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Friday, 6 January 2012

"I must meet Shabbir of Shabbir to Dekhe Ga...I have an unsigned check Mian Saab needs to sign...Can you help me?"

“I want to meet Shabbir. Can you help me? I will pray for you if you help me!” says 54 year old Zeenat Bibi, lifting up her hands that are discoloured by vitiligo in an earnest prayer.

Zeenat originally belongs to Abbotabad, but is living in Karachi since many years. Since the last one year, she has been desperate to meet Shabbir of the Express News tv show “Shabbir to dekhe ga”. Many con artists have met her, claiming to be Shabbir, having a good time listening to her sob story, having free cups of tea and trying to make a quick buck. Zeenat does not even recognize Shabbir, but has heard that he helps out people in distress. And distress this woman certainly is in.

My maid has told her that “my baji is a journalist, and may be she can help you”. Zeenat is at my door on this cold January morning. We sit on my breakfast table over tea. Her face is creased and lined and worried. Her hands are coarse on touch. The face shows a strange mix of disillusionment and hope. And a desperate need for a savior. Zeenat is every Pakistani.

I tell her to narrate her story. As she starts, I notice she has a habit of sighing loudly in a peculiar manner in between sentences. In between sighs, this is what she said: “I am a widow since 22 years. My family is very strict and girls do not get an education, but my daughter studied till grade 12. But my son does not allow her to work. What will people say if the women start earning when there is a man in the house?”, she says and looks at my face for approval. I nod as if I agree. I don’t.

“Poverty, hunger, desperation. This has been the story since I became a widow. More than a decade ago, someone I know took me to meet a minister of the Nawaz Sharif government back then. The minister was a female. She listened to my story and publicly gave me a cheque. Everyone applauded her. But the cheque had no signature. She said you should come to me later and get it signed. Since then, I am trying to get it signed. That money can solve my problems to a great extent.”

I try to explain to her that that government is no longer in power. But I don’t have it in me to say a whole lot and burst her bubble. Zeenat feels that because I have a computer, I can somehow get her story across to Shabbir, who will take up her cause with the right people. “But do not print my photograph. And do not publish this in any Urdu newspaper. My family and in-laws will disown me,” she says, voicing her fears. But haven’t they already disowned her, as she wanders around desperately for some support in big bad Karachi? “They practically have, but I am not a social outcast at least.”

Zeenat begs me to try. I promise I will try, and that is all I can do. The discoloured hands go up in prayer again.

Is anyone listening? Can anyone help out Zeenat? The previous government? That minister? The present government? Perhaps not. But may be Shabbir can. Can he? Will he?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Me and my DSLR - A not-so-secret love affair

May 1991:
I have begun working as a journalist at a magazine. I know by now that my calling is not business studies, & my degree which I got with honours will hardly ever be utilized. I am drawn towards not just writing, but all forms of art and literature, and what interests me most is a fusion of these. I love coordinating photo shoots. I know I have a good eye for detail. I don't just marvel at the model and her oomph, but more so at the locations where the shoots are taking place. I love best the shoots at Hindu Gymkhana and Chowkandi tombs. I pore over the films with an eye glass. Computers are still too young, too experimental. We send the x-ray like films of the magazine pages to the press after assembling them painstakingly for hours.

I meet a photographer, and she is brilliant. We embark on a series of pictorial features in which I am writing the script for her wondrous favourite of these is a feature I title "Hands that weave dreams"......we are in kaarkhanas of men who work on hand-embroidered wedding dresses.....she clicks at their hands, at their faces, at their half-burnt stubs of cigarettes, at their needles and threads, at their laugh-lines and their brow-frowns.....I love her art. "I have to learn this", I say to myself.

May 2003:
I am married. I have a daughter. I am on a hiatus from journalism for God alone Knows what reason. Complacency I suspect. I am not so happy inside. I miss writing. I have a computer now but do nothing much with it except emailing. I have a mediocre camera. I still get spellbound by good photographs. My clouded passion for photography goes into clicking my daughter endlessly, but photo rolls are not so cheap and just have 38 exposures to 1. I ignore the desire and go back to cooking aloo gosht and replenishing groceries and joining a "Committee" of ladies and making dresses that have gravitated towards embellishments like "laces" for some original style of pure cottons, plain solid colours and kolhapuri chappals is diminishing. I still read.

May 2009:
The computer has made a huge entry in my life. And writing has made a re-entry. I am so much happier. But it's taking me time to get back into the flow. I hate some of my initial write-ups. It takes me too much time to write even a small piece and I am relying too much on the thesaurus. I am reconnecting with journalism friends and luckily have a readership soon again. Its tedious to get back into the flow, but I feel alive. Photography is slowly creeping back into my life....I have an insignificant camera, but its a digital, so I am allowed countless mistakes, unlike life. But my photography doesn't have any zing to it. In spare time, I am online seeing photography of others and loving the good work, and my new aim in life is to get a camera that makes a certain "click" sound, and is huge, and manual, and looks all professional. I know it will be expensive. I have no clue what I will do with it. I don't know the word DSLR as yet.

December 2009:
I announce to my husband and daughter that I need no birthday/anniversary/eidi gift for 3 years. All I want is for them to save up and buy me "one of those cool cameras". I get a promise in return. Writing has gained momentum. Life is more than aloo gosht. I am happy.

