There is a driveway in Karachi that has seen more women toiling away than any other. It is a place where sweat and tears are a constant, where the demons of fear and uncertainty are fought, friendships are forged that stand the test of time, illnesses are discussed and embraced, and the weakest are given hope of gaining strength. This driveway is where the Anti Cupcake Society (ACS) comes together on its quest to a healthier and fitter self, closely emulating the actions and ideology of its creator and its patron, Amal Sarwar.
Do not fall for Sarwar’s petite frame. She can easily be mistaken as a teen blessed with good genes and a figure for which most women embark on fad diets. Her disarming charm throws you off further; your initial thought is whether you should take her seriously enough to follow the seemingly innocuous exercise regime she has scribbled on a white board in the corner.
She welcomes you with a wide smile, a quirky remark up her sleeve, and tales of her latest baking ventures. But when you see her in her true habitat, calling the shots and keeping close tabs on how many reps you have finished (or secretly skipped), her entire demeanour changes. She is a powerhouse and evokes a mix of adoration and anger within her ‘cupcakes’ — as members of her exercise classes are called.
A fitness club is slowly turning into a haven of sisterhood, one exercise at a time...
Sarwar’s creative spirit has taken her on many surprising turns over the years and most are unaware that her origins stem from the world of baking. “I started baking in my third year at university, just to make a bit of extra pocket money,” she says. “My home bakery was called The Anti Cupcake Society, because it was formed at a time when cupcakes were all the rage. My philosophy was wholesome, messy baking that claimed to have more substance than frosting. I loved giving cheeky names to my goodies and thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions and the whole identity. However, baking was draining and I started getting way too many orders to handle.”
Fitness, she explains, was never part of her professional agenda. “I was always torn between art and English Literature, and would always joke about not being able to choose between the two ‘love affairs’. Some part of me always wanted to be a writer, but I ended up going to the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and graduating with a degree in design and illustration.”
Intelligent branding, a sensitive and empathetic view of the many battles women face, and a healthy attitude towards fitness and food have allowed Sarwar to carve a niche in an already saturated fitness market. The ACS founded in November 2016 will be two years old soon, and has amassed a loyal following in a very small period of time. “I knew I wanted to stand out, but not take myself too seriously. I knew I wanted to be more about well-being and strength, than about ripped deltoids and protein powder,” she says. “I also knew I loved a good story, and that one day, I would tell people how I used to bake chocolatey calorie bombs as part of my master plan to later help them ‘burn it all off’ many years later. Interestingly, many of my current clients are also my former bakery customers!”
Her journey took her to the UK where she received her fitness certifications from YMCAfit, London. At present, Sarwar is qualified to teach group exercise, kettlebell strength training, boxing, outdoor bootcamps and ante/postnatal exercise. The ACS is where all of it comes together to shape the lives of many.
The driveway almost every day witnesses five classes at different times of the day. As an ode to the baker in her, Sarwar has aptly named each slot. The two early morning classes, 8:15am and 9:15am, are labelled Team Red Velvet and Cookie Dough respectively. The 5:30pm slot is named Team Marshmallow — this group might well be the middle child but has attained legendary status in the annals of the ACS. Comprising some of the most dedicated and hard-core women, whose fitness stats are far ahead of any of the other groups, they are occasionally spoken of with reverence — even with a tinge of jealousy. The last two slots of the day are Team Mocha and Dark Forest. For Sarwar, the day ends around 8pm.
It is difficult to separate Sarwar and the Society. Both are so closely intertwined that it becomes hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Her quirky sense of style and eccentric personality create a harmonious fusion on the driveway where her ‘cupcakes’ are in full swing. It is a messy and gruelling process for those who join the ACS; it’s tough even for the hardened fitness freaks who never know what to expect when they turn up for class. However, it isn’t a boot camp for those who think that a month of training will give them a new body and a new perspective to life.
Sarwar explains her philosophy on exercise is devoid of quick fixes. She doesn’t give a short timeline to attain unreasonable fitness goals which, in her opinion, is a dangerous thing and can cause greater physical and emotional damage. In some cases, women end up feeling not just unwell but miserable and insufficient.
“I have the responsibility to make people love what their bodies can do,” she says, “to be addicted to the feeling of strength, and then loving the aesthetic side-effects that inevitably come through.
For Sarwar, fitness is more than just burning calories and 100 burpee challenges.
