Cruelties in the festive season

May 29, 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE season of piety is nearly over. The Eid collections of this or that designer house have long been released, cloth has been bought and tailors are working day and night to transform them into the latest creations. Even as we enter the last third of the holy month of Ramazan and the holiest days of the Islamic calendar approach, everyone is aware that Eid is just around the corner.

In this festive season, the few million Pakistanis whose ability to afford life has not been abridged and erased by the terror of crushing inflation and price-gouging will do what they always do. Relatives will hold special gatherings where those who are seen rarely can meet again and friends will rotate around each other in a series of Eid Milan parties that will go on for weeks and weeks. Huge buffets of delectable food will be laid out and the want and weariness of the actual ordinary Pakistani will be banished to some far-off place as the feasting after fasting proceeds apace.

While all the seeming merriment in the environment may suggest that everyone is authentically having a good time, this is not so. This is because any opportunity for the rarely seen relative or the infrequently encountered friend to meet is also a moment for scores to be settled. Daggers of sarcasm are drawn and bombs of backhanded compliments assembled so that they may be launched effectively and rapidly as one makes one’s way through the scrum of ‘close’ relations and fake friends.

Any opportunity to meet the rarely seen relative is also a moment for scores to be settled.

The primary purpose of these parades, for which women primp and prepare weeks in advance, is, of course, the cruel business of assessing each other so that judgements can be exchanged later in the debrief that follows the event, taking up many hundreds of minutes of mobile phone coverage.

The long-time cruellest compliment within the Pakistani arsenal is, of course, fat-shaming. Comments about weight, the gaining of it, the loss of it and the pretend (it’s very, very pretend) act of concern with which it is peddled, is more of an Eid regular than sheer korma and sewaiyyan. You really cannot win either way. ‘Looks like you have been eating a lot of sewaiyyan, Sara’ or ‘Beta, I am only saying this because I love you: you have such a pretty face but what you need to do is to slim down’, or ‘Ha ha, I didn’t even recognise you from the entrance … that can’t be Amber, she cannot have put on so much; hope everything is well’.

It’s not only those who have put on weight who are punished. If one has happened to lose weight, well, that is no absolution from the cruelties of the festive season and meddlesome relations and friends. ‘You look so tired’ is likely what the poor soul who has lost weight is told again and again. ‘What happened, Faiza? Hope all is well’ some will question, out of the same feigned concern that is attached to prescriptions to lose weight. The artifice of it all, and the knowledge there is not an iota of actual concern, means that even if there is actually something adverse going on — an illness, a personal problem or any of the many untoward things that can fall into one’s lap in life — it can never really be shared.

Weight is not the only instrument of torment. There are some people, shifty and overbearing men and women, who live to talk aloud in the presence of as large an audience as possible; they are better versed in what you least wish to talk about than anyone else on the planet. I always imagine them busy with files and folders on each relative and their progeny, lurking and then pouncing. ‘So did your daughter get pregnant?’ or ‘Did she get into medical school after all her years of studying?’

The answer is irrelevant, because the only reason these questions are being posed is because the answer is already known; the point is not and never the exchange of information but always shame and embarrassment. Those who inflict it also fast all month, also pray all the time; but the idea that true piety and spiritual mindfulness requires abstinence from hurting others has not occurred to them — or if it has, is not enough of a reason to give up what they love to do.

This Eid will be another occasion for them to practise their skills. They will be flanked by lesser offenders, those who may not be mean on a regular basis but have become inspired, via some latest envy or some secret loss of their own, to inflict cruelties on others. To brave these local Cruella de Vils requires tremendous fortitude and is entirely not worth the effort. Many, of course, will not have a choice but to do so, and in doing so they will expose themselves to all the psychological traumas and distasteful encounters that are the business of these individuals but which take the rest of us (unerringly and regularly) by complete surprise.

While they cannot be defeated or eliminated in our shame-obsessed milieu, there are small means of resistance. Those of us, and there are really a lot of us, who do not approve of this behaviour should intentionally and pointedly try to hand out thoughtful and considered compliments to those we meet this Eid. Instead of letting the small and lethal cruelties of the bad relative and envious friend become contagious, we can shame the shamers, even confront them with the instant question on all our minds: ‘Why do you have to be so unkind on such an auspicious day?’ If you get any answers, please make sure you send them on to me.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2019