Monday, October 31, 2011

MayN tau DekhooN Ga

A fellow-volunteer at TCF (The Citizens Foundation) asked me yesterday if I was going to the PTI rally. My first reaction was to laugh, and then wonder, 'Women go to political rallies?' Perhaps what I really thought was 'Do women like us go to political rallies?' 'Us' being 'shareef' and middle class, belonging to families who may have acquired almost-elite status over time, but whose middle class values dictate that the arena for women's political participation be the family's television lounge, not the uncertain grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan.

By the morning the momentum was clearly palpable on my Twitter timeline. I have always been ambivalent about Khan's politics but I am also a sucker for a 'mela' and this was promising to be a carnival like no other. Despite trepidation at braving such crowds on my own, I went out driving alone and joined the PTI caravan at Kalma Chowk, buoyed by the hope that harassment of women might figure low on the agenda of willing attendees of a rally for change. The optimism wasn't misplaced, for the most part. The Lawyer's Movement had brought the burger crowd to the streets before, but this felt different. For many of those following the caravan from Defence and Model Town, just going to Minar-e-Pakistan was an act of immersion and solidarity with the general populace, and a form of political awakening. Jeans and maila kurtas all powering forth in one direction.
Encroaching on PPP territory?
It was certain by this time that the gathering was going to be huge. People around me made victory signs atop buses belonging to private local colleges. Cars played Amanat Ali Khan's 'Ae Watan Pyaare Watan' but the most ubiquitous song remained 'Jazba Junoon', blared constantly from the leading truck in the procession. I wondered if other political rallies ever use music from a Pakistani rock band, and whether I was imbuing this act with too much meaning. But to children of Zia's era even small signs of 'progressiveness' are cause for some celebration and relief. This pop music motif continued till the end, an obviously deliberate attempt to soften the 'Taliban Khan' image and to keep PTI's strong youth base harnessed.

Not exactly voting age
I saw many of my Aitchison students along the way, most of whom will turn 18 next year. This means none of them is a potential voter because they are not eligible for vote registration yet. They couldn't have formed even one percent of the total number in the rally, but their presence did reinforce the Zohair Toru stereotype in my mind, possibly because I knew most of them personally. A democracy, however, for good or for bad, does not differentiate between a Zohair Toru and an Ardeshir Cowasjee

Aitchison's most illustrious son?
Upon reaching Oriental College, Punjab University, I parked my car inside (privileges of being the ex-Principal's daughter) and joined some friends in theirs. It was their first time at such a rally and the three middle-aged sisters had much of the well-intentioned, wide-eyed political naivette that seems to be the hallmark of the PTI supporter. Traffic was so choked by the time we reached Karbala Gamay Shah that we had to walk the last mile to Minar-e-Pakistan, carried along by the crowd's thrust. Some boys in front of me made suggestive thumkas and burst into raucous laughter at their own cleverness. On the other side men danced and marched to the beat of dhols while we weaved our way through the crowd amidst shouts of 'Let the ladies pass!'

Marching on to Minar-e-Pakistan
Once we reached the ground and had squeezed our way through to a decent position, it became impossible to see a panoramic view of the crowd, so it was not possible to make any kind of guess as to crowd numbers or even to take it all in in one sweep. One could only tell that there were thousands of chanting people on every side and Manto Park was so full that it was not possible for anyone to try and squeeze their way out of the stadium.

The crowd around me was impatient with the speeches of 'irrelevant' PTI leaders and its only interest lay in hearing Imran Khan, constantly chanting his name to urge him along. While this one-man-show has often been touted as a major drawback in Imran Khan's chances, I don't see it as a particular hurdle in a country where the politics of personality cult ensures people vote for Bhutto even thirty years after his death. Where the populace does not know the names of the candidates but votes for 'teer' or 'sher'.

Strings came on for one song to boost sagging morales. Half-way through 'Mayn tau dekhooN ga' I fished for the PTI flag someone had thrust in my hand earlier and I had promptly discarded under my chair, and waved it in thumping rhythm to Strings' lyrics; for that moment one with the crowd and just as starry-eyed and hopeful as them. For who so hard-hearted that can resist the adrenaline-pumped optimism of thousands of people singing along to 'Woh din phir aae ga jab aisa ho ga Pakistan', 'jab roti sasti ho gi aur mehngi ho gi jaan', 'jo duur gae thay bhoolay se, lotayN ge phir watan ko aek shaam' (this last one particularly makes me misty-eyed).

Here's my rather dizzying capture of the above with an extremely basic digital camera. If you make it to the end please also pardon my out of tune singing along.

Imran Khan finally took to the stage at around 7 in the evening by which time the crowd was getting increasingly agitated and several women and children were trying to unsuccessfully make their way out. The crowd, however, was too thick to allow anyone to pass through. Imran took the mike amid a deafening roar. His cricket analogies prompted gleeful high fives from the boys in front of me while those at my back chanted 'Jab tak sooraj chaand rahay ga / DJ Butt tera naam rahay ga' upon Imran's mentions of DJ Butt--again I suspect, a deliberate attempt to identify with a youthful, pop-oriented figure. Sound strategy, I feel, of juxtaposing Islamic rhetoric with identifiably popular elements of youth culture.

The speech was full of feel-good optimism as was expected and required. Talk of corruption, delivering rights to the poorest in the society and anti-Zardari sentiment elicited the most visible roars of approval. Personally speaking, I was disappointed at his resorting to lies about Hussain Haqqani's nationality but heartened by his passing mention of minority and women's rights.

