With every passing day, I see more evidence to support Mushtaq Yusufi’s assertion that the memory of the bygone era is the main villain of the Asian drama. Don’t get me wrong. Every nation is tethered to its past. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, after all, harked back to an alleged golden era. Today with the help of various Trump supporters in the QAnon conspiracy theory circles and the citizen sovereign movement we know this supposedly golden era is a reference to simpler times when the American economy still relied on the gold standard and slavery had not been abolished. Some golden age, right? But in Asia, particularly its southern parts, this issue is of particularly daunting consequence.
Take Pakistan for example. You will find many geniuses who believe the street agitation of 1977 which allegedly brought a government down, television entertainment of the 1980s and the cricket world cup victory of 1992 can be imitated with exactly the same effect. No government since has fallen as a direct consequence of street agitation so far. But that of course is not for want of trying. Similarly, to reproduce the drama series of the 1980s you will have to bring the audience of the time back to life with its distinct global and local socio-economic and politico-cultural sociology. Perhaps it is my naivete but so far, I have not seen any miracle worker capable of that simple trick. And whenever you see a Pakistani team entering a world cup contest with a slow start, please know that somewhere in their mind’s eye the team members and managers can see themselves lifting the 1992 world cup. Unfortunately, the country has failed to win the cricket world cup since. For a country that sees very few euphoric moments of national or international consequence, the dopamine addiction produced by such events ensures you do not live in the present moment.
This problem is not peculiar to Pakistan. Look at India. Between 2004 and 2014 it got everything it could wish for. Wealth, influence, muscle and glamour. And then it threw it all away. When you replace Dr Manmohan Singh with Narendra Modi and that too at least at the moment in the name of better governance, you ought to know something has gone woefully wrong with your worldview. A PhD scholar and a finance wizard with a proven track record of successful national reforms even before he became the premier replaced with a man whose MA in “entire political science” is reportedly as fake as his promise of Gujarati model Vikas (progress) and his single most memorable “accomplishment” before his premiership being the Gujarat riots during his tenure as chief minister which left some 2,000 citizens (mostly Muslims) killed in broad daylight. Reminds you of a few lines from Aaron Sorkin’s written film, American President. I am paraphrasing of course, but here goes: people do not drink the sand because they do not get water when they are thirsty, they do so because they cannot tell the difference.
But what has damaged the South Asian mind so irretrievably that it cannot tell the difference? You got that right. Always blame the past and the victim. Helps you justify your victimhood. When everything you do is predetermined by history’s crimes, the agency you exercise today can be easily written off as another logical moment in the series of unfortunate events. Who should pay the price for Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion of India in 1001 AD, and subsequent ransacking of the Somnath temple? Why, of course, the depressed, backward and increasingly vulnerable Muslim minority of India in 2021 AD. Who should account for the excesses of the East India Company and the British Raj, we supposedly left behind in the previous century, the previous millennium? Why, the equally vulnerable Christian community of India, today. Forgive me if I do not subscribe to the genetic transmission of sin. The agency we exercise today belongs to us and today. We cannot and must not blame anyone else for our own mistakes. That is the only way you learn from your mistakes.
I have been asked often why I cannot stand Bollywood or Indian TV serials. Here is why. It is not like I have not tried. I think I have mentioned this before but the last movie I sat through without any interruption and enjoyed because its message resonated with my own philosophy is called 3 Idiots. Imagine my dismay when upon a chance re-watching of West Wing I noticed that one of my favourite bits from the movie about the pencil being used during space exploration was borrowed from an episode of this series called “We Killed Yamamoto”, without any acknowledgement. This intellectual appropriation, recycling of someone else’s work and taking pride in it by calling it your own goes against the norms of civility, decency, creativity and flies in the face of intellectual property rights. Again, don’t get me wrong. It is not like Pakistan is producing too much original work. The country’s recent television hit is a dubbed Turkish drama about… wait for it… history. Even when the Pakistani film industry was producing a number of movies per year this is how the cycle of creativity (or recycling) went. Hollywood would produce at least a few great movies per year. The Bollywood writers and directors would watch some of these, read some of the more successful novels, plagiarise plot points and lines, mix them up, add a few musical numbers and produce films for local audiences. Then some genius from Lollywood would go, watch some Indian movies, copy plot points, mix them up, add Pappu Samrat’s impossible if unappealing choreography and produce content for the local audience. This from a region that has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers, Nobel laureates ranging from the very insightful to the youngest, and great performers. But they are the ones who got away and broke free. When you spend most of the time worshiping or combatting the past, how can you do justice to today? Another reason why I cannot stand such content is this pony knowing only two tricks, one dystopian, the other utopian. Dystopia being a sum of all the violence, crime, politics, war and history in the region. And utopia: girl meets boy, sings a few romantic songs, marries and lives happily ever after on a borrowed plot (literally). This formula might come handy to keep the collective imagination of an overpopulated country in check, but it doesn’t work for me.
If South Asians had an unfair share of suffering in the past it is not because they met an unfair share of villains but because they were never united. The intrigues and fights among castes, clans and communities always offered the marauders a fertile ground to invade. If you want proof just take a look at the political hostility among South Asian nations and within. You will invariably get a headache. I live for the day when South Asians would grow up, choose to live in the present instead of fighting or staying in the past. Until then, their addiction to mediocrity will continue unchecked.