Death and Taxes

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You might want to sit down for this. Mrs. Marzi, my raven-haired, hawk eyed, 80-year-old frienemy from next door, died this week rather suddenly. I know. Tres tragique. I saw her walking around our lane only a day before and she seemed in fine combative form: head up, shoulders back, judgment out, making mental accounts of how much everything cost (“New gas canister, eh? How new? Old new or Expensive new? I’m sure you overpaid. No sense in these young ones nowadays. Spoilt…where’s your mother?”). I was away for a few days and so imagine my (initially angry but later shameful) shock as I came back to find a traffic jam outside my house, only to find Mrs. Mazri very much not walking.

I shall miss her. That’s a fib, actually. It’s what people say after people whom they don’t know very well but met a few times die without warning. The truth is I’m perpetually shocked when someone goes from Existence to Not Being. It only ever takes a moment and now she will never pester me about dogs or snakes or architectural discounts again.

I’m surprised how sad that’s makes me feel.

Obviously my twitch of empathy is nothing compared to that of her 90-something husband, who looked, when we met, slightly surprised he’s outlived her. I remember when my own grandparents saw Mr. and Mrs. Marzi move in to this neighborhood a decade and a bit ago. Mrs. Marzi was in full form then, her hair darker and her will stronger. Her husband was an exercise in contrast: short, bent over almost double with skin like Japanese paper, he would shuffle along an inch at a time with his walker during his early morning constitution. Everyone made bets as to how long the extremely frail looking Mr. Marzi would make it. 12 years on, he’s outlived all of them including my grandparents, proving that slow and steady wins the race.

I don’t like thinking about Death, which doesn’t really make a bit of difference. Being alive is, after all, not being dead, so it’s hard to celebrate existence without occasionally pondering the alternative. We all live in perpetual fear/awareness of a dark phenomenon that can at will strip us of our dearest, or our self. Even now I’m shaking at the thought. I think about it in small instances, like when I feel guilty about losing my temper in front of my parents and begin thinking punishing thoughts like “when they pass away, you’ll remember all these nasty little interludes and then cut yourself out of shame and horror.” I sometimes try and guess how long people I love will live, and as I approach thirties, have taken to perusing my yearbook to see if anyone has died yet (as it happens three have been kidnapped and five shot, so the odds aren’t really great.)

News of Mrs. Marzi’s death reached me around the same time that I heard that Shashi Tharoor’s wife had been discovered deceased in her high-end hotel room. The story was made for the tabloids. She recently discovered her husband’s alleged affair with none other than a Pakistani journalist and subsequently took to social media to vent her anger. Like all modern operas, this drama floated and flailed on the Great Ocean of Opinion that is twitter. Two days later, her death is being considered an apparent overdose, since there was not suicide note as far as anyone can tell.

That, Ladies and Gents, is what one calls “ way sketchy.” The Pakistani journalist is under siege (would not want to be here this week). Shashi Tharoor has in the span of a year gone from the Dumbledore of Indian politics to its Kreacher, the bitchy house elf. As an Indian op-ed wickedly said, they’ve Tehelka-ed Tharoor. Assuming there is a they, which most aren’t doing.

Like in the States, the personal lives of the famous are being held up to scrutiny in modern India out of what I imagine is gang-rape-related-societal-shame. Sexual harassment and infidelity seems to get top billing. Strangely, I had been speaking to someone just the other week about the lack of any real sex scandals is Pakistan. The Universe quickly answered in the form of the Meera Sex tape.

I am not going to use the world allegedly because, well, you cant if the tape is the first search result on Google. The actress, thus far mainly famous for how she pronounces English words in ways previously unknown, fulfilled the fantasies of the country when a tape of her (and a man she’s clearly on biblical terms with) went viral online. You don’t see much in the tape, at least not anything you wouldn’t see on a French tv channel. But the fact of it is quite surprising, as is the lack of a general uproar. I am hoping our (comparatively) muted reaction to the tape reveals that we have moved on since the Veena Malik debacle of 2011. Hopefully, given that I have no gas or electricity or hot water or a working oven, we will realize we have bigger problems to tackle. It was inevitable that we would have our own sex tape scandal a full ten years after Paris Hilton made them fashionable. As inevitable as death and taxes, as the saying goes; or, when talking about Pakistan, just death.

Mrs. Marzi would not have have agreed with that at all. And for that I will miss her.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter.

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Memorial Days

Memorial Days

The second most unusual job I took after college lasted a pitiful 5 hours and 13 minutes. I was, briefly, a host at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan that served things that may as well have been featured on Star Trek. My short training session on Day 1 ended in an altercation with a Mexican Workers Union that was eventually settled out of court. (I try not to think of it too much.) But the most unusual job I had is also the one I held the longest: associate at a gallery in New York that dealt exclusively in Israeli art. I hadn’t planned on working there; it just sort of happened. My flat-mate was an Israeli and, as it happens when you meet one Pakistani abroad, you quickly get to know the whole crew. Soon I could recite the names of the top ten artists working in Tel Aviv with price lists and mobile numbers attached.

On the whole, the people I worked with were fun, intelligent and sufficiently Middle Eastern (“let’s order hummus for lunch!”). I relished meeting kids from a country I am not allowed to visit and therefore desperately wanted to, only to find that we got along fabulously. This was mainly because, as a Pakistani in an Israeli space, my existence projected tolerance, quirkiness and an excuse to say the word “Moslem” in whispers of wonderment. Frequently I was put on display at the reception, and every time a dignitary or patron would be taken around, they would inevitably be brought to my desk to meet the rarest of attractions, a Paki among Jews.

“He’s from Pakistan! Isn’t that marvelous?” (Audrey, the owner, shrieking.)

