Finding my Pakistani Identity

By Sonya Rehman

When we’re young, nursing an invincible confidence – which stems from a frivolous heart – we only view our lives in accordance with ourselves, our family, our friends…our little support networks. We’re myopic in our outlooks. Restricted. We have our blinkers on. But not for long.

Truth be told, I had my blinkers on for a while. Quite a while. But over the past year or two, I’ve begun to question my life, my identity as a Pakistani, and the direction my life is set to take.

I grew up in Lahore and was raised by my mother, a single parent. In the 90s, Lahore wasn’t easy on divorced women. It wasn’t like it is today. Today even though the mindset is still, unflinchingly judgmental, it’s more accepted. Even though I use the word ‘accepted’ in this context, I know I’m being far too gentle because our society is as okay with the notion of divorce as it is with glugging down motor oil. Still atleast, there’s this oh-divorced!-haha-okay-sweep-under-rug-and-act-normal defense mechanism at play these days. Even if it’s a fake nonchalance feigned by old bags at a wedding that’ll khuss-puss away once you turn your back, thank goodness the outright balking at the word ‘divorce’ went down the gutter with the onset of the 2000s.

Anyway, being raised by a working woman with two children (my older brother and I), Lahori society was disdainful and cruel. But this ‘rejection’ from society wasn’t just restricted to my mother alone; it was lavished on my brother and I graciously. And the older I got, the more I felt I/we were lacking in some way or the other. How could we gain acceptance? Follow customs more diligently? Put up a façade of holiness, extreme religiosity? My mother wouldn’t have it. Be yourself, she’d say, why do you give such a damn about what other people think? Be a saint or a sinner, people will talk.

But throughout my teens I would argue with my mother, slam doors, throw a fit and cry hysterically. Filmy? Very. Trust me; the raging hormones were partially to blame, too. Still. I had hated nursing the chip on my shoulder (which at that age felt more like a gaping hole), I hated feeling so ‘different’ and therefore tried to make up for it by acting desi-er than I was and just hungering to be accepted all the damn time by people who didn’t matter.

You know for a long time I juxtaposed identity with my family background. My zaat if you will. I remember once this yahoo from some hicktown approached me at a wedding to suss out my family background (that’s how it’s done here: pounce on some unsuspecting victim at a wedding and interrogate the poor sod about her family, social status, etc).

Patriotic roadside art – Hussain Chowk, Lahore. Photo: Sonya Rehman

For a whole minute, my mind was blank. I didn’t know what to say. What exactly was my zaat anyway? So like an idiot I blabbered on about how my grandfather, a Hindu, married my grandmother, from Iran, and how my father’s side of the family were Afghans, and how I was this little mixed breed. Haha? I was beaming. I’d just told this complete stranger with freaking tube roses in her hair, my entire family background in five, asinine minutes. So, was I accepted? Did I pass the test? She was balking at me, went ‘Heh, heh’ a few times and backed away.

I was shattered, to be honest.

A few weeks ago I began reading ‘The Portable Jung’ by Joseph Campbell. I’d always been interested in psychology since I was 16, so much so that recently, I’ve toyed with the idea of quitting journalism and launching into a course of study in clinical psychology. But since I’m a year and a half from turning 30, I’ve decided to tame my frivolous heart and stay put. However, in the book I came across a paragraph:

“The element of differentiation is the individual. All the highest achievements of virtue, as well as the blackest villainies, are individual. The larger a community is, and the more the sum total of collective factors peculiar to every large community rests on conservative prejudices detrimental to individuality, the more will the individual be morally and spiritually crushed, and, as a result, the one source of moral and spiritual progress for society is choked up.”

It took me many years to realize that one’s zaat had nothing to do with anything really. Nevertheless, society had taught me that it did. Soon, I began seeing society for what it really was – at times prejudiced and judgmental: where everyone tried to mimic the other, to keep up with the joneses to be wanted, respected, and accepted.

But every household had its issues, and dealt with rejection from society in some way or the other. They just covered it up pretty well. But it got me thinking, how can one allow society to dictate the course your life is fated to take?

To be a Pakistani, to be a son/daughter of this soil, I’ve come to realize, is to be unflinchingly sure of yourself and your goal – never losing sight of wanting to develop society further, help it unfurl its prejudiced edges so that it may flourish to its full potential.

Some of the most interesting and inspirational people I’ve met over the years are people who stood up for what they believed in, dealt with their fair share of societal dismissal, but yet went on to do great things.

With limited means, with limited resources and with immense opposition, they made it. And that’s when I realized what the word ‘identity’ really encompassed: self-worth. Societal acceptance or rejection doesn’t matter. It never did.

Pak Tea House

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. aiesha says:

    Trying to fit in when we are born to stand out.

    We waste quite a major chunk of our life in trying to fit in.

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