Wednesday, December 29, 2010

43: The KC chronicles, part 1

It started with the Kinnaird College admission test my future roommates and I took "for fun". Going abroad had proved to be an expensive idea, LUMS had disappointed and the Karachi University promised us a few bullet wounds and bomb threats along with our B.A. degrees, which disturbed our gentle souls. Noor traded in her thin pure Urdu accent for Punjabi songs, Maryam momentarily gave up hope of art school and I convinced myself that the famous English program must really be worth it. Thus started our adventure in the alternate universe of Kinnaird College for Women Punjab, which has given us enough stories to entertain our grandchildren with for most of their lives.

The first mistake was probably wearing a polo shirt and cargos to the admission test. The second was not wearing matching bangles with the shirt. The third was finding my pen had run out of ink and asking a student for a pencil, only to be snottily told "This isn't LUMS, where we just hand out free stationery."

Fast forward about six days and there I was, not in LUMS with free stationery (I had until the test been unaware of this virtue of the other institution), but in the dorm room that I would live in until the following April. "It's very big!" said Maryam. "The building is very nice," said my aunt. "Hai! Is this what they meant by 'cot'?" exclaimed poor honest Noor, pointing to the three chairpais arranged around the room. Yes, it was what they had meant. We also had a rickety table and a closet partitioned into three. Like real troopers, the three of us set about making our room feel like home.

With the beds made, floor swept and a gigantic mattress precariously balanced on Noor's tiny chairpai ("I don't like the idea of bedbugs crawling into this ropey stuff"), we were officially KC hostelites. It's sweet how innocent we were that day, unaware of the experiences we would share over the next few months-or minutes. The hostel meeting that night cleared up any hope that may have lingered in our fluffy little heads about our college experience. We were summoned to "the fountain", where our warden would be briefing us about hostel rules.

"Karachi say ayee hain!" was the first thing I heard, from the girl standing behind me. I wondered whether to politely introduce myself. The next sentence decided that for me. "Karachi girls are very mod-squad" was the whisper to my left. "Alam Channa was from Karachi. Was he mod-squad too?" someone's friend queried. I resisted the urge to ask her if Alam Channa was the only thing she associated with Karachi. Besides mod-squad behaviour, that is. I quickly learned there were in fact many other things associated with Karachi: "fast" girls, hot weather, Muhajirs who didn't understand Punjabi, being spoilt, A Levels. Somehow the fast girls, hot summers, parallel education system and Urdu speaking population in Lahore was above censure, or off the radar. Oh, well.

The warden's lecture was even more interesting than the conversation taking place behind me. We were briefed about "blue cards" which would determine which female visitors we have permission to receive, gate passes, which would only be issued on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9pm, bedtime (which we were told was 10pm but we learned in about five minutes nobody cared about) and the dress code, which led me to make a panicky phone call home and shelf my jeans and kurtis away for a year. Meanwhile, Noor made long, weepy calls to her mother and Maryam despairingly dove under her blankets, where she remained for the rest of the year. It was a promising start to a ridiculous year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Every time Karachi bleeds, people scramble around looking for something to believe in. Once again, with almost 70 people dead in three days of violence, there are articles insisting that Karachi’s spirit, tolerance, pride and resilience will carry it through. Insisting that it will survive. Insisting that it will come out stronger.
I like to read hopeful pieces as much as the next person, but as much as I appreciate the feeling behind them, I’m getting tired of the sentimentalisation of Karachi and all its problems. People here aren’t resilient because of their fierce pride in their city. They’re resilient because they don’t have a choice. They are proud because they feel defensive about a part of the country whose problems are too often treated like they don’t belong to the rest of Pakistan. They are spirited because if you abuse and batter anybody’s home for long enough, they will eventually fight back. As for the tolerance-I don’t really see who can honestly call this city tolerant. It is tolerant of many things, but considering that most of the metropolis has been soaked crimson in ethnically-inspired killings, I wouldn’t ever call Karachi a place where we welcome outsiders with open arms.
There are beautiful things about this city, yes. Love for Karachi is love in spite of everything else. You will want to come home to Karachi simply because it is home, even though you know you won’t have electricity, running water or security at any given moment of the day. I’m beginning to wonder whether this is good enough anymore. Is it enough to be hopelessly, helplessly attached to a place while you watch it go up in flames? Do the people on the other side of the city, the ones whose children are being murdered and homes are being looted on an almost daily basis, feel this love? Or do they simply feel gut-wrenching, all-consuming grief?
Our sadness and our sentimentality will only take us so far. I say this as someone who has been sheltered on the “safe side” of this city. As someone who always maintained that the city will indeed bounce back. No, it won’t-I realize this now. It won’t bounce back, because it is too broken and too battered. Half of the city has been affected by the violence, while the other half have convinced themselves it is part and parcel of life in Karachi. The divide remains, between those who are hopeful and those who can’t afford to be. There is no great change coming unless the entire class structure-both literal and geographical, in this city-is altered. Until then, the best we can do is acknowledge how Karachiites who lost loved ones and protest on the streets every day are hurting-and acknowledge our privilege in not experiencing the same.  


In all nation-states, history is distorted to create convenient narratives. Our country is suffering not only from the usual propagandisation of the past, but also because its fiction is being ignored as a source of both art and inquiry. The truth in the works of Faiz or Manto might be uncomfortable for us to face, but responsible education should be structured around seeking truth rather than obscuring it; understanding history rather than ignoring it.

Saadat Hasan Manto is one of the best-known fiction writers from the turbulent period during which the subcontinent gained independence and was partitioned. His stories focus on the sense of dislocation caused by the Partition, were popular in his time, and remain so today, although rarely at an institutional level. “Mere Sahib”, a comparatively little-read short story by the author, raises questions about something that many Pakistanis have asked themselves-who was Jinnah? Based on conversations with Jinnah’s ex-chauffeur, the story provides food for thought about 1940s India, a period we frequently shelf away as the “before”.

Alternately funny and moving, the story is a refreshingly honest appraisal of Jinnah the man, rather than Jinnah the politician. Azad, the chauffeur, offers bits of his own psychoanalysis as well as glimpses into the everyday quirks of the man. It is perhaps as much a description of Jinnah as it is a portrait of the fan following politicians had the potential to attract, as well as an extremely honest picture of the interests and passions that moved individuals to participate in the Pakistan movement on a personal level. While Manto bases his story on an interview, it is through his literary lens that we meet its characters. The chauffeur’s viewpoint, while intriguing in its own right, is ultimately a literary device which the author uses to illustrate his own feelings about Jinnah and his legacy.

Manto describes Azad’s support for the Muslim League as enthusiastic and youthful and driven by his age more than anything else: he was young and wanted a revolution, he enjoyed the thrill of marches and protests. But as he mentioned himself, “it was a time when Hindus did not try to kill anyone who uttered the word ‘Quaid-e-Azam’” He candidly describes his obsession with seeing the Quaid in person as well as the reason he believes he was selected to be chauffeur: Jinnah liked healthy, good-looking men, he said, perhaps because of his own physical weakness.

Some points that raised the most important questions were the ones about Jinnah’s connection (or lack thereof) with the average Indian Muslim. Manto provides comic scenes where Azad imitates Jinnah’s attempts to speak Urdu, which are astonishingly terrible for a man who insisted on championing the language as a uniting factor for all Indian Muslims. His legal acuity, which is never questioned, is depicted through his pool game: “He would spend a long time in his analysis. From this angle. From that angle…but if another angle come to his mind, he would stop, think, make sure.” Manto also allows Azad to throw in his own opinions generously; how Jinnah was as careful in the game of politics as he was on the pool table, how he loved his shoes “because they were always at his feet and moved according to him.” He paints a three dimensional picture of his sahib: intelligent, generous, disinclined towards small talk, bitter, lonely, removed, admiring of physical strength and beauty. What stands out most for the author in his conversation with Azad is the last question he asks him: “Did you ever hear Quaid-e-Azam say I’m sorry?”, and the answer he received: that if such a thing did ever happen, Jinnah would have removed those words from the dictionary forever. For the author, this “sums up the entire character of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah” as far as he was concerned.

This bitterness is emblematic of Manto’s work about Partition, but its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s illustrates that it was a bitterness that many readers empathized with. Though I am aware that historical inferences through literature can be risky, I believe that “fiction…has provided an intense window on the personal experiences of 1947,” in the words of historian David Gilmartin. Fiction such as Manto’s cannot be taken for its factual value, but its popularity underscores the psyche of those who appreciated it. In a time when history, literature and art are all crying for their fair share of attention in Pakistan, Manto is only one example of an author who is largely ignored in formal education. If we really want to create a society where people are encouraged to think, inquire and above all, read, reclaiming authors who write in the vernacular languages would be a wise step to take.