“Really?” the patron would say, eyeing me in a way that made me feel like a snow leopard in a cage at an African general’s luxury farm. “Is that true?”

“It is,” I would say, aware that now was my time to play the Exotic Fellow from the East.

“It’s like world peace in an office!” Audrey would cackle as she led the patron on to some expensive artwork. “Viva la UN! Ahahaha!”

There was only one time my origin became a prickly thing. It was around when the Arab Spring revolutions began to be televised around the world. The news of the young Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire was making headlines, and the swiftness with which the protests erupted across the Arab world shocked everyone, especially the US. Most people responded with baffled excitement, yanked by the notion of impending democracy in the region. (It seemed, you may remember, a historic moment.)

“So what do you make of it?”

The question was put to me by an old Israeli woman in large furs who was perusing a catalogue of Holocaust-era photographs.

“It’s great!” I trilled, before freaking out. “Wait, you mean the Arab Spring and not the Holocaust, right?”

“Right…”

“Right! Yes, it’s great, it’s really marvelous…”

Most of my Israeli friends, however, didn’t share this view. And for obvious reasons. The flowers in their neighborhood would eventually, they feared, spill into their own garden. (And what a horrible thing that would have been.)

Anyway, the Arab Spring has long since sprung and gone, leaving us with countless images of heroism, outrage, a grand public spectacle and sacrifice. The Tunisian fruit seller’s picture is trudged out every year, his family is interviewed, and the many people he inspired in his country are nudged into mourning.

“Every day here feels like a barsi”

And that is a ritual now familiar in Pakistan. Take the killing last week of Aitzaz Hasan, a 15-year-old boy who “sacrificed” himself for the sake of his fellows.

Hasan was somewhere outside his school in Hangu, a Shia-majority village in North-West Pakistan. Sensing the approach of a suicide bomber, he tried to stop him, ignoring the pleas of his friends. The bomber detonated the explosives hidden in his jacket and killed both himself and Hasan. The latter is now credited with saving over the lives of over 2,000 people who would have otherwise been at the center of the attack.

Hasan is rightly being saluted as the best of us, a national hero, a true patriot. But he shouldn’t have had to be any of those things.

As PMs and CMs shed crocodile tears and make disingenuous speeches about the valorous teen, I can only think of their vile culpability in his killing. Seeing Imran Khan make an emotive speech really made me angry. I mean, a 15 year-old boy had to run into the arms of a suicide bomber because he is too chicken to admit what the rest of the world has already figured out: the Taliban and their cohorts don’t want peace. They just want you in pieces. Khan, cowardly and self-serving as ever, will not admit this because to do so would require him to work: work on eradicating a scourge from the province he fought (and fell) so hard to win. Now you run it. Now what? Yeah, thought so.

A friend said to me the other night: “Every day here feels like a barsi. Every day is a year, or 40 days, or a week since someone died, or a village was attacked.” In short, every day in this country is a memorial for something bad. So give your awards and make your speeches and gain your presidential decrees. It doesn’t matter. Because at the end of it all, we won’t put up a fight.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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Sea Sick

Sea sick

I was driving down one of the Shariah-e-Fugly streets of Karachi the other day when we stopped at a traffic light outside some of the larger hotels. Having recovered from the shock of actually having stopped at a traffic light in Karachi (“When you stop, they will come”), my eye wandered around the old buildings and new eyesores around me. Thrillingly, it chanced upon a couple talking to each other under the shade of a tree. He was touching her elbow; she was staring at the pavement demurely. They looked like a Klimt painting in dusty colors. Awww, I thought to myself, Clandestine Love Affair. They’ve probably run away from home, former members of rival gangs that are even now chasing the couple through the dangerous streets of our largest city. Perhaps she is Shia and he an MQM worker? Oooo, wait! She’s probably a Baloch and he’s a Sindhi Hindu! Or maybe…

“She’s being abducted,” my friend said in a deadpan tone. “Done deal.”

“No, she’s not,” another added. “She’s a prostitute. He’s taking her home.”

“Nahin yaar,” a third insisted. “She’s probably going to rob him!”

“You’re all sick and will have lives with no romance or dignity in them,” I intoned superiorly, but seeing the couple recede in our rearview mirror I had to admit that they could have been doing anything. I’m on my next-to-last-day in Karachi, which upon some thought is probably how lots of people living here feel. Over the last three weeks I’ve been noticing several things about the coastal city of crime, the second most important of which is: Perception is Everything.

Other than the ongoing “law and order sitch” (wonderful term Karachiites use for mass murder etc.), I sense that much of the drama of modern Karachi lies in its perception. Perceptions of which are the worst parts of town, perceptions of the best part of town, but above all else, perceptions of who are the most oppressed people. To be fair, this is a national pastime. It wasn’t until I was flipping through the telly the other day that I noticed the rhetoric of Karachi’s most volatile political party, the MQM, and found it losing its marbles. At a large, well-designed rally with no leader, the party announced it was feeling so unloved that it is threatening to secede into “Sindh 2”, a new province.

It may sound like a sequel to a low-end Bollywood action/horror show (tagline: “From across the oceans, it’s back, for another chance… Sindh 2, coming soon to a riot near you!”) but it’s totally true. Altaf Husaain, that rambling figure many have seen only on screen (small mercies), shouted that his party’s Urdu-speaking Muhajirs feel so threatened that he will demand a whole separate province, should his requests not be met. He says this from thousands of miles away, near Tottenham Court Road. Maybe it’s because I’m self-obsessed and so unused to taking much of what anyone else says seriously, but I was actually shocked that TV talk shows and op-eds ran with the story as if this were a viable request and not a mad rant from a man whose ongoing relevance to contemporary politics is more disturbing to me than the existence of diet cakes.

