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.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Like most Pakistanis who read the newspaper every day, I cringed when I read that the UN has attributed the lack of flood relief funds coming in to the country's "image deficit". That is an extremely diplomatic, albeit irresponsible statement for them to make. What a nice way of saying nobody likes us enough to care if we drown! The irresponsibility, of course, lies in the fact that the UN should be making such claims based on entirely anecdotal evidence. Yes, we all know the country's popularity ratings may not be soaring globally, but assuming that UN officials are educated to at least the undergraduate level, it can reasonably be expected that they know never to use information that can't be cited.

My gripe with this statement is on several grounds. Firstly, as mentioned, the obvious inability of quantifying an image-or its "deficit". Secondly, shrouding the cold fact of a lack of humane sympathy with diplomacy, rather than exposing it for what it is. Thirdly, the fact that the response to it in Pakistan has been a shrugging-off and acceptance of the fact that the global attitude to the crisis is Pakistan be damned, it's full of terrorists anyway.

Since there is very little I can do to help the UN spokespeople recall Speaking and Writing 101 where they learned to make statements they can qualify to be true, I'm going to leave them alone for now. Pakistanis however, I am more capable of speaking to, and one thing is for sure: if we are ever to pull ourselves out of this permanent state of crisis, we can't do it without first shedding all our internalised doubts about our own worth as a people. We defend the plight of the flood victims (it's not their fault our country produces terrorists) in the same breath as we agree with those who point fingers at us (it's true that we are a nation of terrorists).

Rightly or wrongly, nationhood entails a feeling of belonging that elicits both national pride and embarrassment, depending on the instance. Both these feelings are completely nonsensical in their own way. Whether someone chooses to train as a suicide bomber and blow himself up on either the Pakistani or Afghani side of the border should be immaterial. Whether the crime rate soars in Karachi or Delhi should also not matter, except as far as concern for one's safety. Whether Zardari makes an ass of himself or not should be a non-issue. Nationhood and nationalism should only be relevant as far as our own understanding that the nation-state and its mechanisms influence outcomes. Beyond that, situations which are out of our reach and control should not be valid cause for embarrassment-the will to act should be borne out of our humanity, not our nationality.

I fail to understand why I should be personally embarrassed about our venal, eminently hateable government(s) or the terrorism this country spawns. I detest them on the grounds that they are unethical; not because they are unethical and Made in Pakistan. The flood victims and tireless aid workers should not have to live and die beneath the petty concerns of how pretty or progressive Pakistan looks to the foreign media, and neither should we. There is nothing pretty and nothing progressive about this nation, but we need to move past our favourite hobby of cringing over how ugly we look, as if we were a twelve year old pre-pubescent adolescent, and so should the rest of the world. Until then, people are drowning in the ugliness of sentiments such as national embarrassment. Literally.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Doris Lessing called nostalgia “that poisoned itch”. To me, nostalgia is less of a skin ailment and more like a head cold that comes on slowly, one symptom at a time. If you’re careful enough, you can kill it. If you’re not, you’ll spend hours or even days nursing the aches and pains, the stuffy sense of something being wrong with your insides. The thing about a head cold-and nostalgia-is that it insists on happening no matter how healthy you are, how physically or emotionally stable, how satisfied with your present. The past always comes back in irrelevant pieces and infects you when you least expect it. In fact, it has nothing at all to do with what you really want-it seems to be more a case of perpetual rehearsal in your brain, in case of sudden memory bankruptcy, in case of forgetting.

And we do forget. We forget so quickly that the smell of a familiar tree or feel of a certain T-shirt can surprise us with how recognizable it is. My conscious may know perfectly well that I have no desire to return to a particular time or place, but the number of times I revisit that place in both sleep and wakefulness would suggest otherwise. Nostalgia demands that we remember, and that we remember with a certain longing, which is why it is both surprising and annoying when I come across the all-too-familiar logo of federal financial aid services and find myself missing it. Not because I want it, but because I don’t have it anymore. I only want it because I don’t have it, not because any (sane) part of me would prefer to go back to haggling with financial aid officers. It’s the same with rain in dreams-I don’t enjoy rain. Or rather, I don’t enjoy getting my feet wet. But when the old head cold visits me in dreams where my socks are wet, you would think wet feet were a great love of mine, the way I cling to the feeling.

