Saturday, September 22, 2012

Our Cities and Theirs

A great deal of self-righteous anger is expressed in our parts whenever something offensive to our religious sentiments is aired in the West, but calling a poor Christian 'choora' or ridiculing Hindus for believing in more than one god is considered perfectly kosher (as a manner of speech). How many times have I heard people laugh at the ridiculousness of worshipping a god you created with your own hand, thus subjecting Hindu religious sentiment to the most literal of interpretations but bursting into flames (literally) at similar criticisms directed at Islam.

I have never seen anything in our surroundings, in the mass media or our education system that actively promotes tolerance or respect for others, instead, I have often seen people carelessly throwing around derogatory terms like 'kaafir' and feeling self satisfied in their smug piety. Then there is the persecution complex that imagines every wheel in the Western machine working overtime to destroy the great citadel of Islam, or blaming Colonialism/Imperialism for every ill that exists in the Muslim world today, conveniently throwing the blame on foreign shoulders and absolving ourselves of all responsibility.

While in London (yes, I am still on London, will be a while before I am done) I came across many images the equivalent of which would be impossible to see in Lahore (or most other parts of Pakistan). Can you imagine a woman in a bus in Lahore wearing a sari and a bindi reciting the Ramayana aloud? I can't either. It's not like she would be immediately attacked if she tried, it is just that that space for diversity just seems to have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk.

Shab-e-Baraat morning. One woman recites from the Quran as the other sits beside her and reads Fifty Shades of Grey
Advertisement at Leytonstone Station on the central line
Outside a Unitarian church. It would be nice to see a similar sign outside a mosque.
At the British Museum. Trying to imagine art from the Hindu or Jewish world celebrated on a governmental level in Pakistan
A conciliatory Islamic ad breathing peacefully alongside one for the Damien Hirst exhibit at Tate Modern
Outside a primary school in Stoke, Newington. An attempt, an amateur one, but an attempt at least, to be inclusive
Polish figures outside St. Martin in the Fields Church in Central London

An attempt to understand the other in one of the most prominent churches in central London


All of the above does not suggest everything is perfect in the West, it is only to say that there are sustained and high level attempts at tolerance and humanity which are unfortunately not visible in our part of the world. What is visible here is a clear case of a majoritarian people becoming more intolerant, bigoted and xenophobic by the minute. Even if many of the silent ones are decent people in their personal lives they still help facilitate and abet hateful beliefs about others. There are no equivalent, tangible symbols of tolerance as above, or even an attempt at them in any of our cities.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Of Kindness

Shop window in Brighton
I thought I was the last person on earth who still insisted on using the word kindness, without blushing. The word (and concept) seems to have fallen out of favour, especially among those who fancy themselves clever, since it reeks so much of.. moralizing; you know, that other hopelessly dated idea. So, it was a pleasant surprise to come across words like kindness and good deed as often as I did in London. I draw a blank trying to imagine New Yorkers employing such vocabulary and admire the Brits even more for retaining their peculiarly polite identity to date. Good to see them embracing their twee so unabashedly. I had feared it had all but died with Enid Blyton.

On the tube every day, I often used to come across this good deed feed on the free paper called The Metro. However saccharine it may seem at first glance, I always found it refreshing to read in the largely impersonal confines of the tube. Small acknowledgments of human connections and random acts of kindness can make the underground experience warmer than it usually is.

One other acknowledgment of this that I saw was in the form of art work called Stories of Kindness on the Tube by Michael Landy. I tried to get as many pictures of these stories at central line tube stations and trains as I could. They celebrate little acts of kindness and put them on public view without shying away from using the word. I love that. A lot of them are 'kindnesses' perceived from the Western eye, things like strangers talking and lending emotional or (some form of) physical support on the tube.

I am sure in Pakistan people often give and receive such kindnesses without finding them particularly remarkable. I sound doubtful about it though, because as a woman I am outside the sphere of true public existence. Even my public life is led behind private doors of cars, offices, schools and shops. However, at times when car tyres go flat in the middle of a road or you end up in a Lhr-Isb Daewoo or an airport lounge, (the only places I can think of where relatively middle class women can find the opportunity to engage with others), you often find people willing to help and chat, in fact here the problem may run in the opposite direction, friendliness taken to the level of nosiness or harassment. What we lack is the kindness of letting others be when they require it. Or the kindness of polite words like sorry and thank you. The latter seems to be lacking even on forums populated by the more educated, such as Twitter. I see selective thank yous and engagement from journalist types who deem themselves too important to respond to the riff raff (namely those who cannot help them get a leg up in their careers). To paraphrase a favourite quote, the true test of a person's character is his behaviour towards those who are of absolutely no consequence to him.

I seem to have digressed a bit, so I will let you read through stories of kindness on the tube as seen from the eyes of Londoners. A city as big as that celebrating things so small. That really makes me respect London.

I love this one, a genuine act of self sacrifice on the part of a complete stranger
Humour saves a boring train ride
They're the same everywhere

'Change' in London has greater value. Coins tend to go further than they do in Pakistan
I've done that at times when I forgot to pick up The Metro at the station
The same happened when my sis-in-law and I took my niece out on the town in a buggy. At every flight of stairs someone stopped and helped us carry the buggy with the child in it
This happened to me. A man woke me up at Newbury Park because he felt I might sleep through my stop. I was going till the end of the line so there wasn't anything to worry about, but still, I appreciated his concern
This has happened to me in Lahore, bag full of money returned to my address by Ehsan Chappal Store. They called Zaidi's from a receipt in my bag and took my address from there. Quite remarkable, the lengths they went to.
People just randomly talking to each other is a bigger deal in London than in Lahore
I think this happening in a van to Shahdara might not be quite as remarkable
In Pakistan naani and daadi's names and professions would have been exchanged within this time
Connecting wordlessly with a stranger is one of the great pleasures of living in a big city
Flowers save the day anywhere in the world

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Another London

They don't exist in the catalogue versions of the city. You never see them on BBC or TripAdvisor's coverage of London. Jet-setting friends return without ever making any mention of them, yet in the actual city you come across these homeless everywhere. They are nowhere near in number to the throngs of beggars that crowd the traffic signals of Lahore, but the impact of their loneliness, guilt and visibly broken spirits is somehow greater on the soul. Perhaps because the beggars in Lahore are usually assertive, soliciting money actively, even aggressively, tapping on car windows with force, sometimes even throwing the coin right back at you if it doesn't live up to their expectations. In London they just huddle on the edge of a tube station or street corner trying to shield themselves against the city's cold evenings, feebly calling out to passersby for a coin; many too ashamed to attempt even that. They invariably wear a far away, glassy look and an acute sense of having failed in a world that lays so much premium on winning. It is perhaps the contrast with their surroundings that makes their plight more readily moving, or it could be my personal immunity to the everyday sufferings of our own poor, part of an endemic cycle of injustice and hardship that everyone but the very elite are protected from. I fear romanticizing their plight, but in Lahore, beggarwomen often form a curbside community of females more loose-limbed than their middle class counterparts, their children tearing about on roundabouts, fighting and sometimes laughing amongst themselves, living some form of community on the very fringes of society. London's homeless, however, exist in complete isolation.

On Millennium Bridge

Holborn. I could have taken another, less fuzzy picture, but it seemed callous to let him catch me photographing him, so I just made do with the first click. The manner in which he just sits there conveys enough.

Behind Embankment

A woman sleeping on the pavement near King's Cross Station
Waterloo bridge
Tottenham Court Road