China’s Israel

My friend Ammar wrote up this very informative article for The News on ChinPak relations:

In 1960, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s natty and cocky minister in President Ayub Khan’s cabinet, abstained from voting on, instead of voting against, China’s membership of the United Nations. Using his discretionary powers as head of his country’s delegation to the United Nations in New York, Bhutto, by abstaining, had sent a personal signal to China about his preferred direction for Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, his action elicited strong protest from Washington, Pakistan’s closest ally, and Bhutto’s discretionary powers were revoked by Pakistan’s foreign minister.

Hardly a decade after independence from the British, Pakistan, at that time, was firmly entrenched in the Washington camp as a member of anti-Communist blocs such as CENTO and SEATO. On the other hand, India and China, during the 1950s, enjoyed a close relationship as leading anti-colonial and non-aligned states equidistant, politically, from both Washington and Moscow. The winds of change began to blow in 1959 when Tibet crises erupted and led to a full-blown Indo-China war in 1962; it resulted in a humiliating defeat for India and provided an opportunity to Islamabad to improve relations with Beijing.

Six decades after Bhutto’s flirting with the Chinese at New York, the relationship between Pakistan and China has mutated into a reputed “all-weather” friendship; it also shows how strategic interests can successfully trump a bewildering array of cultural, economic, physical and security obstacles. It was the mutual hostility towards India, the common neighbour, which brought Pakistan and China together for the first time; over the decades, China has become Pakistan’s chief diplomatic partner, its main arms supplier, and the most trusted friend to whom it turns at the first whiff of trouble or peril.

Pakistan tried to play China card in 2011 after American raid on Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden. It is important to note that China, at that time, rebuffed Pakistan’s efforts and advised Islamabad to mend its relations with Washington.

In the coming decades, with the recently signed US $60 billion economic projects, known as China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China is slated to become the principal financier of economic projects in Pakistan. CPEC has been touted as a game-changer and forms an integral part of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ strategic vision for the region. Athough China’s relations with India, since the 1962 war, have improved significantly resulting in billions of dollars’ worth of trading deals, Chinese investment and interest in Pakistan’s economic projects form the centre-piece of its confident economic and strategic policy for the whole neighbourhood.

Apart from India, Pakistan’s nuclear programme and its relations with Washington, situation in Afghanistan, war on terror and against militants after 9/11 are other important areas on which Pakistan-China dialogue and cooperation have focused. In the early 1970s, Pakistan played the matchmaker role between Washington and Beijing when China became member of the United Nations and established diplomatic relations with the United States.

China sided with Pakistan during its two wars with India in 1965 and 1971 but did not intervene or open any front with India; Washington discontinued military aid to Pakistan in 1965 and failed to exert any meaningful pressure on Indira Gandhi in 1971 despite then recent and successful diplomatic efforts by Pakistan to bring Washington and Beijing closer to each other.

Pakistan was disappointed by the failure of both Chinese and Americans to come to its rescue in the 1971 war against India; both countries paraded their sympathies without offering much in material support to Pakistan who lost one-fifth of its territory and half its population in this catastrophic war. Pakistan realised the limits of diplomacy or military alliances, when it came to its two allies, and turned towards a strategic deterrent, the nuclear bomb option, to bolster its defense against traditional rival India.

Although China did not intervene during the 1971 war with India, it has emerged as the main arms supplier to Pakistan. More importantly, as Andrew Small argues in his book, it was in the realm of nuclear cooperation that Pakistan-China relationship bound forward and assumed a distinctive character of its own. Andrew Small has written a fascinating and compelling book titled The China-Pakistan Axis — Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Small has worked on Chinese foreign policy and economic issues in a number of capitals across the globe and is presently serving as a Transatlantic Fellow at the George Marshall Fund in Washington D.C. His book crackles with insight and information on topics such as Beijing’s extraordinary and essential support to Pakistan’s nuclear programme and defence planning, their strategic cooperation on India, the United States and Afghanistan, and the implications for counterterrorism efforts.

