I got off the armchair

My grandfather passed away when I was 14 years old. I may not have been as close to him as my brother was but I’d like to think my dada – Urdu for grandfather – was privy to the moment every star in my figurative sky aligned and made me recognize what I wanted from my life.

To recognize: to reacquaint someone or something – concrete or abstract, take your pick – with your cognition. The facts are all there, lined up finely like topiaries; what is left is to blindly stumble into one of the bushes.

Allow me to line up the facts, then, as there are a few to be acknowledged here: to be born Pakistani is an inherently political act. It follows, then, that your life is steeped in the political no matter what route you assume. You could be an engineer, a computer scientist, the most domestic of housewives but when society calls and you find yourself sitting around a coffee table or dinner table, cradling a cup of tea, there is only one real topic of conversation. That was my childhood.

“Did you hear about that poor man who got lynched because of some ridiculous blasphemy accusation?” some auntie would say to a chorus of tongues clicking. “Absolutely unacceptable! The government must do something about this!” I would consider this stipulation and, getting bored as discussion turned to that of deceitful tailors, travel to the other room where middle-aged men with some heft around their bellies complained about that most overused of buzzwords. “Corrupt! Everything is corrupt! These politicians, what do they care about us? the hard-workers, the honest and righteous, the poor and needy: they don’t care in the slightest, that’s what! We could wait for the government to do something, anything, and die in the process.”

Even at my age – seven, eight, too young to really engage in debate – I was enraptured by this exchange of dialogue. Almost without fail, however, I would get chased away to go play with kids my age once the adults realized I was around. Sometimes that was a blessing. To be inherently political, and politicized, is itself a bit of a curse when debate turns into the kind of argument that brings out fists (and sometimes worse). As Pakistanis, we feel the need to defend our opinions as if they are something sacrosanct; and the sacrosanct can call for a bit of a crusade.

Slowly, once I realized I had a bit of a penchant for art, my interest in politics faded to a superficial level. I fell into that most Pakistani of traps – what I call armchair politick. Granted, I was only a preteen, but I had to hold my own against other 10-year-old armchair politicians. We debated long and hard during our recesses, forming political camps among ourselves and judging each other’s opinions, carbon-copied from our parents’ own views. Regardless, at the end of the day, there was a common consensus: “I hate politics.”

Standing where I am, having dedicated my life to politics, the thought disturbs me. It’s more than simply disliking the dirtiness of politics. That is understandable. However, as Pakistanis, our lives aren’t just dictated by our own domestic politics: our lives are contingent on the trends and (it has to be said) whims of international politics and international political actors. In other words, it is sometimes literally a matter of life and death for us to be politically aware and active. To wash ones hands of politics is to divorce oneself from the right to self-determine our own future. In doing so, we play into the hands of our own destruction.

Deep breaths.

2007 was one hell of a year. It was the year my family moved to Dubai from my home city, Lahore. I had succeeded in making friends, but I had not succeeded in making a home for myself. To be taken away from my city of old mosques, red brick, and history in favor of what seemed like a showpiece of a metropolis – I still carry with me a kind of resentment, though I have grown to appreciate the experiences I gained from being in Dubai. But to be in Dubai is to be in a bubble that makes you hazy, self-absorbed, and unwilling to look beyond your immediate vicinity. At 12, it was all too easy for me to be in that haze to begin with, but the City of Gold thickened my cotton-mind.

Setting: Islamabad, capital city of Pakistan. Enter – stage left – the Lasharie family. It is December of that year, my first trip back home. We stayed in my extended family’s home, comprised of my father’s parents, his two brothers and their families, and sometimes his sister when she and her family visited from Lahore. It was a bit of a family reunion in a climate of political tension. October 2007 was the first time former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan after a 7-year exile in, incidentally, Dubai. My grandfather, and most of my family, staunchly supported the Pakistan People’s Party, with its center-left alignment and social-democratic goals. For them, and especially my dada, her homecoming brought with it joy and celebration.

So, then, December 27 – the day of her long awaited political rally prior to the January 2008 elections. Those of us who were at home gathered in the living room in front of the TV. My parents were in the city proper, probably at a dinner. My two uncles were out somewhere. I was sitting with my grandfather, but not paying attention; I had an eight-year-old cousin to entertain, and that left little room for a girl to faux-politic. Over the next few days I pieced everything together and gathered that while I was playing, Benazir was leaving the rally – presumably a successful one – in her armored car. Presently, I heard my grandfather’s nervous but proud remark. “Look at the lioness – she knows how many people would see her dead and yet she still stands through the sunroof to wave to her people.”

Dimly, I recalled how many times I, too, stood through the sunroof of my parents’ car. I didn’t have thousands of loyal followers to wave to of course. I just liked the feeling of the wind against my face and the sense of freedom that preceded my mother grabbing my skirt and tugging me back down into the boring security of my car.

What sounded like firecrackers came from the TV. My family members gasped; cries of “What?” and “Ya Allah, khair!” soon followed, and I was jolted into attention.

Gunfire. Benazir wounded. Explosions.

