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NON-FICTION: NO COUNTRY FOR BOLD WOMEN

May 27, 2018

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The village girl who became an internet sensation, only to die a gruesome death | Dawn file photo
The village girl who became an internet sensation, only to die a gruesome death | Dawn file photo

How do you tell a story that has been told numerous times before? The last days and death of Pakistani internet celebrity and provocateur Qandeel Baloch received relentless coverage on television, in print and online media, at home and abroad. Two documentaries were made on her death, and a third one is in production. A little over a year and a half after her murder, a local television network even produced a drama based on her life. With the launch of this most recent work on her life, how do you tell a story that most seem already familiar with?

No matter how much you delve into it, Sanam Maher’s The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is meticulously researched. You can tell the author spent extensive time tracking down even the smallest characters associated with Baloch; in previous coverage they might have been in the shadows, but in Maher’s book they have prominence. Through her interviews, she reconstructs in minute detail what Baloch’s life was like and how the village-girl-turned-internet-star evolved through her experiences. One gets a sense that the author is not only trying to find out who Baloch was, but also understand the environment and culture she left behind and what she faced with every step that took her further away from home. Maher examines how the rules change according to gender, socio-economic class, culture, religion and geography etc, and she communicates all of it in its dizzying complexity.

A book on the life and murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch presents an engaging social history of Pakistan itself

At the very beginning of the book we are taken to the scene of the crime as it was discovered by the reporter who first broke the news of Baloch’s death — as a matter of fact, journalists play a prominent role in Maher’s book. We find out who the man in the background in Baloch’s famous ‘How am looking?’ video is, and what a prominent role he played in her life. Maher describes in almost comical, but accurate, detail the attention-hungry, bumbling ‘lawyer’ who accompanies Baloch’s parents everywhere, often speaking for them and presenting himself as a close family acquaintance and person of extreme importance when Baloch herself didn’t even know who he was when she first spoke to him — on the phone; they never actually met. There’s another attention-hungry character in the book: Mufti Abdul Qavi. Not only is his ‘colourful’ personality, including his — for lack of a more appropriate word — tharki [lecherous] inclinations described to a tee, but Maher also charts how his own behaviour led to his undoing.

Almost every journalist in Multan has his or her favourite story about coming to this village [Shah Sadar Din] … ‘On one visit, a villager sidled up to my friend who was working as a fixer for some reporter. “My friend, you have come here for nothing. Strange people, coming here just like that.” My friend asked him what he meant. “We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing.” He wasn’t wrong. They’ll kill a girl and pack her body into something like a gunny sack or a bag or whatever they use for their wheat or sugarcane and they’ll stuff the bag with stones. The body sinks to the bottom of the river. The girl stays there, buried under the stones.— Excerpt from the book

One of the many, many characters in the book also includes Arshad Khan, of the ‘Hot Chaiwalla’ fame. Maher writes about him to describe the impact of social media fame on someone that came from a background similar to Baloch’s. The author describes how bewildered Khan was when he first received attention as a result of his photo going viral, not fully understanding what that even meant, and how that changed his life. Also, how he has been attempting to learn and adjust to the linguistic expectations of his new life: he struggles to speak English and has to be fed words to parrot on screen. If anything, his inclusion shows the influence social media has on Pakistani lives now and exposes, quite starkly, the educational and cultural divides within the country as well.

When it comes to Baloch, Maher paints a vivid picture of a woman who is sensitive and vulnerable and at the same time equipped with a steely resolve and determination to change her fortune. She is fully aware of the sacrifices that must be made, the backlash she is getting for her videos and the threat from her brothers, but she is also a little naïve when it comes to gauging how much risk she’s putting herself at when she goes back home.

The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is also a book about how hostile Pakistani society is towards women who step out of their homes, whether to study or work, and especially those who come from a lower socio-economic class. It explores how their freedom of movement is curbed every step of the way and how cruelly they are punished if they go against the restrictions placed upon them by their ‘culture’. It is not just about the relentless harassment they are subjected to both in their physical and online lives but, also, the trauma they experience as a result of that. And how the state machinery — despite all of its promises, resolutions and bills — continues to fail them. And finally, the book is also about how some women are fighting back.

The book is a very easy read. I finished it within a few hours and was surprised (and somewhat disappointed — I wanted it to go on) when it ended. Despite all of the information available online about Baloch’s life, murder and subsequent investigation, many had a sense that there was still more to the story than what had come out so far. To her credit, Maher has brought all possible strands of the story together and covered them in a very nuanced and humane way. But far more importantly, she has written the meta-narrative around this seemingly salacious story: a social history of Pakistan itself.

The reviewer is a member of staff

The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch
By Sanam Maher
Aleph Book Company, India
ISBN: 978-86021946272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 27th, 2018