I have a confession to make. I watch a lot of TV shows. From the hilariously mundane lives of co-workers in The Office to Capitol Hill bigwigs battling it out in House of Cards, I have seen it all.
Very often, I find myself fidgeting uncomfortably in an empty room at the numerous references made towards Pakistan. It is almost always inextricably linked to drones, or terrorism, or the latest global fad- Bin Laden's death.
To give due credit, the pronunciations are no longer as atrocious as they used to be.
But that is not something to celebrate either.
The reference to the country has become so mainstream in the foreign media, news channels and now even the entertainment industry, that anchors, producers and actors have been forced to perfect the way they enunciate Pakistan. The painful "H" no longer divides the word into two syllables; instead it now rolls off their tongues as a smooth perfect concoction -- well almost perfect, until it is followed by the usual tirade of militancy and mullahs.
The trend is not new. The feeling that follows has been experienced by each of us who associates themselves with this troubled country, at some point or the other.
There is a fleeting moment of seething anger. At being misunderstood. Misrepresented. Until you realize that most of the things, most of the times contain some reflection of the truth. Yes, it is comforting to hold grudges for the Orientalist tendencies that get the better of media connoisseurs at times. It softens the blow to the ego for a while.
Until the anger paves way for guilt. The worst kind of guilt-which emanates from knowing that you, as an individual are not at fault. The kind that makes you wish you had done something wrong, so that you knew how to fix it.
And that is where the problem arises. When negative images of your country become part of a global popular culture, subconsciously guilt becomes a part of the national conscience.
And it follows you everywhere. From your empty room to crowded classrooms. It reflects in the defensive tilt of your chin when your international friends casually ask you if all women in Pakistan are as 'progressive' as you. It seeps into your voice when you see the flicker of surprise in the cute boy's eyes who asks you about your whereabouts to strike a conversation outside a jam-packed airport tunnel.
All of a sudden you feel cornered. Defensive. Alone. There is a strong urge to tell them something positive about Pakistan. Something so overwhelmingly good that it drowns away everything bad that they have ever heard or seen about the country.
Without realizing you start acting like a spokesperson for a very diverse, very complicated part of the world. You are engulfed by a naïve, almost childish instinct to paint a fair picture of Pakistan. You search for words that do not romanticize, but inform. You share tales of the heartwarming philanthropy without undermining the fear that grips cities when a bomb goes off. You remind people of the Edhis and Malalas that shine amidst the mania.
But no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to do justice to the part. Partly, because it is not your place to act as a brand ambassador for an entire nation. But mostly because the stereotyping by outsiders can be traced back to opportunistic policies and actions of your own leaders. The drones that silence women and children, the Taliban that shoot little girls in the head, the suicide bombers that blow themselves under false illusions of paradise are all monsters that grew in your own backyard while the state watched in silence.
And somehow that insight hurts more than any stereotype being tossed your way by those who do not know or love the country the way you do. It also makes you realize that the need to choose leaders that can transform this patriotism-induced-guilt into a sense of national pride has never been greater. Either that or be prepared for a lifetime of explaining to your children why the bad guy in their cartoons is always a Pakistani.