There’s someone you see who can use your help
Above and beyond the 2.5 percent
That has been made obligatory on you
By forces of faith, of habit now too
Don’t think twice because you have done
Your duty as prescribed by the One
Go ahead, give some extra, don’t hesitate
Don’t hesitate. Heaven can wait
You’re going on your blessed Hajj number two
You’ve been good, devout and true
But the farmer working in your fields
He needs a liver transplant critically
He looks to you for a helping hand
Should you divert funds from your pilgrimage plans?
You’re caught up in a quandary of faith
Don’t hesitate. Heaven can wait
The colony that you pass everyday
The one with the shanties, a riot of grey
It’s residents are different, they don’t share your beliefs
But you’ve spoken to some, you’re aware of their dreams
Should you give of your blessed prestige
To those who believe in a separate deity?
God’s benevolence does not discriminate
Don’t hesitate. Heaven can wait
When you feel pulled in directions unique
That speak to your heart abundantly
But seem to lie in realms that are
On the twilit edges of well trodden paths
Still your cacophonous heart, and listen
To the flow of lifeblood in your veins
Let it take you up the streams it creates
Don’t hesitate. That’s where heaven waits.
I have lost the rituals
Of faith. But my devotion has
Become stronger. I no longer
Am afraid or confused by questions that
Whirl around in my head
Never to be brought into existence
Their very substance damning
Pounding, hammering a path to (h)elsewhere
I now wear a cloak around
My shoulders. It holds a super power
A texture all its own. When I’m alone
It reminds me of who I am.
It fosters my introspection
It champions who I want to be
And then I feel
No other burden of pretense
No fear of consequence
For being so much more
And ritualizing less
I have no dire need to find my
Hallowed steed to gallop on with
Me holding on, bound for paradise.
This life, this blessed life is mine
To treat with such passion
Such tenderness, that earth
Itself becomes the Eden I seek.
My paradise is under my own feet.
KINDNESS, it’s such a simple thing
And yet we speak of it like it was the benevolence of kings
DIGNITY, such a basic quality
And yet we are in awe of it like it was the Pope’s homily
COURAGE, that gritty stuff of warriors!
We speak of it like it was an unmasterable barrier
HONESTY, its whiteness, and its shades of grey
Always so elusive, like catching the sun’s rays
Being SELF-AWARE, that dialogue with one’s core
Only Maharishis* can ever open up that door
Depleting self-suggestion tells us
How unconquerable are the odds
Of mastering these exalted traits;
This stuff of Allamahs* and gods.
Look within yourself and tell me
That you don’t see the shimmer
Of all these “divine” elements
Some bright, some a little dimmer
It’s time to wrap yourself in your kindness and dignity
To feel the potent warmth of your courage and honesty
That is you, that’s how you were built to be
Take your inertia and your self doubt
And finally throw them out to sea.
* Maharishi: A great Hindu sage or spiritual leader
* Allamah: An honorary and prestigious title carried by only the very highest scholars of Islamic thought, jurisprudence, and philosophy. It is used as an honorific in Sunni Islam as well as in Shia Islam. Allamah is a leader for the Islamic faith.
Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.
As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.
What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.
What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.
Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.
It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.
* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.
Angela had planned their final exit from Mall Square with dignified efficiency, helped as she would be with the gracious support of her long time friends. But sometimes, the best laid plans can get washed down rutted roads that one has not seen nor ever imagined. And so it was that one after another, her carefully constructed relocation schemes crumbled shapelessly in the mire of undisguised faces and unfeigned intentions that had suddenly, unexpectedly surfaced. The sisterhood of Faith had gone careening down the hill, crashing into the emptiness below.
Of the four friends she had appealed to for help, only one had come through – partially. Rashmi’s guest house was occupied by a foreign friend of her daughter’s (that was a bald faced lie!); Sandali had three warehouses in Nugegoda but they were all also suddenly occupied with overflowing inventory (just last week that factory cupboard was bare!); Sarah had no help at home and her sister in law was laid up with a chronic condition (that hale and hearty woman who had never been sick a day in the last 15 years that she’d known her!); and Thilini had offered to have Dilshan and Angela over for a fortnight. After that they were going to finally begin the renovation on their house which they had been postponing for the last five years and which the Covid lockdown had somehow given the much needed impetus for.
