One of the perks of being ‘human’ is that one can lead a life of pretence, by manipulating and suppressing facts. In fact, it is possible for a single person to keep multiple pretences tailoured to different situations. Mostly, the pretence is an aspired version of oneself. Sometimes, the pretence is crafted so as to generate a desired behavior or perception in the target person. It is hard to see through pretences, especially in limited social interactions where we can only see what we are shown.
About ten years ago, I was caught in a curious case of ‘cross-pretences’. One fine morning at school, our teacher introduced us to a new student, Aisha, whose family had recently moved from Swat to Peshawar. Aisha joined my study group, and soon we became great friends. Aisha seemed to really enjoy talking about her family. This was initially endearing, but soon grew rather repetitive. The gist of all the family-talk was that Aisha was very special to her family, and they did everything they could to ensure her happiness and well-being.
One day, Aisha proudly said, “Do you know when I go back home from school, my mother asks me about my day and she listens to everything I have to share, no matter how long”. Annoyed, I replied, “When I go back home, no one notices because both my parents work and come home late from work”. Unexpectedly, this ‘revelation’ had a profound effect and elicited her sympathy. She wanted to know more about my family. Amused by her sympathy, I told her fabricated stories of my parents’ troubled relationship, portraying myself as a victim. Aisha was impressed by my ‘bravery’ and maintaining a good academic record despite a troubled family background. Frankly, I felt a bit like Superman when he first discovered his superhuman qualities. Of course, none of what I told Aisha about my family was true. I had a perfectly normal and happy family life. But the impact my little, casual lies had on Aisha was strangely entertaining to me, so I carried on with the pretence.
A few months later, Aisha suddenly left the school without any notice. I tried to call her several times but there was no answer. About a week after her ‘disappearance’, I requested my mother to drive me to Aisha’s house. I had never been to her house before, and we got her address from the school record after a lot of explanations and reassurances. As we approached her house, it became clear that everything she had said about her large house in a beautiful neighbourhood was false. The streets became narrower and narrower, until we decided to park the car and walk the remaining distance. Standing next to a row of tiny, dilapidated houses barely suitable or safe for human habitation, I began to wonder if the school might have handed us a wrong address by mistake. Just when I was mentally debating whether we should return, I caught a glance of Aisha through the thin piece of cloth that hung down one of the doors supposedly providing some form of privacy to those who inhabited the house. I almost walked in, but stopped when I heard the loud exchange of expletives between a man and a woman (probably Aisha’s parents) inside the house. As my mother and I stood in stunned silence, a passerby (possibly their neighbour) commented, “The usual show these two put on for their six children to watch and for the rest of the world to hear. What a circus!”.
On our way back, I thought about our pretences. Mine was a luxury, I did not need it. Aisha’s pretence was necessary, she needed to cling on to some sort of fantasy to keep her sanity. I did not meet Aisha that day. In fact, we did not meet ever again. I let her revel in the idea that she once had a friend who believed that she was very special to her family, and they did everything they could to ensure her happiness and well-being.