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Proportions of grief

Published Jan 05, 2015 03:02pm

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My grandfather died and I didn’t cry.

This happened a few weeks ago, in the waning days of the miserable year that we all just came through. His death was not sudden, and for some time, I thought perhaps that was why I couldn’t bring any tears forward. He passed peacefully, with his children around him, adored by not just all of them, but their children as well, and even a few of their children’s children. It was a long life, well-lived, and so I blamed my inability to properly grieve on the inevitability of his death. Rationally – I considered – I’m not crying because his time had come and there is no tragedy there. When our elders pass, all we can really mourn is their absence, and that is almost selfish. Right?

The problem is, I tried crying. I wanted to, I even needed to. My grandfather meant a great deal to me and I deeply, powerfully mourned his death. The grief filled inside me and desperately needed vent yet, I couldn’t give it that release. And so, instead of allowing it to rise up and out, I tamped it down, burying it under layers of distraction.

(That’s a Karachi habit, I always feel; being able to push aside any powerful emotion – grief, trauma, hate – by focusing on something trivial instead. My poison of choice is trivia; the more upset I am, the more time I spend trawling through Wikipedia, tossing up walls built with obscure facts about medieval artistic developments, the early childhood of 70’s musicians, and how the latest Marvel movies earned at the box-office.)

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. In the last few years, I’ve experienced loss much like anyone else. But I’ve found that, whenever that loss was personal, the pain and woe wouldn’t result in tears. The tears, it seems, were reserved for more public grief, the kind that happens when I read about, say, Aitzaz Hasan.

When news broke about the brave boy who saved his school by throwing himself at the terrorist, I read it and was, of course, upset. But I absorbed it the way we absorb all news of tragedies and horror, letting them settle on our skin but never break the flesh. Then, later in the day, my wife returned from work. She asked me, in conversation, what was happening in the world as she hadn’t had a chance to read any news yet. I began telling her about Aitzaz, and then I couldn’t because I was crying. Genuine, actual crying, with real tears and hitched breath. I think I managed to walk out of the room before she noticed, but she got the gist of the story and I remember she cried as well.

And then I didn’t cry all year. Not until Peshawar.

The day one hundred and thirty four children were murdered was a little over a week after my grandfather’s death. That night, I found all the tears I hadn’t been able to before. Twice I had to pull over to the side of the road while driving, because I couldn’t see clearly, my eyes welling up too much. The next few days, instead of allowing distractions to push the grief aside, I obsessed over the tragedy. I read every article about it, watched every interview. My sorrow transmuted into rage, then I read about the teacher who tried to save her students, even while the attackers set her on fire, and I cried again.

Those days right after the attack, I cried a lot. And I understand why. I can explain why I didn’t do the same when my grandfather died, or a few days ago when an old friend died of cancer. I didn’t cry then because Pakistani grief is too large now for personal sorrow. Our private losses seem too insignificant in comparison. How can anything compare to one hundred and thirty four children killed? The only other comparisons would be of the ninety-four people killed in the attack on an Ahmadi Mosque in 2010. Or the forty-eight Shias killed in Abbas Town. Or the eighty-four Hazara killed in the Quetta bombing. And on. And on.

The mind has its own built in defenses and one of the ways it maintains sanity is by regulating emotional responses, keeping them proportionate to the stimulus. I think that’s why I couldn’t cry for my grandfather, or for any of the other more personal tragedies I’ve experienced in the last few years. It was my mind providing a measure of moderation, because if I cried wholeheartedly at the death of one man, no matter how much he meant to me, what would I do at the death of all those children? The only appropriate and proportionate response then would be to descend fully into insanity.

The one counter-balance to the overwhelming pain was the slight edging of hope that became visible in the days after the attack. Candles were lit and heads bowed in sorrow; then for the first time in my lifetime, Pakistanis seemed united in their desire for change. The protests outside Lal Masjid and the pressure placed on politicians and the military leadership to do something right away. These seemed positive. Or so everyone else felt. I think, sometimes, that my cynicism has damaged my ability to feel hope.

(Well, others call it cynicism, I call it realism.)

When the political leaders met, I felt in my marrow that nothing would come of it. These were men capable of only small things. I had no hope then, but I decided not to voice that bitter thought. Then when they announced the reinstatement of the death penalty and a committee that would take a week to deliver a response, I knew my lack of faith was well placed. Just like that, all my worst predictions – ones I kept to myself in the anticipation that just this once I’d be wrong – came true. Beyond the debatable moral implications of instituting the death penalty in a country where fair trials are a laughable fiction, it was the fact that this was the best they could come up with that confirmed my hatred. Still, I thought I’d give the government more rope, let the committee comprised of, no doubt, the brightest minds, provide its report. Just hold my cynicism/realism back a little bit longer.

