Thursday, July 18, 2013


Express Tribune 22 July 2013

My champa tree was a ridiculous little bare stump - and then suddenly, a leaf, then another and then another sprung from it. PHOTO: FILE

More than six months ago, I bought a small champa tree, supposedly because my husband wanted one, but really, I lovechampa myself. It’s ‘frangipani’ in English, but it is the name ‘champa’ that means for me this short tree with a most definite idea of self.
Its branches twist this way and that most tree-ishly, its leaves a rich deep green, veined and elongated. And then the flowers, so many varieties, but all champa: the pale pink ones edged with a blush of slightly darker pink with the signature yellow in the centre…  Champaflowers all have this yellow right there. There are the very pale pinkchampas with the merest tinge of pink at the edge, the whites with a jaunty blue edging, and my favourite, the yellow throated ivories with no other colour anywhere else. Ours is the ivory and yellow, but our neighbour has the pink, and it is the most striking feature of their lawn.
So, we planted the tree and it was just beginning to look happy, when… Well, we have a dog. He lives outside and spends his life barking at the maids who walk past our house, the children skipping to school, the trash truck guys twice a day, every day, and heaven help any intruder who tries to scale the wall into the garden. Anyway that animal took exception to our fledgling champa and one night while we slept, he decided to sit on it. The tree was only about eight inches tall then, and you’d think it must have been uncomfortable to sit on it, but who knows who gets a kick out of what.
We awoke to a champa bearing all the appearance of a tree that had been sat on, flat on the ground, its leaves all pushed down.
The gardener pulled off the torn branches, and straightened the small trunk and we let it stay there in the hope that it may survive. It remained a ridiculous little bare stump in the middle of the lawn for some months and then suddenly, a leaf, then another and then another sprung from it. It is now a small tree, still only about a foot and a half, and I can’t wait for it to flower and spread its fragrance straight into our room.
The other day, when I heard about that sect free mosque up in the Margalla foothills, I was suddenly reminded of our little champa. It is through such efforts that Islam gets a new lease of life. May that mosque be allowed to flourish and function, and may all destructive creatures stay away from it. Amen.


I mentioned in a newspaper blog that I sometimes make use of nursery rhymes to teach my students (all of them from underprivileged homes) English; and that some subjects were so taboo in our culture that they had to be avoided.

Many people commented that I ought to stick to subjects the girls are familiar with. They have a point, and I often do.  But the same people also regretted the taboos. They forget that the unfamiliar is always threatening and that if one remains mired in the familiar, one loses the ability to tolerate anything else. Witness Pakistan.

Education should teach the mind to stretch and extend knowledge to where experience cannot reach, like those extendable poles with which you reach remote corners of your ceiling to sweep away the cobwebs. You do not need to visit China to know that a sampan is a traditional Chinese boat, or to visit the moon and see traces of the lunar landing to know that man has been there (our old cook, for those who remember Gulzar used to say years ago that that was all American propaganda.)  So why restrict your children or your students to the familiar?

But above all I use rhymes and other things that may or may not be rooted in the sub-continent because these girls are so grounded in the mundane, so stuck in the wretched and the threatening that they have no opportunity, not a single one, of being in touch with the absurd, neither in reality, nor in Urdu literature.

Yes Alice is rooted in an English Wonderland, not in the sub-continent, but the sub-continent is no less wondrous. Why, instead of those tragic women forever hanging over stoves and being driven to tears because they cannot be married, or because they are and possess mothers-in-law can we not have Aisha, a heroine on PTV who jumps down a mouse hole and eats first a gulab jamun and then drinks a flask of lassi and finds herself in Toba Tek Singh where she meets an inebriated mouse (he had kanji or daru, not beer)...why not? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


