Fawzia Afzal-Khan: The "Offending Chapter"

Posted from Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s Website.

The Controversy Behind My Book and the “Offending Chapter”

My memoir, Lahore With Love: Growing Up With Girlfriends Pakistani Style, was published in March 2010 by Syracuse University Press. Book launches were held at University of Rhode Island, at the acclaimed Quaid-e-Azam Library in Lahore, Pakistan, at the Rubin Museum in New York, at Alwan for the Arts in NY, and at the prestigious Hudson Valley Writers Retreat in Tarrytown, NY, with a host of readings in other places as well, including, most recently, at Westfield State University in Mass. Kinnaird College for Women’s US chapter of OAKS (Old Girls Association) honored me as their invited distinguished Alum to do a book signing and reading from my book at their 2010 annual reunion in Englewood, NJ.

The book ‘s jacket has endorsements from Henry Louis Gates, Jr of Harvard University, Nawal el Saadawi, accalimed novelist and Human Rights defender from Egypt, and award-winning Pakistani-American novelist, Bapsi Sidhwa. Within a month of its publication, it began receiving excellent reviews in well-respected journals (check “Reviews” tab). Unfortunately, the positive attetion it was garnering upset a well-known theatre personality in Pakistan, who sent a letter threatening legal action against the publishers and myself for libel, unless the book were immediately removed from the market.

Without looking into the merits of her claims, and instead of standing my me, their author, Syracuse chose to cave in to her demands, on the basis of claims that by any reasonable judgement are both frivolous and unproveable. In the wake of the Speech Act signed into law by President Obama in August of this year, which protects US authors against frivolous lawsuits initiated against them in foreign countries without the First Amendment protections afforded citizens in the USA, Syracuse sent me a letter informing me that it was unilaterally cancelling my contract with them. Subsequently, the National Writers Union took up my case, and wrote to SUP demanding they resume publication of my book, especially since no lawsuit had been filed against either them or me, and even if it were filed in Pakistan, US courts would dismiss it immediately under the new law.  Indeed, it is MY reputation as a writer that has suffered damage, as has my ability to sell my books and have them read and discussed in academia and elsewhere. I have even obtained restraining orders against the letter–the Lahore Civil Courts have declared it null and void!

Given Syracuse University Press’ intransigence and refusal to honor the terms of their contract, I have decided to pull out of it and am now about to go the route of self-publication. This means the book will be available to be purchased and read and reviewed by January of 2011, via Amazon and other booksellers on the internet. A book order form will be available shortly on this website as well.

TDR–The Drama Review, will be publishing an essay about this sordid affair and SUP’s cowardly, unconsionable behavior in a forthcoming issue, written by the Founding Editor and world-renowned and respected guru of Performance Studies, Richard Schechner himself. DO look out for it–AND ORDER MY BOOK IF YOU BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH!! Support my labor of love–which is how I see my memoir, a love-letter to a Pakistan that has sadly vanished–and those of you who teach courses in Memoir, Creative Writing, Literature by and about Women, Cultural and Performance Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, US Multicultural Literature as well as South Asian History, Literature and Culture–I URGE you to order the book for your courses in the spring and fall next year.

Now read the “offending chapter” for yourselves and make up your own minds!


Chapter 5:      Mad/medea

Prologue: The Kiss.

What is it about traveling to foreign places and inhabiting other spaces that is so alluring to those who can’t sit still but must keep forever moving, jumping on and off trains, buses, planes, breathing in take-off anxiety, breathing out yes, I made it, I’m gone, off, away, this time to a chateau deep in the heart of La Suisse with Lac Leman glittering in the distance, atop a hill on a plain full of grape vines and cherry trees bursting with summer fruit ripe enough to lock lips with…what an embrace, passionate yet satisfying enough to make me say no to the puis-je te voir encore? coming out of the tree limbs I have climbed up my first afternoon there. How stupid to think one can prolong a moment.

The wind is smacking its scratchy kisses all over my body as it whistles and blows for the second of three days, rattling the white-curtained French windows so loud we think they’ll shatter like fragile wineglasses. “After the third day it must die, it’s the nature of the bise,” pronounces Sophie reassuringly, with a smiling authority in her French-accented English. She is a native of these parts, and will be the caretaker for a motley crew of writers, all six of us working on our masterpieces over the next three weeks of July 2005. Our first dinner conversation the night before, had been about cancer and heart disease, agonizing decisions about whether to have that wine or forego the coffee instead, go for seconds on that delicious entrée with crème béchamel or hold back, resist; but the real conversation had been about men lurking in cherry trees and Scheherezade telling tall tales to the man who is her master, so that she can live, another day, another moment. Was that clever, as most readers believe, or stupid? I could have told her what I meant to tell the man in the tree; no one lives forever, whether you feed on stories or cherries.

Another year, another season, in Cairo one late December evening, I sit facing windows opening onto the balmy night air softly billowing in off the Nile, downing scotch which I hate, hoping the writing might channel itself via my romanticised imitation of Hemingway. Odd that I would attempt such an impersonation in an apartment adorned by pictures of a very young and rather stunning-looking Nawal, exhuding her fierce brand of sexual power as only a woman without a clitoris can do. Women Without Men notwithstanding, bulls and blood haunt my mind, so when I arrive at the chateau in La Suisse  and am shown in to the room marked “Hemingway” and told it will be mine for the duration of my stay—not Camus, not Nabokov, but Hemingway– and then later that afternoon when I discover a rusting steel bull with a horn broken off its head lying on the grass in front of its hoof, well then, I think, this has to be a portent. I must be meant to follow in the great writer’s footsteps! Except, you see, I don’t want to end up as a rusting one-horned bull in somebody else’s garden … even a garden that grew as hardy a plant as my friend Madina, Maddy, Mad/medea….she with passions that could kill…or like the character Firdaus in Nawal’s novel I so admire, for growing even in a garden of filth, degradation and poverty…nor do I want to be a flower in a garden celebrating the life of a writer whose machismo provides the courage I need to fly from home, and back again…to kiss the lives and loves and cherry trees I want to hold onto but can’t…

