March 23, 2013

Same same, but different



 Once, for an English assignment, I wrote an essay on India from a foreigner’s point of view. It was the third grade and my sense of appropriateness hadn’t yet developed; I pretended to be George from the Famous Five, and wrote three pages on how dirty the streets were and the number of men I saw pissing by the sidewalks. My teacher didn’t think it was funny and I was told to look at my own country in a more positive light.

This was the attitude with which I went to get my visa at the Pakistani consulate a few months ago- that it was my own country. I’d been to Islamabad before but, as a seven year old, all I remember from the trip is that their Barbies were nicer than the ones we got in India. Still, born into Punjabi insolence, to me going to Lahore and Multan felt like going home. Going to get a visa felt more surreal than the very real idea that this was another country.  

In the plane, just as the pilot announced our descent, a man switched on his cellphone. He wanted to make sure his friend was waiting to pick him up. No difference yet. Adrenalised, I suppose, by the idea of re-visiting ‘my own country’, I rebuked him for what he was doing. It was out of turn, the stewardess was right there and about to stop him. This was to be my first lesson about Pakistan. He wasn’t annoyed or irritated that a woman was telling him off and roughly at that; he was amused. It entertained him that I even thought I could. He would’ve probably been just as amused if I had just let the stewardess do her job.

My grandfather’s friends met us at Lahore airport. At first glance they looked exactly like an old-school Punjabi culture I’ve been long estranged from, and frankly, I’ve always remembered fondly. The women clucked around my grandfather, Celine bags held on the crook of their arms and just the right amount of solitaires lighting up their eyes. They had been waiting in the humid weather without a thought to their inconvenience; they welcomed me with bear hugs; they bought us flowers and had Sim cards ready for our mobiles. It was atithi devo bhava all the way. I forgot briefly Cellphone man’s condescending look.

It didn’t take long, however, before their hospitality began to seem excessive; as we drove through Lahore in an SUV, the poverty, depression, fear and tension were palpable. My grandfather and uncles openly expressed their surprise at the state of the city. That this hurt our hosts’ pride was evident but they did a bang-up job hiding it.

Eventually I had to point out that there are parts of India, fuck that, parts of Delhi that look like this too and perhaps we’ve just been lucky enough to never take our huge air-conditioned vehicle through them. My grandfather didn’t say anything but I know that it’s just me who’s been so fortunate. I also know that he was simply recollecting a different time and that he’s seen all kinds of things to bring me that luck. That realization was the second lesson Pakistan taught me. It’s not easy to see the things that are right under your big, fat, entitled nose, but that’s no excuse.

We were shown the various sights of Lahore; what this meant, basically, was multiple trips to Liberty market and a Chinese restaurant that was latest foodie haven. At the same time there was a sit-down being organized in Lahore; hundreds of people outside the governor’s mansion asking for law and order in Quetta. It went on for many days and I asked to be there several times, but there was almost always a way to bypass it.

One day, however, so many had joined this dharna that the main roads of Lahore were blocked. The last time I saw roads this jammed was when India won a cricket match in Maholi back in 2010. A sick part of me, I suppose, enjoys seeing similar images coming about for different reasons. Eventually the driver had to take the route past the governor’s mansion and, the road being ubiquitous with picketers, he had no option but to go slow. The faces I saw had only weariness, anxiety and pride. I realised it was the first time, since I landed into Lahore airport, that I had gotten to see something real.

On one of these trips to Liberty market, while waiting on the women I was with, I noticed a young girl dancing outside the shop we were in. She must have been six or seven, her hair was cut short and so I could see her filthy ears popping out of the sides of her head. Her hands were equally dirty and scarred; when I asked her about it, she just smiled.

We’d just spent thousands of rupees on suits and juttis and it would be a lie to say that guilt didn’t spur me to give her a couple of tenners and buy her some cotton candy. The swiftness with which I was told off by our hostess didn’t surprise me; in less than a minute, I was surrounded by ten more children each asking for money and candy; each of them looked more malnourished than the other.  

Having lived in India most of my life, I’m not jarred by poverty; if I was, I’d be a nervous wreck. What really shook me was the roughness with which our driver told the children off. It was such a big contrast to the easygoing, almost fraternal manner with which he treated me. Those kids aren’t helping him feed his family of five though, so one can say he simply knows how to prioritise and I, despite daily desensitization, was the na├»ve tourist that day. His name is Ajmal. He is, by far, he is my favourite person in Pakistan, if only because I like those people that know how and when to modulate their voices in appropriate manners.

Our trip to Pakistan was as much to attend a wedding in our hosts’ family, as it was to visit my grandfather’s ancestral village near Multan. On our way to one of the parties inside the Cantt area, I saw a man with just his torso intact. Arms and legs missing he was sitting square piece of wood that has been fashioned with wheels.

