Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going it Alone

Sabahat Zakariya went to independent candidate Saira Dar's corner meeting and ended up musing about middle class morality and the meaning of these elections

My worn Nokia handset peeled its trademark tune on a drowsy Sunday afternoon. A quick peek identified the caller as one Ms. Saira Dar. Bracing myself to hear the worst from a friend who had been a colleague at Aitchison several years ago and with whom the extent of my relationship ever since has been an accidental run-in at the local cinema, I hit the answer button. A call from a friend long missing usually means one thing, divorce-validation - a service divorcees provide as preliminary counselors and water-testers for those contemplating the plunge. Her monumental news, however, turned out to be of a variety I had not anticipated-a breathless announcement of her candidature from my constituency, NA-125. Full marks on the surprise factor. I have lived in NA-125 for the past 17 years but confusion over voter registration and polling stations has meant I have never cast my vote. This year, with an upgraded NADRA infrastructure, calls for registration well within time and a savvy technological network of verification I am finally in a position to take my politics off twitter and into the polling booth. But getting ambushed by an independent candidate wasn't quite how I had envisaged spending my first precious vote. If personal relations be the criteria then my cousin, the PML-N candidate from my constituency, would be the default choice, but my virgin vote was a responsibility I was taking seriously and I had no intentions of casting it away flippantly.

What she lacked in shrewd political planning, she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech

But vote or no, Saira, the former art teacher-turned politician's is an interesting story. Often in our zeal to talk about the more tangible oppression of rural women, the moral niceties that chain the women of the middle class are overlooked with a swift brandishing of their MA degree as incontrovertible proof of their liberation. Those with any insight know the truth to be far more complicated. The unstated expectations of middle class morality are often as binding as feudalistic and overtly religious expressions of absolute forbiddance. To be a wife and mother who is neither the poor worker nor the Birkin-toting daughter of a rich feudal is to swim in a murky netherland of wifely duties and structured expectations that are incompatible with the fluid energy of political life. The allegiance to the middle class code of conduct is threatened by the personal ambitions of a woman with neither the excuse of avenging her father's death nor the luxury of her family's minions conducting her election campaign for her. Saira told me that her intent was initially met with great resistance by her husband and son, on the pretext that she would end up making a fool of herself, but she persisted -from what I could tell once I met up with her - with considerable personal cost to herself. With her poise and refined convent-girl air it was hard for me to imagine her as a hard-boiled candidate who could get down and dirty in Pakistan's murky political arena, but her story intrigued me, and I decided, out of rather selfish reasons - the need to find out more about my constituency and to make an informed decision about my vote - to follow her on her campaign trail.

The next day I rang the bell of Saira's mother's austere house in a shaded old street of DHA Phase 1. One dupatta-clad woman and the candidate herself ushered me into an echoingly empty house. Her mother was away visiting her son in Dubai, providing Saira with 'a room of one's own' to conduct her affairs away from the domestic pressures and naysaying of her husband's place. Piled into her Cultus we set off for Nishat Colony, one of the poorer neighbourhoods of NA-125, where an old family painter of hers had organized a corner meeting. Poking fun at her own lack of resources Saira felt her low budget would be the key to capturing the people's love and trust. Just as I inwardly scoffed a little at her naivette she made a small joke that illustrated her point well:

'I used to have a Suzuki FX a few years ago and this beggar was constantly bothering me with solicitations for money. A huge Prado stood right next to my car, so I asked her why she didn't go beg from them instead, "Magar baaji ghareebaan nu hee ghareebaan daa dard honda ae na" (but sister, only those who are poor themselves can understand the pain of the poor) came the beggar's reply'. Laughing over this anecdote Saira expressed the hope that a similar kindling of solidarity with the poor would propel her to victory in the elections.