Part 2

The cherry trees in Mad’s mother’s back garden in Lahore were not exactly cherry trees, they were one could say, the Paki version of cherry trees; that is, cherry-like fruit with pits in it that you had to climb into the tree to get into your mouth, only the orbs were plumper and more elongated and the flesh purple, not dark red, although blood stains after they’ve dried can be jamun stains or cherry stains, take your pick. And Mad always did look like she had blood on her mind, she was ready to beat the living daylights out of any man-or woman, girl or boy, animal or human-older or younger, fatter or thinner, bigger or smaller—who dared say or do anything she perceived as taking advantage of her.  You couldn’t really bullshit her, though, not then, not now, why, that’s as unlikely a possibility as a middle-aged Pakistani woman climbing up a Swiss tree to be fed cherries by a man she’s never met before…

The loo gives me no respite that afternoon in June. Lahori heat is like the passion I will know later…unremitting, sans remords, in its exacting, exhausting demands upon my body, my soul, and most importantly, my mind. Yes, the loo, like the bise, does not just kiss my skin’s surface, ohno, it scratches deep into the dermis of my thoughts, drenching them in sweat so all I can do is lie there, all a-quiver, waiting for the power outage which will surely come, yes, from an excess of energy and the heat it generates…impossible to sustain for long…yet here we are, here I am, waiting for the fans to stop whirring and then…that’s my signal to jump out of the sweat-drenched bed and race over to Mad’s, as if running at topspeed down the road could prevent the sun from roasting me to a crisp….and then, upup, up the jamun tree in the sinewy silence of its welcome shade, there to sit in the broad pit of its stomach, contemplating the taste of purple rain in my mouth. I stick my tongue out and laugh when Mad appears at the bottom of the tree, commanding me to throw down the fattest juiciest jamuns to her…she is too lazy to climb up and get them….

She completely overshadowed that poor Mahmud , her maddeningly sweet and sour Viola larger in every way than his sappy Sebastian. I’m bigger than you, her movements taunted him, conveying more than the flowery gibberrish that was Shakespeare to our ears, our very own Sheikh Piru…we went only to see the hilarious spectacle of a boy dressed up as a girl, or perhaps we went to see a more truthful masquerade, Madina the fresh-faced 16 year old daughter of a 6 foot 5, fair-skinned Pathan alpha male and South African-born firebrand mother of Indian origin and darker hue, Madina playacting as the man she could have been….Or perhaps we went because we could get permission for the outing, it was, after all, an elite affair on the lawns behind the Punjab Club, Twelfth Night by the Alpha Players, a new English language theatre company launched in Lahore of the 1960s by Farrukh Nigar Aziz, or Apa Farrukh as she was fondly known by those close to her and even by those not…Big sister Farrukh, generous of girth and spirit, freshly dead, I hear, as I go flying off again to perch for a moment on distant bloodred  trees whose fruit stains my pastel pink pants, like age spots on a brown complexion, not there when I last looked, now impossible to scrub off…

And so. I think perhaps Madina will always be Viola in my mind, an image of fresh-faced violence , an innocently-masked fury lurking not too far from the surface, ready to unleash a volley of abuse, at unsuspecting rickshaw drivers and best friends alike. No one could accuse her of discrimination! Teri ma, behn aik kar diyaaan gi, behenchod, madarchod, you sister-fucker, what do you think you can charge me 20 rupees for a ride from the college to my friend’s house in Chowni? ? ki samjhiya ai meinoon? I’m no fool, okay, I know you people, always trying to take advantage of poor innocent girls like me…get out out, before I call for  the police or my brother to beat the shit out of you, or my friend Fawzia here, she’ll bring her servants, her brother out in a minute….

I’m appalled, ohmygod, why did I agree to take the rickshaw ride with her back home from college, me, her star-struck junior, freshly in love with her Ariel in yet another Sheik Piru production, this time on the stage of the most famous girls’ college in Lahore….i want to shrivel up, become a mango skin she could slip and break her pretty neck on, anything to stop these terrible words flying out of her mouth at breakneck speed, I mean I’ve never even heard some of these terms…sister-fucker? Sweet Jesus, what would the nuns at the Convent we both attended before college think if they ever heard the Captain of Unity House carrying on this way? Is she quite mad, I think, she can’t be serious about my going in to call my servants or brother out to get mixed-up in this low-class brawl, what if the servants really did come out, holy Moses, I’d be in deep doodoo…I mean what if my elderly aunt stuck her head out her window at this very minute? I’d be blamed for causing her a heart attack! Worser and worser, what if mummy came back and heard all this ruckus and me in Mad’s unsalutary company (I’d been warned several times of the ill effects on my girlish reputation should I continue in my dazed pursuit of her). Oh dear, oh dear, and she’d know I’d gotten back home on a rickshaw without her maternal permission… Just as I’m about to collapse under the weight of all the what if’s and thoughts of ensuing punishments, the volley of curses stops. “Here, take these ten rupees,” gruffly warm now, “be a good boy” (boy? The man is old enough to be her grandfather!)—shabash, yes, go get yourself something to eat and drink, it’s a hot day, you look tired, go on now….smiling sweetly, Viola’s back again, and she’s ravenous for those fried pakoras stuffed with onions and chilli peppers she can smell being fried in our kitchen for afternoon tea. I smile weakly at her as she grabs my arm and says, “we deserve something tasty after that, don’t we? Aren’t you glad I saved you ten bucks?” I stagger up the steps to the side door of the house, suddenly exhausted, and yes, quite famished, Those pakoras do smell great , nodding agreement with Maddy, as usual, who looks flushed after her most recent performance. We go in, and I find myself thinking fleetingly of the rickshaw driver and how his lower lip quivered uncontrollably as he faced the torrent of Mad. A skinny man with a white day-old stubble on his face, he looked like he could have used some pakoras too. Madina ate a plateful , then another, while my cook gestured to me that he didn’t have any more prepared. I wondered what I’d say to mom when she got home for tea without pakoras.