As we know, the term Muhajir refers to people who migrated from India to Pakistan during the Partition, leaving behind fortunes, houses, families and memories. These people often spoke Urdu as a first language, as opposed to most Punjabis and Sindhis who lived here before the Partition and identified strongly with local languages. The Partition remains one of the largest human migrations in written history, and its scars are still fresh.

I get that.

But I also get that nearly 70 years later, it is no longer a valid basis for an identity. It doesn’t compute to me that a third generation boy or girl growing up in Pakistan feels, in any real way, a recent import from India. Many people have not been permanently displaced, but still feel like it. And it makes sense that in a country like ours where no on really feels at home, any true sense of otherness is exploited by people like Altaf Hussain for short-term political blackmail. My point is not that the Muhajirs of Karachi are not “oppressed.” My point is: get in line.

Honestly, how can you revive the wounds of Hijrat circa 1947 in this current climate of general degeneration? Even now there is a growing line of relatives of “missing persons” from Baluchistan, slowly making their way on a truly long march from Quetta to Islamabad to protest (in the only way they can) the ongoing campaign devoted to their eradication. Few TV channels have covered their journey. No journalists are live-tweeting their events or pit-stops. Few probably will, especially given how everyone is watering at the mouth to see the fate of General Musharraf.

Poor Mush, so sad, so screwed, so “heartbroken.” I would feel sympathy for him had he not voluntarily returned to the country only to have shoes thrown at him. Many are calling for his death, evoking the “forces of justice” to exact revenge on a man who has made a mockery of the constitution, though he is far from the only offender.

I hope none of this gets to the stage where they hang the man. I’m against the death penalty for reasons I don’t need to explain to you. Suffice it to say that hanging the general won’t bring back the years he stole, nor undo the crimes he is accused of. In calling for his death, we think that we are projecting the perception that justice is swift in exacting a swift revenge. That’s how the law works here – in cycles of revenge. It’s a shortsighted, stupid and deliriously daft way of thinking. But justice can’t simply be revenge. If it is, we’ll never get any better. Perceived or otherwise.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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Where’s the Party?

https://i0.wp.com/snedo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/funny-memes-not-drinking-at-parties-1024x682.jpgLife Lesson #415: The best part about the roads in Karachi is not being on them.

Honestly, it’s as if giving way to another person here is a sign of existential defeat or chemical castration. Despite this, I’ve been seduced by the sun and sand of our city by the sea, and am delaying my return to the landlocked, fog-obscured, passive-aggressive party-season hell-hole that is Lahore.

Woman: “OMG, you’ve moved back?!”

Me: “I’ve been here for three years, I attended your wedding a month ago.”

*Awkward pause followed by exodus to the buffet*

It’s a joy to be in Karachi. (Bless friends with apartments here. Bless them hard.) The last two weeks in December are always a busy time in our country. Other than the endless Christmas/Quaid Day/New Year’s/Wedding parties, the late year also heralds the return of Foreign Pakistanis from abroad, an excited bunch who have the luxury of spending the end of every year with people they won’t have to see until the next (how I remember those days).

That’s the only issue if you yourself have been living domestic the entire year: the last thing you want to do is see the same faces with new implants. In that sense, Karachi has been a godsend. Why, just the other night I was invited to not one but two gatherings at Karachi’s fabled Sindh Club (I say “invited”; I mean “gate-crashed elegantly”). If bourgeois Karachites are Burgers, than the Sindh Club is their McDonalds. The beautiful place is light years ahead of its geriatric sister in Lahore or its poor cousin in Islamabad, and I don’t think it’s even on speaking terms with its counterpart in Quetta (in that sense it’s like so many aristocratic families here).

I walked into the first party to a see of a group of faces I know only from stalking the society pages. The singular disadvantage of such cursory knowledge is that you keep chatting to people you know only as “…and friend”. Still, people were attentive and happy, and I introduced myself to several revelers who actually replied with hellos rather than bitchy looks of incomprehension. There is only so much time one can spend doing this without food, and so I made my way to the grander, far more socially adept party upstairs where I spent the rest of the evening guarding my spot next to the tempura station like a lion with a grudge.

I was impressed with the dress code, which saw everyone in suits or dresses. Not summer dresses of kaftans either; I’m talking full-on D&G cocktail numbers. Earlier I had been told I couldn’t wear jeans to the club and, having packed little else (I mean, c’mon, it’s a coastal city), I immediately made my way to Dolmen Mall to get some. This mall looks like a transplant from Dubai: clean, well-stocked and crawling with hijabans and sleevelesses in the lingerie section (I don’t stalk them, only delight in their discomfort from afar). They had this super-cute little Santa’s House where Santa sat with screaming children petrified at being handed over to a pedo-lookalike. (The fake snow was nice.) But there is only so much newness even in Karachi, and I inevitably found myself landing in political conversations. Most people were talking about Bilawal Bhutto’s recent speech. You know I know you know I am not a fan of public political speeches in Pakistan, except for the classics by Rehman Malik which I think should be turned into a hit TV show or, at the very least, an audiobook. Imagine my surprise then when suddenly everyone was talking about how Bilawal Bhutto has become a rock star for “taking on” the Taliban. The speech was all over TV and was hard to miss. That someone, anyone, had the guts to get up on a massive platform and unambiguously declare that the terrorists of Pakistan are insults to Islam, and to do it without any kind of caveat or built-in loophole, deserves mad props. Whatever your view on dynastic politics or provincial parties (and God knows I have views), BBZ was able to say what no one else has so far said. Not Nawaz Sharif, not Tahir-ul-Qadri, and certainly not Imran-OMG-is-that-another-crane-Khan.

