Pen on Paper 14.11.2019

I am a citizen of contradictistan

BY Asif

Pakistan – a land of contradiction, where the gap between the haves and have-nots only seems to be increasing. Do we even get the opportunity or time to sit and analyse who we are and what we have become? Namoos Zaheer gives us her perspective.

Then there is the whole act of keeping the drivers waiting in the car while we make merry at parties till the early hours of the morning. I cannot decide if this blind acceptance of contradictions is a symbol of our resilience as a nation, because lets face it, we seem to have become God’s forgotten children of late. Maybe, the only way to survive the madness and chaos that envelops our society is to detach and pretend that life is peachy. Or maybe we are a people so disillusioned and scared that we have lost the ability to see the bigger picture. I don’t know which one of the two it is but all I know is that we, the citizens of Contradictistan, seem to have come to a silent agreement to collectively bury our heads in the sand. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we the citizens of Contradictistan, the children of the land of the pure, have our heads in the sand and in so doing, our rears in the air.

Let me stop at this stage to say that I am in no way being holier than thou. I am with you with my head in the sand, my fellow Contradictistanis. This article is not an exercise in pointing fingers, I am merely trying to hold up a mirror. I think we need to step back for a minute and take stock of all the small injustices and hypocrisies that each of us plays a part in everyday of our lives. 

It all starts in our homes. It starts with sleeping in full comfort in our air-conditioned room, without even a twang of guilt at the idea of our household help sleeping in the sweltering heat. I am the very first to hold my hand up and admit that I don’t bat an eye when the butler walks into the ice cold living room with my neembo paani. I can see the sweat stains on his back, the layer of perspiration on his brow; yet I have accepted this as the way of the world. Many homes have different dishes for the staff, those who cook for us are not fit to eat in the same plates as us. What I find most difficult to swallow is the notion of taking the nanny to a restaurant and not feeding her. In most cases, the poor nanny is not much older than the children she has been charged with looking after. How often have we all witnessed this young girl, sitting in a corner half hidden behind a potted plant in a restaurant. She is there in case one of the children cries, she sits on standby as the family happily dines. I have to say, most people tend to show greater respect for the Phillipino nanny. I have yet to witness such harsh treatment of the imported help. Perhaps she is valued more because she costs more. 

What are we Contradictistanis to do, I ask you?  Should we wallow in our collective sorrow?  Take up arms against a sea of troubles? Or should we all continue to float around in our little bubbles?  It is so much easier to hide from the truth.”

Then there is the whole act of keeping the drivers waiting in the car while we make merry at parties till the early hours of the morning, and to add insult to injury, when we do get back into our cars, we complain that the slumbering driver has stunk up the car due to his lack of hygiene.

While we have evolved into beings that are sufficiently thick skinned to be numb to the physical discomfort we may cause to those in our employment we still retain the ability not to offend the religious and cultural sensibility of those who work for us. While the lady of the house can dance the night away in a knee length strapless dress, under no circumstances must the chowkidar, driver or guard see her in such garments.  She must be sufficiently clad to paint a picture of domestic respectability. So when she steps out of the house, a shawl, leggings or whatever works must be used to ensure the modesty of the lady of the house is maintained.  God forbid the help think that the mistress of the house is ‘baisharam’, while it is quite all right to be thought of as a selfish and greedy despot. 

I would like to reiterate at this stage that I am not laying blame anywhere. I am also very aware of the fact that this seems to be a gross over simplification of the basics of class politics. These contradictions start in the home and are precursors of the larger ones we see in our social mileau. We all have family members who have no idea of the double lives we lead. There are certain people that we can never smoke in front of, there are certain gatherings in which we can never dream of wearing a sleeveless shirt. As such, we the citizens of Contradictistan are also adept social chameleons. We live in a land that is culturally schizophrenic and as such, we know how to ride the tide of insanity.

The nanny is there in case one of the children cries and is on standby as the family happily dines. 

To borrow shamelessly from Shakespeare, ‘there is method in our madness’. If we know we have to attend a very boring wedding filled with conservative relatives, we will dress the part, but will make sure to arrange a pre-do to get ourselves ‘fortified’ for the event and we have even made an institution of the ‘car bar’. When I socialise in the West, I almost find the lack of intrigue boring. The whole notion of wearing what you want, drinking what you want, saying what you want, coming and going as you want, no police check posts- it can be so dull. As a citizen of Contradictistan I am a child of drama and intrigue, such transparency and forthrightness unnerves me. 

