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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Let's talk

But let’s do that as Indians; rather than Hindus and Muslims

My father’s best friend was a Muslim. It feels pretty darn weird to write that. And it feels like a betrayal of some kind to describe Masood Uncle as a Muslim; to see him through the prism of his religion; to reduce him to his religious identity. Especially since I never really saw him as ‘Muslim’. He was just ‘Masood Uncle’, the tall, shambolic man who grew up with my father in Lahore in Pre-Partition India, and whose visits I longed for when I was a kid.

Masood Uncle timed his visits to Calcutta around Eid, so that his wife could spend time with her family in the city. And in the run-up to the festival, we would all be geared up for a visit from the Masood family. They always arrived unannounced, laden with gifts, and stories from across the border.

My father’s face would light up on seeing the friend of his childhood joshing and joking with his children. We, in turn, would have a million questions about Pakistan, quizzing both men about their growing-up years. And once the fun and games were over, we would settle down to eat at a table groaning with food. It says something about their friendship that Masood Uncle – as dedicated a carnivore as any – showed every indication of enjoying the vegetarian fare on offer (my grandmother would not even allow eggs into the kitchen).

In all those years, it never ever occurred to me to think about Masood Uncle’s religion. Yes, he was a Muslim. That was clear. But it was also irrelevant. To me he was simply another adult who showed me love and affection, who had the most amazing anecdotes about my father, and who was a link to the past that my family had surrendered when they left their home after Partition.

So, why am I describing Masood Uncle as a Muslim today? Why am I even thinking of him as a ‘Muslim’ rather than just a person with whom my father shared a special bond? I managed to spend four decades of my life without doing that, so why start now?

Well, it was a trending hashtag that started this chain of thought. It exhorted those on social media to #TalkToAMuslim and was accompanied by pictures of people holding up placards saying things like “I am an Indian Muslim. I’m human too. You can talk to me.”

The hashtag was born out of the best of intentions: a desire to push back against the bigotry and intolerance that we see all around us today. But while I could see why it resonated with some people – both Hindus and Muslims – I couldn’t help feeling a bit disheartened by it.

It also set me thinking. Can we really fight the ‘othering’ of Muslims by reinforcing the perception of them as the ‘other’? Are we really helping by asking people to interact with Muslims just because they are, in fact, Muslim? And wouldn’t the people who respond to that exhortation be the ones who interact with Muslims in the normal course of events anyway? The ones who treat Muslims as aliens in our midst are unlikely to change their views because of a hashtag, no matter how long it trends on Twitter.

That’s as far as I got before another thought pushed itself into my brain. Maybe I come to this discussion from a place of privilege; maybe I don’t really see things the way Muslims who deal with everyday alienation do. As author Nazia Erum tweeted, “For those who believe the hashtag…is unnecessary, you need to turn in to conversations happening in your house, your kid’s classrooms and playgrounds. Otherization of Muslims is already complete. Demonization is what we are fight.”

But then, as if to prove the point that Muslims are not some homogenous monolith, came the comments from those within the community who had an opposing point of view.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani of The Wire tweeted, “I think what #TalkToAMuslim does is it hurts your self respect as a Muslim and dehumanizes you as an Indian. The bigotry and hatred is real but such response to it only stigmatizes the community. Don’t reduce Indians to their immediate religious identity. Don’t let them win.”

I could not agree more. The way to fight ‘otherization’ is by refusing to let people be categorized as the ‘other’ because of their religion identity. We need to see people as people, not as Hindus or Muslims, if we are going to battle the blatant bigotry we see around us.

I think my friend, Shahid Siddiqui, editor, Nai Duniya, put it best: “Talk to me if you respect me, if you enjoy my company, if you find me interesting, if you like me. I don’t want your charity or protection. I want respect as any other citizen of this great nation called India, Bharat or Hindustan.”

Shahid had a new hashtag for his tweet: #Don’tTalkToMeBecauseIAmMuslim . I have to agree. You should talk to Shahid because he is one of the brightest minds in the commentariat, the sharpest analyst of contemporary politics. And yes, he has a great sense of humour too. The fact that he is a Muslim is entirely incidental.