I’ve gotten so used to politicians not speaking the truth that such spontaneous acts of lucidity still surprise me. Take the news only this week of the step-son of a famous feudal who allegedly shot dead a security guard at a cinema hall because the guard wasn’t letting him and his friends in. Process that for a second. Process that a spoilt little chit of a boy ended a man’s life because of a movie ticket. Process that and you’ll begin to see what kind of place we’re living in. It may not exist in the parties at the Sindh Club, or at the New Year’s Eve gathering this past week, but it is our reality. Five bucks says the kid will be out on bail or blood money within five months.

My New Year’s Resolution is to hope that I’m wrong. Actually, my resolution for 2014 is to hope, period.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter.com

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For Art’s Sake

For art’s sake

It’s always strange when they turn off cell phone coverage in Pakistan for the day. The entire country goes through an awkward pause, everyone suddenly staring around with expressions of grim concentration as they try to recall how they used to connect before 2007.  Suddenly the landline becomes the object du’ jour and wifi is the next best thing to oxygen.

It’s a small price to pay to avoid a terrorist incident around Christmas, which you just know someone somewhere in the country is trying to pull off. This is the first time I’m experiencing the blackout in Karachi, the only upshot of which is that now I don’t have to take my cell phone out into the city and risk getting robbed. So many people have so often repeated horror stories of traffic jam robberies and daylight bandits that for the last few days I’ve been hiding my device in new and often exotic places (turbans, the lining of scarves, shoes) knowing full well that if someone were to pull a gun on me at a traffic jam I’d likely faint in a medically dramatic way and hope for the best. So far, so good.

The weather has been lovely, apart from the cornucopia of new Karachi aromas that keep wafting my way (the variations of Eau du Karachi include, but aren’t limited to, Forgotten Fish, Spilling Septic Tank, Festive Feces, Rotting Roadrunners and Citrus Sewage). I’m always surprised more people don’t wear facemasks here like they do in China.

The biggest thing on my to-do list was Pakistani art-superhero Rashid Rana’s mid-career retrospective at the Mohatta Palace Museum. One of the only ambitiously curated, long-term, large-scale exhibitions inside Pakistan, the show opened several months ago to great fanfare and joy. The Mohatta Palace, for those who haven’t been there, is a grand old mansion that was converted into one of the only serviceable museums in Pakistan (you can verify this by trying to go to the National Art Gallery only to be told the electricity has “gone”). Mohatta’s consistent excellence is due more to wonderful curators and patrons than government support. And still the show only costs 20 rupees and everyone who can, should see it. Take your kids, take you grandmother, take whoever will go. Just make sure you go. The show runs through February 2014.

Crowds love retrospectives because, as opposed to a single show with a few works, going through an artist’s collected body of work is seeing a manifest visual biography.  There are over 75 works on display in the show, which begins with Rana’s early paintings. You follow him through two decades with videos, collages and sculptures, all the time reveling in the sites and scenes that litter the landscape of a single mind.

I’m not a fan of everything in the show. Rana is famous for his enormous, mosaic-like productions, where a single large image is made of out of thousands of smaller images, and the success or shock value of the work often derives from the dissonance between the cumulative, larger image and the many tiny images that constitute it. For example, he has a large red Persian carpet that is actually made up of tiny images of butchered meats. You’ve probably seen this technique in college dorm-room posters of Bob Marley (the late singer’s face is made up fittingly of many small spliffs). There is only so far you can take this technique (though Rana takes it farther than most) and it can get a bit repetitive after the 50th work.

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Still, the exhibition is the best I have seen in Pakistan, mainly because it was curated and arranged so extremely well. Every bit of that show, from the lighting to the chronology to the very readable blurbs about each piece, holds up to an international standard of presentation that is both refreshing and seminal for our country.

Riding high on the glory of the show, I decided to call in some favors and see some private collections in Karachi that I had heard about. As in most of Pakistan, it’s the private houses rather than the public buildings that house some of the most famous, arresting, beautiful and important artworks from the region. These guys are serious collectors. The first house I went to was large and richly appointed, and didn’t have a space without a painting, sculpture or projection. There wasn’t an artist working in the last 20 years who wasn’t in that house. Not a single one. The second house was older, grander and had a collection so varied and so extensive that I came across a Damien Hirst lying in a storeroom that the host had briefly forgotten about while looking at a Kalashi sculpture, a pairing so unusual I momentarily teared up (I cry at Art, and I can assure you that it is infinitely more productive than crying at Life).

Barely able to process the thousands of images I was seeing, I began thinking about what a fount of collective knowledge and history is locked up in one house with severely limited access. The houses I visited were two of the hundreds of private collections in Karachi. Still, there isn’t a single local institution that these collectors would trust with their spectacular objects. Not one. In any other country, there would have been some kind of effort to coalesce these various mini-museums into one place where any student would go to study and learn. Unfortunately, Pakistan is still the kind of place you can’t really insure Art, and so no one is willing to take the risk of sending their 50 year old Sadequain to a place that might drop it in transit.

Eventually, these many thousands of beautiful objects that have been collected by passionate people over the years (you may be judgy judy that some people can spend so much, but at least they spend it on art) will definitely leave the country. That much is certain, unless by some miracle we can get our act together. These products of our creativity, a virtue we often forget ourselves capable of, are important and if we don’t take care of them, eventually someone outside the country will. And that will do more to destroy a new crop of Pakistani creative professionals than any amount of banning could ever hope to.

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Freedom Song

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They say famous people die in threes, and I’ve believed them since that summer in 1997 when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mother Teresa and Lady Di all kicked their respective buckets in unison and the world ran out of flowers.

