Friday, December 30, 2011


I see Karachi through a car window all the time. I wish I could walk out of my house anytime I like and go as far as I want, but the farthest I have walked around here is down the street to buy milk or cat food and even that feels heady and exciting just because I am on my own two legs. I love walking. I would deliberately miss the bus to the supermarket in college so I had an excuse to walk there and back, especially when it was snowing. In Karachi, girls like me walk around on walking tracks. That drives me crazy. Walking around an ugly track, with exactly one square kilometer of grass in the middle, which you are not allowed to step on. Round and round like a hamster on a wheel, just to get the kind of exercise human beings are meant to get just living their ordinary lives.
When you walk, you're forced to pay attention to the world and you see things that car windows don't allow at 80mph. The other day I was walking back to the car down a congested road and an old woman tugged at my kameez. She was squatting on the floor, begging from a dark corner behind a paan shop, in front of a staircase that looked like it might collapse. One of the men there turned to her and told her to go away, but not harshly. She laughed and waved him away and I thought what crazy eyes and I wanted to stop right there and ask her about the city and that staircase and if she has children and how she pays for her paan, but of course I didn't. I smiled though, because she startled me and she almost looked like she wouldn't mind having a conversation right there, but she and I were worlds apart already and I got into the car and shut myself off again.
We don't really see each other, do we? I write this blog without my real name on it because I want to walk around this city and stare at you and ask about your life, but invisibly. Invisibly I watch you and quietly I scream and I scream and I scream because I want to be heard and not seen. Recently, people have started telling me they like my blog, which makes me realise my initials are not a very good pseudonym and it terrifies me a bit, because they have all seen me naked and shouting and no longer faceless. My two month hiatus from writing wasn't because I was walking around and learning about you, but because I wasn't. I was afraid to do it all knowing people know who I am, but here I am stepping out of my car and saying hello, I'll still write. My name is Sarah Elahi, I wasn't very good at annonymity and here I am for real.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blogger stats has informed me I have readers in France, Netherlands, Ukraine, Romania and South Africa! I'm sure whoever you are, you stumbled on this blog by mistake, because I don't know anybody in these countries-but if you're reading this, say hello in the comments! I'd love to know what brought you here :)

I would also love to know why my blog is linked to an LA weight loss site and a business selling Ajwa dates, but that's for a different day. The internet is a mysterious place.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I woke up today knowing its November 2nd and didn’t want to bother getting out of bed. The second day of November. This was supposed to be my day. This was the day I chose for the exhibition that would showcase my year of painstaking research on the 1971 war. I wanted to throw myself a pity party with my pillows and not go to work, but I did because it’s crunch time for college applications and I had promised to help someone with a personal statement. Waking up was the saintliest thing I did today. I’ve been completely petty otherwise.

You know how sometimes on your birthday you’ll be in Physics class or at the grocery store and nobody will know it’s your birthday and you’ll feel like you know something everyone else doesn’t? You’ll feel like there’s something you should be sharing with people. In a good way. I have that same feeling today, but the sad version of it. All day, I’ve been thinking CAP, CAP, CAP and nobody here knows why I left. I feel like a liar. Nobody ever asks me about my last job, so I haven’t had to lie-yet. I’m feeling heavy with my secret. It’s not something I want to share, but it’s weighing down my hair and eyebrows and mouth. Somebody mentioned the exhibition in the staff room today and asked me if it’s the same organization I worked at that’s putting it up. She said my ex-boss is a brilliant woman who achieved so much in life. “I don’t want to talk about this!!” was what I thought, but “Yes” was all I said. Again, that lying feeling. It’s staff room talk to you, it was a whole nine months of excitement to me.

I want to hug my friends who actually put up the exhibition. I know they’ve been worked to the bone. I know it so well. I want to congratulate them and tell them how amazing they are. I want to meet the artists whose portfolios I studied a few months ago. I want to buy my former colleagues dinner and tell them I love them. I want to see the exhibition. I’m not sure if I can do it. Not today, anyway. Tomorrow, day after, sure. Any day but November 2nd, please. I know I’ve been specially acknowledged in their exhibition thank yous and I think it would make me cry. Not because I’m touched-though I am-but because then I will have to think about why I left and I am so good at not thinking about it.

I left so pigheadedly and I don’t regret it. I think there’s a timeline for everything and mine was nine months. A good gestation period to make me a grown-up. I know the real reason I would have loved to put up this exhibition myself, besides of course the satisfaction of finishing what you started, is that I crave some credit. It makes me cringe to admit it to myself. After a year of hard work, seeing a finished product, seeing it all come together, having something that’s tangible and admire-able, that’s what I want. I want the pat on the back and sigh of relief. It makes me think that the path I have chosen for myself now, in a school, is so different from the one I was on. What will I ever have to show for my work now which will get me a pat on the back? A line of students whose activities were successfully coordinated? Neatly stamped report cards? A file full of internship information I compiled?

This is why, for the first time today, I truly believe there was a reason I had to leave CAP. I’ve been telling myself there must have been a reason, but now I can see it. If I am going to work in education, awareness or social work, I need to give for the sake of giving. My friends at CAP, the ones who stayed, the ones who have worked day and night on today’s exhibition, can already do that. They’re amazing people. Me? I try not to be selfish or egotistical, but of course, I can be. Learning to perform service because I love it and truly want to do it is my challenge. The past five years have thrown things at me that have forced me to learn hard work, but this year has thrown things at me that’s forced me to learn hard work for rewards that aren’t always gratifying. I feel thankful for realizing this. I’m still sad, because it will always hurt to know that things that mean a lot to you can be always be taken away. But I’m bigger than that, because it’s November 2nd and I’ve come a long, long way since this time last year.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Being here makes me think about fear a lot. I tried putting it on a scale to see which is the worst kind. The time we were teaching at summer camp and heard gunshots but didn't get hurt? Didn't really care. The time your students didn't show up to class because so many kids were shot dead in their neighbourhood? Gut-wrenching, but not frightening. The time you saw your old school half blown to pieces on TV? Soul-crushing, but it happens. The time, every single day, when you call someone you love to check if they're at work yet, left work yet, home yet, stuck in a riot yet, safe yet? That is terror, every day, twice a day. The bogeymen who no longer occupy my nightmares are out to plague waking life and their imaginative strength seems to feed on my fear like a parasite. Hear a door slam and you think "bomb blast." See two guys on a motorcycle stopping for a cigarette and you think "shit, we're getting mugged."

You can call me a bourgeoisie pig, but in the past year I have spent enough time venturing into Karachi's seedy underbelly and the schools it houses for it to haunt me forever. I feel like a coward for even thinking it, let alone writing it, but I don't ever want to make an "Are you okay?" call again. It's made me fast forward to thinking about kids, and how I don't want to have any if it means sending them out to a warzone every morning, or raising them with a psyche as insanely messed up as mine seems to have become.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The news bores me to death sometimes. Not because the content is boring, but because every likely comment, debate, opinion, conclusion and recommendation that comes out of it has been beaten to death, resurrected a few months later and beaten again. Hell, if it wasn't for this blog I would have forgotten half the bad news I've heard in the past year or so. What is frustrating is when even feelings become redundant. "Oh wait, I've already felt that before," is the worst possible reaction to news-unless of course it is the kind of good news we have been hungering for for so many months.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter at all who is behind anything, or whether we win or lose. What matters is how many people defend the disturbing minutiae of injustice in defense of a greater good. I've heard a new world is coming and that her arrival will be punctuated by minor skirmishes. I've heard apologetic statements about bomb blasts and blasphemy laws and getting worked up over an Ahmaddi calling his mosque a mosque and not "place of worship." I've heard that all countries go through hiccups and burps and teething and various other infant-related analogies, and that Pakistan will develop kneecaps and stumble into toddlerhood soon enough. Oh well. Oh well. Oh well. Life goes on.
I used to analyse everything, but now I don't bother. At traffic signals and on street corners, I look at people and perhaps instinctively like them, but second-guess myself and wonder what filth may be found if I peel away the layers of normality. Hello, I love what you're wearing, are you a closet racist, classist, homophobe, Nazi apologist, imperialism-lover or Blackwater spy? I rather like the way your spectacles make your face look, I've always wanted frames like that. But I worry I won't like you once you start talking. You see, I am a bit bored of hearing cliched opinions, including my own, regarding the news. Because the news is all we will talk about, if I roll down my car window and make friendly conversation. Oh, you won't roll it down? Well, neither will I, because I am afraid of getting mugged, as are you. God, it happens all the time.
It amazes me that I can write when there is nothing left to be said, or thought, or felt.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Here you are again, blank page, asking me to write about bomb blasts and death and wedding errands. I don't want to, because things will keep changing and things will keep staying the same and what is left to say about any of it? All I know is that life and death keep on happening. They don't give you warnings or a friendly wave or look both ways before crossing the street. They crumple up fear, mine and yours, like failed attempts at origami and throw it in the wastebasket, and miss. They wear faded lawn prints and the kind of shoes everybody owns. Sometimes they try to be profound, but end up creating mediocrity, waiting for an artist or poet to mould them into what they should have been. That's all there is to it.

