These are not people who make headlines, those you see on television or in newspapers. They are not heroes — but in many ways are so much more. They fill small voids in our lives that no conventional talking head can. They cater to the micro, everyday level. They do and make us do; feel and make us feel. In their own way they make us feel good about ourselves and our surroundings — make us appreciate the small things in life.
They don’t need to inspire us to be bigger and better, they don’t always move us to change but they complete us, in a way that we would never think possible. Sometimes it’s the loyalty two people show to each other, at other times it’s a haircut, making us feel beautiful. Most of the time, we invite these people into our lives. We ask them to take us to the bottom of the sea or to help walk us through a bad moment in our lives. Some will help us indulge our sweet tooth or let their success encourage us to pursue our dreams, however inconsequential they may seem. Or maybe we’ll ask them to design something beautiful for us to wear or even take courage from their strength and then secretly feel like we’ve been signed a new lease on life. And because of all that they are larger than life.
Without them life would be, well, incomplete. Here the Herald celebrates a select cross-section of talent — nothing more and nothing less.
The princess of La-La Land
High up in the mountains, 6,000 feet high above Azad Kashmir, is a small place called La-La Land where Banafsha Khumar lives with her canine companions, an assortment of birds who come to her orchard know that they will be fed, as butterflies flutter prettily around her garden. How does one describe Khumar, better known as Zahrah Nasir? Is she a writer, a benefactor, a promoter of world peace or a farmer?
“I’ve grown up in the countryside,” she says, “There is life in nature and I’ve always felt close to the earth and the environment and so the natural progression was into horticulture.” Her home is a slice of heaven on earth. “When you walk through my home, it isn’t just my property you are walking through but my thoughts,” says Nasir. The potential muse for a book or a film, a conversation with Nasir transports you to a better place, away from the greed and mechanics of the world we live in.
In an effort to live a sustainable life, Nasir grows everything from edible flowers to fruits and medicinal and culinary herbs. Excess produce is bartered for things she doesn’t grow, such as apples, coffee, rice or cooking oil. Having accomplished her childhood dream of living on a mountain, in a small house with a big garden and dogs, she now sets about enriching the lives of others. “About six months ago, a friend and I had this wonderful idea to put together a rehabilitation project in a valley called Jegdalek, Afghanistan.” On a journey with the mujahideen to Afghanistan in 1983, Nasir promised the people of the valley that one day she would come back to help them. “We will revitalise their agriculture, make sustainable organic agriculture available and provide them with alternative energy, factoring in climate change issues with regards to water and water usage. They need medical facilities, sustainable employment — a whole lifestyle that accommodates their traditional cultural values. Imagine creating such a haven of peace in a war zone.”
Nasir firmly believes in creating such sanctuaries. “The harmony that I have in my orchard and garden is what I try to bring about in the world. If you smile at people, they smile back, they are cheered up and pass that smile to others and you have millions of smiles. Smiling creates peace and harmony and in a harmonious atmosphere, agriculture thrives. Smiles are magic.”
The people’s anchor
Many recognise him – he’s the face of Geo News, well most nights – and many more attentively listen to what he says when news stories break. Wearing a congenial expression, regardless of the stories he delivers which are often news stories on yet another suicide attack, Junaid appears pleasant making him a living, breathing presence inside people’s living rooms.
Tall and impeccably dressed he is reserved, while being unfailingly polite. “I am connected to people,” he admits. “I tell everyday stories, whether about, politics, electricity, inflation or other social issues that interest Pakistanis, and I guess I put it forward in a way that television viewers can relate to.” Those who have met him find him far more magnetic in real life than on reel.
