Beginnings are the hardest part, that first word or sentence that’ll capture the imagination and allow the future to unfold. Think about it. All those billions of books written. All those worlds, real or imaginery, fragments or histories. They all started at one point and who is to decide where it all begins? Why, the writer, of course. So, is the Truth as the writer ordains? If it is, then is every Hemmingway, or Marquez or hell, Dean Koontz, a god, up there amongst today’s lesser deities like fame or wealth or power?
And what of the characters? Think about the multitude of Frodo Baggins and Alices and Patrick Batemans that have graced the bookshelves of countless generations. What do you suppose happens every time you open a page and read a few lines and are drawn into the life and mind of another? Don’t the characters, drawn from life or the writer’s imagination, acquire an authenticity that may drive you to emulate them, or spurn them? Doesn’t the written word, and its creator, therefore impinge upon our lives, and create new realities or destroy old ones?
It all begins in the mind. And it doesn’t always have to be the written word. Imagine this. I am driving back from work when, while stopping at a traffic light on Lahore’s Mall, I happen to notice a plethora of posters gracing the roadside. Amidst this pantheon of celebrity, I see the most phenomenal poster of Madhubala. Ignoring the angry horns emanating from the cars behind me, I swing around and park my car next to the small poster vendor. Upon alighting from the car, I can just about make out, hidden behind bright and gaudy posters of Govinda shaking his “thang”, Madhuri posing coyly in a leotard (as coy as a woman in a leotard can be), and Saima squirting milk fresh from a cow’s teat at Momi Rana, the picture that had drawn me here in the first place.
It is of Madhubala at her finest. Head tilted back, lips half parted, a wisp of hair falling delicately over her forehead, eyes glistening (with tears of joy, happiness or something the censor board may object to). Needless to say, I bought the poster — for a paltry 50 rupees — and spent the rest of my evening, otherwise spent surfing cable television, staring at this one-time screen goddess.
As I sat there gazing upon Madhu’s face, I started thinking of all the old Indian films I grew up watching — films like Awaara and Chori chori and Mughal-e-azam. Even at a tender age — I was probably about eight or nine — I managed to get a sense of the romance and chemistry between some of these on-screen couples, especially Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. So anyway, as I sat there thinking of the stories of those great and tragic romances, I got to pondering on what I like to call the death of romance.
What I’m talking about specifically is how nowadays love stories are not really, truly, romantic. Not in the way classics like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind were. While I enjoyed films like Sleepless in Seattle and Dil Toh Paagal Hai , I feel they lacked the deep sense of loss that all true romances encompass. After all, from Romeo and Juliet to Soni and Mahiwal, all true love stories (alternatively, stories about True Love) are inherently tragic. Was I bemoaning the loss of tragedy from our lives and popular cinema?
Not exactly. Especially in light of recent events, I think no one can deny the presence of tragedy in our lives. What is missing is that connection between the tragic and the romantic (unless you count the now ironic title You’ve Got Mail). To me, the romantic is inextricably linked with rebellion and loss. The greatest real life romantic was Che Guevara. So what am I saying here? That after we read a biography of Dr Ernesto “Che” Guevara, we all pick up guns and shout “ Inqilaab!” or abandon our drawing-room conversations to run off and fight in Afghanistan? Well, tempting as that might be for some, that’s not my point. What I’m trying to say, in an incredibly roundabout manner, is that us Gen-X’ers don’t have any great causes. Gone are the days of flower power and world peace and socialism. Most of us live for the moment, and are unable to attend to any one idea long enough to feel strongly about it. Love and loss, romance if you will, is only one of the concepts that have fallen prey to the inattention of 21st century youth. And finally, what I’m saying is that the written word no longer has the same effect it used to, at least not on the jaded youth I perpetually encounter in my neck of the woods.
I think one illustration of this is our idols — the icons whose pictures we paste on our bedroom walls, on the inside of our closet doors, whose names we secretly scribble in our most private diaries. There was a time, not so ago, when upon walking into the bedroom of a teenager, you’d see pictures of Marx and Lenin, alongside posters of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe — all tragic figures and revolutionaries in their own way. Well, ladies and gents, our idols have fallen from their pedestals, leaving us to grapple with synthesised constructs like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. The result is a generation steeped in practicality, in logic. Sometimes, I feel like stopping in the middle of the Mall, peak traffic time, and shouting: “Where have all the dreamers gone?”
J. P. Morgan is where. Or Merrill Lynch. Or a thousand other places that beckon to the practical in us, luring us like sirens with promises of wealth, romance be damned. But I return to gazing at Madhu’s face, smoking a cigarette and humming Lennon’s “Imagine”, and I for one make a solemn promise to myself: I will seek beauty and higher purpose in my life. Just as those who covet fast cars and designer labels seek to acquire those images so as to change their reality, my inspirational images will not be so mundane. My reality will not be so ordinary, I promise myself as I gaze into Madhu’s dreamy face. I will dream new dreams and let no one say that romance is dead.
Published in Pakistan Newspaper TheFridayTimes