Category Archives: People

Updike and the Witching Hour

Ever since the entire drama surrounding Harry Potter and the Twilight series has somewhat faded, there seems to be an uncanny gap before readers or movie buffs experience any more witching antics. A bit of  googling online brought me to dwell somehow on the almost bookshelved Witches of Eastwick (1984), its filming and its never filmed sequel Widows of Eastwick (1998) written by John Updike.

Updike, whose 3rd death anniversary will fall at the end of this very month of January, was born on 18th March 1932 and succumbed to lung cancer on 27th January 2009. The only child of a mathematician father and a literary minded mother, he had the right atmosphere to bloom into a ‘distinguished Christian person of letters’ according to Jesuit magazine America which gave him its Campion Award in 1997. His initial sickly disposition troubled with psoriasis and stammering led to an interest in writing encouraged by his mother. His father provided the impetus for the ‘sympathetic father figure’ of his early work.

His childhood memories of the towns of Reading and Shillington were the later setting for the fictional Brewer and Olinger of his novels. Egged on by a passion to write, he worked in a local newspaper, graduated in English from Harvard and as an undergraduate at the same, had honed his story writing and drawing skills while working for the oldest humour magazine – The Harvard Lampoon; which had attracted him to Harvard in the first place.

A true son of the earth, Updike drew inspiration from the cluttered life on the margins using the American idiom as his canvas. Perhaps the most illustrative example can be found in his two times Pulitzer Prize winning portions of the “Rabbit” saga comprising of four novels, wherein the circumstances surrounding the life of its main protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom are shown against the backdrop of the social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s and onwards till the final AIDS ridden reflux of the 1980’s in ‘Rabbit’s Rest’.

A frank style of writing which held no room for obliqueness brought both fame and criticism for the content of his works. Redoubtable as he was, “Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible… but they dare to go it alone,” was the only answer he would give to this onslaught. Alone however, he did not remain. The Times, paid him the tribute of a feature story soon after his writing the novel ‘Couples’ in 1968 portraying the complicated liaisons of married suburban couples. On the other hand, all his writing is subtly steeped in theoretical and existentialist yearnings. He was an avid church goer and wherever possible used metaphors and symbols to bring forth philosophical questions.

Updike worked with most genres of prose as well as poetry including sonnets. His poems were light and amusing, characterised by attention to sounds and usage of colloquial language utilizing even brand names and imitating advertising jargon.

Perseverance, hard work and dedication became his personal axioms ever since he left The New Yorker, preferring a secluded existence in Massachusetts and raising his family on the returns of his writing alone. However, during his two year stint at the magazine, whence he had started his career, he had attained a fondness enough for it, to regularly contribute short stories, poems and reviews to it, throughout his life. Early on in his writing career, he initiated and maintained a rigid routine – writing diligently in a rented room for several hours six days a week.

Small wonder then that Updike received so many awards in his lifetime including the rare honour of being the third American to win the Pulitzer for Fiction twice and both the National Medal for Art (1989) and the National Medal for Humanities (2003).

Several of Updike’s works have been adapted for films. The most noteworthy amongst these are the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run as a full length film in 1970, the short story A&P (1961) produced as a 17 minute short in 1996, and Pigeon Feathers (1962) made for TV in 1987. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) produced in 1987 with a stellar cast comprising among others Jack Nicholson and Susan Sarandon, was well received and it remains to be seen if the recently written Widows of Eastwick (2008) has a similar fate in store.  Perhaps it is the lull before the witching hour strikes thirteen.

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‘And…’ A dedication to Prof. Kausar Bashir Ahmad

Dedicated to my late father, Prof. Kausar Bashir Ahmad – a visionary, educationist, architect, artist, poet and gentle soul who left us for his eternal abode on this day, five years ago. May Allah grant him the highest of places in Heaven and bless him in every way.

For more on his life and work, please visit:

And it will be November again.

The evening chill reminds me

That I have but little time

Before the shadows of the past bestir me

And take me on that incline

Where progress is slow.


And it will be November again,

When dark corridors take on meanings anew,

When footsteps dwell in places small

And life begins to ebb and stall.

Bitter sweet, sour,

I dream of the summer sky instead.


