Living with the Taliban at the gates

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Maria Toorpakai, Pakistan’s highest-ranked female squash player, lived her childhood under a different identity: Genghis Khan. It was not a move she made out of choice, but out of compulsion.

As a defiant young girl growing up in the heart of South Waziristan in Pakistan, a land where tribal warlords ran the show and a woman’s sole duty revolved around tending to household chores, Toorpakai lived a life which few can even comprehend. It is this element of rebellion which makes her autobiography A Different Kind of Daughter a compelling read.

Toorpakai’s story goes well beyond the standard sports autobiography. It offers a gripping view into the lives of thousands who inhabit such dangerous borderlands where the rule of law is a joke at best. Her story starts amidst the mountainous rocky terrain of South Waziristan where the ancient tribal law of the Wazirs reign supreme.

Right from the start, Toorpakai is painted out as a freak. In conservative South Waziristan, girls like her are not tolerated. But her supportive parents will not let her individuality die a quiet death.

And so she lives her life in public as a boy, with another name: Genghis Khan. Along with her father and mother, Toorpakai travels all over the Federal Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan before finally arriving to Peshawar. But it is also a journey within herself – Toorpakai narrates how easily she fits in with boys, and her experiences with the young street gangs she becomes part of. There are also elements of her headstrong nature as she gets into one fight after another, before finally channelling her energy into weight-lifting.

An alter ego

At first, Toorpakai remains carefree. But as the years go by, she understands the risk that she is taking. While returning from a weightlifting competition where she finished second, there is a moment of epiphany for the reader when her brother, assigned with the task of ensuring that her identity is not revealed, lets her know that if anyone found out what she had done, she would be hunted down and killed.

Genghis Khan may have been her alter ego but as Toorpakai takes her first tentative steps into adulthood, it is clear that that the charade cannot go much longer.

Nor is the writer shy of adding a political undercurrent to the narrative. An early chapter recounts a meeting Toorpakai and her elder sister Ayesha Gulalai (now a prominent Pakistani politician) had with former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The late Bhutto served as an inspiration to Toorpakai’s elder sister’s political ambitions.

Later, as the two sisters watch the coverage of Bhutto’s assassination on television, the grief that envelops them is a palpable reflection of the wider sadness that swept through Pakistan at that time. This is beautifully juxtaposed with a subsequent account of Toorpakai meeting the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a special function.

Toorpakai never says it directly, but a little reading between the lines reveals much of what she thinks about the tenth Pakistani President – a man living comfortably in his ivory palace in Islamabad while the rest of Pakistan rages wildly and uncontrollably around him.

The real battle

Her battles with squash make for fascinating reading. Once she discovers the game, Toorpakai falls in love with it – the result is an intense devotion, bordering on fanaticism. But as she continuously deals with the taunts and jeers of the other boys at her first squash academy (even being called a “slut” in one particular harrowing instance), it becomes a bigger battle of proving that she belongs.

It is a facet of life any athlete will find familiar – the fight to remain all-conquering after the initial burst of adrenaline. There are times when Toorpakai falters, moments of realisation when she understands that squash is not just a game of pure power but also of dexterity and cunning. At one point, she leaves the academy frustrated, but returns with a new understanding of what she has to do and goes on to win her first ever major tournament.

Another tumultuous crossroads in her fledgling career arrives on September 9, 2001. The impact of 9/11 on the Western world has been well documented, but Toorpakai’s narrative reveals how it changed Pakistan.

As the Taliban spreads its tentacles around Pakistan and Afghanistan, Toorpakai’s fight is not limited to just defeating an opponent – it becomes a larger fight against a dangerous outfit that will stop at nothing to ensure that their conservative worldview of Islam is imposed, even if by force. By this time, Toorpakai has come close to the top, but the threats to her life and family drive her into a frustrating vigil indoors.

But yet again, her conquering spirit is only quelled temporarily as Toorpakai soon makes another journey into the unknown.

Squash as a sport does not get as many eyeballs which may be the reason why Toorpakai’s incredible journey has gone unnoticed. But in terms of underdog stories, she may have no equal. Toorpakai’s A Different Kind of Daughter is a brilliant depiction of a courageous journey of a woman who fought for her right to practice what she loved – and ultimately succeeded.

 

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