The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 1

February 12th, 2016

I was about two when I got polio. The doctors advised my parents that since polio affected the nerves they should not send me to school. I was not to be burdened with things like geometry and exams. “She isn’t going to become a lawyer or a professor, is she? She’ll get married, have babies, and lead a comfortable life.” Consequentially, when I was about eight, I was handed over to Mrs. Penherow a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman, for light private tuition. I remember the solitary tedium of those hours.

Yet the care that was lavished on me at home, and the two surgeries that followed, must have served me well; because a decade later I was able to run up and down steep mountain paths near our summer house in Nathya Gali; a hill-station nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas from which we could glimpse, on clear days, the lofty Nanga Parbat.

In retrospect the creeping encroachment of my isolation, the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among other children at school, caused an increasing erosion of my self-regard. The psyche that was left intact by my polio, and had in fact waxed robust for the next few years, was destroyed, unwittingly perhaps, by the doctor.

However, I have concluded from the history of my particular providence that almost every apparent misfortune eventually turns out to be its opposite and instead works out to be in my favor. Contrary to the good doctor’s prediction, I became a professor. I taught at several Ivy League universities in America; I also taught briefly at South Hampton University in England.

When on my tenth birthday Mrs. Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, some favorable aspect in my horoscope must have been triggered. The novel, combined with my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading. Books not only took the place of family, friends, role models, and teachers, but they also unveiled the almost mystic quality that shimmers in beautiful language, and the subtle labyrinth of meaning that words lead one to explore.

By the time I was thirteen the world of books and magazines completely took over my life, which increasingly only existed between the pages of captivating stories that shifted me into the realm of fantasy and imagination. When I ruminate on the books I’ve read, I feel like congratulating myself on the good luck that brought them my way, and there is little doubt in my mind that my earlier polio-stricken reading fashioned me not only into a writer, but also  into the almost functional woman that I think I am.

My reading was indiscriminate. Since I did not have access to a library I read whatever came my way, and much of what came my way – besides magazines and comics – were classics: French, Russian, German, English, and American. These books lined six shelves in our sitting room. This was our household library. Although my business-minded family did not read fiction my parents looked upon books as repositories of wisdom. And authors such as Tolstoy, Scott, Forster, Henry James, Melville, Balzac, found their way into our house as birthday gifts for my brother and me.

Having shed Mrs. Penherow by the time I was twelve, I read only what I could assimilate.  Shakespeare, and all the major poets in English and other European languages, were beyond the reach of my unaided comprehension. I regret this lack. There are many holes in my education I have yet to fill ….If I ever can….And yet I have perhaps read more than most people.

Tom Sawyer’s dialogue and Huck Finn’s audacity are as much responsible for my incurable addiction to humor as are James Thurber’s short stories, and a book called Mame. Our six-shelf library had the obligatory Dickens, most of which (with the exception of A Tale of Two Cities) I abandoned because of boredom, until I came upon Pickwick Papers. I read it so often that it wore familiar grooves in my brain. The mention of Sam Weller or Mr. Pickwick even now charges circuits that flood my psyche with laughter. A family friend once caught me laughing while I was reading. He gave me my first P. G. Wodehouse: I think it was Lord Elmsworth’s Pig. It was a landmark occasion: tap anyone versed in English from the Indian subcontinent, and you will discover a Wodehouse devotee. Another favorite book, that I must have read again and again was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I still marvel at his insight into the subtleties of a woman’s mind.

I have just a few favorite authors, and a great many favorite books. Some of them I have already named in the context of my youthful reading, but to name them is to neglect other books by other authors I have delighted in and savored equally – and to list them all, especially the Urdu poets I cherish (among them are the romantic and mystic poets), in this short piece is impossible.

All American Muslim

January 3rd, 2012

 Recently, an evangelical group in Florida blamed TLC, an education TV Chanel, for its show All American Muslim, protesting that it was “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Due to the pressure, Lowe’s, the home improvement company, withdrew its advertising from the show. Thousands of Lowe’s Facebook fans rightfully laid into them for their cowardly withdrawal, and a petition with roughly 200,000 signatures was delivered to their figurative doorsteps – to no avail.

How long can one go on pandering to bigots? It is one thing to have freedom of speech, although it’s quite another to use that freedom to claim that any television show which depicts Muslims as regular, law-abiding folks-next-door is telling a dangerous lie. But this move, perpetrated first by the evangelical wingnuts and secondly by a prominent corporation like Lowe’s, is abusing freedom of speech, while dealing a nasty backhand to our country’s vaunted freedom of religion.

I was heartened by all the major networks’ and comedy talk show host’s responses to the absurdity of the bigots’ claims.

The ability to speak your mind and follow your own faith are two of this country’s cornerstones of liberty. How can one right be the instrument of violating the other? How is this American?

Civil Liberties: a Thing of the Past?

December 16th, 2011

Last week, I read a thought-provoking article called ‘Waging War on Ourselves’ written by Ethan Casey on his blog. Acting in conjunction with current developments  in the American news, the article moved me enough to reply:

“… the Senate is trying to pass a law which would allow for US citizens with suspicion of links to Al Qaida or terrorism to be detained without trial indefinitely. This is blatantly unconstitutional. ‘Suspicions’ can encompass unimaginably horrendous abuses, and would inevitably target the US Muslim community, who are typically law-abiding citizens. Even in Britain under the tyrant Henry VIII in the 1530s, in the terrible days of torture and beheading, accused citizens were entitled to trial.”

