Happy New Year, readers! It’s the first day of 2018, and let’s begin with one resolution: to stop being killjoys. It is a truth nationally acknowledged that the moment anyone does something different—not even breathtakingly shocking or deviant, just unusual—we will collectively set ourselves on fire, pushing and shoving in a stampede to crush the miscreants. How dare anyone be anything other than a square peg in a square hole? Some people’s small-mindedness manifests itself in sniggers and side-eye looks if you happen to be wearing something they think is odd—boots to the bazaar, a skirt to school, a big shalwar to class. I can’t speak for men here, but women who push the envelope with their wardrobe (or, frankly, just dress to please themselves) invariably also have to learn to ignore the staring and whispering. Some people express their burning opinions on the lives of others through writing articles and op-eds, and the rest just take to Twitter. Of all the reasons I am thankful to not be on that benighted app, the haters are the primary ones. It is alternatively fascinating and repulsive at how much time and energy is spent by strangers spewing vitriol onto other strangers. Twitter is like a mosh pit at a metal concert, only instead of everyone being united in their love for the music and commitment to head-bang, the purpose is to destroy as many people as possible. Perhaps a coliseum is a better parallel.

Recently people have been grappling with their feelings about the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, and a little video the BBC made of them. The polite ones are mildly befuddled and all the rest have come out guns blazing. How on earth can it be allowed! How can women put on a perfectly modest gown and meet like-minded women for tea and talk about books? I am not in the video, as a disclaimer, before anyone thinks this annoys me because the women in the video are my best friends. They are not. But I am in the JASP, because I like to read and I also like to talk to other readers. If it involves tea and dressing-up—why, certainly. Some people find it ludicrous to dress up and talk about books, but those are the same people who have obviously never heard of cosplay and who only know the names of books because they’ve seen the movie. How does it hurt anyone if someone has got their hair in a bun and is carrying a reticule and cracking Miss Bingley jokes? Apparently it hurts many people, bafflingly.

Apparently talking about Austen means a group of people are letting Pakistan down. No matter if most of those people are journalists, media professionals, activists, teachers, poets and writers—they are all bad and irresponsible. It’s shirking one’s patriotic duty to drink tea and natter about literature. Surprisingly, the same rules don’t seem to apply to the society events that fill our weekend magazines to the brim. The same rules don’t apply to the Instagram stories, the new year parties, the makeup tutorial obsession, the crazy clothes we wear to our insanely lavish weddings. You think it’s absurd to wear a chintz dress? Try wearing a lehnga choli and jhoomar to any wedding that isn’t yours. Or let’s consider the people who eschew that lifestyle, by choice or necessity. How do you reconcile your cell phone, the money you spend on coffee and eating out, your car, your clothes? Pulling class or income rank is a slippery slope because if one is middle or upper middle class in a country like this, there is a point where you will invariably be crossing a line. This is the perpetual moral dilemma of those aware that a conflict exists. But you and I don’t get to decide who is aware and who isn’t. And it certainly is not a conversation that hinges upon who wore what, when. That’s the problem with judging strangers. You assume they are a certain kind of person, but that only makes you a myopic kind of Malvolio. You think because you are virtuous, there should be no more cakes and ale.

That a bunch of people talking about books is still subversive is actually, if one considers it, quite delightful. The idea that literature and people inclined towards it wield this immense power to vex and bewilder, far more so than tax evaders and the destruction of heritage sites and people who steal electricity and the smog epidemic. It seems you are a national disgrace only if you are an English-speaking woman who likes to have a bit of fun over tea and Mr Darcy. How quaint! How super! Pass the crumpets!

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com