Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Other ports the Dread Pirate calls home

LinkedIn and Naymz are professional networks -- if you want to contact me purely socially, you can find me on MySpace. Facebook and Livejournal are friends & family only.

View Ayesha Khan's profile on LinkedIn

DreadPirate Ayesha Khan

DP Khan on Myspace --- Beware the crazies!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fringe! Tim: Against All Odds, Everyman, Bloodbath: the Musical, Sexual Metro, Sammy J and the Forest of Dreams, and the Late Show

Last Wednesday.
Went to Edinburgh for the day, to see Neil Gaiman speak (TOtally worth it, by the whizzle) as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival, and caught a coupla shows courtesy of the Fringe Festival.

Tim: Against All Odds was... odd. It wasn't until five minutes in that I realized that, not only is my ex-boyfriend's name Tim, but one of the two actors looked shockingly like another ex-boyfriend. Sort of a weird headspace from within which to absorb a piece about a man determined to make the name Tim great (seeing as there are "no great heroes named Tim... No President Tim... No Tim on the moon!") against all -- well, you get the idea. The show was cute, and quite often funny, and both actors had great comedic timing. I'm not entirely sure the show's content stood up to the energy they put forth, but ah well.

Saw a show that got started late, by a stand-up comic named Cowards, who billed himself as the Everyman... It was more like the Everycomic. I'd heard almost all his jokes, in one form or another, over the years, and his audience observations also lacked originality. Or maybe I'm just still rolling my eyes over the fact that, on hearing that I was a computer game designer ("....but you're a lady!") he commented that I must have designed the 'shoe-shopping' part of APB.

Little does he know that was totally not my department.

But seriously, ooooo. A joke about women liking shoes. Life on the bleeding edge of social commentary there, mate.

Left that show early (not early enough) and was still late to my next viewing experience -- Bloodbath: The Musical. Catchy title, hey?

Several young actors/tresses who are way too good-looking for their own good, is what I'd like to start with. The male lead, playing Billy Vale (sp?) especially...... good lord. I think that, thanks to him parading around in full police uniform complete with trousers tucked into combat boots and shiny Seventies-style aviators, I may have just developed a cop fetish. YOWZA.

And can I just mention, nubile cheerleaders everywhere? Especially the slightly skinny, gum-chewing brunette with the shiny pantyhose, the Winehouse-esque rise and fall of hair, and the great rack.... Homina homina homina, as more eloquent people than I have put it.

The music: also quite catchy. Despite sound tech issues (inconsistency in volume levels, mostly, which made individual sung lines sometimes difficult to pick out) and my own snobbishness about headset mics in small theatres (for goodness' sakes, learn how to PROJECT, young actor-types! These technicrutches will cripple your talent in the future!) the songs came through pretty nicely, and were for the most part clever and funny, with a good rock sound supplied by a live band just behind the scenery. Some were good enough to make me want to buy the soundtrack, in fact.

The ending left something to be desired -- it should have ended just before the last song (which, as it was just a reprise of an earlier tune, wouldn't have deprived the audience of anything by its absence) instead of trying for shock value. The penultimate (shoulda been the last) number, "The Chair Is Fair" (as in, electric chair) was, in fact, a brilliant little gem, complete with surprisingly polished dance number, and had a denouement that would have been a plenty shocking note on which to end the musical.

Glad I went, in other words.

This past weekend, I bought last-minute tickets to return to Edinburgh on Saturday night. I decided to catch one of the famous late-night stand-up comedy shows -- they last until 3 or 4 in the morning -- despite the fact that I knew this would strand me in the city overnight (there being no trains back to Dundee between 11:30 pm and 9 am or so). Worst comes to worst, I figured, I'd only be killing time ...solo the middle of the night a city with which I was unfamiliar... for four or five hours. ¬_¬;

First show: Marcel Lucont, with a show called Sexual Metro. This was crap. His energy level was half-asleep, as was the audience's. He bills himself/is billed as "France's premier misanthropist and lover" and at least the rampant arrogance was kind of fun sometimes, but I don't actually think he is French. His accent is appalling. Most of the audience spoke French, but he didn't make any jokes or references at all that would indicate that he is French -- it was all a bit 'Allo 'Allo, with jokes and phrases that were very Pepe le Pew: like something an Anglo would assume a Frenchman would think or say. The jokes themselves were at a ratio of about one chuckle per five minutes... maybe.

Straight off after that, dashing across town to see Sammy J and the Forest of Dreams, which got started so late I needn't have bothered to rush. Very fun show, sort of a watered-down Avenue Q -- muppets and adult humor. Some quite amusing moments. The King in particular was hilarious.

Then back to the Underbelly (the venue at which I saw Sexual Metro, not to be confused with the Udderbelly, where Sammy J was) for the Late Show, which was stand-up comedy. Freakin' awesome. Lasted till 3+ a.m.

Wandered to the nearest club, Opium, which was open till 5. Met some chaps there, and ended up hanging out until past noon the next day with them, eating pizza, drinking beer, and singing with one of them who was a rather decent guitar player.

I can think of way worse ways to spend a weekend.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sunset, from the Balcony


I am sitting on the balcony of my flat.
My feet, bare on the smooth ashy-coloured wood, will get cold at some point. Weather in the summer here is like an endless spring: capricious, moody, mostly chilly, interspersed with the rare blinding sunny afternoons when the lawn in a park looks inviting as an oasis.
I've had a nice long bath, very hot to soothe aching leg muscles. Bless the British and their baths. One of the greatest civilizing influences of our time. That and, of course, tea.

Note to all British readers: despite having lived in Boston lo these many etc, I will never threaten your tea with seawater. I am, however, a fan of parties, up to and including Tea Parties.

The sunset has me holding my breath as though awaiting the climax in an action sequence, all cool purples and pinks with orange limning. It feels like surely, fireworks and cheering are about to burst out for a grand finale. The soundtrack is essential: gulls, of course (more on that later); traffic, from a fairly sizeable road, nearby but across the water - less, however, far less than back home for how close to a city-center area it is. Occasionally a snatch of voice; whisper, laugh, exclamation. A car alarm. Footsteps. Like all sunsets, though, its exit is silent and orderly, gradual as a tide.

It's a small city, Dundee. Fourth largest in Scotland, I think, with a population of around... a quarter of Boston's, maybe? Not sure. Most city amenities, a rep theatre, that sort of thing, plethora of bars-pubs-clubs-etc due to university student population. I know I've only just scratched the surface of places to go. I've made some friends here, good peeps all. I am relentlessly mocked for my Americanisms, and relentlessly mock all my Aussie, Irish and otherwise expatriot friends, and we all (mostly) refrain from relentlessly mocking the Scots because we are aware of our guest status here. :-) I keep far too many late nights. I have found people who like to go dancing, and in my book, that says a great deal about your quality of life. Some people at work and I started a band; we have now met a grand total of twice and I am feeling very positive. I sing karaoke when I can get to it and get bribed with drinks to sing, which is very flattering and only rarely awkward.

Mmmm, deliciousness. Pardon me, that was a small break to assemble dinner. Sauteed halloumi and shiitake mushroom saute on toasted wheat, with prosciutto. As I said in an IM earlier tonight, "basically bread meat and cheese, which I figure has been good enough for the human race for thousands of years and is still delicious!"

Right. So. Gulls.
An encounter today was utterly typical of my interaction with a percentage of Dundonian seagulls.
Gull, strutting across sidewalk right in front of me: You lookin' at me?
Me: I am twenty times your size.
Gull: What. WHAT, mofo? You want some of this?
Me, eyeing it warily: ...No.

These things have become the primary scavenger in the area. The pigeons live in fear. They kill other birds. As a base M.O., I do not fuck with several types of Dundonian: a certain kind of drunk pubgoing male and/or chav on the prowl, a Scottish pal looking for a drinking competition, and the local gulls.
Gull: Seriously! I'll cut you!
Me: *scuttles around its personal space*

It's a perfectly nice apartment I'm in, but I'm moving this weekend to another place.

Side note to Dundonian readers: combined housewarming at my new flat -- Realtime Worlders have taken over entire 5th floor, ping me if you're free for a BBQ this Saturday (1st Aug) from 5 pm on. You know you want to.

I'm moving to another place because current flat does not allow cats. Mine are joining me in December (waah, soooo lonnnng, rassen frassen quarantine laws for UK, at least they aren't in a kennel) from the States. It's a whole process getting them here. Also, privacy is good. At least packing only involves a few suitcases' worth of stuff.

