Rehearsal

There is one show that we are all guaranteed to attend.

I did a couple of plays when I was younger. The process is the same: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, until you fully embody the role you play. Until the actual performance is just another rehearsal, one you get to bow at the end of.

And there is one show that we are all guaranteed to attend. One in which we take center stage. Or center coffin, as it were.

The exact date is unannounced. Over here, it could be any minute. Just the other day a girl around my age was shot in her office in F-8, Islamabad. One minute she was contributing to the community, the next minute she was dead.

Over here, the flavors in which death presents itself are many. Booms, kabooms, ratatatats, illness, accidents, stress. This bothered me initially. In the States it is easy to ignore mortality; the system is effectively designed to make this so. The old and the sickly are shipped off  to keep them out of sight. The young ones are kept insanely distracted by flashy rat-races. The big wheel keeps turning, and people can almost forget the one show they are guaranteed to attend.

Not here. Here it’s in my face, poking away at my brain, forcing me to pay it attention. There is no rat-race, unless you subscribe to a career. There is mainly just a pit of people playing out their lives, waiting for death, toying with death, threatening each other with death. Living lives of suppressed and unspoken fear. 

It is this last part that didn’t sit well with me. If it is in fact the most inevitable thing a human being can face, then is fear really the most appropriate response? It’s natural of course. As biological entities our primary purpose is survival for as long as possible, for which the fear response to existential threats is a necessary defense mechanism. But given the wonders of the human imagination, and the incredible fuck-yous it has been giving to our basic biology since way back, is it the most appropriate response?

And so began the rehearsals. I’m not sure where the idea came from. I’ll put money on Dr. Steven Covey (RIP). The idea is to ‘die before you die’, as the Buddhists say. To imagine your death in great, excruciating detail. It is uncomfortable initially. It is meant to be. But as with all rehearsals, it gets easier. 

The first time I rehearsed I was teary eyed. The next time too. These days, not so much. But through the process profound changes have taken place. 

*

The process, roughly, is this:

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Imagine your funeral in your mind’s eye. In vivid detail. The time of day, the place, the setting. Imagine the people arriving. Imagine your dead body being brought in. Imagine the people settling down. The mood of the place. Imagine your loved ones, grieving. How many people are there? What are they sitting on? What smell fills the place?

The funeral starts. Imagine the molvi saying prayers for you. Imagine the people you care about. What are they saying about you? How do they remember you? What regrets do they have about you? How does your memory live on, on this rock in the depths of space?

Imagine them burying your body. Imagine all the people standing around your grave. Imagine the tombstone that is put up.

Imagine them leaving one by one. Imagine your grave out there, alone. Within it, bones .Yet the memory of you lingers on in the hearts of those you touched.

*

Much like light shines bright only because of the darkness around it, life is that much more wonderful only through the contemplation of death. Every moment, every breath, every incident, is perfect just as it is. Every event, every occurrence, every joy, every sorrow, is exactly as it is meant to be. Since death doesn’t have that tight a hold anymore, I am now free to actually live. ‘Important and unimportant’ are now realigned with the one absolute in this life. How I choose to spend each day as well. Compromise can go fuck itself. Making do too. It is all or nothing anymore. This makes people uncomfortable. But the only real thing that matters is being absolutely true to myself. The second most important thing is making an offering, or two, or ten, for the benefit of my species. But this is secondary.

This is a morbid topic, and one people are not comfortable openly talking about. We talk about death as though it is something unnatural and unholy. We talk about it indirectly, through news items and statistics and horror movies. “Tsk tsk” usually accompanies these discussions, or “OMG how scary!”. It is painted as something grisly, evil. Grim reaper evil. Each death we hear about makes us sad. Because we suddenly remember something we had been trying ever so hard to forget. This is all part of what it means to be human. 

RHlJ

Yet if you dig deep enough, it is the most natural thing in the world. It is just a different side of the same coin. Peeling away the layers, and seeing it for what it is, has made me see life for what it is too.  Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink, says Shunryu Suzuki. So we may as well enjoy the ride.

Suppressing the fear of death is a fool’s errand. The fear exists, and it will keep manifesting in different areas of life. Most of the time by confining us to lesser lives than we ought to live. I urge everyone to read The Denial of Death. It will change the way you see the world.

Through the rehearsal of death, through it’s contemplation and complete acceptance, you may understand that this life isn’t the past, and it isn’t the future. It is right now. This moment, these breaths, this computer screen, these sounds. What you do with it is then entirely up to you. But forgetting this truth, or ignoring it, may just be the biggest waste of time you can indulge in.

And it is great. All I have to do now is live with  complete acceptance of the present moment. With an open mind, free mind. If there is fear, so be it. If there is joy, fine. Just jive with it, man. The only thing we can do is jump in and join the dance. No stories, no narratives, no justifications, no excuses. Just dance. Fully aware that the dance will end one day. 

It all comes with practice. I do the full-scale death rehearsal about once every fortnight. For the remaining days I remind myself of it whenever I feel myself losing perspective. Then the days are spent, as Zorba the Greek says, in sacred awe.

This has nothing to do with theologies and ideologies. This is more fundamental, more basic, more primitive. Just be. As powerfully and wholly and fully as you can, as true to your basic nature as you can, until you can no longer be. Everything else is just window dressing, distracting us from the truth. 

 

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. 

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. 

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” – Steve Jobs

Two Years Hence

Sheep-Big-City-07

A little over two years ago I hopped on a plane in Washington DC to go back to Pakistan. After four years, I was going home.

I remember looking out the plane window when we were in sight of Islamabad and seeing the darkness below. Just a few lights glowed in the black murk. It reminded me of a Stephen King book. The Langoliers, maybe.

I remember offering the security clearance fellow a broad smile, a mistake which kept me waiting for fifteen minutes as he chatted with his cronies, because I was clearly not a ‘saab’ so not deserving of his attention.

I remember seeing an old man sitting on the floor outside the airport terminal, blind and begging for alms, a mangy dog sniffing at his feet.

There was a gloom in the air, a despondency, thick and heavy like tar, through which everyone struggled without realizing it. Family members told me their tales of woe. Friends who I reconnected with were not the same. People were confidently spouting whichever lie they could best use to reconcile their lot in life. Everything was different from what I remembered. Or maybe it was me who had changed.

I remember driving through Peshawar and seeing utter despair on everyone’s face. This was back when suicide bombings were rampant. Two days in the city, and the only smile I saw was one a mother gave to her infant child in the back of a van as I drove past. That gave me some hope: mankind may fuck itself up, but the things that really matter will still prevail.

