Sunday, August 31, 2008

Shehzad’s Shining Moment (08/31/08)

August 31, 2008
FIRST PERSON: Shehzad’s Shining Moment
By Uzma Mazhar

With his latest album Qismet Apnay Haath Mein on top of the charts, Shehzad Roy comes across as a very angry young man on the one hand, a social activist driven by a passion for change on the other. The very next minute he also gives me an impression of harbouring aspirations to launch a political career…or does he? Let’s find out as the singer, who believes in the goodness of a deed done gives me a guided tour of the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government Girls Secondary School which his Zindagi Trust has adopted, before finally settling down for a heart-to-heart for Images.

Are you the proverbial rebel with a cause?
People think that if I talk about providing adequate health and education I am a revolutionist or a rebel. It’s just that these are the basic needs which should be provided to the general public.
I would answer your question by saying that my inspiration comes from the academic system in this country, and me being a singer with a cause comes from my music. The latter has supported me to raise funds and the power that music gives me transcends into a conflict with the government to improve the flawed education system in Pakistan.

Qismet Apnay Haath Mein has an eclectic mix of songs where some spell patriotism, some are naughty while others talk about the political situation in the country.

What inspired you to come out with such an album?
Just by saying “we are one” one does not become a patriot. I am trying to point out problems but that also doesn’t make me the ultimate patriot. This country is not another planet’s hell and it’s not going to the dogs. My point is if you do not upgrade your education system you will have a chronic sense of despair among the masses. I am a patriot to the core, to the extent of giving my life for the right cause. I, in regard to Zindagi Trust, and Sami Mustafa of Book Group have both received threats while working on improving the existing system in government schools. But nobody can kill the passion that is there and I strongly believe that goodness is contiguous.

Saali was a controversial song/album, then came Qismet…and specifically the song Khul Kay Pyar in which the guitar riff represents the words emanating from frustration and which could not be put into words. Saali was my last album and the title song just came about without any specific pattern of thought. On the contrary, the songs in the latest album have a definite thought process. The song Khul Kay Pyar is basically a message to the young and old alike that due to the lack of creative outlets our youth indulge in mischief and then end up covering their misdoings. 

How are they supposed to vent their energy? 
What I am basically saying in the song is that one does not relive his youth again so we should make the most of it.

The other song in the album, Laga Reh, and its video by Ahsan Rahim says a lot under the garb of its comic theme. Who owns the concept and are there any more videos in the offing?
I have only written and composed the song. This was my first song and Ahsan, who is also a friend, came up with the concept. Four more videos are also in the pipeline all to be directed by Ahsan, namely the title song followed by Aik Baar Kehdo, Quaid-i-Azam and Aankhain which sketches the life of a suicide bomber.

Keeping in mind the controversial nature of Laga Reh, how difficult was it to find a sponsor for the album?
While making the Laga Reh video, since I had invested so much in it Ahsan warned me that I won’t be able to sell it due to controversial content. Somehow I did manage to get a sponsor but just two days before the video went on air the sponsor called me and told me that I needed to chuck out three shots — one where the old man says ‘leave everything to Allah’, second where the lawyer is trying to set a tyre on fire and third where people are picked up by the agency and then vanish into thin air. I was adamant and told them that I won’t because then there won’t be anything left in the video. It might sound very brave but believe me when you see all the money slipping away, it’s not funny. Here, I would like to ask sponsors to kindly support the paradigm shift in music, too.
“I feel modern education just grooms you for the rat race, and even if you win you will still be considered a rat. I get excited when we talk about drama, violin classes or a sport through which a child’s hidden talent comes out in the open. Our children should be taught to ask questions, only then will they succeed in life as adults. In our country one may have the freedom of speech, but there is no freedom after speech. I gain power from music therefore I don’t need to become a politician,” says Shehzad Roy.

