Friday, February 08, 2013

When Things Go Crazy on Your Back

Category: Life

“People call him Leewano,” my brother told me when the swarthy figure of that teenage boy went off after greeting me in passing at the ground outside my uncle’s house. “His real name Naseem is rarely used, even in his own family.” As he told me about Naseem’s nickname, I wondered why he would be popularized as Leewano, meaning the “crazy one” in Pashtu – my native language. I didn’t feel like asking about it since I could smell that awful linguistic soup called “gossip” behind this nickname; yet, I became curious to learn what earned Naseem that name.

My brother trained young guys from the neighborhood in soccer, and they loved to gather at the ground and practice soccer, or sometimes cricket. Naseem was one of these guys – around 17 or 18 years old, and coming from a poor family with no education or means to live an average life. And while boys from such families, when in their later teens, are expected to start working and earning for supporting their families in my part of the world, Naseem was different. He wanted to learn English and stand out from the crowd in some way. He had a dream –unrealistic or even foolishly imaginative, but he dreamed big.

Not realizing the colossal barrier between social classes in a class-obsessed society, this boy was openly refusing to accept the limits of his social class as defined by decades of tradition around him. He dressed, or tried to dress like guys from the middle class families; he styled his hair, used fairly expensive perfumes, and expressed interest in learning English; and he was seen at the very first Internet cafes in the town when the young men from the upper class (speaking in comparative terms) were just learning to use the Internet there. Above all, he associated with men that would be considered outside his expected social circle. Somehow he had marked my brother as a role model, and no wonder why; with all his education, physical fitness, amiable and confident personality, and friendliness unlimited by class or other social stereotypes, my brother stood out from the crowd. Naseem literally became our family friend, even though most of the time he was still viewed as a poor guy with an unrealistic view of life.

Whenever I heard from the young men mentioning Naseem in the town’s main market area – where I used to visit to pick a CD or use the Internet – he was remembered with ridicule by his popular name Leewano. Many of them even called him so in his face and quite a few times, he picked fights with a few guys, getting into a little trouble. After he associated with my brother and my family, he was not physically threatened much by people. Yet, the arrows of gossip kept piercing his memory without any respite. Between laughter and smiles, remarks were passed over Naseem’s dream of living different than his class would expect: “He thinks he’s goanna be a hero,” “What’ll he do if he learns English, which he can’t anyway even in a hundred years?” “Leewano is in need of psychiatric treatment.” These and many others on a daily basis.

“Karim Khan, you know,” Naseem said to me one day as he asked me the meaning of a few English words, “people here call you crazy when you don’t live the way they want you to.” I agreed with him and suggested that he should not take people’s remarks seriously; that there was nothing wrong about his lifestyle as long as he stayed away from addictive substances and bad company. My encouragement, unfortunately, was too meek in the face of all the powerful currents the town folk uttered about Naseem while his age, educational background, and social position remained vulnerable, not letting him secure a safe place against the war of words waged on him. Some years later, when I visited my hometown to see my family, I learnt that Naseem was getting into substance dependence. 

“You need to tell the guys out there that it’s not fun,” I told my brother. “Naseem isn’t crazy but he will be if they didn’t check their constant ridicule of him.” My brother too at this stage couldn’t do much to help Naseem as he was also employed abroad by then at an international oil company. Naseem had no support left, not in a small town with traditional ignorance and lack of anything called counseling or psychotherapy. I feared major depression and potential suicide attempt or even violence toward others could get Naseem and drag him into trouble.

Perhaps getting him employed is a way to get him out of the situation, I thought. And I tried to persuade Naseem one day to go for some work and not frequent the marketplace where he would hear what people were saying about him. He kept telling me he had got some offers for job in another city. Once I even heard that he got employed near the capital city of Islamabad; but soon he was back in town, and so was the madding gossip. Behind his back, there was a lot of barking and biting, and it reached him; stabbed him right in his back.
In 2011, I decided to take a break from my writing/editing work and return home to spend some time with family, away from the polluted noisy city environment and in my still green hometown with a hilly view all around. And one day in the marketplace, I came across Naseem. He looked so weak, like famished, with his skin looking much darker and his eyes looking lost as if he was psychologically detached from his physical surroundings.

“Are you okay?” I asked him and I looked at a friend of my brother’s who was there at a mobile accessory shop.
“Yes,” Naseem said. “I am better now. I have returned from the mental asylum in Peshawar.” Learning this, I asked for details. Naseem didn’t tell me much. He seemed hesitant to talk. But he kept asking about how I was doing and how I was lucky to be doing what I loved, referring to writing, and being able to sustain myself in the city. When he left, I asked my brother’s friend about Naseem’s treatment at the mental asylum.

“He was taken there after he attacked his father with a knife one night,” my brother’s friend told me. “They took him to Peshawar Jail’s mental asylum and admitted him there. And Naseem told me the staff there beat him with a club that they use to beat prisoners with. He showed me his back and there were marks of beating with a stick.”

Sorrow and anger surged up my spine at once as I heard this about Naseem. Why the asylum staff would torture him like a criminal wasn’t the big question in my head at that moment for I knew about the state of infirmaries and psychiatric facilities in that part of the world and that nothing could be done to make it better soon. What clawed at my peace was the last part of what my acquaintance told me – that Naseem had changed and had been “treated well” at the jail.

Surely, what he referred to “treatment” was the ages old stratagem of inflicting fear of pain on a subject in order to stifle his person and turning him off into a near-dead yet walking dummy who stares into the space to make sense of the life he is living. I asked what people said now of Naseem, and he told me it was the same: they thought Naseem was crazy and the fact that he attacked his father was the proof. I simply couldn’t take it anymore and I told him that I really thought people who called Naseem crazy were directly responsible for any psychological or related physical harm done to him. If they only cared!

As I walked out of that shop, my mind was cloudy and active in grappling with the question of how dangerous gossip and labeling can get when they target someone defenseless so persistently. The scars on Naseem’s back may have disappeared by now; or he may have got fresh ones if he lost control again and tried to harm someone. But the scars of a distorted identity given through constant instilling of labels by people, who find it fun to label others, are likely to remain with Naseem for a very long time.

It all started on his back as something allowed by the society, even encouraged by them who responded with a smile or some witty remark of one’s own, or mere silence; whether or not he was crazy, those labeling him so turned it into a face for him while acting crazy on his back all along.     

Posted by Prometheus on 02/08 at 05:07 AM | Permalink
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