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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

On Bishop Spong (and the almost total lack of similar spokespersons for Islam)

Anything
that diminishes life for anyone,
whether on the basis of race, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation,
or even religion,
is evil
and must be confronted.
Anything
that enhances life and increases love
is good
and must be encouraged.
===============
Bishop J S Spong
===============
Among all the people in the world of today's divisive leadership in religion, the likes of Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong are a rarity, indeed.

Spong, the author of several bestselling books, each an anathema to the Church, is a believer who places rationality above all else. This may sound strange, particularly to non-believers and agnostics, and to those who consider 'belief', per se, to be irrational. But, after reading his numerous essays and columns, several people - including those of other faiths and denominations, as well as unbelievers - agree that his approach is in total contrast to that propounded by the belching and bellowing fundamentalists currently at the helm of most religious affairs.

I'd suggest to those who are not familiar with Spong's work to surf the Internet for his writings. They are among the best essays available today, in terms of lucidity alone. [If you cannot access any of them, email me for a small sample selection I had once distributed among friends.]

The mere mention of Spong's name, among Evangelists and Catholic Priests alike, is enough to let loose a gushing flood of diatribe. This is, naturally, as expected. Spong's view of an 'errant' Bible (his latest book is titled "The Sins of Scripture"), his acceptance of the Theory of Evolution in opposition to that of Intelligent Design (a kind of Cloaked Creationism, named to make it more scientific sounding), and the negation of literal interpretations of the Old & New Testaments, would have been sufficient to earn him the wrath of the establishment. But Spong, not one to hold back his views, went even further by becoming an ardent supporter of women's rights, speaking out against the attitude of the Church on homosexuality, and vociferously criticising the Biblical punishment that requires society to kill all gays.

Condemning superstition, Spong wrote several pieces post-9/11 and post-Tsunami_2004, taking to task those religious (mis)leaders who had proclaimed these events to be divine punishments, meted out to innocent masses. He made matters far worse for himself by taking an anti-Bush stand on the Iraq War and, just when Democrats thought he was one of them, by taking Kerry to task for his lukewarm changing views.

Within the sphere of religious matters what Spong is engaged in, would, in the parlance of Islamic thought, be rightly called Ijtehaad - the current absence of which is, in all probability, the major reason the Muslim Ummah finds itself in a state of stagnation, confusion and directionlessness.

Joining hands with corrupt rulers - something that, by the way, is not exclusive to mullahs, for priests of all religions have always done this to grab whatever power they can - they strengthen the hands of those tyrants, in exchange, by inventing and falsely attributing sayings to Prophets and Saints.

Unwilling to accept their own ignorance and the consequent inability to adopt their outmoded interpretations to a world changing at an accelerated pace, Muslim religious leaders have, very cunningly, taken refuge in a variety of 'back to the basics' movements, with each one defining the 'basics' in the manner that provides him with the maximum benefits.

My use of the male pronoun in the preceding sentence is a conscious choice. For one, there are very few women religious leaders, primarily as a result of the age-old bigotry of self-styled Ulema echoing similar viewpoints that prevail among the high-priests of other religions and churches. For another, the few that do exist are divided between those that seek to re-interpret the Qur'an in a feminist perspective - a very small minority that, for the most part, has taken its cue from the women's movements in the West - and those who whole-heartedly and wilingly define themselves in terms of the traditional male perception. Among the latter are some that promote this self-effacement, even while 'seemingly' opposing it, as in the case of the numerous dars-giving scholars, who, funded by the Saudis, have begun to sprout globally.

Many of my Muslim friends, on being introduced to Spong's writings, have said that they are dismayed by the absence of even a single writer among them who couples the reformist approach of Spong with the credibility that he has established by his having been a bishop. While I cannot help but agree with them, I would like to use this opporunity and point them towards a source on the Internet, where, without doubt, some of the finest and most rational discussions (intermingled, of course, with the usual mumbo-jumbo) are taking place among Muslims. Visit altmuslim.com and see for yourself.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Free and Fair Elections for the Moderately Enlightened

"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures." So wrote Daniel Webster (1782-1852).