China, as a matter of its policy, has eschewed military or defense alliance with Pakistan but has whole-heartedly supported its hugger mugger efforts to acquire nuclear capability — the ultimate means of self-defense — and develop or upgrade ballistic missiles system. Pakistan, on its part, has also extended full support to China by readily giving access to western military equipment, including the American missiles which landed in Pakistan or the US Marines’ helicopter that crashed in Abbottabad in 2011 during the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, so that Chinese engineers can copy western military equipment through reverse engineering.

In 1966, a few months after the war with India, when Chinese Premier visited Pakistan he was cheered by jubilant crowds and welcomed by a phalanx of Pakistani officials in Lahore, prompting the US Consul General in the city to bemoan that “Pakistan is lost”. Decades later, China’s military chief General Xiong Guangkai, during his exhaustive parleys with his American counterparts, remarked that Pakistan is China’s Israel. China has also timed its missile sales to Pakistan, Washington noted, as a retaliatory move to US sales of F-16s to Taiwan in 1992.

Strategically, Beijing views Pakistan as a counter-balance to India but at the same time wants Pakistan-US relations to be robust as this places limits on the scope of US-India relations. It also means that Pakistan does not become an issue of tension in US-China ties and more importantly does not impact Sino-Pakistan security ties due to Washington’s pressure or sanctions.

After the Lal Masjid incident in 2007, terrorism in Pakistan assumed menacing proportions till Pakistan army cleared the militants from FATA and Swat following a series of failed agreements. China, as a matter of policy, has advised Pakistan to control and combat militancy which is a threat to both Pakistan’s society and state and can potentially derail Chinese growing investment in Pakistan’s economic projects.

More importantly, Pakistan has become the most dangerous overseas location for Chinese workers. China may have been sympathetic to the blowback argument used by Pakistan’s officials in the past to justify its reluctance to move decisively against militants but as China’s stake in Pakistan’s economy expands, Pakistan’s security apparatus will likely come under increasing Chinese pressure to step up its anti-militants drive.

On Afghanistan, a stable settlement, which also includes reconciliation with Taliban, is the preferred option for China who does not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for Uygur militants, actively operating in China’s provinces, or descend into chaos so that it becomes a threat to China’s growing interests in the region. It is not in China’s interest that Washington should walk away immediately leaving Afghanistan without a workable solution and at the mercy of militants.

Despite military cooperation with Pakistan over the decades, China, during the Kargil war in 1999, coordinated its efforts with Washington and prodded Pakistan to de-escalate the situation by pulling back its forces from the theatre of war. However, in 2002, following attack on Indian Parliament, and later in 2008, in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, China, in coordination with Washington and other Western capitals, exerted pressure on India to bring down the temperature as the situation had become quite tense and febrile on both occasions.

Small forcefully avers that if the US approach to India over the last decade has been one of de-hyphenation from Pakistan, China’s has been one of re-hyphenation. In response to US-India nuclear power deal, China has signed up new nuclear power plant agreements with Pakistan. China is heavily involved in developing Gwadar, Pakistan’s deep water port off the Balochistan coast. In 2015, Pakistan and China signed a US $5 billion deal for sale of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan, making it the largest Chinese defense deal to date and facilitating Pakistan’s nuclear capability in the shape of sea-based deterrent.

There is a consensus on the side of Pakistan’s both civilian and military leadership to sign up to CPEC. If Pakistan’s relations with China were unaffected by Bhutto’s hanging in 1979, despite Chinese efforts to save him, it is quite certain that Pakistan-China relationship is not hostage to any political or military leader’s presence on the scene or staying in power of any specific political party in Pakistan.

Pakistan tried to play China card in 2011 after American raid on Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden. It is important to note that China, at that time, rebuffed Pakistan’s efforts and advised Islamabad to mend its relations with Washington. In the past, China has made limits of its support clear to Islamabad on different occasions. However, as Small argues, China’s increased investment and involvement, during the last decade, in Pakistan’s economic landscape and security deals might have changed the nature and calculus of Sino-Pakistan relationship.

China will increasingly defend Pakistan in face of future American pressure but at the same time will exert more pressure of its own to steer Pakistan towards a path which is economically beneficial but will place constraints on the free hand that Pakistan’s military and civilian elite has hitherto enjoyed in their decision-making.

