I’ve had the same gardener working at my house since I was a kid, and we have developed, through mutual disdain of dog-shit and palm trees, a longstanding and malleable bond. He just came back from a year or more away, during which time he claims to have made a Mysterious Mystical Journey of Self Discovery that involved, at various points: a saint, an urban gang of thieves, two prostitutes, a witch and an insecure landlord (sounds like a Spanish film, no?). I believe him when he tells me he was sent to jail because he lopped a man’s arm off. (He is handy with the shears.)

The point of this is to say that when we met after a longish absence, the first thing he said was, “Hello, Fayes. Are you happy?”

I was floored. It’s not an unusual greeting here in Urdu/Punjabi, not by a long shot. “You happy?” is just another way of saying “All good?” and people all over the country use it. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a deeply, obscenely personal question.

It’s like someone coming up to you and saying “Good Morning! Are you a success at life?” Or: “Hello, nice to meet you. Please justify your bowel health.” I was going to begin my part in the Dance of the Niceties (You well? I’m well. Family well? Family well. Kids well? Kids well. OK, now go away…) but something stopped me. I think it was genuine bewilderment. Though it may be a common informal greeting in Pakistan, it’s a bitch of a question to answer if you really think about it.

“I’m… I think… well, you see it kind of depends on… hmm…” I stammered under the weight of the question. Am I happy? Gardener was looking at me expectantly. “Well, I mean my career could be better. And I think I need to see someone for my abusive relationship with food. Also I’m so bored most of the time I could kill someone for fun…” Gardener began getting shifty, eyeing me like a mental patient with a switchblade made from bone. “OK look,” I told him. “It’s just too much. I can’t handle. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know if I’m “happy”. I mean, you can’t just go around asking people that! Are you happy? Pffst!”

I doubt he was that invested in the question, so he eyed me with a little confusion and then went off to cut something. But his question refused to go with him. It stayed with me like a skinny acquaintance at a society luncheon, massaging my ego even as it tells me that I look fat in those pants. Are you happy? It struck me like a blow to the heart, and I couldn’t figure out why.

In times of stress I go online for therapy: I had the foresight in college to become friends with a Phsyc major who is now a full-fledged therapist. Considering I have the irrational but not unfounded fear that therapists in Lahore will write blogposts about my neuroses, I find our friendship exceedingly convenient. Through tactical friendships I now have access to seven timeshares, five lawyers, three architects, two doctors, and a Manhattan real estate mogul. (Never say college doesn’t teach you anything.)

“It’s a tough question,” Therapist admitted. “It’s the toughest question really, because you are so afraid of the answer either way.”

“Ya, ya, totally,” I said distractedly between puffs of my Dunhills. “Tough question…no hope…”

Therapist is also from Pakistan, and so volunteered this bit: “I don’t think I know anyone who is happy there.”

Ooo! we have a live one!

“Omg, really? No one?”

“No one I know,” she sighed. “Most of the couples I know are cheating on each other, the parents are all going through late-in-life crises and everyone else is crumbling beneath the pressure of living in a warzone where the only priority is to get married real fast and pop out a baby like a zit.”

I hadn’t considered things in quite those terms. But I don’t know anyone here who doesn’t fit somewhere along the scale of Slightly Depressed to Bat-Shit Crazy/Public Shooter Threat. Therapist then gave me a piece of news that rocked my depressing world. Her friend from Karachi moved to Pakistan after college. Chance and circumstance brought him back to the States some five years later, where he suddenly and for no apparent reason went through a series of psychological breakdowns. He sought help and, get this, he was diagnosed with delayed onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in Pakistan. Let me state that again: his time here was so traumatic to his mental health that his mind literally invented ways to distract itself until it felt it was out of danger. You know, like soldiers in Iraq. Or Somalia. His mind felt like it was at war here.

The diagnosis, though surprising, made complete sense to me. I know you know that the daily grind of life in Pakistan takes a psychic toll on you. The constant battle that wages from morning until sunset against anything- anything from buying a toothbrush to paying a bill- is constant, unchanging and exhausting. Why should it surprise us that this isn’t a normal way of being and will eventually ravage us somehow?

Those that have been able to leave the country know firsthand how much lighter everything is when you are away from load shedding and watchful eyes and corruption and the daily noise, dust and high likelihood of explosion that defines our current existential state. The weight of war-all kinds of war- slides off with every mile you retreat, and for the briefest moment you can recall that not everything has to be difficult.

On the other hand, Mark Twain always said that happiness and sanity are incompatible. True that. Bring on the PTSD.

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

This appeared here.

About thekantawala

Columnist, Writer, Pseudonym. This blog is an archive of my weekly column for The Friday Times but we can have so much more fun than that....
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2 Responses to Happy?

  1. Mughalist says:

    I think you still might be coming out on top of Elizabeth Wurtzel.

  2. Umm… re: “Most of the couples I know are cheating on each other, the parents are all going through late-in-life crises and everyone else is crumbling beneath the pressure of living in a warzone where the only priority is to get married real fast and pop out a baby like a zit.”

    I hate to say this, but your friend’s argument is like a reverse version of “Oh everything in the west is falling apart because look at the number of single mothers and the divorce rate” that desis use.

    Not saying Pakistan isn’t fucked up, but this one doesn’t come together.

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