Almost 18 centuries earlier, Jesus Christ had already gone a step further, saying "The road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions."

"The worst elections in Pakistan's history", cry the opposition, objecting to a transparently rigged process that has almost ousted them out from the seats of political power into which, they conveniently forget to mention, a similarly rigged process had placed them earlier. The shot-gun wedding between the MMA and the powers that be is over. The signing of divorce papers is now a mere formality, requiring the necessary signatures of gavaahs from among our masters abroad.

But the second marriage of the regime promises to be just as turbulent, although the return to power of the parties that wreaked havoc for years (specially in Karachi) may seem acceptable as a lesser evil. The future of Karachi - the city that still provides the government with more taxes than the entire remaining country - will be bleak, if its 'silent majority' does not speak up soon and alter the direction this metropolis — once known as The City of Lights — has been taking for years.

Sad as it may seem, many Karachiites are convinced that the downhill slide of their city not only does not matter to a large segment of Pakistan, it even provides unexpressed joy to some, for it portends growth elsewhere in the country. The MMA, ushered into power in the last elections through the obvious support of the armed forces, as well as by those who were casting not a pro-MMA vote but an anti-USA vote, had - very quickly - become too big for its boots. It had even garnered, during its last few months, significant genuine support in the wake of the Bush-Blair duo fulfilling Huntingdon's scenario: the idea of a Clash of Civilizations, put forward as much as a feeler as a blueprint for the Neo-Con ideology.

Attacking President Musharraf's policies (including the very few that seemed to be pointing in the right direction), and his person, was not likely to be tolerated for long. Unfortunately, the only real opposition to the MMA could have come from Nawaz and Benazir leading their parties - an option unacceptable to the Government. After all, Nawaz, if he were to take power again, was almost certain to 'try' the current government and the President, in yet another kangaroo-court, for snatching power from him (although more as an act of personal vengeance than in the defence of the constitution). It was also - not surprisingly - much easier for the present regime to 'buy' the loyalties of many of Nawaz's unprincipled party-members, and to embrace the few honest politicians in PML-N who had been, slowly but surely, distancing themseves from Nawaz because of his increasingly dictatorial egoism.

Supporting Benazir's party, it seemed to many, would have been a better choice for the General. After all, she had no personal axe to grind with him and could, very easily, be 'persuaded' by foreign leaders to let Musharraf off the hook, in keeping with a 50-odd year tradition of Pakistan: Ayub had let Iskander Mirza go, despite his continuing claim that Mirza had been corrupt and had robbed the country blind; Bhutto spared both Ayub & Yahya, while blaming them for the mess we were in, including the 1971 'disaster'; and even General Musharraf let Nawaz 'escape' the legal trials he should have faced, if the charges levied against him, of rampant corruption and large financial scams, were correct.

(The only time a deal was not struck was in the case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who remained defiant until almost the very end. But he was, unfortunately, dealing with Zia-ul-Haq, possibly the most evil man to ever have been at the helm of our affairs and to whom many of our ills of today can be traced!).

President Musharraf's appeals for 'enlightened moderation' — a phrase that sounds suspiciously 'manufactured' by either a Madison Avenue 'spinner' or by Henry Kissinger — rings hollow to many, especially when coupled with his decision to install, as Minister for Religious Affairs, Ejaz-ul-Haq, son of the dictator Zia-ul-Haq, a keen supporter of right-wing ideas and torch-bearer of his father's diabolical agenda.

As the cliché goes, we have now been offered a choice between a rock and a hard place: We must either accept a comparatively honest MMA government that will force us, inch by inch, towards a fundamentalist and theocratic society - or choose to remain a semi-secular and progressive population under a dishonest team, one that extracts the price of the mirage of freedom it offers through rampant lawlessness and blatant corruption.

Whichever party we empower has to be kept in check by the very armed forces that acted as its midwives. And, of course, this would conveniently provide a 'popular' reason for the armed forces to remain in control. Sir Walter Scott hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive."

