I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Thursday, July 28, 2011

...Of Another Country

I've been aware of this malady of mine for a long time but it became painfully obvious around a weeek ago. I was sitting in an empty dining hall, perfunctorily changing channels on a beaten down old television when I stopped on PTV. They were showing an interview with the senior character actor AK Hangal. It was some fifteen minutes into watching it raptly that I came to a realization that I was probably the only person in Pakistan who, at 11pm on a Friday night, would willingly tune into PTV of all channels, watch a rather exhaustive interview with a 94 year old actor whom most people would only barely know of, and not only watch it but nod knowingly every time the words "Garam Hawa", "Homi Wadia" or "Prithvi Theatre" were mentioned. While I was thus a revereein' the interview ended and the credits rolled with Mehdi Hassan singing Nasir Kazmi,

"Bhooli bisri chand umeedain, chand fasanay yaad aaye
Tum yaad aaye aur tumhare saath zamanay yad aaye"

Inexplicably, my eyes grew moist.  It was then that I turned off the television in some alarm and left.

Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out this peculiar predicament. Why is it that I live a sort of double life in which the past plays a more important role than the present or the future. Why is it that I will gladly spend days upon days listening to or editing a 40 year old piece of music and consider it the most pleasurable experience imaginable when the very same piece of music will make grown men cover their ears and run for cover. Why do I spend (or did I spend) hours on the internet trying to find a site that will stream Turner Classic Movies so I can sit back and watch Preston Sturges marathons. Why do I know Monty Python jokes better than names of some of my family members?

It's not that I have an overpowering obsession with all things grey and mouldy, it's just that the past is more appealing to me than the present.And when I refer to the past and the present, I mean of course the cultural aspect. I don't want anyone to get the idea that I dream lovingly about the days of kerosene lamps and open air lavatories. It's the cultural, the artistic ephemera from the past that fascinates and captivates me, and I can't seem to find an explanation for it. I have a fairly active social life (or at least I did when I was in Lahore), am fairly proficient professionally and function adequately well in everyday situations. Yet always, and I mean always, at the back of my mind will be snippet of a Rafi song or a line from a Wodehouse novel or a scene from a Humphrey Bogart film. It's a semi-sleepwalking state that I've perfected to such an extent that except for the keenly observant, no one can usually guess that I'm actually thinking of something completely remote from the topic of conversation whenever I'm talking to them. Again, it's not that I have no interest in the present, or like Ignatius J Reilly from The Confederacy Of Dunces, consider everything modern 'an abortion of the highest order". I am a rabid fan of film, literature, television and some of the music of the present day, although I will admit my tastes differ slightly from the average.

Someone once asked Dylan why he played so many old songs on his radio show, "Well, there are more old songs than new ones y'know" was his reply. And I suppose that is an argument that can be advanced in my defence. There are more Rafi songs than Atif Aslam songs, more Wodehouse novels than David Mitchell novels, and according to the law of averages, proportionally more good Rafi songs than good Atif songs and so on. But popular taste, and indeed my taste doesn't work by this logic. It's something else that draws me to what I call entertainment and what others call, in a most appropriate word, "maghziyaat".I guess it's more of what Dylan meant when he wrote in Chronicles, and I'm paraphrasing here, that his world wasn't the world of the '60s, his world was the world of a hundred years ago; the world of the American civil war  that he spent hours every day reading about in the New York Public Library. The events in the daily newspapers of the 1860's were to him more relevant and more resonant than what was going on around him. That was also what attracted him to the folksong in the early part of his career, the fact that something was written decades ago yet was still relevant and alive.

I think maybe that frame of mind comes closest to describing my own. I believe music and film and literature from the past aren't things that come with expiry dates or notices that say 'You must be this old to enjoy this.' The fallacy that most people fall into is thinking that the exact opposite is true, that a Mehdi Hasan ghazal is something only 'Uncles' are supposed to enjoy and we'll be damned if we're caught listening to it. The same is obviously true the other way round and the members of one generation are generally averse to partaking in the pop culture of the ones that succeed it. Thanks to modern means of communication and dissimination, the past and the present are both right in front of us, to partake of as much as we like.

