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In Search of a Letter from 1965

7 Sep

Nana (1952) in his Guides Cavalry Formal Uniform

In 1965, my grandfather, Major Ahsan Omar, was fighting in the Battle of Chawinda, near Sialkot. It was one of the fiercest battles in the war; the largest tank battle after World War II. Amidst the heavy tank shelling and artillery fire as guns thundered and planes roared in the skies above, it did not always seem like those who fought in the Sialkot Sector would make it home. Many brave men didn’t.

One night when the fighting was particularly intense, my grandfather also believed that death was imminent. Fearing that he would not see his family again, he began writing a letter to my mother, his only child at the time. He wanted to say a final goodbye and offer some words of wisdom from the battlefield. But he was never able to finish the letter as the fighting resumed. In the chaos of war, the letter got left behind on the battlefield as his division of tanks moved to a different position. Continue reading



19 Dec

Your hair says a lot about you. And what other people say about your hair says a lot about them.

Today, while waiting for my turn at the salon before getting my hair washed and blow dried (or blow fried which is the more appropriate term) I decided to run a small poll on bbm about how to get my hair done. I messaged everyone on my list and asked, “straight or curly?”

Now I’ve done statistics 101 and know a little bit about opinion polls and samples. So let me admit at the onset that the sample polled was not statistically significant or representative in any way but they were really interesting and merit a blog post.

 The sample polled were adult men and women all under the age of 35. They all own blackberries and are predictably upwardly mobile young professional types. Since my methodology was not as robust as I would have liked it to be (read: it sucked!) I will not present you with numbers but analyze the trends that emerged and what I – in my infinite wisdom – concluded from them.

Pakistani boys said straight hair

Gora (read foreign) boys said wavy.

Pakistani girls were split in their decision, however those from Karachi unanimously and, I might add, immediately voted for wavy.

Gori (read foreign) girls and Samar said curly.

So what does this tell us about Pakistani society at large?

Pakistani men are largely still wedded to the idea of some naek parveen type with straight hair and fair skin – they like it safe.

Goras boys and Karachi girls embrace the idea of the more unpredictable fun and flirtatious wavy hair. Note that they also picked an option (without being prompted) that was not given. They pick the road less travelled.  They also like to be non-committal and keep it interesting – choosing between the best of both worlds (straight or curly) and not really committing to either.

Feminism has made much more of a mark on women in the west then it has on women here. My sisters abroad were all about getting rid of the straight and going with the curl – defying convention and standard notions of beauty – they were all gung-ho about curls. They like it curly, less contrived. They are done with boring and straight and fake.

Pakistani women were predictably divided. And it’s not surprising. We’re not sure whether we want it straight or curly. Some of us are definitely more in line with our foreign sisters and are emancipated and riding the third wave of feminism. The rest of us are still trying to fit in with what society expects of us so after we get done with our high-powered job, we go to the salon and get our hair blow dried straight and then expect to meet man of our dreams at the wedding party that will be populated by nothing but predatory aunties and their not so stellar sons. 

But till we figure out our identity crisis – we will continue to poll our friends and get hair styling advice and keep hoping for prince charming to show up and tell us that he doesn’t really care if its straight or curly!

Say No to Conformity

28 Nov

A friend of mine told a famous member of the Islamabadi Chatterati that she disliked the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan. She thought these laws were unjust and were used to persecute minorities. She was of the opinion that these laws needed to be repealed. He, famous columnist and policy analyst, was of the opinion that since she did not like the laws in the country, she should get on a plane and leave; travel to more liberal shores where such laws do not exist and neither is there popular support for them.

“Get a green card and go,” she was told. Apparently, her criticism of the state and its laws, that enjoy support from the masses, makes her unworthy of being a citizen of Pakistan.  She also wears jeans and speaks in English and this also apparently detracts from her Pakistani-ness and makes her less worthy of holding the hallowed green passport or living on the pious shores of the great Islamic Republic.

Now, said commentator also wears jeans, western garb and hob-nobs quite frequently with the white folk; those dushmans of Islam and those busy in plotting the downfall of the shinning beacon of Islamic light – Pakistan. But, this is not of consequence, because Mr. Chatterati despite all of the afore-mentioned is committed to upholding what the masses of Pakistan believe in and conforming to and promoting “mainstream” and therefore “authentic” Pakistani sentiments. Hence, he is worthy of being a citizen, but furious friend is not.

He believes that all the noise created by the “liberal elite” for the repeal of the laws is out of touch with reality.  And there should be no calls for repeal (those people should leave Pakistan). He agrees with supporting a move towards amending the law to prevent their misuse.

