We knew this was going to happen eventually.

One day, this country was going to look up from their phones, TV screens, internal migrations, pockets of deprivation, anxieties about their children, health expenses, being spoken down to instead of being spoken with, and decide: enough is enough.

Out with the old, in with the new, whatever, however, wherever.

For a country as conservative as ours, the abruptness with which the tables seemed to have turned is truly shocking.

Enough that most of us can’t come to terms with what has just happened, whether out of happiness or serious disenchantment.

As a result, I don’t know how to feel when I see us — and taking a cue from us, the rest of the world — reaching back into the annals of history for our most trusted, established (pun intended) explanation for what’s just happened in Pakistan: the military’s playing tricks again.

Of course. How dare the average Pakistani get up and cast a vote to let somebody in the corridor of power know just what is going through their mind and life right now?

How dare the average Pakistani have a go at democratic behaviour before attaining perfect education, roaming the world for leisure and examining all the conspiracies on which the country is premised?

How dare we believe that the common citizen may finally have voted against ‘their’ grain in favour of their brain?

America picked Trump; Britain exited the EU; ours must be more of the same misguided populist vote explained by crumbling infrastructure in heartland America, and that embarrassing ageing population in the UK, but only rigging of every form in ignorant, illiterate, belligerent, bigoted, emotional, adolescent, and above all, some-kind-of-military-anti-Western Pakistan.

Related: What are the underlying factors you should consider before voting?


Somewhere in all the headlines, buzzwords and grand narratives, we have missed the detail. The sort that quietly moves around in my dad’s kitchen as he helps us prepare heart-friendly meals for my 70-year-old father who has recently run into cardiac trouble.

Our new cook and his entire extended family and in-laws are Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) voters in Lahore because the tried-and-tested recipes just aren’t working for the children Basim bhai and his family members are endeavouring to raise as well-rounded human beings.

In the week leading up to the elections, Basim bhai spends all his free time fraternising with my father’s newly-hired driver, Atif bhai (an ardent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supporter married to a loyal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) voter) along with the domestic help around our neighbourhood, the two plainly clothed chowkidaars who sit at the end of our middle-class street, the fruit, vegetable, meat and atta vendors around Faisal Town and even the shopkeepers in this area.

I know from my own everyday forays into the areas around my home that the Christian community next to FAST University has historically swung in favour of PPP, with PML-N dominating amongst GOR-V and other middle-class blocks of Faisal, Johar and Model Towns.

PTI is a popular choice amongst students of the many institutions in this part of Lahore, and some of the adult, working or homemaking residents who want to see ‘clean’ leadership.

But on July 23, 2018, as he checks the daal for consistency and texture, Basim bhai relays to me that everyone in this area wants PTI; actually, he corrects himself, they all believe in Imran Khan.

I listen calmly; I was never one for political hysteria and what little I had has probably been laid to rest by nearly a decade spent in the UK.

The next day, I see from the corner of my sleepy eye the huge face of Imran Khan walking into our kitchen, sketched across Basim bhai’s shirt, and am jolted from slumber.

Somewhere in the fog of being educated, uber-analytical, always cautious and incredibly reserved, I seem to be struggling with the ability to see ordinary Pakistanis for what they are — unapologetic believers that something better this way comes, right here, on this land, their land.

Read next: The next five years


My neighbourhood is part of NA-130, a recently re-marked constituency in the eastern parts of Lahore, home to all kinds of socio-economic classes, education and aspiration levels, occupations, markets, religions, ethnicities and lifestyles.

When I send my CNIC number to the Election Commission’s 8300 verification service, I keep being told my polling station is Forman Christian College even though it has previously always been somewhere in Faisal Town.

The rest of my family heads over to Cathedral School on our main road, and I have to go over to FC College along the Canal on election morning.

The trip starts off frustratingly. Already, the past fortnight has been a blur of tigers and bats plastered across every unmoving (and even some moving) surface(s) in the city, prompting me to wonder just what kind of campaign ‘regulations’ we’ve got in place.

In a newspaper supplement regarding the finance of elections, I have read about unmonitored cash spending on canvassing paraphernalia.

I find myself silently praying whoever wins develops the aesthetic sense and gall to curate more sensible rules for campaigning.

On reaching FC College, I am turned away twice from the gates, the guards swatting at me like a fly, telling me there are no elections here. I am both laughing and shaking my head. This must be the only non-election inch of the country, then.

Atif bhai and I drive around the area looking for some kind of electoral activity. When we finally find party booths along one of Main Gulberg’s roads, I am issued an incomplete token by a perplexed looking young woman, who cautions that she hasn’t actually found my name on her list of voters. I am then instructed to walk towards KIMS, where I can try to cast my vote.

His name is Shakeel. Or he’s wearing Shakeel’s uniform. His eyes waver gently as he approaches me with an outstretched hand waiting to receive the humble white paper clenched tightly in my palm, this unimposing ticket to my democratic right.