Work's going well. Settling in there, too.

Tell me one thing that has surprised you in the last, oh, three or so weeks.
If you have more than a Tweet's worth of characters, tell me something you don't think I've heard of.
Heck, if you have a minute, sit down, dear, tell me about your day.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Reposted amusing discussion (no original thought below)

I found myself rather annoyed at the article referenced below as well. From Kate Harding's blog Shapely Prose:

This article pissed me off on so many levels, I don’t even want to get started. I’ll just quote from a gchat I had with Fillyjonk yesterday.

FJ : was that the article about how there are fewer plus size fashion shops/lines because of lack of demand?

unlike every other segment of the retail economy, which is just zipping along?

life and style reporters are probably going to be sucking that teat for a while

“demand for popsicles is down!”

“demand for furbies is down!”

me: “demand for newspapers is down!” oh, wait.

[There is some discussion of just posting inflammatory quotes from the article and letting Shapelings have at it.]

me: “For one, plus-size collections are expensive to make—as much as 10% more than standard lines, experts estimate—because they require additional fabrics, and special fit models and patterns.”

SPECIAL fit models and patterns. The other ones are normal, so they don’t count.

Or cost money.

“’They’re really bargain shoppers,’ says Catherine Schuller, a plus-size expert and former editor at Mode, a magazine for larger women. Many are homemakers who can’t spend considerable amounts on clothes and are willing to sacrifice their own spending for their families, especially now, Ms. Schuller says.”

Um, with all due respect to the segment that fits that description, if that’s your understanding of the entire fatty fashion market, maybe I get why Mode failed.

FJ: maybe i should write something

it would have to be really short and horrible

me: And the one that really got me: ”Because these shoppers prefer to buy online, according to industry insiders…”


FJ: aaaaaaaaaaaaa

Me: Which extends to the fact that, if we go to the mall, it’s to see if the one fat store has anything that fits us, so there’s not so much point in going to the damned mall

Whereas people buying straight sizes can go to the mall to try on things at 20 stores.

FJ: right! but no, it must be because WE PREFER TO SIT IN OUR HOUSES AND WALLOW IN SHAME

Me: Also, once again, a company’s marketing fail gets blamed on the market.

How many Shapelings have said, “Wait, Ann Taylor carries up to 18? I had no idea.”


And then no one comes in and buys those sizes, so obvs, the market doesn’t exist

FJ: it’s as though they have to rediscover marketing for the plus-size market

“well, for normal-size people, we make a product and tell them how great it is, and then they buy it”

“for fatties, i think maybe we should try pretending the product doesn’t exist and see how that goes”

me: Ha, no kidding! We’ll cram a couple of plus sizes in the back, never say anything about it, and just wait for the customers to arrive! It’s a plan!

FJ: we’ll be rich! rich!!

me: Also, it’s important to have a deep understanding of the market…

So here’s what you need to know:

They never leave the house. They don’t like to spend money. They don’t want to look attractive.

FJ: they’re unlovable & they eat too much

they probably own one million cats

we did a lot of focus groups

on 4chan

Friday, May 29, 2009

Initial reports from the Scottish front

Studio: First reports just coming in from the front. We now go live to Khan, on the scene in her new Dundee apartment. Khan?

Field: Thanks so much, Ayesha. Well, it's a cold day here in Dundee -- but then again, it's cold the vast majority of the year. The garrulous driver who got me from Edinburgh airport to my new flat told me that when the wind changes, it's apparently coming right the smeg from the Siberian plains via Scandinavia, and is, and I paraphrase here, colder than a brass monkey's balls in a blizzard.

Studio: That's very cold indeed, Khan.

Field: Yes it is. I had to wear gloves this morning and evening, though it was nearly T-shirt weather around lunchtime. In other news, the flat is a two-bedroom, and very unexpectedly came with a roomie -- a red-headed Texan Ass-Prod --

Studio: I'm sorry, that must have gotten garbled. Did you say ass prod?

Field: Yes, Ayesha; that's what we in the game industry call an Assistant or Associate Producer. Anyway, she arrived last weekend and was also very surprised to find out she was going to have a housemate.

Studio: And how's the apartment the company set you up with?

Field: This reporter has had no particular objections to the company's treatment of her so far. Also, the view from the flat's balcony is quite nice, and it's less than a twenty-minute walk from work.

Studio: Which is a good thing, as you're unlikely to get a car, yes?

Field: Damn straight, Ayesha.

Studio: And how are you finding Dundee so far?

Field: Full of history, of course, but this is Europe, where it comes from, as Mr. Izzard says. The oldest British man-o'-war still afloat, the Frigate Unicorn, is moored literally down the street from where I am. I can see it from my balcony, and it's very impressive-looking. A few shopping centers, that could be from anywhere in the world. Lots of pubs, but few that serve any food after eight p.m., which feels strange. Also, all the shops close by five-thirty or so.

Studio: The question arises of when the hell they think anyone has time to go shopping.

Field: Rather what I was asking myself. The flat comes with a television, but the quaint British basic package only includes four channels, and at any one time three seem to be playing news or talk shows discussing Parliamentary scandals.

Studio: And are you familiar with the issues being discussed therein?

Field: Less familiar than a scorpion with a bathing costume, Ayesha.

Studio: With a?

Field: Swimsuit, in Limey. Do you realize this entire country contains only five million people?

Studio: Holy crap, Khan.

Field: Exactly. Reporting from Dundee, this is Khan, in search of emotional and intellectual stimulation, and hopefully a good-looking if probably orthodontically-challenged Scots boy or two to take home and corrupt. Not all at once, of course. And now, back to the studio. Ayesha?

Studio: Thank you very much for joining us, and good night.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Off to Dundee!

Off I go!
Very scary. And exciting. But also scary.

I leave on Monday, arrive Tuesday, and on Thursday I start my new job at RealTime Worlds, in Dundee, Scotland. Whoo! Also eek.

Selling car, paying last-minute bills and dealing with paperwork, sorting through all worldly possessions, filling storage unit, and leaving cats with parental units for now (importing domestic pets to the UK is *MURDER*.)

You know that really really high dive that looked twenty times as tall when you were a kid?

The last few months have felt as though my whole world was paused, in between jobs; wanting to dive. Just waiting in that endless line, up ladders, clutching the railings, smell of drying swimsuits and anticipation...

Just now, I feel like I've finally just jumped off that high dive, a moment ago, and am in that stage of the seemingly neverending gasp of air, arms flailing, grin on my face, wide-eyed, with the water looming closer and closer and quicker and quicker, blue and cool and finally happening, all excitement and terror.

Splashdown this week.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Writing sample: "Stay indoors. Don't get killed. I love you all."

This was written for 2007's Blog Like It's the End of the World. The idea is that the zombies are rising and it's your final blog entry.

(cross-posted from LiveJournal)

I always thought I'd be braver if things got this bad. Or more scared.

I'm kind of frozen-calm.

When the first of the wounded -- a woman from Customer Service, who'd been outside for a smoke when it all started happening -- stumbled in, gushing nail-marks raked all down her flank, the mood was near panicked throughout the building. CS and those of us in QA rushed around ripping cloth for bandages, until we had a mountain of scraps of gaming-logo T-shirts piled next to her. It looked ludicrous; a concerned overkill.

We used them all, of course. Eventually. Now we're running low on paper towels.

I'm so glad I always got along with my family. I hope... I hope they're safe. I hope this is some sort of freak thing limited to South Boston..... but we've gotten nothing on the radio for a while, after the first shouting, praying, cussing we-interrupt-this-programs. And when we still had power, nothing on TV. So I can only delude myself and pretend that everyone I know and love is somehow making it through this.

I used to joke about this being the 'troll-cave'. Now I bless the forethought of drab modern office design. It's practically fortified.
Most of the windows are too narrow for anyone to squeeze through, no matter how twisted their limbs nor how uncaring they are of damage to themselves. Those that were too big have been barricaded with filing cabinets, overturned tables, and cupboards. We have no lights. We still have water, though. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Tim..... Tim is gone. He was in the front room, helping to build barricades, when the first wave of zombies came through the plate glass employees-only entrance.

I'm not going to think about that right now. Can't afford to. Things to do.

