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 9, 2012

The Pillowman - Review

‘When art inspires violence, what responsibility does the artist bear for the fruits of his work?’ This provocative question is raised in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman".  At one point in the play, the protagonist tells his interrogators ''A great man once said, 'The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,’ and I believe in that wholeheartedly.” He might as well be speaking for the playwright - Mr. McDonagh's view of theater is all about the medium, not the message. Therefore, it is no surprise that The Pillowman is about storytelling — both on the page and in “real life” — and the ways we interpret the stories of others. In one sense, it's about a writer's nightmare that people might assume his or her most grotesque ideas and stories represent, say, wish fulfillment or, even worse, a diaristic account of crimes committed. On another level, the play is a ripping black comedy, full of terrific allusions (My personal favorite being ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’) and playful stereotypes: the hard-boiled detectives who toy with their suspect and each other; the writer who MUST suffer to write well.

While the audience takes its seats, a man sits blindfolded in a dark, bare room. He turns out to be Katurian K. Katurian (played by Rouvan Mahmud), a writer of short stories who is brought into the interrogation room because children are being murdered in the same fashion as the children in his bizarre fairy tale/fables - forced to eat razor blade embedded dolls carved from apples (from the story "The Little Apple Men"), toes cut off (from the story "The Tale of the Town on the River") and perhaps even beaten, crucified and buried (from the story "The Little Jesus"). Since all of Katurian’s stories run in this vein, it is easy to assume that he must be the murderer. He is, therefore, being interrogated for two murders and under suspicion of a third. But very little is as it appears in a McDonagh play; and, as we learn slowly, the truth is stranger than the fiction.

Though almost all the stories Katurian has written contain sadistic violence against children, he insists that they are only stories, without political or moral significance. However, as the story unfolds, Michal, Katurian's brain-damaged, spastic brother, confesses to having murdered three children in grotesque rituals inspired by Katurian's lurid tales.

You could make an argument that McDonagh sees writing as an act of displacement, a liberation from the endless cycle of trauma, in which a child victim of abuse becomes the adult perpetrator. After all, Michal and Katurian have had a most unfortunate childhood. On discovering that young Katurian had a yen for writing, his parents performed an experiment designed to develop his precocious talent. They showered him with love and attention, while chaining his brother to a bed in an adjoining room and subjecting him to nightly torture with drills, sharpening Katurian's gift by exposing him to a nightly chorus of human suffering. Whatever the case, the parental experiment works, and their son becomes a twisted - but, of course, brilliant - writer. When, after seven years of listening to the torture of his brother, Katurian breaks down the door and discovers what has been happening (perhaps he too is somewhat simple-minded), he is horrified. He smothers his parents with a pillow, and rescues his now brain-damaged brother from his life of torment.

They then live happily while Katurian finds a job at Express Tribune and Michal attends school near the Parsi Colony. And in his spare time, Katurian does what he knows best – he writes short stories. One of his best stories is about the Pillowman, a creature made of fluffy pink pillows who visits children ‘who lead horrific lives’ and offers them the choice of killing themselves at that point, and avoiding pain and ‘horrific lives’ of the future.

In his depiction of a man whose terror-haunted childhood turned him into a prolific fantasist with a need to transmute his pain into fiction, Mr. McDonagh seems to be exploring the connection between suffering and creativity. Examining the power of our stories and their affects on our own self perception as well as the real world consequences of telling stories, McDonagh takes us down a dark rabbit hole and places stories within stories and, the best thing about them is that these are stories that amaze and repulse, confuse and reveal.

“The Pillowman” is an uncomfortable story, to put it mildly. Not for the squeamish, torture and gore is depicted on stage and stories of child murder and molestation are often described in gruesome detail. It’s not an easy show to enjoy by any means, but McDonagh takes care to slip in some small humorous moments into “Pillowman.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of the characters’ circumstances, the absurdity of the blood spilled or described on stage. The mood switches between laughter and darkness in sometimes millisecond intervals, the audience unsure when to laugh and when to watch in nervous silence. It’s a difficult combination to manage and the tone often feels uneven.

There is a reason why violence is so prevalent. Much of the show is set up to debate what responsibility the supposedly brilliant writer, Katurian, has over the actions his stories may or may not cause. It’s a good argument. “The Pillowman” embraces moral ambiguity bravely and bloodily but, while McDonagh manages to push the audience out of themselves and consider real life consequences of fiction, not every viewer will be able to stomach the stark world offered to them.

The responsibilities of the writer to society and himself, the dangerous power of literature, and the idea that writers are damaged - all are casually tossed into the cauldron until, two hours later, McDonagh smugly informs us that fiction and storytellers are very good things and worth getting your hands dirty for. It is as helpful as being offered a rosy apple with a razor blade secreted inside.

