Miriam Habib wanted a change that was in harmony with the contemporary values of reason, tolerance and love of the people
By I. A. Rehman
"To be a journalist you have to love people -- and I plead guilty." Miriam Habib
Many heads turned to take in the frame the smart figure in a pink sari as she crossed the verandah in the office of the Pakistan Times on a warm afternoon in the mid-fifties. Young, confident and a bit distant looking, she seemed out of place in the drab surroundings, even in the small closet where Alys Faiz worked and on whom she occasionally called. To the surprise of many her association with the newspaper was to continue for no less than 30 years, for she had resolved to make life happier and more beautiful. As the national environment grew murkier and murkier she continued to display a reservoir of strength to fight for a brighter day.
Miriam Habib, who died in Lahore a few weeks ago, was a woman of many parts. She distinguished herself as a painter, as an art teacher, as a campaigner for women's dignity, as a human rights activist, and, above all as a journalist. In the last phase of her life she had retired from several fronts where she had been active for years but her commitment to journalism never waned. Even when she was quite unwell she would go out to cover a seminar on child rights or start working on Asma Jahangir's sketch (see box).
Born into a prominent Syed family of Lahore 20 years before independence, Miriam belonged to that line of the partition generation that chose to seriously meet the challenges of the time. For some years it was not easy to choose between art and journalism. After passing B.A. Hons she took a diploma in journalism from the Punjab University and attended journalism classes at a London polytechnic, but returned to art and did BA in Fine Arts in Lahore before going to New York for a Master of Science degree in Education and Art. For some years she lectured on both art and journalism till 1964 when journalism finally claimed her and she began her 22-year career as a whole-time journalist.
Beginning as a contributor to the Women's Page of the Pakistan Times she became its Women's Editor and also wrote features and editorial pieces. The subjects that received her special attention varied from classical music, western and oriental both, population planning, economic development, women's rights, and peace.
Her commitment to the poor's right to uplift and social change in a broader context was strengthened when she married Hasan Habib who valiantly campaigned for an end to the 'Babu Raj' and won respect for his ideas of a people-friendly bureaucracy.
Despite being soft-spoken and the difficulty she had in mixing with crowds, she was an active member of several organisations -- All Pakistan Women's Association, Business and Professional Women's Association, Soroptomist Club, Red Crescent Society, Family Planning Association and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. None of these associations was nominal or ceremonial. As the Punjab President of APWA for eight years (1992-2000) she made a sterling contribution to the organisation's consolidation. As a champion of women's rights she attended world conferences at Mexico (1975), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). As a member of the HRCP governing body she never missed its meeting and was more than willing to tour the towns and villages of Sindh to probe the scale of punishment awarded by the Zia regime to the people who merely wanted to shout for democracy. And her commitment to peace led her to take interest in the work of Quakers.
In whatever she did, Miriam was quite methodical. Every word she spoke or wrote was thoroughly deliberated. Nothing was taken for granted. When she wished to interview someone the first contact was to secure the subject's concurrence with the undertaking. This was followed by a brief explanation of the reason for the interview. Then came a discussion on specific questions. Only after all this could an interview take place.
The reason perhaps was that Miriam not only wanted change, she wanted a change that was in harmony with the contemporary values of reason, tolerance and love of the people. Her ideals and her style of devotion to them qualified Miriam Habib for a place of eminence in the middle body of forces of change whose contribution to the cause will perhaps mean more and survive longer than that of many front-runners.
The Asma phenomenon
Miriam Habib's last piece of writing is the following unfinished sketch of Asma Jahangir
A is for Asma. Asma is for activism. There is no other product quite like this mercurial woman born and bred in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
"A brain on two legs", "she's after her own fame", "fabulous, a phenomenon", "Thank God for Asma", are some of the comments heard about the remarkably fearless woman who since her youth has never balked at making a point at strident assertion of human rights even if the action lands her in jail or invites threats to her person.
The fifty-four-year-old mother of three commands a prominence she did not seek as she has followed a vocation that puts her at odds with authority, considering that post colonial Pakistan has been under the military boot for about thirty of its fifty-eight years of independence, the 'democratic' present being once more a recurrence of Khaki rule.
