FEATURE|The Bloodsoaked Rhymes of our Nursery

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

A lovely old quatrain, filled with the promise of blood and gore (or at the very least, massive quantities of ill-fated yolk!). Or how about:

Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
And down will come Baby, cradle and all!

The doomful melodrama spanning from the cradle to the grave was never more succinctly played out than in the above poem. Or then:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after!

Another rhyme, another disquieting tragedy at the heart of which are the children – always the children, as its main characters. The more of these nursery rhymes you recall, the more you’ll be reminded of the copiously sinister top note in almost all of them. Ranging from racism to bigotry to plain old sadism, these rhymes from our childhood embodied them all. Try reciting a few others like, Eenie meenie miny mo”, “London bridge is falling down”, “Sing a song of sixpence”, “Little Miss Muffet”, “Old Mother Hubbard” and “Goosey goosey gander” – all straight up threatening or woeful or just plain evil! Some of them are actually pithy, blackhearted little odes to actual personages and their peculiar quirks, like Mary the 1st’s religious malevolence – (Three Blind Mice), King Edward the 1st’s cruel avarice – (Baa Baa Black Sheep), the wonton love affairs of the royal European courts and its many colorful denizens; and also a myriad plagues, witches and famines. These rhymes were akin to recording history for quick, unprejudiced recall. And so, what better way than as a child’s beloved refrain, repeated ad nauseam, passed on from generation to generation; the rhyme and meter keeping it true to its original foreboding self.

Indeed, for many of us, nursery rhymes were probably the first few words we ever uttered with any pleasure after the general familial ID allocations of Mama and Papa. I still remember the infinite pleasure, comfort and toddler-centredness (there has to be such a thing!) I derived from repeating these much-loved childhood rhymes. And once the novelty of “she already knows all her nursery rhymes” or “tell aunty what happened to Humpty Dumpty” wore off, the adults also became innocently, resignedly tangled in our whole love affair with these refrains. The slightly disturbing thing is, had they known of the morbid origins of the rhymes we were so lovingly taught, how many would have still thought, let well enough alone; if it makes the kids happy, let them sing of old men being thrown down rickety stairs and babies falling out of their tree top cradles. And they wouldn’t be entirely to blame. Generations of painting the malignant with the brush of hunkydoriness quite entirely dilutes outage and indeed, skews the moral compass itself: Atrocity takes on a happy vagueness; racism becomes invisible; patriarchy adroitly sits atop any semblance of gender equality, and so on. And so now we are all quite happily complicit in perpetuating the crazed ramblings of 400 years ago, cloaked as they are in the rhythm of rhyme and meter. The nursery rhymes of our childhood, thus made eternal, are now forever rolling and roiling in the ether.

The attached link details some of the social madness that inspired many of the most beloved nursery rhymes that we grew up with: https://www.vagabomb.com/10-Dark-and-Disturbing-Origins-of-Popular-Nursery-Rhymes/

Now that we know, seems like it may be time to change the lyrics at least, while keeping the nostalgia-laden tunes/ meter alive. That too requires a break from the inertia of tradition. I’ll begin the Great Re-hash with the below rendering of a favourite. Any other shakers of the status quo, give your favourite a go.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great thought:
What if all the kings horses
And all the kings men,
Danced a nice foxtrot

Across Goblin’s Glen!
Hello, I’m the Humpty that didn’t have a great fall

VERSE|MARDANGI – My Patriarchal Burden

This is A sequel to my earlier verse “Ravaged”.
This piece looks at the complicated nuances of nurture and upbringing, as opposed to the static all-out denunciation of the individual perpetrating familial rape. This piece of writing attempts to highlight the grotesque patriarachy which we have allowed to perpetuate and which has damaged generations of both, our girls and our boys, in its terrible wake.
I am Harris Jan Saleem, the son of Owais Jan Saleem
I am the scion of the Saleem ___ family
I have been raised like all the men in my family:
To hold my dreams high and my head higher
I have been taught that nothing bends that proud bearing. Nothing.

I was 8 when I first saw my father. In Asma apa’s room.
Asma apa is my cousin; my father’s sister’s daughter.
She is 4 years older than me.
I saw him many times; he saw me see him many times.
I learnt tacitly like so much is at home. Nothing needs to be said for it to be understood and emulated.
“It” was a dutiful visit to Asma apa

I was 20 when i too knew that I had to pay a dutiful visit to a woman of the family
She was a feisty one; too independent-minded for her own good. Her mother said so.
I was going to teach her.
I was going to teach her to be Good. To ensure no harm came to our family honour if she got out of hand.
She was 11; she was old enough.

I first visited Sophia on a rainy monsoon afternoon.
The family was surrounded by a haze of food-satiated, heat-fomented stupor;
Each in their own space in the sprawling ancestral home.
That I knew was the congruous ground for the undertaking of such obligations
She was a handful. I almost came away without fulfilling the onus on me of safeguarding the family honour.
But I persisted - it took a chokehold (and I don’t generally believe in inflicting violence on women).
She ceded.
I learnt that the chokehold was a necessary evil. Every time.
(I also realized with time that it wasn’t really violence since I was doing my duty towards upholding the family honour).
There are a slew of such behavioural nuances no one tells you about; which you have to learn on your own.
All of which you perform for upholding the family honour.

