Archive for the ‘Behavior’ Category

Holy Noise

October 20, 2013

Wistfulness is the general feeling evoked by the writings of Intizar Hussain but I feel particularly so when I read, from the novella Basti, the following description of the coming of electricity to Rupnagar:

Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'”

On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.

The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. [Translation: Frances Pritchett]

I feel nostalgic for quiet times for electricity is like the devil – it does not leave you alone and pursues you into your safe havens. With electricity came the loudspeaker – and all hell broke loose.

I live in a compound enclosed by a circular wall along which I have been able to identify a mosque at around every thirty degrees of rotation. That is the inner circle. About a quarter of a mile further back there is an outer circle nestling in the corridors radiating beyond the inner one.

Five times a day, all hell literally breaks loose as the twelve to fifteen imams of the various mosques initiate the call for prayers – not in unison but with lags of various lengths. Then they proceed to ululate at variable tempos and at quite distinct registers. The one thing that is clear is that none of them have had any voice training whatsoever – to a man they are off-pitch and off-beat.

As a result, all that can be heard is an infernal din that scares even the birds from their resting places. After a good fifteen to twenty minutes of intense pain inflicted by the cacophony, a heavenly peace descends upon the surroundings.

For some of my breaks from work I go to another city to live in a semi-rural suburb. The number of mosques here is about the same – as is the noise. The difference is the greater license enjoyed by the imams on the outskirts of town. One of them practices his sermons at four o’clock in the morning. Another recites endless verses at random times. A third runs a seminary of sorts – his young charges practice their lessons in the middle of the night, their piercing soprano wails a testament to the intensity of their passion.

This last is clearly a violation of the law that governs the use of loudspeakers in places of religious worship. My host informs me that he tried conveying that to the imam of the seminary only to be told that the enforcers in the latter’s control would not take kindly to that kind of message.

I don’t believe the irony has been missed. Not surprisingly, no one has take up the issue or that of exceeding the allowable level of noise emanating from the loudspeakers.

This is a phenomenon that has intrigued me for some time and I have often wondered why each mosque does not content itself with a volume that suffices for the residents in its catchment area – as, I am sure, it was meant to be in Rupnagar. After all, every loudspeaker has a volume control and there is no religious injunction against adjusting it up or down.

I have also wondered why a pre-recorded call to prayers in a mellifluous voice could not be employed since the use of technology is no bar to religious practice. Here is another irony related to the selective use of technology – it is used where it amplifies power not where it dissipates it. This is quite akin to insisting that the Eid moon has to be spied with the naked eye no matter what the ensuing confusion. The call to prayer must continue to be delivered by a living being untainted by any training in diction or elocution.

A heretical thought that occurs to me is that the call to prayers might well have outlived its purpose from a purely utilitarian perspective. Now that everyone has a cell phone with a choice of ring-tones, the faithful could be alerted of the precise timings of prayers simply via their devices. That would also spare the imams the onerous responsibility of a repetitive task and they might be encouraged to allocate their time to more productive uses.

I have enquired from various intrepid travelers if the same cacophony is experienced in other cities, like Istanbul, with many mosques. I have been told, although I have not been able to verify it personally, that most cities that thrive on the largesse of tourists have worked out a way to control the noise and to preserve the dignity of the call to prayer. Only one mosque, in a cluster of mosques within audible range of each other, can issue the call for prayer. The honor is rotated amongst the establishments with the aid of a pre-announced schedule.

In our desire to retain our purity we have done away with tourists. And even if we had tried, I doubt if we would have managed the coordination. As it is, our imams are used to imposing authority not acceding to it – hence the employment of enforcers to keep us on the right path.  

On the few occasions that I have dared to voice my thoughts, I have been told to emigrate. It’s not that I am irreligious – it’s just that I wish to decipher what is being said and my threshold for noise pollution is low. Consequently, I am looking at various cities with a good mix of religious places but with more sensitive and dignified ways of making their pronouncements.

Please let me know if you have suggestions.

Frances Pritchett’s translation of Intizar Hussain’s Basti is here.

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Where Will Change Come From?

September 18, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

To want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence.

That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organized by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realization.

The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data – growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc., etc.

There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save a generalized sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends.

Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and, as is natural in such gatherings, people felt compelled to top one gruesome anecdote with another.

One could not help concluding there was an enemy whose identity was clearly recognized, whose motivations were thoroughly exposed, and whose callousness was never in doubt. Even those who had served governments joined in the affirmations.

Having thus exhausted themselves, the participants were relieved by the announcement for tea. Refreshed and recharged, they returned with new vigor for the next round.

The objective of the meeting, we were informed, was to prepare a charter of demands on behalf of citizens to be presented to the government. It was here that I felt the first pang of doubt but there was no time to indulge it as the discussion had picked up.

The speakers took turns again and most alluded to human and civil rights in the West as models for what was needed in Pakistan. It was a long list. After a relatively orderly discussion, a period of panic ensued when several participants feared their constituency might be ignored. Distressed cries to add various motley items emanated from nooks and crannies and were duly accommodated.

It was now time for the concluding session when the strategy to obtain the aforementioned rights was to be debated. It was here that my doubts came flooding back.

