Slow Burn Lahore V: Archeology of Space

The modern traveler, wrote Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques, is forever chasing after “vestiges of a lost reality”. Such that writing about a city becomes a mode of constant nostalgia, a constant looking back, either textually or experientially.

Sarnath Banerjee’s Harappa Files (which I read recently; thankfully, after I had already planned and written some of this series), at first glance reads as a chronicle of the city’s capacity to fold the absurd into the norm. Then, later, I saw that it wasn’t so much about the absurd, but about those minutiae lost in the city’s creases which are simultaneously absurd and normal. His work (I love him) manages to find the bathos in the city, by chronicling these small moments, these lives lived in both plain view and along the margins – each tuned to some hidden frequency that Banerjee hears.

Aman Sethi’s A Free Man – an ethnography of Sadar Bazaar in Delhi – follows Ashraf and a host of day laborers around. What really worked in that text was Sethi’s own limitations and inabilities to transcend something he is trying to document or understand. Very unlike the gaze of Levi-Strauss who, burdened with reams of booklore, settles for the fleeting glimpse, for a gesture that explains it all. Sethi sits with, around, Ashraf and five years later, he is hesitant to say more than that he sat with, around Ashraf. It is for us, to look at Delhi’s crushing urban chaos, the labor, the drugs and exploitation, through Sethi’s observation of Ashraf. Rather Sethi’s attempted cataloguing of Ashraf’s chronology – and his failure.

Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables captured, in the chapter ‘Tabloid and the City’, a way of writing about city that resonates. He weaved narratives running across the cityscape with various sites of productions – the courtroom, the dailies, gossip circles, novellas, memoirs. It is a bravura chapter and you can see how different Prakash’s approach is to Sethi, to Banerjee in the tone of his essay, the evidence he marshals and the framing. In many ways, his is a furthering of Levi-Strauss’ archeology of space, but one which is not built on the randomness, aléa or the golden hue of past memories. In Prakash’s work the device of critically choosing fragments and sections of city (planned or otherwise), viewed across archives and lived space, works precisely because he brings a historians’ sensibility to the task – a deliberate distancing, that omniscient speaker.

I went to him, the mochi, to have a charm sewn in to leather. He sits on Joreypull (literally, the bridge that joins). Joreypull was a terribly unsexy neighborhood in which to grow up. At the end of the cantonment area of Lahore, abutting golf courses and airport runways on one end, and the dense population of canal on the other. Towards its east lay the Indian border and a vast farm lands. I never liked saying to people that the actual last stop on the bus to my house was called joreypull. Call it the bourgeois sensibility of a middle class kid. In retrospect, it was a great neighborhood to grow up in. The christian colony, the milk colony, the officers colony, the even more ridiculously named murghi-khana (hen coop) neighborhood, all packed together, surrounded by acres upon acres of open spaces teeming with puchal parei, churail, jinn, chalawa. At the tail end of every day, would be a gathering of elders and young ones where such encounters, from that day or days thence, would be recited and sworn upon and discussed – even some episodes too racy for ears as delicate as mine. During the day, these same open spaces became our cricket grounds – rows upon rows of men in never-quite-whites knocking balls into the air. Then, in the 90s, all that empty space disappeared under curlicue lanes of sectional housing, each distinguishable only by the number bolted to its front. Askari Housing Schema. Joreypull changed too. There were new populations to replace the spectral beings. The spaces were haunted with something much more malicious.

I don’t know his name. He never offered, even when I asked. He sat on the ground, surrounded by his wares- plastic bags with various bits of leather, scissors, cutters, moulders – and a steady stream of customers. A ten year old worked as his assistant or maybe was his brother. He was sewing it up, the charm, and looked up at me, and asked me to take a seat. I sat on the stone on the ground. This works? I don’t know. He nodded. A student came by with a bag full of brand new books. The spines had to be broken, and a new binding of cardboard installed. As he worked, I tried to catch his eye and smile. He spoke with the student in pashto, so I ventured a joke. He asked me what I do. I said I write. I asked him where he was from and how long had he been at Joreypull. He said only a year. Hazara. His eyes flicked to my ring. I smiled, hoping he would catch on. He relaxed a bit and said, it is not so nice here. They have to constantly shift their home – the neighbors complain about smells. We are dirty people, they say. I don’t like Lahore. I don’t enjoy eating this dirt and smoke all day. And the punjabis are just rude, superstitious. I looked at the charm now in my hand. Well, don’t you think there is evil-intent? He shrugged. So where do you live? I tell him. You? Garhi Shaho. Really? I say – that is a far trip.

