Returning to Hyderabad, India, Once a Land of Princes and Palaces

Hyderabad Deccan (Credit:
Hyderabad Deccan (Credit:

It took 15 minutes for my car to creep forward about 20 feet, giving me ample time to admire the crumbling filigreed balconies jutting precariously overhead.

Throughout the gridlocked lanes of Hyderabad’s Old City, mud-splattered ancient ramparts are studded with tea stalls, Western Union signs and makeshift roadside repair shops stacked with washing machines waiting to be coaxed back to life. There are glimpses of glory amid the rubble and grime: a solitary remnant of a once-imposing palace wall peeks out timidly amid a labyrinth of electric wires; latticed windows blackened by generations of soot and rain are further obscured by corrugated tin shacks.

“There’s such beauty, but how pathetically it’s been destroyed,” said Dr. Anand Raj Varma, a local scholar and historian who was accompanying me. “Sab khatam ho gaya. Nothing is there.”

I was raised far from India on my father’s outlandish tales of Hyderabad’s magnificent deoris — sprawling walled estates — and of the city’s fragrant gardens and refined etiquette, stories that were passed down from his own father. He watched that world evaporate from the 1950s through the ’70s, and his anecdotes typically end with him shaking his head in wonder: “You couldn’t fathom it.” He barely can himself.

“Everything’s gone now,” he bemoans, like Dr. Varma. Thanks to a lethal mix of government neglect and citizen apathy, and the financial collapse of the aristocracy after the state was absorbed into India in 1948, much of old Hyderabad has been decimated, giving way to a congested urban abyss. The Hyderabad of my father’s nostalgia seemed as implausible to me as Atlantis.

I mostly ignored his lamentations, as teenagers are wont to do. But as I grew older and sought a deeper connection with the city I consider my second home, I began to wonder how things might have been 60 years ago, before Hyderabad’s gracious boulevards were engulfed by dreary concrete blocks. When my maternal grandfather, Mahmood bin Muhammad, a senior administrator, diplomat and writer, died in late 2013, that mild interest graduated to obsession. Most of the buildings my father speaks of dissolved into oblivion decades ago; the people who recall that era are also ebbing away.

And so I returned to see what was left, before both the physical vestiges and the memories that sustain them are lost forever.

Hyderabad isn’t an easy place to love. Delhi has its historical monuments, Rajasthan its palaces, Kerala its lush backwaters and Mumbai its Bollywood glamour. Hyderabad languishes, suspended between a stifled past and a future not yet fully realized. The week I arrived, a politician was making headlines for claiming that his party did more for the state in nine years than the erstwhile ruling Asaf Jahi dynasty, better known as the Nizams, did in hundreds.

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The senior-most princes in India during the British Raj, the dynasty of the Nizams reigned over a state the size of the Britain. The seventh and final ruling Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, was proclaimed the richest man in the world on a 1937 Time cover, with a net worth estimated to amount to more than $35 billion in today’s terms. “He spent his leisure hours dipping his arms up to the elbows in chests of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls,” read his 1967 New York Times obituary. He also bestowed the state with educational institutions, hospitals and infrastructure galore.

But Hyderabad has lately reinvented itself as Cyberabad, home to gleaming offices for Facebook, Google, IBM and Oracle. Last year, the city was abuzz with news that a hometown boy, Satya Nadella, had succeeded Steve Ballmer as chief executive of Microsoft. Technology is king today, eclipsing the endowment of bygone monarchs.

“The Nizam has done so much for Hyderabad, and people forget it very quickly because they have short-term memories,” said Princess Esra Jah, an ex-wife of the seventh Nizam’s heir, Prince Mukarram Jah. I had arrived via horse and carriage at the Falaknuma Palace, a Tudor-Italian marvel reborn in 2010 as a sumptuous Taj hotel, to have tea with the princess responsible for its restoration.

“How can they say he did nothing for Hyderabad if it was the most advanced” princely state in all of India? said the princess. “It’s in the history books. But I don’t think most of the politicians read history, if you ask me.”

The princess, who looks just as elegant today as she did as a young ingénue in footage from her then-husband’s 1967 coronation, now splits her time among Istanbul, London and Santa Barbara, Calif.; she came back at the prince’s request to return some family properties to their original splendor. “I took on two projects, the Chowmahalla and Falaknuma palaces, to restore them and to be able to give something back to the city,” she said. This was an arduous task; Falaknuma took more than a decade to bring back to its 1890s glory. “It’s very easy to construct, but difficult to restore,” she said.

Indeed, there must be something to restore in the first place. From Notting Hill in London to the Colaba district of Mumbai, there are countless striking examples of urban development that complement a city’s historical fabric. But in a quest for modernization, much of Hyderabad’s architectural legacy was dismantled, and recent attempts to revisit the past are often a case of too little, too late. “Right from the beginning, people did not give enough importance to restoration,” the princess said. “Buildings came up with no aesthetic sense at all. Just because you are high-tech, it doesn’t mean you have to be ugly.”

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High atop a hill, Falaknuma stood empty for decades, shrouded in cobwebs and awaiting its moment. The wonder of Falaknuma isn’t just in the Taj’s immaculate re-creation of the palace’s rooms and gardens, though its 101-seat dining table, stained-glass terrace dome and refreshed frescoes are indeed impressive. The magic lies in its simultaneous re-creation of a lost era of refined manners, or tehzeeb.