That’s exactly the point journalist Mahrukh Inayet made as well: “Like me. Don’t like me for my gender, my religion or my profession. Like me for who I am. And let’s please end this nonsensical conversation.”

There’s just one point where I would disagree with Mahrukh. We shouldn’t end the conversation, no matter how nonsensical it may seem. It is important to keep talking to each other. It is imperative to keep listening to each other. But let’s do it as Indians, not as Hindus and Muslims.

Let’s not worry about each other’s faith. Let us instead put our faith in humanity – and in common decency.

Khan Vs Khan

Reham Khan's memoir about her life - and her short-lived marriage to Imran Khan - is both racy and readable 

The one image that readers will take away from this book is of a stark naked Imran Khan, lying in bed, rubbing kaali dal (black lentils) all over his body (including his genitalia) when his wife, Reham Khan, walks into the room. Unperturbed, the former Pakistani cricket captain – and now, the man widely tipped to be the country’s next Prime Minister – rolls off the bed, shaking the dal off his body and on to the bed. The dal is then collected, boiled for 72 hours, and then thrown away – along, presumably, with the evil spell that had been cast on Imran.

In her re-telling, Reham Khan refers to this incident as her entry into ‘Hogwarts’ (Harry Potter and the Devil’s Dal, anyone?) because this incident was yet another illustration not just of her husband’s love of black dal but also his belief in black magic. Imran Khan comes off as a superstitious man who was constantly worried that someone had hexed him, and would consult with ‘pirs’ (religious leaders) on how to remove the curse. The solutions ran all the way from magic amulets tucked away in drawers to kaali dal strewn all across the bed.

There’s more to these black magic stories than mere black magic, of course. They are a way for Reham to illustrate that Imran does not have what it takes to be the leader of a truly Islamic nation. Belief in superstition is strictly forbidden in the Sunni version of Islam, which Reham and most Pakistanis practice. And she uses these incidents to paint her former husband as a lesser – and less observant – Muslim that herself, helpfully pointing out that Imran doesn’t know Arabic so he can’t even read the Koran.

But the impatient reader will have to wait a long time before getting to all the juicy Imran gossip. The book begins with Reham’s childhood, her brief stint as a child star on TV, followed by an early marriage to a first cousin whom she barely knew. Ijaz Rehman is a psychiatrist and the young couple fly off to England, where he starts practicing while she plays the dutiful housewife.

In Reham’s version of events, the abuse begins almost immediately, and she recounts in excruciating detail her first husband’s controlling behavior, his emotional torture, and his physical attacks on her. This part of the book makes for troubling reading and is the more powerful for that. Reham Khan skillfully paints a portrait of a young wife and mother trapped in an intolerable situation, looking desperately for a way out.

It is only 12 years and three children later that Reham manages to break free of this relationship. And then begin the single years, in which she works two to three jobs to bring up her kids, working in radio and television. It is hard not to root for the young mother as she drives herself from job to job, to make sure that her kids have the best life she can make for them.

But these are not the bits that people will buy the book for. It will sell only because of whom Reham marries next – and the acrimonious divorce that follows. It will sell because of the scandalous, and mostly unsubstantiated, gossip that abound in the latter half: Imran’s alleged penchant for sending naked pictures of his genitalia to journalists in Pakistan (one woman who apparently asked for proof that this was, in fact, Imran’s junk was sent another picture with his watch in the frame); his promiscuous lifestyle that took in everything from drugs, drink and fornication; the women who sexted him all the time even after he and Reham were married, with one of them promising to ‘ride him hard’; his inability to perform because of his drug habit; the size of his ‘package’ (‘naam baray aur darshan chhotey’ a famous 70s Bollywood star is quoted as saying); his bisexual tendencies; and so on and so salacious.

