The 1947 Partition Archive: Preserving the Past

By Sonya Rehman

Even those of us who have been direct beneficiaries of the world’s digital media revolution are finding it increasingly challenging to retain and sort through information. The chance to mull over a certain story, opinion piece, or photo-essay is fast becoming a luxury. The makers and takers of news are forgetting how to reflect; real analysis is getting lost in the adrenaline rush of instant gratification and consumption.

It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that the need to preserve and archive stories from our shared past become so very vital. Why? Identity. Understanding who we came from and what we endured, the paths our ancestors walked and the paths we tread upon today.

The 1947 Partition Archive, established in 2011, is one such oral history archive doing its bit to preserve a slice of history: shared memories and experiences of the partition of the subcontinent, British India, in 1947. Founded by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a physicist, the archive features an abundance of rich, poignant stories of partition from all walks of life.

Dr. Guneeta after an interview.  Photo: Kanwalroop Singh

Dr. Guneeta after an interview. Photo: Kanwalroop Singh

Born in Delhi, Bhalla and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was ten. Through her years growing up, Bhalla would listen to personal stories of partition from her maternal and paternal grandparents, both. However, her paternal grandparents’ stories had more of an impact on her since they had to leave their ancestral home, their belongings, and their lives in Lahore (the place of birth of Bhalla’s father, in Pakistan), and flee to India, immediately following partition. Like countless families, they had to start from scratch.

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White (from Khushwant Singh's book, 'Train to Pakistan')

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White (from Khushwant Singh’s book, ‘Train to Pakistan’)

“I knew it was a really traumatic and large-scale event but I never learned about it in high school here in the U.S.,” states Bhalla, “In fact, it was not even mentioned in my textbooks, while in contrast, we learned about the Holocaust in Europe and Hiroshima/Nagasaki for a whole semester in my World History class.” This bothered Bhalla. And it wasn’t just in school, even during college, “the reaction was always the same: it was probably not ‘a big deal’ because it was not written about in textbooks.”

States Bhalla: “[It] bothered me because the sentiment contrasted so sharply with the stories I heard. The thought that we could let such a massive historical event slip through the cracks without documenting it at the level that it should have been, deeply troubled me.”

Jinnah and Gandhi (Sept. '44) Photo: Wikipedia

Jinnah and Gandhi (Sept. ’44) Photo: Wikipedia

Even though Bhalla knew she had to do something, she wasn’t sure how to put her plan to motion. Years passed and then, in 2008, while visiting Japan for her PhD research work, Bhalla decided to visit Hiroshima primarily because her great grandfather “was stationed there during [WWII] and was not far from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped.”

While visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial during her trip, Bhalla happened upon the witness archives of those who had endured the tragedy. “That’s when it clicked,” she states, “It was so powerful to hear the stories of [the] survivors. Suddenly it was all very real and human and I felt their pain much more than watching videos of the mushroom cloud or reading written accounts of those hours that followed the dropping of the bomb. I knew the same had to be done for partition.”

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White (from Khushwant Singh's book, 'Train to Pakistan')

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White (from Khushwant Singh’s book, ‘Train to Pakistan’)

And so, with her camcorder, Bhalla started a series of interviews during a trip to India the year after visiting Japan. “In 2010, the last member of my family who remembered partition as an adult died before I could reach him to record his story. I was living in Berkeley by then,” she states, “I was deeply troubled, not only by his passing, but by the tremendous loss of knowledge that my generation was facing. My great uncle took with him an immense amount of knowledge and wisdom, and it was now gone forever. It was the absolute totality of that moment that made me realize that this work needed to be done on a larger scale.”

Thus Bhalla’s recruitment drive for her initiative began towards the end of 2010. Bhalla and her team decided the best way to collect numerous stories at a rapid pace would be to crowd-source the stories of partition. Currently, the 1947 Partition Archive comprises 11 individuals in South Asia, 18 in the U.S., and more than two hundred “citizen historians” spread out across nine countries. Today, the archive contains 1,100 oral histories, thanks to the dedication and hard work of the team and volunteers.

Anyone anywhere in the world can be a part of the archive, and once on board, as a volunteer, individuals are taught how to record interviews via the archive’s online seminars, free of charge.

“Many had not shared [their] stories in such detail even with their families,” Bhalla states, in response to her initial experiences interviewing those who had been affected by partition. “It was a powerful experience for me that really fueled my drive for this work. I once interviewed a 93-year-old man in Batala who commented at the end of a very long interview: ‘I feel I can die now, thank you.’ I felt like we were doing something really positive for all those who had made such huge sacrifices at that time, but did not get the platform they needed to share their stories.”

But can the archive serve as a bridge of understanding between both countries? Would it be optimistic to assume that the initiative could aid in rectifying the pain of the past?