Military courts and arbitrary television censorship rules, that’s what we got. As if this was the first terrorist attack Pakistan ever experienced and before this the government never really had to consider the possibility it might have to deal with such a challenge. As if Pakistan was some utopian nation with serene calm prevailing at all times, and then this attack came out of the blue, catching us utterly off guard. As if, worst of all, they had no time to do better. They should have been prepared for this possibility long ago. We all were. Every Pakistani civilian knows that terrorism is our reality and has been for a long time. The seven days should have been used to just type up and spell-check a list of anti-terror measures that have been thought out and kept in storage for just such a rare moment when everyone is unified. This was the chance the government had to show its breadth of imagination in tackling terror, about using the rarely granted moment when every politician is afraid of the public screaming as one and so even the most audacious plans could get approval; madrassah overhauling, banning religious groups with any political aspirations, demilitarising all political parties, heck you could make all religious figures obtain licenses and make it illegal to preach without that license. And those are just ideas I can think of right this moment. Better ones can be found in think tanks, college classes, and drawing rooms across Pakistan. None of them include giving the military even more legislative authority or PG-13 news until 9.

So now I’m worried that we won’t ever stop the terrorism because those with the ability have neither the will nor the capacity. And the old fractures that divide the country are already reappearing. The crowd around those seeking change is thinning, the distractions starting to seep in again. We aren’t one nation grieving anymore, already choosing to lament only within our political, philosophical, and religious camps. The chance to forge our singular sorrow into a united rage having been squandered by cowardice in our leadership and exhaustion in our populace.

Which is why I want to cry for those dead children one more time. Before the next attack comes and it’s so terrible that even crying for one hundred and thirty four children seems disproportionate. Before there are so many dead in such horrific ways that every previous tragedy will seem small and I won’t be able to cry for anyone anymore.

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Comments (19) Closed



ali Jan 05, 2015 03:53pm

I endorse the article and commend the expressions. Feeling of being total helplessness and utter depression. Unfortunately as a dead nation(if we are at all, its rather a mess), we have no right to cry for our beloved and highly blessed shaheed sons of Peshawar disaster.

Heartbroken Jan 05, 2015 04:03pm

A very emotional article!! i cant agree more with you. I have been through the same feelings as yours. It has been three weeks now and never in my whole life have i carried so much as i did since this incident and i still cant stop myself crying about what happened to those little angles. Just like you i had hope that gov or those with authority will do something this time which can ease my pain but they didn't and seem like they never will.

Kabir Jan 05, 2015 04:09pm

Went through similar feelings at death of my grand father recently!!!!

Goga Jan 05, 2015 04:19pm

I'm one of those millions of Pakistanis who still cry... in épisodes!

Dinesh Singh Jan 05, 2015 04:25pm

Dear Shami - You have echoed my feelings. I read DAWN news on regular basis. I do not why, but I always feel affinity for Pakistan. I am Hindu from North India who lived in a place some three hundred kilometer from Lahore. In my teen age in early 1980s I used to listen Pakistan Radio because I found the comedy recitations so hilarious. The melodious songs of Mala (I hope I remember correctly) were enchanting. There used to be Urdu language service of All India Radio also which used to broadcast messages from listeners from Pakistan. That was another of my favorites. As a teenager I did not know what politics so I enjoyed everything.

Reading this article I felt it miraculously resembled my experience on that fateful day of 16th December. Driving from office to home (25 minutes by highway) kept on thinking about those children and their mothers, found my eyes wet for no reason. It felt that one of mine had died. Even my wife could not stop her tears when I told her about tragic events of the day. I did not have much hope that this tragedy is going to change anything in Pakistan. The blame game was on the very next moment and a lot of people on both side (some enjoying the 'spectacle', some shouting from rooftops to nuke India) came forward and converted a human tragedy into a comic tamasha. Children whether they are yours or ours will always be carefree and hope of life. Politics on their bodies has dismayed me no ends. After one or two days I also started feeling that nothing has changed as nothing can change. It seems the soul of Pakistan is dead. It appears that rushing to Kabul, meeting of leaders in Peshawar were all well rehearsed dramas. Catharsis by hanging in dozens is no solution. Since that fateful day more than 100 have already died in various terror and sectarian related violent incidents. Though I am no way concerned with Pakistan's affairs but I have a sinking feeling that a big disaster is waiting to happen in this part of the earth. Will my children and their children will pardon us, that is the question that is haunting me.

