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Opinion

July 20, 2012

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Blessings of the holy month

Islamabad diary
Whatever the righteous or the overly righteous may say, corruption is not Pakistan’s number one problem; nor for that matter mis-governance or the other usual suspects we line up when moaning about the state of the republic. And we have to hand it to ourselves that when it comes to moaning we are the world’s leading champions. Put two Pakistanis together, anywhere and in any country, and they will start crying about the dire state of everything.
No, our number one problem is politics, or rather an excess of it. Where other people in other climes go to a pub or the theatre and talk of other things we talk, and endlessly at that, of politics. The trouble with politics is that it’s only interesting when the pressure is on and there is some kind of a crisis and screaming headlines and talk-show anchors work overtime, as they usually do, to keep the temperature up. As we have nothing else to do, and happily closed the few pubs or saloons we had back in 1977, no wonder there is always a crisis at hand.
Even when there is none, trust us to manufacture one. Private TV channels may like to think they have descended from the skies but, lest they forget, they are really Gen Musharraf’s gift to the nation. So I suppose we have to thank him for the higher education we are receiving from that quarter.
Given then our excessive political zeal, isn’t there a point in suggesting a break from politics during this holy month? The republic will always be like this, a conclusion drawn from observing its vagaries over an extended period of time. So why not take it easy for a while? It would also help if a moratorium were put on suo motu adjudication for the coming 30 days. The sense of permanent alarm in which the people of Pakistan live may abate to some extent.
Their lordships’ exertions in the cause of truth and justice are greatly to be admired. But as the weak of soul would readily understand, there can be too much of a good thing. Let the

labours of Hercules be resumed after the holy month is over.
We are all for the circumscribing of sin. But too much of virtue can also be a trying experience. We are a naturally tolerant people, the Islam of the sub-continent a largely tolerant affair. Its highest expression was the Urdu civilisation of Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal and Hyderabad. Could anything be more tolerant or civilised than that? But what we’ve managed to create at the altar of our zeal is something completely different, a world that Mir, Zauq or Ghalib would have had a hard time understanding. They would have felt lost. As Josh felt lost when against the advice of his friends, certainly against the advice of Nehru who implored him not to go, he decided to settle in Pakistan. He rued his decision until the end of his days.
When Partition happened and Pakistan came into being it was not land we lacked or mountains and rivers. We had plenty of these. What we truly lacked were the right ideas about what the new state should be. The vacuum thus created we filled with a lot of bunkum which, in time, we came to call the ideology of Pakistan.
This package of tired ideas may have been good enough for the exigencies existing pre-1947 but it certainly wasn’t good enough for defining the path, or setting the direction, of the new nation once it had come into being. With a population that was overwhelmingly Muslim the last thing that should have been an issue was Islam. But we made that into an issue as well, which is why we don’t wear our religion lightly as we should...taking it for granted as we take for granted the air we breathe.
Saadat Hasan Manto shifted from Bombay to Lahore. In not much time he was lost to poverty and alcoholism – not too much whisky but too much bad whisky, starting at too early an hour. His premature departure into the eternal shades was a national loss. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, unique classical singer, could not stay in Lahore. For the sake of his voice and his calling he left for India, there to reap honours he would not have received here. That was another loss. Sahir Ludhianvi, song writer extraordinary, left for India. That too was a loss. All these departures perhaps unimportant in themselves collectively indicated an impoverishment of the spirit. Pakistan’s foremost problem is not bad politics or corruption or mis-governance but a poverty of ideas, an impoverishment of the spirit.
Liberty Chowk in Gulberg, Lahore...Noor Jahan lived next to it. What monument to liberty is Liberty Chowk? Whose liberty does it commemorate? The last time I met the Khadim-e-Aala (Punjab’s chief minister) the conversation somehow turned to Noor Jahan and I said Liberty Chowk should be renamed Noor Jahan Chowk. He became thoughtful. I hope something comes of it. Would a No Objection Certificate be required from Hafiz Muhammad Saeed or the custodians of Pakistani ideology sitting in Lahore?
I fantasise about two other name-changes: the road in front of Radio Pakistan Lahore being changed to K L Saigal Road and Shadman Colony in which Camp Jail is located, where Bhagat Singh was hanged, given the name of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Colony. Somehow this sounds like hoping for the moon.
Lahore was the cultural capital of North India in pre-Partition days. It has grown exponentially since but it is no longer the cultural capital of anything. They should have let the red-light area alone but Zia’s era took care of that. A few dancing houses remain but Heera Mandi, the locality, is a pale reflection of its former glory. Not that virtue has triumphed. No such luck; only sin has gone underground and spread throughout the city. Lahore’s best courtesans now live elsewhere. The romance of courtesan-ship has gone.
Punjab University – foremost seat of learning across the whole of North India until its once-sacred portals were taken over by the zealots of what can only be called danda-bardar (stick-wielding) Islam. Once they came to rule the roost the University was no longer its former self.
From the usual clamour of the Islamic Republic we definitely need a break this holy month. Only problem is that iftar dinners with which this month is necessarily full are occasions for more speech-making. After a few ritualistic references to the patience that the month of fasting teaches, or should teach, it’s back to the usual political potshots. If we could get a month’s holiday from politics it would be for the good. Although I know this is a forlorn hope.
On the subject of patience – the holy month should indeed inculcate this most basic of virtues but as we know from sad experience fasting can make people notoriously short-tempered. This is most evident in government offices. By midday the expression on most faces is a bit strained. Answers if it all given tend to be short. A little after midday lucky is the man who can get anything done. A bit later the general mood verges on the belligerent. Nearing iftar, being out on the roads is a hazardous experience, so fierce is the mode of driving at that hour.
A sense of humour is in short supply throughout the month. This makes it especially hard for the confirmed sinner. What is he to do? Anything out of the ordinary elicits the timeless question: don’t you know it is the holy month? As a part-time politico, I too am supposed to attend iftar dinners, thrown often by people whom normally one would avoid in everyday life. Few tougher tests of patience can be imagined.
I was thinking of going abroad this holy month, not to escape the rigours of the holy month, perish the thought, but for a bit of cultural travelling. Now I am stuck here, looking forward to the just rewards that the holy month brings to all the faithful at heart.
Email: [email protected]

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