“I would love to go on answering this question, but I shall refrain. This leads us into politics and we, at the archive, stay away from politics,” Bhalla states, “We are only concerned with human stories – [the] basic emotions and experiences that are common to humans regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or any of those surface differences.”

The Diplomat Magazine


Pakistani Authors Find a Market in India

By Sonya Rehman

Although local publishing houses in Pakistan are in a dismal state, budding writers in the country now have a fair chance of landing a book deal across the border.

There seems to be an emerging crop of new, young Pakistani authors, all of whom have been published in India. For Shazaf Fatima Haider, Saba Imtiaz, Bilal Tanweer, Haroon Khalid and others, tapping into the Indian market seems to be a viable option for aspiring Pakistani writers.

For Khalid – whose first book (non-fiction), A White Trail (published by Westland in 2013) – books stand as “the only avenue for Indians to understand Pakistan better.”

Haroon Khalid - Photo: Rida Arif

Haroon Khalid – Photo: Rida Arif

But what sells? What kinds of stories are Indian publishers looking for these days? “With Pakistan, I think globally it is the same stereotype that sells or the exact opposite of which, in its own way, reinforces the stereotype by presenting a complex society into simplistic duality,” observes the young author, “It is terrorism, Islamization…topics like these that reinforce the biases of the Indian audience, and that sells. A book doesn’t need to tackle these issues head-on to generate interest. It could also talk about certain topics with these things in the background. You can notice [this] in Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here Is Too Great and also in Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!

Shazaf Fatima Haider, another young Pakistani author whose debut novel, How It Happened was published by Penguin India in 2013, states that currently, Pakistani writers now have insight into the mechanics of book publishing.

Shazaf Fatima Haider - Photo: QZB Photography

Shazaf Fatima Haider – Photo: QZB Photography

“When I wrote [How It Happened], I didn’t have any literary festival where the process of getting published was discussed, either in a panel or with another writer,” Haider states. “The publishing industry in India and across the world is restructuring itself and in many ways is being [pickier] in what is selected for publishing. Still, I think it’s still a time of tremendous hope and optimism for Pakistani writers, and justifiably so, just because they know what the process is like beforehand. They don’t have to grope in the dark.”

Like Khalid, Haider feels that “tales of suffering and oppression seem to have more of a market abroad.”

“International readers want to know what it’s like being a Pakistani – how much prejudice, danger does one face as a minority, as a woman, as a citizen of a metropolis that has been the subject of many a bomb attack,” she states, “Stories in those sensational contexts do tend to find an eager market. Oh, and put a woman with a veil on the cover – that’s key to selling a book.”

According to Kanishka Gupta, a well-known book agent across the border who runs Writer’s Side, having a middleman – an agent – isn’t as important as it is in the West.

Gupta is right: a majority of the publishing houses in India – Penguin India and HarperCollins India are two examples – clearly list submission guidelines, inviting writers to submit their work directly. There is no middleman involved.

Yet Gupta adds: “What agents can do is get an author a better deal, shorten the agonizing waiting period considerably and also provide editorial support. In my five years as a literary agent a lot of manuscripts that were successfully placed by me wouldn’t have found a publisher had the authors pitched them directly. There are many commissioning agents in a publishing house each with a distinct taste. A good agent knows which editor has to be approached for a particular book. This helps in lowering the rejection rates.”

Mita Kapur, another leading literary agent in India, who runs a literary consultancy company called Siyahi, states that while work from Pakistan does make publishers and agents sit up and take notice, for her, each book is approached with “a blank mind.”

Mita Kapur - Photo: Aditi Goyal

Mita Kapur – Photo: Aditi Goyal

“I want to feel the desire to buy it from a book store,” she states, “I read it like a reader first.”

However, Kapur stresses the need for refreshing plots and stories. “I am fed up of reading [rubbish].” Nevertheless, Kapur agrees that luck does have a hand to play in the publishing world. “I hate to sound like this, but we see a lot of cases of mediocre writing selling enormously just because the author was luckily at the right place at the right time – I guess it does play a role.”

For aspiring Pakistani writers hoping to cash in on the world’s (particularly India’s) interest in Pakistan by way of fiction/non-fiction works, the time would seem to be right to send manuscripts to agents and publishing houses in India. But being of Pakistani origin alone will not clinch a book deal. For that, a good story and, yes, luck, both play a vital role.

The Diplomat Magazine


Defying the Odds – an Indian in Afghanistan

By Sonya Rehman

At just 37, Kavita Nair, a Mumbai native, has lived a life many can only dream of. Based in Kabul, Afghanistan, and working for a relatively new Afghani media house, Shamshad Radio & Television Network (STRN) as a Director of Project Management and Business Development, Nair’s love for her second home, Afghanistan, is deep-rooted and unflinching.

