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A tale of two generations

One more rooted in social and cultural terms while the other having a more constrained perspective

A tale of two generations
— Graphic by Naseem ur Rehman.

The generation that grew up and entered into public life in Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to emulate the West in pursuit of democracy and development. It envisioned the nation’s future in terms of open-ended progress somewhat along the global pattern. Instead, the newer generation that started to operate in the national life in the 1990s and 2000s believes in the dichotomy between Islam and the West, couched in the clash of civilisations thesis. ‘Generation’ here points to the section of the population that dabbles in intellectual, professional, literary and artistic pursuits.

Young intellectuals, professionals and activists of the older generation were typically exposed to contemporary thinkers in Western countries, such as Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Foucoult, and Wallerstein. On the left, Che Guevara was the most popular revolutionary figure. Frantz Fanon from Africa, whose book Wretched of the Earth captured the imagination of youth everywhere, was the symbol of anti-colonial sentiment. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, short stories of Chekhov and Maupassant and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House were avidly read and admired. Among poets, T.S. Eliot remained the towering figure. His masterpiece The Wasteland attracted the elite students and intellectuals. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa topped the list of classical works of art cherished by the university educated section of the population.

Nasim Hijazi created nostalgia for the perceived Muslim glory or tragedy in the past in various locations in Central Asia, Spain and India. Indeed, the Andalus syndrome had become the pivot of nostalgia among Muslims of India and later Pakistan after the end of Khilafat in 1924. It remained a powerful instinct after independence. The three cities of Grenada, Qordova and Saville became the symbol of Muslim ascendency in medieval Spain. The name Al-Hamra for the town hall of Bradford in England and the Arts Centre in Lahore became the symbolic expression for adoring the past glory.

Closer at home, the intelligentsia engaged itself with the writings of leading figures of Urdu literature ranging from Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal to Mirza Ruswa, the quartet of short story writers Ismat Chughtai, Manto, Krishan Chandar and Bedi, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and novelists Quaratulain Hyder and Abdullah Hussein — especially with reference to their respective masterpieces Aag Ka Darya and Udas Naslein. Controversy about the leftist ideological orientations of the Progressive Writers Association still lingered on with a declining interest and relevance among the reading public. The talk in posh drawing rooms included such names as the great artist Abdurrehman Chughtai and later Sadeqain. The centenary of Ghalib was starred by the magic discovery of a new manuscript of his Diwan in 1969 by the editor of Naqoosh Mohammad Tufail.

The decade of the 1970s produced new intellectual challenges in the form of a debate about the indigenous sources of cultural inspiration belonging to the four nationalities of Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtuns and the Baluch. Lok Virsa was a direct product of the new love for folklore. Sultan Bahu, Bulle Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Khushhal Khan Khattak, among a host of other stalwarts of regional cultures, emerged as symbols of new populism. References to the Indo-Muslim culture under the Mughals and beyond started to fade away on the intellectual horizon. The Indus Civilization emerged as the new territorial symbol of the state.

Denial of history characterised the imagination of the former generation. But, it still had some sense of the subcontinent’s cultural, linguistic and literary heritage. As opposed to this, the latter generation massively lacks historical consciousness. A sense of continuity and change of both history and geography is not necessarily a part of its intellectual kit. 

The former generation experienced the beginning of degeneration of the film world that encompassed the performing arts in general. The decline continued into the life and times of the latter generation, at least till recently. The role of acting on the big screen as art — symbolised by a range of actors from before independence such as Dilip Kumar to Santosh Kumar and from Madhobala and Nargis to Musarrat Nazir and later Shabnam — moved from expression through dialogue to exhibition of macho culture for men and bulky bodies for women. There was the rough and gruff hero aged 40-50 years, shouting at the pitch of his voice, handsome by no stretch of imagination and calling anybody and everybody to a dual. From Sultan Rahi to Badar Munir, the hero was a killer and a thriller. The heroin from Anjuman and Mumtaz to Musarat Shaheen spoke through body language, literally. Suffocation in the film world moved from one generation to another.

The 1980s brought about a change that cut across a smooth movement of ideas and thoughts among the people. The military dictator Ziaul Haq hammered down a reckless pursuit of legitimacy in the extra-constitutional domain of political ideology. He cultivated religion as raison d’etre of his un-constitutional rule that expanded to various areas of public activity including banking, education, media and performance of rituals. Zia’s military regime brought about profound changes in the mindset of people that led to undermining of various freedoms of expression, enterprise, association and belief.

