Nov 29, 2012 - Urdu    5 Comments

موگمبو خوش ہوا

بھائی واہ 
مجھے  حال ہی میں پتا لگا کے ہم نستعلیق اردو میں بھی پوسٹ  لکھ سکتے ہیں 
موگمبو یہ جان کے خوش ہوا 
Nov 28, 2012 - tumblr    4 Comments

Ek Aur Yahoodi Saaziah

So I have been spending a lot of time ‘Only in Pakistan’ tumblr and came across this gem which had to be shared.

Apologies to those who do not understand Urdu.

To be a woman in Pakistan

Out of the four Pakistanis who made it to Foreign Policy’s influential Global Thinker’s List for 2012, three are women. Congratulations to those who made the list but irrespective of what Foreign Policy’s selection criteria for the list is (a 15-year-old student’s intellectual contribution to the society cannot be measured with that of a parliamentarian who has worked on important legislations affecting millions), it must be noted that in a country like Pakistan where women are constitutionally and legally considered of lesser worth, where they are valued less in cases of Qisas and Diyat, some are at least making a name for being fearless and courageous thinkers. They are doing things that one would not associate with people who are handicapped by their very state for being women.

Every citizen has a social contract with its government. The notion of that social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order where they are allowed to practise their religion, work freely and live in a secure environment. The state of Pakistan does not distinguish between its citizens when it comes to citizenship responsibilities. Women are expected to pay taxes when they are involved in economic activities, they vote in the elections and help select the government and are expected to observe the criminal laws enacted by one’s government.

However, the state of Pakistan does not deliver to its female citizens when it comes to equal rights. It is very unfortunate but the Pakistani constitution does not view women as equal and productive citizens of the country. The state views them as Muslim daughters, wives and mothers and values them according to their assigned roles in society — not as individual citizens with rights and aspirations of their own. Take the imposition of laws such as the Hudood Ordinance which gave control of a woman’s body and sexuality to the state and other members of her family. The fact that a woman’s role is considered a reproductive one and not a productive one in the society helps in reducing her worth and legally formalizes the gender inequality in the society. There is the Qisas and Diyat Law, or the Law of Evidence, which institutionalised a reduced value assigned to a woman’s testimony based on the assumption that a woman’s role in society is different, or perhaps less productive, compared to that of a man.

It is not just that but these legal and constitutional inequalities have also made certain types of criminal activities such as honour killings, domestic abuse and violence within families and tribes ‘compoundable’ — i.e., they are treated as crimes against the individual rather than as against the state.

Every year, November 25 is observed as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is usually observed in Pakistan as well. This year, it will be followed by a 16-day-long campaign called Take Back the Tech against gender-based violence. Campaigns such as this can only work when the women are allowed a level playing field which, unfortunately, is not the case in Pakistan. The very political parties who depend on their female voters to get to assemblies have continuously thwarted attempts to pass a much needed domestic violence bill in the parliament. If a country cannot acknowledge that a woman needs to be protected in her home, its government cannot be expected to protect her.

