Warning all pushovers: Do not rationalize. The dictionary defines rationalisation as “attempt to explain or justify (behaviour or an attitude) with logical reasons, even if these are not appropriate.” The pushovers mind will seek to not just explain and justify, forgive but also seek forgiveness from the person you feel wronged by! Here I’d like to clarify to all pushovers, this is not a virtue. Your forgiveness is not your strength. The explanations you give to make the other person faultless do not highlight the depth of your empathy or the power of your sympathy, but make you a soft target to be taken for granted again and again. Fear not pushovers, because as is the case with a lot of problems, the solution is the construction of a wall! Make sure this wall is sturdy, but don’t go for impenetrable instantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Expect your pushover instincts to leak through the gaps in the wall like the steady stream of leakage from a rusty pipe. Do not fight that instinct too angrily, for once, it made you soft and kind. You’re trying to be strong without being hard, but the stronger the wall gets the more you forget the difference. Pushover, the stakes are high. Pushover, beware, patterns are dangerous and if it weren’t for patterns we wouldn’t be constructing this wall with reluctant urgency. Your life is full of paradoxes, being pulled between. The urge to wear your heart on your sleeve must be checked, the wall exists for a purpose. Rationalising is just a word you learnt to feel less used when you get used, so you could explain how it wasn’t about you. Learn to make things about you. It is all about you. Indulge yourself, forgive yourself, trust yourself. Your secrets and desires are yours for a reason. You do not need to feel obligated to share them with somebody who does not involve you in your life but pretends to, shares enough with you to make sure you are on their side. They do not worry about you like you do, they do not feel happy for you like you do because they love and live for themselves. Pushover, do not let these realisations embitter you, let them embolden you, but remain true to who you are. Do not see everything in black and white, rise up enough to remember the grey areas fondly, but not wistfully. Let the wall stand, but do not become the wall, do not become a hard impenetrable exterior off which the feelings of others can bounce off. Be selective, with your time and energy. Be certain, about yourself before giving yourself to anyone. There’s not enough of you to go around for everyone, conserve yourself. Protect yourself. It is all about you.
written 20th July 2018
One month ago, you message your CNIC to 8300. You receive a block code, a silsila number. You can’t figure out your constituency. Where should you go to vote? Who are the candidates? You go on the ECP website and rummage through 185 paged PDF documents. Finally, you find it. One month later, you message your CNIC to 8300. Your PDF search results are now in your SMS history. You learn of something called FORM 33 and try to see how many of the names of the 11 candidates standing from your constituency ring a bell. You wonder why your polling booth is so far away from your home. You’re trying to work out the logistics of it, even though you don’t know the answer to the more pressing question: Who will you vote for?
You tune in to watch former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being taken to Adiala jail, only to read a flickering news strip below of the death of hundreds in Mastung. You mutter, ‘priorities’ but continue to watch the sensationalised coverage of the father-daughter duos arrest. An arrest of the former prime minister just days before the election! Justice has been served! Pre-election fever- of jalsas and suicide bombs.
The flag flies at half-mast in remembrance of the lives lost at Mastung and Bannu. Families who’ve lost sons to politics lose another- Bilour, Gandapur. Families contemplate presenting another son to politics- Junaid Safdar. You go over Form 33 again and again to decide who to vote for. You hear the apologists apologise- ideological compromise, winning strategy, political necessity. You see things you’d rather not- Harkat Ul Mujahideen leader shakes hands with Asad Umar, Hanif Abbasi sentenced to life and Sheikh Rashid destined to win. You see leaders analogise supporters to donkeys and then you see donkeys beaten to a pulp. You see bravery in the face of a young Karachi lawyer who stands by his principles even if it costs him his seat. You see contorted logics for supporting the convicts, the notorious, the extremists. You see social media stirring up a storm and you wonder how much of what is happening is happening off its own accord.
You thought it’s difficult being a first-time voter, but you realise it’s difficult being a voter in a country where every five-year cycle nothing seems to change, except that everything changes. Every election seems like the first in Pakistan, true to its turbulent and unsettling nature. The parties are the same, but the circumstances are so vastly and worryingly different each time, that the two ways one might go are crippling indecision or outright apathy.
You’re so close to the vote, the ballot paper, the ink-stain. The prospect is so exciting but so perplexing. You’re eager to play your role and you convince yourself that the power is in your hands. You know that successive rounds of elections are the way forward for your society, so you block out those who are trying to belittle the difference one vote makes. You overcome the doubts, make up your mind, grab your CNIC and vote on 25th July. And the rest is yet to come.
You never really know someone till? You travel with them.
The self-proclaimed insomniacs were asleep the first, the no hang ups gang first to turn up their nose at the hotels and the sleepiest the most sleep deprived. We were going to Swat, often called the Switzerland of Pakistan, although it didn’t need a comparison to the West to validate its beauty.
Travelling via GT road meant we would drive through cities we couldn’t name and through sunrises to help us keep track of time. We were on an eye-opening journey through Pakistan which would allow us to cross, see, observe and stop at cities we’d never even heard of. We saw how life changes with every change in topography, every 100 km before our eyes. Like Gujjar Khan- the city of our first encounter with family halls in roadside cafes or Jalala, Mardan- the city of invisible women, an Indian toilet that didn’t flush, daal kabab nashtas in a dhaba where we stood out like sore thumbs. Enter Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and we wouldn’t hear any passerby speak in Urdu, confirming what we learn in our courses about what a non-national language Urdu is.