Having known and associated with Asma Jahangir since the 1983 Lahore demonstration against an earlier dictator's 'Islamic laws', we were colleagues in the formation of the HRCP in 1985 with AJ as its first youthful general secretary. I have witnessed the trajectory of this Human Rights crusader with open-mouthed wonder. She could be my own daughter had I married much younger, one of a multitude of Pakistani urban women growing up in the stratified society that is independent Pakistan. She could have followed a conventional route of settling into domesticity or combined it with a profession as increasing numbers do, with perhaps some social reform activity on the side. But Asma has overtaken that predictable pace for a fast forward agenda. No incident of citizens' rights violation can occur but it is noted and protested against by the forceful Asma Jahangir whose methods range from intellectual argument of the highest order, she being a lawyer to be reckoned with, to street agitation as the occasion demands.
Asma was recruited to the cause of democracy in her childhood. She also learnt from her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, one of the most prominent voices against authoritarian rulers in the sixties, ways of standing up to oppressors. When she became a lawyer she chose to be a counsel for the disadvantaged. Resistance to Ziaul Haq's moves to shackle women and turn them into household goods and the challenge of liberating the bonded labour made her realise that salvation was impossible without a democratic dispensation and rule of law. This led to the founding of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
She has not allowed a hectic schedule of work to interfere with her obligations to her family, and she was never away from her three children when they needed her.
Decades of hard work have brought Asma both success and fame. The world has showered awards on her, including the King Badouin and Magsaysay Awards. Neither fame nor offer of public office has deterred her from taking to the barricades. And she has a way of moving from one challenging issue to another and a more challenging task. Her latest enterprise reveals her engaged in building a South Asian movement for ridding the region's population of the basic causes of their misery.
For a decade or so Asma has been busy on the global stage, winning laurels as a UN Special Rapporteur. But nothing can keep her away from jaloos without which her people cannot make themselves heard.
Having watched Asma and having shared with her many moments of exhilaration in struggle the greatest gain has been the discovery that activism is its own reward.
No movement yet
An issue that has managed to unite lawyers of all persuasions across the country could not bring together the opposition parties
By Aoun Sahi
The president's orders to suspend the country's chief justice that came in the afternoon of March 9 took the whole country by storm within minutes. This act of the president provided a ready-made opportunity to his political opposition to start a powerful movement against his government. Surprisingly the opposition failed to exploit the situation. It was only happy to be a part of the lawyers' protest and in a way that appeared 'half-hearted' to say the least.
Lawyers, however, cannot go beyond certain limits. "We can only mould public opinion but it is the responsibility of political parties to mobilise the masses on the issue," says Supreme Court Bar Association President Munir A. Malik.
On their part, the two major alliances, ARD and MMA, do not agree on the best possible way to react to the present situation. The Punjab Ameer of JI and Deputy Leader MMA in the National Assembly Liaquat Baloch says that some parties are more concerned about power politics and do not want to annoy establishment and America. "Their 'interests' are more important to them than anything else," he tells TNS.
Among the parties constituting ARD, PML-N appears ready to turn this occasion into a movement against President Musharraf while PPP's reluctance is too obvious. That is why it took almost two weeks for ARD to stage a protest against CJ's suspension from its own platform on March 26. Sources in PPP say the caution is because the party does not want to promote Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as a politically important figure.
The March 26 protest, though staged from the ARD platform, was predominantly a PPP show. Before the protest the government did the routine 'pre-rally arrests' to eliminate many leaders of ARD who would have created problems especially in Lahore and Faisalabad. ARD rallies dominated by PPP workers still came out in the major cities of the country including Lahore, considered a PML-N stronghold. Apart from Quetta and Gujranwala, the protests were by and large peaceful and never looked like posing a threat to the government.
In Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta, ARD stood with MMA, all calling for the reinstatement of the suspended chief justice of the Supreme Court. But not in Lahore, where parties were reluctant to walk together. The reservations came mainly from PPP which is very conscious about its liberal image internationally and thus insisted that ARD must stage its show without MMA. PML-N, traditionally considered to be close to Jamaat-e-Islami, thought otherwise.
Reservations apart, MMA did join the protest in almost all major cities. "Iqbal Zafar Jhagara (PML-N) contacted me a day before the ARD protest and invited us (MMA) to join their rally against CJ suspension," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior leader of MMA while talking to TNS.