There are a couple of problems with this dangerous call for conformity.

While I agree completely with Sir Chatterati that calls for repeal are unlikely to be met with success and that we should focus on building support to amend the laws, I disagree completely, that those who demand repeal of the laws should be silenced, ridiculed or asked to leave the country. For far too long, liberals in this country have been asked to conform to the mainstream – a mainstream that is not appropriately educated or given access to diversity. People like my friend are forced through coercion, bullying and social exclusion to become like the majority in this country who do not believe in human rights, or free speech or even condemning hate speech. Just because they are a majority does not make them right. And sometimes, instead of the saner fringes being asked to become part of the madding crowd, maybe we should be working towards moving people from the mad mainstream into the saner fringes. Why must the upholders of free speech or tolerance be asked to conform to or put up with the intolerance of others?

The conformist chatterer, in his zeal to save Pakistan, has gotten it all wrong. In order to reduce social conflict, he thinks the way to go is to ask the liberals who believe in things like repealing the Blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinance and all those laws that make the average Pakistani (Wait!! Not every Pakistani – just the average Muslim Pakistani) sleep better and remain more Muslim and therefore more Pakistani at night; to shut up or ship out. However, we encourage dialogue with and appeasement of those who have brutally and indiscriminately murdered innocent Pakistani citizens. We call them a reality that is not going away and must be accepted and brought into the mainstream political arena – but those liberals with their high ideals – they are truly dangerous and not worth appeasing or listening to and should just be told to shut up or ship out. I’m appalled – to say the least.

And while these political pundits might have their pulse on what’s current, they seem to totally have forgotten, what has been forced onto the dung heap (it’s really no dust heap!) of Pakistani history. Since 1947, support for conforming to and accepting one idea of citizenship and Pakistani-ness have been seen as the only way for Pakistan survival. It was believed that a country, pulled together but the vision of a few and not glued together by one language, religion or even continuous geographical mass would never survive. The separation of East Pakistan is held up as testimony by those who predicted the downfall of Pakistan. What they fail to acknowledge is that East Pakistan became Bangladesh because we told them to conform to and bow down to the will, wishes and the culture of West Pakistan. Apparently, East Pakistan was not Pakistan enough. Demanding conformity of language and culture and obedience to the policies of one ethnic sect became the reason for the partition of Pakistan in 1971. Had we been more accepting of plurality and embraced it instead of fearing it, we could have been a country brought together by historical circumstance but held together by respect for diversity. 

But clearly, we have not learnt our lesson and we insist on demanding conformity to the mainstream – a fluid concept at best – as the only way to our salvation.

And then when cornered, all liberal chatterers parading in their “mainstream man of the masses garb” resort to the conciliatoryand apologetic argument of “extremism of all kinds is bad for the country and the liberal extremist are just as bad as the religious ones. What they forget is that God has not made all extremists equal; one has a gun, a grenade, a suicide vest and a mission to use them. The other only has lofty ideals.

I wonder which one you would prefer to get rid off?

Return to Pakistan

30 Jul

The best part of going away has always coming back. I often spent the many torturous hours in the cramped cabin and too close for comfort seats, surrounded by hysterically crying children, thinking of the moment you walk out of the belly of the plane and the Islamabad air hits you in the face. It’s my most favorite moment. The air is a curious mixture of jet fuel, the light pine notes of the Islamabad air and the warmth and heaviness of home.

Islamabad airport is one those curious, dinky little airports, where the planes don’t connect to the body of the terminal through well-lit tunnels that whisk you away from the plane to the terminal. At Islamabad airport, a little car, with stairs mounted on its back, drives up to the mammoth plane and fixes the metal stairs to the plane allowing the passengers to walk down to the tarmac and wait for buses that transport them to the terminal. And while the others that come from cities with fancier airports, scoff at this quaint process, this is most definitely my favorite part of the journey right before I roll up my sleeves and raises my fists and elbows to make space in the immigration line.

Since this return to Pakistan is permanent, I’m not sure when I’ll be making the transition from a camped cabin after a never-ending flight into the open air of home. And I’m going to miss coming back home but I think I am going to enjoy and appreciate being at home a lot more than I enjoyed the first few minutes of taking in my first lung-full of Pakistan air.

It’s good to be back!

MCP and Proud of it!

18 Jul

I’m an MCP – Middle Class Pakistani. Until last week, I was pretty proud of my middle class roots and had written about the subject before here. Turns out, I shouldnt have been because it’s the MCPs (middle class Pakistanis) who are actually destroying this country.

