There’s a scene in Marnie, a classic Hitchcock flick I used to stream back home, snuggled in my bed, wallowing in self pity at being born in the wrong decade, feeling cheated out of the life I best identified with. Not much has changed. Anywho, Sean Connery brings a girl home to see his house and horses, and his father is quick to insist he’s actually brought her over to show off his father, not the estate. ‘I’m quite a presentable old party, you know,’ he smiles, swilling his Earl Gray around in a fine china cup, pinky appropriately sticking out.

My own father is far less likely to be found at home, sipping milk-less tea, but I confess to using him for the exact same purpose: showing off. My parents are, quite simply, my most magnificent possession, and rather like an Hermes bag, I flaunt them whenever I can. Every time a friend would come drop me home, I would insist they step in for a minute or two to meet my parents. I would make my mother come pick me up from school, twirling sunglasses in her hand as she waited. (She’s not a twirl-er or a wait-er by nature, so I guess its a testament to how good a bully I was at four.) I even made my father come and pick me up from my O Levels exams just so everyone could see him in his work suit. I imagine its how art collectors behave; you arrange a seemingly innocuous run in with your Renoir (Let’s just take this staircase, shall we?’), and then having positioned your prey perfectly, you join them in basking in the glory of your masterpiece.

I know this sort of behavior is normally expected from the parents, not the children, but you haven’t met my parents. My mother is one of those quintessential fifties housewives; she picked me up at school everyday, she had a five course dinner on the table at eight, perfect hair at every hour of the day, and a wardrobe that puts, well, me to shame. Almost the quintessential fifties housewife. The only caveat is she has an incredibly demanding job, which she is incredibly good at. Everyone I meet who has worked with her, or near her, is overwhelmed by her. She is, I hear, the most professional and cool-headed creature at work. She ain’t at home, but I guess that’s what makes it even more commendable. She’s had to raise four children when she herself was never brought up around any children. She had cousins, and school mates, but the whole concept of brothers and sisters living in the same house, all the time, was completely alien to her. So every time we fought, and swore to never, ever, ever talk to each other, she took our Taylor Swift-ness seriously. We are single handedly (or eight handedly), the reason she pops blood pressure pills. Which clearly work, because she is the most level-headed mother and colleague.

My father has the same rating on WorkAdvisor. He’s just as well-kept, if not more, than my mother, slightly more, if not more well, read, and always at the table at eight. Except when he’s away for work. He too had an incredibly demanding job as a bureaucrat, and was often transferred to different cities. We never budged from Lahore, our education apparently was far too important, but he would manage to be there more than most fathers are. Every weekend, he would travel 4 hours by car to get home after work. Every Monday at 5am, he would be back on the road and be in work at 9am. And if that was not enough, he would also make the same trip on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, to spend a few hours with his children. Hours I don’t remember, and didn’t realize the importance of except in retrospect, but he clearly valued them enough to brave the roads. This for a man who now refuses to even get in the car for an hour to get to dinner. That being said, he did get in the car,and then a plane, for eight hours to come see my sister this year, so I guess he’s always been that way. Will travel for offspring.

Those aren’t things you can ever show off to your friends. Those aren’t things you can really show off to anyone. Its like trying to explain a piece of art you love to anyone who doesn’t; it’s never quite enough of an explanation, or ever enough of a reaction. So you just stand quietly, let them admire what you have, and take what they will from it. Maybe its the fact that my parents are distressingly good looking, maybe its that my mother makes biryani while quoting Byron, and that my father is a better source of history than Google. Maybe its my mother’s perfect skin, or my father’s yellow trousers and waistcoat. Maybe its the fact that we are all completely besotted with each other.

They’re my Monet and Renoir and Rembrandt. And every so often, when I feel like I am not even a Manet to them, I remind myself of all the times they have shown me how much they loved me. And I hope to God one day they’ll have a non-genetic reason for that impulse.

The Headless Chicken Conundrum

When you ask newly uprooted people what they miss the most about their native soil, the answer is invariably food and family. And in that order. Well, at least for me.

For something that’s given so much flak for complicating relationships, distance actually simplies feelings.  I love the theatre. I hate mochas. I cannot understand why Louis Vuitton handbags are a thing. I abhor the snow. Everything is better in purple. Waiting for a bus makes me question why I’m alive. Agatha Christie is beyond overrated. Jazz is the music of the gods. Moist is the ugliest word in the English language, except when applied to sponge cakes. Crocs are God’s way of punishing us. The thing I miss most about home is my mom and her cooking.

