Saturday, November 25, 2006

Posh n Plush Eateries to Please the Palette

In the look out for some eclectic cuisine? Restaurants, with a combination of attractive ambience and interesting menus? Well the following haunts, popular and deserving to be so, are the places to go. As they can get very busy later in the evening, most aficionados try to arrive before 8 p.m. so that they can settle in before the main crowd. Once seated, there’s never any pressure to leave, even if on a couple of evenings the night gets quite late. They’re places where it's great to relax, converse and slowly order things that have appeal at that moment in time.

Samdado (Hs 27, Rd 35, Gulshan 2; besides All Community Club)

The menu at Samdado’s is quite extensive – yummy soups, including a miso and a vegetable; Udon curry; various hot pots; fried noodles; tempura chicken and shrimp; a variety of salads like cucumber salads, seaweed salad, spinach salad with walnut sauce; and so on. But it’s the sushi here that’s literally to die for. It’s a common misconception that all sushi is raw fish. Only some sushi is raw. A lot of sushi is cooked or otherwise cured - smoked salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, crab, for example. Sushi comes in pairs, so every time you order something, you’ll receive two. Keep this in mind as you make your selections. Sushi pairs symbolize husband and wife. The Japanese wife would make two of each item in anticipation of her husband returning for dinner. At Samdado’s, you can receive the full visual and social experience that is personal and intimate, sitting right at the ‘sushi bar’ where you can watch and converse with the chef. You’ll soon discover that you’re experiencing a rich history and culture exemplified through food – how it’s prepared, presented, arranged on the plate, and eaten.

Le Saigon (54 Gulshan Ave.; falls on your left while traveling towards Gulshan 1 from Gulshan 2 circle)

For those craving Vietnamese food be sure to visit this place. There’s a charming conical roof of the porch, similar to that found on a Vietnamese farmer's hut and you’re even greeted by a doorman in grand costume. The décor inside also leans towards Vietnamese influences. The service is fast but unobtrusive. As for the food, the combination of herbs, spices, and sauces used make it quite different from Thai or Chinese cuisine. There are dishes from the three main Vietnam regions, north, central and south. Central food is considered more authentic because the north has been influenced by Chinese cuisine and the south by French, Thai, Indian, and, more recently, American. Fresh spring rolls, Pho Bo or Ga, (probably the most popular dish in Vietnam), diced beef in garlic butter, sliced beef slivers in Vietnamese pepper and onions, and beef rolls stuffed with picked onions are just a few items to relish here. One of the highlights on the menu is the Lau, a hot pot soup with your choice of fish, seafood, noodles, vegetables, chicken, beef, etc. added to a clear broth. Other than your usual menu offerings there’s also a dinner buffet some evenings at around Tk 700 a head.

Spice & Rice (Radisson Water Garden Hotel; falls on your left on the Airport Road leading towards the city)

This restaurant gives a whole new meaning to the art of fine dining. Spice & Rice has what one calls a ‘show-case’ kitchen and ‘entertaining’ dessert counter, celebrating the finest of Asian cuisine inspired by a combination of flavors from Bangla and the Indian Sub-Continent, Northeast and Southeast. Here there are NO menus, NO buffet. You’re wondering how is it then one gets to see, smell and savor the rich textures of Asian food? Well, here the waiters are more like tour guides. You’re escorted to your table by a waiter who will then regale you with a brief sketch of Pan Asia and South Asia and the history of spices. Then arrives a 16 course dinner, each dish from a different part of Asia. It’s like getting a history lesson on food, the best part being that you get to leave with a full and contended stomach.

Spitfire (NWF 8, Gulshan Ave., Ground Floor; take left turn from Gulshan 2 circle; falls on your left)

If you’re in the mood for a true-blue Barbeque experience, then hop over to this place. Decorated like a trendy steakhouse this place has logs for the ceiling, a life-like statue of a horse that is jutting its head into the restaurant with its body outside, and wooden tables set inside as well as out in the ‘front yard’. Spitfire’s menu boasts of meals made with imported meats, such as the T-bone steak made with halal American T-bone meat imported from Dubai, and lamb chops made with meat coming all the way from New Zealand. The rest of the menu is filled with other delicious continental cuisine such as ox-tail consommé with quail egg or stuffed pigeon ladled with brown sauce served with roasted potato and vegetables. Open air barbecues at Spitfire is a regular affair and the place is always abuzz with diners.