A Mount Holyoke College brochure arrived in the mail today. For once, a college envelope was for my sister, not me. I admit I stole it-for a while. I took it to my room and stared at every page for a long time.
It was strange to think that I held a version of the same booklet a few years ago. It was strange to flip through it and see familiar faces, familiar places. It was strange to see a place you consider home being advertised to you. The whole experience of half an hour (yes, I spent that long on it) was a bit surreal.
There was a photograph of a group of students sitting around a professor in a politics class. I stared at that one for a long time. The round room, the long windows, the professor's face, the bottles of vitamin water on someone's desk-it was all so real. So rememberable. So rememberous. But it felt a million years away. It was the first time I thought "wow, that was a long time ago" even though it's barely been half a year.
Karachi has a quicksand quality about it. You fall in and you can't get out. I don't mean this as a bad thing, but once you're in it, you're hardly going to worry about what's outside it. It doesn't allow you to. I wonder if a few years from now, I'll look at photographs of Karachi and stare at them, because they are advertisements for a place I call home. I wonder if I'll recall the smell of gasoline, salt and warm air and long for it, the way I suddenly recalled the smell of falling leaves and my dorm room. When will I see something from my home right now and think-that was a million years ago?


It seems that for every step we take forward, we take two steps back. Pakistan has been unsuccessfully struggling with the concept of land reform for decades. As other Muslim societies move forward, ours is still debating whether or not the concept is Islamic.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s recent condemnation of the MQM land reform bill is unsurprising, but frustrating.

Keeping in mind that our constitution is not secular and religious hurdles to legislation will always be present, religious debates over certain issues have outlasted our tolerance for them. As long as our religious parties are populated mostly by political stakeholders, rather than Islamic scholars, their statements will be difficult to swallow.

It may well be true that Islam - narrowly defined as what was practiced during the lifetime of the prophet and ignoring all the religious scholarship that has been undertaken since - does not put a cap on how much wealth an individual can own. However, in the same vein, “Islam” in such a narrow context also does not have an opinion on modern farming practices. Or the MQM. Or feudalism in South Asia.

The list of things that Islam does not expressly forbid simply because they may not have existed 1,500 years ago is endless. It is vital for the JUP, or any political party for that matter, to advance beyond their present rhetoric and allow for deeper and broader interpretations of religious law. Simply saying that a law does not exist is not enough; certainly not when millions of Pakistanis are bonded labourers or languishing in the personal prisons of wealthy landowners.

Unfortunately, a resistance to either the bill or its detractors is likely to be turned into a brawl with bias and name-calling from both sides. The debate about whether Pakistan was intended as a secular or Islamic state rarely progresses beyond the simplistic allegations of “what Jinnah wanted” and turns ugly far too quickly.

With our (lack of) land reforms preventing economy or society from progressing, it is high time that creative dialogue is initiated on the subject. Until then, it is likely that the discussion about vitally important developments, such as breaking the backbone of feudalism, will remain mired in accusations of being either extremist or godless.


For anyone who still bothers reading this, I haven't been able to upload a thing for weeks. Now to get to the actual writing (and uploading stuff that's been getting published elsewhere in the blogosphere).

Friday, October 1, 2010


The Ayodhya verdict that was delivered yesterday showcased considerable maturity on the part of the Indian judiciary. I won't get into the specifics of how justice could be achieved on the issue of Babri Mosque, simply because that requires a discourse on Indian domestic politics from the 1980s onwards. Politically speaking, however, the decision to divide the land, and the manner of division, made absolute sense. Had the courts made a decision in favour of either side, there would have been violence and rioting, to say the least. A pro-Muslim decision would have been like gift wrapping more votes for the BJP, while a pro-Hindu decision would have spoiled the Congress' supposedly left-of-centre image and caused riots across the subcontinent.

My only objection to the verdict is the some of the issues on which it was based. The first question the court considered was whether Ayodhya was truly the birthplace of Ram. What business is it of the judiciary to be making statements about whether or not someplace was the birthplace of a god? It firstly assumes a belief in the divine, which strictly speaking, a secular state can not do. Secondly, it presupposes that such a divine figure had a physical birth place. Even if the court was making this decision based on theological advice from religious authorities, there is still no absolute way to prove where anybody was born, least of all for a court of law.

Secondly, it asked whether the Babri Masjid was built according to the tenets of Islam. Islam forbids the building of mosques on desecrated religious sites, which the spot in Ayodhya may indeed have been in the fifteenth century. On that count, the mosque might have been un-Islamic. However, the motivations of the Sangh Parivar in wanting to tear it down were certainly not the preservation of the true Islamic character of the mosque, so the issue should not have been treated as such. Also, it plunges the present Indian judiciary into the murky territory of litigating issues that arose literally centuries before the birth of the modern Indian state. How far back can one possibly litigate? Does this mean crimes committed in the colonial era are also for the Indian and Pakistani courts to decide on today?

The issue of Babri Masjid was deeply symbolic, and the judges in Lucknow did a good job of providing a reasonable verdict keeping mind the charged nature of the problem. However, if it had been treated like a case of disputed territory from the very beginning, rather than the ideologically-based struggle the RSS had hoped it would become, a great deal of communal tension might have been defused years ago.


I am so sick of the Dr Aafia case. I refuse to read a single more so-called news item about yet another politician jumping on the shewasinnocentUSAhatesmuslims bandwagon. She probably was innocent of the crime of which she was convicted-shooting a soldier. She probably was guilty of the crime of which she wasn't convicted-supporting Al-Qaeda. I doubt it matters one way or another whether her story is fabricated or not, since the courts have refused to try her for the terrorism allegations. The only thing worth mentioning in the entire case is that the United States ignored due process.

The fact that she was tried in a court of law although her arrest and detention were illegal and overseas shouldn't have been overlooked-by U.S. residents. For Pakistanis to be screaming themselves hoarse about a miscarriage of justice is ludicrous on several levels. For one thing, no amount of screaming in this country will make any difference to the American judiciary. For another thing, if due process for our citizens is really what anyone cares about, they should probably begin by standing up in defense of Pakistanis who have been languishing in prisons around the world since 9/11. They should probably demand that America return all the other people from this country who have suffered in the war on terror and been kidnapped or tortured by intelligence agencies without trial. They should probably make a hue and cry about all those who have lost everything at the hands of justice systems but haven't been lucky enough to be afforded the title of qaum ki beti.

Really, is this the only beti our qaum could find? Notwithstanding that Aafia Siddiqui might be innocent, this country has thousands of "daughters" who deserve justice a great deal more, by simple virtue of being Pakistani citizens and residents. However heartening it is to see our backward leadership supposedly making a stand for women's rights, it would be far more heartening to see them carry the fight to prisons where so many women are awaiting justice in our own obscenely sluggish courts. It's convenient how governments in both the East and the West decide to care about women's emancipation when it suits them; even more convenient when they find a single figurehead who will symbolize their good intentions. Not so convenient for us ordinary citizens is how quickly we are all forgotten. Do all women and illegally detained prisoners in this country need to be on the CIA radar to get attention?
The Pakistan government had a right to demand that Aafia Siddiqui be tried in court as a U.S. citizen (which she was) and be sentenced accordingly (which she was, whether anyone likes the verdict or not). The angry protestors on the streets, led by opportunistic politicians, however, have an obligation to be true to their supposed values and fight the good fight in the name of all torture, all sexism, all miscarriages of justice, all illegal detainment. We are tired of hearing the same old nonsense, and selective campaigning just won't do anymore.


I don't know anybody my age who has ever had faith in Pakistani democracy. It's a sad but true fact that those of us born post-Zia, having grown up watching the Benazir-Nawaz Sharif-Musharraf merry go round, can place little faith in concrete change. At any rate, things to seem to be getting progressively worse. It is rare to find a country where children are born to parents who remember a more liberal and tolerant society, but we are living in one of them and are used to our elders' reminisces about What Used To Be. Why do I find myself looking forward to the 2013 elections then-if they ever happen?

For someone who came out of the womb feeling cynical about our leaders, I am excited at the thought that I might be able to exercise my vote to throw a government out. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen, but the prospect is exciting. The last time the country held elections and made the tragic mistake of bringing the current regime into power, I couldn't have cared less. I was newly eligible to vote and couldn't find a single contender I wanted to see in office. This might be the case again. I'm just curious to see whether anything new comes up in the next three years. I'm curious to see whether our collective national frustration will be exercised in the voting booth rather than on the streets with bombs strapped to chests. I wonder if this is what people in real democracies feel like-do they look forward to exercising their right to try and kick someone out, rather than bringing someone in?