AHA Jan 05, 2015 04:26pm

Greatly touched by this extremely well written and deeply emotional piece.

Syeda Ali Jan 05, 2015 04:31pm

I can't stop crying even while reading this article. This is really so horrible that words fail to express our feelings. An excellent article indeed with the best words to express our feelings as a Nation. Feeling of grief, of hope, of revenge & of action against the culprits. I never had any hope from these politicians but they failed too miserably. I was so disappointed to read their minutes of meeting that couldn't even imagine they could be so insensitive. Moreover, our judiciary has also failed miserably. Freeing Malik Ishaq? Unable to arrest Maulana Abdul Aziz? But my only hope is from the army for the first time. Not that they are pure or too sincere or anything, but this is the first time I think army has decided to avenge the death of innocent souls. Despite the fact that these were their own children, atleast I am glad that they are clear what they want. I wish my last hope is not in vain...

firaz Jan 05, 2015 05:02pm

The article echoes and resonates with many of us with the realism you speak of. The realist in me also asks why cant we two further upstream investments - educatoon reform that encourages critical thinking over useless memorizations and having the courage to elect leaders who have the sincerity and ability to lead. In that, the fault is with the collective "us"

Sadia Khan Jan 06, 2015 06:40am

I agree. I cry every other night after my husband and son have gone to sleep. I am a person who did not cry when my beloved grandfather who was also a best friend died. Even Yazidi army did not touch the women and children after karbala. Abu Jahil showed more humanity and decency, he died fighting a war like a man. Muslim without mercy is not Muslim. Listin to this, the grave diggers refused the payment for digging graves for the little shaheeds. I live in USA, but the grief feels like it happened right inside my home.

adil jadoon Jan 06, 2015 07:08am

The Military does not protect Pakistanis it protects itself.

Old Ravian Jan 06, 2015 09:11am

A very touching article. And I very much agree to the conclusion. I would like to add that we have been brought to this stage because military has been controlling our internal and external security for the past over thirty years. We have paid a huge price. A change will only come when policies are changed and that is not possible till a strong political government takes control and responsibility.

Nikita Singla Jan 06, 2015 10:06am

Emotionally moving piece!

Dija Jan 06, 2015 11:20am

Yeah - I honestly do share your feelings; I felt the same and even now I cannot seem to get over it - the grief is tremendous......cannot find words!!!.....beautiful articles that expresses the feelings of all those who have a heart!

Muhib Jan 06, 2015 11:31am

As you sow, so shall you reap...

Shahzad gul Jan 06, 2015 12:55pm

I still cant belieave that someone can do this horrible act. We want peace.

Nasir Jan 06, 2015 01:29pm

A real gem of an article....it's like you reached into my head and expressed exactly how I feel....only a lot more eloquently.

Saadat Jan 06, 2015 04:31pm

Those who have younger brothers and sisters/ sons and daughters of "that " bracket can relate to this tragedy more and feel more pain.

Parvez Jan 07, 2015 01:10pm

You have the ability to not only make one laugh....but as you proved here also to cry. So very true....but if one lives in Pakistan crying is not an option......one has to take to the streets and force our inept leaders to either do something forceful or to go.

Maliha Zia Jan 08, 2015 11:44am

Your grief is shared by all of Pakistan. I feel me and my nation have been de-sentisized by repeated violence. Although I was deeply haunted by the incidents but I didnt cry for the Ahmadi's or the Hazara Shias - even though my childhood friends are Ahmadi's (funny i never thought of them as Ahmadi - they were just Jabeen and Rohi) I cant offer an explanation but for the children, tears flow as they do right now while i type this.

Your inability to cry at your grandfather's death, is more a personal issue - that of expression of grief on personal loss. In patriarchal societies men are supposed to keep a stiff upper lip in the direst of circumstance and tears are a sign of weakness, therefore acknowledgement of grief is denied. National tragedies which engulf through all media, assuage the inner alpha-male policeman and feel huge enough permitting men to show emotion. Your questioning yourself as to why you didnt cry at your dear grandfather's death or that of your friend - it may not quite be because you have known bigger grief - it may well be because you are indoctrined into a particular type of behaviour. And it will take a big man to accept that!