Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Partition, My Father, and His Wife

September 2, 2017

By Harbans Mukhia

I was born in 1937 or 38, in a tiny village in the Gujrat district of what is now Pakistan. No one, even in Pakistan, seems to have heard of the village Allaha, though it is on my passport to this day. Our home was a nondescript one – a one-and-a-half room structure on one side of a dusty street; on the other side was a tall, white mansion-like habitat with a weather cock on top, which fascinated us kids for hours.

We moved to Delhi before the Partition – perhaps sometime around 1941. My father responded to the Quit India call and was put in a Multan prison for six months. My mother passed away perhaps in 1943 or 44, leaving behind five young children. My eldest sister, then 12 or 13, was withdrawn from school to look after her siblings. She never held it against us when grew up and found our spaces in life.

A year or so before Partition, my father married his first cousin, his paternal uncle’s daughter, back in Allaha. The marriage procession consisted of the groom and his only son, me; the bidai procession added my new mother. It couldn’t have been simpler.

On August 2 or 3, 1947, my grandmother landed at our home in Delhi and suggested that she and my mother go back to the village and escort the rest of the extended family to Delhi, and bring with them whatever savings they had. Father was aghast at the suggestion and appealed to grandma to hold on for another 12-13 days. After independence – to which he seriously thought he had a personal claim – had been celebrated, he would go there himself, instead of two women going on such a tough mission. Even at this stage, they did not suspect any great mishap in the offing. Grandma insisted and father had to give in.

The two women left Delhi for Allaha. That was the last we ever heard about them. The members of the family they had gone out to rescue, however, found their way to Delhi. Father was heartbroken. Understandably.

Then an incident brought him some hope. He was lightly educated, but was always a stickler for reason and logic for understanding and explaining any phenomenon; God had no place in his scheme. One day, he was whiling away his time on the broad street in old Delhi then called Faiz Bazaar, now Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road. A road show was on, where a boy lies on the floor “unconscious” and the master of the show keeps asking him about the problems facing members of the audience. Father was laughing away at the tamasha when suddenly the master asked the boy what his, father’s, problem was. To his great astonishment, the boy spelt out his wife’s name and announced that she was hiding in a building in our village, both of which he identified correctly without father even having to ask him to.

He was dumbstruck and his skepticism gave way to a faint hope – who knows, the boy might even be right. So he decided to take a chance. In around October, he travelled to Lahore and then on to the village. He was just short of six feet tall and, with a kullah (Afghani headgear), could easily pass off as Pathan. In Delhi, most of his friends in Darya Ganj, where we lived, were Muslims and he was familiar with their etiquette, besides knowing Urdu well. He faced no problem in looking up the particular building, but there was no trace of his young wife.

On his return, he wrote a short piece titled My visit to Pakistan, which was never published. But I remember some crucial parts of it. In Lahore he stayed with his Muslim friends from Faiz Bazar who had migrated to Pakistan. In the streets of Lahore, the real Pathans were shooting at street lights and in the air because there were no Hindus left to kill. His Muslim friends, who had given him shelter and support, risked their lives and properties for him. The slightest hint that they were knowingly hiding and supporting a kafir from India would give the Pathans the ‘legitimate’ right to wipe them out and plunder their house. But the truth remained with his hosts.

In the end, father couldn’t find his wife. But he was able to reaffirm the one faith he had: that as often as not, human relations override political, national and even religious dividing lines.

Harbans Mukhia is National Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research. This memory was part of the Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series and was published there on August 15, 2017. It is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Back to Main Page

Advertisements

Re-reads: The Merchant of Venice

August 7, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

In March 2017, a public prosecutor in Lahore, Pakistan, offered to acquit 42 Christian prisoners accused of murder if they converted to Islam. This prodded a re-reading of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which also features a forced conversion—that of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to Christianity. 

Written between 1596 and 1599, The Merchant of Venice centers around Antonio (the titular character) and his financial dealings with Shylock. Antonio’s friend Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, a wealthy noblewoman. In order to raise this amount, Antonio asks Shylock for a loan of 3000 ducats. The moneylender agrees on the condition that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of his flesh. Antonio accepts these terms, since he has several ships coming in to port soon. However, Antonio’s ships are wrecked and he is forced to default. Shylock then demands his bond. At this point, Portia disguises herself as a man and acts as Antonio’s lawyer. She cleverly uses the terms of the contract against Shylock, since the moneylender is entitled to a pound of flesh but not to a single drop of blood—making fulfilling the bond impossible. Shylock is then charged with attempting to murder a Venetian citizen–as a Jew, he does not count as a Venetian– and his estate is confiscated, with one half going to Antonio and one half to the state. Antonio then offers to renounce his half of the estate, on the condition that Shylock become a Christian. The moneylender has no choice but to accept.

Though the play is classified as a comedy, it is problematic for modern audiences. Post the Holocaust, it is difficult not to feel deeply uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock as greedy and fixated on money. The fact that he is forced to abandon his religion also seems deeply unfair given contemporary global norms. This discomfort with the play has led some to call for its removal from school curricula and for it to be taken off the stage. However, a close examination of the play shows that Shylock is by no means a two-dimensional villain, unlike Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (often thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s play).

