in an Urdu daily as a ‘shocking’ and  a ‘culturally inappropriate’ placement.  Seemingly ‘the nation’s collective conscience was rattled’ and as an observer put it ‘There were many other rattling stories that day, however the image of Nargis Fakhri lying down holding a mobile phone on the front page of Urdu newspapers was definitely far more nerve wrecking than the rest of the newspaper and the stories put together’.

While it comes as a pleasant surprise that Fakhri is well versed with the cultural values of the Urdu language press, the furor caused on the social media is hardly surprising. From time to time the hegemonic ‘high culture’ narratives of the Pakistani social elite, who control the visual and entertainment  media,  collide with those who represent a vast majority of non- Westernized, somewhat culturally and socially conservative Pakistanis.

Continue reading

Mediations of the Self in Pakistan’s Popular Visual Culture




In the recent times, I had been having these wonderful conversations with various friends and academics about the media in Pakistan and I thought it maybe useful to bring everyone together for a meaningful discussion. So  on November 20th 2015, I organized this event titled ‘Mediations of the Self in Pakistan’s Popular Visual Culture’ at the New York University’s department of Media, Culture and Communication . Among the participants were various academics like S. Akbar Zaidi, Tahira Naqvi, Afiya Zia and media related personalities like Mehreen Jabbar, Saad Khan and Arooj Aftab,  who were kind enough to take their time out to join our discussion. Also attending was Sheeba Khan a reporter from Hip Pakistan, who covered the event here. Continue reading

‘Wali’ as the quintessential Pakistani hero ?

Osman Khalid Butt as Wali in Diyar-e-Dil                                     Osman Khalid Butt as Wali in ‘Diyar-e-Dil’

This article was also published  here at http://www.hipinpakistan.com/news/1148666

As the year 2015 comes to an end, it may be relevant to ask who and what the quintessential ‘Pakistani hero’ is or should be. At this point in time, Pakistani dramas seem to have gained universal outreach and accessibility around the globe. Not only is Pakistani content being aired internationally on Pakistani media houses but also on major South Asian networks like Star Plus and Zee TV. In this context, it seems relevant to analyse the traits and qualities which stand out among popular Pakistani characters or which seem to define the arche-typical Pakistani hero in recent productions.

So at a recent event held at NYU we wanted to discuss who and what the symbolic new Pakistani hero would be, given the current assortment of popular heros that one comes across on Pakistani television. In our search for the ultimate Pakistani hero, the media bandwagon trail led us to the wildly popular character of Wali in Diyar e Dil . Given all the recent hype about Diyar-e-Dil, the play’s plot and character portrayals seem very useful and appropriate to frame the conversation about how such popular on-screen characters contribute to the notions of self hood and translate into meaning making in public culture in Pakistan.  Continue reading

Pakistani Women: Vamps or Victims?

So in connection with our ‘Mediations of the Self’ event at NYU, we had asked some female artists in Pakistan their views about women’s representations in the visual media and the role that women are playing in the media themselves. Among the others we chose to incorporate  Hareem Farooq and Salma Hasan’s replies, as they were most relevant to our discussion. Both speak out against the ‘woman as a victim’ trope t seems to have captured the imagination of most production elite in Pakistan presently. Continue reading