My first day back in Berlin from Lahore, I went with friends to a flohmarkt. We had just wandered in, and were looking around (for that proverbial needle). I saw a booth manned with one desi uncle, and another older man sitting back, and I walked up, said hi and asked him where we could find whatever it was that was needed. He made some helpful indications and we went our way. Wandering back, half an hour later, I bumped into the second gentleman. He was walking slowly, hunched over. I guess he was in his late 60s or early 70s. Or he looked like he had lived those many years. Did you find it? Yes. I think. Hmm, he nods. And begins to turn away. You live in Berlin? I have been asking this from almost every desi uncle in Berlin (working on a small series on Berlin). Yeah, been here for 20 years almost. Oh. Where from? Lahore. Me too. Where? Joreypull. Aap? Garhi Shaho.

I laughed. He moved closer to me. I went to school there, you know. Right in Garhi Shaho. You must know it? I nod. It was the best, walking up the road to the school; used to be so crowded around school time. You must have seen it. I nod hesitantly. Our Lahores were separated by decades or more. He began to describe Garhi Shaho’s life. His trips to the haveli. Do you know why they called it Garhi Shaho? I went there two years ago. All these Afghans. Everywhere. Aab wo Lahore kahan? He sighed and turned away. I turned and went to find my friends.

The odd synchronicity of the encounter stayed with me. One of the places I had wanted to write about was Garhi Shaho. I had been reading about it. How during Shahjahan’s Lahore, a noble, Abul Khair, settled in Lahore and established a social meeting place. Aurangzeb gave him a land grant and asked him to establish a central Madrasa for students of Lahore. During the early years of the Sikh regime of Lahore, 1802-4 or so, bands of “outsiders” settled in the neighborhood, taking over empty or deserted houses. One of the bandits, named Shaho, came and occupied the Madrasa. It was known as Khair Ghar (House of Wellness). It became known as Shaho’s house. The neighborhood suffered many tyrannies, but also remained a place for first immigrants. Whether in 1947 or later.

I had wanted to write about Garhi Shaho because Lahore is, as I said earlier, a city of neighborhoods, constantly in flux, even as Lahore becomes a unchanging beacon to past glories. I had felt a cadence of nostalgia in my own voice, but that belied my effort to say something about Lahore (and Berlin) which was decidedly anti-nostalgic. I hadn’t realized though that my nostalgia was a result not only of my own distancing from Lahore but also of the archives I was reading – memoirs written from the 17th century onwards. They may moan about the past, but they moan precisely because Lahore is rapidly changing in front of their eyes. Change driven not only by raiders of Lahore (which, really, the 18th and 19th c were not kind to Lahore) but also by influxes of new citizens, driven to Lahore by crisis elsewhere.

Men like Shaho.

Which space in Lahore do we locate this discordance?

CM Anniversary: Acht So!!

Once again, I missed it. Eight years ago this little experiment – which, in 2011 produced two books (!) and countless millions of dollars (!!) – began.

There is no denying the fact that dhandha has been manda here lately. I have not found too much time to write.Yet, I have had so many amazing contribution from guest as well as the regulars that CM looks vibrant and alive to me. I intend to keep it this way. This year two of our old friends passed away. Ralph Luker shut down Cliopatria – the historian collective blog which I joined in 2004 as well. Ralph is an amazing curator as well as indefatigable member of the online community for many long years and I wish him all the best. The other good bye was from Sepia Mutiny – the place for desis to mingle. It was certainly a marker in media/social history of Desis in America. Both of these collectives were about community and about connections and about a certain relationship between dominant and marginal discourses. Their shuttering down is most certainly a step back and a diminution of public culture on those terms. There is no doubt that FB and Twitter have taken over conversations in ways unimagined in 2004 but that only means we need to incorporate newer ways of explicit community building.

CM will continue. We are actively adding new members to our writing team. I am excited to write. We are ON!

Newly Minted CM

Slow Burn Lahore IV: See Through Cement

You can’t see through cement – and neither can I. When I look at Lahore and the ways in which cement has cordoned off sight-lines, I see a city full of people blind-folded. The gated communities were the first variant – ghettos of the elite – where cement walls rose up to seclude and to protect. The Defense Housing Authority which emerged in the 90s on vast swaths of land confiscated, distributed and redistributed by the military junta. That military-gated community needed its own armies of servants, chowkidars, drivers who couldn’t live too far, but not too close. So behind Defense was the soft settlement – corroded tin, bricks, mud. Then came the newer colonization – the Askari Housing Society. A new generation of military families, needing cheaper fabrics. So more empty and settled land had to be cleared off, parceled out, built. Then more roads added. Access roads.


