People often wonder – as I do so myself – of the things that shaped me into the person that I am today. Defiant, carefree, brazen maybe even controversial. Of course, events had a lot to do with it but also the people who waltzed their way in and out, leaving a mark in their own special way. Friends, lovers, foes. I was always unlucky in love but very lucky when it came to friendship. Platonic companions who taught me how to live with a balance between sanity and hedonism. Girls these days may seem a dime-a-dozen with their aped shock-the-world attitude but back when we were all supposed to be ‘sweet’, ‘haughty’ and ‘innocent’ – such girls were not only a rarity but also heavily penalized for their unabashed demeanors. Yet, I chose to befriend such girls and learn from each and every one of them. Alisha (the promiscuous and unconventional girl from the States in Pakistan for the first time). Afia (the over-ambitious girl determined and destined to leave the mediocrity of her Karachi Company home for a life of glamour and decadence). And then there was Jenny (A best friend in college who personified class and poise yet possessed the street-smart astuteness of a girl raised in the projects of Compton). I could dedicate a section to each of them in this piece but it wouldn’t be fair. And since there is just too much ground to cover, we really should tread along. Shall we?
Before I had ever met my Jenny from the block and a few months after having dealt with the mysterious disappearance of my best friend Alisha; there came into my life an inspiring, go-getter called Afia from Karachi Company. We had met on the #Pakistan channel on mIRC. For those of you who don’t know what those acronyms mean, I’m revoking your FOB membership card. Also, just to make it very clear, I wasn’t really trolling the chat-rooms for women – my elevator doesn’t stop on the lesbian floor – I was simply chatting with random people on the main screen. A certain nick called Pakizah caught my eye and we immediately bonded over our shared habitual sarcasm when it came to misspelled nicks that typed ‘Madam-can-I-be-your-boyfriend’ on the main screen. Pakizah was hilarious and I was instantly drawn to a girl who was enjoying typed praises from all the men in the chat-room. Every five minutes a loser with an equally sad nick like ‘L0V3RofallFR13NDS’ would profess his undying love for Pakizah along with a pitiable rose crafted on the keyboard: @}—‘,---
Her replies: ‘LOL, ROFLMAO I need a man with money not a cyber-café loser!’
Apparently a chat-room regular, she was savoring each click and tap of her cyber popularity. As snooty as she seemed, the boys remained relentless in pursuing her.
And I had to agree, all these acne-layered boys who probably sat in their shorts and shalwars hoping to meet a Lara Croft on the internet, were not worth our time. So I chatted with Pakizah instead and pretty soon, we were typing ‘hahaha’s’ and ‘LOL’s’ as we made fun of the losers on the main screen together. So honored was she to have met a female like herself, she gave me 3 free passwords. Ok, for those of you who weren’t around during those days, internet access in Pakistan was bought from shady offices called Supernet or Cybernet that sold hours. Pakizah on other hand boasted of a list of passwords with several pre-paid hours. Later, she told me how easy it was for her. She would flirt with the boys in chat-rooms, call them a few times to let them hear a girl’s voice. Then, carefully she would craft a sob story of how she lived with conservative parents who wouldn’t allow her to talk on the phone so the only way she could communicate with them was over the net (emails/chat/ICQ). The men – now already falling in love with their first girlfriend – gave her their passwords along with sappy and mushy Blue-Mountain cards with animated hearts and corny ring-tone-ish ballads beeping in the background. The words ‘Missing You’ shimmying across her email inbox with such desperate longing only to be deleted. But the passwords she kept for herself. In a few months, the boys would realize that they had just been conned and they would eventually change their passwords. Still, the fact that Pakizah’s stash of pre-paid passwords were never depleted should be indicative of how many boys in Pakistan would kill for a ‘garrfrand’. As for Pakizah, I loved her already and we decided to stay good friends.
In the beginning, we exchanged a few customary emails, then one day we decided to talk on the phone. The minute I heard her voice, I was shocked.
‘Hello Padash, hoe are you, I am Afia from Karachi Company. Pakizah is my nick-handle on Pakistan channel’.
