Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

On Not Owning a House

January 5, 2016

Last week I attended a memorial service and was impressed by the event. It was in stark contrast to our ceremonial mourning which, in a footnote in the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton characterizes as “the visits of condolence and so forth which are long and terribly wearisome in the Moslem east.” Instead, the event was intended as a celebration of the full life of the deceased.

Everyone in the audience who wished to offer a reflection was allowed time to do so and while none of them were truly inspiring, the purpose of sharing remembrances was fully served. There was, however, one recurring mention that finally began to strike me as incongruous – that the deceased had lived all his life in rented quarters, did not own a house, and had not accumulated any riches.

I too had known the individual and was a member of the fan club having admired him immensely for his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the arts, his commitment to perfection, and his dedication to the highest ideals of humanity. I did not know whether he had owned a house or not nor had it occurred to me that it was a piece of information relevant to my evaluation of his contribution.

The repeated mention of this fact at the memorial service forced me to rethink this opinion. Why was not owning a house considered such a badge of honor in our society? Did it imply that there was something the matter with those who did own houses? If so, why, and for what reason?

To my mind, this was a personal decision. After all, living in a rented house does not come free – one pays in rent what one would have paid in interest on the loan required to purchase a house. If calculated right, the lifetime cost of renting a house would end up higher than that of owning one. The personal decision could stem from any number of reasons including the very plausible one in the case of the deceased that individuals like him could not take away time from their passions for the mundane necessities of everyday life.

It is true that in our economy, without a well-developed institution for housing finance, the lump-sum required to acquire or build a house is a formidable barrier for many but I really doubt this was the determining reason for the deceased. And so, the implication that not owing a house was somehow an indicator of honesty and integrity struck me as misplaced. It was simply a personal choice and ought to be left at that.

It is nevertheless true that in every society there are individuals who have acquired assets by unfair means. Some have built houses with those riches while others have consumed them differently. It is also true that the prevalence of unfair acquisition seems to have increased over time. Still, it does not follow that all those who have built houses are tainted and guilty of some malpractice or the other. Nor, in a country in which over the half the population is poor and without financial assets, can it imply that all such individuals are paragons of moral uprightness.

Two aspects of this conflation, one general the other personal, struck me in particular. First, looking around at the audience, I saw many who owned houses applauding the mention of non-ownership of a house by the deceased. I was aware that some of them owned more than one house and that a few of the houses were so extensive that it would take a fair number of hours to walk through them from end to end. I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was the motivation for their applause except that it was being joined ritualistically without really thinking through the subtext.

Second, at a personal level, I was surprised to observe that what was deemed a mark of honor for the dead was not considered so for the living. I saw applauding vigorously people who had been castigating me for decades for not owning a house. I recalled all the names I had been called and all the character defects attributed to me for being so callous as to deprive my family of a home. I must admit that in my case there was no very noble reason for this choice. Rather, it was a combination of procrastination and a fearful inability to deal with the transactional nature of life.

Be that as it may, we had arrived at the point where I had acquiesced in the judgement of my massive failure as a human being, the immense stupidity of my intellect, and the sheer callousness of my neglect of those unfortunate enough to have become dependent on me. All the misfortunes of life it seems stemmed from that brick not laid – a huge burden to carry for any one individual. Day and night now I was haunted by just one prayer – give me a house or give me death.

In that sense, the memorial service offered a flicker of hope. Forgiveness, it seems, does accompany death – a bit too late to savor but something to anticipate with relief.

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The Remove

July 4, 2015

By Zulfikar Ghose

The Sikh from Ambala in East Punjab,
India, formerly in the British Empire,
the Muslim from Sialkot in West Punjab,
Pakistan, formerly British India,
the Sikh boy and the Muslim boy are two
of twenty such Sikhs and Muslims
from East Punjab and West Punjab, which
formerly were the Punjab,
standing together in assembly, fearfully
miming the words of a Christian hymn.

