Nonsensical and sometimes not-so-nonsensical rants about what may or may not be going through my head. Try to liberalize your canvas of interpretation when reading these posts - you will go far...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When I was ten years old, I found a paperback copy of Tehmina Durrani’s autobiographical account ‘My Feudal Lord’ in my mother’s collection of books and began reading it. One day when I was conveniently sprawled across the bed, reading, my father walked into the room and ‘caught’ me reading the book. I hadn’t been hiding from him in the first place; I had no reason to. After all, he had always encouraged my love of reading and bought me as many books as my little heart desired. But when he saw me reading this particular book, he looked a little taken aback, annoyed almost, and asked me to hand over the novel to him with a terse question, ‘Where did you find this?’ With childlike innocence I replied to his question and he explained to me gently, ‘This is not a book a child of your age should be reading. It’s all trash anyway. Give this to me and read something else, beta.’

Later that evening I saw him tuck the book deep in his closet. I had understood the gist of the book but had not been too intrigued by it because it was a bit too complicated for someone my age to comprehend, in its entirety. But the fact that my father had chided me for reading something sparked my curiosity, an inexplicable itch that demanded gratification.  It is, after all, human nature to be drawn towards the ‘forbidden fruit’ and so, when he left his room I opened his closet and stealthily, took out the book and sneaked away with it.

I finished reading the entire book a day and a half later but for the life of me, could not find anything quite so vulgar or obscene as may compel him to dissuade me from reading it. The book gave a vivid description of Durrani’s traumatic marital life with Mustafa Khar, an important politician in the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto regime, who later became the Chief Minister of Punjab. Professionally, he appeared to be a charismatic champion of democracy, but on the personal front he was an inveterate wife abuser. In the three sections of her book, Durrani mapped her journey from an ordinary elitist housewife to an emancipated human being contesting for equal rights and women’s empowerment.

Soon after finishing ‘My Feudal Lord’ I read Durrani’s second book, this time a novel titled ‘Blasphemy.’  The book description at the back cover read, ‘To me, my husband was my son’s murderer.  He was also my daughter’s molester; a parasite nibbling on the Holy Book. He was Lucifer; holding me by the throat and driving me to sin every night. He was Bhai’s destroyer; Amma Sain’s tormentor; Ma’s humbler and the people’s exploiter. He was the rapist of orphans and the fiend that fed on the weak but over and above all this... he was known to be the man closest to Allah; the one who could reach Him and save us.’ It sounded rather grotesque and upon reading it, I realized the story was not only grotesque but downright perverse and morbid.

By the time I turned 11, I was reading Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’ and Khaled Hossaini’s ‘The Kite Runner.’ It was one of those days that my school principal caught me reading Fozia Siddiqui’s novel, ‘Taboo’; she was positively livid. I remember the flash of anger in the eyes of a woman who had been a nun and a principal of a Convent school for more than 50 years of her life. She lashed out at me for reading content that was not ‘fit’ for someone my age and snatched the book from my fingers. Needless to say, the rebel that I was, I did not alter my reading habits to suit her or others whims and fancies.

One of my favorite playwrights of all time, Oscar Wilde, had said,’ It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.’ When I was younger, it seemed like everyone had an opinion about what I should be reading and what I shouldn’t. I believe that whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways. My life, like everyone else’s, has been shaped by a conglomeration of influences. Most of those influences are people. Yet, I cannot point to any one person who has played a “larger than life” role. Each has their place in sculpting me into what I am today, chipping away here and there, changing who and what I am. None that I can think of have stepped beyond their place and prompted a complete change in direction in my life.

In contrast to people, I can point to several books that had an immediate and lasting influence on my life and personality. Perhaps the strongest entry in the field has been T.S.Eliot’s collection of poems. Though not regarded as a ‘book’ in the constructed sense of the word, Eliot’s work and recurring themes on the disintegration of society,  the anguish and barrenness of modern life and the isolation of the individual changed my very outlook and perception towards life and people. There have been others along the way, Harper Lee’s classic ‘To kill a mocking bird’, Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Kartography’ and Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ are only a few books that I have read every so often that I have almost memorized them by heart and they have all played a peripheral role in shaping my personality.

Maybe the difference between people and books is that I can go back to the books I have read and find them unchanged. I can find within the pages the same message that spoke to my soul and prompted change in my living or the same character that warmed my heart or made me weep. I am often surprised to find the headwaters of a stream I now take for granted in a forgotten book. In contrast, for better or worse, people always change and my memory is fallible; I don’t know which of my character traits trace back to a stray comment here or there by a teacher or friend or stranger.

In an old Dr. Seuss book I used to read as a child, I remember the quote on the back cover, ‘The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ People around me tried to suppress my flight; tried to stop me from soaring but armed with my books and an air of indifference, I travelled the world through the eyes of the authors, far and wide, from pre-historic eras to the future – I have seen it all. And what I haven’t and cannot yet fathom the books I read in the years to come will illustrate for me.

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