One day, my father advised me not to shut my eyes when I performed the ritual prayer. I was a bit startled because most people tend to do exactly that, probably to help them concentrate. But he said that the ritual prayer (not the one where you screw your eyes up, clasp your hands and say ‘Please, please pleeease God! Help me lose weight and I’ll love You forever! Amen!) should be performed in full awareness of what is around you, of Whom you pray to, and why; that it should, in addition to being an act of worship, symbolise a certain attitude according to which religion is to be studied and understood and not just practised with your eyes shut, nor its verses parroted back as litany alone.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013



Every day the trash truck comes around to collect rubbish from bins on the wall outside each house. Our bin is on the wall just outside the side gate. It is the best time of the day for the dog, the signal for him to hurl himself at the gate and do his job. Sometimes, in the covered side porch with walls on two sides it sounds as though he has managed to raise all his ancestors who are arraigned at his back, each one of them joining in, generations of suspicion of the man-at-the-gate expressed in a blood chilling volley of barks like kalashnikovs. I suspect it is also the high water mark of the day for those guys in the truck. 

They have perhaps two minutes to hurl abuse at each other, the trash guys to vent all their frustrations against their employers, against the people who put things they shouldn't in the bags, and above all against their job in that smelly, filthy truck, before the trash bags are hoisted into the truck and it leaves. But I think the dog has the best deal of all. Twice a day every day, he struts his stuff and scares the living daylights out of those men, and you know what? They have never dared to come in, not even once. 

Can there be any greater job satisfaction than that?


An Aussie Postie
..but speaking of dogs, I remember when I had started reminding myself of one. Those were the days before email, or rather when it was not as widespread as it is now; before it cost as little as it does these days to pick up the phone and talk. Away from Pakistan, waiting for someone to write I used to lurk near the post box, or keep an ear open for any sound of the Postie’s motorbike. Yes that was Australia; anytime you see a world such as ‘Postie’ you can safely assume it is. In Australia they puttered up to your gate twice a day, but although they got away quite safely each time, oh I felt like snapping at their ankles if they brought nothing for me.


The location is good, but the store isn’t easy to spot because the sign above it isn’t large. It says in a narrow script in an almost off-hand sort of way: ‘Jafferjees’. 
There’s never a scrum at the parking lot. The steps are clean and pleasant surprise, there is a ramp for wheelchair access. The door is opened for you, and you’re instantly surrounded by the scent of leather. A sales person appears to hone in on your presence and without hovering gives you his undivided attention while you’re there. He wears clean gloves when he handles the leather products.

It’s a well designed store using muted colours, nothing fancy or too large; just your average glass counters and display cases, a misfit in a city that measures it’s preferences in bling. It doesn’t push itself, you either take it, or you don’t, and you know what? You take it. 

You can elect to have your purchase personalised. It’s done efficiently and neatly in the script of your choice, carefully placed inside a soft cloth bag, and slipped into a brown paper bag. Oh and your receipt is given to you in a tiny brown envelope. 

Whether or not you keep this receipt, a Jafferjees product is accepted back for repairs years after sale without question, as a parent happily accepts a child. But the best part is yet to come: when you open your purchase at home, there, tucked away in a corner of whatever you have bought is a small card of care instructions, and visibly written on the bit that shows is a short proud statement: Made in Pakistan. 

It never fails to hit me whenever I leave this store that this is how Pakistan could have been: quiet, peaceful, and professional, clean and well presented, considerate, reliable, taking pride in itself and its workmanship. 

This was not an advertisement for Jafferjees. It was a yearning for what could and should have been, but isn’t.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Swat Jirga: For the women, by the women – but will it work?