Later, their firework voices explode
in Punjabi until Mr Iqbal –
which can be a Sikh name or a Muslim name,
Mohammed Iqbal or Iqbal Singh
who comes from Jullundur in East Punjab
but near enough to the border to be almost
West Punjab, who is an expert in
the archaic intonations of the Raj,
until the three-piece suited Mr Iqbal
gives a stiff-collared voice to his
Punjabi command to shut their thick wet
lips on the scattering sparks of their
white Secondary Modern teeth.

Mr Iqbal has come to London to teach
English to Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims
and has pinned up in his class pictures
of Gandhi and Jinnah, Nehru and Ayub
in case the parents come to ask in Punjabi
how the kids are doing in English.

And so: twenty years after
the Union Jack came down on Delhi
and the Punjab became East Punjab and
West Punjab and the Sikhs did not like it
and the Muslims did not like the Sikhs
not liking it and they killed each other
not by the hundred nor by the thousand
but by the hundred thousand, here then
is Mr Iqbal with his remove class of
twenty Punjabis, some Sikh and some Muslim,
in a Secondary Modern School in London,
all of them trying to learn English.

Back home the fastidious guardians of freedom,
the Sikh army and the Muslim army, convinced
that East is East and West is West etcetera,
periodically accuse each other of aggression.

First published in The Violent West (Macmillan, London, 1972) and reproduced here with the generous permission of the author.

I find this among the most poignant commentaries on the partition of India after reading which nothing is left to be said.

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Beyond Grief

January 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden.

Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering?

I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how.

Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle. It is too easy in that it asks nothing meaningful of us.

Grief will not undo anything but something beyond grief might break the chain of tragedies that have come to dominate our lives. Grief is not the end of reckoning; it can only be the beginning of a quest to bring honor to the lives that have been lost.

Our collective outrage needs to be transformative, leading first and foremost to reflection and a dialogue with ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the nature of violence, its place in our lives, and in our society.

I worry when I see cries for vengeful action. They suggest we are not really opposed to violence, just to violence by people we don’t like. Given a chance to inflict it ourselves, we would have no qualms if we felt it was needed for the success of our cause. Every cause has its adherents and believers and therein lie the seeds of strife without end.

It seems that violence is deeply embedded in our psyches. Otherwise reasonable people have little hesitation in wanting to make examples of those they disapprove of – stringing people upside down or lining them against a wall to be shot are commonplace off-the-cuff recommendations.

This easy relationship with violence stems from our lack of regard for civil rights, a notion that seems remarkably foreign to us. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that every individual, even one accused of a crime, has, or ought to have, a modicum of civil rights. Persons accused and convicted of wrongs can only be assigned penalties commensurate with their transgressions. They cannot be made ‘horrible’ examples to deter others from committing crimes and we cannot cheer or rejoice in such spectacles.

But it seems we believe very strongly in the redemptive power of punishment and in the locus of human body as the most appropriate site for that punishment. This is quite obvious in the way we deal with women who defy patriarchal norms, in the fashion we discipline children who displease parents, in the manner we reprimand administrative staff in offices, and in how we berate servants in the home. Verbal or physical abuse is considered necessary to keep ‘them’ in their place – ‘them’ being anyone who deigns to defy our desires.

We will not be able to limit violence till we internalize the norm of individual civil rights and accept the sanctity of the human body. The other’s body is off-limits, at all times, and under all circumstances except with consent or when the law sanctions the contrary in self-defense. The temptation to punish all those we don’t like needs to be purged. That we can oppose but not eliminate is a profound lesson that remains to be learnt in our social and political lives.

We will also not be able to limit violence till we come to terms with the fact that there are no ‘others,’ that every human life is equally valuable and equally inviolate. I am saddened to recall that December 16 marks another tragedy in which the lives of students were also extinguished in just as evil a manner in a university in another part of our country. On our side, there was very little grief, not enough condemnation, and no reflection whatsoever.

Why? If our reflection can force us to honestly answer that question today, we will have taken a small step towards a less violent society.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on January 24, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Honour and Ignore

November 6, 2014

By Hasan Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

Excerpts – The complete article is here.