PML-N leaders, though not ready to comment on record, privately admit that PPP is about to cut a deal with the government. One PML-N leader says: "The PPP is using the situation for maximum gains from General Musharraf. Before the current judicial crisis, the only hurdle in the deal between the government and PPP was the formula of power sharing in Punjab after the next general elections. Now apparently PPP has settled this matter too with the government. It has also been decided that they would get six federal ministries in the next caretaker government." He also says that the ARD call for protest against CJ suspension was insisted upon by Nawaz Sharif. He admits that situation is heading towards a political coalition between PML-N and Jamaat-e-Islami while the weight of PPP and JUI-F is likely to go to Musharraf's side.
PPP on the other hand is not ready to buy this line of analysis. PPP Central Information Secretary Sherry Rehman tells TNS that her party leader is very much interested in reviving ARD as was decided in a London meeting last week. "We have decided to form ARD committees down to district level. We are standing on the front lines and support lawyers on the issue. However, we are opposed to highjacking the movement or drawing political mileage out of it."
The PPP information secretary does not believe that there is any threat to the multi-party alliance. "Benazir Bhutto is committed to the Charter of Democracy and PPP will honour its commitment to wage a struggle for restoration of democracy and supremacy of the judiciary." Rehman thinks that the government is deliberately trying to malign opposition parties' role especially that of PPP.
By Shoaib Hashmi
It has long been a part of local lore that the soil of Multan is the last resting place of the mortal remains of exactly 39 saints. This includes Shah Rukn-e-Aalam whose tomb was the original inspiration for Nayyar Dada's 'Alhamra'; and it also includes Shams-e-Tabriz, which is not the Shams-e-Tabriz of the Divaan but another saint. The Shams of Rumi's 'Divaan' is said to have disappeared without a trace.
Anyway the rest of the tradition is that it is fitting that there are only 39 saints, because if there had been 40 then one could have performed the 'Hajj' in Multan and wouldn't have had to go anywhere else! The point of which is that as a patriotic Lahori, I have always believed that there are many more than 40 saints buried in Lahore, and it is odd that in all the time no one has taken the trouble to actually count them. If this inspires you to undertake the task don't forget to tell me!
There are obscure references in many places that three, or five, of them are actual minor prophets or 'Nabis' some named and some unnamed; and among them are also three, or five 'Nau-Gazza Pirs' whose very long graves are still known, and frequented although there is a lot of confusion about their names.
Many of them are still celebrated in festivals devoted to their memory, and the two largest festivals of course are those of the 'Data' and Shah Hussain which come close to each other. My friend Khaled Ahmed has long held that of the two Shah Hussain is the more human and accessible as compared to the awesome presence of Data Ganj Bakhsh; which is why the festival of Shah Hussain too is more 'folk' with much singing and dancing and lamps and lights.
His tomb lies near the Shalamar Bagh, and there must still be many people alive who will remember that in our boyhood the 'Mela Chiraghaan' used to be held inside the Shalamar Gardens. Now this is a dicey matter because the garden is part of our heritage, and a 'protected monument' and right now the centre of a cute little squabble between the provincial and central archaeology departments.
The holding of festivals, and other festivities at historical sites does help to focus attention on them and makes us conscious of the need to preserve them; and on the other hand a bunch of thousands of yahoos milling all over the place mucks them up too. So it is difficult to say which approach one favours.
But there is nothing wrong with wallowing in a bit of nostalgia over those more relaxed times when we didn't have half a dozen conservation societies hanging by our tails. The Shalamar was most apt see, because there is actually a 'Chiraghaan' space built into it, downstream of the water tank with these thousands of marble niches for lamps. They all used to be lit and we hung around just looking at them for hours.
There wasn't a great deal else anyway, and as a festival it wasn't actually an Expo. The only 'rides' were swings tied into the very old, and very tall trees. I don't think the swinging did the trees any harm, though if you tried it today you'd have Rafay Alam breathing down your neck in ten seconds.
And the only standard toys were those peculiar glass contraptions that were our great joy. They were primitive glass tubes, about a yard long, with a bulb at each end and filled with coloured water. You upended them and the water trickled down, drop by drop, to the other end -- and you upended them again! The glass was very crude 'Kachha' glass, and they disintegrated and fell apart ten minutes after you brought them home.