And it will be November again,

When the eyes will search and rue – .

A life fulfilled, the bonds outcast

And the Earth out spins what’s due.

Yet that not there will be untold

And November, Daddy, will stretch again.



8:00 P.M

Sunday, 25th October 2009

Micheal Crichton

Three years ago, the sun of 4th November 2008 brought with it the unwelcome news of yet another author’s demise. This time it was John Michael Crichton – the one time anthropology Professor and author of enlightening and thought provoking novel-turned-films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). He also wrote under the pseudonyms of John Lange, Jeffery Hudson and Michael Douglas. The last pseudonym was adopted while teaming up with his brother Douglas Crichton to write ‘Dealing…’ (1970).


Born in Chicago on 23rd October 1942, Crichton had a long and fulfilling life. His early leanings were invariably towards English literature even though he abandoned the course it due to disillusionment in the teaching methodology. A stint at HarvardMedicalSchool went the same way. However, till then he had found his forte – films. Westworld (1973) gave him the break he needed and then on, he and his writing flourished.


The popular television series ‘ER’ was his 1970 brainchild called Emergency Ward initially but Steven Spielberg got far more interested in converting Jurassic Park into a film. During the shooting for the latter ‘ER’ also found a solid footing in television.


At the set of 'Coma' in 1977

His writings were kaleidoscopic, each new design permeated with the theme of either technological dangers or medical complications. Mystery novels, his first calling, interspersed the others at intervals. Critics have speculated on the overly dramatic nature of his novels yet none has anything but admiration for his lucid style of writing combined with wry humour and effortless manner of communicating complex scientific phenomena to his readers. He researched his material extensively and brought to life well rounded characters, be it the 10th century Muslim in Eaters of the Dead (1976) or the psychologist in Sphere (1987).


On a personal level, his life was nothing short of tumultuous. Apart from the educational ups and downs his five times married and four times divorced status added to his emotional baggage.  Believing in the occult, he had his own person exorcised in 1986, the year before his fourth marriage.


As complex and fast paced as his novels, Crichton is a difficult person to analyse in a few lines. As he brilliantly though in a rather sordid way, put it in the first line of his autobiography: “It’s not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” Poignant, if the head in question is teeming with questions that each have more than one answer… The head of Michael Crichton.

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Its all in the Hat – The Seussian Magic

The Cat in the Hat

Dr Seuss – the name conjures up specifically Seussian images: a cheeky looking cat with a hat, a green Grinch with evil red eyes, and of course, the Lorax. Harnessing a potential inculcated by the rhythmic pie-chants of his mother and inspired by an admiring comment on his ‘doodles’ in his Oxford class by his then classmate and later wife, ‘Ted’ Seuss went on to carve his own niche simultaneously in the art world and children’s literature. His art lies between the surrealist movement of the 20th century and whimsical doodling of a man who claimed that he had never really learnt to draw!


Though Seuss enjoyed writing books that would encourage children to read, his books have symbolic elements meant for adult comprehension – the irresponsibility of ‘once-ler’ in the Lorax in using truffula trees to fuel his ambitiousness, or the controversial butter-battle book with its oblique reference to the growing threat of arms build-up and nuclear war heightened by its highly disconcerting blank page ending. Even his playful change of title in Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now!,  as Richard M. Nixon in friend Art Buchwald’s column with Nixon resigning the next day aroused much notice.


Dr Seuss

As Dr Seuss wanted and envisaged, his books have been used for several decades as a medium for the teaching of English language, and as a means of encouraging children to read. His dream was realized to a great extent for even at the time of his death on September 24, 1991, his works had been translated into 15 different languages and over 200 million copies sold worldwide with 6 posthumous publications. The cat in the hat – intended as a children’s primer with the inclusion of 220 new-reader vocabulary words remains popular to date both in and out of schools.


He wrote 44 children’s books, over 400 World War II political cartoons and countless advertisements and editorials. Animated renditions of his nearly 30 of his books like the Butter Battle book, Gerald Mcboing-boing (1951), How the Grinch stole Christmas, and Horton hears a Who! (1971) among others, brought him further fame, prestige, one Oscar, two Emmys, a Pulitzer and a Peabody among others.