It’s been said that when you leave a place, you don’t miss the place as much as you miss who you were when you were there. That is the most plausible cause I’ve heard for being infected with nostalgia. I may not miss the physical roads or walls or stones of places I’ve left behind, but I do miss myself. That’s what nostalgia does-rudely remind you of how quickly you lose yourself in a time and place, or to put it positively, how much you give of yourself while you are there. I suppose head colds have a purpose too, if they shield us from forgetting who we were and how we felt before we had them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Every August and every December, Karachi rains. I don't mean it rains in Karachi, I mean Karachi rains; rains a flood into streets, rains riots into highways, rains fire into power plants, rains insanity; rains like the hot, dusty, violent rest of the year is crying to be forgotten.

There used to be a magic about Karachi rain; it left us along ago. Rain used to be getting off early in the first week of school to slip around outdoors and get soaked. Rain used to be singing on rooftops and sticking out our tongues to catch raindrops. Rain used to be our much-awaited relief from the heat before we all had generators. Rain used to be a good thing.

Somewhere along the line, rain became another bit of Karachi's grief, pouring into our homes and schools and TV sets. I suppose we grew up. Nobody ever wants to slip around outdoors anymore; nobody in their right mind smiles at the first fat drop. Any child over ten will tell you the rain will bring its annual unwelcome guests: power outages, burning tires, floods, collapsed billboards, death by electrocution. I suppose Karachi grew tired. Nobody wants another tragedy weighing down this city full of them.

Now, we just want the rain to stop. Watching it rain is like watching a tired episode from a sitcom you used to love and can't stand anymore, because you know it inside and out, because you have criticized it from every angle. Now, we just need the rain to leave us alone; to give Karachi a minute to grieve over one loss before embarking on another. Perhaps we grew up. Perhaps our city just grew tired.


The post-colonial world, since achieving independence, has struggled with problems such as shaky or puppet democracies, corruption, poverty and civil war, all of which contribute to massive and frequent violence in many post-colonial nation states today. While the existing world order tends to favor Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea that "all good things go together", or the concept that decolonization, rising literacy and economic progress will automatically bring liberal democracy, the truth is that these very developments have often created illiberal and often violent states.

Popular nationalism is a two-edged sword; while it has its obvious benefits, in many cases it can be used to rally the energies of a majority group at the expense of a minority. This has proven true in the case of both India and Pakistan. In India, Hindu nationalism rose and led to the election of the extreme right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998, while in Pakistan, democratically elected governments have both allowed and incited violence against the Ahmaddiya, Shia and Christian communities, to name a few. Part of this is due to the challenges of maintaining a "national" identity that a vast, multilingual, multicultural body of citizens can identify with. Civic nationalism in societies which for centuries before independence were ruled largely by structures of class, caste, language and ethnicity is a difficult idea to generate and maintain. In a newly democratizing society, debate about who fits into the "true" national identity-and who does not-is both likely and common. Promoting unconditional freedom of debate, while an important ideal, often proves divisive.

The institutions of democracy, already weakened by a colonial legacy, class disparity and communal animosity leftover from Partition days prevent the theoretically great qualities of provincial autonomy and popular elections from being successful in practice. In an environment where democracy is not backed up by strong law and order, an efficient judiciary and other luxuries that post colonial states are generally unaccustomed to, debates about the status of Pakistan’s religious minorities, the rights of India’s Dalits and Adivasis and secessionist movements in both states can easily go wrong. The pogrom against Indian Muslims in Gujarat is only one example of the horrors that can be perpetrated in a democracy. In 2002, millions of Muslims were murdered, raped and looted under the watch of BJP member Narendra Modi, who is still serving as Chief Minister of the state. A free media fueled rumors about Muslims setting fire to a train carrying Hindu passengers, public debates allowed political parties to rally support for their cause of "Hindustan for the Hindus", and a democratic system allowed the government officials who had orchestrated the massacre to be elected back into power. This kind of “murderous cleansing” is not an atypical circumstance in a multicultural, post-colonial democracy. Arguably, it is a very modern phenomenon; it is a common aspect of the only acceptable form of government in today’s world. As Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy said, “is it reasonable to worry about whether a country that is poised on the threshold of "progress" is also poised on the threshold of genocide?”