My family are among the few people I know who still greet their elders with the traditional “aadaab,” raising an upturned palm to the forehead while bowing slightly at the waist. But murmurs of “aadaab” reverberate throughout Falaknuma’s halls, with everyone from the general manager to the gardeners calling out to me as I pass.

“The manners were wonderful,” said Princess Esra Jah of what she loved most about the Hyderabad of old. “It wasn’t just the nobility or the rich or the poor; everyone had the same manners. They were terribly dignified in their behavior.” The Taj team may set out to revive an edifice, but the nostalgic sense of social grace rekindled at the same time is priceless.­

A few days later Dr. Varma and I crossed the Musi River, flanked by the bulbous domes of the High Court and the Osmania General Hospital, and the car lurched us into the maze of the Old City. We did a circuit past monuments like the iconic 1591 Charminar arch and the sprawling 17th-century Mecca Masjid mosque before arriving at a bright yellow gate. Behind it lay Purani Haveli, the sixth Nizam’s palace, a lavish spread famed for its legendary 262-foot closet — a necessary amenity for a man who reportedly never repeated an outfit. These days, parts of the property are home to a museum and an engineering college, while the rest of its wilting cupolas and turrets lie derelict.

A caretaker eyed us quizzically as we approached. “I just want to show her around,” Dr. Varma said, and the guard waved us in without further questioning. We roamed freely, peering behind a faded curtain rippling in a doorway to find broken windows, dilapidated fountains and jaundiced plasterwork. Hyderabadis are famously laid-back but also unfailingly hospitable, and this combination worked in my favor; “mulahiza,” or gracious deference, defined most of my interactions. All you have to do is ask, I learned quickly: a smile, a polite entreaty, and warm welcomes ensued.

Over the next week, simply by asking nicely, I gained entree to residences, ruins, private clubs, colleges and palaces. I was tipped off to the 17th-century Goshamahal Baradari, an imposing Masonic temple where, despite the fact that I claimed no allegiance to the Freemasons, I was led through inner chambers clearly labeled “Members Only.” At the Hussaini Kothi deori, a family hosted me in their 200-year-old living room, brimming with colorful antique chandeliers and furnishings in impeccable condition. I visited family friends at the neo-Classical Aziz Bagh, where seven generations have lived since 1899 in a three-acre compound so bucolic you’d never guess it existed deep within the thrum of the Old City. At Famous Ice Cream, a city institution embedded in the 1935 Moazzamjahi Market complex, I stopped for dessert and poked around the sepia-tinted stone arcade.

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Directly opposite a gaudy sari shop near the chaotic Begum Bazaar, I visited the fashion designer Vinita Pittie at her 250-year-old mansion, a legacy of her husband’s forefathers ( financiers to Hyderabadi nobility) that she has taken great pains to preserve. Vibrant tones of scarlet and emerald dominate her immaculately maintained living room, and delicate chandeliers sway from weathered hand-painted ceilings. ­Over a cup of decadent saffron tea, she told me why leaving the traffic-clogged arteries to escape for a more modern abode in the new city was not an option. “This house is an entity that has a soul. Just like humans, it too has a destiny — so the question of leaving it doesn’t arise,” Ms. Pittie told me. “People ask how long we’ll stay. I say, ‘Let’s see how long this haveli keeps me,’ ” she said of the house.


Osmania University College for Women teems with students dawdling amid a mishmash of forgettable buildings. But one stands out: In the heart of the campus, two stone lions stand sentinel by a Palladian structure reminiscent of the Pantheon, complete with six imposing Corinthian columns. I approached a group of girls sitting astride one of the lions, gossiping away under the pretext of reviewing notes. “Excuse me, what building is this?” I asked. They shrugged, uninterested in what’s quite literally under their noses. I retreated down the steps, ­many years’ accumulation of dried bird excrement crunching beneath my feet, to seek anyone who might give me access.

Readers of William Dalrymple’s historical “White Mughals” are familiar with the building I had sought out this afternoon. In his impeccably researched biography, Mr. Dalrymple chronicles the love affair between the British Lt. Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick and his Muslim bride, Khair un-Nissa, which played out here at the erstwhile British Residency in the early 19th century. After being converted into a college in 1949 — my grandmother and mother both studied there, and have fond memories of eating their lunches on the cannons stationed out in front — the building fell into tatters. These days it lies neglected despite the constant activity surrounding it, waiting for a much-needed restoration courtesy of a World Monuments Fund grant to begin.

As I circled the dilapidated structure, stepping over waist-high weeds and puddles of leaking water, I finally encountered a professor who pointed me in the direction of the administration building, where I could ask for permission to access the Residency. After a brief audience, the principal smiled and gave me her blessing, and sent a caretaker to accompany me inside. He released the flimsy padlock and pushed open the doors, revealing two grand staircases that curve to fuse into a magnificent egg-shaped atrium. Despite the pockmarked walls branded by scores of students inscribing their names over the years, despite the stray birds soaring in and out of broken windows, despite the carcass of a chandelier hanging limply overhead, I was mesmerized. I had entered a time capsule abandoned in plain sight.

The late afternoon sun filtered a honeyed aura over the contours of the massive dome, casting me into my own celluloid vision: Lavish parties and imperial intrigue played out all around me. I could picture the grandeur that was Hyderabad. At long last, I’d found Atlantis.


