Aafster Life Banner

Friday, November 30, 2012

From riches to rags

I just came back from a fundraiser for an organisation that's doing excellent work for girls' education in Pakistan. The event was a theatre play by a reputable French playwright, and although I'd already seen the fantastic movie based on that play, I picked up two tickets for the benefit. This organisation has a soft spot in my heart because I worked as Programme Coordinator for its nationwide programme for three years (2001 to 2004) and was intimately aware with programme details, right down to individual students and their families.

The play was good and I and the friend accompanying me were in near hysterics throughout. But certain things happened that I want to share because they took over the experience of the play, and in the ultimate analysis left me dejected rather than elated after a fun night at the theatre.

I don't know how best to put this, but you see, the elite exposed themselves rather badly tonight. At Rs. 2,000 per head the ticket was steep, so you knew that whoever was there could Afford It. That usually puts you in another category (that loosely defined but incredibly definite thing called 'class') in which different things are expected from you vs. those who, say, can't afford the ticket. You're supposed to be able to afford an education, for instance. And because of that, you're supposed to carry yourself differently. You're supposed to be civilised (isn't that why you're supporting girls' education?). After all, if you're willing to dish out for a night at the theatre, you must be a cut above the philistines who can't be there. 


I wish I could describe to you adequately the intellectual poverty I saw in that hall tonight. It was not clear whether more people were there to see the play or to be seen at the play. As the actors took the stage and acted their hearts out (sometimes well, sometimes not) to a script with biting wit and political criticism, most of the audience sat in a sort of bored and uncomprehending stupor. Laughs were few and far between, except for a scene where one of the characters went through a protracted vomiting session - that really got people LOLing. About twenty minutes into the play, members of the audience started getting up and leaving the hall in a slow trickle that continued throughout the performance. I'm not sure how many more would've left if the ticket had been less pricey. When the actors stepped up for curtain call, they were subjected to a meagre smattering of applause completely disproportionate to the energy and heart they had put into their performance. As my friend and I walked out slowly with the crowd, she said, "I don't think they understood it." I'm pretty sure she was right.

While we were standing outside on the pavement, a large-ish contingent of women began to collect on the asphalt driveway running through the compound, presumably to keep a better eye out for their cars than they could've done from the pavement two feet behind them. As the event had just ended, there was a long line of cars leaving the compound. Then a car, manned by somebody's driver, came in through the gate and began inching its way down the drive in the opposite direction. It was in the correct lane and moving at a perfectly appropriate speed. People slowly dispersed from in front of the car until it reached a group of women who decided not to move. The eldest out of them, a woman in pants and a smart shirt, gestured emphatically at the driver and called out, "Go back!" When he did not, she completely lost it.

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" she started shouting. "GET OUT OF HERE! GET OUT!"

'Horrified' doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. The women standing around this human loudspeaker, instead of calming her down, were nodding and murmuring encouragingly to her. None of them said, "Let's move to the pavement and make way for the cars." And of course they'd rather have been run over than to have said, "You were wrong to shout at that man; it was his right of way and he was doing his job. You were wrong."

This woman reminded me of another woman we had the misfortune of meeting on the first day I moved to Karachi with the kids (January 28th, 2011). We were in line to go to Butler's Chocolate Cafe when traffic was held up by a car whose driver (a young woman) was in deep conversation with the woman who'd just gotten out of the car (an older woman). Traffic started backing up until cars couldn't come out of the subsidiary street onto the main road. People started honking. The guy behind us, in particular, really leaned on his horn - and the lady standing at her car thought it was us. First she shouted, "Just wait!" at us and then, when her car finally moved out of the way and we were able to drive into the drop lane, she started yelling at my husband. She called him a bloody bastard and when he said, "We never did anything!" she shouted, "Shut up! You don't know who you're talking to." "You keep quiet!" Azfar replied hotly. So this woman who was old enough to be his mother told him to fuck off and said that he didn't know how to talk to elders.

Isn't that interesting, though? You don't know who you're talking to. You don't know how to talk to elders. Who are we talking to? What makes you better than us? What is the source of this status that you're throwing in our faces? Because you see, you're the one swearing like a sailor on a public street. You may have all the money and contacts in the world but you don't have manners. My husband, on the other hand, comes from a family that would rather be swallowed up into the ground than to be heard talking like that. And the people who lead the way on this - who show us by example how to behave respectably - are our elders.

You know what's sad? The woman outside the play reminded me of someone. She reminded me of any number of people who'd be in and out of my grandparents' drawing room when they were in the service. These were the well dressed, the cultured, the suave, the charming - those who proudly counted themselves as the civilised and well-bred cadre and then spoke to their domestic help as if it were a lower species. But it's they who are poor. They are immeasurably poor because they cannot see the riches in those around them. They are alone because they do not count themselves among normal human beings. And no amount of money spent on charities and benefits will change that sad, sorry reality.