She sounded nothing like I had imagined. A mousy voice drenched in a strong Punjabi accent. While her cyber persona had invoked an image of a badass and sultry Angelina Jolie-esque vamp, all I could picture now was an Anjuman Cholie in a long, oiled braid. Still, even with this anti-climactic discovery she sounded interesting. Her words were almost endearing when inserted statements like ‘This is me only, love me or hate me, I damn care’ would pop up out of the blue! Later that day, I was meeting up with some school friends for bowling at Hot Shots and the next thing I know, Afia shows up like a stalker to say ‘just hello, hi’. My friends instantly began to scrutinize this local girl with judgmental eyes while wondering how I could know such a paendoo girl. Still, in an effort to be courteous, I sat down with her and engaged in polite small-talk. Afia too was well aware of the disapproving looks and sniggers being flung her way but she really did ‘damn care’ as she continued to rant and rave about herself. Instantly, I knew that Afia was no ordinary girl from around the corner. She was a woman with much bigger dreams for herself than what her Karachi Company life offered.
As the weeks rolled by, Afia and I became closer. It was almost refreshing to meet a friend outside of the private and elitist walls of UCI where everyone looked and acted the same way. Aptly referred to as Burger Central by the lafungas who hung outside our gates for hungered peeks of girls in tight tops and jeans instead of the boring white and pallid shalwar kurta uniforms. Afia would shamelessly confess that she wanted nothing more than to be a burger herself. An IT student at Quaid-e-Azam University, she would proudly wear jeans and T-shirts bought from local, knock-off stores and would then devise ways of infiltrating into the world of burgerdom herself. Whenever we talked, she wanted to know about dance parties, restaurants and the celebrities (or their kids) that I went to school with. A world alien to her, she wanted me to describe everything in detail and then she would admit her utmost desire to experience it herself one day.
So determined to transform herself into a celebutaunt, Afia would spend hours repeating dialogues in American movies while imitating accents. I remember when she wouldn’t stop saying ‘As if’ like a broken record after having memorized all of Alicia Silverstone’s quips from Clueless. Still, I encouraged her as much as possible while slowly beginning to detest this tragic culture of elitism in Pakistani society. Afia, became hope for me – or even an experiment unraveling before my eyes– of how this unjust and pre-destined system could in fact be changed. Sure, the noveau riche could one day, swivel a party invite from a contact, private schools for their children and maybe a country club membership from a bribe but would they ever be truly accepted by the so-called true elites? These born-rich, English medium, US educated, Cuaba smoking and Cognac drinking snobs that seem to clout the social scene and the decision-making in Pakistani gentry.
You see, mimicking American accents and British slang from movies and music videos, only allowed Afia the ability to mask her background on the surface. But to enter the social and elitist scene of Islamabad, she had to offer something of potential use in return: a well-connected patriarch, a glamorous name for others to drop or a simply a colossal bungalow to entertain in. Still, naïve to that fact, she would spend hours asking me to detail the self-indulgent lifestyles of spoilt, daddy’s girls of Froebells and UCI. It would invoke in her, a strange excitement, as she would imagine the possibility of being chauffeured in expensive cars to parties where youth danced, smoked, drank and conversed in flawless English. All superficial fantasies in hindsight but had I not met Afia at that age, I would never have known what others outside of our little bubbled world perceived us as. How they would stare from afar and maybe even wish to one day touch: this fate of being born in a privileged family and all the glamour that came with it.
Luckily Afia had discovered the internet at just the right time to help her achieve her dreams. In cyber-space, a person’s class and social status didn’t matter. One could envelope their fabricated personas into whatever they hoped to be. So Afia spent hours trolling the internet for connections or coat-tails to sneak her way past the velvet ropes of the upper class. At first she began talking to boys who lived in the affluent sectors of Islamabad; F-10, F-11 or F-420. These were boys who may have been privileged but were socially awkward at the same time. They existed invisibly or as social misfits in their schools. Lack of self-confidence usually brought upon by a nerdy appearance, obesity or an irksome stutter. They too were able to live out their fantasies of being studs and gods in cyber-space since one really couldn’t see what they actually looked like. A match made in heaven for social-climbing and materialistic girls like Afia. So while the world struck up conversations on mIRC with asl? (age, sex, location?) Afia usually typed in ‘What school do you go to?’ or ‘Where sector do you live in?’ She also made frequent appearances on channels such as #Froebells and #UCI to cruise for similar prey. I have to admit, I was amazed at this girl’s determination. She would ask me if I knew of a boy called blah blah at my school. I would confirm that he was a pimpled, overweight boy who never left a corner in his classroom. ‘Purfect’ she would then hiss like a business savy exec closing a lucrative deal. After all, she got rides in expensive cars, meals at expensive restaurants and gifts bought from vacations abroad. The boys in turn began to return to school with raised self-esteem. Amazing what having a ‘garrfrand’ can do to a boy’s ego at that age. For my friends and I, lunch at Pappasalis or dessert at Hot Spot was part of a commonplace routine after school. For Afia, it was a novel experience she had only heard others talk about. Slowly, I began to appreciate what I had long taken for granted.