In Mighty USA, Corporations are Wealthier than Entire Countries

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (Credit:
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (Credit:
Start with Wal-Mart in America, where the goods are cheap because they have low manufacturing costs, sustained by overseas workers earning small wages. With high consumer spending by Americans, Wal-Mart amasses big profits. That has enabled the corporation to get on par with the GDP of the 25th largest economy in the world, surpassing 157 smaller countries.

We’ve found 25 major American corporations whose 2010 revenues surpass the 2010 Gross Domestic Product of entire countries, often with a few billion to spare.

Even some major countries like Norway, Thailand, and New Zealand can be bested by certain U.S. firms.

Yahoo is bigger than Mongolia
Mongolia’s GDP: $6.13 billion
Yahoo’s Revenue: $6.32 billion
Yahoo would rank as the world’s 138th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Visa is bigger than Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s GDP: $7.47 billion
Visa’s Revenue: $8.07 billion
Visa would rank as the world’s 133rd biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

E-Bay is bigger than Madagascar
Madagascar’s GDP: $8.35 billion
E-Bay’s Revenue: $9.16 billion
E-Bay would rank as the world’s 129th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Nike is bigger than Paraguay
Paraguay’s GDP: $18.48 billion
Nike’s Revenue: $19.16 billion
Nike would rank as the world’s 102nd biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Consolidated Edison is bigger than the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Democratic Republic of the Congo’s GDP: $13.13 billion
Con-Edison’s Revenue: $13.33 billion
Con-Edison would rank as the world’s 112th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

McDonald’s is bigger than Latvia
Latvia’s GDP: $24.05 billion
McDonald’s Revenue: $24.07 billion
McDonald’s would rank as the world’s 92nd biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF is bigger than Kenya
Kenya’s GDP: $32.16 billion’s Revenue: $34.2 billion
Amazon would rank as the world’s 86th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Morgan Stanley is bigger than Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s GDP: $38.99 billion
Morgan Stanley’s Revenue: $39.32 billion
Morgan Stanley would rank as the world’s 82nd biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Cisco is bigger than Lebanon
Lebanon’s GDP: $39.25 billion
Cisco’s Revenue: $40.04 billion
Cisco would rank as the world’s 81st biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Pepsi is bigger than Oman
Oman’s GDP: $55.62
Pepsi’s Revenue: $57.83 billion
Pepsi would rank as the world’s 69th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Apple is bigger than Ecuador
Ecuador’s GDP: $58.91 billion
Apple’s Revenue: $65.23 billion
Apple would rank as the world’s 68th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Microsoft is bigger than Croatia
Croatia’s GDP: $60.59 billion
Microsoft’s Revenue: $62.48 billion
Microsoft would rank as the world’s 66th biggest economy.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Costco is bigger than Sudan
Sudan’s GDP: $68.44 billion
Costco’s Revenue: $77.94 billion
Costco would rank as the world’s 65th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Proctor and Gamble is bigger than Libya
Libya’s GDP: $74.23 billion
Proctor and Gamble’s Revenue: $79.69 billion
Proctor and Gamble would rank as the world’s 64th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Wells Fargo is bigger than Angola
Angola’s GDP: $86.26 billion
Wells Fargo’s Revenue: $93.249 billion
Wells Fargo would rank as the world’s 62nd biggest economy.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Ford is bigger than Morocco
Morocco’s GDP: $103.48 billion
Ford’s Revenue: $128.95 billion
Ford would rank as the world’s 60th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Bank of America is bigger than Vietnam
Vietnam’s GDP: $103.57 billion
Bank of America’s Revenue: $134.19 billion
Bank of America would rank as the world’s 59th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

General Motors is bigger than Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s GDP: $104.92 billion
GM’s Revenue: $135.59 billion
GM would rank as the world’s 58th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Berkshire Hathaway is bigger than Hungary
Hungary’s GDP: $128.96 billion
Berkshire Hathaway’s Revenue: $136.19 billion
Berkshire Hathaway would rank as the world’s 57th biggest economy.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

General Electric is bigger than New Zealand
New Zealand’s GDP: $140.43 billion
GE’s Revenue: $151.63 billion
GE would rank as the world’s 52nd biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Fannie Mae is bigger than Peru
Peru’s GDP: $152.83 billion
Fannie mae’s Revenue: $153.83 billion
Fannie Mae would rank as the world’s 51st biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Conoco Phillips is bigger than Pakistan
Pakistan’s GDP: $174.87 billion
Conoco Phillip’s Revenue: $184.97 billion
Conoco Phillips would rank as the world’s 48th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Chevron is bigger than the Czech Republic
Czech Republic’s GDP: $192.15 billion
Chevron’s Revenue: $196.34 billion
Chevron would rank as the world’s 46th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Exxon Mobil is bigger than Thailand
Thailand’s GDP: $318.85 billion
Exxon Mobil’s Revenue: $354.67 billion
Exxon Mobil would rank as the world’s 30th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Walmart is bigger than Norway
Norway’s GDP: $414.46 billion
Walmart’s Revenue: $421.89 billion
Walmart would rank as the world’s 25th biggest country.
Source: Fortune/CNN Money, IMF

Pak Sailor Disappears into Australia’s Crocodile infested Sea

SYDNEY, Sept 7: The Royal Australian Navy said Sunday it had launched a search for a Pakistani sailor believed to have disappeared overboard during a multinational military exercise in the north of the country.

