Northern Pakistan

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It’s been quite long since I’ve updated this blog. I blame part of it on my busy schedule and part of it on pure laziness. That said, I’m back now and hoping to be more regular with this blog.

For now, I’m posting a few pictures taken on a trek that started off with the aim of reaching Rakaposhi base camp in northern Pakistan. However, owing to snow, we were never able to reach the base camp, but compensated by going on a couple of day treks with equally beautiful views, if not more. Needless to say, the pictures don’t quite do justice to what is some of Pakistan’s beauty at its finest.

Happy viewing!

On Being Free (Part Two)

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The second (and final) of two parts of a paper written for a class on Creative Nonfiction. The first part can be found here.

A year ago, I met someone who was around twenty-two years old, and was just starting his intermediate education. He wasn’t unable to study further because of any constraints, but because he chose to do so. And no, I don’t mean he chose to slack off. What he chose to do was experiment. He told me that he didn’t believe in there being only a specific path to follow for his education, and so he was expanding his horizons by getting involved in different activities to assess his strengths. He ended up putting off studies to volunteer his time to NGOs and children’s charities that were in dire need of manpower. Time constraints did not allow me to get more details, but it did leave me thinking for days. Would anyone in a Pakistani society allow their children to put off their education, even if temporarily? This guy was one example of very faint hope, and it was incredible to see him be bold enough to take that risk. I concur with his actions though; education doesn’t have to be followed as religiously as our society expects us to. It is a good idea to try something different; it might actually end up being worthwhile.

In his Presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England, Alfred North Whitehead said that “in scientific training, the first thing to do with an idea is to prove it.” By using the word ‘prove’, he does not mean that scientific methods need to prove an idea by experimentation, but simply to prove an idea’s worth. The same applies to an education. Regardless of the subjects of study, it is a good idea to prove the worth of one’s education. This is fairly easy, because education itself has an intrinsic worth. Why, then, do we in Pakistan classify some education as ‘good’ and others as simply ‘useless’? What is interesting to note about Whitehead’s lecture is that he delivers it to a Mathematical Association, and yet he talks about the basic nature of education before moving on to its practical uses.

‘Practical uses’ is something that we Humanities majors often see as being used as a weapon against. “So you can write and understand History and can quote so many Philosophers. That’s good. But what is its practical use?” is a question that I have come across one too many times. The truth is, it has no practical use (unless I choose to become a teacher), or at least none that I can tangibly point at. My practical use of my education lies in the kind of person it is helping me become. Its practical use lies in making me capable of thinking out of the box. Its practical use lies in getting me acquainted with many intellectual topics that are easy to have a conversation on with anybody (such as, say, a person interviewing me for a job). Its practical use lies in teaching me how to work in groups for projects and how to write better papers. But of course, why would a Pakistani society consider any of these skills worthy if they don’t end in the words, “and will help me get a job”?

In one of my Philosophy classes, we were asked a question about who we would give a car ride to out of the three people: an old woman, an old friend who once saved your life, and the man/woman of your dreams? It was quite the unusual question, but the variety of answers heard from the class was quite interesting. Some of us actually put in a lot of thought in answering this question, analyzing it from all angles. However, more interesting than the different answers themselves was the instructor telling us that a year after she gave this question in an exam, one of her ex-students came back to tell her that a similar question was used in a job interview at an MNC. Guess who got the job? The guy who answered the questioned by analyzing it from a deontological and human nature ethics perspective, two branches of moral philosophy that a stereotypical Pakistani society will never let its offspring study about. How, then, can we say that Humanities is useless?

Existentialism is a topic in Philosophy that deals with the ‘I’. Existentialists believe that there is no right or wrong, good or bad. An act becomes good only after I choose to do it; an act gets value because someone chooses to perform a particular act. Perhaps if the Pakistani society gave up its clichés and embraced the existentialist viewpoint, it would react a lot differently towards people choosing to diversify their scope of education. Perhaps I chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in Humanities as opposed to an MBBS because this holds greater value for me. Why, then, should my society judge or berate me for it, when from an existentialist standpoint, I am not wrong in choosing something that holds greater worth for me? All the existentialists ask for is to not infringe upon anyone’s rights, and if a person is willing to break the norms and study something else, who is he hurting by doing so? Maybe my society is just looking out for me, but the way I see it, they are overstepping their boundaries. We talk about grand notions of freedom; why then should I not be free to choose my own path? I have a right to my own choice, and if my choice conflicts with the opinions of the masses, I’ll call it an experiment and go through with it. In fact, if the experiment doesn’t work out, then the only person I will have to blame will be myself; why, then, is it so hard for society to accept it? I spent many years of my life convinced that I would fade away into an abyss of rote learned texts and an avalanche of numbers – perhaps it is time now to get out before it’s too late.

Pakistanis teach their children to read a lot, but never to write. When we grow up, we read books written by Mohammed Hanif and Mohsin Hamid, but nobody around us would support us when we float the idea of becoming a writer. We watch movies such as Bol and debate over the many critical issues it touches upon, but people would be appalled if we ever expressed a desire to become a filmmaker. It is considered acceptable to study something that has been the model for Pakistani societies since ages, and stay jobless after that. But it is unacceptable to follow your own wishes and study something different, because Humanities then becomes synonymous with ‘useless’. My question is: why view everything in black and white? It’s not either a Doctor or an Engineer. As noble and renowned professions as they may be, they’re not the only ones. Why not let someone explore the grey area in between? Who knows, we may have an aspiring Gates or Zuckerberg amidst us, someone with the talent and the potential but being repressed by the standards that the Pakistani society has set for itself.

