In media res stat virtus

 ethel-thompson

Ethel Tompson

I am going back once more to what I call “gentle fiction”. 

I am a slow thinker and go back again and again to the same thoughts: I must have been a ruminant in a previous life! When some people go straight to the heart of the matter, (no pun intended with this expression), I take circuitous routes and I meander around my topic, finding new issues, relationships and definitions.

I apologize towards some readers of this blog who are devoted readers of “gentle fiction”. I am not disparaging the books they love or the way they read them. I try to understand who reads what, how and why. With my sinuous mind, I shall come back to this topic and will refine my assumptions. No criticism is implied: only observation.

I still read blogs to which I have subscribed and belong to the same active reading groups, and I wonder how people can be so strongly engaged with their reading and with one or another writer whom I would consider – and whom I do consider – as secondary. I do not say negligible: no writer is truly and entirely negligible, but really secondary as object of attention. Writers who may be taken up when there is nothing better to read and who may be a hobby but not an absorbing one. And yet, they are absorbing for some.

This is worth pondering and this gives them an added value.

These writers are usually ladies – not women, ladies, according to the definition Marilyn French gave in her pioneer feminist book “The Women’s Room” -, lady novelists of the twentieth century read by ladies born during the twentieth century. The lady novelists are sometimes gentle women, both in the sense of belonging to the social middle class of gentlewomen and that of being gentle, that is understanding, compassionate, well behaved, moderate, mild – all qualities that are slightly evanescent and uneasily circumscribed. And mostly conservative. I am talking here again of lady writers such as DE Stevenson, Angela Thirkell, Margery Sharp, O Douglas, EM Delafield, Joyce Anstruther, Joyce Dennys or Susan Pleydell, for instance – these novelists who have been resurrected by Persephone Press, Greyladies, or smaller publishers.

Exceptions come later with Dora Saint and her “Miss Read” and “Thrush Green” series. There, there are schoolmistresses, depleted spinsters, widows living on a meagre stipend. But even if they seem timeless, they live in the 1950s or 1960s when the great mutation of the Western society has taken place and where women are allowed to work in some “gentle” jobs, and when impoverished gentlewomen live quite normally in cottages. Some of them are not even gentlewomen in the social sense of “middle class”. Miss Clare and Emily Davis in the “Miss Read” series have come from the lower class and have reached the status of schoolmistresses through work and merit. They are gentlewomen through their attitude towards life.

The lady readers are younger than the lady writers, born at least one generation after them. Therefore they have never been ladies of leisure but have almost always had a job or have raised their children, mostly without help. They are one cut down the social ladder. This may also be because of the changes that happened in society during the twentieth century. But they are gentle according to the second meaning of the word. They are well behaved, moderate, mild, kind although somewhat authoritative sometimes, understanding and compassionate. I tend to think they are conservative, politically or not.

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Gertrude Fiske

Their faculty of “identification-quite-but-not-entirely” seems to be a major point. One can put on the shoes of the heroine – it is usually a heroine, not a hero, as main protagonist – but with a distance left between one’s own life and the heroine’s life. This is important.

Most of the time, a house plays an important part. Heroines may have to seek a job. Their lives will nevertheless revolve about the notion of home. In Angela Thirkell’s novels, no “heroine” is a woman. She is a lady and does not work but makes a home for the family, or will be engaged or married by the end of the book, raises her children, takes care of her husband, sometimes mildly flirts and belongs to community activities and committees. DE Stevenson’s protagonists are married or will marry and then leave their job if ever they have one, as do those of Margery Sharp’s or O Douglas’. The house and/or the estate that goes with it are seen through women’s eyes and not through those of men’s as in Trollope, where legal matters are expounded. Here, the relationship with the house is mostly emotional and calls sometimes, rather incredibly, upon the supernatural as in “Celia’s House” by DE Stevenson, or in “The Herb of Grace” by Elizabeth Goudge. Dora Saint’s Miss Clare lives in her parents’ cottage and keeps it immaculate.

One may see the continuity of the Victorian notions of “The Angel of the house” and of the importance of home, their taming and civilizing effects upon boys and men.

The women engaged with these books are usually home makers themselves. They have or had a job – a number of them are librarians or teachers -, they are married or single through widowhood, or divorced (there does not seem to be lots of “spinsters”: they have at the “worst” been partners) and they comment about cooking, gardening, knitting, ailing, sewing, reading, writing, travelling, reading.

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Gertrude Fiske

Even though there are lots of engagements, marriages, weddings, births and christenings in the novels, there must be no sex, and no allusion to sex in the novels. There is only romantic love or light flirting led through conversations with esprit.