I wish I could say such carnage was new to me, but it wasn’t even remotely so. And yet I could feel my 12-year-old heart pound hard from the tension. What we had all experienced, what I had experienced, was a moment the state of Pakistan could never take back. Even if Benazir Bhutto survived this, the country would be launched into chaos.

Somebody should have tugged her back down into her car.

People deal with tension in different ways. My grandmother – umba – took to the shower. My aunt took to the kitchen. Dada took to chain-smoking. For my part, I smiled humorlessly the entire time. I am, and was, acutely aware of how deeply fucked up it is to bite back giggles in the face of a crisis but I suppose they’re called coping mechanisms for a reason. I also had the task of making sure my baby cousin wasn’t too upset by the tension but I hadn’t quite acquired my knack of keeping cool during a bad situation.

Dead silence, save for the TV. I wrapped my arms around my baby cousin, pulling her into a cuddle. We watched and waited for some kind of news.

Dead silence.

Benazir had been critically wounded. The explosion that followed the gunfire had killed 24 people. Panic was spreading. The footage of the hospital where Benazir was being treated was a little jarring, a little moving, but did a good job of projecting the national claustrophobia we were all experiencing. Every inch of corridor outside her operating room was occupied, party faithfuls and friends and family clamoring for news, bowling one another over to be the first to say they cared about Benazir in her time of need.

A little jarring. A little moving. Mostly suffocating.

Benazir had returned to Pakistan in October. Upon her arrival, she had survived a first assassination attempt that, instead, claimed the lives of nearly 150 people. It had impassioned her, I presume, and despite knowing she wasn’t as protected as she could have been she went ahead with this second rally. Every time I stuck my head out the car window or stood through the sunroof, I would get a stern lecture from my mother, but when I was much younger she would try to scare me out of the habit with tell of some obscure, three-times removed family member who did what I did and lost some kind of appendage in the process. I’m sure someone told Benazir equally macabre horror stories to try and dissuade her from the rally but the older you get the less such stories resonate. I suppose this means Benazir is the subject of horror stories now, but I wouldn’t know: I haven’t gotten the chance to stick my head out of a sunroof in Pakistan yet.

17:35 was when Benazir was taken to Rawalpindi General Hospital. She was unconscious. It seemed like every spokesperson, every anchor was trying to temper the tension by being extremely optimistic, sometimes going as far as to say she was completely safe. I could feel dada straighten up a little bit every time a call for calm and prayer was made. The intervals between each drag of cigarette lengthened. I watched the swirling smoke from his cigarette against the backdrop of his equally grey mustache. His face was worried. I would have been able to count all the times he’d appeared worried on one hand, if I could remember any other time he seemed worried to begin with. In retrospect, I wish I could have gone over and given him a hug. Instead, I tightened my arms around my cousin.

It’s incredible how the human body is able to anticipate the moment the heavens unleash a storm. BREAKING NEWS rolled across the TV screen in bright red. I tensed up. My grandfather and I both inched forward in our respective chairs.

18:16. “Benazir Bhutto ka inteqal ho gaya hai.” The normally stoic news anchor’s voice broke on the word inteqal. Death. I’m not one for clichés, but the world has a way of slowing its axis when something of this magnitude happens. And in that brief breech in temporal physics, everything changed. If all my life was a breath drawn, this was the hitch that made me have to inhale again.

My grandfather and I looked at each other simultaneously. Shock and grief on his face; shock and epiphany on mine. I don’t know how long we sat there, staring at each other, but I eventually jolted out of my chair and rushed downstairs to spread the news to the rest of the household.

It may be inferred by my narrative that I didn’t experience much sadness at Benazir’s (use of the word contended) martyrdom. And in all honesty, no, I didn’t experience the kind of grief my family did. What I did experience was a life-changing moment, and for once in my life emotion took a back seat. As I inquired worriedly about when my parents would come back from the city; as Rawalpindi, my home city of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad exploded in violent demonstrations; as pundits debated the cause of death and motivation behind the assassination; as my grandfather and uncle held each other and cried silently, cigarette secure between my dada’s fingers; as gunshots – both in mourning and in rage – resonated through the evening, I understood finally what politics was, the implications it bore, how it permeated into all of our lives. I felt a new urge to understand swell up in my chest. I began to foster a perpetual restlessness that could only be quelled by doing, by learning, by dialogue of the political variety.

I needed to know. More importantly, I needed to know so I could do something, get off the armchair, and never look back.

As a nation, we know the uneasy truth behind Benazir Bhutto’s death. But this isn’t about controversy or conspiracy. For almost seven years, I was unable to appreciate national grief under the weight of a personal revelation. Call me late to the party, but I mourn Benazir; not for her politics, nor for her flawed personality, but for the trailblazer she was, for her iron will, for what her life and death meant to millions around the world. A delayed recognition is still a recognition: and I recognize now what Benazir has done for me, seven years down the line, in my second year at university in the pursuit of a degree in International Affairs and Political Science.

I got off the armchair to blaze a trail. And I never looked back.

This is one of the most emotional, personal pieces I’ve ever written and it feels a little bit wrong to put this up in public. I make no promises that this will stay up. To be fair, I also submitted this for a grade for a creative writing class, so…

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