“You ask me what life is? Chekov wrote to his wife just before his death. “It is like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot….”
Zia Mohyeddin is an actor and a writer who is well-known in Britain, India, Pakistan, and the Pakistani Diaspora. He is a superb storyteller who writes with fluency and facility in English and Urdu.
First, a disclaimer. He is also my friend. I try not to review the works of my friends because there is always a possibility of losing one’s objectivity. But this short volume of essays, A Carrot is a Carrot: Memories and Reflections, compels me to put aside those reservations.
Zia Mohyeddin is a versatile man. Brought up in Pakistani Punjab, he is deeply steeped in Urdu, Persian, and Punjabi culture, music, and literature. Love of spoken word and a flare for theater took him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in the early 1950s. He had a successful career as a movie actor (Lawrence of Arabia, Passage to India, Behold a Pale Horse) and on and off Westend on stage in London (Long Day’s Journey into the Night, Julius Caesar, A Passage to India).
During his long and distinguished career his path crossed with many famous and not-so-famous people. He writes about them objectively but maintains a fine balance and while showing their warts he stays within the bounds of courtesy and old world grace. Here is the beginning of his essay on Tennessee Williams:
“In later years, with his French cut beard and a reclining intellectual forehead, he looked like a benign academic from Sorbonne, but when I met Tennessee Williams in New York he had a cherubic face with a shiny cheeks; the thick moustache that he wore sat incongruously on his lips. He came into my dressing room offering a limp hand. His companion, a man with creased face, who looked very much like Burgess Meredith but wasn’t, said, Mr. Tennessee Williams was very keen to meet you.”
The book has 51 essays, some a few pages long, others longer. All of them have the rhythm and cadence of a well-crafted music score, and they hold the reader in their grip until the very end. One of the long essays, “Kasur,” is about a town in Punjab seen through the eyes of a young schoolboy. In flowing crisp prose, Mohyeddin explores the town from his memory and brings alive an era long past but which still tugs on heartstrings.
In the essay titled “Language that Conceals Language,” Mohyeddin explores diplomatic double talk where polite words camouflage disagreement. He quotes Sir Anthony Eden, prime minister of Britain during the Suez crisis of 1956, telling the Parliament that, “Far from being at war, Britain and Egypt are only in a state of armed conflict.”
Some essays are about people and places in the west where as others are about the people and culture of the east, more specifically India and Pakistan. He is comfortable and at ease talking and writing about his encounters with great classical singers from India and Pakistan and also the men of letters in the west such as Dylan Thomas and EM Foster. Interspersed in the book are essays on music, culture and the use of proper language.
There is an essay about his favorite game of cricket, which he played with abandon during his youth in England. In “Ten Men and a Horse,” he paints a beautiful picture of an English cricket ground:
“The cricket I cherish most is played on a field full of daisies and buttercups and dandelion with rectangular patch in the center, freshly mown and rolled and known as the wicket. All around the field small parties of villagers squat on the ground and patiently for the game to begin. Invariably there is a row of elderly men dozing in deck chairs: others wearing floppy felt hats loll about outside the pub, which is close to the ground.
“They have clean-shaven chins and long whiskers and they hold pint-sized tankards in their hands.”
He weaves an interesting and absorbing yarn of memories and reflections while moving effortlessly between disparate cultures and languages.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon and a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org