Malala vs. Vanilla

18 Oct 2012


There is a period in everyone’s life when ‘I’ becomes the hero; talks, walks, thinks and feels like one; lives a hero’s life … wholly or partly in one’s head.

Teens, 20s, thereabout, ‘I’ see myself doing a lead role in the film. Hear my thoughts expressed by poets and artists. The world is created for a purpose, and that purpose is ‘I’. All that can be imagined is real, is achievable. And there is so much more that is still to be imagined! Life seems too short even to reckon all the possibilities out there, where is the time or the clue for making a choice? Deciding on one imagination and setting about making it real?

So the hero, lets imagination runs amok. Jagjit and Chitra’s ‘mil ker judah huay toh na soya karein gey hum’ can evoke an emotional state of pain and suffering ‘we’ will endure ‘if we meet and separate’, notwithstanding the fact that there’s no ‘we’; and ‘I’ have no curiosity about the double chance of meeting and separating. And yet ‘I’ have wept at ‘ek doosray ki yaad mein roya karein gey hum’. It’s not the power of lyrics – which is lazy poetry created for Dubai’s Indian mujra joints, to introduce to patrons late in the night, when desi men of all ages are suitably drunk, and wish for stupid things that remind them of their days of living like a ‘hero’.

It is the power of imagination of the ‘hero’. Imagination is what makes ‘I’ the hero, for as long as it lasts. And not everyone’s imagination dwells only on ghazals for the drunk. Some ‘heroes’ dream of higher things, they recognise their aspirations, their ambitions, and refuse to accept or even acknowledge the limitations set by society. Rarely, the hero zeroes in on one area and builds his or her imagination within that sphere. They become artists, artisans, writers, scientists, teachers, doctors, social workers, politicians, sportspeople … for life. They become heroes for life.

For the majority, the power of imagination leaves. As suddenly and inexplicably as it had arrived. Priorities change as reality hits home. Learning stops and yearning for regular income through regular means begins. Excitement is replaced by routine, zeal by caution, and exuberance by introspection. Another dreamer turns into a boring, conformist human being of the vanilla variety the world is teeming with. Another individual surrenders their uniqueness and becomes part of a homogenous mass seeking upward mobility. Some of them get the comforts they chase, some don’t. Some are happy with a normal non-hero life; some hate it and hold it against everyone who is anyone’s hero. It’s the desire and drive to imagine when everyone else’s imagination fails, that separates heroes from others.

When Swat was ruled by terrorists, its residents took the orders from an illegal FM broadcast and obeyed them in letter and spirit. If the terrorists said ‘no school from tomorrow’ they kept their children home. If they said people could come out of homes, residents crowded the markets for grocery shopping. And when they were told that the headless bodies hung upside down in the town square are not to be removed; men, women and children went about their routines pretending not to see the terror installations. The religious leaders, the political leaders, the social and community leaders, they were all silent out of fear. They could see, they could think and feel, but they couldn’t talk about it.

A little girl of 11 years or so chose to talk. She shared with Pakistanis and with the rest of the world, what it was like to live under Taliban rule. She didn’t bring in religion, politics or even ethnicity in her blogs. She was a student eager to get education and she saw the terrorists as anti-education. She – and her parents who must get credit for their courage in letting her speak out – imagined the terrorists could be defeated; that education was a right that could not be taken away by gun-wielding thugs; that millions of Pakistanis would come out in support of this right. She imagined. That little girl was the only one who could. And that is what makes her a hero.

Malala Yusufzai is now 14, and fighting for her life after being shot by the Taliban. A nation that has not seen a hero in its lifetime was reluctant in accepting one as young as Malala, but the attack on her did the trick. Pakistanis spoke as one, in favour of education and against ignorance, in favour of Malala and against the Taliban, in favour of those who can imagine and against those who want barricades on imagination.

The girl in critical care has done us another favour. She has pulled the mask off the faces of those who are the enemies of education and imagination. She has forced the ‘leaders’ of people to choose their place across the line. Everyone has had to condemn the act, under public pressure, but the partisan ones have given themselves away by attempting to side-track the issue with drones, Waziristan operation, funding sources and what not. They are all on record – Fazlur Rehman, Sami Ul Haq, Munawwar Hasan, Imran Khan, Chaudhry Nisar – and they have all spoken for their parties. So there. Half of our political class chooses to defend the terrorists who sprayed bullets at young girls, with the intention to kill. Giving us this realisation is what makes Malala a hero.

There are millions of children growing up in Pakistan without a healthy imagination. There are another few millions who have no access to education. Malala has given a voice to these millions and who knows, the historian may record that she gave a whole nation hope. And courage. And that’s what makes Malala a hero. A hero for life.


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at


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