The vending machines are still reasonably well-stocked, but we have just under a couple hundred people trapped in here. Supplies won't last. I dread the hour when someone gets desperate enough... or worse, heroic. When some stands on a cubicle desk (and, when that collapses under him, on a conference room table) and announces that we must make a sortie, must go look for food.

After all, we have to eat. do they.

Difference is -- they can wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Writing Sample: "Capture"

This is an excerpt from a work in progress: an alternative history novel, set in the Arabian peninsula around the time Islam was being founded.

“Hut-hut! Hut-hut-hut!!”

The rear guard had suddenly started urging their camels on with panicked yells. Hussein couldn’t tell what the problem seemed to be; no other human was in view. There was nothing for miles; the sun’s light and heat hammered down on naught but endless crests of drifting sand, and a few puffs of dust… on the horizon… Wait a minute, he thought. There’s no wind…

He realized the import of those ominous whiffs of sand to the east just as his slave screamed, “Raiders!” He joined the rest of the caravan in flight, whipping at his camel’s sides, knowing that their destination, an oasis caravanserai, was just far away enough that escape would be improbable at best.

They came out of nowhere, bursting over a large dune like a frothing wave, with savage yells and whoops of glee at spotting the overloaded camels, already congratulating each other on acquisition of such easy booty. Hussein ceased striking his mount’s flanks with the knotted ends of the reins, cursing his father’s miserliness in hiring so few guards. The raiders outnumbered them two to one.

He pulled out his saber and, turning his camel, led two of his guards in a desperate charge at one of the raiders. Hussein could see only the tribesman’s eyes, outlined in kohl and fixed in a hard squint against the merciless desert sun, framed by a dun turban and a loop of cloth tucked over mouth and nose against the dust. The raider seemed to be laughing, delighted by the bravery of a worthy opponent; he pulled out his own sword and called to a companion before wheeling to meet the charge.

For the next ten minutes all was confusion; the camels grunted and complained as they were prodded in all directions, and kicked sand flew everywhere to obscure individual battles between the caravan and their attackers. Blood arced from the stump where Anwar, the guide, raised and lost his hand trying to ward off a blow aimed at his face. Grit decorated teeth bared in angry snarls, and got into Hussein’s eyes. He lost one of his guards, spitted by a crude but sharp blade through the stomach.

An earsplitting ululation rose from one of the raiders, which seemed to renew the vigor of the rest. Hussein rode toward the battle-cry and faced a slight figure swathed in a striped tunic and high boots, riding an unmatched grey stallion. When they crossed blades, Hussein found himself fighting the wind. His opponent dodged every blow, the grey seeming to read its master’s mind and sidestepping every swipe with delicacy. Hussein was swearing and cursing as he swung his saber, his shoulder aching from tension, his spine rigid with fear. How could it have come to this? He, the son of Adeeb al-Yasir, respected throughout Basra, rich and educated, should not have been destined to spill his blood in the middle of this wild and uncaring desert over a few carpets and jewels.

The grey’s rider called again, and Hussein had just enough time to realize that the vibrating yell was female before she smacked him upside the temple with the flat of her sword. He felt a brief sting before he lost consciousness, sliding off his camel onto the sand, a trickle of blood tracing a path through his beard.

Hussein woke groggily from a biting pain in his wrists and back, and stared up at the ceiling of an unfamiliar tent. His hands were tied behind him, knuckles digging into the small of his spine. He tried to turn over or stand, and found that both hands and ankles were bound and tethered to short stakes driven into the ground nearby, severely restricting his movement. Three other figures were similarly trussed up in the dark; he recognized the outlines of the guards Askari and Hariz, and of his slave Ayaz.

“Water,” he said, dismayed at the cracked sound that emerged. No-one answered.

“Guard?” he called. “Guard! I demand to be set free at once! I can negotiate… for the love of fire and shadow, water!”

He called out several more times, and each time only uncaring silence met his pleas. The heat was stifling; sunshine spiked through cracks in the tent, and sand piled up in its corners. The mounting pain in his wrists was intensified with every movement; nevertheless, he wriggled and writhed, attempting without success to free himself. He pulled at the ropes, but the stakes were driven deep and would not budge. Someone had wet all the ropes after tying them, so that the knots would swell until they would be all but impossible to untie.

“Master?” a thin, weak voice asked next to him.

“Can you reach my bindings?” he asked Ayaz. The boy only groaned and shook his head. He mentally cursed his slave’s weakness, choosing to disregard the similarity in their situations.

Abruptly, the tent flap was thrown open, and blazing sunlight blinded them. Hussein squinted and cursed. One of his captors, a large, stocky man in characteristic Berber garb, looked in.

“Some of them are awake,” he said over his shoulder to a figure Hussein couldn’t make out.

“I’ll tell Imran,” the shadow replied, and disappeared.

“Please,” Hussein said, shamed by his own wheedling tone, “please, water – I need water soon. So does my slave,” he added as an afterthought.

“We don’t waste water on those we intend to kill,” the guard answered indifferently, and left.

Hussein felt a jolt of panic at these words. But I haven’t even been to Baghdad! I am to be killed without even the chance to argue my case?

Trained by poets and tutors in rhetoric from childhood, he prided himself on his ability to persuade people. Somehow, however, he didn’t really think the flowery phrases, allegories, and intellectual back-and-forth on theological and philosophical points in which he specialized would particularly impress these tribesmen. They were little better than wild animals, after all. No culture, no real history, no proper religion, no decent clothing. They were sandy and dirty all the time, as were all their livestock and possessions.

How he longed for the fountain in his father’s courtyard! He could almost feel the deliciously cool water, tasting slightly of the dank darkness of the underground cistern, run over his face and into his mouth. How long had it been since he had drunk anything? It had been several hours before the attack – the caravan had been conserving water until the oasis it had never reached, so as not to run out.

Hussein was left in the tent for some time after that brief check from the guard; he didn’t know if it was one hour or six. The shadows on the tent wall were muted and diffuse, and he couldn’t tell how far they had moved by the time two silent guards entered the tent.

He was dragged out; he didn’t get a chance to discover whether or not his legs, cramped from immobility, would have worked. His throat felt as though he had been gargling with gravel. The sun was lower. It was early evening.

Half-blind, feeling half-dead, terrified, hands still bound behind him, he was thrown unceremoniously through the entrance of a large tent. He landed on his side and one shoulder, but managed to raise himself to his knees with only a minimal struggle. He kept his face as impassive as he knew how as he raised his eyes to face his captor for the first time.

The figure confronting him was enormous – the yards of cloth in his garb might have been adequate to make a small tent. His tunic-style mantle was striped in green and white, and looked nearly clean, save for some grease stains near the cuffs. He wore a belt of silver chains, intricately woven together and ornamented with gemstones; a single massive gold necklace rested on his barrel chest, and Hussein thought that its weight would have bowed the back of most men. His skin was dark and slightly cracked from the sun; his hair was mostly hidden beneath his ‘imama turban, which was a dusty cream color, restrained by a cord of twisted green silk; his beard was luxuriously long, and carefully oiled; his eyes were black, shadowed by a large and overhanging brow which gave him a stupid, brutish appearance at first glance. Hussein knew enough, however, to look beyond that simian brow and catch the intense and calculating intelligence in the headman’s gaze.

Headman or chief he undoubtedly was: his status was made obvious by the automatic respect in the attitudes of the raiders arrayed about him. They moved about, ate, drank, talked in low voices, left and re-entered as they pleased – but always with a sliver of awareness dedicated to monitoring him for any sign of instructions or disapproval, and none of them ever turned their backs or the soles of their feet in his direction.

When he addressed his captives, his tones were measured and even; his voice was deep; his language, neither crude nor refined.

“I am known as Abu Ghaffar to the likes of you. You and what were your possessions and chattel now belong to us, the Mahashir. Who led you?”

Hussein could not help but look around at Ayaz and his guards, all of whom looked as taken aback as he did. It should have been clear as the sun in the sky. He was the only one of the four dressed in more than a slave’s rough-spun robe, or a hired blade’s boiled leather and ringmail. His clothing was newer, richer; he wore jewelry; he sported soft leather boots that had obviously been custom-made. Then he realized that this was merely an insult; a tactic intended to make him feel less than he knew himself to be. Many might have bristled at this seeming doubt as to who was superior, and done or said something stupid; Hussein ignored it.

“I,” was all he said. His voice was raspy and barely audible, but he made no attempt to repeat himself more loudly. If they wanted him to talk, they would have to give him water.

