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The real Pakistan


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IT would seem that the sorrows of the subcontinent are neatly divided into two. On one side lie the shroud-covered bodies of terror’s victims.

On the other lie the failures of urban survival, the burnt bodies of men from one factory fire in Baldia Town, the crushed bodies of women from a fallen building in Bangladesh.

One set of tragedies is pinned to the dictates of ideology — the battles over the meaning of faith and life — and the other is determined by the wants of existence itself — the roof over the head, the cloth for the body.

These questions of life find, if a culture is lucky, a place in art. In the story, the play, the poem or the novel, these questions are presented in a way easy enough to be considered by the ordinary and the confused.

Is it economics and the droves of the urban poor eking out precarious livings in vast slums and crumbling factories that define the core of Pakistan’s predicament? Or is it the wars of ideology, the questions of faith that are the better descriptors of the rifts that rend Pakistan?

At a time when both Pakistanis and the rest of the world seem confounded by these questions, the work of author Mohsin Hamid presents an insightful translation of the quandary.

The film version of Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is currently being screened at movie theatres in the US, and the timing of its release could not be more apt.

As American news outlets pore and ponder over every detail of the Tsarnaev brothers’ lives and Iron Man 3 presents again the terrorist ogre as the ultimate villain, here comes a cinematically brilliant production presenting the complications of a country reduced too often in the world’s imagination to a singularly sinister place.

In exploring the dimensions of fundamentalism and civilisational conflict, The Reluctant Fundamentalist presents an ideological frame of looking at Pakistan and what ails it.

In Hamid’s story, now committed to screen by Mira Nair, Pakistan comes alive not as the flat, churlishly constructed backdrop of a CIA operation (remember Zero Dark Thirty?) but as a country with real people, their personal lives torn apart by the vagaries of civilisational conflict.

Changez, the hard-working immigrant son, is disillusioned after the Sept 11 attacks — the suspicion they breed stealing from him the level playing field that America is supposed to represent.

The young investment banker on his way to making a grand fortune in the glass-walled skyscrapers of New York finds himself reduced to a perennial terrorist suspect because of his Pakistani heritage, humiliated again and again by a racist and paranoid American political climate. He returns to Pakistan, and the narrative venue of the film is an interview with a foreign journalist, who promises to Changez that he will “listen to the whole story”.

The “whole story”, as presented in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is one of the complexities of ideology, of the questions money cannot answer and the allegiances money cannot buy. Changez leaves America, the land of capitalism and opportunity, to live a more ‘authentic’ existence in Pakistan, an exercise not without complications.

However, if The Reluctant Fundamentalist paid homage to that frame of divining what best defines the country, Hamid’s latest book, How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, presents another.

Here is life as seen through the eyes of a slum-dwelling kid, whose actions are dictated by the singular hunger of escaping poverty, whose relationships are as ruthless as his drive.

The unnamed protagonist lies, cheats, defrauds and does what he must to live. There is no question of faith here, no deep quandaries of ethics and no existential conflicts about authenticity. Unlike The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is specifically located in Lahore, presenting the city’s flair and flavour, How To Get Filthy Rich never reveals its location.

The difference is crucial; the inference is that while Pakistan’s ideological struggles make it unique, its economic realities make it just like any other developing country.

This then is the question before Pakistan as it stands to choose another leader. The frame that Pakistani voters consider more apt, the ideological or the economic, can determine the country’s future.

Is the country going to focus on solving the problems that it shares with all the countries in South Asia and the rest of the developing world in its erstwhile race to the bottom, remembering the factory fires, the urban slums and the precariousness of survival?

Or, is it going to decide its future and so its identity in relation to its ideological oppositions, the meddlesome intrusions of Western powers, the craving to return to an unseen, authentic past?

Is the real Pakistani the hardscrabble slum child who wants a school, a job, a chance to succeed? Or is the real Pakistani the disillusioned newly returned immigrant son who finds that neither the simplistic rhetoric of foreign opportunity nor the simple militarism of Islamism defines him?