Distance did that. It removed me from the everyday mundane realities, the endless cups of tea and power outages, the traffic jams and grocery shopping, and focused my memories on the things that really counted.  The moments that anchored the driftwood that is childhood. Its seems surreal now, remembering that every day for the last 15 years, I bounded home from school, tossing down my bag as I scampered up onto the old dining table, pushing myself up on my elbows to look at the spread. Cooking is to my mother what handbags are to me; our Achilles heel, and the reason we get out of bed. We would sit down to the feast, talking about nothing and everything at length, nibbling our way through the day, some old TV show droning on in the background. I have lived my life twice; I tried each day out once on my own, and then I relived it with my mother.

Its sad how I never realised just how precious that time was until the day I was sitting in PRET, scoffing down a sandwich, trying to look all busy and important and rushed. That way, people assume its time you’re short on, not companionship. And now, when I’m sitting in the tea room, having lunch with friends from the office, I relish every moment of it. A little more than I should probably, the boss lives right next to the tea room and I’m sure the one hour lunch break is something he can’t swallow very easily. But who cares! I only have the one life now, I may as well live it as much as I can.

The other thing I miss, not the only other but one of many, is my language. People don’t say that. It would not be one of the top six options in family feud, but you would be surprised at how much you can miss the sound of people speaking your tongue.  My family was fairly promiscuous in terms of our upbringing, English was our childhood sweetheart, we flirted with varying degrees of success with Punjabi, had  short lived dalliances with Persian, and saved Urdu for our one big romance. Its not the language we speak best or most often, but what a lady. As Shakepeare would put it, had he been familiar with Eastern languages, it is beautiful,and therefore it is to be won.

If you had told me years ago that Cambridge would bring me closer to Faiz, and not Byron, I would have laughed. As it turns out, I am one of those people who drink black coffees in Lahore, and order Chai tea lattes in London. The last page of my university notebooks are covered in poems of Faiz and Faraz, scribbled down in moments of frenzy and quiet desperation as reminders of what beauty I belong to. My very clinical lab book is peppered with Urdu couplets, an oddly appropriate representation of its owner. Mostly capable, sometimes kookie.

Speaking of kookie, my very kookie dad is a’visiting, and in typical dad fashion, bought a suitcase full of sweets to warm our hearts and rot our teeths. And since it was a Thursday, which never really bodes well for my mood, I decided my office people may as well share my  father’s affections(calorie load). Anywho, when I went over on the weekend to visit him (a five floor walk up in London apparently outweighs his affections for me), we were walking along the road talking about the sweets and the office, when a girl walking in front of us stopped. She turned around, then back again, hesitating, before she finally looked at us and said, with a heart stopping smile, ‘It’s so good to hear Hindi again.’  Then ofcourse, my father engaged her in a long discussion about how he was actually speaking Urdu, but Hindi and Urdu are pretty much the same, except for the Sanskrit words, and…… Lets just say, fifteen minutes later, she was probably wishing she had never heard our voices. But that smile. That smile was pretty special.

Three decades ago, my mother had a very similar encounter. Her first week in America, someone hailed her from across a college football field. A typical Pakistani greeting, ‘Baji.’ ‘Elder sister.’ Respectful enough to establish the caller as a non-stalker, but warm enough to suggest familiarity. She stopped, spotting a lanky boy, newly uprooted and clearly in transition, racing across the field. He stopped just short of running into her, bending over, clutching his knees as he panted, ‘I saw your dupatta. Are you from Pakistan?’ He was from Kashmir, a young boy far away from anything familiar, alone enough to be moved by the sight of a wisp of chiffon blowing in the wind.

There’s this saying in Urdu, that magical language of my childhood. ‘Ghar ki murghi daal barabar.’ Roughly translated, it means even if your mom makes roast chicken at home, it will feel like beans on toast. The reverse is also true.  All baked beans need is a bit of distance to make them feel like a Sunday roast.

Heinz should get onto that.

don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.


Lessons Learnt

The last year and a half has been useless. Well, its been useful in that I realize calling any period of time ‘useless’ is a contradiction.

Life is not  a checklist of acquisitions and achievements, there’s no one keeping score but yourself.

Time is not useful or useless, it is either enjoyed or endured. And all that stuff I didn’t get to do…….I had so much fun not doing it!

There! It wasn’t useless at all, was it? I’ve learnt to quit keeping score!

If I was keeping score, I would mention I got offered two PhDs.  I gave those up for a third PhD. Then the day after my visa came, and I had literally and metaphorically burnt all my ships, the HR people called and said they couldn’t afford me. So no PhD. Not a one.

That little shard of my heart that harbored the scientist wishes, I think it slipped through my fingers at some point when I was piecing my heart back together. Its not there anymore. I don’t want it now. I just want a career, any career, and I want to be happy. I learnt that. I learnt wanting specific things can turn into an obsession, and you end up giving someone the power to destroy you. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m the only one who gets to determine my happiness. Not a scholarship committee, not an HR lady, not the visa office. Me. And just so that I don’t forget this year and a half, and end up making the same mistakes again, here they are in writing.