Last week felt like that. Nelson Mandela, a man so iconic that most people just subconsciously assumed he’d live forever in some kind of constellation of sainthood, died at the ripe old age of 95 after leading a life few of us would have had the courage to even imagine. His passing was actually quite touching, and practically the whole world was crying “Madiba!” in tears and laughter (full disclosure: I didn’t know they called him Madiba until it became fashionable after his death). The South Africans were singing and dancing at his funeral, a lovely gesture of affection and respect. That is exactly how his funeral should be, right? A celebration of his existence.

While I was watching the funeral on TV, I noticed the sign language translator standing next to the speakers. I adore the sign language speakers (doesn’t matter where: Presidential speeches, the UN, Miss Universe) they turn regular speeches into modern dance movements and the whole thing is very “We are the world, we are the children.” The man at Mandela’s funeral caught my eye since his hand gestures were flowery and ostentatious, almost literal; when Obama was speaking about togetherness, the translator clapped his hands together and when he spoke of Mandela, I swear he was miming an angel flying up. Probably just a little theatrical, I thought and moved on.

After the funeral it was revealed to those that aren’t deaf that the man was actually a fraud, knew no sign language and had basically stood next to the most powerful leaders in the world making slightly effeminate hand gestures for two hours for no apparent reason. Isn’t that brilliant? He’s not even deaf, and in separate news he was suspected of putting a flaming tire around someone’s neck in the early 1990s (we know: South Africa was a different place then). It’s nice when other countries go through small embarrassments like these. It makes the ones in Pakistan seem, at the very least, less implausible.

Then, a few days later, Peter O’Toole died. Most of my readers under 30 may not know who he is, and for that you should be punished. Peter O’Toole was famous for his very blue eyes and for being the actor who played Lawrence of Arabia (and if you don’t know what that is then put down the newspaper, yes, just like that… and run away, run far and run fast and never return) and a plethora of other roles. I remember him most fondly from a childhood favorite called How to Steal a Million, a movie I loved because it’s about Audrey Hepburn stealing neo-classical sculpture from a museum in the 1960s. It’s not as if Toole’s death left me salivating with grief; it’s just that I realized an entire generation of people are now beginning to leave us and my biggest fear is eventually that the list will include Julie Andrews. I assure you, I will be a hot mess when Andrews dies. I mean, I’m crying just thinking about it…

Which is not the same reaction I or indeed anyone else had to the hasty departure (not from this world, obviously) of our activist Chief Justice, Mr. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary. Lest anyone accuse him of exiting gracefully, Mr. Chaudhary decided instead to leave like an elephant exiting a china shop, spitting out last-minute cases and accusations even as the hour of his termination approached. He caused major damage and it continues to surprise me how a man serving justice for all could be so blind as to think that he was its sole instrument. Now that it’s all over, he will probably ascend up to some fabulous apartment abroad. And he will go down in history as so many before him in the country have, a shortsighted executive made oppressive by his own power. Now the man has sent a request to the government (beyta wanna be nice now, huh?) for a bulletproof van and two-dozen guards because he thinks everyone wants to kill him (fair enough, actually). Reports say he is allowed only one guard, and the pedantic self-serving way he interpreted our laws have come back to bite his judicial person.

May I remind you that this is the same man who decided to sit on the bench for a case against his own son for corruption? I mean, who does that? I’m guessing they can afford their own guards is all I’m saying…

And, lest you think our mortality rate is on a hiatus, a Shia cleric was gunned down in Lahore a few days ago when two men intercepted his car on a motorcycle and shot him down. His is the latest casualty in our ongoing war against Shias and minorities. But this is the interesting thing about death: famous people may die in threes, but non-famous people die in the three hundred thousands. Who knew?

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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Saturn Transit

Saturn Transit

Happy coincidence smiled today for I’m writing this on my birthday. Despite it being a day devoted to a personal celebration of my continued existence, I’m not a fan of birthdays. Never have been. The unending messages of love and support from friends and enemies swiftly becomes a to-do list of reciprocal well-wishing, and the pressure to make one’s special day “special” ages me more than the whole previous year ever did. I have a feeling that this may be because, according to my janam kundli or mystical Indian horoscope, I am in my ninth incarnation and therefore almost done with this plane of existence (“Aren’t we all,” my mother said with her hooded eyelids – apparently my cynicism is genetic.)

For a few years now I have been getting warnings that this birthday, my 29th, is going to be deviously different. It is the year of my impending Saturn Transit, and that portends deep shifts in thinking, ethics, assumptions and situations. Have you heard of the Saturn transit? It’s terrible.

According to most branches of astrology (I realize some of you aren’t into it but bear with me), every 29 years your life nosedives into depths unfathomed in an effort to teach “lessons” to your inner being. Think of it as an involuntary rehab: your life crumbles around you and (hopefully) rises back up again like a phoenix with closure. If you believe it, this is the fault of nasty Saturn. It takes Saturn 29 years to come back to its position at the time of your birth, hence the time frame. If you were born before 1984 you’ve already gone through it. Those above 58 have done it twice (my condolences).

A lot of my friends who have jumped off the cliff into “nearly-30” before me have spoken of its effects in great detail and fear. Indeed, everyone seems to have gone through some mammoth transformation or trauma that took place in their 29th year and changed their life for the next three decades, usually for the better. My parents both had milestone years with big-ticket changes like marriage and/or children. Same story with my siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends: reporting everything from meeting the loves of their lives to divorcing their cheating spouses to career changes to children to accidents to epiphanies, each could recollect with vivid clarify the series of events from their 29th year that were to affect the course of their life for the next three decades.

Try it. Ask people around you what happened to them at 29, and most of the time they’ll give you a ridiculously profound answer like “Ah! I gave birth that year” or “Well that was the year I met Zaakir, father of my children and, later, lover of his mistress” or, in the case of one person I met many moons ago, “That was the year I first went to Thailand and was incarcerated on trumped-up drug charges.” All this is to say that I woke up this morning feeling thick waves of fear and paranoia, expecting a train to suddenly crash into my bedspread.