A Pakistani winning a Nobel Prize: This year, Malala Yousafzai has entered a very select club. There’s only one other member. Amid all the celebration of this achievement, his story should be remembered now, for the warning it offers to the Nobel committee, the optimistic international community, the hard-working activists, the Twitter-happy politicians, and all those hopeful schoolgirls cutting cakes in Mingora. It might, on the other hand, provide some comfort to those who are unhappy with the decision.


In the meantime, though: Yousafzai still cannot return safely to the country rushing to bask in her aura. Her book remains banned by many institutions. The Government of Pakistan spends less than almost any other in the world on the education of its children. Its legal, political, cultural and social systems continue to denigrate, weaken, and humiliate women at almost every turn. In court, a woman’s testimony is not granted the same weight as a man’s; only one province has even introduced legislation regarding domestic violence; Pakistan is the second-worst country in the world in terms of gender disparity. As they did with Dr Salam, the government and society can take pride in their new laureate, celebrate, and then put her on a shelf and move on.


Pakistan needs hope, in spades, but seems to have forgotten that it is a tool. Instead, Pakistan treats hope as lucre: The temptation is just to get it, hoard it, maybe put it on a stamp. In this country, hope is what you collect to insulate yourself from everything else in Pandora’s box. It is becoming a commodity as invaluable and expensive as a generator in a country where utility companies are notorious failures; you have to be able to flip your own switch. The Nobel is, for Yousafzai, an honour; a Nobel for Yousafzai is, for Pakistan, just another shipment of fuel. It’ll keep the lights on a little while longer.

This comment appeared in Economic and Political Weekly on November 1, 2014.

Hasan Altaf is a writer currently based in Lahore whose work has appeared in Guernica, Dawn and Seminar.

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Questions for Ourselves

August 7, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

— Does God love everybody?

— Yes.

— Are you sure?

— Of course.

— Then why do YOU hate so many? Are you bigger that God (NB)? Has God (NB) created some just so you can indulge your passion for hating? Has God (NB) told you there are some you can hate even though He loves them? Is your God (NB) the head of a political party?

I haven’t come up with this. It’s how I read Mr. Bloom in the chapter identified as Cyclops in Ulysses.

Look at it yourself (lines 1480-1520 here) if you don’t believe me:

“God loves everybody” and aren’t we told to “love your neighbours”? And if I listened to God and loved my neighbour and my neighbour loved his/her neighbour wouldn’t we end with “universal love” which is “the opposite of hatred,” of “insult and hatred” which is “not life for men and women”?

— So, tell me, why are you going around disobeying God spreading insult and hatred?

“What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text God is love pasted round the mouth of his cannon?”

There is your God loving everybody and telling you to love your neighbour and there you are asking around about your neighbour’s zaat and going into paroxysms of hate if it turns out different from yours.

— Did God (NB) tell you to ask your neighbour’s zaat when He told you to love your neighbour? Or God didn’t tell you that but you know better what He (NB) really wanted to tell you?

— Is this line of argument making any sense to you?

Fastforward from Bloomsday (June 16, 1904 – the one day on which all the action in Ulysses takes place in Dublin) to LUMSday (anyoneday, 2014, in Lahore).

What do I find?

Students going about their business. What’s going on inside their hearts who’s to say — wallahu’alam bissawab. I don’t see them hating anyone overtly but they are not loving anybody either. They are not acting on the commandment love thy neighbour. No one is reading Bulleh Shah. There is no circle of love or even of understanding spreading outwards.

At best they are indifferent to each other within the campus. I suppose that is the most one can expect in Lahore in 2014.

But they are also indifferent to the hatred seething outside the campus that is threatening to bring down the protective walls within which they carry on being indifferent.

There is no wave of love pushing outwards. There is a wave of hatred pushing inwards meeting little resistance.

How long can the walls hold?

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

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Reflections on Eid

August 6, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon.

From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all one needed to consider to understand everything that needed to be understood including births, deaths, marriages, crime, you name it – everything that mattered was the ‘Economy of Something’ and subject to the calculus of supply, demand, prices, and ability to pay.

