Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Every time Karachi bleeds, people scramble around looking for something to believe in. Once again, with almost 70 people dead in three days of violence, there are articles insisting that Karachi’s spirit, tolerance, pride and resilience will carry it through. Insisting that it will survive. Insisting that it will come out stronger.
I like to read hopeful pieces as much as the next person, but as much as I appreciate the feeling behind them, I’m getting tired of the sentimentalisation of Karachi and all its problems. People here aren’t resilient because of their fierce pride in their city. They’re resilient because they don’t have a choice. They are proud because they feel defensive about a part of the country whose problems are too often treated like they don’t belong to the rest of Pakistan. They are spirited because if you abuse and batter anybody’s home for long enough, they will eventually fight back. As for the tolerance-I don’t really see who can honestly call this city tolerant. It is tolerant of many things, but considering that most of the metropolis has been soaked crimson in ethnically-inspired killings, I wouldn’t ever call Karachi a place where we welcome outsiders with open arms.
There are beautiful things about this city, yes. Love for Karachi is love in spite of everything else. You will want to come home to Karachi simply because it is home, even though you know you won’t have electricity, running water or security at any given moment of the day. I’m beginning to wonder whether this is good enough anymore. Is it enough to be hopelessly, helplessly attached to a place while you watch it go up in flames? Do the people on the other side of the city, the ones whose children are being murdered and homes are being looted on an almost daily basis, feel this love? Or do they simply feel gut-wrenching, all-consuming grief?
Our sadness and our sentimentality will only take us so far. I say this as someone who has been sheltered on the “safe side” of this city. As someone who always maintained that the city will indeed bounce back. No, it won’t-I realize this now. It won’t bounce back, because it is too broken and too battered. Half of the city has been affected by the violence, while the other half have convinced themselves it is part and parcel of life in Karachi. The divide remains, between those who are hopeful and those who can’t afford to be. There is no great change coming unless the entire class structure-both literal and geographical, in this city-is altered. Until then, the best we can do is acknowledge how Karachiites who lost loved ones and protest on the streets every day are hurting-and acknowledge our privilege in not experiencing the same.  


In all nation-states, history is distorted to create convenient narratives. Our country is suffering not only from the usual propagandisation of the past, but also because its fiction is being ignored as a source of both art and inquiry. The truth in the works of Faiz or Manto might be uncomfortable for us to face, but responsible education should be structured around seeking truth rather than obscuring it; understanding history rather than ignoring it.

Saadat Hasan Manto is one of the best-known fiction writers from the turbulent period during which the subcontinent gained independence and was partitioned. His stories focus on the sense of dislocation caused by the Partition, were popular in his time, and remain so today, although rarely at an institutional level. “Mere Sahib”, a comparatively little-read short story by the author, raises questions about something that many Pakistanis have asked themselves-who was Jinnah? Based on conversations with Jinnah’s ex-chauffeur, the story provides food for thought about 1940s India, a period we frequently shelf away as the “before”.

Alternately funny and moving, the story is a refreshingly honest appraisal of Jinnah the man, rather than Jinnah the politician. Azad, the chauffeur, offers bits of his own psychoanalysis as well as glimpses into the everyday quirks of the man. It is perhaps as much a description of Jinnah as it is a portrait of the fan following politicians had the potential to attract, as well as an extremely honest picture of the interests and passions that moved individuals to participate in the Pakistan movement on a personal level. While Manto bases his story on an interview, it is through his literary lens that we meet its characters. The chauffeur’s viewpoint, while intriguing in its own right, is ultimately a literary device which the author uses to illustrate his own feelings about Jinnah and his legacy.

Manto describes Azad’s support for the Muslim League as enthusiastic and youthful and driven by his age more than anything else: he was young and wanted a revolution, he enjoyed the thrill of marches and protests. But as he mentioned himself, “it was a time when Hindus did not try to kill anyone who uttered the word ‘Quaid-e-Azam’” He candidly describes his obsession with seeing the Quaid in person as well as the reason he believes he was selected to be chauffeur: Jinnah liked healthy, good-looking men, he said, perhaps because of his own physical weakness.

Some points that raised the most important questions were the ones about Jinnah’s connection (or lack thereof) with the average Indian Muslim. Manto provides comic scenes where Azad imitates Jinnah’s attempts to speak Urdu, which are astonishingly terrible for a man who insisted on championing the language as a uniting factor for all Indian Muslims. His legal acuity, which is never questioned, is depicted through his pool game: “He would spend a long time in his analysis. From this angle. From that angle…but if another angle come to his mind, he would stop, think, make sure.” Manto also allows Azad to throw in his own opinions generously; how Jinnah was as careful in the game of politics as he was on the pool table, how he loved his shoes “because they were always at his feet and moved according to him.” He paints a three dimensional picture of his sahib: intelligent, generous, disinclined towards small talk, bitter, lonely, removed, admiring of physical strength and beauty. What stands out most for the author in his conversation with Azad is the last question he asks him: “Did you ever hear Quaid-e-Azam say I’m sorry?”, and the answer he received: that if such a thing did ever happen, Jinnah would have removed those words from the dictionary forever. For the author, this “sums up the entire character of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah” as far as he was concerned.

