Saturday, November 20, 2010


Senior citizen: The old and the beautiful
November 21, 2010
By Rabia Ahmed
To care for a helpless person is a full time job, even if one is able to employ paid help. After all, a maid also needs constant supervision and time off, so every so often, one has to step in and do everything such as wash, clean, feed, lift, turn, support, medicate and reassure the patient along with managing all the other responsibilities of life.
It is important, therefore, that the primary care giver take as good care of himself/herself as of the patient. If the primary care giver falls ill as a result of her duties, what is to become of both the carer and the patient?
Our society has many admirable qualities, but pragmatism is not one of them. I remarked to a friend, a lovely person, looking after a parent, that I wished we in Pakistan had a system of ‘Respite Care’. I explained that this is an arrangement whereby a carer who has no one else to share her responsibilities, such as another sibling at hand, could take a much needed rest by placing the patient in trained care for a short while. This may be for just a day, a weekend, or even a week or two. Arrangements such as these are an integral part of healthcare in societies that care.
Predictably, the reaction from my friend was a horrified ‘You’re saying that I should place my mother in a Home?’
Well yes, I was. When needed.
Why does the concept of a ‘Home’ scare us so much? It is because we have heard too many stories of the selfishness of children in western societies, who, we believe, place their parents in Homes and forget about them, leaving the hapless parents to dwindle and die of neglect and depression.
So let us look at the issue here, if possible without an emotional blurring of facts. To start with, let me say that I believe that people are best cared for by those they love and who love and care for them in return. Yet, for many reasons, there are exceptions, temporary or permanent.
Yes there are many cases of neglect in the West. However, the majority of children there are just as caring as the best of us here. The parents of both are looked after with love, and every concern for their comfort and happiness.
Having a parent live with us does not automatically mean that the parent is loved and cared for. Let us recollect the innumerable instances to the contrary, within our own circle, of children who are careless and thoughtless of their parents’ comfort.
And what of those people who have no children, in fact or in effect? For every group of our acquaintance there will be some who never married, three or four couples with no children, several with just one child on whom the entire burden of care devolves, and several more with all their children living in other countries, making them, for the purposes of this discussion, no different from couples without any children.
What of these people? Where do they live when they are old if no care is provided? Those of us granted a longer life reach old age, with its attendant problems. We may be blessed and have our children around us.
If we are further blessed, our children will not only love and care for us, but will be able to afford to do so. To relegate the fate of a large section of society to all these ‘maybes’ is a huge gamble.
Aged care by no means takes away the responsibility children bear for their parents, if children there are.
It exists as an aid both for the carers, and those cared for. Aged care also should not mean a depressing institutional life. If well organised, old age can be a beautiful time, in its own way, and organised care can remove the guilt from both the parents’ and the child’s mind, and make old age enjoyable and restful.
There are several levels to aged care. There are retirement communities which are a group of residential units just like the homes you and I live in, where people may live when they reach retirement age. At this stage people are still independent, but find it harder than they once did to handle things such as paying bills, arranging for home help, driving and so on. In such places, these things are taken care of by employees at a central office. People who live here lead a normal life with less stress.
A higher level of care can be incorporated when needed, with the provision of trained carers, as well as facilities such as cooked food, ramps, rails, alarms… and Respite Care.
Every human being is entitled to a dignified old age, where he or she is taken care of in a cheerful, caring environment, at home, or elsewhere. Sadly, in Pakistan the huge gulf between the rich and the poor is so much part of our background that we do not bat an eyelid at the appalling living conditions of an impoverished elderly person, yet the label ‘old people’s home’ for ourselves makes members of our socio-economic ‘class’ blanche and shudder, and immediately point fingers at the West, something we are very good at doing.
A huge section of our society is likely to be left without support in the near future, not just as a result of normal circumstances but because we of this generation of older adults that have taken such pains to send our children away from us. Aged care is not the product of a selfish society. On the contrary, it is a sign of a society that cares enough for its members to leave less to chance and fate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


By Rabia Ahmed

They say that before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them you're a mile away … and you have their shoes. 