I remember standing at a red light in Islamabad and being jarred out of my train of thought by the beggar with the hunchback and deformed arms, or the other one with no legs who ‘walked’ on his hands. I looked around to see what other people in other cars were doing about this. Seems like pokerfaced ignorance was the call of the day. I remember the little Pathan beggar girls, the youngest no older than 3, scurrying around stopped cars with palms raised, like Munchkins. I remember a statistic someone had mentioned to me about beggars and child rape. I drove out of there as fast as I could.

Every street, every shopping mall, every fancy cafe, every pocket of affluence was marked by the simple, silent demands of the masses. An old man here, a little girl there, their clothes ragged and torn, their eyes hollow, constantly keeping us from reveling in our upper-class excesses. I looked around at others my age, my status, and realized that no one had any real answers. Ignorance was bliss. Everyone focused on their little lives and lost themselves to unnecessary intricacies. People lost themselves to whichever addiction kept them from facing it all. The women here live lives of quiet desperation. The men keep their heads down and plod along like mules, not daring to draw attention to themselves. The dream for women is to find decent men and have babies. The dream for men is to become corporate wage-slaves and make do. Its a bullshit system, but many accept it because that’s just how it goes over here.

And a simple question haunted me relentlessly: Is this it?

My soul was dying. Not only because things were so bad here, but because everyone had so readily accepted it all.

It took me months to heal. Months spent in solitary confinement, reading books and digesting information and looking for answers, occasionally meeting up with friends to keep from going totally insane. I was sick for a long time, over five weeks, bedridden, disoriented, in the fucking pits. There were times I would wake up in cold sweats, screaming.

I was the eldest son, the smart kid with the bright future, the PhD student in America. Now I was the has-been, the quitter, the loner who hides in his room all day, the anti-social asshole. No one here could possibly understand. And this place, with its contradictions and despair and sadness, a struggling, lumbering, diseased beast upon which I now rode, I could not possibly understand.

So I moved deeper into my solitude. I studied meditation and religion and psychology and neuro-linguistic programming. I connected with like-minded people, people who were rising above their circumstances and doing something with their lives. Inch by little inch, I found my basic freedom. I moved to Abbottabad and got lost to the ambivalent silence of nature. I returned to my most primal humanity and disconnected from this dualistic, broken society. I sat in green fields and observed the simple beauty of nature, the perfection with which every blade of grass and flower and leaf and bee conducted themselves, and I wept because I thought I mattered. I climbed the mountain behind my home and looked out at the white, dirty, concrete maze which was the city, and the bright, secretive, non-judgmental blue sky above, and I laughed at the folly of all men, confident and secure in their boxes, oblivious to reality.

I lost myself and got that much closer to salvation.

Out there in the wilderness I learned that love conquers all. Love of one’s true nature, of other beings, of everything perceptible and imperceptible, of the moment. Like the woman smiling at her child in the back of a van while all else is in turmoil.

I realigned myself with those ancient forces. With the grass beneath my feet and the stars above my head. Everything man-made ceased to matter. Both the excessive bling of the States and the base despair of Pakistan. The question had been answered: the world is a sum total of what you are able to perceive. More importantly, it is a sum total of what you choose to perceive. Nothing more, nothing less.

I gave myself up to the absolute fundamentals of life. If I were to die today, it would not matter.

Now I chat with beggars with abandon. We share food. I high-five the little girls. One day one of them offered me ice cream. One day I offered one of them coffee. I can not solve anyone’s problems for them, but I can still offer them my love.

icecream

I wanted to have these conversations with people. I wanted people to know that there are other ways out of the apathy. They just have to be brave enough to find them. But it is difficult discussing these things in person; people are too set in this ways. So I started this blog. I wanted to share my little story, hoping that it may inspire people to find theirs.

And it has been two years since I’ve been back.

I’m not fully there yet, but I’m close. Every morning I wake up with a sense of adventure. I can’t be bothered with social drama anymore. I can’t be bothered with upperclassmen’s complaints about their petty problems. I no longer watch TV. I can’t be bothered with fear, danger, harm, threat. All I have is my work. All I have is right now, and whether I can fight off the hate for another moment.

Back to work I go. =)

 

How to be a Social Cheetah

I finally did the impossible: I became a social cheetah. I overcame the many years spent in Peshawar and the associated atrophy of people skills, and bypassed the years spent in the jungles of GIKI and the associated increase in antisocial nerdiness. Through sheer effort of will I conquered these effects, discarded their influence on my life, and chiseled for myself a new personality, one more fitting for the city environment of Islamabad, one more conducive to being popular. Now I have friends on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram. Some of them are even girls. 

How did I do this? By identifying and embodying a particular set of skills, honed and refined to fit the mold of this place. If you internalize these skills, popularity in our evergreen nation will no longer be a vague dream, it will be your every day reality! In no particular order, these are they:

Be Fake

Everything about everything about you must be a well-constructed lie. From the clothes you wear to the tilt of your head to the way you talk to ‘the lower class’, all the way down to that heavy accent you miraculously developed in that two week vacation, you must cultivate the phoniest personality you can so that people are too dazzled by the fakeness to get wind of your underlying low sense of self worth.

When I grow up I want to be a fake asshole like this kid

When I grow up I want to be a fake asshole like this kid

Gossip

The best way to develop meaningful relationships is by gossiping. Pick a mutually detested individual, and systematically deconstruct everything about them, peeling away the layers of their fakeness to reveal the miserable sods they are underneath. Then treat them differently based on what you hypothesized. Gossiping leads to quick, fun bonds with people, just don’t be surprised if these bonds don’t last too long. Eventually you or your best friend will start gossiping about each other, something about a scorpion having no choice but to sting and whatnot. But hey, nothing is permanent anyways. Time to make new ‘friends’!

Being Depressed is Fashionable

So you’re too cool to be one of the ‘burger-kids’, and you’re too awesome to be one of the ‘mailas’? It’s okay, because there is one group that we all fit in by default, should we choose to accept it: the depressives. It is now okay to walk around in a cloud of your negativity, embracing all the unpleasantness in your life and wearing it proudly as part of who you are. If you are a committed depressive, it behooves you to unload that shit on to anyone you meet as well. After all, misery loves company, right? And a pity-party is still a party. And happy people are fucking annoying.

Best way to be popular: learn from Eeyore!

You must carry your own weather with you, wherever you go.

Know Everything

EVERYTHING. Your opinion is the only one that counts, because you are clearly so much better than the rest of these upstarts, with their Sunday bazaar clothing and shitty little Cultuses. Be it politics or where to get good shawarma, you must have the low-down on the latest, greatest piece of information, because you’re richer/better looking/endowed with the biggest ego/most-impressed-by-Mean-Girls. These people should be honored to be in your company; anything else is just unnatural. It is also perfectly okay for you to get insanely personal with people, writing them psychological prescriptions based on the flaws that you spot. Because you clearly know more about them than they do. If they are offended, they aren’t worthy of your friendship. Clearly.