A graduate of Columbia’s well-known School of International and Public affairs (SIPA), Nair speaks to The Diplomat about her journey to Kabul, Afghanistan’s thriving media industry and living in one of the world’s most volatile countries as a single parent and media professional.

Photo: Vinod Nelson

Photo: Vinod Nelson


Did you always want to live and work in Afghanistan?

I never dreamed of living and working in Afghanistan. Prior to my move, when I’d think of Afghanistan I’d think hijacked aircrafts, the Taliban, public executions, the war on terror, jihadist rhetoric, and lots of dark beards and blue chadors. But that changed when a college Professor recommended a book, Caravans for coursework. I did not like that book at all. I did not like the way the author portrayed Afghans as a backward and mindless group of people. That may have been the author’s experience, I do not discount it, but I remember being angered by it. Therefore, I started to pick up books on Afghanistan at my township library. What started as simple curiosity became a flaming passion until I was obsessed with visiting the country at least once. Even after I had my son, Mikhail, I could not stop scouring mosques and Afghan community centers for a Pashto tutor. I was determined to learn the language but that was easier said than done. I found my first Pashto tutor only after 18 months of pursuit! Two tutors later, I was 100% sure that I had to live and work in Kabul at least once.

When did you first visit Kabul? Was it daunting, when you eventually made your big move?

I visited Kabul in the summer of 2009 for the first time. At the time, I was still a student at SIPA. It was for an eight-week internship program with the Pajhwok Afghan News Agency. I had interviewed the publication’s Editor-in-Chief in New York for a paper I was writing on Afghan media as a part of my coursework. I asked him if he accepted interns and that’s how it all rolled out. I had to leave my son in Mumbai with my mother – she refused to let me take him on “this suicidal journey” (as she put it!). I wanted to visit Afghanistan on my own to see if it really was a place I could work and live in, with my child in tow.

When I arrived in Kabul I was not disappointed. I am a realistic person – Kabul was exactly what I expected but the people took me by surprise. They were really warm and friendly, but also very intelligent, shrewd and charming; men and women, both. I did not expect that.

Photo: Vinod Nelson

Photo: Vinod Nelson

You’re not only female, but also a single parent working in Afghanistan’s media sector – that’s incredibly gutsy and inspiring. To an outsider, Afghanistan appears incredibly unsafe and daunting – what’s life really like in Kabul?

Life in the ‘Stan (as I lovingly call it) is not without its challenges. Believe it or not, I came prepared for it. I had gleaned enough information from books and people before I landed here so I did not expect a party city or a city where I would fall in love and live happily ever after. This place is charming to me because of its challenges, not despite them. I am here to work through these challenges – I made that choice.

Having said that, it is not as bad as the western and even regional media reports it. It is weird: I have met some of these reporters – they love it here, they work, socialize and look like they are having a ball but when they write about it, they only highlight the negative bits. Sure, this place has its dangers – foreigners are targeted frequently. Case in point; in 2014, a Lebanese restaurant was targeted in the run-up to the presidential elections. A lot of foreigners lost their lives. I, for one, keep to my work and my little family. My chador is always on top of my head. I dress as conservatively as possible. I socialize with people I have known for a very long time but not into the wee hours of the night. You will never see me drinking or dancing anywhere. And at the risk of offending a lot of people, I must admit that if a restaurant or a hotel has an expat clientele then you will rarely me there. I try and live like a local to the best of my ability.

What kind of challenges have you faced?

Professionally, the challenge here is to convince people to let you work for them, to generate profits and invest in youthful innovation. And I am not referring only to the locals. Believe it or not, I know people who have ruined or are ruining businesses to the ground because they are incredibly short-sighted or because they do not want to share power or authority. However, the good news is the ‘Stan is not unique; most underdeveloped economies go through these birth pangs! Personally, regarding threats to my life, I have never received any threats, I only get weird phone calls, proposing marriage or professing eternal love. 99 times out of 100, people pinpoint me as an Indian by just looking at me. I am quite proud of that, to be perfectly honest. I am so Indian, I would not be able to tone it down even if I tried and I have tried so bloody hard to pass off as Afghan – case in point: my fluency in Pashto. But when I am out shopping in a mall or a market, they recognize me instantly and some will go far as to sing an out-of-tune Bollywood song. In sum, my experiences are more tiresome than threatening.

Photo: Vinod Nelson

Photo: Vinod Nelson

You’re currently working for Shamshad Radio and Television Network [SRTN] – tell us a little about your role?

I am in charge of managing large donor projects (with a small team), and acquiring new business through networking with potential donors, private and governmental organizations that SRTN did not have access to in the past. My knowledge of Pashto and Dari help me immensely, naturally, but a lot of my work is done in English like writing proposals, creating business presentations, and presenting them to the potential donor/client. Client management is a very important part of my job.

