Throughout the late 1970s and the early 80s, there was a nude rendering of a Red Indian girl, hanging on one of the walls of our middle class abode. The choice of mysteriously dark colours accentuating the well-proportioned figure, made it exude an aura of subtle eroticism. I loved it and was infatuated by the sheer exoticism of the study. But once when I hesitatingly asked my father if she was naked, he answered with an amused glint in his eyes, ‘Nope. Who says? She is wearing an almost invisible cloak of feathers.’ With those few words, any remaining likelihood of sensuality and secret pleasures vanished into thin air with an almost audible ‘poof’. And after that, she was just an object of art for me – deserving rapt attention but short of any pre-adolescent intimacy.
Unfortunately, some other members of my family were not that accommodating. For instance, there was this young aunt of mine: a symbol of Pakistani modernity and liberalism. The day she visited us for the first time, all hell broke loose. I found her standing in front of the ‘Lady of Invisible Feathers’ totally awestruck. Well it was more like ‘haww-struck’.
‘Hai appa’, she reacted in her trademark irritatingly shrill voice to my mother, ‘she’s not wearing anything!’
‘She is not naked. She is wearing a cloak of feathers. You just can’t see it’, the art lover hidden deep somewhere inside me, came out with full force.
She gave me a really icy stare and exited the room with a haughty ‘humph!’
History repeats itself and it was a few years ago when I nearly finished hanging a newly painted nude. My son approached me with a shy grin and I could feel the onset of déjà vu even before he started off.
‘So, is she really….?’ He started asking me hesitatingly.
‘Yeah, buddy she is really naked. But we don’t call her that. We call her a nude’, I hurriedly cut him off, trying my best to keep the glint in my eyes from betraying my amusement. ‘And she is not wearing a cloak of invisible feathers’, I added for good measure.
‘Huh?’ he looked at me in that typically patronizing manner; children sometimes adopt towards their overly guilty-cum-incomprehensible parents and ran off.
Incidentally, the very next day, a family of ‘cacti’ called on us. I called them ‘cacti’ because of the female cactus, who had the most annoying habit of poking her poisonous and thorny nose into everybody’ business.
‘Well, what do we have here?’ the overly inquisitive hen strutted towards the wall where my work was displayed in full glory. From where I was standing, I could witness the onset of her moral anguish. Soon it manifested as a shudder which started at the tip of her impossibly high bun, vibrated down her spine and ended into a decisive shake of her ample behind.
‘Oooeee Allah, what are you people doing? You must not keep such pictures (pictures?) in your house. Bachon pay bura asar parta hai.’ Yeah, like there could be an influence worse than her exalted self.
Suddenly, my five year old bounced up, ‘Aunty, don’t worry, this is only a nude’. Bravo! I silently admired his courage. Thankfully, that honest and timely revelation made it the last day of our not so beautiful acquaintance.
These incidents make me think. Nudes aside, we as a society of educated and globally aware Pakistanis have a zero tolerance for everything not conversant with our own ideas of morality and correct social attitudes. We walk around with rigid prefabricated stereotypes and measure the world. This attitude is not restricted to any particular social group or religious sect. Each one of us is too self-important to acknowledge and respect any perspective different from ours’.
Our ability to acknowledge and accept a dissimilar point of view has been successfully suppressed by decades of living within our own carapaces. A veiled woman shies away from the devil riding the shoulders of a jeans-wearing girl; while the modern woman sees medieval tyranny and subjugation lurking within the dark folds of each burqa. A maulana cries to high heaven each time he comes across teens dancing to the throbbing and pulsating deep bass; while our young generation sees a terrorist hiding behind each beard. In fact we are all self-appointed sheriffs playing in a make believe land of cowboys and Red Indians. Only the land does not need so many sheriffs but definitely a far more liberal sprinkling of cowboys.