It was in that context that it occurred to me to remark on the fact that all of the past Ramadan the Pakistan cricket team had been somewhere or the other playing a series of international matches. Only a few decades earlier this would have been unthinkable but now the market had engulfed the game and the governing body had laid down the schedule – defy it and lose millions of dollars. And dollars had won. So the direction of influence that used to be from considerations of afterlife to the economy was now clearly running the other way.

I thought we had laid this to rest when lo and behold the big Eid arrived during the semester and now the Pakistani cricket team was elsewhere and Eid was on the third or fourth day of the test match and, to my horror, it was not a rest day – the Pakistan cricket team was actually playing on Eid day.

Well, well! The ICC was clearly not foostering around with solemn looking men sighting the moon with naked eyes. Rot-in-Hell, they were saying – play or be damned which in our time is nothing more than being out of cash. And these fellows were playing – the same fellows who started every conversation with thanks be to Almighty Allah, the boys played very well but Allah did not want us to win while under the breath wondering if they could have made more if they had arranged for another no-ball on the fifth ball of the third over.

Clearly the market had triumphed and trampled Eid underfoot. All that came back to me as I woke up this Eid day to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone with waves of inane messages from people I had had the misfortune of having my trousers stitched or my head massaged years ago. It took me considerable time deleting the felicitations most of them without reading. It was then that I found that the same ladies and gentlemen had been ardent enough to make doubly sure they reached me by forwarding the same messages to my email account. Another round of feverish deletions ensued in the midst of which a truly determined soul decided to actually call to make sure his messages had been registered. It was then that I lost my cool.

Just about then a dozen mosques burst alive at the same time competing with each other in the true spirit of the market economy. I should have thought what a wonderful gift competition is and how blessed we are to be showered with it but by this time I had a terrible headache and felt deeply desirous of a dose of creative destruction. I decided that if the shaking of my hands could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with resigned despair to that end.

Readers interested in more on the embedded nature of the economy in society should refer to Part I (Economy and Society) of Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (George Dalton, ed. 1968). Note the following comment on page 3: “No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but prior to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.” The debt to Eliot is also acknowledged.

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

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Reflections on Lost Times

August 1, 2014

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Father was like that. Eager to have us learn everything, oblivious to details. Busy, busy. Shunting trains by day, learning French by night. Mother never said much, went along mostly.

Handed over to a music teacher or somesuch. Eight or thereabouts. No Sa Re Ga. Right away on to aye maalik tere bandey ham tuu ne zarrey se keeRaa banaya or somesuch. Closet evolutionist. Wept. Mother gently requested change of tune. Merey maalik bulaa le madeenay mujhe. About death and dying. Final requests, etc. Nothing doing. End of music hall career.

Still, thanks and all. Never forgot bulaa le madeenay bit. Coming in handy now. Understand all about politics. Aatey umrah jaatey umrah. Mountain of rye. Mice. Roared. Wind ke jhonkoN se. Pudeenay ke bagh. No offence. miaN khush raho ham dua kar chalay. Farsighted bastard. Somepeople know it all. Should have stayed with him. Might have been PM now. Other way blocked. Father said only duffers went into forces. Mother agreed: only one in entire family.

Handed over to very short Maulvi saab. Nine or thereabouts. Went through the text twice. Didn’t understand anything. Quarreled every day. Molly saab said duad mother said zuad. Molly saab fed up with food. Me fed up with duad-zuad. Third time got bored. Gave up halfway. Never went back. End of religious career. Could have eliminated some heathens. Earned hasanas. Hosannas? Gone to jannah early. No bukbuk of longmarch to Islamabad. Tantrums of Imran Khan. Missing Aunt Jemima. Pancake.

Handed over to Mohd Shafi painter. Ten or thereabouts. Lived in servant quarters. Carrying on with Bibbo next door. Accompany to Friday prayers. Garhi Shahu mosque. First time. New shoes stolen. Never went back. End of second chance. Unsolved mystery. Bakistan ka matlab kya. Whatever. Jo bhii. More heathens saved. Mohd Shafi made wooden box with name painted on top. For secret stuff. Now lost.

