Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

July 1, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable.

Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism. (more…)


A Character in Melville Who Wouldn’t

May 27, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, tells the story of a Wall Street lawyer who employs two scriveners (clerks). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator’s business picks up; he advertises for a third scrivener and eventually hires Bartleby for the position. At first, Bartleby produces high quality work, but one day when the lawyer asks him to help proofread what he has copied, he replies “I would prefer not to.” This eventually becomes his stock response every time he is asked to do any work outside of copying. Eventually he even refuses to do any copying. However, the lawyer finds it impossible to fire him.

The lawyer finally does attempt to fire Bartleby, giving him twice as much money as he is owed but Bartleby refuses to vacate the office, saying only that he “would prefer not to.” (more…)

Pitying the Nation

May 15, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the few reliable characteristics of the institutions of the government of Pakistan is that they will only rarely stick to their mandates, that they will only occasionally consider themselves bound to fulfill their theoretical functions – the idea of the “public servant,” for example, seems to have passed ours by entirely. Given that the results of this tendency are so frequently destructive, or at best neutral, we should look kindly on Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa’s recent bout of poetic inspiration at the conviction of Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court. It’s easy to say, as the prime minister’s lawyer did, that judges should refrain from adding poetry to their judgments (“especially” their own; maybe Iqbal would have been acceptable?) and just make their decisions and let that be that, but in a country where that is so rarely that, a little bit of riffing off Khalil Gibran is hardly the end of the world.

“Pity the Nation,” Justice Khosa’s addendum to the court’s decision, has struck quite a chord. (more…)

Not Your Father’s Kabir

April 28, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

The poet Kabir died in 1518, so it is jarring to open a translation of his writings and read the following line: “O pundit, your hairsplitting’s/so much bullshit.” It is even stranger to look up and realize that the poem bears an epigraph (“It take a man that have the blues so to sing the blues”) from the American musician Lead Belly, who was not even born until 1888. A quick scan through the volume reveals more epigraphs (Pound, Coleridge), a dedication (one poem is for Geoff Dyer) and vocabulary that Kabir himself could not have come up with: “Smelling of aftershave/and deodorants/the body’s a dried up well…” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir is not, it is safe to say, your father’s Kabir. (more…)

Leela’s Book: A Review

April 22, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.  However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.  Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes.  Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind.  The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn.  She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear.  Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom.  These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book(more…)

Please Read Responsibly

March 1, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts – to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background – some of Arundhati Roy’s essays, for example, or Joan Didion’s – that journalism which gives us both narrative and analysis, the question and some semblance of an answer. (more…)

The General Leaves His Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

By Hasan Altaf

There is, I imagine, no one on earth whose understanding of the past is completely without bias, but this problem must be particularly acute when it comes to those who, once upon a time, were responsible for creating that past: those who could change, in ways however small, the course of events, who could, or imagined they could, control whatever forces were in play, who could and did shape history. Maybe it would be best to take their versions of events with not just a grain of salt but also a pinch of pity, because for them, the stakes of this game must be higher than they are for the rest of us. They made the world we have today; all we have to do is live in it. (more…)

Cricket: Risk, Strategy, Design

March 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Cricket is emblematic of South Asia. It distinguishes the region qua region from almost anywhere else – East Asia, West Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe. So at this time when three of the four teams in the World Cup semifinals are South Asian, it is opportune to wrap some thoughts about risk, strategy and design in the metaphor of cricket.

In an earlier article (Achievement and Risk-taking) written quite some time back, I had used illustrations from cricket to make the point that the propensity of an individual to take risks is not a function of personality but an outcome of strategic calculation. In other words, individuals are not born with a given attitude towards risk; they can decide when it makes sense to be cautious or bold.

I have now found an academic presentation of this perspective. In A Primer on Decision Making, James March, a leading authority in the field, frames risky behavior as a reasoned choice:

Individuals can be imagined as rationally calculating what level of risk they think would serve them best. Consider, for example, risk-taking strategy in a competitive situation where relative position makes a difference. Suppose that someone wishes to finish first, and everything else is irrelevant. Such an individual might want to choose a level of risk that maximizes the chance of finishing first. In general, strategies for maximizing the chance of finishing first are quite different from strategies for maximizing expected value.