Muslim aggression

We were walking the little doggo (who is mA a cutie & constantly admired) down the road and we crossed this Muslim couple. The couple got so anxious that the husband barked out “save your Dog.”

Now I have no idea what that actually meant except that he was a recent immigrant judging from his grasp of the language & dress. 

What did shock me was his hubris; the fact that as a recent immigrant he found no need to understand the societal mores of a dog-loving society. 

I’ve constantly seen this with hijabi Muslims that as soon as they see the doggo they start going into a panic. I blame lefty WASP liberals who make no attempt to encourage this angry population to integrate into the mainstream.

Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

One of Brown Pundit’s commentators, Ruchira, wrote a wonderful piece (titled similarly to this post) on her sadly discontinued still archived but profound blog, Accidental Blogger, in 2007 about being an NRI. It was really very well-written and I thought I would reproduce it here for its 10+ year anniversary. For someone like myself who has such diverse origins and is also “peripatetic” (it’s always nice to have to google words to refresh on their exact meaning); this piece really resonated with me.

This is one of the few personal essays Ruchira had written on her blog and her father-in-law, mentioned below, passed away last year in 2016. I have excerpted & italicized a particularly moving passage on him as he was a noted Urdu writer. 

It is bittersweet that Urdu, an exalted melange borne of poets, warriors & nomads, is cursed to wrestle with death every few generations in the bloodiest of circumstances (1857, 1947, 1971). Truly a tongue more suited for war than peace, for pain than pleasure but then perhaps that is what makes it so achingly beautiful and ephemeral.

A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

All in all a very wonderful and lyrical piece, which I’m very happy to share below.

Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

More than twenty six years ago, I left New Delhi, India to follow my peripatetic husband on a journey that would take us across two new continents and four different cities. Until then my birthplace Delhi, was the only home I had known.  Most of my family and all my friends lived there and frankly, I had never imagined leaving that comfortable zone of familiarity except for travel and tourism. In the years since the initial uprooting, the idea of home has undergone dramatic changes in my mind, as has the definition of comfort zone. What exactly is home for any one of us?  Where the heart is or where the hearth is? Is it the place we ourselves grew up in or where we bring up our children?  Do we define it by the food, the smells, the climate or the faces around us? Or is much of it in our minds?

For ages humans have left their homes in search of food and adventure, as also in fear. They have set down new roots in unfamiliar landscapes . Having done so, they have surely at one time or another reflected back on that decision and wondered if their lives were better or worse for having left. Good and bad fortunes are both ascribed to the decision to leave one’s homestead.

Severing ties with once familiar surroundings can come about in two ways – voluntarily and involuntarily.  For some it is a deliberate choice of a new life in a new place. Others leave under the threat of natural or man made disasters. There is no doubt that the initial trauma and the feeling of helplessness is much greater for the latter group. But after years, when things have settled down and a modicum of normalcy returns, do things even out?  Do those who are violently uprooted from their nests continue to pine for their loss longer and more keenly than those who leave peacefully? During WWII did European Jews fleeing the horror in their homeland miss Poland, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania once they found safe haven elsewhere? Or were they able to shed their attachment for the “home” that didn’t accord them dignity and provide sanctuary? Will Palestinian refugees ever accept a peace settlement with Israel without a “right of return” clause?  Are displaced persons from war torn regions more or less nostalgic about their homes than immigrants such as myself who chose to relocate under placid circumstances? Or is it all in our head, how rooted or uprooted we feel in one place or another?

Both of my parents and my father- in-law lost their ancestral homes during the partition of India to what was to become Pakistan (east & west). My own parents came from the eastern wing of partitioned India which saw far less sustained violence than the western part to which my husband’s family belonged. My parents’ side of the family lost considerably more in material wealth and social standing than did my in-laws. Yet there was a dramatic difference in the way the two families chose to remember their loss. Although their circumstances had been seriously and even brutally altered, my parents and other close relatives went on to live reasonably comfortable lives in India, going about their business in a forward looking manner. They explained the partition in terms of politics, history and the perfidy of the British. Their progeny (me included), born in independent India in safe and peaceful circumstances heard their stories and in their imagination, often conjured up a sense of loss more wrenching than the refugees themselves felt. But that is always the peculiar burden of subsequent generations – to feel more helpless, more enraged and more emotionally bereft for the sufferings of their elders. The victims themselves who live through the terror and the humiliation manage to often remember their experience with aloofness and perhaps even triumph, looking back at discrete events which they managed to survive against all odds.