Handed over to Ijaz sahib. Real artist. Eleven or thereabouts. Bad at art. Failing at school. Art teacher Choosy mad yelling caning. Six of the best. Takhti wala skool me jaenga darakht ke neechey baithenga. Ijaz sahib trying all. Nothing works. Lines all crooked. Everyone resigned. End of art career. Picasso made crooked lines. Crooked lines not bad. Crooked good. More crooked the better. Things one learns too late. Life.

Handed over to Mehtab. Caddy. Twelve or thereabouts. Picked up fast. Excellent on fairway. Excellent on green. Daily practice. Hitting long. Lost father’s favorite red ball. Big fight. End of golf. End of golfing career. Forest for trees. Wood. Wooden headed. Live and learn. Don’t fight over little things. Little things seem big when little. Big folks mostly little. Live and learn.

Not handed over anymore. Given up. Teens or thereabouts. Did alright. Passed school passed college. Read Wilde stayed sober. Read Russell Why I am not a Christian etc. I doubt therefore I am. Mother read GhalibMirSauda. More doubt. No more same I. Faiz. PostmenoN ke naam. Girlfriend gifted origins of family and private property. World turned upside down. Pak sar zameen. Things not what they seem. Hain kawakib kuch nazar aatey haiN kuch. Bogey shunted to branch line. 786 Down.

End of college. Big fight. Want to study literature. Write poetry. Mother’s dream CSP. Commissioner. King of the district. Orderlies etc. Father MA English from GC. Handed over to father’s best GC buddy. CSP. Secretary of somethingortheother. Writer as well. Big pow-wow. Verdict. Only duffers study arts. Hath meiN hunar hona zuroori hai. Bad times. Bhutto idiot. Screwing up civil service. Lateral entry. Duffers.

Entered engineering university on high merit. Everyone proud. Many DN duffers. Headpiece full of straw. Real rulers. futtey. phitte munh phitte munh phiite munh e un e un e un. ATTESHA! Present arms. Gather alms. ghutliyoN ke daam. Baang. Whimper. Thusss. Hell on earth. Voted best English writer. Pansy. Wrote blasphemous poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote obscene poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote angry poem for magazine. Turned down. End of writing career. Obscenity ok. Manto. Ismat. Lihaaf. Before Zia. No more. Obscenity everywhere. Not much smut. Vanilla obscenity.

Frustrated. Selfhanded over to female. Twentyone or thereabouts. Life’s lesson. Never be frustrated. Too late. As ever. End of career. Dead end. End dead.

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July 12, 2014

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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Time, the World and the Word

March 30, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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Returning to India

January 25, 2014

By Vinod Kumar

These are my experiences and observations on life in India and on Indians. Although there are many generalizations in there I confess these are nothing more than my subjective accumulated experience. I am not attempting to form a theory or explanation for the behavior and culture of Indians. All the tentative theories I formed as the months passed only painted a negative view of India and made it harder for me to live here. So I have learnt the art of not forming an opinion on India and Indians. Living here is more important than having an opinion about living here. So these observations are just that – observations. There may be some commentary and musings on them but definitely not a coherent theory about India.

I returned to India with plenty of ideas about mind management – mindfulness practices that help in calming the mind. It worked well for me in transitioning from a 15 year stay in Singapore to the United Kingdom and in settling down in Leeds for 2 years. I had come to have a certain degree of conviction in these practices and my abilities to keep them up.  Then the move to India came.

I landed in Mumbai on 1 July 2013. The first thing I noticed in India is the general roughness of the populace. After the default politeness that characterizes society in Leeds (UK) India’s chaos and elbowing were very palpable. The second noticeable characteristic was the noise levels in India, even from the indoor crowds. It was louder than UK or Singapore. Was there a link between the noise levels in India and the rudeness of Indians? I was with my wife and mother-in-law who knew Mumbai well. For the most part I had no problems during the short 10 day stay in Mumbai. I was given a son-in-law treatment and I began to feel I could handle India easily.

