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August 16, 2017

Deconstructing hope


August 16, 2017

My father’s generation was one of optimists. His life story is similar to that of the countless others who grew up in Pakistan in the post-Partition era. He arrived on a train from Moradabad in India in 1947, a young boy of 10, clutching my grandfather’s arm as waves of dread lanced into the general confusion and excitement he had felt ever since his family embarked on this adventure: their journey to a new home called Pakistan.

There was a reason for the pall of gloom that enveloped the packed railway carriage as it chugged through partitioned India. Why did they had to leave in the first place and why did the creation of Pakistan – which his father had greeted with jubilation only months ago – have to be baptised with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh blood? These were questions his young mind grappled with, but whose answers he only understood many years later.

His family survived the bloodbath of Partition, the abandonment of their belongings and property and a penniless start in Pakistan and survived it with good cheer. He grew up receiving a general education, the obligatory Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees of the time – in the arts as opposed to the sciences as his understanding of the latter never could progress beyond the rudimentary. He started a career in journalism, earned a meagre salary and cycled daily to the Pakistan Time’s office in Islamabad from Rawalpindi. Through all this, he witnessed the wars of 1965 and 1971, recounting often the panic that seized his family every time the air raid sirens bellowed the arrival of enemy planes, fearing not only the loss of life but also being uprooted yet again.

Through a decade of economic uncertainty in the 1970s, my parents’ families eventually achieved a modicum of economic stability that relied on secure employment. Work was a boon and the Latin adage ‘sine labore, nihil!’ – without work, nothing! – formed the bedrock of that generation’s belief in a better tomorrow. Politically, my father championed the views of the left as a corollary eschewed the religious right and in the 1970s was gripped with the socialist fever spearheaded by the political awakening ushered in by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The coup of 1979, Bhutto’s hanging and Zia’s rise to power came as a crushing blow – and the promise of the post-war years appeared to have been prematurely snuffed out. Nevertheless, I recall that my father’s ilk entered the 1980s with hope that the war against dictatorship would be won. While many were jailed, abducted, beaten and proscribed, their struggles were unrelenting, their belief in victory unshakeable.

Despite the failures of democratic politics and the oft-repeated army interventions, this unshakeable optimism continued to create the mirage of a silver lining on the political and economic horizon of Pakistan in the 1980s and the 1990s. In times of stress, my father would never fail to remind me, reciting the lines from Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ –“Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land, “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon” – of the power of positive thinking and the sublime nature of hope.

If I were asked to identify the moment when the candle of hope within him was doused, I would say it was the day he learned of Benazir’s murder. Overwhelmed with emotion, that was the day I first saw him weep. This was not out of any messianic devotion to the Bhutto family – whose politics he had come to regard with increasing scepticism – but perhaps because, after observing years of political, economic, social and civic decline, a weariness had set in that could now only be assuaged through a positive and dramatic turn of events. Both Benazir and Nawaz Sharif’s return had signalled just that for him. 

From there on, the youthful optimism in him flagged and was replaced instead by a silent resignation with the state of affairs in Pakistan. A vociferous critic of migration to foreign shores for a better life, he now advocated this privately as he witnessed incidents of terrorism increase across the country and the smug indifference of the establishment as it obdurately pursued it ham-fisted domestic and foreign policies. In the closing year of his life, he was certain that his grandson’s futures lay outside Pakistan, a country whose twisted timbre, he concluded, no event – whether great or small – could possibly straighten and whose decline was perhaps irreversible.

Now, 70 years on, hope and optimism for Pakistan’s future hold a different meaning for my generation that grew up in the 1980s. Or perhaps like that of the generation before us, it has been deconstructed, lost in the ether. There are neither illusions of a glittering future and a dream of fast-paced development nor expectations of a significant reduction in poverty, a radical improvement in law and order and a complete end to religious extremism.

Hope simply takes the form of a prayer that life return to its semblance in the heydays of our youth when you could roam the streets of your city without the fear of being mugged, shot or abducted. When your opinions or style of life could be disagreed with but would be tolerated. When religion was a private matter and not in constant threat, requiring hollow affirmations and a bogus display. When the inequalities of wealth were not so great as to induce a constant sense of guilt in living a comfortable life.

When children could go to school or play in the streets without any fear of terrorists or terrorism. When the desire to identify an enemy from within us was not so great as to make a mockery of religion and politics. And when decency, respect and honour were virtues to be aspired towards that defined civic duty in Pakistan and informed the character of its civil society – virtues that no difference of religion, ethnicity, sect, class, colour or political belief was great enough to destroy.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir

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