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DAWN - Features; 21 March, 2004

March 21, 2004

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A writer's passion for 'Parivar'

By M.P. Bhandara

Naipaul is better known over here these days for two things. His journeys to Islamic lands are very readable accounts of the growth of religious extremism in Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Give me any time a writer with a point of view; and Naipaul has a distinctive one.

Even if his facts are at times incorrect, one tends to forgive such lapses, not to disturb the enjoyment of reading seamless prose. After all, Naipaul's forte is not history or sociology, but a great novelist's inner eye that can turn the drama of real life into something more exciting than fiction.

The other that his wife is a lady from Lahore, Nadira, well known for her weekly 'Letter from Bahawalpur' which appeared in The Nation for many a year, even after she had shifted from the boon docks to the metropolis. I had the honour of knowing her.

Last month, Sir Vidya and Lady Naipaul according to William Dalrymple's recent article in 'Outlook-India' "arrived at the BJP office and gave what appeared to be a pre-election endorsement to the party". So far so good; many people in Pakistan would do the same, so long as Mr Vajpayee is around. But, the Naipauls went one step further according to Dalrymple by endorsing "the entire Sangh Parivar programme". The Naipauls were quite happy being "appropriated" by the BJP. This was not a total surprise.

For those not familiar with what the Sangh Parivar is, Khushwant Singh in his recent book "The End of India" informs us that it consists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of its members - Nathuram Godse - assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 who according to the assassin was too soft on the Muslims.

The extreme right fringe in India particularly the RSS is far better organized at the grass root level than its counterparts in Pakistan. The RSS and the Shiv Sena, are openly fascist parties, have fine-tuned violence and blackmail with electoral politics. By contrast our far right extremist groups have a one-point agenda: terrorism.

Sir Vidya's ancestors came to the West Indies as "indentured" labour in the 19th century from India, to work on the then new sugar plantations. "Indenture" is a euphemism for a form of slavery limited in time by a contract.

Naipaul, a born-again Indian is moved to silent rage on inspecting the ruins of Vijayanagara, a Hindu kingdom, laid low by the Deccani Muslim kingdoms in the 16th century.

Dalrymple adds "It is of course a central nostrum of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar, bolstered by intellectual fellow-travellers such as Naipaul that between the 13th and 18th century Indo-Muslim states, driven by a combination of greed, intolerance and a fanatical iconoclasm, desecrated as many as 60,000 Hindu temples." This claim has been examined in detail by the distinguished American scholar Richard Eaton who concludes, "Such a picture (simply) cannot be sustained by evidence from original sources."

Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around 80 desecrations "whose historicity appears reasonably certain".

The respected American Sanskrit scholar, Philip B. Wagoner and George Michael whose comprehensive survey of Vijayanagaras monuments and archaeology over 20 years reach the conclusion that there was a great deal of cross-fertilization between the Hindu and Muslim Deccani kingdoms. This mutuality and interaction between the kingdoms, often at peace for long stretches brought about hybridity and mutation in the respective cultures. The causes of the downfall of this Hindu kingdom (Vijayanagara) are not to be explained in the simple nostrums of the BJP spin-doctors.

Be that as it may, who are we to take a position on such arcane historicity? What troubles me is why Naipaul who so eloquently exposes the shallowness of contemporary Islamic extremism should now champion the same cause inverted. Indeed, he does so with a vengeance. What is one to make of his statement "that the Taj Mahal is wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long?

This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people!" I suppose the same can be said of all the monumental wonders of the old world. Is this cynicism or sickness? One of the greatest wonders of this world is cast to the rubbish bin in words that reek of violence. And all the more surprising from one married to a Muslim lady.

Even more shocking was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the violent destruction of the Babri Masjid: "Ayodha is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity." Must Naipaul be reminded that in this case, "passion" led to the deaths of many hundreds of persons and alienated the Indian Muslim community which otherwise was quite content in being integrated in the Indian broad stream. With this mindset the trot up to the BJP office and the endorsement of the Sangh Parivar is not a total surprise.