The Lit Minar

I came away feeling that Imran's never-say-die philosophy seems to be paying off once again. I made yet another mental note to get my vote registered the next day. If I manage that, I will be voting in the next elections for the first time in my 33 years. And that right there is a victory for Imran Khan.


The Faces

ET bloggers?

Aunties still have it for him

What's a third world anti-Imperialist revolution without its own Che?

Could that be the enigmatic @Kaalakawaa in a Stanford tee?
The new poster-boy for PTI
(Our dear @TheRealYLH turns lota)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Room to Read

The summer often takes me back to my annual ritual of raiding all the bookshops down Lahore’s Mall Road. It meant many things to my child’s heart — quality time spent with my father, going home in our Beetle instead of the school van, a couple of hours in the cool confines of imposing colonial buildings and the promised indulgence of all my escapist instincts within the pages of the next ‘Malory Towers’.
My favourite amongst these bookshops — Kingson — a small treasury of Enid Blytons stashed from ceiling to floor, has long closed shop while Ferozsons has succumbed fully to the air of decay that had begun to creep into it even then.
It is not often that I find myself on that side of Lahore now, so the other day on my way to Oriental College, I scrambled out of my car for a quick shot of the Ferozsons store front, something I have now been meaning to do for years. I am not sure when it was that I first noticed the windows had something written on them, but I have been grateful for that discovery ever since.
The words, painted in both English and Urdu, inform all who enter that a printing and publishing house is more than just a business concern. It is a bastion of freedom of speech, the upholder of truth, a sanctuary of the arts and a symbol of national pride, even its commercial aspect — a means to benefiting society as a whole (sanat-o-tijaarit ki taraqqi ka zaamin).
Its Urdu version is spine-tingling in a way only earnest passion can be. ‘Azaadi-e-fiqr ka muhaafiz’ (guardian of freedom of thought) — the irony of these words still standing not too far from the Governor’s House is searing.
Reflect on the passion in these windows alone and the factory-churned Ferozsons in Defence and Gulberg paint a mournful contrast.
However, one cannot dismiss Lahore’s more newly sprung but well-stocked bookshops. Thanks to those the city still has a handful of good book-buying options but there is an increasing dearth of places like the old Ferozsons, where salespeople didn’t just act as mere cash collectors but also informed and interested guides.
What Lahore has never had, though, is a bookshop that would double as a reading space. I was so used to being frowned upon at attempting to surreptitiously thumb through a book before buying it, that US bookshops came as quite a culture shock to me; nobody stopped me from going through books for hours at the Barnes & Noble neighbouring my brother’s apartment yet I would sheepishly stash away my book each time a salesperson would walk by, just in case. Many people would pick up a book and read it in the coffee shop inside the store and never be harassed or guilted into buying anything. I hadn’t ever even been to a library that relaxed and comfortable in Pakistan.
The library scene in Pakistan is, in fact, even more abysmal than the bookshop one. The better libraries belong to private institutions or public universities where the unconnected person cannot just walk in and partake of the resources available. Imagine a readily accessible space with requisite tools (books, wi-fi, comfortable seating and lighting) to get on with some work and you will likely draw a blank.
The red-tapism around getting a membership card for government libraries, like the Quaid-e-Azam Library, ensures that most people feel too fazed by the process to even try. The Punjab University library (off-limits to non-students to begin with) has a stale physical ambience in step with its refusal to house more contemporary authors. The dust-covered environs of our government libraries seem to have relegated books to a pre-historic past already and there is nothing to suggest there are any plans to incorporate reading’s new digital frontiers.
There aren’t any private libraries or collections filling this vacuum either. Nairang Art Gallery is an attempt, but one that is marred by its shady overtones. Couples crouching in dark corners, with red lighting right out of the villain’s den of a ‘70s Amitabh starrer, does not a conducive library environment make.
And so Lahore plods on. It’s crumbling edifice propped by restaurants and malls alone and its people satisfied with platitudes like ‘Lahore Lahore ae’ to lull themselves into the illusion that this city still has the grand cultural sweep it once did.

Published in Dawn Blogs 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Back to the '80s

Last night I was to attend a Sufi Music Festival organized by the good people of the Rafi-Peer group. I didn’t. Why? It didn’t take place. That seems to be the story of Lahori cultural life of late. To one who came into her teens in the Post-Zia Pakistan of the early ‘90s, this country was an almost-happening place to be in.  In 1989 PTV tentatively shed its mandatory dupatta as a live concert aired on state television featuring Pakistan’s premier pop/rock bands with young people dancing next to the cat-walk style stage. A whole generation of kids watched fascinated as Pakistan’s television ethos became bolder, though not necessarily better, almost overnight. Young people tried to come to grips with a new-found freedom that altered their lifestyles through mixed live concerts. Now going out on a Saturday night did not just mean dining at a staid ‘family restaurant’ or cruising aimlessly on city roads to catch a glimpse of women out shopping in Liberty Market. It could also mean going to the grand brick structure of the Alhamra amphitheatre and seeing Pakistan’s premier bands perform live. These concerts weren’t without their problems, often fights would break out, women had to go with a group of men for fear of being harassed and these things were still by and large testosterone driven.

The Rafi-Peer Theatre Festival single-handedly changed all that. Its combination of puppetry, dance, theatre and music lured families and younger, hipper crowds alike in an atmosphere of cultured festivity. Perhaps by then, a few years of checkered democracy and relative freedom had calmed down young people enough to be able to take cultural public events in stride. The festival’s stellar line-up of local and international groups and its impeccable but unintrusive security also helped, of course. The International Rafi Peer festivals began in 1996 and ran till 2008 till they were abruptly brought to a halt with what was called a ‘cracker’ bomb.