Lesson 1. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Or, if Cardiff offers you a PhD, and you get the visa, don’t give it up for another PhD that doesn’t have the paperwork yet. Even if its Imperial. Specially if its Imperial.

Lesson 2. No one cares. The neighbours, your aunts, the bitches in high school with their peroxide blonde hair using daddy’s money to launch a clothing line. They don’t give a shit about your life. They’re not the one’s who lie awake at night trying to come up with a career plan, they’re not the one’s negotiating work hours, they won’t hold your hand when the world falls apart on a Thursday afternoon. They don’t get a say. Block them out. Don’t live your life to impress people. Live your life so that you are at peace. Which would automatically stop you from caring about people who are nothing more than an item on your newsfeed.

Lesson 3. Even people who do care, don’t get a say. No one gets a say except you. Not your sisters, not your parents, not your brother. They love you, and they want to see you happy, but they can not make your decisions. Don’t listen to them. Ask them for advice, hear them out, but don’t really listen. You’re going to make mistakes. You could get a first from Cambridge, and three PhD offers, and still wind up being unemployed and hopeless in a year. Life will disappoint you. Make sure you have no one to blame.Make sure every mistake is your own. And make every decision from your gut. Not your heart, it’s too involved, not your brain, its too distant. Go with your gut. Those mistakes are the easiest to live with.

Lesson 4. Interim rocks. Be happy. If you can’t sleep at night, go check out the sunrise. If you don’t have an office to go to, go hang out at your mom’s. You don’t have a party invite, putter around the house in high heels. God’s giving you a break. Take it.

Lesson 5. Sorrow doesn’t justify inflicting sorrow on others. Don’t shout at your dad. It’ll hurt you more than any job rejection ever would.

Lesson 6. The broken, twisted people are often the most interesting ones. Develop a healthy taste for irony. Be amused by what life has up its sleeves. Smirk. Be supercilious. Its good for the soul.

Lesson 7. Don’t take sleeping pills. Or muscle relaxants. Or blood pressure medicine. No one, no thing, should hold such sway over you as to reduce you to a pill popper.

Lesson 8. Effort does not equal result. You could work yourself silly and not get what you want. But work nonetheless. You won’t have any regrets that way. Best case scenario, you eventually get what you want. Worst case scenario, you’ll have a lot of bargaining chips come time to choose your hell fire.

Lesson 9. Buy things. Things are good. Things are great. Things can make you happy. Never regret anything that makes you happy.

Lesson 10. Don’t be nasty to employers, no matter what stunt they pull. Don’t be servile either. Keep your dignity, and give them theirs. Don’t take bullets for them, but don’t aim at them either. You will need references. Preferably not blood stained ones.

Lesson 11. Listen to a really sad song and cry it out. But just one. Then switch to Beyonce and Disney. Its amazing how potent cheap music can be.

Lesson 12. Bend a little. Just a little. So that you don’t break.

Lesson 13. If you have people who sit next to you when you’re sniveling, you’re blessed. Don’t take them for granted. And return the favour. More than anything, I have realized over the last year just how much I am loved. I would never have stuck with me if I had a choice. I was a mess.

Lesson 14. Be honest with people, no matter how tricky the situation is. If someone else wants you, it only makes you that much more desirable as an investment. Don’t try to juggle job offers silently, it will only end badly.

Lesson 15. Don’t volunteer information. When it comes to money and jobs and careers, live on a strictly need to know basis. There’s so much more fun stuff to talk about.

Lesson 16. Laugh. Sing. Dress up. Don’t think about the future. Think in the short term—not further than your next cup of tea.

Lesson 17. ‘There is no such thing is happiness or misery. There is only the comparison of one thing with another.’ Don’t compare.

Lesson 18. Breathe. As long as there’s life, there’s capacity for happiness. Breathe. You’ll be fine, poppet.

Lesson 19. Keep moving.

The Kick the Carer Hypothesis

I have a little nephew. Well, a little nephew thrice removed. Or maybe like five times, since his mom is my cousin, not my sister, and was actually adopted by my aunt from another aunt, who adopted her from strangers. Anywho, the ‘questionable’ nephew in question is little, and that’s all that matters for now. Because like all little people, he loves bright, shiny things. And, also like all little people, he wants what he wants, and he hurtles towards it at godspeed before you can so much as stick a foot out to trip him. The problem is, he doesn’t know what it is he wants. I mean diamonds are bright and shiny, run towards them by all means and hold on for dear life. But fire? Also bright and shiny. Not necessarily something you want to hold onto.

