Throughout the history of mankind, there have been certain things that were considered socially desirable, hence much sought after. Acquisition of land has always been a way to show and wield power, being hefty was considered a status symbol as late as early 20th century. The desire for lean and healthy bodies is a relatively new phenomenon as is revealed by the paintings of all the grand masters and their not so thin subjects.
Like elsewhere, status symbols have undergone a massive change in recent time. Gone are the days when having a huge house and decent cars were enough to impress neighbours, relatives and acquaintances. The modern demands on rich and well off are too many and oh so varied. For instance, if you happen to live in Islamabad, an enormous car with special number plates tells everyone that you have arrived. In Karachi, people are not that taken in with giant modes of transportation, the must have accessory is a foreign nanny for the young ones. If you want proof, just crash any kitty party at a local club and you will find more than half the ladies who will be accompanied by the maids from The Philippines or Sri Lanka. If you are rich enough hire maids from countries other than Sri Lanka or Phillipines, your social stock will rise phenomenally. A friend’s sister in law recently visited from Dubai and along with her came her one year old daughter and her Georgian maid. Imagine how she was looked up by the ladies of luncheons in Lahore (though there were a few snide remarks about her husband wanting to have a few private moments with this bombshell of a nanny) sporting a blonde nanny who was singing lullabies in a foreign language.
Once upon a time, a visit to your uncle’s home in London or a trip to Chicago to attend cousin’s wedding would grant you legitimate bragging rights but not anymore. Trips have to be exotic and out of ordinary if you really want to boast about them. Traveling to London or New York is is passé, vacations to Turkey and Malaysia – in fact anywhere in Asia barring Japan, Korea, Bali and Mongolia – are downright middle class. If you are doing Asia then it has to be something extra ordinary and very special, like staying in cave hotels in Cappadocia, going snorkeling in Maldives or saving a rain forest in Indonesia. Adventure trips in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam and Thailand can also get you some brownie points if your social set is young, courageous and daring.
If you plan to travel to Europe, then visiting Disney Land in Paris just won’t cut it anymore. The travel has to include off beat places like Bucharest and it has to be eco friendly. It does not matter that you have installed 20 air conditioners in your home in Lahore and have massive carbon foot prints by flying to Dubai to attend the premier of latest Shahrukh Khan blockbuster, but if you are touring Europe, it has to be a eco friendly trip. The top destinations that the well heeled are cooing about are Machu Pichu, Galapagos and Angkor Wat. If you go to Machu Pichu and camp, you will not only be exotic but it will also be a socially acceptable way of slumming it.
The affluent people in Pakistan also think that traveling is a privilege that is reserved for them. I have actually overheard an old lady in Islamabad Club who wondered if they give passport to people living in G-9!
Another must have accessory – if you are young, hip and ‘liberal’ is a gay friend. Perhaps people have seen too many reruns of Sex and the City or they find the likes of Ali Saleem charming or they have genuinely embraced the alternative life choices but I have heard ladies boasting about having a gay best friend. If you are the religious type and having a gay best friend clashes with your religious beliefs then having a spiritual leader in another country is also considered very desirable. Going to your village peer is something that your dadi used to do; things are a tad different in 21st century and you owe your spirituality to a dervish in Turkey, a scholar in Jamia Azhar or a Mufti in Malaysia.
Gone are the days when you boast about getting your child into Economics program in University of Chicago or Electrical Engineering in Cal Tech (rich people do not boast about getting their children admitted to local schools, sending a child to LUMS is like committing social hara-kiri, the LUMS students who think they are cool just live with the illusion of cooldom)), the new black among the academic types is a small liberal arts college on east coast. Of course it is still prestigious if you can get into an Ivy League college but a degree in cultural symbolism (is it really a discipline) from The New School in New York is like ultra cool.
Wanting to be musician to be cool is so last century; dudes likes Junaid Jamshed and Ali Haider have been there and done that. In any case, every kid has a guitar strapped to his shoulder these days. If you really want to stand out among your crowd the new way to do so is to become a published author. Being a writer can give you unassailable superiority over your peers and even if you happen to publish your own book about your cat ten years ago, reminiscing about your book signing tour to three Liberty stores remains a valid point of discussion.
If you really want to reach the heights of social ladder, it is advisable to get a massive – preferably the military type – vehicle, hire a Russian maid, go to Machu Pichu and camp, have a gay best friend or a foreign spiritual guide, get yourself or your child – depending upon your age – into those tiny schools and get a useless degree in ancient Greek linguistics and write a book about either camping in Machu Pichu or learning ancient Greek and you will be fine – for life.
Originally published in the September Issue of monthly magazine Pique