Abu Ghaffar apparently came to the same conclusion, and a jerk of his chin brought forward a slave bearing a goat-hide waterskin. Hussein was forced to drink in the most undignified position of his life – on his knees before a hostile audience, bound, head thrown back, gulping when he could so as not to waste the water that the slave poured in a steady trickle into his mouth. He spilled none.

* * * * * * * * * *

She watched the soft, aristocratic noble from behind her screen.

The screen had been a matter of some contention between her father and her. If it were up to him, she would never have had a part in any of his ceremonial or official tribal duties. Were it up to her, she would be openly seated at his right hand, listening to and advising his decisions as his heir. The arrangement they had finally reached after many stormy arguments, whereby she could hear and observe behind a carved wooden screen pierced in geometric patterns, but not participate, was a true compromise, in that it satisfied neither of them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Writing Sample: "Lunch with Inspiration"

This piece is based off an old college creative writing assignment, with the theme of finding inspiration.

Lunch with Inspiration

I looked for it in coffee shops, in run-down dives and school cafeterias, in French bistros and once in an expensive Turkish place on Newbury Street. I tried to entice it to meet me in libraries, museums, jazz clubs, raves. I tried begging, arguing, sneak attacks, seduction, and threats. Nothing. Not a whisper. A blank page day after day. Flat characters, impossible situations, unreal emotions.

Then, late one night, the phone woke me.

“Hello?” I mumbled.

A voice made bizarre alarm-clock beeps at me. Sounding quite young, female, her voice on the edge of giggling, whoever it was was far too cheerful for this far past midnight.

“Who is this?”

“You know me! You’ve never met me! You’re meeting me for lunch today-tomorrow!”

“What? Who is this?”

“No way to talk to someone you’ve been pestering for the last month and a half.”

I sighed. I had an early class the next day. “Look, it’s late and I’m in no mood for a damn prank call.”

“Fine,” the chipper voice answered. “See you tomorrow at half-past a rainbow!”

I hung up, turned over and went back to sleep.

It was around two in the afternoon and I left class feeling cranky. I’d overslept and had had to rush to one class after another, missing both breakfast and lunch. A light but persistent drizzle matched my mood as I headed towards the dining hall, already dreading the drowned pasta and limp lettuce which were undoubtedly awaiting me.

The rain tapered off before I’d walked twenty yards. Watery rays started breaking through the clouds being dispersed by a rising breeze. Mirroring the other students in the quad, I paused and raised my head to the sun, appreciating the light despite the fact that the fitful rays gave off no discernible heat. I noticed a girl pointing something out to her friend, and when I followed her finger with my eyes I saw a rainbow appearing intermittently over the library. Pale and tenuous at best, wavering like a guest uncertain of his welcome, the colors were nevertheless a highly welcome relief from what had so far been a gray, depressing month. I smiled.

Too soon, it began to fade. There was the merest hint left of prismatic purple and red reflecting off a wispy cloud when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked down and beheld one of the most peculiar people I’d ever seen.

The figure, barely pushing five feet in height, was dressed in an odd brownish greenish tunic and leggings which somehow simultaneously gave the impression of being both fine silk and rough wool. I was utterly unable to decide to which gender it belonged. It had an elfin face, with large eyes and a pointed chin, which could well have been either male or female. At that moment, that face was grinning up at me, and when its wide lips opened to speak I recognized the irritating voice from the phone the night before.

“Well,” it said, “you coming?”

The situation was just too surreal, too influenced by my lack of sleep. “Yeah, right,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

And then, abruptly, I was no longer where I had been. There was no sense of movement, of shifting, of strange magics or drugs; I was standing in the university quad, and then I was sitting at a table in a restaurant. No interval. I blinked and started violently, and half stood up to demand to be told what was happening, when I noticed my luncheon companion. It was not the asexual imp from the quad; this was most definitely a woman, in a dark red dress which would have been appropriate any time of day or night, with a heart-shaped face and long honey-brown hair. She made a soothing motion with her hands and I sat obediently, mesmerized and frightened. She had a young, beautiful, innocent face, from which deep, dark, knowing eyes belonging to an aging concubine stared out incongruously.

“Calm down,” she said in a melodious voice. “It’s still me.”

Still? I’d never seen this woman before. And yet… when taken with the odd contrast of her face and her eyes, her voice held a slightly mischievous undertone which reminded me of the elfin creature back at school.

“Who are you?” I asked. “I’ve never been more confused in my life.”

“How rude of me. Inspiration,” she inclined her head, “at your service. You lucky girl.”

“Inspiration? What’s that supposed to mean?”

A small frown appeared between her eyebrows, and if such a lovely woman could be said to pout, that’s what she was doing.

“Like the muse, you twit!” Yep, definitely a pout. “You’ve been looking for me all over! What, the magical translocation didn’t sort of tip you off that something out of the ordinary was happening?” I nodded, wide-eyed. She took a deep breath and controlled herself. “I brought you here because, despite the recent writer’s block, you have potential. So I’m going to give you a bit of a boost. Ah, our orders.”

Our orders? I hadn’t ordered anything. I hadn’t even seen a menu yet. But here came an impeccably dressed waiter bearing two plates, and a sommelier following with a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“I took the liberty,” Inspiration said. The food set down before us was creatively arranged, colorful, smelled fantastic, and I had no idea what it was. “Just pâté,” she said, “a little foie gras and some goat cheese.” I shrugged and dug in, and the food lived up to its aromatic promise. I mumbled appreciatively around a mouthful.

“So, tell me the story of your life,” she said.

I raised my eyebrow in confusion. I started to say that I hadn’t thought this to be a social call, when I found myself talking. I spoke of my great-grandparents in India, my grandparents in Pakistan and the ones in Idaho, of my parents’ childhoods and of their meeting at a cocktail party in Islamabad. And yet… everything I said, though I knew in my bones that it was all accurate, was in greater detail than I thought even I knew. I found myself pieceing together snatches of overheard conversations, photos in the family album, old letters I’d once found in a dresser drawer – all to make this narrative, well… perfect. It was like hearing a stranger speak. I was making the story historically accurate, bringing in politics of the time and social movements – but I was also weaving in details that made the whole thing funny and personal and tragic. I couldn’t help just listening to myself in amazement.

“And so he saw her from across the room, in a mirror set on the mantelpiece, and being a good Pakistani boy, tried to find someone to introduce them,” I was saying as we finished up our appetizers.

“By the time they left Indonesia, the little girl was a favorite of both the locals and her parents’ Western friends.” An excellent duck dish arrived.

“My grandfather was an alcoholic, and when I met him I was three years old. In the way of children, I could tell something was wrong – even if I didn’t know what,” I said as we worked our way through a dish of palate-cleansing sherbet.

“My parents announced that we would be moving – again – on the day of my thirteenth birthday,” I said through a mouthful of salad.

By the time a cheese plate – astonishing in its variety – had arrived, I was winding down: “In a search for God, I began instead to believe in…”

It was my life, in more complete detail than I’d ever imagined it. I found myself almost hearing it for the first time, as though listening to a stranger’s experiences – and my life sounded a lot more interesting when told this way. Things I’d never attached any significance to seemed much more crucial, and things which had devoured my whole world at the time were discovered to be manageable, even funny in retrospect. Finally, as a tiny portion of decadently rich truffle cake appeared, I was breathing as hard as though I’d spent an hour on the treadmill.

“Wait a sec,” I said a few moments after silence had fallen over the table for the first time since we’d sat down to eat, “aren’t you supposed to be, well… inspiring me? Why are you so interested in my life?”

“Your life is interesting,” she said simply. “As you have just found out. And if you’re not inspired by that, there’s no more I can do. Any other questions?”

“Uh, a few…”


“Who was the little fairy-person in the quad? Was that really you? And why do you look like this now, if it was?”

“It was me,” she smiled. “I appear however I need to. For example…” And she disappeared. No fading away, no puff of smoke, just not there between one heartbeat and the next. I started, and looked around for her.

“I’m right here,” a voice said next to my right ear. Not female. Most certainly, emphatically not female. This was the voice every female puts to her fantasies – deep, male, sounding like melted chocolate over steel. I was suddenly glad I was sitting down, since every internal organ had gotten unaccountably weak and squishy. I turned my head hesitantly to behold what was, without any doubt, the most ferociously attractive man I’d ever had the distinct pleasure to see. Tall, dark and handsome wasn’t even in the same ballpark. He moved around to stand next to me.