In your opinion, how has Afghanistan’s media landscape changed in the past few years?

It has changed a lot, physically. In 2002 there was one, sole state-controlled radio station. Now we have over 57 TV stations, 150 radio stations and hundreds of print publications, including magazines and newspapers all over the country. And television is gaining ground fast especially in towns and smaller districts. So as you can see, we have the quantity but there is an urgent need to work on improving quality and focus energies on building the right infrastructure and generating revenues. It is still a very young industry. For example, Indian media – despite working in a relatively conducive atmosphere (read: no wars and conflict, no Taliban) – took a century to get to where it is.

Are women in Afghanistan encouraged to work in the media?

A lot of women work for the media in Afghanistan – the donor-funded programs encourage them to and some of them do exceedingly well. Women here are tough and smart, for the most part, and if they have the right educational qualifications and strong support system then the sky is the limit for them. Every day I meet a young woman who surprises me with her wit and wisdom. It is quite refreshing. The world is yet to discover the canny Afghan woman!

What’s the way forward for you; do you see yourself living in Afghanistan in the years to come?

Tough to say, really. I was planning to leave this year. But I have been introduced to so many new work opportunities here – specifically in terms of creating my own portfolio of work – that I have decided to stay. Having said that I am keeping my ear to the ground. This year is decisive for Afghanistan.

If the security situation does not deteriorate and if there are renewed investments in the Afghan economy, then I would like to stay for the near future, or at least until my son is older, at which point I know he will want us to move to an alpha city that is also close to the sea.

Where do you see Afghanistan’s media industry in the near future?

It is still a fledgling industry. If the media businesses strategically invest in themselves, their personnel, in new technologies, focus on revenue generation then the only way for them to go is up! Even some among the international donor communities have now realized they need to go beyond the overdone “strategic communications” mechanism to support the growth of the Afghan media. I am quite optimistic, really.

How have the Afghan state and society reacted to media coverage over the past decade or so?

In my opinion, media coverage has matured in the last decade. The 2014 presidential elections are a prime example. The media encouraged the common man to go out and vote. It was quite refreshing. Afghans are now very media and propaganda savvy. A sizeable percentage now knows how to use media to highlight problems with the political administration – naturally not all of them are done for the collective good of humanity! I am especially tickled when a regular Afghan, say my driver or my maid, react to specific news by categorizing it into its proper “ethnicity” depending on which news channel reported it and how the report was broadcast.

Photo: Vinod Nelson

Photo: Vinod Nelson

The international media oft whitewashes stories, there is little analysis and more shock and awe (read: basic) reportage. How are local media houses, like Shamshad, tackling that?

Local TV houses are more concerned with news that affects them on a day-to-day basis. So the political reporting here is not basic. There is a lot of political analysis. Politicians are routinely criticized, answers are demanded of them, especially when food prices rise or there is a major security lapse that costs the lives of civilians. In that sense, for a young industry, I find Afghan media is more open and critical of the political administration and also insurgency and the Taliban.

However, there is very little economic analysis on Afghan television in general. There is propaganda similar to what we see in the regional and international media. It is a mix of both at present. Over time we hope that the propaganda will vastly reduce and there will be more focus and discussion on how Afghanistan is and can be integrated to the economies of the region and beyond.

On a lighter note, what do young people like yourself do for fun in Kabul?

My fun is restricted to tea parties once a week where mothers like me get together either at home or a café and talk about whatever we want to talk about while our kids raise hell close by. I do go out, without Mikhail, for dinners and lunches to restaurants once in awhile but most of them are purely for business. I really prefer hosting a dinner at home or going to a friend’s home for dinner so the kids can hang out. Once in awhile we also take day trips to nearby provinces and enjoy a picnic or an Afghan barbeque by a river or lake – this I prefer to do with my Afghan friends rather than a bunch of expats. Did I forget to mention how beautiful, divine and provocative the Afghan landscape is?

I also recently started an Instagram profile in response to all my friends and relatives in the US and India wondering if I was covered in a black shroud all the time. There was no point telling them that Afghanistan and Afghans are far more open-minded than people think and for most expats it is easier and freer to live in Kabul than many other conflict zones. I had to show them. Back in 2009, I was a guest at the home of a prominent politician in Kunar, in Eastern Afghanistan. I was on assignment. I was one woman and all I could see were dark eyes and dark beards. There must have been 20 of them but they were so caring, so respectful. It was a blistering hot day and I was melting under my chador. The head of the party asked me to take my chador off and relax. He said I was their guest so I could do no wrong. Imagine that!


*Special thanks to Mehr F. Husain for her input for this interview.


The Diplomat Magazine


A Different Kind Of Love

By Sonya Rehman

Eight months. Eight long months since my brother’s cancer diagnosis in October. Eight months of grief, fear, strength – emotions that continued in one strange, static loop, again, and again and again.

