Our predilection for exaggeration

November 15, 2015

In Pakistan, exaggeration has progressed from being a social commodity to a political instrument

Our predilection for exaggeration

We in Pakistan and India seem to be one of the largest producers and consumers of exaggeration. Only our American friends sometimes offer vague hints of a potential competition. Exaggeration is not a bad thing per se, when we exercise it in our personal, intimate and social domains. But it is worrying when our ruling elite starts making political cases out of a social habit and bring us mayhem, harm and loss.

We often hear that our friendship with China is higher than Himalayas and deeper than Indian Ocean. I surmise its Pacific Ocean, as mention of Indian, even as part of a proper noun, with that of China in the same sentence, can be considered an anti-state activity and a security lapse.

For many decades we have heard that Pakistan is the fort of Islam. Many people like me, who have only seen (a dilapidated) Shahi Qilla Lahore being used for many years to incarcerate the political activists, feel quite confused if calling Pakistan Islam’s fort is an insightful wit or a naïve praise of the ignorant!

When I was learning filmmaking, I was given a ‘million dollar’ tip by an instructor who taught that ‘exaggeration’ was a key to the successful work of most fiction. Unless the whole world is shown to be at stake, the hero who is out there to save us all does not seem convincing and an action film will be a flop.

Most of us are raised on a heavy dose of exaggerated love of parents. Particularly folks like me who did not have a materially crowded childhood know it well. As we grow, many of us want to reach for the skies (Sitaron pe kamand), conquer the world (dunya meri jaeb mein) and pluck stars for our beloved to be. Since such exaggeration tends to motivate one for personal excellence, this seems fun and useful.

In Pakistan, exaggeration has progressed from being a social commodity to a political instrument. Since the 1965 war in particular it has been used advertently to shape, direct and determine national narrative. Its seeds can be traced in pre-partition sloganeering when exaggerated Hindu-Muslim differences were adroitly reduced to eating preferences, ignoring the previous thousand years of amiable cohabitation.

On roots, I think our love for exaggeration in Pakistan and India springs from four sources: historical caste and class recall; fetish for being ‘blind followers’; getting a collective kick by swinging in the sway of sentimentality; and our omnibus low level of knowledge (a polite reference to our huge ignorance).

Starting with the last, exaggeration happens in our narrative when we know a little but we don’t know how little we know, we tend to inflate the importance of the little that we feel we know. Thus our ability to operate at very high level of confidence with extreme low level of awareness is awesome.

In my primary school days, when I would come back and report to my elder brother how great I did in exams, he would promptly say, ‘not a good news’. But once or twice when I said, ‘oh, I didn’t do well’; he predicted I would get good marks. Somehow to my surprise and dismay, he used to be always spot on.

Later, after reaching university, once I asked him how he would guess! His insightful reply ignited my continuous education. He said: when you know less and you say it all, you feel you did a great job, but in fact you only emptied out the little you had. When you have a contrary feeling that you had more to say, you actually had enough from which you sifted the relevant and probably made a better case.

Two, our historical class structure and the hierarchy we inherited in our DNA makes us exaggerate too.

It occurs when we inflate our case to compensate for our assumed inferiority or imagined lowliness. Recall the proverbial social equation and associated correspondence between a kami (worker) and a Chaudhry (Landlord). We exaggerate our obedience and loyalty when we are playing a kami in a social situation governed by power dynamics. But we inflate our ability to torment and prowess to inflict when we play a Chaudhry.

When Bhutto said ‘we shall fight for a 1000 years’, perhaps a Chaudhry was speaking on behalf of many a kamis. The Indian caste system of yore seems to have paved the way for our Kami-Chaudhary dynamics with similar social acceptance but without a religious decree. But we love to infuse our religiosity with social hierarchy.

In the realm of sentimentality, we are unparalleled legends. When our rationality fails to encompass an issue, a situation or a matter, our sentimentality takes over and controls us like those privileged toddlers who are pretending to drive while playing with the steering wheel of a stationary car.

In my view, our collective social habit of exaggeration and its political use impede our progress. In the matters of universe (size, nature, and the dynamics of dark energy and light) our collective reductionist description of the universe is amusing. We reduce it in two words kul jahan, leave them to the maalik of kul jahan and feel it is not our cup of tea to delve into how does jahan work, fare or appear. In aspects of micro-life, cells and atoms, we tend to apply the same reductionist rule and get irreducible version of the already reduced.

Two very interesting phrases our religious brethren often use are ‘Madina ki Riasat’ and ‘the Empire of Islam’ under the second Caliph, to dismiss any viable political solution. Ignoring the fact that size and complexity of both in sociological and political terms were not even that of an average union council and a large district of today’s Pakistan. To prove our version of faith superior and perfect, and assert that Muslims had attained a political panacea in the past perfect, we mix myth, science and legend with such a playful ease. For polemics and gossip that is fine, but it ends up impeding our vision and progress.

Five recent, popular examples of political abuses of exaggeration are: a) artificial scare that ‘Hindus will eat us’ knowing they don’t eat beef and in fact worship ‘holy cows’; b) our nuclear arsenals make us safe and invincible; c) asserting that letting China do business with the world through a corridor will benefit us more than our potential amity and direct trade with India; d) claiming the energy crises can be solved in 3 months; and, e) believing we can progress without investing in education and local governance.

Unless our public policy and politics are works based on reality and knowledge, our exaggeration to build political choices is as wrong, immoral and dangerous as we think the hype of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was before the Iraq’s invasion by Americans.

Our predilection for exaggeration