Newspaper columns and articles I wrote when I was in Karachi, Pakistan in the '80s, extracts from my best-selling book "Singapore Accent" and other musings. . .
Thursday, August 16, 2007
CLIMATE CHANGE AND YOUR RUBBISH BAG!
I just took out the rubbish today and while doing so, Eureka, something struck me. With all this fuss about climate change and minding our carbon footprints, we have surely overlooked an important factor ie the rubbish disposal system of different countries.
Let me explain. I am familiar with rubbish disposal in three countries, the US (Philadelphia), Singapore and France (Paris). In Singapore the PAP (People's Action Party or ruling party) has pledged to introduce a system where rubbish is collected daily. (Singapore is a very hot country and therefore such a frequency is not at all excessive). Here in the suburbs of Paris (where the weather is cooler) my rubbish is collected three times a week without fail (if rubbish day falls on a public holiday like Assomption yesterday, the collectors come the next morning). In addition, once a month, non-domestic and bulky rubbish is collected. In Philly where I stayed 2 months last year with my second daughter, Meera, rubbish is collected once a week.
When I was in Philly, (which gets as hot as Singapore) my daughter and I resorted to freezing our perishable rubbish, like left-overs and raw food to avoid stinking up the house. We know of at least one friend who would regularly dump her left-overs and cuttings in the public dustbins on her way to work. Philadelphia is a city that stinks in summer, they say because of rotting rubbish everywhere.
Now this is where the connection to global warming comes in. Imagine if everyone froze their perishable rubbish, what extra electricity would be wasted! No wonder Americans have such giant-size fridges and freezers! For me it was one of the craziest things I ever experienced; having to freeze prawn shells and chicken skin just because rubbish collection is of such low priority (is this because of stinginess or capitalist attitudes towards taxes and government spending?).
I am very fond of my rubbish collection team (éboueurs) of mostly Northern African immigrant stock. They do their job efficiently and cheerfully and with minimal noise, perhaps because of their state-of-the-art equipment that the municipality is able to supply, thanks to our local taxes (taxe d' habitation). They are also perhaps more cheerful then their American or Singaporean counterparts because although they earn the SMIC (minimum wage) and stay in Trappes (yes one of those awful inner-cities towns where they like to burn old cars when provoked), they have health coverage, their children go to school and can, in theory at least, aspire to do better then their parents.
Once, not knowing where to throw an old car battery, I put it in a cardboard box and dumped it with the bulky rubbish which was collected once a month. Two days later the battery without the box was politely deposited back at my doorstep. Wow what efficiency! I still haven't gotten to the Mairie (townhall) to find out how to dispose of the battery, but I was really impressed. It is no wonder that I look forward to Christmas time when I can express my gratitude with a hefty tip in exchange for a broad smile and a calendar from my favourite éboueur!
Horrors of horror. According to news reports, the UK is going to reduce its rubbish collection from once a week to once in two weeks. It makes me wonder whether I ever want to visit my youngest daughter, Rika, who is going to set up house in London with 5 other friends come September! The Labour government claims that this is to encourage recycling. What utter neo-con rubbish! Us poor Frogies went into recycling several years ago and it is running as smoothly as clockwork or french cottage cheese! (Smirk). In fact the third weekly rubbish collection was converted for recycled rubbish.
NB: We started recycling in March 2003 without fuss, fanfare nor extra charges. It went so well that a private company has now taken over. See below:
I noticed this summer when I was in Singapore that they had just introduced the exact same models of rubbish bins as ours. Perhaps the Singapore govt sent a team over to study the French rubbish collection/recycling system!
British people shouldn't always swallow wholesale what their govt or media tries to sell them.