Readers are very careful about this aspect and firmly condemn all literature mentioning the unspeakable. One cannot say that it is a trait of the British prudishness and reserve. Indeed, readers are manifold and come first from the United States, then from Canada, some from Australia and New-Zealand, and of course from Britain. This adds sometimes to the distance between writer and reader. Distance in time and distance in geography. Both will often lead to a misunderstanding and a misconstruction of the novel that creates a total rewriting of the story in the readers’ minds.

And yet, they all insist on the feeling of reality given by the plots, characters and settings. Details – these novels are full of irrelevant details – are woven with the fabric of the readers’ lives. Which is unrealistic in the extreme as, for instance, life in the Midwest in the 1950s has nothing to do with life in the Highlands in the 1930s in middle to high-middle or low-upper classes. It is even more dissonant when it comes to life today in the United-States and life in the 1950s in gentle Britain.

Nevertheless the “near-identification” phenomenon is great. It allows a search in memories, a re-creation of the past both the dreamed past of an idyllic Britain that never was, and of a life or lives of real families and individuals.

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Gertrude Fiske


This reading is legitimate. All readings are legitimate as long as they do not hurt the self and others. However, it is not far from the reading done by the heroine in “Angel” by Elizabeth Taylor – which may be dangerous. And it is certainly not the reading pioneered by references in such matters: Nicola Beauman, Nicola Humble and Alison Light. Moreover, fragile publishers may be deflected from their initial aim to reevaluate neglected fiction in order to enlarge the literary canon and our multicultural vision of fiction. They come to publish texts that had been left aside by some of these lady authors, under readers’ pressure when such texts would have been better left to academics for the purpose of research only. These texts sometimes called “left in the attic”, do more wrong than good to the writers whom they expose with all their flaws.
The reality of such fiction is denied in the end of each novel (if not before the end) by a conscious twist made by the writer into fairy tale. There is no tragedy in these books. As said above, they almost always end with wedding bells or at least engagements or, less often, by birth or reconstitution of happy families. In this, they are conservative and ideal. They are the prolongation of fairy tales read without the benefit of subtexts created by gender studies or analysis, the prolongation of children books and mostly of girls books such as “The Chalet School”. They are a literature of comfort, escapism and reassurance. A number of readers insist on the fact that a “good book” makes good escape (from the tedium of everyday life or its complications?) with “a nice cup of tea”, “a chair”, and with “curtains drawn in winter”.

In fact, a balance should be found between the sophisticated and complex reading made by scholars – a lot might be written about this and its consequences – and the too candid reading for comfort. A balance is sometimes found. But so unfrequently. Between unconditional praise and unconditional denial, in media res stat vitus.

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Gertrude Fiske

Definition: I am or I am not

Void in Art

Two blogs to which I have subscribed have taken up the theme “who am I?” and answers are given in poems in both:

and

My answer to such question is less poetic. But it is short.

I am nothing and no one

or

I am The Girls’ amanuensis

I am not a student anymore. I am not a daughter anymore. I am not a singer anymore. I am not much of a reader anymore. I am not a friend anymore. I am certainly no parent , no wife, no lover. I have no job. I have not much of a hobby. I am rather useless.

And this attempt to define myself brings me to the issue of solitude, loneliness.

In French, there is one word to say all shades of the word: solitude. In English, there is solitude, loneliness aloneness, lonesomeness; you may be alone, lonely, lonesome. In French, you are seul.

One may find solitude alluring. I have relished solitude years ago. To appreciate it, one must know noise, crowd, busyness to appreciate silence, being alone. Or one may be called to contemplation and know inner peace. This is the positive solitude as in the song composed by Purcell upon this poem:

O solitude, my sweetest choice:
Places devoted to the night,
Remote from tumult and from noise,
How ye my restless thoughts delight!
O solitude, my sweetest choice.
O heav’ns, what content is mine
To see these trees, which have appear’d
From the nativity of time,
And which all ages have rever’d,
To look today as fresh and green
As when their beauties first were seen.

O, how agreeable a sight
These hanging mountains do appear,
Which th’ unhappy would invite
To finish all their sorrows here,
When their hard fate makes them endure
Such woes as only death can cure.

O, how I solitude adore!
That element of noblest wit,
Where I have learnt Apollo’s lore,
Without the pains to study it.
For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too,
Because it needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
O solitude, O how I solitude adore!

Katherine Fowler Philips (1631 – 1664)

https://youtu.be/-W9BMgup7-A?list=RD-W9BMgup7-A

(sung by Alfred Deller)

And one may live solitude like a punishment or a curse, some kind of hell in the midst of noise, crowd, busyness that are uncongenial, or in the midst of nothingness. World without end.

If we had coffee together today, I would take you to Pakistan…

 

weekendcoffeeshare

 

Saturday is the day when I am happy to have you for coffee or tea and have a chat about the week. But today, if we had coffee or tea together, I would ask you to get on my magic carpet and to come with me to the Country of the Thousand and One Nights. We would then find ourselves in Karachi and meet again Hammad Rais our guide who invites us to discover his country, Pakistan.