Be more like this guy, even though he's a fictional supergenius and you aren't.

Be more like this guy, even though he’s a fictional supergenius and you aren’t.

Lie 

Nothing is more unattractive than being honest. Believe me. I was on an honesty kick for a while, and it just was not working out. The cool kids in these parts don’t take kindly to being told the truth. Which is why it’s important to lie. Lie through your fuckin’ teeth. To your parents, to your teachers/bosses, to your friends. To the opposite sex. To that kid you hate who actually thinks you are friends, poor bastard. Create and wear different masks: for work, for play, for shallow banter, for love, for family. The cleverer you are the more masks you’ll have. Later on you can gossip about these idiots. But to their face, you must invent the craziest horseshit you can come up with, and social cheetahness is within your reach.

But honey, as you can see, my lying to you is good for us !

But honey, as you can see, my lying to you is good for you too !

Be Shallow

One of the main reasons that I’m popular now is because I am tall. It took lots of hard work to develop my height, but I did it happily because I know that people are basically superficial. To be a social cheetah, you must make superficial judgments about others, based on appearance/accent/money/style/baldness/pimples, and develop a mental hierarchy based on these factors in which the person is then placed. It’s all very simple and cavemannish. Refer to Hollywood high school movies to get a grasp of the situation. The loudest dude with the biggest dolas and the Land Cruiser paid for by daddy’s smuggle-money is the coolest. The hot chick with the streaked hair and designer handbag is the belle of the ball. Everyone else can suck it. So you better hit that gym or pluck them eyebrows if you know what’s important in this world.

“Chill”

Self improvement is for losers, real winners don’t need to improve anything. Personal development is gay, the only skills you need to have are how to look good and act awesome. Reading is for little girls, who needs that shit when you have TV and Youtube LOL. If you want to be a cheetah, you have to do cheetah things. Like hanging out with friends for days on end, whether you like them or fuckin’ hate their guts. Or showing up to every party or gathering you hear of, regardless of whether you want to be there or not. Be sure to abuse lots of drugs. Doing anything else is, like, totally lame, bro.

So practice these skills today. Life is too short to be imperfect. And even if you can’t actually attain perfection, you must make others believe the lie. Then derive your feeling of self-worth from their opinions of you; eventually you might even fool yourself. Age is not really a factor either; out here, these rules apply whether you are 16 or 36.  So get out there and become the cheetahs you were meant to be, boys and girls. It is your burger right ! 

Thank You Aitzaz Hasan

aitzaz-hasan

For teaching me what it means to be a human being. For jarring me out of my overpriced, overprivileged stupor and reminding me of what’s important. For being the bravest fuckin person I will never meet.

When you’re mentioned in the news or social media it’s to push some narrative or the other: PTI supporters link your death to the drone strikes, anti-PTI supporters to PTI’s lack of action against the Taliban, you are labeled as being so much more heroic than that stupid Malala, the government is blamed for not honoring you fast enough, and on and on, until all possible permutations from within the quagmire of Pakistani politics are exhausted. The media vultures squaw at each other around these issues on their high pitched, rabid talk shows, and ask ‘what more could we have done’, when really all they mean is ‘how do we twist this story to further the narrative we’re getting paid for’. And of course, suicide bombers the world over are way pissed at you.

But that’s typical. Everyone just wants to push forward their own agendas, for which you are but a dead pawn, a talking point, a showpiece. They miss the real magic of what you were all about, because in their insular pursuit of ‘The Story’, they’ve forgotten what humanity means. They obfuscate the real lessons in an attempt to put the next guy down.

Because the truth, at it’s bare-bones, is that you were simply a kid, man. A 9th grader. Yet a total rockstar. I’ve always known people like you were out there, kings and queens and giants amongst men, toiling away in little towns, accepting your lot in life, yet putting the rest of us to total shame just by virtue of your rockstarness. Of course all we can do is chatter about the ‘Big Picture’. We find it too hard to come to terms with the incredible nature of your basic humanity.

You saved your friends by tackling a suicide bomber and forcing him to detonate.

That blows my mind. I can see it now, big kid that you were, one bearhug from you would have stopped that bastard in his tracks. He had no other option but premature detonation. And that was that for the both of you. Disaster averted, mission failed, hero lost.

I’ve put myself in your shoes many times. And truth be told, I would not have done what you did. I would have made noise, made some phone calls to friends inside to get out, but kept my distance. I would have assisted in the relief effort later on, dragging bodies out of the rubble. I would have attended the funerals of my class-fellows, my teachers, my friends. I would have lingered on, scarred for the rest of my days by the haunting sense that I could have done more.

But you, you saved your friends by tackling a suicide bomber and forcing him to detonate.

I have no words for that. Thinking about it fills me with pride and leaves me teary eyed at the same time. You represent the best of the best of what this country can produce, kid from 9th grade from a school in Hangu. And you are no more.

So all I can say is thank you, Aitzaz Hasan. Thank you for giving me hope and reminding me that bowing down or fighting is the only thing we have to decide when faced with conflict. Thank you for teaching me what’s important in this little fart of a life: courage, goodness, selflessness, loyalty, friendship. And what’s unimportant: ego, selfishness, material gains, petty disputes, fear. Thank you for reminding me of everything I love about the Pashtuns, those human cocktails of brash, valiant positive energy. Thank you for giving me something to aspire to.

If I am ever in that situation I’m going to do what you did, Aitzaz. Simply to honor the memory of the bravest fuckin’ human I will never meet.

Rest in peace my brother. You earned it.

Beginner’s Mind

kid chillin

I had a brilliant Chinese professor during the PhD days. He used to mix Eastern wisdom with his teaching of finite element modeling, quantum mechanics, material sciences, and other equally titillating engineering subjects. Those old adages were the only thing that kept me from jumping out the classroom window.

One of his favorites was the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “You must approach this lesson with beginner’s mind,” he would often say, staring squarely at the PhD student in the front row with gray hair, “no matter how much you think you already know.”

That philosophy got me through his classes swimmingly. Because we used to be discussing things like microscopic models of various materials, and hypothesizing about how cracks would pass through them based on mathematical equations and Greek symbols alone. If I stopped to wonder what the fuck I was doing for even a second the dance was over. The only way forward was with beginner’s mind, or Shoshin.

It’s a simple concept, and one which has held me in good stead post-incomplete-PhD as well. It may well be the greatest lesson I learned from that stint: by shaving away everything I think I know, and escaping the mental labyrinths I’ve built up over the years, by moving forward as though I am doing so for the very first time, I remain open to receiving true learning.

