Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
Everyday Heroes: An Interview with the Humans behind Humans of Pakistan
Papercuts Lead Reportage Editor Pooja Pande in conversation with Team HOP – Laraib Qureshi, Senior editor & Content Writer and Ali Haider, Co-Founder & Chief Storyteller – about how heroes too can be ordinary, and just how that translates into a thriving, vibrant and hopeful world, almost entirely online.
Inspired by and loosely modelled on Humans of New York, Humans of Pakistan (HOP) goes about interviewing ordinary citizens of Pakistan and presenting them online, alongside their featured stories and portraits. With a national and international following of almost 500,000 and counting, HOP has, in the brief span of two years, interviewed almost 3200 individuals and featured more than 2000. Having travelled all over Pakistan from Kashmir till Karachi and to places like Tharparkar, Bahawalpur, Swat, and most recently to KPK, HOP intends to build more stories and continue to access lesser-known spaces in Pakistan. “Some of our most interesting stories,” they tell us, “have come from the remote areas.”
HOP also believes in grassroots, hands-on work and recently rebuilt a primary school in District Azad Kashmir, a laboratory and a blood bank in Tharparkar, and are currently planning to provide sustainable income opportunities to the locals of District Tharparkar who have been surviving in severe drought for the last four years.
In July 2014, they were invited by the United Nations to collaborate on the UN Millennium Campaign.
Papercuts: What about Humans of New York (HONY) struck you at first? And did you instantly think it could be adapted to Pakistan?
HOP: Humans of New York’s originality shone out from the moment it gained popularity on Facebook. Its uniqueness didn’t only come from the pictures and the accompanying interviews, it was the idea that the common man is just as important and interesting as the people who are constantly in the limelight. Above all, the underlying message that resonated with us [was that] humanity supersedes everything that is wrong in the world. We didn’t immediately think that it could be adapted to Pakistan, but the idea was definitely worth experimenting with.
Papercuts: HONY has a distinct city vibe – the featured people could somehow only be doing what they do in New York – and yet there is a universal appeal, as vouched by its global success. Would you agree, and do you think it applies to HOP as well?
HOP: We agree with that one hundred percent and it does apply to HOP. Since the concept of humanity encompasses all the concerns, preoccupations, joys and sorrows, it shows that behind the curtains of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion and class, we are all the same. We all have problems, we all have aspirations, we all have hopes, and we all have achieved something one way or another. The most substantial evidence that we can provide for this fact is our international following. It’s overwhelming to witness the responses from individuals in countries all around the world who relate to our stories—this was only possible because of the existence of that universal appeal.
Papercuts: Could you tell us about the intention of focussing on Pakistan the nation, as opposed to one major city—Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad?
HOP: Our main objective is to portray a positive image of Pakistan; to showcase the whole country as a united, resilient, and compassionate nation. The true beauty of Pakistanis cannot be portrayed by just relaying the stories of its major cities. There may be a sharp contrast between the experiences of the rural and the urban areas but a focus on just the major cities would generalize the overall image and will not do justice to the existing diversity. In fact, we got some of our most interesting stories from the interior and remote areas!
HOP: Social media – home to initiatives such as HOP, HONY and The Logical Indian – has basically moulded our structured ideas of heroism into flexible concepts of humanity. At present, even someone who simply speaks out against injustice or practices acts of benevolence worthy of being exemplified is defined a hero. Heroism is not limited to the traditional acts of courage anymore, it’s more than that. It’s having a voice and using that voice to spread the message of humanity far and wide.
The mainstream media’s negativity can only be countered by positive initiatives that do the complete opposite and also provide the solution to the problem discussed. Moreover, social media’s increasing significance and popularity is in itself a testimony of the power it holds. Though it cannot be presupposed that such initiatives will always be intricately linked with a positive image, it is our belief that such an opportunity should always be availed. Therefore, since HOP is an initiative existing on a social media platform that aims to spread the positive image while highlighting the traits that reach out to a global audience, it automatically becomes contrary to most of the mainstream media’s stories and sends out a message of hope and humanity.
Papercuts: Are there certain people and stories that you consciously go out looking for? Could you walk us through the selection process for the stories that finally go up?
HOP: We don’t have any predetermined standards as such as that would influence the content of the page. What makes Humans of Pakistan distinct is that we don’t judge or generalize on any basis. The only thing that we keep in mind during the selection process is the authenticity and the appeal of the story—what sets it apart, whether it’s truly inspirational, whether it can be related to on some level.
First, the data from the interview is transcribed. Then we translate it from the local languages (mostly Urdu) to English, trying our best to keep the essence and originality of the story intact. Finally, the story is edited, rephrased and structured to engage the reader and assure that the words do justice to the individual’s experiences. In case of submissions (which account for 5% to 10% of the content) the stories are selected on the basis of their synonymity (sic) with our objectives. Thereafter, they are edited to eradicate grammatical errors and make structural adjustments if required.
Papercuts: What is the HOP definition of an everyday hero?