The Zia period represents transition from one generation to the other. By the 1990s, insularity had massively hit the cultural, educational, diplomatic and political imagination of the articulate sections of the society. The dynamics of Indo-Muslim civilization, rooted in cultural and religious traditions of Iran and Central Asia for seven hundred years, were grossly influenced by the shift to the Gulf states in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Curiously, the Arab renaissance in cultural, educational, political and social pursuits in the 20th century had taken place in countries outside the Arabian Peninsula — the so-called ‘northern tier’ that included Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. All this while, the Gulf countries remained immersed in medieval political practices, dry of intellect and philosophical thought.

Pakistan engaged with the ‘southern tier’ that found political freedoms alien, democracy a far cry, human rights a distant sound beat and art a devil’s pursuit. The grand interaction with the Gulf during the last quarter of a century has instilled barrenness of thought.

Denial of history characterised the imagination of the former generation. But, it still had some sense of the subcontinent’s cultural, linguistic and literary heritage. As opposed to this, the latter generation massively lacks historical consciousness. A sense of continuity and change of both history and geography is not necessarily a part of its intellectual kit. At least indirectly but significantly, the Arabisation of heart and mind took Pakistan out of the South Asian region in a cultural sense. The younger generation has, therefore, been exposed to a process of de-culturation. The nation moved from bigotry against Ahmadis in the former generation to bigotry against Shias, Zikris and Ismailis as well as Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs in the younger generation.

This is accompanied by an increasing gap of communication across social and religious divisions. The likelihood of the emergence of a patchwork nation based on primordial identities has increased. Selective definitions of the nationalist framework of Pakistan over time have shaped the contours of the worldview of the younger generation along missionary and visionary lines, which is not commensurate with the contemporary world.

The younger generation is distinct from the older generation in the quantum of anti-Americanism that has reached new heights. During the 1980s, the CIA-ISI combine fought the war in Afghanistan by creating a large army of mujahideen. The Islamic mobilisation led to the dichotomous worldview with Islam and the West as two poles, after the Red Army withdrew and the Soviet Union broke up into 15 states. The decade of the 1990s hurt the Muslim world hard: first, the US-led coalition invaded Iraq; then Bosnia became a festering wound for Muslims; meanwhile insurgency in Chechnya was quashed by Russia; then Muslims of Kosovo were incarcerated.

Later, the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 set the pattern of acute anti-Americanism in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. In recent years, the US operation in Abbotabad in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and attack on Salala check-post further deepened hostility against America.

Today’s generation has a far worse conspiratorial outlook than its predecessor, as is clear from a sickening attitude toward Malala… Those in the older generation who looked at Dr Abdus Salam’s Nobel Prize in a similar way were far fewer in numbers and far less ferocious in their negative attitude.

The other distinguishing feature of the new generation is its confusion about the Taliban militancy. Given the US war against Taliban and rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan, the elite and masses together felt obliged to side with the Muslim Taliban — ‘our boys gone astray’ — against the ‘infidel’ America. A kind of passive acquiescence to violence in pursuit of sacred causes underscored the new thinking. Right-wing politicians led by Imran Khan opposed army action against Taliban and pressed for negotiations with them instead. Not surprisingly, Malala Yusufzai who was the victim of Taliban’s murderous attack and was rushed to England for treatment — and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — is considered part of the Western conspiracy by a large number of people.

Today’s generation has a far worse conspiratorial outlook than its predecessor, as is clear from a sickening attitude toward Malala, her suffering under the Taliban’s bullets and her mission for education for girls. Those in the older generation who looked at Dr Abdus Salam’s Nobel Prize in a similar way were far fewer in numbers and far less ferocious in their negative attitude. In fact, Dr. Salam was Ayub Khan’s advisor for scientific development for some time.

The two generations can also be compared in terms of popular leadership in their times. The Bhuttoist populism attracted a vast number of people, especially in Punjab and Sindh, due to a policy orientation in favour of redistribution of wealth that was couched in the socialist idiom. Today’s generation is witness to the rise of Imran Khan as a charismatic leader from the right of the political spectrum. The intelligentsia would typically find Z. A. Bhutto an intellectual giant as compared to the cricketer-politician who never operated in the world of letters. With no policy and no ideology to his credit, Imran Khan nonetheless charmed a large number of middle class people in northern Pakistan from 2011 onwards.

