VERSE| MY NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

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.

OPINION| WORLD ON A WIRE*

Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy

Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.

We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.

The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our own value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.

Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.

In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.

This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.

* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name. 

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.

Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.

Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.

‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1) said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.

Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …

Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …

She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.

Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.

After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.

Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.

Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.

The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.

In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.

Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.

‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.

‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.

(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’

* Gulab Jamun:
A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.

* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.

(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’

(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’

OPINION| OUR BLOOD-LETTING BLASPHEMY LAWS

We are such a plagued nation, full of dichotomies and hypocrisies. Respectability, patience and civility have forsaken our national psyche a long, long time ago.

And so we blunder and bluster and we barge ahead with nothing to show for our high-handedness but a spiritually depleted image of the crescent moon and star … It is heartbreaking to think this is the best we can be.

The very essence of our religion continues to be hijacked by those that want to keep pulling us into the dark ages. In the midst of all the inane interpretation and bizarre commentaries around the tenets of our religion, we have gone from one abysmal depth to the next. Each “moral incidence” so much more ludicrous than the last, that we have as a nation quite absolutely forgotten real empathy, intelligence and our sense of community. We have forgotten what it means to be a part of a religion that is innately compassionate, tolerant and peaceful. Case in point: our freakish position and regulation around Blasphemy. A colonial construct, it never existed in its current form and fury in the predominantly Muslim ruled subcontinent before the nineteenth century. And then, it was signed into law to ensure that the differences between the 2 major religions were highlighted rather than the similarities which had bound them into a relatively homogenous society before then. That served to keep the two communities divided and separate which suited our occupiers in their machiavellian Game of Thrones.

Since then and more than in any other Muslim country, the Blasphemy Law has become a chip on our collective Pakistani shoulders that we love to invoke when we want to remind ourselves of who’s the boss. What we fail to take into account is that in a country that is 97% Muslim, we are overhwlemingly The Boss. Our religion is not under threat; we are not a minority trying to keep our vulnerable communities safe. We are the ones in control and therefore the ones obligated to show compassion and forebearance. Instead, we have as a society and a State created a monster in the name of religion.

The truth of the matter is that Islam has not laid down any set definition or punishment for Blasphemy. (Remember… Islam started out as a compassionate, progressive and tolerant religion). As such there are as many interpretations of the word and the laws governing it as there are scholars and Muslim countries. And yet, we in Pakistan have ensured that we make the ultimate brutal joke of the concept, punishing only those who are the least capable of defending themselves – the poor and the minorities. Our short history is rife with shamefully copious examples.

There is much to be done on the socio-religious fronts in our besieged country to render our communities more humane and inclusive. There is also ample opportunity to mend our policies where they are the most cruel and unusual; and our Blasphemy Laws are as good a place as any to start.

Teach not through words and angered passion, but by your own peaceful example

OPINION | We, the Women of Pakistan

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.

I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. … We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
Malala Yousafzai

OPINION| THE STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION

It seems like the great American nation has been roundly cursed with the evil eye; like the hexes and insidious incantations of overtly and covertly jealous nations are finally beginning to take effect. Indeed, the star spangled banner is looking increasingly tattered as it waves in the buffeting, tearing winds of change.

Or it could be that Uncle Sam is finally reaping as he has sowed for much of the last 200 years. Demon seeds of racism, inequality and toxic individualism are now putting out chokehold tendrils as the country grapples with not only the pandemic but also a social fabric that appears to be coming apart at the seams.

The road rage episode and the mass shootings, 3 tragic incidences in rapid succession, appear to be the tip of a now grumbling, grousing iceberg. At least two of the three acts of terrorism were perpetrated by young men barely out of adolescence. It isn’t difficult to form a reasonable hypothesis about what has happened. Here’s my informed conjecture:

The 4 year Trump presidency unleashed an era of brute honesty that was heretofore unprecedented. Contrary to the popular sentiment rife amongst his detractors, he was not the cause of the social mayhem that is playing out in America; he was in fact that pariah magician that reveals the deepest, darkest secrets of his trade to the masses. And so, with grandiose fanfare (aided in no small measure by the force of his absurdly narcissistic personality) he exposed the festering underbelly of the great American nation.

The American dream was shown up for what it really was – a utopian ideology pandering exclusively to the whitest and the most dogmatic denominator of the citizenry. With the raw truth finally seeing the light of day, social chaos was bound to follow. The pandemic of course hasn’t made it easier, innervated by the stunningly ridiculous outrage of the average American at having to take precautions for the greater good of the community. What the whole world is seeing is an America that is no more than a loose amalgamation of individuals who are living together as long as they are not expected to sacrifice their space, their time or their right to go maskless wherever they please. It appears that the concept of community in its true sense has dissolved into defiant, impenitent individualism quite some time ago.

The ones hit the hardest by this disruption of everyday civility and tolerance are the infirm elderly and the hormonal young adults. The former have little in terms of strength or capacity to fight off the virus, biological and social. The latter however, on the threshold of newfound independence and the unlimited freedom America promises, are flexing their muscles with the brute abandon of untrained warriors. With no outlet for their bursting world of expectations, these hapless young men didn’t entertain second or third thoughts about their actions. Call it frustration, guns for the taking, or an explosive coming of age, the fact is that they felt empowered, indeed emboldened enough to kill. They went down the path affording them the greatest adrenaline rush to appease their heightened agitation with the suddenly stifling world around them. Can you blame them for their actions? Not if this was an ethical society that had accepted its failings as a protector and nurturer of its people. But like so many other morally failed and failing nations, America too will blame the messenger (the hapless killer) for the insidious last note he delivered. A note crafted and etched into the social fabric by a successive line of self serving politicians masquerading as statesmen (Ladies: thy counteracting wisdom is still in short order). And so, the Machiavellian state passes on its treacherous buck to its citizens, making them pay for its moral bankruptcy.

While psychologists and sociologists may have a plethora of whys, wherefores and what-to-dos on the current American condition, there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb. A simple soreness that if healed, can stop the gangrenous decay from befouling the rest of the body politic. Basic compassion and a sense of community. If there’s one thing that we in the global backwaters with our emotionally replete cultures know, it’s a deep sense of community: a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together**. These are simple overtures of our humanity that have got lost in the grand American pursuit of individual freedom.

Now more than ever, the Union will benefit from reaching out and offering psychological support to the young and the old, the marginalised and those living on the peripheries of society. I’m not speaking of divisive, half baked gun control laws or grand multi trillion dollar conciliatory, tranquilizing, short-lived plans of rehabilitation and reparation. I’m referring to something as simple as the mushrooming of wayside safe havens/ Conversation Kiosks where people can come in and just talk through the turmoil in their hearts and their minds. The vestigial need to connect, to be acknowledged, to see oneself as part of a bigger, better, vibrant whole, are essential in identifying and addressing agitation, loneliness and hopelessness – all three, treacherous inciters of discontent and violence. Getting the nation to open up at grassroot levels, having them exorcise the demons of alienation and social marginlization, giving them a sense of communal purpose appears to be the likely and unsurprisingly elemental panacea to the great American unrest.

And so, my prayer for the socially and psychologically battered people of the United States is for them to find the strength to finally accept one another for who they are; to unlearn the hate for those who don’t look like them and see the beauty in diversity. For everyone to finally feel like part of a bigger community, not the black, not the brown not the white denominators, but the American community. It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect; it just has to be real and it has to be taught to be aspirational. And with that, there will be ever greater hope for true peace and prosperity for all.

One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever – Linda Lam

**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”

OPINION|Love in the Time of the Mullah**

Recently there was a simple, endearing display of affection between a couple that had just decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The proposal was made on the University of Lahore campus amidst their friends and was followed by an affectionate hug between the couple. That embrace was so demonised by the vocal right, that it now hangs like the sword of democles over the heads of the hapless couple*. A hug! Their fault was that they behaved normally in a sweet moment of joy, rather than in the unnatural constipated manner that is de rigeur and “decent” for all happy occasions involving a man and a woman. Most of the social media comments about the incident have left me not only stunned but also depressed. They well and truly show up the ugly patriarchal underbelly of our besieged society.

From celebrating birthdays to personal successes to proposals, the way of the pious right around their other halves in public is to behave with no more feeling than a vacuum cleaner. (Or a toaster if your tech knee jerk brings visions of food to mind rather than a sparkling floor!)

When did we become so hypocritical, intolerant and judgmental? It could have been during the focused militant Islamization of the country in the wake of the American proxy war with Soviet Russia. Or, it could have been the critical tipping points where socio religious decisions that could have laid the blueprints for a more equitable, inclusive and psychologically healthy society, were made instead to appease the extremist fringe which has always had the loudest megaphones. And so now in 2021, while the rest of the world is debating AI* ethics, we still consider half our human population as circumstantial, where laws and rights blur into oblivion: if you happen to inherit the Y chromosome, every opportunity opens up to you; but if you land up with the double (h)ex, you’re left to the mercy of male egos, testosterone-fuelled whims and religious fillibusters. Indeed, it is this gross distortion in how the State views each gender that has led to this stunning breakdown of social normalcy.

This dismal failing on the part of our legislative bodies and our religious leadership has also led to what can only be described as a collective national psychosis. Women and men alike are exhibiting bizarre mental derangement, with one imagining the world revolves around him and the other, that the world does indeed revolve around him. Oh, and she helps to spin it.

So detrimental to our social structures and mental and emotional wellness is this state of affairs that as with any imbalance in nature be it physical or emotional, there are ultimately equalizing and opposing forces to repair the equilibrium (bless Newton!). And so, in the case of our Islamic republic, despite being the alleged custodians of orthodoxy and conservatism, we also have the dubious recognition of being one of the top porn searching/ watching countries in the world. (There are some Western and African countries that surpass our national porn viewership but they don’t profess to be Islamic, Christian or Jewish Republics. They are secular states and largely follow the philosophy of “live and let live” that we combatively decry). Does Islam consider this kind of sexual titillation a cardinal sin? Yes absolutely. Is that a deterrent? Never, in spite of all the impassioned denials. Can we sit back and morally judge this fall from grace? No; since it is, in big part, the attempt of our human psyche to compensate for the abnormal lack of everyday warmth and emotional fulfilment in even normal, legally contracted relationships.

Relegating all kinds of affection behind closed doors also paints the most innocent gestures of love and care with the brush of indecency and impropriety. Children in our society never see their parents sharing a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek in public; and because they don’t see that affection, they never learn to associate it with the simple fact of being human, being a family and being connected. And so we’re assiduously spawning generations that are increasingly intolerant, embarrassed and offended by any overt show of warmth, affection and joy.

I recall a couple of episodes from my own corporate life where I was also a member of the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The committee, expected to dispense disciplinary action, was shown CCTV footage of young boys and girls, fresh entrants into the corporate fold, caught in compromising situations in little-used ATM kiosks. These hijab-wearing young women and bearded young men were probably from stiflingly conservative households. Having had no outlet for even normal social interactions with the opposite sex while growing up, and later, outside of work, led them to commit unthinking acts of pent up frustration. These were not “bad” men and women. They were the unfortunate products of our small minded, aberrant approach to inter-gender community, accessibility and interaction.

Until we stop claiming the moral high ground with nothing dazzling to show for it; until we stop judging and look beyond ourselves at some of the progressive ways of the rest of humankind that is almost 8 billion strong; until we stop associating rigidity and patriarchy with the essence of Islam, we will continue to erode the very humanity from our societies. We will continue to devolve until there is nothing left but the detritus of hate, bigotry and dogmatism.

The violent invective and demeaning actions we reserve for any kind of openness have to stop. The egos have to be reined in. We as a nation and as an Islamic community need to unlearn the intolerance and hypocrisy around love, and relearn how to feel comfortable with expressions of basic warmth and affection. There has to be more to us than unkempt beards, holy wars and houri* birthrights.

It’s time we found and focused on other, more positive legacies of our rich Islamic heritage.

** Title inspiration and adaptation from the 1985 Gabriel G. Marquez novel titled “Love in the time of Cholera”
* Read the original News story here: https://ara.tv/g558y
* AI: Artifical Intelligence

*Houri: a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.

VERSE| HARRY HARRY, QUITE CONTRARY

This is well meaning satire.  (Clarifying for the benefit of those readers who are still in awe of the Royals and may feel quite contrary about such outrageous literary endeavors 🤓)
Read to the lilt of “Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary, How does your garden grow?”
Harry Harry! 
You’re so contrary
How does this scandal go?
With Meghan talking
The Monarchy balking
And the Commonwealth all in a tizzy so.

Hairy Hairy!
The story’s getting scary!
As Archie’s peaches’n’cream glow ...
Was once under suspicion
Since the pasty skin condition
Is vital for the bluest blood to flow.

Marry Marry!
In crowns and skirts a-flarey
You had to jostle the imperial bough ...
Daddy did the right thing
Big brother duly followed him
You went and started a socio-cultural row.

Goblins and Fairies!
You wish that you could tarry
In Nevernever Land with Cap’n Hook ...
For reality’s a-biting
This game of thrones is frightening
And it just seems nicer to be hiding in a book.

For Friends and Adversaries!
To know was necessary
That is how great changes take root ...
So keep the commoner cloak on
The scandal’s far from being gone
Granny too’ll want to stomp her august boot.

But when all’s said and done ...

Its hurrah hurrah Harry!
You’ve been extraordinary
For calling out the system so ...
The bigoted beast’s a-fester
Of king and queen and jester
Dang! It’s been a cracker of a reality show!
*America’s Hat: a colloquial nickname for Canada

OPINION| THE PRODIGAL SONS

Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.

So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?

What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)

So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.

It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holders are and who the Saber Rattlers are.

All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).

Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.

Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.

*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
*tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.

SHORT STORY|A BRAVE NEW WORLD*

A tribute to the brave young men and women who battle everyday to come to terms with their identity and a perennially judgmental, dogmatic society. May each of you find the strength to be the truest and best version of yourself.

Geena woke up with a monster of a headache. She sat up slowly, disoriented, the neurons in her brain firing a piercing staccato. She held her throbbing head as the events of the previous evening flitted across her hippocampus in discordant technicolour… a night out with friends, B52 shots, Neelu was there, more shots, they’d talked, vodka shots, she was definitely the one, they’d danced, even more shots, they’d kissed…. The memories bounced around her head in weird harmony with the stabs of pain in her body, making her grimace. Geena, the fighter of causes, the Robina-hood of small but essential kindnesses, the dogged agent of change for others, was a frightened, anxious little girl when it came to herself. When did she become so weak? She frowned against the whipping, curdling flow of her boozy blood, arming herself with the shifty valour of self-suggestion.

Say it Geena! Just own it! SAY IT OUT LOUD!

Her head pounded harder, punishing her… for what? For what she wanted to say? For what she couldn’t say? She quivered with the effort.

She couldn’t voice it; her identity, her very being continued to hide inside her like a deep, dark, dirty secret. She crumpled, her spine bent, her voice as silent as the tombs of long forgotten conquerors. No, this wasn’t the day she was going to be her own hero.

Geoff came inside the house, tossing his keys onto the console table. He was glad to be home; it had been an unusually busy Sunday morning. He went straight up to Geena’s room and found her still in bed. She was asleep. He looked at her, at the exhaustion etched in her beautiful face, at the sweet innocence that still enfolded his 18 year old daughter. It had been another one of those nights when she’d arrived home drunk, angry and tearful. How he wished his wife, Ruwani was still around… was still alive. She had been the loving, grounding anchor for this now somewhat dissonant family. He sighed… Ruwani would have known how to handle this teenage angst. He had tried talking to Geena but had always come up against a wall as fortified as it was high; she wouldn’t let him in. He got himself a glass of ice cold water and sat down, mindlessly switching on the television. Anderson Cooper on CNN was saying something about America’s decaying morality…

Something was nagging at him. It was something about morality and uprightness. About righteousness. It was about family values, about being respectable and … being normal. There was an elusive element of normalcy that seemed to be missing from his life… from Geena’s life…

He shook off the strange, disconcerting feelings – like he always did. He’d have to talk to Geena about her drinking. And he’d make it a point to ask about that new boy he’d seen with her group the other day. He never thought he’d say this to her before she was 30, but a nice boy in her life would actually be good for her.

Geena woke up at past 6pm, splintery glimmers of her hangover still keeping her company. She took a couple of panadols to quiet the tumult in her head and lay back in bed, looking at the ceiling overhead. As the pain receded, she became aware of a faint little feeling in her chest… a feeling of something new, something spirited, something honest. It warmed her, tickled her, strengthened her. She smiled tremulously, blinking in the anticipation of the ultimate truth-telling, of a final release from her demons. She was going to talk to her father about it. She was going to tell him that she … she liked girls. She always had. She was a lesbian. That word… still awkward on the tongue and yet that’s what she was. She let the idea float around her head, felt it fuse with her thoughts, sensed it coursing through her body.

She grinned widely – hopeful, nervous, anxious… but mostly hopeful.

It was another Friday night at apartment TP-1.

Tonight though, there was the ragged aura of broken hearts. The truth-telling, the sharing of confidences, the spiritual reckoning had been had. A father sat slumped in his chair, wounded, silent. A daughter stood looking at him, shattered, resigned, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Despite everything, he wanted to reach out. Even in the abyss of her despair, she looked at him, willing him to reach out.

De Khudai pe aman

*A Brave New World: Title inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian social science fiction novel of the same name.

OPINION|MY 72 HURS* AND I

I probably would not have been able to write this piece as intrepidly as I am doing now had I been in the motherland. And therein lies the basis of the conundrum that is our religion: an ideology that is deeply, consumingly rooted in loathsome patriarchy with a formidable intolerance for debate and discussion.