Soon, Afia moved on to bigger and better things when she began to frolic around the city with certain species we like to call ‘Uncles’. Married men who too had discovered chat-rooms from their glass-castle offices in Blue Area. Chatting with a girl like Afia, gave them the ego massage they had long bid farewell to somewhere after their fourth kid, the last patch of hair on their head and the seventh inch added to their own waistline. Afia was young and hot and thus the perfect candidate for a casual fling or a clandestine rendezvous for these bored but wealthy men. And for Afia, they were men who didn’t have to ask their fathers for money. They were the fathers with the money. Thus began Afia’s escapades with her countless sugar-daddies.
Now sometimes she would meet a man that sounded interesting on paper but when she found a richer, wealthier man the first one had to be ditched. It was a similar experience with a boy called Akbar whom she passed on to me. Desperate for a boyfriend at that time, I embarked on a 9-month relationship with the boy. Most of you may have already read about him in my previous piece (Happy Effing VD to you too!). An opportunist by nature, each man Afia met was an open door or a free ticket out of the middle-class. Each ‘uncle’ she canoodled with sparked a new idea for a possible escape from her current life. She thought about becoming a model, she desired to be a fashion designer, a business executive, a socialite begum of a rich industrialist and once she even toyed with the idea of becoming a fashion photographer. Sure, a little confused but she was inspiring nonetheless. A girl almost the same age as I who savored each chance and chased every opportunity only to make something of herself. I could get all the same things at the snap of a finger but instead I was too lazy and uninterested. I will never forget when she excitedly disclosed to me about the married Ad exec she was having an affair with. He was fearful of his suspicious wife so she suggested an internship at his agency. That way, not only could they carry on their illicit hanky-panky in his mammoth office but she could also walk out with a fictitious yet lionized description on her resume of projects she worked on and all the ‘wonderful’ tasks she had accomplished at this agency.
While some men merely gilded her resume with make-believe internships, others took Afia out for lavish feasts at exclusive country clubs. Places she had only wondered about from the other side of the members-only bougainvillea walls, she now sashayed around alongside the city’s crème de la crème.
Besides being impressed with Afia’s drive to design her own future and destiny, I also admired in her the honesty with which she lived her life and the unapologetic way she lived it. Affairs with married men, sizing up potential dates by their take-home salaries, courting men for dinners and lunches and carrying on pretend ‘relationships’ for free internet passwords were all laurels under her belt. And so jaded had I become with the female clones that cat-walked along the walls of UCI with their droned whining and their priceless accessories, that I welcomed her into my life more and more. I secretly detested those bratty girls who knew nothing but to sneer down at ordinary, inadequacy and difference. So self-righteous they pretended to be with their noses stuck up in the air because in their world, class was synonymous with conceit. On the other hand, I found Afia’s honest confessions both refreshing and exciting. I immediately realized that these were the kind of friends I felt comfortable around and wanted to have in my life. That is why our friendship, even though we belonged to two very different worlds, continued to last.
Now of course, Afia was only able to conveniently pursue her dreams and her antics because she enjoyed a certain independence which other girls in her neighborhood didn’t. She could drive her father Suzuki FX to university or to her cyber dates. Once when we shared ice-cream at Yummy 36, she told me her story. She was the youngest of three children. The eldest of the siblings was a cherished brother whom the entire family had pinned their hopes and dreams on. He was schooled in private institutions while Afia and her sister would take a wagon to Model School. Still he was their pride and joy and so when it came time to study further, their father used all his savings to send him off to England. Sure Afia was resentful of the favoritism and envious of such blatant sexism but she hoped that her cherished brother would one day return home to whisk them off to a better life. One which came with a kothee in F-10. After he graduated, the brother informed his Karachi Company family that he had met a British Pakistani girl and was getting married. The family called and asked if they too could be a part of the wedding but he argued that it was too expensive and all he wanted were their blessings. Discouraged, they still decided to support him. The girl apparently belonged to a rich family and immediately the brother moved in with her family and began working for their father. After that, Afia’s family got a total of four abrupt aerogrammes from him and eventually he faded away from their lives. Afia’s family concluded that although they were happy for him they belonged right here in the mediocrity of Karachi Company themselves. Her parents then immediately busied themselves in saving up for their daughter’s wedding but Afia decided she was going to do what her brother had once promised. She immediately assumed the role of a son in the household. Driving her family around the city, bargaining with plumbers and electricians and negotiating with landlords. She also promised them that one day, she would bring home enough income to not only support them but shower them with comfort. So headstrong had she become that she even argued with her father about pursuing an IT degree over Home Economics. She had decided early on that it was a more lucrative career choice. All her decisions, she made for herself and then dreamt of success, which she struggled each day to make a reality.
