There is something blatantly discriminatory and prejudiced about the term “chaiwala” that prevents me from using it, not to mention the equally biased, and as one columnist referred to it as the “reverse sexist” approach now linked to it all.

For the last one week our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram timelines have been flooded with the now ubiquitous and familiar picture of a “blue eyed” Pashtun boy, whose “chiseled features” have women and men, alike, swooning over him. He has become the latest internet sensation, the hottest trending topic, not only nationally but across the borders, in India, UK and USA alike. It was just a matter of few hours before local media channels hunted him down and stopped their regular news coverage to put him on air. The poor chap seemed ill at ease with all the newfound fame and media attention being leveled at him. He revealed that scores of girls and guys had dropped in at his tea dhaba since morning, snapping selfies and just “checking” him out.

After all the media frenzy, it was interesting to note that, the chaiwala, after all, had a name, Arshad Khan. Arshad Khan hails from Mardan and shot to fame overnight when an Islamabad based photographer Instagrammed his photo, working in his tea stall.

Internet buffs made “suggestive” memes out of his pictures that too went viral. He is being referred to as the “hot-tea in town” and “Pakistan’s nuclear weapon”-clearly the voyeuristic fetishisation is not funny at all. At the risk of sounding a stone-aged conservative and a spoilsport, and for want of a better or equally descriptive term in English, I’d say that there is an unbridled, unchecked “toofan-e-badtameezi” being stirred up on the net.

Initially a huge part of me wanted to dismiss the incident as a ridiculous episode of social media frenzy over a, rather, good looking person. But as the episode unraveled and began to infringe and delineate on sensitive social and cultural constructs, it was increasingly difficult to absorb it all.

The case is a classic instance that demands a cultural critique of our collective social conduct and mores. It is starkly indicative of the deep-rooted social class schism and unashamed objectification of the poor by the privileged class of our society. What is so differently exciting about the good looks of a chai-wala, or a naan-wala or a wagon-wala? Can’t poor people be good looking or are good looks, like luxury and other status-specific entities, exclusive to the privileged class? Is beauty the provenance of the rich and the powerful? Then, there are the revelations of the underlying tones of the concept of beauty itself. It seems we have not been able to shed our colonial baggage after all. Our definition of beauty, both in male and female, is euro-centric- “blue-eyed”, “fair-skin” and “chiseled jaw-line or features”. This is again downright discriminatory and racist.

How would those, who are guilty of being complicit in objectifying the young man, feel if their own pictures are shared, tagged, ogled at and commented upon freely? I shudder at the mere thought. Beauty is an elusive, subjective concept. While every society certainly has an acceptable definition of what it terms as “beautiful”, judging someone’s existence on nothing but how he or she “looks” is akin to simply debasing and objectifying the person.

There has to be so much more to beauty than just “good looks”, just as the path to fame not just hinges on beauty but talent and hard work too. Yes, the modern world comprises of many such industries that dwell upon their fixation on “good looks”. But intense and on the edge competition also needs natural flair, hard work and strength of character to keep their star status afloat. This is not to minimise or discourage the young man even before he begins his journey as an actor or a model but to set our collective narrative straight that beauty should not be “reduced” to good looks and fame should have no short-cuts.

As a society, our values are skewed. We’ve always been a shallow, looks-oriented society because looking for and enabling a talented, hardworking individual to create his niche in the society needs hard work and a merit-driven system that allows the individual to grow. And, apparently, we all appreciate and love sudden surprises of fame and success. Imagine for a minute, what message are we sending out to all those working hard for attaining better socio-economic footings in life. What about other people at work with the young man in the same tea stall? They would think he was given better opportunities in life not because he was educated or talented or worked hard but because he “looked good”. There’s something seriously amiss here. Such a shallow, frivolous approach only produces individuals who prefer to live by superficial values and not be able to create that solid, unshakeable foothold of personal, social and cultural rules of conduct required to define the character of nations.

Furthermore, this incident also brings forth the alluring, powerful yet eerily scary and ephemeral nature of the intoxicating world of Internet. It has come to redefine almost all aspects of our existence- from connecting to communication to conducting business- the internet provides us with an alternative world of artificial existence. An incident occurring in one has a butterfly effect in the other. The social media networking sites, and their features like the hashtags, trending, gifs, forums etc, along with their innumerable boons, are also exploited to vent out our individual sensual frustrations and imaginations. The social media’s claim to fame is as short lived and delusional as is the false ego that inflates upon getting more “likes”, garnering “comments” and “followers” on the posted updates.

In this particular case, within a few days, probably tens of thousands of people across the world, shared, tagged, tweeted and commented upon the picture as they liked, some using plain objectionable language, without him ever finding out what is being written about him. Not to forget the irresponsible, distasteful memes that bordered on fetishisation and “photoshopped” pictures in different attires doing the rounds.

In the advanced nations, the online behaviour of users is regulated by a defined code of conduct that is shared and adhered to widely and which if violated is punishable by law. However, in our society, even if such a law is not practically in place yet, being mature, decent adults we all carry individual responsibility to behave decently online and treat others with the same regard. The media, online brouhaha and the inappropriate behaviour of online community were completely devoid of civility and honour.

A few spirited and thoughtful souls tried to speak up against the mindless trending and knock some sense into the pleasure seekers; however, they were asked to “lighten up” and take it all with a tinge of humour. Well, the humour and fun dries up as it begins to reveal the skeletons we’ve nicely locked up in our closets.

In the end, we wish Arshad Khan well and hope, with all the offers coming his way, he reaches the heights of fame and success he desires, but we also hope that we, as a society, are able to give equal opportunities of growth to all individuals, regardless of their race, caste, religion or “looks”.

 

The writer is a freelance contributor.