HOP: Let’s put it this way: We don’t have one definition of a hero. Whether it’s someone who struggled through personal family issues or someone who is living their dream in spite of a lifetime of hindrances or someone who didn’t let disability weigh them down or someone who spreads happiness through acts of kindness or someone who was resilient in the face of injustice, every single human featured on the page has achieved something that is inspirational. There are innumerable examples of such stories and we would definitely define them as everyday heroes, worthy of being looked up to and applauded.
Papercuts: Could you please tell us more about the on-the-ground activism that HOP is involved in? Was it a development that happened organically, or was it always part of the HOP vision?
HOP: Since our team’s core members have a background in Development Studies, we are simply not capable of just witnessing problems and not figuring out solutions to the best of our abilities. This mindset led to social actions, so you could say it was an organic development. While on photo walks, we interviewed individuals who were in need of assistance. We couldn’t help but think that the HOP platform could be the bridge between them and the large number of people who wished to help but couldn’t find the right cause.
We initiated the small development projects where we raised awareness about the issue being faced and did the required fundraising via HOP’s platform. Then we personally assured the successful completion of the project and gained the trust of our donors through full transparency and accountability. Each donation made to us goes into the spreadsheet which is available on our website and is updated. Each donor gets a tracking number after making a donation, through which they can track their donations whether it has been spent on the project already or not. Similarly, every detail of the expense is also available on the same web pages. These expense sheets contain details of each penny spent on the concerned project.
Read a few Humans of Pakistan stories chronicling everyday heroism below:
At Kohsar Market, Islamabad
“Our marriage lasted for 27 years and 2 months. She was sick. The gynaecologist was trying her best to save her life, but it was her time. I did not realize it while we were together, but my whole world fell apart when she passed away. I have witnessed so many men, my own relatives, mistreating their wives, but I never did, I loved her so much! Neither humanity nor our religion has given man any authority to mistreat women. It is said in the Holy Quran that men are the caretakers and protectors of their families. The Prophet (PBUH) also said that if a woman is earning and she spends that on her children, that’s her charity for her children. If she feeds her children, she can ask her husband to pay her for the task of raising the child. So on what level do men believe that they are superior to women and can mistreat them? I am alone now, but I know that my wife will be with me in the afterlife. I just hope that she is happy with me, wherever she is. Men, treat your wives in a good manner. Make her feel like a queen today, while you can!”
Nafeesa Khattak, Islamabad
“I got married when I was in the 10th grade. My in-laws were more conservative than my parents, they didn’t even allow me to attend my children’s parent-teacher meetings. My life was limited to the walls of my house. In 1995, my husband passed away and I was left with 4 sons. That was when I witnessed how relationships change. After the death of my husband, my in-laws didn’t support me, but in 40 days, my sons transformed from teenagers into men and breadwinners of the family. In 2000, I took the momentous decision to continue my studies again. When I tried to get admission in a private college for FA, they laughed at me and said that we don’t have enough seats for the youth, how can we give admission to a middle aged woman? Without giving up, I took admission in Allama Iqbal Open University instead and pursued my studies.
After the earthquake of 2005, my family and I catered to 75 women who were badly affected. We opened a center for them, where they stayed with their families. Then in 2009, we set up a camp for IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] of Swat and looked after 150 families. In the same year, women from a political party came to me and asked me to represent their party from Islamabad. At first I refused—politics was never my cup of tea; I was more into philanthropy. But after insistence from my sons, I accepted. Today, I am a proud, educated, working mother and family members who had abandoned us in our hard times consider us the pride of the family. I just want to say that life keeps taking tests. These tests are for your own good—they make you experienced enough so that you can manage hardships in a better manner. Get education, equip yourself with the tools needed to succeed, but don’t ever give up when life tests you. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”
Muneeba Mazari, Lahore
“I met with an accident due to which I couldn’t walk any longer. My morale and emotions were totally crushed. However, one fine day I decided that I am not less than anyone, that I’m perfectly normal and that day I decided that I will bring motivation in the lives of those who have faced similar accidents. I feel very proud when my son says, ‘Mom, I am as strong as a girl.’ The belief in him that girls are the strongest makes me feel happy.
All of us are blessed to even be alive; even waking up every morning is a gift! I see life as a gift and we show our appreciation by deciding what to do with it—using it positively is our gift back to life. Those who wake up and never embrace the moment in a positive and grateful manner automatically place themselves in a paralyzed position without true freedom like a caged animal. It is very simple: I wake up and since I am paralyzed—unable to sit up on my own or roll over by myself or get in my wheelchair without assistance—I can without a doubt say I am caged by my body. But I am not caged by my spirit. With a spirit that is free, you effortlessly open that cage and release the essence of being truly alive and are capable of roaming anywhere your heart desires!”
At Chachro, Tharparkar
“In our village, Hindus and Muslims have been living together for decades and there has not been a single day when I have seen a religious conflict. No loud speaker is used for azaan when Hindus are worshiping in their temple and no bells are rung when it is time for namaaz. Nobody eats in public when it is Ramzan and Holi is played by every member of the village. We do not have roads, electricity, or a communication system, but our children go to the same school. We drink salty water, but we never beg. Every member, male or female, went out to vote at the time of elections.”