Dr Seuss enlivened many hearts and minds with his particular brand of fun and infectious optimism – “you’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So . . . Get on your way!” Teaching above all, the message of tolerance to young minds, Dr Seuss gave it all in his swan slogan shortly before his death -: “the best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: ‘we can . . . And we’ve got to . . . Do better than this.” Needless to say, we agree.

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Hokusai’s Woodblock Prints

Woodblock prints had been an inexpensive way of reproducing texts and widely used by Buddhist monasteries since the 8th century, when Hokusai Katsushika (1760 – 1849) dabbled in the art and ended up being part of an art movement that would revolutionize the art forms of 19th century Japan. This re-emergence of the initial textual prints as pictures, during the Ukiyo – e movement in which Hokusai also played a part, was welcomed by the citizens who had borne the brunt of the contention between the daimyo or the ruling lords of power and the military during the entire Middle Ages and beyond. Due to these skirmishes the development of woodblock printing in Japan seems fragmented.

creating a woodblock print

Known as Ukiyo – e in Japan, woodblock prints or ‘pictures of the floating world’ sought to depict the common fleeting pleasures the common man. The Ukiyo – e movement was founded by 17th century artist Hishikawa Moronobu and included other notable artists of the age such as Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro, and Sharaku. Kabuki theatre and brothels were the main subject matter till artisans in the 19th century started focussing on bird-and-flower themes and landscapes.

Print making was an arduous task for the 17th century Ukiyo – e printmakers. Monochromatic ink drawings were used to make simple prints and the artist would note down suggestions for colour at this stage. Next, a skilled engraver would transfer this design to a cherry or boxwood block and carve in relief. Impressions from such a block could either be hand coloured or the uneconomical polychrome prints; Nishike – e (brocade prints) – a task complicated by the use of, mica, precious metals and embossing plus multiple coloured blocks requiring precision work.

Views of Mount Fuji - Hokusai

Hokusai was a prolific artist who, as an impressionable 18 year old, trained with Katsukawa Shunsho, a skilled painter and colour print designer. Katsukawa had a unique ability to push past traditional painting techniques and he produced more than 30,000 colour prints and book illustrations. Following in his teacher’s footsteps, during his entire lifetime Hokusai produced as many as 30,000 works inspired by Ukiyo – e and famous Japanese legends. His style was characterized by free curving lines in the beginning which later evolved into a series of powerful spirals. Large, broken strokes, however formed the basis of his later work which was just as versatile as his earlier experimental one.

The Great Wave - Hokusai

He made single sheet prints of landscapes and actors and surimono (printed things) such as greetings and announcements. His most famous work is “In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa”. This and other works by Hokusai show an effective usage of fragmentary foreground elements, such as the Lake Suwa, the Incume Pass, the Sumida River or a shadowy summer storm,  to frame the distant view of the Mount Fuji in that Mount Fuji is viewed from afar from various angles.  His other famous work is his 13 volume sketchbook with block prints – the Hokusai Manga, called “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji.” “Fukojuso” is another set of 12 prints which celebrates passion and flesh.

Ironically, Hokusai’s work in wood is generally more appreciated in the West than in Japan because it is known as one of the influences in spawning the Impressionist movement and the Art Nouveau style, having influenced several renowned artists of the age such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri – Toulouse Lautrec who enthusiastically collected his imported work in Paris. Interestingly enough, this influence was purely accidental after several of Hokusai’s works were used as packing material for a box of Chinaware delivered to Felix Bracquemond, a French Impressionist painter and etcher, in 1856.

Hokusai woodblock prints can be ordered online or are available in exclusive art shops in Japan, the Far  East and selected shops in Europe and America. Prices range from approximately $30 to $35 per print.

N.B. A shorter version of this article has been published as a box feature in Daily Dawn Newspaper, Karachi, Pakistan

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Becoming Robert Lee Frost

Freud mentions sublimation as the primary defense of poets and prose writers alike. The defense that keeps them upright in life. Even a slight dissention would result in the convenient label of denial. However, be it the poets of the Indian subcontinent with their focus on tragic matters of the heart or poets of the west, some saying of Freud come back to haunt us. While the Romantics and the Victorian poets depict the pathos of their times and lives, American poets like Robert Lee Frost also deserve more than just a mention. His life shows much of his ‘will’ to live while his work showcases sensuality packaged in pastoral simplicity.

