I was a shy normal kid, just a tad bit more curious perhaps, but nothing was non-compliant about me. I did what I was told, believed what they fed me to think. However, I started to ask questions and developed an intriguing mind somewhere along the lines. It was then that I became obnoxious in the eyes of my family, teachers, and the Qari Saab, especially the Qari Saab.
Life kept on passing; things kept normal; they kept whipping and abusing me to keep me from becoming the dreaded “divergent kid” until I started to see through a lot of the facade that had been built up. I sought answers, and a book store in my hometown of Multan became my source of “knowledge.” The first book I picked up from my own money was “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong. The book made me see things from a different perspective and, most importantly, taught me how to question things. Later on, I read additional material from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Carl Sagan, to name a few.
I started working for a small Communist magazine where I translated some of their articles into Urdu; it was all a magnificent journey. I was learning and meeting people who had interesting ideas, translating books, and most importantly, learning and questioning things; little did I know that it was all going to have consequences.
One day a group of us were sitting at my home, and a relative saw us holding out the magazine, which had a substantial communist monogram on its cover page. The relative, upon seeing this, said to my face that he would murder me if he found me working against Islam. I was naive and laughed it off, but soon after, I heard the news that Rashid Rehman (the lawyer working on the case of Junaid Hafeez) had been gunned down in Multan in 2014 and the gravity of the situation hit me. I was in my mid-twenties then, and upon hearing the news had my first panic attack. I realized that the threat made wasn’t just verbatim; it bore within it deep-rooted hate, vengeance for a perceived threat I held for the person’s belief system. The person started propagating amongst friends and family that I was becoming a divergent and non-conformist individual amongst friends and family. The problem was that this was true. I was divergent, I was a non-conformist, but now I had to hide it.
I hailed from a very conservative family and was unaware that anxiety disorder is a reality. I started feeling unsafe around the very people I called my family. My presence around them would trigger me, and their exhibitionist religiosity would annoy me to the very core. It was then that I first started taking medications for depression and anxiety disorder.
Now, there’s a word for it, prisoner of conscience: people who cannot expose their true self. I remember watching the video of Mashal Khan’s lynching and thinking this could have been me. Perhaps, a lot of us divergent people will remember the feeling. The memory embedded in our heads; that feeling of powerlessness and trauma resonated across the saner sections of our society. I remember a friend whose son went to a school sharing her fear for her child because of his curious mind and the relatively peaceful and open environment. It was as if the already shrinking space in the country had just gotten a lot thinner as if anyone could just route up hatred for anyone and lynch them to death. As if every conversation had to stay clear of anything that could be considered a touch controversial. It felt like our lips were being sealed with an ever-present fear, and an invisible check was imposed on all of the divergent thinkers. It didn’t matter which faith you were from, which sect you followed; anyone with a touch of sanity or an open and curious mind was a target.
I have been on anti-anxiety pills for more than a decade ever since that fateful day. The thought of facing violence is ever-present, and I rarely, if ever, speak my mind. Most of my time is spent staying clear of people, especially those I am not familiar with. But, this sort of existence is hard to lead, and it feels as if I am living in prison. Especially when left and right, I see people being lynched, forcefully converted, killed, all for having a different faith or being ideologically divergent.
*Note : The name of the Author has been changed for the protection of his identity