December Issue 2003

By | Society | Published 20 years ago

She could be any doting parent’s teen princess, except 16-year-old Zahra is hooked on to a variety of drugs, and is sexually active, making her much sought after by the boys in her class. Rearranging her school kameez to show me the butterfly tattooed on her back, she asks, “It’s pretty, isn’t it? I had it done abroad when I was on holiday last summer. Don’t tell anyone, but I also had one of my nipples pierced.”

These, however, are not the only distinguishing marks on her body. According to friends, Zahra was in one of her drug-induced stupors when she fell from her second floor balcony, irreparably damaging her nose. When I ask her about it, she shrugs nonchalantly and tells me she has been sent to rehab three times. However, she steadfastly refuses to accept that she may have a problem: “I’m a teenager, we’re supposed to be out of control sometimes,” she says. “Besides, my parents don’t really care what I do, as long as I don’t embarrass them.”

Sixteen-year-old Asif has a similar history. Addicted to cocaine when he was 12, Asif has twice almost died of a drug overdose, once even breaking his doctor’s nose in a drug-induced rage while the latter was attempting to pump Asif’s stomach. Unable to cope with their out-of-control son, Asif’s parents decided to enroll him in a boarding school specialising in problem children in the heart of the Punjab. Two years and 11 yellow disciplinary cards later, he was asked to leave, despite being the smartest child in his class. “I was very precocious,” he says, “but a complete wild child.”

Asif’s fast and furious lifestyle had a devastating effect on his family. Already plagued by financial difficulties, his parents decided to move to Karachi, and separated soon after. Severely depressed, Asif took to binge-eating, putting on 100 pounds, and was subsequently prescribed Prozac at the age of 14. “I was very depressed, and angry about my utter helplessness,” he says. “It wasn’t easy witnessing my mother suffering a nervous breakdown, and my father drinking himself almost to death. I realised that I was on a fast track to destruction only when I was expelled from my fourth school.”

Asif decided to make a go of his life. His parents have since reconciled and he is now clean of hard drugs. But despite his traumatic substance abuse, he extolls the virtues of what he calls “new experiences.” He also continues to drink with his friends, and speaks highly about party drugs. Claiming to have been obsessed with sex ever since he found his father’s Playboy magazines at the age of eight, he tells me he lost his virginity just two days shy of his thirteenth birthday. He also continues to regard casual sex as acceptable.

Cases like Zahra’s and Asif’s are not unusual. A large number of new generation Pakistanis have similar tales to tell, far removed from those of wholesome shows like The Wonder Years. Almost 90 per cent of the boys I speak to, as young as 10 years old, admit to having experimented with drugs and drink, if not sex, at some point in their lives. Approximately four in 10 indulge themselves regularly, either alone at home, with a group of their friends, or at parties. And depending on who one speaks to, it is estimated that approximately 30-50 per cent of the girls attending the city’s top private schools, have experienced a drug-induced high — most commonly, on dope.

While most school authorities I approach are hesitant to discuss the subject, others have started to recognise drug abuse as a serious problem. Raheel Khan, co-principal of L’ecole, is one of them. She admits that there is a substantial increase in problem children today, and that substance use among teenagers is on the increase. “Two of our children were constantly on a drug-induced high at school,” she says. “A 16-year-old girl called Sana was a particularly sad case. She was addicted to multiple substances. Her parents had split before she was born — the mother had remarried and her father is currently on his fourth wife.”

Behavioural problems are a natural consequence. Khan blames the parents. “Shockingly, in Sana’s case, her own mother encouraged her dysfunctional attitude,” she says. “When even their own mothers have no time for them, kids become very independent. They grow wildly and without any moral, academic or spiritual direction.”

Even those parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives, find themselves boxed in a corner when trying to set clearly defined limits. “Increasingly, more and more kids are being allowed to stay out late at parties or raves, often until the wee hours of the morning,” says one such parent. “Karachi Grammar School and American School parties used to be infamous for heavy-duty fun, but these days kids from all the elite schools — and dozens have sprung up in the last decade — attend the same parties which are notable for their excesses.” And unwilling to seem unreasonable, or out of desperation to ensure their kids ‘fit in,’ a substantial number of parents have taken to revising curfew times until later and later. “We don’t want our children to be social outcasts,” says one parent. “The world is becoming a very competitive place and given that kids today face a tremendous amount of pressure, one has to allow them to let their hair down on occasion.”