The song was also supposedly banned. Why indulge in such risk-taking and insist on being a controversial artiste? Are you playing the angry young man?
I also saw the bit on the Internet that Laga Reh has been banned but that was not the case. No risk, no gain, and there is no gain without pain. As I said earlier, trying to provide a sound education does not make me into a revolutionary. Gaining knowledge and empowering ourselves is the only and right way to go about things. I have tried to ask the right questions in most of songs on the album. We generally don’t ask questions and when and if we do, it is seen as controversial.

Both the song and the Laga Reh video effectively summarised the earlier political situation in the country. Do you think the song is still relevant?
Earlier during its making when I had expressed a similar concern, the director of the video, Ahsan, wittingly said that I need not worry about Laga Reh because no matter when the song was released listeners will relate to it. And do you know why? When I was 10, I heard on the 9 ‘o’clock news that Pakistan was going through a sensitive phase, and only two days back I heard Sheikh Rasheed saying the exact same thing all over again!

So tell me what has changed? 
We like to live in denial and keep going on about nonissues, but I also think change is coming. We need to talk about the right issues. I think both the album and the song will remain topical even five years from now. God help us if people can relate to it even after that.

Qismet… has allegedly become a best-selling album. How do you feel about that?
Is it really that controversial? If it wasn’t selling well I would have become a pauper by now! It was tough losing a sponsor but if I had known that the album wouldn’t sell, I wouldn’t have been able to bring out Qismet...
The message that I am trying to impart through this album is that the general public in Pakistan has not been given an outlet to think for themselves with the outlet being the right education system. Once our children start asking questions and demand an answer no leader can make a fool out of us. I also write for a section of the English press but writing, singing songs or going to talk shows won’t change anything. You can only create an opinion with it. I could have come up with such an album before but Qismet… came after I started working in the field and learned about the ground realities.
The reforms in the education system that you speak of are also reflected in your music. 

So is music a tool to fulfill all such aspirations?
Of course music is such a tool as I have raised the maximum amount of funds through music. It gives you power. People who generally create problems with my trust’s work back off after a while. I strongly believe that when you take a stand on the right issues, no one dare create problems.
You seem to be in awe of Imran Khan and Ardeshir Cowasjee. 

Any particular reason? Do you have any plans to enter politics?
I will never go into politics because once you go into that arena your hands are tied. The reforms that I am trying to bring in the education system are working out more strongly otherwise. And by the way, I have never given such an impression. As for Imran Khan, I have idolised him since childhood and he is like a brother to me. We are very close. The same goes for Adreshir Cowasjee. Both these men have given me tremendous support in regard to my educational project and I thank them for it.

Ali Azmat, Fuzon, Strings and Zeb & Haniya have all released their albums round
the same time as Qismet… Your comments on the released albums?
I really liked Ali Azmat’s Klashinfolk and Zeb & Haniya’s. I support Zeb & Haniya because women are not encouraged in our country. Secondly, they are good musicians. As for Ali, I have been attending his concerts since I was young lad. He is the only rock star in our country and I love his music, and not just because he’s a friend.

From pop singer to social activist, how would you sum up your journey so far?
I have never really planned my life. Things just kept happening. But yes, I give credit to my parents and the people who inspired me and taught me a lot. My first passion was strumming the guitar. With that came singing at college get togethers, later adopting it as a profession. In 2003, I set up Zindagi Trust with the realisation that drastic reforms are needed in our education system. I feel modern
education just grooms you for the rat race, and even if you win the race you will still be considered a rat. I get excited when we talk about drama, violin classes or a sport through which a child’s hidden talent comes out in the open. Our children should be taught to ask questions, only then will they succeed in life as adults. In our country one may have the freedom of speech, but there is no freedom after speech. I gain power from music therefore I don’t need to become a politician.

You have already started working on the next album. Will it also be as hard-hitting as Qismet…?
There is time for the next album to come out as I am touring and doing concerts for now. Then, I have adopted a few more schools which need attention.
For the next album I am thinking of compiling songs on the brain drain issue. Our youth is abandoning Pakistan for greener pastures abroad. Besides this, there are many other issues that I want to touch upon. Nowadays, I am also into observing people on the streets where one sees millions of faces and zillions of stories. We have a very interesting country with so many religions, cultures, and castes. I’ve decided to observe people and compile my next album along those lines.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Get off the phone (02/17/08)

Get off the Phone
by Shehzad Roy
Feb 17th, 2008

IT seems like a lifetime ago when my family moved abroad for a few years. I was sent to a public school, which was, in every sense of the word, as impressive as any modern, fully-equipped Pakistani school of recent times. Along with the culture shock — that too at a very vulnerable age — there was also the language shock. It added to my communication problem.