Saltz (NWF 8, Gulshan Ave., 1st floor; the floor above Spitfire)

The only one of its kind, this is really the only place in Dhaka where you can indulge in yummy dishes from the deep blue watery depths down below. The décor inside the restaurant, with its predominantly blue walls adorned with sea shells, boats and motifs of sea fishes, gives one the feeling of being literally under the sea. And the menu at Saltz is certainly exotic. There is the Chef's Special Soup – sliced Norwegian salmon, crunchy prawns, carrots, and shitake mushrooms, simmered in herbs – and main courses like the delicious Stir-fried Squid, served with seasonal vegetable and teriyaki sauce, with garlic bread on the side. There are Italian and Spanish specialties, some recipes from the Mediterranean coast, seafood pizza, a few Thai gourmet delights, shellfish galore, and an array of seafood sandwiches. Most of the seafood, other than those imported, comes daily straight from a regular supplier at Cox's Bazar. For the Catch of the Day, be it a whole bass, mackerel, pomphret or red snapper, you can choose the cooking style – pan-fried, poached or steamed, deep fried, grilled, or bbq’d – and the type of sauce in which you want it served – Thai ginger, lemon-butter, garlic-butter, yellow curry, barbecue, mushroom-mustard, etc. There is a terrace, where you can enjoy these dishes under the open sky, almost as if you were on the deck of a ship. So dive into Saltz’s cuisine one cool and clear evening. You’re sure to enjoy it.

Khazana (Hs 12, Rd 55, Gulshan Ave.; comes right before Spitfire)

Khazana has to be the treasure chest for Indian cuisine. To start with drinks, they have the most supreme collection of lassis – thick, rich, creamy and wonderfully frothy. Dishes like Saag Gosht, Machli Ke Sule, Fish Tikka Shaslik on a bed of raw papaya salad, Aachari Murg Tikka are mostly cooked in yogurt based gravy and in one word can be described as lip-smacking. The seasonal vegetables and mushrooms essentially cooked with a variety of hand-picked spices all imported from India and served with tomato chutney are to drool over. The naans are soft in texture and great to the taste. The exclusive paneer items served with mint and raita, assortment of chickpeas dishes, lovely collection of dahls, and meaty kebabs will make one sigh in bliss. Other prized dishes include Chana Chat, Raan Buzkazzi, Frontier Mix Grill and the Khazana Special Jelebi. Khazana also offers a lunch buffet at Tk. 399 per person all inclusive. Its interiors have a traditional ambience with a hint of western fusion, the wooden Elephant headpieces and hanging partitions reflecting the greatness of the Indian culture which blends beautifully with the soothing music and off-white drapes. The eye-catching paintings on the walls are actually for sale. So go and enjoy the impromptu art exhibition while savoring the wonderful items on the menu.

Vintage (Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, Ground Floor, 1 Minto Road)

The Vintage restaurant offers semi-formal dining in stylish surroundings and is famous for its haute cuisine. This restaurant has a fascinating décor that is very ‘vintage’ – Vintage gramophones, wall clocks, brass plates from antediluvian ships, and vintage wooden panels and chandeliers create a truly wonderful atmosphere. The menu is quite extensive with dishes prepared from a range of imported beef, game, poultry and seafood, complemented by a selection of fine wines. The restaurant, closed on Fridays, is open from 12:00-3:00 pm for lunch and 7:00 pm-12:00 am for dinner.

Koreana (Hs 5, Rd 136, Gulshan 1, the road between Anderssen’s Ice Cream and Abacus restaurant)

Whenever one thinks of Korean cuisine, the mind veers towards tofu, but there’s a lot more to it than that. At Koreana you can set yourself a leisurely pace to explore it all. There’s kimchi (virtually the national dish of Korea), pickled vegetables, usually first salted, then seasoned with garlic, ginger, chilli pepper, and salted fish, shrimps, or oysters. There are meat dishes like pulgogi (or bulgogi), a Korean style marinated barbequed beef cut into thin strips. There’s also kalbi, one of Korea's most famous grilled dishes – beef short ribs marinated overnight in a mixture of green onions, garlic, sugar, sesame oil, and soy sauce. For soups you can try sunbudu-jiggae, a soft tofu soup or maeun-tang, an outstandingly delicious hot and spicy fish soup that contains great chunks of fresh fish, stewed with chilies and kochujhang.

El Toro (Hs 1-A, Rd 138, Gulshan 1; the road beside Abacus restaurant)

El Toro meaning ‘the bull’, serves SONORAN-style Mexican food. Sonora is a high-desert country state of El Norte or the North. Established in 1994 El Toro is a place where each and every visitor is considered a “guest”, following the old Spanish adage – mi casa es su casa – my home is your home. The adequately lit ambience, the Mexican masks and artifacts, Mexican tunes, the flaming adobe walls, the cactus neon, the already popular menu items, everything adds to the diner’s eating out experience. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, mouth-watering salsa, quesadillas, nachos, and fajitas are among some of the Mexican favorites that the chefs prepare, using fresh ingredients, with a soulful passion and consistency. El Toro is also famous for a unique dessert rightfully named “Deep Fried Ice-Cream”…covered in corn flake crumbs. The taste you ask? Simply yummyliscious! Generous portions of El Toro food on the average is Tk. 250 per person. The ‘fiesta’ at El Toro begins at 11:30 am and ends at 10:30 pm everyday.