I could go on and on about my friendship with Afia because we managed to become extremely close in those two years. How she stood by me after my failed relationship with Akbar and when I wanted to end an affair with a married politician myself, I conveniently passed him on to Afia. (‘Happy Effing VD to you too’) Afia’s men weren’t limited to just rich businessmen. She was later escorting high-powered celebrities around the capital’s party circuit; politicians, television artists even diplomats. Unfortunately, no names will be mentioned as I remain sworn to secrecy for a true friend.
Our friendship didn’t always remain hunky dory either. We had our share of arguments. Nations have warred each other on merely being different, so it was inevitable that the two of us – as different as we were – would one day squabble. A brawl in particular strained our relationship to an irreparable point. Afia had always asked me to invite her to a UCI dance party. Although I would often spend time with Afia to escape the superficiality of my classmates, our friendship was essentially of the furtive and covert kind. She took me to a different world when I wanted but then I would return to my cushioned life built on the fortune of being raised with comforts. What I was accustomed to and what Afia fantasized about. Still, towards the end of my A-levels, I decided to finally invite Afia to a friend’s party. Usually, I would be lucky to have received a invitation myself but since this was a friend’s party, I managed to get an extra one for Afia as well.
She was ecstatic and immediately borrowed an old top of mine to wear. The party was no different from any other party where we swayed to bubble gum beats and smoked our menthols to assert our roles as popular girls and high school elites. It was not till much later when Muzna, the host of the party and one of the most popular girls in school huffed over to my corner and emitted a theatrical and deliberate shudder.
‘What’s wrong darling?’ her friends fawned over her.
‘Gate crashers yaar what else’ Muzna scowled ‘So many cheapsters have snuck in.’
“Uff I cant stand stags. Why cant they just stay on their Vespas where they belong. Isn’t the guard doing his job?”
“He is but you know how they are, they still sneak in. Not just boys. Girls too. You should see this third-class, Bollywood type dancing like a whore. Bitch thinks my party’s a damn mujra.”
The girls cackled and pointed at the girl. Spiteful comments were then flung conspicuously her way as she tried her best to ignore them while dancing by herself.
‘Oh my God! What the hell is she doing?’
‘What a paendoo loser yaar!’
They howled and soon some of the boys even joined in “Dude she winked at me! Where did this weirdo come from anyway?”
I stood there with my ‘friends’. People who had made me popular by association. Girls who had allowed me the privilege of acceptance in high school. Who I would never dare upset. So as they mocked and ridiculed Afia – who really did look out of place on the floor with her filmy dance moves – I pretended I didn’t know who she was either. In truth, I hid behind the other girls petrified that Muzna would find out that I was in fact the culprit who had invited this ‘wierdo’ to her party. For the rest of the night, I avoided Afia. When a couple of friends decided to leave the party early, I immediately tagged along before Afia could spot me. It was a weird feeling of both embarrassment from my peers and guilt from Afia.
The next day as expected, I got a call from Afia. She wasn’t her usual chirpy self. Instead she began her tirade right away.
‘Stuck up bimbos. You are a snob too. What do you guys think of yourself. No one talked to me, no one danced with me…I damn care.’
I wanted to inform Afia that her perception of our world was heavily twisted. That here, people did not socialize at social gatherings. Mingling was reserved solely for familiar faces and conversations were reserved for gossip about mutual acquaintances. Everyone was to represent a surname here even if they were oblivious to that fact. Instead, I shot back. ‘What else did you expect Afia? This is how we are, this is how I am! You cant just become a part of Islamabad’s in-crowd by simply donning a designer T-shirt which must I remind you, came from me. And these boys aren’t your horny married men who will come running when you flirt with them, they have class. They have standards! They don’t date girls from Quaid-e-Azam University or Karachi Company! Did you even see the way you were dancing? You looked like a fool!’