Because it’s basically true. No matter what I think I know about the world and how much knowledge I may have saved up,  every moment that I experience is completely new to me. To use a staircase analogy, no matter how far up a staircase I get, each next step I take is unique. It makes sense to treat it as such.

I used to do the opposite: connect events from present to past, make comparisons, create this-or-that boxes in which events or people or concepts were placed, categorize everything that happened around me to build up a repository of meaningless nonsense in my head, live in a hazy soup of past-present-future, all the while denying myself the only chance I’ll get of fully experiencing the present moment. No so much anymore. Unless you’re skilled at juggling the two, which I’m not, you’ll end up trapped in a mental maze of your own creation. Only that will be perceived which can be connected to your preexisting mental models. All else will be sidelined as ‘unimportant’, simply because you haven’t constructed a box within which to place it. To paraphrase Alan Watts, the world will simply be a Rorschach inkblot: you’ll see what you want to see.

The cerebral ones amongst us will remedy this by constructing more and more boxes, expanding their reserves within to more effectively cater to the world without. But even though those exercises are helpful, no model can completely define reality. They’ll always remain incomplete, fun mental constructs to help navigate reality. Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. Science and Religion. God and multiverse probabilities. Evolution and creationism. Strings and quanta. And on and on. Even worse, every person we meet will be labeled, compared to an archetype, placed in a box, based on Jung, Myers-Brigg, astrology, age, background, riches. We cut them down to a prescription personality, and then look for characteristics that match our box while ignoring everything that doesn’t.  Some of us will see the tenuous world of symbols for what it is. Many of us will live out our lives within that world without ever realizing it, greatly inhibiting personal growth. I was there.

These days I’m trying to destroy all boxes. I’m trying to stay a beginner no matter what. That was the ethos driving everything I did in 2013, and the journey will continue in 2014. Meditation, mindfulness, exercise, writing, reading, following of passions, honesty, righteousness – all to remain in the moment – will continue.

This does not mean being a total idiot and YOLO-ing it all away. One of the main aspects of my journey is continuous self-education – because the more boxes you have, the more boxes you have to break. It does mean cultivating and practicing beginner’s mind, remaining open to new ideas and opinions and viewpoints, unsubscribing from absolutes and dogmas and the false comfort of ‘having it all figured out’.

Because time is short and moments are few. The the last thing I want to do is cockblock myself from full experience. The best way to do that is to approach every situation as a total noob, like a child, looking upon it for the first time. Doing anything else would simply be a limiting lie.

Do Your Work

‘Injustices’ have been happening since man first began measuring time. This is simply the result of a conflict between our ideas of what should be and the nature of what truly is. This is why we are so appalled each time we hear of unnatural or premature deaths. We find it difficult to mentally reconcile freak occurences because we like to believe in underlying order, cause and effect, cosmic determinism, and so on. But the hard truth is that shit happens, and it will continue to do so. What’s left then is how we deal with it. 

And we have to deal with an inordinate amount of shit over here. Bombs, suicide attacks, ethnic, religious, cultural, class-based strifes, corruption, chaos, bitterness, fear, apathy, greed, etc. Anything that isn’t directly a part of our lives is pushed in our faces by the ever vigilant media outlets, whose sole purpose seems to be to make us feel bad. For the most part they are successful. The past couple of decades have been rough, because the free flow of information has fully revealed to us what a quagmire we are really in. It used to be easier to ignore problems in the days of PTV and printed newspapers, and we could go about with our hedonistic lives in comfort. Nowadays all the crap that we’ve piled upon ourselves is inescapable.

It has now come to a point where we are exposed to such unspeakable, unjustifiable, unacceptable daily occurrences that we have to take notice. One can’t sit still anymore, one has to speak out or take action against the evil that one sees. This is basic human nature. The problem is that our ‘speaking out and taking action’ is almost entirely useless.

The internet is partially to blame; it has made it too easy to be lazily compassionate. We’ll put up Facebook status updates of indignation, share pictures of bloody kids out of context, get on Express Tribune blog posts and write long-winded hate comments.

And if that’s not enough, we’ll blame each other for the atrocities that we see: upper class blames the poor, conservatives blame liberals, populists blame the government, Shias blame Sunnis, Muslims blame minorities, and when all else fails, we’ll blame the unseen, unheard forces beyond our control: the fahaash, evil empire of the West.

And then we can breathe easy. Because we’ve sort of rationalized the evil, deflected it out of our lives, put it in a neat little box, washed our hands of any responsibility. All that evil goes back to being disconnected images playing out on our television sets. It isn’t our problem anymore, we’ve done our part. We’ve talked.

But this attitude is fucking us up pretty bad.

Evil exists. It will always exist. But that doesn’t mean that we should sit around and mope and whine and talk about it. All that we can do is accept it, and then take action despite it. Talking about the evil helps no one. Pointing fingers helps no one. The only way to blot it out is through action.

Here is an alternative way of looking at it. This is going to sound a bit strange at first but bear with me:

Evil is an essential force in this world. 

Everything in the universe is relative. Everything exists in contrast to something else. Tall is tall because it is compared to short. And good can come into being only when there is evil to compare it to.

Deep down we know this. But it seems like the message has been lost of late.

If all we can do is sit around and talk, evil wins. If we let it affect our reality, and we get sad and mopey because of events we hear about that don’t directly concern us, evil wins.

The only way that evil doesn’t win is to do your work regardless. Acknowledge evil is there, and be a force of good against it. Less talk, more action.

If you think talking about it will make it go away, you are useless. You are nothing more than a commentator, a reminder of the problem. You are not part of the solution. It isn’t enough to simply voice your opinion.

But then what is enough? There are so many problems, there is so much madness, there are so many issues to deal with. What can one person possibly do?!

Simply this: do your work. Do that which is unique to you, do it with all the love and energy and good that you can do it with. Push forward in spite of the evil around you.

Remember that one story in a thousand that you hear about, which actually warms your heart instead of making you feel bad? Be that story in your own unique way.

The reason we love Edhi is because he did exactly this. He saw the evil around him, he acknowledged it, and then he became a force of good against it. He started small, much smaller than the evil around him, but he did not falter, and he did not stop. And he has done more than a thousand men combined. 

Now he is revered, and rightly so. But instead of learning from him and using him as a role model, all we seem to be worried about is why the West doesn’t love him as much as we do. All we can muster up is more commentary.

Tribute sketch I made for the great man a while back

Tribute sketch I made for the great man a while back

Do your work. Don’t pay attention to what doesn’t concern you. Your faux compassion for the victims of FATA drone strikes is utterly insignificant. Your Facebook statuses of indignation change absolutely nothing. Your feeling bad because evil exists is a selfish feeling borne more of guilt than compassion. Just do your work, contribute however you can, devote yourself to your trade, craft, passion, or faith, and carry your own torch as far as you can against the darkness. 