First published in The Express Tribune

From preposterous to downright ridiculous

American humorist Will Rogers said it a while ago but it still holds true. “People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.” What should get people thinking or outraged elicits a different kind of response these days among the voting population. With the kind of lives we are leading for past couple of decades, we have started taking things lightly as a coping mechanism. What used to be criminal is now laughable and what used to be stupid is now endearing. No wonder we scored that high on the happiness index, because there cannot be any other rational explanation for it.
Many people have sold volumes and have made fortunes by compiling Bushisms during Dubya’s 8-year rule. I am sure someone is doing the same in Iran with the pearls of wisdom of Mehmoud Ahmadinejad, though we have no way of knowing if that compilation will ever see the light of day. George W. Bush was not the only US president suffering from ‘foot in mouth’ disease. Republican candidate Mitt Romney was planning on firing the big bird (His plan was to stop giving subsidy to PBS which will lead to closure of Sesame Street and make Big Bird redundant) to decrease the domestic debt. Fans of the muppets plan to march the streets of Washington DC before the election to register their protest.  Romney’s brilliant plan is at par with Nobel Committee’s decision to give peace prize this year to European Union or our very own prime minister’s disorientation when he called 14-year-old victim of terrorism Malala Yousufzai who is a high school student and a national icon of courage, an IT expert during a parliament session. Being the head of the government of Islami Jamhooriya of Pakistan, one cannot even ask him what kind of quality stuff he has been smoking.
If any politician in Pakistan who comes even close to good ol’ George W. in terms of political gaffes and repeated faux pas, it is no-one but Senator Rehman Malik. From claiming to have seen surveillance footage of Darth Vader like terrorists to blaming majority of deaths in Karachi on wives and girlfriends in the city rather than the precarious law and order situation. I am surprised that Rehman Malik’s comment did not give birth to a “Real Housewives of Karachi” kind of a reality TV show. Last month, he made a statement about Karachi being the destination of choice for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban for vacations. Being the interior minister, he thought it was prudent to announce it in a news conference but he decided not to do anything about it.
With the passage of time, the delusion of grandeur is reaching epic proportions. Only recently, he decided to extend his jurisdiction to other countries and took credit for people being arrested in the United States.  Yes, Rehman Baba, formerly of FIA and now of Ministry of Interior, claimed the credit for the arrest of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the producer of anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims. When it was pointed out to him that Nakoula was arrested for violating his bail in another case, he persisted that it was his voice that reached the right quarters which resulted in the arrest. I mean seriously! How idiotic one has to be to take credit for an arrest which was a very minor domestic matter of another country?
If Dubya stuns everyone with the fact that he was a Yale graduate, Rehman Malik, too, was bestowed with an honorary doctorate degree from country’s premier university, Karachi University perhaps, for his famous one-liners about and apples and banana or his sterling recitation of Surah Ikhlaas during a cabinet session.
The other politician who is known for shooting off the handle is Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Raisani whose unforgettable words “Degree tau degree hoti hai chahay asli ho ya naqli (a degree is a degree whether genuine or fake)” will go down in Pakistani political gaffe history alongside with the boobie groping video. It has become such a point of reference for mockery that everything from space adventures (On Felix Baumgartner’s Space Jump, “Jump jump hoti hai, chahe space se ho ya sofay se” — a jump is a jump whether from space or a sofa) to local politics (Letter letter hota hai, chahay Grade 11 ke boy friend ko likha jaye ya Swiss hukoomat ko — a letter is a letter whether written to the boyfriend of an 11th Grader or the Swiss government).
While we are it, the Marie Antoinette of Pakistan, former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, also needs a special mention. When asked during an interview that one-fifth of Pakistanis want to leave the country, the premier didn’t hesitate to respond: “Why don’t they just leave then?”
That nonchalant matter-of-fact response was followed by, “Who’s stopping them?” What followed that super glib response were an awkward silence immediately and a thousand memes on Internet after that.
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is famous for either scandals with underage girls or for paying them for their affections. The late tent pitching nomadic leader of Libya Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was also not particularly well known for his sanity and discretion.
During his last trip to Italy, he requested the Berlusconi government to meet arrange for him to meet 700 women from the world of ‘politics, industry and culture’ who he can preach about Islam — the list included a female minister who used to be a topless model. Not only did he make the request, the Berlusconi government was weird enough to entertain it! Apparently, it was not the first such incident and the Sarkozy government was also guilty of giving in to a similar request  made during his earlier trip to Paris.
There have been politicians like Sher-e-Punjab Ghulam Mustafa Khar or Khadim-e-Ala Mian Shahbaz Sharif who are known for being ladies man and a serial groom respectively, but if there is one politician who endeared himself to people for his buffoon like antics around women, it is the latter’s elder brother.
Who can forget the saga of one Kim Barker and how the Barre Mian tried to ‘iPhone’ her. Things did not stay the same after the whole debacle became public and an iPhone had lost the innocence of being just a gift — at least in Pakistani political domain.