The language barrier, created mainly by an accent that was foreign to me, was another constraint. My half-foreigner cousins must have found my lost expression most amusing.

One day while sleeping in the room allotted to me, I was woken up by the ringing of the telephone. Half asleep and not exactly pleased by the unwanted disturbance, I picked up the receiver.

A male voice on the other end said, “Good afternoon”. I responded, “Good afternoon”. Again the voice said, “Good afternoon”.

This exchange of greetings was repeated with the tone on the other end becoming more and more exasperated. Taken aback I asked the caller to hold on as I dashed upstairs taking two steps at a time.

Much to my embarrassment I discovered that the gentleman on the line was, in fact, my cousin who had picked up the phone almost at the same time as I had and was asking me to “Get off the phone”.

Being unfamiliar with the

accent, I thought he was greeting me, saying “good afternoon”.

Unfortunately, I faced the same problem at school. I was too shy to share my thoughts in the classroom because my accent was alien in that part of the world. Now, after all these years and with some knowledge and experience in the field of education, I can analyse with hindsight the link between language and the development of the human thought process.

My inability to understand the accent emerged as a barrier to my participation in class activities that I otherwise would have been very good at. In a few weeks, I managed to overcome this problem and completely adjusted to the new environment which was pleasantly welcoming.

Coming to the state of our government schools, I can understand why our children perform so poorly. Their language proficiency is not developed and so their thought process is also stunted.

The bulk of them are without good command over any language — be it English or Urdu. Their creativity and innovative skills literally come to a halt. What is worse, they get into colleges and universities that are equally substandard.

To a layman, a school involves a building, books, teachers and students. Actually, it requires much more. Where does the problem lie? It is in producing school graduates whose thinking process is aligned with the language they speak. The teacher uses books to teach. The books have to have a language.

First of all, the selection of language must be right. No matter how good the books are, if the selection of language is incorrect, the books will not be useful.

For instance, give a good English-language book to students in a primary school where the mother tongue of most children is not English and you will never be able to teach them how to think.

Additionally, the language used by the teacher to teach must also be the mother tongue of the students. Once the issue of the selection of language of instruction is resolved, the focus must turn to the contents of the books used. The text must be thought-provoking.

Here I shall give an example from the Sindh Textbook Board’s Grade 1 textbook. There is a chapter titled ‘Hamara Pyara Ghar’ in which the protagonist says, “This is my house. There are four rooms in it.”

As in most academic books, there is a part at the end of each chapter with test questions. A question from this chapter is “How many rooms are there in this boy’s house?” The students have to memorise the answer for their exams. This hardly encourages students to think.

Ideally, if the exercise asked students to count the rooms in their own house instead, they would be compelled to use their minds and think. This is just a small example from the numerous I can give.

The beauty of language is that once students learn how to think in one language, they find that learning a new language becomes very easy.

I have French and German friends who were not very fluent in English. Surprisingly, this was after they had completed their Master’s degree from their respective countries. And then they went on to study for their PhD in English-speaking countries.

With little effort and within a short time they had gained command over the English language before starting their doctorate. Reason: their ability to think, understand and process information had been sharpened in their mother tongue during their early education.

The term ‘English-medium school’ is deceiving. Such schools produce students who lack good thinking processes though they have learnt how to read, write, memorise and calculate while they have picked up a smattering of general knowledge.

I believe that there is only one difference between developing countries and developed countries. In the former, a majority of citizens have limited thinking and innovative and creative skills.

In the latter, the majority of the people are capable of thinking. Once people know how to learn and think, they can distinguish between good and bad and start working for their own prosperity which eventually results in the prosperity of the nation.