Madina’s father is dead. He has always been dead, for as long as I’ve known her, and of her. I have often wondered how he could have allowed himself to marry an outsider, a woman like Fallahat no less, so ugly by Pakistani standards, dark and thick-featured, and a writer to boot! And not just any writer—but a real Marxist, a woman whose experiences as a”colored” girl growing up in apartheid-era South Africa radicalized her in ways that surely impacted the minds and personalities of her unconventional daughters. And her father, not just any man, but a Pakistani man, and a Pathan at that! The most conservative of tribes gave him his enviable whiteness and long, muscular legs ( he was, remember, a tall man, whose military career further enhanced the muscled Pathani  physique, suitable for men who live the hard life of mountainfolk). Clearly, he was a “khar-dimagh”-a man with an uncommonly stubborn, don’t-give-a-shit-about-what-anyone-thinks streak; a man who valued a woman with a brain in lieu of beauty, imagine! An unusual man by any standard, but one, I hear, given to bursts of uncontrollable rage, during one of which he fired a gun at a boy he thought was out to besmirch his eldest daughter Madina’s honor, Madina, named after a city sacred to Muslims, Madina who was then all of 9 and a quarter years old. Soon thereafter he dropped dead of a heart attack, or perhaps an excess of bile. No one really knows.

Maddy’s baby sister is Pakistan’s answer to the ballooning beauty of Liz Taylor. I could tell you a thing or two about that Fareeha, oh yes, how, for instance she was rumored to be the favorite mistress of our beloved President Musharraf (or should I call him BUSHarraf)—how her extraordinary tantrums caused the cinematically-inclined brothers to spend the entire decade of the 1970s filming a movie in which she stars as a doe-eyed virgin who becomes the love object of a tribal dope-smuggler with a heart of gold, an entire decade because she just gave them all such a hard time–how she married first for love, then divorced, then married a plastic surgeon who lives in Silicone Valley while she spends her time filming prostitutes in Lahore’s Red Light district. Suffice it to say, however, that I was smitten by her arrogant beauty as I was by her older sister’s flair for the dramatic. “I hate her;” she continues calmly, “she is a bloody bitch, a madwoman who thinks nothing of insulting her mother, brother and sister on a daily basis. I don’t know how you can possibly be her friend,” this, with a glance that withers me with its scorn, “…mark my words, she will betray you the second you are of no use to her…tell her to get lost, fuck off,” all of which I convey in as delicate a fashion as possible to Mad in the adjoining room where the ceiling fan is making a screeching sound I wish would stop.

“What did she say? WHAT DID THAT HUSSY SAY? “ screams Madina, the decibel level of her voice drowning out the screeching fan. “Im gonna gouge out her eyes, tear out her tongue, hack off her breasts, pull out every strand of hair in her head that lying, scheming WHORE…”spluttering gobs of spit fly everywhere as I try and duck them rather unsuccessfully. ‘Go on, tell her, TELL HER what I’m saying, every word…” I run out before she shoves me out the two-panelled door. Breathless, wiping Mad’s clammy spit off my cheek, I plead with Fareeha, “your sister loves you; look, she’s just a little upset because you didn’t praise her directorial debut, you know how she values your opinion and thinks you are so lovely and really you are sisters, you shouldn’t fight so much, think of your poor mother…” I sound trite and lame even to myself, an edge of desperation to my voice as I wonder at this pathetic role I find myself playing, me, who only ever wanted to star in my own show. Fareeha cocks an icily raised eyebrow at me and permits herself a sardonic smile. “She’s just jealous of me, you know. That’s all. Don’t you agree?” Who can resist the dazzling row of pearls she flashes at the fortunate? Not me. I mutter, Judas-like, “yes, yes, I do see,” and then, to redeem my betrayal, “but please, can you just make peace , now that you and I understand what causes your sister to behave the way she does toward you..” my voice trails off in a note of hope, and taking the slight nod of her regal head as a promising sign, I race out before she can accuse me of misinterpreting her bodily signals. “Maddy my dear, “ I fawn like the serf I am in this drama, “she says she’s sorry and that she wants to make up with you.” Madina, ever gracious in her moments of victory, smiles with a sweetness that has never ceased to amaze me, ”why of course; she is my baby sister, I love her, what do you think…I know its hard for her to have such a talented older sister, she has always felt threatened by me, poor thing, and she thinks ammie loves me more and I know how that hurts her. It isn’t true, but perception is everything. I know she is upset because my direction of The House of Bernarda Alba has won so many rave reviews, and she, poor thing, is just going nowhere in her acting career. How many times I’ve told her to come act for me, to stop wasting her time with those third-rate , shiftless, corrupt, money-grabbing bullshit artists, those P… assholes…” Her object of venom shifted, Mad opens the dividing door between her bedroom and Fareeha’s, and with a lavish gesture of outstretched arms straight out of a Punjabi Lollywood movie, she embraces her sister.