I conclude on a personal note. One winter day about a decade back, I received a phone call from Nadira (not yet her Ladyship) to receive Naipaul and show him around Islamabad. I saw a dark and somewhat dour looking person, wearing a fedora at one end of the luggage carousel at the airport, and was almost tempted to say, "Dr. Livingston, I presume".

The next day or two were passed in affable companionship. He wished to see the countryside around Islamabad, and so we drove around and I even arranged a dinner for friends to meet him. Inevitably, I asked him to name the writer or writers in world literature who had most influenced his work. He answered "My father". I was touched by this remark of filial piety, but thought the reply a bit odd.

The following week, I was informed by a close friend of Nadira's, that they were about to be married very soon. This was good news. I asked if Naipaul had divorced his current wife, to which the common friend remarked, "Naipaul had given Nadira to understand, that his wife was stricken by cancer, and was about to die, and that the nuptials would follow." This sounded even odder; surely the hype this announcement could have been postponed a bit.

I never heard again from Sir Vidya or Lady Naipaul once they got married. Nothing surprising about that. Once people become famous new priorities and friendship develop.

A couple of years back, I took issue with Sir Vidya on his remarks concerning my late friend Fazal-ur-Rehman, a former chairman of the Islamic Research Institute, a distinguished Arabist and a great scholar of Islam, who after being driven out of Pakistan by the moulvis occupied the chair of Islamic Studies at Chicago.

Naipaul in his book 'Beyond Belief' attributed Indonesian fanaticism to his teachings. Any one, who knew the late Fazal-ur-Rehman, would not attribute fanaticism to this profound Qur'anic scholar. Indeed, if one reads his books on Islam the message is one of moderation and a reconciliation of the divine message with the modern world.

But, no response from Sir Vidya. I think I now know the reasons.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly.

email: murbr@isb.paknet.com.pk

Poor man's Pakistan Day

By Nusrat Nasarullah

How really different can Pakistan Day 2004 be from the Day that we lived through last year? Another two days to go, and the day will dawn with a 31-gun salute in the federal capital, Islamabad, and a 21-gun salute in the provincial capitals. And newspapers will bring out special supplements, heavily laced with commercial advertisements, and the national holiday will be celebrated with "enthusiasm, fervour and in a befitting manner". And more.

Ideally it is the sort of day that should motivate people to seriously contemplate and reflect over our lives in a national sense rather than with the myopia of personal and individual evolution. To do what some writers call "soul searching" and see how far we have strayed from our original goals, and the glorious vision that brought this country into being in 1947. Of course, Pakistan was born of the day when the historical "resolution" was passed by the All India Muslim League at its 27th session at Lahore Minto Park (now Iqbal Park).

Having said this, one realizes that in fact the people of Pakistan reflect and ruminate over the state of the nation as well as the state of society on every day of the year. That is the peculiar way things are, and that is how we have deviated from the original vision and objectives of why this country came into being. The way the poor people suffer makes them lament their lives almost all the time, says a resident of Karachi, and he refers to a sad poem by Pablo Neruda which reads thus;

Today we are burying our own poor man,

Our poor poor man.

He was always so badly off

That this is the first time

his person is personified.

For he had neither house nor land,

nor alphabet nor sheets,

nor roast meat,

and so from one place to another,

on the roads,

he went dying from lack of life,

dying little by little.

that was the way of it from his birth.

Luckily (and strangely) they were all of the same mind,

from the bishop to the judge,

in assuring him of his share of heaven,

and dead now, properly dead, our poor poor man,

Oh, our poor poor man, he will not know what to do with so much sky.

Can he plow it or sow it, or harvest it?"