Last night I watched the French "American Idol" (The Star Academy) finals which was as exciting as the World Cup Finals and had a lot of similiarities. Cyril from the French Island, Martinique, beat Italian Dominique, getting 70% of the votes from the French Public. This was such an upset that almost all the other Star Arc contestants jumped on the tearful winner to congratulate him, a spectacle never before seen in the last five Star Arc finals. The dice had been loaded from the begining in favour of the 26-year old Italian female rock singer, Dominque, and punters wouldn't have betted on the 19-year old black angelic crooner from Martinique. Some judges had been partial all along to Dominque probably because Universal Studios had branches both in France and Italy and the Italian had potentially greater marketing value. The crestfallen judge from Universal Studios admitted as much when he had to present the trophy to Cyril. But in the end I think Cyril won the day because the French remembered Zidane's humiliation in the last World Cup Finals and voted massively for him. You see, the Italians also played dirty here. The hall was cramped with shrill teenage Italian supporters chanting "DOMINIQUE" throughout the evening and drowning out everyone else. Fortunately Cyril kept his cool and I think in the end poor Dominque paid the price for this unexceptable behaviour. What a shock for everyone when Cyril got over 70 % of the vote from the public! If the French masses have suddenly discovered the importance of the vote, this can only augur well for the forthcoming Presidential Elections, that is, if they show as much passion for politics and they do for football and Star Arc! A Bientôt
As expats in Karachi in the 80's , my UN Expert husband and I had the priviledge to get to know several Pakistani families whose hospitality, generosity and simple "joie de vivre" impressed us greatly. Dinner parties, poetry readings, musical soirees, etc, were the order of the day and we got to be close friends with many of these families. One of them was related to Salman Rushdie, the famous author of "Midnight's Children", living now in the UK. Little gems I gleaned from these relatives led me to write the following column for the Karachi "Star".
I wonder whether anyone else reacted the same way as I did to Salman Rushdie's fascinating book, Midnight's Children. Ever since I read the book several weeks ago, I have been smitten by the curiosity bug. I wanted to know how much truth and how much fiction went into the making of his larger-than-life characters. In other words, how autobiographical is the book?
As I had the good fortune to be in Karachi, where there are many people who knew the Rushdie family well, I decided to play detective and find out for myself.
Now I know that I am treading on dangerous ground. If some of the characters in the book were really based on real life people, many of them would not be pleased to have this fact known because of the unflattering way in which they have been portrayed.
Judging by a recent interview with the "Star" newspaper, the author himself is liable to get very angry with me for my prying. He told the "Star" that he was irritated by its earlier review of his book where the reviewer claimed special knowledge of his family in order to prove that the book was autobiographical. "It's that kind of gossipy thing that I find rather irritating", he said.
A quick check of the "Star" files showed that the only offending sentence in the review in question ,which appeared on Aug 20 1981, was: "There is a strong autobiographical accent to the whole book reinforced by the author's assumption of the person of the narrator". Nowhere in the review did the reviewer claim special knowledge of the author's family. Since he himself admitted in the "Star" interview that there were autobiographical elements in the book, the origin of Salman Rushdie's " irritation" must have something to do with his own touchiness. A touchiness, I suspect, born out so many people's curiousity about this intriguing aspect of the book: "I have been plagued with this question," he confessed in the "Star" interview.
In the end the journalist in me overrode the reservations I had about attempting the job. So I asked around and through some friends of friends, managed to track down a few people who claimed they knew the author's family well.
This is what I unearthed. Salman Rushdie's book contains more autobiographical elements than he cares to acknowledge. In fact, one of these days, he could very well find himself the defendant in several law suits that could be instituted against him by the people who can easily recognise themselves in the characters of his book. What Rushdie has done is to use his own family members, relatives and family friends to base his characters on. These characters are sometimes only thinly camouflaged: a name might be slightly distorted, eg Ahmed Sinai (father of the protagoinst of the book, Saleem Sinai) is clearly based on Anis Ahmed Rushdie, the author's own father. "Sinai" is almost "Anis" spelt backwards, one of my informants pointed out to me. Sometimes he doesn't even bother to change the names or nicknames, eg "Brass Monkey" was actually the nickname of one of the author's sisters.
The author's own maternal grandfather was a medical practitioner (like Dr Aadam Aziz, the maternal grandfather of Saleem Sinai) who had a practice in Aligarh (in the book it is changed to Agra). The author's maternal grandmother, was according to one of my informants, a huge and rather formidable figure who did go around saying "Kia nam" or "whatitsname", just like the grandmother of Saleem Sinai, the Reverend Mother Naseem or "she of the perforated sheet". Although of course no one can tell whether the whole remarkable perforated sheet romance episode was truth or fiction.
The author's real life maternal grandparents, like Saleem Sinai's maternal grandparents also had three daughters ( one of them a school teacher and founder of a girl's college and another married to a General). On them are based the characters of Mumtaz/Amina Aziz (Saleem Sinai's mother), Alia Aziz and Emerald Aziz, the three daughters of Dr Aadam Aziz and Naseem Aziz.