I don't know where I intend to go with this discussion ( or this one-sided ramble if you will ), but I started out attempting to identify what it was that makes me so attracted to the past. I think I tried a similar exercise previously, in a rather execrable little poem if I remember correctly *shudders*.  I haven't come to any conclusion but I think that if I can somehow balance, however precariously, the demands of what my father often refers to as 'PRACTICAL LIFE" (yes, he uses capitals when saying it), with the demands of say, knowing the names and artistic aachievements of Messrs Jerome Kern, Bulwer-Lytton, Bix Beiderbecke, Rex Harrison and Micheal Bloomfield, I might be able to achieve a rare distinction, a dual citizenship of the present and the past, which as they say, is another country.

Monday, July 25, 2011

...Of Five Weeks

It's been exactly five weeks since I came here from Lahore. "Here" being the place I'm currently ensconced in (I love that word) and the name of which I can't mention because of reasons too tedious to go into here. I had thought at the outset to write a journal. I thought I could overcome my natural laziness and get down to at least a cursory habit of regular writing, after all I had faithfully kept a journal for the whole six months I was at PMA. I kept at it for a week, writing in pencil because I'd been told that journals are best written in pencil, but eventually complacency interfered. The journal is now being used for jotting down stray thoughts that'll prolly be collected in a blogpost. It wasn't just complacency though. The fact that nothing ever happens where I am living contributed directly to the cessation of my pencilling. And when I say that nothing happens here, I mean just that. Here's a brief rundown of an average day.

Get up around 8.
Shower and such.
See the two or three patients that come to the clinic.
Play video games till 2.
Lunch.
Nap till 6(aka roll around in bed trying to sleep while fanning yourself with a folded up newspaper).
Go out for a bit of exercise (only the first week)/Watch movies/television shows/documentaries on The Dude* till dinner.
Drive two miles to where the inhabitants gather every night, have dinner, do the day's only bit of socialising.
Drive two miles back and go straight to bed.

*The Dude being my laptop, named after the person who's lazy footsteps I seem to be following, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski.

It's not just my innate introversion and asocial tendency that's led me to spend my days as described above. It's a mixture of being miles away from other people, lack of access to electricity, the telephone, the tv, the cellphone, the internet and other similar modern abominations and yes, my innate introversion and asociality that's turned me into either a modern day Thoreau communing with nature or a slightly paunchy, mustachio'd version of Rousseau's Emily. Yes, mustchio'd. I've decided to keep a moustache in lieu of a pet and I can say it's proving to be a great companion. Many an idle hour has been spent twirling the edges of said fungus while lying on my bed staring at the ceiling. But gentle reader, I hope you don't get the impression that I'm living in a sort of Kafka-esque morass of utter despondency and boredom. There are distractions, a few every day, that help tide the day over and have helped me while away these three weeks.

There's the weather first of all, a weird abomination that seems to have combined the worst features of the weather systems of the Amazonian rainforest and Hell. We have the heavy rains expected in this time of the year, but they aren't just heavy. Every night it pours, turning the dirt roads into slush and making it impossible to leave the room. And inside the room is an entirely different matter. The drip-drip-dripping roof and the buckets on the floor to catch the indoor deluge were something I'd only seen on TV or in movies until now, but being a quick learner, I can now easily place buckets, mugs and glasses at strategic locations within five minutes of hearing the first distant roar of rainclouds.  It rains every night, usually accompanied by violent thunderstorms, and every so often as a special treat, we have gales that uproot trees and block roads. The rains are then followed by the most oppressive mixture of heat and humidity ever concocted by Beelzebub or whoever's in charge of the meteorological machinations in this part of Pakistan. A dozen glasses of Energile every hour are required to prevent oneself from dehydrating to death. I use to think Lahore's heat was bad until I got here. On the bright side, one doesn't have to worry about hygiene because at least seven baths are required every day if you want to save yourself from turning into human fly-paper.