A fairly decent cast endows each character with ambiguity. Rouvan Mahmud's Katurian is a hapless writer and beloved brother — or is he a lethal psychopath? Rafeh Mahmud's Michal is a sweet and harmless man-child — or is he, as Katurian, in an angry moment, calls him, "a sadistic, retarded little pervert"? Momin Zafar and Imam Syed as the detectives were convincing, though at times mumbling. Syed played the bad cop a bit too stereotypically to make us believe him when he departed from that stereotype; Zafar as Gibrael was often funny as the better, if not quite good, cop of the duo.

The scenes of Katurian interacting with his brother were beautifully performed. Rafeh Mahmud captured the innocence of a tortured soul who did not understand the reality of what he was doing.  Rouvan succeeded in portraying the anguished conflict between his love for his brother and his horror of what transpired, all the while questioning his own culpability in the horrific events.

The Pillowman is possibly the vainest piece of self-propaganda that I have seen penned by a writer. Its complex plot and "dark" themes serve to disguise a determined superficiality, and it presents a justification of literature that's breathtakingly callous and self-serving. McDonagh’s story is too outlandish and synthetic to carry the weight of any larger meanings, and so the play has a hollow, inhuman quality. His nihilistic vision seems as if it has been put on to spook us, like the cheap thrill a plastic Halloween mask may give.

*The Pillowman will be playing at MAD school on Halloween (i.e. 31st October). 

Excerpts on the storyline taken from various articles online. Can't be bothered to search for them and insert them as bibliography. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

So You Want To Be A Writer


if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.

Note: Charles Browski is an evil genius. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Obscure sorrows


And I’m back to the blogosphere after a three month hiatus! Honestly, I am bewildered at the number of people who continue to read and follow my blog, despite the frequent sabbaticals and sheer inconsistency of posting anything half decent here.  A big shout out and genuine thank you to everyone in Russia, United States, Saudi Arabia and Latvia (I don’t even know where that is on the map) who read, follow and re-blog my posts. 

I stumbled upon something interesting lately- the dictionary of obscure sorrows. Ever experience the moment when you are overcome with a flurry of feelings and a contrariety of emotions but somehow, can’t put your finger on them? Or at a loss of words as to how to articulate a particular emotion? The dictionary of obscure sorrows is the solution to your problem. My personal favourite and the one most pertinent to me is:

Kairosclerosis - n. the moment you realize that you’re currently happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste.’

I tend to do this every so often. For the longest time, I have maintained there is something sad about happiness. It’s like a breath of air – you can’t hold it in your mouth for too long. Try as you will, it will eventually escape, leaving behind a void that craves to be filled. The moment I realize I am happy, I try to give context to it, try to savor the feeling, try to cling as long as I possibly can to the cliff hanger we like to call ‘happiness’. But how does one even give context to happiness? How does one explain what it feels like to be ‘happy’? Trying to capture or describe that feeling is like trying to describe what water tastes like – It is an impossible task. And all my efforts to let happy times linger are in vain once the law of averages kick in and a happy spell is followed by a terrible lull.

As follows are other words that are relevant to me (In descending order of importance):

Astrophe - n. a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head—a crisp analysis, a cathartic dialogue, a devastating comeback—which serves as a kind of psychological batting cage where you can connect more deeply with people than in the small ball of everyday life, which is a frustratingly cautious game of change-up pitches, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks.

Anchorage - n. the desire to hold on to time as it passes, like trying to keep your grip on a rock in the middle of a river, feeling the weight of the current against your chest while your elders float on downstream, calling over the roar of the rapids, “Just let go—it’s okay—let go.

The bends - n. frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should, even something you’ve worked for years to attain, which prompts you to plug in various thought combinations to try for anything more than static emotional blankness, as if your heart had been accidentally demagnetized by a surge of expectations.

Apomakrysmenophobia - n. fear that your connections with people are ultimately shallow, that although your relationships feel congenial at the time, an audit of your life would produce an emotional safety deposit box of low-interest holdings and uninvested windfall profits, which will indicate you were never really at risk of joy, sacrifice or loss.

Slipcast - n. the default expression that your face automatically reverts to when idle—amused, melancholic, pissed off—which occurs when a strong emotion gets buried and forgotten in the psychological laundry of everyday life, leaving you wearing an unintentional vibe of pink or blue or gray, or in rare cases, a tie-dye of sheer madness.

Xeno - n. the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangers—a flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence—moments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone.

Flashover - n. the moment a conversation becomes real and alive, which occurs when a spark of trust shorts out the delicate circuits you keep insulated under layers of irony, momentarily grounding the static emotional charge you’ve built up through decades of friction with the world.