Bilour the bounty offerer is the recent entrant in the exalted club of ‘The gallactically stupid and the damned’. Before he offered to pay the bounty of $100,000 for the head of the filmmaker who made Innocence of Muslims, he was infamous for single-handedly ruining Pakistan Railways and for the ownership of cinemas that showed uncensored clips during regular viewings.  Had it been another country, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour should have been investigated by the taxation authorities for possessing that kind of money because reports suggests that during the last fiscal year, the tax he paid was just a little over $ 1,000 (around PKR100,000). 
Last but definitely not the least is the most theatrical of all Pakistani politicians. He may not grace your television sets everyday but when he does, he does it for a solid three hours and entertains you to no end. Altaf Bhai’s performance in the chooran chatni video is the stuff of legends and his rendition of parday mein rehnay do was perhaps the highest rated — under duress of course — television performance ever. Even Katrina Kaif cannot rival that. 

First published in the monthly magazine Pique
Nov 20, 2012 - published work    2 Comments

Foreign aid is not the answer

Should Pakistan get aid and assistance from foreign sources? Living in Islamabad, it is almost impossible to imagine life without foreign aid, be it government projects, educational institutions, non-profit organizations or theatre productions (seriously!!!!), all are assisted by bilateral or multilateral support of one kind or another. Pakistan has done pretty well for itself in the aid stakes; it is the third largest recipient of British aid after India and Ethiopia and it is also the third largest beneficiary of US aid after Afghanistan and Israel. There is the European Union, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, other smaller European nations and multilateral organisations willing to lend a helping hand.

But if taxpayers of the donor countries are asked, the majority of them would consider it absurd to hand out the money to a country like ours for multiple reasons. For starters, we do not do the job for which we take money (such as counterinsurgency operations or universal primary education) well; secondly, we may not be a growing economy like India and Bangladesh but we are still considered a middle-income nation. If we have enough money to start our own drone development programme and hold arms expos, then people from donor countries are not that far off the mark when they call for a stop or reduction in aid.

But this is not the entire truth. Despite being a not-so-poor nation, we are home to some of the poorest and most malnourished people on the planet. The government has the capacity and resources to tackle extreme poverty, which makes it is less of a foreign aid issue and more of a domestic inequality and misallocation of resources problem. In Pakistan, the richest people are going home with a bigger share of national wealth than ever before, while the poor end up with even less; the taxation system is such that the poor — through indirect taxes — are subsidizing the lifestyle of the rich, who do not pay direct taxes on their considerable assets. Any efforts to restructure the tax system fail because of political expediency in a fragmented parliament.

If we do not really need the aid, then why do Western governments provide it? Foreign aid is not really driven by dreams of salvation and by the desire of politicians to appear compassionate, though that makes for excellent PR. It is generally driven by political interests and the desire to influence policies in recipient countries by bankrolling the projects for the government and by creating a favourable voice among other sectors.

The problem associated with the aid industry is that at times it forgets the very people it is supposed to target. It also focuses more on intangible skills rather than physical structural changes (there are more takers for gender-focused soft skills trainings than for a project supplying clean water to impoverished women). In addition, it makes recipient countries more reliant on aid, preventing them from working out their own country-specific answers.

For a country like Pakistan, seeking funding is not the solution; dealing with issues, such as tax evasion, corruption and money laundering can help deal with poverty. In any case, foreign aid makes up for a very small part of the national budget and generally benefits those who are associated with the programmes; maybe it is time to lose the support wheels and try riding the bicycle without them.

Published in The Express Tribune

Nov 14, 2012 - Skyfall    5 Comments


Warning: There are too many spoilers.