An extreme example would make this clearer. If winning a particular contest were all that mattered, an individual might take the gamble of cheating. If the long-term reputation mattered more, the risk calculus would change reducing the attraction to cheat.

The example that March to illustrate his point uses leads naturally into the nature of the distinction between the longer and shorter versions of cricket:

Suppose one were challenged to a tennis match and given the option of specifying the number of points in the match. Given a choice, how long a game would a rational tennis player choose to play, assuming that the length of the game itself had no intrinsic value? The key to answering this question depends both on the probability of winning any particular point and on the length of the game. As the length of the game increases, the better player is more and more likely to win, because the variability in outcomes declines with “sample” size (relatively rapidly, in fact). The game’s outcome becomes more and more certain, less and less risky.

It should be clear immediately that less skilled players would prefer a game of chance (Trumps) to a game of skill (Bridge). Similarly, weaker teams or teams that rely less on strategy and more on chance would prefer a shorter duration game to a longer one. As one example, the Pakistan cricket team fancies its chances most in 20-20 games, less in 50-over Internationals and least in five-day Tests. If there were one-over games, the prospects of almost all the teams would even out because chance would dominate average performance or strategy. Six sixes or three wickets in an over would likely decide the fate of a 20-20 game but might just be a blip in a five-day Test.

[Of course, once one moves from individuals to teams (tennis to cricket) a whole new dimension of team dynamics comes into play. This is a different subject but suffice it to say that the 2011 World Cup is after a very long time that the Pakistani team is not torn apart by side-betting, personal rivalries, provincial dissensions, or biased selections which makes it even possible to sensibly discuss its prospects or strategies as a team.]

This brings us to the issue of the design and format of competitions. Given that an ODI is so much more dependent on chance than on average performance, the prospect of upsets is that much increased. On any given day Ireland can upset Pakistan or Bangladesh can upset India. This despite the fact that a best-of-five series between the pairs should leave no doubt as to which team has the better record at the time.

Therefore, to structure a competition comprising teams of vastly different strengths entirely around one-off contests would leave too much to chance. The design is not conducive for a competition that aims to determine the ‘best’ and not the ‘luckiest’ team in a particular form of the game. Thus in the last World Cup both Pakistan and India were knocked out by teams that they would otherwise have defeated nine times out of ten.

In this sense, the two-stage format of the 2011 World Cup is a definite design improvement. The first stage is a Round-Robin format where a team has to prove its merit not by one chance win but by a sustained record of success. The format ensures that it is truly the weak teams that are eliminated in the first stage. This objective was accomplished in the on-going competition where it is (almost) generally agreed that the eight best teams made it into the quarterfinals. From there on, it is a knock-out format between the final eight but again designed intelligently so that the stronger teams of one group are matched against the weaker ones of the second group thereby giving a premium to performance.

Needless to say, each version of cricket calls for a different set of skills and capacities. The five-day Test puts a premium on average abilities, many individual contributions, and teamwork while a 20-20 match can turn on one stellar performance. It is the in-between format, the 50-over ODI, which calls for a combination of an outstanding contribution, quick thinking on the feet, calculated gambles, and, crucially, the minimization of error. The ODI is perhaps the most unforgiving of error. One missed catch, stumping or run out would not affect the outcome of a 20-20 and could be made up for in a Test, but it could be all the difference in an ODI.

Readers will guess this is all nervous babble before the big semifinals. Sri Lanka should win (New Zealand having upset a stronger South Africa) but the India-Pakistan game is impossible to call. On past performance India is the better team but Pakistan is fired up by the shock of its own rebirth. Good luck to all the teams – the ones that avoid the crucial error will win. But South Asia has the World Cup in its grasp and as South Asians we are already celebrating.

It would be interesting if readers write in with their recommended gambles and strategic adaptations for any of the four teams in the semifinals.


A Peek into the Mind of Pakistan’s Rulers

November 9, 2010

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Sometimes I wish I could afford a few assistants devoted to scouring the Pakistani media on a daily basis. In short order one could have a book called Bizzaristan comprised of the fantastical workings of the minds of Pakistan’s rulers and managers. Alas, I can’t so I will confine myself to reporting on the occasional item that is particularly revelatory of the way in which we are ruled and governed.