One day my father saw me visiting Sophia
Like i had seen him for so many years, visiting Asma apa.
This time he looked at me - with a wisdom of the ages.
And i knew then that we are the MEN of the family.
We are expected to know; to be versed in the DNA prescription passed down in virtuous silence along the patriarchal line.
I felt i had been let into an ancient, sacred secret.
I felt an inexplicable pride in being a Man of the Saleem Jan family

It’s my wedding day today; I’m to wed Sophia
When I was asked if I would marry her, I had said yes.
Although she was ... tainted.
But I was a male scion of the family; a custodian of my family honour.
I was expected to bear that burden of protecting, of upholding the family name.

But I have been deprived of the consummaiton of my marriage.

Today her sister is coming to stay with us,
For the summer.
She is 10 and I think already very much like my wife, in her waywardness ...
Tomorrow I will do my duty to protect my family name
In whatever way i need to -
Tomorrow, and for as long as i live.

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION|THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

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.

OPINION|The Consciously Blazing World*

A Post-Colonial/ Post Abolition Prescription for Healing and Moving On

2020 has become the proverbial skeleton in our collective human closet that has been, quite clamorously, wanting out. From the Australian bushfires to the Californian wildfires to the south Asian locust infestation, to flash floods, to the still raging Pandemic, Nature has been rapping her well worn knuckles at us. The seeds that we have sown ourselves, such as they are, in our socio-economic evolution of the past 500 years, are finally also bearing insidious fruit. And some of us are being plated out with that toxic “manna” much more generously than others. The world is in a peculiar state of flux as systemic and institutionalised biases and inequities raise their ugly heads, demanding attention and exacting blood.

With the Northern hemisphere facing its most vocal and vehement push-back yet of institutionalised racism, it seems apt to look into the whys and wherefores of how this monster is still not only alive and well, but traipsing around the globe. The dubious start-up credit, of course, rests with the two most notorious schemes employed by the West to own, manage and use entire swathes of humanity: Colonisation and Slavery.

While the colonists eventually exited their colonised domains (for the most part), it is compelling to note that the enslaved were never repatriated or given a homeland to call their own. Most notably, post the American civil war, they were clumsily declared “free men” (the “free women” movement is, arguably, still a work in progress around the world) and left largely to their own devices and spirit of enterprise to assimilate into society. There was no state-sponsored Integration Scheme, no Reparation Act, no real organised effort made by the enslavers to economically lift and psychologically release tens of thousands of men and women from over two centuries of being treated like chattel. Fast forward 200 years and the vestiges of that national lethargy has taken on an even more insidious anatomy in the form of systemic racism and marginalisation. This scarlet thread has woven its treacherous way through every aspect of the fabric of society, leaving citizens feeling like illegal aliens in their own country. This is being exemplified loud and clear in the current state of world affairs, and so effectively described by the black American actor Will Smith when he said “Racism has always been around. Now it’s being filmed for all to see.”

The colonisers departed from their dominions after demarcating entire continents with the assiduity of a baker cutting a cake with the straightest edges possible. There was almost no political, socio-economic or ideological science applied to demarcating borders. Nations were cut up overnight changing not only the cartography of the world but also the lives of millions of people. Thus seeding a post colonial wave of civic and religious unrest that has continued to simmer and boil over between previously congenial neighbours. Case in point: the Indian subcontinent. With its current combined population of 1.7 billion, 40% or 680 million of which comprises the middle class or the engines of economic growth of a country, the south Asian collective would have been a global force to contend with. The Durand Line and the Radcliffe Award ignited fires that are being stoked to this day in the form of radical religious militarisation and exclusionary nationalism.

So where do we go from here?

There is a critical healing/ advancement process that is integral to moving forward from the grass root levels.

  • Accept that it happened: Currently, the baseline of “popular history” is all wrong. There is an almost smug evasion of the truth; smug, because the pall of racial ignorance and apathy has been allowed to thrive for the past couple of centuries. It is time to come face to face with the reality of what happened, starting from the highest government platforms right down to the man on the street. The facts need to be overtly stated and accepted so that the collective social conscience can finally start kicking in.
  • Embed an ethical awareness: Once the truth has been told and confronted, the moral dialogue needs to start, spearheaded by the nation’s academicians and legislators. A Code of Race Ethics needs to be formulated for the body politic at large, to systemically unlearn and then relearn their moral sense around the subject. Building grit and gumption around commemorative events like Juneteenth* in the United States and probably the Amritsar tragedy* in the United Kingdom, will help to embed the mindset. In the spirit of Veterans’ Day, these memorialisations too will serve as a reminder of the courage to have overcome, safeguarded and progressed, while also ensuring the keen cognisance of the atrocities of the past. The goal being to ultimately bring about a sea change in the “racio-moral”* compass of the world.
  • Make Colonial/ Slavery studies a compulsory part of the school curriculum: This is fundamental for both, the colonised/ the enslaved, and the West. For a systemic national mindset change, race related instruction and knowledge sharing has to begin in the impressionable years. Together with the many glorious battle wins vanquishing sundry foes being featured in History books, a thoughtful, insightful study into their dark historical pasts by the largely western/ white nations is essential to methodically build universal understanding, acceptance and empathy.
  • Encourage ongoing dialogue: This is critical to ensure that the mindset change that has begun, is made permanent. Discourse is important on every aspect ranging from the moral issues inherent in the concepts of the “Colonial Imperialists” and “Slave Masters”, to reparation, to active assimilation and advancement of the affected populations in the 21st century.