Come: I see him. He is already smiling to us.

Hello!

It’s me, Hammad Rais, your Touring Pakistan guide!

How are you doing and it’s been so wonderful to meet you again.

So where were we? Oh, yes! the tour!

Initially, I planned to give you a brief intro about my city, Karachi and then we would go on to see all 4 provinces, their cultures, traditions, notable places and much more. But Camille gave me another idea, which was great. She asked how about I show the readers (that is you!) about the way of Pakistani life, or more precisely, the life in Karachi. The climate we have here, what I eat, what age I started school, the cultures we love, the traditions we follow, what’s my mother tongue and many things alike.

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A view of my neighborhood, from the 6th floor of a nearby apartment

 

It was a good suggestion but to be honest with you, it made a wonder how in the world will I give you a glimpse in my way of life, which is by the way pretty simple, as per Pakistani standards. I wondered what image will it create on your mind about me or my fellow countrymen. But if there is another image, as I talked about it in the previous episode, then there is a big need to wipe it off from your mind.

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Yup, it’s a traffic jam and they happen daily!

 

So, it’s a good idea to let the world know and understand that Pakistani’s are just like every other human being living on this planet. We live in a house, we have families, we eat, we celebrate, we play, we work, we cry, we smile, we do all those things that you, your family, your friends or your co-workers do everyday. There is no difference!

So, with this in mind, I decided to work upon it. Since you have already landed in my city and I’m your guide (thank you, Camille! for appointing me up for this task), what would be more great than showing you a slice of my life. About how I live and what my days are like, what I do, what I see everyday, what I eat in lunch or dinner and many more things.

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Selling fruits at night, a common sight

 

As I told you I live Karachi, the biggest city of Pakistan. All traditions associated with any other big city in the world are also the same in Karachi. Life is fast and time is short, is the motto here. Although, I don’t like this fast and furious approach.

Anyway, beside being Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi is also the provincial capital of Sindh province. There are 3 other provinces in Pakistan:

Islamabad is Pakistan’s capital city and is located in Punjab. Beside capital cities, there are so many other cities in all 4 provinces, along with districts, tehsils and union councils.

So, a little more about myself. Here in Pakistan, many families live jointly. My home was built by my grand father and I still live there with my parents, my wife, my son, my two little brothers, one of whom is married and have 3 kids. My mother’s sister, who is unmarried, also live with us. All other homes in my neighborhood are like, where children still live with their parents. The tradition of living by yourself once you pass college or get a job is gaining foot here too but I don’t like it. People always say do something about your future, save some money, invest somewhere, do this or do that. I regard myself as my parents future, as they once dreamed about me standing on a level where they would be proud of me. Now, when I’m standing there, why can’t my parents be with me?

We regard the presence of our elders inside the home as a blessing and taking care of them makes our day. Beside, who wouldn’t love to see their grand children growing up in front of them, taking care of them, playing with them. Since 2011, my home is not the same anymore as 3 fully charged up kids play, fight, cry and laugh together, filling my home with life.

In general, life in Karachi is different from what you may see in a village or in those parts of Pakistan where farmers live and produce crops. I haven’t been to a village but life there is simple, quiet and full of nature. A friend of mine was born in a village and didn’t stepped in a big city until he was in his mid 20’s. He now lives in Karachi but occasionally visit his hometown. He tells me about how villagers go to sleep right after sunset and get up way before even sunrise. That there is no fast food joint or cinema in his village and day to day traveling is still done on carts. Life is still simple in those parts of Pakistan and from what he tells me about it, I then compare those things with Karachi, which is totally different from so many aspects.

 

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A traditional village home in Tharparkar area of Sindh
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Simple life means simple things
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A kitchen in a village home
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Washing laundry in village

 

Yes, we do get up in morning early but on weekends, we may not. The city is literally over flooded with fast food restaurants and cafes. People love to eat here and it is consider as “the cool” to try out that newly opened restaurant or watching a new movie. There are many food streets in Karachi. In fact, any place where three or more restaurants are located next to each other, is a food street. Its where you can load your taste buds with all sorts of food.

And speaking of food, I may have to create and maintain a separate blog just for what kind of food you will find in Pakistan. Literally!

Over here, we love to mix up dishes and create diversity on our dining tables. I start with the one item which is must for every meal, for everyone, in every home, every day. You can find this in every corner of Pakistan and it is known as Roti.

 

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A typical Roti

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, these are incomplete without Roti. Heck, I even ate it regularly back in my school days as an evening snack with a cup of tea. I even love to eat mango with Roti in summer, would you believe that?

