V.S. Naipaul: India, a million mutinies now


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V.S. Naipaul takes layers off India, exploring the various intricacies of this vast country which juts out like a giant triangle on the map of Asia.

‘India – a million mutinies now’ is part of a trilogy he wrote on the country – based on his travels in 1967 and then 1989-90.

I like to believe Naipaul came to India looking for answers about his own identity. Having grown up in an Indian household in Trinidad, there must have been dinner talks about this exotic, faraway land. And if had not been for the British Raj, his ancestors would never have been shipped off to work on plantations in the Caribbean.

The book enfolds as snippets of conversation, characters telling stories, and Naipaul adds context to it.

It starts with Bombay, the glittery Bollywood capital, and a city close to my heart.

“Bombay is a crowd,” Naipaul says as he walks the reader through the Muslim ghettos near Mohammad Ali Road. My father says it was named after my great great grandfather Mohammad Ali Roghay, a contemporary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

I don’t think it’s a fact but I like to believe it is.

Naipaul talks about the dreams and aspirations people come to Bombay with and the crumbling apartment blocks which greet them – “such a mismatch between dreams and reality”.

In Bombay, Naipaul interviews a struggling writer from Calcutta who hopes to make it big in commercial cinema.

When he finally finds works, he realizes his ideas, lofty as they are, have no room in the  film business, where like in most other instances in life, mediocracy rules. But he’s a romantic and he reflects:

“The joy of an artist is not think about success and failure, but just to go on.”

“Many of the things I had worked on had remained at the ideas stage and ideas can be brilliant.”

Naipaul delves into caste politics.

Through him I was able to connect the dots between the recent wave of arrests of left-wing ‘urban naxalites’ for mass Dalit protests across India.

‘Periyar’ means wise man in Tamil. The South hero-worships him. The South is also the hotbed of Tamil insurgency.

Periyar, a contemporary of Gandhi, led the movement for the rights of Dalits in Tamilnadu in the 20th Century.

He was against vegetarianism and made it a point to eat beef.

In the state of Kerala in the 1920s an incident caused him to breakaway from Gandhi. A Congress school propagating Gandhian thought was serving food to Brahmin and non-Brahmin students separately. When the matter was reported to Gandhi, he responded with light-hearted humor. Periyar took offence, and parted ways.

In 1925, Periyar formed the Self-respect Movement and began his 50-year-long fight against the Brahmin caste. He propagated marriages without priests and “a crude kind of socialism”. He campaigned for a non-Brahmin state called Dravidistan, and by the 1950s publicly broke idols of Hindu gods, to prove that they were only made of clay.

Next, Naipaul travels to Bengal, the land of Rabindarnath Tagore, the poet who moved from house to house as he quickly got bored at one place, a sign “perhaps of the self-indulgence of the Bengali aristocrat”.

His description of Calcutta, Bengal’s capital, could be of any other city in South Asia. Over-crowded, polluted and crumbling. It reminded me of Karachi, my city, with its plethora of problems.

“But I was overpowered this time by my own wretchedness, the taste of water, corrupting both coffee and tea as it corrupted food, by the brown smoke of cars and buses, by the dug-up roads and broken footpaths, by the dirt, by the crowds; and could not accept the consolation offered by some people that in a country as poor as India the aesthetic side of things didn’t matter.”

“Now it occurred to me that perhaps this was what happened when cities died. They didn’t die with a bang; they didn’t die only when they were abandoned. Perhaps they died like this: when everybody was suffering, when transport was so hard that working people gave up jobs they need because they feared the suffering of the travel; when no one had clean water or air; and no one could go walking. Perhaps cities died when they lost the amenities that cities provided, the visual excitement, the heightened sense of human possibility, and became simply places where there were too many people, and people suffered.”

Naipaul enters Lucknow, the heartland of the Pakistan movement, the city of Nawabs where people spoke chaste Urdu and poets were revered.

By the 80s, the middle and upper class had already migrated to Pakistan in waves and those left behind were confined to Muslim ghettos – where cousin marriages were rife and people multiplied like rabbits.

My favourite story in the entire book is of the last Nawab of Lucknow who was once the treasurer of Muslim League.

In 1947, when Pakistan became independent he left along with his wife and son, who narrates his story, taking with him only “some books and carpets”.

In 1957 he gave up his Indian passport. Jawarhalal Nehru tried to change his mind, but he was relentless in the love for his new country. In Pakistan, he tried his luck in politics – but it did not work in his favour, for he was a Shia and Mohajir (migrant) – an outsider in short, in the Sunni-Punjabi dominated state-of-affairs. The rest of his life he spent like a wanderer – shuttling between Iraq and London.

“I think it was almost a life of penance, you see. I felt it was necessary for him to undergo the same process of homelessness that other people had gone through when they left India and went to Pakistan.”

When Bangladesh parted from Pakistan in 1971 “it was a shock from which my father never really recovered.”

He died two years later.

About being Muslim in Lucknow after Pakistan, his son says:

“It’s like the Buddhist idea ‘Not this, not this’. I am an Indian but the temple is not for me. I’m a Muslim but in its details my faith cannot be the same faith as the one in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Pakistan. I speak Urdu. I greet people in the Lucknow Muslim way. I say ‘My respects to you’ instead of ‘Peace be upon you’.”

Partition affected all of us in ways that will take years to recover. It divided families. It confused so many of us, because ‘the other’ is so much like my self. He eats my food, shares the color of skin, speaks my language – and always connects over a cup of milk tea and Bollywood.

Naipaul set off on his journey with the same questions and in the process helped our diaspora find common ground.










From Burnes Road to Café Flo: How Karachi changed the way it eats out



By Sidrah Roghay

KARACHI: What makes a millennial from a middle-class locality in Karachi, say Nazimabad, take an expensive rickshaw ride to an uptown café and buy food that will dig a deep hole in his pocket?

This struggling doctor who ekes out Rs35,000, just enough to meet his monthly expenses, and saves a tad bit more after his wife works as a teacher at an expensive O Level school, is ready to pay Rs300 for a cup of coffee, something his parents would never have thought of doing when he was growing up in Karachi in the 90s.

He belongs to a growing number of millennials who are changing the way Karachi has eaten out for decades.

Cafés that boast of exotic dishes from all over the world—from Parmesan Chicken to Honey flavoured chicken wings, from crème boule to New York Cheesecake, are propping up every other day in the city. Not every eatery is a success. Many close down in the first year of their business.

According to Karachisnob.com, an online directory of the city’s finest eateries, a new wave of café culture was introduced to the city in 2005. Before that there was only Copper Kettle, a cosy place where there were plush sofas to sit instead of chairs, and one could get a variety of soups, shrimps and sandwiches, a novelty in the late 90s. “The food was terrible,” recalls Ahmed, now in his late 30s, “but it became a place where teenagers could just hangout after school.”

It changed its name to the Hobnob Bakery later, and operates a number of outlets across the city, where one can buy actual ‘dark chocolate’ and cheesecakes. This one particular bakery’s journey, which introduced never-heard-of-before desserts like apple pies and carrot cakes to Karachiites, explains how the culture crossed the Clifton bridge—and came to middle class localities like Gulistan-e-Jauhar and Gulshan-e-Iqbal.

It won’t be wrong to say that it was Espresso which introduced coffee to this otherwise tea-drinking city. Visitors who arrived at this chic café at the posh Zamzama market remember they were taken aback by the choices of coffee on the menu. Before Espresso, coffee was Nescafe instant mix. Espresso told people that coffee ranged from Americano to Macchiato—and it could be drunk hot or cold, because yes there was iced coffee too.

Yet another name that redefined fine-dining was Café Flo. Owned by a French woman, the quaint place in Old Clifton nestled amidst tall Banyan trees introduced delicacies like squid and avocado to people who grew up on a diet of tikka masala and greasy parathas.

A meal for two at such a café will easily cross the Rs3000 mark, an exorbitant amount in a country where the per capita income for 2014-15 was $1512 (Rs15840), but visitors feel they are getting value for money.

“What else is there to do in Karachi? We live for food—when we are born our families celebrate with food, when we die greasy Biryani is a must at the funeral,” says Talha Chachar, a marketing professional who says he eats-out at least four times a month.


A vendor selling fish at Burnes Road – source: Geo.tv

Old businesses hit hard

As these uptown cafés grew in number, restaurants in the old-city were hit hard. For the middle-class children of the 90s, food streets at Burnes Road and Hussainabad were weekend family hang-outs.