The navy said the sailor, who was not named, went missing early Sunday while the Pakistan Navy ship PNS Nasr was anchored at Darwin Harbour in the Northern Territory during the biennial KAKADU military exercises.

A Northern Territory police spokesman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the sailor might have deliberately jumped into the crocodile-infested waters to swim to the mainland.

“A backpack was found in the water which would indicate that the person leaving the ship did know what he was doing at the time and didn´t simply fall off the ship,”

Superintendent Rob Burgoyne said.” He was described as skulking in the bushes (on the mainland), so one can work out from that, probably he didn´t want to be found.”

“The Australian Defence Force is assisting with the search and rescue efforts,” the military said in a statement, adding that the hunt for the sailor would involve boats and aircraft.

More than 1,000 people, eight warships and 26 aircraft from 15 Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean nations are involved in the maritime exercise, which lasts until September 12.

Burgoyne said the sailor was “probably lucky that he didn´t come across one (crocodile) when he was in the water”.

Burnes Road is Named after British spy doctor James Burnes

Burnes Road (Credit:
Burnes Road

For those of you who’re not aware of it, Burnes Road in Karachi is named after James Burnes, a doctor who also worked as a spy for the British Raj in the subcontinent, back in the 18th century.

In Sindh ke Darbar, a book based on the memoirs of James Burnes, the former secretary of Sindhi Literary Board, Aijaz Mangi preludes with the following passage on Burnes:
Dr Burnes was the member of a nation which planned to take over Sindh and systematically make it part of the British Raj. As such, he deemed the native population there to be inferior and despicable. But one must admit that the observations of Dr Burnes are an invaluable and accurate insight into how things were back at that time; very informative and highly interesting.
Following Partition, the road named after Dr Burnes was renamed to ‘Shahrah-e-Liaquat’, but if you ask around for directions with that name, I doubt a single soul would be able to help you.

Ask for ‘Burns Road’ and just about anyone will be able to point you to the street of Mazaydar Haleem, biryani, dahi baray, quorma, gola kabab, halwa puri, mithai and what not.

Explore: The truth behind Karachi’s Freemasons
Burnes has some fascinating things to say about the ruling family of Sindh at that time, the Talpur Mirs. On page 35 of Sindh ke Darbar it says:
It was part of Baloch tradition that before a doctor could administer medicine to his students, he would have to take the medicine himself. [My patient] Mir Murad Ali wasn’t ready to take the medicine without me having taken it first. But I had had enough of its bitter doses already.

So eventually, it came down to a poor, ill-fated servant who was forced to take the medicine for a long time, despite having zero need for it. It must have created a really bad impression of British medicines on his mind.

I tried hard but in vain to find out more about the medical qualifications of Dr Burnes and where he’d gotten his education from. His memoirs do detail how Burnes was able to cure Mir Murad Ali:

The simple reason why Mir Murad recovered was that I stopped him from taking any heavy medication. But the Mirs thought it was my extraordinary skills as a physician. Then a series of fortunate coincidences completely established their faith in my healing powers.

So what was that drug which never failed to cure Mir Murad? Burnes explains:

I used ‘Konain’, something which the people of Sindh are yet to learn about. For the native population, it is the best cure for the seasonal cold. I would even predict the effects of the medicine in advance, to the surprise of many patients.

But once Mir Murad discovered that Konain was the secret behind his health, he took my bottle of Konain without my permission and locked it up in his cupboard. This one time, I fell ill and he wouldn’t even return it to me! When it was time for me to go, I asked him for the empty bottle, but he still refused. Mir Murad seemed to think that the bottle was a vital part of this miracle drug.

Also read: The real Father of Karachi
The Mirs were just as spoilt as the other rulers of Hindustan. Keeping slave-girls was common and acceptable everywhere, but the treatment these Mirs meted out to kids borne of these girls was horrific. Burnes writes:
Mir Mohammad Khan does not have any children. Keep in mind that in the court of Sindh, it’s a custom to kill any children borne by slave-girls…I’ve learned through credible sources that a certain member of the Mir clan has killed as many as 27 babies.

The Mirs ruled differently than other rulers in Hindustan at the time. At other places, the real power always lay with the person sitting on the throne. His brothers and relatives would not be of any importance, and would often even be killed, if the need arose.

But the Mir brothers weren’t like that. All three used to rule together and would never let any one of them be left alone in the capital at any given moment. Burnes says:

The Mirs are one peculiar lot. They don’t trust each other one bit. Like I mentioned before, when Mir Murad fell sick, all the brothers confined themselves to the Hyderabad Fort for several months. If they went out to hunt, they’d take care to leave an agent behind so as not to leave affairs unguarded…It wasn’t easy to rule in an atmosphere of such uncertainty and lack of trust. Mir Murad Ali had once opened up to me saying: ‘Rulers bear an immense burden on their chests; only a ruler can understand that burden.'”

Look through: The unwashed Bandar Road
A study of history reveals that the British conquest of Sindh had little to do with clever stratagems and much more with the mistrust between the ruling Talpur brothers, and their differing views on the native population (many of whom were Hindus). Burnes writes on pages 51-52:

When I set out of Sindh, the Mir brothers handed me two of their watches for repair. At that time, one of their servants said that there was an expert watch-repairer in Bhaj (an area in India). When the Mirs heard that, they refused to hand the watches over to me until I promised that I wouldn’t trust an infidel with them.