I never have forgiven my parents for not letting me act in Bernarda Alba. Mad’s final year at Kinnaird College for Women, the spring of 1975, and she actually asks me to perform for her! Oh the glory I could have had, and the fun I missed out on! And to have been part of an outlaw experiment, since Mad’s production was not permitted to be performed on the mainstage, for fear of the competition it might—and did– offer the longstanding resident director. In typical Maddy fashion, she refused to take no for an answer, and proceeded to claim the outdoor stage where no plays had ever been performed, as her special space. Still, I got my back years later.  As a respectably married woman, with my reputation no longer my parents’ responsibility, I returned to Lahore in the spring of 1987 to perform—finally!—in a role that seems to have been tailor-made for me. The play, in which I am now the madwoman, was written by a man who later became Madina’s third husband and in-house playwright for the company she founded in the mid-198Os , a time of unparalleled cultural and political repression under the military dictatorship of the late Zia-ul-Haque, to whom we all owe thanks for the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan—an extremism which passed laws in parliament that targeted  religious minorities and most visibly curtailed the rights of women of all classes.1

But I get ahead of myself. It is 1978, our charming, putatively socialist Prime Minister is still in power, Zulfi the populist whose over-confidence will cost him his life, and I am freshly enrolled in the masters program for English Literature at Government College, my first time ever in a co-ed institution. Government College, that venerable institution, beloved of Ravians—as all attendees are called, in deference to the once-roaring waters of the Ravi river which flows in the vicinity—and where we, playing hookey once or twice, tried to paddle canoes but got caught in the sandbars because the waters were so pitiably shallow. Madina, who took off to China to study Mandarin after she graduated two years ago from Kinnaird, has also joined the masters program, even though she is senior to most of us fresh baccalaureates. It is the first day of classes, and already the air is thick with stories of Mad’s scandalous behavior abroad. “Did you know she became pregnant there, with a chinaman, imagine, and she’s had it aborted, tobah. Tobah,” I overhear the whispered gossip wending its way from one end of the classroom to the other.” But listen, yaar,” says Samina to Nuzhat in what could only be described as a stage whisper, loud enough for all the audience to hear, “she still got this nice desi man to marry her, despite the shame!” “Haan, haan,” Nuzhat chimes in loud and clear, “He’s got a pretty good civil service job, yaar, and he’s so sweeet-looking, like Hazrat Eisa.” Apart from the fact that he is tall and thin and sports a straggly brown beard I have no idea why these girls think Sunny resembles Christ, but I suppose anyone married to Mad would need the patience of a saint if not a prophet. I’m looking forward to seeing Mad again, not having been in touch for these past two years. Will she have changed, I wonder a bit apprehensively?

I needn’t have worried. She walks in wearing a white cotton sari with a jamun-colored border and scissor-toed slippers, her wavy hair tied in a severe knot at the base of her neck, her trade-mark unibrow glowering at us all, as she unceremoniously plonks herself down on the first row bench, even though there are already three girls occupying it. “ I can’t walk all the way to the back because I am wearing a sari” she offers by way of explanation, and sure enough, one of the three girls vacates her seat just as the professor walks in. Poor Samina is asked to explain why she isn’t already seated like everyone else. And as she stammers a response, Mad smiles her violet sweetness, while the boys in the back row look visibly uncomfortable. The big one with saucers for eyes simply stares, and when I glance his way I realize that it isn’t Maddy he’s staring at, but me.

We take up as though we’d never left off. But something has changed. Maybe it’s the eyes, I think, they seem, I don’t know, just different somehow. Veiled, in a way, shielding a secret, I begin to imagine, but what? The subject of aborted pregnancies never comes up, one wouldn’t dare broach it in her presence. Oh no, some things you never bring up with She-who-must-be-obeyed, though your own private life is never off limits to her. “So, do you like him? “ she looks at me slyly, “Blackbeard has clearly got the hots for you, just look at him stare at you all the time! Be careful he doesn’t lock you in his chamber and chop your head off after he’s made you suck his cock, wow, judging by his size that thing between his thighs has got to be humongous, he he he!!!” Her language and cackling have grown more vulgar in the interim years, she’s taken to using vernacular idiom which sounds horrifically obscene to my English-medium ears. “Fawzia’s going to lulli put, lulli put,” she chants and chortles like a sex-crazed adolescent boy from Bhatti Gate where all the lower class people live, except, ofcourse, she’s punning on Gulliver’s Travels, clever mixture of High and Low, English education and Punjabi living that she is. Tarannum, the new best friend I’ve acquired at GC, laughs raucously, immensely enjoying Mad’s vulgarity, while I, newly conscious of having turned into an elegant Swan, refuse to be drawn in to the hilarity. “He can’t even speak, just stares like an oaf, you can’t seriously think I’d be interested in him, do you? And please stop talking all this sex stuff, I find it most distasteful…” my voice is drowned out by a fresh wave of loud laughter that draws the attention of all the other boys and girls enjoying a tea-break in the winter sun on the steps of the department veranda. Somewhat apart stands the object of our mirth, unabashedly staring me down, his body draped in a black khaddar shawl casting a giant shadow on the red-brick wall behind him. I toss my head in embarrassment, pride, disgust, I cannot tell which, and, turning my back on the merriment and the piercing stares, walk back up the steps into the coolness of the classroom.