Sure, it might not work. Sure, the next guy might be worse, who knows. Something tells me though that Pakistanis have had enough, and no matter how hard we try, we can't ever as a nation seem to give up our obsession with politics. Bring on the elections; I think more of us might want to vote this time. We might actually have Zardari to thank for something after all-he's inspiring us to have hope in democracy long enough to see his sorry ass leave.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


When I was twelve, I would tell people that when I grow up, I'm going to plant sunflowers all over Karachi. I thought of starting a campaign that would leave the streets clean and tree-lined, with flowers bursting out of every corner. I imagined I would do it, because I was sure of myself, sure that my plan would succeed. I imagined the idea would be embraced by all Karachiites, because who wouldn't want to look out their car windows and see the upturned faces of bright yellow flowers?
I dropped watermelon seeds into some dirt once, waiting for a plant to grow. It didn't. I put it down to my black thumbs, but looking back, it probably wasn't my thumbs, only my innocent desire to believe I had so much control over the unyielding patch of dry earth.
In Karachi, "sore eyes" takes on a whole new meaning. I feel as if my eyes are literally aching for a hint of beauty. I stare out my car window when I pass through Saddar and Old Clifton, trying to absorb the finer points of the architecture and old trees through the ugly structures surrounding them. Last time, I scanned the roads for a place, any place, where I could scatter a few seeds, in case I ever launch my plan of so many years ago. I couldn't find one that hadn't been trampled on by tar or cement.
The thought that there is no place for anything to grow makes me panic a little.
The thought that Karachi's soil has become hardened, hostile, disbelieving. An earth that questions why I would even want sunflowers.
I'm not someone who hungers for natural beauty or simply likes to see a lot of trees around. Trees would be lovely, but I would take anything at this point. I smiled a little when I saw that someone had installed pretty little lights along one road which happened to have electricity. Then I noticed all the lights were shaped like the Kaaba. There is nothing wrong with expressing your love for the Kaaba, but is a religious reminder the only reason anyone will do anything anymore? What happened to beauty for the sake of beauty, lights for the sake of lights?
Beauty might be low on the list of priorities for this city's residents, but I think a few flowers might do us all a lot of good.


On some days I write essays that I choose not to share with the world. This doesn't mean I'm not writing one every day, it just means I won't blog it. I'm going to keep numbering the ones on the blog in order though, cause I like the way it looks.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


I can never recall what day it is, where I kept my cell phone or what I had for breakfast this morning, but I have a ridiculously good memory for irrelevant things that happened very long ago. Unfortunately, I wasn't bestowed with the gift of an incredible short-term memory, so I can't ever really pride myself on remembering things. I do, however, take the phrase "ringing a bell" to a whole new level. Bells go off in my head about five thousand times a day, as random smells and colours and comments remind me of something that happened when I was two or six or eleven.
It's usually instantaneous. I can never explain this to people who don't have a good sense of smell or an olfactory memory, but the smell of the air can take me back in a second to another day fifteen years ago which had the same smell. If there is a slight breeze which smells like traffic, chances are I will have a flashback to opening my car door in 1992. You can probably imagine how I spend most of my time having tiny little flashbacks. I've tried telling people I'm not spaced out or anything, I just keep remembering things. Nobody gets it. If you get it, please share it with me.
The other day, something literally rang a bell. The tiny ghungroos at the bottom of someone's window blinds moved and instead of the usual clear flashback, I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it reminded me of. I remembered something round, something silver, something to do with a spoon, something to do with my grandfather, a yellow toybox, a room with high ceilings. It took me longer than usual to piece together the irritatingly disconnected rememberings into a coherent aha moment. Someone gave me a real silver rattle when I was born, which lay around our house for a long time. It made the exact same sound as the tiny ghungroos on the blinds.
What amazing satisfaction it gave me to remember.
This means I don't really have an amazing memory. I just remember what I rehearse, and thanks to my sense of smell, I've rehearsed every stupid moment of my life because it corresponds with smelling something. Apparently, back when I had silver rattles, I paid more attention to sound than smell.
Since I'm a would-be historian and not a would-be psychologist, I have no idea what this says about the human brain, but it says plenty about the past. No wonder I'm obsessed with the past when I return to it (on a micro-level) so many times a day. It just takes me one step closer to my time-machine fantasy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Let me first say, I will obviously not manage my goal of one hundred essays in one hundred days, thanks to my ten-day hiatus from the blogosphere. In a hundred and ten days, maybe. But not a hundred. The disappointment of this was preventing me from jumping on my laptop and writing an essay yesterday, while I was still in my "what's the point if I don't get a hundred in a hundred" funk, but I got over it. I usually get over things pretty fast.
So...I'm back! And how I missed my daily exercise. Contrary to what you might believe, it was neither laziness nor lack of inspiration that kept me away from writing. Still, the break was good. It taught me a lot of things, one of them being that I need to write simply because mental notes They just don't. When beautiful ideas go floating past you in your sleep, there is absolutely no point in telling yourself you will wake up and record them, because by morning, all you'll remember is the missed opportunity.
I also learned that a break can provide enough time to think of all sorts of essay ideas that were missing before. Where ten days ago I was pestering everyone I knew for whatdoIwriteabout? tips, my brain is suddenly exploding with ideas. I don't think I'll be able to stop when my hundred days (or hundred and ten) are up. Every day that I skipped an essay, I felt anxious and unsettled, like I hadn't put on the right underwear or had forgotten to brush my teeth. I also felt guilty. There are stories demanding to be told in the world, and I haven't been telling them.
It's good to be back.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


When I go to watch a movie in Karachi, I am willing to overlook all the things that are common to the city. I don't complain about the electricity going in the middle of an interesting scene, the terrible print, the bad bhangra songs that blare in the intermission, the fact that there is a 20 minute intermission at all...none of it really bothers me. The only thing that seriously does is the ridiculous number of babies that people bring to watch movies that are rated R for language, sex and violence.

You might think it is cringeworthy to watch embarrassing scenes on TV with your parents or grandparents, but think again. There is nothing as cringeworthy as hearing someone on a big screen say "Suck my dick, asshole!" before slitting someone's throat, while parents and their toddlers happily share their popcorn. You might think I have no right to judge, but honestly, some people just shouldn't reproduce. I don't care if they can't afford maids or nannies and don't have anyone to babysit. The quality of the cinematic experience in Karachi isn't so amazing that you can't live without it until your kids are old enough to either understand the movie or stay home.

For a country that has adopted an extremely prudish attitude towards sex, some people seem remarkably cool with kids absorbing inappropriate sexual references with their baby food. Do you really want to shush your five year old when he asks "What does he mean he took off her clothes?" in a packed theatre? Can you really enjoy any film knowing that your 3-foot-high genius is going to tell all his friends what the F word is? Do you really want to spend 500 rupees on giving your children this educational experience?

My anxiety at the sheer amount of bad parenting and stupid life choices around me prevent me from really enjoying any movie. Yes, I am easily distracted. You try to passively pay attention to a screen when a week-old baby is wailing its lungs out because its parents have brought it to a war movie full of people's heads being blown off. You try and have fun on a night out when you wonder why someone doesn't realise that their nearly naked infant is probably howling because it's freezing in the theatre. It's like tolerating child abuse for an hour and a half straight.

Then people wonder why so many idiots make it through our educational system. Look at how they're being raised! I bet Zardari also enjoyed his little family night at the Bambino cinema. It obviously did wonders for his personal growth. This is where it all begins. Age 1.5, seated at the Seaview Cineplex, watching Cameron Diaz sexually proposition Tom Cruise before one of them is shot.

And you thought Uncle Sargam was a little creepy.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Being an adult sucks. I'm not one of those people who just wakes up one morning and panics at the realisation of responsibility. Contrary to what a lot of people might believe, I'm almost always responsible. I almost always have been, to a thoroughly boring extent. That's why I can't believe how difficult it is for me to adjust to the daily grind of a steady job and no school.

I've tried in vain to find something very wrong with my job. I've tried criticizing it from every angle in the one month I've been employed. I've overthought my general lack of excitement and happiness in the past few weeks. There is no good reason for it. I'm just bored. Adulthood is boring.

I terribly miss my own time. I had planned to do so many things once I have time. There are so many things to do. There are so many things to do before more responsibility sets in. Theoretically, I have more time now than I did in college, but I know now that being an "adult" isn't about doing what I want. It's about learning that I usually can't. That I usually won't be able to. That there really isn't any such thing as my own time.

I used to pack my day with so many things to do I barely had time to breathe and literally didn't have time to sleep or eat. I thrive on pressure. On productivity. What is it about sharing my life with others again that has slowed it down so much? Suddenly, I have gone from nonstop action to far too much waiting around. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting to learn patience, waiting to be able to do what I want. It terrifies me that a time like that might never come. I hate self-help books that tell you to seize the moment, the time is ripe, blah blah blah. It's not that easy, I want to scream. On what planet do people with work and loans and families and curfews suddenly take control of their own lives one fine day?

Is growing up about giving up? Is it about finding a place in what they call our collectivist society and falling into it? Is it about cutting back on what you want to do to accomodate everything else? Because it can't be. The past few years of my life can't have been an isolated bubble. I know I can do five thousand things a day, and not being able to drives me INSANE.

Wish me luck. I will either abandon adulthood or my sanity, because I'm not giving up.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Dear Punjab government and censorship authorities,
While we all know that the prosperous, peaceful times we live in must leave you all with plenty of free time on your hands, your latest act of stupidity belies that you might be a tad overpaid for sitting around debating nothing. Of all the inane things to do, you have decided to ban the one Hindu cartoon that airs in Pakistan. The one program in the plethora of absolute crap which we are forced to bear on our television screens, which was the easiest possible target for you. After all, with only a million or two Hindus around, you can easily avoid the tire burning brigade that you would ordinarily come up against.

