Experimental in a workshop with Inua Ellams

One of the most random pieces written while in a workshop with Inua Ellams in Karachi turned out to be not-so-random after all. Maybe some of you can try this out for yourself. Take a random number of equally random words (around 10 to 13 in number), start free writing and fit them in without really aiming to think too hard. (Yes, press yourself for time – 5 to 10 minutes: just the bit of time taken to complete the entire writing process). Try and guess which words Ellams gave us workshop participants here. I have listed the words below. Here is the unedited version. 020


In the Light of God

the rainbow spreads

its wings of dreams

and heartfelt springs as the touch

of dawn on the windowsill

brings forth the sounds

of the morning’s drill.


There in the shade

that traveller sits, speaks

in hushed ash-tones that drip

like dust onto evening’s bowl;

the ashtray of that open door

infused in delight.


Itchy, scratchy flea bites

rancid odours, rhapsody of the sand.

Hardly a moment passes by

when struggle spaghetti-like snakes

sinuously into freedom’s hands.

He does extol the mighty how,

who far off in their love of land

sit perched upon their thrones of gold

forever more garbed in purple.

Royal blood of royal kin

and bound to earth still.

Wicked kin. Look down

Look ahead and then look no more.

The dreams are surprised

by heaven’s snore – that noisy menagerie

of traffic here

that din of sound undying

and clear; restful, wistful passersby,

Destiny may unhindered cry.


(The random words: God, ashtray, itchy, spaghetti, extol, purple, restful happen to be the only ones I even remember at this point from the exercise. If there’s a writer’s block, free writing can be magical, if used correctly)

Smiles in Cracked Ice – Dedicated to Parveen Rehman (architect, selfless humanitarian and social scientist who lost her life in a brutal target killing on 13/03/2013 in Karachi, Pakistan)

(The brutal and cold blooded murder of architect Parveen Rehman today has most of us in a state of shock. That smiling face and graceful aura is gone forever and in what a way! From earliest days as a child listening to her discussion of her work with my father to later days seeing her as a spirited, animated individual exuding her usual warmth and smilng demeanour… she was… undoubtedly a model of selfless determination. Death is inevitable but when it is the result of violence it hits emotionally and it hits hard. I feel completely stunned and angry at the murder of a lady who gave her whole life quite literally for the welfare of the poor, the needy and the helpless. Today we look on – each of us as helpless and as poor as the ones she worked for – as we watch yet another humane soul succumb to the madness that surrounds this once peaceful city of Karachi. May Allah raise her to her heavenly abode where she truly belongs and bring her killers to justice. Parveen aunty, you stood up for what you believed in and brought light to the lives of several who were a part of the Orangi Pilot Project. I can hardly bring myself to believe that such efforts, tremendous as they are, go in vain in the end – the light, hope and courage along with selfless determination must and shall live on in other forms come what may. You will truly be missed. Inna lillah e wa inna ilaehe raajeoon.)


Blood buckets to wash the road

the earth to sketch the sky

eyes that tearless stare

and bullets endless supply.


It was another city in that lifeless book

where roses blooming grew

now the red velvet drapes luscious dew

on selfless souls. The look

still haunts – that glassy stare

of wide eyed wonder evermore

and destiny weaves its untold plot

 while we all count the score.

One, two, a thousand pleading eyes

beseech through tomorrow’s door

but drool frames what it loves the best,

Greed’s open corridor.


Love to mask the hate

soft voices to dim the noise

irony moves the cattle herd

and idiocy rules the wise.


To the Walls of Silence

Gather these droplets

while you may

the waves, to these shores

come today.

Who knows the bang,

the slip and crash

of muddy wall

and rocky crag

that tomorrow brings

and empties wall like

on sight, on flight

on the climber’s hike

who windward borne

on fantasy’s wings

careens away…

this tomorrow brings

thus tomorrow wins.

Spirit in Spirit Land


Once upon a time in spirit land,

there dwelt a spirit free.

She danced upon the dewy grass

and swayed with every tree.

The ways of nature

unknown to most

were songs for her heart

and slowly

through reds and browns

her story began its sprightly journey –

a past that blossomed free…

She looked wonder eyed at the world

the drops of rain in puddles fall

the mynah singing in the wind

the ants that turned each corner yet

called out to friends as they sped along –

All was the tapestry weave of love

the care that sprinkles from time to time

through water, sand, the caressing hand

on barren land.



Once upon a time in earthy realms

she started growing up.