Almost every major character in the book, ( of course with the exception of obvious fictional characters like Parvati the Witch, Tai the Boatman and Padma the Dung Goddess) is according to my informants, based on an actual person who can easily be identified.
Having based his main characters on real-life people, the author's imagination then takes off. This is where the pure fiction part comes in. He creates larger-than-life characters, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. He invents, distorts and twists things, people and events to bring about what one reviewer has termed the "chutneyfication of history".
One of my informants criticised the book as too cynical and far too personalised. "There is something almost malignant in the way he distorts the lives and personalities of his family members, relatives and friends", he told me.
According to this informant, the author's treatment of his father was most unfair. He said that the author's own father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, is a really refined scholarly person of great ability who became a success in business when his own father died and left him the family business in Bombay and lived in a house called Winsor Villa (Buckingham Villa in the book). After the Partitition, the family settled in Pakistan. Like in the book, his property was confiscated by the Indian Government and he won it back after a long protracted court case (in the book the wife, Amina Sinai, was instrumental in winning the case). According to my informant, the author's father is in no way anything like the pitiful alcoholic portrayed in the book. The author's mother is fair, not dark as Amina Sinai was portrayed in the book. Her first marriage was to an economist, not to a long-haired impotent poet as in the book.
Rushdie denies that he is writing about these people: "There are obviously echoes and people who know my family will know I have an Uncle who's a general and an aunt who's a school teacher, but these are absolutely trivial echoes. The characters are not these people", he told the "Star".
It would of course be left to the judge to decide how "trivial" these echoes really are, if ever Salman Rushdie is unfortunate enough to be sued by one of the people he has based his characters on. The question that is bound to crop up here is why, if Salman Rushdie hadn't intended to write about these people, didn't he make an attempt to change names, nicknames, circumstances, incidents etc (the so-called echoes) to protect the innocent? If he had done so, nobody would wonder at all whether the book was autobiographical!
My "deep throat" was actually a fatherly figure, Latif, who was our neighbour and friend (and who has sadly since passed away). He was the "Major Puff" character in the book.
When I wrote this column, I was predicting that Salman Rushdie would be in some kind of legal trouble, because of his borrowing of characters from his family, relatives and friends and taking liberties with the portrayal of these characters (sometimes in bizarre and entirely unflattering ways). Never did I imagine then that he would later take on something much much more dangerous which would made law suits appear child's play. He went on to write "Satanic Verses", (after getting away with lampooning General Zia Ul Haq, the former Pakistani President and his handicapped daughter, in his book "Shame"). The rest is history.
Abbottabad, the town of green hills and valleys, of prestigious boy schools nestled between chicken farms and refugee tents, a sleepy hollow really, but how nice to be away from the heat of the lowlands. The weather is just right, cool in the morning and just starting to get warm in the afternoons. How sorry I feel for my friends in sizzling Karachi.
I am the guest of a family who are in the chicken farming business. They are charming hosts, just the right mixture, warm but not too effusive so that one feels uncomfortable. My hostess, a matron in her forties, and I have long chats about the feminist movement over coffee and the housework is temporarily forgotten. She feels strongly about the position of women here but is stumped by the same question that stumps so many Pakistani women of her age group: ie how can men and women be equal when they are born so different? I patiently explain that the issue is not about "equality" in the strict sense of the word. Of course men and women are not created all equal, neither are all men created equal for that matter. But what we are talking about here is equal rights and equal opportunities. In short, the right to self-fulfillment and self-actualisation which should be the inalienable birthright of everyone, regardless of sex, race or religion. When feminists fight for equality, they are fighting for equal opportunities to be complete, fulfilled and happy human beings.
Here in Abbottabad, purdah is very strictly observed. I go everywhere in a shawar-kamiz (Pakistani outfit) with a dopatta (shawl) over my head. My hostess and her eighteen year old daughter will not step out of their gate to buy provisions down the road even if they are in Chaddar (head covered) because "too many people know us here".
They can drive however down to the bazaar in town to do their shopping. What strange customs, often puzzling and bemusing to the foreign eye.