I was a bit confused when I first heard that one program on TV is supposedly going to corrupt our children's pure Muslim morals, go against our Pakistani culture and encourage citizens to fraternize with the enemy. I suppose if I'm fair, you might have a point though. Watching an animated Ganesh or Hanuman dance across a screen for 30 minutes a week can in fact brainwash our impressionable youth into believing they should renounce Islam, cross the border, double-cross the ISI, sell their souls, etcetera. After all, we have already observed how Dora the Explorer has duped our kids into believing that they are Hispanic, and Sesame Street into forcing us all to think we are hairy muppets and should refer to ourselves in the third person. I suppose if you give a decent amount of thought to the topic, it can be inferred that Hindu cartoons will cause mass conversion to Hinduism. The fact that your faith in Islam or what you call your Pakistani culture is quite so delicate that it requires censorship to maintain is irrelevant, I suppose. To each his own, but at the rate you are going, oh holy ones, I'm afraid your souls might need more saving than the children who misguidedly watch animated shows about mythology.

I might have to put the (lack of) logic in the actual desire to censor aside for a minute though, since God knows censorship is awfully arbitrary these days and I have no control over what you choose to make your issue of the day. However, I am compelled to point out a slight problem with your definition of "Pakistani cultural heritage". I dislike mistakes; I think if you are going to make a point and defend it against all odds, you should at least do us the service of getting your facts right. You might have skipped eighth grade (chances are, with your fake degrees you probably did), but um-we didn't actually inherit our culture from an alien land. The lines that were drawn across the subcontinent in 1947 did not unfortunately erase about a millenia of heritage that we got from being-don't shoot me-Indian. I hate to break it to you, but some people across the border (the Hindu kind) actually speak the same language as us, not to mention other equally unfortunate similarities. A little deduction will lead you to the conclusion that we might share a little culture in common with Hindus. I hate to break it to you, but denying that Hinduism and its mythology plays a part in your pure Pakistani culture would require that you stop eating biryani. Immediately. It's not our cultural heritage. From now on, you might want to consider a ban on all food that doesn't originate from the holy land, because it doesn't fit too well into our culture and all.

I know that was hard for you to hear. I know you probably stopped mid-bite to consider the misery of giving up your God-given right to enjoy the best parts of your culture. I know you are reconsidering your obsession with being Arab (and therefore a better Muslim by your own definition). But please, don't let me distract you. You have to get back to business. I suggest that you start by banning a certain fake cleric whose show advises your children to kill Ahmaddis in the name of Islam but spare chipkalis in case they are really jinns in disguise. Then you might want to move to ban news shows which barge into the tents of flood survivors who observe purdah and terrify them into sharing their stories because misery sells. Maybe when you're done with all that, you can spare a glance for a Hindu cartoon. You know, the one that a few thousand Hindu kids who can afford TV like to watch so they feel like their cultural heritage isn't being ignored. While you're at it, feel free to eliminate TV shows with yourselves airing your moronic opinions, because I am afraid that being exposed to such content makes me think in expletives that are not becoming to a Pakistani Muslim at all.

Yours sincerely,

A still-Musalman who watches TV.

Friday, September 10, 2010


There are plenty of negative things people associate with living in Pakistan-security concerns, loadshedding, food poisoning. One item which really needs to be added to the list is uncertainty. Uncertainty dominates life in this city, if not the entire country. Our government loves to surprise us: we never know for sure if we will have electricity or not, if schools will be open or not, if buses will be running or not, if roads will be flooded or not, if tomorrow is Eid or not. I won’t digress by going into the macro-level uncertainties of whether the judiciary is independent or not and whether parliament is supreme or not, I’ll save that for another day. The last of my micro-level concerns (is it Eid or is it not) is my favourite one on the list.

Well, is it? I sometimes forget that we see the same moon in Pakistan as people in Saudi Arabia or America or Indonesia. You would think that each Muslim country is apportioned its very own special moon, with varying levels of brightness and visibility. Kind of like a lucky-draw system: who’s going to get the visible moon this year? Joke’s on you if you’re the one commissioned with an extra day of fasting, but your moon didn’t really cut it this time. Somehow, southern Pakistan is always the team with the no-show Eid moon every year, with our fairer-skinned brethren up north joyfully declaring it a day before everyone else, almost traditionally. Apparently, the north-south divide can’t even agree on the date anymore. Peshawar will continue to gallop ahead into Shawwal while Karachi will freeze its shami kebabs and kheer for an extra day.

It’s not the actual fact of it not being Eid which I’m classifying as irritating. If anything, the country’s failure to decide if it wants to celebrate Eid or Jummat-ul-Wida is just funny, and since we’re only 29 rozas in, one can’t really complain. The irritation lies in the perpetual what-if game this country plays with your head all the time. Can someone just offer us a tiny bit of certainty around here? Maybe not a macro level, but please, please, on a smaller level? Just figure out a way to decide if schools will be closed after bomb blasts or not. Start quantifying how terrible violence needs to be for the city to shut down. Maybe even be super-efficient and announce load-shedding schedules in the newspaper? How about ditching the Ruet-e-Hilal committee and following a country which has less controversy around celebration?

At the end of the day, it’s the little things which save (or compromise) your sanity. Larger problems can be dealt with on a crisis-basis, but the smaller ones whittle away at your patience and make you wish some things could just be set in stone, for once.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Living in Karachi, watching the news every day and trying not to spend too much time dwelling on the possibility of watching this city-or country-imploding is exhausting. Trying to quieten the noise in my head, sometimes I feel as if I might collapse along with this bleeding metropolis.

It makes me wonder how you break a city, a state. Does the world break cities the way it breaks men? Is it a violent tearing to shreds, or is it a slow erosion? Or is it all in my head? Perhaps it's just the buzz in my brain. It confuses me.

What is it about this city, this country, which leaves us so unhinged by its grief? A friend from another country asked me once why I want to go back home, why I don't try to make a difference to another country, another people. I told her the truth: because it's home. She didn't understand.

You can hear the dying pulse of this country, like a soundtrack from a bad hospital-based soap opera. You can put your finger on it and it feel it throb slowly, feel its heart struggling to keep pumping blood. You can wonder why you have such a visceral attachment to a set of borders you profess not to believe in. You can wonder why you believe it is important to live and die in a place just because you're told it's your own. You can wonder why people who leave continue to follow its politics obsessively and donate to it generously.

You can wonder.
But you can't get away.

Monday, September 6, 2010


It was Nano's house, but it wasn't really. I only thought it was. It's important that I thought it was, because I wasn't the only one-we all thought it was. My aunt was making us sleep on a gigantic psychedelic blanket. It was tacky and fuzzy and had Disney characters all over it and I thought it was odd that she gave a strange, high laugh and said almost manically, "How cheap!" even while she asked us to like it. She pointed out Mowgli, from Jungle Book. There were so many guests-all my parents friends, even though they didn't belong at Nano's house at all, and one carried around a baby and asked me about daycare practice. When the table was laid for dinner, there was a secret plate of biryani on a chair, just for me, just because I had asked for it. Suddenly, I remembered I needed to go to class and ran to the kitchen with my plate of food to hand it back to the cook. Everything in the kitchen was black and white, no colour at all after the insanely bright colours indoors, but I cheerfully foisted my plate on the grouchy cook and continued running. "Class" turned out to be geology class, and it was inside a salt mine. I had a long, long conversation with a science student who asked me about my research. I told her finding original sources for history papers is basically time travel. It was a while before I remembered, with a kind of longing, that my biryani was still waiting for me at home, that Nano's house was full of the people I loved. I ran again, this time through Mount Holyoke. Ran through the familiar campus, ran past the familiar buildings, ran smelling the familiar winter-smell. I stopped only to appreciate the familiarity and laugh at the sheer brilliance of running in the cold through a place that feels like a home. I wondered what it would be like to be a horse.

The inside of Nano's house was black and white, but I was in colour. I was real. The table was still laid, but abandoned. It's then that I realised everyone is dead. Everyone died before I was born. The people I loved only existed in time travel; they had lived and died and I had never known them but through my sources. The chairs were really graves. My brother's grave had his face on it and I almost died of shock. It said 1947-1955, and for some reason I thought, so he died only five years before me. I woke up, but I remained insane for the rest of the day.

Disclaimer: I had this dream in April. Please don't worry about my mental health.


I've been asked by a non-Pakistani to give American college students a reason to care about Pakistan. A reason to care. A reason to care? Can you give anyone a reason to care?

The fact that this is considered a legitimate question is disturbing. This is not to say that it is an irrelevant question: on the contrary, it is one that people around the world are asking so often we have become used to it. People need a reason to give a damn about Pakistan. Why Pakistan, they ask, when there is so much need in so many places around the world?

I admit this initially left me stumped.

Then it hit me that the reason I am stumped is not because there is no reason to care, but because apathy is not something that can be addressed through logic. I can make any number of political arguments as to why the average American should consider donating to the cause of flood relief, but this is not a political crisis (for once). It is not connected to the war on terror (for once). Therefore, it logically follows that neither of these things should play a role in one human's desire to help another.