It’s so strange to be sitting here, typing up this blog post in my pj’s, past 10pm on a weekday, while my brother watches an action flick in his room. The normalcy feels good. It’s a calm night. The knots in my neck and upper back are gone. I went a little crazy using talcum powder (Johnson’s Baby Powder – love it, even at 31) tonight. I smell like a cloud. But I’m happy – wait, scratch that out, it sounds phony. I feel young. A little less burdened. A little more carefree.

What an education; spanning winter to summer. The girl who walked the path with her family through the ordeal is someone I don’t recognize these days, now that I have time to indulge in contemplation (what a luxury). She’s new. But I like her. She’s a little more relaxed. Realistic. Not very bitter. Not very idealistic. She takes care of her feet, and grew her hair out a little too long.

When a loved one suffers, you suddenly realize how insignificant you are, little dots, ants, on this massive, endless, grid called life. When grief hits, you, the jiggly, ignorant piñata, you’re smacked on the head, in the sides, bursting into a million stars, bits of you, flung everywhere.

I felt like that initially. And then, scrambling on all fours, trying to salvage bits of yourself to piece back together, to take on a new, stronger avatar, to hold things together, to hold the fort together.

But I don’t think I could’ve done it without this sweet, maternal circle that formed around my splintered self, like warm honey. Filling in the gaps, the fissures.

Our quest for love, lust and companionship has made the modern woman forget a different kind of love. A platonic love that exists between two women. In wars, in loss, in times of crisis, womenfolk aid each other, patching together a support network to see each other through. We don’t talk or write about those kinds of love stories anymore. But how women carry each other through – it’s very, very pure.

I realize that now. We women take each other for granted too often. But I’m beginning to pause and reflect on the handful of women who held me together, propped my shoulders up when I was too weak to face each day when my brother’s treatment rolled out in a concoction of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, drugs, checkups, body scans, etc.

They featured in my life (and I know, will consistently feature in my life, and I, in theirs) as Best Supporting Actresses in a myriad of roles.

A scene from 'Maleficent'

A scene from ‘Maleficent’

B, in Boston, the virtual therapist, who kept me light, on my toes, M, in Lahore, who barely knew me a few weeks but whisked me off for coffees, dinners, movies, A & A in New York, who constantly called and kept me busy responding to their worried Whatsapp messages, A in Lahore, my little sister, my jaan, who cried with me in her own quiet way, M in Islamabad, that magnanimous girl who stood with me through each day (I kid you not, each day), letting me offload, offload, and offload, Z in Michigan, T & N for feeling my pain (since, coincidentally, and strangely, two of their family members were too, diagnosed with cancer around the same time), S in Dubai who prodded me to start thinking about boys again, and marriage, S in Amsterdam, and of course, Ma, who, well, for everything. And there were more too.

In the recent few weeks, after watching Frozen, Queen and Maleficent, I realized something: the narrative of love is changing.

Yes, Prince Charming does exist – he does, I promise you. But not without farts and flaws.

You call THAT a kiss?! Try harder, please. Sheesh.

You call THAT a kiss?! Try harder, please. Sheesh.

But till then, you, me, us – till we find the idiots, we must remember that happily-ever-after comes in bits and pieces, in the journey leading up to The One, The Wedding, The Consummation of Souls. And in the journey, you will notice a different kind of love, look for it, it’s there – women, who are guiding, leading you, consciously and unconsciously.

Last weekend I met N after a long time. She was in town and we were to meet after consistently exchanging messages of support since both of us had been in the same boat over the past few months. She was staying at Faletti’s – that gorgeous hotel in Lahore that always makes my heart skip a beat.

And as I walked down the hall, past Quaid-e-Azam’s suite, dhols played for a wedding in the distance – dhum dhum dhum, up ahead, at the end of the hall, a large mirror and a vase of fresh flowers, my gait was steady, a warm, burnt yellow glow of the lights above, dhum dhum dhum, bagpipes, hooting, I felt young. I knocked on N’s door.

Paperazzi, Pakistan Today


Animal Welfare: St(r)ay Safe

By Sonya Rehman

Growing up in a house full of pets gave Ayesha Chundrigar an informal, intuitive education in empathy and respect for animals at a tender age. She was only 9-years-old when she began volunteering at an orphanage during her summer holidays, and much later, at the age of 15, taught at various kachi abaadi schools in various areas around Islamabad (where she was living at the time), in addition to manning refugee camps in the capital in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2005.

But it was only until early last year that Chundrigar took the leap of faith: she launched her very own NGO, the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF) in Karachi. Currently maintaining the Edhi Foundation’s animal shelter in the city, Chundrigar stated that it had been in an abysmal state.