While democracy, decolonization and political autonomy are the most sacred of today’s political ideals, they are rarely questioned for the violence that they tolerate, support, and sometimes engender. The dark side of democracy in pluralistic, post-colonial states should force us to question Roosevelt’s outdated assumption, challenge the unrestricted power of majority communities in newly-democratic societies and create more effective protections for the status of minorities against whom violence is most often directed.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Leaving a women's college-that reminds you every single day that women are changing the world, women need to fight for their fair share, women should be strong and confident, women need to help women-and then entering the "real world" is severely overrated. So much so that I needed to write about it. So much so that nobody bothers to voice the difference between that environment and the kind we are in back home. Although I am too tired of defending the choice to attend a women's college, I am going to expound on my favourite misunderstandings about the experience.

No, we are not all lesbians. And even if we are, it's really none of your business. In fact, if you are male and enjoy the idea of girl-on-girl action, please take a moment to relish the irony that women who like women are most likely not interested in you. Moreover, those women who do opt to be with other women do not make this choice out of "frustration", as delightfully egotistical men love to believe. On the contrary, finding men at a women's college is much easier than you would think; they turn up at the slightest hint of a party.

This brings me to the second myth: it is not like being in a nunnery. Though at times being locked up and forced to pray may have done wonders for our GPAs,it never actually happened, nor will it ever happen in any institution that prides itself on women's ability to make intelligent decisions. We did not have "house mothers" or nurses or wardens or whatever you may call them monitoring our every move. In fact, we had nobody but one another for wonderful, dependable company.

Wonderful, dependable company. Delightfully female company which did not end its sentences in question marks? You know, like we're not sure what we mean? Or we don't really mean what we say? Or we just think that being feminine requires a certain amount of uncertainty? That didn't happen very often, either. In fact, there were professors devoted to the cause of making sure that when you say something, you sound like you really mean it, because you have nothing to apologize for. Professors who were capable, accomplished women-not bra-burning feminists (coming to that one in just a minute)-or wonderful, enlightened men.

People should really get over the bra-burning image already. Honestly, why that should ever have been an issue in women's history is beyond my limited understanding. Bras are uncomfortable, maybe one woman and her friends did burn theirs. Why exactly should this symbolize an ideal which states, and very simply so, that women deserve equality? I'm not too sure either. I doubt anyone will ever figure out why braless-ness is such an enormous threat to the fabric of society, but my point is (and as a History major I feel the need to be specific) that bra-burning was never a popular activity amongst feminists, and even if it had been, an objection to it would have been completely irrelevant.

Lastly, and this is one I feel the need to constantly explain: receiving an education geared towards female empowerment does not mean we all nourish hopes of sterilising ourselves, abandoning the possibility of marriage and motherhood and shooting on sight every male CEO that gets paid 25 percent more than a woman in the same position. Nor does it mean that we all believe in or uphold the same ideals of feminism or femininity. What we do share, however, is the experience of having known what it is like, for a few years at least, for everything to be about us. We shared the education of learning from others how many ways there are to be successful, how many definitions we can give to equal rights, and how many ways there are to deny that being at a women's college was ever anything to regret.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


