The biggest reason is Lahore
It is June 18, 2017 and I am one of the millions dancing with joy. We beat India by 180 runs — yes India. Kohli was dismissed twice in two balls by Aamir. Fakhar Zaman, a little known Navy-cadet-turned batsman played the innings of his life. Who wrote this script? Only in Pakistan, we keep saying. This resilience is what our home stands for, we claim. This, we say, is Pakistan and its boundaries define us. We haven’t been happier in years.
A barrage of news reports about Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Muslims being killed in Pakistan. We define the dead by faith and not citizenship, let alone humanity. Faith dictates citizenship and it is faith, in life or death, that dictates reactions, statements made.
A friend calls me to share that her father’s factory was burned down, business destroyed. Allegations of blasphemy and hate-based statements follow. Years later, the insurance claim is still nowhere in the court system. Years later, we meet and she tells me everyone in her family is a patriot and I try to understand why; I am genuinely interested. I ask her if nationalism and patriotism make sense to her. She uses a word for Pakistan; faith. It baffles me.
I hear statements that define who and what a true Muslim and a Pakistani is. This, we are told, is what our home stands for. You may not like it but lines have been drawn. This, we are told, is Pakistan and its boundaries define us. A question flowing from Arundhati Roy’s writing has stayed with me for years; once you see a line, how do you un-see it?
How does one balance commitment to universal ideals with the conditioned instinct to privilege the parochial? Talk of overbearing nationalism and the murky criteria used to define patriotism now make me uneasy.
So much so that I wonder if I am being a bad father if my three-year old son, Kabir, is waving a flag. Who will define it for him? The easy answer is: he will. The hard reality is: if he thinks his decision is the only one that matters then he is being a three-year-old. But how soon before he realises that in a fractious land he will not always have the right to express himself? Will it draw a line in his head that he will never be able to un-see?
These lines seem progressively hijacked by those interested in definition by exclusion. What will Kabir make of 1947? Will he view human beings differently based on impossibly difficult decisions in 1947 to stay in Lahore versus crossing a border a few miles away?
All of us are continuously being judged, or are judging others, to assess whether they/we have done enough to be a ‘true’ nationalist or patriot. Maybe Kabir can have a head clearer than mine. But, right now, what is more powerful? My desire to see how his life pans out or the fear, even if irrational, that tells me he should not live here when he grows up?
If I say that my loved ones tie me to Pakistan then that isn’t an argument for Pakistan; it is an argument for me moving to where my loved ones can move. So what does tie me to Pakistan? The biggest reason is Lahore. I need my weekly fill of the Mall Road, the trees reaching out to embrace each other, while blessing us with shade, above the mass of traffic, the crude and jaded but eventually redeeming irreverent humour.
The generosity of spirit in much of Pakistan still takes my breath away; the fact that people want to help even when they are in need amazes me. Then there are the mangoes and the happiness that comes with the phrase “mithai khayen”.
Will it be a land in my lifetime where speech will be genuinely free, non-discrimination the norm and accountability of all power brokers guaranteed? No. But then there is, perhaps, the hope that we can continue to carve out little spaces where conformity is not sought and individual choice is respected, critical thinking and disagreements are encouraged. Spaces in which Kabir and all children in this land can laugh that laugh of theirs, wave their flags, and not have to give a definitive answer to what this flag, or any flag, stands for.
Part of what ties me to Pakistan is the determination of others to keep pushing boundaries. In the middle of a busy day, a colleague randomly asks me how much does our constitutional law jurisprudence discuss the link between federalism and individual liberty. We discuss how more arguments can be made. He digs up articles about it and many days later we have another small but thought-provoking chat about it. We decide we need to use these novel arguments more often.
This refusal of so many around me to accept the apparent, or the dictated, as the final answer ties me to this land. This may seem juvenile or naïve; but there is happiness in pushing the set boundaries by using arguments.
It is almost 7pm and I am standing at the rooftop of our office building; kids on the street below are arguing over a run-out. A Pakistan flag flutters in the distance. I think to myself about the irony of shrinking spaces in Pakistan; a land that is itself based on the right to advance an unconventional argument and to re-define boundaries that were imposed by others.
And so, maybe, it is that nebulous, baffling thing mentioned by my friend that ties me to Pakistan; faith. Faith in Lahore and its beauty, in questions that so many continue to ask and in the hope that progressively people will keep re-defining boundaries even, and perhaps especially, when they cannot un-see them. That one day it will not be our boundaries but our willingness to go beyond them that will define us. Happy Independence Day.
I live here because…
Saeed Ur Rehman
I live in Pakistan because the society has a very healthy distrust of the state unlike Scandinavian countries where even the queer community listens to the royal speeches with fondness.