Now the million-dollar question: what do we do? We have very few primary level books in our national and regional languages which are designed to produce thinking individuals. The few that are available are being used in some good private schools.

The need of the hour is for the government to seriously look into the issue and do what is required, that is, change course books with immediate effect.

The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.

Monday, February 4, 2008

If not you, then who ? (02/03/08)

If not you, then who ?
by Shehzad Roy
Feb 3rd, 2008

ONCE while performing at a school in Islamabad on a Friday afternoon, I stopped the concert as the azaan began. A little girl came up to me and asked, “Shehzad bhai, why did you stop singing?” I smiled and said, “If I sing now, God will send me to hell.” She was spontaneous in her response, “Shehzad bhai. Please sing. You are not going to heaven anyway!”

That night for a long time I pondered over the remark made by the young child. I could not, for the life of me, understand why her parents would bring her to a place for musical entertainment if they believed that the likes of me were not entitled to a place in heaven or its offerings. I then realised that we as a nation lack the confidence to stand up for our beliefs.

The age-old belief that music is a sin and musicians the carriers of sin has sadly been transferred to the minds of these young ones by their parents and teachers, no doubt, wrapped and folded neatly under the covers of religion.

Funnily enough, I have also come across many more who give themselves the undue credit of accepting it as a sin whilst they enjoy the soothing effects of music in their lives! This was just a small example. We face the same mindset on a wider scale as well.

When it comes to bigger issues, ‘my plate is full’ is the answer we get from our friends who belong to the intelligentsia of our country when they are requested to roll up their sleeves, come forward, partner with the government and show some action to make things better for others.

Some say ‘we donate’, others ‘we are members of a social organisation’, and yet others that ‘we are on the board of a foundation’. And many young people aspiring to seek admission to top colleges (in Pakistan and abroad) proudly claim a number of hours completed in community service (more for the sake of getting admission into their choice of university than for the sake of community service).

Can we stop here for a moment and ask one simple question that I am sure has played on many intelligent minds every now and then? If all of us are doing our share of ‘community service’, why isn’t our country progressing the way it should? Why are most issues still considered problems without any solutions?

In my opinion, not only have we failed to identify our problems correctly, we also lack the collective and consolidated will (political and individual), and the drive to draw up plans and implement them.

Let us also ask another politically correct question: Why are the essentials missing when the country’s intelligentsia is there, supposedly playing the role of watchdog over everything ranging from the minor to the major? Are they not the ones that should have the solutions to our problems?

They are, and to give the devil its due, they do take a microscopic view of problems.

But let us not discuss the identification of problems or finding solutions, that are all there. For once, let us talk about the implementation of these solutions. How do we, as a nation, go over this hurdle? First things first.

They (the intelligentsia) need to get over the much-planned and at times deliberate selfishness, jealousy, ego, non-seriousness, laziness and sometimes a serious attack of verbal diarrhoea.

It’s very rare that their ‘plate is full’. Very few of them have the guts and honesty to admit that they give priority to their personal and professional lives over issues that their country is faced with.

When the US consulate in Karachi decided to move into the vicinity of Karachi Grammar School, those who claim to be the intelligentsia of the city got united and rightly made sure that the security of their children was not jeopardised by having any US facility near the school. Entirely conceivable is the thought that if the same people were to decide to get serious about health, education, water/sanitation and other grave problems that society faces, things could improve at the speed of light.

The problems are of such a grave nature that they call for emergency and gigantic efforts to tackle them. Fundraising fashion shows, coffee mornings and kitty parties will not do. Knowingly or unknowingly, many people are suffering from the tamasha syndrome. The need of the hour is for the intelligentsia to get on a collective platform to select a leader from among themselves. It requires a standard and hands-on approach to start working towards the betterment of education and other areas on a macro and holistic level.

This or that side of the world, east or west, the intelligentsia in any part of the globe are similar with regard to their job description.

It paid off when our counterparts in the West decided to put a man on the moon. How long will it take us to put our children into schools? When will we accept the fact that we are no different? When will we embrace the reality that we stand on the same ground with our intelligence, determination and will? It is not that we have failed, it is just that we have found a thousand different ways that don’t work.

We need an approach that will work this time. We are light years away from sending a man to the moon, but the optimist that I am, I believe that we will someday.

First, let us start with the basics. Saying that something as powerful as education can take a long time to show results is not a good enough excuse for not taking action. Mostly, changes can take place quicker than expected. The greatest sadness is not to try and fail but fail to try at all.
The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Reason to Believe (01/27/08)

A Reason to Believe
By Shahzad Roy
Jan 27th, 2008

WHEN I was 10 years old, I saw on the nine o’clock news on PTV a woman with a dupatta draped round her head saying, “Pakistan tareekh kay aik naazuk mor say guzar raha hai.” Then I turned 20 and again saw a woman, this time not wearing a dupatta on her head, saying with eloquence on the nine o’clock news, “Pakistan tareekh kay aik naazuk mor say guzar raha hai”.

Déjà vu… why? I tried to analyse the situation to find out how come Pakistan is still stuck at the naazuk mor even after the passage of many long years. I reached the conclusion that 50 per cent of our knowledge lies in asking the right question. Government functionaries, intelligentsia, armed forces, critics, human rights activists and, for that matter, all stakeholders ask questions. But they end up slinging mud at each other, for the simple reason that the questions they ask are never right in the first place.

The question usually asked is: “Why is the state of health and education in Pakistan in such dire straits?” The complacent response is: “At least we have some schools and a few hospitals. Something is better than nothing.”

After pondering over the state of education and health in our country, I realised that the “something is better than nothing” view cannot apply to education and health. Just imagine, would so many youth have agreed to become suicide bombers if proper education had been provided to them by the state? If they had been only taught to ask the right questions and had inter-faith dialogue at the institutions they attended, they would have thought thrice before embarking on mindless missions and most definitely have refused to be used as a pawn in the hands of others.

When it comes to healthcare, a lukewarm (something) effort — by a doctor of questionable credentials (something), to cure a patient by giving him a substandard (something) medicine or injection — has a high probability of killing the patient rather than curing him.

Quality education is every citizen’s right and its responsibility lies with the state. A paradigm shift is required in the mindset of state authorities, the people and the education system to save our future generations from destruction. The first step towards this shift would be changing the textbooks.

Just by building schools, training the teachers, increasing administrative controls, the issue of providing an education that makes a ‘thinking’ individual, will not be addressed. A student must learn from the textbook how to learn, change and inquire freely rather than becoming a “lakeer ka faqeer”. If we want our future generations to ask the right questions then a culture of discussion, interaction, proactive thinking and asking questions needs to be encouraged.

It’s high time that a quantum leap was taken in the education and health sectors. Nothing is as powerful as the idea itself, whose time has come.

The problems of education and healthcare are just the tip of the iceberg. Multiple interventions are required to turn the country around. To name a few: The state’s failure to provide timely justice (more than 70,000 under-trial prisoners are languishing in Pakistani jails), housing, power, employment, communication, clean drinking water (without which 250,000 children die annually) has created problems that should prompt the rulers to declare an emergency.

Whenever these questions are raised or talked about, most of us say, “Oh bhai! This is Pakistan.” My answer to this cliché is, where you live should not determine whether you live happily or live poorly and die.The difference between a developed or developing — rather declining — country is that people in the former are given a ‘reason to believe’ by the state and the media, that they are working to achieve and maintain a decent living. Whereas in the latter case, the state and the media fail to create this ‘reason to believe’ for the citizens. In the absence of this ‘reason to believe’, citizens lose a sense of direction and move and act aimlessly. The absence of this also leads to lack of thinking, questioning and movement by the citizens.

Only having a ‘reason to believe’ sets the ball rolling — slowly, but in the right direction. It is not strange when extraordinary people do extraordinary things. But when they have a ‘reason to believe’, even ordinary people start doing extraordinary things. That is precisely the moment when a group of people start turning into a great nation.

The writer, a pop singer, is president of Zindagi Trust, an organization working for child welfare and education.