The cues of nature murmured still

but had no voice

nor sudden thrill

as sudden as the peeping eyes

that gazed with wonder at her form

the tilt of chin upon her hand

the thoughts unfettered in the land

that she is grown, she has a heart

that beats and beats for half the world –

and the whispering shades of sharpened nettles

pricked the travellers’ wandering steps…

The turn of turns was when

her spirit succumbed to land lock

when silent nights were heavy and hard

and the spirit flayed within

tossing, turning, tousled head frenzy

gnashing at spite’s lithe form

restraining, holding back every inch

and smile’s war came to nought.



Once upon a time in spirit world

there was a cacophony

as new and old had gathered to see the end

to yet another story.

The beginning of ends is never alone

but watched by many an eye

serene – to sit and wait patiently

till time knocks on the window sill

calling forth with cushions of peace

to gaze one’s fill

and bide the day

as luck may soon despair

of moments in life

worse than death.

The now burdened spirit with afternoon bones

and flesh of wooden Monday blues

is still between this world and that

and the spirit world is silent yet

return to them she must she knows…

apples and oranges, pears and grapes

all wither, crinkle, add their bite

to sour lips and faces – wrinkles of time

before time has even run

she pauses and takes a deeper breath

for time’s stitch has come undone.


“I” – (A song for the Man who is always right)

Even as the story goes

all around

it’s the girl who’s wrong

and wrong and wrong.


Wrong colour, wrong shape, wrong size, wrong style,

nose too large and mouth too wide,

eyes that glitter when sparkle they should,

feet that trip when catwalk they could.


I wish, I want, I need, I, I.

Become the mantra for an industry’s supply.

Silky hair swinging side to side

Flawless skin one has ever spied.


She swings, she smiles, I hold my breath

I gasp for air when our eyes have met

I slide on the curves of Time’s refrain

Hourglass or dumbbell, they’re all the same.


I’ll guide her through what she needs to do.

Her shape, her walk, change her lipstick’s hue.

Her smile now fades, she frowns, she thinks…

Could she have a will peeping from those chinks?


She makes these statements that start with ‘I’,

she makes her point. Oh why won’t she try

to say yes and leave it well alone –

she argues she is fair and will my views condone!


Thwarted. Who me? Never can it be.

She’ll learn she argues unnecessarily.

I dub her rigid, I dub her wrong

and if she disagrees she’ll prove my song.

Ink in Progress…

You think I’ll retire at 65.

Does passion have a curtain call?

I have plans, ardour, fervour, zest

and hope that flutters flag-like in the wind,

I will resist downfall.


For the child of red dawn and burning heart,

knows marching strides from the cradle’s arms,

yet still you turn around and ask

if the tides of faith and caste and creed

will turn me back or will I go on?


I am the rolling plains of green

with a wild-flower crown of white –

If benign images are what you want, stop here –

I am the outstretched hand for truth but they grope me for my treasure chests,

while here in the dark I wait, I hope, I pray – for your love, loyalty and light.


Will you get up and hand me that torch

or will you a bonfire make?

I bide earth time to see a nation’s will, but so do the nations all.

And a good show they get from us I know,

you give Prime Time my heart, my soul… while they wait for the break.


Signed: Pakistan… (Diary entry no. 65)

Love’s Last Letter

Preview against my better judgement

that document of old,

wherein love wrote letters anew

and fantasy grew cold.


Alight Diana, from snorting steed

no knight shall follow yet.

For silken tresses and lovelorn eyes

have won battle’s fret.


Like to the trees the quivering shadows,

or new moon’s new delight.

The black crow snaps and bats screech –

the haunted canyon’s night.


A weathered page in an ancient book.

Will you mock the wise old head?

Sages and mages foretold it would

be better off as dead.

The Olympic Marathon 2012

The Marathon owes its name to a city in Greece. It is from here according to Plutarch’s accounts that a messenger from the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran all the way till Athens to announce victory over the Persians and then dramatically die on the spot. Interestingly, the same route was revived during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Though the historical accuracy is debatable, the legend was immortalized as a poem by Robert Browning in 1876.


The Marathon was initiated as a crowd puller for the first Olympics in Athens in 1896. It started off as a male only race with females being introduced in the women’s marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. Since its inception it is traditional for the men’s marathon to be the last event of the athletic’s calendar.


There was no standard distance for the first 7 Olympic Marathons but eventually the distance was fixed at 42.195 km or 26 miles and 385 yards. With the London Olympics 2012, just round the corner, it should be of interest to note that it was the 1908 London Olympics that brought about this fixture as a result of a deviation from the approximate 40 km distance following the original from Marathon to Athens. This deviation was the result of a wish by the then Princess of Wales who wanted her children to see the start. The race was thus moved to the East lawn of Windsor castle adding 2 kms to the planned 40 kms. Moreover, 385 yards were added to the finish line in accordance with Queen Alexandra’s wishes to have the best view, thus making the atheles run on a cinder track right up to and below the Royal Box. Here’s looking at you will get a new twist this time it seems as the route has been chalked out for the atheletes and viewers to get the maximum benefit – passing through all the major London landmarks on the way.  