This bizarre attitude has not only disturbed our mental peace but has also snatched away our capability to have guilt-free fun and enjoy simple pleasures of life. You might be visiting Murree with your better half and want to hold her hand in a rarely occurring tidal rush of romance. But you really do not want to do that. Chances are that every Salim, Bashir and Allahditta will eye you suspiciously with wild dreams of burning or stoning you alive. More so, every Nasreen, Parveen and Nargis will look at you in that typical ‘haww-struck’ way. And if you are really unlucky, a policeman may approach and demand your ‘nikah nama’. So if you do not have enough dough to fly to Paris, just restrict your romantic advances to occasional and secret brushing of fingers.
The other day, a ‘pious’ colleague of mine dramatically entered my office carrying an aura of scandalous excitement. Grabbing a seat and placing his elbows on the table, he leaned forward. ‘Here comes another conspiracy theory’, I sighed, desperately trying to avoid the overpowering gusts of ittar and mentally collating arguments against 9/11 being a Jewish plot .
‘Know what Mr. X is up to?’ Mr. X is a bachelor colleague of ours and a delinquent of sorts.
‘No! Has he joined Al Qaeda?’ I was trying hard not to smirk.
‘Nahin bhai’, my barely concealed attempt at sarcasm smoothly slipped past his one track mind. ‘He has started drinking!’
‘Okay, so?’ The smirk had reached my lips.
‘So? What do you mean by ‘so’?’ He started to lose temper.
‘I mean, I have never seen him drunk’, I tried to patch up.
‘Nah, he drinks after office hours’. He disclosed the secret.
‘So why does it concern us?’ I retaliated, completely disregarding my earlier efforts of maintaining at least a semblance of peace. ‘You are member of a religious order, but we have never objectively discussed your commitment except when you once made a miserable attempt to recruit me’.
Thereafter, all hell broke loose and only my solid oak table saved me from the blind rage and murderous fury of that maniac. Plus I still check my car for hidden explosives each time I leave for home.
Pakistan, this wonderful land of ours, despite what the mullahs think, was created by our forefathers so that we could live in peace and harmony. But this wonderful land is not so anymore because we all live in a vicious circle. We see misery in our own hearts and look towards others. Our misery makes us cruel and judgmental and thus we see so many faults and anomalies. We cannot rectify those faults and the circle ends when the frustration of failure fills our hearts with hateful misery. We are not living in a wonderful land. We are living in the ‘9th Circle of Hell’ of our own making.
I observe hatred seeping into our society and poisoning our minds and those of our youngsters. In my humble opinion, we are not happy with what we are. Therefore, we are not happy with what others are. We are not comfortable with our tortured and twisted inner selves and thus we are not comfortable with our fellow beings. Our peculiar brand of religion coupled with the frustrations of a society rapidly going materialistic, has transformed us into being judgmental. Unfortunately, like an overly bright searchlight, our judgment illuminates only those around us leaving our own selves wrapped in darkness. But luckily, it is not difficult to be happy. We only have to replace critique with admiration. Learn to be comfortable with the naughty radical residing in our heart and appreciate his suggestions instead of stifling them. There is absolutely no need to notice what others are up to unless they are violating the boundaries of our personal freedom.
What happened in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule was not only due to warring tribal factions and absence of firm governmental control. Afghanistan went up in flames because of the intolerance towards centuries old culture and social change. The destruction of Buddha statues in Bamyan and killing of a large number of innocent women were not harbingers of an Islamic system of government, but heralds of a dark age of intolerance.
Our country is going through the most difficult time of its short history. We are badly confused about our national ideology. We cannot decide if we want to be religious or not. Our political system is inefficient. Our institutions are badly failing. We are in dire need of social justice and improved literacy rates. And most importantly, our society definitely requires a revolution and a complete overhaul. But before changing those around us, we need to change ourselves. We must transform our thinking followed by our attitudes. Only tolerance can bring about this revolution. And nobody has explained tolerance like Frederick Peris who once said, ‘I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.’
I rest my case.