It is good to stick to a set of principles, but where the Pakistani society fails is that it goes deaf at the talk of a world other than those principles, blind at the mention of seeing anything that does not adhere to their set of rules. Anyone choosing to follow their own career path may be as good as ostracized. But like the albatross, those who follow their own ways are not something to be executed, because they may just be showing people the right path to follow. In the end it comes down to a question of happiness. Would we rather choose to follow a life of grind and make a decent living but live our lives like machines? Or would we want to give up these undue pressures and expectations and succeed at something we like? Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To laugh often and much…This is to have succeeded.” How many laughs can we give ourselves if we turn our lives into a fixed routine, something along the lines of ‘Punch, type, click, enter’?

I am a writer. It is what I do best; it is the only thing I know how to do well. And I say it with such conviction after a long process of experimenting with various things, trying to find out where my strengths lie. I’m the happiest when I’m constructing a story; give me a writing assignment and I’m in my niche. My goals and dreams center heavily on my writing skills. I don’t see myself as the next Dickens or Hemmingway, but I definitely see myself trying to come up to those impeccable standards if given a little push. It is true that authors don’t earn so much, but the satisfaction I get from writing is something that I cannot place a price on. No amount of monthly stipend from a job will ever measure up to the pleasures of writing for an audience. It is where my creative juices flow, and in this moment of self-praise, I see myself improving with time. If I can ever gather even a small bunch of Pakistanis supportive to my cause, I will consider it a sign of good things to come. I will see it as a hopeful sign of freedom of choices for the next generations, finally free from the shackles of societal pressures and conventions. If I ever felt like I was fading away, then writing provides the perfect means to immortalize myself. What we say and do can be forgotten, what we put down on paper can be passed from person to person, read and respected duly.

Globalization may just be the solution to Pakistan’s educational woes. While it will be wrong to say that everyone is part of this bandwagon, it will also be wrong to say that only some are on it. Many are still opposed to the idea of a freedom of choice when it comes to careers, but people are finally starting to accept the need for change. An integrated global village is making us realize how far behind we’re lacking, and since we can’t beat the world, we can join it.

It makes me happy to interact with fellow Humanities majors, knowing that they, too, chose to do something new, something different. If I convince a person to opt for this major, I consider it a personal victory, not just for myself but for this underrepresented field of education in Pakistan. I am by no means here to bring about a revolution – I am not even close to it – but a person converted is a small step towards brighter prospects. Pakistan is trending under the banners of political revolutions this year, but the biggest hope we need for our country is in the field of education only. Start at the grassroots, and then move up. Let a student study Political Sciences to understand these political manifestos. We can produce a country of Mathematicians and Doctors and Economists, but what we can’t give them is the ability to think. And that is where I will always advocate for my major, which will, initially, force you to think but will eventually end up refining your cognitive skills to the highest degree.

It often makes me wonder whether I’m being harsh on conformist areas of study or am glorifying my choices beyond their worth in a self-obsessed move. Society, of course, presumes the latter and is equally harsh for that, but this isn’t a game of retribution. When snowflakes reach the ground, they integrate to form layers upon layers of ice. However, every snowflake is different from the other one, coming together to form a whole phenomenon, which we call snowfall. I like to think of an ideal society as snowfall – assimilated together, yet every person is an individual crystal; they mix to form a beautiful image, like a photographer’s best shot or an exquisite Christmas card. We retain our uniqueness, yet know how to live in harmony. But my perception of a Pakistani society will be a different snowy picture. Beautiful to look at, snow is a cold and slippery slope once you step on it. Indeed, we might also appear as a unified community from the outside, but there are layers upon layers of this union that one would not wish to navigate; layers that will fall upon the individual crystals and crush them in the process, reducing them to nothing but mere water in the end. Such seems to be the revulsion of this unadventurous Pakistani society to these new means of education. Am I being judgmental in my claims? I guess so. Is society really that harsh? Pretty much. Is it wrong of me to choose to be the snowflake that wants to stay on top of these layers? No.

I will admit that despite certain changes, looking for a massive nationwide change is something quite premature. Maybe by the time I have children, they will also be locked in this endless battle of angst against society. But in the year 2030, when the world will have moved forward and we would still be cemented to the same place by clinging to our precious ideologies, at least my children will have the option of choosing their own path for education. Perhaps they might be able to do then what I would’ve been unable to do now – just make people see that we aren’t useless. Just like things disappear in the black hole, so do Pakistani individuals. Our society engulfs us into this unending chasm of darkness without any hope for return to the light. Eras later, I do not wish for Pakistani students to still be stuck amidst thoughts of “Get me out of here!”

What better way to start than by giving the future generations the autonomy over their own education? One family at a time, and the cycle of stereotypes may finally end up getting broken. Humanities majors may still be the smallest and lightest stroke of paint on this canvas that our society is, but at least they will have their own place in the end.

On Being Free (Part One)

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The first of two parts of a paper written for a class on Creative Nonfiction

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is condemned to be free.” He believes life to have no a priori meaning, and that what a person chooses to do is what gives meaning to his or her life.

Perhaps regrettably, this does not seem to be the case anymore. Sartre is not wrong in implying that we make a lot of mistakes in being given this freedom of choice, but what better way to learn than through our mistakes?

When a Pakistani child is born, his or her fate seems to be sealed. Of course, the child is considered to be lucky to have so many well-wishers debating about his or her future, trying to ensure from the beginning that the upcoming life is nothing short of opportunistic. But what if, one day, the child suddenly decides to stop walking the path so eloquently carved out for him, and choose a different one? Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

I chose to follow Frost’s advice, and in doing so I learnt that breaking away from the orthodoxies of a Pakistani family is much more difficult than being asked to replicate Pheidippides’ act. A four-year struggle to prove that the road less travelled was, in hindsight, the right choice for you, is nothing short of a four-year marathon to stay ahead of those who doubt you.