Along with the weather, the fauna round here are definitely something to write home about. Apart from the usual domestic menagerie of cats, dogs and goats and the profusion of insects both great and small, In three weeks, I've seen jackals, deer, an ibex or two, baboons, wild boar (who seem to roam these parts in groups of upto 50), wild buffalo, hyenas, foxes and yes, that most common animal around here, snakes. More on the snakes later, I believe they require a separate account because of the special part they play in our social life. At least you can say this about the dumb chums, they really go out of their way to socialize.

The insects were the first to establish contact. One afternoon around three weeks ago, I woke from my nap itching all over. I thought a shower'd fix it but it didn't. A look at my arms and legs revealed that I'd turned a pretty pink, and not only was I pink, I had erupted in an effusion of large wheals and bumps. I realized I was getting an allergic reaction because one of the insects that inhabited my bed, taking completely the wrong view of my sharing the sheets with them, had decided that it was time for us to become more than just friends. I hurrried over to the tiny hospital that doubles as my office and got myself injected with the requisite mixture of steroids and anthistamines that ought've gotten rid of the unwanted effects of insect affection. The pinkness and the itching started going down and I breathed easy. But at around midnight, the itching returned with a vengeance, burning up my arms and legs. I bore it as much as I could, then decided i oughtta get a second shot of the medicine if i wanted a good night's sleep. I got out of my bed and immediately felt the ground give way under my feet. I grabbed at a nearby chair as my heart sank like it'd never done before. I realized that the allergy was worse than I'd thought, and when the sinking feeling didn't pass after a minute or so of horrid waiting, I made a dash for the hospital. Barely getting to the door, I woke up the poor nurses (male nurses dear reader, no need to look at me that way). Got my BP checked and just as I'd thought, it was down to 100/60. I got myself hooked up to an I/V line so that I could get some fluid in me and get my BP up, dozing off to an uneasy sleep only to wake up only an hour later feeling that the itchiness and the queasy heart-sinkingness were returning. A review of my BP revealed that it'd gone down to 80/40 and we'd officially entered scary territory. That's when I did one of the most surreal things I've ever done. Being the only doctor at the hospital, I made the decision that the patient's condition was now beyond my capabilities and that he should be evacuated to the nearest medical centre. I wrote myself a prescription accordingly and called the ambulance, which came a half an hour later and by 5am I was safely settled in a medical ward. The happy result being that my nurses now happily tell everyone who cares to listen, "You'll never guess who was the first serious patient doctor sahab referred? Himself!!"

When I got back, the first thing I did was to get a mosquito net and fix it onto my bed. I mean I was flattered by all the interest the insects were showing, but you have to draw the line somewhere, if you know what I mean. That's when the goats came into my life. There's a herd of mountain goats that can be seen prancing around my lodgings, and I hadn't paid much attention to them. That is until it was, as the writer says, a dark and stormy night. My room has tiny courtyard in front of it, with a roof large enogh to barely keep out the rain. I was sleeping while the tempest raged around me when I suddenly felt he bed shake. For the first week after I'd gotten here, I was plagued by almost nightly nightmares, probably a subconscious response to the change in surroundings. I thought this too was one of theose nightmares when suddenly, my senses were assailed by a curious smell. I thought, I've never had olfactory nightmares, what gives? Waking up and looking about, I realized that I was surrounded by goats, hundreds of them. They were all around the bed, they were under the bed, and one of the more adventurous ones was trying to get into the bed. They were fidgety, loud and smelly. Especially smelly. Still sleepy, I tried to figure out the reason of this hairy convention that had suddenly decided to congregate around me. I knew it couldn't be just my animal magnetism, and it was when I looked around that I realised that a rainstorm was pouring outside and the animals had gotten in around my bed to try to shelter themselves from the elements. I figured it wouldn't be nice to shoo the poor creatures away into the rain, so I pinched my nose and willed myself back to sleep, being woken once or twice again when one or the other of the members of herd got particularly excited. The goats, encouraged by my hospitality, have now become a fixture so that every rainy night, I have to accomodate a dozen or so hirsute quadrupeds around my bed.