Lahore used to be a city connected by neighborhoods, each reaching a tentacle into the next, linked by small roads and alleys. The arterial Mall Road or Jail Road or Canal Road were remarkable not for what they traversed but by how much of the city they left alone, untouched. To go from my house – at the far end of Cantonment to the Old City, say the Fort, took forever plus an hour. It used to feel good to me – this slow, fitful, crawl across Sadr, Mughalpura, Railway Colony, Landa Bazaar, Do Moria Pull, Bilal Ganj – to visit my friend L. The journey was its own event.

Now, I got on the Ring Road.

A thick toothpaste slathered across Lahore’s exterior, the Ring Road horrified me. It cuts through arable land, dairy colonies, satellite townships – anything and everything. As we drove across, in silence, the road empty of other cars – I saw only those separated by this cement and concrete river, trying to swim to the other side. The eight-feet high wall of cement which frames the highway had been broken into – human shaped chunks torn through, where silhouettes gathered waiting to run and vault across. Single men. Women and children. Some carrying goods. Some empty handed. A donkey cart hesitant. Imagine if between your home and your grocery store was a major highway. You have to imagine it, because it is not your reality. Nor is it mine. I live inside the bubble. The nice people had built pedestrian bridges – 500 meters or so apart – high stairs. Imagine walking to one, climbing up the stairs and then down. Imagine if you have to do it 15 times a day. With weight of your livelihood. I saw one couple – him holding her hand; she carrying a child; they carrying cloth-wrapped bundles waiting for my car to whiz bye so they could cross. Hesitant.

But the torn fabric of these lives was not the full story. On other sections, as our car made its way towards Ravi, were other tableaus. Two kids – barely 12 – lying flat on the cement embankment, sunning. Their legs lazily entangled, their eyes chasing the clouds. At another moment, a group of men smoking on the cement wall. Gossiping. Perhaps these points existed as meeting places, and they were re-enacting a lost world. Perhaps the din of passing traffic provided its own pleasant soundtrack.

No matter what we do, we can never educate our people. There it is, the pedestrian crossing and look at our jahalat that we are jumping walls and sprinting through traffic, because we cannot simply follow the law and cross legally. There really is no hope for us, you know. In Germany, I bet no one would ever dream of such a horrendous way to cross a highway.

I replied that maybe in Germany they would not partition a neighborhood like this, but that seems a silly response to make in hindsight. I wanted to be angry. Because the Ring Road angered me. I wanted my indignation to be registered. How dare they create partitions. But, I can see partitions everywhere in Lahore. The walls have grown taller all across Lahore. Every house has its own, shielding its inhabitants. Every neighborhood its own. My anger at the Ring Road seems silly in one sense.

The convenience is really amazing.

Yes, it is.

In the last ten years, Lahore has finally had the immense migration which was long a hallmark of Karachi. Neighborhoods have changed – the new migrants bringing their own languages, their own habitations, their new economies. The Ring Road, the motorway, the heavy-cargo industry, all participate in this Lahore. I heard more Pashto in DHA than Punjabi. Yet social fabric of Lahore was tied intimately to the cartography of Lahore. To be from Lahore, was to answer with the name of a neighborhood. Samnabad. Garhi Shaho. Mazang Chungi. Each neighborhood an encoding of a particular genealogy, accent, attitude, charisma. As you moved slowly, were forced to, across Lahore you saw and heard all of this. The only sight you see from the Ring Road is cement. The only sound is the whoosh of the silent car.

#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

More sophisticated readers of the New York Times’ editorial pages have, for years, fumed at Thomas Friedman’s inane musings. Even less sophisticated readers, some of which write book reviews and essays for online magazines named after mysterious flatbreads, have bristled at Friedman’s claims, prose and weak reasoning.

There are times, in fact, that one might suspect the Times’ Editorial Board is putting Friedman over on the public as some sort of Onion-style goof, a la Jackie Harvey.

Some readers have an automatic, visceral dislike of his face, alone: the suburban-mall Glamour-Shots photograph accompanying his crimes against logic calls for snarky comment; in it, he appears smug, self-satisfied and eager to be taken as the thinker of deep thoughts that, in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belen Fernandez proves he is not.

