LITERARY REVIEW

Labour of love

SONYA DUTTA CHOUDHURY

Labour of love

AN anthology is like a Jack of all Trades — it has a little bit for everybody, but ends up being master of none. That being said, City of Sin and Splendour is an indisputably interesting collection of essays, poems and fiction. Parsi-Pakistani novelist, editor Bapsi Sidhwa said at the book's launch that it had taken three years of her life to put this collection together. It's a labour of love that contains a multitude of excellent choices, many of them already well known. Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai's trial for writing "Lihaaf", a tale of forbidden lesbian love (from her autobiography), Kipling's story of young Kim and Mahbub Ali, the horse trader (an extract from his novel Kim), and extracts from Sidhwa's own classic novel of Partition, The Ice Candy Man (later made into the Aamir Khan starrer "1947 Earth") are some examples.

Contemporary writers include Pakistani emigrant Sara Suleri (author of the critically acclaimed Meatless Days) who writes from faraway Maine on the "geography of the city's grace", the sights and sounds of the newly independent Lahore of her childhood. "Transcontinental mongrel", Pakistani-born Mohsin Hamid analyses the changes in his first love, Lahore, on his return home for a family wedding: "She is less complacent than she was then, less sure of her enduring centrality in her universe". From India, Urvashi Butalia, in "Ranamama", tells the poignant tale of meeting long lost family in Lahore; Khushwant Singh reminisces about life in Lahore and New York-based Ved Mehta writes a nostalgic account of revisiting his ancestral home. There are poems by Pakistani greats like Iqbal ("Lost in its own silent rhythm, the Ravi sings its song"), Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the lyrics of Bulleh Shah's "Bulleh ki Jaana Main Kaun" (recently rendered chart-breakingly popular by Sufi singer Rabbi Shergill). Samina Qureishi constructs an archaeological map of sorts from modern day Lahore with its markets clustered around the great Wazir Khan Mosque to "imperial Lahore, queen of cities, crown capital of all the Punjabi kingdoms there have ever been'. There is much else — all of it eminently readable, Rukhsana Ahmed's "The Gatekeeper's Wife" a touching tale of marital relationships, and essays on topics as interesting and diverse as the insomniac Englishman Rudyard Kipling's midnight walks through the Lahore streets, Benazir Bhutto's campaign trail, the Karachi vs. Lahore debate and the legend of Anarkali.

Still, I came away disappointed — this was a book I'd looked forward to with a special fascination. Lahore for me is the city my four grandparents grew up in. Perhaps I was looking for a soul-searching volume like some of the recently stunning city stories. Akin to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's masterly portrayal of his home city. Or closer home to Suketu Mehta's controversial and gritty account of Mumbai's underbelly Maximum City. Something like the literary equivalent of the recent film "Khamosh Pani" — that quietly brilliant portrayal of Ayesha, a young Sikh woman left behind in Pakistan, and the insidious process of her young son turning into a rabid religious militant. Or of making a literary journey like Salman Ahmad, guitarist with rock group Junoon. The famous musician, in the documentary "The Mullah and the Rock Star" traverses the byways of modern day Pakistan searching for answers in madrasas and market places — not something this otherwise excellent collection does.