Being different is not bad

Having read a fair portion of Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, I can state now that it’s a book worth reading. The author, Rajiv Malhorta, expresses a distinctively Indian religio-cultural view coherently, clearly, and with a substantial foundation of scholarship.

In this way, I would suggest that Malhorta’s work is analogous to Tariq Ramadan’s exposition of a conservative Muslim world-view that is aware of, and engages with, Western values and traditions.

The main difference is that Ramadan’s work is more academic, which makes sense since he is trained as a classical European intellectual. In contrast, the main nagging issue I have with Malhotra’s work so far is that he regularly imputes elements of Western American Protestant culture and civilization to the Abrahamic traditions writ large. This makes sense since Malhotra’s biography suggests much of his adult life was in the United States. But whenever he writes “Judeo-Christian” about 75% of the time it makes more sense to write “American Protestant”, since that is really what the term is pointing to.

I assume that in the broad conclusions Malhotra and I come down on different positions. But the outlines of the methods and arguments he uses are quite familiar and intelligible, and that’s a nice change from other things that I have read.

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Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere

[Author’s note: With the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 550th Anniversary and the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor being in the news, this is an opportunity for discussing the importance of the Sikh message, not just from a religious perspective – for Sikhs – but for Indian history. This article places the founding of Kartarpur, and Guru Nanak’s message, in a historical context – juxtaposing it with Babur’s founding of the Mughal Empire.]

I. Turning of the Wheel: Baba Nanak and Babur

In 1519, Babur invaded India – ‘ever since coming to Kabul we had been thinking of a Hindustan campaign, but for one reason or another it had not been possible,’ he writes in the Baburnama (translated by William Thackston, see pp 270-280). For some time his armies had been campaigning on the frontiers of the Hindu Kush, but these campaigns had yielded ‘nothing of consequence to the soldiers’. So, he turned to Hindustan. In the next few months, despite dogged resistance by the Afghans, Gujjars and Jats of the upper reaches of the Jhelum and Chenab, northern Punjab was subjugated, and plundered, by Babur’s armies. Babur himself spent most of his days inebriated, contemplating the legacy of Timur and setting poems to rhythmic metres. While his next great invasion of Punjab would come few years from then, in this interregnum, Punjab burned.

Among the towns and villages devastated was the settlement of Sayyidpur.

It was not long after Babur’s march of death through Punjab that Guru Nanak returned home from his western voyages – to Mecca, through Baghdad, Masshad, Khurasan, to Kabul, Peshawar, and, finally, to Sayyidpur. To the house of a humble carpenter, Bhai Lalo (Janam Sakhi Parampara by Kirpal Singh, pp 138-140). Continue reading “Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere”

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American Caste (b)

America has a national crisis in math capacity, competence and merit. American students sharply underperform students in many countries all over the world. Including Vietnam, which is a poorer country than India per capita. We will heavily refer to the 2018 OECD PISA report in below paragraphs, but the below chart graphic is from the 2015 OECD PISA scores report because math scores are reported for more countries in the 2015 report. Perhaps the 2018 report will be revised to add more countries in the future:

In my view  a level 5 PISA score is the minimum requirement for a person to be considered a high school graduate who is literate in math, able to function in the modern global economy, or be qualified to attend college. The PISA report defines a level 5 PISA score or better as a fifteen year old that “can model complex situations mathematically, and can select, compare and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies for dealing with them.” How does America perform in the 2018 PISA report?:

  • United States: 8% of students scored at Level 5 or higher in mathematics
  • OECD average: 11%
  • Six Asian countries and economies had the largest shares of students who did so:
    • Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China): 44%
    • Singapore: 37%
    • Hong Kong (China): 29%
    • Macao (China): 28%
    • Chinese Taipei: 23%
    • Korea: 21%

Note that these six countries were among the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s, far poorer than poor Americans or poor Europeans or poor Chileans can even imagine. In 1979 China was unbelievably poor. Much of the population of China–perhaps as many as 100 million–had starved to death because of extreme poverty in the 1970s. Poor children around the world are outperforming American children in mathematics despite extremely low education spending per student and very low socio-economic level of their legal guardians, where socio-economic level is defined as:

