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Magical angst

May 27, 2016


The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

FOR those who grew up amid taveez scrolls being found in wheat canisters, visitations by shape-shifting spirits and relatives disappearing for 40-day vows of silence, magical realism is not that much of a leap. Those books are not so outlandish about the cook who transmits emotions through food as eaters ingest her feelings, or the ethereal beauty who ascends to the sky while folding laundry, or Satan disguising himself as a foreign academic.

In one story, an aristocrat lives in trees and dies without touching the ground. An old woman lived in a tree outside my grandfather’s house. He told me Mai Jaina’s presence protected the house from bad things; my mother said she was there to kidnap disobedient children. However, no one objected to her living there. The neighbourhood sent her food for years till she disappeared.

Sometimes magical realism is still jarring, as in José Saramago’s Blindness. It’s about an outbreak of blindness and the subsequent moral disintegration of society. Many dystopian novels have bleak moral landscapes but this premise, people inexplicably going blind, and just as inexplicably regaining their sight, is freakier than any apocalypse or supernatural insurgency. Looking around at the country, I think part of the dread was that it was plausible.

It seems support for extremism and tolerance of terrorism was a similar malady. Not that the vision has been restored but some signs of recovery are evident. We’ve stirred out of our stupor. The main similarity, however, lies in that central feature of magical realism called ‘authorial reticence’; the narrator offers no rational explanation for the incredibility of events and expects you to take them at face value.

The maddest conspiracy becomes real.

It’s the same story in Waziristan, Swat and TTP-dominated areas of Karachi: there was no such prior problem; out of the blue some hordes arrived and took over; they unleashed an affliction that caused locals to go crazy for a while; everyone suffered devastation; the authorities first moved slowly, then their resolve strengthened and they fought heroically to defeat the terrorists; and now things are getting back to normal. There are no reasons given for how it became possible and why it was allowed to fester.

But the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, has changed. The tree Mai Jaina lived in has been chopped down. Spirits inhabited ancient mansions not modern housing schemes. Séance has given way to writing messages to the dear departed on their Facebook walls. In Karachi, the ghostly ‘bride of Karsaz’ must deal with an entertainment mega-complex on her spot.

Magical realism’s defining characteristic is that the extraordinary enters the mundane seamlessly. Now we have the reverse. The mundane enters the exalted; the ridiculous enters the sublime seamlessly. That’s bathos.

So instead of spirits of ancestors returning for niyaz, dead militants come back with their own videos. In Chilas last year, a boy was apparently tortured and killed by supernatural violence. An FIR was registered against evil ghosts. Recently, fervent religious protesters vowed to create a superior moral order, expressing their anger at the system by throwing slippers at an army helicopter that flew by. The slippers rained back on them. A coalition of religious parties vowed to ‘bring on Allah’s earth Allah’s intended order’. To do so, they banned mannequins used in shop displays because mannequins have feminine curves.

Satire now has to be written with a disclaimer, primarily because it’s enacted daily, whether its Altaf Hussain’s Sisyphean resignations or presidential convoys running over state-owned ostriches. From Ramzan’s inner purification ending in squabbles over moon-sighting, to fatwas blaming low mobile call rates for moral demise, bathos is replete. The grand narratives are gone, whether magical, spiritual, ideological or political, with consequences best portrayed by Ghalib: “So narrow is the world of the vanquished, that a single ant’s egg is the whole sky.” Heroism now lies in labouring through the slog of incremental change.

Meanwhile, the maddest conspiracy ends up becoming real — like America using polio vaccines to make Pakistani men impotent. At one level, the conspiracy to render the Pakistani male incapable of producing children has been refuted 180 million times. On another, the outrage over the OBL raid was that foreign forces penetrated the motherland and with all our weapons, intelligence networks and bravery, we were powerless to prevent it — rendered impotent by the preceding polio drive.

When Cyclone Phet was about to ravage the Karachi coastline, warnings were issued and the seashore closed off. I lived on Clifton beach. While TV suggested evacuation, our apartment was packed with spectators and we ordered pizza. The road outside was congested with picnickers who came to see the cyclone with mats, food baskets and children, ignoring the distraught policemen screaming out cautions.

Being the punch line is no reason to not enjoy the show.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2016