One Fine Evening

220px-Junoon-salmanAmitava Kumar in Caravan (photo from Wikipedia):

I was recently invited to dinner at the home of a Pakistani doctor in New York City. There was desi food. Biryani, qeema, baigan bharta, dal cooked to such perfection that one could taste even its fragrance, and rotis replenished as soon as they were gone from the plate. Nusrat was singing on the stereo. From the large glass windows of the thirtieth-floor apartment, I could see Central Park, a splash of green treetops. Inside, the walls were lined with bookcases filled with titles in Urdu and English.

There were ten guests. One of them was a tall, goateed man with his long hair held in a ponytail. He was wearing a maroon cap on his head and necklaces with gems around his neck. I recognised him from the photographs I had seen of him. He was Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani Sufi-rock music group, Junoon.

When we were seated for dinner, it was announced that we needed to reflect on the crisis in Pakistan. Just a few days earlier, Pakistani Taliban militants had made a daring attack on Naval Station Mehran, destroying two surveillance aircraft and killing at least 10 security personnel. An older gentleman raised the issue of rampant corruption and asked what was to be done. Our host, the doctor, dressed in a red shalwaar-kameez, her dark hair falling down to her shoulders, said to Salman Ahmad: “Darling, share your ideas. You have a passionate idea.”

Ahmad said he had recently sent out an email saying that Pakistan needed a revolution. Looking around at everyone at the table, he said that Pakistan “requires a massive social change. It requires a non-violent change.” He began talking of his early days as a singer, when he had been a student at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, and what had shifted in Pakistan since then. “There was a frustration we felt… What we experienced in college, I’d now multiply it to the nth level.” When he was a kid, “everyone wore their art as a badge of courage.” But now it was as if the country were on “a different planet”. Pakistan was standing at the brink. “Out of 180 million, a full 100 million are under 20. They can become suicide bombers or we can build on their potential.”

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