That is why, when a blast rattled my window this morning, my first thought was simply "Blast."

There is a routine for things like this. Once the panic has subsided and all family members have returned home, shared stories and have been accounted for, you can start making calls to everyone else to establish how many degrees of separation are between you and this one. Three. Two. One. None. And then you switch on the TV and see your old school with its familiar walls and windows and parking spots replaced by six foot craters and ambulances. You spot the school van driver and your face lights up and you say Hey, that's Riasat Bhai! because it is always nice to see familiar people on TV, before you stupidly realise why they are on TV. And then you think what do they mean eight people are dead, who are they? And then the calls begin again. Throughout it all is a vague sense of guilt, of knowing that if it had been a big one near the city center, or the other side of town, it would have been easy not to notice. Then you console yourself and say well, if life and death are going about barreling into your soul without giving polite road signals, there is only room for so much care.

And later, you run wedding errands, because of that habit life has of keeping on happening. And while you choose the right shade of yellow, you check your text messages to find out which of your old social studies teachers is in the hospital. Part of you thinks two years ago I would not have been out shopping for yellow linen if this had happened, but most of you thinks two years ago, this would not have happened anyway. Between meals and naps and phone calls and work and sorting out student timetables and putting your files in alphabetical order and planning the welcome party for incoming students and giving advice on studying for the SATs, you check the news. Why news websites think it is in good taste to discuss how well-known socialities "tweeted their grief today" is beyond me, but I have worked at a news website, so then again it isn't.

And you think there will be no memorials, there will be no ten-years-later services, there will be no names attached to the security guards who died, there will be no TV specials or emotional Reader's Digest features about how someone's clairvoyant puppy saved them with photographs of smiling blond children and their healthy pets. There will be no special school assemblies and tomorrow parents will drive their kids to school like masochistic but level headed adults and enquire at the half-demolished gate whether the guard is alive and if he is, send them in and go home and perhaps run wedding errands for another child, or perhaps sit and worry, or perhaps give extra sadqa. And you know they are the ones who really matter, when people say "Ha it finally happened in Defence" and when people say "Let us mourn for those in Waziristan" and when people say "We are reaping the seeds we sowed" and when people say "When America leaves it will end" and when people say "I was right there when it happened" and when people say people say people say people say people say but life and death go on either way.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Hello, blank page.

You have so much potential.


I want to be a farmer dog whisperer tree planter yogi pilot detective mom cake decorator hot air balloon owner circus performer chimpanzee trainer author illustrator peter pan saint.

What do you really want to be?

A Taoist. Though I don't know very much about it. I just read an abridged guide to it, but it sounds cool.

Build me a library like the one the Beast built for Belle. I'll be my own personal librarian.

Find me an agent, I'll write for a living.

What do you mean, I'm not good enough?

Well. Prestige is overrated anyway. Maybe I'll be a hermit. Maybe I'll write, become famous and then go mad and hate people, like Tennessee Williams. Except that I can't write like him.

Anyone can have their own TV show, lawn exhibition and blog these days. Even me.

I realise that "even me" is incorrect grammar. I love and hate grammar. I love its order and hate its fascism.

I like that Urdu is arranged subject-object-verb. It forces you to hear the whole sentence. I like writing in this room. I in this room writing like.

Hello, blank page, trying to decide what to be.

Just like me.

60. (recycled from last year's writings)

Genius. It always creeps into you at night, with characteristic bad timing that makes you promise yourself that in the morning, when your bed is less warm and your room less cold, you’ll write it all down, create a masterpiece. Of course, in friendly daylight nothing seems remotely as mysterious, interesting or complicated as it does at night, and the long words and lovely sentences curl up and arrange themselves ordinarily, uninterestingly. It makes you wonder what it was about the night before that made you believe in your own promise and talent.

Darkness does that. You can fumble around in it forever, believing yourself to be feeling and touching and experiencing something novel, something special, something profound that needs to be shared with the world. It also makes you miserable. The quest for genius can be melancholy. It makes you marvel at the loop-de-loop of your own thoughts, drives you insane when you try to follow them in a straight line (out of habit), forces you to consider answers to all the world’s questions before sleep takes over and the mundane tasks of your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning begin.

I like friendly daylight better though. Genius is alluring, but kindness is more forgiving. In broad daylight, you can’t be fooled into taking your own mind too seriously, because the rest of the world competes for attention. There are things to see outside of your own head, and they are kinder and happier than the things you conceive of when you are alone and in the dark. They may not create masterpieces, but I’m ready to believe that shrugging off the need to know everything, do everything and be everything is an art in itself.

I argued with someone about Taoism once, about how it’s not wrong to just be. Pooh just was, and he seemed considerably wiser than Rabbit or Owl, but without the Tao of Piglet book series these things are impossible to explain. I realize now that contentedly being is much more difficult than aspiring for genius, and it is considerably more aware of others and their happiness than the deluded nature of knowingness. I’ll go with the sunshine. Beautiful words and mysteries can wait for a darker day. My daytime universe is a friendly place and I fit happily inside it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I've learned a lot of things about myself in the fifteen months since I graduated into the real world. For one thing, now I know why they call it "the real world." I knew college was a bubble, but that's not what people seem to mean when they said it's not "real." It's just different because it's full of safe spaces and people giving you multiple opportunities to learn. Post-college, nobody constructs safe spaces for you and nobody gives a shit what you learn. Anyway, I digress. I digress a lot these days. My own mind is like a train station. Things rattle in and rattle out. Shut up. Mind.

I used to think I'm ambitious. defines "ambition" as "an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame or wealth." This confuses me. I have an earnest desire, but don't particularly want power, honor fame or wealth. I mean, they'd be nice. But I don't especially care. The desire and earnestness are in other directions.

People don't think I'm ambitious anymore. I say I work at a school and I get the Look, the quick appraisal of everything I am. Everything I am is supposed to be: unaccomplished, unexciting, unqualified, unable to find a better job, in it for the easy hours, waiting to get married. I don't blame anyone, really. That's what education has come to in this country. To care about it is to announce your credentials as a bored (soon-to-be) housewife who's doing it for the pocket money and emotional rewards. Well. Whatever. I can deal with that.

What I Want is to live my life. I don't know why it took so long for this realisation to arrive, but here it is. I want to live my life. I want to inspire and be inspired. I want to try new things and make mistakes and break my heart and learn again. I want to fly to another city on a moment's notice because I feel like seeing my grandparents, without taking leave from anybody. I want to finish reading all the history books in my room. I want to be the happiest, most educated and serenest version of myself. Excuse my language but I don't give a fuck if you think education is beneath me. You probably think being ambitious means wanting things. Well, I want Things too. The difference between me and you is that I will teach and learn on my way to getting them and you'll spend your whole life racing to an imaginary finish line.