“This is how I can look sometimes – mostly to women, I admit. Red is for people who need a strong woman to respect –” and he was (to my guilty regret) the woman in the red dress again, “or if they won’t respect anything but age –” and now she was older than the hills, looking wiser than anything under the sun, dressed in a nondescript sturdy blouse and skirt which could have belonged to any century. “If wealth and power appeal to them, I can be the Count,” her firm voice said, and she was abruptly a taller gentleman, grey wings of hair at his temples, carrying an ineffable and crushing sense of authority, an expectation of instant obedience. I was starting to get dizzy.

“From the voice of the Everyman,” and he was a farm labourer, with humor, knowledge and a firm grasp of the way the world works shining from his eyes, “to a magical being, for those who cannot accept the validity of their fellow humans’ advice and opinions” he was that androgynous imp again, who grinned widely at me before its childish voice added “to an abstract,” and it dissolved into a shifting miasma of colors, of half-heard voices and constantly changing images, a cloud of pure energy that spoke directly into my head with the ringing power of the joy of creation, “I am whoever I need to be. I seem whatever I wish to seem.”

And the woman in the red dress looked calmly at me from across the table and sipped a cup of tea. I picked up the cup I had not noticed by my water-glass and sipped as well, trying to sort out in my mind all this fantastic information, praying I’d remember everything well enough to put it down on paper the minute I could. A waiter approached the table and bowed to Inspiration diffidently.

“The matter of payment, madam…?”

“Ah, of course,” she answered. Looking at me, she said, “shall we go Dutch on this, then?” It wasn’t really a question. I nodded, trying to keep the wince off my face: even half of the price of a meal like this would cut painfully into my student’s budget.

“For my part,” Inspiration said in an authoritative tone, “I will spend five hours with the chef in three day’s time.” Before I could do more than blink at this strange response, the waiter was bowing and smiling, saying madam was too generous, no further payment was required… Inspiration smiled at him. “This establishment has always been more than welcoming to me and my kind, and the service was as always excellent. As for the young lady, here…” She considered me through narrowed eyes. “Six sleepless nights, five pounds lost and gained, and twelve rejection letters.” The waiter’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline on an otherwise expressionless face.

“Madam, that much is not necessary…”

“That,” she said, ignoring him and looking at me evenly, “is for pestering me for so long without even thinking of looking to your own life for me. Remember that in the future,” she admonished. “The best stories come from what you know. From the heart.”

I almost fell down the slope. The abrupt transition from sitting at a table to standing on an incline had severely overbalanced me. I looked around, wondering. The clock on the library read barely five minutes since I had looked at it last, just before Inspiration-the-imp had tugged on my sleeve. Damn… it had all been just some sort of daydream… So vivid, though…

I headed absentmindedly for the dining hall to grab some food, when I half-stumbled again, this time from the realization that I was full. Full almost to bursting – with roast duck, with pâté, with crisp vegetables and wine and cheese and truffle cake… and with inspiration. I started running flat-out towards my car, needing to get onto the computer immediately, and already regretting the sleepless nights, the lost weight and the discouragement I knew awaited me, certain as the sunset.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Writing Sample: "We never expected to live this long."

These are musings inspired by Elizabeth Bear's rather brilliant People Like Us.

When I was a very small child, I was convinced that nuclear war would destroy the world before I could grow up.

I thought this because many adults around me had grown up with the same fear, indoctrinated and terrified as children. The difference was in our educations: my parents were taught that survival was a possibility (both through after the Bomb B-movies, and that whole "hide under your desk with these magic radiation-blocking textbooks held over your head and all will be well" thing, which my generation all found hilarious).

I knew what a nuclear winter would do to the planet by age 8, and knew that humanity's survival or even the rebuilding of civilization was wildly improbable. The threat was just something to be accepted, as far from the control of anyone I knew as a normal winter was. I was not afraid, because I didn't understand death; I remember hoping that I would be one of the ones to die in the initial blast, and not linger on as a mutated and icky whatever.

After the nukes, it was AIDS. Grown-ups read their mysterious newspapers, which as all of us knew contained nothing good besides the funnies, and collectively and globally panicked. Every day SIDA (hey, I grew up in France) was on the news. I knew what sex was and what it was for (see previous parenthesis); now I thought that it would probably be what killed me, long before anyone could consider me "old." A little girl in my elementary school died of AIDS from a blood transfusion before anyone knew that was dangerous.

Then it was the environment, as we learned in greater detail as the years went on what a hopeless situation we had been left with - more by our grandparents and great-grands and great-greats than our parents...

Again, however, these were not reasons to live in fear, besides the fact that we were too young to feel anything but immortal. They became reasons, especially as we grew into preteens and teenagers and twenty-somethings, to make the most of every day.

A few things struck me in Bear's essay.
One was the observation that boomers are terrified of aging; though my parents are pretty good examples of aging gracefully, I see this terror in their slightly younger contemporaries, those who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies. I somehow hadn't really noticed that, probably because my parents' attitude was a bit different.
One was the realization that I *know* privacy is a myth, and that it doesn't bug me that much.
One was that most people my age assume that JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, etc were assassinated and that there was a cover-up. And that that is just the cost of doing business, government-wise; their screw-up was in getting caught.

One was the line "we never expected to live this long."

I didn't realize it, but I didn't. And now that I'm making all these decisions about future career/education/lifestyle/children/marital status, I'm terrified because I feel like I've never really thought about it before. Unlike The Who, I didn't "hope I die before I get old" - I just assumed that, statistically, I probably would.

Now I have a lifetime ahead of me and, it often seems, not the foggiest clue what to do with it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writing Sample: "Veils and Elephants"

This was a preliminary draft of the re-writing of a manuscript originally written by my grandmother, which has since been re-written completely differently by the wonderful author Thalassa Ali and self-published under the title A Song of Hyderabad. Though my grandmother's spoken English is quite good, the MS from which I was working did not flow and was full of... idiosyncrasies. It was mostly a recitation of facts, with special attention paid to the cuisine and dress of the principal characters.
The following was an attempt at eventually working her story into my own, as well as those of my aunt and female cousins from that side of the family, while staying true to the somewhat rambling style of an older woman telling stories about her youth, and novelizing the result. The stories related here are, to the best of my knowledge, true.

The Memoirs of Mrs. Bilquis Jehan Mohammed Nasiruddin Khan
By Mrs. Khan and her granddaughter, Ayesha Khan

I grew up in and near the royal court of a kingdom that no longer exists, and was raised in a manner that no longer exists. Sometimes I wonder if I still exist.

Today I live in a dusty city with my daughter and her family, in a house my darling husband built when the neighborhood was still a barren waste of reclaimed land and vacant lots. It is now one of the most desirable areas in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest and most prominent city.

I was born before Pakistan. Fewer and fewer people every year remember the vastness and strangeness and beauty of India before Partition. Almost no-one remembers my birthplace as I do: Hyderabad in the days of the Nizams, the absolute rulers of their kingdom of thirty million souls nestled in the Indian heartland.

I am approaching my 75th year. Nowadays I spend much of my time sitting; I have grown increasingly immobile, and walking pains me. I can no longer manage many stairs. I sit mostly in the entryway of our house at 29/B Central Avenue; I see everyone coming and going, and enjoy watching my family’s daily affairs. I sit, and I read, and I think, and I remember.

O, for Hyderabad's splendors and eccentricities!

It is said that a person is the product of his or her upbringing; I am proof that this is both true and a lie. Were I purely a product of the palaces in which I took my first steps, I would never have been able to cope with the life that was given me by God.

* * * * *

The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was one of the most splendid rulers in Indian history. One of his Qazis, or judges, a man of power and influence named Moin-uddin Khan, was my paternal ancestor. Two of my grandchildren still bear his last name.

My ancestors belonged to the Muslim feudal class of Hyderabad, whose subjects were primarily Hindu. My maternal grandfather’s name was Nawab Nasir Nawaz-ud-Daula. The family stories about him tell that when he was nineteen years old, he was driving in a carriage on the banks of a lake, and was spotted by the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Pasha. The Nizam inquired about this young man, and upon being told he was the son of Liaq-ud-Daula, a prominent nobleman and courtier, ordered that he be presented at court. Politics were personal then.