Wont go into much detail but eventually we made peace. Our friendship however was now at an eternally different place. Irremediable. When each word, each thought, each gesture became formal, calculated and deliberate. Fear of being judged by the other during conversations, honesty and comfort now took a backseat. So we spoke only of what the other wanted to hear. Or what we thought they wanted to hear.
After my A-levels, I left for college. Afia and I stayed in touch through sporadic email exchanges. She was genuinely excited for me and wished it was her who was starting an all-expense-paid life in the West. I was glad that even though our little incident had tarnished our relationship’s innocence, it still did not discourage her from chasing her dreams. She still ‘met’ men with important names and notable job titles. A year later, when her agency offered to transfer her to their Germany office, she jumped at the opportunity. She was finally leaving a home and a life she had longed to flee from. Her emails now gushed with optimism. She loved her job, she had bought a cozy flat in Frankfurt and was even able to send home a big fat paycheck to her proud parents. I too was genuinely happy for her.
We met again last year in LA. I was going up for my 28th birthday. Afia had informed me that she too was going to be in LA for work and we instantly planned to meet up. Though we both had other plans, we decided to meet every night for 4am breakfasts in her room.
Meeting Afia was surreal. She looked nothing like I had last seen her. Dressed in a dapper Dolce & Gabana suit, she looked elegant and sure in her short, power bob. Her make-up meticulous, her Blahnik’s intimidating. She welcomed me with a big smile from the top of the lobby’s balustrade as if she was a princess and The Omni, her castle. I had arrived at her hotel after a night of clubbing, a brown paper bag in my hand full of greasy diner food.
‘You look marvelous darling! I love the transformation.’ She exclaimed as we hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks.
‘So do you?’ I reciprocated the compliment, meaning it.
‘I sure hope so. I paid a hefty sum for these.’ She grabbed her two round breasts ‘They don’t lie when they say beauty and perfection comes with a price and a plastic surgeon.’
We spent the next few hours catching up on life on her bed as we stuffed our faces with French fries soaked in Tobasco.
I couldn’t believe how much she had changed. She had become so European even in the way she dangled her clove cigarette. Not a single trace of Karachi Company in the same girl who had once fanaticized about this life. I sat before her in my tube-top and leather pants. How much we had both changed. The protected little daddy’s girl living life out of her shell, perfectly content with her modest bed and breakfast. My clothes worn more for sex appeal than the brand stitched meticulously on the back. Afia on the other hand was enjoying a stay in a five-star luxury hotel as she commented about how much she adored Europe and how unimpressed she was by America. Her parents had even managed to leave Karachi Company and were now living in a nice house thanks to their youngest daughter who had once decided to assume the role of both daughter and son. We had breakfast again a few times after that and then we even shared a limo to the airport together. She giggled lovingly at my NYU sweatshirt, ripped jeans and a backpack as I slid into the cab with her royal highness. Her three pairs of matching Burberry luggage, and her designer suit to travel in. Channel shades on her nose and a chiffon scarf wrapped around her neck as if she was on her way to high-tea at a country club instead of an international flight.
‘God you have become so American!’ she joked. ‘You always did have that hippie streak in you!’
‘God you have become so Euro’ I laughed back ‘You always had that diva streak in you.’
And so we celebrated the fact that we were both finally content in the women we had now become.
I will always admire Afia for everything she taught me. The brash and carefree lifestyle I live today is attributed to what I once learned from that ambitious girl in an orange T-shirt and knock-off jeans I met a long time ago outside a bowling alley. Afia taught me many things but most importantly, that one should always dare to dream. She is a walking example of a person who managed to leave her middle-class life to achieve what she had always set out to accomplish. Her past no longer matters because today, she rubs shoulders with the same people who may have never looked at her twice. When we are young some of us struggle some of us don’t have to. But come tomorrow, its all fair game and that certain classmate, that peculiar acquaintance and that boring cousin we thought would never amount to much may end up being the one we send our resumes to. Even in a nepotistic nation like Pakistan where mostly those born sucking on Cerelac in golden spoons are able to pay their way through a VIP ride.
I don’t know what Muzna or my friends from UCI are currently doing. I have a hunch they are all running a tired boutique bought by husbands and fathers. But I know very well what my Afia from Karachi Company is doing….or should I now say my Afia from Europe!