Meet Basharat, your friendly neighbourhood Djinn
It has been five years since I was introduced to Basharat by my driver Ashraf. It was by all definitions, a rather odd encounter. Ashraf had been hired by my grandmother twenty five years ago to act as my mother's chauffeur provided he agreed to two conditions. The first was that he be open to being called Ashraf over his real name 'Aashiq Maskeen' (gentle lover) and the second that he kept his 'magic business to himself'. Ashraf's dubious credentials included driving a rickshaw on and off the streets of Lahore for twenty years; making an astoundingly good 'missi ki roti' (sugary bread) and dabbling in the black arts, for allegedly white purposes. Six years ago he rejoined the family to cart me back and forth from college and thus began my introduction into said 'magic business.'
One particularly hot afternoon, as I was sitting in the backseat of our beat-up, plum coloured Lancer trying desperately to massage a headache out of my skull, he asked me what was wrong. I responded traditionally by saying that it was nothing, which he countered with, "What nothing Baji? I clearly see that three djinn's have been bothering you for two days now." Not really knowing how to respond to that, I decided to let my amusement prompt me into asking for him to mediate on my behalf. "No worries, Baji. I have already put Basharat on it, he is sitting right next to you and will guard you for the rest of the day. In fact, I will ask him to keep a vigilant eye on you from now on," he said in his typical, smiling monotone. I recall, spending the rest of the ride home sporadically glancing beside me at the empty seat and wondering whether or not I should offer Basharat a bite of my sandwich. Eventually I decided against it.
It is often said that Pakistanis will believe anything; indeed our voting records inherently support this claim. At the time, I had considered myself to be a relatively educated, logical individual not at all prone to 'silly superstition'. Then again, we are all programmed to believe certain things -djinn amongst them- since childhood. I realised that day, however, that there was a substantial difference between 'theoretically' believing in the existence of djinns and being introduced to one as your constant, invisible, guardian henceforth. The encounter clarified for me that while I certainly didn't believe in Basharat, I was most definitely curious about him. I thereby asked Ashraf to tell me more about his precarious 'side-business' and he was enthusiastic enough to describe how it all worked.
Ashraf took me to several shrines over the next few months and I realised a dimension to superstition that I had not previously considered. This dimension involved 'power'. Ashraf, who was a driver by day and a Pir on weekends had access to an odd brand of one-dimensional power, unlike many of our 'Power Pirs' in parliament today whose jurisdiction extends on several levels. He frequented several shrines throughout Lahore, where dozens of people came to him seeking respite from their supernatural woes. He told me that he prescribed 'spiritual treatments' for the metaphysically battered and bruised. These included masaala's (spices) particularly Coriander, for some reason that he would not elaborate upon; amulets against the evil eye; semi-precious stones for protection and tavis. I remember asking him what he wrote on his tavis', seeing as Ashraf was Christian, but he responded by saying "no one cares what is in it Baji, as long as it works," and I couldn't really argue with that logic seeing as it happened to be a national mantra.
He told me that all his decisions were monitored by Basharat, who seemed to be the spiritual attending to his mortal resident doctor in most of these cases. Basharat had once prescribed that a child keep a cockroach in a bag with him wherever he went, because it would invariably irk the djinn who was distracting him enough to keep failing his exams. I admit I never tried that technique myself but was exceedingly curious to hear whether it had worked.
Ashraf's exploits taught me a lot about the nature of power; of how a rickshaw driver could transform himself into a local, parochial messiah on the weekends because he was selling an invisible placebo magic that couldn't be seen, touched or understood. Now where have we all heard that before?
The interesting thing about the nature and need for superstition is that it thrives on notions of 'blind belief'. By its very definition, superstition is a credulous belief 'not based on reason, knowledge or experience', which tells us plenty about why it thrives in a culture like ours. Of course this is not to say that superstitious traditions do not thrive globally. Indeed the re-emergence of the old 'New Age' has brought with it much in the wake of superstition, from the practice of wicca being recognised as an official religion to healing crystals, aura readings and tantric sex. But whether it be hoodoo, voodoo, pow-wow, benedicaria, palo monte, santeria, catimbo' or just our every day 'kaala jadoo', what needs to be closely examined is the reverence for 'ignorance'. Although much of superstition is often the result of ignorance, this is not exclusively the case. Ignorance that isn't superstition usually emerges as a result of unavailability of information, mistakes in reasoning or...and yes, we must concede...'blind belief'.Granted there are degrees of superstition, it rises from the minor leagues of 'nazar' (evil eye) to full on 'djinn utaarna' (exorcisms) and we all partake in it to some degree. I suppose the most common variant involves 'qismat' (fate/luck) whereby anything good that happens in our lives is a result of divine will but all the bad stuff is merely a test to see if we've got what it takes. While I admit, that I do occasionally read my horoscope for kicks and that the desperate romantic in me even carries a rose quartz key chain to attract 'true love', I recognise this frivolity to be harmless fun rather than fact.
Basharat became a regular feature of my conversations with Ashraf over the next couple of years. Ashraf always referred to him as if here sitting right with us, he would occasionally describe his moods and the fact that he didn't approve of my drinking as much coca cola as I did (Basharat had very definite anti-zionist leanings). All in all, I indulged Ashraf's mureed (cohort / subordinate) because I knew that if my scepticism ever emerged openly our carefully cultivated rapport would be lost. A believer can never truly stomach a sceptic, because the latter's refusal to take anything for granted is always perceived as a slight. For some inexplicable reason, a sceptic can never simply be acknowledged as someone who has made the choice to stick with the logical over the illogical and it is always, always taken personally.
The last time I encountered Basharat was four years ago on a particularly eventful Thursday. Ashraf had taken me to visit the Sin Mian Mir Ji mazaar in Lahore facing the Lahore fort. As I took photographs for one of my college courses, Ashraf 'treated' his posse. I recall taking photographs of dozens of pigeons (which seem to be a patent feature of any shrine or mazaar in Pakistan) and thinking about B.F Skinner. In 1948, Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology involving his pigeons. He stated that his pigeons were exhibiting, what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon would make constant turns in its cage, while another would swing its head in pendulum motion and others also displayed a variety of repetitive behaviours. According to Skinner, all these behaviours were undertaken ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had been pre-programmed to release food at set intervals regardless of the pigeons' actions. He posited that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by heightening the performance of their tasks and extended this as a proposition to explain the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans.
I remember glancing around me at whirling malangs and others who sat cross legged on the floor shaking their heads from side to side, while others yet packed tiny paper scraps with masaala's to place under pillows for the 'spritiaually ill'. I recall thinking that Skinner may have had a point. Almost everyone I could observe at the shrine was repeating something; a movement, a mantra, a dance in an attempt to access some giant, invisible dispenser or hope.
That evening, I remember bolting out of my room screaming because there were two lizards chasing each other on the wall above my bookshelf. I ran downstairs to engage recruitment's for the on-going massacre that needed to take place before I could inhabit my space once again. Ashraf came upstairs and chided me. He said that lizards and reptiles in general, were 'protectors' and that I ought to just let them be. "Baji, Basharat brought them here for your protection, he will mind it if you kill them," he said. It was at that point that the facade I had been nurturing collapsed. I was not exactly polite when I asked Basharat to leave me be and abandon his duties as my personal watch-demon.
I still sometimes wonder whether I truly offended him and he is exacting his revenge by ensuring that the advent of every summer greets me with the presence of a lizard glaring at me from above my bookshelf.