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Why We “Get Pakistan Wrong”, And More In Mohsin Hamid’s Latest

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By Abhishek Jha:

Mohsin Hamid is the multiple-award winning author of three novels and a book of essays. In 2007, his book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His most recent book, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London, is a collection of essays. In this collection, Hamid, who often identifies himself as a perennial outsider, reflects on the dangers of trying to make everyone fit into a civilization. Throughout the book’s three sections (Life, Art, Politics), new questions posed by this century are dealt with, and old ones are renewed by his fresh perspective.

bookThe book reads like a journal that has been deliberately left in the drawer to be discovered, suggestive of a kind of honesty that “a book that is conceived as a whole and executed in a single effort” cannot elicit. It is also honest in the manner that one chooses to be honest when reconciling the discontent within oneself. What draws you into the book is his admission of being imperfect, of having changed. And you are led to conversing with it just like the essayist does with a monk – by a “slender stream in the high mountains.”

The young Hamid was terrified of public speakingThat’s why perhaps he will let his book talk to you, when you sit alone with it at night – a tantalizing proposal for those looking for an interesting affair.

The essays in the section Life are observations, short and with him at the centre. More like sketches. Pieces like ‘Down The Tube’,Avatar in Lahore‘, or ‘The Countdown‘ absorb the fraught nature of lives incessantly riddled with conflict. But also the predicament of the modern man wading through previously uncharted territory of terror attacks and the resulting insecurities. Either when being taken through the building tension in ‘Down The Tube‘ or his love affair with London (or with the veiled woman at the Sufi concert), one arrives at the same conclusion. The conclusion that hurrying to erase differences, trying to consume a plural world with a single perspective, is a mistake. In Life, as in real life, the book does what human beings do. It builds a relationship with the reader. And though the essays are culled from a list of works published at different points in time, one can almost read them as the beginnings of a conversation.

The next section is on Art. The shortest of the three sections of the book, it raises a few important but often repeated concerns of art. We discuss the e-book reading experience and the television’s scope for novelesque narratives every day. The share of this section in the book is small, and these, now-clichéd discussions add nothing new. But what this section lacks in content is made up by a continuation of the conversation that the book had started with the reader in the previous section. Hence, the titillating sensation when one reads this almost self-referential comment: “Perhaps it is because novels are like affairs, and small novels- with fewer pages of plot to them- are affairs with less history, affairs that involved just a few glances across a dinner table or a single ride together, unspeaking, on a train, and therefore affairs still electric with potential, still heart-quickening, even after the passage of all these years.”

By now you know the person across the table, have exchanged glances with them, and are now wondering whether to give your heart to them. Then, you must understand their politics.

In the concluding section of the book, one enjoys those rare things found only in good, beloved books: the unfolding of an argument. Politics dovetails very easily with the previous two sections of the book. Having shown the various shades of humanity, it is then natural that the book (the person) persuades you to accept that plurality. For that is indeed the burden of the book. To not “forget the sources of our discontent, because something more important is at stake: the fate of our civilization”. Because civilizations are “pervasive, dangerous and powerful” illusions, Hamid argues.

And, the virtuosity with which he accomplishes his task must be commended. It is natural for people to yield to tragedy and indulge in taking rhetorical pot-shots. Hamid abstains from that, and it is here that the essays come closest to being the “dispatches” of a journalist. One expects that a tragi-comic line (such as, “If there is any misconception that the drone strikes are primarily counterterrorist in nature, aimed at key leaders of international terror networks, this can be dispersed with.”) will be followed by a Last-Week-Tonight style indulgence. But, Hamid doesn’t use the obvious to make his point. So, he won’t make a drone that’s shooting a wedding video go bang into the kissing couple to make you understand that drones could go wrong at times. Rather, we see his statements argued with facts, figures, and more arguments. In fact, throughout this section, personal anecdotes are used to support his arguments and not to build arguments upon. It is then, after much self-reflection, and calls to action to his fellow Pakistanis, that he asks us to empathise with Pakistan, and to understand why we “Get Pakistan Wrong”. It is then, that one sees the book as successful.

People will contend that the book claims to be but fails at being the dispatches of a journalist, especially in its earlier portions. But, those who have read Mohsin Hamid’s books will understand that he, as a fiction writer, has a predilection for conversation. He explains his love for the second person narratives in one of the essays. It is natural then, for his readers to enjoy essays that are a dialogue with the reader, and for those new to his writing, to enjoy a refreshing work of non-fiction.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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