By Rafia Zakaria
June 15, 2018
Pakistan is not a country that rewards its non-conformists. Every village and every town and every tribe exists in some large part to ensure that everyone behaves as they are supposed to. In cities, small and large, nosy neighbours watch and gossip and judge, forming a neighbourhood watch that ensures everyone behaves according to what is usual and expected.
The usual need not be the moral — Pakistan’s neighbourhood watches are not interested in ensuring that people stay on the straight and narrow — it is merely what is typical, mandated either by tradition or tribe or class or community. This ecosystem of constraints is replicated everywhere and largely for everyone; the freedom of the individual staunched and eliminated via the collusion of many individuals. What is different, even very slightly so, is dangerous and odd.
In such a country, rebellion seems nearly impossible. Take, for instance, the case of a friend of mine who recently moved into an apartment in a middle-class neighbourhood in one of Pakistan’s large cities. Unlike most of the building residents, those living above and below and across, she chose not to employ any household servants. Cleaning one’s own home, she had long ago decided, has moral value; cleaning up your own mess, doing the ‘dirty’ work so to speak imparts a humility too often absent from the moral character of many in the middle class. And so, in her new home, she kept up the chores that she had taken on years earlier.
One by one, the household staff employed by her neighbours stopped by to inquire if she needed help. One by one, she told them that she did not. Then began a new parade; neighbours, one after the other, dropping in for tea or coffee, quickly sizing up her place, and then predictably and repeatedly asking, ‘How come you don’t hire some help?’
She explained the first and second time, and then the third time she just kept quiet. The explanation obviously did not matter. An intentional departure from the norm of having household help, it seemed, was a hot topic of neighbourly concern. Some thought she must be exceptionally poor, others that she must be particularly secretive, trying to hide some unspecified something. Her decision to not hire household help was magnified into an announcement of not wanting to belong to the neighbourhood cabal of women.
When Ramazan came around, and food was exchanged among the neighbours, she was left out. She did send them the sweets she had prepared, but they did not return the favour. Nonconformists, once recognised, will be singled out and, in at least some small way, shamed. The story is not important for its substance, but rather for its symbolism — its clear announcement that rebellions, even tiny ones, are impermissible.
The British-Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam, author of (most recently) The Golden Legend, once told me in an interview that he preferred the company of books to people. “Why bother with pointless conversation when I can have chats with Tolstoy and Woolf and Ghalib?” It was a remarkable observation and has stayed with me. But Aslam, at least for the period when he observed this, was in London, where it is possible to be alone without having it characterised as a dire and worrisome character flaw.
Choosing to be alone, reading too much and inhabiting the fictive worlds of novels is, if known, a worrying thing. The compulsion to engage in pre-programmed banter, pointless conversations with some far relative, some rarely seen cousin, some friend of a friend, is the lifeblood of Pakistani conformity. The content of conversation, the extent of sincerity, are not the issue — the domestication of the individual by the collective requires one to know that this interaction is pointless and yet to participate in it. It is the will of the conformists that rules and subjugates the will of the nonconformists, catches it, smashes it and forces it into constraints, ensuring that no one at all can be free or different.
Some would say there is strength in conformity, in the outlawing of rebellion. The tribe or country that acts the same, eats the same, talks the same is merely ensuring its own survival — the essential ‘sticking together’ that would protect it, in the primal prehistoric sense, from outsiders and invaders. This is not true. Thousands of years ago, Homo sapiens, the breed of hominid to which all humans belong, were able to survive because they were adaptable and flexible not because they were conformists. Flexibility allowed them to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, a planet undergoing evolution. Conformity does not equal survival.
As Ramazan ends and Eid arrives, consider perhaps a small rebellion of your own. Visit only the people who truly matter, the ones you actually love, be honest in your answers and exchanges, compliment only what is worthy, spend only what is necessary. Do things, say things, not because everyone does them or says them, but because they mean something to you and to others. Rail against the pressure of peers and the robotic behaviour of the long programmed.
Throw compromise and conformity away and embrace the truth and sincerity, lost as they are in a society that is cruel to the different. If none of this is possible for you, consider at least the possibility of leaving the nonconformists, the ones who don’t in some small or big way do what everyone does, to themselves. If you cannot join them, do not punish them. Consider that these small acts of nonconformity — the work of these everyday rebels — are the closest most ordinary people will come to courage.