Well, I’m just about to talk about a set of people who leave their shoes at the door, so they’re easy to steal. And I would prefer to walk more than a mile away before criticizing them, because I know that most of them cannot stomach any negative comments.  However, I shall take my life in my hands, not steal anyone’s shoes, nor walk miles away and say what I have to.  I just hope that what I say is taken in the right spirit.

Nothing is more hauntingly beautiful than the Adhan that one hears at Medina, or Mecca. Particularly the Fajr Adhan borne on the morning breeze convinces you that truly Allah is Great (Allahu Akbar!), and there is no God but Allah.  The words ‘Hurry towards prayers!’ (hayya ala-s-salah!) galvanize you into obedience and you know you are going towards your salvation (hayya ala-al falah). You even agree, however sleepy you may be, that prayer is better than sleep (assalatu khairun minan naum).

However, we live in Lahore, not far from a group of four or five mosques.  So help me God, five times a day the Adhan is heard from all these five mosques simultaneously. 

Somewhere behind a pert little rickshaw scuttling around Lahore there is the following couplet:

Ai bulbul tairee kookh say dil narm sa hua jata tha   (oh nightingale, your voice used to thrill me once)
Ab issi kookh say dil dhar say gir jata hai, kyun?       (but now it only scares me, why is that?)

Dare I apply this to the Adhan in our neighbourhood?

I prefer to believe the best about people, because it saves a lot of trouble, so I’m sure our Muezzins (people who issue the call to prayer) are nice men, and like all nice men they mean well.  But these particular nice men do not recite the Adhan nicely, because they have neither nice voices, nor very nice accents.

Abu Said Al-Khudri is quoted as saying: Allah's Apostle said, "Whenever you hear the Adhan, say what the Muezzin is saying.”

But how is one to say what the Muezzen is saying, when you can’t understand what the Muezzin is saying, and when five Muezzin’s are vying with us each to see who can best shout the other down?

Not only is there utter chaos and cacophony, but the mikes squeal.  You are awoken by the sound of a shrill scream followed by the Muezzin clearing his throat, loudly. He then proceeds to bellow his way through the beautiful words of the Adhan in a strong Punjabi accent. You almost hear Sultan Rahi saying ‘Oy’ before the Adhan begins.

This goes on in five different voices, each more unsuitable to the task than the other.  If making enough noise to wake people is what is called for, these Muezzins are doing their job just fine.

Friday mornings is Karaoke time when all the little tots from the local madrassahs have a shot at the mike starting well before Fajr, carrying on until day break. This also happens at every auspicious day on the religious calendar, and throughout Ramadan. They sing naats, hamd and duas, all on the mike, and the tunes are vintage Bollywood. 

I can understand that it must be hard to organize Adhan today.  In the time of the Prophet Mohammad (p b u h), it would have been possible to reach a large segment of the population from a single mosque without a mike.

Now, the population has grown, and so have noise levels. We therefore need to re-organise this tradition of calling people to prayer so that it reaches people over and above other sounds in a befitting manner.

I would therefore like to make the following suggestions:

It is important that the Muezzin sound pleasant, and be clear in his enunciation just as it is already recommended that the Imam, who leads our prayers, should be of pleasant appearance, and should speak clearly. 

This means that the Muezzin should have a clear understanding of what he is saying when he enunciates the call to prayer.

A system is required so that in the one neighbourhood there is the least possible overlap of Adhans from separate mosques. Maybe, we could restrict the Adhan to one mosque per every five miles?

Starting this year, the Egyptian government was to implement a plan whereby the Adhan is broadcast in the voice of a single Muezzin from a state radio station to all of the capital’s 4000 mosques via wireless receivers.  We could consider this or other suggestions.