I distinctly remember the night it happened. An almost-full amphitheatre, dotted with men and women sitting on colourful floor cushions, anticipated a leisurely evening of music under the sky in the pleasant November air. A relatively unknown pre-Coke Studio Arieb Azhar had just begun singing when an explosion was heard above the music. It was loud enough for everyone to sit up and take notice but the band kept playing. The second explosion, however, sent the audience in a panic and immediate evacuation was announced by the organizers. I knew on that eerie night as we rushed fearfully to the parking lot that this was possibly the foreseeable end of any International cultural event in Pakistan. This prediction surpassed expectations. It also proved to be the end of large scale Pakistani concerts. The subsequent year also sounded the death knell to International sporting fixtures as the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked right in the heart of Lahore (not far from the Alhamra amphitheatre) in broad daylight thanks to the utter negligence of authorities concerned.

This essentially means, that apart from a sporadic play or two imported from Karachi, I can’t recall a large scale public event that can qualify as entertainment since nearly three years. Faiz’s centenary in February this year did provide a bit of respite, but its invitation only format assured entry only to the well connected, or to corporate customers of sponsoring banks (chew on that irony for a Faiz event).   The announcement for the Rafi-Peer Sufi Music Festival, thus, was greeted with much delight and anticipation. But this is the post war-on-terror Pakistan. Murphy’s laws hold truer here than anywhere else. The raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad resulted in the festival being cancelled due to security fears and fundamentalist backlash. 

I think the country that has most changed in fundamental ways (for the negative) ever since the war on terror moved fully to these shores is Pakistan. Fear and bombings in Lahore have taken us back to the days when the only options for entertainment were food and aimless cruising. Only now I mainly aimlessly cruise online. I hear the LHC is planning to take that privilege away from me soon.

A version of this post was published in the Express Tribune blogs. I would like to add I prefer this version :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Moin Akhtar

For those of us who remember the 80s well, there was a lot of brilliance on Pakistan television. In the days of censorship and fear, PTV (especially its Karachi centre) always found ways of subverting the system and managing to poke fun at the dictator and his lackeys. Anwar Maqsood, Bushra Ansari and Moin Akhtar were the mainstay of satire in the days when things had to be said subtly to pass through censor, managing to get away with a lot more than anyone else could, and much more than is retrospectively appreciated.

In a really twisted bit of irony PTV's golden days of comedy died with Zia. Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar's later attempts to reignite the magic always seemed lacklustre in comparison to the greatness of their heydays. Loose Talk was no match for Show Time or Studio 2 1/2. To me even Rozee is a character from the declining days of the great comedian. What I will remember Moin Akhtar most for is his debonair presence as the host of many stage shows. His flawless Urdu delivery and confident baritone reached straight into the hearts of millions of Pakistanis who all watched the same television channel each night. This collective partaking of just one source of news and entertainment created a unique Pakistani cultural identity more real for the post-partition generation than the two-nation theory. Moin Akhtar was a huge part of that sense of cultural belonging.

His death today felt like the death of another piece of my childhood. As a Pakistani I had an inevitably politically aware and cerebral childhood, thanks to satire of such subtlety and wit being a part of our everyday existence.

My fondest recollection of Moin Akhtar is from the 1985 6th PTV Awards, undoubtedly the best live ceremony ever conducted by PTV. Shoaib Mansoor's script and Moin Akhtar's deadpan delivery of some ageless gems made it an unforgettable evening for all of Pakistan--one whose star appeal, grandeur and unparalleled entertainment value has never been matched since.

The first three and a half minutes of the following video are vintage Moin Akhtar, no doubt aided beautifully by the writing genius of Shoaib Mansoor, but no comic can carry off lines this well if he doesn't have his own ability to improvise. The crowd's thunderous applause at being made fun of is also quite remarkable--to have Moin Akhtar acknowledge you from that grand PTV stage was enough cause for glee, even if you were the target of that fun.

But the video that strikes me in an entirely different manner is a more recent one, of a rather grave and tired looking Moin Akhtar. He talks with the sageness of a man who has seen much in life. Yet, he is Moin Akhtar, he still has the ability to subvert and surprise. He completely turns the table on a question by the host regarding 'Pakistani youth'--she is probably expecting as run of the mill an answer as her question. Akhtar, however, unlike many of our 80s and 90s heroes who have either turned Tableeghi or Sufi or live in other shades of denial, chooses to answer with refreshing honesty and heartfelt depth. That his anger is born out of love is evident in the way he speaks. Along with the many hours of laughter he has provided me with, this act of plain speaking endeared Moin Akhtar even more to me.  Dear sir, thank you for your humanity. Rest in peace.

A version of this post was published in the Express Tribune blogs. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

May the Best Team Win!

As Indians and Pakistanis all over the world gear up for the 'mother of all finals', shrieking intensity on both sides is at fever pitch. While the Indian media is generating hysteria in the way only it knows how, the Pakistani Twitter and Blogosphere haven't been far behind. Any of those daring to question the validity of fringe lunatic behaviour regarding the match are promptly shouted down, called names and ostracized in a way that only new media knows how to do, with its little 'elite' cliques and coteries all linking to each other and patting each other on the back. Dissent in such a case is not an easy task. Some brave souls have still been attempting it, though.