A news item informs us that following a charge of incompetence, the principal administrative officer (DCO) of the leading district in the leading province of the country has been transferred and appointed as the Chief Economist of the Provincial Planning and Development Board (PDB). (more…)

PPP Prattle

August 8, 2010

By Azhar Ali Khan

A slogan is a sort of battle cry which usually carries in it an appeal to sentiments of a particular group of people and the repetition of this battle cry is intended to arouse people into taking a certain desired action. If the slogan is well-worded, short and sweet and easily pronounceable, its appeal becomes more effective. But for the people to take the desired action, it should be physically possible and, invariably, the slogan has to be backed with some force. When they say “Buy British” in England, it works because almost every article of daily use required by an average person in England, or anywhere else for that matter, is ‘made in England’, and it is physically possible to ‘Buy British’. But even in England, when Japan dumped in the East End of London ready-made shirts at 6/- per dozen or flooded toy shops at Christmas, the magic of ‘Buy British’ failed to work, in spite of the highly developed sense of patriotism in an average Englishman, born out of over a thousand years of freedom. The British Government then had to back this slogan with the force of tariff walls and by devising ways and means for cutting down production costs. In Bharat, if they had started a “Buy Bharati Brand” slogan it would probably not work, but the Government achieved their object by putting a total ban on imports of consumer goods and at the same time providing facilities for indigenous production, so that now one can get everything produced within the country. Due to the ban on imports, foreign firms who had substantial sales of their manufactured goods in Bharat were also forced to set up their factories in India, without the Indian Government begging for it the way we have been doing; that too without being able to attract foreign capital.

We started only a slogan – Patronise Pakistani Products – and thought that its sentimental and alliterative appeal alone will make people buy Pakistani products. But where are those products of Pakistani manufacture which the sponsors of this slogan would want us to buy and what facilities have been provided for their production and, lastly, what restrictions have been imposed on the promiscuous import of the innumerable variety of consumer goods with which we are over-flooded and over-stocked such that imported goods very often sell on the footpaths at below the landed cost?

The PPP naturally failed to achieve its object, because it appealed to people to do something which was physically impossible. Moreover, there was no substance, no reality and no force behind it. It was just three meaningless words, to many because they were in a foreign language and to others because they realized that there was hardly anything Pakistani to be patronized. The Government, themselves, never acted upon it and huge orders for all description of goods, even those which are produced in Pakistan, continue to be placed outside on the basis of lower quotations or better quality. Army boots, to produce which we have over a hundred thousand skilled shoe-makers, are still purchased from England. But the Government spent a few lacs on the PPP, for which the only explanation appears to be that they were charmed with the magic of alliteration. A criticism with more meaning than the PPP was, therefore, written in sustained alliteration of over 500 P’s, but it failed to make the Government act in accordance with the suggestions contained in it, probably because the only force behind it was the opinions and suggestions of an unknown writer! It also emphasizes that there is no limit to performing gymnastics and jugglery with words, but it is not words but deeds that are needed.


(Penned by the President of a Pakistani Producers association and printed and published in popular Pakistani periodical in early post-partition period.)


Persons placed in Prominent Positions in Pakistan’s political party in power in post-partition period persistently promoted and pursued prolonged propaganda programmes for purely personal publicity, prestige or profit, hardly pertinent to pressing problems present in Pakistan during that period, particularly pertaining to production, planning and promotion. “Patronise Pakistani Products” propaganda was one such publicity programme – a painful, practical pleasantry on the poor, penniless, panic-stricken and prostrated Producers, pestered, persecuted, pursued and pushed pell-mell out of a Panditistan and pouring by millions into Pakistan – the promised paradise only to pine and perish in poverty and privation, their passionate and piteous pleas for provision of a proper place for production, power, protection and patronage producing only the phony PPP parade, while prosperous and privileged partymen were provided with permits to procure practically all imported products on “OGL” (open general license) positively precluding the possibility of Pakistani production proving a profitable proposition to producers or even practicable.