The age in which our parents lived was one where they were deemed to have little, if any, autonomy over themselves. But it doesn’t make sense to be stuck in the same rut decades later. While the rest of the world seems to move eons ahead, Pakistanis stay stagnated – they refuse to move forward; they refuse to change.

Growing up in an immediate and extended family teeming with doctors and engineers, I was convinced there were only two career choices for me. Now, it feels less of a conviction and more of a lack of exposure to diversity. Having a certain aptitude towards Biology, my prospective career choice seemed pretty monochrome. It only made sense for me to study all Sciences during my A-Levels. I was never the best at what I chose to pursue during both my O-Levels and A-Levels, but I got by decently enough to convince everyone that I was destined to tread the path of medicine – the path that was not the less travelled one.

The only person I was unable to convince was myself. Was I fine with fading away, disappearing amongst the labyrinth of people who devour books and cure the ailed?

A choice of career did not have to be so binary. That was all I believed, and what I stood for. When it first came down to selecting a college other than a medical school or an engineering college, I felt a little apprehensive. Perhaps it was not wrong of others to plan out my bachelors for me, because the sheer process of choosing a path got overwhelming. The conditions were simple: it had to be a well-renowned place in Pakistan. It was later revealed that the conditions were only simple on the surface. There are plenty of big name institutions in Pakistan, but what good will a concentration in, say, History be? I had to deal with a throng of such questions, until I finally settled on a place where I wouldn’t have to worry about such things for at least a year more.

If I had thought that choosing a college would be the hardest bit, then I was in for a pretty brutal wake-up call.

I spent my first two semesters at LUMS convinced that I would choose a major that had some portion of ‘Economics’ in it. After all, if outlandish amounts of money were being spent on my education, then it only made sense for me to pursue a major that would guarantee a job with a six-digit starting salary. Little did I know that I was in for a revamping of my entire thought process.

It would be boorish to mention how spectacularly I tanked in the Economics courses I tried my hand at. Math courses were a similar deal. What became the saving grace for my freshman year GPA were the courses listed in the SS (Social Sciences) stream, something that I did not really comprehend at first. When sophomore year started, I declared myself to be a Humanities major, and have never looked back since then.

Price Pritchett said, “Change always comes bearing gifts.” Given his role as a business advisor, he may have been speaking in purely monetary terms, but the quote is, nonetheless, something to ponder on. I never expected a change to be anything particularly ground-breaking, but I did have faith in the proclamation that it would yield some rewards in the end. It would’ve been downright senseless of me to think of change to be anything other than a struggle, but I also didn’t agree that it wouldn’t showcase its advantages in the end.

There was so much that I didn’t know. I had always enjoyed any Literature classes I had had during my school days, but nothing matched up to the ones I became acquainted with. I was introduced to new authors whose works I am now besotted with, learnt new ways of reading the text closely, and began writing my own works to be discussed and critiqued as opposed to deconstructing the works of famous names only. History became more than just boring names and dates and sheets upon sheets of facts that had to be memorized, and actually became what I had always heard it to be: a story. Long texts that never made much sense were no longer what Philosophy was about, instead choosing to make me think a little harder, analyze a little better, and understand that Philosophy did not have to be about Greek names and Latin texts.

But then the question becomes: so what?

The Pakistani society likes putting this question at the end of every anecdote about choosing an unconventional career path. It is quite interesting to see a person discover a new side of the Arts altogether, but so what? What good is it? Where will such a degree lead you? What will you do with your education? Where will you use it? The list of questions is never ending.

The last one particularly irks me. Clearly it is not enough to say that my education is providing me with the necessary set of skills needed to make a better person, that what I choose to study is actually honing my analytical skills and skills of critical thinking. Hospitals need Doctors, companies need Engineers, and MNCs need Economists and Finance Managers. What sort of a place needs a Humanities major? While this may be a valid concern, where we are lacking is in thinking that a specific place will need Social Sciences majors. What our society fails to realize is that we cannot point to a specific sector not because there isn’t any, but because there are too many.

When the CEO of a reputed MNC mentioned in a talk that his Finance Manager was a Social Sciences major, a lot of people were stunned. And these were students like me – my classmates, my colleagues. That alone was enough to give me an idea of what our society’s mentality is. If I am to be completely honest, in my penultimate year at LUMS, I have yet to figure out where I want to apply for jobs in the upcoming year. But it is not because of a lack of options; it is because I am just overwhelmed by the many options I have. People often ask me if I’m scared of not knowing what to do or where to go once I graduate. The truth is, I am. But it’s the good scared, the kind of scared that a new employee feels on his first day at a new job, or an athlete feels before a big match. Maybe I am a little unsure of where I plan on ending up, but I am definitely excited at the prospect of finding out. Trial and error is how we learn, and if we take the safe route, then where is the risk of discovery, the thrill of adventure? We are not robots who can go through our lives in a mechanical way; we are living flesh and blood with feelings and emotions, and once in a while we may like to let go and set those emotions free. How can one expect robots to do that?

My plans don’t even think so far ahead as to weigh out potential job prospects; they are more short-term, choosing to gloss over what courses I would want to take in upcoming semesters. The way I see it, every course is in itself an entirely new journey – there is so much to learn, yet so much to be discovered. So why think about where to go and what to do upon graduation when I’m not even done with this current journey? It is good to plan ahead, but in doing so, I would not want it to overshadow the present voyages of discovery into the works of different authors, the history of different places.