Lastly, let’s reflect on the following Hadith by Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi: “Allah bestows His kindness and affection on those who are kind and considerate to His creatures.”

The mind boggles when you imagine how loud Adhan on a mike must sound in the immediate vicinity of each mosque. For people with babies, sick individuals, or just anyone else, proximity to a mosque precludes sleep, study, or nursing a headache, both before and after they’ve said their prayers, even though Fajr in June is at 3:15am, leaving almost four hours before schools start and longer before people in offices start work for the day.  This is not right, because while prayer might be better than sleep, sleep is also important, and cannot be done away with.

The Adhan must be based on the guidelines that while the Muezzin’s job is to issue the call for prayer it is not his job to keep people awake.  Mikes in mosques should be used strictly for the Adhan, and for the Adhan alone, when they should be in the hands of people able to use them well. 

This article was printed in The Friday Times on the 17th November 2010. The Friday Times is available online only for subscribers. 


By Rabia Ahmed
When making jam, the scum rising to the top needs to be skimmed off. Well we’re in a jam alright, and the scum has risen to the top, but there’s no sign of it being skimmed off, making us the Butt of many jokes, and worse (some situations call for rotten puns. It’s a kind of ‘venting’)

No saints, the British, and one thing is certain, they drew some very iffy lines: the Durand and the Radcliffe lines, and of course the Line of Control as well as the Line of Actual Control; according to Nehru in 1962, he didn’t even know where the Line of Actual Control was (Where? Where?). The Brits made a hash of those, but the lines in cricket were among their better ideas. They’ve been pretty okay, those cricketing outer boundaries, the popping crease, the batting crease, and the return creases.  However, Mr Butt and his uncontrolled verbuse has crossed all boundaries and left all of us shaken as well as stirred. Even the Manager of the Pakistan cricket team was moved to resign. But the big Butt remains firmly in place.

Cricket has not always been cricket, that’s for sure. There’s always a bit of robbin’ going on under the hood, a bit of tampering, many dubious umpiring decision, and almost certainly some match fixing, but by and large, it managed to stay out of the cesspit, until now that is, and it is thanks to the current Chairman of the PCB, Mr Ijaz Butt that it is now head down in the pit.

Imran Khan

I remember the good old days of Pakistani cricket.  It was Tony Greig who said, “You give these Pakistanis a wicket, and boy they love it!” There were the Mohammad brothers who seemed to have learnt to walk on a cricket pitch; the concave Zaheer Abbas with his talent for clinging limpet-like to the wicket, and Wasim Bari who in a series of three tests against England once, never gave away a single bye; the cheeky between-the-wicket partnership of Asif Iqbal and our own Speedy Gonzales, Javed Miandad; the debonair Majid Khan, and of course Imran Khan with his glorious two sixes and a four against India, on the last seven balls!!

I remember Iftikhar Ahmad’s commentaries, particularly when he almost wept along with the rest of us when Imran scored those sixes and a four, and of course Chishti Mujahid’s ‘Down he comes! Up she goes! Six he gets!’

It was still possible to be proud of being Pakistani in those days. And that, more than anything, is what people of the ilk of Mr Butt and his patrons have taken away from us: when he had done with mangling the image of Pakistan during a tour of England, most Pakistanis, cricket followers or not, were looking for the nearest very deep hole to crawl into.

It was Chishti who, when asked if he would ever accept the Chairmanship of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said, “Certainly not, neither for money, nor love, not for a million dollars.  I have observed at the closest range the pressure under which the Chairman works and I will never even come near that hot seat.  It takes a lot of guts, grit, determination, stamina, patience, intellect, administrative abilities, diplomacy and ....need I go on? I have none of these. No thank you. Best of luck to the Chairman.”

Mr Butt of the PCB
So on what basis did the patron of the PCB appoint Mr Butt to the Chairmanship of the Board? If it was on the basis of having played cricket, well so have I, on the lawn of a village pitch somewhere in Sheikhupura, and I assure you that was better cricket.