  • income
  • wealth
  • formal education of parents

Do any American high school student subgroups perform well in Mathematics? Yes, “people of color” or “minority” Americans perform well in Mathematics. America’s “people of color” or “minority” students are orders of magnitude more likely to get an 800 on the mathematics SAT than European Americans. If we assume this is an extreme tail end distribution issue related to European Americans having a lower standard deviation and non standard distribution in mathematics performance relative to “people of color” or “minority” Americans, we can explore the breakdown of Americans who score between 750 and 800 on the Mathematics SAT. Here European Americans perform far better relative to “people of color” or “minority” Americans.  In 2015 16,000 European Americans scored 750 or higher. 33,000 “people of color” and “minority” Americans scored 750 or higher. We further know that 51% of SAT test takers were European Americans and 49% were “people of color” or “minority” Americans.  “People of color” or “minority” Americans are [33,000/16,000]*[51%/49%] or 2.15 times as likely to score 750 or higher on the mathematics SAT compared to European Americans.  If we examine the 107,900 test takers who got SAT math scores of 700 or higher; 59,900 are “people of color” or “minority” Americans, versus 48,000 European Americans. “People of color” or “minority” Americans are [59,900/48,000]*[51%/49%] or 1.30 times as likely to score 700 or higher on the mathematics SAT compared to European Americans. For data junkie geeks like me there is a lot more data on SAT math score distributions here and here. The Greta Anderson article’s comment section in particular has some very intelligent commentators who have studied the American SAT score distribution. This is likely to be the subject of many future blog posts and Brown Pundits Podcasts.

What about this is worrying?:

  1. European Americans in particular are sharply under-performing both very poor children around the world and “people of color” and “minority” Americans in mathematics.
  2. American mathematics SAT scores have fallen between 1972 and 2016. 1972 is the earliest year for which I could find comparable SAT mathematics scores. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 the SAT mathematics exam was completely restructured to make scores no longer comparable to SAT mathematics scores between 1972 and 2016.
  3. 90% or more of current jobs and businesses are likely to be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), brain electro-therapy (meditation . . . practiced by civilizations around the world for over 5,000 years), brain sound therapy (naad or mantra yoga and their equivalents in Native American, Egyptian, Sumerian, Taoist and other civilizations around the world for over 5,000 years), bio-engineering tissue, genetic editing, and fused AI-brain interface synthesis intelligence. Almost all of these future disciplines are complementary to mathematics.

Future articles and podcasts are planned all six of these future disciplines. If you are curious about fused AI-brain interface synthesis intelligence, please watch my main man Elon Musk:

Some say that the tension and relationship challenges between America’s four big castes–European Americans, European “Latino” Americans, Black Americans and Asian American–are driving low math scores for European Americans “AND” other Americans. One example is where thought leader Mark J Perry explores the possibility that tension between the European American caste and the Asian American caste are lowering American  mathematics performance. Excerpts of his article are reproduced below:

Continue reading “American Caste (b)”

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Why Indian Muslims are in India not of India

Reading Seshat History of the Axial Age chapters on India was a bit unsatisfying due to a lack of detail. But if you are looking for high-level historiography, it’s not a bad volume. It’s most definitely a good “sourcebook” on the literature.

Because of its general and cross-cultural focus, I began considering why Indian Muslims seem so immiscible. This is, in contrast to various other groups that moved into India. One might bring up “Scythians”, but more appropriate I think might be the Ahom of Assam. They were originally Buddhists of a sort, but eventually, they became Hindu, though they retain some Buddhist rituals.

So what’s the difference? Clearly one simple difference is that Buddhism and Hinduism are both Dharmic, so the barriers between the two traditions are lower and the boundary more fluid than between Islam and Dharmic traditions. This obvious in Sri Lanka, and also in Myanmar, where the remaining Indians of Hindu origin have mostly switched their religious affiliation to Buddhism, and in Thailand, where there are native Brahmins who perform rituals at the royal court.