This bitterness is emblematic of Manto’s work about Partition, but its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s illustrates that it was a bitterness that many readers empathized with. Though I am aware that historical inferences through literature can be risky, I believe that “fiction…has provided an intense window on the personal experiences of 1947,” in the words of historian David Gilmartin. Fiction such as Manto’s cannot be taken for its factual value, but its popularity underscores the psyche of those who appreciated it. In a time when history, literature and art are all crying for their fair share of attention in Pakistan, Manto is only one example of an author who is largely ignored in formal education. If we really want to create a society where people are encouraged to think, inquire and above all, read, reclaiming authors who write in the vernacular languages would be a wise step to take.


A Mount Holyoke College brochure arrived in the mail today. For once, a college envelope was for my sister, not me. I admit I stole it-for a while. I took it to my room and stared at every page for a long time.
It was strange to think that I held a version of the same booklet a few years ago. It was strange to flip through it and see familiar faces, familiar places. It was strange to see a place you consider home being advertised to you. The whole experience of half an hour (yes, I spent that long on it) was a bit surreal.
There was a photograph of a group of students sitting around a professor in a politics class. I stared at that one for a long time. The round room, the long windows, the professor's face, the bottles of vitamin water on someone's desk-it was all so real. So rememberable. So rememberous. But it felt a million years away. It was the first time I thought "wow, that was a long time ago" even though it's barely been half a year.
Karachi has a quicksand quality about it. You fall in and you can't get out. I don't mean this as a bad thing, but once you're in it, you're hardly going to worry about what's outside it. It doesn't allow you to. I wonder if a few years from now, I'll look at photographs of Karachi and stare at them, because they are advertisements for a place I call home. I wonder if I'll recall the smell of gasoline, salt and warm air and long for it, the way I suddenly recalled the smell of falling leaves and my dorm room. When will I see something from my home right now and think-that was a million years ago?


It seems that for every step we take forward, we take two steps back. Pakistan has been unsuccessfully struggling with the concept of land reform for decades. As other Muslim societies move forward, ours is still debating whether or not the concept is Islamic.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s recent condemnation of the MQM land reform bill is unsurprising, but frustrating.

Keeping in mind that our constitution is not secular and religious hurdles to legislation will always be present, religious debates over certain issues have outlasted our tolerance for them. As long as our religious parties are populated mostly by political stakeholders, rather than Islamic scholars, their statements will be difficult to swallow.

It may well be true that Islam - narrowly defined as what was practiced during the lifetime of the prophet and ignoring all the religious scholarship that has been undertaken since - does not put a cap on how much wealth an individual can own. However, in the same vein, “Islam” in such a narrow context also does not have an opinion on modern farming practices. Or the MQM. Or feudalism in South Asia.

The list of things that Islam does not expressly forbid simply because they may not have existed 1,500 years ago is endless. It is vital for the JUP, or any political party for that matter, to advance beyond their present rhetoric and allow for deeper and broader interpretations of religious law. Simply saying that a law does not exist is not enough; certainly not when millions of Pakistanis are bonded labourers or languishing in the personal prisons of wealthy landowners.

Unfortunately, a resistance to either the bill or its detractors is likely to be turned into a brawl with bias and name-calling from both sides. The debate about whether Pakistan was intended as a secular or Islamic state rarely progresses beyond the simplistic allegations of “what Jinnah wanted” and turns ugly far too quickly.

With our (lack of) land reforms preventing economy or society from progressing, it is high time that creative dialogue is initiated on the subject. Until then, it is likely that the discussion about vitally important developments, such as breaking the backbone of feudalism, will remain mired in accusations of being either extremist or godless.


For anyone who still bothers reading this, I haven't been able to upload a thing for weeks. Now to get to the actual writing (and uploading stuff that's been getting published elsewhere in the blogosphere).

Friday, October 1, 2010


The Ayodhya verdict that was delivered yesterday showcased considerable maturity on the part of the Indian judiciary. I won't get into the specifics of how justice could be achieved on the issue of Babri Mosque, simply because that requires a discourse on Indian domestic politics from the 1980s onwards. Politically speaking, however, the decision to divide the land, and the manner of division, made absolute sense. Had the courts made a decision in favour of either side, there would have been violence and rioting, to say the least. A pro-Muslim decision would have been like gift wrapping more votes for the BJP, while a pro-Hindu decision would have spoiled the Congress' supposedly left-of-centre image and caused riots across the subcontinent.

My only objection to the verdict is the some of the issues on which it was based. The first question the court considered was whether Ayodhya was truly the birthplace of Ram. What business is it of the judiciary to be making statements about whether or not someplace was the birthplace of a god? It firstly assumes a belief in the divine, which strictly speaking, a secular state can not do. Secondly, it presupposes that such a divine figure had a physical birth place. Even if the court was making this decision based on theological advice from religious authorities, there is still no absolute way to prove where anybody was born, least of all for a court of law.