Frost had “miles to go” in every sense. Emotional upheavals interspersed with outstanding successes shaped his life. Born to a teaching couple on March 26, 1874, he was orphaned at 11 when his gambler, drinker and authoritarian father passed away. His married life was punctuated by frequent bouts with poverty, uncertain health, financially unproductive though creatively fruitful immigrations and tragic or unnatural deaths and institutionalisations of his children. Despite such personal turmoil, his fame and triumph of 4 Pulitzer prizes during his lifetime remains unparalleled by any other American poet. He passed away on January 29, 1963.

While his mother made Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others his fodder throughout childhood, Greek and Latin held its sway during high school, which along with an interest in botany and astronomy influenced his poetry. The psychologist William James known as the father of American psychology, however, became Frost’s ‘greatest inspiration’. This may have led to the spiritual undertones in Frost’s work and the idea of ‘will’ in his life.

For many reviewers Frost’s charm lies in his simplicity. While, Edward Thomas recognized his originality, Ezra Pound felt he knew more about farm life and effectually ‘Life’ itself after reading Frost, and Jarrell described him as the “the subtlest and saddest of poets”.

Deeper analysis reveals his subliminal sensual appeal. His formulation of the “ear” being “the only true writer and reader”, made him experiment using the “sound of sense” with vernacular speech. Another aspect of sublimation perhaps? Thus, his poetry makes demands on the reader’s vigilance for cadences and dramatic effects of silence.  He, like his ‘Oven Bird’ remained earthbound, singing of worldly matters, didactic and argumentative by turns. Overall, his witty treatment of issues in light verse composition gave a surface gloss to inopportune facets.

Among his best-known shorter poems are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “Mending Wall”, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, “Acquainted With the Night”, “The Pasture”, “Fire and Ice”, and “The Road Not Taken”.

Throughout, he astutely remained in the public eye, being feted by the literary worlds of both Boston and New York. His practice of public readings with a sprinkling of his own comments and reflections about the world served only to enhance his popularity with the masses.

Though primarily a poet, Frost was also a dramatist. When hard pressed for money he also wrote articles for poultry journals by night while working his farm by day. His letters to wife Elinor and friend Sidney Cox “Forty Years of Friendship” are in book form and served to release him after a decade from the ‘monster of egotism myth’ when his personality faced the brunt of his self-appointed biographer Thompson’s hostile pen.

Frost was prolific. Hundreds of unearthed works are still being published posthumously such as The Notebooks of Robert Frost (January 2007).

He had a “lover’s quarrel with the world” and like a lover, gave his tribute to ‘tragic America’ transformed artfully into ‘pastoral and peaceful America’.

* An abridged version of this essay has been published earlier in the box features section of Daily Dawn Newspaper, Karachi. Pakistan.

*Image courtesy:,r:12,s:0&biw=1093&bih=466

Agatha Christie’s Life and Words Week 2010

Dame Agatha Christie’s position as the Queen of Crime continues unsurpassed several decades
after her death in 1976. Her birthplace Torquay or Torbay (Great Britain) is a busy site when the Christie Week is held to coincide with her birth date on 15th September. The revenue generated, is believed to bring the town millions of pounds each year.

Agatha Christie started out as a home educated nurse and became a celebrated writer with over 75 detective works to her name. Her play, ‘The Mousetrap’ is well known as the longest running play in history. The versatility of her art is proven by the singularly well rounded characters wrought by her pen. From the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his ‘little grey cells’, to the twinkling, innocent perceptiveness of old lady Jane Marple, her principal figures are timeless. Hercule Poirot first brought her fame with “The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ (1920) and continued undiminished till his death in ‘Curtain’ (1975). Sir Peter Ustinov has played Poirot to perfection in the 1970’s television series and was around as 2010’s Christie week unfolded.