In first grade, my teacher asked some question about plants, I don't remember it anymore. Everyone answered one way, I answered another. It was nothing important and I was wrong. My teacher took me aside and said well done, you stuck to what you believed even when everyone else was saying something else and I was as proud as a five year old can be. There's a reason I still remember that. Teachers matter. I might not stick around in a school forever, but I will never look at my highly-paid, professionally qualified friends and I wish I was a little more everything. I'll never save or defend lives, I'll never build anything you can touch and I probably won't ever be able to afford a beautiful house. My job doesn't take years to earn and impresses nobody. I admit this annoys my fat ego. But at the end of the day, no matter where I work or don't work, I'm committed to creating safe spaces and opportunities to learn because I don't believe in the real world after all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Karachi I try and write about you but you're too fast for me.

Fast like those girls called me when they learned I had a boyfriend. Fast like the warden accused me of being when I snuck out without a gate pass. Her purple lipstick was smudged in the corners.

Stop killing each other.

I wanted to be a vegetarian once. I quit meat for three months. These days I tell myself I only need meat about once a week and avoid it on other days. I won't quit because I'm anemic and vitamin deficient. That's what I say, anyway. Sometimes I'm not sure.

I think it's probably a sin to eat meat that claims to be lawfully prepared but is a product of mistreated animals. I almost never say something is a sin.

Karachi give me back my sanity. I worry about vegetarianism and cry for beheaded chickens in your rivers of blood. Karachi, screw my sanity. Someone's gotta cry for chickens too.

I hate women who are self righteous about their chastity.

I hate righteous people in general. Like the ones whose only argument for not preparing meat ethically is that religion allows us to eat it.

God, why do I have meat on the brain?

Every time I say the word "hate" I feel guilty because my mother taught me not to think like that when I was young. I wonder if I'm still young. What does that even mean? Young enough for what?

When they interview people on TV whose children have died in ethnic violence, it hurts me physically. I say I'm desensitized, because that's what everyone says in Karachi. I don't think I am. Not yet. But it's easy to switch off the news.

Karachi I'm not angry. I don't know who to blame.

Sometimes I don't feel anything because I haven't thought enough yet. I think too much. Not in a smart way. Just in an overthinking way. My father says I have slow reflexes. I think he's right.

I don't drive because a palmist told me I would have a car accident. I can drive better than I let on. What scares me is that it doesn't scare me. My slow reflexes might cause me to kill somebody. Or myself.

Karachi your traffic is crazy anyway. What would I even do if I was stuck in a riot?

I'm superstitious by nature and rational by force. I go to palmists and tarot card readers. I believe all the good stuff and tell myself they're bullshitting about the bad stuff. It amazes me how I can lie to myself.

Karachi 35,000 people dead.

I wish I was a hippie. I would wear flowers in my hair, eat organic food and talk about love. Who can afford organic food though? Rich people who dress like they're homeless and talk about how money has no value. This is mostly not true for Karachi. Nobody in Karachi dresses like they're homeless unless they are.

Karachi you make endless poverty take the back burner to basic survival.

I'm very prejudiced. I think that's okay. Some people judge others for their race or religion or whatever, though of course nobody admits it. I mostly judge people for being unintelligent. I think that's okay.

I try not to hurt anyone's feelings or use the word "hate," like my mother taught me.

Somewhere inside me is a five year old who wanted to grow up to be "a nature lover."

Karachi you make me want to plant some trees. I can barely breathe for the lack of oxygen.

Who cares about nature when people are dying? Am I too old to care about trees or something? Too old for what? What does that even mean?

Karachi I could write all night but you're too fast for me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


One year, two jobs and a lot of experience ago, I started a blog. My goal was to write one hundred essays in one hundred days. For days on end, my life revolved around this personal project, which I had invented in an attempt to keep my creative juices flowing and give myself something to do in my lonely free time, since my working hours left no time for socialising back then. I didn't realise what this project would turn into, or what it would come to mean to me, or how many hours I would spend throwing around potential topics in my head the first few weeks.

I didn't meet my goal.

Once I realised I couldn't keep skipping days and thinking I'll make up for it one especially prolific weekend, I changed the name of my blog to simply "one hundred essays" and decided to see how long it took for me to get there. It's been a year and three days now and I am on essay 57. Not so prolific after all. Somehow, I'm not quite as let down by this failure than I may have imagined when I first set my goal. There have been good essays and bad essays, but every essay has a story behind it and I use the 365 days of published blogs, comments, drafts and discarded pieces as introspective tools. I never realised how much I had to teach myself until I started forcing myself to write-something I haven't been doing lately for lack of inspiration. Someone told me today to stop making excuses and "go find it again," so here I am. Finding it.

Last August, I wrote a letter to my country on the eve of independence day, wondering what could have gone so wrong in its history that I was writing it borderline abusive letters rather than celebrating it. Last August, I wrote about the dark humour that seems to belong to my generation alone, because it is easier to laugh at the twisted world than cry about it. Last August, I wrote about rain and the grief it brings my city. Last August, everything was the same and everything was different.

It is independence day again and I spent it looking forward to another new job-exactly what I was doing a year ago today, except perhaps my excitement at this new beginning has waned. I've tried on two potential careers and am embarking on a third and a part of me is ashamed and wondering why I tend to flit from one place to another. Most of me is lost. A few months ago, I would have passionately defended what I want to do in life and shouted down anyone who challenged me. Now, I'm okay with being lost. I trust myself to shrug my shoulders and let my way find itself for a while. As for 14th August, I am no longer in a position to write letters to my grief-ridden country, because I'm part of it and you can't write a letter to yourself. A year ago, I thought I knew Pakistan and was ready to announce how my degree in history qualified me to identify its problems. A few dozen books later, I've realised a true historian is always a little lost, because truth doesn't come in a three year diploma. This independence day, I sang the national anthem at midnight at the top of my lungs, said fuck you to the electricity and water shortage and stared at the flag decorating my house with muddled feelings. I read 500 pages of speeches given by politicians for and against Pakistan and received an email from an accidental Indian friend congratulating my country on its independence. I didn't write anything about it because I had nothing to say. And of course, it rained again this August. I let myself get wet and didn't switch on the news about deaths by electrocution and houses collapsing, because a year in my city has taught me not to watch the news too often. I shared dirty jokes with dark humour about our failing government and didn't pretend I know that this country will last only five or ten or a hundred years, because really, who knows? If I had known anything at all a year ago, this blog would never have happened. In 2011, confusion reigns supreme and for once, that's just fine.

Here's to new beginnings...and knowing nothing at all.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Comrade ML Khan was not the kind of man anybody noticed. He spent his days drinking chai under a whirring ceiling fan in a dark and almost defunct government office. His face was ordinary and he could have been of any ethnicity really, with his brown face, average nose and straggly moustache. He wasn’t a real communist, but he had read a bit of this and a bit of that and had briefly joined a Railway Workers’ Union because several of his friends had, before it was banned and communism died a quick death in the country. The “Comrade” bit stuck, at least in his mind, though nobody in the office actually referred to him as such-had he ever said it out loud, he would have been met with confused stares by the two other men who whiled away their time in there.

This particular government office was built on the same pattern as all official structures (Were there guidelines somewhere, in a dusty book of law?) It had a grand fa├žade, complete with minarets and useless, once-beautiful balconies littered with pigeon shit and separated from the rest of the building by heavy, rusted grills. The same grills-geometrically patterned and painted sky blue (the favorite color of governments everywhere, it appeared)- guarded the windows along long corridors. Post-colonial, post -Communist, post-Islamic, post-bomb blast, post-concern, the entire structure had a confused air about it. Or a story to tell. Comrade ML Khan, having done one thing or another in the office for upwards of two decades, was part of the furniture, old enough to tell the tale of the building’s glory days but young enough to remember his own, though he was never actually called upon to do so.

