Climate scientists caught on first, then the US military, and now financial risk analysts. Things are shifting: if BlackRock ‘s C-suite officers (they control a dime out of every dollar in the world) were the jurors, the current US administration might not like their verdict.
Scorched earth used to be a military tactic — Samson caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails, sending them through enemy fields — but what if nature out-flames the foxes? What if floods engulf those waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
Hosing down used to be a police tactic — against dissenting crowds, with dissent almost a badge of honor, police visor and shield almost an admission of guilt — ah, earth, water, air, mind — all ablaze!
No sense in wasting a poem on impeachment, those things pass like leaves in the wind, Nixon, Clinton,Trump, and by the time you read this another fistful, maybe no doubt — on second thought, poems too are leaves in a high wind, sacred altitude at best.
Han Shan sent his poems floating downstream, scribbled them on the walls of caves and hermitages, wrote them on beech-bark on the off-chance someone would find them — Pulitzer-winner Gary Snyder for sure found them!
Floods and firestorms: the planet is not so much burning as oscillating, floods, the element of water, fire would evaporate them, but only after bringing them to boiling point, firestorms, wrathful, water would quench them, but boiling point is hardly the issue.
We are deep into future problems, the courage of our blind denial blithely fire-walking with water-walking ability granted us solely in scriptures — prediction succeeds, prophecy fails, what next?
Buddhist logic from the beginning differs from its Aristotelian cousin, featuring the chatushkoti or tetralemma:
India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.
I could have been in Junaid Hafeez’s place. He was born in a small town in Punjab and was ‘foolish’ enough to leave a career in medicine to pursue the arts. He got a Fulbright scholarship and studied literature, photography, and theatre at Jackson State University in Mississipi before returning to Pakistan and working as a guest lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University. In 2013, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy. In 2014, his lawyer, Rashid Rahman, was killed in broad daylight, and some lawyers in Multan celebrated that killing. According to witnesses, when Rahman’s body was being bathed before being buried, someone was beating the dhol (signifying happiness) outside their house. This month, Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death (link from BBC). He has been kept in solitary confinement for years, for his own protection. What was Junaid Hafeez’s fault?
He chose to say (or just think) things that are not supposed to be said or thunk in Pakistan. He could have chosen to return to the United States or to another country where his life was not in constant danger and where he would not be held in solitary confinement for his own sake. He also chose to teach younger generations and give back to the country, which is also a grave sin in the land of pure. (Read my friend Komail’s experience in his recent piece here).
Sometime during medical school, I myself got disillusioned with medicine and thought about alternative careers. It took me a few years to figure that out and in the meanwhile, I graduated from medical school and completed the necessary medical training. I also got a scholarship to visit the United States and was writing for blogs and newspapers during that interim period. I got sick and tired of sitting at home and applied to be an instrutor in Anatomy (never my favourite subject but that was the only job open at the time) at a private medical school in my hometown. I had never formally taught a class, much less a class of fresh faced medical students on their first day. I did my best effort to hide my nervousness (using my experience as an actor during med school) and hopefully succeeded. There is not a lot of ‘concept-based’ teaching in Anatomy which made my life hard and the fact that in Pakistan, most med schools spend an inordinate amount of time teaching anatomy that students will never use (2-3 months on upper limb!!). I tried to mix things in, just because i wanted them to pay attention. Some of my first lectures would include a mention of the theory of evolution and anatomic signs of that alongside the scientific method. I once started a presentation with a small biography of Karl Marx that I had written for an urdu newspaper, as the day was Marx’s birthday. I tried to not bring up religion or politics in class (other than that one Marx episode, and I wasn’t even a Marxist!) because i wasn’t teaching them social sciences and didn’t want to get into trouble. I was however once asked what an atheist is, to which i gave a very diplomatic answer. The place was run by a political family, who had bought the land for that med school when one of their members was a local nazim under in the Musharraf era. They ran the school like a traditional patriarchy. Female students were prohibited from openly mingling with their male classmates. They eventually started giving ‘tickets’ to such micreant girls and started calling their fathers when they were ‘found’ talking or sitting with a male. I taught at that place for about a year and then moved to Lahore to start my residency.
During residency, we were supposed to oversee students during their labs but there were very few opportunities to actually engage them in a conversation. I took a break from residency after ten months to study for USMLE exams and got a teaching job at another med school in Lahore. That place was the worst of my three experiences mostly because it was a diploma mill. It was also a hybrid campus, so med students would attend classes alongside pharmacy, physical therapy and social sciences students. The social sciences segment was a net-negative for the med school since there was a lot of reactionary views (Orya Maqbool was a frequent guest at their events) going on. One day, I was studying in the lab (the only reason I went to campus every day) when a media student came in and asked if he could do a mock interview for his project to which I agreed. He wanted to ask generic questions so I fed him generic answers without delving too much into specifics. Otherwise, that place was quite toxic. The lab staff (high school graduates and diploma holders) treated female teachers (all of them doctors) as their equivalent and misbehaved with them. One of the lab staff tried to sell the annual exam questions to the highest bidders and was caught on tape (thanks to WhatsApp). Before anything could be done against him, he had fled. I felt sorry for the students and their parents who spent millions of rupees on their offsprings’ education.
No wonder the best and the brightest (not including myself) don’t bother coming back to Pakistan.
I spent a month in India recently and wanted to share some impressions.
Prima facie, India is a distressing and depressing place. The overwhelming feeling is one of criminal neglect and carelessness. This feeling needs to be tempered with the real difference in wealth between India and rich countries, but the differences are present even when in comparison to similar income countries like Vietnam.
The classic example is of driving. There are a 130 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles in India, the same number for is 55 for Vietnam and 37 for Indonesia. Drivers are reckless, contemptuous of rules, near maniacs on the road. Traffic police is nowhere to be seen.
The other apparent feature of India is trash. India actually generates very little trash per capita. But virtually none of this seems to be disposed properly. The constant sight of trash on the roads, every nook and corner eventually starts to appall one. More importantly, the health and safety implications are grave.
A newer menace is pollution. In the winter, it is a permanent fixture in the sky, casting a depressing spell. Health implications will become clearer in the coming years. Street lighting is also very poor.
Cumulatively, this series of neglects produces an urban environment that leaves one paranoid, morbid and irritated.
Our Constitution makers committed a grave oversight by allowing states to decide the structure of urban governance. Legally, cities in India exist at the whim of state legislatures. Mumbai city has no independent legal existence. Tomorrow, the state of Maharashtra can merge it into Pune if it wants. Imagine the state of Texas abolishing Austin. The central government doesnt seem to care that it hasnt appointed 37% of high court chief justices. The list of governance befuddlements goes on and on.
We actually have good urban schools (PPP or government aided), which are funded by the state and managed by independent religious, cultural or educational societies. These schools have produced a generation of excellent human capital. But it is the West and Gulf states that benefit from this excellent system, due to our own short-sightedness. Those who care about India’s future need to think seriously about why the best of India’s talent leaves at the first available opportunity.
My own hope lies with Delhi. Through sheer providence, we managed to have an urban area with a sensible model of governance. The city actually has a real mayor, who by most accounts has done a great job in the last five years. If policing responsibility was also shared with the Delhi government, rather than being in the hands of a Union minister, we will see what Indian democracy can truly achieve in an urban area.
The world breaks down into three major factions: ——post modernists (psychotic in need of urgent medical services) ——Islamists ——“non post modernists and non Islamists” Can Rwanda, the Asian Tiger of Africa, inspire and lead the global “non post modernists and non Islamists”? Can Rwanda inspire and lead the globalists?
I find twitter to be a great tool for cultural anthropology. There are a lot of views discussed and often many people hold these views very seriously and see twitter as a medium to express them freely. Relative anonymity also makes it easier to utter that you wouldn’t otherwise in public.
One of my occasional observations is how strong the pattern of denying ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits is within various groups of people on Twitter. I am interested in it because I have lived through these events, but also because I want to understand what kind of moral or political imperatives drive people towards holding such views sincerely.
I am an aspiring stand up comic (‘aspiring’ the operative word here). I was attracted to quick-witted, slapstick comedy while I was at an all-male boarding school in Pakistan. Since I was not physically strong enough to compete with the big boys, I had to use my tongue as an asset/weapon. I grew up watching mild-mannered comedies in Urdu on Pakistani television. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that I discovered ‘Seinfeld’ as a syndicated show on an Indian TV Channel. I had started watching ‘The Daily Show ‘ with Jon Stewart almost at the same time, through pirated websites (broadband internet was a late arrival in our household). There was no broader culture of stand up comedy in Pakistan, except a few souls with western education who were briefly on the scene in the early-to-mid 2000s (Sami Shah, Saad Haroon, etc.), mostly clustered in Karachi (which was as culturally far away for me as New York City). I used whatever avenues I could to write humor. I wrote parodies and mockeries in Urdu, first in boarding school, then in med school. Urdu has produced some great humorists (Ibne-Insha, Patras Bokhari, Khalid Akhtar, to name a few), but written humor is different than performative comedy. The only parallel I could find was in stage dramas that were mostly, if not entirely, produced in Punjab and consisted of varying degrees of ‘jugat baazi,’ which is pure slapstick comedy. It can consist of monologues or a back and forth between two men (and it is almost always men) who take turns to insult each other. While it is quite entertaining, it is most often misogynistic and hinges upon common tropes.
The TV show ‘Hasb-e-Haal’ ushered in a new era of political comedy in Pakistan. Before that, there was ‘Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain’ (literal meaning: we are all hopeful; a double entendre since ‘umeed se hain’ can mean hopeful or pregnant), which consisted of parodies of major political figures. Hasb-e-Haal had regular news and humorous analysis of that news by Azizi, a character played by veteran stage actor, Suhail Ahmed. The show was competing against completely serious political shows and shot to popularity in the late 2000s/early 2010s. Soon after that, there was a deluge of TV shows offering political comedy, in varying degrees of success. There was no ‘Saturday Night Live’ analog that poked irreverent fun at every possible institution in the society. Noone could criticize the judiciary, the military (and its proxies), or the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ (TNT). I remember watching a stage show that was quite popular in 2013-14, written by Anwar Maqsood (famous playwright), in Lahore. It was a miniature, middle-class, sanitized version of the nightly news shows. The state of humor in Pakistan was bleak, a nation taking itself too seriously and too afraid to laugh at ourselves. I actually wrote a parody show that was educational at the same time as it was humorous, in 2012, which was filmed by a friend but did not make it to the screen, partially because it was my first experience writing in that format.
Recently, there have been some positive developments like Aurat Naak, an all-female comedy troupe, and satire sections in newspapers (dearly-departed/banned Khabaristan Times and The Dependant, both of which I contributed to). However, satire in English newspapers and blogs has its limitations: Very few people in Pakistan read English papers regularly. A few years ago, Nadeem Farooq Paracha (cultural critic for Dawn and one of my early heroes) wrote a blog for Dawn.com that portrayed Malala Yousafzai as a polish agent planted in Pakistan (there were enough hints in the piece for it being a satire column/blog). The article was soon shared by people who took is as gospel truth, and some local newspapers even published Urdu translation of that piece as evidence that it was proof of Malala being a fake (a common enough conspiracy theory in Pakistan). Dawn had to label the piece as Satire at the front and bottom of the page as a response. A year or two later, when I submitted a satire piece to Dawn, I was told to ‘tone it down a bit’ in light of the Malala story. In Pakistan, there is a very fine line between humor and absurd reality, and as a writer, I was often treading that line, veering from one side to another.
It is not as if Pakistan does not have people who are funny and can poke fun at the ‘holy cows.’ I know dozens of people who do that in private frequently but cannot, for their safety, say those things in public. There is no First Amendment guaranteeing free speech rights in Pakistan. ,’ 19 of the constitution explicitly identifies the holy cows (military, judiciary, TNT) and prohibits speech against that. Adding to this fuel is the firepower possessed by Pakistan’s right-wing media and loudspeaker power wielded by molvis who can commandeer people to form a mob against anyone at the drop of a hat. A few years ago, a fellow journalist and friend wrote an article about the ‘homosexual question’ in Islam on a popular Urdu website. A week later, Orya Maqbool Jan, former civil servant, and lifelong windbag dedicated a whole TV show to that one article and targetted that Urdu website. A case of hate speech was filed against him with Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). For his hearing, Orya brought a bunch of goon (including lawyers, molvis and other members of a for-hire mob) and disrupted the hearing. Nothing ever came out of that hate speech case.
When I moved to the US in 2017, I had the opportunity to see stand up comedy myself. I went to a place in Miami that had bi-monthly comedy shows and to a place in Fort Lauderdale that had an open-mic. I wrote some material myself, which I performed in front of a group of friends but never on stage. In Houston, I went to an open-mic and was going to perform my set, but I was supposed to be on stage around 11 pm, which is way past my bed time, and I had friends in the audience who had to go to work the next day. In Washington DC, I went to a show titled ‘Black Side of the Moon’ in December 2016. It was a combination of monologues and sketch comedy by an all-black cast. The most memorable moment in the show was when a white volunteer who came on stage was given the ‘Full African American Experience’, including being sold at a slave market, denial of place in a sports team despite his qualifications, and being shot dead by a black policeman. It was probably my first exposure to live, politically conscious comedy. A Pakistani version would have Ahmadis or Baloch people mocking the majority Sunni population or Punjabi elite. That show is not going to happen any time soon.
Sadly, the only Pakistani import to the US in terms of stand up comedy (Kumail Nanjiani) is a good actor but a subpar stand up comic. His film ‘The Big Sick’ was an amalgamation of stereotypes and some mildly emotional scenes. He does quite well in the HBO TV show ‘Silicon Valley’ and was admittedly quite good in the movie ‘Stuber’. Many of his Karachi acquintances are on the record saying how he fabricated things about his life in Pakistan (you can google that).
I was in Chicago recently and saw a show at the famed Second City theatre titled ‘Do you believe in Madness?’. It was a powerful sketch show with a diverse cast and ranging in topics from Abortion to Impeachment, global warming , Brexit and including a song with names of all the people who have left the current white house (sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s ‘We didn’t start the fire’). It was like watching SNL but better. This is my long-winded way to say that the satte of comedy in the US, is strong, and long may it continue!
I’m pretty sure I’ve posted this map before. It’s not surprising, as it shows fertility differences across the nation.
But, what I just realized is that the fertility rate gradient between West Bengal and Bihar is one of the largest in the world. Bihar’s TFR is about 3.3, West Bengal’s 1.6. For comparison, Mexico has a TFR of 2.1, and the USA 1.7. Yemen has a TFR of 4.0, and Saudi Arabia 2.5. Perhaps analogous are Iran and Pakistan. TFR’s of 1.7 and 3.5, respectively.