“I am extremely attached to each of my ‘cupcakes’and I try to be more of a friend, as opposed to someone who counts their reps out loud,” she explains. “I’ve learnt that more than anything, more than feeling ‘fit’ or fitting into skinny jeans, people just want a safe space, love and a circle that will cheer them on no matter what. The ACS, I like to believe, is family.”
This explains the kind of revered loyalty visible in her Cupcakes. It also helps that Sarwar is very good at what she does and instinctively understands how a body responds to different exercises. She takes notice of the noises and creaks that emanate from different parts of the body mid-exercise, is quick to call you out if you’re slacking instead of pushing yourself, will adapt a particularly taxing exercise if she sees you struggling, will constantly remind you to establish the mind and muscle connection, and also help you stay hydrated throughout.
Becoming friends with one’s body, Sarwar clarifies, is a big part of her fitness mantra, and not to give up after a chocolate binge or a low-energy workout. “We always talk about how tomorrow is a new day; how we all have moments of weakness. It is okay to feel demotivated, as long as you recognise every failure is part of the process and you are bigger than a bad day. For now, the ACS is about the two things most worth celebrating — my girls and my memes.”
Creativity is a must when Sarwar draws up her daily plan which she believes helps motivate her brood. There’s a basic white board in almost every class that outlines the exercises of the day, with usually a play of words involved. And then the games follow.
Sarwar has created several games that make exercise fun. Usually, a few minutes in and you’re screaming and laughing at the same time, that is, if you can catch your breath, while Sarwar smirks deviously, from the middle of the battlefield. ‘Soreopoly’ is one such game the Cupcakes are particularly fond of — a board game in which every muscle is a winner, she explains. Each person rolls a dice which ends up on a particular exercise which all must complete. Things get serious when some group members suffer from a string of bad luck and end up rolling the same number, thereby repeating the same exercise on loop.
“Other than that, I also love Secret Banta — a pre-workout exercise that allows everyone in class to leave anonymous compliments for each other. Oh, and on Halloween, we had the Hallowlimpic Games which went down a storm!” she remarks.
Dissecting the Cupcakes is an interesting exercise. From the onset, you realise the ACS is an inclusive space for women belonging to different walks of life.
The ages of these women vary; at times you see teenagers walk in with a sparkle in their eyes and in the latest fitness gear. They have a lot of energy, which also tends to wane much quicker. Channelising their overwhelming zeal can be a challenge at times, reveals Sarwar.
Then there are the home-makers, those who wake up early morning for breakfast duty, and juggle carpool days so that their kids make it to school in time. Despite an early, chaotic start, the dedication of these women is inspiring. They eagerly look forward to turning up for an hour they claim exclusively as their own. But the safe space provided by the society does not merely extend to these mothers. At times, a much younger crowd is present, safely tucked away in a corner, fascinated by their mothers huffing and puffing, and peering to get a better look. Many a wall sit have been managed with a young toddler seated on his mother’s lap.
Of course, the professional women are not far behind in their dedication and perseverance; they are a bunch of go-getters who come together from a diverse range of careers. From photographers, teachers, businesswomen and entrepreneurs, ad executives, and even jewellery designers, the ACS has accumulated a colourful and eccentric amalgamation of personalities and professions.
The quiet ones and the loud-mouths work side by side. There is sometimes talk of a swear jar in lieu of the colourful language used during a particularly tiring regime; cussing is a given when the warm-up seems harder than the actual exercise. It is when her brood complains that Sarwar is at her happiest, because she knows she has pushed them out of their comfort zone.
Crediting her family that is “ridiculously silly but so free-flowing with its love” for being an inspiration, Sarwar passes on the same love and loyalty to her Cupcakes. But the lessons are never one-sided. “I can’t imagine my life without the ACS now. It is a community of crazy, wonderful women who teach me more about strength than I could ever teach them and I keep having moments where I’m like, ‘Wow, Amal, you got wildly lucky.’”
The driveway is an integral element of the ACS. “The driveway is part of my home, it is gritty and I don’t claim it to be the best in town. I know it is basic. But I also know that it represents rawness and heart, and that it will always be a safe space for people to connect with their bodies and emotions.”
It is on this driveway that nothing stands between you and the elements; the wind in your hair, your breathing spiked, the sound of your heart pumping loud and clear, and Sarwar’s familiar and dependable voice urging you not to give up. And for all that and more, the Cupcakes keep coming back.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 30th, 2018