Sonder - n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Of Sharmeen’s victory and Fakhra’s tragedy

The day Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for her documentary, Saving Face, I remember waking up to the sound of my phone buzzing with messages announcing her much anticipated win. I jumped out of bed with euphoria and switched on the television to hear Obaid-Chinoy dedicate her award to "all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan" and to "all the women in Pakistan who are working for change". Within a matter of minutes, Facebook and Twitter feeds were clogged with overjoyed, patriotic Pakistanis, reposting clips of her Oscar speech, with some even suggesting it was a greater occasion than when Imran Khan raised the cricket World Cup in 1992. I was one of the many who changed their bbm picture to that of Obaid-Chinoy with her Oscar award, uploaded her acceptance speech on their Facebook profile and congratulated the triumphant documentary film-maker on Twitter.

Obaid-Chinoy has done the country tremendously proud. Mohsin Sayeed said it better: “Thank you, Sharmeen. In a country where cinema is dead, you have proved that the country is not, people are not. You have shown that Pakistan is struggling to live a life of dignity, and honour, of normalcy. Thank you, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for creating history, for showing that if one Pakistani can, there's no reason why hundreds of millions can't, for showing the way that 'We can'. And this is the real, solid, meaningful 'We Can' than any other hollow political slogan as you have said it with action and not merely words. Today is one of the brightest days in our country, let’s celebrate it." And celebrate we did. From Geo’s little dancing mascot right above the tickers to making Saving Face trend on Twitter! Obaid-Chinoy had created history; given us a reason to be proud; a reason to smile and a reason to own Pakistan.

But in Pakistan, not everyone likes to revel in other people’s success. God knows what insecurities or jealousies overcome them but people tend to take out flaws in others just to put them down. And this was no different. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Saving Face highlights acid attacks on women, but commentators criticized the documentary, claiming it has brought shame on the country. They complained she is merely reinforcing the west's negative view of Pakistan by making public the country’s dirty linen. As writer Mohsin Hamid tweeted: "Upset Pakistan has won its first Oscar for a film 'critical' of the country? Your attitude might explain why it's taken so long."

The truth is that Pakistan has a ton of dirty laundry and one that we cannot do without brandishing. Not talking about those issues which plague our society is a sign of unhealthy denial and regression - silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Saving Face paints a very real and true portrait of what goes on in Pakistan on a near daily basis. 140 women suffer acid attacks every year in Pakistan; because acid violence is a highly unreported crime in the country, as is rape, this is probably an extremely understated number. Saving Face subjects Ruksana and Zakia are only two of the thousands who are subjected to this inhuman and barbaric practice. Not every acid victim has the opportunity to make their voice be heard; to live to tell their story; to find a Dr. Mohammad Jawwad who labors tirelessly to restore them to normalcy. One such victim was Fakhra Yunus.

In 2001, at the young age of 22, an acid attack by Fakhra’s then husband, Bilal Khar (Former MPA/Son of prominent politician and womanizer, Ghulam Mustafa Khar) left her only marginally alive. The attack rendered her faceless; burning the hair off her head, fusing her lips, completely blinding one eye, obliterating her left ear and melting her breasts. The horrific mutilation disfigured her so completely that she was confronted by open disgust and contempt by everyone who set eyes on her in Pakistan. After 13 years and 38 major surgeries, an emotionally scarred Fakhra, lost hope and committed suicide by jumping out of her sixth floor residence in Rome, Italy where she had been residing for over a decade.

Last Sunday, my Twitter livefeed was swamped with angry tweets against Bilal Khar and acid violence with people demanding justice and a retrial of Khar for attempted murder.  A week down the line and Fakhra is out of sight, out of mind. The man accused of putting her through this ordeal, Bilal Khar shared his grief by giving interviews to tv channels and out rightly denying committing the act. He said he was sorry that she was dead but that he wasn’t responsible for it. That she was a sex-worker, a woman whom he had married despite her past but she insisted on returning back to her ‘usual routine’. ‘He isn’t responsible for her murder.  Fakhra used his name to take amnesty in Italy, to make money and it benefited the women who were helping her to ‘cash in’. Because no one would give her amnesty and funds if they had used a Kanjar’s (pimp’s) name, it was his name that gave this case a media trial. He is innocent. If people are so bothered about justice for Fakhra why don’t they go to Napier Road and ask which ‘kanjar’ had done it? It couldn’t have been him, Bilal Khar, son of influential politician and feudal lord. It wasn’t possible because he is from a respectable family, he is Bilal Khar, and only Kanjar’s from Napier Road could commit such atrocious crimes.’