“I come across a lot of fans, mainly young people, and I also get discounts where I go. The job has its perks,” Junaid explains seriously, but he doesn’t let it get to his head. Recalling his first live broadcast in 2008, he says he was painfully nervous. Having studied journalism and politics, Junaid trained with veteran broadcaster Poonam Sharma. “The job may be exciting bringing with it doses of fame but not without gruelling on-screen hours. So there’s little time to relax or do much else. And depending on the size and volume of a mistake, you can lose your job,” he says. Besides, the most trying situations in life become unavoidable; “live telecasts of blasts, of a terror incident, people dying or injured and in need of help. Then there’s the constant shouting through your earpiece during a live broadcast which is painful.”
But Junaid wasn’t entirely unprepared for this life. “Ali Salman Jafri from the BBC Urdu service who taught me at college once said ‘you will live a tense life, remember, you might get luxuries, and enjoy the challenges but that’s the beauty of the profession.’” To relax he takes long walks, watches movies, reminding himself that he’s in a better place than most of his contemporaries. “This profession has given me respect and value.”
The fairy godmother
In Peter Pan, James Barrie wrote that when the first child laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces which went about skipping. That was the beginning of fairies. What is it about a child that turns the world into a magical realm? If you want to feel happiness around children having fun, a visit to Monkey Business might be a good idea.
Mehr Hussain, the proud owner who began Monkey Business with her husband, Usman, is also mother to two-year-old Zidane and four-year-old Nael. She takes them to school, cooks for them and does the required motherly chores but she gives full time to her business where her sons are fully entertained as well. More often than not, Nael will be seen running around the jungle gym, or jumping up and down in the ball pit while his younger sibling will be found asleep on a sofa in the corner, oblivious to the noise. Monkey Business meets the needs of all children from six months to 10 years. It also caters to children who may not enjoy physical activity; for them there is painting and pottery to learn, or watching a movie in the cinema room.
Hussain has experience with children because she would organise massive birthdays in London, so she says “everything in Monkey Business is part of what I used to do with Nael in London.” The best part is that if children are having fun on their own, parents can enjoy a cup of coffee with a sandwich at the café, tucked away at the far end. “There are no venues for children’s recreation in the city, and nothing for parents to do if they want to be near their kids but relax too.” For Hussain and other mothers, Monkey Business was the need of the hour.
Her biggest accomplishment, however, is that it is a home away from home for her own children. “They love coming here, Zidane has grown with it, he was only eight months old when we set it up,” she says, looking over her shoulder to make sure he is still asleep.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted”
If laughter is the best medicine, Saad Haroon is the cure for our grief-stricken nation. Somebody once said that if Pakistan was a monarchy and Haroon was the court jester, we’d all be very happy people. In actuality, according to Haroon, “what simply started out as an exercise in being happy became a career.” “The reason we do this is all political and social,” he explains. He found enormous success post 9/11, a factor he attributes to the general gloomy feeling about the state of the nation. “In that climate, what can feel better than to have a room full of people laughing?”
Quoting Steve Martin, his role model, he says, “Why wouldn’t you want to be in show business? It’s fun, it’s exciting.” And with stints in theatre under his belt (he acted and won a scriptwriting competition during his college years), he knew how much fun theatre and stage could be. Influenced by people such as his theatre professor and his room-mates in New York, musicians and comedians themselves, Haroon is now the driving force behind a troupe of aspiring comedians in Pakistan. “I train people. Some might be funny naturally but I mould them to use their talent more effectively.”
Ironically, he believes “comedians are miserable people, especially when they’re not performing. They’re anxiety ridden because they’re spending the whole day thinking of how to make someone happy for an hour.” The performance bug got to him fairly early. “I remember walking in the corridors of St Michael’s [school] when I was in class 7, knowing that this was boring, and that something had to be done. Now, when I wake up in the morning I think about how to make people happy. Sometimes you can wake up in the middle of the night and write something, it could have been very frustrating if it wasn’t so rewarding.”
So, while others may use that one hour with Haroon to feel rejuvenated, he admits to finding happiness in “the little things in life. Seeing my friends makes me happy, vegging out, maybe.”