I am working towards making contributions in my own small way. I’m teaching kids in Abbotabad Engineering coursework from MIT’s curriculum (and they are doing very well). I’m participating in campaigns for NGO’s, trying to use my artwork to forward a positive message. I’m in the process of launching a Tshirt brand which is geared towards embracing our quirky, silly sense of nationalism. Because levity and laughter are essential; evil does not like these forces since they are stronger than it. And I’m working on a couple of art exhibitions which will promote a slightly different narrative than the norm. 

None of these sound like revolutionary steps. They aren’t. They are simply what I want to do at the present, how I best think my individual talents can be used over here. And that is all any of us should aim to do. Use our individual talents to contribute in our individual ways. Less talk, more work.

This may sound like airy fairy bullshit to some of you, and so be it. You needn’t come back to this blog again. But if you agree, go out and do likewise. Be the change you want to see, rather than just talking about it. It kills me to see the commentary, in person and especially in the Comments section of various publications. Especially since people think they are actually helping.

You aren’t. Talk is essentially useless. Just do your work.

Laugh Motherducker !

laughcat

A beggar will go up to a car sadly, plead, whine, mewl. The driver will stare at her sadly, then drop some money in her hand. She will walk away sadly and he will drive away sadly. A bunch of teenagers will hang out sadly, and between “yaars” and “bros” will commiserate with each other about how sad life is. A gaggle of housewives will sit down behind expensive china, and sadly talk about how shitty their husbands and lives are, with a little servant boy sadly bringing them pastries, while in the background HumTV sadly tells them what to think. Waiters, shopkeepers, businessmen, news anchors, cricket players, even the Prime Minister, will always look perpetually sad and despondent. And most of the time they aren’t even faking it.

This place has become one big pity party. Everyone is sad, and comfortable being so. Almost every social transaction is undertaken beneath the umbrella of gloom and depression, so that you are actually worse off for having reached out to another human being in many cases. Simply put, sad people will make you sadder. It’s infectious, and more harmful than a zombie outbreak. Over here it’s considered a normal, accepted way of being. Happiness is looked upon as weirdness. If you laugh too much, or too loudly, people will give you funny looks. You better shut the fuck up with your happiness, their eyes warn. Be miserable like the rest of us.

This is just not good enough.

The poor are sad because the nature of their daily trials don’t allow them the luxury of mirth. Fair enough. The more well-to-do are sad because the poor are poor. We don’t want to be that asshole – laughing and joking while the country burns. So the big lie we feed ourselves is that our sadness is justified; that it counts for something. Look at me, I am commiserating. Boo fucking hoo. I am showing solidarity with my fellow brethren. Now excuse me while I sadly eat some more samosas and sadly play on my iPad and leave sad comments on social media.

We also play sad because life is cheap here; just about anyone is expendable. Personal safety is simply not guaranteed. And that’s a pretty sad notion. Let’s just keep our heads down to up our survival rate; that crazy person who is super exuberant and joyful is going to get it one of these days, we say to ourselves. We are simply being realistic.

But both of these notions, and any others that lead to the same behavior, are wrongheaded lies. Your being sad doesn’t help the poor of this country. Your being sad certainly doesn’t improve your odds of escaping the fickleness of fate. All your being sad accomplishes is your sadness. It is a selfish, vicious cycle which loves to feed off itself; before you know it, the years in your life and the life in your years have been wholly consumed by your sadness. And then you can die sadly.

Because being perpetually sad is unnatural. Man was designed to laugh and make merry, it’s a critical aspect of being human. I’m not saying we should all start crazy happy laughing frolicking and running around (even though more of that would be beautiful to see) – but I am saying that sad people are fucking useless; they are too busy being sad to get anything done. If you think you are helping by commiserating, then that is you being silly. Which isn’t really a surprise, because sad people are silly people.

Consider the alternative for a moment: to be brave enough to be happy, joyful, appreciative of life, no matter what pile of poop smacks you in the face. This is a more difficult option – choosing love is always more difficult than choosing fear – but it is infinitely more effective. Because let’s face it: most of our problems aren’t really that bad, we’ve just gotten comfortable complaining about meaningless shit. All of us, boys and girls, men and women alike, have started acting like arthritic aunties, scrambling past each other to see who can woe-is-me our lives away faster. And as for the real, pertinent problems that we do have: those will only be solved by action, not by pity or guilt or misery.

A friend of mine very rightly says that it has gotten fashionable to be depressed over here. That’s the persona many well-to-do and well-off people, especially youngsters, will adopt, because it fits the cultural narrative. But it’s a bullshit, debilitating character to embody. It helps absolutely no one, except maybe hash dealers.

The Law of Attraction has been built up a lot, but at its basics its a poetic description of a simple human concept: our brains operate on patterns, and sift through external information based on whichever pattern is activated within. If you think the world around you is shitty and sad and mean to you, you’ll find evidence for that wherever you look. But if you dig deeper and search for love and happiness and courage and beauty, you’ll find evidence for that too, often in the most surprising places. Including within.

So laugh motherfucker. It’s all going to be over soon anyways. Do yourself and those around you a favor and stop being so sullen. Make mistakes, get hurt, laugh it off, rinse and repeat. Taking yourself, or this life, too seriously, may well be the greatest waste of time. Let go of your need for control. That is all a lie anyway. Instead, offer all that you can to the world, every ounce, every kernel, every nugget, instead of sitting around complaining about how little the world offers you. You might just make a difference that way, and you’ll have some fun doing it too.

Animal Baagh

animal_farm

Remember the Orwell novel about the animals on the farm? The animals, overworked and underfed, decided one day that they had had enough, incited a revolution, overthrew ‘The Man’, and took over. What started off with the best of intentions soon turned into standard fare, with power battles and the greed of a few individual pigs overshadowing the good of the animals at large. Eventually the system returned back to normal, the only difference being instead of people living up in the farmhouse running shit, you had pigs playing that role. The other animals still lived in squalor.

I’m going to use Orwell’s template to illustrate a simple idea. Imagine the same farm, only instead of a revolution, the white man decided to up and leave one day. After years of exploiting the animals and making himself rich, he can no longer stay on this farm. Or the neighboring one for that matter. The animals rejoiced and celebrated their independence. They warily inched their way towards the farmhouse, and started learning to run the farm for themselves.

Since oppression by a foreign ruler no longer united them, they found their unity through beliefs, which kind of worked for a while. But they overlooked one key aspect of the transition from being ruled to self-governance: no one bothered to change the system.