So, there you have it: A few steps in the wrong direction in a desert and you've lost the way forever. No twists, turns or short-cuts can lead you to the originally intended path. Mirages on the way may prove soothing for a while, but can only worsen your condition. And, pretty soon, you're far too exhausted to continue. As the poet, Iram Lakhnavi said: Bohat door manzil — magar har qadam par / Thakan ka taqaazah keh manzil yahee hae!

====
Oh ... and here's some advice for the MMA (a party that I am not the slightest bit sorry to see leave): The only recourse for you may lie in exploring Japanese medical websites that prescribe essential excercises to counter unacceptably poor "elections".

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A Very Special Evening

I have just returned from an evening of Sama'a, rendered amazingly well by Abdullah Niazi and Party. Although the group goes by this name, it is the presence of 85+ years old Manzoor Niazi Sahab (whose children and shaagirds make up the party) that makes it what it is.

This form of nomenclature seems to be a tradition in the family. Manzoor Niazi Sahab's illustrious and greatly admired cousin, Munshi Raziuddin Sahab, occupied a similar position - performing until his death, at 90+, couple of years ago - in a group named (after his eldest son) Fareed Ayaz Al-Hussaini and Party.

Incidentally, both the groups have received the Presidential Pride of Performance Awards this year, in recognition of their lifelong service to a genre they have kept alive in its most traditional form.

The evening provided excellent food for the ears and the soul - the quality of the listeners and the presence of Manzoor Niazi Sahab imposing a discipline upon the younger performers that kept them from veering into the commercially enforced style that other mahfils demand of them. Their melodious and soulful rendition of Naseemah Jaanibe Bat'ha was, as usual, exquisite and has always been considered their almost exclusive domain.

However, the real reason this evening was special was that it was the first one being held at the house of Haider Karrar since his sudden and early demise stunned many friends and colleagues over a year ago. The death of Haider - a great lover and patron of sufi sama'a and qavvaali, greatly respected and loved by the qavvaals, themselves - affected me intensely, despite my all too brief acquaintance with him. Surprisingly, given the limited number of encounters, Haider had found a place in my heart (and those of my wife and daughter) that seems almost inexplicable. A warm man, with a smile that showed him to be at peace with everything around him, he exuded a gentle quality that - at first glance - seemed strange for his large build. But it took only the briefest of moments for it to shine through.

In my 65 years, I can recall only one other person that elicited similar feelings from people at the first meeting. That man was the poet, Suroor Baarahbankvi. And, strangely, it was a couplet of his that had crossed my mind after my very first encounter with Haider, and one that repeated itself in my thoughts as we buried Haider in the shade of the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Clifton (where his spirit, many felt, would continue to enjoy an eternity of qavvaalis held every Thursday at the mazaar). I know no one who can be better summed up by the first line of Suroor Bhai's couplet: Jin se mil kar zindagi say ishq ho jaae, voh loag … Aap nay shaayad nah daykhay hoñ, magar aésay bhi haeñ!

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Not only do I believe in miracles, I consider them my due!

WARNING: This is not a piece of general interest. I just had to put some thoughts on paper as I relax at Bealieu-sur-Mer, a little resort on the gorgeous South of France coast.


Imagine: almost broke, recovering from a bout of an uncomfortable ailment that had all but taken away the wind from my sails, feeling depressed - really depressed - for the first time in my life, I get a call from Madanjeet Singh (a remarkable man by all standards; read his book The Sasiya Story; it's also downloadable in PDF, so search for it in Google). He invites me and my family to spend a week at his villa here. Out of the blue! Nothing short of a miracle, right?

I have always believed in miracles ... though not in the 'religious' sense of the word. I think of miracles as those events that happen just-in-time and when they are totally unexpected. Some call it 'luck' or 'chance' - but both these words seem so incongruous (and I really do not believe in them at all) in comparison to the enormity of the events I am thinking of. And I am not even including escaping the three crazy, near-death experiences that could have cut me off in my prime.