It is remarkable how people who otherwise present themselves as 'liberals' see no dichotomy in indulging in near war-like rhetoric on Twitter, spinning themselves into a frenzy over their bottles of vodka in the hope that Pakistan will win this match. Make no mistake, I too would love for Pakistan to win but my love for the team and the desire for its triumph is not mutually exclusive with my ability to think straight. Most of all, as a cricket fan, and as a fan of two sports (cricket and tennis) that are more than big hulks pushing each other to the ground, I will appreciate all that the game has to offer me as a game itself.

As for the Aman ki Asha people and supporters, all this posturing is anathema to their cause so they will obviously try and push their ideas more aggressively when they watch them dissipating in a wave of mass hysteria.  It is understandable that their concern is with the larger implications of this game--the possibility of people to people exchange it affords, the cricket diplomacy that could potentially prove to be a thaw in Indo-Pak relations at the highest level and an opportunity to further the idea of sport as glue rather than divider.

In that light it is strange that one of my favourite blogs Cafe Pyala pokes rather mean-ish fun at those with a less jingoistic bent to this game, claiming that those behaving like spoilsports and talking of South Asia being the winner don't know anything about the game itself or Naoozubillah may not be eternally, irrevocably and undyingly in love with the Pakistan team, you know the kind of love that urges you to show your understanding of the game by posting a thousand pictures of the 'hot' team captain on your blog. Or that makes you excuse cheating cricketers because they are cute or young or talented. In the words of one such blogger 'Our team is 'badass'. Learn to live with it.' It is this excusing of 'badassery' in the name of winning at all costs that is the underlying problem in all Win-or-Bust rhetoric.

There is another blog called Clear Cricket that has come up with a list of 'etiquettes' for the match. They state that this match will NOT defeat terrorism. Huh? Of course it will not, nobody was deranged enough to suggest so, but your absurd reactionism can and will give legitimacy to men who play a different kind of sport--the Kasabs of this world--whose consciousness will be informed by your divisive, 'honour'-based rhetoric while infiltrating cities of the big, bad, evil India that needs to be defeated at all cost. Your posturing, chest-beating, fervent prayers, sledging, suggestive talk of the rape of Sheila and Munni will all have an effect that goes beyond the immediate. The haq-o-baatil ki jang backdrop in which you insist such matches be played makes you no better than the GEO anchors you love to otherwise deride.

Excessive celebration or depression disproportionate to the event only shows your lack of a life. ENJOY the game, that is what it was meant for. If a loss will leave you comatose or abusive for the rest of the week, you have obviously lost the plot. If your life's happiness is dependent upon this game, get a life. Which reminds me of Haali who muses on the characteristics of men (people) of character.

Shaadmaani mayn guzartay apnay aapay se naheen
Gham mayn rehtay hayn shagufta shaadmaanon ki tarah

(Men of character do not cross bounds in either celebration or grief)

I am a cricket fan and what I look forward to is a close contest, not a dead one-sided game, either way. The thrill of cricket lies in the twists and turns, an even contest between the bat and the ball, in the spirit in which the game is played. It is not a place for your cheap war fantasies where Haq demolishes Baatil completely because God is so obviously on the side of Haq. Crowds that are respected all over the world are not partisan ones who don't have the sense or sporting spirit to applaud another team's good play, who throw stones at their team bus or burn down stadiums because their side is losing. If you are so drowning in your patriotic juices then prove yourself better by showing restraint and a grasp of cricket's grand traditions and subtlety. This is not football, full of hooliganism and violence. Understand the difference.

I am all geared up for the match and can't wait for the 30th to arrive. Watching the game with my cricket-loving 9 year old and my 70 year-old cricket fanatic father is a treat in its own right. But if we lose, I know what I will tell my son, 'Cheer up, it's just a game!'

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let the Taliban take over

I just returned from a protest outside the Lahore Press Club against the assassination of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. He was killed today in Islamabad by what are believed to be members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan. There have been reports that pamphlets were strewn around his body defending the blasphemy law, a colonial era law often misused in Pakistan, but defended vociferously by most of its population.

I reached the protest at exactly 3 O'Clock so there weren't a whole lot of protesters there then. Just about 50 odd. At first glance most protesters seemed to belong to the Christian minority, an understandable fact, since the slain minister was not only a defender of minority rights in Pakistan, he was a Christian himself. Many carried long red crosses above their heads and a few women in white uniform stood at the front, probably students from some missionary institution in Lahore.

Just standing in the middle of a busy road holding aloft crosses seems a fairly bold thing to do these days. But not too long ago in this country very middle class, conservative parents sent their children to Christian missionary schools without pondering too much over its 'effects', more concerned with the upward social mobility that these schools provided at a low cost than with fear of Christian indoctrination. The polarization between religions was, at least apparently, not as visible or divisive as it is today. I cannot recall a single girl in my whole school with the Arabic-looking headscarf that is in vogue these days, if you covered your head, a plain dupatta was considered sufficient. Anti India sentiment was rampant but it had yet not manifested itself in a fixation with the Arabization of everything. 'Allah Hafiz' 'Jazaak Allah' and other such phrases had still not been forced into everyday langauge to make the speaker sound pious and holy. Although, even back then, deep seated ideas about class and superiority made the Muslim kids silently condescend to the Christian ones for having darker complexions and less flashy possessions. But despite it being a so-called Christian school, its Muslim majority environment had the Christian kids firmly placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But the silent discourse of exclusion at that time was less about religion and more about 'class'. Other kids like me with unbranded surnames and hardworking professors as parents were, if not equally, then at least nearly, as much part of the struggle for acceptance.

