The backpack syndrome

My son began school this month. Junior Kindergarten; his first layover in a long and exciting  journey in Canada’s school system. I couldn’t help but think about my school days. I don’t have much recollection before second grade, except for the fact that I loved going to school! I loved stationary and prepping my backpack. Heavy, back slouching bags that miraculously indicated how smart we all were. Homework, exams and grades were an inseparable part of our lives.

A while ago, I was part of a conversation where some Indian and Pakistani women were discussing the Canadian school system. I just stood there baffled by how much we as Pakistanis have in common with India, even in the way we perceive education. One Indian lady had qualms about the way her daughter’s class fellows dressed. How and why jewelry was permissible? And that not having a uniform was distressing. Most part of the conversation was about how the teachers did not teach the children anything.

I understood where they were coming from. I am also a product of the same grade slavery  environment. I spent many nights crying over the horrendous thought of a bad grade. But after all these years, after meeting some of the most intelligent people who were never technically great students in school, I think differently. I also understand the kind of teaching those mothers were referring to. Excessive bombardment of books, homework, assignments, exams, cramming,..did I mention exams?

I suppose when you don’t have large backpacks sagging with books and non-existent homework to deal with, complaining about a foreign school system would be your first instinct. Back home, it’s all about the exam shebang! Children have to give deadly entrance exams even to get into Montessori. Mothers bragging about their three year old’s knowing the alphabet by heart, front and back is a common sight. What would the world do without such intelligence, I often wonder? In our world, a child’s intelligence is directly proportional to the grades or marks he or she gets in school.

Like I said, I have been there and done that. I have no personal vendetta against grades, or tests. They are meant to evaluate our knowledge. But how do you evaluate an evaluation that does not even come close to identifying a child’s proficiency level or intelligence? I got good grades almost throughout my school and college years. But I flunked almost all my school entrance exams.  What does that show for my standing as a student?

What I have a problem with is the undue association of a person’s brilliance with his or her exam results. Pakistan’s educational system solely revolves around that. I acquired  high grades in subjects that I did not understand then, and I do not understand now! Good grades came my way because I had no other choice. It was part of the system and it was something a good student had to do to prove his or her worth.

Pakistan has produced some of the biggest brains. Children continue to break world records when it comes to getting the most A’s in O or A-levels examinations. Yet our school systems have not changed much. This matter has been scrutinized at all possible levels. Yet no tangible solutions have been chalked out. No one wants to change. It’s still more about stuffing the entire pie in your mouth first and then trying to pick out the main ingredients from that hodgepodge. Rather than working along with the basic ingredients of the pie from the very beginning.

This has nothing to do with the children. They were brilliant then and are even more extraordinary now! Yet this educational system has crippled their thought processes. One of the main problems with a one-track education system is that children lose their individuality. Their unique quirks, passions, innate talents; everything gets sucked back into the vacuum, ultimately hanging children out to dry. Even in this day and age, many Pakistani parents want their children to become doctors, bankers or IT professionals. But hardly anyone encourages painters, social workers or writers.   As archaic as this sounds, it stands completely true.

The Canadian and American school systems have flaws too, which I will surely discover in the coming years. Yet they must be doing something right, because people from all over the world leave the comforts of their homes and pay good money to study in their universities. Whether we like it or not, they exemplify outstanding education. These people know how to follow their passions. They know how to break free from the stereotypical molds of what a person should or should not study. Interestingly so, Canada has been named as the most educated country in the world, “where more than half its residents can proudly hang college degrees up on their walls.” . I would not be surprised if most of these graduates were immigrants from China, India or Pakistan. That should be an interesting research actually; how students from different educational systems still outshine local residents in some of the best universities of the world. But, for another post, another time,

My children and I have a long way to go. I know I am in for the ride of my life and many of their school years are going to come as a huge backpack-shock to me. I hope I don’t end up complaining about how my children are not learning anything. Or even worse, I hope I don`t banish my children for not wanting to be doctors. Hopefully, they will grow up to be bright young minds who can take on the world. Who have the determination and wisdom to follow their innate passions and talents. And most importantly, I hope I don’t become an insufferable grade-obsessing mother, because from what I know, there is still no vaccine for the detrimental backpack germs.

A love forsaken.. A bond neglected


These days, there are many things that you don’t get to see often.  People writing letters. Children playing outdoors.  Someone going out of their way to help another. Children looking after their parents.

Now the last bit I think, is becoming harder to spot, each passing moment of our selfish, valueless lives. When you actually do see something out of the ordinary, it tends to leave an ever lasting impression. There they were, entering a restaurant; A frail, petite, very old lady, walking slowly with the help of, (who I assumed was) her 50-something son. The entire sight was refreshing yet intriguing. Like distorted reflections of life beneath the ocean, as you peer through ripples of water tirelessly circling away. Her wrinkled face, drooping exterior, and bewilderment at her surroundings betrayed her age, which I suppose must have been above eighty. The two spoke another language, but their language of love was enough for me to understand.

