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).