Hollywood has its Freddy Krueger and Frankenstein’s monster, but here, in Pakistan, we have another phenomenon whose very mention can strike terror in the hearts of every man, woman and child – the monster “loag” and its mighty weapon, “baatein”.
Who amongst us can claim not to have been terrorised by loagon ki baatein?
Our lives are lived in fear of public opinion, in matters big and small; in decisions social and personal, the question 'loag kya kahen gay' (What will people say)? reigns supreme over individual desires, much to the detriment of personal goals and aspirations.
“Ammi, I want to learn to play a musical instrument,” a cousin of mine said to her mother one day.
“Beta, what will people say?” her mother asked aghast, and that was the end of that.
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For a collectivistic setup like ours to function, it is crucial that the roles assigned by society to each individual are lived up to. More often than not, social obligations take precedence over personal needs.
Collectivism has its advantages of course. But the standard rules of life we are all made to adhere to sometimes seem very arbitrary and needlessly stifling.
What possible harm to society could a teenager cause by learning a musical instrument? Except maybe, that it might be seen as her striving towards greater personal freedom; it would start with music but might end with her deciding not to get married at the arbitrary age picked as the right age, or to pursue a career women are deemed 'unfit' for.
In short, it might make her give up her ‘girl from a nice family background’ role. So it’s best if the fear of loagon ki baaten is put in her at an early enough age.
People manage to make it more or less unscathed through this minefield of public opinion until their mid-20s if they are smart enough to pick a socially acceptable career (medicine, engineering and if you are not that smart, business administration).
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After the first job has been found (the government sector is most preferable), the pressure to get married builds up and all the baatein that people have been saying for years start piling up, their voices rising to a din that can no longer be ignored.
And what caustic baatein they are. It’s no wonder that opinions expressed solely to wound are so feared. When a friend of mine secured her first job, her parents were told by well-wishers to find a suitable husband for her as soon as possible, lest people start thinking that they were relying on her income.
Sure enough, six months later, her father was asked point blank whether he was delaying his daughter’s marriage because of the money she brought in.
From reminding women of their fading youth and reminding young men of their receding hairlines, to reminding parents of their responsibilities, public opinion is geared toward directing each and every individual towards their predefined role in a timely manner.
The mold of a bahu, damaad, saas and susar is already available. All we have to do is step into it and conform.
One wishes that these pressure tactics would stop once a couple is married, but then begins the inevitable march towards parenthood. If the ticking of your biological clock is not loud enough, loagon ki baatein will ensure that soon that tick-tock is all you hear.
You must have children and you must have them now!
On a personal level, most people feel the need to break out of the mold, yet, on a larger scale, we are unable to comprehend this and not willing to make way for those who wish to live differently.
In the end, the feared loag is ourselves. We chafe and fret when our decisions are criticised and our choices hampered because people don’t find them acceptable. Yet, when we hear that the neighbour’s son decided to become an artist or that khala’s daughter wants to learn the piano, we question the morality of their choices.
The fear of loagon ki baatein might seem easy enough to escape – just don’t listen. If only it was that simple. The pressure of all the choices and conformity is exerted not just on ourselves but also on those nearest and dearest to us. If we fail to live up to societal expectations, we might have to face very real consequences of being ostracised.
The only way this pressure can be toned down is if we all open up our minds to the idea that not everyone has to live the same cookie-cutter life; try and start by not looking askance at the 35-year-old bachelor or the couple who is not having children.