It is a useful art. Contrition, guilt, loss, grief, and shame are all silent killers. This art is important right now because smoke is billowing from our federal capital. I believe it was Mohsin Naqvi who in one of his verses told us about a mother who saved her son’s life from the cold by burning his wooden tablet and books. But there was no existential risk involved in Islamabad. We heard explanations. But none informed us that any life was at risk.
I don’t mean to understate the ordeal faced by the protesters in Islamabad. Particularly little kids whose only crime was to be born in a household whose heads valued their political views more than the lives of their children. This by the way should’ve been illegal. Political activism needs consent. You cannot legally give consent before you turn eighteen and are an adult in the eyes of the law. Parents who cannot understand this subtle nuance should be educated by the state.
Please do not think for a moment that this diatribe is meant to oppose one party’s political position. Far from it. My contempt for everything political stems from the fact that politics cares so little about the legitimacy of the methods and means. But here and there we come across some moments that are enough to lower our heads in shame. For instance, watching the footage of burning trees and little children trapped in these fights.
See these developments through the eyes of a foreigner. Who was fighting whom? Pakistanis fighting Pakistanis. Why? Because they couldn’t resolve simple differences through dialogue. What was burning? Public property. Who were these children and who had brought them there? Minor Pakistanis, exposed to these risks by their parents. What was the purpose? Elections? But sooner or later the elections have to take place at any rate.
A day before the protests a policeman was shot dead while he was carrying out orders. Someone senior? No, a constable. In a country where human life is not considered very important, the value of a poor man’s life is not worth the bullet that killed him. Remember these fights are always of the elite. Only they prefer to risk the lives of the poor who are compelled to sacrifice their lives. And in the end, they can resolve their differences in a heartbeat, form electoral alliances and profess undying mutual fidelity.
If you are reading these lines, like me shame has utterly failed to kill you. What is your coping mechanism then? I ask this because I have learned through experience that this was one onerous moral ordeal. If you managed to cheat it you have perfected the art of not dying of shame. When I am this sad, embarrassed, or ashamed ants start crawling on my skin. I want to find a dark corner in the house where I can curl up and die. What would the world think?
Let me build up the agony further. It is important not only to see these happenings through a foreign lens but from a child’s eyes too. One of the most difficult conversations of my life was when I had to sit my children down and explain to them why a set of adult men claiming to act in religion’s name had killed children at a school and why the state was incapable of protecting them when this was its stated objective. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience bringing a premature end to their innocent little worlds by warning them that the next victims could be someone they knew. While going through this I was hoping that with time I wouldn’t have to go through the same hell again. But sadly this explanation has become a part of my brief as a parent, of late.
Mind you this is a very different generation. Sharp as a tack, better informed, and better connected than most of us. But it has gone through challenges upon challenges. In the federal capital for example where I live shutdowns have become a matter of routine. Only recently have they emerged from the Covid-related lockdowns. After two years of hiatus from the face-to-face classes, they have returned to the school. On the day of the protest, my children had to appear in their class annuals. And they were canceled. That’s not all. In this age of social media and fifty-odd news channels, it is impossible to shield them from bad news and disturbing images. On one side we teach them to care about the environment and nature, on the other political activism burns it down before their eyes. What is one to tell them when they ask why this is happening and when it will all end? I am not proud to say it but despite my valiant effort, this is becoming an exercise in futility.
What almost kills me these days is the realisation that what we are witnessing these days is a violent clash of the two interpretations of the national interest. All done in the name of patriotism. From both sides. The system’s schizophrenia is such that one side keeps stabbing the other, one leg trips the other and calls it a victory. I am a proud man and standing in New Delhi, Washington, and many other capitals I have told my peers that I am proud to be a Pakistani. But suddenly I feel that the powers-that-be are so invested in their petty fights that they don’t care what comes in their way and the things that are permanently lost. I think I am just such a thing. It is getting hard to take pride in an identity that cares so little about my views. There was a time when one felt one could escape from this reality. Now one feels that there is only enough energy left to collapse before it.
See. This is why you need this art. Not to ignore reality but to make peace with it. To make life more meaningless than death and by doing that close the only escape route out of this shame. That is how you ensure you don’t die of shame. Because this bickering, these self-righteous fights, these acts of grandstanding from all sides, let’s face it, will never end. Only faces will change but the spirit will go on destroying more lives and more generations.
I believe in the Bollywood film Mr. Natwarlal there is a song where a character played by Amitabh Bachchan is recounting a journey where he comes face to face with a lion. What happened then, asks someone in the audience. What happened, what happened, well he tore me up and ate me is what happened. Ate you? But you are alive. Do you call this life a life you fool, barks back the protagonist. Let’s keep living through sheer bloody-mindedness.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2022.