The biggest miracle, I guess, was my being born to the set of parents who could not have been better. It provided me a nurturing that was staggering: growing up surrounded by Indian (and, later, Pakistani) poets, writers, musicians, politicians! And books, books, books! The qualities I remember most about them is their sabr, their unwavering principles and gaiety in times of their greatest stress and losses (1947, the lack of money or material comforts, for both; Abi's constantly failing health; Ummi's 27 years of widowhood and - for long periods - absence of her only son: my career at sea brought me home for only very short periods each year). And their sense of humour that really saw them through all this.

Among the greatest miracles in my life are: finding Nuzhat for a wife; no one could have done as much as she has for me. It could fill a book! Having the sister-gap filled by Jehan Ara, was also a major event. If ever a statue was to be made to personify 'selfless affection', it'd bear her face. The arrival of my daughter, Ragni Marea, when there was not the slightest inkling or hope of this joyous bundle, made even more miraculous by the way she was born and survived. How she has, over the years, made me proud with her sensitivity and values! Meeting Sabeen, and finding in her the attributes that rekindled hope in the generation to come, was another milestone. I don't know of anyone else (especially in her age-group) who combines such values, abilities, and resolve as she does.

Not all miracles directly involved people, of course. My running away to sea provided me opportunities I had not imagined in my wildest fantasies or dreams. How could I have ever predicted that I'd be travelling around the world, more than making up for the formal education I had abandoned early, coming into contact with the people I admired most, among whom the single most important name, without any doubt, must be that of Bertrand Russell. Or dancing to the Beatles, when they were just a small group - almost unknown - in a little club in Liverpool. Or watching The Doors, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones in concerts. And an untold number of Jazz Greats at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Or attending Woodstock, a really defining moment in my life.

Being part of the 'hippies', remains the greatest of influences, for - even today, when most of my contemporaries have succumbed to 'yuppiedom' and a conservatism, even religiosity, unimaginable in them (it has spread almost like a disease among some of the top names of the period) - I retain my hippie-anarchistic attitudes. Amen!

The route that led me to my ICT career is no less miraculous. I had to give up a 25-year-long seafaring career I loved … because of circumstances that were sad: Ummi became almost invalid. But it was also joyous to be with Ragni as she grew up.

I gave it all up for something I had never considered doing. To set up a business, when totally broke, may have been my idea of 'daring'. But, finding myself in this successful position, as I do now (albeit not in a financial sense; but who cares!), is often incomprehensible to me as I look back. Equally miraculous, for someone who abandoned formal education, is my having acquired a place, however small, in the World of Education, serving, for a while, as a Head of Department and holding a teaching position at a University.

Regrets? None, whatsoever. That, perhaps is the greatest of all miracles! For there is really little or nothing I'd wish to change in my life, were I given the chance to live it again! I must, however, admit to an occasional tinge of a sense of underachievement, when I think of my so-so abilities sandwiched between a father - who was a political activist, a poet, a writer, a doctor, and one who could sing raags or snatches of arias with equal ease, speak and write impeccable Urdu and English - and a daughter who has accomplished a great deal at such a young age and, who will, I know, continue to accomplish more in time.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Fund-a-mental

Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.
Thomas Huxley

That Muslim youth would not be behind the London 7/7 attacks was, for Muslims around the world, more a wish or a hope, because of the nagging feeling that the facts would turn out bad.

Most of the people around me, in Pakistan, however, expressed genuine surprise to find that among the perpetrators of this crime were children of Pakistani expats who had been brought up and educated in the UK.

Would they have been less surprised, had it turned out that they were ex-Madrassah students? Perhaps. After all the nation is fed, via national and foreign media alike, the notion that madrassahs provide (and train) jehadees. I am sure this does not happen in the majority of cases (our Prez says the same thing, though that is for the entirely real politik reasons of placating the MMA).

