One of the perks of being ‘human’ is that one can lead a life of pretense, while carefully suppressing facts. In some cases, one person alone can manage to contrive multiple pretenses according to different situations. Mostly, the ‘pretense’ is an improved version of oneself, or one that evokes feelings in others that the person in question desires to induce. People usually fall easily for the pretense. After all, we cannot remove lid from a person and play peek-a-boo with the soul. We see what we are shown.
About ten years ago, I came face to face with a similar situation. One fine morning at school, our teacher introduced us to a new student whose family had recently moved from Swat to Peshawar. For the sake of this story, we will call her Ayesha. The seating arrangement in our class was such that students sat in pairs. As I was sitting alone that day, the teacher told her to take the seat next to me. As days passed by, we became good friends. Ayesha seemed to really enjoy talking about her family. In the beginning, I thought her family must mean a lot to her. After some time, I found her family-talk to be rather repetitive. It was annoying too because all our conversation revolved around how special Ayesha was to her family. I felt eclipsed by accounts of her mother cajoling her to eat ‘parathas’ (a special kind of bread) at breakfast, and her father showering her with fancy clothes and jewelry.
One day, Ayesha proudly said, “Do you know when I go back home from school, my mother asks me about my day. I give her detailed account of my day and she listens with keen interest.” To this, I replied casually, “When I go back home, my mother barely notices. She is a working lady and therefore very busy balancing work and household chores.” Unexpectedly, my sentence had a profound effect on her. Her expression changed from indifference to sympathy. Suddenly, she wanted to know more about my relationship with my family. I told her fabricated stories of my parents’ troubled relationship and portrayed myself as an unwanted object in the house. Ayesha was very impressed by my ‘bravery’ and being able to maintain a brilliant academic record despite family issues. That day, I felt like Superman when he first discovered his superhuman qualities. Nothing I told Ayesha was even close to the truth. I lived a very normal and happy life. Yet the impact my little, casual lies had on Ayesha left me astounded. I could tell her my parents found me near garbage when I was a baby and decided to adopt me, and she would believe me. Amazing! In the following days, our relationship underwent a role-reversal of sorts. I went on and on about my (conjured up) miserable circumstances, while secretly admiring the look of sympathy on her face.
A few months later, Ayesha suddenly went on leave without notice. I tried to call her a number of times but it seemed that her phone had been disconnected by authorities for not paying telephone bill. On September 15th, when it was her birthday and it had been a week since she disappeared, I requested my mother to drive me to her house. We bought a cake and a birthday present, and drove to her address which my mother got from school record. As we got closer to her place, it grew apparent that they lived in an unprivileged neighborhood. This was astonishing for me as she had described her background as ‘affluent’ on more than one occasion. As our car could not make it further past the narrow street, we parked it and decided to cover the remaining distance on foot. Whatever doubt I had of being handed the wrong address evaporated as I caught glance of Ayesha through the thin piece of cloth that hung down a door to provide its inhabitants some form of privacy. I would have walked in had I not heard the loud exchange of expletives between a man and a woman inside the house, probably her parents. As my mother and I stood in stunned silence, a passerby commented, “The usual circus this man and woman put on display for their eight children to watch and the rest of the world to hear. What a shame!”
On our way back, I pondered over our pretenses. Mine was a luxury. I could have done equally well had I not put it up. Ayesha’s was a necessity. She needed to cling on to some sort of fantasy to keep her sanity amid all that chaos. I did not meet Ayesha that day. In fact, we did not meet ever again. I let her revel in the vision that she had once a friend who thought she had doting parents who fed her ‘parathas’ and bought her fancy clothes and jewelry.