Even if you don’t buy into astrology, approaching 30 is never fun. You are now – I should say I am now – at the tail end of my twenties and, some would say, my extended adolescence. My generation, the one that grew up with the Internet and mobile phones and Facebook, is often accused of comprising a bunch of self-indulgent know-it-alls who are convinced of the value of their own opinions. They say this is because we can voice our opinions more easily than ever before (two years into a weekly column, I’m in no position to argue) and believe, against better judgment, that we are meant to be heard: on Twitter, blogs, TED forums.

And, considering how many of my parents’ friends are on my facebook, telling me what they’ve just eaten, this is not simply a generational habit. Still, we are accused of being too spoilt, of being told that we “matter” no matter what, something people raised before us weren’t often told. As a result, we have higher expectations from our lives; we want to be movie stars, pop icons, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, often all at the same time.

The idea that one will “settle down” is now widely seen as just “settling” and so we delay the many unions (read surrenders) that would otherwise announce our arrival into true adulthood (read lifetime imprisonment) so that we can wait for that “something better”, which is surely just around the corner. The risk is that that corner will never come.

This is less true in Pakistan, of course, where one can delay one’s adulthood well into one’s forties, if not longer (I’ve seen 40-year olds throw tantrums about why their moms didn’t make sure their meal was hotter). It’s culturally acceptable, even encouraged here, to not outgrow one’s room. (You get a “portion” when you get married, and you get the whole house when your father dies.) In any case you are expected to enthusiastically take up the rituals and feuds of the generations before you.

When I now see old pictures of my relatives, I realize that I am the same age they were when they went though historical things like Partition (my grandparents) or when they got married (my father). I’ve seen these pictures before, memorized the faces at these important events, but never did I imagine I would look at them and think “huh, I’m older than that now.”

At 29, people assume you know. They assume you have sown your “wild oats” (more like raw veggies) and are now ready to be…I ’m not sure what, exactly, but its definitely not “young”.

The truth is: I don’t “know”. I’m not sure what living in Pakistan during this time will bring for me, and I’m not sure when or if it will end or what will happen if it does.

But the few things I am sure of (they’re like three things, and they’re mostly about food) make me far happier than any kind of hormone spike from my early 20s ever did. All I hope is that Saturn gives me some credit for that, because I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Write to the kantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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The Truth About Cats and Dogs

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I had the strangest day last week and, like most major events in my life, it began with a visit to a psychic.

Well, actually, the psychic.

I had been trying for months to get an appointment with the Komal Tariq, a clairvoyant who became famous in the 90s for her uncanny predictions. Most of her clientele tended to be young girls or women from the middle and upper classes who wanted to know whom they would marry next, but then again that’s almost everybody’s clientele here, from clairvoyants to waxing-walis to haute couturiers.

I mentioned to you a few columns ago that I had been to her once before as a teenager. Recently, I got her landline number from a friend but apparently Komal just doesn’t pick up her phone. Eventually, my sister got the appointment for me. (I’m convinced Komal’s answering machine has some kind of ovarian screening process.)

We arrived outside her pleasant house just off the canal a few minutes before our appointment. A guard led us to her waiting room, which had baroque-inspired furniture and several paintings with the name of God drawn in multicolored calligraphy. There was also a picture of a cottage in what looked like Switzerland. She came out of a side door and, briefly, looked like she wanted to cry (rumour had it we were actually scheduled for the next day.) Still, she’s a sweet lady and happily agreed to see my sister anyway, recalling her face from a cold day in 1995. While I was waiting in her lounge, there poured in a steady stream of visitors to see the Great and Powerful K: two poker-faced army officer types; a young couple; two large women, one visibly suffering from an illness. Sitting next to me and speaking in a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Urdu were two others like us – psychic junkies – and I started chatting to them about the Psychics of Lahore and beyond. (“Have you been to the one off the Main Boulevard? Too scary I tell you but sometimes he can predict an illness!” followed by “Uff, no! You must try Shagufta above the United Bakery on the seedy side of Sector Y. She knows names!” and finished off with the trump card “Well, the best ones are in Indiaaaa of course…”)

Then my sister came out looking relieved but confused, and Komal gestured for me to step into her inner sanctum. “We have a few minutes,” she said and smiled conspiratorially. “Let’s see what’s what!” We sat on a sofa and she lightly grasped my fingers, stared off into a space on the far wall and began talking rapidly.

The crux? Well, she said my life has been a waste since my early 20s and but that it’s all going to change magnificently in the next 15 months (which, on reflection, sounds like what every other psychic has said). I’m going to be thirty in about that time, so I imagine she’s just picking up on some post-late-adolescent existential angst. (Seriously: who approaching 30 isn’t worried their life has been a waste and hopes it can only get better? The thing about having lived out your “youth” is that a very harsh, very honest part of you inevitably turns around with a ciggy dangling from its bitter mouth to ask in a Russian accent: “Vos that it?”)

I felt Komal knew more than she was letting on, like she saw some great cataclysmic disasters which she wanted to pass off as a garden party. She said my household would change in a few days, which can mean anything from a wedding to a car crash. The more I asked the more she kept saying that everything will simply be “fine” as long as I live in the “moment” (why thank you, Oprah). I sat with her for five minutes before there was a knock on the door for her next appointment.

“Come and see me before you move in May,” she said with a smile.

“Wait, what? Where am I moving?” I asked.

“Come and see me in May,” she repeated, and had she been wearing a shawl I swear she would have swung it around dramatically at that very moment.