I already said there was no point in logical arguments though. The only plausible reason I can give would-be philanthropists is this: if your parents had drowned, your home had collapsed and you were watching your child die a slow death because you have no money left to afford malaria treatment, you would hope to God someone would help. You would hope to God that someone wouldn't waste time asking why they should. You would hope that someone wouldn't think twice about giving your child a shot at life because your president is an asshole.

Did anyone ask why they should care about Haiti? Sri Lanka? Kashmir? Russia? None of these states have avoided either corruption or political instability. It seems there are only questions in response to this question. They are disbelieving questions. I can't believe the world has come to a point where humanitarian aid is considered on the basis of the strategic value a country has.

On a different, but important note, the argument about terrorist groups winning hearts and minds if the United States does not step in is overrated. I think it is extremely doubtful that if Mullah Omar inadvertently saved my life by donating a pack of biscuits when I am starving, I would join Al Qaeda. I think it is even more doubtful that flood survivors who are being forced to fast and pray by relief organisations will be inclined to become suicide bombers. I won't even try and make that case for Americans to care about the crisis in Pakistan. I don't think I ethically can. If winning the war on terror is the only reason you have for donating to a cause, please don't.

Which leaves me with nothing to say again. Need I try and say more? Your question is offensive and if you are asking me to give you an antidote for apathy, I'm afraid nobody has found one so far.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


I've been thinking about the last straw that broke the camel's back. I've been picturing it a lot. I wonder what my last straw is, what it will be. I wonder sometimes if I already broke my back, but forgot to notice. I know I've broken it a few times already and it feels like every year there are more occasions, more days, when I am left broken, exhausted.

Usually, if I wake up less than happy, it's a sign that the last straw is coming right at me like a flying cockroach. It makes me wonder how often we collapse, how often we need to collapse to retain our sanity. There is the kind of hurt that puts your teeth on edge, and then there is the kind of exhausted hurt that crumples you like a worn-out tear-stained pillowcase.

It makes you wonder if being adult requires a regular dose of anxiety.

We should all allow each other to breathe more often. Being adult (but not adult enough) feels like not breathing and exhaling once every ten days or so. It feels like balancing on a narrow curb like you used to when you were a child and suddenly remembering you're not a child anymore and you're just...balancing. On worse days, last-straw days, it feels like a dream in which you suffocate.

It's probably the only way to appreciate a good night's sleep I suppose.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I wondered today why I keep coming back to this blog, day after day, forcing myself to write an essay whether I'm in the mood or not, whether I'm exhausted from work or not, whether I have time or not, whether I have anything to write about or not. I've never had trouble with commitment, but god knows I've never been this diligent or dedicated to anything else before. The truth is, this project has come to mean much more to me than I had ever considered it would. Now that I'm finishing the first quarter of my goal, I already find myself wondering what my next project will be. What is it about one essay a day that keeps me awake writing even through a bout of gastroenteritis, a ridiculously long week at work and personal commitments that leave me busy till midnight?

It's true what the self-help books say about setting goals for yourself, but writing every day is less about keeping myself busy and more about proving to myself that I can do whatever it is I decide to do. When I fail to write, I fail myself, not because what I am writing is important, but because if I can't even manage to do what I love for one hundred days, how will I ever do anything else with any amount of dedication?

Writing-and writing publicly-forces me to be an even tougher critic than I am on an ordinary basis. I constantly put myself down over the content, style, length and frequency (I don't always do one a day, sometimes I skip days and make up with more than one on an extra-creative day) of my blog. It's a way for me to censure and congratulate myself in equal measure, to feel like I am doing something that matters, because I'm doing it without anyone asking me to. As much as I would like to believe some anonymous syndicate likes to privately follow my blog and will call me Day 100 to offer me a job, I know it won't happen. What will happen though, is that I will have proved to myself in one hundred ways that I can do something just because I can.

Friday, September 3, 2010


For the past forty minutes, I have unsuccessfully tried to write an essay about something other than how much I miss college, but I've failed. Clearly. Nobody should ever spend that ridiculous an amount of time to come up with a first paragraph, but since I have, I may as well write what I keep going back to. Otherwise, I'll just sit here and stalk my friends on Facebook and wish I was sitting on my bed surrounded by piles of clothes and semi-unpacked luggage, making plans for a reunion pizza dinner with them.

Let me first clarify that I don't actually want this. Actually, all I want is to find a place where I can have constant intellectual stimulation, beautiful surroundings, friends who live next door, a non-long distance relationship, family nearby and a real job. In other words, I want to be back in college without leaving either the people I love, or the financial security I am coming to love. I had already weighed all these pros and cons in my head about a million times before I left home for college and then again before I graduated. It would be wrong to say I didn't know how much I would miss it, because I knew exactly how much I would miss it. But oh, how I miss it. So much.

One thing I deliberately avoided thinking about before I left was that saying goodbye to Moho was a different kind of goodbye. It wasn't like saying goodbye to anyone or anything else, because I don't know if I'm ever going to see it again. I can hope to see it again, but if I do, I don't know when it will be. And when I go back, I don't know if it will mean anything to me anymore. I've never been so fiercely attached to any other place before and I've never knowingly left something I won't get back before. I know this is standard: people don't usually hope to go bounding back to college right after they graduate. I miss who the place let me become. I miss it because it was the first place that was just my own, with everything on my own terms. Perhaps I got used to being selfish, but it's a heady feeling to be used to. That's why, when we drove to Bradley Airport for the last time through the campus, I pretended I was going back, or I would have gone crazy with the private goodbyes to the only place where I have ever really been alone.

It's wrong to say alone, though. I was never alone and can hopefully count on never being alone. I hope one day, I am like a member of the class of 1940, who attended their seventieth reunion in all their ancient glory, all five of them who are still alive. I hope one day, I do see it again and it does still mean something to me. For now, I seriously need to grow up, but I do hate goodbyes. So much.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I am completely obsessed with lists. I love lists. I love making them, reading them, counting items on them, crossing things off them, putting little check marks against them. I know this makes me a hopeless dork. Every essay I write comes after an inner battle not to write in entirely list form. It's not my fault I think in bullet points, after all. Nobody believes me when I say that, but it's true. I think in headings, subheadings and bullet points under the subheadings. Putting things eloquently isn't a talent of mine, but at least putting things neatly is. Today, I decided to give up the battle. I've proven my resilence, I've shown the world I can try and be all creative and flowery paragraphy with 21 normal essays. It's time to break out the lists. Here is my Great List of Why I Love Lists.

1) You never forget what to buy at the grocery store. There's never any "oh shit I went to the supermarket and I didn't pick up shampoo". There is only the satisfaction of making a comprehensive shopping list and checking things off it. Not only does it save time, it also helps prevent the "I went to Target to buy scotch tape and came home with a throw rug" conversation which is so apt to come up at least several times in your college career.

2) It makes writing papers (or essays) ten times easier when you have a mental list of what to say. In the case of academic papers, it also makes it much easier to pad your work with bullshit, because it's evenly distributed across the list of relevant stuff. I've noticed non list-makers tend to write very pretty papers, but their bullshit distribution can be a little off-all the nonsense tends to be concentrated towards the end, when there is a struggle to meet the word count.

3) You can start your daily to-do list with things you already did, or that you know will get done anyway (breakfast? Print homework?) just because it makes you feel awesome when you cross them off. In other words, there's nothing like a (fake) list to start your day off right.

4) It's easy to keep track of pretty much everything in your life. I have made lists of places I want to see before I die, things I need to do this week, books I will never read (*cough* Twilight *cough), 90s trends that need to come back and ways I would change my face if I was a Metamorphmagus. In case I or anyone else ever need to refer to these things, I've got it covered. Think of me as your grandfather's gigantic filing cabinet with all sorts of useless crap in there, but very well-organised crap.

5) It makes you feel productive. I have to admit that there were days when I went to the library, thought very hard and produced a brilliant list of everything I need to study. I don't mean jotting down all my homework, I mean a truly epic list, with suggestions and charts and all sorts of embellishments. By the time I'm done with this list, I feel like I deserve a break. Who doesn't like that glow you get when you know you absolutely deserve the nap you are taking?

6) Lists can go on forever. I can occupy myself endlessly making lists of just about anything. There's no getting bored when you have a list-maker in your head. There's also no running out of writing material. If you ever get tired of constructing paragraphs but still have a point to make, a list just might save your day.


I don't think there is anything our nation loves more than a good conspiracy theory, except perhaps biryani and cricket. Of course, when conspiracy theories are discussed over biryani while watching cricket, you have the formula for happiness. I doubt any of us are completely immune to the temptation of believing that either Israel or India is behind everything wrong that happens to this country, but some of us are worse than others, and some conspiracy theories are more creative than others.

One of my current favourite theories is that the Indus flooded because India made it happen. Bund breaches and badly-built dams aside, the idea that the Indian state was doing some kind of incredible rain-dance imploring us to have exceptionally heavy monsoons is brilliant. Clearly, Indians' ability to make it rain at will has not helped them irrigate their own land or feed their own people, but it's just so typical of Hindus to be interested in nothing but our downfall. What's more, they are able to infiltrate the ranks of our hardworking NGOs and play a sneaky double-game in which they offer 20 million rupees in aid while conspiring to kill flood survivors. Since India possesses such great supernatural powers, perhaps we should ask them to target specific militants the Pakistan army is after. That way, it will only rain on the bad guys, and everyone will be happy.