“There were animal carcasses and dead puppies and donkeys lying in pools of blood. I still have nightmares about it,” she states, “I found the number of a vet listed on a board close to the shelter and gave him a call saying he had to help me and that was it – the beginning! From four dogs and all my savings, it went up to 75 animals including donkeys, dogs, cats, eagles and pigeons and no savings by the end of it. But it was totally worth it.”

Ayesha Chundrigar with an ACF shelter dog

Ayesha Chundrigar with an ACF shelter dog

Apart from the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), ACF is now the second not-for-profit organization launched with the aim of rescuing abandoned, abused and injured stray animals off the streets. PAWS, just like ACF, is an incredible animal welfare organization that relies on social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) to provide a platform for citizens to liaison regarding animal rescues, adoptions, etc. However, unlike ACF, PAWS does not have a shelter nor a clinic.

At the ACF shelter

At the ACF shelter

Having rescued over 600 animals in Karachi, ACF’s office is currently located at Forty4 Restaurant. Chundrigar mentions that even though ACF is only managing and maintaining Edhi’s animal shelter, her long-term plan is the initiation of ACF’s very own animal sanctuary. “We have been given a piece of land for ten years and are ready to begin construction,” Chundrigar states.

She’s banking on funding for the sanctuary’s construction which will have separate spaces for donkeys, cats, dogs and other rescues. Currently housing over 100 animals at the Edhi shelter, Chundrigar states that with the animal sanctuary, she hopes to house over 300 animals.

“Our cats and puppies eat together and play together,” she says, “Dogs have come in paralyzed and crippled or with horrific wounds, but I’m lucky enough to see miracles every day, watching these animals becoming strong, loving creatures that shower you with unconditional love.”

The ACF shelter

The ACF shelter

While ACF’s shelter lacks electricity and water supply, the Edhi Foundation is currently in the process of getting the shelter rigged up with a water tank and a solar panel. But the animals get fresh food every morning. “There is magic everywhere. This is where true humanity is. I can stay and look at these sights forever,” Chundrigar states.

Regarding funding, ACF’s social media presence is managing to spread the word: people have been donating cash and tangibles (such as food) towards the NGO’s cause. “What we get is enough to manage our current animals’ food and medical treatment,” Chundrigar states. The monthly cost for food and supplies at the shelter is well over a lac in rupees.


“But numbers are growing by the day at the shelter and costs keep increasing. We still need help in starting our new shelter, acquiring ambulances and starting an inner-city emergency unit,” Chundrigar mentions.

At the present, ACF’s core team of seven (including herself) members work on a voluntary basis. The only employees who are paid wages are ACF’s dedicated team of vets, who, Chundrigar states, were hired on very “modest” salaries.

These three vets are; Dr. Khalid Memon, ACF’s senior vet who is a Professor at the Baqai Veterinary College (in Karachi), Ghulam Farid, a junior vet who is a final year veterinary student at Baqai, and Salman Wali, a manager and trainee vet at Baqai.

ACF's vet, Farid, tends to one of ACF's shelter dogs

ACF’s vet, Farid, tends to one of ACF’s shelter dogs

In a country that suffers grossly from the lack of basic necessities, consistent, blatant violations of human rights and the increase in sectarian violence, it is difficult to rouse empathy, kindness and awareness for animals in Pakistan. Still, efforts such as those of ACF and PAWS are not carried out in vain – scores of animals have been rescued and rehabilitated thanks to both organizations.

Like PAWS, ACF relies heavily on social media. Has it been effective in raising awareness about animal cruelty in Pakistan? “Definitley,” Chundrigar states, “Social media has been great. People see updates on our animal rescue activities and donkey camps and want to help out.” These volunteer requests come from all age groups – citizens who are keen on pitching in towards ACF’s empathetic cause. Interestingly, Chundrigar mentions how (at a recent festival in Karachi where ACF had a stall) parents and children were interested in adopting ACF’s rescues. “The encouraging part is that people are positive towards something being done for animals in this country,” she states.

Ayesha with her team at a recent ACF Donkey Camp

Ayesha with her team at a recent ACF Donkey Camp

It was also thanks to social media that Chundrigar teamed up with Zain Mustafa (an Architect and die-hard animal lover) who was an avid follower of ACF’s work on Facebook. Mustafa got in touch with Chundrigar and is currently part of the organization’s core team.

For Mustafa, education (at the school level) and awareness (via local media) about animal rights will aid in compassion and empathy towards animals in Pakistan. “It can be done by introducing the value of animals into our mainstream education systems and curriculums at a very early age. By encouraging every household to have a pet or look after an animal, even if it’s on the street and they walk past it daily. By getting children to physically interact with a variety of animals and bridge the ever-widening gap between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” states Mustafa.