There are so many reasons to quit Facebook. Old people, parents, employers and technophobes all love to expound on the many reasons to just bite your lip and rip off the Band-Aid and be done with it forever, but most of us don't really care. I'm going to be honest-the usual reasons people give for why social networking is such an insidious villain to the average twenty-something don't matter to me at all. I don't really feel that my "true character" is being compromised in favour of a Facebook-friendly version of it, I don't have any secret sex tapes or otherwise questionable content floating around cyberspace and I don't at all mind having grandparents as Facebook friends. In fact, I love having my grandparents as Facebook friends, and since that is the prime concern of most people my age-older relative stalkers that is, not grandparents specifically-I think I should be golden. Golden and free to stalk and be stalked forevermore, or as long as these things last. There is however, one serious issue with what I believe to be an otherwise harmless site, and it looks something like this: "LOOKING FOR MUSLIM SINGLES IN YOUR AREA?"

Creepy dating site commercials aside, there is a whole world of Facebook adverts that invariably manage to insult you in several ways at once. "ARE YOU A YOUNG WOMAN LOOKING TO SELL HER EGGS?" is a personal (and recurring) favourite. Why yes, I am a young woman, and why yes, I am quite broke with a liberal arts degree and no lucrative job prospects. Hey, thanks for the great idea, Facebook!

Of course, I am hopelessly behind the times in this critique. Facebook no longer simply implores me to give the gift of life to infertile couples and date men of faith, it also asks me to "like" things. This shouldn't ordinarily be a problem. I already like many things I am asked to like, such as sleep, food, weekends, national holidays, real fruit jam, T-shirts, organic cotton dresses, bottled water, scholarships, my country, other countries, free shoes, pink Macbooks, cool deals on electronics, God, Islam, posters, king-size mattresses, cheap wedding photographers, designer jewelry, discounted airfare, cute babies, chick flicks, tea, coffee, grandmothers, clock radios, vitamin water, days where I stay in my pyjamas all day, affordable dorm buys, good banking services and cell phone charms.

The only problem is, I can't just like them. I have to like them. Publicly. This makes me wonder two things. Firstly, why on earth would anybody advertise food, sleep, their religion or flipping the pillow to the cold side at night? Secondly, why on earth does Facebook know so much about me?

No, really. Why does Facebook know I need scholarships? Why does it think I might wear organic cotton dresses? How does it know my favourite colour is blue, or is that just another creepy coincidence? Strictly technologically speaking, some kind of software must be matching our name/sex/age/relationship status/hometown/religion to what it thinks we like, but somebody must have programmed it. Somebody must have sat down and thought that if you like real fruit jam, why of course you like 100% organic cotton sundresses, which naturally means you are a young woman who might also want to sell her eggs! It's pure brilliance, not to mention strange and extremely distracting from the practice of getting in touch with my friends, which is (or was) Facebook's original purpose. I suppose the corporate sellout was inevitable. I just wish the man in the Facebook sky didn't know so much about me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


There are several armies in this country. There are of course, the regular Faujis. They're a dependable lot; one can generally rely on them to own vast amounts of land/clubs/hospitals, produce decent quality corn flakes and stage a military coup every decade or so. Then there is the army of God, as they see themselves. This is a versatile lot-they function as terrorists, loony ideologues, charitable organisations, scapegoats and fodder for dozens of conspiracy theories that fuel drawing room conversations. Lastly, there is the great army of liberal Pakistanis who represent enlightened moderation.

Oh wait, just kidding.

Let me rephrase that: lastly, there is a miniscule group of elite Pakistanis who believe that by going about their daily lives in the manner most convenient to them, they are waging some kind of war on the dark forces at work in the country. Art is no longer art, fashion is no longer fashion, great food is no longer great food. It is all part of Showing the World The Real Pakistan, Challenging Extremism, and similarly lofty aims. Yes, it does sound a bit ludicrous in writing, doesn't it?