Today we have separate 'Islamic' schools where the head scarf is a part of the uniform and my 5 year-old cousin's daughter says 'Alhamdulillah' each time she skips down a step. There may seem nothing wrong in that to cultural relativists who may accuse me of being ashamed of my own religious heritage, but as far as I know that is not my heritage to begin with. My naani who was certainly a Muslim, that too from a small Punjabi village, usually just wore a chiffon dupatta on her head and did not feel the need to make any greater show of her piety. But my born again Muslim cousin lets out a deep guttural sigh each time she talks of her grandmother, and prays for her 'maghfirat' (forgiveness of her souls) with fervent smugness.

At the recent TEDx Kinnaird a Christian girl, Elaine Alam, spoke about the trials and tribulations of being a Pakistani Christian. The immediate reaction of a typically defensive Muslim Pakistani friend behind me was 'What is she talking about? She is from my school, The Convent of Jesus and Mary. What discrimination could she face at a Christian school?' Apart from the fact that Elaine never once mentioned her school and talked mainly about her neighbourhood, this complete blindness to what kind of discrimination a Christian faces in a missionary school is emblematic of the apathy that the 'silent majority' is part of. I am sure this girl considers herself a 'moderate', but is completely oblivious to the role she is playing in perpetuating oppression, by refusing to even acknowledge its existence. Despite the silence in the hall i turned around and chided her, trying to explain with gestures and loud whispers that what she was saying was utterly wrong and tantamount to condoning bigotry and oppression. Needless to say, it wasn't really possible to get one's point across in those circumstances.

This girl's reaction was not unique, my students also routinely react this way when I first broach the subject of minorities in Pakistan. Many of them give examples of how well Christians are 'treated' in the country, the usage itself automatically placing them above the minority, creating a discourse of a kind master and a grateful servant

I severely doubt Shahbaz Bhatti's death will have any profound impact on people who choose to delude themselves in this manner. They will continue saying that Christians and other minorities in Pakistan are 'treated well', or else that they should not be so bold as to assert themselves and 'blaspheme'. They will continue feeling that a Christian man had no right to be made the head of a committee comprised to discuss the Blasphemy Law. They will continue radicalizing the country till such time as this becomes worse than Afghanistan. And for the long term interests of this region, I say let that happen. Until and unless we don't actually get to live under the tyranny of such men our romantic notions about this 'Muslim' state will never die. Once people are whipped for 50 years and taken back to the stone age is when a real revolution will take place around here. For any true change to come these religious forces will have to take over and break the idealism of both middle class conservatives and elite apologists. Only then can this nation rise from its ashes and build something anew.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A walk through Pakistan Park

A neighbourhood park which was at one time informally referred to as the Polo Ground was upgraded to 'Pakistan Park' a couple of years back. An already lush, well-maintained ground was further 'beautified' with miniature versions of Pakistan's significant architecture, your PTV versions of it. Minar-e-Pakistan for Punjab, Quaid's Mausoleum for Sind, and so on. Only Balochistan now has a sexy new addition to the rather bland Ziarat Residence, Chaghi Hill--that sacred symbol of Pakistan's rise in the comity of nations.

The park is on the choicest land right in the middle of Cantt but it is not open to all. Its special club-like atmosphere is assiduously maintained by Military Police, who only allow entry to those with 'membership', I suppose you can't blame them for trying to keep their children from associating with the riff raff. I always wonder where the money for the park's upkeep comes from, for the renovations made inside it are not small scale. Is it funded by the army's budget or the tax payer's money. In either case (and especially in the latter), why can all people not access it?

My parents have valid passes for the park but i don't. I usually get in by studiously avoiding eye contact with the MPs at the gate. My parents have nothing to do with the army, so it means that even non-army people can acquire membership cards if they try, but it is by no means a simple process. At the Cantt Services Club though, built on a huge area just a few metres away from the park, with facilities such as tennis courts, swimming pool, banquet halls etc., it is not possible to acquire membership for a non-army person, regardless of whether you are a professor who managed to do well for himself and put together enough to build a house in Cantt. Of course the very idea of a private club on public grounds is revolting. In the same vein, I would also love to know who owns the sprawling acres that Gymkhana stands on. Does that land belong to the government? If it does, why am I not allowed free access to it, since it certainly doesn't hold classified state secrets.

Coming back to the park, it is a great representation of the kind of resources at the army's disposal, and how they go towards the luxuries of high ranking army officials, for I haven't ever seen any rankers or their families inside the park, though a teeming number of them frequent the RA Bazaar just on the other side of the road.

As my blood often boils over when i go walking inside, i usually amuse myself with the motivational quotes sprinkled all over the place (thankfully I don't have to listen to the assault of the milli naghmas being streamed through the PA system, since I carry my own music). The following quote always tickles my fancy. I am positive it has been put up by someone who does not have the slightest clue to its sarcastic nature. I guess it takes a special kind of intelligence (military intelligence?) to interpret a GB Shaw quote in this deadly serious manner.

I also love the old world fervour of the following. Reminds me of my Taleem-o-Tarbiat and Ishtiaq Ahmed days. 

Today as i walked past the animal cages and the cascading waterfall, the artificial lake and the swans, peacocks, deer and monkeys, I saw a monkey clinging to the side of a cage while a small child repeatedly threw stones at it with full force. I immediately veered off the track and told the child to stop it at once, which he did, him being very young, barely 6 or 7. He was being egged on by a grinning and very obviously army-looking middle aged man, probably his grandfather. I guess that was his idea of teaching his little soldier how to be big and brave, by scaring the defenseless and the meek. Some nice, macho male bonding going on right there. I made sure that as i walked on, i turned back to give them both my best glare, while they watched my retreating figure with muted anger. Pleasant place altogether.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Generation gap

Older cousin to her daughter: We'd better head home now, it's Maghrib already.
Daughter's friend: Why aunty? Doesn't your car have headlights?