One sure marker of a great work comes when, having experienced it, one is left with a sense of shame—that somehow, the thesis presented is so clear and well-argued that it was obvious all along, and to have not recognized it without the interlocutor’s help is somehow a grievous, personal shortcoming.

Fernandez’s spit-roasting of Friedman’s career is one of those works, and it is proof that America’s reading public should have itself a come-to-Jesus meeting about whom it reads, and on what subjects.

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a grueling, painful read, but it’s a necessary contribution to the greater, shamefully-necessary project of new/alternative media self-justification, vis a vis old media’s privileged place in public discourse; Friedman’s unearned, destructive bully-pulpit, and the appalling influence it holds over, with, and because of Occidental elites, created the need for Fernandez, and critical voices like Chapati Mystery, in the first place. Continue reading “#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work”

Slow Burn Lahore III: “This is My Culture”

In Cairo, I thought I met Khizr. More likely, I found a new way of walking. Following hints, barely visible pathways, I try only to keep my sense of direction overpowered by my desire to get lost. Cairo, around Tahrir Square, looks a lot like the late colonial city abutting Old Lahore – the architecture of 20s and 30s behind Shah Alami Market, around Lakshmi Chowk, near Mayo Gardens. Unlike Cairo, Lahore seemed swallowed up by the destructive, unregulated building which happened mostly over the last decade or more. Where previously I could still find livable traces of the past, it seems impossible to contemplate now. Something has clicked over – some fatal blow. Maybe, it is the Ring Road, built to encircle Lahore – a tribute to the millions of infrastructure dollars and euros poured into Lahore. More roads.


I was nearly to Rang Mahal when I discovered that I was going the wrong way. Turning around seemed impossible, but going forward was out of question. I managed – crossing in front of a large group of merchants who were amassing to begin their protest against the debilitating 16-18 hours of load shedding. In every city – from Karachi to Lahore to Faisalabad to Multan to Pak Pattan, people were burning tires, burning cars, destroying shops. In Lahore, there had been massive protests and destruction a few nights ago – in Walton (that big empty lot where Partition Refugees first sat down). I thought that it would be best to put some distance between myself and the merchants (a quick look had made me think that they weren’t the burning types but …). I stopped to ask a Rickshaw-wallah for directions.

The back of his rickshaw had a relief of Lahori Pehlwans (wrestlers) – eyes fixed, arms held out as if an onion was strapped in their armpits, and chests gleaming in oil. The ad was for a dangal (meet). I laughed, remembering the conversation about old Masters. I asked the Rickshaw where he got the screen from. He told me that by Bhatti Gate there are many Rickshaws parked and maybe someone there would know. Bhatti Gate would be retracing my steps (here is a map of Old Lahore, if you care). The clock was ticking. I had an appointment elsewhere. Yet, I couldn’t pass this hint. I had to follow.

I reached Bhatti Gate, my eyes and mouth full of smoke and dirt, I was confronted by a giant silk-screen poster extending across an empty Ghee shop. A white clad, handlebar-mustachioed young man with a warm smile walked up to me, seeing me fixated on the poster. You want to attend the dangal? No, actually, I just wanted to know who was painting these. The wrestlers were drawn and painted over, their bodies given shades of brown and black, their short lungis embroidered with pearls and tassels, wide sashes across wide chests and often other touches: a full Punjabi male dress, a tiger, a flute-playing bard. He shrugs. Whoever paints them, someone else pays for it, and hangs it here. He turned away. I looked again. There at the bottom was a name: Jahangir and a mobile number. Standing there, I dialed. I had no idea if the name belonged to the printer, the organizer of the tourney or the artist.

The man who answered asked me to come to him – in Lakshmi Chowk. This was the heart of Lahore’s famous film industry – a twin to Bombay as talkies began to reign across India in the 1930s. Lahore’s studios attracted most of the writers, poets, singers, and actors who went on to define Indian cinema of 40s through 70s. Lakshmi Chowk, now, is either an insulting reminder of that glory, or I don’t know. It is not fair to keep seeing it from a lens of the 40s, is it?

Behind the chowk, is a large gathering of businesses which cater to printing oversized materials. The shops are nestled up and down plazas which have no facade, no railing on steps and often no formal entrances. Everything seems to have been constructed recently and fifty years ago. Cement with a caking of smoked dirt.

Up and down, asking for Mansoor Tailor. The man on the phone had said to meet at the Tailor. You mean the dude with the long beard? I am asked. I have never seen Mansoor Tailor and I have no idea if he has a beard. So I say yes. I am told to follow the road (pathway?) to the curve and take the third alley on the left. Slowly, unsurely, I make my way, looking at the political rally posters, giant signs for Summer Lawns, doting the way.

