Is it possible that women have just got more patience and forbearance, and so get stuck with the most dull, irksome and yet vital tasks?
Shall I be British and write about the weather this week? I think it is warranted — various local friends have told me that a hailstorm in June, as struck Lahore last Thursday, is not exactly a run of the mill occurrence.Every time it has rained in the last week or so, in fact, I have observed a small ceremony of appreciation. I get up from my desk, put on my oldest and muddiest flip-flops, and step out of the front door. Then I just stand in the rain for five or ten minutes, wandering up and down in front of my house, enjoying being rained upon. I tarry especially long if there is cloud and wind, and therefore a chance of getting cold; I can’t quite bring myself to head back inside until I have really concentrated on the experience of goosebumps. Remember this, my body seems to be telling me. It’s sweat only until the next time it rains.
If I was any sort of scientifically minded individual, I would use this as a chance to ruminate on climate change, extreme weather and the like. But I’m an anthropologist, so I’m going to wander off into some more musings on the national psyche. Now is your chance to put the paper down.
Obviously, any Punjabi hearing a Brit complaining about the rain must think we’re utterly nuts. There, rain is an annoyance that means dripping noses, numb fingers and long-term rising damp. Here, it is a renewing of the world that is so beautiful after a few days of sauna-like build up that it seems like a gift from God. If I were a Muslim, today I would be giving thanks for rain. All five times. I don’t think it is a mistake that extreme climates tend to produce more interesting religions.
The downside to the almost cathartic relationship that the population of Punjab can reasonably be expected to have with rain, is that when it’s not raining the summer beats the people into the ground. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that some of this country’s idiosyncrasies — what I as a foreigner perceive as a general surliness and apathy among many ordinary Pakistanis — could (in Punjab at least) be related to the combined effect of centuries of debilitating heat bearing down on the national mood.
The British and most other rulers have historically retreated to the hills come June (do you think it’s a coincidence that after independence the capital was sited so conveniently close to the galis? Remember — independence came before air conditioning); for those who can’t afford to do so, the only option is to slow down, slow down, and slow down, taking everything to a pace that means it can be accomplished with as little thought as possible through dehydrated and heat-beaten perceptions.
I recently met a British man whose business is to build methane production plants as an alternative fuel source in the villages of Balochistan and Punjab — basically this means digging a large hole in the ground, filling it with cow dung, and installing the correct equipment over the top to capture and channel the resultant methane to be burned for fuel. He can give a village a steady supply within days.
While this is generally appreciated by all in the village, he says, it is the women who are most joyfully grateful. The plant frees them from the odious task of preparing the dung themselves — forming it with their own hands into patties for burning. Not only unhygienic and smelly, this process means they lose thirty percent of the fuel itself.
Now this, to me, epitomises how I imagine rain would fit into the mind of anyone from such a climate as this. The work of keeping a house running in a village is not intellectually hard, but it is dirty, boring, and above all in summer, hot and sweaty. If this inculcates a certain reverence for the cooling and cleansing rain (ignoring for a moment the muddy after-effects of any rain storm on baked, dusty soil), I would not be surprised in the slightest.
Furthermore I am not surprised that the men of the villages my friend visits are far less proactive and enthusiastic about the methane plants than the women: if they got off their a***s, he says, and built such devices for making life better themselves, there would be a lot more joy in the country — but they don’t because firstly, it’s too hot, and secondly, the women deal with that sort of thing.
Is it possible that women have just got more patience and forbearance, and so get stuck with the most dull, irksome and yet vital tasks? I’m not basing this on any empirical evidence. And yet from what very little I have seen of Pakistani women once inside the home, dupatta discarded and sleeves rolled up, there is a definite cast iron source of determination and staying power there which is being sadly neglected because of the pressing demands of “roti, kapra aur makan” that keep a household together.
It’s no mistake in my opinion that some of the greatest political and social figures in contemporary Pakistan — freed by their wealth from cooking, finding fuel, looking after the kids, or simply by air conditioned houses from sweating their energy away in the process — are women. They exemplify a spirit of strength present in so many women in this country that only needs to be given a little bit of slack to force its way out and start shouting.
If Sherry Rehman or Asma Jahangir can have inspiration and insight, so can a wife or daughter from a tiny village, if they just had five minutes to think clearly about it. Whether this is provided by a rainstorm, education or simply getting the dung off their hands, anything that gives women a chance in Pakistan is an excellent idea.
A final thought: I found myself idly chanting along with the azaan for the first time the other day. Perhaps there is something in this ‘rain and religion’ idea after all.
The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times
Source: Daily Times, 9/6/2008