Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Structures that bind

In BOLLYWOOD, HISTORY on December 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm

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For hundreds of years, Lahore’s very own pomegranate blossom, Anarkali, has been the subject of speculation and intrigue:

“No incident in the history of Mughal India enjoys as much popularity as the royal    romance of Prince Salim (later Jahangir) and Anarkali. It is believed that the original name of Anarkali was Nadira or Sharfunnisa and that she received the name or the title of Anarkali (literally meaning pomegranate bud) for her beauty. Anarkali was a dancer at the court of Emperor Akbar (consult the MUGHAL FAMILY TREE). The emperor’s eldest son and heir apparent, Salim, fell in love with her. Akbar did not approve of the relation as the dancer was of lowly birth and hence considered not fit to be the queen of the would-be emperor of Hindustan. But the lovers did not pay heed to the emperor’s disapproval. Anarkali was sentenced to death—she was bricked alive in a wall. This basic story-line is often told with minor variations. However, one may be surprised to note that the name of Anarkali is not mentioned in the historical details of the period of Akbar or in the memoirs of Jahangir.”
—Subhash Parihar, online source

It is thought that Anarkali debuted at the court of Akbar sometime between 1542–1605. As noted above, there are varying accounts of her life, possibly all fictional (as history sometimes tends to be). In the stories passed down, Anarkali is said to have been a slave girl, a concubine, a lover of Akbar and possibly of Salim. She is said to have been of Persian or Russian descent. In one version, she escapes death in the palace; in other versions she is entombed in a fort or buried alive within four walls.

In the various accounts of her life, what’s interesting to me is the mention of Anarkali’s entombment, her being buried alive. The proprietor of the Lahore Heritage Club, Tahir Yazdani, described the process of immurement as such: a woman would be placed in a room that had a ceiling and three constructed walls. The fourth wall would be built once the woman was placed inside the partially constructed room. As the last wall would go up, the woman would slowly suffocate to death for lack of oxygen.

Mr. Yazdani remarked that until the workers constructed the final wall, the process would have been “quite comfortable.” I think he made that remark in a comparative sense. In all the ways that violent acts can be carried out against women’s bodies, this method bypassed touching the body to cause harm. Apparently, the standing burial was not only given to Anarkali, but also to other women of the period. Whether fictional or real, Anarkali was a woman without a home and without a family. No one was awaiting her return: she could be done away with such that her body was entirely removed from the sight/site of the powerful.

It seems horrific that remains of bodies may be lingering in buildings I have walked around and about. Along with constructions of (and/or additions to) buildings, one could also do away with the unwanted. Could a woman have been made to vanish in the time it took to put up a brick wall?

However uncertain the facts of her life and apparently brutal death, it is clear that Anarkali has had a lasting impact. Two Lahori bazaars are named after her, including the Old Anarkali bazaar, more than two-hundred-years old (see for more). Anarkali’s story, with its requisite elements of love, loss and power, was also made into the historical drama, Mughal-e-Azam which successfully captured the collective Indian imagination of the 1960s.

I have yet to read what Gulbadan Begum (daughter of the emperor Babar, and sister to successor of the throne, Humayun) says of empire in texts thought to be penned by her, and in entries from Rumer Godden’s book Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court. There has certainly been scholarship on the dancing girls of the period but perhaps Begum sheds more light on the business of being a woman in the Mughal Empire.


The photo below is not of Anarkali’s final resting place. It is of a separate site near the Badshahi Mosque. Once boastful in marble relief, the structure now stands with all of its orifices shut. The imposition upon the structure below is not unlike impositions carried upon the bodies of Mughal era women.

all its vacant mouths stuffed with brick


Piecing, seizing a monumental sleep

In ARCHITECTURE, SLEEP, TOURISM on December 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm

In June 2012, I was going through photographs of my trip to Hiran Minar (Deer Tower/Palace of the Antelope) in Sheikhupura, when I noticed an unexpected detail: a man sleeping in the upper chamber of one of the structures. I couldn’t remember if I had seen him when I had been there. Nevertheless, my camera had allowed me to zoom in, and I could now look at the sleeping man’s figure for as long as desired. Or until I found some answers as to why he was sleeping at a site others come to see with their eyes wide open.
Take me, for example. In order to get to the Minar I had hired a car and a driver. The day trip from Lahore took eight hours with stops and cost seven thousand rupees, all for a chance to marvel at an architectural beauty, a monument erected in memory of a pet antelope of the royals.
On subsequent trips to monuments in Lahore’s inner city, I looked around to see if anyone was sleeping. I looked in the upper story balconies, up at the roofs of graffitied buildings, and in gardens under the shade of a Neem (Mahogany family) or Kikkar (type of Acacia). I saw men sleeping in all five of the monuments I write about on this blog.
K., a guide at the Lahore fort who has been in the profession for over twenty years, said, “Why not, they [the visitors] come from everywhere. Let them sleep.” It wasn’t odd to him that people came and slept in the spaces, as opposed to taking his tour or listening to his stories. It wasn’t odd to him that they didn’t want to look carefully.
Some of the reasons why men sleep in the buildings are simple: it is very hot in Punjab in the summer. The buildings of the Mughal period are constructed so they allow for cool and nicely ventilated spaces in which one can rest or recline. Most of the sleepers are locals who use the buildings’ grounds as rest stop on their way to and from work. As locals, many cherish the openness of the structures, something lacking in the inner city’s residential houses (which Kipling describes as rather dreadful in one of his stories). My friend A., who grew up in the inner city, says that these spaces are where people come to be with themselves: “These may be the only moments they have away from their families, away from food cooking and ironing boards, their mother’s nagging, or their sister’s peeking into their secret notebooks.”
Aside from the reasons listed above, what is important to me is that by sleeping in the buildings the men begin to own the buildings. What could be better than owning one’s heritage by becoming part of it?
In the Western notion of viewership, “spectacle” is very much the point of visiting a monument and experiencing spectacle requires keeping one’s eyes open. By sleeping, these men refuse to partake in spectacle in a way that others do while posing for photographs.
I was in Italy in the mid 90s, while I don’t remember how people interacted with  monuments there I do remember ordered queues to get into museums and areas that  sometimes were cordoned off. For example, at the time, entry into the tower of Pisa was denied as the tower was unable to withstand the weight of climbing bodies. In contrast, sleeping in or on a monument is a way of being one with our surroundings. We are most free and able to be ourselves in spaces where we can stretch out and relax. Peoples’ interaction with the monuments in Lahore is not only an acceptance of the monuments in their lives, but also practical relief for the sleep weary.
Should one preserve or make precious? Partake and enjoy? Stretch out in the structures?

Attempting a monumental sleep
If I was going to write about “monumental” sleep, I had to experience it (at least as a nap).
However, not having seen women sleeping in public, I did not want to lie down at any of the major monuments, which are always busy. I chose a minor monument to carry out my experiment: Dai Anga’s mosque on GT road (Dai Anga was wet nurse to Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan).
Known as Gulabi Chowki to locals, Dai Anga’s mosque is tiled in fine cuts of orange and green on the outside. In broad daylight, I jumped over the wall to get into the building. It seems the city does not want to maintain the monument so they have left it as is, only installing a padlock at the entrance. Indoors, it was grey and the stone floor, lovely and cool. Besides A. and me there was a group of twelve-year olds smoking on the rooftop. The interior was calm and perfect for sleeping, but within a few minutes we found used syringes in the garden. I didn’t lie down after that.
For me, the discovery of the syringes took the experiencing of monuments to a whole other place. What is the city’s responsibility to preserve monuments? What was my responsibility in jumping over the wall? Or my responsibility to the children hanging around the building?
I’m leaving you with rules on how to interact with a monument (from the Badshahi Mosque, translation forthcoming):

Public parks: where the outside is also the inside

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2012 at 11:05 pm

I spent a lot of time in Lahori parks in the summer of 2012. The wonderfully manicured gardens, lush collection of trees, tropical blooms in pinks and yellows, velvety oranges and purple of the jacaranda all hold a special place in my memory.

When I think of parks I think of nature and of freedom, not of confinement.


But this 2012 announcement from The Express Tribune requires I make a link between material structures and the regulation of women’s bodies in the present. What’s discussed in the article above may seem like a stretch from the story of Anarkali but it too references encasement, that of a different kind than immuration.

The Express Tribune article details plans for the construction of several “women’s only” parks in urban centres of Pakistan, to be constructed by 2013. “The parks will have walls and grills up to seven feet high” so women may be able to “exercise out of sight of male oglers.” In the blog post “Structures that bind” I talk about women’s bodies being policed and their voices silenced, possibly forever. In 2012, if a state official allots X amount of rupees to provide precisely a space for women to have a voice, and a space where they can walk, exercise and commune with nature in peace then what is objectionable in it?

What’s objectionable is that hilariously enough the plan proposes a chaar diwari (four walls) structure lifted out of the home and installed into a park. This kind of encasement won’t teach anyone respect for women in Pakistani society. Mythic heroines under powerful men had no say in matters of life or death but at least some, if not all women in present day Pakistan should be able to participate in the civic life of the country by raising their voices in this case. We should be asking why is it okay for women to be shut away from where real life is happening? Whether in Empire or in a more ordinary setting? Why should women be forced to accept this status quo?