PPP Prattle was published to pinpoint in proper perspective the paralogism of PPP propaganda.

The following criticism covers the main production problems with some general suggestions:-


Poor Pakistani producers, precariously poised on a precipice are profoundly puzzled and perplexed at this promiscuous, persistent, profitless publicity and propaganda through press, platform, periodicals, pamphlets, publications, placards and posters; PPP posters permanently placed in prominent positions persuading people to purchase Pakistani products, while purblind policies of people in power are plaguing production programmes with all possible predicaments.


Preliminaries to procurement of proper place for production present the problem of being a party to the pernicious practice of paying premiums, popularly pugree, or propitiating petty but privileged public servants, which practice, propriety apart, is pregnant with the possibility of prosecution.


Prospects of plentiful power at any predictable period are poor. Power projects under planning may, perhaps, provide power to posterity, but the present position positively precludes the possibility of power-operated plants.


Processes of providing protection to Pakistani products are protracted, perfunctory and, perhaps, purposely prolonged, and, with Pakistan pegged to pacts and preferences and pursuing a policy of pleasing and pampering politically powerful partners, positive protection cannot possibly be provided!


Pecuniarily, poor Pakistani producers are placed in a precarious position. The prodigal protagonists of PPP propaganda, prepossessed with perverse pertinacity of purpose to pursue preposterous propaganda programmes are prepared to provide with promptitude princely purses for palatial pantechnicons, pictorial PPP posters and persistent press publicity, but profess powerlessness to place a perforated pice on the palsied palm of the poor producer painfully plying his profession in poignant poverty and privation.


Prompt provision of positive protection is the primal pre-requisite of the proper progress of this “praiseworthy and plausible” Patronise Pakistani Products propaganda, publicized by press and preached from public platforms. Protection! Protection!! Protection!!! plaintively plead Pakistani producers, but people in power are not perturbed.


Pakistani Production cannot possibly attain the peak of prosperity on purely a plethora of pledges, periodic periphrasis, palavering and perorations of prominent personages from public platforms, pious but palpably puerile professions and promises patently paradoxical to practice and passionate panegyrics on patriotism.


Pakistan’s productive potential is practically paralysed by promiscuous imports, preposterous and pernicious profiteering of privileged and prosperous parvenus, a pestilence of perfidious practices prevalent in private and public, a pitiless prostitution of power and persistent parasitism of privileged people pushing the poor to perpetual poverty.


Pakistan’s paleolithic, petrified and pertinacious administration, putrefying with petty and paltry party politics, pestered with pugnacious provincial prejudices and preferentialism, plagued with pre-partition pygmies now puffed with power, persistently pursues a perverse policy of patronizing, pampering, pacifying and placating the plutocrat, paving his path with primroses and permitting him to pamper in a paraphernalia of pomp and pleasure, while the proletariat presents a pathetic panorama of poverty and privation.


Primitive processes of production plus the precarious pecuniary position prevailing in Pakistani production positively precludes the possibility of Pakistani products presenting the potential purchaser plus value in price or performance. This provokes people to propound the paramountcy of a planned practical programme preceding this paralogistic PPP prattle.


Proud and powerful proponents of Patronise Pakistani Products Propaganda, please provide positive proof of proper patronage of production before preaching PPP to people. Press into practice the pantheon of persistently publicized Plans, Plans, Plans, Pilot a practical programme of planned production, put pressure on prosperous people to part with their piles of profits to be put into productive projects, pull the poor producer out of the pandemonium of poignant poverty and pestilence. Let pride and prestige of power not prejudice or prevent perception in proper perspective of a palpably plain problem.


Privileged and powerful! Please pause and ponder. Parading a pompous pageant of PPP panjandrum will not provide a panacea for a paralytic and palsied industry, will probably not open the portals of paradise to the poor producer, plying his profession in pest-ridden places, positively not persuade the proverbially parsimonious Pakistani purchaser to patronize poor quality Pakistani products when pavements profusely piled by peddlers with a promiscuity of perfect and pretty low-priced imported products petrify his already poor patriotic propensities.

Poor Pakistani Producer


(Penned by Azhar Ali Khan and Published in Natural Resources, August 1962)