Pakistan 2020: The four women are enjoying long, cool, ice-filled drinks in the air conditioned coolness of an uptown apartment, recovering from the after effects of a frenzied shopping spree during which they splurged on finery they couldnt really afford. Youll look really good in that plum outfit Huma, smiles Sakina in a neutral tone of voice. The cut is superb. And the very same goes for the peach suit you bought Sakina, Huma lisps back, her facial muscles straining to stay composed as she knows that her friend intends being sarcastic, that the plum outfit is too tight for her ample figure, but that no one dare say so to her face orthis should be consoling, yet it isntbehind her back either as talking about people has been against the law for years. Im over the moon with these turquoise stilettos, chimes in Reema. Perfect for that party suit Im having stitched. Ferri thinks the shoes are the height of bad taste, but keeps her opinion to herself as speaking your mind is no longer allowed. Everyone knows the rules and no one, absolutely no one, dare break them. The magic eyes and ears mounted in the corner of every single nook and cranny in existence, inside television, video and computer screens, inside mobile phones, cars, public transport, offices, restrooms, on airplanes, even inside fridges, watch and listen to everyones movements, facial expressions and conversations even if they happen to be talking to their bathroom mirrors. They are in operation 24/7 and they never ever malfunction. The invisible 'supervisors, no one knows who or where they really are just that they are 'there, are programmed to push the 'delete button on anyone, who even thinks of stepping a single millimetre over the line of 'correct human behaviour. There used to be fifth friend: She quizzically raised a single eyebrow when Ferri walked in wearing a magnificent pair of gold and diamond earrings one evening just four months ago and that was that, the fifth friend evaporated right there and then and no one has dared to mention her name since. Even when it happened they pretend not to notice, sat sipping tea and eating chocolate gateaux without any visible signs of fear or shock. They are well trained, well mannered and seething inside, their repressed emotions devouring their innards and turning their lifeblood black. The new laws, introduced in 2015, are hard for the friends to understand as, all being in their 30s, they grew up when back-biting, bitching, gossiping about the doings of others, especially politicians and the newly rich, when hanging on to the lunatic intricacies of every single conspiracy theory and long march and protesting over loadshedding, price hikes, fuel shortages and the 'disappeared were an accepted part of what, in retrospect, was a deliciously free mode of lifewhat changed everything was this: The 'President for Life, no one is quite sure how he managed to be elected to the post, simply refused to tolerate any dissent. He had developed a phobia that everyone laughed at him, made jokes about him, gossiped about him, pointed fingers at him for no solid reason at all other than that they were jealous of his appearance, jealous of his impeccable dress sense, jealous of his accent and so dangerously envious of his accent when speaking a foreign language that something had to be done as he could not stand having to cower inside his palace, hiding from accusations and possible assassins, a single moment longer. Not trusting the justice department - a department which petrified him absolutely - he drew up the new laws all on his own and announced their immediate imposition early one morning after eating a newly laid brown egg from the hen he kept in his bedroomhe was terrified of being poisoned too. It was obvious to all and sundry that he must have had help, probably a 'foreign hand in the shape of an entire legion of 'out of state actors, to get his monitoring system emplaced throughout the length and breadth of the country before making his startling speech as those who dared to voice immediate objections promptly vanished, as if they had never existed, and those whose faces registered shock as companion after companion disappeared went zooosh too until, as was inevitable, some bright spark realised that assuming a perfectly bland expression was necessary for survivalthis was a politician of course, but the general populace soon caught on. Now, with all forms of expression, including laughing, nose twitching, ear pulling, winking, shoe throwing and even scratching firmly outlawed, along with the aforementioned gossiping, back-biting, bitching and eyebrow raising of course, those over the age of five years can only hope to survive as expressionless, opinonless, laid-back zombies whose sole task in life is to teach their offspring to be exactly the same butthis being Pakistanthe home of the person who discovered that video cassettes could be decoded by sticking them in the freezer for a few hours, it goes without saying that someone, somewhere, is working to crack the system. n The writer is a Murree-based freelance columnist.