This is not to say that the elite should live their lives differently, or conform to ideals they can't relate to. It is merely an attempt to call attention to the cowardice and delusion of statements littering the English media about how liberal Pakistanis project a good image of the country abroad, how Pakistan Fashion Week is a slap in the face for extremists, how throwing amazing parties showcases the progressive values of the hosts. Let's be serious now. Nobody outside of Pakistan really cares about how the elite live their lives here. The evils that plague the rest of society will continue to plague the rest of society in spite of the beliefs or behavior of a few hundred Pakistanis, and unless the Taliban are being invited to enjoy and tolerate Fashion Week, it will have absolutely no bearing on extremism in the rest of society. It is here that I will come to the most important and most vexing point of all: wild parties do not a progressive thinker make. Wild parties are fun, and progressive values are very important, but the assumption that there is a natural causal relationship between the two is bordering on idiocy. Somewhere along the line, the idea that one must be well-read or strive for education, tolerance and humanity was lost in the average socialite's definition of enlightenment.

So fight on, brave armies, but don't squabble with one another over influence. Continue to stage coups/enforce Shariah law/throw parties, but for the sake of rationality, don't fool yourself into thinking your cause is any more noble than it really is.

Friday, August 13, 2010


People keep asking nowadays how the terrible things that keep happening are allowed to happen "in this day and age". This strikes me as extremely strange. Was there ever a day and age worse than this? Was there ever another time, another people, another generation with the same ability to swallow violence with such casual irony? Of course, we all know the answer is yes. Having lived only a couple decades or so, I can hardly speak for other times or people or generations. However, one thing I know we can proudly claim as our very own special prize as children of This Day And Age is dead baby jokes. Yes, I said it. Dead baby jokes/nuclear war jokes/apocalypse jokes, these brilliant artefacts of 2010 are most certainly ours and ours alone.

Assuming casual, dark humour isn't a trait reserved for hipsters who like to wear irony on their T-shirts (in a way that is subtle yet in your face, note the double irony of wearing irony), we are all party to the guilty appeal of laughing at the grotesque. I'm not going to condemn this; in fact, I fully support it. Parental horror aside at the crude jokes that drive home baby boomers' fears that we are indeed a depraved lot, it's only human to laugh when it's clearly futile to shed tears.

Perhaps the images we are constantly bombarded with on the ubiquitous media that it is so in vogue to criticize nowadays really have desensitized us. Actually, there's really no question about it; the media uses grief to sell products. We do distractedly note the merits of Surf Excel washing powder versus "Ordinary Brands" while we wait to hear the death toll of the most recent tragedy; we do acknowledge the refreshing taste of Limopani with the irritating ding of the timecheck before the news. Horror is a sellable commodity on the news, and it is as open to being poked fun at as anything else we buy. How can you cry at human loss when it is packaged for you with your favourite brand of tea or toilet paper?

I believe I am digressing from my support of morbid humour, but the reason I am getting at is not that shock value or depressing content desensitizes us, but that it humanizes us. Talking endlessly (casually, but endlessly) about the chaos we are spiralling towards, texting about the most recent evidence of corruption and joking about dead children is not evidence of callousness, but a desire to possess it. Who among us wouldn't want to be completely immune to fear, to not smell it's sickening stench or wonder where we will go when Things Get Worse, as we wait and plan for the time when everything is so wrong we Must Leave? It's like crying until you laugh, or laughing until you cry, until you can't tell the difference anymore.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Dear Failed State,

What is really left to be said regarding your supposed Failure? All the usual things have been said: goodbye law and order, hello false democracy, fuck you Mr. President, etc. etc. In strictly statistical terms, of course you are a Failure, dear State. But don't make plans to blow up into nothingness (however good you are at Blowing Things Up) just yet. If one wants to be fair about it, it's not you, it's us. In fact, let's begin at the beginning: Attempts at forcing Nation-Statehood is a pretty stupid idea to begin with, and it's never been a good colour on you. Of course you failed at it.

Let's be responsible about this analysis of where you went Wrong. There are several places we could start:
a) 1600, when the East India Company decided to arrive
b) 1947, when you were born
c) some point between 1947 and now, TBD by various squabbling factions.
I'm going to scratch option (a) for now, because that merits a separate letter about your origins, and truth be told, we never really explained to you where you come from. I'll also have to dispense with option (c) because I'd rather not get political and point fingers at any of our Great Leaders, none of whom I would choose to lead you again. I think it's time we acted like two adults here and talked about birth.