I live in Pakistan because my passport gets me extra-searches at every airport and I do not become too comfortable with modernity.
I live in Pakistan where life cannot be taken for granted and that makes life intensely liveable.
I live in Pakistan because the kind of Islam the majority practises here is different from its ultra-puritanical versions.
I live in Pakistan because here I can see modernity battling with traditions and then you can get a fatwa online.
I live in Pakistan because Pakistan is not the West or the non-West. The agrarian, pre-modern hospitality of the people of Punjab, Sindh, KPK, and Balochistan is still intact. There is a gift economy and a largesse here which is difficult to find elsewhere.
I live in Pakistan because the local population has been so well-fed for millennia by the alluvial plains of the Indus that they never thought of colonising any place. Yet they have developed intricate, unreadable ways of resisting colonialism of all types: Aryans, Mongols, Mughals, Arabs, Portuguese, the French, the British, American neocolonialism and globalisation and technology. In the end, the local oral, pre-modern ways are still there while all the colonisers have been just rendered empty, hollowed out.
I like to live in a society where the informal economy is bigger than the formal economy. It generates interesting theoretical questions.
I like to live in a country where you can have Begum Nawazish Ali on Prime Time tv for months and nobody bothers him/her.
After reading Pierre Clastres’ book, Society against the State, I have come to realise that I live in a society that does not let power be disassociated from the people despite many decades of dictatorships.
I enjoy living in a country where the army guards and promotes an intense fetish for private property and upscale consumerism instead of crass jingoism.
I like Pakistan because things can be managed here and bureaucracy cannot do anything effectively.
I live in Pakistan because the people do not allow any oppressor to rule for too long but they have a very fatalistic sense of history and their agency. Despite all that Zia did, the society has not let any single source of oppression alter their ways of life.
I live in Pakistan because the lack of technological advancement means a greater degree of personal freedom.
Once in Copenhagen, I called a friend who lived in a condominium in a cozy and hipster part of the city, where laundromats also had attached cafes, and told her that I wanted to see her, her boyfriend and their newborn baby. She lived in a flat on the top floor of the building. She told me to press the numbered doorbell for her flat at the main entrance. Then she added but please only press it for two or three seconds because the bell could wake the baby up.
I told her to put her phone on vibrating alert and I could just ring her mobile upon arrival at the street level. She said that would not let her open the door from within her flat. She can only open the main entrance while remaining inside her flat only if someone presses the doorbell that is specific to her flat. It also meant every doorbell and the subsequent opening of the door was being recorded.
I felt thankful at that moment that I lived in a country where technological surveillance was not that intrusive (yet). It is another matter that the entire street, the whole neighbourhood and all the aunties and uncles keep a watch on you if you are living alone in a mohallah in Lahore. But that can be handled. It is personal.
There is still that difference in Pakistan between the watchful eye of Google and the nosiest aunty across the street. I live in Pakistan because the property records are not digital, the neighbourhood compounder-chemist-doctor-hakeem and rishta-arranging uncle does not report anything to the government and tries to avoid the state as much as possible.
Yet, I must add that there is no virtue in celebrating something I did not choose for myself. One’s nationality, one’s culture, one’s mother tongue, one’s ethnic and caste identity, one’s religion, one’s gender, and one’s genetic lottery and one’s cultural heritage, one’s parents and their standing in society are all accidental and, throughout millennia, people have tried to change what is given to them at their birth. It is called voting with one’s feet.
People have the right to leave oppressive conditions and it is an inalienable right in the same way as migratory birds have the right to leave Siberia in winter and cross the Himalayas and search for clement landscapes.
I live here because I was born here, without any prior consultation with me, and I have learnt to work my habitat even when the social contract is in abeyance.
This is home
I have been asked to explain, on this 70th birthday of my country, why I live in Pakistan. This question has given me a chance to reflect and I have spent the last few days counting all the good things that one can say about my country and there are many. But I have realised that my reasons go deeper than that.
I live here because I am of Pakistan and Pakistan is of me. It is home. It is what I come back to. It is the land of my father and of his father before him. I cannot take it out of me even if I tried. And I have tried.
I first left these shores as a teenager. Bound for college, together with my oldest known friend, we took a flight from Lahore and stayed the night in Karachi, in the home of a relative of my friend.
We got a guest bedroom with clean sheets and towels and there we quietly thought about the future that would soon be upon us and I put my head in a clean pillow and cried like a baby while my friend tried to be brave. Every muscle in my body had worked hard for many years to get me onto that flight out of Pakistan but there we realised what we were doing. We were leaving home.