We all know what happened: following spot fixing allegations against three Pakistani players, Mr Butt responded that bookies were saying that some certain English players had also been paid enormous sums of money to lose the match. Does this remind you of a children’s playground spat? ‘Tu gadha hai!’ ‘Tu hoga gadha!’ and so on. Neither diplomacy nor intellect, then.

Naturally, if he had had any proof to support his allegations, we would all have been more than happy to hear it. But he didn’t, because following very shortly after that we find the Butt retracting his claim that English players were suspected of match fixing. “I wish personally, and on behalf of the PCB to withdraw the comments,” he said, adding that he had never intended to question the behaviour and integrity of the English players, nor the English Cricket Board (ECB).

Well what exactly had he intended to question? Their ability to eat their words? No, that credit remains with him alone. So there go guts and grits both. It appears that only determination remains, to stay where he is not wanted.

The man is seventy two, for God’s sake, and a personal friend of our Percentydent. It may just be time to dump him, and those who placed him in a position so embarrassing for us all, and so hurtful to the image of our country and cricket team

This article was printed in Pakistan today on the 17th November 2010.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


By Rabia Ahmed

Our neighbour Mrs X, had ‘billud’. I am not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg but she also had a foul temper. We often heard her screaming in fury from within her house. Following such episodes Mr X would be found standing just outside their gate, puffy eyed and trembling, feverishly smoking cigarettes. After each cigarette was smoked to the quick, he discarded it in the patch of grass outside the gate, covering it with dirt much as a cat covers her leavings.  When he was all smoked out, he crept back indoors and we would hear Mrs X shrieking again, followed by the distinct sound of repeated thwacks.

Other than being a merciless husband beater, Mrs X was a merciless cleaner. She had innumerable little ornaments around the house: the Eiffel tower jostled against ‘A Gift from Lands End’ which in turn vied for space with Nefertiti, Cinderella, a silent crowd of china ducks, shepherdesses, and a plastic Mickey Mouse wearing a sombrero. 

On Mrs X’s dressing table were many bottles of perfume, and as many bottles of medicine, brushes, combs, and at least ten photographs of siblings in ornate frames. Each of these things was dusted twice a day and sometimes thrice. The house was spotless, because every morning Mrs X dusted it herself, after her maid had swept it and thrown the daily bag of trash over the wall onto the road.

It was I who took her trash along with that from my own moderately clean house to the big bin on the main road.  Small children could be found here, picking through the rubbish and I thought of my own two children in their (moderately clean) home, but did nothing.

There are some things in life you just cannot get away from, such as air, water and food. Waste disposal may not be as urgent a requirement in a crisis, but in the long run it is just as important; if you fail to dispose of your waste properly, you will not die right away, but as sure as anything else, the day will come (and it is almost upon us), when our deaths will be a direct consequence of this failure.  What is more, to die of pollution is a worse death than to die of plain starvation or thirst. It is a lot nastier.

It is strange that we do not even begin to solve this problem, given that what mental illness, illiteracy, superstition and pornography are to the mind, a dirty environment is to the body. We work on building schools, look askance at black magic and ban websites, yet we sweep within and defile without. Do you find it as aberrant as I do, that a society that has a nuclear programme has no effective nationwide waste management system?

Solid Waste Management (SWM) has to be one of our priorities.

Solid waste is material that requires disposal such as normal household garbage and the treated product from treatment plants, commercial waste (for example from slaughter houses), and waste from construction sites. It does not include untreated sewage, or hazardous waste, such as certain chemicals, or nuclear waste.

The responsibility for providing facilities for proper waste management rests with local governments, however it is up to the citizens in their capacity as residents, public and private, to use the facilities provided by their government.

In 2007, the World Bank published a report on SWM which pertains only to some cities and areas of the Punjab, and not to the entire province.  It was presented to the World Bank and the Urban Unit, Government of Punjab in 2007.