It had been a week of revelations, teetering friendships, somber musings and a clarity about her world that had momentarily blinded her. Despite it all, she had taken each disclaimer, coated as it was in pots of sacchrinous sweetness, with calmness and poise.
She had just come back from the hospital where they had moved Dilshan from Intensive Care to a General Ward. It would be another few days before he would be able to come home. “Home” … the word now agitated her; made her nervous, clutching at her throat and stinging her eyes. She was not generally given to sentimentality or self pity and had gone through much in life, stoic and dry-eyed. But this was not like any other curve ball that the universe had thrown at her in the past. This was her entire world toppling down around her. Her sacred world made up of special hand picked individuals who shared the same ethos and the same moral high ground. It was like the ultimately twisted confession where the priest was found to be the greatest sinner. All those sophisticated, benevolent people – her friends – showing up, personifying everything that they had hated about the rest. It was a heartbreaking reality check and it took a lot of Angela’s self possession and control to not just sit down and cry.
Even if she was made of sterner stuff that allowed her to push the pieces of her recently fragmented world into some steely hollow of her mind, she still had the vacating of the premises to deal with.
On a whim, she spoke to the long time security guard of the condomninium. Did he by chance know of any apartment that was available for rent above the 8th floor? Mr. Surdheen did in fact: it was one of Bilal Rahuman’s apartments on the 10th floor. Angela frowned and then swallowed hard – controlling both, her anxiety at the mention of the Muslim name, as well as the long nurtured prejudices that now automatically sprang along with the nomenclature. When Angela didn’t say anything, Surdheen volunteered to speak to the apartment owner – if she wished. He had known the lady long enough to have gauged her jaundiced eye towards everyone really, except Mr. Augustine who managed the mini mart on the premises; he was Catholic. Surdheen himself was Muslim but like so many in his melting pot of a homeland, he lived peacably enough with his Buddhist, Hindu and Christian countrymen. This lady was different. The Mall Square staff had occasionally discussed Angela’s undisguised faith biases and had decided in their combined goodwill that she must have had a bad experience sometime in life to have made her like this.
These days, in the wake of all the recent events, Angela had seemed less and less devoted to her preferences of faith and community; and while she would not normally single out Surdheen to speak to of anything really, she had instinctively gone to him. She knew that he had been at the apartment complex the longest and usually had the most reliable information on tenants, landlords and even the shenanigans of the real estate agents. Usually she would tap into Surdheen’s fount of information via Augustine or one of the other Mall Square staff.
She accepted his offer, thanked him and went back inside. Bilal Rahuman … the name was vaguely familiar, flitting around the edges of her memory. No, she couldn’t recall where she might have heard it. Maybe it was just another Muslim name that she’d heard and while earlier she would have caught it through one ear and ushered it roundly out the other, sometimes these names did tend to stick. This must be one of those sticky Muslim names. That evening Surdheen came to her apartment to give her Bilal Rahuman’s number. She could call him whenever she liked, Mr. Rahuman had informed Surdheen.
Angela had a restless night. Random thoughts that had before evoked simple irritation or plain out ire, now went plodding through her mind like a herd of unhurried elephants – each large, clear and washed clean of the dust that had blurred its tremendous form: She recalled the unremitting distaste with which she’d always regarded bearded men in their “wahabi maxis” as she and her group had called them … thawbs* was the term wasn’t it …..; and the Muslim call to prayer that had always grated on her ears – she had even railed about its primitive, cacophonous quality in the condominium WhatsApp group; and Surdheen and the other two Muslim security guards at Mall Square that she somehow always managed to omit when she was giving the annual gratuity to the rest of the staff. And now she was going to call on one of them and ask for help because there was no one else to turn to. She cringed inwardly, not because of any vestigial aversion as she usually did, but because of a distinct throb of conscience. For the first time, she felt guilty. And wretched. And tired. At some point amid this moral onslaught of her senses, Angela finally fell asleep.
She woke up late the next morning, but feeling rested; surer of herself and what she had to do next. There were no more expectations left to crash and burn and therefore no more emotional turmoil to deal with. She’d experienced it in all its duplicitous ferocity with her inner circle and was already on the other side of it.
She sat up in the chair, fortifying herself with her purposeful stance, picked up the phone and dialled Bilal Rahuman’s number.