In time, having made himself useful, Nawaz-ud-Daula was given many titles and honours, in accordance with the quid pro quo of court custom. These included a jagir – the legal right to collect the taxes of a large tract of land containing many villages; with part of the income thereof, he was asked to recruit, train, and maintain cavalry and infantry troops. These would be used as household guards, but if the occasion arose, he was expected to make them available to the Nizam – technically speaking, they were irregulars in Hyderabad’s royal army. I grew up amidst luxury, protected by soldiers – two hundred African and Arab mercenaries, recruited from the Persian Gulf, fifty of whom guarded our dwelling at all times.

The feudal system was alive and well, and he had been made part of the nobility. As Nawaz-ud-Daula’s success grew, the Nizam decided that he should marry into the royal family; however, a betrothal had already been arranged by his parents to Fazalunnissa, a girl also descended from Moin-uddin Khan, and the daughter of a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Turab Khan. Despite being a commoner, Dr. Turab had married very well, to the daughter of a rich nawab (senior officials and governors under the Mughal Empire) family. Though the match was below her aristocratic station, it must have been considered advantageous, especially because he had recently performed a successful operation on a member of the Nizam’s family. In those days, that could mean the difference between wealth or death for a doctor, depending on the royal patient’s survival and recovery.

I seem to have come at this story from the wrong end. Listen:

When Dr. Turab’s beautiful thirteen-year-old wife, whom everyone affectionately called “Bi,” got pregnant, it seemed that his life was perfect. Unfortunately, his success made many of the other Hyderabadi doctors jealous. Perhaps emboldened by a not-very-distant tradition of intrigue and assassination among Mughal courtiers, they conspired together and poisoned him. I often imagine how panicked Bi must have been, as she watched her husband sicken, racked with pain. He died during her seventh month of pregnancy.

The baby, a girl, was named Fazalunnissa. According to tradition, her family considered her extremely unlucky – superstition even dictated that she had somehow “eaten up” her father. Bi, a teenage widow, never remarried; she went back to live with her parents (tradition demanded that her in-laws care for her, but the doctor’s parents lived very far away in a frontier province.) She devoted the rest of her life to raising her only child and, later, her grandchildren. I often wonder how many women there are like Bi – forgotten footnotes in genealogies and family tales; politically invisible, historically interesting only as statistics. Did those women know the depth of their own obscurity? Did they despair from helplessness? I somehow think not, or perhaps I just hope not. I like to imagine her life, which seems to have been relatively quiet until her death. Having been married young, and having borne a child, she had fulfilled a woman’s function in her society. She was done.

Bi was, of course, far from free by today’s standards. She lived in strict purdah. The word means “curtain,” and denotes the strict confinement and gender separation observed by all well-brought-up Muslim ruling-class ladies of her time (and still observed today by some). They scarcely left their part of the house, the zenana (woman’s quarters). Once past puberty, they would never have attended a mixed function or meeting, for to do so would have meant forbidden contact with males who were not relations. Ladies of Bi’s class sometimes visited each others’ zenanas, but only within rigid conditions of chaperonage and privacy during transportation.

My four young granddaughters would stage a revolt if they were forced to live in Bi’s “freedom.” They wear what they like when they go abroad – they seem, indeed, to wear nearly nothing at all. Even here in Pakistan, their clothes are tight and often sleeveless. They go to parties attended by boys. I smell cigarettes on their clothing. They talk back to their parents. Their television shows include people with tattoos and women in bikinis. They eat Western food, and watch their father drink beer or wine with indulgence. Only one of them prays with any regularity.

But they smile and laugh a great deal.

As Bi and her female family members spent most of their lives within four walls, in varying states of inactivity, they eagerly looked forward to receiving any news, no matter how trivial, of other noble families, of the city, and of the world. Their informants were the women from social classes not observing purdah, who went from house peddling various things, or working as seamstresses. These women also played the roles of gossips and unofficial matchmakers.

After Dr. Turab Khan’s death, twelve years passed in this way for Bi as she raised her daughter, a bright child who loved to talk. One day, a seamstress was gossiping and sewing with the ladies in the zenana, when eleven-year-old Fazalunnissa interrupted the adults and attracted their attention (unacceptably forward!). All the women hushed and scolded her, telling her she was unlucky and miserable. The visiting seamstress, sensing a good story, asked who this girl was, and was told the whole tragic tale.

Now, this seamstress also regularly tailored for the zenana of my great-grandfather, Liaq-ud-Daula. His wife, known as Begum Liaq-ud-Daula, had a reputation for being extremely decisive and strong-willed. When the seamstress, in the course of her social duties, related the history of the unlucky little doctor’s daughter, the Begum was intrigued. She requested to be taken along on a seemingly casual visit, to see the girl herself.

The Begum was received with honor by Bi’s family, and introduced to all the ladies and girls. She liked the looks of Fazalunnissa so much – the girl was considered to be very plain, but had a dignified air – that she instantly proposed that the girl be married to her only son, the increasingly successful Nawaz-ud-Daula. All the ladies of Bi’s family were stunned! They begged the visiting Begum not to make jokes. But the Begum got her way, as she usually did, and the marriage was arranged.

The Nizam, displeased that his plan to marry Nawaz into his own family had been foiled, withheld his consent, which was required for any noble’s marriage. Bi’s father, a close friend and one of the Nizam’s tutors as a child, interceded on his granddaughter’s behalf and persuaded the ruler to relent.

The marriage between plain, dignified, fourteen-year-old Fazalunnissa and Nawaz-ud-Daula was celebrated with much pomp. Tradition dictates that just before a Muslim wedding ceremony, the groom travel to his intended's house in style... It is said that the lead elephant in this bridegroom’s procession had reached the bride’s house several miles away before the groom’s elephant, at the tail end of the parade, had even left. Several thousand people attended the wedding dinner. The couple moved into Nawaz-ud-Daula’s family’s palace, inside the Old City of Hyderabad.

Fazalunnissa, in keeping with custom, went veiled in the presence of her husband’s family for the first few years. During that time, her life could not have been easy, as she did not bear a child, and the families feared she was barren. She was risking failure as a good daughter-in-law, who then (as in most of human history) held the rank of brood mare.

She made a pilgrimage to Ajmer (which is now in Rajasthan, in the north of India), to visit the tomb of a famous Muslim saint, Hazrat Moin-ud-Din Chishti. She made a solemn vow whose nature was not recorded. The subsequent birth of a daughter led her grateful family to erect a silver door at the saint’s tomb. I often wonder what she promised to do, or not do. I wonder if it was chance or a miracle.

In those days, Hyderabad was subject to seasonal floods, and everyone was used to them; the flood of 1908 was, however, extremely heavy. For years it was used as a landmark by most Hyderabadi families, who dated personal events such as births and weddings as “before the flood” or “after the flood.” My granddaughter Ayesha said that this sounded Biblical and apocalyptic and grand. I don’t think any of those words describe the mud and debris and damage and deaths those floods brought.

Tired of the dangerous yearly flooding, Nawaz-ud-Daula bought a fifty-year-old mansion in the suburbs from an Englishman. He renamed it Nasir Manzil (“Nasir’s Estate”) and the family moved there in about 1910. Fazalunnissa gave birth there to her third baby, my mother, in that house. Seven more children would fill its rooms after that.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing Sample: "A Chandigarh Refresher" (Non-fiction)

This is a published article in a book of essays and commentary:

Le Corbusier, Chandigarh, and the Modern City
Insights into the iconic city sixty years later

Editors: Hasan-Uddin Khan with Julian Beinart and Charles Correa
Published 2009, Mapin, India & Grantha (UK)

This piece was aimed at those who were less familiar with the city's history and concept; it is essentially a Chandigarh 101.


Architecture to a large extent is a product of the age. It cannot isolate itself from the social conditions, the thinking and the objectives and the ideals of the age to which it belongs. … Many people argue about [Chandigarh], some like it, and some dislike it. It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head, and makes you think. … I do not like every building in Chandigarh. I like some of them very much. … I like the creative approach, not being tied down to what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms, of light and air and ground and water and human beings. Therefore, Chandigarh is of enormous importance.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Seminar and Exhibition of Architecture, 17 March 1959, New Delhi (Kalia 29)

Chandigarh is, first and foremost, a planned city – among all of the new or renewed cities in post-Partition India, it is the most striking testament to the decisiveness and ambition of the Indian government. A planned city, as opposed to an organic city which has grown over time without any central design, is “a moral and social act to improve the urban condition. Its origins are in social reform and its objectives are to restructure urban life” (Kalia 121).