Aesay dastoor ko mayn naheen maanta, mayn naheen jaanta

Yes, Jalib was quoted ad-nauseum during the Lawyers' Movement. But that doesn't lessen the greatness and universal appeal of his poems like 'Dastoor' and 'Musheer'. Where is this kind of Pakistani liberal intellectual today? Not designer clad party-liberal, or born-in-privilege-NGO-working or English press-editing-liberal, or the one sitting-abroad-and-comfortably-advocating-change liberal. Just somebody who seems rooted in the majority of this country. Talks like them, dresses like them, comes from them and could lead an organic change, or could at least have some claim to speaking for the 'silent majority'.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Winds of Change?

The candelight vigil for Salman Taseer held outside the Governor House in Lahore can perhaps be deemed a success, depending on your perspective. Blogger Raza Rumi claims on Twitter that around 2000 people attended, that figure leaves me entirely surprised. I didn't do a head count but surely it seemed much less than 2000. The last protest i attended after the Swat flogging video was released had a far greater number of people participating and they also seemed to be from a wider cross-section. Today it was the usual suspects. LGS Principals, NGO aunties and other fashionable members of civil society who have now (understandably) diverted paths with the lawyers they stood up for a short while back. The biggest turnout you saw from the civil society was during the Lawyers movement, the vigil for Salman Taseer came nowhere near that.

I don't say NGO aunty or the 'fashionable' in a necessarily derisive way, it is just that a handful of these people, many of whom must have personally known the slain Governor aren't really representative of any fictionary 'silent majority'. The only scarf I saw was on the very left wing head of Daily Times op-ed Mehmal Sarfraz. The rest were all streaked. Don't mind the over simplification, but I just point out the obvious physical appearances to drive home a point. While 'Mulla gardee naheen chalay gi' on the top of my lungs helped me vent some of my pent up frustration at being a citizen of a state where my religion will always be the business of everyone else, it didn't really do anything to increase my hope in the prospect of a budding liberal Pakistan.

I know enough of the mindset of the majority to be certain that jeans clad, streaked, English spewing lads and ladies will be immediately dismissed as 'dehriyay' and 'laa-deen'. Once one is dismissed as that there is no further room for another nuanced analysis. It is a class thing, and today's vigil, though an extremely essential step, whether or not it has any far reaching implications, is ultimately just another exercise in Pakistani class differences. There were of course PPP workers as well, but where was the vast majority of the 'average' man. Half of those condemn the act of killing but would never be able to raise their voices to the chant 'Mazhab ke naam pe siyaasat band karo'. (Stop politics in the name of religion), while the other half is busy throwing flowers at a ruthless murderer.

I must add, though, that I WAS heartened at the number of women present.

I wish the vigil had been held at the Liberty Market roundabout, though, for at least that would have helped in creating greater nuisance value.

Perhaps a better assessment of the general public's views was to be had from two pedestrians who were marvelling at the 'be-hayaaee' of those participating in the vigil.

The biggest show of bravery I saw, interestingly, was not outside the Governor's House. I rushed from the vigil to pick my son up from a classfellow's birthday and on my way to Defence I saw this car. I am sure this person did not participate in the vigil, so it was nice to see that similar sentiments were being expressed elsewhere as well

But, the most heartening part of the day was neither of the above events, it was what I saw in the morning that truly delighted me. I saw two young girls riding a motorcycle bang in the middle of Gulberg, a little nervous, yes, but for the most part quite confident. They did not look like they were from the privileged set who can get away with most anything, but the one sitting behind was wearing a black coat and trousers while the one driving was in more traditional clothes. It was quite a sight to behold. Most men around them seemed too stunned to even try to harass them. As luck would have it, i was driving, so I was unable to get a clear picture. But perhaps it is just as well that you cannot see their faces and can just sense their joy. (I really hope, for the sake of my romantic imagination that they reached home looking just as happy).

Ishtiaq Ahmed and the Lahore massacres

I have thought about it quite frequently since the attack on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, but after the Daata Darbar massacre it has taken even more concrete shape in my mind. Ishtiaq Ahmed has a role to play in the mindset that perpetuates such killings.Who is Ishtiaq Ahmed? Maybe the handful of readers of this blog who (i presume) have mostly been raised on English and American influences will never have heard of him, but I am sure some of the slightly older readership will have come across his novels some time or the other. When I was a child of about 9 and 10 they were all the rage in circles that read even a little bit of Urdu. Our chief pleasure used to be the exchange of Ishtiaq Ahmed novels that appeared with the frequency of four a month but in our meagre pocket money, my friend and I could afford only one each between us. Devouring our own first we would immediately move on to the other’s.
Ishtiaq Ahmed novels were, loosely speaking, the equivalent of Hardy Boys. Adventurous and fast-paced, they were gripping enough to keep countless young pre-teen and teens enthralled. Over time though, they started moving from being subtle indoctrinations to full-blown hate-preaching. The pleasure that was once to be had in the kicks, punches, quirks and witty repartee of the characters was employed to brainwash youth into thinking about Ahmed’s Wahabist ideologies. India was perpetually demonized of course, his novel ‘Langra Inteqaam’ fully endorsing all the text-book versions of what happened in Bangladesh, and he constantly pushed the ideal of religion before country (the kind of thinking that Musharraf later tried to overturn with his ‘Sab se Pehlay Pakistan’ campaign).