I have since returned. I live today not a kilometre from where I was born.
But others are not so lucky. Millions have left Pakistan. And they have taken bits of it with them, planted it in new soils and in fresh minds. I have seen these bits of Pakistan in young men who are third generation Brits but who still call themselves Pakistani.
I have seen this in the minds of American teenagers who have seen their dads, glassy-eyed on weekend mornings, quietly looking out of huge bay windows onto New England, and imagining Lahore in the fog. And I know people who have done well in this new world and who visit only once a decade but who would give up everything if they could once again feel in their hands the exact shape of the bark of the tree that used to fill their backyard with green and which still lives, in minute detail, in a very exact corner of their mind. Such is the power of the idea of home.
I am male. My name is that of a Sunni Muslim. I am a Punjabi. I have been to college. I am easily the most protected species of this country. But the answer would still be the same if this question was asked of a Hindu woman in Hyderabad.
Despite the yoke that the ideology of Pakistan would have placed upon her, she would also answer that she lives here because this is her home. And Jinnah himself had he been born in today’s Pakistan and had he felt persecuted for the brand of Islam that he belonged to or for the secularism he embodied, would have said the same — that this was home.
This idea of Pakistan as a home is much more powerful, in my opinion, than the ideology of Pakistan that we were taught in school. If we start to think of Pakistan as a home, and nothing more, the ideology of Pakistan becomes redundant. And we become free to imagine Pakistan as we want to — not as we were taught to. And we would truly become free. And we will again reset and reboot and recreate what was imagined by our free thinking founder; a free Pakistan.
Why the betrayed keep coming back
I have just landed at Doha airport. I am tired, and this layover is too long. My back aches from contorting in my economy class seat to get comfortable. But this concrete and marble castle has thought of everything. You can stand on a walkway, and be moved without moving. There’s a ‘Quiet Family Room’ and apparently a pool somewhere. A video welcoming “everyone” to Qatar (yet “everyone” happens to be white) is playing on loop.
I check the screen for flight updates, feeling sorry for myself for the next six hours I need to spend here. I cannot wait to be home but my flight is so far into the future, Lahore has not even shown up on the scheduled departures.
But I’m not the only one looking at the display. A janitor has sidled up next to me, his mop hanging limply in his hands. He looks like he’s about 40 years old, but he could be younger. His skin looks weathered, his shoulders bent forward from an invisible weight. He gazes upon the screen, staring at the different corners of the world that people passing him by will be in in a few hours. The smell of disinfectant and longing hangs thick in the air.
He stands there for a few minutes, perhaps looking at a flight that would take him home. There are two going to Lahore, one to Faisalabad and another to Karachi. Any of those would have taken him closer to his family, his home.
The display updates, and he walks away.
I wonder how many square feet of floor he will have to clean to earn that trip home. Will his employers even let him? Would the heat get him first? What permutation of circumstances made it preferable to him to scrub toilets in a slave state than stay in his own country, with people who love him? Why isn’t he home?
The reasoning is simple: in the 70 years that Pakistan has been around, it has been unable to provide universal unemployment insurance and free healthcare. It has crippled social and economic mobility. A significant portion of the population remains educated only in so far as to be able to sign their names. It has spent its time pointing fingers, titillating the public with its scandals, and oscillating between the democratic experiment and ‘liberators’ from the army.
And so, this janitor at the Doha Airport and thousands other blue collar workers from Pakistan wander the earth so that they can put food on dinner tables in different countries.
Now, the streets of Lahore are littered with vendors selling flags in every size. The biggest are often purchased by foreign passport holders. Street children are hawking little green and white flag pins, celebrating a country that has provided them with no shelter or support. Corporate sponsors now have their own version of the Pakistan national anthem.
We’ll buy into it. The story of independence is a powerful one. But here’s the problem with this patriotic bravado: nationalism demands too much. The rewards from fostering it are vague, ephemeral and ultimately meaningless. And this unquestioned loyalty from the privileged is what divides the migrant workers from the so-called ‘expats.’
You see, I get to enjoy Pakistan and its ‘quirky’ politics. I can exoticise its history, quote Ayesha Jalal, William Dalrymple and Ramachandra Guha and pretend to know Pakistan. I get to live here, but I can also leave where my visas will allow me to go. And I normally have no trouble getting them because I fit the narrative of the ‘acceptable Pakistani.’ My ties to Pakistan are only inconvenienced by lengthy layovers and uncomfortable plane seats.
But I don’t know the Pakistan that that janitor calls home. My privilege, garnered only through the accident of my birth, has allowed me to not need the institutional support that he went searching for in the scorching desert.