I soon discovered for myself the good sense of my hostess's caution. My ayah (female domestic) and I, doppatas securely over our heads, set off on foot one evening for the Ayub Medical College not far from the house. A friend in Karachi wanted me to deliver a bag to his sister, a first year medical student. En route we met with a lot of males but not a single member of the opposite sex, not even one in burqa. Midway, a staring male on seeing us, rolled his eyes heavenwards and muttered in Urdu, "Heaven forgive them!"
At the girls' hostel my friend's sister and her roommates are overjoyed just to have visitors. Scarcely able to contain their excitement, they rush around to get us cokes and beg us to stay for a while. Life it seems is pretty bleak in the girls' hostel and they are practically prisoners in the hostel grounds. "The boys have all the freedom they want" one of the girls complained.
Islamabad: First impressions of this capital city as I stroll up the Shakarparian Hill to get a bird's eye view of the city, is: "Can this be real?" Yes, somehow Islamabad seems artificial, truly a city planned by bureaucrats. My host, a UN expert, also from Singapore, agrees. "Foreigners who live here feel they are not living in Pakistan", he told me.
I visit the National Art Gallery and the Museum of Folklore. Again the inescapable odour of bureaucracy lurks in the corridors. At the Gallery, I am struck by a semi-abstract painting by Zarina Toori, a batik artist from Lahore. Liquid eyes of a Pakistani beauty stare out pensively from a batik canvas. The girl bears a striking resemblance to Rekha, the Indian film actress, including the slightly parrot nose. The more I look at it the more I like it. In the end I part painfully with Rs 1500 to acquire it. "A gift for my husband" is my excuse. Perhaps one day it will fetch thousands, when the artist becomes famous, who knows.
First evening in Islamabad is pleasantly spent at the Holiday Inn Coffee House with a colleague whom I was meeting for the first time. How nice when kindred spirits meet, and find so much in common. We gossip about our chosen profession, journalism. So many common acquaintances, experiences and views. Journalists are the same all over. This one has been in the game a long time and can tell me a thing or two. We agree upon the importance of a conscience in our profession. What happens when a journalist gets an exclusive scoop which could cause a war between two countries? Should he go ahead and use it or should he "can" it? "Can it" : is both our answers. Today's kindred spirits can become tomorrow's firm friends, I am sure. . .
When the terrible earthquake struck Northen Pakistan last year creating so much death and destruction, I was personally saddened because I had fond memories of my visit to Murray, Islamabad and Abbottabad. I crossed some of the mountains there and witnessed some of the most beautiful landscapes ever. I also wondered if my friends who owned a chicken farm outside Abbottabad and whom I stayed with briefly, but have since lost touch, were spared. Below is one of the articles I wrote about my travels for the Karachi "Star".
Here I am, writing this column on board the "Chenab", as it chugs its slow meandering way across the Punjab, stopping at every little town it passes. "You are going by train!. . . and by the Chenab of all trains!" friends exclaimed in horror when I told them I was planning my holiday up North, courtesy of Pakistan Railways. Warnings of being robbed (Think of the daughter of the ex-governor of Sind who was robbed on the Peshawar Express, they cheerfully reminised); Being suffocated by an AC breakdown (stop the train, advised one concerned fatherly friend); And losing one's young daughters on the way (don't ever get down from the train until you reach Pindi, they warned).
It really wasn't my fault that I bought tickets on the Chenab and not on the more civilised trains like the Khyber Mail, the Shalimar Express, or the Tezgam: the only tickets to Pindi left when I went to City Station were for the Chenab.
So it was with much apprehension that I set off on my holiday to Abbottabad/Nathragali/Islamabad with the Ayah ( female domestic) and my two small daughters in tow. The train journey to Pindi (Rawalpindi) was to last 30 hours (2 nights and one day) and at Pindi we would be met by a close family friend who would drive us to his home in Abbottabad. We had bought 3 tickets for the air-conditioned sleeper class (my youngest daughter went gratis) and wondered what kind of travelling companion we would have, as each compartment slept four.
Seconds before the train pulled out of City Station, we found out. A tall, fair, youngish man entered our compartment, looking shocked when he saw us. Thinking he was a railway inspector or something, I was suprised when he reappeared with two suitcases and threw them on the upper bunk. It transpired he was our travelling companion: a Pathan air-force flight lieutenant on his way to Faisalabad. He was most hostile and agitated and our conversation went something like this:
He: I am from the NW Frontier Province and I can't sleep in the same compartment with ladies.