Our first stay in Mingora where there were stray dogs who were well looked after, clear water, a noisy river and a perfect sunset view from a rocky river raft. Kalam, where the journey broke our back but the trek to Ushu Valley tested our resolve and our friend’s willingness to hold our hand/glasses/water bottles. The hotels with their suggestive names and their rooms that don’t look like the pictures of hotels we googled before coming or on the way there or when we reached the hotel to compare it with its online advertising. The biryanis not good but I eat it anyway because this trip is about experience and survival. We listen to Atif Aslam and walk several kilometres to a distant hotel with 30 people we suddenly, temporarily, arbitrarily feel close to just because we’re there. The hotel is closed so we walk on a dark bridge across the river and sit close enough to feel warm. The water in the hotel is as cold as the water in the river where we compete to see who can keep their feet in the longest, to be screaming five seconds later. The trusted camera lens documents our long walks and the starry sky, and the cold river water and the bus ride naps we sneak in to feign alertness the rest of the day.
The people are kind, they are welcoming, and they don’t let us feel like we stand out as much as we feel we do. The culture shock is exclusively for us. Our car driver to Kalam shares personal stories of Swat and the Taliban and how the elected member of his constituency is doing a good job. He divides his year between Bahrain and Karachi. He calls Malala a hero and says she’s a role model for the girls among us and we agree because we’re glad he believes it and because it’s true. He jokes with my male friends about their marriage prospects in an endearing way. We discover we share a similar taste in some of the songs he refuses to turn off to stay awake and we get in a fair deal of gossip about the organizer we unanimously dislike. He shares stories of overcoming and resilience, stories the valley speaks for itself through its rugged but breathtaking beauty. Our organizer is a mess, but a good sport of a mess and he poses with us for pictures that he knows will be edited to make memes. The water is so pure, so un-littered and unfiltered that the further we drive from it the further we feel away from the authentic and the real. We know the very real risk that the car may fall into the river off the small rocky road, but overpowering that is the very (un)real, intangible invincibility of eight 19-year-old best friends in a car in a city far away.
You can smell the sickness, the unchanged bed sheets, the unbathed bodies, the overcrowded rooms mingled with the fresh air from the open windows. You can smell the Dettol- pungent, sharp-being swept on with a great flopping mop. Again and again. You can hear hurried footsteps, the swishing of handmade fans, the crackle of the central air conditioning that works most of the time and, the cries. There’s always crying. It’s a painful sound, coming from bigger pain and smaller people than you’d think. You see four children to a room, sometimes six and don’t forget their families -clad in grief and fear. You see children, skin darkened by the chemo. You see good and bad nurses; some smile at the children, others scowl at the parents who ask why the drip isn’t working fast enough, well enough. You see walls, painted and repainted on by volunteers like myself and a week later, you see the decorations discarded and removed. You see Mickey Mouse wallpapers in the wards, smiling down on children who stare up in exhaustion, restlessness and the occasional smile. Parents. You don’t just see them or smell them or hear them. You sense their presence in a unique way. You feel their worry hanging heavy in the air like the humidity of the first day of summer. You feel the warmth of the pool in their eyes that they blink away when their child paints with us or colours with us or smiles at us. You can feel the urgency of their footsteps with which they approach the nurses and the desperation in their pleas to their young children: “Go play with them, please, play.” You sympathize with their disbelief, you smile at the photos they show you of their child before the illness, you beg them not to explain but they always explain their child’s lack of energy and mischief and how energetic and mischievous their child used to be. You don’t need a justification for why an eight year old doesn’t want to paint on a canvas or why a twelve year old is reluctantly tossing a ball at a bat when you see the circles under their eyes and the cannula on their hand. What you do is try to make it better, to make them forget even if it’s just for a while. To make them feel like a child and not a child with cancer. To make them remember what they liked and disliked before their life became regimented yet so unpredictable. To make them laugh with magic shows and dance performances and silly dares and patriotic songs. To make them shoot darts and play passing-the-parcel and trivia. To sit them down and tell them it’s okay to not be okay physically and emotionally.
You talk to the parents and tell them its okay to cry and okay to be afraid but it isn’t okay to give up hope or lose themselves in the process of helping their child. You try to communicate with the parents who have forgotten there are other things going on in the world because their world starts and ends with the 3rd floor oncology ward of the Children’s Hospital. You Google translate -Persian to Urdu, Pashto to Urdu- because families who have travelled from Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for treatment are scared enough without the added trouble of the language barrier. You show Snapchat filters, share poetry and exchange PSL loyalties. You laugh with the kids and sometimes at the kids, you get so into you try to forget where you are but you can’t, because you can feel the parents looking at you and their cameras pointed at you and their excited conversations about sending these videos to their relatives back home. It breaks your heart being there, but you suddenly become conscious of every healthy organ and limb, of your parents-one phone call and no worry away, of your privilege – the university permission slip you show at the entrance gate of the hospital and the bus which brings you here, the vandalism on which you sneer at. You become aware of the blessing it is to be you, even though you don’t like how frizzy your hair gets in the summer or how difficult the 200 level course you never should have taken is. You suddenly realize how small you are and the only bigger picture you need to be a part of is that of other peoples pain. You feel sad, you question God, you want to stop but you continue. You’re in now-you’ve heard their screams and their stories, you’ve seen their faces and you’ve put names to them. You heard the prayers of their parents and understood why they say grief feels like fear. You go once a week but when you drive by you fidget, you pray. You don’t want to continue next year, but we’re not there yet. You’re just Sunday to Sunday but so much more invested than that. Has the experience changed you or has it just made you more you?