Saturday, March 17, 2012

A poet could not but be gay

On Twitter, the other day, I referred to the flowers outside my window as 'pansies'. Well, that is exactly what they are. All one hundred and twenty seven of them. A friend, however, found my usage quaint and antiquated (why do these words sound like they're related). But from what I know the flower hasn't been given another name yet to clear the confusion between the contemporary usage of the word and its earlier botanic incarnation. Gay, however, seems to have been done away with altogether as a synonym for happy. So much so that you can now no longer spontaneously recite Daffodils on a fine spring day like today without eliciting some giggles from bystanders. Assuming the recitation of poetry isn't itself a giggleworthy enough phenomenon for bystanders.

So, coming back to pansy, the serendipity of encountering the word whose archaic usage had made me a laughing stock of sorts (yes, i am looking at you @akkhan81) in a snazzy, contemporary book of non-fiction was a most lucky coincidence (which is what serendipity happens to be, by the way). The book, 'Guerrilla Gardening' by Richard Reynolds, details attempts by people all over the world to beautify or cultivate neglected public space. On page 55, Reynolds writes:

Paul 1119 has used guerrilla gardening to mark hundreds of memorials in a continuing and powerful art project spread across England and the USA. He began in Manchester, planting pansies to mark where homophobic attacks had taken place ('pansy' being a slang term for a gay man in anglophone countries). 
Using police records of where  both verbal and physical attacks had occured, Paul planted the pansies along pavements, in crevices beneath trees, at the foot of walls and to plug gaps in flowerbeds. He took a photo of each one and named the image after the particular abuse that had occurred there. 'Faggots!...Poofs!...Queers!' is a beautiful burgundy pansy on Oxford Road outside Sainsbury's supermarket; 'It's about time we went gay-bashing again, isn't it?' is a pale peachy one that is timidly growing through some melting snow on Grosvenor Street. The Pansy Project went legal when Paul sought and won the support of cultural institutions in North America and Britain, and it now has its own website (
In March 2007 Paul was given funding by the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival to plant along Queen's Walk on the South Bank to mark the murder in 2004 of David Morley, which was widely perceived to have been motivated by homophobia. As well as filling empty tree pits and flowerbeds, pansies were stuffed into ribbons of soggy black stockings and bin liners to be wrapped temporarily around the bases of bins and bollards.
Paul asked me to help clear away this temporary part of the exhibition and transplant the pansies somewhere permanent. And so I spent an evening with Claire 1971, Lyla 1046 and Gavin 2881 crawling around the South Bank prising out pansies and perplexing the rowdy al fresco drinkers who favoured us with some light horticultural abuse.

I loved how these people combined the two uses of 'pansy' to make a statement.

However, even more strangely, I came upon the word pansy again in a book I picked up the very next day. 'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel also puns upon its two meanings to illustrate her younger self's understanding (and judgement) of her father. Here it is:

So, glad to know the original meaning of pansy is still very much in use, even as it is supplemented by its modern slang usage, a pejorative whose own meaning is being redefined by those it has been hurled at as an insult.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A new golden age of Pakistani drama? Think not

A Pakistani drama serial has brought the nation together once again, reminding people of the ‘80’s when ‘Waaris’ and ‘Tanhaiyaan’ are fabled to have left the streets of Lahore deserted.
Pakistani drama had been witnessing a revival for a couple of years now, but not until Humsafar did that scattered babble converge to a deafening roar; confronting the unsuspecting on every corner regardless of consent. It is the kind of all-encompassing popularity that legends are made of, and who but the shallowest snob would begrudge such a culturally defining moment?
So, to bring myself up to speed, I decided to spend one weekend on YouTube catching up on the Pakistani zeitgeist. Closing the dozen or so windows that are usually open on my Chrome at any given time to allow my computer optimum performance and speed, I settled down to plug into the pop-culture rhythm of modern Pakistan.
It didn’t begin very promisingly. The principal characters were immediately defined through tired old tropes of class —poor girl with chadar equal to good and chaste; rich girl in jeans, spoilt and forward. Add to that the poverty-stricken but upright mother on her death bed and (the soon to turn into) evil NGO-aunty mother-in-law, and every tired old cliché in the Pakistani moral universe begins to gnaw at whatever little substance the play had to begin with. These said characters then proceeded to act in the way the middle class writer’s imagination perceives poor people act, or equally rich ones. The women orbitting in their pre-determined paths around the intense and manly object of desire whose taut face and pregnant pauses helped drive the contrived ‘plot’.
While the female characters are painted through a Nazeer Ahmed-esque moral lens of angelic goodness and devilish design, the man’s agreeableness remains superfluous to his desirability, perhaps even detrimental to it; his unreasonable suspicions proof of his virile masculinity.
Sarah, who in the first fifteen minutes is presented as the demure sidekick in Asher’s business, suddenly discovers a histrionic streak that would put Malka-e-Jazbaat, Bahaar to shame.
That there are women who might choose to behave like Sara when they find out that the love of their life is betrothed to another is not under doubt, neither is the fact that there are women like Khirad who could be led into marrying a stranger because they have no other option; the problematic bit is that all Pakistani plays across the board depict most ‘lovable’ female characters in this light. This is their idea of what people want, and with the unprecedented success of ‘Humsafar’, it seems like they’ve got it right. 
The play’s popularity amongst the well-to-do, private school educated classes is the most fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. It is possible that the main reason for it is the charisma of Fawad Khan and the dewy faced Mahira, at least if my class full of 15-year-old girls is any proof, but our perverse obsession with suffering is also another plausible reason for its success. Suffering women in particular seem to be placed on a pedestal; by men because they are the ultimate romantic symbols of womanly sacrifice, by women because it is nice to be validated on screen for life choices that have them personally unfulfilled but socially approved.
Humsafar’s popularity is sad evidence of the systemic erosion of Pakistan’s social consciousness since the enforced piety of Zia’s days. If Haseena Moin was the benchmark of mass popularity back then, then Humsafar in as indicator of our endemic regressiveness. The sad irony is that Haseena’s heroines challenged the status quo by being their bubbly, independent, if hopelessly romantic selves; in comparison, the Khirads and Sarahs of today are a firm step backward. Those earlier women had time to be just women, with humour, grace and tenacity that lent texture and authenticity to their characters. Today’s specimens perpetually shuffle from one tear-jerker to another; their whole lives one long, painful dirge on the hazards of being a woman in a patriarchal world they have no interest in challenging or shaping. Sassy, single women of the 'repressed' 80’s (think Badar Khalil in Tanhaiyan) had the wherewithal to support two grown-up, orphaned nieces without any of them being played for the ‘bechaari’ sentiment that drives most depiction of women today. Besides, female friendship was celebrated, whether amongst college friends, sisters or between aunts and nieces. The Sarah and Khirad model inevitably pits them against one another, rendering them useless without the pivotal man in the middle.
Today’s plays, including Humsafar, are much like Razia Butt novels, just having shifted mediums from the inside pages of a women’s weekly to the 8 o’clock slot on television. Only through this switch the impact of their regressive mindset has widened considerably, entrenching our society’s stereotypes ever more solidly into our consciousness.

First published here on