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.



A Summer of Cinema in Pakistan

This summer the Pakistani cinema ‘arrived’ with great fanfare. Not too long ago it would have been very hard to believe that one would be saying this about Pakistani cinema, but with numerous notable releases all taking place within a span of few months, one was literally left spoilt for choices this summer. There was a very perceptible sense of energy in the air and it clearly had very much to do with the affectation and buzz created by the burgeoning visual media. Pakistan is now being ‘imagined’ in a new way through these visual productions, creating a new frame of reference for Pakistani audiences, who have been used to viewing Western and Indian cinema productions in their movie theaters until recently.  Continue reading

Moor : ‘The Missing Mother and the Missing Baloch’

This review of Moor by S Akbar Zaidi was originally published here

Given Pakistan’s current political situation, for those who thought that a film based in Balochistan would be the Pakistani version of Haider, watching Moor, would have come as a huge disappointment. If nothing else, one hopes that they would have returned home from the movie with a lesson in Balochistan’s geography and demography. At least thirty percent of Balochistan cites Pashto as its mother tongue, possibly more now with the influx of Afghans and other Pashtuns. Perhaps for those who have a sense of history, they may have been reminded of what the great Baloch nationalists of the 1970s and 1980s also said, that they had no ‘objection’ to the province of Balochistan being split into two, with Balochistan’s Pashtun areas becoming part of what was once called the North West Frontier Province.

Moor is about this less-imagined part of Balochistan. By focusing on the Pashtuns of Balochistan, the movie makes an important distinction not only between the larger communities within Balochistan, but also dispels the stereotypes of all Pashtuns making a case that Balochistan’s Pashtuns are different from, but as real as, those from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This in itself, is a hugely important socio-political contribution of Moor. Continue reading

All About Male Privilege but…Zindagi Gulzar Hai

This review of Zindagi Gulzar Hai is an excerpt from an article by Karanjeet Kaur published at Caravan magazine.

The current crop of Pakistani dramas to make their way across the border, via Zindagi, were all created over the last four or five years, in the image of the old PTV plays. They were originally telecast on private Urdu channels—such as Hum TV, Geo TV and ARY Zindagi—that launched around the time General Pervez Musharraf seized power after a coup d’etat in 1999. The influx of private money into the media and entertainment sectors during the early and mid 2000s helped revive teleserials. Before the decade ended, the industry had found a name it could bank on: Umera Ahmad.

The 37-year-old writer’s romantic novels and screenplays centre around female protagonists, and mirror middle- and upper-class anxieties about love, weddings and social mobility. Her milieus are contemporary, and her heroines, somewhat like Haseena Moin’s, appear progressive, if ultimately acquiescent. Doraha (Crossroads, 2008), an adaptation of her novel directed by Mehreen Jabbar and featuring a soundtrack by the pop sensation Jal, catapulted her to renown, paving the way for future teleplays, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan (My Existence is Meaningless, 2009) and Shehr-e-Zaat (City Unto Self, 2012). Continue reading

Zinda Bhaag: Anxious Anti-Heroics

This review of Zinda Bhaag by Nadeem F Paracha was originally published here.

Pakistani cinema is changing. As more and more filmmakers from the urban middle classes continue to extend the recent extraordinary revivalist run of Pakistani films, the scope of mediation and perceptions in this respect are broadening as well.

This was quite apparent in Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur’s Zinda Bhaag. Released in 2014, the film is now available on DVD.

Zinda Bhaag is very much part and parcel of the class make-up and social landscape of Pakistan’s new wave cinema, in which films play like stark art-house mediations on life but bear the soul of lively commercial cinema. Continue reading

Pakistan’s Online Culture of Dissent

A survey of Pakistan’s digital sphere shows that creativity , community, contention and control are all interrelated. So that inspite of all the effort at censorship and control one finds a creative and irreverent culture of dissent that is framed largely around the digital media.  This internet culture, where all authority is consistently subjected to doubt and ridicule, seems to be burgeoning under increasing political scrutiny and control. Many unorthodox , imaginative and subversive ideas are found on the Pakistani cyberspace which seem to suggest  agency for the ordinary people within the very sites of contention. This online culture is a very public space where well known and unknown people , continue to use agentative ways in  the digital media to subvert the mainstream official narratives and conversations. This culture of dissent is very democratic and heterogeneous one we see students, artists, activists, academics, journalists, doctors, lawyers etc  collaborating together over various issues and concerns.

Continue reading

‘Sail on Silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to shine’.


Sabeen Mahmud’s death has clearly unsettled as many people as her unusual and eccentric life did.  In retrospect, her death seems as unreal as her life was. In the four short decades that amounted to her lifetime Sabeen became well known for destabilizing categories, questioning taken-for-granted socio-political norms, creating unconventional and creative spaces, starting unusual conversations, and unceremoniously subverting many misconceived notions about ‘helpless’ young women in Pakistan’s public sphere.

Much before Sabeen became a public figure, it had become evident to all those around her that she was an extraordinarily ‘different’ person. Sabeen, who was our fellow student and hostelite at Kinnaird College in Lahore, stood out from the very first day among the disparate groups of young girls at the Kinnaird hostel with her eccentric willfulness (and her signature Bermuda shorts !). Among other things, she was also the only hostel student in the early 1990s who possessed an alien contraption called a ‘laptop’. That infamous laptop, which Sabeen had bought with her years worth of pocket money savings, became the site and tool for many uprisings, rebellions and laughs in the next four years to come. Continue reading