of the mind
life as a Twit
Bhairiyay. Hawas ka shikar. Nanhi Kali. Shehzadi. Qaum ki Beti. As these
words were intoned over and over again on the television with reference to
the gang rape of a five year old child in Lahore on September 13, in India
the highly publicised trial of the December-16 gang rape and murder of a 23
year old woman had also reached its conclusion with the award of death
penalty for all but one perpetrators.
It was a strange
experience. On one hand, we saw the starting-up of outrage that insisted, in
its tone and tenor, that this incident was exceptional, perpetrated by
lustful inhuman deviants, and that presented summary justice as
simultaneously a sufficient and impossible conclusion to the ‘case’. On
the other, many voices in India were making arguments against the
‘maximum’ punishment of death for rape and the assumption that
punishment is enough to do justice to the systematic and pervasive violence,
humiliation, physical control, and denial of use of public space that women
The media narrative here
said: if the culprits are apprehended and punished in this case, where there
could have been no question of the raped individual ‘inviting’ the
attack and therefore muddying the waters of moral purity, there would be
some hope that justice can be done. The way the media openly exhibited
outrage, desperation and misplaced identification with the child also said:
we are all waiting for justice, and there is no hope that justice can be
Furthermore, it implied
that short of summary justice there is nothing much to be done about sexual
violence. So while a particular child has become the focus of a media
campaign that is petering off inconclusively, and of protests that never
tried to become movements, the underlying message seems to be: there is very
little to do here besides punishing criminals, and punishing criminals and
enforcing the law is something our society is never going to do.
Sexual violence of
exceptional cruelty should not be in need of the euphemistic, aggressive and
sensationalised language that it provokes.
I cannot be the only one
who winced through the frequent updates by hospital staff of the girl’s
condition that told us nothing useful or relevant, the VIP visits to the
hospital, the interviews by emotional female reports of the girls’ family
and hunt for the criminals.
As I write this, the
incident is still being discussed in the language of nauseating and
aggressive melodrama, and, further, has assumed aspects of a crime mystery
which is already losing its grip on the audiences.
Meanwhile, more learned
debates in the op-eds have partly turned to debating the pros and cons of
the death penalty for rape, no doubt influenced by recent discussions in
India on the same subject, and here on lifting the moratorium on executing
There is enough evidence
to show that it is the surety not the severity of punishment that deters
criminals insofar as deterrence leads to a decline in sexual crime. But the
case always does need to be made, and this is a good direction for
discussion to take.
What is missing, I think,
is a discussion that needs to happen now and, alongside the demand for
successful trial and conviction with reasonable sentences in cases of sexual
violence, to revisit the question of women and children in a male-dominated
public space. And these are two different questions, not one question, which
emphasise on the assaulted child’s gender has elided. The protection that
children should receive from family and society would, in the case of women,
count as protectionism, and the outcry against sexual violence should not
take on, as it often does, the hues of the protection of virtuous women who
have done nothing wrong.
But the one thing that the
raped woman in Delhi and the raped girl in Lahore have in common is that
they were out in the street — the woman after a cinema trip, the child out
playing. They were unnecessarily so, as we would say here.
The response to sexual
violence often takes the form of withdrawing women and children of means
further from visibility, and leaving in the streets those who cannot afford
to buy private space for entertainment or private transport security to keep
them mobile. (There is room here to debate the merits of Shilpa Phadke’s
suggestion that “for women the best long term strategy to enhance claims
to public space is to embrace risk and pleasure while accepting violence as
something that must be negotiated in doing so”.)
One of the things to do, I
think, is fight to keep the debate about the right to safe use of public
space without conceding ground on equal use of it for work or pleasure. And
without having to apologise for pleasure. And this will surely not happen if
‘we’ continue to worry about the safety of only ‘our own women’ and
‘our own children’.
With the passage
of the Eighteenth Amendment by the National Assembly and the powers stated
to have been devolved, the cultural bodies that were formed, operated and
funded by the federal government have not really settled down to a proper
As it is, there is general
confusion on the separation of functions since then. Many of the subjects
which erstwhile were with the centre have been devolved down to the
provinces according to the bill but the nitty gritty of the task has not
been worked out with the thoroughness it deserved.