Like my family, my father-in-law too did well for himself in east Africa (he left India soon after the partition) and in India where he returned several years later. But to this day, he remains very sentimental about his interrupted life and his erstwhile home from where he and his family escaped with little more than the shirts on their backs. He witnessed widespread violence during the bloody mayhem that accompanied India’s wrenching territorial partition and population exchange. A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

Last month I came across the poem, “How Do You Like Austin?” by Maurice Leiter at Brian Leiter’s blog. It is apt to quote a few lines from the poem here.

How do you like your new home? …

But isn’t it different from New York?

I am different from them both.
Once the sightseeing is done,
There is really no place
That is not home.

After initial few years of slight disorientation (especially the two years in Germany), like Maurice Leiter, I too no longer fret about where “home” is. It now is a state of mind that transcends  geography. I have found wonderful friends and a rhythm of life that I can enjoy almost everywhere I have lived. In the early days when I visited Delhi, I felt I was going “home.” Gradually as the years went by, the return flight to the US began to acquire the feel of “coming home.”  Since the death of my parents, Delhi, which I still love to visit, feels less and less like the home I knew.  Also, I am now much less connected to the political / social reality in India, a connection which for me, is vital to feeling at home. Delhi will never fully cease to be “home” for me – it is thoroughly integrated in my memory and my imagination. But “home” now no longer evokes a single concrete image as it did in my youth. Several others vie for that honor – places where I have been, where I am now … and hopefully  also where I will be in the future. I can now go back and forth physically between these spaces at different times and emotionally inhabit them simultaneously.  All feel equally comfortable and I don’t have the need to transpose one upon the other to create an illusion of the perfect “home.”

What is Brown Pundits?

Even since I’ve relocated to the Shires and inspired by my wife’s intense focus on her PhD I’ve been trying to write a science fiction novel. It’s going well and it’s sort of something as a bucket list thing to do. One thing I’ve realised as a “writer” is that distractions are lethal.

Therefore virtually all of my activities have been trimmed down so that I can write more. However writing isn’t a linear activity; it’s not only related to time but inspiration.

At any rate how does this all relate to Brown Pundits? I was of course involved in the original Brown Pundits (in the winter 2010/spring 2011) but not so much in this reboot. It’s also difficult to actually pin down what Brown Pundits is about.

Do we talk cricket, no there’s cricinfo for that. Do we talk desi politics, there’s NDTV for that and we don’t really comment on films or popular culture (I watch Hindi films & Urdu drama but my commentaries on it never really get picked up). Also I don’t accept that Brown Pundit is a Sepia Mutiny successor.

The Devil wears Brown

I find the answer lies in the Devil Wears Prada. In one iconic scene an icy Meryl Streep lectures a dowdy Anne Hathaway about how MS’s Haute Couture decisions percolates through every pore and layer of fashion until it reaches to the bottom of Anne’s bargain basement collection.

BP in some ways is like that; we aren’t the High Culture of Brownitude (not by any stretch of the imagination) but the High Intellect of it. We won’t discuss Kashmir necessarily but rather the underlying pattern of conversion to Islam among Kashmiris and how that led to the situation that is today. We aren’t academic specialists by any means because we trade depth for breadth.

Of course each Punditeer has a different style; Razib is precise & knowledgeable, Omar has a ideo-political framework whereas I’m much more hazy and experiential. We also now have Slapstick with his interest in his Kashmiri Pandit history & politics.

I don’t know if I have given a clear definition but I would like to think the intellectual discourses we have here about South Asia and diaspora percolates, even in a tiny way to the rest of Desidom.

The Obliquity of Oriental Culture

I love the Tipping Point genre. I was recently reading Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” & I also enjoyed the Rational Optimist, Black Swan (which is tbh slightly different to the rest). However most of all Obliquity deeply impacted me.