He had not always been an old, graying sort of man. There was a time in his life when he had done more than sip milky tea under a slow fan and napped in his plastic chair between officious bursts of ordering around the peon. There was a time in his life when he had cherished notions of being a true comrade, of making fiery speeches about the bourgeoisie and reviving the Progressive Writers’ Movement, of moving audiences to tears in street theatre performances and publishing radical literature.

At seventy two, Comrade ML Khan sat in the decaying remains of an establishment office, lighting candles during the frequent power outages, plaintively bleating at the peon about the dust in the office in front of guests and obsequiously deferring to the wishes of the equally archaic Head of Department for his office. His official title was Editor for a publication nobody read anymore, although he enjoyed the comfort of knowing that although he had been serving a government institution since late middle age, at least it was in a literary capacity. One of the few things he did every week was to write the magazine editorial. From time to time, his pet topics coincided with urban intellectual fads and received a bit of attention here or there-wisps which he cherished as deeply as his past which nobody cared about. His last article on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in particular, garnered attention from one or two visiting professors and was subsequently quoted by young, English-medium reporters who had not bothered to read it themselves. The irony of Faiz being championed by the uppermost echelons of society in discussion forums and conferences which cost thousands of rupees to attend was not lost on him, but he chose to ignore it. Comrade ML Khan had become very talented at ignoring things that made him uncomfortable.

Twenty eight years before his induction into the ranks of civil servants, Comrade had worked at one NGO after another, championing various causes along the way. After his failed tenure as an almost-communist, he tried his hand at many different things which satisfied his youthful desires. His first job was as a guide with an organization that sought to promote cultural tourism. His zeal for the protection of architecture, local art and handicrafts did not die, but his energy for showcasing them soon did. Several unsatisfactory years were spent showing around field trips of pubescent students flirting during field trips, large families who all talked at once, parents of small children whose main interest was locating a restroom and people who would pose for photographs and leave without actually taking the tour. Occasionally, there would be a foreigner or two. He liked foreigners-they were nearly always chatty, tipped well and made him feel both well-informed and exotic. When war, sanctions and a bad reputation began to ruin his industry, friendly foreign faces thinned out and eventually disappeared, leaving Comrade ML Khan with little option but to find a new career to feed himself with.

The second in the long line of NGOs that littered Comrade’s resume was a street theatre troupe for which he wrote contrived, one-dimensional plays about a plethora of social ills. Inevitably, his male characters would die noble deaths after standing up for the cause they believed in.  Meanwhile, the women in his stories would steadfastly support their greater counterparts, rarely joining the action and almost never dying, unless they were somebody’s mother, in which case they would die of grief. The truth was that Comrade ML Khan knew very little of women beyond his purely carnal encounters here and there and he penned their roles doubtfully, sexism not being an ism he was at war with yet. This job was one that he loved, in spite of his lack of genius. The people his troupe performed for, starved for entertainment in a country where all outlets for it were rapidly closing down, appreciated their clumsy efforts at educating the public. The applause at the end of each act was not only heartening, it also remained a memory that he did not consciously try to forget as an old man and often returned to him in moments when he relived his imagined past glories.

Later, as Comrade ML Khan flitted from one cause to another, he learned a great deal about the world he worked in. By the time he was twenty seven, he was privately cynical about his own or anyone’s ability to effect change through art, so disinterested was the general population in his work. By the time he was in his thirties, he was all too familiar with the arrogance and insincerity of those who publicly championed the ideals he worked for. In his late forties, suffering from tuberculosis from years of smoking cheap cigarettes and determinedly trying to avoid a midlife crisis, he decided it would do him no harm to turn towards God, just in case there was one and he should die young. And that was how, at seventy two, Comrade ML Khan was not really a communist at all, or even a socialist, but simply an old man who had read a bit of this and a bit of that and possessed a good number of badly thought out ideas.

It was an oppressively humid day when the graying man in the dying government office decided to lose his mind. The presses in the back room were rolling out new copies of the magazine with no readership, with freshly written editorials about issues nobody cared much about anymore. When the pregnant sky finally broke, the force of the monsoon rain wrecked the fragile press room and water dripped into the rusty machinery, causing the painstakingly typed Urdu words to blur and the paper to become soggy. In a burst of literary inspiration, Comrade ML Khan saw the entire episode as a metaphor for his life, romantically giving it more meaning even as he forced himself to be honest. Everybody knew he lost his mind that day, but nobody noticed the spectacle of the old man floating up to the ceiling, being sucked through its cracks and coming back to down to earth as fat tears and acid rain.

Monday, June 20, 2011


I love and hate discussion threads under news pieces. They are fascinating, infuriating and so addictive that I once started writing my term paper for anthropology based entirely on YouTube debates, but changed the topic because it wasn't worth it to ingest that much stupidity for one paper. Take for example any music video from the subcontinent and glance at the comments below. Within ten or fifteen of them, someone will have raised the vital question of whether the musician/song/lyrics are derived from Hindu, Muslim or Sikh tradition. Within another five, there will be a lively discussion about people's mothers and sisters, with plenty of caste-conscious epithetsthrown in for good measure. I think YouTube comments are where I learned most about  penny-pinching banias, sewer-cleaning chamars, homosexual Pathans, sand nigger Musalmans and "d1rty guRlzz"-though the latter are of course ubiquitous on the internet.

But back to my original point, which is not asinine remarks about whether Bulleh Shah would have been Indian or Pakistani, but burger babies such as myself and their comments on the daily news. I say "their" and not "our" because burger though I may be by virtue of my residence, I try to not fall into the trap of acting exactly as mummydaddy as Karachi might expect me to act. And here we come to today's news article: 40 people mugged at T2F. Comments? 67. Content? Along the lines of, "I am furious...We must organize a protest...Let's show these worthless robbers what we're made of...I am enraged that someone is targeting a space for artists...How dare they rob an intellectual space?!" Just add a lot more exclamation marks, pseudonyms and spelling mistakes and you get the picture.

People's anger is legitimate, but it is lop-sided. Another news story from today: "Peshawar blast kills three, wounds ten." Comments? 0. Along the lines of, "Another bomb story from the Taliban province." One might say the disproportionately angry reaction to the T2F robbery is because it is a new kind of violent incident, one that we're not used to-after all, a few bombs go off every day and all terrorism news is old news. But it's not a new incident-it is the oldest of them all. So many people in Karachi get shot, mugged, robbed and generally terrorised every day that when I worked for the crime page of a newspaper, we had to choose the top 15 incidents every day to save space (which brings me to the next question of why the paper gave two columns to this story when they don't even run other mugging stories). There is nothing novel about armed men walking into a crowded public space and stealing cash and mobile phones, except that they are more likely to hit gold if they are in Defence than in say, Gulshan-e-Maymar, or some other place off the radar for DHA bubbleheads.

I completely sympathise with those who are feeling wounded by the violation of a place they hold sacred, simply because T2F is one of those rare places where intellectual growth is encouraged. But if we are to be intelligent, we must first be honest. Pakistan wouldn't desperately need places like T2F if the people who patronise it weren't so quick to polarise themselves from the rest of the country and blow their own tragedies out of proportion. Are you really going to attend the Facebook and Twitter protests for this? Are you going to spend an hour, or maybe even two, whining to your friends about how your own neighborhood is under attack now? Please consider volunteering at a low-income school, teaching a child who can't read or patronising local booksellers instead. Honestly, if we are ever to combat intellectual poverty, we can't do it alone on the second floor, crying about how the "other" Pakistanis are coming to get us in the comments section of the Express Tribune.

Monday, June 13, 2011


"Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence. 
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.