He answered on the third ring and greeted her cordially after she had introduced herself.
“How is Dilshan aiya* feeling? Surdheen was telling me he had got the virus”. Angela murmured something about her husband having thankfully turned the corner.
“He is a good man. My duas* for his speedy recovery. I remember meeting him seven years ago when he came to look at my 10th floor apartment at Mall Square. It wasnt quite the right choice for you folks at that time from what I understood. I haven’t changed very much in it but if it suits your requirements now, you’re welcome to rent it”
It so happened that Angela and Dilshan had liked Bilal Rahuman’s apartment seven years ago too; but the owner’s persuasions of faith had not sat well with Angela then. And so they’d gone for their second choice – the more appropriately denominated Mrs. D’Souza’s flat on the 9th floor.
By the fifth day of her telephone conversation with Bilal Rahuman, Angela had shifted to her new home. Her new landlord had instructed Surdheen and his team to help Mrs. Dias with the move.
It was 6 O’ clock in the evening. Angela and Dilshan’s entire 9th floor apartment now lay packed in suitcases and cartons in the two bedrooms of their new 10th floor home. When the last suitcase had been wheeled in, she thanked Surdheen and his helpers and tipped them somewhat self consciously; there was no familiar precedence of grace or gratuity there to take comfort from.
She sat down in the lounge and looked around her. The combination display cabinet and book case that both she and Dilshan had loved as soon as they’d seen it seven years ago, was still sitting there, in all its teak burnished stateliness. The setting sun filtering in through the balcony doors lit up the single item that lay on the third shelf of the cabinet – a Taj Mahal snow globe. A slow smile spread across her face as she picked up the new yet familiar weight in her hands and turned it over. The little pieces of silver flitter foil fell around the iconic landmark like crumbs from a pie … humble pie she thought unconsciously and reddened ever so slightly. She turned it over in her hands a few more times and then set it down gently.
Dilshan was coming home tomorrow. She would unpack her own snow globes and add them to the shelf. She would liven up the room a little to welcome her husband to their new home.
* Thawb: An ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves. It is commonly worn by men in the Arabian Peninsula.
* Aiya: term for older brother/ older man in Singhalese.
* Dua: In Islamic terminology, duʿāʾ literally means invocation, an act of supplication. The term is derived from an Arabic word meaning to 'call out' or to 'summon', and Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship.
* Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/24/keeping-the-faith-part-one/
LISTEN TO AN EXCERPT BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSeKswDLn/
Angela was married to Dilshan, and one was hard pressed to find a more incongruent union that had somehow also withstood the test of time. So at odds was Angela’s marital partnership with everything that defined her now that she herself sat back in puzzlement over it sometimes. It was not so much that their personalities were so entirely different; for her it was the unassailable fact that he was a Buddhist and she a Christian. She had fallen in love and as things of the heart tend to do, they had led her down the one and only rabbit hole in the otherwise satisfyingly flat, burrow-free fields of her life. She was not exactly a devout catholic; she was just a formidable believer that her kind had got it as right as imperfect humans could get an ideology of faith, and that everyone else was paddling in karmically rough seas. The Dharmachakra* from her husband’s side was bad enough; but the Crescent and Star* that was always bursting into flames on the local and the global horizons was the very limit of her endurance: no she was not particularly fond of her Muslim fellow citizens and had made assiduous efforts throughout her life to stay as culturally and socially faithful to her Sri Lankan Christian roots as she could. That included giving a studiously wide berth to grocery stores, restaurants and neighbours that had even vaguely Muslim sounding names.
The most amazing part of this covert, no frills prejudiced way of life was the fact that Angela had embraced it in absolute good faith, asssured of the blessings of the universe. For she was, she believed, a straight talking good woman with a guaranteed one way ticket to whatever version of “heaven” there was atop the tropical rain clouds that floated perennially over their blessed island.
Dilshan was an old school gentleman and a good husband. Despite a regular stream of ample and compelling reasons to have nulled and voided the misadventure that was his marriage to Angela, he had persevered. Indeed, to anyone who knew them, it was stupefyingly clear that he had made it his life’s sole purpose to survive the partnership into old age or kick the bucket trying. He was a romantic at heart and time had also endowed him with an extreme myopia of mercifully both, his outer and his inner visions. He saw only enough of his wife’s lunatic biases that allowed him to smile indulgently followed immediately by a happy vacuousness. The haze in his mind had conspired with the love in his heart, keeping him true, enamoured and forgiving.