Outside Mansoor Tailor is a man, who hesitates when he sees me. You here for Jahangir Sahib? I nod. Come. He walks briskly. He is clean shaven (I never saw what Mansoor looked like) and his pants are really clean. I note this because I see the streaks of smoke on my jeans. I catch up. He pauses in front of a half-built plaza/condo. All the way to the top. I look at the unfinished steps and start up. The first three floors are some kind of paper-mill. The fourth is empty, I think. I come up at the roof and am pleasantly surprised to see a nice, clean finished floor. There is no one in sight.

I walk down towards the rooms – there is an old man, in white wife-beater, a dhoti, and two fistfuls of shockingly white beard. He is sitting in front of a canvas on which is a bucolic village scene with a tube-well and a date palm. He looks up, and smiles, and kinda springs off the chair. He is wearing hipster glasses and he has only one tooth in his mouth, which is stained with nicotine or with paan.

I am Jahangir, you wanted to talk about the posters?

I have been working here, in Lakshmi Chowk, since 1963. At first, it was only filmi work – painted artist promos, film posters, title boards, whatever they wanted. Then I started, I don’t know when, to paint wrestlers and their meets. I started getting loads of business as people who want me to paint their pre-fight bodies. His fingers bustle through a stack of photographs. Some 12, some 15, some 40, men in tights. Oiled. Posing in studio, or on the street. Look at this poster. I take this photograph and then I paint it. I add touches from our culture, to make them stand out. The great wrestlers of yesterday are gone but we always include them in the line-up. They must live and stand next to these young ones. The punjabi wrestlers never die.

However, the movies are dead. There is no money. Everyone just wants to do it on Computers. My son, he is also a computer-wallah. So he does it too. But sometimes, I get an older patron who wants the way things were. So I paint the posters. You want to see some of my old movie ones – what a time that used to be in Lahore. He goes back into the room and comes out with a roll of posters. Slowly he unspools. Edges are torn. Big chunks of paper missing. Just what I salvaged over forty years of painting. Look at Waheed Murad. Here is Naheed. And Sultan Rahi. I would paint them from photograph and then when I would meet them and talk to them, I would quickly sketch them. I learned lighting, shading, depth, everything on my own. No teacher, you know. I saw some girls painting on the wall, while I was going to pray the other day. I asked them about if they thought of where the sun is, when the shade of the character comes into the art. They laughed at this old man who cannot stop spitting when he talks. My art – this is all I have left and some other torn posters – is here, though. Look at it.

The colors were rich. The lips red. The smiles white. The eyes locked between the Chocolati Hero and his One True Love.

But this is not what I do anymore. I just keep them for my record. There is no exhibition of my art. There is no one who knows. I die, maybe someone will come asking. Probably not. Nowadays, I just paint something for my own HEAD. He taps his skull. Come see.

The canvases are all cardboard. There is a beautiful PunjabaaN, holding a muTka, her hip jutting to the left, her nath gleaming. She is lovely. There is a meeting of Hir and Ranjha. There is a child and mother walking down a village path. There is a tube-well scene.

This is my culture, you know. My Punjab. My Lahore. I am an artist of my culture.

Slow Burn Lahore II: Meeting Old Masters

At some point in Old Lahore’s life, cement won. Floors stacked like cardboard boxes, and filled only with cardboard boxes, sprung up everywhere. The sky which is hard enough to find, now simply hides behind slabs of grey loosely slapped into holes or onto bricks. When you see an older building, terror-stricken and shaky, you pray for its quick release. Let the past just vanish – this lingering is another long death.


Such were my dismal thoughts when I went to Urdu Bazaar – the motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic blocked from Shimla PahaRi onwards; everywhere the clamor against Load Shedding, everywhere the signs of impending protest. The heat, perhaps seasonal but none the less stifling, did not help my mood. I was hoping to get one particular poetry volume and my usually reliable source did not even offer me tea, let alone my desired object.

As I left the shop, I decided, to look for a poster that I had promised a dear friend. I asked my first randomly picked shop-keeper – he was studiously studying the Qur’an and I felt a bit odd interrupting him – who told me to go to Rajput market for all matters posterial. Off I went.

I walked, my mood began to lift. The crush of quad/bi/wheeled/peds and various other rotary beings in Urdu bazaar is overwhelmingly against any notional “walking”. Yet suddenly, I felt dodging things was fun! Such are the manic side of things.