While the Marathon is an event of great significance in the Olympics, recreational runners may also take part in other marathons being held around the globe on an average of 800 marathons per year. The goal then becomes to break one’s previous time barriers or simply to finish under the average time of 4 hours or 3 hours if one is more competitive. Ethical considerations are followed with recreational runners keeping to the side to allow faster runners to pass through the centre.


Preparations for the Olympic Marathon are on in London. While the  last Beijing Olympics had Tiananmen Square as the starting point, the London Olympics can wager a promising start at the Mall within sight of Buckingham palace. With the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations still in the air, this addition would undoubtedly come as yet another jewel in the Crown. Past races have been run over both high and low terrain with perhaps China being one of the few countries to boast of diversity and variety in the race. China’s past ventures show both interest and creativity as far as the marathon is concerned. The famed race has been run as ‘The Great Wall of China Marathon” over the Wall itself and through the Tibetan plateau region as “The Great Tibetan Marathon”.


During the last Olympics, the enthusiasm for the games was slightly marred by the environmental concerns, especially the pollution levels and unprecedented smog in Beijing. Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia, the men’s marathon world record holder clocking 2 hours 4 minutes and 26 seconds in 2007 backed out then, amidst fears for escalation of his asthma. Similar fears were voiced by other asthmatics including Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s world record holding marathon runner about the pollution, the heat and the humidity.  The media’s role had too been paramount in spreading rumours and increasing the hype by publishing news stories and photographs showing the Beijing National Stadium – ‘the Bird’s Nest’, engulfed by smog early in the morning.

This time round, the reports are coming through yet they are staggered at best, while the conditions appear to be no different. London reportedly has been warned by EU for its poor air quality, having the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the EU as well as dust particles. So far scientists and research students seem to be the strongest voices regarding this aspect of the marathon. It would be interesting to hear from Paula Radcliffe this time round, on her home advantage or disadvantage as the case may be. While Beijing in 2008 shut down the major industries and banned half the city’s transport contributing to the smog, Britain has yet to come up with a similar plan. With health concerns for the atheletes and their optimum performance slowly rising, the British public and the rest of the world wait with bated breath to see what the Marathon brings us all. More controversy or an entertaining finish till Tower Hill.

Map courtesy:


Ravine of the Hours

Diligent hands

run through the sands,

shockwaves of time

of kindred signs

fill the void

of eyes and eyes

of tears without water.


A semblance so real

though the eve be surreal,

poetry in motion

floats on air.

Deep down in the lair

a sparkle is born

not to be seen

never to be clear.


It moves in a spiral

down to the sea

born in shadows

will it ever be free?

Still the chain proceeds

and if the sea recedes

It will be,

It will be.

National Anthem versus the National Spirit. Whither Nationalism?

Question: How many of us can remember our country’s national anthem? Another question: How many of us can claim to know the philosophy behind each verse? Yet another question: How many of us can proudly state that we live each day full of that philosophy?

Point made.

A week back media reports and the press, the public, members of political parties were agog with anticipation over the outcome of the so-called ban  over the singing of the National Anthem in the elite schools of Pakistan. Endless debate, arguments and counterarguments later, an independent observer would witness every verse of the National Anthem in question, being sadly torn to shreds in spirit in any such ‘discussion’. The public in general feels strongly about the National Anthem and rightly so. However, more importantly, what is it that makes an anthem an anthem? What does an anthem even stand for? These are the questions that need to be answered before we start repeating parrot-like statements about the National Anthem being our pride and spirit and being ‘very important’. The question is, WHY?

The answer: simply because an anthem reflects the ideals of a nation – state and the foundations on which it stands and that is why it is important to know and understand it. Remember – know AND UNDERSTAND it, not rote learn it. And I’ll connect this factor later in this text.