It's not just Indians who are out to get us, though. The Israelis want us all dead too, but I suppose that goes without saying. As a nation of unified Muslims, we are the Palestinians' greatest resource in the intifada. Our material assistance is of no importance, because what the Israelis really want is to eliminate our support for Hamas. That's why they decided to go for the jugular and defame our cricket team. Cricket=happiness=good national morale=sense of brotherhood=concern for our Palestinian brothers=nuclear ally for Hamas. Trust Jews, who have done nothing but persecute us since the very birth of Islam, to engineer false allegations against our national heroes through the media that they obviously control. Because remember: every powerful media company is owned by Jews, and every Jew is an Israeli, and every Israeli is a Zionist, and all Zionists want Pakistan to suffer. There's a page out of Zaid Hamid's book if you lack the patience to sit through one of his lectures. That is really all you need to know to be a fan of the guy.

Then, of course, there was America to blame for everything. Unfortunately, we are one conspiracy theory down because their role in our misery is not only obvious and therefore uninteresting, they've already acknowledged it publicly and are giving tons of aid in guilt-money. However, we need to remember that aid is never just aid. How do we know it's not being filtered to CIA employees, who spend their entire lives trying to convince us all that Al Qaeda exists? Our aid money doesn't just go into Zardari's real estate investments, it also goes into the bank accounts of Americans who are being paid to get OBL lookalikes to make fake videos about how he is hiding in Pakistan, just so they can remain in our country on an extended vacation. Obviously.

Don't get carried away in your hatred of all non-Muslims just yet. It turns out that our religious compatriots are in on the conspiracy to destroy Pakistan too. I heard only today that it's not Pakistani Sunnis who are blowing up Shias. Pakistan is in fact the site of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran is trying to convert all of us to Shias, while the Saudis are venting their anger at a Shia nation becoming a nuclear power. This is also evidenced through the sense of love and brotherhood that has existed between sects in Pakistan since the 90s, when Shia doctors and professionals were being targeted by Saudi agents.

Understanding and accepting this world view is vitally important for adding spice to otherwise boring discussions in which we would otherwise have to engage in the dull task of introspection. I strongly suggest that if you don't already know these theories and at least a few more inside out, you get with the program. Remember: while you fool yourself with your feel-good, lets-change-ourselves-and-be-a-better-nation ideas, the world is trying to blow us all up.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Answering people's polite queries about what I studied at college is something I'll probably have to deal with for the rest of my life. I'm trying to get used to all the ways I can explain and/or defend my choice when people give me the split-second blank stare when I say I studied history. South Asian history specifically. There are so many predictable ways that people respond to this I think it merits several essays, but I'll try and condense them all into one.

1) "Why didn't you study European history?"
I think it goes to my credit that I have never, ever replied to this with a lecture about post-colonial complexes or Eurocentric world views. As badly as I have wanted to, good manners prevent me from telling people that if they try very hard, they might be able to get past the idea that the only history worth studying is that of England and France. In the event that they succeed in doing this, they might even ponder whether students in Europe are ever asked "yuck, why did you choose to study your own history, you should probs learn about Latin America first". I should add that if I flip it around and say I studied how colonial policies influenced South Asia and therefore admit to having learned about British history in a slightly roundabout way, most people are relieved that that I didn't just study "Pak. Studies". Oh, Pak. Studies. I want to say more, but I'll save it for another day.

2) "Why did you waste so many years studying history? It's over. You could have become a doctor or something instead and done something more with your life."
This is not an adaptation of a likely question, these are the exact words I have had to hear from several people on different occasions. As sorry as I am that I didn't have the interest or the stomach to go to medical school, I resent the notion that I am doing nothing important with my life. I like to believe that educating idiots like above-mentioned questioner is a very important goal to have. Also, for future reference, history is not over. Just the fact that people are able to say that makes me cry a little on the inside and wonder what the world is coming to. Of course, I have a slightly better idea of what the world might come to than the askers of this question, because they are most probably too busy congratulating themselves on having picked a practical field to actually think about anything.

3) "Why do you like memorising dates?"
I don't. I haven't had to memorise a date since tenth grade, which was long before college majors came along. I have never satisfactorily answered this question though, for one that's so common. It leaves me completely baffled as to what people think History majors do. Do you really think we all sit with our little timelines and memorise a comprehensive list of when everything happened in the world, ever?? Perhaps you think my final papers for my classes read like a chapter from an almanac, in which case I completely forgive you for wondering why I studied history.

4) "Why would you study South Asian history in America? Isn't it all biased?"
No. Contrary to what you might believe about all Americans (Indians? Jews?) having a hidden agenda to teach us the "wrong" history, it's not nearly as "biased" as the nonsense you're taught in South Asia. In fact, doesn't the whole idea of bias get negated when you're studying something through a neutral third party-in this case, Mount Holyoke College, which couldn't care less what I believe Pakistan's true place in the world to be?

5) "What are you going to do with your life?"
This is probably the only response out of the entire list of Why-did-you-study-history queries that actually makes sense, and the only one I can answer. Oh, I have no idea what I'm going to do with my degree! Then again, dear Economics and Political Science and Biochemistry majors-do you?


Coming hard on the heels of what has been a terrible year for this country, the Pakistan cricket team's match-fixing allegations seem like a great cosmic joke being played on us. There is very little we can do about floods, bombs, corruption and war, but when our national sports idols decide to make complete asses of themselves on the world stage, it feels like a kick in the gut.

Although I usually argue against the concept of national embarrassment, this is an instance where it is difficult to blame either Zardari or Mother Nature for the latest reason the world has to hate Pakistanis. Because you see, sports idols represent us in more ways than the government does. We may not elect them, but they are one of the few examples of social mobility in this country. They are looked up to because they are supposed to have earned worldwide respect through sheer talent. There are very few professions left in this country which children across all social stratas believe they have a shot at, and this is one of them. Who on earth would dream of being on the Pakistan cricket team now?

Aside from the completely unethical nature of what the team has done, I think they should personally apologize to every child who feels betrayed by them. I don't care about their careers and don't know enough about the sport to wonder what repercussions this will have for it, but I do care about disappointed hopes and hurt children.

Really? I mean really? I thought the national morale couldn't possibly get any worse than it is now, but perhaps we should thank the cricket team for showing us a lower low can always come. When other countries announce that cricket matches being held for Pakistan flood relief are being canceled for fear that our team will deliberately lose, it leaves you lost for words. This was really all that was left for us to hear on the news this week. Cricket seemed to be the only time Pakistanis could be flag-waving fanatics without being either violent or insane, but it seems we've been robbed of that small pleasure as well. It may not surprise us when the government lets children die, but when our cricketers let little boys' dreams get crushed for a few thousand pounds, the sense of betrayal is disproportionately greater.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


My name is Achee Beeja, and I am a ying twing. When I watch the part in Lion King where Simba and Nala look into the elephant graveyard and say "whooaa" I think of chicken corn soup. I shout embarrassing things loudly on airplanes flying out of Lahore and whenever I clean my room, I refer to how Julie Andrews did it in Mary Poppins.

If none of that made sense to you, that's okay. It shouldn't. There are very few people in the world who it should make sense to, and this essay is dedicated to them. More specifically, it is dedicated to people who will not stare at me like I am crazy when I play Monopoly and shout things like "Sit with monk and be a donk!" It is dedicated to people who make terribly ironic music playlists called "lymph". It is dedicated to almost 23 years of inside jokes, reliability and thinking it is absolutely normal to use The Sound of Music as a general guide on how to live life.

Sometimes, all of us need someone to write poems to that contain lines like "agar panties made of jean hain, unn pe discount thirteen hai". Because you see, that brilliant verse holds the secret to my entire childhood. Literally. It's the translation of our well-guarded password to being admitted to our very exclusive club. I'm only sharing it now because that exclusive club will remain that way forever. We finally realised that we never needed a password. A couple of decades of sharing blankets and toothpaste and crayons can easily suffice instead.

I wonder sometimes about girls who say they don't have close female friends. I guess I'm lucky enough to not be able to understand that. I have many groups of amazing female friends, and my membership in all of them relies solely on my experience with my first companions, the ones that taught me I can experiment with being pretty much anyone and always have a home to come back to. A home where I can pick up the phone and ask someone which of my sweaters is the googliest and if we can play a board game that says "the angel, is lington" and get a straight answer.

Friends and schools and jobs come and go. They float up and they float away, and they take away whatever you put of yourself in them. That's when you need to call people who will remind you that the fat man who floats up to the ceiling while singing "I Love to Laugh" didn't achieve that by being sulky. That's when you realise that one day, you will write at least an essay, if not a book, about how much you love them.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Dear Irresponsible Journalists,
The recent trend of Pakistanis lambasting the entire nation for the tragic events that transpired in Sialkot last week is getting old already. It is true that when public lynching becomes possible-even probable, given the current state of anarchy we are in-a country is in a sorry state. It is also true that events such as these should inspire outrage and force us to question who we have collectively become. However, good journalism should rely on more than sweeping generalizations, however crowd-pleasing they may be in certain sections of society.