But I think there’s a bigger difference: India was a land of opportunity for Muslims from West and Central Asia. The constant stream of officials, soldiers, and religious eminences mean that attempts to synthesize and assimilate Indian Muslims in the same way possible with earlier peoples were going to run into the counter-force of immigrants and transplants who would constantly demanding that Indian Muslims conform to world normative Islamic practices and beliefs. One illustration of this is the role of the Naqshbandi order in demanding that Muslim rulers not stray and that Hindus and Muslims should not mix excessively.

The only work that addresses the possibility of assimilation and synthesis in detail that I know of is Dominique-Sila Khan’s Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia. In the wake of the mass migration of Muslim Turks and Afghans under the Delhi Sultanate, a large number of Indians became Muslim, of various sorts. But with the decay of the Delhi Sultanate, and the decentralization of power and rule, Dominique-Sila Khan outlines her thesis that many Muslim and Hindu groups experimented with beliefs and practices which were synthetic, creating liminal identities. With the rise of the Mughal Empire and its integrative tendency, as well its excellent connections to the “Islamic international,” the liminal groups were forced into more standard and distinct confessional identities.

One unsurprising aspect of this is that demands for orthodoxy from the Sunni Muslims hit various Shia groups, in particular, ghulat sects among the Ismailis, particularly hard. Though forced conversions of Hindus no doubt occurred, we know for a fact that there was a systematic campaign to convert whole groups of Ismailis in regions such as Gujarat to Sunni Islam. These campaigns were on the whole successful.

Can we test my hypothesis that exogenous interaction and contact explain the relative lack of assimilation of Muslims into the Indian-Hindu identity? Yes. But not with India. Rather, there were multiple instances in China where small Muslim groups lost contact with the “outside world” (that is, Muslims in Central Asia). These groups at the elite levels became strongly influenced by Confucianism, and at the popular level took elements resembling Pure Land Buddhism. Though some Muslims were absorbed into Chinese folk religious milieu, the heterodox sects never became a new religion on the Chinese scene. Why? Because periodically contact would be reestablished with Muslims from Central Asia (again, the Naqshbandi order played a big role here), and deviations would be purged.

There is a final example that illustrates what happens to distinctive religions when they are totally isolated. In the early 17th-century, Japan banned Christianity and isolated itself from the rest of the world. But small groups of Catholic Christians maintained their identity in secret. These “Hidden Christians” were rediscovered in the 19th-century. The majority became conventional Catholics…but a minority remained “Hidden Christians”, and had taken on many elements of Japanese folk religion, as well as Pure Land Buddhism.

Can Islam than ever be indigenized in South Asia? Ask the Persians how easy it is to take Arabicity out of Islam…

Update: I suggest in the comments below that the foreign dominance among South Asia’s Muslim elites served to prevent the conversion of native elites.

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Afghanistan’s History (a)

Special thanks to Mayuresh Madhav Kelkar for sending this. I would start watching this excellent Dari Farsi documentary 1 minute 19 seconds in. There are many excellent ancient maps of central and south Asia.

 

I just want to watch this again and again, just to listen to the narrator’s voice. Majestic, wise, soft and sweet. For those so sure Afghanistan will fall; any nation with voices like this is perchance stronger than she appears. This may be where the homo sapien sapien modern civilization was born.

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Afghanistan’s History

 

Avtar Singh Khalsa: Lion of Afghanistan

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Post Modernism (d)

Five thousand years ago the greater Egyptian, Sumerian, Eastern (defined as pan Arya plus China) civilizations were very mathematically oriented.  Many caucasians appear to believe that these ancient civilizations were racist. Possibly because of this many caucasians believe that math is racist.

 

Another possible reason many caucasians appear to believe that math is racist is because they fear it might unfairly advantages “brown” people (Asians, Arabs, Latinos) and “brown” cultures (eastern philosophy including Toaism and Confucianism, native american religion) at the expense of caucasians in the new global artificial intelligence, neuroscience, genetics economy.

 

Could part of the anger against math come from fear that mathematics, science, technology, seeking the truth through thought, seeking the truth without thought might be haram or blasphemous? (Obviously most Abrahamics do not believe this and this is not a critique of Abrahamism.)