It may be conceded that
much has happened since, and the various government bodies have been busy in
conducting the day to day affairs of running the government. Even the
transfer of power from one civilian government to another is touted as one
of the greatest achievements of the country, which in other societies is
only a routine affair. Matters that only exist on the side or are peripheral
from the government’s angle have not been given the attention in the
mayhem of maintaining the continuity of a civilian setup.
It may be said in the same
breath that considerable time has passed since the passage of the bill and
ordinarily the cases for review, based on problems created by the transfer,
should have been on the table by now. Unfortunately, it is still battling
the first stage of transferring such subjects with their relevant
administrative and executive bodies to the provinces for lack of clarity on
functions that these bodies will perform under the changed circumstances.
Culture has always been
given a short shrift by successive governments. Initially, it was not
considered important enough, and then it was seen to be too problematic. The
policy of letting the sleeping dogs lie was followed and it was handled by
not handling it at all.
With the People’s Party
Government in power in the early 1970s, many bodies were formed for the
promotion of culture at the federal level. The aims were: first, to give
culture the importance that it deserved; and second, to form state
institutions as stakeholders in the entire cultural output of the country.
These were supposed to offer a platform to formulate a policy and come to
the support of the artistic forms that needed support without in any way
interfering with their freedom of expression. All this was underscored on
the premise that Pakistan prided upon its diversity and had a collective
cultural vision to offer. The drive to promote a national culture that drew
its sustenance from the plurality of expression was embedded in the various
regions and languages of the country.
The Academy of Letters,
The National Book Foundation and the National Language Authority seems to be
like orphans now as these bodies have lost the parents that gave birth to
them. The National Language Authority has been relegated to being an
attached department, National Book Foundation is doddering without a head
and Academy of Letters is facing severe shortage of funds. The Pakistan
National Council of the Arts and Lok Virsa have been deprived of their
There has been some talk
of reviving the cinema but where is the National Film Development
Corporation that was set up with so much fanfare and then lingered on those
many decades. Why has it not been the platform for launching the programme
about the invigoration of the films? Because it had become dysfunctional,
then declared defunct and abolished years ago as indeed was the State Film
The subjects have been
transferred to the provinces and they are now in the process of finding
foster parents. The Ministry of Information at the centre has been entrusted
with the additional task of National Heritage, and the Cabinet Division has
become the repository of all lost property after the passage of the
Eighteenth Amendment. But the role of these bodies is still being
The core issue being
discussed or pondered over is whether there is a need of a federal body, and
if not why can’t all these functions be performed at the provincial level.
Many bodies exist
primarily not because it is felt that these bodies have been doing a great
or necessary job but because the people employed in it will get retrenched
if any action is taken. Unfortunately, most government departments have been
dumping bodies or employment exchanges where people are given jobs because
the perception has been created that this forms one of the primary function
of the government. Those contesting the elections fortify the embedded
perception of those who set out of their homes to cast their votes for a
These are unfinished tasks
which the great initiative of devolution has resulted in and these need to
be decided upon and quickly. Otherwise, nothing will get done except the
staff drawing their salaries either on time or after a costly legal
recourse. The actual purpose of establishing these bodies is defeated as
empty shells drain the government’s already meager resources.
It is possible that some
of these bodies may be transferred to the provincial government or merged
with others for financial or administrative purposes. This could also open
the door for a sincere introspection and scrutiny of the performance of
these bodies/departments — whether these lived up to the initial
expectation and executed the policies for which these were formed. If not,
then reasons ought to be identified and attempts made to rectify and remove
the inherent limitations.
Based on these findings,
there may be a case of wrapping up a few or setting up even more bodies for
the promotion of the arts/performing arts in the country.