By Rabia Ahmed                   
Express Tribune

The Khwaindo Tolana organised protests on Tahira’s parents’ behalf and pushed the authorities into registering her case, forcing the murderer to flee, a distinct improvement on the male modus operandi. PHOTO: AFP

The best environment for terrorism is ‘poverty, injustice, racism, and deprivation of human rights,’ factors identified byMalala at the UN on June 12. Pakistan, where terrorism is a major force, has them all. Malala, a living example should know, and obviously her defiance emboldened other women, since all four factors are rampant in Malala’s district, Swat, where the men are known for male chauvinism, like a dragon is also known as a worm.
Tahira, married at 12, suffered marital abuse. There’s nothing unusual about either the child marriage or the abuse, they happen all the time. One day her husband threw acid on her, which also happens pretty often. Most victims manage to survive (although many die). Tahira died a horrific death after days of agony.
Why was Tahira married at that age? Why was she not in school? Why did no one help her? And why, after she died, did the regular authorities refuse her parents’ plea for justice, or even register the case? Such are the manifestations of a government that does diddlysquat.
Government courts take years to settle cases, so Tahira’s parents took the case to their local jirga composed of men, who said that Tahira’s parents should marry their son to Tahira’s murderer’s sister. Mercifully, a women’s jirga had recently come into being, mobilised by an NGO in Swat. It calls itself the ‘Khwaindo Tolana’, meaning the “Sister’s Group”.
Naturally the male jirga does not recognise its female counterpart, which wholeheartedly returns the compliment:
“We’re fed up with male-only jirgas that decide only in the favour of men and sacrifice women for their own mistakes,” said Tabbassum Adnan, who heads the female jirga.
Just how many legal systems can co-exist before things become chaotic, or in our case, even more chaotic?
We already possess a judicial system that is supposed to deal with such matters. Unfortunately, it focuses on issues that focus the spotlight on the individual and supreme components of that judiciary to the great elation of the masses.
There’s the Taliban method. Up north, for want of the real thing, they call it justice. The Taliban’s years of power in Swat saw a liberal deployment of whips, daggers and gallows, often applied to the wrong person, too often female. Rough, swift and ready ‘justice’ and then life went on. No knocking on official doors or making endless rounds of courts.
And finally, jirgas, the third system, the cultural one.
This is what happens when demand exceeds basic facilities, or as in Pakistan, when basic facilities are simply not there.
In some countries midwives tackle routine cases of childbirth, freeing more hospital beds for others. However, these midwives are trained, and they refer complications to the proper quarters. Members of a jirga could be similarly trained to take over slack from the courts for your average case of cattle theft etc. An untrained jirga is like a grandmother prescribing clove oil which may help your aching tooth but that is all; beyond this, would you rather a trained dentist extracted the tooth, or would you still prefer your grandma’s sarotha?
So the questions are: what are the qualifications of these people in jirgas? Who are they, and what is their remit?
I write in the hope that I am wrong. I hope the women of this jirga whose courage I truly honour will achieve great things. However, in this conservative society known for its militant interpretation of religion, women are not normally too educated, if at all; witness Malala, her campaign and her fate.
The women of this jirga belong to the same community as the men. It is not a huge place, so they are likely to be connected to the men in some way. Therefore, however sympathetic they may be, how different can the women’s understanding of justice be, keeping in mind the men’s verdict in Tahira’s case? Besides, justice is not about sympathy, it is about being just.
Also, besides, these women may often themselves be victim, judge and jury, yet justice must be impartial. How can a woman be so, if her own child was shot/bludgeoned/burnt to death, or is alive yet abused and her mother must give a verdict in a similar case? Or adjudicate regarding another woman who killed the murderer of her child?
Perhaps the women’s jirga operates differently to the men’s. It is certainly a platform for the women of the area, and fills an immense void.
The Khwaindo Tolana organised protests on Tahira’s parents’ behalf and pushed the authorities into registering her case, forcing the murderer to flee, a distinct improvement on the male modus operandi.
However, AFP observes that given the conviction rate in Pakistan, it is unlikely that this jirga’s decisions will be carried out. So this group has the power to punish.
Should it? Remember granny, her sarotha and your aching tooth.
Most importantly, what’s the alternative?