Allowing them to “let their hair down,” however, can be as risky as a game of Russian roulette. “Parties often serve as a safe house for those eager to experience a drug-induced high, especially for young girls. As dealers can’t sell drugs to girls at their homes, many girls indulge themselves at all-night raves or even at casual get togethers. “I know a lot of girls who ask for booze and dope,” says Ali, a former leader of an elite youth gang. “A lot of my friends encourage their girlfriends to do drugs,” he adds, “especially if they plan on getting physical. Sex on drugs is fantastic.”

He continues, “Friends of mine wanted me to encourage a girl to take cocaine so that all three of us could have fun with her. I liked the girl, so I would not have any part of this scheme. I tried to protect her and I tried to warn her. But she was a willing victim. Eventually I got rid of the friends and the girl.”

Getting physical meanwhile, is now increasingly par for the course. Says a girl from a Defence-based English-medium school with branches across the country, “More and more teenage couples are going all the way. There have been a few instances when girls have had to have abortions, which are paid for by their boyfriends. I even know of a girl who went on a six-month vacation abroad, had her baby, gave it up for adoption, and returned to school for her finals.”

According to an independent estimate, almost five out of 10 school-children now come from broken homes. “Divorces are definitely on the increase,” says Khan. “I would say 25-30 per cent of the students are those of divorced parents, but if you combine them with those who are separated, the number of troubled homes in the elite class can be as high as 40-50 per cent.”

As almost six of the 15 kids I have spoken to are the progeny of divorced or separated parents, this seems like a reasonable statistic. Kamran’s parents, for example, have been separated for the last four years. Fifteen-year-old Mozzy’s parents split when he was 10. Both his English mother and Pakistani father are now remarried — his father for the third time. Mozzy now lives with his grandparents. Ameena is 16. Her parents are also divorced and she lives with her mother. “I was my parents’ love child,” she says wistfully. Then there is Faiz, whose British mother and Baloch wadera father divorced just six months after his birth.

Slaves to social pleasures or the demands of high-profile careers, many parents resort to throwing obscene amounts of money at their kids in place of quality time. Faiz is one such example. He is unique among his friends, as he has enjoyed almost complete independence ever since he turned 13. Subsequent to his English mother’s remarriage, his father, who spared no expense in his son’s upbringing, installed Faiz in a three-bedroom flat in London’s Knightsbridge. Faiz lived there, on his own, until his eighteenth birthday. When news of his son working in one of London’s trendy gay bars trickled back home, his father insisted Faiz return to Pakistan, where he was enrolled at a posh school and told of his impending nuptials with a cousin. Needless to say, Faiz’s life was thrown into a spin. “I have all the luxuries that money can buy,” he says, “but no sense of belonging. I am gay, and though Pakistani by birth, that has not been my life experience. Now I have to adapt to life in a country that is homophobic and strange.”

In a classic attempt at keeping up with the Jones’, parents often resort to buying inappropriate gifts for their offspring in the form of cars, designer gear — even guns. “We all want to provide our children with the best that money can buy,” says a psychologist at Aga Khan University. “However, sometimes this desire takes on an unhealthy dimension, especially among the nouveau riche, who give their children all sorts of inappropriate items just to massage their own egos.” Whereas in the west a child learns from an early age to earn his own way, parents from elite backgrounds in Pakistan feel it is shameful to deny their children luxuries, thus encouraging a culture where life becomes little more than a collection of status symbols. With substantial funds at their disposal, kids decked in international designer wear — Nike, Gucci, Burberry, Versace, even Armani — and several hundred dollars worth of accessories, are now common sights in Karachi, and almost indistinguishable from kids in any big cosmopolitan city from New York to London to Tokyo. “Boys as young as 14 drive their own jeeps, and are allowed to stay out as late as they like,” says a school teacher. “Unhampered by any parental restrictions, they cruise the city streets like little princes, and pastimes like egging and ‘charpai palti’ are common.”

Almost all of Karachi’s top schools now contain organised gangs (see Gangs of ‘New’ Karachi). And most children in the city’s elite schools can be broken down into two distinct groups — the mailas, as the conservative kids from Urdu-medium backgrounds are dubbed, and the English-medium ‘burgers.’

Ameena and her boyfriend Ali are a good example. Although Ameena considers herself part of the burger elite, boasting a liberal business-class lineage, her boyfriend, a former leader of an elite street gang, is not. “The two groups don’t mix very well,” she says. “In fact, they have a healthy disregard for one another.” She points to a set of tables in the student cafeteria set apart from the rest. “That’s where the mailas sit. They look down upon our liberal lifestyle. Some of them may be jealous that we’re allowed to go out to parties late at night, and that we are comfortable mixing with the opposite sex. For the most part its the fact that the maila kids, believe our outlook is just too westernised.”

young-2-dec03Generation Y kids, are now, more than ever, confused about the choice between east and west. Cut off from meaningful relationships with their parents, and indoctrinated on a heady mix of western liberalism and a rapidly emerging Pakistani pop-culture, they exist in their own little bubble, divorced from the different social stratas around them. Often, their only mentors are their own peers and the generation above them. And life for them, is a party that simply never stops.

We’re gonna party, like it’s your birthday” — 50-cent resonates over the calm waters lapping the shore of the French beach. The scene is an exclusive party for 500 of the country’s 20-30 something elite, hosted by a prominent male fashion designer. All the who’s who are in attendance. Scores of youngsters are gyrating intimately on the carefully constructed wooden dance floor, but few really know whom they are boogying with. Couples, flying high, are sprawled on the beach in various grades of dress or undress, yet others are making out with multiple partners. And if half of them look as if they’re tripping, they probably are.

Rave parties are sweeping Karachi like a tidal wave. For those socially unconscious for the better part of this millennium, a rave party, more often just called a rave, or free party, is an all-night dance event where rave music — psychedelic dance tunes, most notably acid house and techno — which emerged in the clubs, warehouses and free-parties in London, is played, mostly by a DJ. Although the first rave involved the baby boomers at Woodstock in 1969, it is their children — the American and British generation x-ers — raised on a heady mix of libertarian values such as free love, who became the first mainstream ravers. As such these parties are synoymous with experimenting with psychedelic drugs, most commonly ecstasy (‘E’) or the more lethal LSD — drugs of choice even in the land of the pure.

As secrecy is of paramount importance, most raves are held in places like warehouses and outdoor locations. The dance floor is the nucleus of the party, which ravers flock to, on various degrees of substance-induced highs. Says 25-year-old Amir, “Initially, the feeling ‘E’ induces is more a sense of universal love than sex. You just want to hug everyone. You can literally fall in love with a lamp post!”

As the effects of the drug get more pronounced, however, sex is a natural consequence. “Sex is great on ‘E,’” he says, “as the body becomes extremely sentised to outside stimulus.” It is not unusual to find men in various forms of undress sponging each other off with hot water in pursuit of blissful sensation. Men may make out with men, and women with women.

After a while, when ‘E’ starts to wear off, party-goers take refuge in dark rooms, where they can come down. This is followed by a light show. Often ravers wake up to find themselves sprawled out in private gardens, lounges or in bedrooms, next to complete strangers. Nights may just mesh into one wild orgy of dance, decadence and debauchery. In the words of an avid socialite ‘a pre-party of the bigger pre leads to the main event, which goes on to the post-party, which ends with an after-hours and post-party mortem in the morning.’

Be it at parties or schools, after the witching hour or at noon, on the beach in Clifton or the sleepy suburbia of Islamabad’s F7, life for the bold and beautiful Pakistani youth is an endless joyride. And drug abuse often goes hand in hand. Many, like popular Indus TV VJ, Faizan Haq, rave about it: “I am the sort of person who, when I pop Ecstasy, will ask my mother to try it, just once!” Waking up on a chemically induced brighter day, Tara — another media executive — is on the pill, not birth control — but Prozac. “It is a great way to feel as high as the Habib Bank Plaza,” she says. “Popping pills is almost as acceptable as taking vitamins. Prescription drugs are commonly mixed with alcohol if one cannot afford the harder drugs.” These include Melatonin (a hormone-based cure for jet lag), Zoloft (an anti-depressant) or valium.

However, with the prices of designer drugs crashing, these are becoming less popular. Whereas one tablet of ‘E’ could cost upto 4000 rupees a few years ago, it is now available for as little as 600 rupees. “It’s easy to smuggle these drugs into Pakistan,” says a dealer, “even college boys know it’s a quick way to make cash. Who will be any wiser if anyone flying home from university in America or Europe substitutes Ecstasy for calcium tablets?” Tara admits to rolling a joint of hash almost every evening but says some of her friends smoke up to ten times the same amount. “I don’t do Cocaine, as my nose started to bleed the one time I tried it,” she says. “However, my husband is an occasional user and would probably indulge more frequently were it not for the fact that it is just too expensive.”

But are these exploits of the footloose and fanciful the face of a more liberal Pakistan, or simply a manifestation of extreme disillusionment and despair?

“I don’t mean to be an angst-ridden turncoat but there has got to be more,” writes Kamiar Rokni, Man Friday, elite designer of his own label, Karma, and avid socialite, in his weekly column in The Friday Times. “Tell me there’s more to life than glamour, glitz, PYTs and parties. The thought of getting stuck in this rut is beginning to scare me. I look around and see people 20 years older doing the same thing. With a chill down my spine, I feel like I’ve stepped into a horror film: Long night of the undead socialities. Maybe we’re just genetically decadent. Or are we just shallow?” he questions.

young-3-dec03Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the 20-something CEO of popular news channel GEO, offers this simple explanation. “After 9/11 there has been a considerable level of ‘brain influx’ as opposed to the brain drain we Pakistan faced for the past two decades. CAPs (Confused Americanised Pakistanis) may have taken over most of the more promising job opportunities, but they are extremely dissatisfied with what they have, compared to what they left behind. The ones who did not go abroad think wistfully of what they could achieve if they were in the west. In both cases, they are not happy here. Disillusioned, and struggling to create an environment combining the best of both worlds, they chose to import the obvious: the raves, the fashion, and the parties. Ironically, these were elements they almost ignored in the west.”

The easy scapegoats in this looming social crisis are westernisation and cable TV. With the mushrooming of independent cable channels and the ubiquitous internet, Pakistani society has opened up to the world. However, the increased exposure to the western values of individualism and freedom has not been accompanied by an understanding of responsibilities that come along with that freedom. Judging by the lifestyles of today’s generation x-ers, the slippery slope of escapism, blind materialism and decadent indulgence is the name of the game. Unlike the denizens from the middle class, who are becoming increasingly media-savvy, those from the upper echelons seem uncaring about the real world, as long as they are updated on the fashion headlines to be discussed over a Starbucks latte at one of the latest trendy dining haunts, Evolution.

While psychiatrists such as Dr Musa believe that the cliché that the media has played a role in shaping society does ring true, Geo’s Rahman disagrees. “Like all forms of education and entertainment, what is being absorbed, depends on the user and the student,” he says. “There is a lot out there which is good for the mind, soul and body. But TV should never really be taken too seriously, the medium is not the message. The idiot box becomes just that when we start giving it too much credit.”

The problems inherent in the hedonistic, often narcissistic, lifestyle of the average gen x-er run deeper than the movies regurgitated ad nauseam on TV. “Everybody is affected in their own way by the cultural bastardisation of today,” says Faizan Haq. “Pakistanis as a whole generally suffer from a lack of identity. The new culture in our country is learning your MTV before your ABC. You learn how to dress like a heavy metal rocker before learning the guitar. So you could say we are upstarts in that respect.”

Take Faiz’s elder sister Saima, a young woman in her late-twenties, for instance. She is wearing a form-fitting white, viscose shirt, probably from Labels, a tight black pair of Levi 501s, and the latest pair of Samia Shahzada shoes costing 2000 rupees. Designer sunglasses are perched atop her dyed blond hair, which show brown roots. The strap of an alligator skin Gucci handbag stretches across her body. She walks out of Smart De Spa, deactivates her car alarm, and slips into the driver’s seat of her BMW. Clutching a crisp paper shopping bag from Agha’s, she quickly flips through her reading purchases: The Friday Times, The Sunday and Marie Claire. She epitomises the lifestyle of Pakistan’s generation x-ers, who form the face of the new liberal Pakistan. Trained from birth to be pathologically unconcerned about anybody except themselves, theirs is an existence captivated by labels and appearances. And it is the choice of the new generation. As the catchy Pepsi jingle goes, yehi hai right choice baby!