Despite 8.1 rating at IMDB and good reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, I found everything about this new Bond film quite tedious – except Javier Bardem and to a lesser degree Ralph Fiennes. 
Moneypenny wreaking havoc on the streets of Istanbul – there is a lady in traditional garb to lend authenticity although you wont find women in this kinda dress in downtown Istanbul, you will have to check out the countryside for it
Like all Bond fares, this one too opens with an action scene – complete with crazy ass crossfire, car chase, rooftop motorcycle chase, action on a moving train that includes Bond getting shot at by a Uranium infused bullet (or was that bullet made of uranium?) and some antics with a crane while aboard that train – the twists here is that M orders Moneypenney to take a risky aim which resulted in Bond getting shot by Moneypenney and presumed dead. He stayed dead somewhere in Turkey until he found out about an explosion in MI6 HQ in London and decided to return home. The explosion happened because M managed to lose important data and as a result, MI6 was attacked. Ralph Fiennes’ Mallroy tells M that not only has she screwed up rather gallactically, she is too old to continue running her department (Isn’t Judi Dench like 103 already and should have been retired a good forty years ago?) but M refused to go. They later learn that someone is after M and the film from thereon revolved around saving M (yes, Ms Boss is the damsel in distress in this one) and about Bond’s loyalty to M, rather than the Queen or country, and it was ‘oh so significantbecause she ordered a shot where Bond almost lost his life in the opening sequence – YAWN! From there on, things got a tad dreary, until Javier Bardem graced the screen in his blindingly blonde flamboyantly gay villainous persona of a former agent gone rogue, Raoul Silva. 

Bond in all his Saville Row suited glory – wreaking havoc in Grand Bazaar


Before Bardem made his entrance – which was after an hour – the film had a surly Bond, a morose M, a glum Mallroy, some fat Chinese hoodlums, a briefcase full of 500 Euro notes, a sullen former Child prostitute, and two very dour looking ginormous lizards. Bardem’s Silva was like a breath of fresh air, he infused energy in the scenes he was in and honestly, I was rooting for him, instead of Bond. 
The film opened in Istanbul, I mean WTF? Ever since I was looted in Istanbul,  every other film – be it Taken 2, Ek Tha Tiger or the latest Bond flick – is shot in the city which feels like somebody is kinda rubbing it in. Secondly, who the fuck puts the whole bloody list of undercover agents in one single drive – including all their aliases – and then conveniently loses it? BBC is in a shambles already and if this is how things are being run at MI6, then this Tory government is a lot less competent than most people think. In any case, the whole undercover agent list theme – or Noc list as they called it then – has already been done in the first installment of Mission Impossible and Agent Ethan Hunt did a much better job of it than Mr. Bond. Bond, who was shot by that Uranium bullet left the fragments of uranium bullet in his chest and then conveniently dug them out with a knife in his bathroom to get tested and trace the killer. Other lesser human beings would have died of toxicities but then, he is not your average Joe, he is Bond.

Silva getting intimate with Bond
The film doesn’t really come to life until Javier Bardem shows up but even then some of the sequences are unbelievable. For instance, Silva is a former agent well familiar with the gadgets and toys provided by Q, yet he never bothered to frisk Bond for a tracking device which lead to his arrest, but then we were told that he planned it so that he can get arrested and get transported to London. I mean seriously? Even if the guy was short of cash – which he obviously was not – Silva was an IT genius, if he wanted to get to London, I am sure hacking into an airline website and scoring a couple of first class tickets would not have been much of an ordeal for him. Just when you think Silva is evil incarnate who is out to destroy good folks with posh accents at MI5, we find out that Silva is just a misunderstood former agent with serious mommy issues. 
One of the biggest glitches of the film was that during his psychological evaluation – conducted by a Freud look alike – Bond said that he thought of England as his home but later his family home was shown to be in Scotland. If he was an Englishman, then why was his ancestral estate in Scotland and if he was a Scotsman, then I will be damned if he called England his home. 
Bond, M, Bond’s Aston Marton at Skyfall

There were too many references about people being too old for the job. Everyone barring Bond wanted M to retire because she was too old, quite a few including Mallroy though Bond is too old to be out in the field, by the time the film ended, I too was convinced that I am too old to go on and should take up something gentle and age appropriate – like knitting. 
Things you I learned in this bond film; 

