The “hot chaiwallah”, fame and Pakistan
This week an 18-year old chaiwallah (tea vendor) in Islamabad shot to stardom after a photographer posted his photo online. His intense gaze has captured the attention of South Asia, and he was quickly snapped up for modelling deals.
“Hot chaiwallah” Arshad khan was an unsuspecting player in the creation of his own fame – apparently he didn’t know of the photograph until some street kids showed him the image – they said the pictures had been dropped from a passing helicopter.
Instant fame – the type that seems to be the dream of so many. This got me thinking about my own experiences with fame, and how this episode sits in the modern state of Pakistan.
I’ve never been famous – this blog, my work on an online media news site, and a couple of fun photo shoots with friends are about as famous as I have ever been. In Pakistan, I am often given special treatment as a “gora” – a white-skinned foreigner. Special seating at events (often, unhappily, separate to my brown-skinned best friends), special introductions to people who I’ve never heard of before (but who I’m assured are really important), and extraordinary invitations for food, chai and more. An element of this is no doubt Pakistani hospitality – the need to shower anyone “foreign” with the best the nation has to offer. However a large part of it is also borne of Pakistani society’s veneration of fame and the famous – and the notion that power, money, fame and success – and the resulting exceptional treatment – go hand in hand, and are always welcome. Many Pakistanis seem surprised when I say that I don’t want to be treated differently to others – especially my friends. More still seem bewildered – who wouldn’t want to be special?
There are several reasons why I don’t want to be given special treatment – the sick racist motivations for doling out special favours to a gora are first and foremost, and are so rooted in the cultural history of the region that they really deserve their own post.
Another reason for my wanting to avoid the spotlight is simply that I don’t want to be famous, special, or known. I am really happy with my life as a “nobody”, and despite appearances on this blog, I am actually a fairly private person who values solitude, my own time to think, doing things on my terms. I would much rather spend a couple of hours with a few close friends than at a party with a hundred fun acquaintances.
I’ve even wondered if this is a socio-psychological consequence of the region’s Hindu heritage, and its deification of saints, preachers and other members of society. Because while Islam doesn’t forbid fame, it certainly doesn’t vault certain members of society above others – social equality is a key aspect of Pakistan’s declared national faith.
Although fame is a wish of people everywhere, much of Pakistan seems to be convinced of everyone’s desire for it. I have spent years wondering why this is. Pakistan, more than in many other societies, is a place where status matters. If you are somebody, it can ensure your future – connections in this society form the social security net where the government provides none. Particularly Punjabi culture places great emphasis on the visibility of wealth and success as an indication of someone’s value as a person in society – so the opportunity to improve ones standing is not one to miss.
The media (local, Indian and western) also plays its role to portray westerners as excitable, fame-obsessed, decadent, rich and extroverted. No wonder many locals are shocked at my wish for an “aam admi” lifestyle – it’s at odds with everything the local and foreign culture has ever dictated to them.
Unfortunately I can’t help but think that this is one of modern Pakistani society’s greatest losses – wither the thoughtful Allama Iqbal, national poet and inspiration for the nation, and long live the “big men” – people who can live however they want and do whatever they want, as long as they have a connections, a security detail, tinted car windows and whatever else is required to insulate them from real life in Pakistan.
Such is the grind of daily life for many Pakistanis that being a “big man” seems like an instant solution to many of life’s woes. I’m fortunate enough to have a close group of very good Pakistani friends who understand and respect my wish not to be on a pedestal.
So I wish Arshad Khan all the best for his new found fame – luckily for him, he seems to have welcomed and embraced it with enthusiasm. It is my wish, however, that those who don’t want to be famous not be thrust unwillingly into the linelight… because not everyone welcomes it.