By this time (end of April) she still didn't have any pamphlets or posters and the ones she had ordered were sepia; coloured ones being too expensive to afford. She felt that the only areas she could possibly cover were those with some family or friends of her domestic staff and didn't even hope to attempt to visit her whole constituency. No seasoned political journalist myself, even I could tell that this amount of effort was not enough to win a national assembly seat, but here we were passing through the labyrinthine streets of Nishat Colony, festooned mainly with PML-N candidate Kh. Saad Rafique's banners, going to a poor man's house who apparently had enough faith in the woman to have put together a corner meeting for her. Soon we reached the painter's dimly lit, single-roomed quarters in the middle of a narrow alley. A slightly torn poster of Christ plastered on one wall, a couple of chairs and a charpoy neatly placed beside another, and a verandah with cracked cement floors where a couple dozen relatives and neighbours had converged to hear Saira speak. What she lacked in shrewd political planning she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech without becoming a caricature of the dais-thumping politician. The poor people she had come to address seemed swayed by her ideas that centered on working for the welfare of the poor, providing them with education and the vague but effective promise of returning their dignity to them. Obviously pleased and honoured by her visit, most of the women present immediately pledged their vote; female solidarity, something in her manner or the fact that she had 'honoured' them with her presence being enough to convince them to pledge allegiance, making me marvel at the arbitrary nature of these decisions, amongst the poor as well as the educated middle classes who pride themselves on casting their vote on rational and logical bases but often whose own conclusions are no less instinctive and emotional.

A few of those gathered admitted that PML-N's Saad Rafique had helped build the streets around their area but that they still did not want to vote for him since he hadn't 'shown his face' to them in the past five years. As Saira spoke about the need for universal education a man piped up to say that the young lad standing next to him had completed his BA but could not find a job anywhere. The quagmire of degrees but no jobs, streets but no exit from grinding poverty, suddenly seemed too overwhelming and complex to navigate and I couldn't escape the oppressive feeling that to change anything fundamental for these people is a nigh impossible task.

Poorly thought through as it may be, the candidature of someone like Saira Dar is demonstrative of the impetus PTI's emergence as a viable force has given to individuals from normally apathetic, educated urban middle class backgrounds. Suddenly in Pakistan, politics is no longer a dirty word associated with feudals and industrialists alone, independents like Jibran Nasir in Karachi and Saira Dar in Lahore are placing their faith in a system that so far those of their background had considered too broken to even attempt to fix. And there is some hope in just that fact.

Though, in an unguarded moment while talking to me, Dar told me had she felt a sense of empowerment and genuine respect in teaching she might not have taken the political route, a sad reflection on how far we still need to go for the emergence of a genuinely naya Pakistan, one that will emerge from an attitudinal change within ourselves, not just a cosmetic change of leadership.

Published in The Friday Times May 10-16, 2013

Bahaar Aaee

On the day the Christians of Badami Bagh were brutally punished by their Lahori neighbors for yet another cooked-up blasphemy, a gloomy Sabahat Zakariya went to hear Tahira Syed sing Faiz's poems at the Alhamra Arts Center. She was pleasantly surprised 

I was under the impression that Lahoris don't appreciate serious music, that's why I've always performed in Karachi, but this audience has really surprised me."

The 500-strong crowd at the Alhamra Arts Center could have taken offense at this declaration of Tahira Syed's. Or they could have accepted the backhanded compliment for what it was. They chose the latter, bursting into self-congratulatory applause at their role in this timely revision of the songbird's take on their city.

It was a day when outside endorsement of Lahore's benign spirit was bound to be lapped up hungrily. Just a few hours before the concert, a poisonous mix of self-righteousness and discontent had unleashed itself on a hapless Christian neighborhood of Lahore, leaving in its wake more than a hundred burnt houses and hundreds more permanently charred lives. Under those circumstances, Adeel Hashmi's delicate interweaving of Faiz's letters and poetry with Asad Anees's grand piano made the Alhamra hall seem worlds removed from the pyromania of Badaami Bagh. This being a Faiz event, there was every reason to suppose that troubles other than love would be brought up, and so they were by Adeel Hashmi, who began the show with a moving speech addressing the pall that had descended on the city since morning. Sitting in the audience and looking around, I couldn't escape the depressing feeling that much like English-language writing in Pakistan, liberal rhetoric at a ticketed cultural event is permanently stuck in a vicious cycle of preaching to the converted. Several couples -presumably parents of the Lahore Grammar School students who had presented the opening act of the night - got up and left even before Hashmi had time to finish his speech and launch into his recitation. I couldn't decide if it was their apathy that defined my city's spirit or the enthusiasm of the four hundred-odd people who enjoyed a Saturday night of music until the end.