I study him nervously as his young forehead begins to crease, his mouth beginning to form the words I am dreading: this probably isn’t the right polling station.

Shakeel, the Army jawaan ushers me towards a kindly young woman who advises me to return to the party booth outside — I cannot vote here, she tells me with apologetic eyes.

I stare speechlessly back at her. Is my vote even safe, screams a panicky voice in my mind. It is hard not to think this way when tales of corruption weave the fabric of Pakistan’s (mis)fortunes.

Behind the polling officer, I can see another uniformed officer meticulously adjusting a jute drape blocking off other parts of the school.

My eyes return to the polling officer, this time with a mixture of gratitude and pride.

These are the honest Pakistanis trying to do their job correctly on this important day in our history, and I must respect their integrity.

Back outside in the heat, I approach the PTI booth to explain what’s going on. A party member mutters out of frustration that people have been complaining since the morning that FC College has been turning voters away.

A young man next to her perks up with the suggestion that this is deliberate behaviour — I immediately reprimand him with the observation that the guards do not know from one’s face which party one is voting for.

I am resolved to find my polling station. I have waited a decade to vote again, having been a student abroad in 2013 who petitioned the government at many levels alongside thousands of other overseas Pakistanis — we were ultimately denied the right to vote.

Atif bhai and I return to FC College. This time I get out of the car and refuse to budge until the guard tells me just what is going on.

There’s been a mistake by the Election Commission. It’s actually FC College school that they’ve forgotten to append to their 8300 service texts, a building with its own distinct approach and entrance further up Zahoor Elahi Road.

There are no signs anywhere on the main roads indicating where a polling station might be, and I find this incredibly distressing.

How many people may have returned home without a purple-inked thumb, not as vote-starved as myself?

Why is such basic service design lacking in the Election Commission’s execution? The polling approach is blocked off so I jump out of the car and walk towards the school.

Inside, I have to intuitively guide myself towards the back of the school for the women’s polling due to further lack of signage.

I join a queue that is partially in shade, partially in sun and expect a long wait, when suddenly, all of us are shuffling into the building.

What a pleasant surprise, I am just starting to think, when a police officer appears and an altercation ensues.

I do not want a fight to prevent any of us from finally having found the right place to cast our votes so I leave my place in the queue to ask the police officer what happened.

He gives me a look, and I clarify that I’m just trying to help on this stiflingly hot day.

His eyes soften as he admits it is likely his own mistake that he walked to the other end of this long school corridor for water, not having been provided a drop since the morning.

His eyes flicker slightly, but I see what they’ve gone towards. Thick black boots on his feet in 36 degree Celsius heat since 5am.

The instructions the police and army officers have been given are very simple: only four people at a time can queue outside the immediate polling room; everyone else must be stood at a credible distance (in this case, the entrance to the corridor), and only two people from the queue can be allowed to approach the voter verification table at a time.

Also, the police and army cannot issue any different instructions to each other.

The trouble seems to be that his request to the women at the head of the queue to remain in their places was not honoured.

In addition, there are now three elderly women, one in a wheelchair and a sick lady who are being asked to join the regular queue, no arrangements for such voters having been mandatorily pre-empted by the polling station.

I reason that as a citizen of Pakistan, surely I can ask the army officer to help me do whatever needs to now be done.

Within 10 minutes, we’ve managed to clear the way for the elderly and ill, convinced the swarm of cranky voters to resume their original queuing positions, and even humoured the women in this part of the building enough to crack smiles.

The ballot itself is extremely uneventful in comparison — which is probably a good thing.

I thank the presiding officers running the show at my polling station. As I leave, the policeman and army officer thank me for being such a caring and responsible citizen.

I am quietly elated.

Before I know it, I am walking back towards the car with a Piano blue line of ink carefully painted across my right thumb, my heart heavy with the news from Quetta.

Now read: Managing expectations


All the way home, and for the rest of election day, I return to the rich purple stain on my digit: it glistens in the light, this intricate topography of spirals, uniquely spaced to celebrate my existence, my life, my voice, my opinion, documented not by any token, card, chip, database or socially-constructed record of qualification or location, but right here in the palm of my hand.

I was born with it, and I have been undoubtedly fortunate to have used it to let the state know what matters to me.

The evening of the 25th quickly turns childish for Pakistan on global television and social media. One by one, members of my family retire to their beds until I sit alone at 4am, glued to the television screen.

In that moment, it doesn’t matter to me who says what on the basis of what evidence. I return to my thumb — and to all the people, processes, thoughts, deaths, lives, sweat, blood, tears and words that allowed me to stain it purple today.

My thumb, your thumb, this magnificent symbol in our country, better than any bat, tiger, arrow, tractor or book.

This symbol of a human’s greatest achievement: the ability to come together to honour a difference of opinion, respect another’s rights, and find the dignity to keep working together towards a better future.

We may not do it perfectly yet, but celebrate it, Pakistan, because we’re on our way. Well done.



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