Café Bazar (Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel, 107 Kazi Nazrul Islam Ave.)

Located on the lobby level, Café Bazar recently got a face-lift from the world renowned Master Chef, Davied Jones, who’s decided to run a different theme each day for lunch and dinner, focusing on quality food from particular regions, giving guests global tastes every day of the week. The regional cuisines served are what’s globally deemed to be the most popular, and the dishes are very well known to many. At this buffet style restaurant, the quality food is plentiful and the range of dishes vast without sacrificing the authentic flavors and recipes. The place focuses on specialty days such as Thai on Mondays, Arabic on Tuesdays, Vietnamese on Wednesdays, Chinese on Thursdays, Bangladeshi on Fridays, International on Saturdays, and American on Sundays. Café Bazar stays open from 12:30-3:30 pm for lunch and 7-10:30 pm for dinner.

Prepared with a budget between BDT 1,000 to 2,000 for a nice time out for two, your time at these posh eateries is sure to be a great culinary experience, each and every time.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Blackout Blues or Bliss?

‘I SOOO miss load-shedding, you know!!’ Yup! Of all the absurd things that one can imagine someone to say, that little statement would definitely top MY list. Or at least, it did until I gave it some serious thought. That comment was made by a friend of mine, Rohena, doing her undergrad in the U.S.

At first I found her comment absurd. I mean how can one miss load-shedding?!! It’s SUCH a pain!!!

I mean picture this…You’re watching an awesome movie or a TV show, and they’re just at the precipice of the climatic scene….or you’re working on a report or case study which is due early next morning…like say 8:00 a.m. (yea, the faculty is just like Meryl Streep’s character from the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada’)….right around that time everything shuts down….bam! The only comment that can encompass ALL your frustrations, irritation and general bad malaise at that exact moment is ‘Arrrrrrggghhhhhh!!!!’

But then while brainstorming about a copy for an ad with my colleagues, it just suddenly came to me…the thought that there ARE certain great things that go with load-shedding.

Since nearly all the modern entrapments of our life generally become obsolete during a blackout, suddenly everyone in the apartment or house veer towards a single room…usually the living space or the biggest veranda around…and by the flickering candlelight or, if your charge light’s still working then by its white light, you have an impromptu get-together… ‘ was your day?’ or ‘Hey! Wanna have a game of Ludo or Life or Scrabble?’ You share jokes and viewpoints, laugh at new and happening things. In short, you family gels…for a brief moment in time. And somehow because everything around you is silent…no hum of the AC or fan or anything…every other sound of nature…the cree-cree of the crickets, the rustle of the tree leaves in the breeze, the distant sound of a rickshaw bell…is beautifully enhanced.

I guess when it comes down to the crux of the matter…everything in life…has a positive side. My father recently jumped the ‘IPS’ bandwagon…and so even when we do have blackouts there’s still electricity…so we remain in our respective rooms, behind closed doors…literally as well as figuratively.

So the next time there’s a blackout…take the time out…think about all those people like Rohena who no longer faces load-shedding but misses its quirks. Do without the IPS’s so-called favor. And have your own impromptu family gathering for a brief moment in time.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Musings about Bangla Music

“There’s a lot more to music than notes on a page….playing music is suppose to be fun! It’s about heart! It’s about feelings and moving people and something beautiful in being alive! It’s NOT about notes on a page!”

- Richard Dreyfuss, as the character Glen Holland in “Mr. Holland’s Opus”

I grew up in a household where music was a daily part of life. As a kid, I remember rummaging through the numerous tapes in “the drawer” – yes, there was this single drawer on the bedside table in my parents’ bedroom where they used to keep their much cherished music collection. The rock and pop renditions of ABBA, BonyM, Harry Belafonte, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Cliff Richard. Debobrata and Chinmoy’s renditions of Rabindra Shangeet. The ghazals of the Jagjit and Chitra Singh duo and Pankaj Udhas. The adhunik songs of Hemanta, Lata, Shamol, Manna Dey, Asha, Bhupen Hajarika and Srabonti Majumdar. And of course, from our own soil, the works of Ferdous Wahid, Azam Khan, Fakir Alamgir and Pilu Momtaz.

The furniture may have changed through the years and the bedside table with it’s designated drawer might look quite different now but those tapes belonging to my parents are still there – my mother, being the better music aficionado of the two, have carefully kept them in as good a condition as possible so that when the mood strikes, one can still listen to Azam Khan belting out “Ischool Khuila Chere Mowla” or “Orey Saleka, Orey Maleka”.