In an essay for the Guardian, detailing her UK citizenship oath-taking ceremony, Kamila Shamsie wrote how in that moment, you are both the betrayer and the betrayed. But who did this janitor, perhaps longing to take the same flight that I was dreading, betray? No one leaves home to scrub airport floors if they did not try everything to stay home. And when its former Prime Minister has stated unequivocally on CNN that “no one is stopping” the Pakistanis that want to leave because they fear for their future here — is it really a wonder they seek other countries to call home?
I land back at Allama Iqbal International Airport. In the sea of people, you can always spot the mothers. They’re the women who have been standing for hours, wilting rose garlands in their hands, but never taking their eyes off the gates. They’re the ones who have often not seen their sons for years and their anticipation is palpable. They’re often in their best clothes.
This is why the betrayed keep coming home.
In need of a certification
Living in Sindh due to ancestors’ migration two-three centuries ago, a Baloch by ethnicity, and a woman belonging to a minority sect which the madrassas have declared kafir, one becomes just the right target to be killed.
In this backdrop, if I want to see myself in the seventy-year celebration narrative of Pakistan’s independence, I may be disappointed. At every step — from sardars and feudal lords to patriarchal traditions and from all powers emanating from the state to political representatives — my ‘Pakistani citizenship’ demands certification of my patriotism.
Putting aside the pride about Sindh’s role in passing the Pakistan Resolution, every time my loyalty to Pakistan is questioned, I am forced, even if unconsciously, to recall the historical process that triggered the process of alienating this province from the state.
It may not be unnecessary to mention here that Sindh is the only province whose assembly had demanded a separate country in 1938, even before Allama Iqbal came up with the idea. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the person who turned the dream into a reality, was also from Sindh but there was no mention of Sindh’s division in the entire struggle for freedom.
When Punjnad was divided with Independence of Punjab, it smeared the Ravi and Chenab waters with blood. This tragedy gave birth to classic Urdu literature but the bitter truth is that it was the division of the land which also became part of the text of Independence.
Contrary to Punjab, what happened with Sindh was not the division of land, it was the division of the nation of Sindh when the local middle class Hindus were forced to leave the land who were historically tied to Moenjodaro and the Indus Valley Civilisation and not the Ganga Jamni Civilisation.
This was the first shock that Sindh, which was part of the struggle for independence, received. This division of Sindhi nation was not part of the struggle for independence. So, the people of the province termed this as deception and did not accept it whole-heartedly.
The Urdu literature associated with partition documents bloodshed and rape. Sindhi Hindu’s forced expulsion, migration and separation from homeland is also documented.
Sindh absorbed this first shock. But the estrangement from the state exacerbated when after the independence during the Martial Law of General Ayub Khan, the official status of Sindhi language, which was put in place during the British era, was abolished and replaced with Urdu language. The medium of instruction changed from Sindhi to Urdu in Sindhi in schools and colleges of all the big cities of Sindh, including Karachi, which was then the capital of Pakistan.
Ignoring the historical, national, cultural and linguistic identity of all the four provinces of West Pakistan and ending their provincial status, the ‘one unit’ was formed. In fact, all those who were part of the Pakistan Movement, and who wanted to see Pakistan as a democratic and secular state were completely disappointed.
Whereas the Objectives Resolution violated the freedom within the state, the denial of the historical identity of religious minorities and other national and linguistic groups in the state ruled by constant dictatorships and undemocratic governments created a grave sense of deprivation among the masses. They started thinking of themselves as oppressed subjects.
Ultimately, these sentiments gave birth to the nationalist movements in East Pakistan, Sindh and Balochistan. The military operation in East Pakistan could not shun a sense of deprivation and, consequently, the secession of East Pakistan nullified the Two Nation Theory.
The people of Pakistan who were deprived of democratic rights got a democratic constitution when Pakistan was divided into two parts. The negligible role of small provinces in the affairs of the state widened the gulf. As a matter of fact, the charismatic leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced Pakistan with a new form of democratic values and removed the schism between the province of Sindh and the state, and involved it in the national politics.
This act of Bhutto ended the sense of deprivation to a great extent. The connection of the province of Sindh with the state was cordial but even Bhutto could not extinguish the fire of discord in Balochistan. In contrast to the political strategies of tribal chiefs and feudal lords to control the politics of Sindh, Bhutto involved the people of Pakistan in the political scenario of the country and gave them a part in state authority.
Zia’s Martial Law and Bhutto’s hanging opened Sindh’s wounds once again whose anger came to the fore in the shape of MRD Movement. Sindh emerged as a metaphor of resistance on political, cultural and literary front. During this time, a rebellion against the state and separatist movement gained momentum. It was a strange coincidence that the dictator and the nationalist leadership appeared to be on one page, opposing the political resistance in Sindh.