One of the conclusions of the report was:”There is no comprehensive solid waste management guideline on a national level, addressing all important waste categories. Since the action plan has not yet been developed, the concrete approach with defined steps and milestones are missing. Therefore the basis for implementation, for the allocation of financial and human resources is still to be developed.”

The report goes on to say that according to a rough estimate, since no studies are available, the total household waste for just nine cities of the Punjab is 10,000 tons per day, or 3.3 million tons per year.

At present, waste collection services in Punjab’s cities are responsible for collecting between 40% - 70% of the waste.

Only part of waste collected thus is deposited in official facilities. The rest is simply dumped anywhere, on the street, in empty plots, or into drains, and water courses. “There is no properly designed and operated sanitary landfill in the nine cities – and reportedly not in the whole of Punjab, or Pakistan.”
Improper rubbish disposal
causing choked drainage

There has to be a final disposal of the rubbish collected and dumped at various spots. At present, it is finally dumped mainly into any open space, flood plains, or ponds.

Flooding, anyone?

It isn’t as though Solid Waste Management is a lost cause in Pakistan. All it needs is planning, and the will to make it work. We have a Government whose job, oddly enough, is to do both these things, and once done it is possible to manage waste, as illustrated by this example:

Dhok Munshi
In 2005, an experimental six month project was initiated to implement the report’s initial suggestions. The place chosen for this project was a small area called Dhok Munshi in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, consisting of about 30,000 low income people.

Because the people of Dhok Munshi are neither affluent nor politically critical, it had been completely neglected, and was without any waste management system at all.  Trash was regularly deposited on open plots which were no longer anything but large mounds of waste.

Under this project, social workers were hired to teach the residents of Dhok Munshi the importance of proper waste disposal, and a monthly service charge of Rs 30 was levied on them.  Waste was collected door to door and this collection was monitored by organisers. Once collected it was taken by collection truck to a disposal site. The dump sites were also cleaned on a regular basis.

The waste collected was sorted according to various categories, and sold to relevant buyers.

The community of Dhok Munshi responded to the scheme with enthusiasm. They cooperated throughout, paid their dues, and placed their trash in the required bags and sites.

As soon as the project was over and it was handed over to the local council however, politics took over and it stagnated.

Dhok Munshi is part of Pakistan.

There are two main lessons to be learnt from this experiment: firstly, given a chance and proper information, the people of Pakistan are obviously willing to improve their surroundings. Secondly, the Government of Pakistan needs to look beyond the selfish interests of its individual members and start planning for and implementing policies that are in the interests of the people they supposedly represent.

There is always another option, and that is to ignore our environment. However, if we do that the issues it poses will not die away. We will. 

This article appeared in The Dawn magazine on the 7th of November 2010 where it was called 'What Rubbish'. 


 This article was printed in The Friday Times on the 5th of November 2010. The Friday Times is only available on line to subscribers.  The following is a copy of the printed article:

Wandering through the perilous fields
Rabia Ahmed wonders why she is on a parched crime-ridden farm

A view of the Dera
Pistol and dol
Dung cakes
Charpoys under a banyan tree
Dying River Ravi
he dera (farm) isn’t too far from our home in Lahore, but after battling vicious traffic, we turn onto a seriously bad stretch of road, and this is why it takes almost three hours to get there.

Broken and rutted, this road winds through villages where dogs, donkeys, buffaloes, humans, tractors and ‘peter engine’ vehicles alike make driving difficult and slow. Piles of filth line the sides of these roads, beyond which green fields stretch into the misty distance. It could all be so beautiful. It isbeautiful, if only the filth could be taken away.

Small children, shoeless, and often stark naked play in all that filth. I spot a little girl along the way; no more than two years of age, she strode purposefully beside the busy road, her mouth open wide in a comically strident bawl. I think of the safety measures for protecting children in other countries, the yellow school buses with flags that flip out in the USA, that halt all traffic as children board or disembark; the ‘lollipop ladies’ in Britain who see children carefully across the road, and bite my lip. As our car bumps and crawls along, I twist in my seat and follow the tiny speck of humanity until it jumps over an open drain and into a house with a ragged hessian curtain tacked across the front door.

