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 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.

VERSE | LOVE ACTUALLY – Part Deux

Almost but not quite beleaguered and bemasked – February 23rd, 2021

In the spirit of well-meaning satire, a droll little tribute to our visiting PM, Imran Khan. You’re still our best hope.

The flags are flying at full mast
The PM’s coming to town
The green and white, oh what a sight
For diplomatic, foreign affairs of the heart.

He’s also got the go-ahead
To traverse through enemy space
The Indian stratosphere, oh dear oh dear
What if he disappears before arriving here!
A conundrum, a tragedy, a veritable geo-political disgrace.

But when all is said and done and he brings
His cooperative politicking to town
Then if things go his way or the way of the Modi
Is superfluous as he leaves some of his aura behind
That persona, that charm, oh what a man!
It is Love Actually* that i feel for Imran Khan.
The icon, the enigma, the sportsman turned statesman of Pakistan.

(Yes, with sugary sweetness this verse is replete,
But I hope you can read the gentle comic relief)

And so I end this tribute with a nod and a cheer,
You’ve got your hands full our PM dear,
So while you’re trippin’ around,
This erstwhile seaside town
Do get some R&R with Lanka’s favourite Arrack and beer.

A view of the Galle road, Colombo from my cafe vantage point today

*Read Love Actually – Part 1 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/09/21/love-actually/

VERSE|MARDANGI – My Patriarchal Burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Khudai pe aman

OPINION|LOVE ACTUALLY*

In the current chaos of the world, an international relations argument for why, especially now, we need Imran Khan at the helm of affairs in Pakistan

“Yatha raja, thatha praja* – As the King, so are the People.”

A sage old saying that has not had more relevance and resonance than in our current erratic, wayward, even mercurial times; when all the world is actually a stage and all the men and women merely players, following the charge of the madman with the loudest megaphone. More and more we see the dictatorial, the deranged and the downright demoniac garner adoration, loyalty and an ever burgeoning electorate.

In all this terrifying chaos, however, there are still those who with mindful purpose, shine their torches on plurality, decency and probity. And one of these relatively new, tender footed yet mightily zealous people, also happens to be the Premier of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And I say this not out of any rose coloured glasses affliciton for the historically charsimatic Khan of Philanthropy and Cricket, but as a denizen of our beleaguered country who is residing overseas.

Here’s why.

For the last 40 years, our status in global politics and our international relations have been incrementally dismal and inauspicious, to say the least. From counter intuitive proxy wars to unmitigated corruption to dynastic political subterfuge, we have avidly done it all. And as the world has become smaller and international borders have become increasingly blurred, the strength of our passport has progressively dwindled into the twilight zone of global esprit de corps and camaraderie. The once rising star of South Asia, has become the battle-worn, terrorist-nurturing, drug den of the world and the blowback for its citizens, both resident and abroad has been life altering. There is an almost resigned political fatigue that has settled on its populace, despite the daily boisterous harangues on the numerous news channels- that is merely noise to fill the silence of the pariah space we now occupy. At the heart of it all, there is an almost hypnotic/ philosophical acceptance of the reaping of what a handful of us sowed some 4 decades ago.

For some of us though, the overseas residents that are somewhat displaced from the mesmeric daze of our collective state of mind, the grimness of our reality is both sobering and painful. From the persona non grata treatment at the various international airport immigrations and embassies (and i have a few scarring anecdotes to tell of my own!) to the deriding or sympathetic social vibes in the global drawing room, the entire gamut of a Pakistani’s international experience is skewed far and away from anything in the confines of “normal”. Even the most ardent ambassadors of the wholesomeness of what it is – even what it was – to be Pakistani, feel the full force of the detractory drag of the global collective. And so it has been for almost as long as i have travelled – until now.

That small but intrepid torch light i spoke of…. I’m finally seeing positive little glimmers of it even as i sit it out as a foreign resident amidst the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic. People I meet don’t instantly look confused or disinterested or conversationally challenged to meet a Pakistani. They have been smiling more (genuine grins at that too!) while they ask how our PM is doing and how “lucky” we are to have him when most of the rest of the world is going to pot. There have been more of those hitherto rare little dialogues where i have been able to share, with shoulders squared and eyes glinting with confidence (and the restfulness of 9 hours of sleep!), the progress Pakistan has made battling the virus and keeping its populace safe, while also keeping the engines of enterprise running; small, even moot successes, but all steps in the right direction. From business associates to friends to tuk tuk drivers, the international narrative on the Pakistani State of Being is veering back from the vagrant fringe just a bit at a time, to what is normal and congenial. So yes! I’m putting it down to our prime minister.

Even so, keeping true to our nature of the last couple of decades – that of the earnest albeit combative acceptance of our besieged nationality – we continue to be exultantly vocal and contentious of the current administration too. Be that as it may. Where previous regimes have had multiple stabs at methodically and obsessively ruining the country, it may be a good time to show some grace, forebearance and patience even when the reins of the country are in the hands of a politically unseasoned, wet behind the ears, wont to pivot and falter, non dynastic office holder, who also happens to be our only current hope towards some semblance of sincere nation building. With time, this political newbie could indeed become, not an expert politician, but the Statesman our nation so desperately needs.

Do i sound like one caught in an emotional maelstrom? Perhaps. Maybe. I prefer to call it the nostalgic discernment of the geographically removed; with the distance-enhanced ability to see the starkness of the administrative options in front of us. And really, for the first time, the choice is not difficult.

So yes, in all this crazy milieu, it’s Love Actually that i feel for our very own Captain of the Republic, Imran Khan.

De Khudai pe aman

*Love Actually: title inspiration from a 2003 movie (starring Hugh Grant) where the key protagonist is the British PM.

*Yatha Raja, thatha praja: a saying from ancient Hindu scriptures.

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