Times have changed and in an increasingly superficial society, working at physical perfection is considered de riguer for men and women who want to go places. As more and more yuppy husbands hanker after the luxurious lifestyles as viewed on pirated western DVDs and TV, their eager-to-please wives (sometimes just eager to please themselves) are party-ready at any given moment. One regular at a local salon claims that she gets her make-up done before her husband wakes up, as she has to look her best for him — not to mention like her husband’s favourite actress, Sarah Michelle Geller — at all times. And it is not just the women who feel the need to be ‘up there’ with the best of them. “Beautification? It is a part of my life,” exclaims a famous male model. Judging by the numerous unisex salons in Karachi alongside those catering to grooming for men, he’s among a cast of millions.

Encouraged by the new generation’s economic buoyancy — and profligacy -today’s entrepreneurs have realised that gen x is the key to future industry, which cannot continue to ignore the demand pull of such a growing segment of the population. Exploiting this prêt-a-porter opportunity, business approaches have now shifted to luring and keeping the young.

Take Jalal Salahuddin and Omar Satti, for instance. The son of Lahore’s host with the most Yusuf Salahuddin, a scion of generations of landed gentry, Jalal gave up investment banking to start up an event-management company, catering to among others, yuppies looking for a good time, demanding the event of the season, but lacking the inclination — or the wherewithal — to organise it. “People are now awakening from their slumber,” he says “and want to be entertained. That’s where we come in.”

Charity balls now reign supreme on Pakistan’s social circuit. For the die-hard socialites among Karachi’s elite, decked in diamonds and marinating in Dunhill, attendance at flagship events such as the December Sindh Club Winter Ball, the MALC new-year fundraiser or the OGS annual in the summer, not to mention the weekly Fez Night at Sindh Club, is a must. Many pay approximately 15,000 rupees for charity ball tickets priced originally at 10,000. Waiting lists run to the hundreds. For those not considered part of the A-list, it is a perfect way into the closely guarded world of the elites. In the words of a newly married couple from Lahore, “We don’t want to be social outcasts.” And be it fashion shows or foreign music, chocolate from Sweden or cheese from Switzerland, orchids from Thailand or candles from England, scores of event managers compete to offer their own distinctive, exclusive services.

Ghouse Akbar, owner of the first McDonalds to open in Pakistan, and President of Nike and the Princeton Review, agrees that foreign brands are a great investment for Pakistani businessmen. “I want to bring in the right brands, so that people can enjoy them at an affordable price, just like foreigners can,” he says. “Why should we be deprived of a particular good just because we are in Pakistan?” According to Ghouse, Nike Pakistan imports one million dollars worth of inventory (and exports 30 million dollars), speaking volumes for its demand. Dismissing assertions that western goods impose an alien culture on Pakistani society, and displace indigenous culture, he states, “It is not my intention to bring in the culture, just the product.”

But can the two really be divorced? Not according to Zahir Rahimtoola, CEO of Labels. “There has been an increase in women buying our clothes, as more and more are now shifting to western trends,” he admits. With the opening of foreign franchises like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC, one doesn’t want to step into such places looking like a desi!” He claims an average of 200 customers a day, with a 60 per cent buying rate. And encouraged by the profits to be made, Zahir has gone on to franchise Levis and Dockers, opening stores in the trendy Park Towers and The Forum. Says Deepak Perwani, designer of his own label, “Fashion is all about the fantasy.” Favouring the sleek minimalist look, Deepak’s philosophy is simple: more is less. Fresh from a trip to China, he says, “Even in the rural Chinese backwaters, girls were dressed in the latest western fashions,” he says. “I hope I can see the same happening in Pakistan during my lifetime.”

Says Dr Musa, “If you don’t have religious foundations, a code or a sense of yourself, you have to put these fake clothes on metaphorically. Immersed in elite obsessions like clothes, drugs or particular types of music, today’s youth seek an intangible fulfilment. Unconcerned about those on the periphery, they choose to live in a precarious bubble, divorced from the reality that surrounds them. And so they party on…until the bubble bursts.