Life had been generally good to Angela and Dilshan.
They had two sons who were both living abroad and doing well. Angela and Dilshan had sold most of their assets to educate their progeny and now lived in comfortable rented spaces in the heart of Colombo. They had been at Mall Square now for seven years and with time the 9th floor apartment had become a haven for the couple, and a sanctuary for Angela’s formidable collection of orchids and snow globes and Dilshan’s more modest ammassment of mostly Nora Roberts and Stephen King novels. With time, Dilshan had lost the temerity for both genres and the books had glanced back from their glass cabinets like dowager lovers, sometimes giving him a wrinkly old glad eye and at others scaring him into the furthest recesses of his fuzziest thoughts.
It was June of 2020 – the Covid 19 pandemic was raging around the world with a virulence and a savagery that had shaken the planet. The little tear drop island was no exception and the city was just about emerging, beset and shaken from the first wave and a six week lockdown. It was at the tail end June in fact, when Dilshan had at first begun to feel listless and then been gripped in the throes of an unrelenting fever. He had tested negative for the virus, but he was nevertheless hospitalised and isolated. The virus was too new as were the diagnostics to test it. False negatives were far more dangerous than false positives, and so patients presenting with severe flu-like symptoms were administered the same quarantine protocols as were the Covid-positive cases.
Dilshan had been in hospital for a week when the call from Mrs. D’Souza came. Their landlady who lived in the UK was heading home to ride out the infectious wave that had brought her adopted country to its knees. She was in her 80s and the matriarch of her townhouse in Kent as well as the two properties she rented out on home shores. One of them was the Dias’s apartment. Mrs. D’Souza was coming home to roost and her nest of choice was going to be her Mall Square apartment. She duly invoked clause number 7 in their tenancy agreement and summarily served a two month notice to her tenants. Angela at first, indignant and outraged, was soon persuaded mainly by impassable legal obligations and to no small extent, by the christinanness of her landlady, to be mollified and to plead for a change of heart. Where were they to go at such short notice and under these horrendous Covid conditions? Mrs. D’Souza was polite but unyielding. Her other apartment was in a swanky new high rise and her Kuwaiti tenants there paid a premium which she was in no mind to sacrifice on the basis of a “shared faith”. She had been mildly amused at this last somewhat religio-phobic petition made by her tenant. Mrs. Dias had always been somewhat eccentric and time had obviously not been kind to her on that front. Mrs. D’Souza had always preferred to deal with the husband who was an upright, sensible man.
Angela sat in her verdantly riotous balcony that overlooked the park. It was just past 5 O’clock in the evening and her maid had brought her tea and Marie biscuits. She touched the head of one of her prized Foxtail orchids gently, distractedly while her mind was busy calculating, planning, fire fighting. She would have to enlist the help of some of her long time friends to help her pack up their apartment and to warehouse their belongings until they found another place. She and Dilshan would then have to move in with one of them. Staying with extended family on either side was out of the question since relationships on both sides had suffered the rigours of neglect and more than a few clashes of opinions over the last couple of decades. She picked up her phone to call Rashmi.
“Hello darling! Has that mean old crone allowed you to stay on?” chirped Rashmi as soon as she picked up the phone.
“No, we have to move. So much to do. I was wondering if you could help”, said Angela frowning into the distance, scanning the mental list she had prepared of the exact nature of assistance that she would be requesting from four of her closest friends.
“Of course darling. I can come by day after for a chat”, responded Rashmi.
“Can you come tomorrow?” asked Angela, “I don’t have too much time, and with Dilshan in the hospital, there is a lot to do”.
Rashmi had promised to come by the next day and help in whatever way she could. Angela had decided to ask her friend if she and Dilshan could stay for a few weeks in the guest quarters of their spacious Colombo 7 home.
Angela had actually begun to look forward to this little adventure: everyone would pitch in and get the laborious packing and storing work out of the way; and it might even be a vacation of sorts for her and Dilshan to stay at one of their friends’ homes in the city.
* DharmaChakra: Sanskrit for the dharma wheel, it is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a Cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism.