I came to Bangalore on 12th July 2013 by train in a 3-tier AC coach. I was wary of what to expect during a 24-hour train journey. Although I was growing in confidence I still wasn’t smug about the struggles of life in India. As the train left Mumbai a family horde with some questionable seat reservations boarded the compartment. One of them sat next to me and some climbed onto my berth. With my berth taken I had to sit and sleep during the afternoon.  My tendency to keep quiet while my right was trampled upon was part of the reason for my silence. I convinced myself that I was a good soul and that I was doing a great deed here bearing with the needs of the family. The seating area felt crowded with all these people sitting in there. I wondered what it would have been like in the non-AC compartments. Does a ticket mean anything in India? Are rights, even if paid for, respected here?

The family got off after a few stations and the compartment was relatively comfortable. I did get a smile and thank you from the patriarch of the family. I felt that he acknowledged the sacrifice I made. As the journey continued I got introduced to the co-passenger opposite me – a middle aged man who was from the army. I thought he would make good company; after all, he was an educated professional. But I was dismayed when he turned off the air conditioner in the compartment, yelled at the service boy, and kept the lights on late into the night, as if the seating area meant for everyone belonged to him. He brushed aside my remonstrations. He was a bully! Bastard! Education had only made him an educated bully. Are Indians generally insensitive to the rights and needs of others around them?

I reached Bangalore angry but used my mind management practices to calm down. My father, who came to the train station to receive me, took me home and I settled into the environment where I grew up. My family is not an emotionally expressive family. They don’t display ecstatic joy when their son returns to them after years. They act with general calmness as if I was away only for a day. I always remain unfulfilled by this lack of expression. Would it hurt to take a minute to simply smile and experience the joy?

In my parent’s house at Bangalore I tried to make myself useful. I observed the activities of my parents and volunteered to chip in where I could. My mother, who believes that the kitchen is only for women, carefully kept me out of any kitchen work. I still managed to find a few activities where I could help daily. The challenge here was that my retired father and homemaker mother needed the schedule of activities to survive the passage of time and feel that their existence mattered and that their life had a purpose, even if that purpose was only to look after the house they had built, i.e. surviving. They had difficulty letting go of these activities to me and adopting new routines. I don’t know if age does this to everyone. They would find fault with the quality of my work from the moment I began doing it to cut me off from it. I put up with these charades and managed to carve out some activities for myself in the house.

My wife joined me in Bangalore a few weeks later and the real drama began. My mother expected her to naturally know what needs to be done in the house and take the initiative to get them done. But my wife was never trained in household chores. She was willing to be trained but she was clear that it wasn’t her primary area of interest. She was a career woman and I wanted her to be that way. So she would hang around the kitchen waiting for instructions from my mother on what needed to be done and my mother would wait for her to do what needed to be done without being told. This led to awkward long hours for my wife who skulked around the kitchen doing nothing. My mother is not easy to communicate with. So negotiating with her to change her expectations is out of the question. My father was a whole lot better. He had his rigidities but they were never material to our existence. He firmly believed in the intuitions that arose from experience. While I think experience may add great wisdom it can also add and solidify intuitions that could depart from a changing reality. Experience can and often does lead to closed-minded convictions.

I began applying for jobs against advertisements that appeared in the newspaper. I used my network to get my CV into the HR departments of large corporations. I was given ample advice to lie in my CV and interviews. I was told this is fairly common in India and that it would be difficult for me to land a job if I didn’t lie. Is honesty a rarity in India?

I landed a job as a salesman at a small company called Indian Institute of Hardware Technology (IIHT). I began my job at the office where my place was on any available chair. The office had cockroaches and lizards. The people who interviewed me and assured me that I would be given all the help and assistance showed up to work once a week. Do Indians ever keep their word? Does it matter to them to make their words and actions meet? Or do Indians interact with each other with the awareness that there is no such thing as integrity?