I would like to remind you that most of the so-called liberal intellectual elite of this country will staunchly maintain that there is no such thing as the "average Pakistani". I'm going to have to agree with that. There isn't. Unless you share anything besides a green passport with your chowkidaar/doodhwala/resident beggar, you can't possibly claim that there are any over-arching similarities between all Pakistanis. Therefore, it logically follows that all Pakistanis are not somehow to blame for every tragedy that falls on this troubled region.

Similarly, dear writers, please keep in mind that although your self-righteous anger and hatred of our uncivilized nation may extend to all Pakistanis, there are people in this country who have far more worthy things to do in times of crisis than point fingers at one another and insist that we stop "indulging in Facebook activism". Thanks to the global trend of hating this country and everything to do with it, a trend you so wholeheartedly espouse, we are in a position where most Pakistanis have become aware that nobody can help us as much as we can help ourselves. Please remember dear journalists: while you indulge in newspaper activism and seethe with anger at why we are not all wringing our hands, hanging our heads in shame and crawling into tunnels to die, there are tens of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis risking their lives and livelihoods to reach out to our flood-affected compatriots. There are tens of thousands of volunteers who drive ambulances, distribute food and pack relief supplies for victims of terrorism. For every mob that silently watches a crime being committed, there is another "mob" that will stand on the street and protest it, however futile they know it will be.

You are right about one thing: we should be ashamed today of the crimes we let happen. We should be ashamed that we are painting the mother of two dead boys with the same brush with which we paint her sons' murderers. We should be ashamed that we consciously edge out the unsung heroes that prevent this nation from imploding to indulge in seriously passe government-bashing. You are right about that I suppose, but I think you and I are talking about a different kind of shame here.

We have not collectively become a nation of anything, least of all cockroaches or Maula Jutts or whatever it is that the cool kids are calling us now. We have not been a collective nation in a long time. Today, crisis after crisis is encouraging (most of) us to put aside our petty, pseudo-intellectual babble and work towards a Pakistan that people like you will not be applauded for brushing aside in disgust. Your mid-life crisis may prevent you from seeing it, but every young Pakistani I know has done something for their country this week, whether it is mindless Facebook activism that you are so derisive of, going to Peshawar to work with displaced people, calling attention to the plight of minorities or spending their savings on medical supplies for the needy. Every single one, dear bitter journalists. Perhaps you are unaware that roughly 75 nation-states today are displaying barbaric acts of varying intensity as they struggle with the concept of unity and nationhood. Perhaps you are mistaken in believing that the genetic makeup of everyone between Balochistan and FATA encourages a love of gore.

I am going to explain something before I leave you to meditate on your disgust of all mankind in peace. I am in no way suggesting that Pakistan is either morally superior or more prone to acts of charity than any other nation on Earth (I know that this attitude is a pet peeve with you lot). I am only suggesting that in the name of responsible opinion-sharing, you retain your venom for a moment and consider the concept of balanced reporting on events that are too terrible to be shoddily covered. Perhaps what Pakistan needs isn't for all of us to jump in the Indus and commit national suicide, but the ability to think like rational, empathetic human beings, rather than bellowing Maula Jutts.

Yours sincerely,
A fellow writer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


There is nothing that causes me to panic more, or more often, than my nonexistent sense of direction. This includes creepy rodents with hairless tails and difficult math questions, and both of these things cause me to panic substantially. Thanks to the fact that I don't live near open sewers and also own a calculator, my (lack of) sense of direction is a considerably larger barrier to my sanity than anything else at this point.

Nobody really understands my predicament. I promise I am not mentally challenged or completely zoned-out all the time. Even though I admit I may never win prizes for being observant, I am not a complete space cadet, though I am frequently accused of it. In fact, I am a reasonably intelligent, competent human being in other areas of my life. The fact that I am having to defend myself against the cruel accusation of being slightly stupid however, should tell you something about how often people doubt my IQ when I am asked to direct them anywhere.

People have attributed various reasons for my handicap: not bothering to read maps, not looking out of the window often enough when I'm being driven around, not knowing how to drive myself, having an underdeveloped left brain. None of these are (entirely) true. I do in fact read maps, and I try my level best to make sense of them. It completely escapes me as to why they should make any sense to me. Roads are never empty lines, no matter how I try to see them as squiggles and curves on a piece of paper. After studying a map of where I need to go, I can convince myself that I am capable of finding my way, until I am actually on the road. You see, real roads have cars and trucks and donkeys and pedestrians and billboards. Maps don't. I've been told I'm imaginative, but I cannot, cannot imagine a place in order to effectively minimize it and place it in a larger context. The debris of real life gets in my way and prevents me from doing it.

Another accusation I need to battle on a regular basis is that I am oblivious to directions because I am not a true Karachiite; I am simply a product of a sheltered suburb who chooses to ignore the rest of the beleaguered city. This doesn't make any sense if you really think about it. You see, I am as capable of getting lost in my own neighbourhood as I am anywhere else in the world. Also, thanks to a job that requires me to file city crime briefs for eight hours a day, I promise you I probably know more about what goes on in this city than you do. Just don't ask me to map the damn crimes, whether they happen on one side of Kala Pull or another. That's what specialized software is for.

Today I was absolutely sure I should not rely on my own senses to direct me to my own workplace, so I decided to use my mother's directions. That was a bad idea. My mother has slightly more confidence in my intelligence than others, and she seemed to assume that I can tell left from right and know one road from another. I can't. I don't. Not that I don't know where I work. It's where the DHA Bachat Bazaar signs end, across the street from the girls who are collecting donations for flood relief, near a Remaine billboard, where there are usually a few trucks and tankers and a lot of traffic. There is usually also at least one police officer harassing an old man or two there, and a big bridge which I can't name because I think of it as The Big Bridge, and knowing names of places never got me anywhere, anyway. Unfortunately, the vital flaw in my plan for remembering directions is that nearly everything I use to orient myself is movable. Is it my fault others are so unreliable?

I admit it might be a good idea to learn the name of the road across the street from where I live, just for the sake of general knowledge. The only reason I haven't bothered with that yet is because I couldn't put it on a map for you if you wanted, and I can easily direct you to my house because of the luckily unmovable mosque very close by. Please don't ever ask me abstract questions such as "so if I'm coming from Clifton Beach, would I take a right or a left from X road to get to your house?" Please spare me the humiliation. I know that this handicap/phobia/stupidity of mine is not commonplace and not understood by the average person. Nothing makes me feel as small and stupid as having to answer these difficult queries. Nothing makes the panic rise through my stomach and into my throat as fast as knowing that in a minute or two, any credibility I had as a capable adult will be destroyed. Just don't do it to me.

Also, don't worry about me. Don't suggest that in the absence of a vital understanding of roads and maps, I will be lost and floundering in the Real World like a sorry little girl who can't find her way home.

After all, the people and bazaar signs and police officers are almost always there when I need them to be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


When I grow up, I am going to be a spoilt, bossy know-it-all. I am going to do everything exactly the way I want to. I am going to insist that my way is best-that it is the only way. I am going to live just the way I want to live.

I am going to grow so many indoor plants my house will look forested. I'll have a bouncing castle installed in one bedroom of my house and use it as a personal gym. I'll spend my evenings bouncing and falling on my behind in this new room. I won't let anyone tell me I am too old for it.

Every month, I will stock up on sugary breakfast cereals, not whole grain muesli. I'll eat breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast. I'll collect glow-in-the-dark stars and plaster them on my ceiling. I'll colour-code my wardrobe and alphabetize my books. I'll disinfect my doorknobs and label all my drawers. There will always be a notebook and pen by the phone.

I will have a swing in my backyard. I'll have a petting zoo of baby animals, and when they grow old, I'll build them homes to retire in. I'll have a library of my own. My books will be stored on sky-high shelves, and I will have a sliding ladder to reach them. There will be poufy armchairs scattered around. Not the orthopedic, ergonomic ones. Just poufy armchairs.

I'll have tents built around all the beds. At night, I'll zip up mine and forget where I am. My bed will be suspended from the ceiling, like a hammock. When I sleep, it'll swing by itself. My guests will come especially to sleep in my swinging tent-beds.

My house won't have a house-smell. It will smell like starched linen, or warm vanilla, or freshly-baked bread. The bathrooms will have tubs-germ and mildew free. The tubs will have claws. There will be a constant supply of bubble bath and Crayola bath pellets, the kind that turn your water blue or pink or turquoise.

There will balloons floating around at all times. I won't wait for a celebration. Helium balloons around my ceiling and regular balloons on the floor. There will always be a slice of cake in the fridge.

When I grow up, I will be lovably eccentric. Or perhaps I'll just have a lot of children and say they designed my life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


There's a place in my head that is much nicer than the place we are all in now. I like to believe it's the remotest place on earth, although the actual remotest place on earth is an island somewhere off the coast off South Africa, and this place is not that island. It is simply antithetical to the place Pakistan is today, and it's a lovely place to create, to add details to, to colour in. It makes me wonder what kind of a place the country has become for it to be antithetical to an imaginative ideal. Watching Pakistan spiral out of control is like watching a close family member slowly wasting away. The waiting. The waiting for something to happen. The waiting for death. The guilt. Is this a genuine concern for the world, or is it a failure of my imagination? Is it a failure on our part to not be able to see a way out of this dark hole in our lifetimes?