The play was for a good cause, sure, but the people really in need of an education were in that auditorium tonight.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Afia. What is the cornerstone of education, culture, intellect, values? Unfortunately many people lack the basic manners and good sense and humility to think other people they are addressing are human beings, too, and more often than not, better human beings than them.

  2. this post made me sad.the sadness is that most of us would want to move into the so called elite circles but never know the reality that this circle usually compromises of people who are morally corrupt.how we all live in delusions?

  3. What makes me sad is the plight of the artistes and the organizers. Knowing that these uncouth and uncaring idiots, mostly born or married into money and status far beyond their deserved value, need to be mollycoddled and cringed to ... so that they fork out their Rs 2000 for a deserving cause.

    Ae khuda ret ke sehra ko samundar kar de, ya phir mera hi dil patthar kar de.

  4. So glad you wrote this. I'm always shocked at how people talk to their domestic help in Pakistan. The most 'educated' families have this weird culture of treating them as sub-human. My siblings and I were taught to call people older than us chacha, bhai, khala, baji, or some other variation. If we ever said Tum instead of Aap... well let's just say it was NOT pleasant. To this day my parents will not let us ask the cook to do anything past 11 pm. Even if they are live-in help, 11 pm is the deadline. If we have guests over for dinner and things take long, Ammi makes a point to tell them that she doesn't need help in the morning, and makes the morning tea herself.

    These are such basic things, but they make such a HUGE difference.

  5. It's the taking for granted that gets to me. Have some dignity!

  6. hi- great to read, but next time why don't you say something to someone who acts like this? I'm not sure if blogging absolves the 'truly educated' from what I see to be a societal trend: to tolerate such people, even in the name of 'good manners.'

    1. Agreed, although you're preaching to the converted btw. I've taken people on on such injustices (real and imagined) more times than I can remember! In this case the age difference was a factor, as she was about forty years older than me. The politest intervention I could think of at the time was to recount the Butlers episode loudly to my friend and the old lady did realise it was meant for her - she glared at me good and proper before getting into her car :-D You are 100% right, though: one should speak up in defence of the defenceless. And this applies to everything, not just this particular issue.

    2. HAHAHAHA!! I'm glad you did that!

      And I'm glad you wrote this post.

  7. This one reminds me of a similar exp at boat basin khi last yr...there was some festival and the service lane had been converted to a one way,so while we drove towards the exit n were almost at the end of the lane, another car tried entering the street from the wrong side.my husband signalled the driver to reverse but he wasnt in his right mind i guess!! he waved at my husband to do the same, bt we obviously couldn't as in the meantime a jam had already formed behind us n ppl honked impatiently.
    wait till u read whats next, that driver, well he was middle aged, seemed educated , had his wife n a kid in the car and what he did?? he reclined his seat n closed his eyes!! (something his family found absolutely hilarious) :P
    then a lady knocked at our window n asked whose car is that coz she couldnt spot the driver, then suddenly i guess she saw his head and started shouting, 'i have to reach home soon,its an emergency, sheeshay toar do is gari k !!! then a crowd gathered and that airhead had to reverse.....,and as we drove past them it was our turn to laugh at the sheepish faces :D
    P.S: such a good feeling to know you taught atleast something to that aunty ji :)))

    1. These things just add to societal rage, unfortunately. I'm glad the guy was forced to back down!

  8. Education unfortunately does not impart culture on a lot of folks. Looking at some of these educated epitomes of rudeness, I can only thank God for bacteria.. they're the only culture most people have.

  9. I was at brands for less and a woman (dressed like a man) came in. She inspected everything and told the sales lady off. The said woman accused the store of stocking knock offs, the sales woman declined and told her that only the bags were not branded (who gets Prada at 3000 rupees anyway?) to this the woman started screaming that she was in the business and she knew better, how dare that poor sales person answer back, who did she think she was anyway?

    She ended up buying two men's shirts for herself. The sales lady was deflated. I felt disgusted. We were raised to speak with aap to the servants of they are older. My parents are fabulous to their domestic staff, my mother is quite hands-on herself, in case someone is feeling sick she will do the chores herself. Women in her circle are always scandalized by her candid disclosure regarding her affinity towards household chores. It is a simple reminder for me, and someday for my children. I hope we never fall prey to this trap. I might have not been as considerate in the past but I know that good upbringing is always a solid anchor.

  10. To the servants if* they are older to us.

  11. i've heard the at the stage shows in Lahore... you know the awami kind... the ticket prices go from 500 to 5000! So there are people in this country who pay 5000 rupees to watch Nargis do a sumo wrestler squat and slap of the thigh from the first row... ability to spend thousands of rupees being no guarantee of class.