It is a tearful poem, and one has reproduced only a part of it, it reminds one of the way in which our atta prices have defied all control and management. Not reminds perhaps, for the price of this essential food item has stayed defiant, with us, despite all official claims and counter claims. When I said at the outset how different can Pakistan Day this year be from those in the past, one answer is that last year on 23rd March there was no atta price issue. An indirect way of saying that prices are hitting hard at the common man, as time goes by.

Common man? Pakistan Day? as one thought about these dimensions I made a quick look at the stories that Dawn metropolitan carried on March 23, 2003. Headlines alone indicated that there were 300,000 blind people in Sindh alone, that women were more prone to mental disorders, officials were told to check violence against women, drug resistant TB was on the rise, closure of hydrants and that the Nazim's orders were being violated, Saddar encroachments reemerging after being removed, and there were the usual promise-based development stories.

This column that day was headlined "security related traffic jams". (As one writes a thought goes to this week's incident in which a Rangers personnel was killed and three others were injured on Sharea Faisal).

Common man? Pakistan Day? while the young neither care nor really know about the struggle for Pakistan, those from that generation who saw it all unfold before their eyes, must surely be wondering about why this country lost half its wing in 1971, and why we seem to have lost track of our vision. I talked to this friend of mine about the direction in which we have travelled since 1947 - and she spoke briefly on how we have all but lost focus after independence.

It seems we don't know where to go even now; look at the demand for changing academic syllabus, a demand that is there all the time. As a result of which even little school children carry such heavy school bags, which is a torture for them. Institutions have failed and basic needs like water, medical care, housing etc remain beyond the reach of the majority.

The more we converse on this theme, the more painfully sad it becomes that there was still so much to be initiated. And the inspiration that could drive people together as a strong united force, that could combat poverty, diseases and illiteracy, was still missing. That the spiritual values for which this country came into being had apparently been forgotten or side tracked. But why? There are so many answers, excuses, apologies. We are often a stubbornly apologetic people and that is all we are.

She said, "We are also confused people, getting our priorities wrong, and where consensus is so desperately required it is often missing. That we have only paid lip service to the Father of the Nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and to the poet philosopher Allama Mohammad Iqbal. That all the programmes held to mark this day and other national days are stereotyped in their format, and hollow in their content. There is something repetitive about the meaningless way in which we handle these occasions, like empty rituals."

As against this, she added, the enthusiasm shown on lesser occasions like Basant was really amazing?

While going through last year's programmes for Karachi besides the 21-gun salute, there was the hoisting of the Pakistan flag on principal public and private buildings, and nothing more than the routine activity. That has failed to promote the true values of nation-building. If it had been a success, the poor people would not be in the sorry state that they were in. There would not be two distinct classes of people -the rich and the poor- the disturbing point is that this division is turning sharper.

A resident, Rahim Baksh, who resides in Hazara Colony, near Kalapul, and reads newspapers with keen interest daily, on this occasion of the Pakistan Day was grim and firm that instead of the "War against Terrorism" there should be a war against poverty. And that instead of campaigns against such HIV/AIDS and polio, there should be campaigns against mosquitoes that have spread malaria in Karachi. Why don't the international donors do something about the state of our emergency wards in the public hospitals? Why this sustained focus and funding for polio and AIDS? he added.

I must also mention that such national days are also for the national awards, which are given to men and women from different professions and disciplines. However, has one really noticed the cynicism and the lack of interest in these awards. Somehow, Pakistani society is forever suspicious of awards and people believe that merit is a downgraded value now. Something else works, not merit, one resident said angrily.

Last year, there was no parade on Pakistan Day in Islamabad. It was put off due to what was described as the "sad and tragic developments in Iraq and the deep anguish caused to the people of Pakistan."

One hopes that this year the parade will be held though there has been no announcement so far. For to watch this parade is one of the constants in my life, for years now. At times, I have had tears while watching the live telecast of parade, and those were not idle tears. They were tears that have flowed due to a blend of sadness and pride. The former for the way we have fared and the latter for the passion of the men, whose marching symbolizes the many diversified strengths of Pakistan.