Also, hats off to my parents for enrolling me in ‘Abbasuddin Shangeet Academy’, a music school run by Ferdousi Rahman (or Ferdousi Khalamoni as affectionately called by her students), Abbasuddin’s daughter and an eminent singer by her own right. There I was taught by her and other veterans like Abdul Latif, to fall in love with, among others, bhawaiya, bhatiali, jaari, shaari, Lalon geeti and Hason Raaja’s songs. Though I never did get to complete the requisite four years, the couple of years that I did spent acquanting myself with those songs are beyond measure.

And I remember how when a bunch of us cousins or friends would get together, there would be a harmonium in the house or somebody would have an acoustic guitar, and we’d dance or sing along to the beat of someone doing a cover of the awesome rock and pop songs of the 80s and 90s era - Runa Laila’s “Shilpi Ami” or “Bondhu Tin Din”, Sabina Yasmin’s “Ei Mon Tomake Dilam”, Ferdous Wahid’s “Biral’er Chana”, or “Amon Akta Ma Dena”, Feedback’s “Melai Jai Re”, Souls’ “Mon Shudhu Mon Chueyeche”, Miles’ “Dhiki Dhiki Agun Joley”, Khaled’s (Chime) “Shorolotar Protima”, Dolchut’s “Pori” or “Gari Chole Na”, James’ “Ma”…the list is endless!

Through all the years of my eclectic experience of music, I have learnt one irrefutable fact – the most prestigious asset of the Bangalees is their culture and the brightest element of Bangla’s cultural heritage is its songs. One cannot deny that Bangla music forms an integral part of any Bangla cultural festival and that on any given day, when you are struck with a desire to indulge in nostalgic feelings, the best way to spark that particular mood is to listen to your favorite Bangla song be it a time-immemorial Rabindra Shangeet or a classic adhunik gaan.

It’s no wonder that BBC Bangla recently had listeners nominate their top five choices for the all time best Bangla songs to create a top 20 list (see below). The local HSBC bank also decided to pay homage to Bangla music through compiling some of the most memorable Bangla songs composed over 100 years, from 1905 till 2005. They recently arranged a four-hour gala performance with the participation of some of the most prominent vocalists of the country. Starting with our national anthem “Amar Shonar Bangla Ami”, renowned songs like “Aji Bangladesher Hridoi Hote”, “Karar Oi Louho Kopat”, “Shedin Dujone Dule Chinu Bone”, “Oki Garial Bhai”, “Ranar Chuteche Ranar”, “Ore Neel Doria”, “Kobita Porara Prohor Esheche”, and many more, were presented to an enthralled audience. At the insistence of the invited guests and performers, HSBC later came out with nearly 5,000 audio CDs of the live performance, as gifts for their patrons and associates.

Needless to say, such efforts were received with great appreciation by the veteran members of the music industry; maybe due to the fact that so much attention is now being given to today’s generation’s need for fusion renditions, they were starting to feel a bit left out.

I am of a similar opinion.

Though fusion is a great step being taken by artists and bands like Dolchut, Habib, Bangla, and Fuad (of Maya 1, Maya 2, Re-Evolution and Variation No. 25 fame) to revive the interest of the youth in Bangla music, it is also important to ensure that complementary steps are taken to keep the original nuances and styles of these songs alive. Otherwise the historical impact of a language and culture that on the global front, are now the envy of many, will slowly fade from our hearts and memories.

As so beautifully put by Mr. Holland, we have to ensure that Bangla music holds on to its own special ingredient of ‘feelings and moving people and something beautiful in being alive’ for many years to come.

BBC Bangla “Shorbo Kaaler Shorbo Sreshtho Bangla Gaan”

1. Amar Shonar Bangla (Author: Rabindra Nath Thakur)

2. Manush Manush’er Jonney (Original Author/Composer/Singer: Bhupen Hazarika, Translated to Bengali by: Shibdash Benarjee)

3. Amar Bhai’er Roktey Rangano Ekushey February (Singer: Abdul Gaffar Chowdhuri, Composer: Altaf Mahmud)

4. Coffee House’er Shei Adda Ta Aaj Aar Nei (Singer: Manna De, Author: Gouriproshonno Mazumdar, Composer: Shupornokanti Ghosh)

