THERE is hardly a family in Pakistan, middle-class or above, that does not have a relative in Canada, or a juvenile working in its kitchen at home. As one migrant put it, he does not mind having to vacuum his home in Toronto but he would look askance at equating himself with a servant by clearing the meal table in Lahore.
Here, we live our own version of the British sitcom Downton Abbey, in which the landed gentry lived in comfort above while their menial staff slaved in the pantry below. In that series, when the young daughter of the aristocrat lapses by marrying their driver, it is the driver who moves up the social ladder into the big house, not the other way round.
A serial shown on a local television channel had a parallel storyline with a difference. A middle-class Pakistani father discovers his daughter is interested in some boy of whom he disapproves. Irate, he forces her to marry their young servant, and when that marriage collapses (the servant becomes more interested in his master’s wealth than his daughter), the father makes her marry her juvenile underage cousin.
Millions of families throughout Pakistan must have watched that serial and empathised with the trauma of the young girl. Not one of them is likely to recall the plight of the teenaged housemaids assaulted or beaten to death by their educated employers. If anything of them remains, it will be as statistics in a thin file, buried in the cemetery known as police records. In Pakistan, the good die young; poor housemaids die even younger.
Whoever chooses to write a social history of Pakistan will find it difficult to pinpoint the exact moment our hearts stopped beating for our fellow citizens. Was it in the 1950s when the anti-Ahmadi riots stained the Mall at Lahore red? Was it when we chose after 1971 to ignore the sufferings of the thousands of prisoners of war and civilians in protective custody? Was it when in 2007 we watched the streets of Rawalpindi being hosed down, diluting a fallen leader’s blood as it trickled down the drain? Or was it when we saw body bags being delivered to hospitals throughout the country as if they were daily medical supplies?
Of course, there never is any one single trauma, no unique Pearl Harbour, that causes a nation to galvanise into a unified remonstrance. Reaction to tragedy is a slow process. It takes time. Meanwhile, crises, like the relentless drip of water on a prisoner’s forehead, gradually numb a people’s consciousness into an inert, unresisting acceptance.
Pakistan can be described as a country whose leadership over the years has institutionalised callousness and indifference to a level where it is indistinguishable from public policy. The state’s ownership of its citizens has been privatised. It no longer has a stake or interest in them.
Were doomsday to occur tomorrow, were Pakistan to implode suddenly, it would solve all its myriad problems. It would certainly satisfy many an armchair Cassandra. Countries with a population of over 180 million humans, however, do not disappear into a black hole of non-existence. They continue to exist because like Mount Everest they are there.
The more mundane reason is that international creditors cannot bring themselves to unplug the life-support system that sustains such bedridden economies. The truth is nations survive because ultimately the will of the people is more resilient than the wilful errancy of its leadership.
In India, class barriers have been eroded by the tsunami of widespread education. In Pakistan, class barriers have themselves become the barriers to the wider dissemination of education. And again, while India has demonstrated that mass education produces a vibrant middle class, Pakistan has inverted that maxim and made the middle class responsible for its own education.
Anyone in government concerned with education would be hard-pressed to provide a clear vision of the contours of Pakistanis in 2030. Will they be open-minded citizens capable of integrating in a modern world? Will they continue to remain stratified in the present class distinctions? Or will they migrate and clear tables in Toronto?
There are some who would maintain that the churning of a troubled childhood produces geniuses. Take Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin. Both of them spent their precious childhood doing menial labour. Dr Abdus Salam (our sole Nobel laureate) came from a backwater: Maghiana in Jhang district.
Dr Salam’s birthday anniversary on Jan 29 should be celebrated as our equivalent of Martin Luther King Day in the US. King lived and died championing emancipation; Salam lived and died advocating education.
Salam, Dickens, and Chaplin are names those unfortunate maidservants would never have recognised. But then, they could barely write their own.
The writer is an author and art historian.