Requiescat

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

Individuals picked off, gone – strangers, friends of friends, friends, relatives – some for who they were, others for straying in the way.

Names etched in memories – Ali Haider, Faisal Manzoor, Mehdi Ali, Rashed Rehman, Irfan Ali, Farzana Parveen, Perveen Rehman…

The public, incapacitated – benumbed, indifferent, does it matter?

Instead, shrill voices of love and hate troll predictably, pressing stale arguments into uncomplaining service.

The telephone rings. A voice from afar:

— Time to give up now?

We have gone to bed often with this question only to wake up irresolute, buying time, cursing broken promises, comforting fading hopes.

Is love denial? Is hate the absence of understanding?

Is there truth beyond love and hate?

Can we look at ourselves, own what stares back at us, and find reasons to hope?

On one side, history – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the journey from darkness into light.

On the other, reality – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the ones that perished in the dark.

Who perishes in the dark? Who survives into the light?

Jews fled to survive. Blacks escaped north to fight.

There is no North here.

What do we say to them we have failed? We will emerge in the light fueled by your embers?

What do we say to ourselves when we begin to go mad, seeds of hatred lodged in every breast sprouting tangled, thorny vines?

What do we do when we foresee our names in the registers, we who did not hate enough?

What do we do when the ship begins to list? Set it right, keep it afloat.

And when it begins to sink? Lower the rafts.

And be the last to leave.

This then is the answer – at once unconvincing and overwhelming – to the voice over the telephone.

— For them, over whom the black clouds have descended – flight, to fight another day.

— The rest, they stay – to make this land whole again as they see it whole.

One day, they too shall leave, but not yet, not just yet.

An epigraph from Yeats has been added to the print version by EPW.

Thanks to Hasan Altaf for valuable suggestions.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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11 Responses to “Requiescat”

  1. smnaseem Says:

    This defeatist attitude will ensure that Pakistan will never have — as in the past — a critical mass of people committed to bringing change in the society. They will always be looking for an opportunity to or an excuse for fleeing the country, rather than continue to struggle for the required change. The majority of the people will have no option but to wallow in the filth created by others.

    • Kabir Altaf Says:

      If you read the full piece that this is excerpted from, you will see that the author is not advocating fleeing but staying and fighting. That said, I don’t think people can be faulted for not wanting to live in a war zone, subject to target killings or suicide bombing. As you point out however, the option of leaving is only available to those who are relatively well-off. The others have no choice.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Kabir: You are right about the intent of the article but not entirely so about those who are leaving. The conditions are so atrocious that very poor Hindus in Sindh are crossing the border into India. Hazaras from Quetta have become boat people risking their lives to reach Thailand before moving on to safer refuge. Christians are seeking asylum in Australia. Conditions vary – among some minorities only professionals are being targeted; among others the harassment is indiscriminate. I agree with you that people cannot be faulted for not wanting to live in such conditions – they have a right to choose ordinary lives without being involved in ideological battles that are not of their making.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Naseem Sahib: The end of the piece was quite unambiguous – for those who were being targeted it suggested “flight, to fight another day;” for the rest, “they stay – to make this land whole again as they see it whole.” In my mind that was defiant, even stupid perhaps, but certainly not defeatist. Still, a writer has blind spots and if there is a residual strain of defeatism showing I would like you to point that out.

      There is, however, a larger point to consider. If moving to improve one’s life is considered acceptable why isn’t moving to protect it? And what is sacrosanct about the country? If the marginalized in Indian villages attempt to escape discrimination and exploitation by seeking the anonymity of the city should they be condemned for not continuing to struggle for the required change where they were born? What is the logic of such an argument?

  2. ijaz Says:

    Yes there is an element of defiance and optimism with which the author, ends the article, but by that time the reader has lost most of his energy dealing with guilt and sadness and misery of the situation.

    A truly terrible way to look at it.

    There is no denial that the situation is terrible and the pain is Real. But things move on as life is dynamic.

    One of the best story which helps us to deal with the pain and suffering we see in the world around us is the story of Moses and Khizr in Surat Kahf. What it tells us is that we as humans are limited in knowledge to conclude Absolutely weather something is right or not.

    There should be no guilt, we do what we think has to be done, whether it is fight, or flight to fight or even not to fight, but with humbleness and a realization that we might be wrong, and therefore ask for forgiveness.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ijaz: I am not clear about the basis for your disagreement.

      Life is dynamic by definition – things cannot be stopped from moving on even if you smash all your watches and clocks. But does that mean that everything is okay? We shouldn’t talk about pain because time will heal it? We should find ways to deal with pain and suffering rather than doing something to minimize its occurrence? If someone is shot in cold blood we shouldn’t say or do anything because we don’t know if it was right or wrong? We should instead ask for forgiveness? From whom? To me this is a much more terrible way of looking at things because it is so passive and helpless. What it says is do whatever you like, you may actually be right, and we will limit ourselves to asking for forgiveness.

      Also, the entire piece was 300 words. It must be a very frail reader who loses most of his energy before reaching the end. It seems like a reader who cannot handle pain and would therefore prefer not deal with it.

      • ijaz Says:

        Anjum: What do you understand out of the story of the Moses and Hazrat Khizir, in Surat Kahf ?

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Ijaz: I haven’t read the story. By the same token, there must be thousands of stories you haven’t read. Which is why I don’t favor this form of persuasion. One can find a story to support any position.

  3. ijaz Says:

    Anjum: The reference to the story of Moses and Khidr in Surat Kahf from the Quran was not to support any position or use it as a persuasive tool. (my expression obviously has a lot to be desired). But the purpose like that of most story telling is to help others see a point of view, (especially ‘College Students)’ It is a pity that we don’t share and use the stories in our scriptures wheather Quran Gita or others as a learning resource.

    Do check out http://realisticbird.wordpress.com/2009/03/05/the-story-of-musa-moses-and-al-khidr-knowledge-and-learning/

    In summary it talks about the limits of human understanding based on limited information and our impatience to conclude an understanding before things have fully unfolded. It is this impatience and arrogance of knowing it all, which is one the major reasons of hopelessness and resulting misery.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ijaz: My reservations remain the same. If the purpose of telling a story is to help others see ‘a’ point of view, there could be another story that might point to exactly the opposite point of view. It would then become a battle of stories. And this battle would be limited to the stories we understand imperfectly. What about the thousands of stories we might never have read? That is certainly going by incomplete knowledge.

      Can we not use our own common sense instead of relying on the authority of stories from other times and places whose context we don’t fully appreciate?

      As you mentioned, life is dynamic and therefore things will never come to an end and fully unfold. Does that mean that we should suspend all attempts to understand and fall back on stories we know?

      I feel you are completely wrong in thinking that the arrogance of knowing it all is the reason for hopelessness and resulting misery. In fact, the arrogance of knowing it all is the cause of misery leading to hopelessness. Think of the Taliban in this context – all they know are stories and they believe they know it all and what they know is the truth and everybody else needs to be eliminated. They are kept far away from using their minds to question the stories or even read alternative ones.

  4. ijaz Says:

    Anjum: The possibility of any ‘battle’ does not arise, if the intention is to understand and see what we are talking about, rather, than imposing an opinion on another. That is the spirit of the SA blog and that is my premise. If we agree with that, , sharing another story with a different view point will only enrich the readers understanding.

    That pretty concludes my end of the story about this stuff. I sincerely would like to thank you for your patience.

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