People say that a new era will come. People talk about revolution, about glorious change, about an awakening of the masses. People talk about great progress around the corner. It makes me wonder whether it is only possible to imagine such brilliant outcomes from a position of privilege. From a position of being Sunni Muslim, wealthy, secure. When our great awakening happens, will it happen to all of us, or will the poor and the disenfranchised lag behind a century or two, as always?

Pakistan is a place where the social contract between citizens and the state no longer exists. This country has failed its Shias, its Ahmaddis, its farmers, its Hindus, its Christians, its women. An allegiance to the state from these groups can be either sentimental (I was born in this country and I love it) or defensive (just because I am not a Muslim doesn't mean I am disloyal). It is heartbreaking that this should be the case. It is heartbreaking to think that anyone should search for reasons to feel like their own country still belongs to them. When people speak of a day that will come when our country is on a better path, I want to know who this day will include. The top-down system of governance/wealth distribution/general privilege has grown tired and is creaking under the weight of injustice. Politics will continue, governments will come and governments will go, but the Proud to be Pakistani stickers that pop up around 14th August will remain a commodity of the wealthy, educated, clothed and housed population. People talk of how much this country has given us, how far behind we would be if we had not had it. This is true. Perhaps we would be far behind. Perhaps we would be persecuted. But it is difficult to rejoice in "our status today" as a DHA signpost proclaims, when our privilege is at the expense of everyone who is not exactly like us.

Forcing myself to imagine an idyllic remote island in place of this nation of tragedies is a failure of the imagination. Believing that great progress will occur and it will not be either bloody or unfair is even more so. Blessed are those who can afford to ruminate about change at a time like this, or escape to better places, even if they are only psychological. Unless our discourse about change and overcoming hurdles includes those citizens who have been traditionally disadvantaged as the foremost recipients of this positive change, our hopes will always be hollow.


Writing one hundred essays in one hundred days is like chemotherapy for writer's block-it forces it out in the most aggressive way possible. Sometimes it has painful side effects (self-doubt, blank-page syndrome, obsession). Sometimes, it doesn't work. I think that's called writer's block. While I was worrying about this creative dead-end and my goal of ninety-one more essays, it occurred to me that the only logical way to treat writer's block would be to write about it.

I suppose not knowing what to write for a little while is not necessarily a terrible thing. It makes you notice things you might not have otherwise. Over the course of today's stupor, I learned that my living room fan is very noisy, I need to file my nails, there are some great recipes for cookies online, my blue kameez needs to be fitted, there's a lizard behind the picture frame near the computer, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and it is possible for me to hum distractedly and loudly enough to get glares from my neighbour at work. Normally, when there is a blank page in front of me, I am too busy writing to observe, think or look up these things. It's amazing how much you learn when there is nothing else to do.

Ironically, writer's block has also given me something new to write about. When you really stop to think about it, the frustration of not knowing where to begin or how to say something is as describable as anything else.

It feels like having your head wedged between two rocks. It feels like one of those nightmares where you have to take an exam and realise you haven't studied. It feels like spending the whole week looking forward to Sunday and then having to cancel all your plans when it finally arrives. It's like rain at the beach, like wet sand and a cold breeze that makes your teeth hurt. It's a sinus infection that leaves you unable to move your head because of its heaviness. It's a mosquito bite on your ankle when you're wearing skinny jeans. It's a ketchup stain on your favourite white T-shirt. It's sitting down to watch a movie and having the cable go off. It's like a math test you don't understand.

It's the feeling that everything you want to say has already been said. It's the tea-coloured hue of life that's no longer interesting. It's the toe-curling irritation of wanting to write about something so badly you just can't. It's having a tune stuck in your head and not being able to remember where it's from. It's that face on the news you don't recognize. It's having something to say to someone you love and not knowing how to start. It's finding out your brother ate the last bit of Jell-O in the fridge. It's the now-what? feeling before graduation. 

It's about 600 words of revelation. It's a kick-start to writing about more important things than the inability to write. It's the frustration that makes you want to do better next time. I suppose it's an essay in itself.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Of all the disturbing things girls say and do that betray the general trend of low self-esteem amongst our sex, the one that annoys me most of all has to be "I'm so fat." It ranks number 1, even above "She's such a slut" (female solidarity anyone?) and stupid statements made deliberately to sound fluffy and cute in front of the opposite sex.

"I'm so fat" doesn't annoy me because I am inherently opposed to healthy BMIs or an interest in maintaining fast metabolism and a healthy heart rate. It annoys me precisely because girls and women who complain about their bodies are least concerned with general well-being and most interested in achieving the frail, about to keel over and faint any second look. More and more often, I find girls who are blessed with naturally fast metabolism and dangerously low fat indices counting calories and trying their level best to resemble twelve year old boys. More disturbingly however, I find otherwise intelligent women pointing at well-built, well-endowed women who dare to pop up in the toothpick-dominated media and reviling them for being "fat".

Somewhere in the past decade or so, it became every woman's greatest desire to resemble nothing more than a coat hanger; a frame for hanging clothes off of without the slightest hint of normal female anatomy. I have several objections to this trend. Firstly, I am going to agree with our grandparents' generation and point my finger at the evil West and say They Did It. They may not be responsible for the degradation of the entire human race, but their values and fashion industries are most definitely responsible for our rejection of what comes most naturally to us-having breasts, developing hips and reaching for the breadsticks at dinnertime. Secondly, it irritates me how the ideal of feminine beauty today is to look like hairless, weakly-developed men. Finally, this seemingly universal quest for the ultimate size-zero, flat-chested appeal not only denies and rejects the enormous range of possible shapes and sizes the human body can come in, it makes girls like me feel like King Kong even while wearing size 2 jeans and maintaining generally good health.

Yes, this has become personal. Stop calling me "fat", because when you call yourself fat, you skinny cow, you are actually calling me fat. I've gone from being someone who never worried about weight or counted calories to someone perpetually worried about why my chest isn't flat and my thighs don't look breakable. The craziness of this hit me only recently-why on earth have I begun to wonder why I don't look like a boy?

The whole phenomenon of naturally curvy girls desperately trying to eliminate their waist-to-hip ratio and naturally slender girls desperately counting calories is beyond saddening. We're not just rejecting fat anymore-we're rejecting what was traditionally seen as the positive attributes of being feminine: warmth; desirability; fertility; motherhood.

I'm sorry to break the code of being a good girlfriend, but unless you are a girl trying to make healthier choices in life, I won't help you go on whatever crazy diet Oprah just endorsed. I will break out the tubs of full-fat ice cream and tell you men love a little extra padding. I will most likely do anything to avoid helping you nurture your insane obsession with being five foot ten and a hundred pounds. Just remember this: I, unlike the fashion industry, prefer real friends to coat hangers, and am therefore a reliable source of advice. You, meanwhile, should give yourself a break, allow yourself to eat breakfast, and stop calling me fat.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


With The Rest of My Life stretching out before me endlessly and a New York Times article demanding to know what is wrong with twenty-somethings and why they don't settle down already, confusion and frustration are reigning supreme. Confusion because I am determined not to be one of those twenty-somethings who are unable to handle responsibility, and frustration because the less preachy side of me is sadly acknowledging the end of an era.

I'm not talking about the end of selfishness, or freedom, or college parties. I'm talking about the end of a life where your friends push you through every crisis. Because let's face it; post-college friendships are never quite the same. The lines between friends and family become less blurry and the inevitability of everyone going in different directions becomes more apparent. It's now that I am starting to be assailed with panic at the silence at my door and windows: the sound of friends not knocking. What can I count on anymore-and will it ever be the same again?

Knowing that those of my friends who haven't already scattered will do so soon leaves me feeling oddly rootless. Knowing that I thought of myself in relation to several groups of others leaves me feeling oddly inadequate. How much can we matter to one another when we no longer need one another?

I know, of course, that growing up doesn't mean you stop needing your friends, or that you somehow become self-sufficient, cold-hearted recluses, but I also know that they are not-or should not be-your lifelines anymore. While we all make individual commitments-to careers, passions, romantic partners-we slowly sever ourselves from the Before, without much idea of what comes After. I used to like knowing what comes After. I like to pretend I revel in uncertainty now, I like pretending I am completely in control of my smooth transitions from one phase into another, but the truth is, I can't stop worrying about how much I will miss having someone's room to walk to in the middle of the night when I think my room is haunted. I can't stop expecting to see a face in my window, or a note on my door inviting me to share instant noodles. I can't stop worrying about how I will deal with this facade of being a put-together adult with my friends on about thirty different paths. I can't stop worrying about whether I am the only one worrying. And I worry about how much sadness, how much alone-ness comes with this supposedly exhilarating new phase of my life.

What is there to say? I can't get over the irony of how navigating adulthood would be so much easier if we were all doing it together.