See, the man had set the farm up primarily for his personal gains. He didn’t really care all that much about the animals. So long as the cows gave milk and the chickens laid eggs and the horses pulled their weight, and everything returned to the farmhouse, he was happy. The farm was set up, as most colonial farms are, to extract the resources of the land for the benefit of the few.

Once the man left, the animals didn’t bother to change the system. The pigs initially entered the farmhouse with awe, but eventually got used to lavish surroundings, and simply plugged themselves into the white man slot in the system. Ultimately, once enough time had passed, they began expecting it all as being rightfully theirs in the first place.

It was heyday for the pigs because the system was set up for exploitation. The piggies didn’t care for temperance; they came in power and started pulling resources into their own piggy pockets, getting rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Of course, you had your inter-pig conflicts. This pig said enough is enough and brought his attack dogs to overthrow that pig, and so on. They introduced new unity tools, promised reform and windmills and bread, cloth, home for the other animals, and gave louder and more impassioned speeches just to gain entry to the farmhouse. But still, either through ignorance or – more believably – through greed, none of the pigs bothered to change the exploitative system at its most basic level. None of them decided to tear the farmhouse down, or develop proper mechanisms to distribute resources back to the animals. The system as-is was all just too convenient for those in power.

The animals will never have peace and prosperity in this system. They’ll just continue doing what they know to do; plod along, their voices unheard, the fruits of their labor being devoured by greedy pigs behind the high lavish walls of the farmhouse.

In the final scene of Orwell’s book, the animals peer through the farmhouse window, watching the pigs dining with men. They look from face to face, but can’t distinguish between the men and the pigs. The book ends there, with the animals realizing that nothing has really changed in their miserable lives.

Our story hasn’t yet reached there. Even though it’s been about 8 years since the white man left (which in animal years is about 66), the animals seem not to realize that they are still oppressed. Or they’ve gotten so used to the misery that they don’t care anymore. They still see hope where there is none; they still support this pig over that one, not realizing that the pigs aren’t the real problem.

The system is. The pigs are just an obstacle to be overcome.

Lose Yourself

The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao.” – Lao Tzu, 6th Century B.C crazy person.

“I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh, famous ear surgeon.

We dont know one-millionth of one percent about anything.” – Thomas Edison, famous plagiarizer of celibate Austrian scientists.

A girl once asked me to describe myself in one sentence. I think it was a test of some sort. I said I was a wanderer, and I still don’t know if I passed the test.

Regardless, the exercise is interesting. You’ll hear this sort of thing asked at job interviews as well. Describe yourself in a single sentence. We love so much to simplify an entire person in to a bunch of words because it helps us fit that person into our world model, which is also just a bunch of words.

But words will never measure up. No matter how great your vocabulary, we are bigger than the words used to describe us, bigger than mental constructs. We will always squeeze and bloat through the cracks of the box a word tries to fit us in. Though incredibly useful, words can often be limiting.

Imagine, if you will, a marble sculpture of the human form, perfectly chiseled and glistening. Then imagine a large white box of roughly the same size upon which someone has scribbled, with a marker, “head, torso, arms, legs”, and so on, in the appropriate anatomical places. On one side you have a sculpture, and on the other, a large box with words on it.

This is the difference between absolute reality and our perception of reality.

“To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness,  man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages.” – Aldous Huxley, famous drug abuser.

And so we build these boxes all around us, starting from a very young age. The process is so slow, so natural, that we forget that we are trapped. Safe and snug we remain inside our boxes, like cats. Every one does this, but the great trick is that no one is aware of it; we all think we are observing the statue in its entirety while everyone else makes boxes. Ha ha, stupid people can’t see the truth, we say smugly to ourselves. Most pompousness and chest thumping is a consequence of this inadvertent hypocrisy.

For the longest time I was cool being a box-builder, borrowing tools and templates from elders and society at large. But maybe I’m not a very good box builder, because the world that I found myself in was one which I didn’t quite like. The rules seemed arbitrary, forced, contrived, for that is exactly what they are. More than anything I couldn’t help but wonder what all I was missing by living in this little boxworld, what wonders I had denied myself only to keep my ass safe from the harsh truths of existence.

So then came stage 2: the total destruction of the boxes, a rejection of boxworld. The disintegration of mental models, fighting against all ‘truths’ that I had taken for granted, losing myself to the chaos. This stage is still ongoing.

And now I’m finally starting to get a glimpse of stage 3. A stage where reality, in all its awful glory has started to become visible to me in little flashes. I see the boxes for what they are, and I use them for what they are, but they remain expendable, like so many hats to be worn and discarded as required. It’s much more fun to be an animal in the wilderness, barking at trees and howling at the moon, than a box-drone, doing what you are told with the placid smile of false comfort plastered on your face, maintaining a strict tunnel-vision view of reality because it feels safer that way.

I have lost myself, or to be more specific I have lost the dress-shirty well spoken shareef larka obey-the-rules version of myself. And in the process I am coming closer and closer to finding out who I really am.

*

Let’s play a game. You are the scientist and you are the guinea pig, and the mission is to lose yourself. The following are a bunch of experiments to aid that cause.

- For starters, answer the following question: how would you define yourself in a single sentence?

Define yourself as male/female/engineer/doctor/democrat/Taher Shah fan/any terrestrial labels of choice.

Define yourself as your hopes and dreams, your intelligence, your imagination, your appointed purpose on this planet, your inevitable marriage to Natalie Portman/Thor guy.

Define yourself as the transient physical manifestation of energy, as atoms, protons, electrons, quantum ‘particles’, meticulously arranged, zappin’ and buzzin’ in a matrix of energy fields mutually interacting with one another.

Define yourself as a finite, time-bound carbon and water based biological creature, eating smaller biological creatures and pooping them out as noxious waste, seeking desperately to propagate your species, the as-yet final product of a process of evolution which has been taking place for more time than you can fathom.

Define yourself as the denizen of a colonized little rock floating around an inconsequential star on the outer edge of an inconsequential galaxy in a vast and impossibly large universe.

earth-from-voyager

Realize that you are all and none of these definitions. Realize that you have no fucking clue about what you really are.

If you don’t know what you are, how can you know anything about the world around you?!

Time to destroy them boxes.

-  Think of your likes and dislikes, label yourself as someone who, for example, ‘loves rap music’ or ‘hates waking up early’. Then do the exact opposite. Find reasons why rap music sucks. Wake up at the crack of dawn and watch the sun rise for a whole week.

- If you are conservative ‘by nature’, think like a wild and reckless animal for an hour a day. If you are wild and reckless ‘by nature’, think like a cautious, conservative person for an hour a day.