* Crescent and Star: The five pointed star reflects the Five Pillars of Islam which are central to the faith, and the crescent moon and stars are symbols relating to the greatness of the creator.
* Read Part two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/25/keeping-the-faith-part-two/
The below verse is somewhat farcical and maybe even a tad fanciful; but sometimes it takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nudge to arouse our fitfully slumbering consciences. May we all continue to persevere towards creating a better, nobler world.
I look at social media and I see anger and hate and prejudice;
I look at the television and I see propagandists, debauched messiahs and wily pundits;
I look at the newspaper and I see political intrigue, national fatigue and ceaseless power mongering -
It goes on, never ending, ignited with the fire from our fossil fuel stores …
I look within me and I see the mirror of my mind reflecting, deflecting, dodging and fending
The piercing, stabbing, blinding light from all this frantic, raving media commotion.
I look around me and I see love and peace and co-existence;
I look around me and I see people coming together to help, protect and build better;
I look around me and I see the universe weaving, constantly interlacing Harmony.
It goes on, forever, propelled by the spirit and soul of our humanity …
I look within me and I can feel my heart echoing, returning, rebounding and celebrating
The warm glow, the shimmer and gleam of the wonderful world around me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Some endings are just not fairytale-ish.
If I gave in to my easeful delusions, I would be naive and tragically remiss.
Here’s the deal: Human beings are sometimes cruel and that creates a gross impasse
And that’s when we need to use our own eyes and our moral compass
The world around us may glimmer and shine in serene equilibrium
While pockets of humanity elsewhere thrash in blood-letting delirium.
Look for yourself, seize your courage, tell your truth, play your part
This is our ONE world; our one chance. We don’t have the luxury of a Re-start.
And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.
Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.
If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.
But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.
The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.
For my beloved uncle, Maamaji who left our mortal world to continue on his spiritual journey
May your path be bright
May your tread be light
May your spirit soar
To celestial heights.
May our dear departed welcome you
Into their blessed fold
As you journey onwards
Beyond our mortal world.
May you heal, may you renew
May you flourish may you thrive
may you walk with the angels
In eternal paradise.
You ask me if I’m alright ...
I am alright, but the stabbing ache in my heart is not alright.
You ask me if I’m ok ...
I am ok, but the stranglehold of despair around my throat is not ok
You ask me if I’m fine ...
I am fine, but the icy grip of fear in my soul is not fine.
I need to remove the steely shards from my heart, one piercing sliver at a time;
Even if a hole, an abysmal gorge remains, I can learn to fill it with other things, better things.
I need to loosen the malevolent grip of hopelessness, one hoary, gnarled finger at a time;
And learn to open myself up to the comfort of a quiet, gentle embrace.
I need to thaw the icicles of dread, one knifelike lance at a time;
and learn to warm my soul with the simple heat of being alive.
I know that I need to learn to separate my angst from my being; learn to put the wretchedness to bed
So that every so often, I am able to feel whole, happy and free.
And so my friend, when you ask me if I am well
I say I am well, because I’m learning to take care of the most fragile parts of myself.
I will be alright; I will be fine; I will be ok
A tribute (brutal and raw so we don’t forget) to all those courageous girls who have been made victims of our ugly patriarchal social fabric, and who have stood up to their tormentors/ violators and even their protectors to stop the abuse. And to those brave, brave girls who continue to fight to survive another day. May we see this horror begin to end in our lifetimes.
It’s my wedding day today; I am 17 years old.
It is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened,
And the 3rd anniversary of the 153rd time.
I have this terrible memory - my teachers call it a photographic memory.
I remember everything. I can’t forget even when i want to.
My mind is a notebook, each page blazing with the clarity of vulgar recall
I have tried to be good; to remember only what i should
But I have this terrible memory...
Today I’m to wed my uncle - My father’s younger brother.
For him, it is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened.
And all the anniversaries in between.
I wonder if he remembers the 28th time...the 10th time....
The First time...
I wonder if his memory is as unforgiving as mine.
My notebook has no entries on conjectures, or pain or anguish
Not mine; not anyone else’s.
It is only the sum total of the number of times “It” happened.
Each page pristine, detailed, crystal clear, with edges as sharp as knives;
Bestowing countless paper cuts as they stir secretly in my head.