I am sure, however, that these religious schools are responsible for two things: one, of developing a mindset that is, at the very least, unconditionally sympathetic to the jehadees ... and, two, seeming to provide rich fishing grounds to those looking for recruits for such acts. The reason I say "seeming to provide" is that I have not come across too many examples of those captured (or among the dead, in the case of suicide bombers) having been long-term students of these madrassahs. So far. In many cases, the links made to these schools are tenacious and, in some, even far-fetched. They have been stereotyped and, as a result, many fit the bill without a fair trial. Let's also remember that the product of these madrassahs is more likely to be found among the perpetrators of such acts closer to our home, across the LOC, and on or near the Afghanistan side. Transporting them all the way to Europe and the USA is surely not an easy task.

One of the four 'suspects' of the 7/7 horror, we are told, was born in Britain and had visited Pakistan to study at a Madrassah for two months. Back home, the youngster was described, by friends and family alike, as a nice young man who loved the way of life his birthplace offered him. Why would his parents let him come for such a short while to a madrassah? After all, that's too little time to learn anything of value (but sufficient time, I suppose, to have hate instilled into young minds). What about the madrassah that let him in for such a brief period? Does it run intensive workshops that last for 8 weeks? I find no evidence of such activity among the madrassahs I know. Of course, the madrassahs do not need to do more than 'nudge' an already angry young man over the edge by dangling the carrot of martyrdom.

I am unable to understand the President of Pakistan (in uniform!) saying that not all but 'a few' madrassahs are guilty of 'training' these people, and analysts on the TV programs - including ex-military personnel - insisting that the blame must be placed on those specific madrassahs where the USA (in its infinite capacity for stupidity and lack of caring for when and whom it uses for its means) helped to set up such camps and provided weapons.

If this is really the case (and I believe it must be), surely, President Musharraf and his ex-colleagues and seniors, who were active at the time Zia was spear-heading this deal, would have, on some military or accessible records, the names and precise locations of those handful of madrassahs. Would it not be easier and wiser to come out on the national and international media and say "here is a list of madrassahs where the USA and the Pakistan Army helped set up training camps for jehadees to support the anti-USSR war in Afghanistan - and even without the USA's knowing, in India - when we believed it was the right thing to do".

After all, everyone knows we've made an about-face in terms of policy. And that's been hailed as a good decision, by most, for a variey of reasons. The Prez could then go on to dismantle these institutions, with the support of the majority of the nation, despite the protests of the madrassah-loving MMA. Those who speak out against these 'facts' would expose their tilt. Unless of course, such an action isn't possible because of a large portion of the Armed Forces supporting the jehadee outlook, as many suspect.

Another important aspect that needs to be clearly understood is that, while the moral support for jehadees is supposed to come from the militant madrassah stereotypes, a more unseen and - at least for now - low-intensity moral support is, increasingly, coming from many erstwhile moderates who are sick of the USA/UK policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. And the number rises with each Abu Ghraib type incident - or TV appearance of Donald Rumsfeld smirking over some human tragedy. Add to this, India's growing refusal to come to terms with the fact that the movement in Kashmir is an indigenous freedom struggle (even if it is supported - I think it is! - almost certainly by several successive governments - from our side of the border).

One more factor that seems to be ignored, underplayed, or not fully understood is that placing all the blame on madrassahs and their curriculum makes it possible to take the focus away from the national curriculum and syllabi that all the other schools follow. The indoctrination of ideas meant to sow the seeds of hatred of 'others', making it easy to develop fascistic tendencies, are intertwined within the standard text books that Pakistan has used for many years. And India has resorted to it, too, with much greater speed, during its BJP days. Studies on both sides of the Indo-Pak divide have shown this to be a major factor in keeping the populations from becoming friends.

This regime did try to alter that but, as in several other cases, backed off in the face of threats by the MMA, a monster of its own nurturing. In fact, the backing off on this particular issue was so great that, in a TV debate on the textbook matter, our then Minister for Education stated - on a programme watched by hundreds of thousands - that she was "a fundamentalist". (This was later explained, to the amusement of many, as her having meant that she believed in the fundamentals of Islam).