He asked her what she wanted to eat. She gave a confused reply. He left and returned with the menu card. That did not help either. This time he spent a good five minutes or so, explaining her options by speaking closely in her right ear. Her expression changed from confused to downright frustrated. The son listened and helped her out with the patience of a mountain. After much discussion, he finally left to place the order. In the meanwhile, she surveyed her surroundings like a child in an unfamiliar place; excited yet fearful. As our eyes met, I smiled and said hi. She passed a scrunched, sweet, satisfied smile back at me. I felt tears well up. I wanted to tell her how lucky she was.

Parents expect a lot of from their children. That’s how it was, is, and always will be. I am a mother myself and I’ll be darned if I don’t end up doing the same! Despite knowing that the love a parent gives can never be reciprocated in the same manner by the child. Essentially, selfless love is the parents’ forte! No son, no daughter can ever repay their parents’ blood and sweat.  But that surely does not give us, the children, a one-way ticket to ‘That’s no longer my problem’ land. That does not mean we can turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to our parents whenever we deem suitable. That certainly does not mean we can’t pluck out a few hours from our so-called busy schedules, for them, and them alone.

Maybe its time to collect all those years of lost time and wrap them up with sheepish little bows of gratitude, just for our parents. That precious heart-to-heart over tea, or that one-on-one shopping spree; that moment of silence shared together, or that casual walk in the park; they just want their babies near by. Sadly, even that is too much to ask for these days.  In countries like Pakistan, countless children like myself, have moved continents away from their parents, in hopes of securing better futures, or whatever that really means. Some are lucky enough to have their parents move too. But many are left to question their own beliefs, values, and priorities when they encounter such taxing situations. In most cases, I see parents at the loosing end. They send off their children, emotions tainted with bitter sweet sorrow, topped with a vicious lump stuck down their throats. And if they decide to move too, then they do so willingly but with an even bigger lump. How easy is it to give up a life you have lived forever? Yet how easy is it to live away from beings you call your life?

So many questions. Hardly any convincing answers.

Like always, I choose to ignore the the so-called facts. I choose to hide my head in the sand and pray. I refuse to accept how ‘normal’ this is in the eyes of many. I refuse to grow up. I dream of days of reunion. I hope for a time when I can bring smiles to their faces again through the little things; because honestly, nothing big can be expected from a selfish child. I yearn for a time when my parents will make everything better again, as they did whenever I shed a tear and cried out their names.

It isn’t enough, but its as true as it can be. I love you mama and baba.



‘Burka’ spins another tale

The ‘Burka’ is known for its controversial spin pertaining to every thread of its existence, specifically in the last decade. From being the ultimate garment of female oppression, to being the ultimate symbol of piety; this cloak has a new tale to tell each time

Burka is notorious for its widespread use in being the ultimate disguise. No wonder the government of France suffers from delusions of Burka clad terrorists invading their country. Its application is interestingly varied; from a low-budgeted Pakistani horror flick – Zibahkhana, where the scary antagonist dons a gruesome burka; to a real life desperate lover who uses the concealment to meet his girlfriend in a girls hostel; and wait, it gets even better! I recently read about an under-age teen who bought liquor in Toronto last year, dressed in a Burka, and almost got away with it.

Amid this mockery of an otherwise benign attire, comes a refreshing new addition. The `Burka Avenger`; Pakistan`s first woman super hero! For someone who loves the entire superhero shebang, all oodles of curiosity were kindled the minute I laid eyes on those big, brown eyes courageously peeping through her shadowy attire. A brilliant concept on many levels. Firstly, tackling a recent and important issue on girls education in Pakistan, following the Malala incident. Secondly, using the Burka as a disguise in a country where it is still a mark of respect and acceptance, no matter how much ridicule it may disperse globally. This may be the most viable use of the poor garb just yet. Lastly, using a Pakistani woman as a superhero to impart the importance of education over a widespread ignorant and misogynistic society is ironic yet perfect on all accounts.

At the risk of sounding like an over worried mother, I can almost feel my blood boiling at the criticism this cartoon may invoke. I sincerely hope that my worries are uncalled-for. Yet, it is not hard to imagine our country’s religious zealots tightening their turbans and pulling up their shalwars, all set to violently denounce the avenger’s blasphemous black nail colour. Maybe if they actually read Islamic history, they would discover brave and heroic women like Khawla Bint Al Zawar who courageously fought battles in Syria, Jordan and Palestine. In the battle of Ajnadin, not far from Jerusalem, her brother was taken prisoner. She brilliantly disguised herself as a male knight and rode to her brother’s rescue aided by her expert swordsmanship skills.

Then there were more; the ever persistent Women rights activists or habitual feminists trotting our globe like wolves sniffing their next wretched prey. I am by no means a proponent of this cultural/religious garb and I am all for freedom of women. But please don’t always associate the idea of the burka with increased oppression on the female kind. It is after all just a piece of clothing, as is the two-piece. My advice to them is to dig deep on western super-hero comics before banking on superficial facets of the avenger’s choice of guise.  Burka Avenger is not alone in her selection. Dust (a.k.a. Sooraya Qadir), a fictional character in the famous X-men marvel comics is a powerful counterpart who has the power to transform her body into malleable clouds of dust. She is originally from Afghanistan and proudly uses a Burka as her normal attire.