- If you are shy in public, go to a crowded place and scream as loud as you can. People will stare at you, but the world won’t end. If this sounds like suicide, at the very least go up to random people and start talking to them. Wear something utterly ridiculous. Let people laugh at you.

- There is this guy at the Uni where I work who, each time he sees me, gasps, touches my feet, bows before me, and asks me to bless him because he is my most humble servant. All because I’m Syed. That word means a ridiculous amount to that man. He has a Syed box in which he has placed me, entirely oblivious to the fact that I am one of the least qualified people to bestow any manner of religious blessings upon anyone. But I am forced to fight through the embarrassment and play along, lest I destroy his box models.

The next time you interact with a person and find yourself applying labels to them, like ‘shareef’, ‘liberal’, ‘maila’, ‘khoobsoorat’, or whatever, and then modifying your behavior to interact with that label rather than the biological entity in front of you, stop yourself. Find ten other labels about the same person, and see how each one changes your behavior. Label that person as simply ‘a fellow human,’ and see how that changes your behavior.

- If you believe strongly in Islam or Christianity or Judaism or Atheism, temporarily take up an opposing belief. Educate yourself. Build a case against your faith.

- If you believe strongly in something like Marxism or Capitalism or democracy, imagine life without those things. Embrace the exact opposite of those beliefs, and build a case against yourself.

- If you hate someone, do something incredibly kind for them. And then move on with your life.

- Meditate over all the evil that exists in the world. Then meditate on all the good. Realize that there is more good happening at any given moment than evil – MUCH MORE ! – and find evidence from your daily life to prove this.

- Meditate/pray/exercise/do yoga daily. Silence your mind and watch how your identity changes. Watch the traits which you long thought fixed parts of your personality melt away.

- Respond to anything you are told with “yes, but…” and then use your head to come up with valid counterarguments. Even if you agree with what is being said. Don’t overdo it or you will lose all friends.

- Go out in nature and start looking at everything in terms of negative space; instead of trees and grass and ground, observe the spaces in between.

- Go out in nature and try to count all the shades of green that you see. Then try to count all the leaves. Then try to count all the plants. Then try to label things as ‘trees’, ‘bushes’, ‘grass’, ‘wind’. Then stop counting and labeling and take it all in at the same time without focusing on any one thing.

- Exercise your peripheral vision daily. Take in all the visual information without focusing on any one thing. Including this computer screen.

- Play with little children as often as you can. Let them lead. Those little bastards remember ancient truths which the rest of us have long forgotten.

- Spend a day lying shamelessly through your teeth to anyone you meet. Then spend a day being completely, brutally, honest. Learn how important both qualities are.

- Get really, truly, mind-numbingly, forget-who-you-are stoned at least once in your life.

- Look closely at the following picture:

eye

That is what your eye really looks like. At that level of magnification at least. Zoom in further and it will look even stranger. Meditate on what else is going on around you that you simply can not see, or choose not to, since you are so caught up in your boxes.

-   Define yourself as Pakistani. Imagine the boundaries on the ground that make this fact true. Then realize that 66 years ago those boundaries did not exist, and you were Indian. Then realize that a few thousand years ago those boundaries did not exist either, and you were member of a tribe. Then realize that a hundred thousand years ago the tribe did not exist, and you were simply an Earthling.

Imagine, like John Lennon said, that there were no countries, no invisible lines on the map. Imagine there was no homeland to provide you with a convenient identity. How would you define yourself then?

- Be completely comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Because you don’t.

“I know that I don’t know anything, but the others don’t even know that” – Socrates, famous village idiot.

- Learn about mind control, about media, about television, about advertising, and how they attempt to provide you with convenient little thought boxes to get you to buy shit and behave in certain ways. Understand that the more you associate with thought-boxes, the easier you are to control.

- If a little voice in your head tells you anything about yourself in absolute terms, make it a mission to prove that voice wrong. You will be surprised at how often you have fooled yourself into believing things that have no basis in reality.

*

And so it goes. I wonder if this post will make sense to anyone, given that the only way to express this thought is through words, of which I am but an average wielder at best (especially when stoned, as is the present case). But I really believe that we need to recognize the boxes we build around ourselves as being nothing more than mental projections applied upon an unfathomable reality. People would be less shitty to each other if they realized that we are all in this together, lost and wandering, no better or worse than the next human being, our boxes no more or less the absolute truth than theirs.

I am trying every day to challenge my hard-held beliefs, to break through boxes, both my own and those imposed upon me by society. I have no idea where this will lead (straight to the loony-bin, some would say), but the process is quite liberating. Reality is a wretched bitch, cold and overwhelming, yet beautiful beyond belief, and the few glimpses she has offered me of herself have left me spellbound. No box will do anymore, I choose instead to remain naked and exposed and let the show play out how it will.

Does this mean anarchy, hedonism, chaos? Far from it. It just means acknowledging the puppet show. And the strings. And the invisible hands behind the curtain. It means being humble enough to, like Socrates, be comfortable accepting both my utter insignificance and my paramount significance in it all. It means being satisfied being an idiot.

In sum, this is some pretty potent hashish.

“It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!”  - Henry Miller, dead guy.

FTS

escape-cat-1

This place needs more original thinkers and less blind followers. More entrepreneurs and less office slaves. More Calvins, less Charlie Browns (our supreme leader is exempt of course, for he can’t help the Charlie Brown resemblance).

Maybe then things can start to work out. Because the problem (one of many) is that the current state of affairs sucks ass. The system is broken, the machine no longer provides for us citizens, and we’re going to have to start taking care of ourselves.

The system of which I speak – adopted as is from the Fahaash West – is as follows, at least for us fortunate ones: Wake up early, wear a uniform, go to school, sit behind a desk – one of many, arranged neatly in grids – listen to a teacher spew forth as much knowledge as his shitty salary incentivizes him to accrue, learn to shut the fuck up, learn to do what you are told, learn to obey the rules, learn to compete with your friends.

Then go to University, supposedly to ‘expand your horizons’. But really in Pakistan all that means is study more, study harder, study longer, all the while continuing to obey/cheat/bypass the same rules of conduct and picking up niftier tricks to do the same.

Then you graduate, celebrate, act like that piece of paper means something. Get a job. Continue to apply what you have learned: wear a ‘uniform’, sit in an office or a cubicle from 9-5, listen to a boss chew you out, learn to shut the fuck up, learn to do what you are told, learn to obey the rules, learn to compete with your coworkers.

And eventually, if you have been a good little boy or girl for enough years, you will get promoted to head drone, where you can chill a bit and supervise the minions and take out the frustrations of your past by making their lives more difficult.