WARNING: The rest of this article is an angry rant! I will write a more “balanced” response once I get the ranting out of my system! Don’t read if you don’t like one-sided angry rants!

For two years at policy school, I was taught through historical examples and empirical economic evidence, that the middle class in every country is the key to development and growth – both social and economic. And as eureka lightbulbs flashed in my tiny head, I thought two years of graduate school and all that toiling over economic textbooks (which was quite painful) had paid off. Political revolutions, economic revolutions, industrial revolutions, across the globe, had their roots tied to the educated middle class who due to their education, were able to innovate and challenge the status quo of society. Fueled by a hunger for change, driven by a desire to rise to the top and armed with the knowledge of the arts and sciences, middle class individuals across time and space have been catalysts for change. They seemed pretty cool. So, in my optimistic naiveté, I was thinking that the solution to Pakistan’s problems is to encourage the growth of the middle class.

But then I read “an article by Mosharraf Zaidi, titled, “Owning up to Our Fake Degrees”  and “Politicians Their Own Worst Enemies” by Ayaz Amir and realized how wrong I was. Here I was thinking that the root causes of Pakistan’s problems were illiteracy, a poor economy, corruption and nepotism. How wrong I was! It turns out the trouble with Pakistan is its middle class. Those people with their laptops and their blogs – like me – were the bane of Pakistan’s existence.  (did I mention Mosharraf Zaidi and Ayaz Amir both have laptops? And MZ also has a blog). I was a little hurt by that assertion, not to mention, a little confused as  these two gentlemen had just undone two years of rather rigorous graduate schooling. I thought, I was doing something good by being focused on my studies and going to school abroad to access the best education I could manage. Turns out, I was turning into a Pakistan-Destroying-Laptop-Wielding-Chatterer – and these people – according to Ayaz Amir and Mosharraf Zaidi are the worst of the lot in Pakistan. Someone should have alerted me to this earlier. I could have saved myself and my parents much-needed money that they could then have invested in a Shaadi fund for me rather than a college fund. And then by sitting at home instead of going to school, being silent as all good nation building Pakistani women are supposed to be, I could have made chappatis and children for my husband and country. This would have been much better than wielding a destructive laptop and blog.


Yes, You! You MCPs are Toxic Waste!

Sorry, these gentlemen’s arguments blow my mind – I get a little worked up!

So why does Pakistan’s middle class suck so much? Why are they the toxic sludge that’s eating away at the foundation’s of this country? Here are the arguments that these two articles made and my naive (probably destructive) MCP views on them.

1. Why care about fake degrees? Everyone (especially the MCPs) is guilty of some fraud or fakeness so what right do these fraudsters have to pick on other fraudsters? 

Fraud does no harm to society. It doesn’t erode our morals, or take away from merit. It doesn’t prevent good and deserving people from rising to the top. It doesn’t prevent good decisions from being made. Since fraud is such a wonderful and commonplace thing, lets all turn a blind eye to it and go about our fraudulent ways. That’s clearly a recipe for good governance and sustainable economic growth.

In case you didnt guess, I was being sarcastic! 🙂

 So all the MCPs skimp on taxes, run red lights and ask friends and relatives to help their children get admitted to schools and colleges or get jobs. But have these columnists paused to think, why MCPs do this? Becuase, the power structures are fundamentally flawed and corrupt and therefore force people to mold themselves into the corrupt framework of the state in order to function within it. This is not desirable and not sustainable. And the way to deal with this is not to ask for less accountability but to ask for more.

But why ask for accountability only from politicians? Because if you punish some small bureaucrat or some clerk – it makes no difference and sends no message. But if you punish a man or woman at the top, it sends a message to all of society that no one is above the law. MCPs and all other classes of Pakistanis break the law because they know that those who make it and those who are supposed to be the vanguards of it do it without any qualms. So unless we can hold legislators accountable we have no right to hold others accountable.

Oh! And there is also the small matter of the constitution. The average MCP has not taken an oath to not lie, cheat or steal, but parliamentarians (implicit in what makes them eligible for election to the August house) have! So they are in violation of the constitution. And that to my MCP mind, is a problem.

2. Real constituents, who vote, don’t care about fake degrees. They elect the same people again. So can these MCPs stop thinking that their education makes them smarter and enables them to speak on behalf of the people who elected these fake degree holders into office?

First of all, I’m an MCP and I vote.