Humankind appears to be on the brink of another revolution – this time, a moral and ethical one. This modification/ re-formulation of our global conscience will affect how we survive and indeed, thrive in the 21st century.

The question is, are we up for this challenge of an epoch, or are these difficult high-minded decisions best left to God and the Trumps and Johnsons of the world?

De Khudai pe aman.

*The Consciously Blazing World: Title adapted from a 1666 work of utopian fiction titled “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

*Juneteenth: A holiday celebrated on June 19th to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the USA.

*Amritsar Tragedy: Also called the Jhallianwala bagh massacre took place on April 13th, 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered British Indian army troops to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jhallianwala Bagh, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,000 others.

*Racio-moral: the global ethics of race and morality

OPINION|The Year (or 4) of Scholastic Irrelevance

The more I’ve thought about this phenomenon, the more convinced i have become of its current urgent relevance. And the more i have marvelled at yet another capitalist economic powerhouse that is the traditional university/ college degree for all manner of non technical accreditation. Here’s a not-so-hidden secret folks: It’s a convoluted plot to bankroll a few and encumber a host of others as they pass out, armed with not only a humanities degree but also a formidable college tuition debt. And thus begins the spiral downwards into living paycheque to paycheque, paying off money you could have nest-egged, into a system propping up the very same cycle of academic debt accrual, masquerading as vital subsistence training.

But those are the tangled economics, made thus so I’m sure, for us to lose the plot on their inherent Gangster capitalism. Had to get them past the Muses of Controversial Opinions before i dived into why, now more than ever, is the right time for you/ your child to consider boycotting the hallowed halls of higher education. A bit of a sweeping statement, but I’m getting to the specifics; just a flash in the sensationalist pan, thank you.

It doesn’t take a sage or a twice tenured professor to tell you that it is the glorious age of the Gap Year(s). With the universe and its myriad of events too conspiring to make it so, the time has never been more right for on-location academia to take a back seat. The penny has dropped on a lot of critical thought and ideology spaces in the recent months and the quest for academic enlightenment is not excluded.

It is also a fabulous time for the ambiguous amongst us to explore our future livelihood options by participating in the practical arena. Get an internship, an apprenticeship, a shadow-ship if you will, with people who are ostensibly living your dream jobs. Absorb the work environment, read the professional vibe, be cognisant of the not so professional machinations, be sensitive to the ethics, be aware of the deviations thereof, all the while, soaking up the full gamut of the workplace experience.

We are now living, nay quite firmly entrenched, in the digital age as we rapidly shift from traditional industry to economies based on Information Technology. The resultant information super highway has changed everything about how we access knowledge – facts, fiction, statistics, controversies, conspiracies and also (and here’s another not-so-hidden secret), entire cornucopias of erudition imparted across a 4 year liberal arts degree. From Shakespeare to the Cosmos; from critical race theories to the question of God and morality; from colonialism to capitalism to socialism to despotism; from the geography of K2 to the Diplodocus habitat; from political science philosophies to socio-religious studies. The World Wide Web is now replete with enough credible, encyclopaedic information to arm a would-be scholar of the Humanities to source, procure and do well at a job of their liking. Even some technical savants pursuing careers in Health care administration, Criminal justice, Animation and graphic design, Engineering and Business administration to name a few, can adequately equip themselves for the job market. The requirements: personal drive and energy, a perseverance to see the online learning through, aided by a robust ISP*.

Maybe together with all the other puzzles and predicaments of life that have of late created a holy clamour for change, the current mainstream institution of academic advancement has also seen its day. Maybe a revolution is needed here too, to re-sanctify the cause of learning and remove it from the realm of capitalist profiteering. And the will and ability to bring about that metamorphosis lies yet again with the young populace at large. You can lead the charge – Gerontocracies* are as bound for oblivion as picture tube televisions.

So, to the Class of 2020 (and to the intrepid adult scholars) i say: don’t be afraid to break with tradition. No equitable, ethical system meant to provide the inalienable right to education is meant to encumber you in your pursuit of joy, health and prosperity. Put on your digital super hero mantles and go against the grain, because you triumphantly can. Embrace the hallowed halls of your public libraries, your homes and your neighbourhood coffee shops and learn. And maybe, in a couple of generations, mercenary educational institutions would be as offensive a concept as ethnic bias and colonialism.

I leave you with these words from Mahatma Gandhi: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

De Khudai pe aman.

*ISP: Internet Service Provider

*Gerontocracy: a society where the young do as the old say.