The book, though pacy and readable, is rather unevenly written. It starts off with a high-minded tone as the plucky tale of a young woman who is stuck in a loveless abusive marriage and how she summons up the courage to leave. By the time Reham has her first ‘encounter’ with Imran, it has veered irredeemably into Mills and Boon territory. (“He started to say something, and as I looked up expectantly, he instead closed the distance between us and leant down to kiss me. It was a light brush initially. I froze in fright. As he proceeded to kiss me more ardently, I put both my hands on his chest and pushed him away…In a daze I fell to the ground beside the swimming pool…”) And after the marriage collapses, the narrative descends into straight-out revenge memoir territory.

Nobody knows the truth behind the allegations that Reham Khan was paid off by Imran’s political opponents to publish this tell-all book just before the elections were held in Pakistan to destroy his prospects. But equally, nobody can deny that this book has the potential to do much damage: if only to Imran’s reputation rather than his actual election tally.

Maybe it’s time for Imran Khan to break out the kaali dal again. This time, with a brand-new recipe, to cope with the fury of a woman scorned.

Monsoon Survival Kit

Some handy tips to keep you frizz-free and stress-free this rainy season

Is it my imagination or do civic services seem to get worse every monsoon? The traffic snarls increase, the number of potholes proliferate, and the flooding – even when the volume of rain is not out of the ordinary – gets more apocalyptic with every passing year.

So, I wouldn’t blame you if you regard the onset of the rainy season with dread and trepidation, wondering what fresh hell will be unleashed this monsoon. I would, in fact, understand completely, and make sympathetic noises even as you moaned and groaned.

But what good would that do you? None at all!

Which is why I have decided to compile my own Monsoon Survival Kit to provide you practical tips and advice to get through this season with your feet dry, your hair frizz-free and your sanity intact.

·       Grant yourself rainy-day holidays: When the rain is coming down so hard that complete and utter traffic dislocation seems guaranteed, call in sick. If you think that won’t wash (pun alert!) then claim to be flooded in and ask if you can work from home. Then you can hunker down on your bed (or sofa) with a nice, steaming cup of tea, and work on your laptop with one eye on the amazing monsoon sky raging and raving outside your window. And when the rain finally comes down, you can take a little balcony break to feel the fresh spray of rainwater on your face. Bliss!

·        Better still, hold over some of your annual summer leave for the monsoon. Then when everyone else is dealing with traffic jams and car breakdowns, you could be walking the beach in Goa or Kerala, getting soaked to the bone as your feet squelch across the wet sand. And while swimming in the sea may be out of the question in this season, you can still enjoy its stormy beauty as you sit at a beachside shack, knocking back some fish fry with a beer or a vodka tonic. (If the beach seems too messy, then head for the mountains to feast your eyes on the mist, the fog, and yes, the rain, from your vantage point in the hills.)

·       If you do have to go to work, then work on making your commute fun. If you are driving, load some nice rain songs on your music system or pop in the earphones to listen to your latest audio book. If you are being driven, catch up on your reading, whether it is with an e-book reader, an actual book or the Kindle app on your phone. Phone a friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Check out your favourite feeds on Instagram. If you can fill this empty time by doing something you enjoy, something that makes you happy, even the interminable jams won’t seem intolerable.

·       There will be several days during this season that you will find yourself marooned at home. So make sure that you have everything you need to keep yourself entertained. Subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hotstar, so that you can binge-watch the latest shows. Make sure the liquor cabinet is well-stocked. Keep lots of microwaveable popcorn handy, so that you can replicate the movie-watching experience at home. (Added bonus: at home, unlike at the cinema, you can pair this with a glass or two of wine!)

·       But while there is a lot to be said for chilling in the dry comfort of your home when the monsoon is raging outside, you will be missing out if you just stay indoors. So, when there is a break in the rain, head out for a walk in the neighborhood park. The rain will have had a cleansing effect on all the vegetation, the leaves will be sparkling, the flowers glistening, the grass greener than ever, and the world will seem like a happier, shinier place.