Monday, July 8, 2013


express tribune

‘Halal’ education in Pakistan: When ‘pig’ in a nursery rhyme is taboo

July 8, 2013
My students, daughters of thela wallahs, cooks, tailors, have as much of an uphill task as any Jill getting permission to study. PHOTO: AFP
As certain words and concepts in English are out of their range of experience, my students, coming from an underprivileged background, find it difficult to understand or accept them. With English nursery rhymes for example, since Jack was remiss enough to break his crown, the girls thought he and Jill were king and queen, until I explained otherwise. 
Humpty Dumpty on the other hand continues to be viewed with deep distrust, however much I pleaded his cause. It isn’t, after all, normal to be an egg person. The resultant doubt of his being quite kosher creates a degree of disquiet. If ever Humpty wanders into our class my students, far from being delighted, would inch as far away from him as possible.
Nevertheless, nursery rhymes (once you’ve explained egg people and cows jumping over the moon) are useful and interesting teaching aids, generating discussion on a basic level with questions like, ‘Who is this poem about?’ or ‘Where are Jack and Jill going?’
Or, if you’re teaching tenses: ‘Who was this poem about?’ and ‘Where were Jack and Jill going?’
My students, daughters of thela wallas, cooks, tailors, have as much of an uphill task as any Jill getting permission to study, and run as much risk of breaking their crowns in their domestic lives, as Jack.
There’s Zareena, whose father threatens to remove her from school any time she displays initiative such as cooking at a neighbour’s house when there was no gas at home.
There’s Maria, whose father routinely beats her mother, who beats the oldest sister, who beats Maria… who is allowed to study only to spite her father’s sister, whose children are not similarly permitted by their father. Maria attends wearing a black abaya and scarf even at this all girls’ school, in the heat at times in the mid thirties in an un-air-conditioned environment.
So yes, one tries to make no waves because sensibilities are easily dented in Zareena and Maria’s community. Unfortunately, it takes only a tiny wavelet to rock the boat.
I thought I had all bases covered; Jack and Jill, being sinful infidels may freely climb and fall down hills and break their crowns, if that is all they do. Needless to say that the variation on the theme ‘I don’t know what they did up there, but they came down with a daughter’ would not be discussed in this class.
I reckoned without little piggy.
By the time we collectively arrived at the stage of detesting the words ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’, both perfect or continuous, the class began getting the hang of tenses. It was time to move on to singular and plural.
Since the closest to a number rhyme in Urdu ‘Aik tha raja, aik thi rani, dono mar gaye, khatam kahani,’ (there was one king, and one queen, both of them died, and that’s the end of the story) is not very helpful, and mine is an English class anyway, I settled on the five little piggies to teach about one or more of a given thing.
Which piggy went to market? How many piggies were there in all? If each pig ate one loaf, how many loaves did he buy?
Note the ‘loaves’ cunningly placed in the same sentence, with ‘loaf’, plural and singular with a vengeance.
A pall hung over the class. I presumed it was the heat, and it was a singularly hot day; the girls were muffled in headscarves and coats and other trailing and stifling things.  I took a sip of water.
“The first little piggy went to market.  How many piggies were there in all?”
The silence in the class was palpable.
“Come on, girls! The first little piggy went to market, the second one stayed at home… look, it’s right here on the board. How many piggies were there in all? Tell me.”
The class remained unusually obtuse, and I didn’t understand it, until the following day when Zareena’s father arrived at the school, and this time the transgressor was not Zareena.
We had a talk, the director and I, and an incontrovertible fact emerged: animals, real or imaginary, were divided into two categories: halal or those that must not be named’… and pigs belonged to the latter so they must never be mentioned.
This batch of girls has since learnt singular and plural using down to earth cats (dogs verge perilously on the edge, as ‘those that must not be named); but for the next batch, piggy is set to become Mickey. So: this little Mickey went to market, this little Mickey stayed at home.
Zareena’s education depends on such things, or else she too stays at home, like the second little Pi…er…Mickey.
Some things hang by an awfully slender thread.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


