Back in school, a classmate asked a substitute teacher to translate the Punjabi phrase, mitti pao. If you are really interested in the expression, idiomatically, it will translate into something like: bury it, let bygones be bygones, or water under the bridge. The teacher, barely a few years older than us and by the looks of it utterly clueless, came up with the desi-est translation possible: put mud. To my great annoyance, for decades, my classmate made it a habit of using this translation whenever he wanted to get over something or put an end to a matter. Both this classmate and this teacher, my lifelong dear friends, rose to influential positions and, therefore, shall remain unnamed. But this title, for sure, brings back memories.
During a recent Pakistan-India cricket match, a foreign friend asked me what point I thought we (South Asians) were trying to make. I did not get his point. I was asked to look at the live streaming numbers prominently displayed on top of an app showing the match. The total number of users watching the game live through a single mobile app had risen above 40 million and was increasing further. I still did not get the meaning. The gentleman then explained himself in these words:
“Look, these are just live streaming numbers on one app. There must be more. Also, the more accessible platforms like live television and websites must register even higher numbers. I know South Asians are fond of cricket. But no other match or TV show, for that matter, gets such crazy numbers. India and Pakistan spend so much time berating and undermining the other, but they seem to be obsessed with each other too. Why is that?”
With a smile, I complimented this friend for locating a bit of irony that mocked us, hiding in plain sight, and presented my latest theory on the South Asian mind and India-Pakistan rivalry to him. But first, a few words on the obsession of our kind. Stay clear of it. I know what instincts drive obsession. Vanity, jealousy, and at times pure hate. But not all obsessions are borne out of these drives. For instance, why does a boy in kindergarten pull a girl’s ponytail? Perhaps, because it is the closest approximation of his telling her that he likes her and knows not how to communicate. But before you humanise this sentiment, remember that the girl who is of the same age cannot see this ape logic and remains miserable. When this obsession grows, it can take an uglier shape, like harassing and stalking. It is hard to say which of these impulses drives the South Asian obsession. But it is not healthy.
That is not all. Look at the methodology. It is the closest to pulling a ponytail. Now you can forgive a three or four-year-old for not being self-aware. But it is hard to ignore a seventy-five-year-old nation for the same fault. A saner world would see scholars/specialists digging up the roots of this obsession and trying to find cures. But for now, this obsession, coupled with the lack of self-awareness, manifests itself in the desire to overpower and dominate the other. If this impulse could be bested, you would get solutions, not just to unresolved disputes like Kashmir but to issues far bigger than that. For now, however, when these nations are not targeting or reconquering their own citizens, they make each other’s lives miserable.
Time for another enigma. While we South Asians cannot bury ancient rivalries and must take revenge on behalf of Prithviraj Chauhan and Mohammad Ghori, we ask people under our control to forgive and forget our mistakes in a heartbeat. Why? Because of entitlement. We are heroes of our stories, so it is incumbent upon every person we have wronged to forgive the moment we have changed our minds and/or need them again. And that too without any apology, admission of guilt, or repentance. And this last part, too, is mere tokenism to show something somewhere has shifted. Otherwise, an apology is just an assortment of words that is never compensation for actual, often physical, damage done. You are expected to put mud and be done with it.
To illustrate the point, let me take you to the day when Maryam Nawaz was acquitted in the Avenfield case. While hearing the news, I was wondering what were the last five years all about. Fever pitch, outrage, anger, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Remember the days when expressing even an iota of sympathy for the beleaguered Ms Nawaz was enough to be declared a traitor? When the PTI government was ready to sack its own trusted lieutenants for reporting that Mian Nawaz Sharif was ill? When a kind word uttered on air was enough to trigger the hyper-nationalist and hyper-honest anchors in such a way that they would badger you to your wit’s end? Then what happened? Either you insist that the accused are guilty until proven innocent, or then you are done.
Want more evidence? The country spent the 1990s fighting the MQM. At one point, these operations seemed never-ending. But then came General Musharraf’s coup and the MQM became so entrenched that anything said on air against the party could cost you your job, if not your life. Then another change. The same people who told you the party was indispensable would insist with a straight face that even mentioning its leader’s name on air was a crime. How do you like them apples now?
One minute Asif Zardari is a pariah, the next minute, he is the President. A few minutes later, pariah again. This is enough to remind you that enmity is never permanent among the country’s elites. Then who takes the brunt? The working class and the poor. To quote Shakespeare, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
At the risk of over-generalising, I must state that an overwhelming majority of this country really does not care who is calling the shots in Islamabad. Why would it? Islamabad and provincial capitals usually are far, far away. Our everyday problems are seldom related to the high and mighty in the capitals. So why would anyone worry about what goes on between Khan, the Sharifs, and Bhutto-Zardaris? We all are doing our jobs and trying to survive. Then why should they pay the price for this power politics? When we ask this, they ask us to put mud.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2022.