The creation of such a segregated space constricts movement so that freedom may be allotted to women only in designated spaces. Thereby in various other spaces women can still be state sanctioned second class citizens open to the whims of a male gaze, a cat call, verbal or physical abuse. One can argue that my reaction is a borrowing from Western feminism which cannot simply be lifted and applied to Pakistani society. Local women might prefer a “women’s only” park over a park where they may be harassed or god forbid “looked at.” But I think parks such as these are a silencing of women’s bodies out of the public domain proper. They allow for the continued treatment of women as precious.

As per the article it’s nice to see female security guards are to be employed in the park. But in a country where a woman is foremost a sexual object my hunch is that this opportunity came about so that park-going women are not subject to harassment at the hands of male security guards. Of course everything I talked about is not so simple in a non-secular society. Many schools and colleges have been and continue to be male only or female only institutions. Further, for a country plagued with other serious issues involving sectarian violence, terrorism, extreme poverty and energy crises, acceptance of a woman’s complete personhood is just one more issue to contend with.


There may be more to say once the parks materialise. Also, I don’t live in Lahore on a permanent basis. Would my opinion be different if I lived there permanently? Perhaps. What do you think of the proposed parks?

Ismat and I

In Photo, WRITERS on December 19, 2012 at 10:42 pm


Renowned feminist author, Ismat Chugtai and I, circa 1985.

From Mahal

In BOLLYWOOD on December 18, 2012 at 6:12 pm

From the Indian movie, Mahal, 1949.

maḥal (n. of place fr. حلّ ‘to alight, or descend, &c. (in a place)), s.m. Place (in general; but orig. ‘place of alighting, or of abiding’), position, situation; abode, residence, house, building, mansion, palace; hall, or chamber (of a grandee’s residence); a seraglio;—post,

Aaye Ga Aaney Wala

Where all times are one

In ARCHITECTURE, CHILDHOOD, HISTORY on December 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm


D. was coming towards us with a skip in his step and a shiny packet of potato chips in his hands. As soon as he was done with the chips he clapped his hands, brushed the crumbs aside, and ignored us, heading for a clandestine opening near the backdoor of the Shalimar Gardens.

That’s D. in the photo above, his head inches away from the wide metal bars of a door intended to deter the public from entering the gardens. D. looks quite comfortable in the photo. But in reality, the attempt to pass from one space to another required effort and a certain contortion of the body—something he has mastered over the many times he has squeezed into the monument through its backdoors.

D. didn’t stop for me but I stopped him to converse. He told me that the gardens were beautiful and that one can do “anything” in the gardens. By “anything” I’m sure he meant the “anythings” that kids do: play, run and laugh. The gardens for him are a source of freedom, and their existence points towards a hopefulness, an expanse symbolising a large reach.

I was pleased that he appreciates the gardens and makes use of a space that is almost in his backyard. Of course, he was going through the back entrance and not the front one because:

a) it was more fun than simply walking into the building

b) he saves 20 rupees each day by going through the back

c) the back entrance is closer to his house, and

d) it’s just a thing he does after lunch, most days

I, too, was aching to follow in D.’s footsteps, wanting to twist alongside tiny bricks from long ago, wishing to contort my body to get to the other side. But my companion was concerned I would get stuck partway, half of me in the present and half of me in the past. I had come to engage with rust, metal and sandstone, so the uncertain seesawing would have been fitting. But out of fear of embarrassment—or perhaps bodily harm—I was held back, even though other grown men and women have likely done something similar before.

Punjab’s own revered Sufi poet Shah Hussain had once remarked on such a passage. He is said to have preferred going the way of the mohri (موري मोरी morī [for mohrī = muhrī = Prk. मुहडिआ=S. मुख+र+इका], s.f. A subterranean passage for water, a pipe, a conduit; a drain, gutter, sewer, a sink;—a passage, canal (of the body, &c.); an orifice, opening) rather than entering Lahore through proper city gates.

D. made me to think of the crevice as a portal through which one may embark upon a journey, traveling from 1641 A.D. to the present day, amassing everything that has grown around and at the back of the Shalimar Gardens. There, you’ll find a whole colony of people, squatters, small homes and, most interestingly, a collection of pool tables where men pass their time in the evenings.

This is how D. becomes a hero for some of my recollections, and an entry point into the times of the Mughals seen through the eyes of a boy. He will take us to and through the past, joining the picnics at Shalimar to the changing courses of the river Ravi, to the tunnels that Wescoat and others write about, and finally, emerge on the other side, at the end of empire, coming up through the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh in 1848.