But its true that turnout numbers reflect dismal rates of participation in urban areas where MCPs reside. MCPs don’t vote. maybe people in rural areas would also not vote if they didn’t have someone holding a gun to their head or bussing them to the polling stations or if their livelihood and safety didnt depend on it. But we will never know.

AA and MZ both suggest that these elected representatives embody the wishes and aspirations of the people of the area. And if this is what the people want then who are these MCPs to intervene. AA and MZ seem to think that Jamshed Dasti is the best that Muzzaffargarh has to offer and that is why he won the election. He won the election because he was backed by the PPP and had the money to win the election. His winning the election speaks more to our unfair electoral system than to the true wishes and aspirations of the people. It’s not like people shunned a saint to choose Dasti. They shunned another equally dubious leader who switched party allegiances each year for dasti. And until people’s choices remain so limited, I don’t think we can believe that Jamshed Dasti is the “true” representative of the people. Muzzaffargarh and the rest of Pakistan have better people to offer. They just don’t have the resources to get elected to office.

But anyway, why are MCPs screaming on behalf of people they have never even met? I don’t know about the others but I wasnt screaming on behalf of the people I have never met. I was screaming on behald of the constitution and morality and other such self-righteous notions. Someone has to speak up for them or have we become so jaded that we can’t even muster the courage to challenge what we feel is unequivocally wrong and unjust? My education does not give me the right to speak on behalf of people I do not know – but my education does give me the advantage of having access to public forums and to a little bit of history and comparative analysis. So it is on behalf of those things that I speak and on behalf of a better future for my country.

3. MCPs are a tiny fraction. They are politically irrelevant. And just noisy. They hurt my ears and take up space in newspapers. Why don’t they just keep quiet?

Strange that you would use up space in a newspaper to rant about this tiny inconsequential fraction of people. And even stranger is that you rant in newspapers because according to you – it does no good! So why are you, oh wise people, doing what we diabolical MCPs are up to? Could it be that you do it because people actually read and listen?

I rant in newspapers and on blogs because I feel that this is my contribution to Pakistani society (other than being a teacher, holding a job, paying taxes, etc). And as Pakistan increasingly gets more connected to the world-wide web, and as more Pakistanis get access to the internet, more people will be able to read and learn from a greater variety of views and voices. Such exchange of ideas is critical to reform in any society. And while my writing or my ideas might not be good or great, there are others out there who do have good ideas and good writing and they have fantastic research, actually steeped in empirical evidence to prove their ideas and to guide future policies and innovations – most of these people are hard-working middle class Pakistanis.

4. Oh stop being so pompous and self-righteous and go do something worthwhile like engaging in actual politics.

Unfortunately, my skills are not as great as Ayaz Amir’s and I do not have the charm, charisma or constituency that he has. So I would suck at politics. But is politics, the only way to prove one’s worth to the country? The unfortunate reality of Pakistan, as my good friend Nadine Murtaza says is that “everyone wants to be a leader and no one wants to be a good professional.” My service to Pakistan as an MCP is not to engage in politics, but it is to do to the best of my abilities whatever it was that my MCP education allows me to do. And in the past, this has worked out well for most countries, as their middle class populations have fueled growth by being good at their professional duties and by instilling in their children the ethos of hard work and just rewards. But I do hope that one day, MCPs do join politics and I am sure there will be talented and charismatic ones who do. Only good could come of it. But it is not the duty of the majority of MCPs to become politically active. That is not how they will best serve the country. They will best serve the country by educating themselves, by learning the value of logic and reason and the value of hard work and inspiring and instilling it in others. It is the spread of the middle class ethos that leads to the transformation of nations and it is our duty as MCPs to spread this ethos in any way we can. To see a detailed discussion of this please see the paper by Banerjee and Duflo here.

So I’m off to serve my country by doing what I was trained to do – analyzing public policy. And I’m going to do it on my blog and I might even do it in the Newspaper in the hopes that it will spark debate and dialogue that will one day lead to positive change. One can hope? Or is that also a stupid MCP notion?

Till then, can you please stop hating the MCPs? We’re not that bad. We pay the bulk of taxes (income and transactional taxes), we man hospitals, schools, shops and corporations and keep this country going.

Searching For Aftab Manzil

7 Jul

Nana: Aftab Omar's only son who died in Pakistan without ever being able to return to his childhood home

In 1947, Aftab Omar and his wife AshfaqJehan Begum packed a suitcase, locked the front door of their house in Meerut, got on a tonga for the railway station and left for Pakistan. They took nothing but a few clothes. They did not know that this would be the last time they would look at the house where they had raised three children and left countless happy memories. (The also had a teenage daughter buried in Meerut.) As the border between India and Pakistan became increasingly unbreachable for the common man, Aftab Omar and his wife died without having ever returned to the home they loved—leaving it as if they were going away for a week or two.

