It’s sheer madness these days to question what is wrong with us. In the days when the Zionists were lambasting the Egyptian forces in the Suez, an Arab friend of mine organised a fun fair to collect money for the war effort. When I arrived at the venue I asked him, ‘Abdul, why the long face buddy? What’s wrong with you?’ Abdul shrugged his shoulders, ran a hand over a three day stubble, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Brother what’s right with us?’ End of discussion. The fun fair was a success. I wish one could have said the same for the war.
Now many moons later another dictator whose reign seems endless is facing a rough time from a disillusioned nation many among them from a new generation which cannot understand why one man should continue to rule forever? As per script, the law enforcing agencies are out in full battle gear, gunning people with water tanks, plastic bullets and the real stuff. The people are out on the street and things are serious. As Pakistanis watch from afar, many wonder when will that day come when the people, the ordinary folks who lead ordinary and inconsequential lives, rise up and take to the streets and say, ‘enough is enough’. Many believe that the day will never arrive because something vital has been extracted from within us, that we are just a walking talking body of soulless people who enact the rituals and endure the tedium of daily life, then wither away and are buried somewhere forever.
If the Pakistanis possessed a soul once, vibrancy or even a sense of being, it has long gone consigned to the overflowing and cracked dustbin of our national aspirations. Today, for most of the people, one day simply merges into another so that it is hard to recall what happened when. Maybe there are other nations that possess this incredible appetite for punishment but surely most will agree that the Pakistani people have an insatiable appetite. Look around you and ask if there is one man who will stand alone, without a firearm and stare back defiantly at an approaching tank. That classic picture became a symbol for all struggling people but forgive me if I don’t see one of my fellow sheedas looking down the barrel of a tank gun. More than likely he will burst forth into a ‘qaumi naghma’ and do a folk dance that depicts the four provinces – an item we have done to death.
Writing on the passing away of jazz legend, Dr Billy Taylor a few weeks ago, I was inundated with emails from people who saw something of value in that particular piece. Even one friend who said that about half a dozen lines of what I bothered people with on Sunday mornings was all that could be endured, this piece was better than the usual drivel. So I have been thinking that is there some way we can reawaken our somnolent people and at least point out the direction whether they take one step or another and it was music that came to my mind. That and a forced stop at Liberty Chowk in Lahore yesterday where one looked at this obscene plaza that now sits like a giant frog on what was Madam’s residence. A small sign – thank you Lahore, says ‘Madam Noor Jehan Road.’ That’s it. That’s our sum total of thank you to a woman who sang her heart out for us and lifted the sagging spirits of this battered country with half a dozen songs that still run a shudder up your spine and bring a tear to your eyes.
Those wonderful soldiers Madam serenaded with all her heart and soul are long gone, replaced by one of the world’s most capricious armed forces, air, land or water and who in turn have spawned the spooks that run our lives from shadowy outfits fired with a myopic and misplaced zeal of ‘patriotism.’ And more dirty tricks afoot so that the question of who really rules Pakistan is always one that leaves people more bewildered than before. And what have we done for Madam? No official acknowledgement of her birth or death anniversary aside from a few cursory and passing references, no seminars, no festivals in her honour, no scholarships floated in her memory, no re-issue of her great work stretching four decades. No nothing. Madam is dead and so be it.
And Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali has suffered similarly. Buried in Faisalabad he is just about forgotten. His nephew mints money the other side of the border and charges the kind of fee his uncle might have in his last few years and while he holds forth on how much he owes his legendary uncle (and Rahat Fateh Ali is no comparison to the Ustad) – I at least have never once heard him, here or in India or for that matter the rest of the world, talk with passion about preserving the legacy of the man who put Pakistan on the map of contemporary music blending our traditional stuff with the musical patterns much loved by a new set of listeners the world over. The industrialists of Faisalabad are rich enough to build a city named after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan but they will not do that or even a fraction of it. There is no festival here and all that the rich apparently do is feast in the evenings or shop in the plazas.
The only music that is acceptable here or in Lahore or elsewhere is to invite slobs to drink scotch like one would drink lassi on a hot June afternoon and make fools of themselves shoving thousand rupee notes down the inviting bosoms of nautch girls as the Brits put it quaintly. The brush with music is confined to mujras and money flows faster than scotch here. And the sad list is long – painters, writers, calligraphists, dancers, theatre stars, television stalwarts – all have and will suffer a government that does not care and a people who have lost touch with their real roots. Those who don’t even know their yesterday cannot even dream of having a tomorrow. And it is not a question of money. It’s a question of taste and priority. Hence you have Musharraf’s Potato atop Shakarparian Hills but no monument to Madam or the great Ustad, to name just two. How many of us know where that diva Roshan Ara Begum lies buried amongst the most lyrical notes that flowed from her magical throat? More the question will be – Roshan Ara Begum? Who is that?
And therein lies our tragedy or at least partially. We have all the potential but we have no vision. And no soul. No heart. No compassion. We have history’s greatest explorers who passed through here but we cannot even recall who they were. The great Khyber Pass should be given to the Taliban to blow up like they did the Bamiyan Statues as long as it doesn’t jeopardise their lucrative opium, gun running and snuggled goods trade – they are and have always been more traders than servants of Islam. And that’s the way it goes. When was the last time someone said to you, ‘I have to go, am reading a book’?
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: [email protected]