So you end up watching this tiny creature, who has no clue what this bright shiny thing is, run towards it with single minded determination. Then, you run up behind him, grab him by his tummy, and swing him away from the flames. He howls, and shouts, and kicks away at you, hating you bitterly. Until the next shiny thing presents itself.  Ad infitum. 

Turns out, I’m a little person too. The littlest of them all maybe. Which would explain why at 5 foot 7, and 22 years of age, I am still a knee-high three year old when it comes to bright shiny things. Job offers, tall guys, PhDs, I run towards them with complete abandon. And then, just as I am close enough to reach out and grab it, someone grabs me by the waist and jerks me back. And I howl, and shout, and kick. But I’m growing up a little now. This time, when my hand was slapped away from the cookie jar, I didn’t cry. I believe God man loves me, at least as much ,and hopefully a little more, than I love my nephew. He was an active participant in my creation, and therefore has some vested interests in my survival. I really, really, really wanted the bright shiny thing. But I am not going to kick back now. Maybe by being denied, I just got saved big time.

But, if He is just doing this for fun, there will be words.

How Khalil Jibran Ruined My Childhood

I suffer from an overactive imagination. And I say suffer because my brand of whimsy is less rainbows and butterflies and children’s dresses made out of curtains, and more midnight panic attacks that my parents are trapped inside a painting. That nightmare was a particularly persistent one, revisiting every fortnight or so for three odd years. There was also the one where my parents were trapped by an evil witch on the top storey of our oldest house (we’ve had four so far). I was standing at the bottom of the staircase, trying to get upto them, but the witch wouldn’t let me! I was essentially trying to climb up an escalator the wrong way, and I kept falling down. And with every minute that I tarried, my parents grew younger and younger, and very convincingly so, might I add. My virtual, visual side effects would put Peter Jackson to shame. So the clock ticked backwards in high definition,  my parents shed their years before my eyes, and I tried in vain to get the them before they got to 38. Why 38, you ask? Well, because if my mother become younger than 38 years, it would mean she wouldn’t have been around long enough to give birth to me. There’s a horror story clincher for you. If you have no baby, you have no kid waiting to rescue you.

That’s the sort of suffering I’m talking about. If I didn’t dream in multiple time dimensions, with metaphysical impossibilities colouring my nightmares, I would probably have gotten a lot more sleep from ages 5 through to 17. Oh actually, scratch that, my last late night REM movie was actually a few weeks ago. I was woken up, at an ungodly hour, by my sister who was off to work, at said ungodly hour. Shaking my shoulder, she snuggled into the bed, trying to hide away from her work. More than half asleep, and more than half grumpy, I mumbled into my pillow, ‘Kingster, I just dreamt I was outside Teacher N’s house (our college counselor, who was supercilious and unhelpful throughout our final year, and then promptly took credit for our admissions). And she was in the garden, waiting to begin class, but we couldn’t get in. There was no gate, and no door, only a six foot brick wall surrounding the garden. So we looked and looked, and finally we found a small hole in the wall. All my classfellows climbed in, one by one, effortlessly. I was the last one left. And I got stuck. A plague on all their tiny asses. Anywho, there I was, literally stuck in Teacher N’s wall, while everybody else was already in, laughing at me. I was embarrassed, and disappointed, and confused. But I squeezed myself back out, and I started to climb over the wall. It took forever, I fell more than I rose, the class started without me right in front of me, but I didn’t give up. And then I did it. I climbed over the wall, and into the garden.’

I raised my head up a few inches, pried open my eyelids, and staring blearily in her general direction, declared, ‘You just have to climb over the wall, Kingo. Climb over that wall.’

She laughed. Raucously. Then she patted me on the head, and went off to work.

I like how God Man makes sure I’m never bored. I even have stories to tell from times I was literally asleep. No wasted minute. Experience wise that is. Achievement wise, I have wasted most of my existence.

If you were to think that my imagination works only at night, for a few hours, you would be severely underestimating the workings of my mind. I am capable of working myself up into a state about a completely imaginary problem when I am wide awake, surrounded by fact and reason. And I am capable of staying in that state for years. Queue the Khalil Jibran incident of 2003.

Back in 2003, I was 11 years old, and apparently had no recognition of my mother’s handwriting, or of the existence of a writer called Khalil Jibran. What I did have, was an old copy of The Love Story, which had belonged to my mother in college. On the very first page of this family heirloom, in an old world cursive, was an inscription.

‘Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.’

And underneath this beautiful, hand written message was a name. Khalil Jibran.