·       This is the season of bad-hair weeks (rather than days). The humidity will make you sweat gallons and you will feel like washing your hair every single day when you get back home. But don’t just stop at a shampoo, pamper your hair with a frizz-free conditioner. And to make sure your ends don’t curl up by the next morning, squeeze on some frizz-free mousse for good measure before you blow-dry it. (Alternatively, you could just embrace your curly-hair avatar. But while there is something to be said for philosophical acceptance, it still smacks of defeatism to me.)

·       Whether or not you have kids of your own, this is as good a time as any to relive your childhood. As a child, rains to me always meant heading straight for the terrace to get soaked to the skin. Then, it was time for a quick shower and settling down to some chai-pakora, served up by my long-suffering mother. Now that she is no longer around, I go through the ritual all on my own. But I can feel her presence even in her absence; and I feel like a six year old again. And I have the rains to thank for that.

When silence is not golden

If you hear someone say something bigoted, speak up!

Sitting down to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with another couple (social acquaintances rather than old friends) a month or so ago, I was looking forward to the Peking duck with all the trimmings. But even as the mains were served the conversation took an unexpected turn.

My female dinner companion and I were discussing our favourite walks in Delhi. After we had finished rhapsodizing about Lodi Gardens, I happened to mention how beautiful the sunsets on Marine Drive were. The lady, who had just returned from a visit to Mumbai, interrupted me to say, “Oh, I didn’t like that area at all. Too many ‘M’s, with their burqas and all. I don’t know where they’ve come from, so many of them!”

I was, quite literally, struck dumb, my feelings a weird jumble of acute embarrassment (for her as much as for me), shock that anyone could say such bigoted stuff without any shame whatsoever, consternation that she thought that I would be receptive to such communal poison, sadness that we had come to such a pass that nobody thought twice of saying such things in public, and anger that I had failed to see this woman for what she was in all the years I had known her.

Swimming in the maelstrom of emotions that her throwaway remark had aroused, I failed to find the words to indicate my horror and disgust at her casual communalism. By the time I had recovered my ability to speak, the conversation had moved on. But for the rest of the dinner, I sat in silence, mulling over the many ways I could – and should – have responded to her. But to my eternal shame, instead of harking back to the topic (the ‘M’s of her story), I stayed mute until it was time to say goodbye.

On the ride back home, my husband asked if I was feeling well. It was not like me to stay so quiet through the evening. I explained to him what had happened to make me so dumbstruck. And how much I now hated myself for not saying anything when confronted with such open bigotry.

Of course, we both decided that we would never see that particular couple again. But the incident got me thinking. What is the best way of dealing with people who have no compunction about openly expressing their bigotry in polite conversation?

Well, first off, silence is not an option. No matter how embarrassing it may be for you and others in the group, blatant bigotry should not go unchallenged.

At my dinner, for instance, I should have pushed back. What do you mean by ‘M’s? Do you mean ‘Muslims’? What’s wrong with saying ‘Muslim’ in that case? What is the problem if the women are in burqas? Why does that make you feel so threatened? As for where they have come from, they have been living in Mumbai for generations, unlike you, who’s just visiting!

Would it have made for an uncomfortable evening? Of course. Would it have resulted in the end of a beautiful (I’m kidding) relationship? Without a doubt. But I wouldn’t be friends with such people for all the money in the world anyway, so that was a moot point.

I know that this is easier said than done. Most of us have been brought up to be polite when in company, to make diplomatic noises when someone says something unpleasant, to try and smooth over tricky bits of conversation rather than speak home truths. Our instinct, then, is to gloss over bigoted comments, dismissing them out of hand or pretending that we never heard them in the first place. We make peace with our craven failure to engage by telling ourselves that we would never change these people’s minds in any case. So, why bother arguing with them; much better not to talk to them at all.

I can see the attraction of that approach. Not only does it make for an easier life, you can also virtue-signal to the rest of the world that you have no time for bigots and communalists.