The murder of Aziz Khan
July, 2013   PIQUE 

The murder of Aziz Khan

A prescient novel about the evolving Pakistani Society by Zulfiqar Ghose

After taking over in a military coup, Ayub Khan was elected president, Pakistan and India fought a war and the turmoil led to Yahya Khan taking over in another military coup. In an unsettling atmosphere the 1960s, injustice and corruption started to thrive in Pakistan.
The destruction of a common man in the gradually decaying milieu of ‘60s is movingly illustrated in ‘The Murder of Aziz Khan,’ first published in London in 1967.
The book was eerily prescient and holds true for Pakistan today. And it is perhaps the reason that the novel was re-printed in Pakistan in 2013 by Oxford University Press. It gives an insight into the evil and vice that germinated at the inception of the country.
Aziz Khan, a small landowner, is the father of two sons and three daughters. A dignified man, eminently content with life; his seventy acres of land ‘did not appear to him as a property with a market value. It was a sufficiency of existence, so that nobody could take the land away from him without first taking away his existence.’  Which is exactly what the Shah brothers tried to do.
Forerunners of today’s powerful land mafias, backed by greed, lack of scruples, an excess of money, and contacts, the Shah brothers hated the Khan’s peaceful spirit.  They tried to break it, and make Khan pay for his pride.
‘I wonder why he’s so damn proud?’ (said one of the Shah brothers?)
That one question encapsulates the breaking down of an entire nation’s spirit.
Authors writing in a language not native to their characters often face the challenge of how to make their characters speak the language as if its their own.
Using Shazaf Fatima Haider’s book ‘How it Happened’ (Penguin Books India, 2012) to illustrate this point, the feisty Dadi’ in the novel speaks with a liberal sprinkling of phrases such as: ‘Date-shate,’ ‘Shaadi-waadi’. But then a real life Dadi in similar circumstances could, and very probably would, speak English and might well use such turns of phrase.
The characters in Zulfiqar Ghose’s book, most of them uneducated villagers, also speak English, although they would only speak Punjabi, certainly not English in real life; but of course, this is an English book.
But here’s the difference: Haider has an affectionate dig at Dadi’s language which is Dadi’s own. Ghose’s characters, speaking as the author made them speak, are sneered at for their language by the author throughout the book.
That is probably the biggest flaw in the book. Having said that, its message-- a powerful warning against corruption and indiscriminate industrialisation-- is intact and crucial.  It is no mean feat of imagination to predict the natural progression of a social tendency: an ill, from seed to maturity, and portray the havoc it creates so poignantly, which is what Ghose has done.
It is something that authors such as Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck have written of, that completeness within a human being which is debased by modernism and greed, and that is where Ghose in his foreword to this edition places the literary antecedents of this book. 
Definitely, it contains the same earthiness and simplicity that has to do with a passion for the land:  Sitting in his yard in the evening, Aziz Khan feels a ‘slow voluptuous relaxation creep into his body.’ This passion when corrupted reeks of steel and concrete:‘The sun that late summer afternoon seemed to be steel, the air of concrete.’ 
Ghose’s own antecedents are somewhat uprooted. Born in Sialkot, he lived a very short few years in what is now Pakistan, then India, and the major part of his life in England (he is an alumnus of Keele University), and then the USA.  He now lives in Austin, Texas with his Brazilian wife, a painter. 
Ghose is the author of many books of fiction, criticism, and poetry, but this ‘The Murder of Aziz Khan’ is the only one set in Pakistan. One has to admire Ghose’s vision. His characters are the forerunners of others to come such as the village ‘hakeem’, who prescribes quinine and aspirin for every malady: two tablets every three hours for twenty four hours, never mind what. 
One of the Shah brothers, prior to partition, was in the habit of going into Hindu temples to place fruit at the feet of the idols, a time bomb embedded in the water melon, a forerunner of the militants and extremists with which also, this country is riddled today, in addition to the village ‘hakims’ and the unscrupulous rich. It is hard to tell which of these is more destructive.