The problem with our society has been that we have adapted to the stereotypical culture our forefathers set for us. We look at workaholics and promise to produce more, which means we should force ourselves to take courses that teach us potential money-making schemes. If a student clocks up enough hours of sleepless nights, submits an infinite number of assignments and reproduces his or her text books in the exams, said student is said to fit the bill for the perfect candidate for a job. If the formula for producing a hard-working individual was that easy, then I would consider myself a front runner based simply on the number of sleepless nights spent. It would be wrong of me to say that this does not create a hard-working individual. But it would also be wrong to say that this individual is any different from the many other hard-working individuals. What this ends up producing are clones of the same traits; workaholics who can follow a given set of instructions to the core but will falter at the merest thought of surviving a day without those instructions. Charles Darwin talked about the theory of evolution, which gave form to man as we know him today. What a Pakistani society is doing is fighting with the very laws of evolution. Evolution considers things to be different from one another, but in producing these clones, we are ensuring that all our people are the same. What, then, will become the identity of a person? Individuality, which is the highest forte for every human being, is ultimately lost.

The Science that our society holds so dear conducts its experiments on lab rats. What is it that makes human beings different from rats? Perhaps the fact that those rats are all the same, while humans aren’t? If that is the case, then Pakistani human beings are no different than rats. We all want the same things and we all end up competing for the same things, a prestigious college degree and a good paying job being two of the supremely important things on that list. We are caught up in this incessant rat race to be ahead of the others, but what we don’t realize is that the problem with the rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat. The race to be the fore runner is nothing short of the survival of the fittest, an idea that Science guises under the banner of ‘natural selection’ but which, from a Philosophical standpoint, is nothing short of jungle culture. Isn’t it about time that we stop behaving like animals and accept our humanity?

I feel like I would disappear if I get caught up in the furrows of job seeking; stuck in a trench, unable to get out, my voice not heard outside. I want to work after college, but I don’t want to go back to the same trench to work, and be still caught in endless progressions of morning coffees and numbers that reign supreme. I don’t wish to be another alias; I wish to have my own identity.

Why I hold a degree in Humanities so close to my heart is for this precise reason only: it allows me to embrace my individuality. I have learnt that there is no single correct answer to any question. Every student produces a different answer, and their work is graded on the quality of what they produce. I never have to worry about what the person sitting next to me in an exam may be writing or whether my answer is as long as the one written by the smartass of the class. What I know, and almost worship, is the fact that the answers I generate reflect the person I am, and just like no two answers can be the same, no two persons can be the same either.

Maybe it stems from the fact that Pakistan is a third world country, but our society’s obsession with everything monetary is disconcerting. A college degree is looked at specifically in terms of the extrinsic (read: monetary) value it can provide, as opposed to the intrinsic value of an education. Four years of grind come down to nothing more than being evaluated on the basis of the number of zeros on a person’s first paycheck. A New York Times blog article said that “…college is to nourish a world on intellectual culture…Otherwise, we could provide job-training and basic social and moral formation for young adults far more efficiently and cheaply, through, say, a combination of professional and trade schools, and public service programs.” This is, perhaps, something that the Pakistani society fails to understand, that college is much more than just training for a decent job. Students are not pawns to be polished for prospective employers to have a bidding war over. They are people; individuals who deserve the right to choose their own path. We produce more of these identical prospective employees than there are job placements, but when are we going to accept that we’re making a mistake in doing that?

Whether it is the many Philosophy courses I have taken or just that I chose to do what I wanted, but the fact of the matter remains that I’ve become immune to talks about the monetary worth of my college degree. Every time someone mentions it, I have a mental image of students holding up their degrees in their hands while an auctioneer tries to sell them off. It is depressing, to say the least. I refuse to be put in a spotlight and scrutinized by people – the sight will be no different than when looking for sacrificial animals of Eid-ul-Azha. And whatever the case may be, at the end of the day, we are not animals. Sea pearls are sometimes encased in oysters, and it takes removing the outer oyster to expose the beauty within. Perhaps it is boastful of me to think of students as pearls, but we do seem to be trapped inside a mollusk – our society’s stereotypes.

Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” What is paramount in his evergreen quote is the use of the word ‘think’. Why produce more Doctors and Engineers who can recite an entire page from some obscure text book, but are baffled when it comes to creative thinking. We can produce good workers, hard-working people, but where do we go when we need decision-makers and managers? In shunning any unorthodox form of education, what the Pakistani society is doing is limiting creative thinking and putting a stop to the advent of new and innovative ideas. Consider the example of Bill Gates. He did not become a billionaire by finishing college. Or Mark Zuckerberg did not create Facebook by sticking to his college courses. What these people produced are examples of how far innovation can take you. They did not create Microsoft and Facebook while sticking to societal norms of finishing college. But why we can never expect any such phenomena to take place in Pakistan is because no one breaks free of the standards that society has been functioning on since the advent of time, it seems.

The Stigma of the Mentally Disabled (Part II)

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The second (and final) of two parts of a piece of Literary Journalism written for a class on Creative Nonfiction. The first part can be found here.

The Story of Helena:

Helena was a devout Christian and one of the friendliest people I had met at Dar-ul-Sukun. Orphaned and disturbed since the age of five by seeing her parents being murdered in front of her, she was still trying to recover from the shock even after more than twenty years. At first glance, she appeared to be different from the rest – different in how normal she was. She was easy to talk to and had picked up the rules of cricket, which she had developed a fondness for. Evening cricket matches with Helena were a must, as was the Christmas card she used to carry.