In Rajput market, a plaza suffering along with everyone else in darkness due to the electricity shortage, I found a smallish man intently practicing his English on a slate. I asked him where I can find the poster, and he thought about it, then said, go to Lohari Gate. I told him that I was told this was the spot! He laughed and said, we only keep “educational” posters. I kept on, asked another shop. This guy brings out a mobile phone, then asks me to bring mine out. I comply. Yeh number dial karain. I do. He holds out his hand and I pass him my phone, completely mystified. He speaks to the person at the other end – and after a solid round of hail-fellows: Go to Tony’s on second left from the main at Barkat Plaza. Or to Old Anarkali. Or to Lahori Police Thana.

I stepped back out of the plaza building, careful to avoid plunging off the stairs in the dark and thought about my options. If I drew a big enough circle, I could walk to Old Anarkali, move out to Lahori Gate and then end back at Barkat Plaza. It would cost me an hour. I thought of my dear friend.

Off I went. Lost I got.

Up and down alleys which dead-ended, passing bright, glimmery Shadi and Mehndi shops, the dye and lye shops, the pharmaceuticals, the flags (the new Imran Khan flags are AWESOME). I walked up a flight of steps careening at near 90 degree and hacked out of the side of an older building, to reach a shadow-lit room full of 4 ft high posters of Shah Rukh Khan and Preeti (?).


An hour later, I found myself at a very old building – next to the Lohari Gate Police Station (a Station which was instrumental as the site of Migrant Registry in 1947 and which has a brilliant sign posted out front about proper disposal of dead bodies at the Station) looking at the poster. Except this poster was a rather vapid updated version and lacked the awesomeness of the original. I asked him about the original and after hearing my description, he shakes his head. Oh that was published for some newspaper and we never did it again. No one cares about those old style posters – which were made by artists. Also those artists are dead. The old masters. While Aleem is telling me this, an impassive, impressive older Gentleman with a rotund figure sits buddha-quiet behind the register. He is the owner. Aleem looks at me for a while, and says, well, we pulped a lot of posters a few years ago but maybe we have some left. He looks briefly at the owner, and then gestures me further back into the shop. When my eyes adjust for the darkness, I see a latticed wood roof and bricks that scream 1910 Lahore. How old is this building. Aleem shrugs – all I know is that we have been selling prints here since 1935. It used to belong to Hindus but when they left (he shrugs) it came to this family. I have been working here since mid 70s. He reaches through reams of frames and exposes a wall high cabinet. Inside pigeon-holes are sheets of paper covered in dust. He starts to pull out 11×8 in sheets, and amazingly, these are the individual portraits which made up the poster I sought. We start compiling them – Sher Shah Suri, Akbar (the Worst, he exclaims), Jahangir, Muhammad bin Qasim, Ghaznavi, Mumtaz Begum, Khilji, Mir Momin (eh?). He pauses after 10 or so. You want more. I nod. Soon I have a full set. What do you do? I tell him I teach history. He shrugs. These are fake you know? Khilji didn’t look like this. But look how beautifully the artist captured him. I counter.

We move out and I pay. The Buddha’s eyes flickering over my poster collection for a brief moment and then going back to the street outside. I stand in the foyer, having said my good byes, yet rooted. These sheets will also be pulped. Can you give me another set? Of the whole thing? Just one of everything? Aleem laughs. Sure, come on. Much dirt later, I leave.

Back on the motorcycle, I take a wrong turn – and as I try to not-move in front of a total gridlock, my thoughts linger on the old masters who painted Khilji, Qasim and illuminated history. All this while warehouses towered over me. Lahore is nothing but a huge Godown.

…to be continued

Neo Orientalism is the New Orientalism

A snippet from my new Bookslut column by me in which I review Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights:

Said’s thesis has unfortunately made little effect in the US outside of the academy. The greatest ostensible change seems to be on the use of the term “oriental” for persons of Asian origin, which is no longer deemed politically correct. Beyond this I have found that when trying to explain his theory, there is a strong desire to reject it on the part of those who enjoy the cultural artifacts of traditional Orientalism, such as the writings of Kipling, or Orientalist paintings. I have never taken from Said the need to denounce or cast off all Orientalist works. There is no need to wrap your well-thumbed copy of The Arabian Nights in brown paper when taking it to read on the train. You can hang onto your Ingres print and display your little bits of chinoiserie about your living room without fear. We are not coming for your Rimsky-Korsakov records. Take heart! If all the world’s art and literature were rejected for its association with the project of empire building there would be little left to enjoy.