Friday, October 17, 2008


Wajahat Latif writes hilariously on 26 September 2008 in his column in The Nation:

Much as my heart aches, here is something I have received by email on a new discovery that I should, in a dark humoured way, share with you:

"New Heaviest Element Discovered"

A major research institution has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest element known to science. Its existence was proved during the hurricane, gasoline, war and other issues of the last year or two. The new element has been named Governmentium.

Governmentium (Gv) has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called mo-rons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called pe-ons.

Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take over four days to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of four years. It does not decay, however, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, as each reorganisation will cause more mo-rons to become neutrons, forming iso-dopes.

When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium - an element which radiates just as much energy as Governmentium because, though it has only half as many pe-ons, it has twice as many mo-rons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lack of confidence

With bombs exploding almost daily, Pakistanis are united at the very least in their concern for their safety. How does one stop the terrorists from striking? Surely additional police security and random checking of vehicles seem like appropriate measures. We can all bear the nuisance of worse traffic jams if it means that the police will prevent more bombs from going off. At least, that was my opinion till very recently.

Now, ever since the Marriott blast, security has been tightened in Karachi, but not, it seems, to protect the public. The roads in front of the Governor House and Bilawal House have been barricaded causing major inconvenience to commuters but not really protecting the public as such. It seems like we are keeping up our end of the bargain and the government is not.

Then there are the hordes of policemen stationed at every corner. They often pull commuters over for 'random' checks, but in my experience most of the people pulled over have been motorcyclists, who serve as easy targets. The policemen always wear this smarmy grin on their faces, like they cannot wait to harrass the next person and get their next hundred rupee bribe.

How can we, the public, entrust the police with extra powers to search us, when for 61 years the public and the police have had an antagonistic relationship. The police has always taken advantage of its position of power, taking bribes, arresting people at will, refusing to register FIRs and executing people in "shootouts". How are we today to trust them not to abuse the additional powers we give them to protect us from the terrorists.

It seems to me to be a Catch-22. Do not give power to the police and face the terrorists unprotected or give them power and be victimized by the police. Either way the public suffers and the poor and powerless more so than the rich. The police always avoid harrassing the powerful and the terrorists, in attacking crowded places, always disproportionately kill the poor.

The western countries have faced a similar dilemma and have mostly chosen to surrender their liberties to the state to protect them against the terrorists. Take for example America's Patriot Act, which allows intelligence agencies to access email, telephone, financial and medical records more easily. But where citizens of those countries can trust their own institutions, we cannot say the same for our institutions.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An overheard conversation

Yesterday my baby sister was invited to the birthday party of a two-year old girl from her pre-Montessori. My other sister went with her to the party and reported back events that went something like this:

Setting: The vast if slightly wilted garden of a massive if slightly dull DHA bungalow. Two-year old boys and girls are jumping in a bouncing castle, rocking merrily in swings, running enthusiastically around the garden, scraping their knees on the driveway: in general doing what two-year olds usually do at a birthday party. Running behind this clutch of children – perhaps ten or twelve in number – are an equal number of very harassed looking Filipino nannies. They are holding the children's hands as they test the bouncing castle, bringing them food and water when they demand it and soothing the occasional temper tantrum. In one corner, the mothers, young women in their mid-twenties are sitting in comfortable garden chairs. They are wearing light, spring-coloured shalwar kameezes and huge branded sunglasses. In their bejeweled hands they are holding virgin pina coladas.

DHA homemaker 1: It is just horrible! My nanny ran off last week without a word.

DHA homemaker 2 (lowering her sunglasses): You don't say!

DHA homemaker 1: I have been running after Shahrik this entire week. I am so completely exhausted. You know this was the first time in these two years that I had to change a diaper. I just didn't know what to do. I had to call the sasu ma and you know how much she likes to gloat about these things.

DHA homemaker 3 (wrinkling her nose): Oh ho bichari! I don't know what I would do if I had to clean Zainab's poo.