This Christmas card was the sole remainder of her parents that Helena clung to. It was a ritual for her to show this card to every volunteer, regardless of how many times they had seen it before. The card dated back to December 1987 and was addressed to Helena by her parents – the customary Christmas greeting. Once Helena had gotten assurance from the person viewing her card that they liked it, she used to tell them ‘Yeh kal aya hai.’ From what I gauged of her behaviour, this experience had made her lose all track of time; it’s almost like she was expecting her parents to show up at any time.

Helena was dropped off at Dar-ul-Sukun by frustrated relatives who did not know how to get through to her that the year 1987 had long gone. She was beaten up when she would get the years wrong, and her relatives eventually gave up and disposed of her. What happened to Helena was that she never fully came to terms with her parents’ murder. Society tried to politely tell, and then coerce her into accepting it, but when that didn’t work, a good beating seemed to be the answer.

Because, of course, physical mauling is the way to get the facts across a disoriented mind, right?

The Story of Sara:

As volunteers, we were supposed to spare equal time for everybody. However, we soon found our personal favourites, and mine was an eight-year-old named Sara. People often looked at Sara prancing to and fro between Dar-ul-Sukun and the park opposite and wondered what was wrong with her. Visibly, nothing, but they still chose to keep their kids away from her.

What was wrong with Sara? Fate. She had no father and a wheelchair-bound mother who needed regular sedation. So Sara, with her mother, was brought to Dar-ul-Sukun, where they continue to live to this day. Fate sure was cruel to her, depriving her of a normal childhood – she didn’t have any friends, she didn’t go to school and she didn’t have any toys to play with. But crueler than fate was society, which saw her as a disturbed child.

I have yet to understand what basis society had for labeling Sara as ‘disturbed’. All society saw was that she used to go in and out of the Dar-ul-Sukun gates, and that was evidence enough for them to label her. What society saw was where Sara lived, but what they failed to see was her energy and her ambition. She was an eight-year-old with energy that would put the Energizer Bunny to shame, and was the child who became the self-proclaimed waitress for residents who were unable to move much. She was the daughter who would wheel her mother in the lawn every evening, and who would help her handicapped mother change and get tucked in bed every night. She was the little girl who shared my love for swings and would usually accompany me to those, and who would bring books of alphabets to fulfill her dreams of learning English. An unfortunate turn of events had forced Sara to presume the role of an adult, but there was still a childish whim about her – seen in her frolics on the swings and her escapades with the Dar-ul-Sukun pet dog – that was much adored. Perhaps it was her immaturity only that got her by; it made her ignorant of how society perceived her.

Sara was just a little girl like most girls her age, but she had been stigmatized by society for something she was not even afflicted with.

Then again, why would society not judge her based solely on the fact that she lived at such an institution?

***

A project started more than forty years ago has grown much larger today. Other than the Dar-ul-Sukun head office in Karachi (described through my personal experiences here), there are also a number of other projects running in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta. These include Lemmens Home, The Dugout, JaniVille, Peace Heaven, Dar-ul-Sukun Lahore and Dar-ul-Sukun Quetta. While the last two are quite similar to Dar-ul-Sukun Karachi, the other homes are quite specialized. Lemmens Home caters to handicapped girls and JaniVille to socially displaced girls. The Dugout is the residence for handicapped boys whereas Peace Heaven is an old age home for senior citizens.

With this multi-faceted structure, Dar-ul-Sukun has succeeded in providing handicapped boys and girls with opportunities to complete their education and find lucrative jobs. For instance, around thirty girls from JaniVille attend the Christ the King School in Karachi, a very optimistic statistic, because the number of residents at JaniVille fluctuates between thrity-five and forty. The girls at JaniVille are not handicapped but are simply socially displaced, and hence Dar-ul-Sukun provides them with the opportunity to complete their education. Sara’s face is one that can be expected to surface at JaniVille in a few years and hence, at the Christ the King School, thus allowing her the access to an education that she was robbed off by her cruel fate.

While the institution is not up to par with finding a cure for the mentally disabled, it does create for them a peaceful environment to live in – a shelter from the society that stigmatizes them. Psychiatrists and counselors are called in from time to time for therapy sessions to help build the esteem of the handicapped. Medical confidentiality dictates counseling to be a topic that is not discussed with volunteers or widely publicized, but its effects can, nevertheless, be seen. Some Dar-ul-Sukun residents who were suffering from various kinds of depression are now teaching at different Christian schools on decent salary packages. When I last left Karachi, there was talk of ‘taming’ Rose via her counseling enough to find her a permanent position as a hairdresser. Peace Heaven aims at keeping senior citizens busy at their age by arranging different activities for them, even if within the confines of their old age home. These people get involved in activities such as gardening, sports, indoor board games and arranging picnics for their fellow residents. Had things not changed in lieu of his unexpected death, Mr. André would have been a resident of Peace Heaven soon, spending his days with perhaps helping with preparations for a picnic.

Other than sisters and visiting counselors, Dar-ul-Sukun has staff ranging from management personnel to nurses to maids to janitors. Only after that do volunteers fit into the hierarchy. In some ways, a volunteer’s job was similar to that of a counselor. While we were not made privy to much knowledge about a resident’s disorders (if any), we were motivating them to get back on their feet by extending a friendly hand to them. For people who have been shunned by society, a friendly hand is needed to hold in order to move on. Ultimately, all that is expected from a volunteer is to ‘help people overcome the human sufferings’, which is also the mission statement of Dar-ul-Sukun. A volunteer cannot make a huge difference, but he can help bring a little peace into the chaotic mind of a person afflicted with a mental illness. Of course, it is utopian to think of a handful of Dar-ul-Sukun volunteers revamping societal thinking.