It was tempting to think that I’ve seen the same in India but no person should be lumped as the same as anyone else based on such little description. I don’t know how he lost his limbs; I don’t know the circumstances that led to him begging in front of a high security area where the soldiers are surely coming by to move him every hour. Ajmal wouldn’t have stopped the car so I could find out and I never asked him to. Even the rage I saw in his eyes, through the car window could have been a projection of my own middle-class guilt. It struck me that put in his position, I’d be petrified to perch myself in the middle of a road in Lahore; or Delhi; or anywhere for that matter. It is, almost literally, asking to be hit by an on-coming car. It’s amazing the cowardice that can live inside you when the need to test your courage has never arisen.

The Pakistani upper-middle class that I saw at these functions is, perhaps, the world’s only Indophiles that I’ve ever seen. Bollywood, Polki jewelry and Satya Paul have never had bigger fans; the women could not contain themselves from asking why I wasn’t wearing a saree. It is, at best, sweet but taken at its worst, it made me think of something I heard Atish Taseer say once: that we’re going to live to see the day when these people are at our borders asking for refuge.

A particular woman, as immaculate as could be, asked me if I thought the poverty in Pakistan seemed as bad as the Western and Indian newspapers make it out to be. I say she asked, but really she was implying that she did not think so. I was quick to tell her that I’d only seen Lahore, which was supposed to be one of the richer cities in Pakistan, and every day I felt an urge to cry when I stepped outside. Even to my own ears, I sounded angry. I didn’t tell her that the disconnect between the wedding festivities and rest of the city was a constant reminder of how fake the former were and that this was the real cause of my anger. Who hasn’t lived in denial to protect their pride, right? I wish I’d told her instead that she was strong to put up such a brave front. It would have been more productive and certainly strained our relationship less.

Apart from our host family and Ajmal, the person I interacted with the most was a man I met only a few weeks before, while he was visiting Delhi. Some of my best friends are known to treat me with less kindness than he showed me, a near stranger. He is an artist and teaches architecture at the university. When he showed me his corner of Lahore, it was a far cry from the old-fashioned opulence of my Punjabi hosts; every inch of his home drips in a style that is as smooth and beautiful as fresh honey.

We had a lot of conversations about Pakistan and what it meant to him to be Pakistani. When I told him the story of the Cellphone man, he laughed and said he was glad when Indian girls come to Pakistan and give the men a jolt or two. I told him that I’d seen some fierce women since I’d come over and he did not dispute that this is really the first thought that comes to mind when dealing with many Pakistani women- that they are hella strong.

Several times he expressed a great frustration with the route his country was taking and his role in it. We played devils’ advocate for each other’s countries when we spoke about the beheaded soldiers in Kashmir. The incident had taken place only a day before I landed into Lahore. I saw on the news, on both sides, totally disgusting ‘if it bleeds it leads’ coverage; I saw on my social media little Thackeray demanding, in apparently appropriate retaliation to the incident, that the Pakistani hockey team leave Indian soil; I saw, in this Pakistani man’s eyes, a very real hurt caused by the actions of the Pakistani soldiers. I’ll take him over little Thackeray any day.

It wasn’t till I got to Multan that that the divide between the Indian I am and the Pakistan I was in really began dawning on me. It stopped being enough that we were all Punjabi when my host told his wife, who had been complaining of a sprained ankle all evening, to take me to the market. I say told, I never heard him ask her anything. She is one of the nicest, most deferential people I’ve ever met. When she hobbled around the tiny market, no Earth would’ve shook had I not been to it, she made it fun for me. It would be easy for me to see their marriage in terms of yet another patriarchal society. Yet, at least to my observation, there was a lot of Quid pro quo in that marriage. This was a happily married woman.  

It would also be easy to think of this man as cruel or unkind, but to my observations he was quite the opposite. He was soft-spoken when he spoke to his staff; he smiled with the ease of a child when he showed me his gardens, which he tended to personally. By the time I left, I’d nicknamed him The Gentle Giant. Sometimes people can be a lesson in themselves.

The existence of a patriarchal society in Pakistan and North India can’t be denied, nor can the damage it does be taken lightly. Another woman told me that when her daughter decided to pursue Law, her first reaction was to try and stop her. ‘Law is no place for a woman,’ she said. I told her that there were more female lawyers than male lawyers in the world now. I also said that if I ever went back to Law, instead of trying to climb the steep incline of being a decent writer, my mum might die of joy. She replied my mum would probably be happiest if I just got married and didn’t believe me when I told her she was wrong.

