Talking Food, When Some Are Fasting
By A.H. Cemendtaur
(From left): Farooq Taraz, Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, Shalini Gera, Aamina Ahmad, Anasuya Sengupta and Disha Zaidi
Why does every FOSA (Friends of South Asia) program have to create a controversy? May be it has something to do with the nature of the group. The latest controversy was around holding a “food-focused” event in the fasting month of Ramadan: FOSA’s sixth annual literary evening on the theme of “The Language of Food” to jointly celebrate the independence of India and Pakistan took place on Saturday, August 29 at Glen Park Library in San Francisco. The joint Indo-Pakistan independence celebration might have been two weeks late by the Gregorian calendar, but by the Islamic calendar it was still 20 days in advance.
Responding to people, mostly Pakistanis, who had objected on the timings of FOSA’s program, a FOSA spokesman said the expectation that the world should come to a standstill during Ramadan, and the trend of a drastic schedule change during the month of fasting was new to Pakistan and the Pakistanis — religion-by-force was a legacy of the Zia Ul Haq regime. That was neither what the world was ready to accept, nor probably what true Islam wanted to see. And the only way to go back to the regular, to revert to the relaxed environment of pre-Zial Ul Haq days, was to start living normally during Ramadan, and that was what FOSA was doing.
The spokesman also added: “Ever since its creation FOSA has celebrated the independence of India and Pakistan jointly. We believe it is important because it is one of the strong bonds that unite us. In 1947, people of South Asia got independence from the same colonial masters. And it needs to be made clear because it appears that in Pakistan some believe that the country got its independence from India. It is extremely unfortunate that the political figures and forces of that time (1947) could not come up with an amicable power-sharing strategy and festivities of the independence were marred by despicable violence; hundreds of thousands lost their lives, hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their ancestral homes. That mammoth tragedy has scarred the face of communal life in South Asia for ever.”
To make clear what kind of South Asia FOSA wanted to see, Ramkumar Sridharan, a Bay Area activist, read the English translation of Tagore’s famous poem “Chitto jetha bhayashunyo” [Where The Mind Is Without Fear]. And to show in what dismal state South Asia presently is, a few lines of Faiz’s “Subhe Azadi” were read.
Disha Zaidi, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a sociologist having a keen interest in immigrant farm labor, environmental justice, social responsibilities of large corporations, community empowerment, etc. emceed the literary evening.
The first in line for reading was Farooq Taraz, a renowned Urdu and Punjabi poet living in Berkeley. Taraz read “Na vekhheeN aj akhbar kuray” a Punjabi poem centered on the theme of depressing news one faces living in South Asia. It is an innate characteristic of the Punjabi language that the most serious thoughts can be expressed in a very humorous way and Farooq Taraz has mastered the art of using that characteristic of the language.
Jaidee latee oadee mar kuray
Na vekheeN aj akhbar kuray
People interested in Taraz’s poetry can watch a number of videos posted at YouTube showing Taraz’s recitals.
Writer and filmmaker Aamina Ahmad got a Masters in Television Drama from London University, made films in the UK, and currently lives in the Bay Area. “Crossings”, the English story she read at FOSA’s literary evening, takes place during the monsoon when the riparian land is flooded and displaced people are eager to reach safety. Ahmad’s lucid style in writing employs powerful similes -- “her collarbone stuck out like the frame of a kite under its paper skin.”
Dinesh O Shah teaches Chemical Engineering at the University of Florida, Gainesville and writes Gujarati poetry in his spare time. An English translation of Shah’s poem “Mansai Na Diva” — translated as “The Inner Light” by Niranjan Parikh — was read by Roshni Rustomji-Kerns.
Faisal Azeem is an Urdu poet settled in Canada. He is the editor of shabnamromani.com, a website he started to celebrate the work of his father, Shabnam Romani, a prominent Urdu poet who passed away earlier this year. Faisal Azeem’s Urdu poem “Teen Rukh”, presented in absentia, was about a mystic’s realization of the unity of the universe, when the mystic does not see himself detached from anything and in fact considers himself to be the God.
Anand Raghavan is an activist who writes poetry in Hindi. His poem about the idiosyncrasies of democracy in India was read by Shalini Gera.
Literary evenings are not only about the written word, they are about public speaking, about the art of storytelling. The next presenter, Anasuya Sengupta, who works on human rights and social justice issues, was certainly the best storyteller of the evening. Sengupta read “A day in the life of TJ Halli”, a story written by her and Ashwin Mathew.
Saqib Mausoof is a writer and filmmaker whose 40-minute long thriller “Kala Pul” has been shown at Kara and Third I Film festivals. Mausoof normally writes in English but at FOSA’s literary evening he surprised the audience with a very well-written Urdu piece “Kukar Culture.” The humorous essay was in part autobiographical recounting the author’s school days — watching male teachers compete for their female colleague -- and seeing poultry farm bred chicken take center-stage in the cuisine.
Lehar Zaidi is a healthcare manager, freelance journalist and human rights activist. Lehar’s essay “The Persecuted Pilaf” written in the style of Salman Rushdie and appearing to be inspired by “The Moor’s Last Sigh” was read by her sister Disha Zaidi.
Maheen M Adamson was trained in psychology but her interests include film, theater and Urdu literature. She writes in English and Urdu — her Urdu writings invariably carry a tinge of humor. At the literary evening Maheen Adamson read “Niyaz-o-Nazar”, an essay describing food in relation to death rituals.
It was appropriate that a seasoned writer like Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, editor of “Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian-American Writers”, “Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War”, and “Encounters: People of Asian Descent in the Americas”, would have the last word of the program. Rustomji-Kerns read memoir from her childhood, when Karachi was a small town and going to bed she could hear the roar of Gandhi Garden (Karachi Zoo) lions. Rustomji-Kerns’ description of her childhood Karachi has historical importance because it describes the times when a growing stream of refugees from India was transforming the small port town of Karachi into a cosmopolitan city. Roshni’s father Behram Rustomji was the principal of Bai Virbaiji Sopariwala Boys’ High School, now commonly known as BVS Parsi School . Rustomji-Kerns’ illustrious uncle and Pakistan’s prominent columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee, has also written about “Karachi of Yore.”
Glen Park Library as the venue of FOSA’s literary evening was a good choice. Its close proximity to BART made it possible for a large number of people to reach there from all possible directions. The room was arranged courtesy of Moazzam Sheikh, noted writer--author of “A letter from India” and “The Idol Lover” — and an associate of FOSA working at the San Francisco Library. The planning and execution of the literary evening was carried out by a subcommittee comprising of Disha Zaidi, Ravi Sankrit, Saqib Mausoof and Ijaz Syed, working under the leadership of Roshni Rustomji-Kerns.