As several post-colonial authors have noted, the possibilities of regional solidarity in South Asia depend on which of these two frames are chosen. If Pakistan decides to define itself by the pragmatic universalities of economics over ideology, it can choose to create a relationship with the world based on the problems it holds in common with them. If it chooses to focus on its ideological rifts and divisions, it may remain apart and hence isolated. The real Pakistan, in terms of truth, may lie between the two — caught in the midst of the complications of both ideology and economics, the questions of hunger and heaven, each to be asked and answered soon at the ballot box.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Comments (21) Closed

Ifti May 09, 2013 04:42am
A nice article, though the options you provide is biased, it stil come out to be apologetic to fundamentalism, it presents the fight for ideology as somewhat legitimate one, albeit not economical. if you were to argue on moral ground, the fight for ideology crumbles. How the same people who are being slaughter daily can be sympathetic to terrorists is beyond me, or is it some form of stockholm syndrome.
Nimra May 08, 2013 10:51pm
As opposed to paying the price for not going with USA, which I'm sure you realize would be a similar destruction to Afghanistan and Iraq? It is easier to make such comments 10+ years down the line but when you are given the ultimatum that you either side with America or die opposing it, I'm sure even you would not put Pakistan at risk by saying no.
Shahid May 08, 2013 04:22am
Pakistan is paying price to go with USA for war in Afghanistan. Since that decision life is becoming more worst day by day for all Pakistan. It would be good if we learn from our mistake and keep ourself away from any direct or in-direct participation into the Afghan war. Thank you Shahid
BRR May 08, 2013 04:22am
Interesting read. However. no solidarity is ever possible when one of the countries in S.Asia has always defined itself, and continues to define itself, as being "not India", or "not hindu".
umesh bhagwat May 08, 2013 05:18am
These are truly times of transition for both India and Pakistan!
bri May 09, 2013 02:59am
The problem with many writes and film makers is that they try to find the reason behind why one would turn into a terrorist. Real issue here is, why certain cultures breed such mentality that when a person feels that they have been unjustly harmed or if they feel that they are more pure than others, they are compelled to harm other innocent people by identifying with the aggressor. I hear countless account of why some one turned to fundamentalism or terrorism. I here none about how cultures are trying to prevent the same or what it is about certain cultures that promote such thinking. Two exceptions to such thinking were Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. AN eye for an eye will make everyone blind.
KCK May 09, 2013 02:32am
Ann, let me clarify your comment: 56% Pakistan became Bangladesh and 44 % Pakistan was given name of 100% Pakistan because the war machinery manufacturers love business with Pakistan. You know that 56% former Pakistan lives in peace with others and 44% Pakistan is always readay to fight with all its might and money.
KCK May 09, 2013 02:24am
Why do you always blame some one else? Please blame your self because you use the gun power to solve the issues of your own people. You have also used your gun power to resolve issues with your neighbouring countries. You do not know how to make peace and live in peace with your self and others.
Bharat May 08, 2013 10:09pm
Pity Pakistan did not think like that when it set up terror camps against India 3 decades ago
sraz45 May 08, 2013 09:41am
Sir that is reality, Pakistan is there to stay whether you like it or not. Better to befriend us than be at war all the time,counter intuitive.
Parvez May 08, 2013 10:03am
An excellent summation of what this election means. The sad part is that without changing the system and despite the brave but hollow claims of the ECP the politics of patronage will still reign supreme.
shariff May 08, 2013 11:53pm
you mean the soil,but not the nation !!
Ann May 08, 2013 12:03pm
Your Pakistan is not the Pakistan of 1947!!! Mind that!
Chaman May 08, 2013 12:13pm
An over doze of religion in every facet of life always puts a nation in a state of coma. Unless Pakistanis find the fine balance between religion and reason, the statement will continue. The poorer the people, more religious they tend to get. That is the only refuge they have in the absence of any real hope provided by the rulers. What is needed is for Pakistanis to define who they are and what they ought to be. The soon to come election results will provide some indication as to where the nation is likely to emerge as. Hope the best guys win.
Hina Kharbey May 08, 2013 11:35pm
Interesting take on Hamid
shankar May 08, 2013 01:26pm
Beautiful article! I pray to God that Pakistanis decide wisely on which path they choose, economics or religious idealism
Jay May 08, 2013 01:29pm
".. depend on which of these two frames are chosen..." You couldnt have said it better. Excellent piece. Interestingly, is this your own interpretation from the books or did Mohsin Hamid create this intentional backdrop?Jay
Shubs May 08, 2013 01:49pm
India has been in transition since the late 90s, and so far, in spite of several deviations and bumps in the road, seems to be headed in the right direction.
Indicus May 08, 2013 02:42pm
Dear Sir, who waged the wars and who supports terrorism ?
P N Eswaran May 08, 2013 05:06pm
Why for India?
Aslam Khans May 08, 2013 08:54pm
Our ideological confrontation with India, for last sixty years, have won us nothing. We should focus on bettering our economics, which is largely possible by undoing ideological stereotypes and confusions and by maintaining the relations of trade, economics and harmony with our neighbors in the region and friends around the globe.