Rose, Mr. André, Helena and Sara are just four of the two hundred faces at Dar-ul-Sukun; they are just four of the many similar stories heard. These two hundred are a very small section of the disabled population in Pakistan, which was calculated to be close to eleven percent in the last census conducted. This number can easily be considered irrelevant now, because the last census was conducted in the year 1998! Since then, there have been no concrete records of the number of disabled people in Pakistan, because the census set to be conducted in 2008 was indefinitely postponed due to political reasons. In a society where such figures are hazy, there is little hope for redress. How does one go about correcting a problem when the extent of it has been ambiguous for thirteen years and counting? Projects like Dar-ul-Sukun are micro-level initiatives to help bring about a change. While it is true that these small changes make way for bigger ones, some governmental intervention will only help this cause. However, for a government which has failed to document the magnitude of the problem, is hoping for such a macro-level change nothing short of mere folly?

Does the problem lie with our society, or with our government as a whole? Where does this problem of stigmatizing lie? Society only seems to see these people as physically and mentally retarded. However, perhaps what is different about these people is that they’re special.

The Stigma of the Mentally Disabled (Part I)

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The first of two parts of a piece of Literary Journalism written for a class on Creative Nonfiction

Pakistan is one of the most philanthropic countries in the world, and the institution of Dar-ul-Sukun in Karachi is an embodiment of this trait. Situated on Kashmir Road, the organization caters to mentally and physically challenged residents. What started off as an institute for handicapped children has now evolved into a residence for children and adults alike. Dar-ul-Sukun was established in 1969 by a Dutch Nun, Sr. Gertrude Lemmens. Assisted by the sister nuns Sr. M. Mathilda Pereira, Sr.Ruth Lewis, Sr. Angela, Sr. Immuculata, Sr. Agnes and currently run by Sr. Ruth Lewis since Sr. Gertrude’s death, the Dar-ul-Sukun home in Karachi today caters to around two hundred residents.

From the outside, Dar-ul-Sukun looks nothing more than yet another building on the street. Its red bricks are a little attention-grabbing, but not enough to make one want to go in. And why should we anyway? In a country where the norm is to censor talks about mental illnesses, it is hardly surprising to witness people’s indifference to the plights of the disabled.

A regular old building from the outside, Dar-ul-Sukun is an entirely different world once you walk in. Finely pruned lawns and a level of cleanliness equivalent to that seen in hospitals are enough to attract attention, but the real magic of the place lies in its inhabitants. As a volunteer, you have the most interaction with these patients only.

To be honest, I could not understand how my being there would help these people in any way, and had only ended up at Dar-ul-Sukun to fulfil some volunteer hours that my school required each student to do. Today, I am not only a critic of this practice of stigmatising these people, but have also ended up understanding that while my being there cannot help their condition, it certainly helps liven them up.

***

The Story of Rose:

Rose was, to put it crudely, the old woman that everyone shied away from. She had a duck-footed manner of walking and would always have a hint of drool on the left side of her lips – something that repulsed many volunteers, me included. She would make loud clapping noises every time she walked, which was a source of irritation for many. If the volunteers were ever seen running around looking for obscure corners to sit in, it was a sign of Rose’s arrival. Personally, I used to be not just appalled by her, but a little scared as well. It was only when a volunteer recounted his discomfited experience of Rose trying to kiss him did I realize that there must be something more to the woman than her outlandish appearance.

Perhaps I was too quick to judge her by her appearance. Perhaps society as a whole is too quick to judge the retarded by how the latter act outwardly. When it came down to one on one conversations, I found Rose to be surprisingly docile. She would never speak much beyond persistently asking a person what their name was, but as I got to know her better, I found out that she had mastered the art of tying a French braid, could make garlands out of roses and had a catchphrase of ‘Dekho yaar.’ I never found out what was wrong with her (inhabitant confidentiality demanded such information to remain private) but from the side of Rose that I came to know, there really wasn’t anything wrong with her.

When talking to one of the nurses present at Dar-ul-Sukun, I found out that Rose was always kept under very strict watch to stop her from sneaking out. This was for her own safety, the nurse explained, because if found on the streets, Rose would be taken advantage of and beaten up for what people would see as her ‘weird’ manners. Of course, if they knew the real person behind the rogue look, they might have thought differently.

But then, what reason does a stereotypical society have to think differently towards people like Rose?

The Story of Mr. André:

What drew me towards Mr. André wasn’t the fact that he was suffering from a stretch of loneliness, or that he had been dropped off at the place by a grandson who never came back to visit. What attracted me most about him was his name – what I presumed to be an Italian name (discovering later that it was French). There was a specific way you had to roll your tongue to pronounce it, a method that I tried to master. From a medical standpoint, he showed all the signs of depression, although that was not his major worry. What was more troubling for him was that from a social standpoint, he was as good as ostracized. He was dropped off at Dar-ul-Sukun because his house was being sold and the family was unwilling to take him abroad with them. Other relatives, friends and neighbours were unwilling to keep him, and so, when shunned by society, Mr. André ended up at Dar-ul-Sukun.

It often made me wonder why Mr. André was considered such a burden by society. He was one old man who ate very little and did not need assistance for basic tasks such as going to the bathroom. He was a person who ordered a copy of the newspaper every morning and was up to date on all worldly affairs. He taught me how to say his name properly (something that I am still unable to do) and recounted stories of buying Harry Potter books for his grandchildren. What was perhaps most striking about him was his affability – he would always be there with a customary greeting every time a volunteer showed up and would be more than happy to assist new volunteers around. His optimism was contagious, because he tried hard to not let his loneliness get in the way of rebuilding his sense of independence.