Now, I don’t know whether it was the suggestive name of the book, or the fact that the message was written in deep blue ink (the kind one associates with Mont Blanc pens and moonstone cufflinks), or the fact that Khalil Jibran sounds like the name of a Pakistani man. One of these things, all of the these things, kicked my imagination into overdrive. I was convinced that my mother had had a passionate, and completely non-physical, romance with Khalil Jibran in college. They had gazed wistfully at each other across the classroom, he had composed sonnets about her beauty, she had looked down at the floor and smiled softly when she passed him in the corridor. He had cradled a copy of The Love Story close to his chest, hoping she would look over and see it as a declaration of his intentions. She had. And then, on that fateful day, when he heard of her wedding, he had gathered the shattered pieces of his heart, pulled out his Mont Blanc pen, and signed over his book and his heart to her. He had slipped her the book in their last class together, whispering his Congratulations. She had looked down at the floor and smiled softly.

At 11, realizing your father isn’t the only love of your mother’s life is pretty devastating. What was even more worrying though, was the idea of Khalil Jibran resurfacing. I know he didn’t seek to possess her, but he could also mean that he would love her even if she belonged to someone else. Well, she belonged to me! And I would be damned before some two-bit college Lothario, shuffling along with his paperback novels and old fashioned ink pens would take away my mommy! So I prayed, and prayed, and prayed that Khalil Jibran would loose his way, that his ship would sink before he got back to Lahore (Oh, yes, he went away on a ship to make his fortune as a writer). I was extra nice to my mother, and just in case she didn’t notice my behaviour, I made sure to tell her, frequently, how good her life was. Great house, nice husband, precious daughter. Who would ever want to leave this little heaven?

It sounds amusing in retrospect, but at the time I was constantly living in fear of being ripped apart from my mother. And that time lasted for a good 3 years. I was 14 when I came across The Messenger. Thankfully, instead of being paralyzed by the fear that Khalil Jibran had now made it, big time, and would be returning for my mother, I opened the book. And realized Khalil Jibran was not Pakistani, and most certainly was not my mother’s contemporary.

This life I live in my head. It exhausts me.

In Memoriam

I went to a nun school. And while it definitely contributed to my obsession with toeing all lines, real, imaginary, or merely suggested,  I often feel it contributed little in terms of a classical education. The Sisters, focused on cultivating poverty of spirit and inculcating a desire to serve, had clearly decided to forgo a hard core education. If the meek are to inherit the earth, its best to set children up right from the start. No education, no success. No pride, no fall.

So I spent my childhood blissfully uninformed, gazing vacantly out of the classroom windows onto the huge flame of the forest dominating the school courtyard. Lessons didn’t revolve around content, the teaching seemed merely a well placed diversion between the actual highlights of the class: the greeting ceremonies. You see, every time a teacher entered the room, we all stood up, and intoned ‘Good Morning Ms. *Insert Name Here.*’ And every time the teacher left, we leapt up to our collective feet for a repeat performance, only this time we also expressed our gratitude for the enlightenment received. ‘Good Morning and Thank You Ms. *Whatsername*.’ The whole bow, kneel, greet routine was of such importance, the only time the  principal swept into our class, she came to chastise our motley crew of fifteen year olds for singing it instead of saying it. ‘Crisply!’ she roared, and we roared right back, our ‘Good Morning’s ringing out until we had got it down to under five seconds.

The nun-sicles may have skimped on the information, but they ended up giving us a childhood. I can’t remember ever wanting to skip school; to me it was like home, but with more people to play with. Sure, I spent my life in mortal terror of not finding a partner to stand with in the morning assembly, and often woke up in the middle of the night to polish my shoes, but those are little fears. No matter how little you are yourself, those fears are never big enough to swallow you. You’ll get scolded for dirty shoes, so you learn to polish them the night before. Problem solved. 

I didn’t grow up speaking French, or quoting Chaucer, or knowing where Ukraine is. But I grew up believing every obstacle was surmountable, every problem had a solution, and everything could be fixed. I grew up believing that we all get our just desserts in life. Even as a grown up, when life is anything but reciprocal and fears can swallow you whole, that’s a lesson I can’t forget. That’s one lesson I can’t thank them enough for.

I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about everything that went wrong, everything that could still go wrong tomorrow. And, purely by reflex, I reach for the shoe polish. Grown up shoe polish. Which, like grown ups themselves, is more elusive and less reliable than its childhood counterpart. But no matter how unreliable and ineffective it may be, I look for it. I polish my shoes. I try it, because that’s what I was taught. Its also all I can ever do. Try.

