A good addiction

As a musician in the US

Published in Slogan (August 2010)

Todd Shea, an American musician running a health facility in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, talks about his life, music and disaster relief, in conversation with Ayesha Hoda.

Todd Shea is not only casual; he is ultra-casual. He converses in a friendly and frank manner, sipping a glass of lemonade and using a few words of Urdu, which he has learnt during the last almost five years in Pakistan. Clad in a simple t-shirt and jeans, he wants people to see him the way he is high up in the mountains with the children of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

Last year, Adam B. Ellick did a video story for The New York Times on this “Improbable American”, which shows Todd enthusiastically singing “Dil Dil Pakistan” in his strong American accent for a highly impressed Pakistani audience.

Living near the Line of Control, his health facility, Comprehensive Disaster Relief Services (CDRS), provides high quality health services to people in remote and quake-affected areas.

Todd was recently in Karachi for his first major fundraiser in Pakistan – a simple evening, like the man himself, where his songs entertained the audience and his talk enlightened them about ongoing activities in Kashmir.

Preparing for a disaster

Childhood troubles led 12-year old Todd towards cocaine addiction. But at the age of nineteen, Todd decided to distance himself from the crowd of drug addicts and serve his country. He joined the US Marina Corps, surviving there for about six weeks before he was inevitably sent for drug rehabilitation. During his teenager years, music was always a companion and it saved his life.

Post-rehab days, Todd put his life together and played rock and folk music for the next 15 years, in a group and as a solo artist, travelling across the United States. Side by side, he also helped disillusioned teenagers who had drug problems. His songs are mostly inspired by life’s various tragedies and injustices. But he wants to give a positive message and inspire young people in particular.

On 12th September 2001, Todd was to play at CBGB, one of New York City’s popular nightclubs, where bands like the Rolling Stones have also performed.

Then 9/11 happened. Todd was staying in a hotel situated only a few miles away from Ground Zero and he volunteered to help. For five days or more, he made logistical arrangements, ‘making supplies of small things available to whoever required them’. And he realised that he was actually good at this: “I am good at disaster relief perhaps because my life has been a disaster,” he rationalises.

Perhaps God was preparing him for the future because more opportunities came for Todd to fulfill his new commitment to help people. With his 9/11 experience, he was welcomed by Global Crossroads, a group teaching English in developing nations, which moved towards disaster relief when the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean.

Thus, Todd travelled to Sri Lanka where he helped at orphanages and at a medical unit, and also rescued animals. This was followed by rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

With the children of Kashmir

And then the mountains moved

Todd had just returned from his work of helping displaced residents in the aftermath of Katrina, when another catastrophe struck. An inner voice compelled him to leave home and fly to Pakistan where a major earthquake had been witnessed in Kashmir and northern areas. Todd helped with the immediate relief efforts and saw that a lot of work needed to be done here so he cancelled all his gigs and shows. He was no medical doctor or disaster relief expert, but he was the one who stayed on and established CDRS.

Since 2006, this health unit has assisted the government with its budget for medicines and extra supplies, repairing ambulances etc. It serves a population of 200,000 and assists 12 government facilities. The unit is more like a shack but Todd believes in having a good team of doctors rather than spending on huge structures that serve no purpose.

Todd also does not spend on his security and feels quite at home in Pakistan, admiring various aspects of Pakistani culture and society. He lives simply because he wants his donors to realise that their funds are being spent on providing healthcare facilities. Individual donors, mostly Pakistan-Americans, have been giving various amounts for running this project.

Todd has also initiated a community-based sustainable healthcare project where people of the local community contribute small amounts to help with their healthcare. This will ensure that the community gets the services it needs, even when Todd is not around.

CDRS has also extended support during other trying times in the country. Immediate cash was given to the Marriott blast victims in Islamabad; medical camps have been organised on coastal Sindh; and 3 months last year were spent helping tackle the Swat crisis.

Media-driven myths

In his early years, Todd could never have imagined living in Pakistan. Highlighting how important a role media plays in shaping perceptions, he says, “I find that US media only tells 2 percent truth about Pakistan most of the time. They only tell the bad side. This leads to skewed perceptions and opinions. In NYC, there are couple of neighbourhoods in the Bronx where you hear of murders, shooting, drug problems etc. every other day. If you took only that news and said that’s what America is all about, that would be a really wrong reflection because it’s happening in only one part of the City. That’s what they are doing to Pakistan just because there are a couple of bad people in the neighbourhood who are demonising the whole country.”

Todd feels he has earned more goodwill for America in Pakistan than the billions of dollars that have been poured in as aid for the country.

“Why would Pakistanis trust America? I love the US but whatever Americans have done so far for Pakistan, they haven’t done it right. It isn’t enough. And the common American can help put things right.