The rest was the usual eats, the 'Katlammas' and stuff, and, outside the garden, the 'Mela' which was a series of tents with the mandatory 'Snake Girl' with the head of a girl, and the body of a snake dimly seen through glass, who spat at you if you got too close. And also the 'theatre', the old style local folk theatre with song and dance.
Once we whined and yelled until the oldies relented and took us in. We'd hardly settled in when there was whisperings among the elders and we were called to come out before the rush got too big at the end of the show. And the bloody thing hadn't started yet, that was a bit odd. The best I could do was to tardily linger at the end of our group and catch the first verse of the first ribald song before being shushed away. And years on I would give my eye-teeth to go hear the second verse!
Pact with fear
Waziristan troubles have spilled into the adjacent districts including Tank which has seen clashes, torching of public and private property and now curfew
By Javed Aziz Khan
The emergence of a new militant leader from the two Waziristan agencies every few months proves that military operation is not the perfect remedy of the issue. Nek Mohammad, Baitullah Mahsud, Abdullah Mahsud, Haji Sharif, Maulvi Nazir and Tahir Yuldashev, blindly followed by thousands of armed tribesmen, are only a few examples.
The issue is not just confined to the North and South Waziristan agencies. The adjacent districts of NWFP, including Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Lakki Marwat and Bannu as well as northern district of Swat, have turned troubled after the militancy has moved down to these settled parts of the country.
Being close to the border and remote from settled parts of Pakistan, the mountainous North and South Waziristan provided a safe shelter to militants from different Arab and Central Asian states when United States attacked the neighbouring Afghanistan after 9/11 incident and toppled the Taliban government. The tribesmen of Waziristan had also witnessed bombing by the jets of the USSR at its border towns when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
In order to allay the US fears about the presence of some key al-Qaeda leaders in the two Waziristan agencies, Pakistani authorities moved Pakistani forces, for the first time in history, to the remotest Tirah Valley and then to the Shawwal Valley of North Waziristan in July 2002, despite strong opposition by the local tribes. The army proceeded further to South Waziristan and established its bases in both the Waziristan Agencies to secure the border and go after, what the US termed, 'al-Qaeda leaders'.
The situation turned into a war between the local tribes and military forces when the army launched its operation in the area against the foreigners in April 2004. The government wanted the foreigners either to leave the territory or register themselves with the authorities. Several people were killed from both sides. In February 2005, the government signed a truce agreement with militants to secure the continuous loss of lives from both sides, but clashes still continued. Another Peace Pact was signed in North Waziristan on September 6, 2006 that was largely appreciated by the United States and other countries.
There were still reports about hundreds of foreigners, treated as guests as well as national heroes. Uzbeks, led by Tahir Yuldashev, could be seen driving double cabin pickups and riding motorbikes with revolving blue-light and brandishing sophisticated weapons without any fear of the law enforcing agencies till mid-March.
Rifts developed within the ranks of militants when Uzbeks clashed with locals in Darikhel area on March 6, resulting in the the death of 17 people, including 12 Uzbek guerilla fighters. On March 19 the local tribal people clashed with the sheltering Uzbek militants again when the latter allegedly killed an Arab to press for their supremacy in the area.
"For the past few days, the local tribesmen took on the foreigners across the border who were creating problems for the country. This proved the success of the policies of government," said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tasnim Aslam. There were conflicting reports about the casualties in the second series of clashes between locals and Uzbeks that continued for three days. The media first reported that over 160 people including over 100 Uzbeks have been killed in the three-day fighting but the pro and anti-Uzbek militants both denied such large number of casualties.
While talking to TNS, a pro-Uzbek militant leader, Haji Mohammad Umar termed that only 12 people have been killed during the clashes. "The government should make efforts for settling the dispute instead of stoking the fire. Government should also stop attacking militants otherwise we would retaliate," Umar remarked. One was surprised to know that Umar is the brother of Maulvi Nazir, who is leading the war against the Uzbeks and is being regarded as head of all the militants in South Waziristan other then Uzbeks. The claims of fewer casualties also came from the group of Maulvi Nazir when one of his close aide, Haji Sharif, disclosed that both the groups have lost nine each persons during the clashes. However, independent sources do not agree with any of the two claims.