I know a lot of Rabbits, a lot of stupid people and a lot of people trying to be Rabbits.  Now, no offense to aspiring scholars anywhere. I personally think Brain is the best thing you can have and I don't at all mind that Rabbit is very clever. The problem begins when you notice that most intelligent people you meet are so enamored by their own intelligence they can barely see through their haze of self-congratulation. This is especially true in Pakistan, where so many people who have everything seem to believe that success needs to come with a great deal of condescension.

Don't get me wrong-I'm all for a healthy dose of being critical of society, especially in a country where being thoughtful is a crime against patriotism. But when we seethe with anger at everyone else's stupidity, complacency or ignorance, when we laugh at the crazy theories spawned by paranoid hyper-nationalists, when we shake our heads at others' misfortune and think they probably deserved it, we are as useless as a Rabbit preaching to a silly old bear.

There is a great deal of intellectual poverty in Pakistan. What is difficult to understand is why so many who pledge to combat it think they can do it top-down, without engaging the very people they are trying so hard to change. Activists have the country's best interests at heart when they speak of economic inequality and will speak about it to one another at one-thousand-rupees-entry-fee events. Self-proclaimed liberals will propagate sexual freedom and liberation, will refer to their servants as "these people" and fire them for having affairs with one another. Society aunties will romanticise the past when people mingled freely in public parks and shudder at the thought of mixing with the awaam. Celebrities will defend their right to choose their genders and be accepted as queer and  forget to mention the eunuchs that still dance on the streets for a living. Students everywhere will talk about undoing the mistakes of the previous generation and run their family factories and farmlands without knowing their workers' rights. The meek shall inherit the earth one day, they say, the meek will inherit the earth. They feel good saying it, thinking it. They oppose the right to vote because "the people" know no better. The people are never the people, the people are always those people.

You Rabbits want a Revolution. A revolution for whom, a revolution for what?

There is a lot of Brain in our upper classes. That is why we don't understand anything.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I had Chacha called from the kitchen because I wanted to interview him.
"Interview me? Nothing to interview me about! I'm just a cook," he protested. I needed to know about the 1971 war, I explained. About what happened to him. He must remember something?
"Remember nothing."
"Remember something? You couldn't have been that young,"
"Only seven or eight. Remember nothing," he insisted.
I gave up. Maybe he really did remember nothing.
Ten minutes later, while I was still seated at the dining table with the rest of the dinner guests, Chacha came back in, offering dessert.
"I remember one thing only. My father was in the army."
"The Pakistan Army?"
"Yes, he was a fauji. But they killed him." I was served a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
"Who killed him?"
"The army. I don't remember why. I think because he didn't speak Urdu."
I asked him again for an interview.
"Remember nothing!" The kitchen door swung behind him as he left. I followed him out, abandoning my dessert bowl on the table and pleaded my case for more information. Chacha smiled apologetically into his off-white apron and wiped his hands on it. All he remembered, he said, was that his father was an army officer who was killed for not speaking Urdu and his brother was a Mukti and became estranged from them and ran away to India and he's not sure what happened but now he's in Pakistan and he remembers nothing. Nothing. Of no use to Baji and her project. Just a cook.
Perhaps Bua could tell me more, I ventured? Chacha scowled. Of course she could. The useless aged woman had probably been old even back then. She must remember everything. From the corner of the kitchen, Bua smiled serenely back at us, not having heard or understood what we were talking about.
I repeated my questions for her.
"What happened in 1971, Bua?"
"War. Fighting."
"Who was fighting?"
"The army...and the other people," She followed me back out to the dining room, still smiling, still slightly confused.
"What did the army do?"
"Was the army good or bad?"
She looked across the room at Dada, who was absorbed in thought. A once-fauji, now-Dada.
"I think maybe they were good."
Uncomfortably, I moved my spoon around in the bowl of melted ice cream.
"My brothers were shot dead when we ran, though," Bua added.
"Where did you run?"
"I don't know. Far. Very far. Maybe India. Maybe not. I had only one pair of shoes and they killed my brothers. We walked for a long time,"
Dada spilled ice cream on his shirt. Two people scrambled to find a tissue.
"What part of Bangladesh were you from?" he asked, unbothered by the spill. She told him. He cleared his throat.
Chacha stood behind my chair. I turned around and saw him scowling at his kitchen nemesis. He told us that Bua was senile anyway.
"Life was very difficult," Bua continued. I waited for the story. Instead, she sighed, then gave a bright unexpected smile and shuffled out of the room back into the kitchen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


"I'm afraid that sometimes you'll play lonely games too. Games you can't win cause you'll play against you." Dr Suess said that. Ever since I read "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" to my younger brother, I can't get over how this master of rhymes and proponent of eating verdant eggs has charted out my life in a twenty page book. Read it. He's probably charted out yours, too.
Seems like I'm always playing against me these days.
This week brought on carpal tunnel syndrome, allergies and the flu. Somewhere around Wednesday (which is neither here nor there, a quality of Wednesday I can't decide if I love or hate), I walked out of the office to take a phone call and give my injured arm a rest. I had been uncomfortable at my desk because of the stiff splint on my left wrist, growing pain in my right and the irritation at knowing my antihistamine was wearing off. I hate being sick. Once I walked out though, I was almost immediately drenched in sweat, since it is late May in Karachi after all. Maybe it was Wednesday, maybe it was the series of physical ills that have bothered me for the entire nine months since I started working, but I just felt like kicking something. This can't be what life is about. And this is where I clarify-to myself and to my audience-that I actually like my job. I like collecting oral histories, I like teaching, I like researching, I like the rush of working towards exhibitions and events, I like having a routine, I like having my own money and knowing my days of scrimping on shampoo to buy a textbook are over. But parts don't equal whole and whole is exactly what I am not.
It was after kicking the wrought iron chair outside, stubbing my toe and having this realisation that I went inside and wondered what it would be like to be free. I know myself well enough to know that my definition of free involves work and a lot of it. It sounds like a paradox, but it's not. I love work, but the moment any of it begins to lose meaning for me, the moment I feel that I am not putting my heart one hundred and ten per cent into what I am doing, I feel trapped. I am selfish. I will not leave my job because I enjoy the work, the people and the financial freedom. But I'm playing this game against myself. I'm swimming against the tide. The tide wants me to slow down, type less, read more, assume less, learn more and worry less about whether typing with one hand means I won't finish making this lesson plan by 6pm. The tide wants to leave me broke.
If this blog was a self-help book, a romantic comedy, an inspirational talk or a novel written by a woman going through a mid-life crisis, my next sentence would tell you that I am quitting my job, moving to an island with clean air and plenty of fruit (and wise, brown natives to complete the picture) and becoming a yoga master. But it's not. It's a blog typed with one hand by someone breathing through one nostril and lying in bed trying not to compromise but knowing for now, I'll probably have to. Maybe when I am thirty five-or even twenty five-I will have all this figured out. Maybe I won't. Maybe I will write a blog about all the solutions I have devised in my head. Or maybe I won't, because as much as I trust the people I meet every day, I know it's not a good idea to lay all my cards on the table.
Dr Suess says that if I learn that Life's a Great Balancing Act, I will succeed (98 and three quarter percent guaranteed!).
May I balance gracefully on one arm, a blocked nostril, a swollen lymph node, too many questions and a lot of heart.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Every day that I wake up to the broken world, I am not unhappy.
On some days, I am full of beautiful thoughts and compassionate feelings.
On some days, I am irritated by my lack of sleep.
On most days, I am preoccupied by my morning to-do list.
But every day, I am in a war state of mind. In my mind, this war began in 2009, when my consciousness absorbed the brokenness of its surroundings completely, like a baby ingesting food properly the first time.

