Sanam Maher’s The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is the story of Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch, her meteoric rise and abrupt death. She was killed by her own brother in an incident of honour killing because she challenged conservative values and wished to live life on her own terms, unabashedly and confidently. An excerpt from the book:
Mec is one of those men who you cannot imagine ever having been a little boy. It’s as if he’s never been without his distinct handlebar moustache which swallows his top lip, his brightly patterned satin ties, tad too long jackets and shoes with an extra wedge of heel. He doesn’t try to convince you otherwise. How long has he been in this industry? ‘Ab toh yaad hi nahin rehta, itna arsaa ho gaya hai.’ But if he had to estimate? ‘Aap yehi soch lein ke Islamabad ki 80 per cent girls ko Mec ne introduce karaya field mein.’ How did all these girls find him? ‘Lo. Ye koi poochnay ki baat hai? Yahaan sab jaantay hain Mec kaun hai.’ How long has he been working with Khushi? ‘Shuru se. Jab se hum ye kaam kar rahay hain.’ (‘It’s been a little more than a year,’ Khushi interjects.)
It’s the day of Khushi’s show and when the girls arrive, they throw their arms around Mec’s neck and bend at the knee to hug him. His face rises like a flower and they air-kiss him twice, their lips hovering near each rounded cheek with a smacking muah! muah! Yesterday, a new girl came to Khushi’s rehearsal. She had come to Islamabad from Peshawar and she wanted to work with Mec. She had covered her head with a dupatta and wore a shalwar kameez with long sleeves that trailed past her wrists. She was quiet, lingering outside the circle of girls flitting around Mec. She’s back today, her head uncovered. Someone has had a chat with her about how Mec likes to be greeted. She sidles up to give him a kiss and a quick hug.
She had covered her head with a dupatta and wore a shalwar kameez with long sleeves that trailed past her wrists. She was quiet, lingering outside the circle of girls flitting around Mec. She’s back today, her head uncovered. Someone has had a chat with her about how Mec likes to be greeted.
The girls arrive in packs of three or four, clamouring for Mec’s attention from the moment they enter the room, where he is perched on a black pleather sofa.
‘Sir, look at my dress!’
‘Sir, where is my dress? I need to see if I brought the right make-up.’
‘Sir, I’ve brought my own dress, it’s a bridal dress, sir, it’s so beautiful.’
They are bright and beautiful, with tumbles of caramel or blonde hair, eager as kittens. Each one wants to be the girl Mec likes today, the one with the best make-up and most beautiful outfit, the one who will be the last to walk the runway. The showstopper. Mec is known to play favourites. ‘Sometimes, if a model catches his eye, he will forget the others in the rush to promote her,’ Khushi says. ‘Selfies on Facebook, special shoots, nice clothes, videos for YouTube. Then if he needs you, he’ll remember you.’
Mec is known to play favourites. ‘Sometimes, if a model catches his eye, he will forget the others in the rush to promote her,’ Khushi says. ‘Selfies on Facebook, special shoots, nice clothes, videos for YouTube. Then if he needs you, he’ll remember you.’
Mec turns to the girl who has brought her own outfit. ‘Put it on and show me,’ he instructs.
‘Sir!’ she pouts. ‘Ye kya baat hui, sir? Sir, outclass hai, trust me.’
She gets a laugh out of him. ‘Behave yourself,’ he chides.
The others seem to wilt.
They pull handfuls of sparkly silk and satin from their bags and he leaves the room so they can change. He pauses at the door. ‘Girls! Girls, listen up,’ he says. He claps his hands. ‘Girls, you need to take care of your things, okay? Put everything in your bags and take it all backstage. Everything goes there. Nothing stays in this room.’ They nod in unison like well-behaved schoolgirls on a field trip.
Mec is nervous about this show. It’s for a TV channel, so that means he couldn’t promise promotion to any other media outlets. ‘Now if I can’t do that, then why would any designers give us their clothes?’ he complains. The channel has a small budget for this event. It’s not the kind of show he is used to. There are only twelve girls walking the runway and they’ll get their make-up done at a parlour (‘Make-up artist ka budget bhi nahin hai! Zara sochein.’). There’s only one designer who has agreed to participate and he is currently on his way over from Peshawar with the clothes piled onto the back seat of his car. ‘No show-sha, no glamouring, you know?’ Mec sighs. He pulls out his phone to find out when the designer will arrive.
‘Where have you reached?’
The man cannot hear him. He repeats himself. There’s no answer.
‘Where are you?’ Mec snaps.
The voice crackles on the other end.
‘Lo. You told me you’d be here at 11 a.m.’
There are some excuses about traffic.
‘Just come. Quickly.’ He sulks. ‘I was going to remind you to get me some paneer. Now forget it.’
The man says something that gets a wide smile from Mec.
‘Okay, baba, okay. Thank you. Come. We’re all waiting for you.’
Mec hangs up. He looks mollified. ‘You know, the cheese in Peshawar is excellent. And this designer is coming from there, as I told you. Bring me some, I told him. He’s bought me a kilo. A kilo!’
One of the girls walks out of the changing room. She wears a heavily embroidered kameez that cinches under her breasts and flows out.
‘Sir, isn’t it haseen? Didn’t I tell you?’ she asks. She sways from side to side. The sequins on the fabric are motes of light.
Mec agrees that it is beautiful.
‘Can I wear my tights under this?’
He gives his permission.
The girl turns to leave, and then pauses. ‘Sir, can you get the toilets cleaned? It’s smelling so much.’
Mec gives her a tight smile. ‘Sonay, can’t you see that I’m giving an interview here?’ he says in a singsong voice. ‘Is this the time to talk to me about toilets?’ Any chance she had of being the showstopper vanishes. ‘They love me a lot, you know,’ he says, watching the girl walk away. ‘Poor things rely on me.’ He taps one cheek and then the next. ‘One will kiss me here, and another here. They’re like this with me. We are like a family.’ And these days, one particular member of the family has Mec wrapped around her finger.
‘Poor things rely on me.’ He taps one cheek and then the next. ‘One will kiss me here, and another here. They’re like this with me. We are like a family.’ And these days, one particular member of the family has Mec wrapped around her finger.
He introduces her with a flourish. ‘Meet Qandeel Two! QB2! Miss Bushi!’ he says, when she arrives at the venue. She walks almost on tiptoe in her platform heels, gingerly taking one tiny step at a time as though she is afraid to fall. Bushi is a small, doll-faced twenty-two-year-old girl from Abbottabad. Her hair falls in tangles to her waist and she has a thick fringe that she caresses to the side every time she talks. She features in every video Mec posts on Facebook these days. There’s Bushi lip-syncing a Bollywood song in the backseat of a car; Bushi in full bridal make up at a salon, asking, ‘I’m looking hot, na?’; Bushi at Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mazaar in Karachi, pointing out his grave; Bushi wearing sunglasses as big as saucers, playing with her hair and stroking her necklace as she whispers, ‘I am Barbie doll.’
Excerpted with permission from The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, Sanam Maher, Aleph Book Company, MRP 599; Pages-272
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