Me: [dressed in a shalwar kamis (pakistani outfit) complete with dopata (shawl)] It's not my fault. I am a foreigner. Ask your government why it allows this.
He: The guard should do something about this, who's she?( pointing to my ayah)
Me: My ayah. you do something about it. I don't mind your presence. I am not a Muslim.
He: It is not a matter of you minding. It's me who minds!
After that there was a long silence during which the gentleman sulked and made many trips at regular intervals to ask the guard for a change of compartment; but alas with no success. Eventually, he gave up and retreated for the rest of the evening to the safety of his upper bunk. From there he relented, and said graciously "Please carry on with whatever you are doing. Treat me as if I don't exist". Came dinner time and as my ayah dished out the delicious rotis and curries that my cook had prepared, I felt sorry for the guy and gingerly extended the olive branch by offering him some food. He hesitated but the temptation was too great and he sheepishly ate 2 of my chappatis and some curry while still up on the upper bunk.
But detente was definitely on its way. We even managed a civilised conversation during which he told me he was an air force man and where he was heading, while I mentioned I was a Singaporean and my husband worked for th UN. And wonders of all wonders, he even played with my two daughters and looked at their painting books. We bade each other a cordial good night after I handed him my latest "Newsweek" and "Far Eastern Economic Review" to read which he gladly accepted. At 5 am the next morning, the attendant woke us all up and told him that he had managed to find an all male compartment for him. We said a hurried goodbye and that was the last I saw of him.
The episode gave me much food for thought that night. It was my first actual encounter with something I had heard so much about both before and after coming to Pakistan. I kept thinking about this educated, pleasant enough, young man lying in the top bunk: about his background, culture, and religion, all that made him into what he was. I conjured up a mental picture of his wife. (I assumed he was married) probably a housewife observing strict purdah and not minding being confined within the four walls of his house. There is still so much for me to observe and learn about this country.
How was the Chenab? For all my friends who worried, I would like to reassure them that I am fine and that the Chenab, contrary to their expectations, was very nice and confortable indeed. The compartment was spacious and clean, and thank goodness the air-condition did not break down, not even once. In fact, it was probably the best train journey I have experienced and I have travelled by rail both in Malaysia and in China. In China, the first class compartment was better furnished and newer, but smaller and more cramped. Malaysian trains compare very badly indeed. First class compartments are dirty and cramped and one is often subjected to guards opening the door without warning to check for stowaways. Malaysian trains are also notorious for delays. Slow as it was, the Chenab did chug into Pindi on time:5.30 am in the morning and our friend Kookie was already there on the platform, with a welcoming smile. In fact I am so satisfied with Pakistan Railways that I am making the return journey by rail as well.
An unexpected but happy result of this column was that the Chairman of Pakistan Railways was so moved by it that he wrote me a letter offering me and my family one year's free travel on Pakistan Railways! Unfortunately, with my busy schedule as the wife of a UN diplomat in Karachi, free-lance journalist, plus mother of two, I cannot remember ever having taken advantage of this offer.
Watch this space for my new blog: Mainly columns I wrote for Newspapers in Karachi, Pakistan, when my United Nations (UNESCO) Book Expert husband, Chandran Nair, and I were posted there in the 80's. The articles will be given a fresh look to tie in with what is happening today. . .
This blog will not however be confined to articles written in Karachi. There will be some extracts from my best-selling book "Singapore Accent" and from time to time I will write on other topics that catch my fancy. I promise always to try to be frank, honest and hopefully funny!
A year of goodwill. An excellent climate for business
and industry. People will be free and easy as the Pig will generate a feeling of abundance. However the danger is that we may hesitate
and waver when oppotunity calls. The Pig carries with him contentment and security. This is one year where people could be happy
without having or needing a lot of money or success. There will not be many hurdles to overcome as the Pig radiates a sense of
well-being. However, a great deal of prudence is recommended in money matters, as the Pig is always susceptible to swindlers.
(from the handbook of Chinese
Horoscopes by Theodora Lau)
our two small girls
on stone floors cutting paper are images of another you, small girl of the paper flowers, and their tears etch against this copper evening
in the solitary dark trees are again leaning on our window and radha wakes wanting her mother and against
the violence of external storms my images remember, give assurance to her sleep
and I reflect how these images we forged weld days
between hours, sleeping to waking these images which within the metal of our lives awaken to your absence to proclaim love remains
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