You weren't really what anyone would call a planned birth. You were more of a pleasant surprise, even if the labour was long and hard, even murderous, one could say, and even if your parents were going through a period of confusion about who they want you be and how they would like to raise you. Your father made a speech 63 years and 1 day ago about freedom of religion at the same time as he made one about the Triumph of Islam, at the same time as he championed the poet-laureate who had brilliantly political ideas of his own, at the same time as he accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan which never really wanted you get the idea? The truth is hard, and the truth is, there is none really. Or if there was, it's been dead for 62 years, like a joke from another decade, being dredged up years later by people going through mid-life crises and attempting to relive the great trends of their youth. This is not a cynical explanation, dear State. It's simply the kindest way of saying, nobody knows who or what you really are and the collective confusion this creates has led to your multiple personality disorder today.

What matters now is that you understand and accept yourself who you are-a badly explained idea with a series of poor choices under your belt. What matters even more is that you quit trying to understand how you ended up this way, make better choices and choose to take your disorders with you to rehab. You may not have made your own bed, or at least not all of it-saying that is like saying your toes should suffer because someone flicked you in the eye, but you can make it easier to lie in. Rhetoric about democracy/dictatorship, enlightened moderation/religious guidance, fuck you Mr.President/fuck you Mr.Prime Minister/fuck you Mr. Chief Justice may be fun, but it's just so last year. I suggest you come out of your long stupor by beginning to think more (but not overthink, it is a guaranteed migraine), talk less, for God's sake talk less, and move beyond the circumstances of your birth into the hopefully wise sexageneranian you should now be. It's not (entirely) your fault, and we don't mind that you already Failed in the eyes of statistical evidence. Unless the world really is ending in 2012, there is endless time to right wrongs, provided of course you become less of a whiner and more of a doer.

Happy (Almost) Birthday, remember to have fun and try to be good.


Your Citizen

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Zehra Nabi for writing the first letter :)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Four years ago, I acquired the frequently distressing habit of recalling every single one of my dreams first thing every morning. It was all part of a desperate bid my parents made for me to understand my subconscious better. For one week of my life, I opened my eyes to my parents' unblinking, anxious faces, asking me what I had dreamt, what it felt like, what I felt like, what colour it was, what it could have meant, and I would dive back into the murky recesses of REM sleep...a car...a dog...a dog biting off somebody's leg...a long drive. And so it went, until I learned to dive in and out of dreams, coming up for air with broken recollections and holding my breath to remember farther back, with the talent of a seasoned swimmer. By now, there's hardly any diving required; I weave in and out of dreams while going about the mundane tasks of my weekdays, occasionally confusing something I saw or felt or smelled in the otherworld for something that happened in my realworld, straining to differentiate one from the other.

The otherworld is a dangerous place to indulge for too much time; it's where all your longings and fears and hopes mesh into a wild chase, or a film-grainy horror scene, or the paraphernalia of your childhood, and they pop up and distract you from correctly squeezing the toothpaste tube or closing the car door. They beg you to stay, they ask you to try and go back, but you won't ever find your way there once you've lost it.

There was a warm paper bag in my hand, rain in my hair and dampness in my boots, my fingers rubbed against the magnetic stripe of my card, bits of grass stuck to the soles of my shoes while I walked home in anticipation of dry clothes and the smell of winter-approaching hung about. There were children too, all seven my siblings, and a chimpanzee...and how happy we all were together. Sometimes, I know already how terribly I will miss the people I meet in this world, and I float out of it reluctantly and spend idle moments trying to recreate them, or hoping I meet them again. It's strange how a week of practice opened up my whole being to this otherplace, stranger still how it feels like home, how the tug of nostalgia lends itself to figments of my sleeping imagination. I still hope to be reunited with my seven siblings again; my chimpanzee; my wet hair; my warm paper bag, my home.