Since she doesn’t usually sport sunglasses, it’s a little weird to see her come in, even in the already-90-degree heat of a punishing sunny day in  May, uncharacteristically late to class at that, wearing Jackie-O sized goggles and what seems to have become her favorite type of dress. This time its an off-white saree with a rich red border, dark enough to be almost purple, staining the white like a blood-stain left by cherries or jamuns, take your pick. “Whaaat is tha matter, sweet ladies and good gentlemen of Lahore, you seem vaary distracted this morning,” declaims our Shakespeare Professor Mr. Rauf, seeing us all turn our attentive gaze away from him. Shaking his index finger at Mad, he asks in a tone meant to be reprimanding, even sarcastic, but which comes out sounding oddly plaintive in the end, “perhaps Lady Madina of T.V fame would care to explain her late arrival causing rude interruption please, yes, maybe you are thinking because you are big TV star now we will forgive your lateness, but, beti, you are like my daughter and I don’t want you to miss any part of the important lecture,” pleading now, “you are so bright, we must ensure your first-class position, so please, if you don’t mind to try to be on time, yes? We are so honored to have you here…” he blinks ingratiatingly behind those thick, black-rimmed lenses, and wouldn’t you know it, Madina shoots back,” Mr Rauf, Sir, how dare you presume to question my lateness, I am late not because of my acting job on TV but because my husband beat me this morning, have you no sensitivity, no shame sir, in accusing a poor, battered woman of deliberately coming late to your class? Is this my fate,” turning to us now, she pulls the dark glasses off her face in a sweeping gesture, “battered at home, and now here at college? Is there to be no place of refuge for me, no respite from cruelty?” “ Oh, lady, lady, dear Madam, my daughter, “ poor Rauf sahib, tripping over his mixed-up terms of address, exclaims abjectly, “  I am sorry, I am sorry, oh dear oh dear, I know not what to say, this is a dark moment, we are with you…class dismissed.” Bowing and scraping as though he were a minor character on a Shakespearian stage, Mr Rauf makes his exit, to leave the rest of us to gape and gawk at the blueblack bruises Madina shows off to us first around her eyes, then the waist area exposed between the blouse and the petticoat of the saree. Who knows which other parts of her body she would have made us witness, the presence of the opposite sex clearly not daunting her, had Mr Anjum not sailed in early to direct our attention to Greek Tragedy.

I cannot quite believe it. Neither can Tarannum. As we sit in the shade of the big Neem tree after class, devouring hot spicy samosas and sipping ice-cold orange Mirindas, Tarranum reasons, “Yaar, how is this possible? That Lilly-livered Sunny, I can’t imagine him, of all people, hitting this Amazon; I think it must be the other way around, she’s got to be smacking him around, maybe she’s making this up so we can feel sorry for her instead!” Thrilled with her powers of deduction, Tarannum begins to giggle, then catches my expression and stops. “I’m sorry, yaar, I know she’s your friend, but think about it, she could crush that skinny Sunny between her thighs in a minute, ha ha,” she winks at me, “you know what I mean…ok, ok, I’ll stop now…” she trails off sensing my discomfort. Its true Mad and I seem to have drifted apart, the crudeness of her personality more apparent, or just more of an issue with me now than in preceding years. Still, I am a loyal soul, and “those were real bruises, Tarannum,” I retort with real anger. Perhaps it’s the freshness of those images, or because I suddenly recall the way in which another close friend has changed herself from the outside in to conform to her beloved’s image of the right kind of woman, that I feel a tightening in my chest, like a skein of wool being gathered back in. “Look, there is Mr. Big, devouring you with his eyes again,” rolling her own, Tarannum moans only half-jestingly,. “ How come no one ever looks at me like that??” I turn, and ever so slightly, I give a nod in his direction.


There you stand

on those steps

on that hot summer’s day

Such a dream come true

Ghalib’s saqi, my muse

With a toss of your head

and a swing of your hips

how you hiss, stomping off

oh my love

sweet young love

when you say in that way

what’s the matter with you

has the cat got your tongue?

I wish then that the earth

would swallow me whole

chador, beard, passion



I‘d rather BE Ghalib

and/not his damned saqi

Writing those poems

yes inspiring those rhyme schemes

I don’t want to give up

my power you see

so I’ll be my own

slave, thank you, pretty please

but remember

dear departed

there always shall be

that question  to consider

when our souls clash again

what shall we both do

having written our ghazals

always already

so hopeless, so silly

Imagining Forever

being Mad about Me.

He never stood a chance.

After a year of pursuing my doctorate in America, having jilted Khadim Bakri in a manner satisfying only to one who adores the feel of crushed ice burning holes in her teeth, I heard through Tarannum that he and Madina had tied the knot. It was the beginning of summer session, and I was surprised, I think. In my new life as a graduate student in Massachussetts I hadn’t had much time to think about GC days much, or anything else really except getting through my courses which were taught so differently and expected a whole new set of skills from me. Well, that’s not quite true. I had gone out on many dates—how could I not, coming from a place where that sort of thing could only be done on the down-low? I’d also organized an international fashion show during my very first semester in the fall, with the help of my undergraduate roommate Debbie, in aid of Afghan refugees streaming into Pakistan as the USSR invaded their country. That was when I’d first met B, since we needed someone with a car, even a beaten-up one, to pick up and return clothes from Boston’s fashionista stores.

I fell in love with him over winter break, waiting in line for Steve’s Ice Cream during my first snowstorm. He picked me up on a Saturday evening, after I’d just finished the first draft of my master’s thesis on Edith Wharton’s novella, Ethan Frome. We stood for an hour in the freezing cold of a Boston winter-night, the windchill factor and swirling snowflakes pushing me ever closer to B to grab some body heat, until finally, he put his arm around me and we giggled all the way through the ice-cream sundae we shared, hot despite the cold.

It was American-style love, yes, I even sent him a giant valentine that spring, and bought him a long coat to hang on his lanky frame. “You look like Omar Sharif, “ I said with stars in my eyes, while the pack of Paki boys he lived with shook with wicked glee. Ok, so I had bought it at Bowl and Board and who knows who had lived in it before it got to B, but still, no reason to make fun of a poor girl just because she’s a Paki too, “ a desi trying to act amriki,” I could just see the laughter in their eyes. He never did wear that coat, but he did marry me. After I proposed, ofcourse—in the dawn following a night when we stayed up arguing whether Jorge Luis Borge’s short story, “The Garden of the Forking Path” was a challenge to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Being a Phd. Student in Solid State Physics at MIT, he had an edge over me that I must have been an idiot to think I could beat. But try I did—and having exhausted his scientific logic with my mad energy and most unreasonable reason—well, dear reader, I got him to laugh at me, love me, and agree to marry me.  We had a big wedding back home even though his father had no money. On our wedding day my mother broke her arm trying to fix a leaky toilet, his sister accused their brother of molesting her little girls, and my grandfather only half-jestingly warned him about a wife who strode out ahead of him. If this were a novel—which it’s not– one might have said of our beginnings as a couple, that they were rife with metaphor.