But when we retire to the comfort zone of our own echo chambers, leaving our bigoted brethren to spew what communal poison they wish in their own sphere of influence, we contribute to making the world a much worse place with our silence. We may not be directly responsible for the bigotry that is taking over our civil society, but we are certainly complicit in its spread because of our decision to disengage.

So, I for one, have made a pledge. If I hear anyone say anything bigoted and communal – whether in real life or in the online space – I am going to step forward and say something. I am going to push back. I am going to make it clear that such views are unacceptable in a civilized society, and that those who hold them are beyond the pale. I am going to try my best to shame these people.

Silence is no longer an option. Not for me, at least. And, I do hope, it won’t be your choice either.

The Ex Files

How to stay friends – or at the very least, civil – after you break up

As I sit down to write this column, social media – and Pakistani TV – is awash with coverage of Reham Khan’s tell-all book about her life and short-lived marriage to Imran Khan. The book is yet to be published but even before its release, cricketer Waseem Akram (among others) has filed suit against it. And Imran Khan’s first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, has threatened that if the book is published in the UK she will sue for defamation on behalf of her son.

I don’t know how the story will have developed by the time you read this, but it doesn’t really matter. This column may have been triggered by one bitter ex-wife wrecking revenge on her ex-husband by dishing the dirt on him (allegedly, I hasten to add, I haven’t seen the book myself) but it is really about how you can prevent your ex (wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend) from going all bunny boiler on you.

Success is, by no means, guaranteed. But if you follow these simple rules, you will at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried your best.

·       Get closure: Don’t just ‘ghost’ people once you’ve decided to excise them from your life. As in, don’t close all doors of communication and have nothing further to do with them. Accord them the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting in which you have an honest conversation about your relationship before it ends. Yes, it may get teary. It may get acrimonious. It may even get violent. But you owe it to the other person to let them have their say. And you owe it to yourself to listen.

·       Cooling-off period: Rare is the couple – married or otherwise – who can go seamlessly from being a romantic pair to becoming really good friends. No matter who broke off with whom and why, residual feelings always linger after a long and meaningful relationship. There’s wisdom in acknowledging that and allowing one another space to grow apart before you try and come to a new accommodation – if that is, in fact, what both of you want.

·       Stop re-litigating the past: If you have managed to re-establish a friendship, then stay focused on the present and the future. Stop looking back to see where you went wrong. Don’t fight about who did what to whom when you were together as a couple. Draw a line in the sand and stay on the right side of it.

·       Don’t presume on old bonds: Once you have moved on, stay in the new space that you have found. Don’t revert to old habits just because your ex is still in the vicinity or part of your extended group of friends. It is not his or her job to pick you up because you’ve had too much to drink. And nor is it your job to clean up their messes just because that’s something you always did when you were together. You are in a different space now. And the rules must be different.

·       Don’t bad mouth one another: I know, this one is hard. Its human instinct to vent when you are unhappy. And when you are angry with your partner, the temptation to slag them off to anyone who will listen is hard to resist. But resist it you must. If that seems impossible in the immediate aftermath of your break-up then set a deadline for yourself. Give yourself a week, a month, or even a couple of months to get all that bile out of your system. And then shut the hell up. Going on and on about them after all that time is just allowing them to live in your head for free. You don’t want to do that.

·       Respect their new relationships: Nobody expects you to become best friends with your ex’s new partner (least of all your ex!) but a little civility goes a long way when you’re dealing with your replacement. So say hello, be pleasant, maybe even pay him/her a compliment on their taste! But whatever else you do, don’t perform that old do-you-remember-when dance with your ex while their new partner listens in, feeling increasingly awkward with each new anecdote.

·       Don’t drag the kids into your battles: If you share children, then you are going to be stuck with your co-parent for the rest of your life, no matter what. So, whatever your problems with your ex-husband or ex-wife may be, keep them to yourselves. Your children love both of you. And they need both of you. Trying to turn them against either mom or dad is just setting them up for therapy for the rest of their lives.