We pass mounds of dung cakes slapped in layers over each other to form tall mounds like termite hills. When dried, these cakes will be used for fuel. We pass through villages where women, their heads covered with colourful dupattas , walk briskly and confidently down the road, impossibly large bundles of firewood balanced effortlessly on their heads.

Small children turn in the dust to stare unblinkingly at us, or laugh and run dangerously alongside the car, pert pot bellies jutting, dirty hair matted and brownish blonde due to protein deficiency, stiffly framing small faces alight with mischief.

At the side of the road in an ageless scene, blindfolded cattle pace endlessly around a shallow well with measured steps, wooden yoke across their shoulders. The yoke is attached to a shaft which descends into the well, where a millstone grinds corn or wheat to a usable size.

Nearby sit men in risqué dhotis/ loin cloths on charpoyspulled under ancient banyan trees. They share hookahs/hubble-bubbles with each other, and also share the shade with huge black buffaloes with menacing horns on their wide foreheads. The massive animals stare out of circular brown eyes like marbles, and look down their noses at us, in an excellent imitation of supercilious Lahore begums. They’re not spoilt though, and appear supremely contented, champing their cud in a patch of mud and what else. What’s more, I’m told their appearance belies a placid nature. Crows perch happily on their broad rumps, jumping idly over lazily swishing tails.

My husband stops to have a smoke, his shirt bulging over a pistol strapped around his waist. This is a lawless area. Much like those crows that perch on the buffaloes, the desperately poor people in this area scavenge an existence from anyone who has something to offer.

We pass many school buildings, but only some appear to be in use. We pass several small shrines, strung with colourful buntings and tinsel, all of which appear to be much frequented. Pokey little shops sell a bewildering assortment of knick-knacks out of plastic jars with red lids. The eye-catching plastic is all that places the scene firmly in Pakistan today, that and the single naked bulb dangling off a flyblown wire, desperately and flickeringly trying to light the shop. Without these, this and much else around us could be a scene from when Alexander invaded the region.

The fact that the land around here suffers from an acute shortage of water is oddly at variance with its situation well within the Punjab, the land of five rivers. What makes it odder is that not far away it is possible to see the silver glint of the river Ravi as it wends its quixotic way through these very fields.

We had a choice of where to locate the farm, the side of the Ravi that floods quite often, and the side that is more infested with dacoits. Eventually we got both factors and some more, by which I mean that when the river is not flooding the surrounding land, it is almost dry, and farmers have to contend with what closely resembles a drought, while the bandits are there no matter what the time of year. It is because of these bandits that our dera is built to look inwards into a courtyard, and has few exits and no windows on the outside, in order to make it secure.

We drove between some fields of closely planted sugar cane, and along a stretch of extra sandy road, where the car needed to be shifted to four-wheel drive mode to prevent us getting stuck. After a sharp bend in the road the dera appeared suddenly ahead of us, a sprawling brick building painted white, topped by the ubiquitous blue water tank and enclosed by a wall.

It never ceases to amaze me why my husband, living comfortably with a job in the NHS/National Health Service in England, chose to leave it and retire to spend his time farming this hot, flooded, parched, crime-ridden land in this poverty-stricken part of the world. To make a choice to trade the cobbled streets and serene bucolic peace of the English countryside for dung cakes and flies and mosquitoes is beyond understanding.

And yet, sometimes I understand however dimly, such as now while I write this peacefully in a veranda that runs outside the bedrooms in our dera . A mug of steaming doodh pati chaisits at my elbow and I can hear the voices of people working around the farm, who have jobs by the Grace of God.