On our way home we got a call from a dog trainer I’d been in touch with. Ten minutes on, I was standing on a dingy roof in Gulberg staring at three of the most adorable Labrador puppies that have ever been birthed. I chose “Lucius”, the black male of the litter, and was on my way out when a small pup began gnawing at my ankle. She looked up at me with the earnest eyes of a Dakota Fanning-level child professional, and I melted. It is the most irreversible last-minute purchase I’ve ever made. (You should have seen my cook’s face when I exited my car holding two fur coats that moved.)

I’m now sitting in my room covered by torn blankets, half-chewed shoes, urine-soaked carpets and spilt basins of water as I watch my two black puppies – Lucius and Bellatrix – try and work out self-awareness in the large mirror they’ve just discovered. Thus far, that includes them running into it repeatedly and with no real end-goal in mind. When they tire, they will crawl into my lap and pass out like Homer Simpson, only to repeat the show every hour. These are the first animals I am raising on my own, and I am terrified all the time. I’m scared every yelp is a dog stuck in the heater, every whine a broken bone, and I have one ear out for them at all times of day and night (“Welcome to parenthood,” my father half-joked). So far we’re doing well, my dogs and I. Mrs Marzi, the 80-year-old Terror from next door has already dropped by to say that dogs are haraam (true Muslims, she tells me, are always cat-persons), but scandalizing her has now become my raison d’etre.

Turns out Komal was right about my household. That’s the weird thing about seers; you, the Seen, usually make sure they’re right one way or another. I mean, look at me. Last week I was watering plants and now I am a single parent of two puppies with bladder issues. Who could’ve predicted that?

(My mistake. Silly question.)

Write to the kantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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No Woman No Cry

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News broke last week that the founder and erstwhile editor-in-chief of the Indian publication Tehelka, a man named Tarun Tejpal, had sexually assaulted one of his employees – a woman young enough to be his daughter. (I just love alliterative names like Mr. Tejpal’s. Saying ‘Lucy Liu’ out loud still gives me shivers.) The victim wrote a letter to the magazine’s managing editor a little while later, demanding an apology from Tejpal. Subsequently, Tejpal acknowledged his “behavior” as a situation misread, but the magazine didn’t make the apology public. Later still, the journalist wrote a resignation letter detailing her experience and called out the magazine’s leadership for trying to cover up the incident. She posted her letter online, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is historic, actually. Since the awful gang-rape-and-killing of a young woman on a Delhi bus last year, the toleration of crimes against women in India has seen a sharp decline. The brutality of that particular crime, and so many similar ones since then, was nauseating. The resulting public outrage singled out a very old and deep-rooted crisis in desi society. Since then, more and more Indians have been forced to acknowledge and address what remains an insidious cultural practice in south Asia: sexual harassment.

Some of the Indian media’s coverage of Tejpal has portrayed him as a loveable letch, that “harmless” pervy uncle who will hit on just about anyone because that, you know, is what geniuses do. Such a man – so the thinking goes – is to be laughingly admonished, ignored or silently endured.

That’s bull****, of course. Sexual assault is not the natural outcome of a potent personality, nor is it something that should be tolerated with an “Aww, look at the old letch!” kind of attitude. It is, in most cases, a deep violation of a civic contract – an attack, perhaps of the worst kind. That this particular instance of sexual assault pertains to the management of a magazine that routinely writes about feminism makes it so much more upsetting. And that silly common impulse, the one to blame the victim and suggest that she had it coming (eww), is unworthy of anyone with a brain cell.

Watching the electric response to all this in the Indian media, however, filled me with admiration and a wearied enviousness. The reason India is waking up and shouting about this very real crisis is because it has a massive educated middle class that is sending its wives and daughters into the workforce and wants, no, needs them to be safe. Kudos, I say. Because you know as well as I do that Pakistan wouldn’t have had a fraction of that response had something similar happened here. (I mean, the first person to comment on the issue would probably be Munawar Hassan of the Jamaat-i-Islami…) Taming sexual predators is less of a priority for us, it seems, than being able to live at all.

One of the projects I worked on during my stint at Amnesty International was Vawa, the Violence Against Women Act. It was a piece of American legislation that the activists were hoping would become a template for a UN resolution that dramatically increased the rights of women everywhere, especially when it came to their right to safety, choice and justice. You’d think that the US wouldn’t have had trouble passing such a law, but it did. Repeated trips to Capitol Hill and several meetings with senators did little to push the bill through. It took, literally, years. “Who would be against women?” I thought. “That’s just crazy.” It’s like being against the sun, or chocolate. It was an indicator that people didn’t think violence against women an urgent enough issue compared to, say, drilling rights or election campaign finances. It’s easier in places where women have more freedom, places where they can afford to momentarily forget that it is the most important battle in the world. I think it’s perhaps the most important battle in Pakistan. (And Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and Bahrain, and Yemen, and Afghanistan and…)

Every Pakistani girl or woman I know, every single one, has been harassed, pinched, fondled or impinged upon at one time or another. This society looks at women differently, as if they were aliens or sex dolls. As a tall man, I am stared at with fascination, and maybe even with curiosity. When I am with my women friends, the looks they get are of ownership, desire and something very sinister. Fact is, you probably know women and girls that have been abused. If you think you don’t, that’s likely because they haven’t told you. (And that’s likely because you’re a man.) This is true of every class of Pakistanis. Almost none of the victims will have gone public, and almost none ever will because, at the end of it all, our society and state and theology will side with the attacker.

My pet theory for why this is true is that we think segregation is a good thing to protect against spontaneous fornication. As a country with one of the highest birthrates in the world, this is patently untrue. All the practice does is produce generations of men who have no idea how to socialize with women because they don’t and can’t think of them as equals. Few are exposed to any female archetypes outside of their mothers (most divorcees will tell you grown men with mommy issues is the leading cause of breakups here) and that does nothing to help form a healthy relationship with women.