Clearly, I am not a fan. For this system comes with some twisted mathematics built-in:  do mind-numbing chores for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for a bullshit salary, sometimes in a field that you don’t have much interest in, all in the hopes of that promotion in a few years for which you’ll have to battle your colleagues every day. Those are your best, most productive daily 8 hours, of your best, most productive years, that you are giving to some job for monetary compensation which it is difficult to argue is compensation enough for even half the time you are relinquishing. Throw in ridiculously involved office politics, shitty, egotistical bosses, and a soul-sucking conformity enforced by HR regulations, and you have the ecology within which you will spend many of your best hours. And here’s another factoid which nailed it for me: Monday mornings record more heart attacks than any other time of the week, due to the elevated stress associated with returning to the workplace after the weekend.

Sounds like a real fuckin’ dream.

I’ve been off the grid and out of the system for over a year now. And in the words of the great philosopher Borat Sagdiyev, “Is nice!”

Right about now the Sceptical Saleems are wont to speak up. You just want to bum around, they’d say to me. You want to waste your life and are now trying to get others to do the same. Kya beghairti phela rahay ho, haramzaday, etc etc. 

Far from it. I’m more productive now than I ever was doing engineering, mainly because my heart wasn’t in it. All I’m saying here is a simple, obvious little idea, which is this:

The system is not good enough. We have to recognize this truth, and we have to stop making do with mediocrity. Sceptical Saleem may bring forth the argument that yes, it is broken, but the only way to fix it is from the inside. I say fuck that, the way forward is to develop alternative systems, better systems, more up to date systems not tethered to the previous century. More entrepreneurship, more businesses, more internet, less office work for multinational corporations. More Calvins, less Charlie Browns. Think outside the machine. Actually contribute instead of just clocking in every morning and being patient for 8 hours.

The best way to ensure that you make a contribution of worth is by doing work that is personally meaningful to you.

Obviously, it’s not that easy. What is one to do until he finds his life’s work? Who is going to pay the bills? After all there is cable to pay for, CNG to buy, jalebis to eat. One can’t just bum!

If it’s all about making money and saving time, here are a few off-the-grid alternatives that have served me very well:

Think Outside the Office: Or, look for jobs online. The Internet has torn a hole through conventional ideas of making a living. Some of us have woken up to this, but more of us can easily jump on. Anything from writing (technical writing, search-engine-optimization, content writing, etc.) to art (graphic design, illustration, web design) to computer programming and development (insert nerdybabble here), are now fairly lucrative income streams that offer the chance to work from the comfort of your home.

And the best part is, once you factor in the conversion rate from $ to Rs. (currently 1:107.5), even an extremely low paying job will pay your bills, and then some (a $5/hour job means a monthly income of Rs. 86,000).

I write technical articles online for a Canadian firm for about 4 hours a week. That is my main source of income, simply because of the ridiculous conversion rate. A friend of mine offers computer programming skills to international developers, and he makes $60/hour, whilst sitting at coffee shops and other places of poondi. You do the math.

But if it’s so lucrative, asks Sceptical Saleem, then why isn’t everyone doing it?!

Simply because people are unaware of this alternative to office drudgery. Also, it’s kind of anti-establishment, quitting your job and working at home without trousers on, so of course it’s not going to be publicized. And it requires a decent amount of effort to set up right. But it’s worth everyone’s while to look into online income streams, even if on a part-time basis.

A good place to start is Odesk and Elance. Google how best to utilize your individual skills, and have at it. It’s not an instant cash-cow, there will be a learning curve involved, as well as a few months of low-income work, but freedom comes at a price.

If you can make a decent living working just a day a week, you have the rest of the week to do whatever the fuck you want. Then the possibilities for what one can accomplish really get interesting.

Optimize Your Office Work: Or, if you absolutely must work at an office, learn to most effectively utilize your time. Let’s face it, we don’t actually work 8 hours a day in 9-5 jobs; a big portion of that time is spent on Facebook, gossiping with co-workers, waiting on some lazy bugger, or staring out the window daydreaming about another reality. Especially here, where the system is slow, inefficient, and bureaucratic. That is all time you won’t be getting back. If you learn to optimize the work you do, that is time you can then redirect to more meaningful pursuits.

I teach at a University, and it didn’t take long to realize that all the work I have to accomplish can be taken care of in two full days. So I managed, with the help of a totally awesome department chairman, to set it up so that I’m taking classes on two successive days. I am available to the University beyond my classes whenever they need me, for meetings, seminars, events, and whatnot, but it turns out they don’t really need me that often. Two full-time workdays is all I need to take care of my academic duties, leaving the rest of the week free for my own pursuits.  

Do What You LoveI keep coming back to this, but since it’s changed my life, I can’t stress it enough. Do what you love, start moving towards that as a career, even if it’s in baby steps at first. Too often we sideline what we love to do just to do what is considered conventional. But conventional is not always the best way (over here it’s often the worst). Do what you love instead, give it your all, and eventually you will reap the dividends. Your future self will thank you.

I have just recently started earning money off of my artwork, and it’s awesome. It doesn’t pay as much as Engineering, and I don’t know if it’ll make me super wealthy, but the feeling of getting paid for doing something that you enjoy: priceless.

Start a Business: Maybe you make the best gulab-jamans in the neighborhood, or have found a way to run generators on gobar. Whatever your major brainfart, take that next step and make a business out of it. Maybe it fails, maybe it makes you the next Steve Jobs, but regardless, there is no greater teacher than getting bitchslapped by life as you try to steer your own ship. It’s tough, especially dealing with flaky clients, vendors, and service providers, but it’s well worth it in the long run. You will learn valuable lessons that will hold you in good stead for the rest of the ride. And you might just make a difference.

Take More RisksTrust me, you won’t die. The cost of living here is ridiculously cheap (a scrumptious breakfast of Halwa-Puri and Channay costs Rs. 30) ; cheap enough to provide adequate cushion for some good ol’ experimentation. Jump into the unknown. Take paths others are unwilling to try. More Calvin, less Charlie Brown. Go against the conventional nonsense which is being propagated as the best life path. It really isn’t. 

Right now I’m engaged in all four income streams described above. And although I started off with the intention of being an off-the-grid happy-yet-poor bum, it turns out that I’m making pretty decent money this way too. I’d love for more of us to do likewise.

Because the system is broken, this much is fact. You can either continue playing in it, hoping that it pays off someday, or you can detach, and blaze forward on a trail of your own making, learning as you go, holding yourself accountable rather than relying on a boss to tell you what to do. We don’t need more cigarette, soap, or cell phone chip makers. We need more Calvin. We need more Edhi. 

Of course there is risk involved with jumping into the unknown and going against the grain, but to paraphrase Steve Jobs, what do you have to lose? You are naked anyway.

Might as well enjoy it, Charlie Brown.