The tubewell is running in the yard just over the wall, and the sound of water is a soothing backdrop to the clack of my computer keys. A small courtyard next to the veranda is radiant with many different kinds of flowers, and even, to my amusement, with cauliflower, planted bang in the centre of the yard. Men make endearingly funny housewives, and this is all-man-land, and I do my best not to interfere with it.

Yesterday, our munshi’s/ secretary’s mother Jeejan (Aziza) paid us a visit shortly after we arrived. She and the cattle herder’s wife appeared just as I had fallen asleep, tired out by being jolted in the car for almost two hours.

People, particularly in the villages of Pakistan, have no concept of privacy, simply because they have none themselves. So these two women walked right into my bedroom and woke me up quite happily, then proceeded to tell me all about themselves. Jeejan is the mother of four grown children, of which two are daughters. One of the daughters has recently been turfed out of her home by her father-in-law, mercifully along with her husband and children. Her husband used to run a small grocery shop, and to my bewildered astonishment, I learnt that he now runs a ‘game shop’, where the village men and boys collect to play snooker and such. No stretch of imagination allows me to picture such a place in this village, not to mention the huge career change. Perhaps the move from being a doctor with the NHS to a farmer in this village is the closest comparison I can find.

The other lady, Zubaida, only in her early forties, is the mother of eleven, I kid you not, her youngest being a lusty seven year old. In addition, she has adopted her sister’s three year old son, her sister having passed away. Our society, foolish as it is, has a large-hearted side which is good to see.

I asked Zubaida tentatively if she intended to have any more kids, but she said with no surprise or glimmer of amusement at the question, that it was now impossible, because – and she made the sign of scissors with her fingers. I understood this to mean that one of the dream team had been operated upon to prevent the appearance of further offspring. I wondered why they had waited till they had produced a full cricket team to undergo the procedure, and asked as much. Here let me add that an advantage of conversation with persons with no concept of privacy is that you can, after becoming the recipient of the most intimate details of life, ask some equally personal questions in return, which is not what you would normally do.

Zubaida explained that they had been trying to produce more boys, but the production line kept getting clogged with girls, so they kept trying. Extremely thoughtless of the girls to hold up the issue in this way.

Jeejan then chimed in to lament that our munshi’s wife, her daughter-in-law, was pregnant with a baby girl, rather than a boy. I took a deep breath, but failed to expel it this time without reminding her that had our Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), to cite a popular example, not had a mother who was undoubtedly female, he could hardly have existed himself. Nor, for that matter could any of the rest of us, without the existence of females.

Jeejan seemed much struck by this point of view, yet sighed and said that while I was right of course, the problem was that girls often had such bad kismet/ fate , that bringing them up was not an easy matter . I told her rather tartly that many men had bad kismets too, and mentioned a distant uncle who had stepped out of bed only to break his leg, which was followed the same day by thieves breaking into his home and stealing his (very shrewish) wife’s jewellery, and all his Playboy magazines, not that I mentioned that last detail, although this seems to have caused him the most pain. She seemed unconvinced, however, and left after several more gusty sighs which did not bode well either for her son’s wife, or the unborn child. It appears that qismat is as qismat makes it, at least to some extent.

We return home tomorrow. I have to say, that I will miss this place, dusty as it is, where people, wander in and out of the house at will, and the toads are so phlegmatic they grunt ‘if you must’ before they move at your prodding. Where the dera is, there are no cars except our own. There is also a horse that we can ride, or try to ride, because it has hydrophobia and a fixed aim in life: to return to its trough of mash. There is a dog called Sassi (because she was presented to us by a man called Punnu), who has the reverse of hydrophobia. This means that she jumps into every available puddle of water, and then wipes her paws on the nearest white shalwar, preferably my husband’s. There are the cauliflowers to look forward to, when they ripen from amidst the bougainvillea and roses, and the tubewell to dip into if temperatures get too warm. There are the cicadas that lull you to sleep at night, and the buffaloes that low nasally outside your window. Above all, there is, I guess, the pleasure of wandering in your own fields, amidst your own people, in your own country, which is, I suppose, why we’re here, although at times....many times, I still fail to understand the choice. Especially, when I see the pistol strapped around my husband’s waist.