Our sense of aesthetic is also fraught with contractions. To the average male in our great land, the voluptuous damsel in distress is no doubt the beacon of beauty. The endowments of heroines starring in our average Punjabi films are no doubt enough to get the hearts of many a man fluttering. Yet, the microcosm that is our fashion industry has imported purely alien notions of female beauty. The long legged skinny models we see all over the billboards these days are genetic anomalies that set standards of beauty almost impossible for any Contradictistani  woman to strive for. Not without the extensive help of your local cosmetic surgeon that is. We are not a tall race, our mid torso to legs ratio is grossly different from the average Californian, and most Contradictistani women have, what are euphemistically called, ‘child bearing hips’.

“What I find  most difficult to swallow is the notion of taking the nanny to a restaurant and not feeding her….”

Yes, ladies and gentleman, there is a reason why we have one of the highest population growth rates in the world. There is a reason why the breezy shalwars are our preferred national dress; no article of clothing does greater justice to the lower torso of the ladies of our land. But our new breed of fashion designers have decided to pay no heed to the wisdom of the ages. The collective aesthetic of centuries that recognised that the shalwar, gharara or saari was the way to ensure that a lady of the sub-continent could look regal and beautiful without having to starve herself.   But no, our new age designers have decided to discard all the fantastic camouflage that our grandmothers and their mothers before them could rely on. My naani eats parathas for breakfast every day and has been doing so for fifty years. I do not think she has ever had to worry about the size of her thighs, but then I don’t think she has ever been introduced to the menace of jeggings. As such, our sense of female aesthetic is based on the fancies of a few designers (most of whom are not too keen on the ladies anyway), and is greatly disjointed from centuries of aesthetic evolution which celebrated the voluptuous maternal aura of the East. Therefore, what is considered fashionable for the ladies in Contradictistan today is most likely designed for the body of an 18 year old Californian girl and because our designers say its cool, we the ladies of Contradictistan will starve ourselves till we can pull it off.  Who cares about genes and body types, we are Contradictistani women and we defy the laws of nature!

I  don’t bat an eye when the butler walks into the ice cold living room with my neembo paani. I can see the sweat stains on his back…yet I have accepted this as the way of the world.

That is not to say the males of Contradictistan have not fallen prey to the whims of the fanciful designers. A certain designer has taken it upon himself to design clothes which are more suited to 19th century European dandies than the average Contradictistani son of the soil. I live in London and have to say, I have yet to see polka dotted bow ties or tweed hunting hats even amongst the most English of the English. 

I do believe that all these little lies and blind spots help us to cope with the greater social malaise that plague us.  We have to desensitise; how else can we cope with the fact that most of us hate our nation’s status quo? Zardari  is our President; he is a bona fide crook, some might even say a charlatan. Yet, we as a nation, have to accept that he is our leader, we cannot afford to dwell over the distaste this causes us. Fatima Bhutto recently said that we are having a ‘nervous breakdown’ as a nation.  I think that we are not quite there yet. We are a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The breakdown will occur if we sit and take stock of all the lies, tragedies and natural disasters that have wrecked havoc on our collective psyche over the past decade. We have had to deal with a devastating earthquake, a ravaging flood, the murders of Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, judicial crises, an economic meltdown, no electricity, Talibanisation, countless suicide bombings, public lynchings of young boys, acquittals of rapists and numerous cricketing scandals. 

How can anyone blame us for burying our heads in the sand? How can we as nation stay sane when to compound our misery, we lose the World Cup semi final to India? Then, as the icing on the cake, we find out that the army of our great land, which sucks close to 70% of our annual budget, this parasite of an institution that has never even won a war, has had Osama Bin Laden chilling in it’s backyard for Lord knows how long.

What are we Contradictistanis to do, I ask you? Should we wallow in our collective sorrow? Take up arms against a sea of troubles? Or should we all continue to float around in our little bubbles?  It is so much easier to hide from the truth.

I have held up this horrid mirror for far too long my fellow patriots, put it away immediately. Lets all get back into our little air-conditioned bubble. Let us all buy the latest Birkin, spend our summers in Monaco, buy a new Range Rover and pretend we too are a nation with a future to look forward to. Admittedly the bearded folk from the mountains are slowly finding their way into our cities and we cannot deny that our household help now has venom in it’s eyes. But we are the citizens of Contradictistan and contrary to popular belief, we are in tune with our reality; we just choose to ignore it!