DHA homemaker 1: Hai na? I was so furious. I called the agency and demanded an explanation. And you know what they told me? [dramatic pause] They told me that she has runaway with my neighbours' driver!

DHA homemaker 3 snorts. DHA homemaker 2 looks appalled.

DHA homemaker 2: Where was this woman from?

DHA homemaker 1 (struggling to remember): I'm not sure. I think she was Muslim. She wore a hijab. Indonesia, maybe.

DHA homemaker 2: Oh no! That's where you went wrong, dear. Always go for the Filipinos. They're all Christians or Buddhists or something. They wouldn't dream of running off with someone from here.

DHA homemaker 3 (nodding towards the Filipino nannies): But still. Even these ones are so problematic. Did you know by their contract with the agency, they can go home only once every two years. But mine had a little kid back home and she really wanted to visit. So Saleem – the senti man that he is – he agreed. Sent her back twice last year. And now she is always wanting to go back. I just called the agency before coming here. Told them that she was giving me too much trouble.

DHA homemaker 2 (sipping her pina colada): You just cannot give these people any freedom. The moment you do, it goes to their head. I don't let mine mingle with anyone. She doesn't leave the house without me. Why let her make friends with strangers? Next thing I know she'll come back with all sorts of demands. She stays at home. Buss. But then I have such a soft heart. I feel bad for her stuck in the house all the time, so every month or so I take her with me when I go shopping. [a contemplative pause] But they do lead a pretty good life.

All the other homemakers nod and murmur their agreement.

DHA homemaker 2: Can you imagine allowing a Pakistani masi to live in this kind of luxury? Still they show no appreciation. Always wanting more of this and more of that.

The homemakers all shake their heads in disappointment. DHA homemakers 1 and 3 fill their napkins full of hors d'oeuvres, clearly determined to smother their sorrows with food. A nanny in the background gets kicked in the shin by an exuberant little girl, who then promptly dissolves into tears. The party continues.

The irony! Oh the irony!

Zia ul Haq, in the speech announcing the enforcement of his sharia laws: "Many a ruler did what they pleased in the name of Islam."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Women of the past

I have been reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals. In one of the chapters, he describes the lives of Muslim women in the Mughal aristocracy in the eighteenth century. His description is largely based on the travelogue, written by an Iranian man, Mir Abdul Lateef Shushtari, called Tuhfat al-Alam. In the book, Shushtari continuously expresses his disgust at the great freedom that Muslim women in India enjoyed. They mixed with men more easily and tended to have more political and financial power than their counterparts in Iran and the Middle East. In fact, the position of women in Mughal society appears to be even more advantageous than the position of women in our society today, three centuries later. Pakistanis seem to have rejected the liberal spirit of the Mughals – with whom Pakistanis so like to identify – in favor of the puritanical social and religious codes of the Middle East. Below is an extract from White Mughals that underscores my point:

"Muslim women in India have always played a more prominent role in politics than their sisters in the Middle East. Indian society, both Hindu and Muslim, was certainly very patriarchal and hierarchical; yet there are nevertheless several cases of very powerful Indian Muslim queens: Razia Sultana in thirteenth-century Delhi; or Chand Bibi and Dilshad Agha, the two warrior queens of sixteenth-century Bijapur, the first of whom was famous for her horsewomanship, while the latter was renowned for her prowess as an artillerywoman and an archer, personally shooting in the eye from atop her citadel Safdar Khan who had the temerity to attack her kingdom.

"Moreover Mughal princesses tended to be richer, and to possess far greater powers of patronage, than the secluded Iranian noblewomen Shushtari would have been familiar with in Iran: half the most important monuments in Shah Jehan's Mughal Delhi were built by women...

"Aristocratic Mughal women also tended to be much better educated than their Iranian cousins: almost all of them were literate, and were taught at home by elderly male scholars or 'learned matrons'; the curriculum included ethics, mathematics, economics, physics, logic, history, medicine, theology, law, poetry and astronomy. As a result there were many cases of highly educated Indian Muslim princesses who became famous writers or poetesses." (168-9)