5. Ek Shagor Rokte’er Binimoye Banglar Shadhinota Anlo Jara (Composer: Apel Mahmud, Author: Gobindo Haldar)

6. Ami Banglai Gaan Gai (Lyricist & Composer: Protul Mukharjee, Author: Mahmuduzzaman Babu)

7. Mora Ekti Phulkey Bachabo Boley Judhho Kori (Author: Gobindo Haldar, Composer & Singer: Apel Mahmud)

8. Tumi Aaj Koto Durey (Singer: Jogonmoi Mitro, Author: Pranab Roy, Composer: Shubol Dash Gupta)

9. Ek Nodi Rokto Periye (Author & Composer: Khan Ataur Rahman, Composer: Shahnaz Rahmatulla)

10. Dhono Dhanno Pushpey Bhora (Author & Composer: Dijendhrolal Roy)

11. Muchey Jawa Din Gulo Amai Je Pichu Daakey (Singer & Composer: Hemanta Mukharjee, Author: Gouriproshonno Mazumdar)

12. Salam Salam Hajar Salam (Singer: Mohammad Abdul Zabbar, Author: Fazle Huda)

13. Joy Bangla, Banglar Joy (Author: Mazharul Anwar, Composer: Anwar Parvez)

14. Khachar Bhitor Ochin Pakhi (Author: Lalon Shah, Singer: Farida Parvin)

15. Akbar Jetey Dey Na Amar Chotto Shonar Gaaye (Singer: Shahnaz Rahmatullah, Author: Mazharul Anwar, Composer: Anwar Parvez)

16. Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Author: Kazi Najrul Islam)

17. Ei Padma Ei Meghna (Singer: Farida Parvin, Author & Composer: Abu Zafar)

18. Chol Chol Chol, Urdhogogone Baajey Madol (Author: Kazi Najrul Islam)

19. Ak Tara Tui Desh’er Kotha Bol (Singer: Shahnaz Rahmatullah, Author: Gazi Mazharul Anwar, Composer: Anwar Parvez)

20. Tumi Ki Dekhecho Kobhu Jiboner Porajoy (Singer: Mohammad Abdul Zabbar)


movie quote of the day

from the movie 'fools rush in' starring matthew perry n salma hayek...i LOVE this flick

there's a scene where alex (matthew's character) goes:

"What is dating anyway?! Except some long drawn out process of elimination where you both try to present your best side, while hiding the real you. And that can only last about 3 months anyway, because eventually it leaks out, and then you have to spend the next 3 months getting to know your real selves. Then one of you wants a commitment, the other one wants to bail, and then you have to start all over again. I mean, dating... dating stupid."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Monsoon Memoirs

I laugh with raindrops,
Drunk with the fun of them…
And hold in my two hands
One hundred and one of them…

I read those four lines somewhere once – and my immediate thought was how appropriately it expressed the joy one feels when getting wet in the rain, on any given day, during the monsoon season.

If someone denies the innate earning to feel the touch of rain drops drum an addictive beat down on one’s person, I’d say that he or she were lying through their teeth. No matter the age, this desire will never, ever fade – it’s part of our childhood, our culture – in short, it’s in our blood.

Monsoon season is weaved with memories that repeat themselves every year like an ongoing love affair. The green garb of Mother Nature somehow seems more lush, the sky is always overcast as if the heavens above will open up any minute and a curtain of rain will come down, washing away all the stains and coaxing forth all things pure and cleansed. It’s as if the earth is re-born each time. There is the rather tense, caught-in-a-moment, oppressive mood right before it starts to rain and once it stops, a blissful feeling of peace permeates the air along with the unforgettable smell of the damp earth. And of course we get the refreshing cool, cool breeze – I even have a friend who opened an email account ‘xirxire’, a connotation of the phrase jhirjhire batash, because she loves it so much!

Here in the city, we see tokais jumping with unconcealed joy in the rain. We see the romantic picture of a couple huddling under an umbrella. We see families and friends enjoying a hot cup of tea with daal puri or jhaal muri or a lunch of dola-khichuri with bhuna-goshto and aachar. We see little kids playing hari-patil or making paper boats to float down a make-shift rain stream or puddle, dragging their elders into the fun, who are only too happy to join in. And can one forget cruising by inside a car and drawing childish nonsense on the fogged up windows? I STILL do that.

Farmers in the rural areas look up to the sky and shed tears of relief and joy in cadence with Mother Nature shedding the first onslaught of monsoon rains…filling rivers, canals and streams to the brim that help water parched lands and yield bumper harvests.

Monsoon memoirs thus entail romance, happiness, hope, good fortune and new beginnings. So it’s time to get drenched in all that is monsoon – time to get drunk with the fun of them.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Searching for the Sufi Soul

Most Americans, if asked to name their most immediate associations with Islam and the Middle East, would unhesitatingly reply with words like “terrorism”, “fundamentalism”, and “fanaticism”. From the drama of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1978-9, to the frightful tyranny of Saddam Hossain in Iraq, to the tragic list of victims in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation – the list of negative media impressions seems endless. Yet at a time when the U.S. government has been in a sharply antagonistic relation with Iran and other Muslim countries, an unofficial cultural encounter of profound proportions has quietly been taking place. A thirteenth-century Muslim mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is now the best-selling poet in America. Not only is the poetry of Rumi finding a major audience, but additional manifestations of Sufism, such as the mystic dance of the Whirling Dervishes, and the entrancing qawwali music of Pakistani singer, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, have now had a remarkable impact on Western audiences and performers.