I was given a SIM card and told to google for reception desk numbers of companies and call up to sell the services of IIHT. That is all I was given in terms of training. I began tele-calling, after two graduate degrees and a post-graduate diploma in law. As the days progressed the place was refurbished and I was relieved to get an air-conditioned cubicle. The interviewers came in on Saturdays and did little more than projecting their status about on everyone. They had no clear idea of the prices for their services, they had no resources to deliver what they were claiming to sell and they repeatedly yelled at everyone. One by one the employees started to quit the company. They failed to provide an appointment letter despite my repeated requests. Are all Indians so fraudulent, exploitative and status conscious?

On the second pay day my cheque was withheld. I quit the following day. Farce negotiations and uncalled for delays followed where intimidation was used to get me to give up my claims for unpaid salaries. I have registered a case against IIHT. Are all Indians such fraudulent bastards?

I was given another job the day I quit IIHT through a relative of someone I knew at IIHT. It was at Safex Solutions as a salesman, selling biometric solutions. Again during the interview I was told I would be trained well. I got low-balled on my salary. Nonetheless I decided to join Safex. At my new workplace I spent most of my first month just idling at my desk. There was no formal training programme. The director of sales did take me around for client meetings. I observed him and wondered how he managed to get any sales at all. His communication skills – grammar, diction, listening – were all atrocious. He constantly cut clients off in between. He spoke loudly. His English writing was full of grammatical errors. And he thought that taking notes during these meetings was funny. I found his quotations non-standard, but he insisted that they were standard. Like my father he had a very high opinion of his 12 years experience in the field. Why can’t Indians see that experience can also lead to inappropriate rigidities? He was impossible to have a conversation with. In fact the 2 training sessions he had at the office were painful. He didn’t get my style of participation where I would not hesitate to venture guesses as answers for the questions he raised and I found his teaching style disruptive and laborious. He was too defensive for any kind of connection. He seemed to struggle with the fact that I was his age and therefore deserved some respect and the fact that he didn’t know how to talk respectfully to a subordinate. His subordinates were petrified of him and again were at a loss on how to deal with him. I wonder how Indians actually work with such horrendous bosses? Have I become too soft? Yelling would be construed as harassment in UK and US. In India it was everyday affair. Employers did not treat their subordinates as employees but as servants.

My colleagues at Safex were on an average 8 years younger than me. I found it amusing that they always had lunch together. One of them even said that the food would not digest if he ate alone. I found that warm but strange, as if I knew that feeling sometime in the distant past. I always have lunch on my own. I valued the quiet time. As a passing mention I found it strangely warm to see my elders still have connections with their school friends and their extended family. The ‘best friend’ concept is still alive in India. I don’t quite get that. I keep changing in my opinions and attitude and that changes my perception of the quality of my past and present friendships. Various life stages also change the issues that matter. What was best in the past now seems below average.

Coming back to my colleagues, their conversations revolved around teasing one another about crushes. I felt old among them. My colleagues had no sense of planning and prioritizing their work with task lists. Their conversation style matched my sales director’s – their listening skills were atrocious. They barely allowed the other person to complete a sentence. Was it an Indian thing to yell at each other and resolve issues? Have Indians forgotten the art of conversation? Does the conduct of our MPs in parliament – all the hectoring – reflect what is on the ground among the masses?

My colleagues are all from small-town India, not urban India. What I like about them is that they are non-competitive and share openly, not just their food but their knowledge and skills. I look around me and see a lot of immaturity. But I also see a lot of hearty people who are very willing to help if they are spoken to kindly. I value that and often feel like perhaps this is where I belong.

If I may nit-pick I also find the accent of Indians hard to follow. I have learnt to slow down my speech and choose my words properly and pay attention to diction. Indians are too fast for me. I have to explicitly tell them to slow down in their speech.