They also gifted me a very expensive sword, bearing an inscription (by a courtier) that the Mirs were very proud of.
The memoirs of James Burnes are flooded with passages illuminating the Mir rule of Sindh. One has only got to initiate research. I hope the students of history will dig deeper into these resources and increase our knowledge of the past.
Translated by Talha Ahmed from the original in Urdu.

Ibn-i-Safi’s Creative Pen Dipped into his own Madness

Asrar Ahmed alias Ibn-i-Safi (
Asrar Ahmed
alias Ibn-i-Safi

As a kid in the 1970s, one of the first Urdu authors that I began reading was Ibn-i-Safi. Most Pakistani kids and young people in cities did that and probably many still do; going on to continue reading his novels well into their less curious adulthoods.

I don’t anymore though, outgrowing the fantastic sounding cities and countries full of quirky spies, strange gadgets and racy plots that Safi offered in his novels, making him one of Pakistan’s most popular and best-selling Urdu novelists of all time.

However, I returned to reading Safi again a few years ago when English translations of some of his many novels began appearing in local book stores. Though much of Safi’s highly imaginative style of writing gets lost in translation, it was nice to see someone actually attempting to introduce this most prolific and popular author to a whole new generation and breed of readers.

More interesting though is the reality of Safi, the man. A reality that is not well-documented but can be pieced together with the help of the many snippets on him that appeared in various Urdu newspapers and magazines in the last many decades.

While Ibn-i-Safi blended mystery with humour, espionage, law enforcement, science fiction, adventure and drama; was he aware that his own life was a curious blend of the above?

A majority of his fans simply know him through the colourful and inspired characters that he created operating in an environment creatively culled from the archetypical political paranoia of the Cold War (during which Safi authored his novels).

Very few are aware that many of Safi’s characters and plots also emerged from a serious bout of schizophrenia that he suffered in the early 1960s. Though the mental illness rendered him incapable of writing anything at all, he eventually recovered and actually converted some of the delirious delusions and even hallucinations that had suffered at the time into creating brand new characters, scenarios and plots for his comeback novels!

Ibn-i-Safi was himself a fascinating character. A young school teacher in 1952 but raring to make a name for himself as a writer, Safi began writing highly imaginative spy novels.

From 1957 onwards the pace of his writing more than doubled, and by 1960 he had written over a hundred short novels, all taking place in the imaginary and fantastical world that he had created, full of colourful, flamboyant and wise-cracking spies, beautiful women, strange-sounding villains, exotic places and odd gadgets.

But as Safi came up with one exotic story after another, he also began to isolate himself from his family. He eventually collapsed within himself, suffering a crippling spell of schizophrenia for which he needed to be committed to a psychiatric ward.

Very few are aware that many of Safi’s characters and plots also emerged from a serious bout of schizophrenia that he suffered in the early 1960s.

In 1960 his career seemed to be as good as over when he was put on heavy tranquilisers but he continued suffering from hallucinations and severe paranoia. The budding raw genius had crossed that thin line into ‘madness.’

He began to believe that the characters that he had created were real and that the villains among them were conspiring against him. He hid in his room, refusing to come out, as strange-sounding men plotted and conspired against him from subterranean bases.

After a long stint in the psychiatry ward of a hospital, Safi was shifted back to his home where he was patiently nursed back to health by his wife (and a family hakeem).

Amazingly, just three (painful years) later, he was back writing again. Some of the characters that had haunted him during his illness actually made their way into his new novels.

The demand for his spy novels reached new heights (both in Pakistan as well as India) and he kept producing them with incredible speed. By the early 1970s he was dishing out an average of three to four novels a year, setting new standards in the ability to produce racy and highly imaginative Urdu pulp fiction.

In another interesting twist, in 1973 Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, actually invited him on a few occasions to lecture new ISI recruits on the ‘art of espionage’. I actually stumbled upon an old 1973 newspaper cutting (from a local Urdu daily) that had a photograph of Safi lecturing a group of ISI recruits in Islamabad. In the short report that accompanied the photograph, an ISI officer is quoted as saying that it was “Safi Sahib’s understanding of the politics of the Cold War and his knowledge of the history of modern-day espionage that made them [the agency] invite him to deliver a few lectures”.

Becoming Pakistan’s best-selling author, one of Safi’s books was also turned into a film by Hussain Talpur (a maverick film-maker who was also known as ‘Maulana Hippie’). However, the film, Dhamaka (Explosion), released in late 1974, bombed at the box-office as the director simply failed to convincingly translate Safi’s animated words and imagery into celluloid reality.

But despite being a bestselling author, Safi made half the amount of money that he should have mainly due to the crookedness of many of his publishers and his own lack of understanding of the financial side of his art.

In 1977 a TV series based on some of his novels was produced by PTV. However, its run was disallowed when in the same year the government of Z.A. Bhutto was toppled in a reactionary military coup. The reason given by the military regime that replaced the Bhutto government was that the series was ‘vulgar’.

In 1978, Safi, who had continued to be on medication ever since the early 1960s, fell ill again. His legendary productivity as a writer slowed down and by 1979 he was bedridden again, as friends, family and publishers fought around him over how much money was made and owned to whom from his books.