Boys in poses

In Uncategorized on December 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm


1. Fashion


2. Playing cricket, Shahi Qila.


3. Caught sleeping, Shahi Qila.

Intro post #2 Doing my part

In PERSONAL on December 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm

“Where do you come from?” is a question that people in Canada often ask.

I was born in Lahore, Pakistan where I had lived for sixteen years. I have lived in Canada for the last fourteen years.

So where do I come from?

I come from all of those places and from every experience in between. I use the word “places” because country is not a monolith, it too is an accumulation of cultures, places, and spaces. Most often what motivates my imagination and my desire to write are images and memories of sense perceptions from my childhood and adolescence. These motivations arise out of everything which is prior to language. They are most certainly visual, olfactory, and auditory.

In thinking through the above, in summer 2012 I took myself to the places of my childhood for real and was able to live with them and in them for a sustained period of time. Most exciting for me was the task of understanding place(s) in a historical and literate sense while being physically present with them. Although the inner city of Lahore was not a place I had frequented as a child, I ended up spending most of my time observing,  photographing, conducting oral research, and inserting myself in various landscapes of the inner city. It became clear to me that for the first layer of memory I did need to be in touch with familiar things but soon I was ready to explore the parts of the city I had not previously known in much detail. It also seemed evident that anything of value would come to me after the first layer of sentiment had been skimmed off, and when I would be able to delve deeper into the actual and the physical. For this reason I chose to begin my work (What Was Monumental in Us (WWMU) partially funded by the Ontario Arts Council, 2011) starting with the monuments of the Mughal Empire situated in inner city, Lahore. In addition to the monuments the walled city also offers the most visceral of scenes in its noise, its smells, its situated materiality and history, its sordidness, its colour, and character. At its heightened moments it IS the city.

The future

Expected June 2013, this blog will serve as a public’s history of the walled city. I will be posting locals’ stories, knowledge, and thoughts on historic buildings of the area. I will be transcribing in the residents’ own words a documentation of the buildings’ histories in a living community.

Erín Moure on translation

In TRANSLATION, WRITERS on December 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Erín Moure on translation, from Jacket

The idea of the definitive text belongs only to religion or exhaustion.”

“Waisman translates Borges differently: “The concept of the definitive text corresponds only to religion or fatigue.” His translation, more literal, carries over the Spanish use of the verb “correspond” in ways that my English doesn’t do. My translation wants to transpose the cadence of Borges’ speech into Canadian English as I hear it around me. For when I pick up Borges to read him today, I read him as my contemporary. As all books are contemporary to us in the moment of reading.”

Their small economies

In ARCHITECTURE, LABOUR, TOURISM on December 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm

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I’ve got several poems about the people who work in the shadows of weighty buildings. These men, the sellers of souvenirs and toys, work outside the gates to the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort. Before tourists can get to the monuments and touch the buildings’ brick and marble surfaces, they must walk past the vendors. Should they choose to, they may haggle and chat, ask for directions, and use the vendors as informal sources of information regarding the buildings’ hours of operation etc. For many tourists, an encounter with these men and their goods for sale happens before their encounter with history, and in 2012, I was no exception.

The vendors of toys and souvenirs have a location but no fixed space for display, no fixed time at which they put their wares out, no fixed time of departure and, as a result, no fixed income for the day or the month. Their livelihood depends upon the good will, need, or excitement of tourists each day.

I spoke with many of the vendors in detail. After answering my questions and referring me to items for sale, one of them rightly asked: “If you are writing about buildings, what is the point of looking at miniature helicopters fashioned out of packing material or tiny silver boats named the titanic?”

If the writing is about monuments why was I wasting my time at the peripheries?

The souvenirs I saw are not souvenirs one buys when visiting the British museum or a Roman ruin. There are no replicas of monuments, no postcards to purchase and mail “home.” Here the objects for sale are mainly decorative or made for play, produced in home industries, usually created from recycled or leftover materials coming out of factories. For example, one vendor makes beautifully detailed and coloured slippers out of the scraps of material used in large-scale shoe production, each slipper the size of my pinkie finger. What the buildings and the slippers have in common is that both may be found in Lahore. The monuments constructed in Lahore of the past, and the slippers assembled and sold in Lahore of the present.

I see the men (vendors) as part of the living history of the monument. They are a part of their own time and, as actors in time they are also constantly in flow with a separate time, which occurs on the other side of the gates. In this way, the periphery is part of the centre.

A monument is defined as something “erected in memory of a person, event, etc., as a building, pillar, or statue.”

A  souvenir: from “noun use of ( se ) souvenir to remember < Latin subvenīre to come to mind, equivalent to sub- sub- + venīre to come.”

When the buildings come to mind so do the men, so do their small economies.