Another thing the nuns achieved, this one quite by accident, was to instill an unbearable thirst for knowledge in me. Its like that thing from New Girl, where Nick decides he’s  going to make his children beg for school, so they’ll appreciate it more. I appreciate school. I appreciate information. I appreciate it hard. One of the happiest moments of my life, I kid you not, was when our Physics teacher told us that weight is relative, and what we commonly refer to as weight is actually mass. I believe her exact words were somewhere along the line of, ‘Every time the shopkeeper says the weight is 500g, he’s making a mistake. The mass is 500g.’ This. Blew. My. Mind. My toes curled, my pupils dilated, my hair stood on its end. I had been initiated. I knew something that most people (I’m looking at you, candy shop guy) did not know. The universe, in the guise of my disinterested Physics teacher, had let me in on a secret. I was hooked. 

I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Its not because I know everything now. Its because knowledge went from being doled out like candy when you least expected it, a pleasant surprise on a Thursday afternoon, to a commodity that was grudgingly paid for and viciously fought over. Instead of being slipped into my hand, a well deserved tip from the gods, I was now supposed to fight over it, like a horde of cackling hyenas fight over a bleeding carcass. And fight I do, because I’m hooked. But I don’t enjoy it one bit. The gains, for all the work it takes, are ill gotten in my book. There is no rush anymore.

The closest I get to that rush today is when I pick up an old copy of Byron or Faiz, and read a verse that speaks to me. When I make a visceral connection over time and space with people who shared their wisdom and talent without any prejudice. When I am slipped a note across the centuries, proof that someone, somewhere, felt what I do, and dealt with it in the most magnificent way possible. When I see thirst turned into art, rather than pain.

Oh, and also when I get a free biscuit with my tea. That, is pretty fabulous. 

یہ جو سرگشتہ سے پھرتے ہین کتابوں والے
ان سے مت مل کے انھیں روگ ہین خوابوں والے

Stay away from these lost souls, clutching books to their hearts

They live in a land of dreams. 

Game, Set, Match

One man, one vote.
Thats democracy.
And in Pakistan, that’s always going to mean PPP or PMLN.
Because Pakistan is not just the 5000-ish people sitting in Azadi Chowk, its 190 million people. Most of whom are sitting at home glued to the television, or at small roadside cafes, glasses of milky tea suspended in mid-air, trying to make sense through the static of Radio Pakistan on an old transistor radio. Most probably though, they’re asleep, under a thatched roof in a village somewhere, blissfully unaware of this pusedo civil war raging through their land. I say most probably because probability, like democracy, is a game of numbers. And one old time player seems to be trying to overthrow this numbers game under the very guise of protecting it.

Pakistan is never Utopian, not even in retrospect, but its never been as Orwellian as it got today. Sure we’ve had martial law, and totalitarian regimes aplenty, but never have we had such a bizarre, even comical, political situation on our hands. An ex cricketer, with good looks and great accomplishments, has declared our government unconstitutional and our elections undemocratic, and pitched camp outside the Parliament with his little army, refusing to move until the Prime Minister resigns (the insinuation being that he himself will then jump onto the vacated seat). So is a handful of people, in no ways a majority, laying seige to the house of the Prime Minister and the government, demanding they move over and let them take power, diplomatic? Is it a much needed revolution? Or is it an illogical, unlawful, desperate, and Machiavellian case of sour grapes?

What Mr Khan wants is not democracy. He wants power. And he thinks his merry little band of followers, high on his takeover soundtrack and also with the prospect of how many calories they’re burning with said playlist, are ammunition enough to take on the state of Pakistan. Tempted as I am by the idea of a younger, cooler government, with better English and clothes and dance moves, I know that idealism is only worth so much. Its also tempting to vent some more about the dancing skeletor aka Chief Minister Khattak, Mr Khan’s pitchy rhetoric, his fondness for brunch, his uncouth and flamboyant vernacular, his holing inside a bullet proof vehicle while his workers suffer for his vision, and the fact that he finds absolutely nothing ironic about claiming to be the best man to run a country when his own province has issued a no confidence vote against him. And while I’m on that topic, let me point out that he has absolutely no problems with elections in that province because he actually won there. So elections are free and fair as long as Mr Khan wins? Because it is so inconceivable for people to want to vote for anyone else? Ego issues, please to move away from parliament house and to a psychiatrist’s couch.