Then in 1980 he passed away, dying quietly in his sleep and in the process finally getting the rest that he had longed for decades. He left behind an enormous body of work that is still being reproduced. He was just 52 at the time of death.

Swat’s Wood Sculpting Artists Keep Buddhist Tradition Alive

Wood carver in Swat (Credit:
Wood carver in Swat

MINGORA, June 23: Artists from Swat skilled in relief carving and sculpting wood have urged government and non-government organisations to support them in conserving the craft. Woodcarving was once widely practised in the region during the ancient Uddiyana Kingdom, purported to be located in the valley.

Woodcarving in Swat can be traced back to the early Buddhist period of Kushan rulers and glimpses of the Greco-Buddhist style are still visible in furniture, buildings and monuments across the valley.

The delicate strokes represent the area’s tradition, culture and heritage, while their intricate floral designs represent Swat’s history and its civilization.

The craft has been passed on from generation to generation and is still a source of livelihood for several families. Although the number of carvers has dwindled, the quality of their work has not suffered.

Keeping the chisels busy

Nasar Sheen, a renowned woodcarver from Swat said, “The artist inside me was woken by the great Gandharan art reflected in buildings and structures around me. I began carving in my childhood but with the idea of taking the ancient craft into the modern era,” said Sheen.

“In a way, woodcarving is an inherent part of our culture. We see it on furniture, doors, pillars and it has been with us for a long time.”

Sheen has not learnt the art from a teacher; several of his friends are artists who taught him. “In truth, my teacher is Ghandharan art which I am surrounded by,” says the carver. His works uphold themes of strong cultural values, women’s education, peace, human rights, culture and music.

Artists, archaeologists and cultural activists in Swat say this unique art needs the attention for its conservation and promotion. “Frequent exhibitions on a national and international level will not only promote the art but also will encourage artists to improve their work. Later generations will also be motivated to learn the craft, which will keep it alive,” added Sheen.

In the eyes of the world

Sir Aurel Stein, a British-Hungarian archaeologist who visited Swat in 1926 wrote a book on his time in the valley. In An Archaeological Tour in Upper Swat and Adjacent Hill Tracts, Stein says, “The other local craft of Upper Swat retains evidence of the ancient skill that is woodcarving.”

Commenting on the quality and beauty of the craft, Stein writes, “I was struck by the amount of woodcarving, old and new, to be seen in mosques and houses.

These traditions clearly left their mark in a variety of decorative motifs of purely Greco-Buddhist style, plentifully displayed in the woodcarving on the pillared loggias of mosques and on the doors of headmen’s houses.”

Indology professor Doris Meth Srinivasan in her article ‘The Tenacity of Tradition: Art From the Valley of Swat’ states, “On land nestled between peaks that thrust higher than 5,500 metres, a rich artisanal tradition has flourished that reflects cultural intermingling that has taken place there. Among the varied artistic traditions of the Islamic world, the art of the Vale of Swat is unique.”

Published in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2014.

Twitter agrees to block `blasphemous’ tweets in Pakistan

At least five times this month, a Pakistani bureaucrat who works from a colonial-era barracks in Karachi, just down the street from the former home of his country’s secularist founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, asked Twitter to shield his compatriots from exposure to accounts, tweets or searches of the social network that he described as “blasphemous” or “unethical.”

All five of those requests were honored by the company, meaning that Twitter users in Pakistan can no longer see the content that so disturbed the bureaucrat, Abdul Batin of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority: crude drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, photographs of burning Qurans, and messages from a handful of anti-Islam bloggers and an American porn star who now attends Duke University.

The blocking of these tweets in Pakistan — in line with the country-specific censorship policy Twitter unveiled in 2012 — is the first time the social network has agreed to withhold content there. A number of the accounts seemed to have been blocked in anticipation of the fourth annual “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20.

This censorship comes as challenges to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law have become increasingly deadly, amid a flurry of arrests, killings and assassination attempts on secularists.

The Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi survived an assassination attempt in March that killed his driver. He and other liberals have been targeted for criticizing Islamist militancy and a blasphemy law.

This week, a local edition of the International New York Times was printed in Pakistan with a large blank space instead of an Op-Ed article headlined “Pakistan’s Tyranny of Blasphemy.”

Twitter, which has trumpeted its commitment to free speech, argues that it is a lesser evil to block specific tweets that might violate local laws than to have the entire site blocked in certain countries. The company posts a record of every request it agrees to in the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a database maintained by eight American law schools and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In previous cases, Twitter has agreed to withhold the tweets of an outlawed neo-Nazi group from users in Germany, and this week it blocked the account of an ultranationalist Ukrainian group from users in Russia.

Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on Thursday that Twitter’s decision to block the Ukrainian group Pravy Sektor’s tweets from Russians was “disappointing” for two reasons.

“First, Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all,” Ms. Galperin argued. “And the order isn’t even about a Russian account — it’s a Ukrainian one. Worse yet, Pravy Sektor’s account is plainly political. If Twitter won’t stand up for political speech in a country where independent media is increasingly under attack, what will it stand for?”

Ms. Galperin also pointed out that a civil rights group in Pakistan concerned with Internet access, Bolo Bhi, called “the legitimacy of the requests forwarded by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority” to Twitter questionable. The law that defines the regulator’s power, the group explained, “does not in any form give P.T.A. the authority to arbitrarily restrict content on the Internet.”