Zain Mustafa feeding a donkey at the ACF shelter

Zain Mustafa feeding a donkey at the ACF shelter

Thanks to the Edhi Foundation, ACF regularly uses an ambulance for its rescues around the city. However, the organization’s vets have to, at times, also rely on public transport to rescue an animal. Once the injured animal has been picked up, its wounds are immediately treated to, thus commencing the rehabilitation process.

However, the rescues haven’t always been easy. Some have been quite heartbreaking for Chundrigar and her team. One, for example, was that of a female dog whose picture was being circulated across social media. “Her face was smashed and completely disfigured; she was lying on the ground,” Chundrigar states, “Five of her puppies were snuggled near her tummy. This picture made the rounds on social media until I saw it and sent my team to rescue them [from Chundrigar Road].The wounds that the female dog suffered were definitely a few days old, her eye sockets were empty and she was severely dehydrated and malnourished but by some miracle, she stayed alive to feed her babies. We bandaged her up and started her treatment. The puppies were fed formula but she was determined on feeding them as well. Eventually, in a day’s time, she got the strength to stand up and walk around a little. Unfortunately, her wounds were too deep and after petting her for hours and gently explaining to her that I’d take care of her puppies, she let go.”


Another example is that of Bravo – a dog so thin and malnourished that he could barely lift his head. Farid, ACF’s junior vet, told Chundrigar he was hell-bent on getting Bravo back on his feet. But it seemed dismal. However after blood tests, X-rays and consistent monitoring, Bravo survived. He’s currently ACF’s guard dog and is the “biggest, strongest and healthiest dogs at the shelter,” as stated by Chundrigar.

“He’s our guard dog and he gives me the warmest, most welcoming hugs every time I see him,” she says.

In addition to its rehabilitation and rescue services, ACF also puts up regular donkey camps. “The way donkeys are treated in this country kills me and I wanted to somehow change that,” Chundrigar states. “The donkey camps started with literally just me and my senior vet standing on the roadside in densely donkey-cart usage areas of Karachi asking people to let us medically treat their donkeys for free. At first our offer was met with suspicion, some donkey-cart owners thought we might harm their only source of income. But when they saw ACF’s genuineness in treating their animals with care, it became a huge success. Currently over 50 donkeys are fed and treated free of charge, twice a month, in various areas of Karachi.”

Ayesha with one of the shelter dogs

Having conducted over 20 donkey camps (one every two weeks or so) at Sohrabgoth, Korangi and Nipa Chowrangi, ACF also conducted a ‘hydration drive’ last year where biscuits and chilled bottled water was distributed to people around the city.

Currently in the pipeline, Chundrigar mentions ACF’s second project: a therapeutic centre for healing where everything from individual counseling, art therapy, support groups, etc will be conducted under one roof. “We will be working with sexually and physically abused women, children and transgenders. [It] will also include education for donkey-cart owners that, I believe, will gradually help change their behavior towards their animals,” states Chundrigar who is presently training to become a certified Humanistic Therapist/Counselor.


Even though Chundrigar is positive about the path ahead for ACF, she realizes that for Pakistan, animal welfare and charity is “out of the ordinary.”

“People laughed at me,” she states, “They said I was crazy to think I could do something for animals because the situation is too far gone. Also, it’s an uphill battle explaining to people why animals deserve love and a chance at having a better life. Changing mindsets and countering the stigma attached to strays and donkeys – that have been there for generations – is challenging.”


You can donate to ACF via the details below:

Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation
IBAN number: Pk33BAHL1036008100660001
Account number: 10360081006600012
Bank Al Habib, Kh-e-Hafiz Branch, Karachi

For food donations and volunteering queries, please write to:


The Express Tribune Magazine



Bullying – The Shadow in the Dark

By Sonya Rehman

We were best friends. Both chubby, bold, with high pony-tails, we’d bust into empty classrooms during recess and wrench open lunch boxes to stuff our faces with goodies and snacks that weren’t our own. We were in Class 4. Little thugs. Badassed bullies. Ruthless Queens of the Munchies. Not that we didn’t get fed enough at home, the act was just so plain exciting for two bored little girls sick of swings, monkey bars and hopscotch. We got caught after a week. I’m not sure how we were punished, but I’m certain it included detention, extra homework and being spanked by our teachers and parents alike.

Many, many years later, when I came across an article about bullying, I remembered how funny and exhilarating it was for my friend and I when we’d watch the kids come back into class and find their lunch boxes empty. They’d often burst into tears, wailing the classroom down. We’d be hysterical. We were bullies. Not the kind that would beat up kids half our size, however, we took from what wasn’t ours and rejoiced in it. And that too, is a form of bullying.


Bullying is a strange thing. I don’t think many of us understand it quite so well; teachers, children, adults, parents, we don’t understand how damaging bullying can be in the long-run. Plus, the funny thing about bullying is this: each one of us are victims of it – even bullies themselves. It all starts from somewhere. That dark shadow of pain, where something is lacking, it is sinister, yet innocent. Unaware. Powerful.