  • They can make a film about a failed Bond mission and still rake in millions. 
  • They can make a film which has shades of both The Dark Knight Rises and Home Alone (The improvised bombs made out of light bulbs at Skyfall were reminiscent of a time when we all liked Macaulay Culkin) and it still works.  
  • A villain with mommy issues – no matter how entertaining he is throughout the film– can be sort of anti climatic.
  • MI6 issued standard cyanide is bogus, ek dum kachra, it won’t kill you; the worst it will do is melt part of your facial structure and turn your hair blonde.  
  • Bond can pull in everyone, men women, vampires and dragons with his steely blue eyes –okay not vampires but that is only because none were around.  Eve Moneypenny lovingly shaved a towel clad Bond, Silva rubbed his thighs gleefully in anticipation, a Turkish woman kept him company when he was presumed dead, a Chinese feme fatale was willing to take him to Silva – and her bed, and last but not the least a dragon/lizard in Shanghai was also charmed by Agent 007 and that is just this particular installment. I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to test him for STDs. 
The mandatory sexy babe

Nov 13, 2012 - rant, women    4 Comments

Do not expect others to feed you if you decide to procreate nine times

Warning: This is a rant. 

Not only English newspapers generally carry more news stories on and about women, their stories are generally more nuanced and gender sensitive in comparison with Urdu and vernacular press. This story that I am going to discuss was published in Express Tribune and it does not pass judgment on the women it discussed but I strongly believed that in this case, the story could have done it with a bit of analysis on the socio economic mores of the society.

The story narrates the tale of two women, Humera and Suraya. They both lost their husbands to the civil unrest and target killings in Karachi. It has been two years since Humera’s husband passed away but she is still not working and expects other people to financially help her run her house. It must be noted that Humera is a middle aged woman and has 9 children – some of them are adults and one of her daughters is married – yet she does not leave her home because she fears that people will question her character if she leaves her house. The woman lives in Kati Pahari, a colony of working class people in Karachi adjacent to North Nazimabad which is a middle class area and if only Humera and her adult daughter go to North Nazimabad and work as domestic servants, they can jointly earn anything between Rs 12,000 to Rs 18,000 a month.

Suraya also lost her husband four years ago and but unlike Humera, she is financially independent. Not only is she working and supporting her two daughters, she is also paying off her husband’s debt and living a life of dignity.

There is a woman who had nine children – if people like her or her husband are approached for family planning, they generally deny any such services and say that children are God’s gift and they bring their own food with them. However now that she cannot feed them, she expects other people – who go out of their homes and work hard to earn money – to feed them while she just stays at home because she fears her virtue would be tarnished! Hello, you have nine – NINE – children and you still care about what other people have to say about your virtue? What is more important for you as a mother, your virtue or your children’s food? There is also a sense of entitlement that now she is a widow, other people should help her. She says that she constantly thinks about ways to feed her children but she has never thought about doing an honest day’s work to many some money. Here is a woman who is refusing to act like an adult and take responsibility. If there is any place in Pakistan where people can break taboos and do things differently, it is Karachi and if someone refuses to do that, they do not deserve any sympathy. Had that woman been living in Badin, Sadiqabad or Akora Khattak, her excuse had been valid because there are no opportunities to work for anyone in those areas but this is nothing but an empty excuse in a city like Karachi.

I read the story and then I read it again. For starters the writer squandered the opportunity to draw comparison between people who work hard and the others who prefer to live their lives as parasites and society’s reaction to both parasites and the hard working people. Suraya – the other widow – should have been written as an exemplary character who defied the odds and is living a better life because of three major factors/decisions that made her life better – one, she was educated by her parents, two, she had just two kids instead of nine, three, she chose to work and live independently instead of relying on others. As it was a feature, not a story breaking news, the writer had an opportunity to dig deeper and touch upon the malaise that is holding our society back. I know reporters are supposed to be neutral but this country is going to the dogs, our birth rate is the highest in the region and we are a water insecure country – no water after 2030 for Pakistanis – it’s about time everyone should go militant on issues of family planning and innovative ways of farming. 

I know that this is a fairly politically incorrect piece of writing and not a cohesive one at that but I had to get it off my chest. I judged a widow for being lazy; having too many children and called her a parasite, but it is about time we call a spade a spade and appreciate those who want to be productive members of the society.Women staying at home is a very urban phenomenon, its about time we learn from our rural sisters who have always worked outside their homes and contributed to the economy – even when it is not officially acknowledged.