It matters not whether Fakhra was a dancing girl or a prostitute or a sex worker or a pimp. Nothing in this world can justify the heinous crime of throwing acid in someone’s face. In a country where justice is a joke and the law, a commodity to bought and sold, I am hoping against hope that Fakhra’s murderers are tried and convicted. Not just for attempted murder but also for constructive act manslaughter – if psychiatric illness can amount to grievous or actual bodily harm, can there be a more vexing psychological injury than an acid attack? One that not only disfigures your face but also mutilates your identity? And if not, how are factual and legal causation not met?

This is not a question of the law. This is a question of lawlessness and indifference – both of which are rampant in our society. Tehmina Durrani wrote ‘Fakhra is not a new tragedy.. she was always a tragedy. Her life was a parched stretch of hard rock on which nothing bloomed. Her country of birth gave her nothing at all. Her environment of birth condemned her to social unacceptability and disrespect. She was born without any right of choice.’ If people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy bring to the forefront people like Zakia and Ruksana, why can’t we just be happy that that’s two less Fakhra’s who may or may not have met with an end as tragic as the latter’s? Why must we turn a source of pride for our country into something that should be disdained and belittled? But more importantly, why must we let a person who deserves disdain and punishment, freely roam the streets of the country when he should be behind the bars?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The art of sympathy

I absolutely deplore physical contact – by that I allude to any form of touching (including hugs, brushing past, patting on the back, a peck on the cheek) by any person I am not comfortable with or to whom I don’t consent doing so. I feel this paranoia largely stems from my childhood; on my mother’s death, long-lost relatives, never-seen-before friends and nothing short of complete strangers felt the compulsion to smother me to their chests and let out heart wrenching wails. For someone who never was too comfortable even shaking hands with unknown people, this unnecessary show of physical affection was enough to make me cringe.

I understand its not easy comforting those who grieve the death of a loved one. Many people are immobilized out of fear they'll do or say the wrong thing. Obviously, there is no one dramatic gesture or pearl of wisdom that will dissolve the heartache, but there are many acts of thoughtfulness that can convey your concern and help to soften the blow that a friend or loved one has suffered.

How exactly can you comfort someone grieving the death of a loved one? What can you say that might adequately offer solace? A mere "I'm sorry" doesn't quite seem to cut it. So what is the right way to comfort someone who is grieving? Here are some suggestions, culled from grief experts and people who have lost a loved one:


- Say something simple. "I am sorry to hear the news" will suffice at first. Then, on an ongoing basis, "I am thinking of you."

- Don't ask, "What happened?" You are making the bereaved person re-live pain.

- Don't launch into a detailed account of your loss of a loved one. Give them just enough to let them know that you can relate to their pain.

- Avoid clich├ęs. That includes, "Good things come from bad," "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "He/she's at peace now."

- Don't claim to know how the grieving person feels. You don't. Don't suggest that the mourner "move on." It would be more appropriate to say something along the lines of, "I can only imagine what you are going through."

- Keep your religious beliefs to yourself unless you are sure that the person you are trying to comfort shares them. (It’s okay simply to say that you will keep the family in your prayers.)

- Whatever you do, please don’t intrude in their personal space. Give them time to come to terms with their loss.

- Avoid unnecessary physical contact. A simple pat on the back or a quick hug will suffice.


- Don't launch into a long eulogy on the deceased. Saying things like, "he/she was such a good person. So compassionate and kind to the poor..." only makes the grieving person realize his loss a little more.

The death of a loved one is a devastating emotional loss. But a sincere expression of caring - and sharing - can help us to turn the grief of futility and despair into the grief of faith and hope and release.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

As iron sharpens iron..

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another - Proverbs 27:17 (NRSV)

Some people are easy to get along with. They don't question my motives. If they don't understand what I say, they ask for clarification. They give me the benefit of the doubt. There are virtually no harsh words between us. With other people, especially my closest family and friends, I have occasional clashes. Something is taken the wrong way and brings a defensive response. Or I am labeled as selfish or insensitive. Or my friend/relative speaks frankly about an annoying trait.

So why choose to associate with people who don't even like me part of the time? The verse from the Book of Proverbs at the top of this post might shed some light on this. Sometimes it takes sparks to sharpen a metal tool, honing it to a sharp edge. If the people around me spoke well of me all the time, how would I become aware of character flaws? How would I work on my ability to handle criticism without falling apart emotionally? Who would challenge my thinking?

I like comfortable times with comfortable friends. But I also value friendships that have seen hard times and survived. Our friendship has been tested by the winds of adversity and we have chosen to hold on to it because the value we find in it outweighs the pain of the occasional conflicts between us.



“We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly, and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship, for to undertake to wound or offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.” - Montaigne, Michel Eyquem De