·       Try and remember the good: When a relationship ends, it’s human nature to focus on its last, dying gasps. But when we do that, we forget the promise of love and romance with which it all began. So, when you are being split apart, throw your mind back to what brought you together. That may encourage you to be more loving and respectful of your partner even as you separate. And who knows, in time, it may even bring you back together as friends.

Do not disturb

We all need some me-time to get through the day; don’t apologize for it

The hours of two to four in the afternoon were sacrosanct in my childhood home, ever since I can remember. The moment the clock struck two, my mother – having finished the lunch shift in the kitchen – would retire to her bedroom and shut the door on the world. She would emerge from her siesta at 4 pm sharp, to get tea and snacks for the whole household.

But for those two hours, she was not available for anyone or anything. That was her time. And all of us kids – and the adults – understood full well that to knock on her door during this period for any reason whatsoever would bring the wrath of the Gods upon our heads.

As a child, I lived for this interlude in the day. This was the time that I could sneak out with my neighbourhood friends for a bit of rough and tumble. And so long as I got myself back home at five minutes to four, all would be well. No matter what misadventures I got up to, my mom would be none the wiser.

So as far as I was concerned, this two-hour hiatus was the highlight of the day, when I could roam unsupervised, read books that I had expressly been forbidden from touching, and generally get up to no good at all.

It’s only now that I am all grown-up and my mother has departed from this world that I think back on how precious that time must have been for her.

This was a woman who looked after a large joint family with minimal help. She cooked three meals for the household everyday (and separate food for my grandmother, who did not eat onions or garlic). She looked after two ageing in-laws, one husband, and three kids. She ironed our uniforms, got our school lunches ready, and made sure that we had done our homework. She woke early in the morning to get us off to school and then stayed up late making us strong cups of tea so that we could study late into the night.

But in the course of each mad, maddening day, she had the good sense to carve out a moment of time for herself. To this day, I don’t know what she did during those two hours. Did she have a little nap to refresh herself for the rigors of evening kitchen duty? Did she use this time to catch up on her reading? Did she sit cross-legged on the floor and meditate? Or did she do all of this – and more? I simply don’t know.

The only thing that is clear to me, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was those two hours that enabled my mother to get through the rest of the day, where she did not have a minute to call her own. It was that tiny interlude of peace and solitude that allowed her to retain her sanity. It was that breather that gave her a second wind to carry her through to the night. It was that me-time, or as some like to call it, alone-time, that gave a still point to her ever-spinning day.

Even without realizing it, I have incorporated that same habit into my own life. Just like my mother, I crave a few hours of solitude during the day, when I can be alone with my thoughts, maybe catch up on my reading, or just go for walk and empty my mind of all the clutter and white noise of modern life.

Unlike my mother, I don’t have fixed hours in the day to do that. But then, unlike her, I don’t have the demands of in-laws or a brood of children to contend with, and nor do I have an extended family to build my schedule around. Working for myself, as I do, I have the flexibility to steal a few hours out of every day for myself alone. And it is that luxury of me-time that allows me to get through even the most stressful of days without feeling overwhelmed.

No matter how hectic the day has been, if I can steal an hour at bedtime to read a few chapters of a good book, I go to sleep quite content with my lot. Even if I have a writing deadline weighing on me (in fact, especially when I have a writing deadline weighing one me), I still take the time to step away from my desk and go for a walk. And unlike my mother – who cooked so much and so often that it turned into a chore – I often end a long day by cooking a meal for my husband and myself, the gentle rhythm of chopping and stirring serving as my own kind of meditation. 

Whenever I do that, I find my thoughts straying back to my mother and her two to four pm ‘siesta’. No matter how mad the whirl of life got, she knew that she needed that time to make herself whole. And she took that time for herself, without apology, without explanation, and without the slightest trace of shame.

How I wish more women followed her lead, practicing self-care with the same patience and affection that they bestow on the care of others. Not only would they be happier for it, but so would their families.