Anti-Uzbek sentiments run high among the majority of tribesmen since last week as the men of Maulvi Nazir group were seen searching every vehicle to get hold of any Uzbek who may have avoided killing or arrest at the hands of the locals. The locals have come out against the Uzbeks quite openly as they have accused the foreigners and their accomplices of kidnapping and torturing local tribesmen to death in their secret jail in Zha Ghunday.
Picking up people from the nearby Tank has become a routine business as several families complained to the local police that their children went missing after leaving for their schools. The station house officer (SHO) of main Tank Police Station, Hassan Marwat, was killed when he challenged one such group outside the privately run Oxford High School on March 26. The retaliatory firing killed two of the tribesmen that resulted into a series of blasts and clashes between law enforcers and alleged militants.
The authorities had to impose curfew in Tank, following a series of clashes and torching of public and private property, including a number of branches of national banks, by the miscreants. The educational institutions of the town were closed and people were forced to remain inside their houses.
The authorities also sent a jirga of some 75 tribal elders and religious scholars to the warring militant, Baitullah Mahsud who denied his involvement in Tank issue. Senator Saleh Shah, a member of the jirga that held talks with Baitullah, however, hoped the talks with militants would prove fruitful.
Before the recent clashes between pro and anti-Uzbek militants, the situation had improved substantially by appointing a local respected tribal bureaucrat, Pirzada Khan Wazir, as political agent in North Waziristan and signing peace agreements with militant leaders in both the agencies. The government successfully signed another agreement on March 26 with the emerging militants in Bajaur tribal agency, also bordering Afghanistan but has nothing to do with Waziristan which is hundreds of kilometres away. Under the Bajaur Peace Pact-2007, the tribesmen agreed not to give foreign militants safe haven in the area or allow 'subversive' activities, while the authorities pledged not to make arrests without consulting the elders.
"The local Taliban have authorised me to sign this agreement on their behalf and they have assured that they will not take part in any subversive activity," remarked Malik Abdul Aziz, representative of the militants after the signing of the pact during a grand Jirga attended by some 700 tribesmen, elders, clerics, MPs and local officials in Khar, the main town of Bajaur. "The administration will not raid our places without any solid proof and withdraw warrants of arrests issued against our people on the basis of suspicion," Aziz said.
Political agent of the agency, Shakil Qadir, stressed the elders to help "maintain peace and unity and keep an eye on the movement of suspicious people at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, so that enemies of our country fail in their designs to disrupt our peace". Anyone who violates the agreement will have their house torched and demolished and will be expelled from the region.
Bajaur has remained in international media since last year when a local seminary was bombed that killed 80 persons, mostly young religious students below the age of 18.
Signing of peace pacts in three troubled agencies offers a ray of hope for peace. Apart from just signing pacts, the government must send jirgas of religious and political leaders as well as tribal chieftains to the top militants.
By Beena Sarwar
"Mom," said Alex, "I would rather die than live like this."
A tall, broad, handsome 21 year old who loved basketball, on the outside he was the same old Alex. But he had become someone he did not want to be. And it was something he had no control over. It stemmed from some disorder deep in his mind that drove him into psychotic fits. "I feel like I'm in someone else's body," he said once.
For the last couple of years, he had been undergoing psychiatric treatment. Maybe he had what is called bi-polar disorder. Maybe it was schizophrenia. Maybe manic depression. Whatever it was, Rita did everything in her power to get him treated for it -- pills, injections, hospitalisations. At first, he had fought it, not wanting to believe that this was happening to him. Eventually, he realised he had no choice. He knew there was mental illness on his father's side. He knew that such diseases are often genetic. But because the illness was never effectively diagnosed, the medication didn't really help.
After his parents' divorce, he had lived with his father for a while, while his younger brother Caz stayed with Rita. When Alex got into trouble in his teenage years Rita took him away from the bad influences to live in Greensboro, North Carolina. He graduated from high school with honours. But once they came back to Cambridge, he seemed to get more difficult. He physically assaulted Caz for trying to protect Rita from one of Alex's rages, and she had to call the police to subdue him.
"We don't know if it was 'mad' or 'bad'," says Rita. Looking back, the mental disorder may have been one of the factors behind the 'bad' behaviour. Alex didn't want to be bad. He tried hard to change his life. He tried working at various odd jobs. He tried living on his own. Nothing worked. The worse thing was that Alex, who could once have walked into any party and chatted up any girl, had lost his self-confidence.