I was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act. How heroic it sounds, and how the name camouflages the disgrace it embodies.

Today, the Senate passed the bill — most ironically, on the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. 86 members voted for it, with only 13 dissenting voices standing against this infraction of American liberty. Sadly, the threat of a presidential veto has been withdrawn, and the President is expected to sign the bill. How can we have come to this point after so long? 220 years after the creation of the Bill of Rights, we should be moving forward, not rocketing backward.


December 24th, 2010

Sadia Ashraf, Bapsi Sidhwa, Greg Mortenson, Gina Davis, Danny Pudi

This is the second time I was invited to a gala for Greg Mortenson.  On November 13 ’10 the Central Asia Institute [founded by Mortenson]  awarded   me the 2010 Spirit Lifetime Achievement Award. This was at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. It was a surprise and I could scarcely contain my emotions.  Greg Has been my hero ever since I read his personal  story In Three Cups of Tea.

Greg has a phenomenal energy and I suspect it springs from his abiding faith in humanity. I was astonished  by the number of schools and events he addressed in his flying visit to Houston a few  months back.  The CAI has established 145 schools and educated 64,000 students, including 52,000 girls in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson and I share a bond with the Karakoram Mountains.  My  novel,  The Pakistani Bride, is also set in the remote region at the roof of the world.  And although decades separate my novel  from  Mortenson’s books the desolate lives of the tribal’s they depict are very similar

The guests were welcomed by Sadia Ashraf, Outreach Coordinator for CAI, who also gave a moving account of the devastation caused by the recent floods in Pakistan.  She introduced me as Pakistan’s leading writer before inviting me to speak.

The rest of the program was kicked off by a special address from award-winning  actress Geena Davis, followed by a talk by Danny Pudi (starring in  NBC’s show Community). Greg Mortenson spoke at the very end.  The event was compeered by TV and film actor Michael Rady

Every one of the 1000 guests received a copy of my novel  Cracking India together with Mortenson’s  book Stones into Schools. The evening ended with many in the audience asking me  to sign their copies of Cracking India.

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

August 16th, 2010

This past March I was invited to the Abu Dhabi Kitab Book Fair. Out there I was interviewed by Sunil Sethi of NDTV. My appearance begins at the 11 minute mark of the video.

Another Life Lesson

August 9th, 2010

Although my Zoroastrian faith is credited with introducing the concept of Heaven and Hell into religion, I find myself more in sync with the Buddhist concept of rebirths and Nirvana.  I feel we are put on earth to absorb lessons that will purify of our souls;  being slow learners, we are born again and again.

One such lesson life has insistently taught me is humility. I think I have a healthy ego and every little success blooms disproportionately large and exultant in my mind. And again, startlingly immediate, something occurs to topple me from my inflated self-regard and teaches me how temporal and foolish my bloated ego was.

Life Lessons

August 9th, 2010

Picture taken by Dave Einsel

1. Life has taught me that circumstances that appear to adversely affect us can mysteriously work to our advantage. I had polio as a child. Since this illness affects the nerves, my parents were advised not to put pressure on me by sending me to school. This made for a childhood of extreme loneliness. I assuaged this by an inordinate amount of reading and daydreaming. I realise now that this time I had to myself and the resources my imagination fashioned to entertain my mind turned me into a writer. The hours spent reading taught me how to create characters and suspense, and also to structure my novels. Who would have thought what my parents considered an affliction would turn into a source of pride for them? And a source of immense satisfaction in my life.

2. There are sorrows in our lives we cannot talk or write about, but these hard lessons develop one as a person and give us an understanding of human nature. They help us realise the enormous reserves the mind has if we tap into it.

3. Each of us, at some point in our lives, comes across a special guide or mentor. One such person, a Parsee priest who was so poor that he slept on a bench in a temple in Bombay, visited Lahore at the invitation of my mother. He bequeathed me a fleeting glimpse of the eternal state of bliss out of which we are born and in which we dwell in the afterlife; or at least that’s what I’ve come to believe.

4. Be a fatalist. I feel much of our life is preordained, although we may think it is chance or luck or some sorrow we have brought upon ourselves that governs our lives.

5. We are deeply linked to the spirituality that sustains all life and matter. There are noble people on earth – one could call them saints – who help us to recognize this.

My Brother Minoo’s Book Launch

February 28th, 2010

After my visit to the Abu Dhabi book fair, I will go to Pakistan to launch my beloved brother, Minoo Bhandara’s book Calling a Spade a Spade. It is a selection from his articles in Pakistani and foreign newspapers. The Lahore launch will take place on March 14, 2010. Ayesha Jalal will give a talk about the book. It was published by Vanguard, which is owned by Minoo’s good friend, Najam Sethi. He will also give a talk. The book launch in Rawalpindi is on March 22 at his son,  Isphanyar Bhandara’s residence.

KITAB Book Fair – Abu Dhabi

February 27th, 2010

I am delighted to have recieved an invitation to participate in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The Book Fair will take place from March 2 – 7, 2010. The Book Fair is organized by KITAB, a joint venture of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

  I will be interviewed on March 3rd at the KITAB Sofa by Edward Nowotka, editor of Publishing Perspectives.

On March 4th Qasera Shahraz and I have been invited to give readings at the home of Khursheed Junejo, the Ambassador of Pakistan.   

On March 5th I have been invited to a prominent literary club in Abu Dhabi by Ms. Asma Seddiq Al Mutawa. The club has been recognized by UNESCO for its efforts to promote reading and a love for literature in the UAE.

Family Pictures

February 27th, 2010