An Inconvenient Woman

The life and death of Qandeel Baloch

“How I’m looking?” That’s the question Qandeel Baloch asked in her first viral video, writhing sexily as she pouted for the camera. Pakistan duly clicked on the link and didn’t quite like what it saw. Scratch that. They hated it. But even as the outrage flowed and the abuse got more graphic, “How I’m looking” became a catchphrase in that country, and Qandeel became a bonafide social media star – albeit one that everyone loved to hate (or so they claimed, at any rate).

Sanam Maher, a Karachi-based journalist, tells the improbable tale of this unexpected breakout star in The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch. The book begins with the death of Qandeel, and the media frenzy that followed. And then traces her journey from her impoverished life in a small village near Multan, to a doomed first marriage at 17 (which resulted in the birth of a son, whom she abandoned), a disastrous appearance on Pakistan Idol, to the hard-scrabble existence she led as she tried to establish herself in the ‘glamour’ business, and finally, to her short-lived triumph when she became an international star.

It was not an easy haul, by any standards. Pakistan, a conservative, hide-bound society that swears by Islamic mores of propriety and modesty, had never seen anyone quite like Qandeel Baloch. There had never been a woman who had no compunctions about doing a ‘strip-tease’ for the Pakistani cricket team to encourage the players to win in a match against India (she promised to go the whole hog for Shahid Afridi if he managed to beat India). Nobody had ever posed in a skimpy outfit and sent out a video message proposing marriage to Imran Khan. Or, for that matter, released pictures of herself with a respected Islamic cleric which seemed to suggest that the two of them had got up to no good in a hotel room.

So, as is usual in such circumstances, Qandeel was dismissed as a ‘whore’, a loose woman who was bringing shame on her family, her country, her religion. She was forced off Facebook (briefly) after a concerted campaign to paint her as a blot on Pakistan. She was threatened with rape and murder. And she was inundated with abuse every single day of her life.

The only problem was that Qandeel declined to play along with this narrative. She refused to be shamed. She refused to apologize for the way she looked, the way she dressed, the things she said, or the videos she released. She was a woman who owned her own story; a woman who was comfortable in her own skin; a woman courageous enough to live the life she had created for herself.

In many other countries, she may well have gotten away with it. Sexy videos, revealing outfits, and outrageous statements are the staple of ‘social media stars’ all over the world. As Qandeel admitted in an appearance on a Pakistani TV show, she was ‘inspired’ by such Indian women as Poonam Pandey, Rakhi Sawant and Sunny Leone. And she was routinely described as the ‘Kim Kardashian of Pakistan’ in both local and international media.

But while all Poonam Pandey and Rakhi Sawant had to contend with was being the butt of cruel jokes in India, Qandeel had to deal with actual hatred and contempt, not just from Pakistani society and media, but also her own brothers, one of whom ended up killing her for the family ‘honour’. While Sunny Leone could follow up a porn career in America by forging a new mainstream avatar in Bollywood, Qandeel was doomed to being dismissed as a ‘beghairat aurat’, a woman with no honour, forever beyond the pale of polite society.

It is tempting to speculate what Qandeel Baloch’s fate would have been if she was born in India rather than Pakistan. Would she still be alive today, putting up risible videos on Youtube, clocking up millions of likes, even as people laughed at her rather than with her? Would she have achieved mainstream stardom if she had fulfilled her ambition of starring in Bigg Boss? Would she have become the new Sunny Leone in our lives and on our screens?

But this is not a story about India. It is a story about Pakistan, and Maher tells it with journalistic rigor and creative flair, pulling together several strands with deceptive ease.

And like all good writers, Maher doesn’t restrict herself to telling the tale of the transformation of a young girl who was born Fouzia Azeem but turned herself into Qandeel Baloch. Instead, she uses the prism of Qandeel’s transmogrification to tell the story of a slice of Pakistan itself, through the medium of different characters.

There’s Khushi Khan, a model coordinator in Islamabad whose family lost everything in the 2005 earthquake, and who had scrambled to make a living ever since, dealing bravely with all the misogyny and sexism she encounters along the way. There’s Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) based in Lahore, which helps women deal with cyber harassment. And then, there’s the handsome ‘chaiwallah’, Arshad Khan, whose picture, taken at his humble tea stall, goes viral and changes his life.