After a year at a community college, he moved back home with Rita. They sometimes clashed over the usual things that adult children at home clash with parents about -- turn out the lights, don't smoke in the house, take out the garbage. Alex complied with Rita's rules. But he still had breakdowns. Visits to his father, whose acceptance he never stopped craving, and stepmother often triggered the incidents.
On his good days, he played with the children who came to Rita's day-care centre at home. The children, toddlers to age four or five, loved him. They thought he was one of them, a gentle giant. They would chase him, climb on him, play with his things.
Older children, not in the day-care, had a tougher time with Alex. Rita's friends' daughters, like Miranda and Maha, got the rough end of his merciless teasing. But they still saw him as a friend. Miranda's older sister Altaira, a high-school senior, sometimes babysat nine-year old Maha for Rita's other friend. Sometimes Altaira got Alex to drive her over to pick Maha up from school.
Alex's car was a mess. Maha cleaned it out once when he dropped her and her mother home from Rita's, and filled a whole garbage bag of trash from it. And a pile of pennies and other small change that she gathered up for Alex. He gave her some of that change for helping out which thrilled her no end.
Caz, Alex's younger brother who looks just like him, attends college at U. Mass. Amherst. He remembers when they played basketball, Alex would always beat him. The day Caz beat him, Alex congratulated him. "You beat your big brother," he said. He was proud of Caz, despite their rivalries.
He knew that Altaira liked him. He liked her too. They were close. But the voices in his head were getting worse. They were violent. He wouldn't tell Rita what they said. "You don't want to know," he said. "I'm never going to be [the] same person I was". He didn't like the person he was becoming, pushed by forces outside his control. He abruptly cut off all contact with Altaira, told her never to call him again, refused to answer her phone calls.
Over the last two months he had become very passive, says Rita, very calm, peaceful, loving and quiet. He didn't argue when told to turn out the lights or take out the garbage. He would either do it or tell his mother quietly that he had done it. No more yelling and shouting. No more threats of physical violence, of the kind that had once made her run out to a friend's house to call the police because he was manic and wouldn't let her near the phone.
But the voices were still in his head. They made him think that the CIA was out to get him. "I'll get me before they get me," he told Rita. One day he called a couple of lawyers and left them voice mail messages, identifying himself and leaving his own cell number. "I'm in danger and I need help," he told the answering machines. Then he told his mother to turn on the local news at Channel 7. "You'll see, they're going to announce my death now," he said. Nothing Rita could say or do would make him budge from his position.
He developed fears about being alone. Last Saturday Rita went out with some friends. Alex asked to go with her. He didn't want to be at home without her. "You'll be okay, sweetie," she told him. "Cazzi's home, you're not alone. You'll get bored where I'm going and end up taking a cab home." Alex saw the sense of that.
"Besides," Rita told him, trying to decrease his dependence on her and enable him to be independent again, "in a couple of weeks you're going to be living away from me. You're going to have to get used to it." Under a programme run by the Department of Mental Health, Alex was to share an apartment with three other young men. Rita had been with him to see the apartment, which wasn't very far from her house.
"I'll be back soon sweetie," she told him now, giving him a big hug. He squeezed her back tightly. "You'll see, it'll all be ok. You'll be here when I get back, and nothing will have happened."
If she had known how wrong she was, she would never have stepped out of the house. Out with her friends, she kept worrying. Alex wasn't answering his cell phone. Caz, prompted by her phone call to his cell, knocked on Alex's door but received no answer. "He's probably asleep, Mom," he said.
Still worried, prompted by her friend Rosemary, Altaira's and Miranda's mother, Rita rang again. "Go inside and check his body," said Rosemary. What a strange choice of words, Rita thought. Then they both heard Caz scream, and the line went dead.
By the time they reached home, the ambulance was already there. Caz had dialled 911. When he opened his older brother's bedroom door, Alex was on the floor, dead. He had used a strong nylon rope he found in the basement. He had tried the back porch but it didn't work. So he had gone back into his room, hooked the rope around the top drawer in a tall, heavy chest of drawers, and kneeling on the floor, leaned forward until he choked. He must have done it almost as soon as Rita left.
He could have put his hands down to the floor at any time to stop the pain, to start breathing again, but he didn't. He left no note. He went quietly, with dignity, without harming anyone else.
Because he would rather die than live like that.