For over a thousand years, Sufism – the mystical aspect of Islam – has been a major factor in the lives of most Muslims. For those who are accustomed to hearing only the authoritarian pronouncements of Muslim fundamentalists, this may come as a surprise. Yet if one looks beyond the level of media debates, there are numerous examples of Sufism's influence in Muslim societies today. Whether one visits Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, China, or Indonesia, Muslims reveal their great devotion to those Sufi saints who provide a model for how one becomes close to God. Based on the Qur'anic revelation and the model of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufism became a spiritual method that deeply penetrated all levels of Muslim society. It offered an interior vista on the practices of Islam, developed through the discipline of the Sufi orders in deepened prayer and meditation. There are literally hundreds of Sufi authors in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and other languages.

Interest in Sufism is experiencing something of a major revival today not only in the West but throughout South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora, as witnessed in a sudden spurt of publications on the subject, plays and movies produced along Sufi themes, a new range of Sufi music tapes hitting the markets, and even hot couture taking ideas from Sufism. Muzaffar Ali, an Indian painter, filmmaker and designer with his architect wife Meera, founded their fashion label “Kotwara” in 1990, deeply inspired by Sufism, while in this year’s Lakmé India Fashion Week, renowned designer Manish Malhotra designed an all-white collection called “Freedom”, again inspired by Sufism.

Undeniably, the genre that has gained the most popularity riding the Sufism bandwagon is music. The philosophy of Sufi music is very easy to understand – it’s about life, affinity, love, reality and the ultimate search for God. And Sufi music mixed with an international sound have proved to have quite a global appeal. The sound is exotic and very different from the run-of-the-mill music that plays all over. Witness the fame of “Allah Ke Bande Hasde”, sung by Kailash Kher in the film ‘Waisa Bhi Hota Hain’, as well as Rabbi Shergill’s Sufi rock rendition of Baba Bullah Shah’s “Bulla Ki Jaana”.

But is everyone exploiting the sudden interest in Sufism all for the sake of commercial breakthroughs? Is it merely another fad soon to be over-enthusiased to death? Apparently no. Luckily there are those conscientious few who do have a deeper agenda.

Salman Ahmad, best known as lead guitarist of “Junoon”, a Pakistani-American rock band that has sold over 25 million albums (as many as Nirvana, ZZ Top and Janet Jackson have sold in the United States), has become a pivotal figure in the war between moderate and extremist Islam by promoting interfaith understanding. Junoon, which Ahmad formed in 1990, created a distinctive sound – electric rock braided with Pakistani folk music and lyrics that draw from the Qur'an and Sufi poets like Rumi and Baba Bullah Shah. “My inspiration comes from a lot of these Sufi poets, and the fact that they saw the world as one,” Ahmad said. “I'm a believer, and a lot of my music and my life take inspiration from faith. And the Qur'an is a huge source of inspiration.” Ahmad says the vast majority of Muslims are moderate, but that they need to do a better job of explaining their religion. “Everybody says, ‘It's a religion of peace.’ Well, all religions are religions of peace. But what does your identity stand for?” he said.

Ahmad’s a performer whose faith-based music reaches millions of Muslims, prompting comparisons to another do-good rocker, U2's Bono. The BBC, in the documentary ‘The Rock Star and the Mullahs’, chronicled how Ahmad challenged fundamentalists to show where in the Qur'an music is forbidden. Yahya Hendi, a Muslim imam and chaplain at Georgetown University and member of the Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Council of North America, says there is “absolutely nothing” in the Qur'an or Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that prohibits music. On the contrary, Islam needs musicians like Ahmad, perhaps even more than it needs religious leaders, Hendi says. “Music is a universal language. Every human being connects with it. Not everyone connects with religious voices. Musicians can put out the message that Islam is a religion of love, compassion and peace better than clergy,” he said.

And now, in our own soil, we have the folk fusion band Bangla, trying to convey the same ideas through their second album, “Prottutponnomotito” where all the songs are the baul geetis of Lalon Shah, the Baulshomrat. Traditionally bauls were Hindus; Sufism was started following the lifestyle of Lalon Shah. Bangla, through their fusion renditions of Lalon geeti, wanted to reach the youth as well as the old generation, with Lalon's lyrics that oppose religious intolerance, cartelism, sectarianism, and colonialism.

Tareque Masud, who assisted Bangla in their “Prottutponnomotito” project, is the acclaimed director of “Matir Moina”, an autobiographical first feature, set against the backdrop of the turbulent period of late '60s, which reflects the silent suffering of Masud’s childhood, sending a poignant message of following religion blindly at the cost of human life and happiness. About the growing fundamentalism, Tareque says, “the situation is all the more same throughout the world. In today's context, 'Matir Moina' is extremely relevant as it sends the message of harmony, tolerance and egalitarianism. In this film, I have shown how Sufism can act as a protective umbrella for the country to save it from heading towards fundamentalism.”

