Thursday, March 29, 2012

I'm in Jakarta.

Trying to finish some damn writing. Not reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, reading George Bernard Shaw and Lee Kuan Yew for research instead.

Incidentally the part of Jakarta where I'm staying (a swanky hotel which my boyfriend's company has booked 'cos he's doing real work here) looks eerily like Singapore's Orchard Road:

The shops have everything labelled in English, even. Uncanny.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book 93, Kashmir: "The Country Without a Post Office" by Agha Shahid Ali

News flash: I am sick. I've got one of those fevers that makes me feel hot and cold at the same time and I'm not getting anything productive done (updating this blog does not count as being productive). What makes this all the more ridiculous is that this is part of a cockamamie scheme I had to do non-UN-recognised states: Kashmir, Tibet, Palestine, Hong Kong, Macau, all in the hopes of pissing off some of my Indian and Chinese friends.

Plus, you've noticed that I decided not to do Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, didn't cha? I actually made that decision fairly early: I wanted someone genuinely Kashmiri, hell, and a highly praised Kashmiri-American emigré poet was just what the doctor ordered.

And seriously, Shahid is awesome. I picked up his posthumous book of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, and I fell in love - then I realised this was a patchwork collection snatched from various bodies of work he'd published before. Didn't feel quite right.

So I pulled Rooms Are Never Finished off the shelves: a work mourning his mother, recording his journey from Amherst, Massachusetts to Srinagar to deliver her body for burial. Surprise, surprise: I did not like this one as much: way too many abstractions and allegories, real tragedy subsumed in Zainab's mourning over the martyrdom of Imam Husain and Radha crying out to the Dark Lord. Didn't help that Shahid had a penchant for extremely long poems, written in sections composed of prose poetry or terza rima or sapphics; only the ghazals and villanelles were a a breath of fresh air in between.

So I reserved The Country Without a Post Office from the repository used collection, and hallelujah, the anguish is way more direct and unfiltered: these pieces are written from 1991 to 1995, reflecting on the crazy bloodshed of that era. Thassa right: I combed through four books while enduring illness just for this bloody blog post.

Don't actually feel like analysing it now. Just wanna sleep.

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Representative quote:


The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic -
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Ancestors, you've left me a plot in the family graveyard -
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?

Majnoon, his clothes ripped, still weeps for Laila.
O, this is the madness of the desert, his crazy Arabic.

Who listens to Ishmael? Even now he cries out:
Abraham, throw away your knives, recite a psalm in Arabic.

From exile Mahmoud Darwish write to the world:
You'll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.

The sky is stunned, it's become a ceiling of stone.
I tell you it must weep. So kneel, pray for rain in Arabic.

At an exhibition of miniatures, such delicate calligraphy:
Kashmiri paisleys tied into the golden hair of Arabic!

The Koran prophesied a fire of men and stones.
Well, it's all now come true, as it was said in the Arabic.

When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw:
his qasidas braided, on the horizon, into knots of Arabic.

Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland -
Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you'll see dense forests -
That village was razed. There's no sign of Arabic.

I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beauitful women.
And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means -
Listen: It means "The Belovéd" in Persian, "witness" in Arabic.

Next book: "The Tibetan Book of the Dead", from Tibet.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book 92, Pakistan: "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" by Mohammed Hanif

Remember how I bragged about meeting Dany Laferrière during my Haiti entry? Well, this is another book by a guy I met at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, though I don’t recall having a conversation with him as much as I do with his tiny son (daughter? There were two little Desi kids running around, and one of them was his and the other one belonged to some other writer/human rightsy lady, with a name not unlike Samara, god knows who she was).

Anyhow, as I hinted in the last post, it’s a splendid read: as anarchically funny as advertised: all that South Asian verbosity and humour attacking the institution of an Islamic military dictatorship.