“Madina pursued me,”  proffers Bakri by way of  voluntary explanation. We’re lying in a bed in Bath, in a quaint inn in a quaint village, a destination to which our colonial education has led us most logically. I’m faintly bored by his need to explain, his search for redemption, which is not in my power to give. In any case, I need to worry about my own. But I listen. This is what I hear.

Bedroom Scene in Madina’s first husband’s house; Fawzia and she quite grown up now

Husband#1       Bloody bitch on wheels screaming virago cuntface screwingmachine take this thwackthwackthwack

Madina Behenchod,choothiasisterfucker I am Mad ina, Mad/ea don’t mess with me


spitting venom in his face I’ll scratch up that prettyboy face of yours

jesus christ my ass HOW YOU HAVE FOOLED THEM

and don’t forget my

sisterfriendsexysoulmate FAWZIA

she’s good in a catfight you’d like that wouldn’t you cacklecacklechortle


in the Government College Compound the next day110 degrees Fahrenheit

Chorus of                                the clock is ticking

Government College               time’s a-passing

Students                                  Mack the Knife is back in town

singing in the sweat

allah-hoo hooallahahoo

Mad-dy Maddy Quite Contrite-ly

why won’t your marriage work

Maddymaddy Quite Cunt-rightly

you’ve made your bed of thorns

Now lay in it BITCH

enter Fawzia followed by  Bakri the Beard, a not-quite mullah devouring her with his BIGBIG eyes; a typical B(h)ollywod scene

Bakri   there you stand on those steps

on a hot summer day

the Loo of Lahore makes my dream come true

Ghalib’s saqi is my muse too

with a toss of your hair

and a swing of your hips

you hiss stomping off

Fawzia    what’s the matter with you has the cat got your tongue?

Bakri   I wish the earth would

sWallow me (w)Hole


Fawzia             arreyyaar what is this


get a-hold getagrip

this love-in-cholera isn’t


there is

strains of  chura lyia hai dil ko jo tum nain, you who have stolen my heart, from a popular Bollywood musical, play in the background

I’d rather be Ghalib

and not his damned Saqi

writing those poems

yes inspiring those rhymeschemes

I don’t want to giveup

my power you see

so I’ll be my own slave

thank you pretty please

Fawzia stomps off tossing her head. Bakri watches and waits for the duration of the play alternately weeping and jerking off, laughing and jerking off, playing the sitar and jerking off, drinking and jerking off, fucking Madina and jerking off. He becomes Madina’s second husband as Fawzia disAppears to enter a different land(e)scape: London, New York, Berlin cityscapes of the Other

Madina            eat my cuntlike you did

in the early dayswhydon’tyou

sonofabitchwhatsgotten in to you

Bakri   you are a whore not a woman

eating the entrails of shellfish

you crunch to the marrow then spit out like a peasant

aren’t you ashamed

of how FAT you’ve become eatingdrinking like there’s no tomorrow

Fawzia I am COMing to Janat-ul-Amrika whyohwhy did you leave me in this refuse heap of La(w)hori history with a madwoman

Bakri turned Khadim shudders. I pull up the sheets to cover him, following the female tradition of the East, at least in this instance. Drama is such good diversion. “ I’m telling you, she’s not a woman. She’s a , a , I don’t know, something else, too terrible to name. Have you seen her eat lately? If it can be called that. I’m telling you, when I saw her devour plate after plate of food in Dhaka, and then put the entire lobster whole in her mouth, whiskers, eyes, everything,” I’m laughing now, inspite of myself,” no I’m telling you, there is no exaggeration here.” He suddenly turns quiet, those big eyes clouding over, no beard to hide the unmistakeable quivering of his chin. “Come on, yaar, “ I roll on to him,”relax, shake off this Mad obsession, you’re with me, remember?” But there’s no shaking her out of him.

I piece together the story in dribs and drabs. I realize I was the conduit for an early exchange of love letters between Maddy and her third husband-to-be when I dropped off at his London apartment en route back to New York from Lahore, what I thought was just a videotape.  It was a recording of the Lahore premiere of his first play performed by  Mad’s theatre group on International Women’s Day in1987. “You are perfect as the madwoman, and I very much like your vocal rendition of Bulleh Shah’s mystical verse, such a powerful voice you have.” Even as I acknowledge his praise for my work, my first ever serious dramatic role on a Lahori stage , I realize as we watch the tape together, its really Mad’s performance as the husband-murdering adulteress that he’s  interested in. Yes, she did direct herself well, but then, I think wryly, the role seemed so fitting, somehow. We both look at each other at the moment she is wielding her axe on the TV screen, and he admits with a boyish grin so charming on an older man, “I did write that with her in mind.”

Still, I think nothing of it, for matters more weighty than romantic love are on my mind, as they are on just about everyone else’s mind that I know of within the Pakistani intelligentsia and particularly amongst those concerned with  the fate of  secular democracy and women’s rights under Zia’s increasingly alarming Islamist regime.