Chandigarh was the intended solution to several daunting problems which confronted the newly-independent Indian government in 1947, problems centered on the famous and politically explosive area of the Punjab. The Punjab was considered one of the gems of India, from the time of the Raj and long before, and its crowning jewel was the city of Lahore, famed for its cultural offerings, architecture, and long history as the capital of the region. But Lahore was awarded to Pakistan (then West Pakistan) in the Partition, and the Punjab – an area which had served as an ethnic unit in everything except religion (Nilsson 87) – was split along religious lines.

This meant that there was an administrative vacuum to fill – the Punjab needed a new capital city, one that could rival or replace Lahore in terms of cultural and social significance, economic production, beauty, governmental function, and national pride (Kalia 54, 144). Independence, Partition, and World War II had also, between them, left India with a significant refugee problem – mostly Hindus, originally from what had been turned into East and West Pakistan, who desperately needed a place in the new state (Kalia 1). A few months of religiously-fueled civil war had resulted in half a million dead and over twelve million homeless, who needed not only shelter, food and employment, but a new sense of national identity and pride to replace all the old ties and loyalties that had been irrevocably cut (Nilsson 88).

Why build a new city – why not just revamp or renew an old city, with its own proud history? Simla, the Raj’s cool and misty summer capital, was considered, but was eventually rejected because of its mountainous inaccessibility, its distance from the Grand Trunk Road, and its British Imperialist connotations (Nilsson 89). Financial concerns played a major part: adding “capital functions” to an existing town would in fact be just as expensive as building a brand-new city (Kalia 2). So the decision was made as early as 1948 to plan and build Chandigarh, a new capital. The plan was to create a modern, industrial town (Kalia 23), with room for decent refugee housing, for governmental buildings, and for expansion to accommodate a projected population of 150,000 in its First Phase (Joshi 12), and an ultimate of over half a million people (Kalia 3).

Site Selection

The site at Chandigarh was chosen by the government of East Punjab in March 1948. The name is a derivation of that of a Hindu goddess of power, Shri Chandika, whose center of worship was in the area. Located at the base of the Shivalik Range of the Himalayas, bordered by two seasonal rivers, the site was a flat, gently sloping plain, encompassing the mango groves, houses and temples of 58 existing villages with a resident population of roughly 21,000 people (Joshi 11). In 1950, the purchase was revised downward to 8,000 acres, at a cost of 100 million rupees. The land was still cheaper than several of the alternatives, and it was considered to be a “safe” distance from the Pakistani border (Kalia 12) – Amritsar having been rejected due to its proximity to said border. Water supplies (always a touchy subject in India) were to come from a reservoir to be created by damming the Ghaggar River, and from subterranean reserves under the city site itself (Kalia 18). The Indian government began accepting applications for residency as soon as 1949 (Kalia 5). By April 1952, 2500 residential plots had been sold to the public (Kalia 18).

The Planners

Chandigarh was the brainchild and darling of three very influential men: Jawaharlal Nehru, Albert Mayer, and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, a.k.a. Le Corbusier. Nehru gave the city his enthusiasm and nationalistic idealism, trying to make it into a symbol and embodiment of his newly-fledged country’s modernity and ability. Albert Mayer was first hired to create the city’s master plan, with his assistant Matthew Nowicki working out the architectural details (Joshi 13). Mayer, an American designer and MIT graduate, was a personal friend of Nehru’s, having served in India during WWII (Kalia 25, 31). His fee was steep for financially-strapped India, however (Kalia 37-8), and he was replaced by Le Corbusier’s team in 1951, after Nowicki’s sudden death in an airplane crash.

The two architects’ ideologies clashed, and this difference in opinion is visible in Chandigarh’s eventual design. “Whereas Mayer’s thinking was rooted in the Garden City Movement and in the ideas of Camillo Sitte that placed urban design on the random forms resulting from the growth of medieval cities, Le Corbusier believed in the gridiron plan as the only correct way of approaching the modern problems of city planning” (Kalia 88). Another major difference in philosophy was that, though neither architect could be persuaded to live in India for any appreciable amount of time, Le Corbusier felt that a thorough understanding of Indian history, society and culture was extraneous and irrelevant to the planning of Chandigarh, while Mayer understood the relative paucity of his own knowledge, and regretted it, saying that “what others have accomplished or failed to accomplish seems to be due to much larger factors in the social and economic conditions than I can possibly control or influence, and which I don’t know that I thoroughly grasp” (Mayer, quoted in Kalia, 48).

Le Corbusier considered himself the “Spiritual Director” of Chandigarh, and was most involved in revising Mayer’s plan to suit his vision. The three Senior Architects on the project were his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and the English husband-and wife architects Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Beverly Drew. Jeanneret, in contrast to his cousin’s lofty ideals, was considered a good detail man. Fry’s Quaker background and deep moorings in the family made him essentially a housing architect; he and his wife were especially qualified for the project due to their considerable experience developing designs and technologies for tropical conditions in West Africa.

Chandigarh: a city of subdivisions

Albert Mayer’s city would have been fan-shaped and firmly rooted in a naturalistic, almost anti-urban vision. Nowicki developed this into a leaf plan: curving roads branched off from a central stem or trunk road, like the veins of a leaf, further subdividing into neighborhoods, so that the edges of the city would be mostly composed of the smallest roads (Joshi 15).

Mayer’s overarching vision was based around his attempts to solve the problems he saw in American cities in the 1940s. He distilled these into three major issues. The first was the land-crowding tradition, for which he blamed the high cost of real estate; his solution was to emphasize open spaces, green areas, and above all plenty of natural light for offices as well as residential areas. Green areas were a pet idea, especially the idea of a green belt of forest, farms, and parkland around the city to prevent excessive expansion. From large parks to small hedged backyards, he wanted to give people outdoor places “to meet and dine” (Kalia 51). The second problem was the widening of downtown streets and narrowing of sidewalks caused by the automobile; to relieve car traffic he advocated that parking and loading areas all be off-street. The last problem was the un-integrated feeling of most American neighborhoods; Mayer wanted to “remake our cities so that they will be places in which responsible parents will desire to have children.” This meant a community that included residential, retail, and recreational areas and facilities as well as office space, all focussed around an elementary school (Kalia 62). This planned neighborhood unit became known as the Superblock, and it also formed the basis for Le Corbusier’s master plan, composed of large Sectors subdivided into Superblocks.

The concept of the Sector was a self-sufficient, introverted unit, containing shops, schools, health centers, places of recreation and worship. It was bounded by four fast-traffic roads and connecting to them only at four specific points (Joshi 14). It measured 800 by 1200 meters, which Le Corbusier claimed meant that no-one would ever have to walk more than ten minutes from the farthest point to the center of the Sector. Each Sector was divided into three major density groupings by income level, the housing planned in fourteen different categories of grandeur for the various governmental employee ranks (Kalia 106-8).

Le Corbusier’s Vision

Le Corbusier presented a plan to Nehru which he called the “CIAM Town-Planning Grid” (CIAM being the Congrès Internationeaux d’Architecture Moderne, of which all four major architects of Chandigarh were members). It attempted to create a hierarchical system to order the citizens’ living, working, recreation, and communication (a city’s four functions, as defined by Patrick Geddes), and to reintroduce sun, space, and greenery into modern urban life (Kalia 105). Whereas Mayer had been very concerned with the “socioeconomic factors of the city, its potential for future growth, the peculiarities of Indian traffic” and social customs, Le Corbusier was more concerned with the physical look of the city – with making it avoid the appearance of an industrial town, with the monumentality of the building designs, and with the separation as much as possible of automobiles and people in daily life (Kalia 106-110). He was also much more concerned with climate than with culture; he wanted the buildings to be livable in India’s heat, and to that end his team studied the climactic issues closely while designing the major edifices of Chandigarh.

Despite this nod towards climate, Le Corbusier’s ultimate goal was, in Chandigarh as well as in most of his other city plans, to discover or apply a universal plan – “attention was devoted to the physical aspects of planning while important social functions were neglected [… in an] attempt to formulate simple ‘rules’ which would be applicable the world over” (Nilsson 95). Thoroughly a product of the classic western tradition, Le Corbusier’s ideal cities were those of Ancient Rome, which he described in La Ville Radieuse: “The Roman city is a city of ORDER. Disciplined, hierarchic, dignified…” (Nilsson 97). Unfortunately, the monumentalism and hierarchic organization he so admired were among the principles from which Nehru’s government was attempting to move away, reminiscent as they were of the recent British Imperialist philosophy – but this was not apparent until well after the construction had begun.