The isolation has had its advantages as well. In fact, if it weren't for the weather and all the animal intrusions, I might've grown to like this place. The locals assure me that I've just come at a slightly importune time and if I'd arrived any time except the months of May-August, I'dve found the place heaven on earth, albeit still one overpopulated with goats and snakes. I've managed to do a lot in these five weeks, including finishing six books, one of which I had started thrice previously and had given up on because a)it's a rather difficult read and b) because there were too many distractions in Lahore. And having finished it, I can safely say that "The Confederacy Of Dunces" is one of the funniest, smartest books I've ever read, and one that has given me two of my favoritee fictional characters in Patrolman Angelo Mancuso and Ignatius J Reilly. I've also started brushing up on my Persian, doing it the only way I thought best, by reading Rumi's Masnavi verse by verse and then breaking down the accompanying translation. I've listened to music almost non-stop, to such an extent that my favorite pair of headphones finally decided it could take no more and handed in the dinner pail. Luckily I'd brought an extra pair just for that contingency (at the time of writing, these too have gone kaput) I've been listening to a lot of Jazz and marvelling at the absolute genius of Louis Armstrong, especially his recordings of the late '20s and early '30s. The mixtape a friend gave me before I departed from Lahore hs also been on constant play, as have been two or three of my favorite Qawwals. Lest anyone fear I've been shirking my duties too much, I must inform them that I haven't been tardy on the Qawwali front, having cleaned up and edited the sound on ten or so very rare Qawwali videos.I had also stocked The Dude full of movies and TV shows because I had a pretty good idea of the amount of boredom I could expect, and I'm glad I took that precaution. I can also safely say that Freaks And Geeks is one of the greatest, humanest TV shows I've ever seen.

My situation here isn't entirely an uncomfortable one, but I'm sure I can surround myself with a more homely atmosphere. That's why when I get home on my first leave, along with the requisite amount of catching up and reacquainting myself with such exotic things as running water and muslim showers, I need to do some shopping. Specifically a television and a DTH antenna. Maybe then I can give the Dude a rest and recapture some of my old couch-potato glory just in time for the football season. Who knows, with a couple of posters on the wall, a UPS, football on the telly and a goat or two by my side, I just might grow to like this place. Touch wood!

...Of A New Perspective On Heaven And Hell

Pop Milton once said, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven”. I've come to somewhat similar conclusions over the past five weeks, as you can read below.







Heaven is having the leisure to finish six books in five weeks.

Hell is being surrounded by people who read Sidney Sheldon and call this activity "bookreading"

........................................................................
                         
Heaven is listening to Barre Ghulam Ali Khan sing Malhaar while the monsoon rages.

Hell is trying to keep goats out of your bed while the monsoon rages.

.......................................................................

Heaven is a cool glass of Energile after a long day in the sun.

Hell is the long day in the sun preceding the glass of Energile.

....................................................................

Heaven is understanding what Ghalib meant when he said,

          "Dil dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat, ke raat din
           Baithe rahain tasawwur-e-Janaann kiye huay"

Hell is understanding what Ghalib meant when he said,

"Girya chaahe hai kharaabi mere kaashaanay ki
Dar-o-deewaar se tapkay hai bayabaan hona"

...................................................................

Heaven is a life free from Pakistani news channels.

Hell is hearing secondhand bad news, weeks after it ocurred.

....................................................................

Heaven is no Sahir Lodhi and no Madni Channel.

Hell is no Coke Studio and no Turner Classic Movies.

.....................................................................

Heaven is living in splendid isolation.

Hell is having nobody to contact when the toilet drain clogs up.

...................................................................

Heaven is finding cellphone signals in the middle of a secluded field after you've wandered miles searching for them.

Hell is realizing that the field is infested with snakes and that the signals aren't strong enough to even send a text message.

...................................................................

Heaven is watching all three seasons of Black Books without interference.

Hell is a place where "Mind Your Language" is considered the pinnacle not only of British comedy, but of all comedy.

......................................................................

Heaven is living where I live.

Hell is living where I live.

..................................................................