But shining through all these stories is the shimmering figure of Qandeel Baloch, the quicksilver star who burnt all too briefly before being snuffed out for being far too bright.

What's in a name?

If Sonam Kapoor wants to adopt the Ahuja surname, it is nobody’s business but her own

Question: Why did Sonam Kapoor change her name to Sonam Kapoor Ahuja after she got married?

There is only one correct answer to that question: because she wanted to.

She wants to be known as Sonam Kapoor Ahuja from now on. And it is not our business to second-guess her or to offer helpful (I jest, of course) commentary on how her decision is a strike against gender equality and an obsequious nod to the patriarchy. Nor do we need fulminating think pieces on how this one decision to take her husband’s name and add it to her own somehow disqualifies Sonam from being a feminist – and is, in fact, a betrayal of the feminist causes she espoused all along.

For one thing, the name that we describe as Sonam’s own, the one she gave up in favour of her husband’s, is also the gift of another man: her father, Anil Kapoor. So, how would keeping it strike a blow against the patriarchy, when the name – quite literally – was bestowed upon her by the patriarch?

Can you see the logic in that convoluted piece of reasoning? No, me neither.

Whether you stick with the surname of your father or take your husband’s, it is still a man’s name you are sticking next to your own. So, why should one be a feminist choice and the other a kick in the rear of the feminist movement?

The short answer is that none of this matters – or more correctly, none of this should matter. If we all agree – and I hope we do – that feminism is about the freedom to make your own life decisions, to choose freely how you want to live your life, and yes, to make up your own mind how you wish to be styled, then every woman is entitled to make the choice that feels right for her. And even if you don’t agree with that choice, it is not for you or anyone else to shame her for it. That is not how a sisterhood works.

In fact, the last thing women need as they go about negotiating a tough world is to have the burden of prescriptive feminism placed on their already overburdened shoulders. We have quite enough on our plates without having a heavily annotated to-do and please-don’t list thrust down our throats as well.

And frankly, when you think about it, how is this prescriptive feminism any different from the demands that the patriarchy places upon us? Just as it was disempowering when women were forced to take on the names of their husband the moment they married, it is equally infantilizing to insist that they must stick with their birth names even if they don’t want to – on pain of having their feminist credentials cancelled by the Surname Police.

In that sense, there is no difference between the patriarchy and prescriptive feminism. Both of them want to dictate how we should live our lives, how we should behave, what we should and should not do, to fall within accepted parameters of approved behavior. So, why should we seek to cast off the bonds of one only to accept the constraints of the other?

If you ask me, we should refuse to acquiesce to the demands of both and live our lives just as we want to. And call ourselves whatever we damn well please. If we want to stick with our maiden names (as they are still rather quaintly called) then we should do so. If we want to be known by our married names, then we are free to do. In neither case, do we owe any explanations or justifications to anyone else.

There may be a dozen different reasons why women choose to stick with their father’s surname: they like the way it sounds; they already have a flourishing career in which they are known by that name; they don’t want to change their bylines or brand names; they don’t want the whole palaver of changing passports, Aadhar cards, bank accounts, Pan numbers and what have you.

And there are plenty of different reasons why women choose to adopt the surname of their husband. They may do it in the first initial flush of romantic love. Once they have children they may want the whole family unit to have the same name (this is also for practical reasons, as any woman who has gone through passport control with a young child who has a different surname than her own can tell you). Some of them may drop their own surnames altogether. Others may chose to hyphenate them with their husband’s.

It really depends on the woman in question and what she thinks works best for her. And that is exactly how it should be.

Which is why I refuse to join the Brigade of Outraged Feminists attacking Sonam Kapoor Ahuja with brickbats and pitchforks because she chose to change her name. She could style herself as Princess Consuela Bananahammock for all I care. It’s her life. It’s her decision. It’s her choice. It’s her name.

And it is nobody’s business but her own.