NOTE. I wrote this piece after coming home from Alex's funeral. I met and became friends with his mother Rita D'Souza in October 2005, shortly after arriving in Cambridge, MA, on a journalism fellowship. She was from my hometown, Karachi, and we were introduced by Rita's foster father, Arnold Zeitlin, who had set up the Associated Press offices in Pakistan during the 1960s. That was when Rita came to live with their family. They supported her studies and took her with them to Indonesia when Arnold was posted there. She still has family in Karachi although she eventually settled in the US, where she married and had two children, Alex and Cazimir. She and her husband divorced several years ago and she has since supported herself and her boys with the wonderful day care centre she runs from her home in Cambridge, close to the apartment I lived in with my daughter Maha last year.
I wrote this as a tribute not just to Rita's elder son Alex, but also to Rita, a wonderful human being who has borne her terrible tragedy with her characteristic grace and strength, love and forgiveness. She agreed to let me print this article in the hope of creating greater understanding about mental disorders that are so often misunderstood, misdiagnosed and swept under the carpet.
For the longest time -- at least for the last decade or so -- one has often heard that Pakistani advertisements were not very good. This point especially hit home when the Star channels became available on the satellite dish (this would be the early to mid 1990s) and viewers in Pakistan were able to watch adverts made in India. They were more slick from a technical point of view, and creativity-wise, they were miles ahead compared to their Pakistani counterparts. Of course, this isn't to say that we haven't had some memorable ads (after all, who can forget the Binaca ad, the Lipton chai jingle or the one with two couples living next to each other, for the Phillips light bulb) but they have been few and far between. The impression was that seth-owned industries tended to dominate and any creativity shown by the ad agency -- if at all forthcoming -- was shot down because the owner of the company wanted an ad done a particular way.
Now in the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a lot seems to have changed, certainly as far as technology and concepts and ideas are concerned. It can also be said that perhaps industry and commerce is not as seth-dominated as it has been in the past, and even family-owned businesses are increasingly being run by the proprietor(s) younger offspring who mostly are well-educated. So one would have thought that the advent of technology and so much competition in the media in the form of increased number of TV channels and at least a dozen FM radio channels would have improved the quality of advertising that Pakistanis can see or hear. However, that has unfortunately not been the case.
For instance, let's take a look at the sector which is apparently leading the way in terms of revenue spent on advertising -- telecommunications. Currently, several mobile phone ads are being aired heavily on all the TV channels and several are not exactly very good. There is one, promoting a 'special' rate for night-time service of the country's largest cellular provider with a young male protagonist saying at the end 'Jo sota hai, voh khota hai'. What kind of message is this company being allowed to give by the government, the Ministry of Information and other media regulators, to the young people of this country? Apparently, anyone who sleeps early and doesn't stay awake all night talking on the mobile phone is a 'khota'.
I can't imagine an advert such as this being aired in the UK or even in very capitalist America. In all probability it would violate the stringent and elaborate guidelines listed for adverts by the relevant regulatory body in either country (the FCC in the US and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK). The ASA website can be seen at www.asa.org.uk and is very useful since it provides a detailed listing of the advertising code used in the UK. The principles as outlined by the ASA also make much sense and one only wishes that they were applicable to ads in Pakistan as well.
A brief excerpt from the website on the principles that marketers and ad agencies need to follow will show the attention to detail and concern for the consumers: All marketing communications should be legal, decent, honest and truthful; all marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society; all marketing communications should respect the principles of fair competition generally accepted in business; no marketing communication should bring advertising into disrepute; primary responsibility for observing the code falls on marketers; others involved in preparing and publishing marketing communications such as agencies, publishers and other service suppliers also accept an obligation to abide by the code; any unreasonable delay in responding to the ASA's enquiries may be considered a breach of the code.
Instead of expending their energies trying to browbeat and muzzle the print and electronic media, the Ministry of Information and other media regulators would do millions of consumers some good if they assisted in the formation of such a council -- run by the advertising sector itself -- where complaints could be registered against misleading or unethical adverts.
P.S. What can one say about this other mobile phone ad which has a sharply (and tightly) dressed young woman benefiting from a 'share' feature being marketed by the company which allows one mobile user to share his or her balance with another. The implication of this ad is clear (and in poor taste); that girls who dress like the girl in the ad are more likely to give their numbers to men.