Today I attended a discussion related to the issue of banning the National Anthem in the city’s elite schools at a cafe in Karachi, Pakistan. Here are a few of the salient features of that discussion that I found interesting. Almost all the participants of the discussion were unanimous in saying that the National Anthem being sung every day was not as important as following the ideals of what has actually been mentioned in the Anthem. The fact that the only word in the Anthem ‘ka’ (of) is in Urdu and the rest is actually in Persian, was also brought forward. There was also some amount of debate over the fact that this is not the original Anthem that was approved by Quaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the original was written by a Hindu Poet from Lahore: Jagan Nath Azad. One senior participant went as far as to say that she could take up to a month to just teach the philosophical aspects behind the verses and lamented the fact that schools barely teach our children ethical ideals nowadays. Another participant – a young mother, mentioned how she had been educated in an elite school and how her school mates were now not even in Pakistan and remained barely connected to the place in spite of having sung the National Anthem every day for the whole of their school lives. A point was also raised for the behaviour of people during the recital of the Anthem and how in cinema halls many are too busy to even stand up or how naughty young children are involved in their own pranks and begin to take the recital as something of a bore. The discussion ended with a strong vote in favour of promulgating a movement to include the National Anthem as part of the syllabus and teach it in the light of its philosophy.

Continuing the point I had made earlier at the start of this write up, what exactly is the philosophy behind the singing of National Anthem every day? Revival of the Nationalistic Spirit? Drilling the National Anthem into the head so it can be repeated as and when needed?

Irrespective of who wrote the National Anthem, which one should or should not have been selected and what people do with their lives once they grow up and decide of a place to settle down, the focus needs to be on what we glean from the Anthem in the first place. There is no formula to ensure that people will stay or not stay on in Pakistan after learning or not learning the National Anthem or even understanding its philosophy in a month or a year. And even if people decide to stay on after acquiring an education here, it is entirely a different debate on how ethically they will lead their lives. Personal life, family, society, their own perspective have an immense influence on it all, that cannot ever be attributed only to the words of the Anthem.

So what can be a better alternative? Is the daily recital of the Anthem a must? What exactly do we achieve or hope to achieve by this? There cannot be just one right answer to this. Patriotism is not a variable directly proportional to the amount of times one recites the National Anthem.

That being said, it is the prerogative of the schools to decide what their policy should be. I am proud to have studied in a school (termed as non-elitist) where not only was the National Anthem recited daily but we recited our school’s own Anthem as well, yet it is not the recital that makes me proud. Many of the students would not be able to recite more than a few lines of it at this point in their lives in spite of having recited it daily for ten years. However what will remain with many of us for most of our lives was the manner in which it was explained to us by our teachers through relevant examples from life. They taught us not only the philosophy behind the verses, but through their own behaviour showed us the dedication, the hard work and the spirit that goes into the making of an institution and a country. These are the values that we need to reflect and focus on.

The sparks of the debate over the National Anthem may now be dying down but they have nevertheless triggered an important knee jerk in the public consciousness. There is need yet to re-examine the manner in which our current syllabus is being taught. Our children learn Pakistan Studies and the fourteen points of Jinnah diligently yet barely know what each stands for. We rote learn the Anthem, stand up slackly when it is played, get Goosebumps at the tune and feel our spirit soar – but it all becomes as momentary as an autumn leaf each time we throw that wrapper up in the air into the arms of the kishwar e haseen, when we let the tap run dry in the arz e Pakistan, when we break the rules and regulations and slip that bank note under the table to the man on the opposite end breaking the Paak sarzameen ka nizaam and when we kill our brothers and ruin the quwwat e akhuwwat e awam.

May we all collectively reach our desired destination, our manzil e murad and may the road be one of peace, not the rocky one towards which we now seem headed where words become more important than deeds.

Elegy for the Victims of Bhoja Air Plane Crash

What tree, what lightning, what bloody ground,

all on board are dead.

What lament for the bloody crown,

for all on board are dead.


Fantasies may take wings and fly,

Wright brothers did not just dream,

Icarus was no Peter Pan,

Fate’s cards cannot be read.


Pine tree in Margalla’s ground,

you saw the bashful couple stroll

in shroud of white, then light, then shade

then fade… as all on board are dead.


An arm, a limb, torn from silken skin,

does it matter now what its colour was?

The hues of sunset mirror the loamy soil,

each tone a shade of red.


Grieve, the forlorn souls of yesterday,

tomorrow and then day after will come,

but never the smile, the pat, the hug,

now all on board are dead.

If I was a river…

This is the poem I almost read at this year’s SAARC Literature Festival in Lucknow, India. In the end I didn’t read it after all but ended up passing it around to others who wanted to read it. It has been a wonderful experience to recieve much praise for my spontaneous flow of emotion in verse. Since then, many have been repeatedly asking me to post it on my site. Finally I’m giving in… Read, enjoy and don’t forget to give me your feedback. 🙂

If I was a river

in the broken sands of time

I’d cut my way to the mountain top

and not flow to the sea.