Not anymore. The class lines have been drawn. Now these places are frequented by Abaya clad women and Ghutka-chewing men engaged in blue-collar work.

Saturday nights at Burnes Road, a food street smack in the middle of Saddar, is any traffic warden’s nightmare. Cars, pedestrians, dogs, and vendors, all fight for space here. One has to watch their step: open sewers and manholes might get you. This is where one can get authentic Karachi food: Waheed’s fry Kebab, Delhi Rabri, and Anwar’s Mutton Karahi.

But as families stopped coming here for eating out the street has become more of a domain exclusively for men, with restaurants hosting small enclosed areas they call ‘family halls’ for women wanting to visit.

Mohsin Fallah, whose family has been running Café Mubarak, an Iranian restaurant in Saddar for the last 50 years, sounds pessimistic. His business has been badly hit by the changing food-scape of Karachi.

“Eating-out habits of people have changed,” he said. “People prefer to take a long drive and eat barbeque for twice the price at Do Darya [where a number of high-end restaurants overlooking the sea are situated].”

His restaurant situated near Pakistan’s top business school, the Institute of Business Administration, is fading away with the floor covered in a layer of dust and white paint from the wall chipping away. He too has been forced to expand his menu from the traditional Chulu Kebab and Pulao to the more popular fast food that includes local versions of cheeseburgers and club sandwiches.

No longer part of the hip Karachi culture, Iranian restaurants were once a hub of literary get-togethers where several movements of the 1960s were planned. Situated at street corners, these Iranian restaurants claim that they were the ones who introduced innovations in the eat-out culture such as waiters wearing uniforms and tablecloths.

With them were a number of Malbari restaurants which were famous for their tea, topped with a dollop of thick cream, says Akhtar Balouch, a blogger and journalist who has written extensively on the city under the pseudonym Kiranchi Wala.

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Cafe Flo, an uptown eatery which also serves French cuisine – Picture source: Twitter

Cultural globalization

Perhaps the fading culture of the city accounts to a phenomenon called cultural globalization where internet, social media, and travel promotes shared ideas and lifestyle

“So that a young lady in her 20s will have more in common with a person her age in New York, than she will have with her parents,” says Mohsin Ihsan, co-founder Cosmopolitan, a café in Karachi.

It is cultural globalization that no longer leaves a youngster from Karachi in cultural shock when he visits New York. In fact, even if he has never stepped out of Pakistan, he would want to try hot dogs and waffles, American street food, pictures of which he has seen on his Instagram feed and the rich dose of Hollywood he has grown on.

Internet users in the country have shown a steady increase. Data from World Bank indicates that, in 2015, 18.9 percent of the total population in Pakistan had access to internet, a 4.1 percent increase compared to internet users in the previous year. Millennials (born between the 80s to early 2000s) are bombarded with information from around the world through social media.

“The only connection to American culture we had when we were young were Archie comics,” says Hasan Zaidi, a journalist and culture critic.

Or does this mushroom growth of cafés in the city signify a deeper problem? Is this the sign of a generation which is becoming more and more consumeristic?

Balouch agrees. “There is a dearth of ideas and discussions. And so millennials fill that vacuum by buying stuff, consuming more and more,” he says.

Zaidi begs to differ. “Consumerism was always around. What we see today is a rising middle class—with both partners working. So people are left with a greater disposable income. When this happens, you move away from spending on only necessities to spending on entertainment, which also comes in the shape of eating out at these chic cafés.”

Talat Aslam, senior editor The News and a foodie, says the changing food scene is giving this entertainment-starved city reason to be happy.

“So in the 80s, going out was an occasion where one would put on a dinner jacket, now it has just become a casual weekend habit.”

He observes that, in a lot of these cafés, one can see women hanging out with a group of other women or just alone—something that was not a norm in the city before.

Karachi has changed the way it eats out, not necessarily for the good or bad, but simply changed, like most organic, cosmopolitan societies—it has borrowed, picked, and chosen from cultures it likes. A case in point is how Dhabbas have made a comeback in the food culture of the city, by tweaking its parathas to include cheese and Nutela flavours, and making their sitting areas women-inclusive places.

“One can never stand still in business, you have to stay relevant to your customers,” says Aized Suharwardi, co-founder Chai Wala, one such Dhaba.

– Originally published here