All of this, in part, reflects a distaste for and a search for an alternative to an exclusivist, narrowly defined understanding of Islam that rightly repels many people – the search to replace the obscurantist and hate-spewing version of the faith championed by a range of radical Islamists who see all non-Muslims as, by definition, ‘enemies of God’. In contrast to the latter, Sufism is presented as generously ecumenical, and as reaching out and embracing people of every caste or creed. In short, Sufism is presented as the ‘gentle’ side of Islam and for many, to whom political news is simply inadequate to handle the larger human truths of the spirit, the language to teach the soul of acceptance.

To learn more about Sufism please visit International Association of Sufism, a non-profit organization and a DPI/NGO of the United Nations.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Arranged Marriage…An Anachronism?

Picture this: you’re watching a documentary on Discovery Channel…your ma’s sitting beside you…a lion strolls by on the TV screen, then perhaps a lioness. She promptly turns to you and demands, ‘Son, when are you getting married? You have a girl in mind? I know this wonderful family…blah, blah”. Sounds ludicrous? It shouldn’t, as that’s how single minded most parents can be about their 20-something kids’ marital status. Let’s ponder on it, shall we?

Westerners tout love marriage, deriding arranged marriages as backward, uncivilized and primitive. When debating the success of arranged versus love marriages, proponents of arranged marriage claim that it’s more successful, but their definition of success usually focuses on divorce rates. But are divorce rates really a measure of successful marriage? Think about it – divorce reflects poorly on a typical Bangali family, so some proportion of arranged marriages endure not because they are successful, but because leaving them would bring such shame. Hence, people marry as strangers and stay strangers all their lives – a prospect I can’t bear thinking of for myself. But there’s always the other end of the spectrum. There are many arranged marriages that start out based only on infatuation but grow stronger as time pass. And admit it, Westerners have made the progression toward ‘love’ marriage unnecessarily agonizing. It’s absurd how a couple in America can date for years and still not know if they want to get married. Most of my friends state that they’d only need 6 to 7 months max to get to know someone before they get married. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of love marriages end in bitter divorces.

I know the harshest arranged marriages are those almost forced upon the bride or groom – parents are so confident of their child agreeing to whomever they arrange their marriage with, they don’t bother asking for their opinion before finalizing everything – the guy/girl is then left with little choice but to agree. Then there’s emotional pressure/blackmail – parents beseeching their children to agree to a proposal before they die, etc. etc. These days however, most marriages, across all cultures, are what’s called the ‘semi-arranged marriage’. Your parents, friends, etc., set up an introduction with someone they consider to be eligible. Remember how Bridget Jones’ mum was always trying to find her a boyfriend in the hope that he’ll turn into a husband? That’s why some proponents of arranged marriage say that it’s no different than your mom setting you up on a date. However, in our social and cultural context, there’s a huge difference.

Here, parents put the word out in the community grapevine: Dad’s aunt knows a nice family in Atlanta whose nephew is an electrical engineer. Mom’s university classmate has a cousin whose daughter’s working in a renowned MNC. Parents run matrimonial classifieds (in India this has progressed on to a dizzying array of Web sites like say, and hundreds of biodatas are duly scrutinized. Marriages are considered a union of two families, not merely two individuals, so bloodlines and reputations matter. Beauty, ethnicity, religion, education, social/financial status and even horoscopes are contemplated! There are times when a guy’s mom would reject girls because of the smallest ‘defects’ – over-qualified as a career woman, under-qualified when it comes to looks. Or because of the girl being a bit older than the guy (even by a few months). I’m sure most of you, like me, have been rejected by, or have had your family reject, many prospects for one or more of the above reasons – quite an embarrassing state of affairs when you think how superficial some of them really are.

After the initial ‘screening’ comes your role – the biggest hitch in the whole process. Most families want a wedding, and they want it pronto but disapprove of or forbid dating. You’re not allowed to take the time it takes to get to know someone. You have to decide on a deadline – kind of like closing a business deal….ugh! One of my friend’s relatives think that after he’s spent three or four evenings with a girl, he ought to know – she’s his future bride or she’s history. But that’s so absurd! Can you know only after two or three months (let alone meetings) whether you share compatible interests and personalities, whether you’ll respect and live with each other’s incompatibilities, whether you’ll receive emotional support from each other’s families? I’ve a friend who is absolutely terrified that his parents are going to select a girl according to their values, but who won’t understand music – his profession and his life. Plus, since one-on-one meeting is still taboo here, most couples get together along with their parents or, in more liberal families, with a chaperone. Now, you try meeting your future wife or husband for those few times before your wedding decision, in front of your parents and striking up a conversation with her. One of my colleagues related how once, when she went to meet the prospective groom, the whole motley crew from his side, not just his parents, was there - that too in a shopping complex of all places!