I travelled using the public transport for the first 4 months. I was impressed with the frequency of the buses. Bangalore has an excellent bus network covering all corners of the city. I never waited for more than 15 minutes for a bus no matter where I went. But the conduct of people in the buses was another story. One still had to elbow the next person to board the bus or disembark. Only the young could afford such physical stress. The buses were no place for the old, handicapped and feeble. The metro is under construction and many roads are dug up and left in poor condition due to the mismanagement of the construction projects.

I bought a motorbike in the fifth month of my stay here. Riding in Bangalore is both organized and chaotic. There are working traffic signals and most of the motorists respect the rules. But there is no lane driving.  It is not uncommon for road users to turn right from the left lane or turn left from the right lane or make a U-turn where it is not permitted blocking traffic for more than a kilometer during peak hours. I find many inconsiderate road users. Indian motorists have no concept of ‘checking the blind spot’ or the ‘right of way’. The honking often gets to my nerves. I tried advising a driver about his honking and he rudely told me to get lost. Do Indians have a high fallibility quotient, where they think they can do no wrong and can never be in need of advice?

There are plenty of potholes on the road. The Bangalore City Corporation aims to fill them before the end of February 2014. I do find the roads getting better by the day but I am skeptical whether all potholes are indeed going to get filled.

Before I purchased my motorbike I got my 4-wheeler driving license. I managed to do this without paying a bribe directly or indirectly through agents. But it was not without its frustrations. The Road Transport Office had changed its application system and confusion reigned. There was also a communication gap – Indians use the word “cover” to mean, among others, an envelope. I had forgotten that and that alone resulted in some confusion which was comical in retrospect. The driving test was bizarre. The tester did not accompany me. He instead watched me drive for 50 metres and continued on with his work. When I went along the track that he had pointed out and came back he told me that the license would be posted to my house. I dared to ask him by how many days would I get the license and got a brusque reply that he was not the postman to tell me that. Is polite communication dead in India?

Even a simple purchase of a cup of coffee can be a struggle in India. Nobody stands in a queue and nobody even acknowledges an informal queue.

The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is encouraging a lot of first time voters to get a voter ID and stand in the queue to vote. Many had so far not bothered to do so because of the choices they had – the corrupt Congress or the equally corrupt and communal BJP or some regional party with a parochial mindset. The Aam Aadmi has buoyed the hopes of the young voters. The older voters – my father and his friends – are not so easily swayed. They see it as a passing phenomenon. I was partly carried away too till I paid attention to the points my father was raising. The AAP, although noble minded, still lacks administrative expertise. They have some novel ideas with the aim of making the government work more closely with the people but these ideas seem unworkable as of now and even seems like a populist stunt. The Delhi durbar is one such instance of an idea that was not very well thought out. I also find the vigilantism of the Law Minister of Delhi (Somnath Bharti) highly objectionable. I think the AAP indeed lacks administrative expertise in governance but I believe their integrity will show them the ropes of the trade very quickly. Such events provide some relief in the life of Indians in the form of intellectual debate. The newspapers, particularly the national dailies, are a pleasure to read. The editorials give the illusion of India being a unified country. But other news stories make me wonder whether India can even be called one nation. I live in a country where a woman can become a Chief Minister of a state and where another woman can be handed down a punishment by her village elders to be gang raped by 13 men for loving a man outside her community.

After more than 6 months in India I have learnt to enjoy the good in India, even if they come a little infrequently, and keep the irritations of life in India in the background of my consciousness. Stepping out of the house is a battle in itself and it keeps me alert. The interaction with family members, even if not optimal, keeps me engaged. Bangalore weather in the second half of the year has been pleasant. The fact that there are no motorbike parking charges in most places is a relief. The food in India is definitely a delight. The struggles prevent me from analyzing matters too deeply. I feel alive in the battle here! I feel the need to keep fit and firm before stepping out of the house. My brother and sister-in-law who are currently in India after a few years stay in the US find the same issues with India like I did. But I realized that I have made progress in adjusting to this country. I no longer feel the irritation of living in India like the way my brother does. I don’t think this is a conscious process. Consciously I still feel highly negative about India. But subconsciously time and the effect of Indian society on me are indeed doing their job.

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