Fifty seven years later, in 2004, my cousin Ammar and I, great grandchildren of Aftab Omar and Ashfaq Jehan, returned to Meerut to find our great-grandparents’ house. We were accompanied by three Indian friends whom I knew from college abroad who had grown up near Meerut. As we filed out of Simran’s shiny new car, we all felt a sense of adventure as we set out to find this house. Splitting up in the old market, we started asking people if they knew about the house and shared with each other any information we found. I was surprised by how helpful people were. They ran around asking others and soon the whole market was abuzz with the news of Aftab Omar’s relatives looking for his house.

Not making much headway, we went to another part of the market. And as we were walking away from there, a young boy came running to ask if we were searching for Aftab Manzil. We were! He asked us to follow him. He led us to a courtyard, where an ancient woman sat surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She stood up to greet us and, hugging me, started to cry profusely.

She was the daughter of the gardener, Pirbhu, whom Aftab Omar had entrusted with the keys of the house before he left. She had been a young child then. She had played with my Dadi and Nana (paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather), who had grown up in the house. She described to me how bitterly her father wept when Aftab Omar and his wife had left, and how he had waited till his dying day for them to return. She walked us around what remained of the once vast grounds of the house. It was strange to be walking with this woman whom I had never met before but who spoke of my family as her own.

I am not the only one. Thousands of friends and families were divided at Partition and never reunited. The horrors of the division of the subcontinent are not alien to the children who have been raised on the stories of the massacre that took place during and after Partition. But if you probe deeper, you will find thousands of narratives of the friendships and loves lost and yearned for on both sides of the border. There are eyes that long for friends and family on the other side of the border and the familiar, fond places of their youths and childhoods.

And every few years, because of circumstances and geopolitics, the two countries try to undo the failings of yesteryears. We play a cricket match or two. We start a bus service. We have high-level talks. Some of our singers visit the country and sing songs together. And then, one unfortunate event stalls the entire peace process and brings us to the verge of war. While the frequent CBMs are great for making us all feel good for a while, they do little to create the needed lasting peace or friendship in the region.

Therefore, it is time for governments on both sides of the border to recognise that appealing pictures and cultural exchanges do not make for lasting peace. There is need for a longer-term commitment to peace in the region. A political agreement between the two countries needs to be worked out, which guarantees an atmosphere of cooperation and trust between the governments. Pakistan must, on its own side, work to find and convict any and all involved in the heinous attacks in Mumbai. And India must come clean on its involvement in the Baloch insurgency. It is high time both countries realised that hostility benefits neither.

In the same vein, Pakistan and India need to cement their ties in something a little more concrete than handshakes at SAARC summits. The cost of aggression and hostility should be higher than the price of cooperation. What Pakistani politicians do not realise in their myopic vision is that the economic and strategic benefits of cooperating with India far outweigh the short-lived popularity gained from hating it.

The two countries must cement their relationship in strong economic ties, either in the form of trade agreements and joint business ventures. Common economic interests will prove to be much more effective war deterrents than bombs. Economic cooperation can bind both countries in a symbiotic relationship that requires peace and mutual trust.

But seeking such measures from both sides will not be politically easy. The present generation on both sides of the border has been raised on doses of hatred for the neighbouring country, and mistrust and hate run deep not just on the political level but also the cultural. This requires a comprehensive review and purging of textbooks in both countries of biased contents and hate-filled propaganda against the other country. And it requires media cooperation and promotion. None of these tasks is easy to undertake or quick to perform.

An idea that might be easier to implement is to allow exchanges between school and college students across the border. The future, after all, lies in the hands of young people. And maybe we should put aside the textbooks filled with hate and allow our young people to communicate openly and freely with each other. Nothing is more effective in combating stereotypes than personal interactions on a sustained basis. And maybe through these interactions young Pakistanis and Indians will discover new friends. And before they become too tainted by the biased opinions of media persons like Zaid Hamid and Zakir Naik, they can maybe learn to appreciate their friends from across the border for their humanity, their friendliness and for our shared language and culture. And maybe we can once again learn to coexist in peace, as we had for centuries, and restrict our battles to cricket fields and hockey grounds.

Published in The News July 8th, 2010

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