In my younger, post-1947 days, some of these divisive and terrible ideas were subtly and less obviously included in our text books, general literature, and the popular media. They were, sadly, considered 'acceptable', since they were at the same level as found in the so-called 'enlightened' West where post-WW2 movies and chidren's stories clearly defined the bad guys as the 'others': Injuns were bad; cowboys were good. Germans and Japanese were bad, Brits and Yanks were good. Commies were bad, Capitalists were good. If you did something honorable, it was categorized as a Christian thing to do; one even heard someone 'praise' another by saying "That was very White of you!"

Now, with the "developed" world - with the exception of the dastardly Neo-Cons (does that mean New Conmen?), moving towards a more tolerant and multicultural outlook, it seems strange that the rest of the countries are further polarized through militantly expressed - and politically exploited - differences between various groups. The preaching of hatred or ridicule for the 'other' is commonplace in the books Pakistani children are made to read. The same books also praise martyrdom, lay more than normal stress upon jehaad (and that, too, on only its warring aspects), and instill the inferiority of Science through fantastic and cooked up tales.

This combination is a gunpowder-keg, ready to blow-up. And, blow-up it does with greater frequency, with each wave of supply of illegal arms to thousands of young men, unable to find jobs and unsure of any chance of ever having a stable and useful life. Weighing this against the promise of a 'reward' in their after-lives, a belief strengthened at every level of their existence because it is unquestioningly accepted by the entire society around them, almost certainly helps them determine their suicidal course.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

An Updated Health Bulletin

As some of you know, around a month after my prostate surgery, I started suffering from some form of rash. Dermatologists and doctors continued to treat me with what (even they admitted later) were sheer guesstimates. Had they confessed their inability to diagnose matters, I may have been able to proceed to India, or even the West: the sum total spent on wrong medication and also lost by not working would probably be a similar amount - with much less strain.

The rash took various shapes and sizes and spread rapidly to the entire body, with itching and irritation that are impossible to describe. I would not wish them on anyone, even extremists of the ilk of Bush and Osama (who, for someone brought up on Indian movie plots, could well seem to be twins separated at birth). The lack of sleep that resulted almost drove me insane (though many would say that that condition existed prior to this ailment). A dermatologist abroad who was sent pictures of parts of my body sent me a one-word reply: Horrid! (It was not accompanied by any suggestions on the medication.)

I was sent in for yet another biopsy (with the accompanying unbearable suspense for my family and friends). It took the Aga Khan Lab almost 2 weeks to get back with a diagnosis that, according to the tribe of doctors I was seeing, meant nothing. It just stated: Drug Induced Intolerance.

Most doctors started looking at medication received from pre-surgery to that point in time and said none of the medicines used seemed to offer specific reasons to suspect it. One doctor categorically suspected Amaryl2 (he had said this earlier), a medicine used to control blood-sugar levels during surgery, since I am slightly diabetic (although not insulin dependent). No one else agreed. And certainly not the doctor who had prescribed it. To give you an idea of how confusing second opinions can be, the prescribing doctor had used this on several patients and never experienced this, while the suspecting doctor said it looked like a classic case of Amaryl2 reaction!!!

The condition got to the point where 24/7 itching and subsequent lack of sleep threw my blood-sugar levels out of control and placed even greater stress (even worse for diabetes and skin conditions). Friends and family kept advising me to see other doctors, including a quack homeopath, a phrase which may sound redundant to those who, like me, do not believe in this form of therapy. No one provided even the slightest clue. And, to be honest, the homeopath did not even look half-intelligent. He listened to my tale of woe intermittently, between conversations that were already alternating between a friend on the phone and a mafiosi looking character who had dropped in and walked into his consultation room while he was supposedly examining me. He then called up another friend, since he could not 'remember' what the name of the medicine he was to give me was. Risky!

A friend and well-known dermatologist (who had been the first to see me and been unable to get to the root of the problem) returned from a trip abroad and called to see me again. At her clinic she showed me - on her laptop screen - a series of pictures that resembled very strongly the condition my skin was in. She had found a CD-ROM of skin rash images and, through this wonder of ICT, diagnosed me as having developed (although no reason for the development has yet surfaced) a condition known as dermatitis herpetotoformis (which means: not herpes but something that only looks similar!) which had made me "gluten intolerant". This, despite the fact that a test (known as G6PD) had eliminated this possibility, perhaps due to the readings being inaccurate as a result of the variety of medicines taken earlier.