Somewhere in the early 90s, Ahmed started a campaign in his prefaces. He claimed that in an upcoming novel he would shock all his readers into running to a specific corner of their houses. This was typical Ishtiaq Ahmed marketing, the creation of suspense to sell his books. It intrigued the young me greatly, who was a perpetual lagger when it came to solving anything before the last page. This ‘marketing gimmick’ turned out to be something far more sinister as it unfolded. Ahmed wrote an out-and-out novel against people who visit Sufi shrines, replete with ahaadees to back him up. Ahmedis and Sufi followers became the constant target of his poisonous pen that had previously only indulged in nodding passes to ‘muslamaanyat’ and barely veiled antagonism towards India. Now it turned inwards and sought to destroy any semblance of tolerance within the country itself.

Ahmedis, particularly, came under great fire. The idea that every dissenter is ‘vaajib-ul-qatal’ (liable to be killed) came to me the first time through the writings of Ishtiaq Ahmed. Make no mistake about it, his circle of influence wasn’t small. True, that none of the girls in my elitist-ish school were reading him but boys from equivalent schools certainly were, and we know those are the ones whom brainwashing affects directly (though it is not any less hazardous in women). My brother, i remember, once asked me to give him my collections of Ishtiaq Ahmed novels to take to America for a homesick friend of his. His influence ranged far and wide.

Already having read cartoon series version of Muhammad Bin Qasim, Tariq Bin Ziyaad and Mahmood Ghazni’s ‘heroic’ conquests in Taleem-o-Tarbiat I was fertile grounds for hatred against Ahmedis and any kind of non-wahaabi Muslims. Today I wonder, if someone like me could be affected thus, who was on the other hand taking in copious amounts of toyroom tea parties and English boarding schools in Enid Blyton, then where is the surprise in so many brainwashed suicide bombers that keep getting thrown up by the dozen. At that tender age of 12 or 13, being physically fearless by nature and not being a particular family favourite, I could easily have become a suicide bomber I am sure. Later on in life, teaching at Aitchison, I learned the same lesson--there is an immense amount of hardliners amongst the ‘creme de la creme’ (to repeat a phrase that an odious old teacher repeated ad nauseum) of the country. Madrassaas are not the only breeding ground for terrorists in Pakistan. ‘Elite’ schools with self serving Principals and text books that preach nothing but hatred and intolerance are just as bad. It is only at the all girls LGS that I currently teach at (kudos and a totally humble bow to its Principal Nasreen Shah) that there is a concerted effort to make the girls think in the right direction, in order to nullify the effects of some of their text book education as well as the insidious influences of ‘fashion’ and partying and other forms of empty headedness.

The ‘pe dar pe hamlay’on Lahore, as Ishtiaq Ahmed himself would put it, made me think incessantly of the man and whether any of the attackers (or those who control them) could ever have read him at some point, and derived moral justification for their convictions from his evil simplification of things. It isn’t too great a stretch.

Daily Times 09/04/2010

Book review: In tune with history —by Sabahat Zakariya
Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution
By Salman Ahmad Free Press; Pp 226

Salman Ahmad’s Rock & Roll Jihad takes off from the time when he returns to Pakistan as a gawky American teenager who gets beaten up one evening while trying to make his doctor classmates rock to his music. As his hard-bought Les Paul is smashed across the marble floor, Ahmad — in a manner that should resonate with Pakistani students from government universities — watches impotently, rapidly establishing the book’s themes of music, cultural conflict and the desire for reconciliation. It marks the beginning of a personal narrative that is inextricably tied to the collective history of the country of his birth, and lends the book its essential readability.

The grand sweep of Pakistani history — immortalised in the story of Paki-Pop — is captured here by someone who has actually helped shape that history. From the hushed, underground music scene of the Zia era to the heady and hopeful days of democracy, culminating in hormone-marred pop concerts, Ahmad brings Pakistan’s fascinatingly critical cultural evolution to life with a deeply personal recounting. As Ahmad transitions from Vital Signs to Junoon, the country moves from dictatorship to democracy. He captures the romance of Benazir’s return to Pakistan, but is equally brutal in recording the failures of her terms in office. But it is Nawaz Sharif who bears the brunt of Ahmad’s most scathing criticism. Ahmad retells the story of a first class match in which he was the then chief minister’s partner at the crease. Mian sahib’s princely antics on the cricket field are a part of urban Lahori legend, and Ahmad adds to the cannon with relish. Rather irksome, though, is his blind eulogising of the almost-militant Imran Khan. It is as if Ahmad refuses to take off the rose-tinted glasses from his childhood through which he has always chosen to see Imran Khan, his hero. He readily forgives all Imran Khan’s sins purely because he once raised a shiny trophy on a cricket field. His rather cursory yet flattering mention of Musharraf also comes across as intellectually dishonest, particularly in view of his personal views on the man, witnessed in his heated (albeit private) epistolary exchange with the General’s son. His glossing over of Musharraf’s many failures, then, seems more a way of appeasing his friend Bilal Musharraf than an honest assessment of his views on the ‘benevolent dictator’.

Little anecdotes about Salman’s encounters with well-known South Asian and international figures enliven the book and alleviate the preaching that occasionally threatens to defeat the narrative. Waheed Murad giving him passes to his film as a young child, Imran Khan’s scepticism about the young guitarist’s love life, Madam Noor Jehan lunging angrily at a guest on the day of his wedding, and touring Sri Lanka with Wasim Akram and other superstars of the Pakistani cricket team make the book an enjoyably brisk read.