Pastels in the
hands of Dua Abbas are as expressive as pencil or oil paint with a majority
of artists. In her solo exhibition Elegies,
Effigies (held from Sept 12-19 at Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore), the artist has
shown nine works in pastel on paper and canvas. The paintings depict young
women in multiple attires and settings; however all of them remind of some
ancient characters and rituals. This impression is supported with the
inclusion of figures from Greek pottery, statues, columns, armour, Roman
consumes and head-gears in her works.
Yet, looking at her
paintings one is not transported to the past; one only becomes suspended in
history since the same works have visuals of old telephone sets, library
books, modern-day chairs and costumes. Actually, the artist tactfully
manages to create a pictorial that on surface appears objective and remote
but on a closer inspection starts to unfold the private and personal nature
of the narrative. Assumingly, the painter has drawn her sister and
her own close friends but one strongly suspects the presence of the
maker behind her models.
immaculately-rendered works, with a sensitive application of medium to
suggest variations of light, colours and textures, the young girl who is
some sort of mythological figure seems to breath in a timeless zone, or in
This multiplicity of time
continues in a diversity of places because one can hardly identify the exact
location in which those figures are situated. Even though Abbas has conveyed
a specific room, part of the house, lawn or landscape, the uncertainty in
associating these settings to a single geography is what makes the works
intriguing and interesting. One could presume the entire visual belongs to
this country or to distant regions.
It seems Abbas
deliberately prefers this ambiguity or duplicity because, more than being a
pictorial feature, it symbolises the current situation of the world we
inhabit. Our own society, with five thousand years of recorded history and
heritage, is exposed to influences from outside. The so-called bifurcation
of the East and West is melting fast. The impact of European civilization is
visible in our art, literature, fashion and language, more so because of our
Long before this, history
witnessed another form of merger between the East and West in our region. In
326 BC, the Greek army invaded regions which are a part of present day
Pakistan and Afghanistan. After Alexander’s departure, some of his
generals and soldiers stayed in the newly-conquered lands, establishing
Bactrian rule in Afghanistan and adjoining areas.
The interaction of Greeks
with the locals generated a unique form of art, often praised for its
spiritual power but usually neglected for its great sense of synthesis. Here
the indigenous tradition of Indian sculpture blended with the imported Greek
aesthetic conventions. What evolved was a style that incorporated European
realism and Asian idealism, producing a fine balance of two traditions and
cultures in Gandhara art.
It is guessed that Dua
Abbas’s inclination to turn towards Greek forms and features, apart from
her interest in folklore, pagan tales and myths, may also be linked to the
question of identity on a larger scale. Although her work (according to the
artist) is “a celebration of the magic and elusiveness of the female
form” and an attempt to explore “the roles allotted to females in myths
and folklore”, it seems the work addresses other notions of
representation. Perhaps the choice of Greek imagery along with Roman
references indicates how the artist joins the two cultures in her art, an
issue and concern shared among several artists in our midst.
There can be more than one
interpretation of these pieces by Dua Abbas. Whichever those be, one is
certain the work has strong intellectual links; more so because besides
being a painter trained at the National College of Arts, Dua Abbas is known
for her writings on art and artists. Her reviews and interviews have
appeared in a number of publications and reveal the academic depth of the
writer and her ability to contextualise art practices.
In her writings, she has
been able to connect the present with the past as well as to other regions
in order to construct an in-depth argument. The analytical aspect of her
writing, not common among our art critics, is a blessing. But, on some
occasions, especially while dealing with pictorial problems, it turns into
The artist — like the
Great Creator — is a single entity. In his imagination, the world exists
solely for him, around him, and because of him so that he can make works out
of it. Due to this self-centeredness, a prerequisite for creating art,
artists mostly do not recognise or acknowledge other artists, thus ending up
in feuds with them over matters of professional pursuits. But when a person
moves away from the solitude of the studio and looks at someone’s work
from a teacher’s or a critic’s point of view, he has to change his own
ideas and amend his opinions and has to transform his beliefs in order to
engage with someone else’s thought and works.