“Even if they cannot come down here and work, they can always write about it; use their social networking skills to spread information about people who are working in social development; raise funds. People back there can dedicate a few hours each work to make a difference by collecting money for donation, writing stories on various issues or NGOs, etc.“

A musical bridge for peace

Life has been much more fulfilling for Todd while running CDRS, but music has still remained a part of his life. Todd’s entry in the Pakistani music industry happened when a friend invited to him to play at a new year’s party. There, a person from MTV Pakistan approached him and asked him to play on a show. Todd thus appeared on MTV, once with Ali Safina and Anoushey, and another time with Dino.

“Then I was on some radio shows and I got a lot of emails from young people in Pakistan,” says Todd. “They loved my music and the work I was doing. Then it occurred to me that I could write an album of songs and sing it with some Pakistani musicians. It would be a cultural bridge of peace; a battle against wrong perceptions.”

Todd got together with some people in California. He talked to the members of American hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. One of them had read the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, on humanitarian work in Pakistan. He was very inspired and eager to do something. So they decided to do it in a big way. Todd contacted a lot of musicians in Pakistan. Members of Guns ‘N Roses, Atif Aslam, Rohail Hayat, Shehzad Roy, Areeb Azheir, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his son Rustam Fateh Ali khan, Strings, Noori and Salman from Junoon have come together and they are not only going to make a music album but will also film the interaction between Pakistani and American musicians while they work together and visit different places such as shrines etc.

“I hope this project can bring people closer together and erase misconceptions,” Todd says. “If it touches the hearts of Americans, may be they will realise the truth about Pakistanis; they may become more willing to give money to projects in Pakistan that are helping children and other underprivileged people.

“I believe that the only thing that can change this world is love; not bombs or weapons. We also want Americans to understand that a handful of people, with their own agendas, are spreading wrong information about Islam and Muslims. This project may turn out to be highly popular or it may fall flat on its face. But it’s definitely worth a try.”

‘…a unique perspective on the events that transpired after 9/11’ – H.M. Naqvi

Published in Slogan (July 2010)

A conversation with H.M. Naqvi at Roadside Cafe in Karachi - Image © Slogan

H.M. Naqvi is a keen observer and a master with words. A graduate from Georgetown and the creative writing programme at Boston University, his novel, Home Boy, is based on the life of Pakistani immigrants in post-9/11 New York. Currently based in Karachi, Husain shares his experiences and thoughts with Ayesha Hoda on creative writing, literature and his first novel.

 

How was the experience of writing this novel?

While writing Home Boy, I learnt to develop a routine, a rigorous routine that required working for three sessions a day, the last stretching to six in the morning. I learnt to take it day by day. Otherwise the project would not have progressed. I learnt to manage my head, to contend with doubt and contend with failure.

Why the title Home Boy?

Home Boy can be translated into Urdu as ‘langotia yaar’ and this novel is about three home boys. In the west, it has a different resonance. It is slang and since it is an immigrant’s novel, one of the things that immigrants have to contend with is mastering the language and slang. There is confusion on the part of the narrator regarding what home boy means. That confusion defines the story.

Then there is another, much more interesting reason for the name Home Boy, which can only be learnt by reading the last line of the book.

The book has received a wonderful response. How does it feel? Did you expect so much popularity?

The wonderful response was, well, very pleasing. I had inhabited my head, inhabited my novel for such a long time that it was good to meet others who were privy to what I was privy to: a pressing story populated by animate characters that remain with you after you’ve put the book down.

I didn’t expect popularity. My objective was to complete the book (it took four years) and I was trying to make a living out of writing. I liked to think it was a good story, an important story but I like to think many things.

How was the response different across various audiences?

I think different audiences process the book in different ways. I expected that certain readers would not appreciate the project and am surprised that all audiences – be it Pakistani, Indian or American – have responded very well to the book. It has received very good press. Major papers like The New York Times have given good reviews and local bookstores are having a hard time keeping the book on the shelf; copies are being sold out quickly.

What are the best comments you have received so far?

I met Zulfiqar Ghose at Karachi Literature Festival. He is one of the first few Pakistani writers in the English language. I was delighted by his appreciation as he is a literary predecessor.

At the Jaipur Literary Festival, Urdu writer Shamsur Rehman Farooqi told me that he had picked up a copy of my book and really liked it. This again was very unexpected and flattering because his work and aesthetic sensibilities are very different from mine.  

You have been teaching creative writing at Boston University and writing stories. Tell us something about the art of storytelling and what it means to you.

We all tell stories. We tell stories everyday. When we talk to others, for instance – friends, family, acquaintances – at the end of the day somebody inevitably asks: What did you do today? We tell stories about ourselves, some truthful, some false, because our identities are contingent on this mode. Writing a story, however, is a qualitatively different exercise. There is form; there are technicalities. Something needs to happen to somebody.