Roti is prepared by stone-ground wholemeal flour, which is commonly known as Atta Flour here. We eat it with either meat gravies of many kinds, fried or cooked up vegetables of various varieties, kebabs, boiled pulses and so much more. You can even eat with either butter, cheese, yogurt, and anything you like.

There are so many varieties of Roti and each one has its own unique taste. With various cooking methods, Roti is definitely an inseparable item from a Pakistani dining table. Everyday in my home, it is prepared twice; for lunch and for dinner. The picture you have seen above is the most common form and it is prepare in every household. Let me show you some other varieties which are mainly served on special occasions like weddings, parties at home or anywhere else:

 

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Naan
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Sheermaal
chapati
Chapati
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Paratha

 

There are many more varieties of Roti beside these. You can even stuff it with either fine chopped meat or mashed vegetables. My mother-in-law prepares Paratha filled with mashed potatoes and it is served with green chili sauce. So mouth watering!

Roti and all of its varieties are eaten with either meat or vegetable dishes mostly. You can even eat it plain and simple if you want to. Below you can see some common Pakistani dishes which are served with Roti. Again, these dishes also have various varieties for themselves and each one has it’s own unique taste.

 

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Dal (dried pulse dish) and Roti, most common
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Chicken Karahi, a spicy chicken dish with vegetables
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Keema, finely chopped meat cooked with spices
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Nihari, a meat dish with very thick gravy and lots of spices
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Shami Kebab, a beef kebab, there are many varieties
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Chicken Tikka, grilled chicken with heavy spices
kofta-curry
Kofta, meatballs with gravy

 

(Bonus: click here for a great recipe of Chicken Kebab I found at a fellow Pakistani blogger. Try it out!!)

 

There are countless other dishes which are these common ones. There are various methods of preparing each one of them and almost every family has its own secret way of cooking these dishes. My mother and all my aunts learned cooking from my grandmother, who was such a great cooking expert herself. Beside cooking, my grandmother knew so much about how to keep a household in order and she passed that knowledge to her daughters very well. I remember how she used to prepare special dishes for me whenever there is something on a day’s menu I don’t wanted to eat. I was her first grandchild, so I was treated very specially :).

On Sundays, Jia, my wife, might prepare Biryani only. Like last week, when my sister arrived showed up, Jia prepared Chicken Manchurian with Chinese Rice and it was loved by all. Jia is expert in preparing rice dishes, an art she had learned from her mother, who is herself an expert.

 

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Chicken Biryani

So from Roti, we move towards Biryani, a spicy rice dish in many forms, which is prepared with all sort of spices, vegetables and meat. Like Roti, there are so many forms of Biryani also. If beef is used, then its Beef Biryani, if vegetables are used, then its Vegetable Biryani and so much more.

 

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Pillao with Chicken Gravy
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Tehri with Potato and Peas
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Dal Chawal, Boiled Rice with Spicy Pulses (this is not Biryani variety)

 

A Pakistani woman will be crowned as an expert cook, by her family, if she can master this cuisine’s art as this dish is so much love by every family member and it is very hard to resist.

We Pakistani love to eat spicy food, as know you have some idea. We want spices to dive deep in our taste buds and tickle us all they way. There are many forms of spices which are commonly used in daily cooking. Usage of home made spices are also very common and every family has its own secret. This gives every common dish a unique flavor. We also love to spice up our lunch and dinner with pickles, chutney, sauces of various kinds.

In the appetizer section, there are so many to chose from. From spicy to sweet and sour, the list goes on and on. They are also served as an evening snack or when guests shows up. Some of the most common are:

 

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Gol Gappay, also known as Panipuri
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Pakora
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Samosa
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Dahi Vada, also known as Dahi Bhalla
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Chana Chaat
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Kachori

 

Here in Pakistan, cooking is considered as an essential art which every woman must master. I can give example of my sister, who before her marriage, only knew how to prepare breakfast for herself. Those Western norms of working women are also gaining foot here but still a Pakistani woman show her best talent in her kitchen. Because receiving an appreciation from family over a well cooked food is something special and it is regarded as a great accomplishment. As an old saying goes: the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so a Pakistani woman knows it very well and she loves to keep her man happy.

Now if you are thinking that Pakistanis only eat spicy food and there is no sweetness in their lives, then allow me to say this: You are so wrong!

To get a taste of our sweetness and much more, we will meet again. Until then, take care and bon appetit.

 

Oops! Almost forgot!

The annual Karachi Eat Food Festival is underway this weekend, i.e. from Jan 22nd to Jan 24th 2016. Check it out on Twitter also for more videos and pictures.

 

You can hook up with us at Diana’s place over at Part Time Monster!  You are guaranteed to meet some pretty awesome people and writers over there!

Until next time….