Over time, Mr. André voluntarily became the ‘errand guy’ for Dar-ul-Sukun. He would often go out to fulfill small chores such as getting bread and eggs from the nearby store or taking the little kids to the park across the road. Families visiting the park would often mistake him to be the grandfather of the kids he took to the park, but why wouldn’t they? He comfortably fit the role of the jovial grandpa for all the children at Dar-ul-Sukun.

His sudden and unfortunate death left everyone quite upset, to say the least. What was presumed to be growing buoyancy culminated in an attempted suicide – a successful one. We, as volunteers, were spared the details of what actually happened, but we were not spared the shock that accompanied his death. Society probably saw him as another old burden that just got dumped in the end; I saw him as a man whose many prospective years of life got subsumed by loneliness and depression.

No family member came to attend his funeral.

But of course, we have more to worry about in the country than the depressive streaks of the old and senile, right?

A Pakistani Kafka Parable

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At the entrance of the LUMS gate is a guard, who asks for a smart card – one that you have lost. You haggle with him only to be denied entrance. So you sit outside on the pavement in the midday sun, waiting for the next shift of guards to come. When the evening shift arrives, they once again ask you for a smart card to get through. You beg a little, speak a little rationally, raise your voice a little. But they don’t let you in, so you admit defeat and sit on the pavement. When the night shift arrives, you try bribing them. But they tell you to approach the other gate. You approach the other gate and try bribing the guy there, but he remains unmoved. So you stand outside the gate and talk to the guy from there. You ask him his name and hometown and other unimportant details, and he answers your questions while standing behind the gate you cannot cross. Night turns into morning and you sit outside next to a smelling drain while the guard beyond the forbidden gates sits comfortably on his throne. When he is relieved by the next guy on the shift, you approach the new guy. This one also asks you for a smart card, and you try to explain you’ve lost yours. So he tells you to wait while he figures out a way, and you sit and breathe in the stench again. He goes back and sits on the throne the previous guy was occupying before, and you wait for him to do something. But he just sits there, and after a while you ask him what to do. He tells you to wait, because he needs to ask some Colonel what to do and the Colonel’s nowhere in sight for now. So you wait outside some more and count the number of cracks in the sidewalk you’re sitting on. When morning turns into afternoon, you take a walk to ease your numb legs. You cross the road and walk to the opposite alleys, walking through which brings you to Chaska. You order a pizza and ask for your LUMS student discount, but you don’t have your smart card so you can’t get the discount. Your pizza is left untouched because you don’t have enough money on you to pay for it without the discount. All your money and your cell phone is in your dorm room, but you can’t get there without crossing those majestic gates that you are not allowed to enter, so you can’t even call your friends to come and help you. You walk out of Chaska and walk back towards the high-rising gates, hoping to get in this time. But the guard present now is blowing a whistle like the trumpet in Zion and herding cars in and out of that barrier prohibited for you. So you wait for him to finish, but this is an ongoing process. Undeterred, you walk towards the other gates and talk to the rickshaw drivers there. You ask them if they can drive their rickshaws inside the gates and somehow get you past the royal guard. But they refuse. So you look at the lucky people being granted entry into the holy palace and consider fitting into the girl’s red handbag. You sit on the sidewalk and shield your eyes from the sun and fall asleep. When you wake up, years have passed and burlier guards have come in with even better weapons, the drain has started to smell even worse, the rickshaws outside have been replaced by cars and you are still without your smart card.

Adams

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An adaptation of George Saunders’ Adams (the podcast can be found here). The prompt was to write something using the image of the ‘man in the red underwear’, and to stay as close to the voice as possible.

So there’s a man in my kitchen. There’s a man in my kitchen in red underwear facing my children’s room! Thank God the door is closed where my children are asleep, although I wouldn’t put it past the creep to be able to X-ray my kids through the door. Now Brian, he would be asleep in his Scooby Doo shirt, and the underwear dude would just stare past Scooby’s eyes at the thin hair on my little boy’s chest. The moron, doesn’t he know that the real hairy bit will start after puberty? Oh well, what could you expect from someone who wears red undies.

So he’s standing in my kitchen in his red underwear because he has a fetish for my son. I taught Brian well, he’d kick this creep’s red-clad ass. But then, what about my little girl? She’s just asleep in there, unaware that this guy is standing outside the closed door undressing her with his eyes. Poor Ashley, just seven and getting molested by a pedophile in red underwear! I could just kill that motherfucker! Thank God my mother is dead, else he would’ve raped her too. Like he’s doing to my daughter. Oh dear God he’s raping my daughter.

So I wonk him in the back of the head. I wonk him real good. Wonk. That’s for having sexual fantasies about my son. Wonk. That one’s for harassing my daughter. Wonk. That’s for wanting to make out with my dead mother.

Down he goes, sits on his knees. He takes a deep breath and it’s like he’s forcing his chest hair in my crotch. His chest hair would give a yak a run for its money, and I’d much rather have the yak against my crotch than this sick bastard’s chest with his weird fantasies about my kids and my dead mother and his red underwear. I could just hit him in the balls hidden under the redness and see how much more red it goes. If you ever touch my kids, I say. If you ever come close to my mother’s grave.

I am what I am, he says.

Oh bloody fuck. He’s admitting he wants to molest my children and fuck with my mother’s corpse. So I wonk him again. And again. And again. And – he ducks. Son of a bitch, he ducks.

How dare he duck? Him, facing my children’s room and wanting my dead mother and wearing red underwear, and he ducks? I’ll teach that bastard a lesson.
So I reach over and run my hands over the red fabric covering what I assume is a hairy butt, and without warning, I pull his red underwear down. I turn to face him, that part of him without his red underwear. Bloody fuck, I could’ve hidden both my kids and my mother and myself under there.