In teaching creative writing, I have made my students cognizant of the form, of certain technicalities. I have taught them how to read differently. I have taught them how to critique. I have taught them how to edit themselves. But there are things that can’t be taught, things that one has to feel viscerally. There are things that you can only have developed in the womb.

What are your views on South Asian literature in general and the works of Pakistani writers in particular?

South Asian literature has become a vast genre, spanning decades, if not a century and continents. South Asian writing now emanates from Canada, Australia, even Norway. There are some great writers; there are mediocre ones.

The explosion of Pakistani literature in English is an exciting development. Although writers like Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, Zulifkar Ghose, Adam Zameenzad, Bapsi Sidhwa, and the peerless Sara Suleri have been at it for decades, there is frenetic momentum now. And though many have achieved prominence, many remain under the radar. There’s Azhar Abidi, Imad Rehman. And the great Urdu writer Abdullah Hussain recently published an excellent novel entitled Émigré Journeys.

In a way, implicitly or explicitly, we are all in conversation with each other.

Any comments on fiction based on 9/11?

I think every great historic event leads to a body of literature, like World War I and II, Partition and the Holocaust. 9/11 is one such tragedy which will continue to produce a body of work. Home Boy is not the first or the last work on this but it is a unique perspective on the events that transpired after 9/11.

And the World Changed

And the World Changed – Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women

Book Review published in SouthAsia (June 2007)

And the world has changed! Not only in Sabyn Javeri-Jillani’s post-partition Karachi or in Humera Afridi’s post 9/11 New York City, but also for creative writing by Pakistani women.

There is no vast Pakistani English literature by women, to comment on. Republished in Pakistan in 2006, after its launch by Women Unlimited (New Delhi) in 2005, this anthology exhibits the kind of work that Pakistani women are doing in South Asian literature.

Nonconformity and an unconventional style seem to be the current trend. Though there is still a long way to go in terms of meeting the literary standards of world classics, the stories of this collection do represent myriad perspectives on a number of issues, especially those concerning women.

There is no single theme that the book follows. You cannot label it as ‘feminist’ prose, despite the fact that all texts are by women.

Twenty-four women, belonging to different literary backgrounds, have contributed. These include known names such as Fahmida Riaz (a political and human rights activist), Bapsi Sidhwa (whose novels revolve around the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan) and Kamila Shamsie (of Salt and Saffron fame). Some of the stories are excerpts from novels.

One is bound to notice a few similarities between the authors. All of them have lived in Pakistan as well as in the west, or still do. They write about the Pakistani people and multiculturalism is sometimes an underlying theme:

“Santa Maria, the Black Madonna, Holy Mother of Christ, Jesus, Jesus, Ya Ali! Ya Ali! Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain…” (Bloody Monday by Fawzia Afzal Khan.

Stories focus on problems as serious as rape of the mentally challenged (The Daughters of Aai by Fahmida Riaz), forced marriages (The Optimist by Bina Shah) or on lighter subjects such as the initial experiences of city life ( Look, But With Love by Uzma Aslam Khan) and The Arsonist (an excerpt from Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters). They provide us with a taste of present-day reality and capture the ethos of our society – such as Shahrukh Husain’s Rubies for a Dog, which comments on gender discrimination:

“Isn’t it ironic that I have to dress like a man in order to discover my potential?”

Meeting your future in-laws in a pair of jeans can be calamitous even if you are living in the west, “under the sway of western fashion and, by extension, its moral values” (A Pair of Jeans by Qaisra Shahraz).

Even young and amateur writers show sensitivity towards some social issues (that are often ignored) and provide us with some very original stories, such as Clay Fissures by Nayyara Rahman:

“It was 1953 and patriotism was still a young, strong spirit in Pakistan. People were proud of being Pakistanis. They were proud of being Muslim. They were proud of their own brown skin, which reflected wheat – the lifeblood of Pakistan. And here was I: Pradeep Sehgal, the adopted albino son of a Hindu merchant and a Eurasian seamstress.”

Muneeza Shamsie (the editor and short story writer), has previously edited A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English and Leaving Home: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers. She also contributes to local newspapers and magazines. In this book, she has provided us with a brief but absorbing introduction on the history of creative writing by Pakistani women (or the lack of it). She has eulogized the efforts of those women who have contributed to this form of writing (despite the lack of monetary benefits and inspiring examples), acquainted us with each contributor and has also thrown light on the impact that political upheaval in the country has had on this medium of expression.

It is interesting to note the kind of diversity that exists in our writing as well as our society. We see a close affinity with contemporary writing by Indian women (Shobha De` etc.).

These writers also lead us to new avenues (sometimes ‘experimental’)and provide ideas that can form the basis of future work in fiction. Social critique still largely seems to be the ultimate aim of writing, as mentioned in the introduction: ‘the prescriptive dictum that their work must have an extra-literary purpose, namely to “serve society”.’

– By Ayesha Hoda