The basic design was hammered out in less than four days, relying on the Mayer plan even while changing it, and thereafter only details were refined without changing the original idea much (Nilsson 96). The city plan contained four main work areas: the Capitol, the University zone, the City Center, and an industrial area. Though Le Corbusier initially vehemently resisted the idea of Chandigarh becoming an industrial town, he set aside 580 acres of land for “light” electric-powered industry, separated from any housing areas by a wide green belt. (Kalia 119).

Le Corbusier’s cure for the urban congestion he saw around him rested on the separation of automobile traffic and pedestrians (Kalia 106). He first divided traffic into seven categories comprising a hierarchy of circulation and congestion: V-1 roads were regional highways leading into the city; V-7s were the parkland footpaths. [added details in map caption] He believed that using them to divide up the Sectors created “order” in the city (Kalia 108).

The City Center buildings were mostly standardized concrete-frame constructions four storeys high (height restrictions were due to fear of earthquakes and lack of elevators), with no housing. Le Corbusier’s pet projects were in the Capitol Complex, which was hoping to employ nearly 18,000 government workers in the Legislative Assembly, the High Court, and the Secretariat. The Complex “resembles an acropolis of monuments, which radiate their dominance for miles” against the backdrop of the Himalayan foothills (Kalia 112-3).

As always, Le Corbusier’s designs remind one of geometrical exercises. The High Court, first to be completed, was a huge parasol of concrete, held over the court roofs by arches. The structue of the Secretariat, the biggest building in the Complex, resembles a huge wall visually broken up with recesses, projections, stair towers and changes in pattern. The Assembly, third to be built, is a play of concrete cubes with a pyramidal prism and a hyperbolic form that resembles the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. Nehru vetoed Le Corbusier’s plan for a governor’s residence within the Complex as being undemocratic. Other planned but never-built structures included a futuristic science museum, a cultural center, and a “leisure valley” for the performing arts. Eventually, Punjab University was built in the area, designed mostly by Pierre Jeanneret and B.P. Mathur.

Design Weaknesses, Slums, and Cultural Cross-Purposes

Chandigarh’s design included several major flaws, but they did not become prominent until after much of the city had been built. The city’s vaunted green belts, parks and gardens fell prey to the harsh Punjabi climate, the lack of resources to buy or renew plants and pay gardeners, water shortages, and the stray animals so common to Indian cities (Kalia 120). Preventing unplanned construction became another major issue for the regional government, despite the passing of several laws such as the Punjab Act and the Punjab New Capital (Periphery Control) Act, both in 1952. These attempted to prevent any construction not approved by the Deputy Commissioner in writing. Anyone who knew much about the usual Indian response to such measures could have predicted their ineffectiveness.

Illegal commercial areas, industrial ventures, and especially habitations sprang up all over the city. Planned growth lagged far behind due to administrative indecision (exacerbated by the lack of any municipal authority – as opposed to central or regional – until 1996, when a mayor and councilors were elected), artificial shortages in building materials (corruption), and general lack of funds (Kalia 122-132). All these factors combined to the rise of slums, which squat in stark contrast to the neighboring planned housing and give the lie to Chandigarh’s image as an equal, democratic city for the world’s largest democracy. Nehru said, “Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India” (Kalia 21) – but starting relatively soon after its construction, Chandigarh’s physical landscape reflected the huge economic and social gaps characteristic of most Indian cities.

“Shacks are squeezed onto every square patch of land, starting at the edge of the airport runway… There are even shack-shops sporting Coca-Cola signs, and shack-temples” (Kalia 161). It is estimated that a quarter of the population lives in unauthorized structures; the city’s total population is almost double the original maximum capacity estimate and is still growing; power consumption and water supply demands cannot even remotely be met, resulting in frequent shortages of both; and nearly all room for expansion has been exhausted, necessitating new communities to be planned beyond Chandigarh’s bordering rivers (Kalia 157-8).

The city’s plan was trying to solve Western urban problems, not Indian ones, and this is the root of many of Chandigarh’s issues. It was based on the consumption patterns, lifestyle and eccentricities of the industrialized West’s middle classes. The physical aspects of the city reflect this: overscaled streets for high-volume traffic (whereas Indian culture favors small or animal-powered vehicles, and the climate demands small, shaded streets); single-family homes with gardens (South Asians prefer to live in large multi-generation family units, and prefer courtyards to gardens which use too much water); and large, concrete-based open spaces (which in India’s climate are murderously hot, unpleasant, and therefore deserted). The homes and gardens are overscaled, and even the well-heeled citizens find it prohibitively expensive to maintain them.

Additionally, the planners had made an effort at an artificial social engineering, by assigning homes in Chandigarh in mixed-income groups by administrative rank. The highest-paid officials and the largest houses were nearest the Capitol, and the greater the distance of a sector from it, the higher was its population density. Densities varied from 7 persons per acre to 100 in the high-density Sectors – which was still less than 1/10th the average density of a New Delhi neighborhood (Joshi 15). This practice of mixed-income organization, rather than by caste, community, or language group was completely incompatible with the traditional social structure, and the city’s residents duly rearranged itself so that today Chandigarh resembles most other Indian cities (Kalia 149-50).

In all fairness, it is said that though Chandigarh feels like “an alien concept in which people have been forced to live,” today’s Indian architects might end up designing a similar master plan simply due to the fact that the majority of their educational training is Western (Kalia 154).

Competing Cities

In 1966 the Punjab was bifurcated along linguistic lines; the two dominant communities being Hindi-speaking Hindus and Punjabi-speaking Sikhs (Kalia 133). Next to (and partially out of) a new, reduced Punjab, two new states were created: Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. Chandigarh was caught between Punjab and Haryana, with each state demanding the city as its own capital; Prime Minister Gandhi awarded it to Punjab in 1970, giving it the status of a union territory administered by a separate secretariat and regulatory agency (Kalia 135-7).

Today, due to spatial restrictions, the city region is dottoed with the new satellite towns of Parwanoo, Punchkula, Sahibzada Ajit Singh (S.A.S.) Nagar, Hindustan Machine Tools (H.M.T.) Township, and Chandimandir Cantonment – none of which are included in Chandigarh’s original master plan. Several occupy areas earmarked for the city’s greenbelt; for example, Punjab developed S.A.S. Nagar as an industrial and economic suburb contiguous to Chandigarh’s city limits. In response, Haryana developed Punchkula, which has since mushroomed in population and attracted many new builders. Neither of these towns, however, has a decent urban infrastructure, and both must depend on Chandigarh for basic amenities such as medical care and education (Kalia 139).

Chandigarh Today

No longer a mere administrative capital, Chandigarh today serves as the regional center for cultural, economic, educational, and social activities. Thousands of people from neighboring towns and villages commute daily into the city for one reason or another (Kalia 153). Its population has risen over one million, more than twice the number it was originally planned to hold. It covers 114 square kilometers, with an average population density of approximately 8,000 persons per square kilometer.

It was once hoped that Chandigarh’s projected success would influence other Indian cities, creating a better urban environment across the country; it was “forgotten, however, that innovations in new towns are usually not transferable to existing cities.” In addition, it is a South Asian peculiarity that “modern” (i.e. Western) cities do not necessarily have a modernizing influence on their regions; they are usually just outward expressions of middle and upper class lifestyles (Kalia 146-8). In a way, this is very expressive of Indian culture: planned as an egalitarian, democratic statement, it has evolved into a hierarchical chaos.

“Chandigarh began as the cherished hope for equality; it now stands charged as a socially segregated city, a fortress of privilege. Yet, it is a city with beauty, with space, with light

Ravi Kalia

Works Cited:

Joshi, Kiran. Chandigarh: the context” in The Transformation of Chandigarh: 16 projects of professor Patrick Berger’s studio. (Translation: P. Bonhôte & S. Hare) Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2003.

Kalia, Ravi. Chandigarh: the Making of an Indian City. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Nilsson, Sten. Chandigarh” in The New Capitals of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 12. Copenhagen: Curzon Press, 1973.