Response to a comment

This is in response to Anon commenter who apparently is a regular reader but chose to not disclose his/her name. I wonder why? 
I have absolutely no idea if this particular woman chose to have 9 children but she chose not to work and is asking for alms to support them, that, in my opinion is criminal behavior for a mother. 
You second point is that Pakistani wives do not have the luxury of choice to say no to their husband whether they want to have sex or multiple number of children and that I have unlearned/erased everything I know about gender inequality, traditions and male dominance. 
I would like to point out that accidents and tragedies provide everyone with fascinating opportunity of choice – of either becoming a victim or becoming a person who fight and defy odds. The woman may not have had a choice when her husband was alive but she had the choice of either becoming a victim (Hai Allah mein bechari bewa meray itnay bachay meri madad karo) or a fighter (Screw traditions, I am gonna get out of the home and try and carve a better life for my kids). Unfortunately she chose to play the victim card and for that, I will judge her. 
Your third point was that it is easier to leave two kids at home instead of 9. I find it kinda baseless, I mean this woman is middle aged and has married off one daughter. I am sure at least three of her children would be adults who can either work or look after the younger ones. The argument that she cannot leave them at home does not hold true here. 
In addition, I would like to point out that this is not about just a case but how we tend to side with the person who plays the victim instead of the one who fights things out. If anything we need to support those who decide to take charge because we can do with more doers and less parasites.
I would also like to say that media generally portrays the stories of victimhood which perpetuates the stereotype of bechari aurat and from what I have learned about gender, social structures, feminism, we do not need that, we need stories (I have written about Nazirapreviously) that break the shackles and glass ceilings.

Nov 13, 2012 - published work, USA    1 Comment

The impunity to hope

Four years ago, when President Barack Obama became the first person of colour to be elected as the president of the US, the world was hopeful that a lasting change would come along. We all know how that turned out but there are still some positives from that election and the current election, where President Obama was re-elected, which have shaped and will continue to shape domestic politics in the US. People are less divided across race and gender lines and vote on social issues; these lessons provide an example for other countries.

However, an Obama-like victory for any individual is next to impossible in Pakistan. For starters, the middle class that played a key role in bringing this political change in the US, is limited to a few big cities (mostly Karachi and to some extent Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Hyderabad) and it is fast shrinking given the energy crisis and economic woes of the country.

In addition, our politics is caste/clan/ethnicity-based. The election result of February 2008 is a clear indication of that trend. The PML-N with its Punjabi leadership did well in upper and central Punjab. The PPP with its Sindhi leadership did well in rural Sindh and the Seraiki belt. Pashtuns voted for their nationalist party, the ANP, and urban Sindh remained loyal to the MQM. Chances are that the new elections, expected to be held in the first half of 2013, would be more divisive as more actors of the same hue have entered the political arena.

Pakistan, perhaps, is the only country where democracy, tribalism and feudalism have coexisted and still continue to coexist. Our parliament looks more like a national jirga council, where most of the elected representatives are tribal and feudal heads with fairly dubious histories. More often than not, they try to stall any progressive legislation with impunity and pride, usually in the name of religion and culture.

The American people moved away from centre right politics to centre left politics when they voted for President Obama back in 2008 and again in 2012. There is no chance of that happening ever in Pakistan. To begin with, we don’t have a middle class big enough in numbers and the urban population is too attached to religion to embrace anything different. A country where original thought is shunned and a parliamentarian had to remain in hiding after proposing changes to the blasphemy law has a long way to go before it starts hoping for change.

In a country suffering from the worst leadership crisis of its history, religious obscurantism is at its peak, the education system has failed and the youth is apathetic; the only change that can be predicted is more chaos, unless we produce a leadership that gives the whole nation a chance to hope, like President Obama did in 2008. Unfortunately, we do not have the system to produce someone like him. With an absentee foreign father and a family with meagre finances, Obama was able to attend an Ivy League school on the basis of merit and finished his degree with the help of student loans. Sadly, that’s not the case in Pakistan. Forget admission of a poor kid to an elite school, we do not provide a level playing field to our children in the same family as most families prefer to spend more money on the education of the male child. In such circumstances, we want to remain tied to a distant past.