Close scrutiny of the law, the Pakistani rights group argued, suggests that “content removal, whether by itself or through another, is beyond the ambit of powers of the P.T.A. or of any government authority for that matter.”

Despite those concerns, the P.T.A. has dedicated a page of its website to making it easy for citizens to report “Blasphemous URLs,” as Omar Quraishi, the opinion page editor of Karachi’s Express Tribune, noted on Twitter.

We Are Reading Differently in the Age of the Internet
Neuroscientists Discover “Eye Byte” Culture among Web Surfers

Age of the Internet (Credit:
Age of the Internet

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

If the rise of nonstop cable TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the Internet, Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online — on desktop and mobile devices — was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That’s up from three hours in 2010.

Word lovers and scientists have called for a “slow reading” movement, taking a branding cue from the “slow food” movement. They are battling not just cursory sentence galloping but the constant social network and e-mail temptations that lurk on our gadgets — the bings and dings that interrupt “Call me Ishmael.”

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.

The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.

“The brain is plastic its whole life span,” Wolf said. “The brain is constantly adapting.”

Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

Adapting to read

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Brandon Ambrose, a 31-year-old Navy financial analyst who lives in Alexandria, knows of those consequences.

His book club recently read “The Interestings,” a best-seller by Meg Wolitzer. When the club met, he realized he had missed a number of the book’s key plot points. It hit him that he had been scanning for information about one particular aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one particular fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.

“When you try to read a novel,” he said, “it’s almost like we’re not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds.”

Ramesh Kurup noticed something even more troubling. Working his way recently through a number of classic authors — George Eliot, Marcel Proust, that crowd — Kurup, 47, discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter, and the ones containing complicated information tend to link to helpful background material.

“In a book, there are no graphics or links to keep you on track,” Kurup said.

It’s easier to follow links, he thinks, than to keep track of so many clauses in page after page of long paragraphs.

Kurup’s observation might sound far-fetched, but told about it, Wolf did not scoff. She offered more evidence: Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

Wolf points out that she’s no Luddite. She sends e-mails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. She’s involved with programs to send tablets to developing countries to help children learn to read. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Bi-literate brains?

Wolf’s next book will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. She is particularly interested in comprehension results in screen vs. print reading.

Already, there is some intriguing research that looks at that question. A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.

The students believed they did better on screen. They were wrong. Their comprehension and learning was better on paper.

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf said. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

Wolf is training her own brain to be bi-literate. She went back to the Hesse novel the next night, giving herself distance, both in time and space, from her screens.

“I put everything aside. I said to myself, ‘I have to do this,’ ” she said. “It was really hard the second night. It was really hard the third night. It took me two weeks, but by the end of the second week I had pretty much recovered myself so I could enjoy and finish the book.”

Then she read it again.

“I wanted to enjoy this form of reading again,” Wolf said. “When I found myself, it was like I recovered. I found my ability again to slow down, savor and think.”

US Shifts Search for Missing Malaysian airline to Indian Ocean
Kate Hodal in Songkhla, Tania Branigan in Beijing and Gwyn Topham in London

Search for Malaysia airline (Credit:
Search for Malaysia airline

The international search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is likely widen into the Indian Ocean, as authorities moved to debunk a string of theories and apparent leads about the fate of the airliner, six days after it vanished.

With US warships already deployed in the Strait of Malacca, west of the Malay peninsula, the White House said that the search could move into the Indian Ocean after new “possible pieces of information”.

According to a report on the ABC network, a Pentagon official said there was an “indication” that the plane might have crashed into the Indian Ocean. A White House spokesman said the information was not conclusive, adding: “We are consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy.”

A US official quoted by the Associated Press said the plane was sending signals to a satellite for four hours after the aircraft went missing, an indication that it was still flying. The jet had enough fuel to reach deep into the Indian Ocean.

Earlier, Malaysian authorities said reports that more data had been transmitted automatically by the plane after it went missing were inaccurate, adding that the last information received from its engines indicated everything was operating normally.

A report in the Wall Street Journal had claimed US investigators believed the plane had flown for five hours, based on data allegedly transmitted to Rolls-Royce, the British engine manufacturers. The Journal later corrected its report, saying the information from the US was based upon an analysis of signals sent through the plane’s satellite-communication link, designed to automatically transmit the status of onboard systems.

A reporter from China waits by her camera at Kuala Lumpur International airport. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Malaysia Airlines’ chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahyain, told reporters: “We have contacted both the possible sources of data – Rolls-Royce and Boeing – and both have said they did not receive data beyond 1.07am. The last transmission at 1.07am stated that everything was operating normally.”

Malaysia Airlines has confirmed its planes use a system that automatically monitors the engines and transmits updates on their performance, altitude and speed. They said one engine maintenance update was received during the flight. Neither Boeing nor Rolls-Royce would comment, citing international conventions on air accident investigations.

Boeing did state that an airworthiness directive about possible fuselage cracks issued by US authorities in November regarding 777s, which had been linked in some theories to flight MH370, did not apply as the missing plane did not have the specific antenna installed.