Democracy isn’t a means for electing the most suitable, or the most idealistic, or the most popular, or the most charismatic politician. Its a means for electing the one with the most people behind him. And Mr. Khan hasn’t even managed to get 1% of the population to show up at his revolutionary parade. Ever seen the Oscars? Thats around 3000 people. Mr Khan’s crowd, not more than 10000. Pakistan, over 190 million people. And sure, Mr Khan’s followers may almost exlusively be the liberal educated elite, idealistic university students, young professionals, all of who want to see Pakistan blossom out of this narrow minded, poverty ridden stage, and arguably are best qualified to pioneer this vision. But these people are not all of Pakistan. Most of Pakistan is an agricultural enterprise, with millions living on, off, and for a tiny plot of land. They don’t know about the constitution, or solar panels, or laptops. All they know is their land, and their land often comes with a landowner. These landowners have their allegiance, and their votes. And that’s what democracy is: give each man a vote, and each man will look after his priorities. Their priorities are clear, so are their allegiances, and so is Pakistan’s democratic future. For better or for worse, a country with as much poverty as Pakistan will never democratically elect a third party if they could, instead, elect their bosses. Now maybe if only the liberal educated elite were to vote, with no financial restrictions, and an eye for male beauty, they might possibly elect Mr Khan. But that would not be democracy. The masses get a vote too. To quote the man himself (quoting Tennyson without crediting him) are they children of a lesser God?

Now given that he’s having such difficulties in grasping the concept of democracy, I think its best to take a leaf out of his own book, and explain this in terms of cricket. You know he was a cricketer right? He was the captain of the team that won the world cup. You didn’t know that? Well, thats understandable, its not like he brings it up every five minutes.

Anywho, in one of his rivetingly flippant 8 pm broadcasts (Pakistan’s answer to prime time television: just as juicy, but with a much higher mortality rate), he told us that he never lost because he never gave up. And he sure isn’t giving up now. The problem is, this match was played a while ago, the results have been declared, the other team has marched of the field and have been sitting in their offices with a big shiny trophy for a year now. The next world cup is in five years time, see you then. But Mr Khan is still standing mid field, bat akimbo, petulantly stamping his feet and refusing to move on with his life until there’s a rematch. But instead of 11 men (captaining whom in a game consisting of grown men hitting a ball, and then running between two wooden stumps as if their life depended on it, is not sufficient qualification for running a country), he now had a few thousand. Instead of a bat, he has a microphone, which he uses to make statements that not only lack diplomacy, but drip vemon to the extent of closing all doors for future collaboration with the government. And instead of an umpire, he has television channels, agog for ratings, an army, poised for action, and an international audience, warily looking on as the government of a nuclear power is weakened from within, and the very institutions of Pakistan are called inconsequential. And instead of being laughed at and off the field, for poor sportsman’s spirit, the possible outcome of this little tantrum could be the declaration of Pakistan as a failed state, with either the army, or boots of an international variety, stomping over our land.

And all I can do is wait and watch. This doesn’t feel like a democracy.

Cellophane Days

The light’s different in Pakistan. And I’m not talking metaphorically; quite literally, the sun shines differently back home. Like a kindergartner’s painting, the sun’s rays are very definitely yellow. Its almost like someone reached up and smoothed a piece of yellow cellophane over the sun, giving us our very own brand of desi, brightly coloured sunshine. And in these last days of summer, as the blinding summer haze melts into still winter mornings, there’s a mellow, almost apologetic, touch to the sunlight; a certain depth that casts a nostalgic shadow on even the most mundane of activities. 

Not that anything in Pakistan is mundane. Its like living in a land of magical realism; this is the country that both created and condemned Rushdie. Where else can you find a culture that stigmatizes homosexuality, reducing men with less conventional proclivities, or at least less convincing acting skills, to a joke, but also reveres the love between a male priest and his disciples so long as its cloaked in an appropriate amount of spirituality. Sufism, a lifestyle that transcends cast and creed, and lends itself to all forms of Islam, has been pioneered by poets who eulogized their love for their Sufi teachers in verse and song. The poetry is poignant enough to survive through ill-spent centuries and well-meant translations, and the love and longing in the words rings as clear today as it did then. And it rings loud too, Sufi music and poetry are the only common thread in the otherwise divided fabric of Pakistani society. Quite simply, they are the Pakistani equivalent of Shakespeare, the opera and a choir service rolled in one: reverential yet relatable, passionate yet euphemistic. And that, my friends, is magical realism. You pull up at the traffic lights on a Friday, listening to an Amir Khusro poem, the only thing the radio deems appropriate enough to play on the religious Sabbath. And as you listen to these ageless words, celebrating the beauty of the beloved, there is a tap on the window. You don’t turn around, this isn’t your first rodeo, and you know that if encouraged, the tapping will turn into a full blown street performance by the transvestite knocking at your window. You also know you don’t have to worry about being rude, this particular group has been ostracized by society so completely and for so long, they probably wouldn’t know how to respond to a kind word anyway. And so you continue to ignore them, shunning them for their blatant homosexuality, choosing to appreciate instead the words of Khusro, penned by a man, ostensibly for another. But ostensibly is not the same as blatantly. The quality of light changes. And that makes all the difference.