Early in the play, when Antonio first asks Shylock for a loan, the moneylender recalls how the merchant has treated him:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit

What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’? (Act 1, Scene 3)

Antonio routinely abuses Shylock, simply because of his religion. Yet now that he needs him, he has come to politely ask him for a loan. Shylock points out the merchant’s hypocrisy and asks why he should oblige him. Later, when he is asked what good Antonio’s flesh will do him, Shylock responds that it will serve as his revenge. In one of the play’s most famous speeches, he states:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. (Act 3, Scene 1)

In this speech, Shylock argues that Jews are just as human as Christians and experience all the same sensations and emotions. Just as Christians seek revenge when they are wronged, he will do so as well. By having Shylock make this speech, Shakespeare humanizes him and gives him a motivation for his hatred of Antonio and his relentless pursuit of his bond. Shylock is not pure evil. Rather, he is driven to seek vengeance for the ill-treatment he has received from the majority group.

In addition to depicting Shylock as a three-dimensional character, Shakespeare also shows the faults of the Christian characters. For example, Portia is casually racist, rejecting one of her suitors, the Prince of Morocco, simply for being black. After the prince fails the test set by Portia’s father and leaves, she states “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (Act 2, Scene 7). This racism, though not uncommon in the sixteenth century, is certainly not a noble character trait.

In conclusion, The Merchant of Venice reflects the society that produced it—a society deeply hostile to religious and ethnic minorities. Such blatant prejudice is no longer acceptable in most of the world, though, as the incident in Lahore reminds us,

there are places where it unfortunately continues to exist. Modern audiences may find Shylock’s portrayal stereotypical and anti-Semitic, but it is important to remember that Shakespeare also provides the reasons for the moneylender’s desire for revenge. At the same time, it is true that a play that ends with a forced conversion cannot be said to be a comedy, at least in the view of twenty-first century audiences. However, removing the play from the stage is not the solution. Rather, students and audiences should engage with the play’s context through classroom and post-performance discussions.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

[Editor’s Note: Re-reads is a new feature on The South Asian Idea in which readers reflect on literature to which they have returned after a period of time. We invite readers to submit reflections on their own favorites.]

Back to Main Page

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

June 3, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

Back to Main Page

Nowhere to Go

May 4, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

I am intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for those interested in music but in dance, theater, films and writing – a mecca for aspiring artists whose talents and ambitions were either thwarted or had no prospects of fruition in the milieus in which they were born and raised.

Bombay was a magnet because it also had the ecosystem of peer groups, mentors and patrons in which a young runaway could hope to find a niche and be accommodated. Naushad, after sleeping on footpaths for a while, found Ustad Jhande Khan (himself from Gujranwala) who became a guide and a link to others who could recognize, appreciate and nurture a precocious talent.

Thinking along these lines brought home to me that such artistic meccas exist in many countries. New York City is the quintessential example. Reading the biographies of celebrated American artists one is struck by how many of them gravitated there from small towns, rural districts and depressed areas thousands of miles away and how the city provided the nourishment for their talents to be realized.

London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries. It is cities like these that keep culture alive and vibrant within countries and serve as beacons of hope for those who feel the overpowering urge to become a part of that culture.

One might wish such ambitions to find nourishment for their fulfillment anywhere in a country but that is an impossibility because of the economies of scale and agglomeration. Much like clusters of industry there are clusters of the arts where nourishing ecosystems become established. Some countries have more than one. In the US, for example, one can consider New Orleans and Los Angeles in a similar light. Young people attracted to jazz head to New Orleans while those hoping to make it in the world of film are drawn to Los Angeles.

Does it matter that there is no such place for the young to run away to akistan? Is the artistic culture of the country being impoverished or not being rejuvenated sufficiently or being confined to those who have privileged access to it by being born in the right home in the right place?

Young men from Charsadda and Skardu and Turbat do move to Karachi for jobs but does one know of budding musicians or artists or actors heading there from similar places with a hope that a nurturing haven would be found in the metropolis.

Lahore could have been considered a mini-Bombay in the decades when it had its major film studios and the Pak Tea House as the abode of writers. But that seems no more the case. Even then, at the Tea House it was only local students who could become part of the intellectual circle. There is no evidence of a regular influx of outsiders turning up with burning ambition and the hope of learning enough to make a living from their passions.

I hope I am wrong and wish someone will identify such places in the country. Perhaps some shrines, especially in Sindh, serve a similar function though I wouldn’t put them in the same category as a place like New York where something new is always in the process of being born.

I am also sobered by the thought that over the last few decades places to run away to in Pakistan might have emerged for the young moved by religious fervor. Depending on preference they could head to Raiwind or Akora Khattak or Karachi with the knowledge that they would find a haven with refuge and nurturing.

Some of these havens have acquired international recognition and youngsters have started streaming to them from the far corners of the globe. In a sense they have attained the stature of the Paris between the two wars when it became the destination of choice for aspiring artists from the world over.

Could this be a reason that Pakistan has become known in the world as the center of Jihadi culture while its artistic evolution continues to shrivel?

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 30, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

Sehwan, Sheema and Faiz

February 24, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

 

For Sheema Kermani – because she went

 

Go
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Aaj Bazaar meiN Pa ba JaullaN Chalo)

Unwept tears, inner torments
Enough
Hidden desires, silent accusations
Enough

Go
Flaunt your fetters in the street
Arms aloft, enraptured, intoxicated
Disheveled, blood stained
Go
Lovers are yearning for your love
Go

Tyrant and crowd
Await
Slings and stones
Await
Sorrows and failures
Await

Who else is left to love
But you
Who else is left to fight
But you
Who else is left to die
But you

Arise and go
For love’s honor
Go

 

Note

Sehwan is home to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a major sufi saint in Sindh, where a suicide bombing killed 88 devotees on February 16, 2017.

Sheema Kermani is a symbol of defiance in Pakistan as a dancer who has continued to perform in public all through the rise of fundamentalism and suppression. She went to the shrine to join the devotees on February 20.

The news story is here.

This poem appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily  on February 23, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page