The Male Species’ Guide to Surviving the Love (part 2)

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The second (and final) part of a previously published post. The first part can be found here.

When you fail to commemorate the two year milestone in your relationship in a manner suited to her satisfaction, she will feel the need to do something to make your commitment stronger, perhaps unbreakable. She will want to talk about the future – your future, together.

You need not worry, because she will have everything planned. From your graduation to the location of your new apartment to the number of children you will have, she will know it all. You will only have to follow her master plan to keep her happy. She will have your engagement and wedding already planned – the dates, the decoration, the dresses, the venues, the guest list. She will probably even have the names picked out for the kids she will want to have – with you, of course. Do not even try to come up with a different plan, because getting her to agree to it will be akin to trying to outfox a Vegas slot machine.

She will christen you ‘Bunny’, and no, you will not be allowed to pick your own animal. The little stuffed bunnies that you see in the arms of little girls will now have a place in your room and a home in her heart. She will address you as that animal so much that you will forget your own name and will face an identity crisis by being convinced that you are a furry animal. At least you’ll be cute.

When the two of you will go to different cities for college, her insecurities will play up. She will live in constant fear of getting dumped, and will want to be stuck to you like your Siamese twin. To remind you of your commitment, she will post a black heart (the sideways cone) on your Facebook wall every day. You will be forced to change your Facebook profile picture to one of the two of you, with a caption such as ‘MY girlfriend’ on it. The picture will tell the world that she is your other three-quarters – because other half will not be enough to satisfy her. And what better way to do it than through the largest social networking site there is? It will be the digital equivalent of her having to come in and pee around your dorm room to mark her territory.

Of course, she will miss you relentlessly, which means that you will have to brace yourself for a lot of sad and crying emoticons, and a lot of actual tears as well. She will call you up at ungodly hours and wail like a banshee. You may be able to handle the tears, but you should prepare yourself for a lot of arguments as well. Since she cannot rail against the universe for its unfairness in separating two people who are meant to be together, she will use you as a vent. But have no fear, because despite the baseless arguments, she will be sure to remind you of her love every single day. She will amaze you with her commitment, because she will count not just the days, but the hours and minutes and even seconds, until she gets to see you again.

During your tenure at college, Skype will take on a new meaning, because that will be her only way of being able to see you. The two of you will extend your hands towards your laptop screens and curse it for being there. Don’t be depressed; she will make you feel better by quoting the number of days again. She will tell you that if it weren’t for Skype, the two of you would’ve broken up long ago.

Be prepared for becoming the subject of many jokes amongst your friends. They will single you out when they run out of laughs, and she will tell you that your friends are probably jealous of your relationship since none of them have been Enlightened the way you have been.

Being far away and unable to see you every week, she will get a little insecure. Cross out the little and make that a lot. She will portray paranoia like you have never seen before. Every girl you talk to will be the one you are cheating on her with, and thus will have to be excluded from your list of friends. Any female who may be in your vicinity such that you can smell her body odour will be the slut who is trying to steal her guy. If you make the mistake of getting a picture taken with a member of the opposite sex, she will walk all the way to your dorm room if she has to, just to make sure that you are still faithful to her.

While you will not be allowed to utter a syllable to a member of the opposite sex, the same rules will not apply to her. The hot-dude-from-the-Anatomy-class that she will tell you about will not be the one she is crushing on; she will say that he is one of nature’s finest creations and she is only “appreciating nature” by ogling at it. Of course, the idea of appreciating nature will go with her chastity belt.

With her going out guns blazing on all your female friends, it will only be a matter of time before you find yourself solely in male company. And then, she will worry about you turning gay and hooking up with one of the boys. So eventually, you will be left with no friends. But no worries, since who would need friends when you have her, something that she will be quick to point out. A social lifestyle is for elephants anyway, and you are just a Bunny in love.

It will be imperative that you send her a “good night text” every night before you fall asleep. It doesn’t matter if she fell asleep way before you did; if she wakes up the next morning to no texts from you, she will assume that you never sleep and instead hang out with uncultured college girls at odd hours.

She will call you all the time; she may call even before you are out of bed, and will explain that she was doing so to check up on you for your morning class. You need not worry about calling her, because she will always beat you to it. Just hearing your voice will be the caffeine rush – sorry, the Diet Coke – that she needs to get through her day. Do not worry about constantly being on the phone though; she may put it down for five minutes – maximum.

Day in and day out you will be on the phone or on Skype with her. You will create new records of texting. And even that will not be enough. She will need more assurances; she will tell you to move up the engagement date to the coming month.

Come a day when you will finally grow a pair and want to break up with her. She will not take kindly to it. Keep in mind that she is a perpetual bag of hormones. The moment you hint at a breakup, she will expel enough tears to be able to flood the Sahara that the sight alone would make you want to put off the breakup. Obviously, since you suggested the breakup, she will want you to take it back. She will need constant assurances that she is your “only love”, that she is “The one”. Your failure to provide any will be the start of the tedious breakup process.

You will tell her that you do not like being friendless. She will accuse you of devaluing her. You will tell her that you do not want to suddenly be told to get engaged in the coming month. She will accuse you of being gutless. You will break up with her. She will start plotting your murder.

The Frequent Flier

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I feel a little disappointed at being unable to post something here in ages. This has been a particularly busy semester and is giving me lesser time to blog. That said, I’m quite sad at how my blog hasn’t been updated in ages and hope to write here more often!

For now, I’m putting up pictures taken on one of my many flights between Karachi and Lahore.

Blessed with an 8mp camera and the sky at my disposal (literally), I’ll say this: Nature is beautiful!

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