Last year, the celebratory ‘week’ was bigger and better. Torbay Cultural Partnership coordinated the fifth annual Christie week from the 13th till the 19th of September. Nearly 40 events were concentrated along the English Riviera in Torquay, Paignton, Brixham and Devon.
These included talks; audio guided walking tours, debates, tea – dances, radio shows, theatre plays and open air film screenings.

Notably, her grandson Mathew Prichard hosted a talk at a reminiscent dinner including
radio performances of ‘Murder on Air’ brought to life by the Agatha Christie theatre company. A murder mystery ball in Torquay promised spine chilling adventure at the venue of Agatha Christie’s honeymoon hotel as guests were expected to solve  the ‘murder’ on location. A welcome addition is the free book borrowing from Torquay libraries to promote her works. BBC Radio 4 pitched in with afternoon readings from Agatha Christie’s works featuring the mysteriously invisible character Mr Quin among others.

Nationwide events were planned. Reading prepared for its festival of Crime Writing from 10th to 12th September during which the plays ‘Spider’s Web’ and ‘Murder on Air’ were
performed and Warwickshire held the Throckmorton Literary Festival. The Southbank Centre in London played host to a bevy of her fans and a literary discussion.

*Published earlier as a box feature for DAWN Newspaper, Karachi, Pakistan.

Karen Armstrong. The Great ‘Ego’ Divide?

If peace were to be distributed in sugar-coated pills, Dr Karen Armstrong’s face would well adorn its cover. ‘Ego is a barrier  to dialogue’ was the crux of her message in the face of a barrage of questions  aimed at her at Carlton Hotel’s Karachi Literature Festival today 6th  February 2011.

The idea of an ‘Ego’ is far from simplistic despite  its plain garb. The questions thus raised are diverse. Take the case of two  persons in direct confrontation with each other. One decides not to indulge in  dialogue till the other initiates conversation. Carrying on from the tradition
of Eric Berne we would label it kindly as a ‘game’ and be done. National pride  and identity raise many more dimensions. Would we be right in raising our  non-egoistic eyebrows at the Cold War? Are we to say that the ever  controversial Kashmir ‘issue’ is an issue only due to ‘Ego’. Or are we to say  that the enraged sentiments on M.F Hussain’s drawings are a result of ‘Ego’  between the artistically liberated tolerant mindsets and the masses? Closer to
home ground, would it become a battle between religion and tolerance of all  kinds of sentiments in the name of not showing one’s ‘Ego’?

Arguments and counterarguments would be counterproductive, diabolical and lead nowhere. The need of the hour perhaps is to lean towards the message beneath the surface. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Whether it is the race for nuclear
warheads or the corresponding sanctions, we seem to be caught in a never ending  debate of the primacy of the chicken and the egg.

Karen Armstrong’s 2008 Charter of Compassion was one of the major subjects of discussion in her discourse. While signatories like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama have their own perspective regarding the Charter, a lot can be learnt from Armstrong’s own life influences that may well have proved to be the driving force for humility, compassion and the passion behind it all. Touching stories about her own experiences at Convent as a young nun being broken in, strictly but not unkindly – a vivid illustration of her superior dying of cancer yet not taking sedatives in order to say perhaps her last words of kindness and hope to the young Armstrong provide the emotional ground for her next words. With a wave of her hand she brings to mind and then swiftly dismisses any idea that ‘sticks and stones may break your
bones but words will never hurt you’. Kind words are the balm that soften past wounds and lend grace to new ones. And these she remembers more than anything else in times of sadness, in times of distress.

We all remember.

So can we be generous enough to dole these out? Will we remember that?

The mental image built up using Armstrong’s own words is that of a ‘cool’, ‘funny’, ‘clever’, ‘kind’ character who would usually turn up when things seem to be going wrong. Sesame Street and the younger generation may benefit from that surely and hopefully in a few years’ time but
modern society as it is, has its own terminology for such a person: “Fool”. Will the bud blossom? A few shakes from side to side and off goes the all-knowing-Head into the shadows to think of schemes for its own glory.

If Armstrong is the torchbearer for the monotheistic convention, and preaches the message of peace, solidarity and dialogue, how many of us will take to compassion with passion? Or will ‘Ego’ rule the Earth still?

Published on–-The-Great-Ego-Divide 10th Feb 2011