Did I mention this was a historical novel? I didn’t realise it was a historical novel for quite some time, not until Osama bin Laden popped up as a character I think. It’s a conjectural Scheherezadean tale surrounding the perfectly factual air crash that took the lives of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and half his generalissimos in 1988. (He’s the guy who deposed whatzisname Bhutto, Benazir’s dad. Zulfikar Ali, my iPhone says. I’m drafting this without an Internet connection.)

And what Hanif’s done is he’s told the tale with two different forms of narration (ooh, this is how I teach creative writing): half the chapters are first-person in the form of the much-beleaguered Air Force cadet Ali Shigri, imprisoned in Lahore Fort under byzantine circumstances; the other half in omniscient third person, spanning the viewpoints of the blind rape victim Zainab, the conspiring spymaster General Akhtar, hapless US ambassador Arnold Raphael, a mango-eating crow, and of course the doomed General Zia himself, bamboozled by his security forces and his Quran, harangued by his wife and his tapeworms (both of whose viewpoints we also get to witness, oh joy).

There’s a certain amount of name-dropping involved because Hanif feels he owes his debt to the inspiration of Gabo’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold; even has Ali’s best friend Obaidi nose-deep in said book in the final fatal chapters. But it does not feel derivative, this: it is wholly its own animal, and it delights me. Would that us Singaporeans, ach, even us Southeast Asians, wrote like this!

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Representative quote: Behind the cordons set up along the road by the police for this VIP procession, people stood and waited and guessed: a teenager anxious to continue his first ride on a Honda 70: a drunk husband ferociously chewing betel nuts to get rid of the smell before he got home, a horse buckling under the weight of too many passengers on the cart, the passengers cursing the cart driver for taking this route, the cart driver feeling the pins and needle sin his legs begging for their overdue opium dose, a woman covered in a black burqa - the only body part visible her left breast feeding her infant child - a boy in a car trying to hold a girl's hand on their first date, a seven-year-old selling dust-covered chickpeas, an old water carrier hawking water out of a goatskin, a heroin addict eyeing his dealer stranded on the other side of the road, a mullah who would be late for the evening prayer, a gypsy woman selling bright pink abby chickens, an air force trainee officer in uniform in a Toyota Corolla being driven by a Dunhill-smoking civilian, a newspaper hawker screaming the day's headlines, Singapore Airline's crew in a van cracking jokes in three languages, a pair of home-delivery arms dealers fidgeting with their suitcases nervously, a third-year medical student planning to end his life by throwing himself on the rail tracks in anticipation of the Shalimar Express, a husband and wife on a motorbike returning from a fertility clinic, an illegal BEngali immigrant waiting to ell his kidney so that he could send money back home, a blind woman who had escaped prison in the morning and had spent all day trying to convince people that she was not a beggar, eleven teenagers dressed in white impatient to get to the field for their night cricket match, off-duty policemen waiting for free rides home, a bride in a rickshaw on her way to the beauty salon, an old man thrown out of his son's home and determined to walk to his daughter's house fifty miles away, a coolie from the railway station still wearing his red uniform an in a shopping bag carrying a glittering sari he'd change into that night, an abandoned cat sniffing her way back to her owner's house, a black-turbaned truck driver singing a love song about his lover at the top of his voice, a bus full of trainee Lady Health Visitors headed for their night shift at a government hospital; as the smoke from idling engines mixed with the smog that descends on Islamabad at dusk, as their waiting hearts got to bursting point with anxiety, they all seemed to have one question on their minds: 'Which one of our many rulers is this? If his security is so important, why don't they just lock him up in the Army House?'

Next book: Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, from Kashmir.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Yeah, I'm late with my Pakistan book (it's a good read, though!). So to pass the time, I decided I'd make some charts to look at how imbalanced my literary consumption is... by date of publication!

As you can see, there's a whole load of international books that have made their name during the 2000s, followed by the '80s and the '60s (no idea why there's this drop-off in the '90s and the '70s).

It's even more obvious when you look at it as a pie chart. Pretty much a third of my books have been written in the 2000s. And that's not even counting A Case of Exploding Mangoes yet.

I'll do the charts on gender and genre and foreign perspectives some other time.