The chasm between the establishment and Sindh has constantly been portrayed as the ‘difference between Sindh and Punjab,’ a political metaphor of deprivation carried on from the time of the dictators. Even after Benazir Bhutto’s disqualification and Nawaz Sharif’s restoration by the court, the narrative about Sindh was still ‘the difference between Lahore and Larkana’.
Whenever the dictators have tried to quell political resistance, it has strengthened the idea of separation from the state in Sindh. On the other hand, in a democratic age when a people’s representative party is at the helm of affairs, Sindh still finds it difficult to end the bitterness between the province and the establishment.
Today’s Sindh is being run by a conglomerate of Sardars, Pirs, religious leaders and many unseen forces which seem to be further diminishing people’s relationship with the state.
Today’s Hindu is unable to find a bond with the state. His underage girl is forcibly converted to Islam. He does not seem to be getting justice from state organisations and forced immigration at the time of partition does not seem to end even now.
What’s there to celebrate?
I don’t feel particularly patriotic about a country where there is rampant misogyny, religious intolerance, terrorism, bonded labour, public lynching(s) and oppressive armed forces. When I tell this to people who are rampant misogynists, religiously intolerant, who support bonded labour and an oppressive armed forces — I’ve yet to have a conversation with terrorists or public lynchers, I imagine it would go stop, stop, it hurts, aaah — they say you are ungrateful, why don’t you think of all the things your country has given you? When I do think about all these things, I admit they have a point.
My father was born in a small village in Jhelum and eventually came to settle in Lahore. This journey was facilitated by the civil service examinations and a placement in the income tax department. Civil and military service used to be and remain the two biggest modes of upward social mobility in this country. My father went from milking cows in Jhelum to milking social capital at gentrified clubs in Lahore.
In a united India my father would have had to compete with a population of almost a billion. The odds of me being born into privilege would have reduced significantly. My family would likely have a butcher’s shop back in the village. I can imagine myself with a slab of meat between my toes, hacking it into smaller pieces, drenched in sweat, swarmed by flies.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the butcher’s profession but having tasted the luxury of an air-conditioned working space, I’d be weary to work under the fans of an abattoir. Privilege is a wonderful thing, for the privileged.
That privilege is thanks to Pakistan. That’s what the country’s given me. I still don’t feel particularly patriotic though, I just said they had a point.
There are winners and losers in any arrangement. The Punjabi middle class was a big winner as a result of the partition. If it can even be called a proper middle class, accruing state benefits far beyond the reach of what the middle class in India enjoys.
And then there were those who got the shorter end of the stick. The state of Pakistan has committed untold atrocities against its own citizens. In Fata, in Balochistan, in Sindh, in present-day Bangladesh. Against peasants in Okara, in other military farms, in villages on the periphery of major cities where land is grabbed from poor farmers at extortionately low prices. Regional peace has been a big loser as well. India hates us, Afghanistan hates us, Iran dislikes us, China is going to buy us.
So, what exactly is there to celebrate on the 14th of August? On the occasion of 70 years of Pakistan?
When I was little, 14th August was about getting stuck in traffic, witnessing motorcycle tricks — men riding bikes on one wheel, lying down on the seat, swivelling on the street — men waving flags, men dancing. Witnessing sexual harassment on the few women who took part in the festivities, and staying silent out of confusion. Later, out of apathy. This is how it is. This is who we are.
Now I don’t get stuck in the traffic. I avoid going out at all. I don’t understand what’s there to celebrate. There was violence before the British, violence during the British and violence after them. My grandfather once said how he heard about the creation of a country called Pakistan on the radio, and that he had no idea what it meant. 70 years later, I share his confusion.
My father also turns 70 this year. He never once lived abroad, his ties to his land are simple, he has a village here, an ancestral graveyard, somewhere where the bodies of everyone he loves will one day be buried, including himself. It’s a place that is home to his mother tongue, the language not the organ, which is very dear to him.
Our family has been living in these lands centuries before the idea of separate homelands was born in Iqbal’s mind. Yes, my ancestors were always on the side of the rulers, pledging loyalty to them. So were yours, or you wouldn’t be alive right now.
But true loyalty is to the land, not the state. Patriotism should be doing right by the land and the people who dwell on it, to make amends for the sins of the past, for privilege personally unearned. To help stem the flow of the sea of sexism, racism, classism and religious extremism in which we’re all drowning. Patriotism shouldn’t be waving a flag or parading around with guns.