I tend to be oblique, or indirect, in my aims & agenda. It’s something that’s perplexing for my wife, who is extraordinarily direct. That suits her in her academic career and cultural heritage, where Sindhis seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Growing up I was deeply impacted by the very restrained mores of Irani Yazdi Baha’i culture (it’s a thing trust me & disproportionately influential in the South Asian Baha’i world). I always found desi culture much more emotional whereas ours was reserved (almost) to the point of being British, to this day I find emotional outbursts to be troubling and a personal failure (also for someone so chatty I find it difficult to discuss deep emotions).

Further to that is the distinction between the public face and the private one, again a relic of Persian culture. Now by Persian culture I have no idea whether it’s prevalent in the mainstream Iranian culture but rather in the diasporan pockets of Baha’i communities in the Gulf & South Asia. However ta’arof (the art of politeness) is a pretty universal thing among Persian speakers I imagine. 

Ironically these Oriental cultural features, obliqueness, reservedness, class consciousness (that one I picked up from Pakistan which in the 90’s & naughties was positively Victorian in its class hierarchy), the private & public distinction were all cultural traits that hyper-accelerated my integration into Britain. Britain is a complex country and the class system is still very much a national feature; especially in the regions that I’m in (Oxbridge Formals sometimes feel straight out of Hogwarths).

For instance take the term “micro-aggression”; now I’m not exactly sure of what it means but I understand it to be a way of scoring racial points by white people in as subtle a way as possible. That’s basically Persian Baha’i culture because our Faith is so idealistic we can never be outright rude to one another so sometimes we manifest anger in very mundane, petty & hurtful ways.

My wife makes a good point that Pakistani & her Sindhi Bhaiband culture are very similar; there’s a love of socialising, glamour and opulence. It’s very very different to the sub-culture that I grew up in that preferred the under-stated and refined rather than scale or lavishness. 

Brown Pundits becomes interesting to me personally when I need to reflect on my culture, on my mindset and whether it hinders me or aids me. I imagine if I had moved to the US instead of the UK I would have probably emphasised the more Pakistani-desi aspects of my heritage; the extroversion, the ebullience & conviviality (again I’m talking about the Karachi KGS sub-culture in Pakistan). In Britain however the haunting & melancholic tones of a lost Persia (Yazdi culture is a culture of mourning & redemption in the Faith) chime very very well here and sort of facilitated an interest in the rarer circles of British life.

I do find posh Britain to be a bit common & vulgar at times, especially when they are always trying to get sloshed/drunk (alas the English & their drink), but once one swims among the older generations there is a sense of artistic and aesthetic inclination coupled with a love of good conversation. 

However nothing prepared me for my wife’s hugely superior approach she took to life in the West. Whereas I was always holding on to my idealised constructions of my heritage; she essentially junked that and showed me that even though I was a many-generationed Baha’i there was some ineffably Islamic bug about my mentality that hindered my full progression in the West.

Islamic cultures have this sort of puffed up pride because of their glory-days and Bahai’s too can sometimes have it because our Prophets were Persian. This unearned haughtiness makes us feel sometimes that the West is only technically and materially superior but nothing more. What my wife has shown me that Westerners have an extremely different, not so positive, impression of our cultures and that only through internalisation of this reality can one hope to truly compete in the West. 

For all this time even though I commingled in White Society, in a variety echelons, I somehow stayed apart & alien to it because my own conception of my heritage bubbled me from truly intimate interactions. It’s only when I popped the bubble, thanks to my wife, did I truly join White Society and began to realise there are things like white privilege, micro-aggression and that white people behaved pretty much like much like ethnic people just much more subtly.

I also realised that when I went from being an exoticised & fascinating alien to be an actual member in England among the English that why so many immigrants prefer the ethnic enclave. The English are not racists but neither are they entirely welcoming. Brexit reflected that silent strain of superiority brought upon by Memories of the Empire. 

If I wasn’t naturally very extroverted I would have retreated back to Londonistan a long time ago. My wife & I find ourselves in situations where we are the only dark-haired people in crowded room (it’s shocking how mono-ethnic social groups are in multi-cultural societies) and Society does see us as Sui generis

  • As an example we have the very un-Asian thing where we have a puppy (mA a beautiful one at that) as opposed to a child (Asians are more into kids, white people more into pets). 
  • My wife is more educated and accomplished than I am, which is rare in most couples but even more so in desi ones. We are in Oxbridge because of her.
  • We live in the shires and not in the multi-ethnic urban zones.
  • Even though I write on BP as Pakirani IRL I will usually call myself an Indian out of respect for my wife. The country that I cannot bear to see criticised/humiliated is India because I see it as an attack on my wife (irrational I know)
  • Mind you this is very different to the BP banter where Internet Hindus wants to see me as this crazed Paki & I like to provoke them.
  • For an Asian/Indian woman my wife has privileges and a voice that is rare even in emancipated Western cultures. As I said in my wedding speech I see my wife as an incarnation of Lakshmi (maybe a tad hyperbolic but YOLO).

Hindustani Culture as a Link culture?

I was replying to Razib on this comment & thought that instead I would turn it into a post. I would also like to caveat my thoughts:

I have a habit of generalizing since I am now more used to social media posts than blogging. As always I’m very happy to be wrong and these are simply my thoughts and observations.

The fact that my wife is a Sindhi from Chennai (among other things) gives me an additional window into “other” parts of South Asia long inaccessible to the average Paki. As an aside my late eponymous paternal grandfather was actually Kakazai but my grandmother was an Urdu-speaker from Amroha so that culture was instead transmitted to the next generation. So I speak both as an insider and an outsider to this Hindustani cultural complex that I’m commenting on. Not fully in but neither out & just enough on the margins to make it interesting!

How do Desis from any part of the Subcontinent connect? Let’s say as a thought experiment we take the extremes of the South Asian desi region; a Tamil, Pashtun, Nepali and Bengali walk into a bar. Now none them may know Hindustani or they may speak it with a very heavy accent but that is their common link and bond, which would even inflect the English that they speak to one another (English usage of course depending on their socio-economic strata). If they didn’t want to watch a Hollywood film they could conceivably agree on a Bollywood film. UP, in that way, is the beating heart of all South Asia.

All of these cultures are radically different from “Hindustani” culture (for want of a better term) but there’s enough familiarity with it, which makes it a civilizational links of sorts (or a cultural lingua franca that underpins Desidom).

A culture that hasn’t been touched by Hindustani culture or is far removed from it (both Afghanistan and SE Asia were at times part of the Indic cultural sphere but it’s hard-pressed to consider Burmese, Dari-speakers or even the Hindu Balinese as Desis) doesn’t get absorbed into desiness. Whereas Nepal has sufficiently desi touches even though its people do look very different (most of the Nepalis I’ve met in my limited experience do seem more East than South Asian).

As a final point to a very great extent Hindustani culture has been deeply influenced by the colonial project as part of the divide & rule strategy (I don’t want to go into the Hindi-Urdu controversy hence why I’ve used the neutral term Hindustani). There is a reason why that, despite their very different geographies, both the successor states to the British Raj (India & Pakistan) depended on this culture as a nation-building project for their diametrical ideologies.

There were of course severe limits to the Hindustani language project with riots in South India in mid 60’s and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 but even so the march of Hindustani as a core component of Desiness remains unabated especially with the rise & rise of Modern India & Hinglish.

What does it mean to be “Brown?”

I have never liked the word Brown (too much of a New World term) but I much prefer Desi. 

I don’t actually know what desi means (I think it’s rustic & rural combined) because its haziness is what makes it so compelling. It’s a shorthand for the children of Mother India but doesn’t extend to South East Asia, the term attenuates somewhat in Sri Lanka (who have their own cultural peculiarities) and Nepal (because of their physical resemblance to the East).

Desiness fades off somewhere in KPK/Afghanistan; exactly where is a matter of choice because the historical boundary with Greater Iran begins somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The Indo-Gangetic plan is the beating heart of Desiness; the three rivers constitute the lifeblood of desiness.

Desiness connotes shared food, a Hindustani vernacular, Bollywood, an Urdu-Mughal High culture set off against Sanskrit religion, a local & earthy UP-Punjabi culture, PIR & Guru worship, a feeling of physical & geographic unity that extends to South Asia. It’s also a sentiment and a state of being rather than a fixed characteristic. Some desis are not so desi and sometimes you can turn up and turn down the Desiness, not so with Brown (unless you use some nasty bleach products).

Of course in the migration to the New World the stark complexities of what it means to be desi sort of strips away into “Brown.” For instance do Brown people like Urdu dramas & Hindi films? Desis usually like one or the other (and the smarts ones both 🙂

When we call ourselves Brown Pundits is there really much of a common ground in this matter? Is there anything that really unites Brown people beyond the colour of their skin; there are brown Cambodians and Turks.

Desiness of course is earthiness fused with a sumptuousness and lavishness that is almost unparalleled (look at a desi wedding as an example). Persia and her strong aesthetic influence have historically percolated through the Sub-continent via the medium of Muslim/Mughal High Culture (thanks to the Brits who ensured the two became synonymous). The interplay between the Sanskritic pushback and the Persian advance has contributed to so much of our cultural heritage (try as they might Urdu is not dead yet; in exile from its UP homeland to find refuge & succour in the Punjab and a bastardised existence as lyrics in Bollywood films).

But at the end of it all Desiness somehow captures the magic & mystery of India; a culture that has persevered despite all the odds. A millennia of foreign Pardeshi rule but India has somehow managed to preserve her traditions, her religion and her culture; no mean feat. 

Even Persia was reborn of an Arab rape in a way that India was not. There are several orders of magnitude more continuity between the Rig Veda and modern day India than there is with the Avesta & Iran-zamin (Zoroastrianism is memory fused with myth; Hinduism is a living reality ready to tame Islam at a moment’s notice, in fact Hinduism derives her strength by not being Islam).

Brown doesn’t really do justice to what is a highly complex and evolving civilisational space. Even if India & Pakistan make an ass of themselves on the world stage battling one another (and Pakistan always threatening defection to be a sweeper in th Minarets of the Middle East) it doesn’t mean it’s not a fascinating Sub-continent. When I compare India, Pakistan & Iran; India has retained that hue & joy of paganism that the stark monotheists have long abandoned (Islam has had such a problematic relationship with music for instance).

Of course Desipundits doesn’t have as good a ring to it as Brownpundits so I guess we’ll have to suffice with Brown.

Why is white such a problematic term

The more I think about it the more I realise Ta-Nehsi Coates is into something. White is probably as loaded as the n-word. My reasoning below:

Before 1492 Europe had some but limited contact with other civilisations (Marco Polo, Greco-Roman antiquity, trade) therefore there wasn’t a sense of definition. Since the Old Word, for the most part, is racially continuous the ethnic distinctions are for the most part slight. Most Greeks are lighter-skinned than most Turks but it’s a stretch to call the former white and the latter not. Everyone blends into one another, not excacy but even so just enough to make for hazy lines.

After 1492 when Europeans encounter another civilisations entities and meets/imports them into the New World; new racial terms are required. Turk & Christian aren’t enough because slaves could be either faith.

So the term white arose in a milieu of European domination (Europe may have initially sought out the world to trade but eventually like all cultures it turned to domination). 

In this sense white turns out to be ethnic dominator labels like Turk or Arab (most Muslims in the Indian East trace their ancestry, whether real or fictitious, to either of these groups never to Persians as an example). However since one drop rule didn’t really exist anywhere else (Arabs have huge dollops of SSA ancestry making them descendants of both slaves & slave-holders) it makes white a very loaded term and a holdover of half a millennia of domination.

The ancient Greeks & Romans blended into their populations; do we have any unadulterated relics of their colonies to the existing day? Such stark racial terms (black, white etc) ellide the common truth that Humanity is One and that humans have always commingled & co-existed with one another, one-drop rule is the exception as opposed to the rule.

Again I could be wrong but most of human history is myth and if we have the right myths, maybe we could evolve in a better direction?

Too light-skinned to be Pakistani?

We had a Pakistani Dinner late and it was quite a laugh (even though I’m quite Indianised these days & constantly rant about Muslims, I do love my Pakis). One of my friends brought along a white lady who joined us. As we left the dinner she asked me if I was fully Pakistani because I was lighter than the rest and they looked “more Indian.” She then mentioned that I could pass off as a Spaniard, which frankly was BS 🙄🙄🙄. 

I was much annoyed (not faux-annoyed because it seemed like she was giving me a compliment) because I’m instantly taken for an Indian (& happily so) whereever I am in the West (not Arab not Middle East not even Persian). I am usually seen as Indian or Muslim (especially when I wear a beard, which is what I am, the collision of the Ummah & Mother India) in an all-white context; it takes a very discerning white person to see me as anything other than those. 

A good rule of thumb is that the rounder my face the “desier” I look, the leaner the more Persian I get (an Iranian friend told me that and it makes sense).

What I found interesting is that in an all-desi context (which has been a while) my “otherness” admittedly did jump out (I felt it myself but then this was a predominantly salt of the earth Punjabi table, where the Urdu spoken has a nasal quality to it).  If I had been with Muhajirs (of the KGS strata) or Pathan-Punjabi mixes it wouldn’t have felt so stark; this was a case of regional rather than national differentiation. But Punjabis own Pakistan and good for them, some compensation for the horrid they had to undergo at partition. 

I find this bestowing of “light privilege” by white people to be ridiculous and micro-aggressive (microaggression is a thing!).
It’s not that we don’t have our colour fixations in South Asia (and the Middle East) but colour is a spectrum/gradation rather than a stark barrier. There are dark Brahmins after all (even though I once heard a quip in Kampala that never trust a dark Brahmin lol) the Aryans seemed much more partial to mixing & mingling than Southern Slaveholder Landlords. 

The divide & rule concept with which goras have categorised and classified coloured people borders on the ridiculous. One can be considered coloured if they have two or more of the following; dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin. The distinction between Meds & Middle Easterners (swarthy Sicilians are essentially like Levantines) does get more hazier but I do have to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that I find the concept of “white” to be more of a political than a racial construct. Human societies have always grappled with light & dark (with preference for the former usually but then with few exceptions invaders tend to stem from the icy north) but black & white is a distinction that seems to have arose in the slave-holding societies in the New World (don’t take my word for it I’m not a scholar!)
Adios (gotta practise my Spanish now)
Ps: while my wife has done a very good job in Indianising me; as soon as I am in a Pakistani crowd my Pak-narrative conditioning kicks in and I blend in like a chameleon (that’s what my best friend calls me since I like to constantly blend in). I’m such a Munafiq!

Good on you Mahira Khan-Kapoor – now please stop playing the Virgin

Mahira Khan is of course Pakistan’s biggest actress and she seems to be dating Ranbir Kapoor (in this picture he looks the spitting image of his Dad Rishi).

Of course Twitterstan is going mad with calling Mahira an infidel and what not for betraying her country for a Hindu Indian (no matter that the Kapoors, like so many of their caste, are sons of an Indus soil).

My only take in all this is that good on Mahira for expressing herself and living life to the fullest. However kindly stop playing the Virgin in Distress (Hum Safar, Bin Roye, Sadeqay Tumhara & Sheree Zaat). It’s that hypocritical strain in Pakistani culture that we must constantly project this hyper-idealised version of reality where women have no autonomy or sexual freedom apart from their role as good Muslim mothers.

Spoiler:

In Hum Safar she accepts her treatment at her mother-in-law Farida’s schemes. In Bin Roye she punishes herself with a tortuous (and unconsummated) marriage while in Sheree Zaat she atones for her arrogance by becoming a good Namaazi. While Sadeqay Tumhara (which is a truly fantastic show along with the groundbreaking Hum Safar) she allows her future to be ruined by her mother.

Mahira has created a dangerous template for a female lead in Pakistani dramas; Kashaf (played by Sanam Saeed) in Zindagi Gulzar Hai is a much more autonomous and forward looking character but even in that brilliant show the central message was on the Mother’s Sacrifice so shall the Good Life be built. Pakistani culture needs to start giving our Women Room to Breathe and allow them to make their Mistakes/choices the way the Menfolk are given that Carte Blanche.

Good luck Mahira, Mahira Khan-Kapoor has a good ring to it & with your Star Presence you will smash Bollywood (you were the best thing in Raees, maybe I’m being jingoistic when I say that but Paki pride still runs deep lol).