Should we even have the impunity to hope for a better tomorrow?

First published in The Express Tribune

Tales from the desi funerals

I grew up on a staple diet of Hollywood fares and have seen films like Four Wedding and a Funeral and Wedding Crashers, both of which projected funerals as perfect places to score with women. Unlike those romcom golds, our desi funerals are generally segregated and do not provide much room for romance to blossom – though some smart people do beat the odds and bond over the sad demise of a mutual acquaintance. Though they may not provide fertile grounds for romance, our desi funerals remain a fascinating place to see every stereotype unfold right before one’s eyes, be it the loud uncle, the religious nut job, the customary fundo khala, the modern visionary, the compulsive hugger, the prolific mourner, the head shaker and last but definitely not the least, the somber sage who will dish out advice on everything – from the quality of kaffan material to post burial rituals to reading out the deceased’s will and the phone number of a lawyer in case you want to contest the will of the deceased. Yes, the funerals provide an interesting peek into what our society has become and where it is going.

I ended up attending a couple of funerals recently and was struck dumb by the numbers of rishta-seeking aunties. These aunties are on the prowl for a girl for their sons, brothers, nephews and other boys of their acquaintances and will check out every single girl at the funeral, followed by an interview that can rival the Spanish Inquisition. Take this one rishta auntie at this particular funeral. Between asking questions about the girl’s education, her future aspirations, the number of siblings she had (I have been told that boys with prospects prefer small families for in-laws so that they can get the bigger share in the inheritance when the in-laws hit the bucket) and daddy’s financial status – gauged by careful questioning about his latest posting and the exact nature of his work – the rishta aunty went on and on about her health and her hemoglobin level. The poor girl who was fielding her questions – the girl could not have been more than 20 years old – was about to lose it when I sent in my sister to distract the rishta aunty. Hemoglobin? I mean, seriously? What’s next?

At every funeral you will also encounter a relative who will force his or her version of piety onto the rest of the family. If it’s a woman, chances are she’s from the Al Huda school of thought. You’ll know when she starts listing the bidaah or bad habits that good Muslims should shun. The bidaah could range from feeding the guests (duh!) to attending the funeral with a French manicure (OMG!) to plain old crying because as a good Muslim, you are not supposed to be overwhelmed by grief. Lesley Gore probably had these people in mind when she wrote her famous song “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…”

In addition to the Al Huda brigade, you have people who are hooked onto tales of weird funerals. Not only that, they want to corroborate their tales with elaborately fabricated occurrences that belong to the Tlism-e-Hoshruba. They will mention how the dead body weighs a ton (implying that the deceased was an incurable sinner), or how the corpse was emanating light (because the dearly departed was an exceedingly pious person) or how the grave smelling of roses and jasmine (which means that the dead person will have a 5,000-sq-ft mansion in heaven).

Funerals bring in their wake a lot of hugging and weird body contact – an uncle is petting your head while your mom’s aunt is holding onto your knees as a way of offering love and support, even as a distant cousin is trying a peculiar side hug – which makes a person who values personal space extremely uncomfortable. Surely people can wait their turn and offer condolences in a more restrained and orderly manner.

Then there are the chatterers. Despite the fact that they are here to attend a funeral, they will talk incessantly about everything which is not suitable for a funeral, and they will do this while they are supposed to be reciting ayats on fruit seeds. At the last funeral I attended, the chatterers were talking about Yash Chopra’s death and what it means for the future of sari-clad Bollywood heroines and the men who serenade them in the Swiss Alps; about Adele’s new-born baby boy and how she duped everyone into feeling sorry for her and her cheater of an ex while she found love with another man and was in the family way; and the implications of the Asghar Khan case’s verdict on the status of the Pakistani army.

Given how funerals are turning into multi-day affairs, a family member who has an event management business now wants to break into funeral arrangements. Planning weddings and doing corporate events is passe; the manager now plans to offer designer “life celebrations” and commemorative life-bio videos for his clients who want to leave for their eternal abode in style and add flavor to their own final farewell. This sounds like a great business model – relying only on the infallible logic that as long as people are being born, some of them will continue to die – and is bound to ensure a continuous supply of clients.