The road to my grandfather’s village was so unchanged, since he last visited in 1985, that he could actually direct Ajmal. The village was called Amirvalla. When we got to the area where once stood his family’s havelis, there were only soft cement, single storey huts and dust, lots and lots of dust; it had been a while since these villagers had seen rain. The name of the village and the state of its inhabitants were so ironic, my grandfather’s friend pointed it out before I could.

I saw no grown women, only the men and children came out to see who we were. A few of them walked along with my grandfather and his friends, telling them tales of how they had moved here and used the stones from the then standing havelis to make their own homes. I could see a little light flicker out in my grandfather’s eyes. A part of his history had been taken and used up by these people. He didn’t hate on them but I could see that his heart wasn’t big enough to feel sorry for them either. I judged him for it then, because, apart from reading the newspaper, I’ve never been confronted with such stark poverty. Nor have I felt to my bones the hopelessness of their situation in our increasingly urban-centric countries that have forgotten that agricultural and provincial are not the same thing. Just like with the Immaculate Woman though, my judgment was less about him and more about an increasing self-hatred.

That poverty, bad government and despair are rampant in Pakistan is undeniable. It’s even undeniable that the same is the case everywhere, including India. At the moment, Pakistan has it worse than us but time makes a yo-yo of history everyday. It’s important, however, to stop talking about the country as a single-minded entity and as Indians, for us to stop reminiscing, as I did, about it being ‘our own country’. It’s dangerous to blanket the nation as an Islamist country and extremely important to remember that it is a land of vast differences and home to many contrasting characters. I was moved in Pakistan, seeing images, people and things that I see every day in India too. I was moved by the simple act of seeing past my big, fat Punjabi nose.

When I came back, I told my mum everything and asked her which would make her happier: my going back to Law or me getting married? She rolled her eyes but then asked, hopefully, if my asking her meant that I was ready to give up on this writer stint and get married now. I suppose, in certain cases, things really are same, same but different.

March 05, 2013

Dress at a funeral


It was made of a heavy fabric; a clothe that fell between her fingers. Holding the dress up against her body, she turned to face the full length mirror. It ended appropriately, just below her knobby knees. She stared listlessly at the reflection of two, drainpipe calves. Of all her black dresses, it was the only one that might do. And, it had to be black. 

At the church, Clarence was wearing dark colours too. Briefly, she wondered if he wouldn't be more comfortable in his electric blue Superman tee-shirt. She'd seen it on him so often, the running joke was that he had lived in it. In death as in life, she thought, and so it would be fitting for him to be buried in it. And maybe along with his bass guitar too. In death, as in life.

Then she thought, perhaps his family may want these things as keepsake. It seemed only natural really. The biggest hoarders are those who have lost something, someone, equally big. These are the only people with enough space in their lives. 

Clarence's coffin was red. Some sort of cherry wood. His sleeping face serene in the cathedral's white light. He was half the boy he had been only a year ago. Body and life wasted by cancer. But, because it was Clarence, that was still a lot! His big personality was highlighted by every tear shed that afternoon. 

She stared at the box; trying so hard not to cry that her face became a blank slate. She wanted to watch the other people, but it didn't seem right. Even congregated as they all were, a person's pain is private. She stared at the body. Yes, it was now, just a body. Still Clarence, but now with the added description: Clarence's body, half-a-Clarence.

Uncharacteristically silent, and dignified- in death. 

Except for the wads of embalming cotton sticking out from his very still nostrils. From where she stood, aisle six from the front, the cotton looked like a giant booger. One that he'd never have the chance to pick out. Camera clicking could be heard from any corner with a decent light. Friends, who were also photographers. Poe-like in their dealings with pain. The instrument's snapping noise of capture seemed, all at once, more pronounced. He'd be buried forever with a cotton booger but she wondered if they  would take care of the image in post-production.

Just as the thought crossed her mind, Clarence's older brother quietly pushed the cotton higher up the body's nose, so it couldn't be seen anymore. He's brave, she thought, for he didn't cry.

A few hymns later, the gathered left the church. She found her younger brother, who had played drums with Clarence in a band, the remaining members of which were also present. They'd all been together since her brother was ten. Clarence must have been fifteen and she, seventeen, when they'd first met; a decade ago. Each of the young boys had red eyes but dry cheeks. The backs of their hands were wet and glistened; It wasn't a hot day and the cathedral almost chilly. They, too, were brave.

Everyone dissipated. She went home filled with memories of Superman tee-shirts, Slipknot and cotton wads. She took off the black dress, found her purple payjamas and crawled into them. She switched on the television and let the laughter track tell her how to react to the given situations. She found this lack of complication comforting.  It was a re-run she'd seen before, so she already knew when to laugh and when to cry.

How strange, she thought, that it was so natural for life to move on.