Burning buses and TV buzz. Rape and arson and twitter updates. Newspapers, checkpoints, gunpoints. The miscellany of our lives being swallowed, but not whole. It travels down my tongue, into my throat, is pushed down my esophagus. It would be poetic to say I can't stomach it, but I can. I do.
Now that I have integrated our ugliest ogres, digested them with my breakfast, I am no longer embarrassed by them. People talk (wail, howl, cry) about how the images that we swallow have come to define us and how this definition shames us. I feel no shame. I look on, curiously, at what is unfolding. National embarrassment has no meaning for me. Neither does national pride. Neither does national. Or nation.
Dirty flavors can be found in every bag of jellybeans. Perhaps we have far too many, but you can only be shamed by what is your own. Rationally speaking, it is impossible to be embarrassed by the actions of your milkman, unless you believe the milkman represents some aspect of yourself. By extension, he can only represent some aspect of yourself if you allow him this representation.
That is why I can not be proud of the Pakistanis who I love and admire, I can only love and admire them as human beings. I can not be ashamed of Pakistanis who murder, I can only despise them as human beings. I can not be ashamed of Pakistan, I can only love it for the value we attach to the motherland. I can not be proud of Pakistan, I can only point out the truth in what I see.
I have no nation.
I have a country.
The only question left to be answered is how far my personal imagined community stretches and how much it is affected by borders, if at all. I'll get there some day.
For now, I am striving to be good and unbreak what is damaged. I want to create a place with a less exhausting state of mind. Not because it is mine, but because it is worth it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Osama is dead.
Good riddance.
Then again, I don't care one way or another if he's dead or alive. Not because of any moral or political convictions, but because the game is far from over. Osama or no Osama, the stage has been set for Level 2 and as usual, ordinary people with ordinary lives and ordinary concerns will die in ways that have become ordinary. Reaching Level 2 is so exciting because the first part is over-and then you realise there's still a long way to go. I speak from my limited experience with Sega games in the 1990s. I assume the principles of video games, like those of power struggles, have not fundamentally changed in the last couple of decades.
Now that we have killed Osama, on to our other demons.

Let us target dictators who sell their countries for money and power.
Let us throw out democratic presidents who do the same for oil.
Let us condemn the educated who use their intellect to cloud their humanity.
Let us take action against the well-fed feudals who let their farmers go hungry.
Let us not believe what double speaking, power-hungry politicians tell us.
Let us question everything we believe to be true.
Let us not allow semantics to muddy true dialogue.
Let us cry out against the systems that indoctrinate impressionable children.
Let us never complicate what is simple.
Let us remember there are two sides to every story and we'll probably never like one of them.
Let us spend more time getting to know people and less time assuming we know what they are like.
Let us remind people that it is possible to end world hunger.
Let us retain our compassion when the hungry commit crimes.
Let us scrutinise our own decisions and know that they are biased.
Let us remain innocent enough to be surprised.
Let us not forget that we are not as intelligent as we think we are.
Let us not wallow in our apathy.
Let us not congratulate ourselves for being better than our neighbors.
Let us invest in children's futures.
Let us educate.
Let us hope.
Let us give meaning to our hopes.

We already know that one person's choices can bring the world crashing down. By the same logic, it takes one person's choices to change the world. Or, if you're less ambitious, it takes as much to change someone else's world.

The second part of the game might be starting, but only if you believe in the game. After all, if you don't believe in it, it doesn't exist.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The problem with being asked to describe two hours with the greatest man in Pakistan is that it is a bit impossible to do justice to. I was initially excited about the prospect of writing about my interview with Abdul Sattar Edhi. During our session, I made mental notes of all his inspiring quotes and decided I would focus on those alone. About ten minutes in I realized that picking just a few inspiring things he said would be even more difficult than describing him. So here is my sloppy attempt to explain what happened today.

We just walked into the Edhi office in Mithadar. We had no precise address and no phone number we could reach easily, but this didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. Every single person we stopped in the congested streets knew where Edhi sahib’s office was and they were able to direct us so accurately we arrived twenty minutes early. Nobody asked us why we were early or how long we planned to stay. We were ushered into a room decorated with posters from campaigns for a drug free Pakistan, a tolerant Pakistan, a compassionate Pakistan. Several honorary degrees were displayed under the glass top of a table we sat on (a table we learned was “older than this country”). A large red sticker was on the door behind me. “LOVE HUMANITY,” it proclaimed in gaudy yellow lettering. I wondered at the man who had stuffed honorary PhDs under a glass top and chosen to frame and display a sticker like that. That’s all you can do with Edhi. Wonder.

I was nervous about meeting him. I’ve wanted to meet him since I was eight years old. I doubt there is a single man alive who commands as much respect, trust and gratitude as Abdul Sattar Edhi. Beggars, dacoits, philanthropists and society aunties alike feel safe depositing their zakat, their sadqas, their khairat, their earnings, their bread into his fund, knowing that it will reach whoever needs it most. Personally, I am not an especially spiritual person, but when I think of prayer I recall being nine years old and trying very hard to send blessings to the mysterious Edhi who seems to be keeping our country afloat singlehandedly. I don’t know what I expected of him today, but I did not expect him to walk into the room while we were all setting up our equipment and hearing him say “Assalam Alaikum” unassumingly, as if he wasn’t Edhi himself but simply a random person strolling into the room.

Once I had recovered from being tongue tied and begun the interview, I learned many things I didn’t know about Edhi, but many more I hadn’t realized about society. I learned that he describes himself as a Sheikh Chilli who never dreams small. I learned that he despises maulanas who choose Islamism over humanity, but equally disparages those who despise criminals without understanding their motives. I learned that his inspiration for placing a cradle outside every welfare center was his experience of picking maggot-ridden babies out of the trash and seeing an illegitimate infant stoned outside a mosque. I learned that he deeply loves his wife, doesn’t understand why people don’t choose to adopt daughters and employs mostly women because he believes they do God’s work better than men. I learned that he has met Gandhi and befriended Bacha Khan in his youth. More than anything, I learned that nothing disgusts him more than people who see humans as anything but humans. “Insaniyat” is the only religion, he told us. I asked him what inspired him to start working for all of us the way he does. “I am a Muslim and I do what God has asked me to do. The only message of religion is that humanity is one. Nowadays, the world has become so big that we find ways to divide it up, but that’s what destroys us-divisions, divisions, divisions.”

I don’t think any of us knew that Edhi has worked for humane causes in no less than 73 countries. I don’t think any of us expected him to well up with sadness when he told us that India, the country of his birth, is one of the only two countries in the world that has denied him a visa for his work. That alone speaks volumes about who and what we are today. A world which denies the champion of transcending divisions a visa to cross the border.

I’m not sure what exactly it was that Edhi radiated in that room as we all sat and listened to him spellbound (until he woke me up with “Ask me more questions, are you tired already?”). It was something like a sense of boundless possibility. If a man of almost ninety who started with nothing can start and run the world’s largest volunteer ambulance organization, rescue 36,000 abandoned babies, feed the hungry every day, give every unclaimed body a decent burial, convince the most bloodthirsty amongst us to choose love over arms and build shelters where injured animals and birds are cared for, he can probably do anything. His humanity doesn’t know any bounds and in the face of all he has done, the photograph of a rather pompous ex-prime minister handing Edhi a little medal made me want to laugh. It was so grotesquely inadequate.

While even the most well-meaning of us execute our vision for humanity cynically-by crying ourselves hoarse about misgovernance, angrily criticizing the idiots who don’t do a better job and howling with fury at the corruption and crime we face daily, there are others in Pakistan who achieve greatness with complete trust that people will choose to do the right thing.

Edhi recounted a time when he was accosted by bandits on his way to Quetta. They recognized him for who he was, safely escorted him to his destination and on his arrival, presented him with two crore rupees. Other hardened criminals have been known to put down their guns in the middle of street battles when the Edhi ambulance arrived on the scene. Beggars who spend their days collecting ten rupees at a time have dropped five hundred rupee notes into Edhi collection boxes. What is it about his personality that makes us want to keep on giving? “You call these people bandits, dacoits, thieves. But think about the society that has produced a system where some remain wealthy forever while others have to shoot for bread and then tell me who is wrong. If you’re letting this happen, tell me who the thief is.”