Those blessed paper cuts ... mental cuts .... numberless abrasions, innumerably inflicted to forget a page;
To forget one instance.
That never happens.
But i find some peace as the physical pain temporarily cloaks me in its tenderly piercing grasp.
Today I will become the wife of Harris lala* .... Harris.... No, I can’t bring myself to drop the suffix
Maybe he will finally become nameless. Tranquilizingly, numbingly, mercifully nameless.
My mother is relieved... she has been a silent witness (his co-conspirator?) to the last 5 anniversaries of when “It” first happened
My father hasn’t really spoken to me in 3 years (his Protector?) .... not since the day I tried to tell him that his brother had ... had been ... my mind still refuses to name “It”
Today I also learned that I’d stood first in the Board matriculation exam.
I resent that accolade .... that worldly consummation of my terrible memory.... my terrifyingly acute, my savage, unrelenting memory.
Today, my tormenter (my violator?) will become my partner for life
Today, I’m going to finally close the Notebook in my mind
Today, I’m going to be respectable once again.
Today will be the First day of the consummation of my marriage!
(Today will be the 389th time that i will be ravaged).
De Khudai pe aman.
Lala: term of respect for older male relative, mainly denoting “big brother”. Used commonly across most communities in Pakistan and the northern parts of India.
The 120 million Shadow People of the Pakistani populace: its WOMEN.
For to be fully alive and to be accepted as an individual in her own right, you would have to have control over your body and your life, and all movements/ shifts/ evolutions and inclinations thereof. And the Pakistani woman is the antithesis of all the above.
I won’t go into endless rants about the hideousness of the many recent episodes that have afflicted the women in our country; the Public Outrage Machine is doing quite a spectacular job of that, and as it should. That’s the positive glint-of-steel point of the double edged sword that is our digital social media these days. I will however go into the systemic, grass root level ideological and academic changes that need to be implemented to ensure events like these are prevented, not from the fear of being caught, but by the moral force of our collective social compass.
So where did we go wrong?
Let’s take a quick traipse through history. The advent of Islam some 1400 years ago in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, came at a time when women were considered little more than chattels to be bought, sold, used and abused. One of the main guiding constructs of the new religion then, was to bring some semblance of decency to the female equation, anecdotally exemplified time and again by its primary champion, the Prophet Mohammad. He himself fell in love with a successful businesswoman (Yes! They obviously met, interacted and got to know each other prior to their nuptials, contrary to the backwardness now associated with any interaction of familially unrelated men and women). Khadija Bint Khuwaylid was as proficient at commerce as Mohammad was at managing caravans along the frequently dangerous trade routes between Mecca, Syria and Yemen. The business partnership ultimately evolved into a marriage of 25 years which ended with Khadija’s death. It is interesting to note that at the time of their union, Khadija was 40 years old, while Mohammad was 25. It is logical to glean then, that the much younger man must have taken both relationship and business cues from the older, twice married and widowed, already successfully established business woman. Throughout, their relationship was underscored with equality, mutual respect and love. That is the legacy and the stature of women in Islam, consummately upending any patriarchal nonsense that has for so long now been affiliated with the role and station of Muslim women in their communities.
What we see now; the crude, revolting patriarchal version of Islam and it’s sordid view of women is a much more recent perversion brought about by unethical leadership, crude politics and power mongering.
So straight out, let’s leave the religious gerrymandering and filibustering at the door. After 1400 years, using religion as an excuse to justify the vile regression of the way we behave is a desperate ploy to perpetuate the unbalanced mess that is our society now.
In comes Society and Culture then – the sum total of our norms and customs. That ever-changing chimera that has made paupers into kings and brought us out of the dark ages. If it was not for social and cultural progress, the slave trade would still be thriving and women and minorities would still not have the right to vote.
Now that the two primary purported roadblocks to change have been laid to rest, where do we go from here?
Below is a pithy, grass root level prescription that can start paving the way for a more equitable, respectable Islamic society.