One of the ways the cruel maintain their power over their victims is by denying them education. Do that, and you make sure they continue to rely on their oppressors. Pakistan is a prime battleground, and Malala is our Joan of Arc. The TTP are against women’s education not because of scripture (and if you really think God wants your daughter to be buried alive, married off at 13, or never given a book, then you have a special, cozy place in hell) but because if they did educate them, women would be powerful. If they educated them, they would be able to fight back, like so many Indian women are doing now.

Here’s hoping we’ll catch up.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

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Pakistan’s Next Top Terrorist

Pakistan’s Next Top Terrorist

As an ambitious but embittered schoolchild, I was always curious about how other schools chose their student leaders. It seemed so foreign to me that they had elections to vote them in. Dependent on the popular vote – and, as everyone knows, popularity is everything before 18 – students in other schools would launch full-on political campaigns in the tenth grade. I mean bake sales, car washes, dubious external corporate funding, backbiting, name-calling, rumormongering, bold speeches and flimsy promises. It seemed so much more fun than what happened in my school at the time, a prison-castle where all the prefects were chosen by a principal who only spoke in coded, revelatory anecdotes like a reincarnation of Confucius.

In retrospect it makes perfect, circular sense that the premier boys’ school in Pakistan didn’t think that participating in the electoral process mattered for “future leaders” (and you wonder why democracy hasn’t “developed” here). I’d taken for granted that such is the case all around the country. I realized just how wrong I was when I saw coverage the other day of the election of the next “Head of the Pakistani Taliban”. (I think it should be a game-show called “Pakistan’s Next Top Terrorist”.) All our news outlets, hell, all the world’s news outlets were running cycle after cycle of the many runners-up that were poised to take the crown from Mehsud. It all seemed a little Miss World to me, and I briefly imagined the Final Five contenders walking up and down the rocks of Waziristan as they went though the Kalashnikov round, won points for beard braiding and rounded up the competitive evening with a talent competition (mass murder, decapitation, grenade volleyball, whatever takes your fancy).

In the comparatively short time since I returned to this country, the Pakistani Taliban have gone in our popular imagination from a fringe offshoot of a neighboring problem to The Crisis Of Our Lives. They have become a basis for spectacularly unintelligent politicians to show their cowardice on the national stage again and again. But still nothing prepared me for the reaction that we had (by “we” I mean leaders and population alike) to the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud.  Call me naïve (I’d rather you call me beautiful) but I didn’t immediately figure out how it was a bad thing that someone had finally put an end to a man that had a bounty on his head, was an enemy of state and society and had not only killed dozens of citizens but vowed to keep doing it.

I chose not to address this in my last column, distracted as I was by the wonders of Rohtas Fort. It seemed a case of national cognitive dissonance so obvious as to require processing time. On my way back, the friend I was travelling with interrupted our conversation of Mughal pasts and murky futures to ask: “Does everyone really think it’s a bad thing he died, or just that he died in a drone attack?”

The answer: I don’t know. I seriously haven’t a clue how to predict the mood of a country that is so obviously a case study for Stockholm Syndrome. Mehsud was responsible for countless murders in Pakistan. He was a man who even bombed the funerals of his victims, to finish off whatever it was he couldn’t complete the first time. He had been openly, decidedly and vehemently against the very state whose sovereignty we claim his death violated.

I just want to put it out there that while the Americans had a bounty on Mehsud’s head, so did we. We were prepared to shell out $600,000 for information leading to his capture or death, something I think we quietly ignored once he actually died. It’s the most obvious indicator since Osama bin Laden was found here that we are not wholly committed to defeating the Islamist terrorists.

Are you having an aneurism yet?

Probably not. Some of you probably buy into Imran-I’m-so-smart-I-fall-off-cranes-Khan’s puerile attempts at ingratiating himself with his vote bank by suggesting that’s its not the Taliban killing us that’s the problem (silly billy!). No, actually, it’s the Americans who constitute the singular reason why we are being massacred. All the Pakistani Taliban want is peace. When the Christians are massacred in their churches, it’s the Americans that “forced” the Taliban to do it. When the Shias are pushed out of buses and executed on highways, it’s the Americans who “forced” the killers’ hands. When the Taliban bomb the shrines of Daata Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, they do it because – somehow – they’ve been “provoked” by “American foreign policy”.

The nation is acting like an abused housewife so emotionally scarred that she believes her abuse is not only deserved but self-inflicted. The truly devastating thing is: a lot of people really believe this crap. Other than Imran Apologist Khan, a man called Chaudhry Nisar has been the biggest proponent of publicly attacking the Americans for ruining a peace deal that would, in his mind, have yielded flowers and rainbows and handshakes.

I have three things to say about Mr. Nisar. One: his argument is stupid, short sighted and unconsidered. Two: his entire immediate family are American citizens, something he first denied and then begrudgingly blamed on his wife when pressed for details. (In the interest of fair play, I suggest he either shut up or move out.) Three, and vastly more important: someone needs to tell him that toupees can age naturally if you pay them some attention. It’s getting terribly difficult to take him seriously with that mop of deep noir cascading over snowy sideburns.

But fear not, for at the end of an exhaustive search, we have a winner: Mr. Fazlullah is Pakistan’s next top terrorist. Fazlullah had polio as a child, is against any modern vaccine for the disease, ordered the hit on Malala Yusufzai that made her famous and him infamous and is said to enjoy long horse rides in the mountains. Fazlullah also had a man and son shot for not wearing their shalwars higher than their ankles. This is the latest head of the organization that we – and Imran Khan and Chaudhry Nisar – think wants peace.

It’s always bad to be on the wrong side of history. But it’s worse to be 1,000 years behind the right one.

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