I suppose that’s the answer to my question. Here is a man who will give us everything-who has already given us everything-simply because we are all human, whether we are criminals of one kind or another. It would be a challenge to find a single person in Pakistan who hasn’t been connected with the Edhi Foundation in some way. Everybody knows someone who has donated their money, called an ambulance, adopted a baby or had their Eid meat distributed by Edhi. There is a reason his number is pre-saved in the most basic models of cell phones under “Emergency contacts.” The truth is that the only emergency threatening to destroy us is that we can’t distinguish this common thread of humanity-and need-that runs in all of us. We all give to and take from the Edhi Foundation. We all need his services and yet our principal activity is pointing fingers at who landed us in this mess. Divisions, divisions, divisions.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

48 (posted one day too late)

There's a woman who left her home in her early twenties to run a school. She didn't want to be someone's daughter-in-law when there was work to be done and children to be educated. So for sixty years, she has worked. Worked and worked and worked till her bones could no longer carry the weight of her burden and her real name was forgotten in favour of respectful titles her awestruck employees bestowed on her. Her bedroom-which is on campus, directly across the computer lab that offers free technological training to young women-is furnished like the room of any other octogenarian. A walking stick, a few cushions, a framed photograph of someone's daughter and son-in-law. A television set and a locked box full of newspaper clippings about educational programs. A menthol smell and a gaudy blanket. A stash of books under her pillow. She told me she wrote them. I am sure she did.
There's a woman who left formal education hanging like a question mark when she decided to start a family. She raised several children and taught hundreds more, picking up wisdom and experience along the way. She marks school books with generous tick marks and smiley faces, leaves notes in loopy cursive for the parents of wayward students. Listens admiringly when others talk about accomplished women, women with real jobs, women who balance children with full-time careers, women who complete PhDs. She reminds herself that she has done no less, but sometimes forgets. Sometimes she questions and sometimes she believes them when they say she never achieved much.
There's a woman who lives in her own world of books and authors, in an intellectual utopia of her own making. She is constantly surprised to find that others don't know the things she does, or that the trivia she considers terribly important is considered less so by others. People look down on trivial trivia. They laugh at it, laugh at her bewilderment that the world is not more learned. Her horror at their ignorance is never condescension. She always thinks that people who don't swallow encyclopedias are in a minority and her faith in humanity never truly wavers.
There's an angry woman who is happiest when protesting the injustices of the world. She quotes revolutionary poetry, saves trees from being bulldozed and supports grassroots campaigns for the oppressed. She is as disgusted by drawing room debaters as she is sympathetic to the underprivileged. Her twinge of guilt at avoiding her family to spend time with fellow activists is defensively explained away for the greater good.
There's a nanny who loves other people's children to support her own. She left her country soon after her husband proved to be an alcoholic and chose to make the most of her homeland's reputation for grooming excellent caregivers. So she gives care, for a small price. She bathes and rocks and feeds for the money, but counsels and fiercely loves because she can't help it. Her own children grow into strangers as she keeps telling herself she'll go back one day, but she finds herself weeping at the idea of being separated from her wards, who will never love her back quite the same way.
There's a woman who works as a nurse because her parents asked her to. She was never inclined to study much and would have preferred to have married into a comfortable life, but she knows her education has afforded her something her mother and grandmother did not have. Kind, well-meaning people tell her it's important to learn, to be different, to know her rights. Less kind people taunt her on buses, stand a little too close in crowded public spaces and occasionally seriously frighten her. She considers it part of the package, part of being a modern woman. She remembers her married sister is not much happier, anyway.
There's a woman who loves to dress up. She loves jewelry, loves makeup, loves feeling beautiful. She scoffs at people who say women buy into brand-sponsored ideals of beauty, because she knows people always turn around to look at her. She also knows she is more than that, because back in her day, girls were taught how to speak and when to argue, how to cook and entertain. The idea of looking ungroomed-or worse, undignified-repulses her. She doesn't wear tacky clothes or switch to ugly shoes as she grows old. She moves into it with unexpected grace, retaining her diva-esque charm long until the day she dies, knowing she will be remembered as beautiful forever.
They will be remembered, if only once a year, if only by some, if only by us.
Happy Women's Day everyone.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