The play I had just finished performing in as member of  Mad’s new theatre group, has been written by Salman while he is still an exile in London, in danger of being arrested in Pakistan for what the military state considers his seditious activities. He was a student leader during Z.A Bhutto’s government, a People’s Party union leader, a threat therefore to the illegitimate military dictatorship of Zia. From his office at Amnesty International, he penned this play about the lives of four female inmates of a Pakistani prison during Zia’s rule. A horrific tale, of women beaten, raped and tortured in their homes, on the streets and inside the jail cells. One woman wreaks vengeance against a system that gives her no rights by killing the 80-year old man who beats her daily after she is forced to marry him at the age of 17; another is raped and impregnated  by prison guards after she is thrown in for the crime of dancing on a sufi saint’s shrine, since dancing and singing by women is forbidden according to the shari’a laws being rammed through the previously secular legal system of Pakistan by the Ruler-of-God’s henchmen.  Indeed, several cases which had come to light in the months and years prior to the play being written and performed and several which happened shortly after its first performance on the lawns of the Goethe Institute in Lahore,  illustrated, almost uncannily, the horrifying turn the country of my birth had taken vis a vis women’s rights in the years since Zia-ul-Haque had taken power.   Hamza Alavi, a Pakistani scholar tracking the legacy of Zia’s regime in this respect, highlights some of the most egregious of these cases. He writes,

The most notorious case is that of Safia Bibi, an 18 year old virtually blind girl, the daughter of a poor peasant, who was employed in the house of the local landlord as domestic help. She was raped by her employer’s son and then by the landlord himself. As a result the girl became pregnant. Her illegitimate child is said to have died soon after birth. The girl’s father filed a case with the police alleging rape. The Court acquitted the landlord and his son for lack of evidence as required under the Zina Ordinance, the evidence of the girl not being admissible and four pious Muslim witnesses to the repeated acts of rape not being available. But by virtue of her accusation the girl herself, being unmarried, was found guilty of zina, her pregnancy being proof of it, and she was sentenced to three years in prison, public lashing (15 lashes) and Rs. 1000 fine. In passing this sentence, the Court said that it was being lenient in view of her age and disability! This case created an uproar and turned out to be an issue on which the Women’s Action Forum began campaigning. In the light of public outrage, General Zia himself intervened and got the Federal Shariat Court to take over the case, suo moto. An exceptionally liberal judge quashed the outrageous conviction of the girl on the ground that if in the case of rape the man (or men) were acquitted due to lack of the required evidence, the woman too was to be given the benefit of doubt. But there was no question here of prosecuting the rapists and bringing them to justice.1

Indeed, a year after Barri was first performed, a judicial panel of Islamic scholars heard arguments about Pakistani laws that accord the legal testimony of women half the weight of the testimony of men. Back in New York, my blood boils when I read in the New York Times that a Moslem clergyman at the hearing asserted that women were emotional and irritable, with inferior faculties of reason and memory. He said courts were justified in discounting their testimony along with that of ”the blind, handicapped, lunatics and children.” It was precisely to counter such anti-women prejudices and laws being enacted against them as a consequence of such beliefs that Salman wrote the play which ended up bringing us all together.

I don’t know it then, but this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. “here’s looking at you, kids,” Bogey might as well have said  to buck Mad and me up in the coming decade. She directs plays on every aspect of the grave situation unfolding in Pakistan, I chronicle them in my scholarly essays and poems. Helping her build her troupe into a first-of-its-kind, leading theatre company of Pakistan, a paradoxical presence on a fundamentalist landscape, is her new husband, the Man from London.

Part 3

“She turned him mad, you know,” Tarannum turns to me conspiratorially as we sit cracking open peanuts on a lazy Friday afternoon at her gilded new house on the other side of the railway tracks from my parents’ modest bungalow in Lahore. I am visiting again, on my annual December trip between semesters. “Friday is now the day off from work, no more weekends, it’s the Islamic way,” says T in her working woman mode, rolling her eyes in that familiar way. “Anyway, as I was saying,…ki hogya thuanoon, Riaz baba, Pino,” leaving the tale hanging in suspense, she excuses herself to chase down the good-for-nothing cook and gal Friday to get them to serve us lunch in her modern kitchen where no food is cooked by the servants. “Oh no,” she explains, “they have their own kitchen, outside, this one is only for me and hubby and the kids to use when we feel like cooking.” “And how often is that?” I ask sarcastically,” “once a year?” She nods, laughing in typical T-style, a laugh so loud and raucous that even ten years of marriage to a khar-dimagh Pathan man hasn’t succeeded in toning it down. “It’s a good thing Hubby is out of town for the day on business and the boys are with their uncle and cousins,” giving me a generous hug now,” so we can be together, alone. She reminds me to call my mother and make sure my son is okay, so we can settle in to a nice, long, uninterrupted chat about our favorite characters.

“ Oh no, yaar, this seems too much like a bad Bollywood movie, come on,” I protest, “ you’re asking me to believe that a big man like Khadim Bakri allowed himself to be bullied into madness, I mean real insanity by our beloved Madina?” Shrugging off my incredulity, T continues undeterred. “I’m telling you, don’t believe if you don’t want,” “ okay, but how do you know this,” I butt in, “what do you think, these things can stay hidden?” she retorts, at which I wonder if she knows about Bath too, that could be sticky. “All right, go on,” I say hurriedly now, “I do have to be getting back soon.” “Well, during the final few months of their 2 year stint when she was studying Drama at the university in London, you know, he finally couldn’t take it anymore. He says she was abusive beyond belief, even broke his sitar one night during a fit of rage,” Tarannum is in top story-telling form now, I can see she is relishing the tale even as there’s no doubt she feels immense compassion for the sorry figure Bakri cuts in it. “so one night, maybe the same when she broke his instrument, he leaves the house at some unearthly hour, stark naked.” She pauses to observe the effect of this statement on my face. I am satisfyingly aghast. She continues. “Apparently it was very chilly, even in May, and when Maddy found him the next morning, after his disappearance caused her to run distractedly all over London looking for him..” I have a hard time envisioning Mad in the role of worried wife, but okay, “ well, she found him, stark naked,” she repeats, “under a lamppost in front of the most famous insane asylum in all of London.” Since this happens to be in the area of London they lived in, I don’t think Madina had to look too far or hard, certainly not all over London. And why no one found him before Mad arrived on the scene remains a mystery; it appears he allowed himself to be led like a lamb by his wife into the institution for the mentally ill, where he stayed for a month. Upon his return to the world of the sane, he discovered he was a free man. His wife had filed for divorce.