And you can never accuse the event manager of cultural insensitivity: he plans on offering services of professional mourners – not like old-school professional mourners who would bawl and do maatam and stuff – but something contemporary that has a family feel to it. (There can be aunties who will pose as family members and cry when prompted; bouncers who will be under cover as distant cousins and can be assigned the task of keeping the overtly pious in check; and groups of presentable youngsters who will recite Surah Fateha and the Quran for the deceased without looking like madrassa kids.)

Some people think funeral planning may not reach the greatness that the wedding industry has achieved in Pakistan because of the sacred element attached to funerals (and not weddings, evidently). I personally think that the easiest way to sell anything in this country is to add a touch of religion to it – be it Shariah-compliant banking or schools with a special focus on religious teachings. After all we are a country whose biggest chunk of travel expenses is spent on Hajj and Umrah. We are also the country that offers the opportunity to perform a 5-star Hajj with celebrities like Amir Liaquat Hussainn and Maulana Tariq Jameel (his market shot through the roof after his latest Hajj photo op with Bollywood star Amir Khan and famous cricketer Shahid Afridi).

We have seen the wedding industry going places by playing to people’s quest for individuality here in Pakistan. Now the funeral industry is poised for attaining greatness – and making some serious money – by making people realize that they can dictate the turn of events even after they are dead and cold. 

Originally written for The Friday Times 
Nov 6, 2012 - published work, Sandy, USA    6 Comments

The spirit of volunteerism

People with access to internet have all seen photos of people returning to their homes after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in USA and parts of Caribbean last week.  We have all seen pictures and footage of people helping others out in getting their lives back together. 
In the aftermath of a disaster, most people with empathy would want to reach out to the others and try and help them in whatever way they can. We saw it in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005 and in Haiti in 2010, the 7/7 bombings in London and the 2004 tsunami that affected many countries in Asia. A friend who lives in New Jersey wanted to volunteer in the disaster relief activities but did not know how she could contribute with two children under the age of three. Nonetheless, she was seen asking around if there was any place where children can also be taken for volunteer work. It is all very commendable that people want to contribute in whatever way they can to make the lives of others a little bit better. The difference between developed nations and others such as ours is that the spirit of volunteerism is seasonal and only comes out when we are struck with a disaster.
In most developed countries, there are established volunteer programmes and people are generally encouraged to take part in volunteer activities in their communities. School children volunteer, housewives volunteer, retired people volunteer in whatever way they can; they visit the terminally ill in hospices, work in soup kitchens or schools, help immigrants assimilate in society, manage traffic during rush hours in the towns where the town administration cannot afford full-time traffic police, help raise funds for their communities and assist in keeping the atmosphere clean among other things.
A country like Pakistan can benefit immensely from such a spirit of volunteerism. There is so much that needs to be done and there are so many people who have the time and ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate. There are many people who need to be taught how to read and write and other life skills, the state-owned schools and hospitals are always under-staffed and if a greater number of organized volunteer groups, which want to help others, step up to help build the skills of such people, not only will it help in meeting the human resource problem, it can also work as a stepping stone for establishing training programmes for those who want to enter a particular field.
Volunteerism does not just help a small group of people who are the direct beneficiaries but also works for society in general and the individual who volunteers. Their efforts build stronger ties of trust, harmony and reciprocity among its citizens through creating opportunities for participation for groups and individuals who would have remained either indifferent or on the fringes.
There are many groups in Pakistan where Pakistani volunteers can register and contribute in their own way; there is the United Nations Volunteers programme, the Pakistan Youth Alliance, the Pakistan chapter of the World Volunteer Web, The Citizen’s Foundation’s Rehbar programme, among others. There must be several other options in all the towns and cities of the country where one can contribute. Volunteerism is great; not only does it help in building societies; it also tells the volunteers that they don’t have to be rich, famous or perfect in order to make a difference.
First published in The Express Tribune