This exercise of engaging
with other artists’ work influences one’s own creative process and
prejudices; the habit thus acquired forces an artist to review and revise
his own work in a critical manner. Of course while making art, a person
ponders, changes and discards but this process is swift and sudden and one
is not conscious of it taking place. Looking at another artist’s work
demands a different approach: detached, objective, rational and logical.
Hence an artist, who happens to be a critic too (and a good one in the case
of Dua Abbas!), may feel uncomfortable in letting go of
his or her “intellect” while in the act of making art.
One gathers the sharp,
critical and curious mind of writer Dua Abbas has more power on the artist
Dua Abbas and does not leave her to stray into the unknown and unforeseen.
Although Abbas states her position “In this series, I explore, purely from
the perspective of an enthusiast and not a scholar”, the intellectual
behind the canvas comes out of the surface and seems to control, rather
guide, the ‘noble savage’ alternately called the painter.
I have sort of become
addicted to, or at least dependent on, Twitter.
Twitter is an incredibly
entertaining place where I have discovered all sorts of amusing and
interesting people, a place that also serves as a really useful newsfeed.
Twitter probably attracts
many journalists because of both its immediacy and its requirement of
brevity (the 140 character limit). We journalists know we have to cut to the
quick and get to the point: our first sentence cannot be one paragraph long.
We also know from experience how painful it is to have to edit work in which
it is not clear, even after three or more paragraphs, what the actual point
of the story is. So Twitter suits perfectly.
But what has really
charmed me about Twitter is the quality of humour. You come across so many
such witty people and satirists that it all becomes great fun. Twitter has
been described as a huge conversation, and so it is (although sometimes we
can feel quite snubbed when somebody we say something to doesn’t reply).
Also, like most
conversations, there is the element of “you had to be there”; you
can’t go back and insert yourself into the interaction. You really did have to be there.
It is great fun following
conversations which are not just about news and current affairs but also
about important issues like where you get the best
naankhatai (the cryptic but
weird and wonderful food tweets of microMAF aka author Musharraf Farooqi
must be mentioned here), or a discussion on what is the best suitcase to
Twitter is a fast moving
medium and the quick-witted thrive on it. The coinage of the term
to refer to the often over-zealous, tech savvy PTI youth originated
on Twitter (not sure exactly who it was who came up with this gem, but
thanks anyway!) as did a number of other irreverent trending labels.
The immediacy of the
medium has helped its credibility too. Of course, there still are elements
which try to spin and distort news and events according to various agendas
but the discerning twitterati can spot and expose them; thus, the
alternative, non-official narratives get space and attention.
The immediacy of twitter
is also a huge help to news reporting: you don’t believe everything that
appears — you have to immediately sift the information according to the
source, which is something people have now become less careful about in
other sections of the media.
People do set up fictional
personas for themselves but somehow this practice seems less creepy than on
Facebook. The satirical personas are wonderful. Among my current favourites
are the “self awarded award winner, erudite expert on strategic
geostrategic strategy” Dr Majorly Phd, the irrepressible ‘PalangTor
Patriot’ and the more recent arrival, the ‘holier than thou’ Holy Lota.
In the non-Pakistan related parody accounts,Not Will Ferrel and the Pippa
Middleton spoof accounts are very amusing.
Inevitably, you do have
your share of weirdos and fraudsters in the twitter sphere. Weird people
with porn-star pics turn up and try to trick you into being part of some
weird advertising cycle; others try to hack into (‘phish’) your and your
followers’ accounts by sending a message like “hey this person is saying
really nasty things about you”. Still others try to bully and intimidate
and abuse, as in the recent case in Britain where the police charged
individuals who wrote filthy abuse and threatened to rape and murder certain
women including a member of parliament.
On Twitter, basically
it’s the same assortment of personalities and agendas as everywhere else
— the bullies and the misogynists, the wackos and the chamchas, the ones
who tweet personal details and cringe-worthy remarks (concerning them and
one other person but on show to everyone) etc etc.
But it’s an interesting
space, a place where I have not just reconnected with old friends but found
some really interesting new ones too.
We are all twits now.