Change the culture in your homesteads: There is no greater or more effective education than that which is provided in the impressionable years in the sanctity of the home. For too long have we, the Pakistani (and in fact, the sub continental) parents fostered the preferential son treatment. Of putting the boys at the front and centre of the universe. Of promoting the bizarre idea that their sisters are convenient appendages to their superhero cloaks of getting ahead/ of progressing/ of “carrying on the family name”. You, the parents, know every time you faithfully abet and encourage this exploitation of the girls in your family; and you need to stop. In the name of all that is just and decent, you need to cease and desist playing your horrendous part in this patriarchal ploy. I won’t go into preaching what to do here instead. The prescription is as simple as it is clear: foster an environment of trust, respect, security and equal opportunity for all your children.
Make all schools and universities all-inclusive: The version of religion/ custom/ creed where girls and boys are kept rigorously separate during their formative years, has to change. It is not only that we do not have the economic luxury nor the academic expertise to run parallel systems of education segregated by gender, it is also the most counter intuitive manner in which to prepare these young women and men in becoming upstanding members of their communities. It is at these centres of learning that they will acclimatise to each other, to learn to respect each other and to live communally without the awkwardness that is currently a part of almost all adult inter-gender interactions. This convention of keeping “our girls safe” by keeping them distant from the boys, has led to the formation of a social system that is regressive, archaic and has shown to be unconscionably harmful to the psychology and well being of both genders. One has ended up donning the mantle of the victim and the other has become the perpetual perpetrator. Gender-unify our educational system, and while endowing our young boys and girls with “book smarts”, coach them equally on developing their “street/ community smarts” to enable each one to live a respectable, rewarding life despite the curve balls the universe tends to throw off and on.
Overturn and replace archaic, female-victimising policies: Starting from the national and moral embarrassment that is the current Hudood Ordnance*, to all the primitive rural customs that put the female front and centre as the Pawn of Retribution for all the criminal actions of the men in their communities. This particular facet requires somewhat of a step-back because it compels our very lawmakers to recalibrate the way in which they perceive the status of the average Pakistani (Muslim?) woman. It requires unequivocally clamping down on the religious fundamental fringe taking women’s lives and the law into their hands to dispense their barbaric version of justice. It requires an end to Inquisition-era relics preaching to women on how to best fade into the scenery. Which brings me to the next point.
Re-introduce Civics as a compulsory university level course: Civics, that academic gem from yesteryear, teaching public propriety and communal sophistication, that has, with every other decent and ethical credo, been washed away by the corrupt tides of recent times. Enrich it with a Social Ethics curriculum, at the beating heart of which should be the steady progress towards true gender equality. Let the gender dialogue start in this Civics & Social Ethics class. Make it legitimate and appropriate to expose, debate and discuss the sexual discrimination that is rampant in every aspect of our society. Encourage both men and women to look within themselves and their communities for ways in which to counter the gender blight. For those already in sensitive policy making posts, this will mean a re-education on modern gender roles and in the case of Islamic republics, also highlighting the rich religious tradition on the status of women, that has existed for centuries.
Rejuvenate the CPLC: The Citizen Police Liason Committe has traditionally been a non-political, operationally independent institution, managed by dedicated and concerned citizens offering their honorary services. It is currently situated in Sind but can be expanded to the other provinces/ metropolises. Re-energise it with Neighbourhood Watch protocols of systematic local vigilance by householders to discourage crime. Liaise with the “good apples” in the community police force to ensure your environments and spaces are safe at all times. In the porous social and judicial fabric of our country where it is easy for perpetrators to get “lost”, this group can play a pivotal role in identifying and bringing to justice, locally based criminals.
Institute behaviour-changing punishment for perpetrators: Last but nor least, crime and due punishment. Unless the state makes an example of the consequences of gross physical abuse, it is impossible to bring about any real or lasting change in culture or mindsets. Justice has to be definitive and the sentencing swift and permanent. Whether it is lifelong incarceration or chemical castration for charges of rape and paedophilia, the decree must be carried out to the letter, every time, until both, the inclination and the behaviour are unlearnt and permanently purged from our societal DNA.
We, as a nation, are at a crossroad of reckoning on many fronts, our values and religious comprehension and followthrough being at the forefront of this reconnaisance. We cannot afford to remain mired in our current regressive impasse. It is time to get past the stubbornness of archaic customs; it is time to be honest with ourselves; it is time to reawaken some semblance of our socio-moral conscience; it is time to start real and difficult dialogue.
It is time to acknowledge the Elephant in the Room.
*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.