After a road rage incident five years ago that involved a security checkpoint, a septuagenarian holding a broom and I, a kind old officer took me to the side and suggested that in the future I should avoid driving altogether and instead hitch a ride whenever possible.
“Some people aren’t destined for cars,” he said. “Like you.”
And so it was that last week, I was headed to my parents’ house in their car with their driver Q, a man famed for his sphinx-like silences.
“Black lives matter,” he said slowly. That it was the first thing that he said to me for the past twenty seven wasn’t the only reason I was taken aback.
“Yes,” I agreed. “They do.”
He nodded solemnly.
“Pakistan is tolerant,” he went on.
“Mmmm,” I replied noncommittally. How we got from one statement to the other, I can’t tell you. He gestured vaguely outside as if to prove his point again, but all I could see was a giant billboard showing a young couple laughing tersely on a naked mattress. Was he talking about premarital sex? Young love? Skinny jeans?
I began but he held up his hand to silence me.
“In Pakistan,” he said, pointing outside again, “we love all people.”
I followed the direction of his finger now to a large roundabout. There, in the middle of its grassy circle were a giant set of human sized white letters standing upright, spelling out the phrase “I love Kale.”
I was just about to say, “I didn’t know leafy greens were so popular” when it slowly dawned on me he had mistaken the world Kale for the Urdu vernacular for “black.” Suddenly the roundabout became a political statement of cross continental solidarity, a rallying call for colourist South Asian self-loathing, a rebuke of the unhealthy beauty standards imposed on billions of people.
“Uff” my mother hissed when I told her about it. “He probably misread the sign.”
“It’s the thought that counts!” I said.
I don’t want her to be right for slightly selfish reasons. I’ve spent most of my adult life wrestling with the kinds of infuriating questions of identity/cultural politics that most sane people scoff at. As I grew older, and the choice between making a life here OR abroad became increasingly zero-sum, I’ve often mapped how global conversations manifest in Pakistan as a barometer for the necessity of immigration from the country.
“Black lives matter,” he said slowly. That it was the first thing that he said to me for the past twenty seven wasn’t the only reason I was taken aback
Take the weather: Where ten years ago it was considered absolutely normal for people to deride environmental concerns in Pakistan as a first world problem, it seems silly to do that now given the toxic fumes we all call air. Climate change affects us, that we think it shouldn’t because white people came up with the name doesn’t matter. Where earlier conversations about martial rape or sexual violence against minors were dismissed as sordid topics to bring up over tea and cakes, there is a sense (and statistical data) that these are systemic problems in our country and culture that have to be addressed. A puritanical aversion to talking about sex only abets sexual violence and its perpetrators.
My pet theory is that it has became harder over the years for any country to deny larger truths in favor of nationalistic exceptionalism (“that may be true abroad but not here, we are God-fearing folk FFS”) because the internet has made the world so very small. That doesn’t stop us from trying of course; I’ve yet to encounter a medium of human expression the Pakistani state hasn’t tried to ban yet.
Today is the Quaid’s birthday. As a sickly man who died a year into this experiment of a country, I often think about what an Anglicised, agnostic, white-centric figure would make the country we negotiate today. Maybe he too would live in a bubble of enforced silence.
Most people in and out of Pakistan accept the country’s national dissonance as a matter of course. Why let it bother you? Pakistan will do its thing, you do yours. That theory, though, has been tested this year repeatedly, and not only because of Covid
After all most people in and out of Pakistan accept the country’s national dissonance as a matter of course. Why let it bother you? Pakistan will do its thing, you do yours.
That theory, though, has been tested this year repeatedly, and not only because of Covid.
So far two leaders from Balochistan who had been forced to flee the country after threats against their person – one to Sweden, one to Canada – have both turned up dead in similar ways. Neither case was considered suspicious by local authorities, but seen in context together, it can’t help but wake up the conspiracy theorist in us. One might, if inclined, imagine a world where no place is safe, nowhere is far enough and where there will always be people making sure their version of the truth remains the only one, no matter where you run to.
And so I am left wondering why, with everything going in the world in 2020, is there a bus sized sign about installation kale at a roundabout in Lahore?