It’s great when you see more and more parents now accepting love marriages, indicating a widening open-minded society and the increasing trust parents have in their children’s maturity and life choices. So when it comes to arranged marriages, is it asking too much, for parents to extend that much trust to allow their kids to meet alone over something as harmless as a cup of coffee? And in this era of cell phones, e-mails and msn/yahoo messenger, can’t the guy and girl in question be given the time needed to know each other well enough to decide on, what is after all, their future? I think it’s a great way of reaching a middle ground between ‘traditional values’ and a ‘modern outlook’. Wouldn’t you agree?

At the end of the day, what it finally comes down to is that, as in all marriages, whether arranged or not, some work and some don’t. No matter how long you know a person, there are bound to be issues after marriage. It’s how you cope with them that determine if you can live together happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Halcyon Deshi Summer Days

Grishsho…I love grishsho! I love the haze, the heat, the humidity, the long days and the evenings spent half-listening to favorite music tracks while catching up on some fun reading. I don't know why I don't seem to have as much free time in the winter – my schedule stays the same – maybe it's just that time seems to move more slowly in the heat, and that I change my priorities from ‘clean my room’ to ‘don a ratty, cotton tee and gypsy skirt that’s seen better days; fix some refreshing, chilled jug of lebu’r shorbot or if I’m feeling lazy, Tang; and just chill in front of the TV’.

Grishsho or summer in this city of ours stands for so many, myriad of snap-shot memories or events. There’s inhaling the fragrances and appreciating the blazing hues of the lush flowers in perfect bloom – the regal rojonigondhas, the sunny shonalu and kodomphuls, the fiery red krishnochuras and rongons (the latter which I used to pick as a child to suck out the honey nectar inside), and the sweet-smelling beli, bokul, jui and gondhorajs. There’s eating something really cold on a really hot day, which tends to send an ache right through your jaws and head, but feels oh so great. There’s standing for hours-on-end under the invigorating beat of a cool, cool shower, feeling the rivulets of water roll down your scalp and skin, soothing your over-heated body. There’s the sudden increase in TV commercials and press ads for ice creams, icy soft drinks, air conditioners, and prickly heat powders.

There’s the onset of thunderstorms and rains from Pahela Baishakah onwards, falling in synchronized plunges into the lakes and ponds, and which bring with them one of the bestest grishsho smells ever – bhija maatir shoda gondho. Too bad you can’t bottle it up and market it, haha. And you hear the timeless composition of Mother Nature – the roll of thunder, the rimjhim and tapurtupur of brishti, the cricketycrick of crickets, the croaks of frogs – pure music to the ears.

There’re the fresh, fresh summer fruits and veggies. I love the variety and all the beautiful colors! I remember as a kid eagerly awaiting my father’s return from the kaacha bajar with sopping bags teeming with luscious aams, juicy lichus and pungent kathaals. Brings back some delightful memories of being a carefree kid on a sultry summer afternoon, gulping down all the yummy treats till it felt my tummy was gonna burst. I still over-indulge these days! Guess some things never change, thank god!

Then there are a few items on the ‘I-can-definitely-do-without-these-during-grishsho’ list. There’s the dratted load shedding which goes with the territory of summers in Dhaka city, making the heat more unbearable. There’s the chance of getting food poisoning after having some questionable looking glass of juice from a street-side vendor. There’s bugs, particularly mosquitoes and ants, which suddenly seen to come alive in the armies! There’s having your clothes stick to your skin, all clammy and irritating. But these ‘concerns’ seem paltry compared to all the great things about summer.

All in all, grishsho kaal has it’s own addictive charm. So I’m gonna pull up an easy chair, nurse a glass of chilled float in my hands, and just take a load off my feet and lie back to enjoy the season in all its glory. Care to join me?

A quote by Neil Gaiman (British Author)

Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and opens your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this whole armor, for years, so no one can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life.... You give them a piece of you. They don't ask for it. They do something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like 'maybe we should just be friends' turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the mind. It's a soul hurt, a body hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.

(the character Rose Walker in 'The Sandman', originally a comic book series)

One Day

Like any other day
But destined to be different
Going through all those
Stupid, meaningless gestures
Making all those
Vapid, worthless comments
Running after
One’s so-called ‘goals’ in life
Of the ‘enlightened’ civilization
And then without warning
All the color
All the music
Is sucked out of your life
Leaving nothing
But blinding blackness
Slow motion
With no destination
This is how it felt
This is how it feels
When someone you cherish
Leaves you forever
This is how it will feel
For someone else
Who cherishes me
To see me leave
One day
Like any other day
But destined to be different