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.