Secondly, it asked whether the Babri Masjid was built according to the tenets of Islam. Islam forbids the building of mosques on desecrated religious sites, which the spot in Ayodhya may indeed have been in the fifteenth century. On that count, the mosque might have been un-Islamic. However, the motivations of the Sangh Parivar in wanting to tear it down were certainly not the preservation of the true Islamic character of the mosque, so the issue should not have been treated as such. Also, it plunges the present Indian judiciary into the murky territory of litigating issues that arose literally centuries before the birth of the modern Indian state. How far back can one possibly litigate? Does this mean crimes committed in the colonial era are also for the Indian and Pakistani courts to decide on today?

The issue of Babri Masjid was deeply symbolic, and the judges in Lucknow did a good job of providing a reasonable verdict keeping mind the charged nature of the problem. However, if it had been treated like a case of disputed territory from the very beginning, rather than the ideologically-based struggle the RSS had hoped it would become, a great deal of communal tension might have been defused years ago.


I am so sick of the Dr Aafia case. I refuse to read a single more so-called news item about yet another politician jumping on the shewasinnocentUSAhatesmuslims bandwagon. She probably was innocent of the crime of which she was convicted-shooting a soldier. She probably was guilty of the crime of which she wasn't convicted-supporting Al-Qaeda. I doubt it matters one way or another whether her story is fabricated or not, since the courts have refused to try her for the terrorism allegations. The only thing worth mentioning in the entire case is that the United States ignored due process.

The fact that she was tried in a court of law although her arrest and detention were illegal and overseas shouldn't have been overlooked-by U.S. residents. For Pakistanis to be screaming themselves hoarse about a miscarriage of justice is ludicrous on several levels. For one thing, no amount of screaming in this country will make any difference to the American judiciary. For another thing, if due process for our citizens is really what anyone cares about, they should probably begin by standing up in defense of Pakistanis who have been languishing in prisons around the world since 9/11. They should probably demand that America return all the other people from this country who have suffered in the war on terror and been kidnapped or tortured by intelligence agencies without trial. They should probably make a hue and cry about all those who have lost everything at the hands of justice systems but haven't been lucky enough to be afforded the title of qaum ki beti.

Really, is this the only beti our qaum could find? Notwithstanding that Aafia Siddiqui might be innocent, this country has thousands of "daughters" who deserve justice a great deal more, by simple virtue of being Pakistani citizens and residents. However heartening it is to see our backward leadership supposedly making a stand for women's rights, it would be far more heartening to see them carry the fight to prisons where so many women are awaiting justice in our own obscenely sluggish courts. It's convenient how governments in both the East and the West decide to care about women's emancipation when it suits them; even more convenient when they find a single figurehead who will symbolize their good intentions. Not so convenient for us ordinary citizens is how quickly we are all forgotten. Do all women and illegally detained prisoners in this country need to be on the CIA radar to get attention?
The Pakistan government had a right to demand that Aafia Siddiqui be tried in court as a U.S. citizen (which she was) and be sentenced accordingly (which she was, whether anyone likes the verdict or not). The angry protestors on the streets, led by opportunistic politicians, however, have an obligation to be true to their supposed values and fight the good fight in the name of all torture, all sexism, all miscarriages of justice, all illegal detainment. We are tired of hearing the same old nonsense, and selective campaigning just won't do anymore.


I don't know anybody my age who has ever had faith in Pakistani democracy. It's a sad but true fact that those of us born post-Zia, having grown up watching the Benazir-Nawaz Sharif-Musharraf merry go round, can place little faith in concrete change. At any rate, things to seem to be getting progressively worse. It is rare to find a country where children are born to parents who remember a more liberal and tolerant society, but we are living in one of them and are used to our elders' reminisces about What Used To Be. Why do I find myself looking forward to the 2013 elections then-if they ever happen?

For someone who came out of the womb feeling cynical about our leaders, I am excited at the thought that I might be able to exercise my vote to throw a government out. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen, but the prospect is exciting. The last time the country held elections and made the tragic mistake of bringing the current regime into power, I couldn't have cared less. I was newly eligible to vote and couldn't find a single contender I wanted to see in office. This might be the case again. I'm just curious to see whether anything new comes up in the next three years. I'm curious to see whether our collective national frustration will be exercised in the voting booth rather than on the streets with bombs strapped to chests. I wonder if this is what people in real democracies feel like-do they look forward to exercising their right to try and kick someone out, rather than bringing someone in?

Sure, it might not work. Sure, the next guy might be worse, who knows. Something tells me though that Pakistanis have had enough, and no matter how hard we try, we can't ever as a nation seem to give up our obsession with politics. Bring on the elections; I think more of us might want to vote this time. We might actually have Zardari to thank for something after all-he's inspiring us to have hope in democracy long enough to see his sorry ass leave.