As opposed to this, Bhutto had mobilised the general masses. The middle class as the catchment area of the officer cadre of army as well bureaucracy, along with the landed elite, the bourgeoisie and ulema, vehemently opposed him. While Bhutto was considered anti-establishment, Imran Khan’s profile is pro-establishment. The former was branded left, while the latter is considered ultra-right. Both represent the generally visible sentiments and worldviews of the old and new generations respectively, even as the other half of the nation opposed them and considered them villains.

While many from the former generation dabbled in English, they cherished Urdu literature and showed sensitivity to art and music. The open air theatre in Lawrence Garden in Lahore was the platform where vocalists and instrumentalists including Nazakat Ali-Salamat Ali, Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Gulshan Ara Begum and Farida Khanum performed till past midnight. Today, these musical conferences are a mere shadow of their predecessors.

Also, there is a drift away from the classics in Urdu literature and painting. As the film industry in Pakistan degenerated, cable tv opened the way to watching Indian as well as Western movies a decade ago. The Bollywood stars ranging from Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan to Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif and a host of others, became household figures in Pakistani homes and some on the billboards throughout the country. Access to Bollywood had dried up for the older generation after the imposition of ban on showing Indian films in cinemas. But now, it has come up in a big way through the small screen.

One occasionally hears about demands for banning Indian movies on cable TV for showing indecent scenes of thinly-clad women in a dancing mode or otherwise. Cable tv has expanded the scope of tolerance of behavioural liberalism on the screen, of course with no visible traces of filtering through the society’s mores and manners. The younger generation is, therefore, exposed to a far less constrained cinematic art on tv than its predecessor, which was bound by the antics of one state-controlled channel.

The new generation has a clear edge in technology by way of the use of social media. It has a personalistic approach to social relations via Facebook and Twitter. Today’s generation itself has a clear divide between the English-oriented elite and the less prosperous and culturally indigenous sections of the middle class. The former are effectively removed from Urdu literary heritage and, in some cases, even from the ability to read and write Urdu.

The latter feel alienated from the expanding tradition of literary festivals in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad which they find Western-inspired, elitist and remote from the local sources of inspiration. The globalist metaphor of writers belonging to the modernist section of the younger generation seems to take over the relatively traditional section of today’s intelligentsia in terms of outreach and impact. Rise of English fiction kin Pakistan is an indicator of the widening scope of the writers in Pakistan, following Hanif Kureishi, Muneeza Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif and a host of younger novelists. Their novels reflect a relatively complex life pattern in troubled circumstances. The cultural idiom of the older generation has been replaced by a supra-local context and wider concerns about complexity of life.

The internet-savvy youngsters are at once smarter but less attuned to the social, cultural, political and economic issues of the larger public than their predecessors. Due to the fast expanding 4G network provided by mobile phone companies, the younger generation is expected to access domestic, regional and international news and events bringing it in tune with its contemporaries across the globe. Their highly individualistic pattern of connection through social media is both expansive in outreach and restrictive in terms of thematic variety.

While these and other progressive trends are visible and increasingly popular, the religious content on the tv screen has increased several times more than was available to the older generation, given a hundred odd tv channels in the field instead of one channel in olden days. The changing role of television in religious field has been led by televangelists such as Aamir Liaqat Hussain, Zakir Naik and Junaid Jamshed.

Today’s generation follows an interactive and dialogic process of understanding politics rather than reading news and views in printed form. Accordingly, the shelf life of analyses in print is even less than the ‘screenplay’ such as live tweeting of events and discussions. In a few cases, this leads to social and political activism through social media. There is the example of the young man who became a national symbol of fight against militancy and extremism after his online and in-street campaign against the Lal Masjid clerics. While the liberal section of the younger generation found it progressive, the religious lobby typically considered it heretical.

Inasmuch as the fight between modernists and traditionalists has been always present in the political, cultural and social domains of public life after partition, the two generations share the sentiments and agendas on both sides.

To conclude, the older generation was less expansive but more rooted in social and cultural terms, while the younger generation has a wider scope of thought and practice but a more constrained perspective on the world within and outside the national boundaries.

One comment

  • Waseem Sahib,

    Excellent analysis, as usual. The generational gap is ironically illustrated in your article itself. While mentioning the classical vocalists of the earlier generation you have mistakenly identified Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum. This is obviously a genuine slip by a stellar member of the old generation. But, I am sure, the editor of the section is a member of the new generation to whom the name meant nothing at all. Imagine a person not picking up such an oversight straightaway and not being familiar with an artist who was rightly called Malika-e Mausiqi. The late Hayat Ahmed Khan sahib said that when Roshan Ara Begum started to sing she used to be transformed into the most beautiful woman in the world – such was the power of her voice.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Anjum Altaf

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