I was then put on a single tablet of Dapsone per day (along with various creams primarily to soothe the skin and a couple of antihistamines to reduce itching) and voila! The tablet has proved to be remarkable. In less than a week one could see/feel the improvement, and now, 2 weeks later, while the condition needs improvement in certain areas (particularly the shin) the body is all but entirely clear of marks, lesions, scabs. The fear of not knowing precisely what is wrong or what caused it - accompanied by a dread of relapse - persists.

Until this happened to me, like many others I have spoken to since, I was unaware of gluten intolerance. Now I have learnt (Thank you, Google!) that this is a condition that can remain for an extended period in some, even life-long in others, and be short-lived in many if brought on as a reaction to drugs. I hope I am in the latter group, since the ailment all but stops you from eating most things you'd like to eat or drink (all forms of bread, for example; and wine. If Khayyam had suffered from this, he'd only have been left with 'Thou' ). Of the few things it does permit, I am already marked as unfit for most due to my diabetic condition. If I were a strong believer, I'd have accepted this as divine retribution for some innoccuous, harmless act, like fantasizing about Angelina Jolie. But, if that were true, half of the world's population would be suffering from this condition.

While, in the West much gluten-free stuff (including breads) and sugar-free everything is available at health stores and larger supermarkets, our countries do not provide such easy access (except for the 'sugar-free sugar' I saw advertised in a Lahore daily). The very dear Jehan Ara came to the rescue, as she always does!!! She found a few items in one of the exclusive shops in Karachi, and - though expensive - they have alleviated some of the tension associated with the terribly bland and limited meals I have had to put up with in the past two weeks. Although I must confess that the cookies she brought feel and taste like high-quality cardboard.

One of the purposes of making you read all this is to be aware of this phenomenon. In the past week I have discovered 4 people among my friends or their families, who have had this condition. And two of the 4 had it a month after surgery! Both surgeries were performed abroad, in Canada and the USA. And one was for hernia, while the other was for something much minor. Rather worrying!!! Are some of us, because of our dietary habits (or bad hospital conditions - a problem that is spread worldwide) getting more susceptible to this? Only time and research will tell. One of the 4, incidentally, has had it from birth (she is 31 now) and lives in the UK where she does have access to food but has not been able to get rid of the condition. And, I believe, she was only diagnosed after years.

As for me, I am off to France for a week on a holiday, invited by someone I respect greatly and feel close ties to: Ambassador Madanjeet Singh. Also, from Nice, I hope to be able to come back with a few gluten-free edibles (notice how my mind keeps going back to food?). Sitting by the sea will also improve my eyesight (the nude beach is a fair distance away!)

On my return I intend to travel to Delhi, where the dermatology institute is considered excellent, and see if certain tests (unavailable in Pakistan) can provide some clues and long-term help. While seemingly on the road to recovery, there are reasons for me to suspect that a few of the lesions, which look different from the rest, could provide nastier surprises in the long run. I am keeping my fingers crescented (keeping them crossed seems risky in these days of the Mullah Military Alliance in Pakistan, since it would be considered as emulating the beliefs of Crosstianity). I am wondering, too, if an experiment with Ayurvedic medicine could provide help. Any opinions on this will be welcome.

The trip to India will be cheaper by far than trying to do this in the West, and the stay a lot easier - many friends there have volunteered to put me up. I can survive on Idli and Dossa, too :~) ... If the stay has to be long, I hope to be able to spend the free time in furthering regional ties through interaction with school or college children or by writing in the popular press (read Tehelka!)

For those of you who are inquisitive or wish to know for any other reason (provided you are not too squeamish … or not perverted) I can email a picture or two of what I was going through. I have not put them on my blog for aesthetic reasons.

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