But that’s just wishful thinking,

For a river i’d be

and must flow

where the plains take me

down, down to the cliff edge

merge me in with the rest

of the droplets impure.

Salt faces of white,

You think I cannot recognize

your cavernous deep

where none penetrates

and past secrets keep.

If I was a river,

I’d embrace all the stones

with softness of purpose

hewing, pinning, grating

sharpness to mould

and never give in.

Shine on in the mud

with decorations of my own,

fashioned patiently, flaunted last

in the beaming sunlight

when misty curtains pull back

with many a tragic sigh.

I’d rear my head

And rush to the fore

To kiss the hem of the rising –

the guardian banks ashore.

If  I was a river,

wild I would be

to see the seasons change

And let things be

joyful, sudden and free

between the sky and the earth.

Limitless, boundless,

leaping, I’d dance

letting leaf veils slip,

struck with glee.

But I am not a river,

and though the stones hit me hard

they stay unmoulded.

Like the river I’m bound

for destinations unfound

between the earth and the sky

a mist I descry

haunting my magical moments

it lets me twist but not away

sways in to lead astray

and I am not a river

to fix a path and go on my way.

Dolphins of the Indus – Is it that time of year again?

Think of a doll with a fin – doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Rather mermaid – like. Still, thats the first thing that came to my mind when I first mouthed the word. It was much later that I would glimpse just a flapper through the murky waters and forever be drawn to the playful enigma that is the ‘dolphin’.

Dolphins, often depicted as intelligent, playful creatures in films are found in both oceans and rivers. Due to the murky environment in which the freshwater dolphins live, their ability to see has been impaired to the extent that they are only able to distinguish between light and dark and the direction from where the light is coming, earning them the title of ‘blind’. In its place they have developed a sophisticated echolocation system which helps them navigate and alerts them to the possibility of food.

Pakistan is host to the grey – brown blind Indus river dolphin or Platanista Minor named Bhulhan by the Sindhi people meaning a tall, voluptuous woman. This species is unique to Pakistan while its close relative is the Platanista Gangetica or Susu of the Meghna, Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers in Nepal, Bangladesh and India.

Another cousin, the Boto, resides in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. According to the International Union for the Consevation of nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red Data list, the Bhulhan is second on the list of endangered species after the Baiji of the Yagtze river in China, for which the last verified blind dolphin sighting was way back in September 2004.

Originally said to be a shy dweller of the ancient Tethys sea about 50 million years ago, the Indus river dolphin was forced to migrate when the sea began to dry up. The Indus river dolphin enjoyed a peaceful existence until the 1930s when the construction of barrages and dams impeded its migration, split it into small groups and degraded its habitat. Since then, the dolphins have been forced to remain confined to certain areas – definitely not a natural occurence.

The majority of the dwindling population of about 600 dolphins currently resides in the shadowlands – the waters between the Sukkur and Guddu barrages; an area declared as the Indus river dolphin reserve since 1974.

While different agencies such as the WWF – Pakistan in its  Indus River Dolphin Conservation project. Man made perils still await the dolphins of the Indus in the form of industrial waste spewing into rivers, water scarcity in the Indus, construction of dams and barrages, fishing nets and hunting by the locals for its meat, oil and fins.

It seemx Pakistan has been a far from friendly environment for the dolphin. While 2012 remains free of any reports of dead dolphins so far, it was around this time last year in 2011 that reports were received of nearly 6 dolphins, lost forever to the chemical filled waters between Guddu and Sukkur. One can only imagine what this 200 metre expanse of water may have done to the area and later to those eating the fish in these waters. Ironically, the impatience of fisherfolk may shoulder much of this blame. Dumping in chemicals for quick results may prove more addictive than not.

One can only hope that the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum in sync with the environmental agencies operating in the area sustain and balance sanity, patience and livelihoods.

Lit Fest Thumb Roll

White wings flap and shelter many a breeze

Above the chairs blinking at the sun

And thoughts bestir their heavy forms

In the city by the crags of roughened shore

While heads nod and silent drums roll

In carpeted corridors; awe rears its shapely head.

If a book is measure of a writer’s skill

Let the written word a drum beat be,

That for each drum beat along the walk of fame

Awe may accompany, the life that seems a mile above;

The charlatan of time and world

In glorious pen to sword structure seek

And bide clockwork like the chance

That robes kings of book-dom from dusty nooks

As picked out from the riotous rabble

They stand timorous till that purveyor of corridors

Snare drums each page, each word, each phrase

Drum,drum, drum.

Impressions from the Karachi Literature Festival 2012

Life Bytes

%d bloggers like this: