OPINION | 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.

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|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| AN ODE TO LITTLE JOYS

It’s the little joys in life 
That lift and hug the soul;
It’s the little brushes with sublimity
That paint the rosiest strokes

It’s the steaming mugs of tea shared
With a friend, over confidences and laughter;
The mugs wrapped in hands as warm as the hearts
That are bonding, ministering, healing ... and after
Memorializing that perfect little moment of joy.

It’s the sudden cool breeze that caresses the cheek
And then wraps me up in its vital embrace;
It’s the happy burst of a monsoon shower
As she dances and cleanses; prances and quenches
Leaving behind her intoxicating petrichor
In a joyful bouquet of nostalgia and grace

It’s the intrepid, songful, mirthful mynah
That unexpectedly struts right up to my feet
Warbling of little delights; trilling with all her might
Laying her little heart bare in melodious refrain
It’s the big, big soul in that fragile frame
That reminds me of the precious little joys.

It’s the beautiful Sakura tree, bounteous in its white and pink
Waiting for a wayward breeze to stir up her flower-bedecked limbs;
It is seeing the frolicsome duo of tree and breeze
Create magic in a moment they mutually seize
As the blossoms flutter down in lusty effusion
Covering the ground with inflorescent profusion
An enchanting, enthralling moment of joy.

It’s little kindnesses wrought in the moment
A helping hand on a busy street,
A warm smile in the milieu of rushing feet
A tender word to the transiently fallen
A little something more for the lonely and forgotten
It’s seeing this shared transcendental camaraderie
That gives me that small little rush of joy.

It’s looking up into a clear night sky
And finding Orion and Taurus winking up high
It’s watching the Big Dipper look tenderly upon
Little Ursa Minor nestling just under the moon
It’s seeing our little world from the vastness of space
That fills me with joy and bolsters my faith

The quickening string that binds us all
Our whole web of life; all living creatures
Are these startlingly simple acts of joy
These wondrous, alchemical creations of nature
It’s this coming together of life’s vital energy
That lifts and elates with its mystical synergy
This is the mannah that nurtures the soul
Mending our cracks and making us whole.

VERSE|MY CHOICE TO MAKE

Day ends and darkness sweeps in,
Enveloping the ready and the unready into its blackened folds.
It scuttles into crannies and leaps into fissures,
Blotting out the light for another 8 hours ... or eternity...
Tonight, am I happy to be in its restful, warm embrace
Galvanizing my body and my spirit for tomorrow?
Or am i dreading the walk with Erebus* in the murky corridors of gloom?
The choice is mine to make.

Night ends and daylight marches in
Casting off the monochromatic grey-black silhouettes.
Lingering shadows disappear; the sounds of silence explode into daytime clamor.
Exultant photons ricochet through the air
As Earth waltzes around her own cosmic maypole; one dance done, another begun.
Am I ready to seize the day today?
Or am I dreading the tread of Helios* outside my bedroom window?
The choice is mine to make.

The gods of Myth and the gods of Now
Continue their battle in the sacred space of my heart.
They wrangle with each other, the twain never meeting;
Perpetuating confusion, torment and intrigue;
Shredding my soul as the spoils of their unholy war.
Will I continue to shed blood, lose hope and malinger for the false prophets within?
Or am I ready to make this day, this life, my own?
It is MY choice to make.
*Erebus: The god of Darkness in Greek mythology
*Helios: the god of the Sun in Greek mythology

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|Farenheit 786*

Eenie meenie miny mo, Catch a nig** by his toe, If he screams let him go, Eenie meenie miny mo

A lilting rhyme from our childhood, that is as replete with racial nuance as ever there was any prescript especially formulated for a far right enthusiast. Imprinted on impressionable minds around the world; imparted in the hallowed sanctums of colonial missionary schools. And that racial/ ethnic/ religious bias is the normalcy that we have all grown up with in the west and in the colonies influenced by the west.

At the end of the day, our mindsets are the same: the belief that some of us are more superior than the others and that White, and in our case, Muslim Privilege is as real as the afterlife. This fact, even for the most liberal minded of the said demographic, and despite vehement naysings to the contrary, is hard-coded into our very DNA. (You can read this as Hindu, Christian or Buddhist privilege really depending on which religious majority space you occupy).

Let’s take a little traipse back in time, to just before the East India Company set down its roots of Western imperialism and indeed, the rigours of ethnic division into motion in South Asia. Circa 1600.

The region, while having seen its fair share of invasions and dominions, both overt and covert, was a fairly harmonious, prosperous melting pot of cultures and religions. In the early 17th century in fact, the combined GDP of the Indian subcontinent made up 20% of the global economic output. It was also the richest nation on earth at the time, followed closely by China. (Four centuries hence and in the current world scenario, the George Santayana* adage in one of its many variations comes to mind, “history tends to repeat itself”).

And so together with the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha* (aka the British Royal family!) mandated material exploitation of the continent, self-righteous, self-serving religious machinations were also mobilised with the fire and passion of the Chosen Ones. Missionary schools, by the dozens were set up all over the continent from Kolkata to Murree, from Simla to Karachi, and the mental conditioning of the societal creme de la creme aka the future leaders of the dynastic empire, was set in motion. With the impressionable minds of consequence now squarely under the colonial anvil, focused efforts were put into rending asunder adult mindsets. The flames were insidiously and feverishly fanned on previously immaterial religious differences. Being a Hindu or a Muslim or a new Christian convert, depending purely on what was circumstantially advantageous for the colonists at any given time, meant preferential treatment being meted out ranging from critical day to day conveniences to career breakthroughs and ultimately an overall dominant position in society. By the end of it, the hyper-fuelled differences were so all-consuming, that they became the catalysts for one of the most brutal annihilations of an empire; leading also to the largest mass migration in human history.**

The takeaway from the brief history revisit above is the concept of a religious hierarchy that was instilled and has doggedly survived and indeed thrived to this day. 73 years post colonial rule, and the legacy of deistic superiority still lives on. We behave like the religion of 97% of the 220 million strong Pakistani citizenry (and indeed of the 2 billion strong globally), is under threat of obliteration because of the 3% theistic diversity. If ever there was a chronically suspicious, dogmatic, mired in religio-cultural backwardness and quick-to-judge society, we, the Pakistanis gloriously lead the charge. In fact we have proven time and again that our custodianship of the religion is not only divinely passionate but lurking quite bizzarely on the lunatic fringe. A recent case in point is the righteous trepidation and knee jerk opposition by the Islamists, to the construction of a lone, singular Hindu temple in Islamabad, the capital city, and obvious global showcase of our diversity, inclusion and equality. The only rationale being that the one temple could apparently subvert an entire majority religion, or at least its Pakistani version with its warped ideology, immoral patriarchy and all.

The Islamic State of Mind is indeed a thing. And the lines between it and the Pakistani state of mind have with time become a blurred mess. The disgracefully prejudiced Blasphemy law and the criminally right wing Hudood Ordinance are living vestiges of a society set on the path to a holy implosion.

While the silent majority may disagree with the religious fascists, our silence is compelling of our complicity with the fringe.

In the name of all that is civilised, humane and even remotely religious, it is time to at least break the silence.

Eenie meenie miny mo

Let’s catch these bigots by their toes!

De Khudai pe aman.

*Title adaptiation from the original 1953 dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. The numbers 786 are significant in Islam, denoting the number of letters in “Bismillah…” the opening phrase of the Quran.

*George Santayana: A Spanish philosopher, poet and novelist

*Saxe-Coburg-Gotha: Now called the House of Windsor of the British royal family. The original name was changed in the early 20th century to make it sound less German/ foreign.

**UNHCR estimates that 20 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the partition of United India in 1947. Compare with the largest documented voluntary emigration in history – the Italian diaspora, which migrated from Italy between 1861 and 1970, with 13 million people leaving the country.

VERSE|I Am Dystopia!

WHEN NATURE ROARS

2020 dawned on us, full of the goodness of even numbers,
Of existential vision perfection, insight, wisdom; all symbolic rumbles,
Of good things to come, of new beginnings and of blithesome continuity,
Of travel and adventure, of togetherness and sunny opportunity.

Just when the new year smile from our lips spread,
To brighten the providential gleam in our eyes,
Mother Nature stepped out of her wooded grove
And resolved to cut all 7 billion of us down to size.
She waved her hoary Staff of Life and brought it down hard to the ground,
And created a little critter amongst us, virile and ergonomically sound.

And then around the globe it traipsed as gleeful as a clam,
Across hills and valleys, fields and plains, aeroplanes and trams;
It skipped across the hot asphalt, into neighbourhood grocery stores;
Hopping along trolley handles, even dancing across binned apple cores;
Nestling onto careless hands, touching sun-kissed faces,
The Covid critter had VOA* for a whole gamut of places.

And then it was a few weeks on, late March, early April
That the malignant, morbid pong arose from the places it had traveled.
Sick and sicker people got, with the older crowd being hit the hardest,
It picked at folks everywhere, taking the killing-spree route that was fastest.
It advanced, armed with its axe and it’s murdering scythe as it went for the weakest,
Ravaging not only bodies, but spirits and souls at its absolute bleakest.

The Covid death knell continued to be tolled as the weeks turned into months;
On and on it butchered and killed on copious, disparate fronts.
They say there’s an existential kind of omen in the raging of this pandemic,
Like a paradoxical panacea for even worse killers that are fundamentally systemic.
Like racial biases, climactic atrocities and economic ills,
They say the Covid has descended upon us to collect on Mothers Nature’s bills.

We owe her for the oceans that are perishing by the hour,
For the dwindling woodland space and the raging forest fires,
For tearing into her lungs with each metric tonne of CO2 emission,
For killing and maiming and cruelly placing her creatures in wretched submission,
For all the unkindness, the hypocrisy and the bigoted beliefs,
She finally stepped in from the depth of the earth to deliver some relief.

While she’s imperceptibly taking back the reins of this planet we call home,
We continue to be caught in the toxic harvest of what we’ve already sown.
She’s spreading her roots like gnarled old ivy across our cities and towns,
Reclaiming, repairing, reviving reforming the blues, the greens and the browns.
Soon her deep dark tendrils will wind around our greed-beleaguered throats,
Choking out the poison, the malady of the spirit that has taken such firm root.

It will be the end of an epoch, but also the start of something new;
An honesty, a tenderness, a Oneness with Nature will slowly start to brew.
For Humanity to thrive again, a death of The Now is essential;
The dreams and motivations caught up in that Now will also become inconsequential.
As Nature beckons us closer to her, one lesson at a time,
The world will poise on a transformational brink while she scours off the grime.

2020 will indeed be the year when Humanity attained perfect vision,
When Mother Nature drew copious blood to finally change our Human Condition.

De Khudai pe aman.

*VoA: Visa on Arrival

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

POLITICAL FARCE|Gone With the ‘Tind’*

The “Brown Sahib” Aspirations of the 45th POTUS

Until very recently, i thought that the Brown Sahib* state of mind was the social cross borne by certain privileged demographics of the previously colonised and the enslaved. After 500 years of seeing the White Man do his thing, while ruling and owning large swathes of humanity, even the most tenaciously dogmatic among the brown and the black populations learnt to emulate their white coercers to survive, and in fact thrive. Over the ages, this brand of social exposure to both, the colonially enforced ways of the West and the doggedly defiant cultural elements of the East produced a quite unique post colonial urbanity, exclusive to the 1.5 billion indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent.

But turns out, mindsets are fickle things in our current bizarre, beleaguered world. The character and cultural traits that have been the sole tokens of the Brown Man for the past few hundred years, are now raising their sun-kissed heads in the pale white hearts of the colonists and the enslavers. Or at least one. And so, we bear bemused witness to an almost karmically apologetic social course correction, as the 45th POTUS (once the most powerful man on earth – makes the mind reel!) decided to make unwitting amends for his colonial predecessors, through personal example.

The Foreign Bahu*: If you’re a progressive and privileged brown person, you’ll do your Western Hemisphere stint and come back home, armed with not only a foreign degree but possibly a foreign wife too (Caucasian of course). Mixed race children, we believe, are known to better the family prospects in an ethnically and racially divided world. And so, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the 45th POTUS married an Eastern European woman to even out the playing field for the rest of the world to aspire to greatness by association. And if we go with just our good old gut instinct on this POTUS, because eastern exoticism is a thing.

Misogynistic Ambitions: If you’re a Brown Man anywhere, you’ve been raised to believe that you’re the centre of everyone’s world, especially all the women that wittingly and unwittingly occupy your universe. The gruellingly paternalistic environment (from archaic Panchayat* codes to the gender despotism inherent in the Hudood Ordinance*) has been carefully maintained to consistently fuel that ego. And so, marvelling at the subcontinental man for knowing and showing what a tremendously huge gift from God he is, the 45th POTUS has frequently and passionately tried to “put women in their place”. From sexual misconduct to name calling, he continues to frenziedly negotiate his way through all his political and social interactions with the opposite gender.

Brown skin complex: 500 years of the White Man’s dominion has understandably wrought some social psychosis in its wake. One among them is the Brown man’s continued, thriving quest for white skin – literally. It may have started off as “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but over the ages, this ardour has taken on a life of its own. From the multibillion dollar fairness cream industry, to the “fair bahu*” syndrome, a laundry list of overt and covert skin colour stigmas has taken root and spread like gnarled old ivy over our social fabric. And so, the 45th POTUS, since he can’t get any paler, and deciding that racial irony is the best form of praise, has embodied a bullheaded brownness that is both unprecedented and scary. The resultant orangeness in fact, rivals a fiery tropical sunset during a duststorm.

Hirsute Motivations: We are a race that is (mostly!) endowed with and proud of an abundance of dark luxurious hair. So when we do experience a dearth in the follicular territory, we jump right on to the bandwagon of toupees, transplants and wigs. The resulting downiness ranges from the barely perceptible, all the way to the absurd and the ridiculous. And so the 45th POTUS has with all his heart, embraced the Brown Man’s tenacious hair love affair, and taken it into realms of comb-over inventiveness that no modern day tempest can rip asunder!

Despotic Tendencies: The urge and capacity to rule with an iron hand has traditionally been the way of the South, Central, Pacific and Middle Eastern blocs; with many countries having the dubious honour of martial law as state administration for more than half their independent existence. It is not so great a secret and opinion, that the Eastern and Southern hemispheres just do better with a hybrid democracy/ autocracy approach. And so the 45th POTUS, in his most outstanding tribute to the Brown and Black Man yet, established a unique First World dictatorship that set new global despotic standards. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Kim Jong-un seem lumbering and lethargic in the wake of the autocratic inclinations and machinations of the Trumpian zeal.

To the (predominantly white) American populace at large we say a big Thank you for this peculiar apology in the shape of Donald J. Trump, for all the centuries of Black and Brown skinned subjugation. For providing so much comic relief when the world needed it most. For mortally endangering your nationhood and your political and economic progress built over hundreds of years. For racing, like sporting martyrs, to relinquish your identity as the leaders of the Free World.

But even we, the historically conquered and crushed, feel it’s a bit much. So please feel free to abandon any more such zealous, self defeating presidential level attempts at reparation. We will be happy with anyone sane, reasonable, half way eloquent and racially colour blind. Scratch the last; even the most delusional of us know that’s a big ask.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Brown Sahib: a colloquialism meaning brown master in the nature of his white predecessor. Now used farcically to define people from the subcontinent who behave like white people trapped in brown bodies.

*A wordplay on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, set amidst the American civil war and reconstruction period, entitled “Gone with the Wind”. (Screen-adapted in 1939).

*Tind: Punjabi/ Urdu colloquialism for ‘noggin’ or head or baldness.

*Bahu: Urdu/ Hindi for Bride.

*Panchayat: A village council of elders

*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.

REFLECTION|Something’s Gotta Give

“Now is the winter of our discontent, Made more [in]glorious by this son of [New]York”* or by the son of any other metropolis anywhere else in the world really. The onset of the third decade of the 21st century has become a tipping point for humanity on so many fronts. All grim reminders of where we have chosen to be in our social, spiritual and ideological journeys. And our reflections in the grand old cosmic mirror are far from being reassuring, appealing or inspiring. We have insensibly, doggedly stretched the limits of our humanity and one can’t help but wonder that something’s gotta give.

The unrelenting sequence of chaotic events that has befallen our little blue planet in the last six months has been almost eerie in its timing, tenacity and reach: From the bacillus extremis doing its plunderous tread around the globe, to inexplicable, calamitous plane crashes, to catastrophic bushfires, wildfires and devastating floods, to the snarling, salivating maws of colourism, racism and ethnicism finally distending wide enough to drag entire nations into their ugly depths. The annihilation of our collective psyche such as it is, continues unabated as our benumbed, handicapped spirits slowly awaken to the fact that there may be a deeper essential meaning to all this disruption and carnage. But Existential perspectives can also go two ways; a pawn-in-the-hands-of-fate approach where we remain gripped in our current status quo, or to take that leap of faith and hold up a mirror to ourselves to see the mere wraiths of humanity that we have become. It is a difficult choice, because “better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths”.*

The way i see it though, (and the cringe-worthiness of cliches be damned!) is that the truth shall set us free! We are arguably at the end of an epoch; in fact by most counts, we’ve overstayed our welcome. If this then, is the beginning of the end, let us make it count. Let us listen to the voice of our collective humanity and do what we instinctively know to be right. Let us do away with the concept of the “Billionnaire” – the person who cannot possibly spend his fortune in his lifetime. Let us do away with Monopolies which bolster a few by disenfranchising a million others. Let us do away with Unhindered Profitability which bankrolls some and indentures/ encumbers a billion others. Let us do away with divisive religion, pernicious doctrines and archaic institutions. Let us rip asunder everything we have known to be “true” for the last 5 centuries.

I have a funny feeling in my bones, and it has nothing to do with the weather or the inept clairvoyance born of our disenchanting world. It is like the low frothing of a tsunami, the premonition of something big and dangerous just over the horizon, the portentousness of being changed forever.

Yes, it feels very much like something’s gotta give.

It feels very much like it’s time to start over.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Quote adapted from Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”

*Quote from Alexander Pushkin.

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