1400 years after the Prophet Muhammad brought the message of peace, tolerance, equality and most importantly, the elevation of the status of women in the fabric of our religious and social structures, we have not only forgotten the essence of that message, but have regressed in ways that would be considered somewhat extreme even in the wild misogyny of ancient Arabia. Islam, in the developing world, led ideologically by our oil-rich Arab brethren, has degenerated into a cacophony of fear mongering, at the heart of which is a gender bias so sick, it is boggling to the mind in the 21st century. So embedded is that illogical, bald-faced chauvinism that its nefarious cultural roots are no longer visible in the milleu of religious (mis)interpretation and ritual. In the masterful manipulation of all organized religions, Wahabi/ orthodox Islam too wields its power by staunching all debate that questions its ethical and moral viability for the current times – for to question is to be a Kafir* and thus branded, you may be exposed to the unwitting but ferocious wrath of the rest of the believers; or if you’re lucky enough to escape that gory end, you are forever a pariah in the fatherland.

I consider myself privileged for growing up in that little bubble of sanity that floats just atop the rest of the malignant mass that is our socio-religious national fabric today. Our generation of females in the family, led by absolutely prodigious women of substance, has been bestowed with those critically strategic opportunities to break through the debilitating and handicapping proverbial glass, nay granite ceiling. We have been raised to believe that the only people who are better than us are those who bring more to the the table as human beings, and that does not include their inadvertent Y chromosome. And yet, during my time working in the corporate sector which is known for its gender inclusivity with its strategic human capital goals of at least 45/55 percent female to male ratios, I was reminded on not infrequent occasions, that to be a man regardless of your professional acumen was to have a clear advantage. One example of this state-sponsored misogyny is the weight/ bearing of a woman’s signature on a legal document. Two female signatures are required for every one male signature for the document to hold up in a court of law. And so on more occasions than I care to remember, the resident tea boy who had nothing to do with the legal gambit or the event (except for the steaming cups of tea in our hands) has put down his testosterone-fortified signature as a legal witness, because I, the woman who was leading the charge on the matter, was not deemed fit enough by our state legislatures to understand it as well as any male can, including our tea boy – who, quite frankly, was a good soul but had limited knowledge of BPRD* circulars and responses to the State bank.

And so this system of overt bias is perpetuated to keep our gender from ever reaching its full potential – an unmitigating stream of psychological and jurisdictive attacks cloaked in fuzzy patriarchy to keep 50% of the country in a constant state of entropy.

Despite these disabling encumberances, our generation has forged ahead – thinking, questioning and expanding our minds and our hearts to become more of the emotionally, mentally and spiritually replete beings that we inherently are. This has also led to a sizeable denominator of women being essentially left in limbo viz-a- viz workable/ aspirational personal philosophies. On the one hand, the religious and cultural ideologies of their forefathers no longer fit their lives in any manner that is respectful, empowering and enriching; on the other hand, any discourse or analysis that could lead to a more gracious and inclusive embodiment of religious tenets is tantamount to sacrilege. This is the state of half the population of the Muslim world; the state of almost a billion people on the planet. I am one of those women.

As we continue to the top of the personal ideological food chain, the number of denizens occupying those upper tiers get very much fewer. The ironic paradox with this food chain is that the apex means surefire disenfranchisement, backlash and predation. Like I said, it is still a rare privilege to be born a female in a truly enlightened Muslim family – I am grateful to be one of those. But our numbers are few and the patriarchal landscape is vast and riddled with a hatred for dissidents that has only become more fanatical through the centuries. However, every revolution of the hearts and the minds begins with a few intrepid idiots calling out the injustice and the oppression. I am also one of those women.

And so I’m diving into my ideological debate with some essential satire on a salient reward of the Hereafter; a lustful vision so unashamedly made synonymous with goodness that it has compelled the righteous to decimate entire populations and on frequent occasions, themselves too: the 72 Hurs or splendid female companions of Paradise. Promised to every believer. I’m a believer and I think I’m a good human being; (I’m also as straight as they come!) So is that vision, touted as it is in every inspirational Khutbah*, an enticing end to a life well lived? I’m going to hazard a guess on behalf of us Muslim women who are almost a billion strong: Nah!

The religious conversation needs to evolve beyond the all male-corridors of our masjids*; beyond erotic visions of the afterlife as the penultimate reward, to a wholesome, dignified ideology of life itself.

It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to take Islam out of the Neanderthal man caves into the light of the 21st century.

*Hur: a “splendid female companion” in the afterlife epitomising the spoils of a righteously led life for every devout Muslim man

*Kafir: unbeliever/ infidel. The term refers to a person who rejects or disbelieves in God as per Islam

*BPRD: Banking Policy and Regulations Department of the State Bank dictating the rules of business engagement for all banks

*Khutbah: A Muslim sermon that is delivered at places of worship mainly on Fridays which are considered holy days in Islam

*Masjid: Islamic places of worship predominantly visited by only men.

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

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