The talking began anew and speaker after speaker, most of them ardent and veteran trade unionists, indulged in equally emotional rants about what the government should or ought to do for their constituencies. Suggestions covered the entire spectrum of the demands that had been listed in the earlier round – the government should provide education, health, clean water, public transport, unemployment benefits, social security, justice, etc., etc.

It became hard for me to reconcile the pre- and post-tea discourses, the identification of the enemy and the calls to it for amelioration. The first thought that crossed my mind was courtesy of Mir Taqi Mir pointing to the naiveté involved in seeking a cure from the very person who made one ill:

Mir kya saada hain biimaar huuay jis ke sabab
usii attaar ke laundey se dawa letey hain

Literature often provides an anchor for a perspective that the social scientist can then explore for further insights. I reflected on the happenings of the day as I filtered out with the crowd after a crowning cup of tea amidst much bonhomie and backslapping.

My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

In the case of the event being described, it seemed that the evolution of citizenship rights in the West had a profound influence on the aspirations of the participants. At the same time, the mechanisms for the realization of those aspirations remained deeply rooted in the monarchical traditions of South Asia.

The whole process of which I had been a witness could well have been enacted during the Mughal Empire – subjects frustrated with an uncaring ruler pleading for redress of their grievances, the grievances themselves listed, in no particular order, on a scroll to be presented to the ruler in question. The image was hard to shake of the golden chain of justice with its sixty bells that any subject could pull to summon Emperor Jahangir himself to a hearing.

Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilizing labor against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

There seemed scant realization that like Europe we too now exist in a post-monarchical age, one characterized by sovereignty of the people and representative government. And, that in such an age, one looks to citizens, not rulers, for the dynamic of change.

We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilizing voters around that narrative.

Only when citizens articulate their needs, understand the causes for their remaining unfulfilled,   and use the power of the vote to transform them into effective demand, would the state feel compelled to pay heed to them.

The meeting that had started with a bang had ended with a whimper. The chain of justice is gone while the power of the vote remains unused. Our activists are looking up when they should be looking down.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on September 17, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Child Abuse: Could This be an Exceptional Case?

May 22, 2012

By Anil Kala

[I saw Amir Khan’s show on Indian TV about child abuse with some interest. I suppose I qualify for victim of child abuse therefore the interest. My case appears curious in the sense I don’t feel I was abused at all. I am telling this story so that we do not lose sense of proportion in demanding punishment for offenders. Remember some fellows asked for death penalty for rapists.]

When I look back through the hazy tunnel of time, picture of this curious but very vulnerable kid crystallizes in clear focus. Even though that kid was me in distant past, I can’t quite identify with him anymore for we have moved so far apart in character and attributes that he could be just any vulnerable child. Yet, I know this child very intimately; a shy fellow, fidgety when meeting strangers but compensates that with extra effervescent with those he was familiar. When alone strange thought would occupy his mind making him abruptly look around to check if he was queer! But, for now, I am drowned in an overwhelming urge to reach out and take him in my protective cover. (more…)

After Veena Malik: Thoughts on Morality

December 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Veena Malik has provided Indians and Pakistanis something to talk about – to, at, and across each other. There is much that can be ignored but a few strands strike me as promising and worth pursuing.

Most of the outpouring, at least on the blogs, is a voicing of individual personal opinions for and against Ms. Malik’s act. That, to me at least, is the least interesting aspect of the fallout. Why should my personal opinion carry significance for anyone besides myself? If the objective were to run an opinion poll, people could vote yes or no anonymously and be done with it.

It would be different if the person offering the opinion were a public figure. Take Imran Khan, for example: his opinion on the incident could provide a clue where he might lead the nation if given the opportunity. (more…)

L’affaire DSK: What Can We Learn?

May 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. (more…)

Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

May 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. (more…)

On Argumentation

April 7, 2011

There are two aspects of an argument: its content and its construction. On this blog our focus is almost entirely on the latter; the only reason we have content is that we cannot do without it to construct an argument – an argument has to be about something. However, we have no material or emotional stake in the content; it is just a means to an end. In this post we explore in more detail the specifics of the end we have in mind.

There are at least three attributes of the construction of an argument that are critical: Credibility (whether the argument is supported by evidence); Coherence (whether the argument meets the tests of logic); and Consistency (whether the argument is free of contradictions). In order to illustrate these attributes we will resort to content provided by a participant in an earlier discussion. (more…)

On Prayer and Superstition

April 3, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed.

At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the demands of performance, spectators have no similar vehicles – prayer and superstition serve as substitutes. (more…)

The Intolerant Indian: A Review

March 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled.

The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue. (more…)

More on the South Asian Liberal

March 19, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The following is the issue: If a South Asian were introduced to, say, a first-time visitor from Norway with the preamble “He/She is a liberal,” would the Norwegian be able to guess correctly where the South Asian might stand on a number of salient policy issues?

I expressed my doubts in an earlier article (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that concluded as follows: “On closer examination, the Pakistani liberal turns out to be a breed apart. The easy transfer of ideological labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – across political and social contexts obscures the nuances and complexities necessary for understanding the juncture at which we have arrived in Pakistan today.”

To be useful, a label has to convey an accurate representation of reality and many of the labels we use in South Asia today fail this test. (more…)