 

I believe that mathematics is part of art; and that it derives from beyond normal gross thought. From what in Sanskrit is called Buddhi, Vijnayamaya Kosha, Ananda Maya Kosha, Sukshma Sharira, Kaarana Sharira, the subtle heavens.

 

Perhaps the anger against mathematics is part of a deeper anger against the subtle heavens? If so, one possible way to look at this is that to transcend the subtle heavens (including mathematics) it might be helpful to love them and love our way through them. Or to love and respect the racist (subtle heavens–including mathematics) until we transcend the various subtleties of thought and feeling.

What are everyone’s thoughts?

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Post Modernism (c)

Post Modernism (b)

Post Modernism (a)

Intellectual Dark Web (a)

Intellectual Dark Web

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Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, a book review:

rise and fall, hubris and nemesis, a frequent pattern in human existence ..
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Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche
by Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn
Jorvik Press, 199 pp. (2019)

The book benefits enormously from having twin authors — Rob Hogendoorn provides invaluable biographical and analytical material, credited to him as it occurs, while Mary Finnegan’s contributions relate, in her own voice, her experiences. Both authors are Buddhist practitioners, both have researched the sexual abuse claims around Sogyal for years — claims which have since been admitted by Rigpa, Sogyal’s teaching organization.

**

Mary Finnigan & Rob Hogendoorn’s book title hits two human keynotes. You’ll find them intertwined for crowd-pleasing reasonsd in Game of Thrones:

It’s a question that’s been asked of Game of Thrones as long as the HBO series has been on the air: Why so much sex and violence?

But Tibet? Perfect Tibet of our wishes? Tibet of the revered Dalai Lama? Tibet of the lamas who create intricate mandalas of colored sands — then brush them away in a gesture of impermanence and carry the dust to rivers which wash them out to sea? Shangri-La — in fact not fiction?

There’s a lot that’s wonderful to Tibetan Buddhism, and the better it looks and actually can be, the easier it is for Westerners to fall for the trap of projection — to believe, in this case, in the impeccability of Sogyal Lakar, sometimes titled Rinpoche, or Precious-One.

**

It’s unwise in general to speak ill of the recent dead, and Sogyal died in August 2019. Yet his story must be told, because unhappy though it is, the telling can help us avoid the illusion of a supposedly great lama — second only to the Dalai Lama in popularity in the west — who was in fact assaulting his female students sexually on numerous occasions across decades.

That’s the tale Mary Finnigan, herself a practitioner of Dzogchen — Sogyal’s own form of Tibetan Buddhism — details in collaboration with her co-author Rob Hogendoorn in this book.

The accusations against Sogyal, of “sexual, physical and emotional abuse”, led to the Dalai Lama declaring Sogyal “disgraced”. The Charity Commission for England and Wales disqualified two of the Trustees of Sogyal’s  organisation, the Rigpa Fellowship, in the UK because they covered up “knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students”..

**

But although sex, violence, and sexual violence are at the heart of the anguish Sogyal inflicted on unwary students, there’s another side to Sogyal’s story that Finnigan and Hogendoorn illuminate — the story of the son of a wealthy family, in contact with a senior Dzogchen lama and taken under his wing, who learned little that might have qualified him to be a teacher of that tradition, yet who managed to wangle his Tibetan nationality into the appearance of a gifted and highly educated lama on his arrival in England.

It’s a fascinating and heart-rending story — heart-rending is the word used by the New York Times in its obit for Sogyal — throwing light on Tibetan Buddhism itself, an astonishing mesh-work of visualizations and compassionate insight; the vicious politics that have long existed within the cloak of lamaism, and which the Dalai Lama has partially uncloaked; an archaic gender differential as power differential; and in general, eastern wisdom meets western credulity.

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Sogyal’s wealthy family connection gives him access to a high lama, Chokyi Lodro, and his presence at Lodro’s side gives him in turn the title of Tulku, which often but not always signifies the reincarnation of some previous high lama, and is always a term of respect.

An authentically scholarly Tibetan meditation master, Dudjom Rinpoche, knows Sogyal has little to no education in the finer points of Tibetan philosophy or meditation, but considers him someone a western student might pick up some hints from — crossing the cultural divide as it were.

Sogyal , moving to the west, is on his way.

**

The years pass, just being a Tibetan guru in the west is sexy in the broad sense in which Lamborghinis and orchids are sexy: scholars of religion call it charisma. And when young and impressionable women become devotees of supposed high lamas — and when there are rumors, not without foundation, of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism including tantra, or spiritual-sexual practices, feelings and expectations can get very confused.

The main thrust of Mary and Rob’s book is to tell the rise and fall of Sogyal Lakar, his rise by that wider “sexy” quality we term charisma, his fall by discovery of the abuses of both spirituality and sex he’s inflicted on so many of his students across the years. I won’t go into the details, it’s their story to tell, and they tell it with the probing integrity of journalists as well as the sincerity of practitioners.

**

It has to be said that young Western women stood in line to sleep with Trungpa [“a formidably intelligent iconoclast” meditation master] and were usually eager to oblige with Sogyal. They became known as dharma groupies and sex with a Rinpoche became almost as much of a status symbol as plaster casting Mick Jagger.

Oh, Mary can write!

The problem was the abuse at Sogyal’s “feudal” court.

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The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism teaches something often translated:

form is emptiness, emptiness is form

where emptiness is better understood as <em>void, and void as devoid of self-establishing nature — so that these lines might be rendered:

Form is devoid of self-establishing nature,
absence of self-establishing nature is form.

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Sogyal — no great meditation master, it would seem — has another form of emptiness. Whatever he may have thought, he lacked that compassion which is the fruit of deep meditative practice. And so he was able to enact violence on his students.

But we may witness that emptiness in another arena, that of scholarship.

Early on in Sogyal’s time in the west, Dudjom Rinpoche is giving a talk to a hundred eager students, packed into a room intended for an average London family, and Sogyal is translating for him. Mary was there, sitting next to her then boyfriend John Driver, a linguist gifted in Tibetan, and noted that John was frowning. She writes:

During the first lunch break, John steered me into a cafe down the road. He was quite angry.

“Sogyal is not translating correctly,” he said. “Either he’s interpreting Rinpoche’s words into what he thinks is suitable for Westerners or he doesn’t understand what Dudjom is saying.”

**

It was a foreshadowing. Ever since Walter Evans-Wentz published an early English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, the gold-embossed green cloth volume has been a choice text to set beside the Chinese I Ching in pride of place on one’s desk or shelf. Come 1992, and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published, updating the timeless Buddhist classic, personalizing it with some of Sogyal’s own tales, made “accurate” to some degree by the inclusion of questions and answers from distinguished Tibetan masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama together with western masters of hospice living and dying such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross — but, but–

As one student who was around at the time put it:

Could anyone who knew Sogyal imagine him being able to quote the German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke? Or the Sufi sage, Jalaluddin Rumi?

No, the “editor” who’d have provided those quotes, and much more of the content and form, indeed the very flowing language of the book, would have been Andrew Harvey, Oxford scholar extraordinaire and author of The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi and other works.

So much for a great book — and it was and is great, and Sogyal deserves some, though by no means all, credit for it.

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To sum up:

Sex and violence are paired in the book’s title. The problem with the sex is not that it was sex — Sogyal was no more a monk than Trungpa was, and it was often consensual. The problem was in the tirades, the humiliations, the violence, the abuse — delivered under cover of spiritual authority in violation of trust across a power and gender differential.

The scholarship is, well, Andrew Harvey’s, and Padmasambhava’s, and Kubler Ross’.

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I met Sogyal once. I asked him about the meaning of “skillful means”, and he responded “not entering or leaving a room through the wall, when there’s a door available.” He seemed pleasant enough. Trungpa Rinpoche I befriended at Oxford, and took to visit friends of mine at Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester: later he wrote that the visit had shown him the possibility of living the contemplative life in the west. He opened the first Tibetan monastery in the west shortly thereafter, Samye Ling in Scotland. And Mary is an old friend from hippie days.

As I indicated above, Mary and Rob have a story to tell, and they can tell a story.

Sogyal himself is no longer with us. He has entered, perhaps, the bardo, that liminal space between lives about which The Tibetan Book of the Dead — and to some extent its Sogyal reincarnation, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying — are written.

Go, read.

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Commentary on Adi Shankara

It seems Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker is now $0.99 on Kindle, so I got a copy. From what little I know the subhead is warranted, so understanding Adi Shankara goes a long way to understanding elite Hinduism.

On the other hand, I have a dim view of most religious philosophy personally. But, it is important that people take such thinking seriously, as understanding it is a part of understanding humanity. For example, I can acknowledge that Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant thinker, while at the same time thinking his mind was wasted.

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Film Review: What Will People Say?

**Caution: Spoilers Ahead**

Image result for what will people say film

I was watching the film ‘What will people say’ (courtesy, Kanopy), an official selection at the Toronto film festival in 2018. It is a story familiar to anyone who grew up in Pakistan or in a desi family abroad. A young, second-generation Pakistani teenage girl (Nisha) in Norway wants to live her life like any other teenager in her peer group but is restricted by her parents. Like most rebellious teenagers anywhere in the world, she finds ways to do what she wants to do (go out partying with a friend in the middle of the night) but stops just shy of having physical relations with one of her guy friends. One such day, she gets caught by her father who finds one of her male Norwegian friends in her room and starts beating him and then turns his fury on her. A neighbor calls the police and Nisha is escorted to a safe place by Norway’s version of the CPS.

After spending a night at CPS, Nisha’s mother calls her to tell her that everything will be okay and that her father will pick her up from CPS in a few minutes. Nisha, being a teenager, falls for this trap. She ends up on a flight to Pakistan with her father. Her father leaves her at his sister’s house and returns to Norway the next day. Nisha tries to contact someone in Norway but she has no access to international calling or internet. Her first night, she tries to run away in the streets but comes back to find her aunt at the door telling her that the nearest airports in 350 Kilometers away. At another instance, she tries to send a message to one of her Norwegian friends via facebook through a net cafe but is caught and her Norwegian passport is burned. She spends eight months at that place. While she is there, she falls for one of her male cousins living in the same house.

One night, they are caught kissing at night by local police who beat him mercilessly and ask her to strip at gunpoint. The police then ask the guy to fondle her in front of them, all while taking photos of them. The couple is then dragged to their house and police demand money in exchange for deleting those photos. Nisha’s father is summoned from Norway by the Pakistani relatives and she is sent back. While Nisha’s father is in Pakistan, he spits at her face and then takes her in a taxi to the top of a mountain and orders her to jump from there. She tries to plead with him while he throttles her and tries to push her. He is unable to, and they end up back in Norway.

There is a family meal and her mother tells her that they are giving her a final chance. The prospect of her becoming a doctor is brought up and that it would be one way in which the honor of family can be redeemed. Some of the dialogues used by her mother upon her return are,

People don’t even invite is to weddings anymore.
I wish you were stillborn”.

Within a few days of her return, she comes back from school to find that there is a ‘match’ ready to happen. The boy (Adnan) is a doctor in Canada and from a Pakistani family. Adnan’s aunt is visiting Nisha’s house and he is present via Skype.

Her father muses out loud that she can study and later work once she is in Canada. The boy’s aunt says ‘No, there is no need for studies or work. Adnan earns plenty of money. She’ll later be busy enough with children and the house”.

Nisha’s mother agrees with this statement.

After a brief chat, the ‘match’ is finalized and they are officially “engaged”. Sweets are consumed by everybody present (they are Pakistani, after all). The boy’s aunt then says, “Nisha, we are doing it only for your wellbeing”. The following night, Nisha, who had been rooming with her younger sister, decides to run away from the house again. It is snowing outside and before she leaves, her younger sister (who is about 6-9 years old) wakes up and sees her leave but doesn’t say a word. Once she has climbed down from her third story apartment, she walks towards the street outside their apartment complex and looks back. Her father is standing in the window, looking at her. Their eyes meet for a few moments and then Nisha takes off in the snow, running far away from the house. The End.

I thought the movie was generally well-made. There is some exoticization of Pakistan, as one expects in most films for a primarily western audience. The narrow streets, old houses, mountains in the background and a dilapidated bus, with Khawaja-siras (transgender people) selling boiled eggs to passengers, the old school vegetable and fruit market, classrooms without whiteboards and households without domestic servants. I read later that the story is loosely based on the life of its director, Iram Haq.

The premise, as I said earlier, is familiar to a Pakistani or a Pakistani-origin person. The rank hypocrisy of Pakistani society, the guilt-trapping (Pakistani parents’ favorite sport), violence in the name of honor and efforts to ‘save face’ in the community are daily realities of a desi household. While honor killings get splashed as headlines (deservedly), there is a lot of ‘micro-violence’ that happens every day in a middle-class Pakistani household with young girls (I’m talking about a representative sample). Some of the statements that I have bolded and put in quotation marks in the synopsis are familiar tropes of Pakistani parents, once they find out that the human being they created is not a robot that they can program. The situation, however, is much more dire for girls than it is for boys. Particularly when it happens abroad. One of my mentors used to say that Pakistanis in the diaspora tend to be normal people until their daughters start growing up. If it were up to Pakistani parents, they would bottle up puberty of their children and throw it away in the trash, instead of dealing with it like people everywhere else.

I write this not just as a commentator but as a witness. Both of my sisters, at different times in their lives, were ‘disciplined’ when they developed an interest in men that my parents had not chosen for them to marry. Sister number one was a teenager and had a crush on one of her teachers (which is the most teenager thing that I can think of). The guy in question used to visit our house for coaching (a normal occurrence for our household, to be clear) and he belonged to a lower-middle-class background. Once the ‘crush’ was discovered, he was banished from our house and my sister was warned never to mention his name again, or there would be dire consequences. She was 16 at the time. Around the time that she turned 17, she was engaged to a cousin who was studying abroad at the time. She got married at 18 and has lived abroad ever since. She has always been an obedient and slightly-passive child and has done okay in life, despite the obvious disadvantage.

Sister number 2 has always been a more outwardly emotional and strong character. Her first ‘issue’ arose during teenage years when she was found talking too many times with one of the male cousins. She would also ‘dress up’ (as much as one could in a provincial Punjabi town) when she went to coaching centers in the city during her high school years. Later, when she was in college, she needed some help with coursework and an acquaintance who worked in that profession was asked to help. The acquaintance deputed one of his juniors to help my sister. Fast forwards a few years and they were romantically involved. My parents were having none of that. They tried to ‘arrange’ her marriage at different places but she would stage some sort of stunt (act cold/be sarcastic/or just being rude) to get out of it. She tried to kill herself at least twice during this period. She was probably physically beaten more than once as well (I was at boarding school between 2000-2006 and in med school for 5 years after that so I only heard these things second-hand). I had met the dude in question and found him to be okay, nothing too spectacular or bad. As the firstborn male, I held a certain role in the family so I first cajoled my mother (who hated the guy partially because he was 10-12 years older than my sister and partially because he came from a lower-middle-class family and my sister has always had ‘high’ ambitions) and later my father (who felt guilty for having introduced the couple in the first place) and sister number 2 finally got married to him.

Were my parents monsters or merely representing the middle class, small-town, religious morality that they themselves grew up in? I don’t know the answer to that question. They are otherwise very decent, educated, ‘honorable’, pious people and a neutral observer meeting them for the first time won’t be able to see anything wrong outwardly. The pathos inflicting my parents is not restricted to them, it is shared by everyone around them, most of the society is rotten. And it’s not getting any better with time.

P.S A book that deals with issues of ‘honor’ in the Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Britain, is ‘Maps for lost lovers’ by Nadeem Aslam. One can also glean some knowledge about this from certain portions of the movie ‘Blinded by the Light’.

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