In my teens, I was ridiculed for my weight. I wore massive wire-rimmed glasses (at a time when hipster glasses weren’t cool) and was a good 20-30 pounds overweight. I was docile, lived in my head and made doodles and wrote silly poetry on my notebooks all throughout Physics, Islamiyat, Pakistan Studies, etc. The person who I was then, was a far cry from that self-assured bully back in 4th grade. But in my teens, in school, I was labeled a ‘loser,’ a nothing, a nobody. The word was oft spat in my face, or behind my back, and for a while, I let it shape my personality, I let it define me. Yes, I had thought back then, I am a loser. I’ll never, ever be good enough. So what did I do? At 16 I became anorexic. I dropped close to forty pounds in less than two months. I may’ve looked slim on the outside, but inside I was insecure and damaged. The ‘loser’ would look back at me when I’d look her straight in the eye in the mirror. ‘Loser,’ I’d mouth to myself, ‘loser.’


It took me years of trial and error, years of self-loathing and years of self-discovery to gain some amount of self-acceptance, to gain some amount of trust in myself. I’m still working at it. And the comforting thing is this: I know plenty of girls, boys, men and women, like myself, who struggle with self-acceptance on a daily basis. We’re all in it together. A mass not-so-secret society.

According to a new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the affects of bullying bleed well into adulthood. Imagine what a toll bullying can leave on the perpetrators and the victims – from psychological problems, health issues, etc. It’s astounding.

This year, a dear friend, Zainab Chughtai, a Lahore-based Lawyer, has spear-headed a much-needed initiative – ‘BullyProof.’ Along with her team, Chughtai plans on targeting schools in Lahore (for now) to speak about bullying, to make children, parents and teachers aware of the repercussions of bullying – the abuse, the shame and the grief that comes with it.

It is time we spoke up about bullying to help our children deal with the shadow in the dark – the bullies within, and those lurking the school corridors waiting for its next victims.

Paperazzi, Pakistan Today


She Married for Love

By Sonya Rehman

Farzana Parveen married for love.

She let love spring forth in her bosom, its vines propelling her forward, in courage and in hope for a better, more meaningful life. A baby, made with the man she loved, was fast taking shape in her womb. The seed of their love. Life within, life in abundance. Man. Woman. Child-to-be.

Farzana Parveen (Photo credit: AFP)

Farzana Parveen (Photo credit: AFP)

But love, LOVE! She brought dishonor and disrespect to our family, they bellowed.

And so they set about to correct what had been done. Like she was a piece of land that had been taken over by thugs. But Farzana had violated a cardinal, misogynistic rule: to love another of your own choice. To choose. To choose for yourself. To be an individual – living life on your own terms. Not one with the herd. Farzana broke the rule. She let her heart do the choosing. Because the heart always knows best. The heart, that gorgeous master, is an intuitive organ that guides the human spirit. Never incorrect in judgment.

How could she, how could she, they said. LOVE. Vile act, vile woman. Disobedience. Shame. Disgrace.

They were a large group of men. Led by her father, her brothers and other male relatives. Like a pack of wolves, teeth-baring, possessed, not human. In that moment, as they grabbed Farzana, swinging bricks at her, their humanity left them. Their warm human-ness slunk away in terror, unable to recognize the shells of beings butchering one of their own, one of their own kind.

Father, son, brother, friend, lover, you came from your mother’s womb. From the dark, magical gap – that passageway that connects dreams to reality. Did you forget, did you forget where you came from? Men from wombs, suckling, helpless babies. How, when and why did you forget so easily?

But in Pakistan, the poor murder. Yet the rich, the privileged, lie.

“Oh, it wasn’t a love marriage,” they state, the rich. As if love is porn. A filthy, maggot-puss-filled word. A dirty word. Love. “It was an arranged marriage,” they emphasize.

Society is skewed. We are hypocrites in love. And the hypocrisy stems from fear, then apathy, then detachment.

Farzana, your family failed you. But more than that, we as a nation have failed you. We stood by and watched, under the sun of May. We watched your loved ones crush your bones, your spirit. Like we were sitting in our living rooms, watching a television show, separated, disconnected. Bystanders. Apathetic bystanders. Frothing dully at the mouth.

Outside the court of law. Ironic. We let them break you. Your flesh tore into roses on the street of pain. We continued to watch them, you. You tried to break free, faltering, but there were too many wolves. Hungry wolves. The collective energy, the blood lust was dizzying; it rose up from the earth and swarmed your head, hell-bent on bringing you to your knees. And they brought you to your knees. We did.

Daughter, wife, friend, lover, mother-to-be, we took you. We all took you.