Like English-language writing in Pakistan, liberal rhetoric at a ticketed cultural event is stuck in a vicious cycle

Adeel Hashmi, with his ability to smoothly transition between comedy and serious matter, and then to combine the two where necessary, is a valuable Faiz Ghar asset, reminiscent of his uncle Shoaib Hashmi in this as well as matters of stage presence and crowd handling. Both are fortunate in having evaded the comic actor's affliction of not being taken seriously once they make the switch, what with Faiz's grandson handling his poetry with an earnestness that adds merit to what might seem a nepotistic selection. The only thing that jars at the now frequent Faiz Ghar events is their insistence on promoting Faiz and Faiz alone. His legacy as a poet is now extremely well-established. Surely Faiz Ghar can afford to branch out into the exploration of other members of Urdu's beleaguered creative fraternity in ways as attractive as the marketing of Faiz, an endeavour that would also be very much in line with the giving spirit of Faiz the man, one who openly ranked Hafeez Jalandhari among the greatest poets of his time, despite the latter's varied and vicious personal attacks on Faiz's character. The recently held Daastaan-Goi, Shyam Benegal Festival and Motley Theatre events suggest that Faiz Ghar will branch out into supporting the creative arts in general and not just stick with Faiz alone, which is a heartening development. This new direction, however, was not visible at this particular concert, which seemed to have straitjacketed Tahira Syed into singing Faiz and Malika Pukhraj alone, marring the spontaneous flow of an otherwise excellent evening. Why it needed to drag in Alys Faiz as an alibi for the concert never became clear to me, especially considering that a tribute to Alys Faiz had been performed a couple of weeks before on the same stage and Faiz's birthday had also been celebrated a week before with the traditional Tina Sani evening. The inclusion of Malika Pukhraj seemed suspiciously like a condition of Tahira Syed's for appearing on the Faiz Ghar platform, and the addition of Alys Faiz an attempt at offsetting the focus on Syed and Pukhraj.

Not only does Tahira Syed look as fresh as ever, her voice is just as perky as it was many years ago

I was expecting to enjoy the Malika Pukhraj section, since so many of her songs are part of the collective consciousness of Pakistan's PTV generations. And I was not disappointed. Not only does Tahira Syed look as fresh as ever, her voice is just as perky and strong as it was many years ago. Lo Phir Basant Aaee proved an excellent choice for the first song, evoking both the joy of spring on a balmy March evening and the pang of Lahore's severance from its centuries-old past with the banning of the Basant Festival. Syed also peppered her chatter between songs with some well-placed humour. moving into Riaz Khairabaadai's ghazal Hum bhee piyayn tumhayn bhee pilaaeeN tamaam raat with this quip: 'Of course, prohibition mayN tau yeh mumkin naheeN hae. Magar yeh pehlay ki gaaee huee hae', shifting immediately afterwards into the pahaari folk tune Allah Bailuva Ho, leaving me marveling at this seamless celebration of God and booze in our poetic traditions.

The Faiz section, which I was a bit apprehensive about, having never heard Tahira Syed sing him before, turned out to be quite a joy, especially since it contained three "new" compositions by Arshad Mehmood who was also in attendance. Go sab ko baham saaghar-o-baada tau naheen tha, yeh shehr udaas itna zyaada tau naheen tha, a ghazal I am familiar with through a home recording of Arshad Mehmood singing it himself was my only disappointment. Mehmood's own voice is much more suited to the tune as well as the pathos of the poetry, so I couldn't stop comparing it unfavourably to the original version. Add to that Syed constantly pronouncing 'zyaada' as 'zaada', and it made for something like a low point in the evening.

At the very end, one audience request which was neither from the Pukhraj nor the Faiz canons was accommodated after special permission was granted by Muneeza Hashmi upon Tahira Syed's coaxing. A rousing 'Jhaanjhar Phabdi Na' ended an overall fantastic evening that I couldn't yet again help but feel grateful to the Faiz Foundation Trust for.

Published in The Friday Times of March 15-21, 2013