Years later, I am at home after a particularly grueling day of teaching and almost don’t answer the phone’s insistent ringing. Its him. I’ve heard about the divorce, ofcourse I have, but its been quite a while since our paths have crossed. “ I thought I’d do a Phd. In musicology, and the government gave me a handsome stipend to come here to SOAS.”  Okay, I say, that’s good. “Oh yes, “ he replies, “besides, I couldn’t let you be the only Doctor in our group,” I can almost hear him smiling. His new voice, with the old hesitance gone, irritates me for some reason. “Have you read Love and Death in the Time of Cholera?” he asks and when I say no, though I have, his disappointment is palpable over the phone lines. “Its our story, you know,” and as soon as he says that, right on cue, I am enraged and telling him I have to go practice my singing, abruptly hang up. “First, he has to take up the sitar to compete against my singing,” I find myself thinking narcissistically, while I try playing the attentive wife and mother over dinner a little later. “Then, he has to marry the woman who was my friend, not his,’ okay, that sounds weird even to me, “now he has to get a Phd just because I have one!” What I’m really steaming at, I admit to myself much later, is the enormity of his arrogance at still desiring me.

Your fingers are so perfect I like their tapered form, long, elegant like your neck, and the daintiest of feet toes painted red matching your lips and the cleft in your chin ever so slight your nose ohmylady with the recently acquired diamond glinting in the sun your eyes kohl-rimmed oases a man can rest in trekking across a thirsty desert by god when I first saw your picture in the papers announcing your 2nd position in the BA exams in the Punjab province I knew you were what our poets had been writing about all these centuries the perfection I had been searching for when I read you were enrolling in the English Lit masters program at GC I knew that’s where my destiny lay ….

The clichés finally catch up with me, at the end of a long season of drought. But droughts end, and incessant rain becomes oppressive. I am glad I am escaping the summer heat of Lahore despite the delight of the monsoons, and going home after completing my research on street theatre in contemporary Pakistan. Its been great fun hanging out with Maddy and the players, and everyone else besides. Now its time to return to my life in the States, via a stop in London to visit my brother for a few days, and a side trip to Bath for a day to reminisce about Chaucer. I smile to myself in the plane recalling how The Canterbury Tales were taught us by gap-toothed Professor Rafiq who always took care to wrap his one remaining strand of hair all the way around his cone-shaped skull, a piece of hair that caused greater merriment amongst us when it came undone and flopped around during his animated lectures than did the X-rated antics of the Wife of Bath.

I’m so enraged that he’s followed me home, I drive him around very fast in my little red jeep the color of fresh-spilt blood, round and round the twisting, hairpin bends in the mountains where I live, blaring music he begs me to switch off. One day, I find myself on a city street with my colleague Paul with whom I’ve just been to see The Cook, the Wife, the Lover and the Thief. I’ve asked Bakri to meet me at the corner of the street across from the theatre. There, en plein air, surrounded by strangers, having introduced him and Paul to each other, I say goodbye. Paul and I walk off, excitedly discussing the film, and if Bakri tries to wave, we don’t see him. A month later, when I am away at a conference in Canada, I am told by my husband that he’s called. I do not call him back.

Not too long afterwards, I come home from the university to a message on my machine. Its Tarannum’s hubby, of all the people, not T, not Mad, but Tarannum’s husband, calling to say he’s sorry to tell me that our mutual friend, Bakri, who only ever wanted to be a Khadim , is dead. He had just turned forty.



to grow

a man y

splendored —



its thick foliage

a veritable rainforest


plummage rich

brightly colored birds


deep hues greenbluered

blending then

se pa ra ting

the foliage provides cover

red screams

the birdsong

you see me

you don’t

a forest

is difficult to


the rainforest

so verdant


ecologically speaking

He never did stand a chance. Madina stands, though, winner of the Pride of Performance, Pakistan’s highest artistic award. Ironic that she should have been awarded this during a military dictatorship, given her principled stand against a prior undemocratic regime. I stand too, my research finally a published book on the importance of Mad’s brand of theatre on women’s rights in contemporary Pakistan.

Seminar on Women and Development, Lahore..

In the grand auditorium

next to Shirkat Gah

off  Ferozepur Road near

Kalma Chowk  in the

city of my birth, Lahore

I tear my hair out

whirling whirling

to the

songs of the sufis


by military dictators with

Religion on their minds

Dictators, fundamentalists, guardians

of female honor

snatched my dancing girl

from her saint’s shrine

beat her

cursed her

raped her

threw her in prison for her sinfulness

that became a bloated belly

what effrontery in an Islamic state

where only mullahs and military mustachioes

may drink and dance and do god’s will

at private parties

the public mustn’t find out about

And so;

twenty years later

here I am

at a seminar on

Women and Development

in the city of my birth


the same old whore I did back then

La-hore hasn’t changed much

I see

the same familiar faces in the

audience of the auditorium



still clamoring for Human Rights

for themselves

for their daughters

for the poor

for the minorities

Pakistan is still in debt

to the IMF and the World Bank

another military dictator in thrall

to the mullahs

has replaced the one

from twenty years ago

both blessed

by the Greatest Secular Democracy

in the world

So you see

we still need these seminars

and street theatre

on Women and Development

on my trips back home

to the developing world

I can count

on reprising

the mad dervish of my youth

a comforting thought

for an aging actress