The gem among the anecdotes is about Salman Ahmad taking Mick Jagger on a visit to Lahore’s Red Light area. A series of hilarious events unfold as a 16-year-old courtesan smirks at the very idea of the geriatric-looking Jagger being a famous entertainer in the Western world. This irks Jagger so much he decides to show her what his artistic talents are made of. Dancing together to the beat of live tablas and harmoniums, the two set the night on fire in a little squalid corner of Lahore. The lesson of cultural harmony derived from this incident is the most poignant in the book, far more so than some of the contrived ones about Ahmad’s own work with the UN.

But undoubtedly the grand star of the book is his wife. The stark white page in the beginning relieved by only two words, ‘For Samina’, seems to be a visual representation of the role his spouse has played in his life. Salman and Samina’s story is written as a breathtaking testimony to the power of love. There is love at first glimpse, dramatic twists and turns and difficulties in the path-to-forever punctuated with laugh-out-loud humour — all of which makes one fervently hope there was no ghostwriter involved in the process.

Despite the book’s other merits, the accusation that Ahmad is writing primarily with a Western audience in mind does have validity. This mild irritant could have been disregarded had he not decided to sprinkle the text with tedious translations of each local term, which, apart from breaking up the flow, serves to remind Pakistani readers that they are not the book’s intended audience. A glossary in the end would have been more practical — and less insulting.

His detractors may decry Ahmad’s pomposity, but that is not necessarily a disability here. Ahmad’s sense of his own importance in the world drives the story, making it, for the most part, a lyrical and poignant read. It is certainly difficult to escape Ahmad’s mildly overweening sense of his own importance, which permeates all corners of his narrative as he talks about being the ambassador of peace from the subcontinent who took the UN General Assembly and the Nobel Prize ceremony by storm. But autobiography, by its very nature, is a self-indulgent genre. To expect the author to write with self-effacing humbleness — particularly about pop, which is driven by precisely the opposite forces — is to ask for a dull book. Yet it is in places where Ahmad fades into the background and allows his music to take centre stage — the portions that explain the local change wrought by Paki-Pop — that the book is at its best.

Sabahat Zakariya is a staff member at Daily Times.

The News 25/10/2009

Gearing up for a bicycle ride

Women cannot cycle on the streets of Lahore. It's considered indecent. But can this mindset be changed?
By Sabahat Zakariya

Picture the scene: A handful of men and women plying the Lahore roads on a leisurely Sunday. Nothing all that unusual about it you would say, until you were told that those men and women are on bicycles. Men of a certain background in society are almost as rare a phenomenon on city streets as are women, and Critical Mass, Lahore tries to break these taboos every single lazy Lahori Sunday.

Like many girls my age I had enthusiastically bicycled around my small colony as a young child but as I grew to two digits, hushed tones and glances made me retreat into non-cycling mode for the rest of my life. It was simply not considered decent for girls to do anything that would detract from single-mindedly following the path to domestic felicity, and since cycling did not in any way seem to contribute to that directly, it had to be chucked away.

Ironically though, women from an older generation faced less social stereotypes in this regard. We have all heard stories of mums and aunts who cycled down the Mall Road and made their way to Kinnaird College on a bicycle. But somehow, somewhere things changed. Women slowly disappeared from the public space and seeing them out and about on city streets became a rare phenomenon. 

When asked about this, my mother told me that she used to bicycle every day from her village to main Sialkot city to attend her Bachelors classes at her college during the '60s and never faced harassment or even raised eyebrows.

Critical Mass, therefore, is a God sent in a social environment where defying norms is always best done with a pinch of prudence. So having heard of Critical Mass from a friend, one fine Sunday morning I stashed my borrowed bicycle in the trunk of my car and set off towards Zakir Tikka, the starting point for the Critical Mass rides. It was a relief to see that some other brave women had also showed up with their bicycles and were willing to be a part of the phenomenon. That first ride proved that there was far less cause for apprehension than I had first imagined.

There was surprisingly little harassment on the roads and though people certainly did look up and stare, none of the women felt threatened. It may be because in this case the class divide overwhelmed the gender divide. Upper middle class looking women on bicycles, surrounded by men, inspire enough shock and awe to stun onlookers into silence. Unsurprisingly, my most conservative comments have come from men of an upper social strata who have expressed distaste at the idea of 'respectable' women making a spectacle of themselves around town, frowning upon their courage to revel in feeling lose-limbed and free.

If bicycling comes back into vogue it can prove to be a great boon for women of poorer backgrounds. Once the streets are made safe for them by ensuring that both male and female police do their duty in curbing harassment, cleaning ladies can save a great deal of money while commuting from one house to another in order to earn their meagre wages. It might also help dissuade the culturally accepted but unsafe and dangerous practice of women sitting side-saddle on motorbikes.

Cycling, for me, has led to all sorts of adventures. From a gruelling six-hour trek to Jallo Park and back to shouting down the PM's motorcade in protest for blocking city roads for hours. It has also helped forge many new friendships, since cycling is not just conducive to interacting with one's environment but also with other people in a refreshing new way.

Lahore is the ideal city for bicycling, what with its wide, tree-lined boulevards and a history of cultural leadership. Imagine it being flooded with men and women of all types riding on bicycles, lessening the city's smog and giving its roads a refreshing sense of civility and fair play. 

Women, let's ride the wave and change the cityscape.