February 2011:
I am in Tharparkar with an NGO on a work-related trip. Tharparkar has mesmerized me. I can't stop clicking with my tiny phone camera. I feel handicapped. My colleague, a professional photographer, clicks non-stop. We talk about photography and cameras and human expressions and what it means to be able to photograph.  He guides me about lenses and kinds of cameras and that magic word - DSLR. I have an awe-struck teenager's expression when he fits a HUGE lens over his camera. I want to capture the colours of the peacocks and the Thari women's colourful dresses and the desert sunsets and the camels. On return, I publish my tiny camera's pix alongwith my feature for women's day. The pictures get encouraging feedback. I know I can do this.
Round about the same time, I meet an intriguing woman from Russia, one of the best photographers I have witnessed. We become friends. Her work is a bit off-centre, at times dark, but has a profound effect on me. Her pictures of Benaras in India leave me more in love with this art.

May 2011:
I have to travel to Ethiopia in early June. I get my long-awaited gift. I am speechless and thankful. I cannot believe once I have it in my hands. It is a beauty. I touch it in disbelief. I play with it. I trace each part of it with my fingers to get familiar with it. I carry it around in the house to get used to the weight of it in my hands. I take pictures of inanimate objects jar of chillies, my window, my door knob. DSLR - those words are sweet! I know I will enjoy Ethiopia much more now.

July 2011:
Ethiopia was much more enjoyable thanks to my camera. But I know that I am not doing justice to this camera's capabilities. I am mostly on auto. My indoor pictures are still awful. I know nothing except that I want to learn this, but don't know how. I am checking out the internet for photography courses. They are not fitting into my schedule. They are either too basic or too advanced.
A friend has returned from a vacation in Europe. He puts up his pictures on Flickr. They are splendid! I enjoy his take on lights and shadows and human faces and window sills and doors and hands and feet. We talk about his work. I learn a lot. I still don't know how to put this knowledge into action.

December 2011:
I have just returned from a trip of sunny, splendid Senegal. I have tried and captured Africa's glory with my lens. I know I am getting better, but still not good enough. I want to support my write-ups with good photos and want to capture the wrinkles on my mother's face with enough aesthetic beauty that satisfies me. I am still not there.
Another friend has the same camera as me. And his work keeps getting better. He tells me about his investment in a new camera, a new lens, his equipment, and keeps repeating one mantra to me: "Get to know your machine".
I want to learn more from him. We meet up for coffee. The coffee house is a mad house, with people talking non-stop on tables too close for comfort. We yell across the table to hear each other. He has his laptop and a whole backpack full of stuff that helps his pictures get so magical. I get a full one hour plus class on a lot of details about my camera.....I never knew all this about it. The guru is telling me to remember 4 basic things: Aperture, Shutter Speed, White Balance and ISO. His eyes are glinting with excitement as he tries to teach someone who has just discovered that she knows nothing much about this stuff. He gives me an assignment to practice all this and show him my work in a months time. The coffee is cold. We gulp it down. I am excited.
I am home. I am telling my family about what all I learnt today.
My new year resolution has a new flavour this year.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Fall In Love With A Man Who Reads. And Hold On To Him

Like a man. Fall in love with a man. And hold on to man who reads. 

Because the way he looks at life is different! He is a man who dares to dream, and is a man who has remnants of idealism left in him which the world has not been able to rob him of. His thoughts revolve not just around the stock market, the corporate ladder and the rate of the dollar. Rather, he dares to think also of ideas, philosophy, art and history. He has sensitivity. 

Sensitivity! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because he is sensitive. The hundreds of characters that he has witnessed in books have made him understand the black and the white and the grey of human nature. He has emoted with those characters, and lived with them through works of fiction. Thus, he has lived many lives in this one life of his. He will understand the millions of shades in you because he has experienced many a woman and many an emotion through the books he has read. He uses his imagination.

Imagination! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because he is imaginative. Because he knows of million ways to love and does not get stuck in mundanities, but rather knows how to re-invent the mundane. Thus, everyday you may visit a new parallel universe with him. You can travel to medieval times with him or visit the life of a courtesan in the Mughal era with him. Or you may catapult into the future with him. And you both make conversation about your voyages together.

Conversation! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because then your conversation would be about more than facile chitchat and your life with him will be more than a superficial soiree. You will talk about more than dinner menu, the grocery list, the payment of bills and politics and the plight of the property market. Because you will have so much more to talk about. And even when you do talk about the mundane, you will link it to a dialogue, a quote, a stimulating part of a book.

Read a book to him while his head is in your lap. Read to each other in the park or on the beach or at a hilly resort. Read out together to your children. Or read your own books, the two of you, while you sit side by side on a couch snuggling under a single quilt, sharing excitedly every now and then what your book is saying to you......a thought.....a feel.....or a single word that the author has used so beautifully that it fills your senses and you want to share it with each other, knowing the other will understand your joy. And in moments you read together, you find moments of union.

But watch out! Do not fall for a man who fakes the love of reading, and impresses you with forcibly memorized couplets of Faiz or lines of Shakespeare. Rather, gauge by the way his fingers touch a book. And look into his eyes and see whether they sparkle or stay listless when you read out something from a book to him.

Hold on to a man whose bedside has books, some finished and others scanned through. A man who highlights or circles words in a book. A man who likes to sit in the open air on a Sunday morning and read. A man about whom you know that if he disappears for hours at a stretch, it is in the sanctuary of a library.

Hold on to him because life will never be boring with such a man, even though it may be challenging. For such a man will continue to evolve, and grow, and will help you grow in the process. Such a man may be a challenge, so do not go for him if you want a life that is complacent and predictable. But go for him if you have ever asked God for a life less ordinary.

Love a man and hold on to man who looks at you with admiring eyes and longing love not just when you are looking hot, but also when you have a James Joyce book in your hands, and when you animatedly discuss Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" with him. Who gifts you a faded book a 100 years old of Keats' Odes, and who reads a poem of Neruda to you in moments that are tender. Who loves your beautiful mind and knows your value because you are a reader too. Don't let him go, for such a man is a gift and a joy.