I wish I had noticed this years ago, when I woke up every day to this cellophane sun. But my particular brand of appreciation seems to work only in reverse; I realized how magnificent the summer days in Pakistan were by looking out at the snowfall in Manchester. The overwhelmingly white landscape glared at me, unfamiliar, shunning me with my unaccustomed eyes and requisite quilted ( read foreigner) coat. I shut my eyes, almost involuntarily, summoning up images of a more familiar land, and suddenly I saw the light. And I felt at home. Yellow sunshine, who would have thought?

I only wish I had seen the light sooner, and not just in the rear view mirror. I wish I had taken more pictures in the summer dusk. I wish I had listened to more Sufi music, really listened. And I wish, oh how I wish, I had rolled down my window at the first tap. I wish I had the courage to look at the man standing at the signal, his inexpertly applied make up running down his face, his garishly printed dress crumpled, his eyes closed, as if against the sun. Ostensibly. Instead, all I can do is close my eyes, and remember those golden days. My cellophane days. Translucent, transcendent, temporary.

The Pakistani Paradox: How Not to Steinem

Its been a while since we last talked, and man, do I have a legitimate reason for you. It seems like all the metaphysical angst in my life right now has decided to manifest itself in a physical form, rather like a malevolent spirit in a horror movie. And so, instead of an ever present yet intangible state of disquiet, I now have an ever present and very tangible headache. Not the kind that leads to flowly kaftans, ten minute naps and sudden bursts of creativity, but the kind that makes you curl up in a foetal position and cry for your mother. Which is not necessarily conducive to writing, so here I am, weeks late for my update. Oooh, I made a funny!

Appropriate, seeing as Pakistan is not just where funny lives, but where funny comes to die. There is no dearth for humor in this country, intentional or otherwise, provided you have a functioning sense of irony and a pillow to scream into when the jokes get a bit too close for comfort. I mean, even something as prosaic and inconvenient as buying sanitary napkins is a comedy routine here. You shuffle off to the grocery store, torn between judging and lusting after the designer bags being toted around in a country where most people live on less in a decade than a Birkin bag costs. You make your way to the diaper aisle, or as we like to think of it, the aisle of secret secretions. There, huddled between the Pampers and baby wipes, is a tiny pile of sanitary napkins, right next to a pile of brown paper bags. You make your secret secretion selection, pop it in the brown paper bag, tuck it discreetly in a corner of the trolley, and cover it up with more acceptable purchases. Like meat, and cereal, and cleaning products. Its only respectful. 

If you think speed and precision are the only skills needed for the monthly purchases, you underestimate this land, my friend. The real show starts when you reach the counter, where the inevitably male, middle aged, and extremely respectable cashier will now be your acting partner. Don’t worry, he’s completely clued in on the charade. I wonder whether they are trained for this during their inductions? And if so, do the store managers, the most male and respectable of them all, ever actually use the name of these shameful products? Or do they just grunt and point? Well, whatever strategy they use in these clandestine training sessions, it works. The cashiers are pros at this particular play, managing to pick up your little brown bag of shame, pry it open, scan the barcode, and deposit it in your bag before you could scream ‘Leper!’ Honestly, you would never know they have that capacity for speed judging from their normal service, which lies somewhere between disinterested and deliberately malicious. 

Some people would find this offensive and sexist. To those people I would say, you haven’t been to Pakistan. After a certain point, you have to stop sweating the small stuff. Literally, its like 40 degrees on a good day. 

Whats still offensive to me, and I hope I will never grow immune to that level of depravity, are the women-only magazines that are exclusive to, and representative of, a certain mindset here. The mindset that suggests qualifying as a dentist is just something you do to kill time till prince charming arrives. They also believe that domestic abuse is acceptable in moderation (I think the current consensus is don’t need a DNR, don’t need a divorce), the colour of your skin is a perfectly justifiable reason for your husband to leave you (the Raj-iculous complex), and that you are in no way equal, let alone superior, to your mate. The anti-Steinem’s if you will. Luckily, this is just one mindset. There are also lots of people like my father, who not only put his girls through university without a mating probability calculation, but was also so deeply offended by my mother’s suggestion that he possessed such a magazine, that he left the comforts of his study willingly, and shirtless, to assure her he has never read a single one. Not a one, he argued, holding up his entire magazine collection for her inspection. Not a one. 

And for that I am glad. Glad that it would never cross my mind to give up a definite career in hopes of catching a man, glad that I would never even consider using a skin whitening product, glad that I have a brain and a backbone to go with my heart. And particularly glad that on the days the mercury rises, and the service at the stores is so slow it would give a tortoise a superiority complex, my brother will occasionally skip the brown paper bag and watch the cashier squirm. Sometimes the only way to laugh at the small stuff, is by watching someone else sweat it.