There was a woman who worked in the kitchen at the campus center in college. Her name was Denise, and she was old, with white hair under the navy blue Dining Services cap we both wore. She was assigned to train me for the 10pm-1am shift washing dishes. On my first day, she let me wear a real apron, instead of the plastic bag with cut-out armholes that I later adopted. I always associate those days of dining services with repetitive Christmas music, even though it was only October when I began.
The regular workers, the ones who weren't students, the ones like Denise, who laboured there from morning till late night, spent that last shift looking forward to going home. I spent it dreading the part where I would have to clean out "the grease trap"-a piece of machinery as charming as its name. I sang songs under my breath while I waited for the last few dishes and pots to come in and picked some kind of beans out of the drain with my yellow gloves. "You can sing out loud here, honey, I like music," was what Denise had told me, but I've never had a good singing-out-loud voice. Occasionally, someone I knew would return a dish at the window and wave to me before they recycled their glass and plastic. I thought it wasn't a bad place to work, for seven dollars an hour.
Towards the end of the night, the cooking surfaces were dismantled and sent to me to be scrubbed down and run through the dishwasher. I hated this bit from the start. The longest board was taller than me and I thought it ridiculously cumbersome to stand on my tiptoes and stagger backwards to get it vertically into the sink to be scrubbed down. I felt even more ridiculous when I realised there was no way to avoid getting sloshed with water when I tried pushing it through the sanitising machine (that was when the wisdom behind the plastic aprons became apparent). Three boards later, I was in a foul mood, that first time. Then the last one came. We called it the baby white surface. It was mercifully shorter than me, lighter than the rest and still smooth enough to be wiped down easily. I didn't notice any of these things, if truth be told. It was Denise who looked delighted to introduce me to the piece of equipment and say, "This is my favourite part of the night! Isn't this one all nice and clean? I just look forward to it all day," as she hoisted it into the dishwasher with me.
Denise must have been at least sixty five and that was a generous estimate, for someone so small and wrinkled. She told me she lived alone. I read her name in an article three years after that night, commemorating college staff who had served for decades. I wondered what she had done before she became the cheerful trainer of disgruntled work-study students in a dining hall kitchen. I wondered a lot of things.
I suppose nobody expects to be sixty five and looking forward to washing a five-foot long cutting board at midnight. No child will ever dream of growing up-or growing old- to know about all the secrets of getting a drain unclogged, or the fastest way to scrape burnt cheese off a pizza pan. At the time, it broke my heart a little to know that somebody who had so tenderly advised me on how to get through my daily shift as easily as possible saw dishwashing as the best part of her day. I'm wiser now, because I know that if a time ever comes when life throws soggy beans floating in sink foam at you, there will always be things to celebrate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Every day, I meet people. People who are intriguing, inspiring, strange, ordinary, humble, pompous, awe-inspiring, beautiful, revolting. People who make me wish I was a better storyteller, if only to preserve them somewhere safer than memory. So many people, so many stories I don't know and can't tell.
There's a twelve year old girl in a class I teach. I don't know her name, because in my class of fifty she is not one of the few who speaks up or lingers after class to make conversation. She has enormous green eyes, like a cat. She told me her father works in China. She doesn't know what he does or what part of China he does it in, but she knew he was going to come home after three years, two hours after I dismiss class. She didn't know where China was. She wasn't sure what Asia was, either. None of my girls know about continents yet; as much as I try to stretch their geographic imaginations to encompass the entire subcontinent, we rarely make it beyond Sultanabad.
There's a woman who sweeps floors in my old school. She always remembers my name and asks after my mother. Every now and then, she asks me if my mother has an old sari for her. She's Hindu. I never thought about it when I was in school, but I wonder now. I wonder if she lives in Lyari or Ranchore Lines or somewhere else entirely and how she makes it to Phase 8 every morning. By bus? In a sari? Under a burqa? I wonder if she takes off for Diwali.
There's a eunuch by the railway lines in Clifton. I hadn't realised Clifton even had railway lines. He was sitting, with his scarlet mouth, with three decidedly unfeminine men, perched next to a container of diesel, smoking and talking and gesticulating. They looked like they might be friends. I realised I've never seen a eunuch sitting in the company of men, the way someone would with old acquaintances. He didn't clap or beg or promise me twin sons. He was engrossed in his conversation, his cigarette.
There's a teacher who works at a school run by a nonprofit. The school is in a squatter colony bang in the center of one of the richest parts of the city. I could have lived there my whole life and never turned the corner and known it exists. I suppose it was an accident that we met. She's never turned the corner, either. She proudly told me she's finished twelve years of school. Her father doesn't believe in girls leaving the neighborhood, but he's very open-minded about education, she asserted repeatedly. She knew a great deal about things beyond the colony. She told me she reads whatever she can find in the library and is on the third Harry Potter book. We talked about minority rights. I said there aren't any in this country, she disagreed. Then she deferred to my opinion, saying I must know better, because I've been outside the neighborhood, all the way to America, and she's never known a Pakistani Hindu. I feel small and silly. We change the subject and talk about our mutual passion for education.
There's a boy who I run into in the bazaar at least once a week. He does different things on different days. Sometimes he sells tissues or pencils, other times he might wash windows or fetch cigarettes and mobile credit for people waiting in their cars. I bought him bread, milk and juice at a grocery store once and since then, he's managed to recognize my car every time I'm in the area. He has a younger brother who he talks of sometimes. On days when I'm in a hurry, I guiltily avoid him. There are days when I don't want to buy useless things from him just to be friendly, but I wouldn't want to offend him with money. I have a growing collection of pencils topped with Dora the Explorer erasers, cheap yoyos and scented Chinese tissues in my purse.
There's a group of girls in another one of my classes. They sit in the same corner of the classroom every time, where they chatter throughout my lesson. It amazes me when they regurgitate information I present to them, because I have no idea when they listen to me. Inevitably, one of them pokes the other with a pencil every time we have a writing activity. They call each other Nehru, Gandhi, Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal. As a joke, they tell me. I feel proud to have taught them material they are using in inside jokes. Later, I tell them off for misbehaving in class when one hisses at the other "You just wear a stupid loincloth, because that's what Gandhiji wore," but it's difficult not to laugh. They offer me various kinds of biscuits and dubious looking packets of Balle Balle paan masala. They are offended if I refuse, so I line my stomach with their snacks in breaktime.
There's a man who works at a government library. His clothes are nearly always stained, one bare foot on his chair, the other leg lazily sprawling across the dirty floor. He slurps his tea noisily and always asks me if he can fix my problem. I always tell him I have no problem, I'm just here to work, followed by whatever request I have for archival information. He looks bored and tells me that is a problem, that's what he meant. I'm told I'm free to look through the trash in the attic for my "archives," but they really can't guarantee I'll find anything. This is nearly always followed by a talk extolling the many virtues of his extensive library records. He has reminded me the last six times I met him that one time when our organisation came with their 'problem,' he was very accommodating. He reminds me that there are even women in my organisation and he even offered them chairs once. I generally avoid him, as I have learned to do most government employees.
To borrow from Vonnegut, so it goes. So it goes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Exhausted. Exhausted so my teeth and tongue ache as badly as my legs and arms. Exhausted so that my brain hurts with the effort of defending what I believe in and my mind is alternately on fire and numb. Exhaustion like a fever, fatigue like a toothache that won't let you sleep. Like thoughts that won't switch off and a forehead which is conscious of furrows. Like toes that move with nervous energy and joints that must be cracked. Like talking to cover up the feeling of impending collapse. Sounds like working at an NGO, sounds like Pakistan. Sounds like a hundred and seventy million souls screaming themselves hoarse and feeling like victims and conquerors.
Listen to me, I'm yelling out for God's sake. Listen, listen, wait I have something to say but don't interrupt me, interrupt, interrupt. Feels like work, feels like home.
At some point the debates, the rationale, the idealism starts fading into an automatic stream of thought, a never switched off conversation of justifying, qualifying, quantifying to prove yourself. Screaming, screaming, screaming to be heard-literally. Switching on the mic, fiddling with the controls, absorbing yourself in lectures and handing out erasers. Write down the answer for me, should we love or should we hate? Was Jinnah right or wrong? Can we protest without killing? Just tell me what you think, there is no right or wrong, there's no correct answer in this abyss, just express, express, express yourself and no copying please.
Folded into a car with seven other tired souls, coming back and logging entries into archives and wondering when they'll be used, dreaming of a day when happy researchers say a prayer for your soul every time they find exactly what you have painstakingly spent an hour typing up. Wondering if the kids forgot what you taught. Telling the reporters no, we are not from the CIA. Telling people not to speak to reporters. Pleasing and thank youing and salaaming to get around roadblocks so that angry parents and principals don't suspect you're from the wrong side of some warped ideology they believe exists. Trying not to be a caricature of your own social class, trying not to fall into the neat little categories the press loves to use. Signing in and out. Twelve hours today, nine tomorrow.
Tomorrow, tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll try again. Tomorrow we'll wait for someone to say hey, maybe you are just trying to do the right thing, maybe you're doing it because you love your country, maybe you're doing it for the kids, maybe you just need to clock a 9-5, maybe you do what you're told, maybe you want to educate, maybe you want to stop shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting
Please, please, be quiet, I'm exhausted.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


The faculty of critical thinking is one that expired long ago in Pakistan. While the country may be peppered with individuals who attempt to question everything, they remain individuals and not representatives of a greater movement. In some ways, this is true of all societies; if critical thinking were encouraged on a mass level anywhere, the mechanisms of the nation-state would fail. However, no society can be as intellectually impoverished as one that forgets its history and ours is such a society: one that lacks the ability to put anything in context.
The study of history, I have been told many times, is among other things, a waste of time, redundant, irrelevant, useless, self-indulgent and-this is my favourite-"ladylike". For the macho stalwarts of progress, the custodians of religious law and flag-waving urbanites, remembering where we have come from is unimportant, because being Pakistani means rising above history. Being Pakistani means letting go of our shackled past. Being Pakistani means forgetting.
Those who advocate questioning the framework of our nation-state or the shaky foundation upon which it was built are treated as starry-eyed, soft-hearted "liberals" who need to cultivate some true patriotism. At worst, they are considered heretics. The conflation of religion and nationalism is disturbing on so many levels that it amazes me that it is still allowed to occur. As our country goes up in flames, nothing could possibly be more important than understanding how and why this is happening. It is like trying to hear sound in a vacuum, or analysing a language without having studied linguistics.
I have recently begun teaching at low-income schools and can attest to the fact that some of the most disturbing trends in Pakistani thought are the products of our national snobbery towards the subject of history. Students who advocate murdering Shias because Jinnah intended Pakistan to be a true Muslim state are unaware that Jinnah himself was a Shia. Students who believe their mother tongues will never be official languages have no knowledge of the language movement in the 1950s. Students who believe that Mohammed bin Qasim’s arrival in Sindh centuries ago was somehow directly linked to the creation of Pakistan have no knowledge of how the European construct of the nation-state was invented in the twentieth century.
In an ideal Pakistan, we would study, understand, criticize and accept our history-even those bits that wound our school textbook sanctioned national pride. We would move forward with the knowledge and understanding that our country needs to be defended not because we desperately need to justify its existence, but because safeguarding human lives and property is intrinsically worthy. Only then could be abandon our collective myopia, moral bankruptcy and downward spiral. For the love of our country, for the love of sanity, we need to crack open history books more often.