Rabia Ahmed lives in Lahore



By Rabia Ahmed

We appear, as a nation, to have some difficulty recognizing the thing called ‘a rule’ [plural: rules].  For a start we cannot figure out why rules exist, and then, if they must exist we’re quite happy to accept them for others but not for ourselves. In a strange contradiction of this fact, we are always on the look-out for new rules to impose upon ourselves, and turn of all kinds of things into rules, when they’re not. But once we grasp the fact that we have a genuine rule in front of us, we don’t quite know how to deal with it: we try sidestepping it, subverting it, and when none of that works, we break it. It reminds me of the woman in a village who, faced with a toilet (the western kind) that was out in the yard waiting to be installed, ran her hand over it saying wonderingly, “What is this?” She walked around it, prodded it with her toe, tried to pull the seat off….then spat on it, and walked away.

An acquaintance spends much time and energy stressing the rules concerning ‘correct’ use of the right hand and the right foot: the right hand when picking up things, the right foot first when going into the bathroom, and so on. Her daughter, a left-handed child, has had her speech affected because mum insists that she should use her right hand for everything, including writing. Maybe it is because of this adamant pursuit of right that mum also drives on the right side of the road. Many a time our car has narrowly escaped being plowed into the ground by her at the wheel of her Toyota coming the wrong (? right) way from the opposite side. If this is confusing, her daughter must find it even more so.

In every civilized society there are rules saying that if you borrow something, you return it.  However in Pakistan’s pinds this rule is not only disregarded, it is turned on its head: when you borrow something, you hang on to it.  And when you’ve hung on to it long enough, it becomes the duty of the loaner to recover it. He does this by asking for it repeatedly, finally coming over physically and taking it back. Transport on the way back is his headache, not yours. 

So back at our farm, we wage a losing battle against workers’ unwillingness to return items borrowed from other farms: a battery, a horse, a cow, a tractor.  They want to keep it until the owner arrives in person demanding its return.

‘Sahab, aunaa tey ik var vi mangyia nayin!’ (‘But Sahab, they haven’t asked for it even once!’), the farm workers exclaim, round eyed in astonishment at such foolishness, when my husband orders them to return a thing within the stipulated period of its loan.

This idea appears to be lurking in the minds of our rich and famous as well. After all, no one is long out of the Pind as far as their qualifications for the job are concerned, in the ‘upper echelons’ of our society and it is extremely plausible that they brought these ideas regarding loans along with them. Its just that the item on loan grows exponentially in expense with their wealth, which means that the lowly horse becomes a million rupees, and the tractor a loan worth a billion rupees, and so on.  

Many heavy weights have been mentioned among some fifty of those who have defaulted on loans cumulatively worth billions of rupees, from the State Bank of Pakistan: The Gangjis, Habibs, Adamjees, et al.

Fears have been expressed that if action is taken against these people, it would carry serious implications for the country; that the economy of Pakistan will collapse as a result.

The economy will collapse if people who are causing it to collapse are dealt with? To start with, just how healthy is the economy of Pakistan that it can hand out all this ‘free money’ and sustain the loss of billions of rupees worth of dead loans? Other than the fact that thousands of businesses have already closed their doors due to power load shedding, just how many legs is the economy of Pakistan standing on now?

Return the damn cow to its owners, for God’s sake, and let them carry on with their pitiful existence.  Must the cow be milked until it runs dry and dies, along with all its dependants?

(By the way, I’m kind of with the idea of getting eunuchs to stand outside the houses of these defaulters, clamouring for the return of these loans. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and this at least has the advantage of providing some entertainment for the rest of us, if not the return of our money). 

This article was printed in Pakistan Today on the 4th of November 2010. You may read it if you follow the link: