Published in HT

Casteism: alive and well in Pakistan

16 February 2009

Published in The Friday Times, Pakistan (current issue)

It is a cliché now to say that Pakistan is a country in transition – on a highway to somewhere. The direction remains unclear but the speed of transformation is visibly defying its traditionally overbearing, and now cracking postcolonial state. Globalisation, the communications revolution and a growing middle class have altered the contours of a society beset by the baggage and layers of confusing history.
What has however emerged despite the affinity with jeans, FM radios and McDonalds is the visible trumpeting of caste-based identities. In Lahore, one finds hundreds of cars with the owner’s caste or tribe displayed as a marker of pride and distinctiveness. As an urbanite, I always found it difficult to comprehend the relevance of zaat-paat (casteism) until I experienced living in the peri-urban and sometimes rural areas of the Punjab as a public servant.
I recall the days when in a central Punjab district, I was mistaken for a Kakayzai (a Punjabi caste that claims to have originated from the Caucasus) so I started getting correspondence from the Anjuman-i-Kakayzai professionals who were supposed to hold each other’s hands in the manner of the Free Masons. I enjoyed the game and pretended that I was one of them for a while, until it became unbearable for its sheer silliness and mercenary objectives. (more…)

We shall overcome the trap of violence

1 January 2009

As clouds of war hover in the skies of Lahore, I am missing Delhi and lamenting the relatively difficult venture to visit the city The December of . 2008 was a month of promise. I was meant to visit the Jawaharlal Nehru University, read a paper, participate in a conference and enjoy the environs of the campus that would have glowed in December sunshine. Not to forget that I was meant to pick up two books on Gulzar, the great modern poet and lyricist of India whose links with Urdu and Pakistan’s Punjab are as intractable as the nine centuries of our South Asian past. How keen I was to walk around the bookstores of Delhi and try out the unfrequented eateries hidden behind the mayhem of the urban life. Above all, I wanted to finish the book that I have been writing on Delhi. For that I have to do a little more exploring of its myriad moods. Alas! Certain things are not meant to be. My trip was scheduled right after the tragic Mum bai events which were equally mourned in Pakistan. But that terrorist event has now become a bone of contention, almost a drumbeat for war, between India and my country . (more…)

Delhi and Lahore – globalised fads and trends

3 June 2008

This piece of mine appeared in the Hindustan Times yesterday. An accidental piece it was, written on the request of a friend during my recent stopover in Delhi.

Delhi-Lahore hip factor

Be it Khan Market or MM Alam Road,  life for young guns in both Delhi and Lahore is a blend of cafe culture, cool music and retail nirvana

A Pakistani like me who is visiting Delhi cannot help but identify the commonalities between the Indian capital and Lahore. The climate, the predominant Punjabi influence, the urban chaos and indeed the quest for a good life are as shared as the centuries of mixed history.

In Delhi, these ingredients are packaged into a single space, loved and mourned in equal measure, the Khan Market. Its swanky cafes, retail outlets spell out a comfortable sense of the plentiful. A trip to Bahri Booksellers is essential to check on the new, profound and banal book titles. Step out of the book-zone, walk around and you see young men and women holding hands and out to buy a little dose of happiness from the upmarket retail stores. New frames for glasses, an array of pret-a-porter garments and of course cafes where one can lounge while sipping an exotic coffee brew with a fancy cake. Barista is a favourite of mine with its neo-modernity ambiance and an ample variety to select from. If Barista is crowded, one turns to Cafe Turtle. Wi-fi access is available in these places along with soft music and trendy customers, whose snazzy mobile telephones rest silently on clean little tables. Connectivity is another facet of the global search for fulfillment.

In Khan Market cafes, one reminisces about similar haunts in Lahore. The MM Alam Road there is now a bustling venue for stylish cafes and restaurants that are popular hangouts for the youth defying the silly stereotypes of Pakistan. Men and women converse in their designer jeans about the world, quite unaware of the residual violence of the war on terror on the Pak-Afghan border. The Coffee & Tea Company is hugely popular. Another joint, Massom, a pancake lounge, sells mouth-watering desserts with coffee brews and plays cool music as one plunges into leather sofas to chill. Places such as Cafe Zouk, Hobb-Nobbs, Jamin Java continue to lure the hip Lahorites.
Since globalisation’s onslaught on Pakistan, Lahore’s traditional love for eating out has transformed into a fusion culture bonanza. The Hot Spot Cafe, Little Italy, Cafe Aylanto and The Dish have emerged as havens of cross-continental culinary blending. Young women drive alone to meet up with friends at these places; and hordes of teens are seen flocking to the Pizza Huts, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.

While the affluent have these arenas, the underclass youth, both in Lahore and Delhi, finds its own recreational spaces in Carom and Snooker clubs, sleazy internet cafes with loads of porn, the weekly trips to parks; and the occasional sojourns to police lock ups. Life goes on. Globalization has something to offer to everyone.