In an attempt to spread appreciation for the occasional good that comes out of Pakistan, I humbly request people to enjoy this cartoon animation for what it simply is: a creative and meaningful entertainment for the whole family. Carping criticism is just not that fashionable anymore. If nothing else, I am sure ‘Burka Avenger’ will make numerous children all over the country happy; and perhaps even give them reasons to dream and hope for a masked crusader, who not only saves the day, but is also from their beloved land.

of human play-doh, of rain, and of matchsticks

Pakistan is notorious for a lot of things. Electricity shortage continues to stand out from the gruesome front runners – security threats and economic disparity; The perfect ingredients to derail any sane mind BUT a Pakistanis’.  All hell may literally break loose in Pakistan, but pick any common person  from a crowd and there is always room for more in the snake pit; for more morsels in their hearty appetites for despair. Maybe because they have no other choice. Maybe because they are built that way. Human Play-Doh is what I’d like to call them. You can bend them, squeeze them, stretch them; they refuse to give up their original, resilient, stubborn forms.

I always knew this fact. But the intensity of this realization  came knocking on my door just a couple of days ago. Good old Toronto was visited by torrential rains. The thunderstorm apparently had some old score to settle, because the amount of rain that fell during one hour that evening was equivalent to the estimated rainfall for the entire month of July!  From my brother’s condo, the sight was breathtaking; mesmerizing grey clouds swaying right and left to the uproarious beats of the winds – rain pouring forth as if God had plucked the Niagara Falls and flipped them upside down. I was busy wasting time on the internet when I noticed the light bulbs flickering. This suddenly took me to Lahore and the endless days and nights of electricity outages. The silly comparison was brushed off as quickly as talks of India-Pakistan conciliation. Five minutes later, it did not seem as silly. Nature had taken her turn. This time the Canadians of Toronto were under the microscope. Black out. Cellphones popped out, fingers hurriedly dialed friends and family nearby to inquire about the electricity situation in their areas. Apparently many areas of Toronto, including Mississauga had been badly affected by the thunderstorm. I had family stuck in three different areas of the city. I will come to that little discrepancy later.

credits: Goher

credits: Goher

Now the problem with developed countries such as the US and Canada is their over dependence on technology. Too much of a good thing is bad, or something like that? Electricity is essentially a Goddess. She controls all. Knows all. Pull a plug and she can revert the most technologically advanced nations to the basics.  For example; without power, we had no water, no light, no internet, no traffic system, no cooking, no nothing! I was surprised but mostly amused. I kept thinking about how this would translate back in Lahore. Simply put, life would go on with a shrug of the shoulders and for some lucky folks; a switch to backup generators. Of course this supposed nonchalance or bravado in troubling times is not an over night achievement. This particular brand of Pakistani thick skin took years of practice and struggle.  The theory of Behaviorism suggests that excessive repetition can lead to desired changes in the external surroundings. Desired or not, Pakistanis have come a long way. Nothing really surprises them or falters them any more. Many would call this indifference. To me its largely a case of ‘been there done that’!

line up outside a convenient store

line up outside a convenient store

Coming back to thundery Toronto that day, panic was evident. I am sure people who experienced the massive 2003 blackouts must have shriveled at the thought of it happening again. Traffic system was in a frenzy, leading to several accidents. All stores closed down; Flights cancelled; People stranded for hours. Some convenience stores were open in candle light with long queues of people looking for bottled water. One standout of the evening was the Go Train incident that was flooded with water; with people jumping out wearing life jackets. This two-in-one transportation mode would have amused some in normal circumstances. Poor creatures had too much on their plates owing to the rarity of the situation. In Pakistan a similar incident would not have invoked such media frenzy; and would probably have ended with most of the passengers becoming self-taught swimmers. Having said that, the overall disaster was no way near what could have occurred in the absence of an efficient damage control system. Kudos to the Canadians!

Emergency elevators were thankfully operating in some of the buildings including ours, so we were saved from the fearful prospect of climbing down twenty-one floors. I returned to my place relieved that I had candles at home. One little detail however was missed. No matches. So that was pretty much the highlight of the power outage at my end. My family managed to return home safe and sound. I sat back, prepared for an all-nighter in the dark; undeterred, apart from fleeting thoughts of a horrendous bathroom show – starring two small children and no water. The drama did not last long in our part of the city and power was thankfully restored. Without exaggeration, I could hear shrieks of joy echoing from the surrounding apartment buildings! Something you’d hear in the stadium ensuing a touchdown or goal probably.

I hear there are reports of further downpours this week.  ‘Bring it on!’ I say. Oh but first, I’d better stock up on matches and lots of water.


This post was published in The Express Tribune under the name: Yes, thunderstorms in Toronto can take you back to Lahore