The aircraft, with 239 people on board, disappeared from civilian radar at 1.30am as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand from Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have also stated that the plane was again caught on radar at 2.30am (later denied), and on military radar at 2.15am near the Malacca strait, indicating that it had turned back from its flight path to Beijing.

A man writes a message for passengers of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on a banner at Kuala Lumpur International airport. Photograph: Mak Remissa/EPA

Officials are still trying to verify whether the radar blip at 2.30am was actually MH370, Malaysia’s defence and acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein reiterated on Thursday, and he refused to answer whether that blip had also dropped off the military radar.

“This is too-sensitive information,” Hussein told reporters. He added that Malaysia was in a “crisis situation” and was doing all it could to find the missing airliner. “There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane vanished,” he said.

Malaysian and Vietnamese search teams spent the day scouring waters off Vietnam’s southern tip looking for debris photographed by Chinese satellites. Nothing was found and the Malaysian transport minister said China had said the pictures were released online by accident.

A Vietnamese military official looking out of an air force plane during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Photograph: Luong Thai Linh/EPA

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, reiterated that families and friends of more than 150 Chinese passengers on board the missing jet were “burning with anxiety”. He added that the Chinese government had asked Malaysian authorities to co-ordinate their activities and establish the cause of the disappearance.

With trust running low, the state broadcaster CCTV reported on Twitter that families had asked the Malaysian envoy whether the air force had shot down the plane – a suggestion Malaysia denied.

Relatives have also lashed out at Chinese officials for not doing enough to help. “I really want to see President Xi [Jinping] – I don’t know right now what could possibly be more important than the lives of these 200 people,” one young woman, who gave her family name as Wen, told Reuters as she fought back tears.

“I also want to ask Mrs Xi, if your husband, President Xi, was on the plane, just imagine, if it was you, how would your parents feel? My husband was on the plane. Every day my children are asking me about their dad. What am I supposed to do?”

World Wide Web turns 25 years old

Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web was just an idea in a technical paper from an obscure, young computer scientist at a European physics lab.

That idea from Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN lab in Switzerland, outlining a way to easily access files on linked computers, paved the way for a global phenomenon that has touched the lives of billions of people.

He presented the paper on March 12, 1989, which history has marked as the birthday of the Web.

But the idea was so bold, it almost didn’t happen.

“There was a tremendous amount of hubris in the project at the beginning,” said Marc Weber, creator and curator of the Internet history program at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

“Tim Berners-Lee proposed it out of the blue, unrequested.”

At first, said Weber, the CERN colleagues “completely ignored the proposal.”

The US military began studying the idea of connected computer networks in the 1950s, and in 1969 launched Arpanet, the forerunner to the Internet. But the World Wide Web was just one of several ideas to connect the public.

Berners-Lee convinced CERN to adopt his system, demonstrating its usefulness by compiling a lab phone book into an online index.

A key aspect of the design put forward by Berners-Lee was that it worked across various computer operating systems. And it offered the ability to click on links to access files hosted on computers located elsewhere.

The Web was not a winner out of the gate. There were rival online services such as US-based CompuServe and France’s Minitel but they involved fees, while Berners-Lee’s system was free.

“It started as a real underdog; no one would have predicted the system would have succeeded,” Weber said.

The Gopher system owned by the University of Minnesota was beating the Web in the early 1990s.

Weber credited former US vice president Al Gore with helping the Web topple Gopher by getting government agencies in Washington to use the system.

The launch of the website was seen as a huge stamp of approval for the Web.

In 1993, the Web system was released free into the public, while those behind Gopher started charging, according to Weber.

“Most people don’t realize that both the Web and the Internet had competitors,” Weber said.

“Had they lost the battles, we would still be going online, but it could certainly be different, a lot more top-down control like the walled garden at Facebook.”

Web competitors were online environments controlled by operators.

Under the Berners-Lee model, people were free to publish what they wished on Internet-linked computers.

Internet titans such as Google and Yahoo were built on helping people find pages of interest as the amount of information being hosted on servers exploded.

“At its birth, many of us were guilty of a lack of imagination and just didn’t see what the Web would do to the future,” Gartner analyst Michael McGuire told AFP.

“The personal computer changed the way we work, but is was the Web that disrupted and changed a lot of industries.”

The ability to freely access files on the Web has shaken traditional business models in music, film, news and more.

“The Internet pushes power to the edges,” said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the US-based Center for Democracy & Technology.

“Anybody can be a listener and anybody can be a publisher on the same network; there has never been anything like it.”

A powerful underlying tenet of the Web is that it is egalitarian and open, but those principles are under threat, according to Dempsey.

It remains to be seen whether the Web is hobbled with regulations and fragmented by governments walling off portions in countries.

“You will never stop the teenage kid from watching little snippets of cute cats,” Dempsey said.

“The trouble is you could limit the ability of people to criticize the government or make a tiered Internet in which it is harder for innovators, critics, or human rights activists to reach a global audience.”

Threats to a Web based on equality concern its creators, according to Weber.

While the Web unified the Internet decades ago, there is nothing “written in stone” saying it can’t fragment anew, the historian reasoned.

In the US, major Internet service providers have won the right to give some online traffic preferential treatment, and governments have shown willingness to invade online privacy or restrain Web freedom.

A big battle for the shape of the Web could be the effect of billions more people getting online with smartphones in parts of developing parts of the world.

“The Web is really only half built; it is not worldwide yet,” Weber said