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Pakistanis refuse to give up on their happy, conflicted lives

Updated September 06, 2017

There are times, and places, when you walk around with brain fog. It is so thick that the PhD you’ve recently finished on young Pakistanis becomes the thing you want most to burn. The amazing boy you’ve been waiting for all your life is the one from whom you querulously run away, only to find yourself breathing less easily. The family you come home to is the one you ignore by sleeping early at night and avoiding all of the next day. The days are marked not by the presence of real humans, but your oldest friend – Doubt.

* * *

I try to fight this all off by writing a number of different starts, but none of them materialise into anything worth publishing, whether as a blog post, op-ed, or even a journal entry. I want to believe the past five years of my life have amounted to more than a waste of time, but the young doctors on strike, the wailing Prime Minister, the vacant eyes in government offices, and my contract, which is ripped apart by the head of HR without any consequence in front of the Registrar at Lahore’s only IT university, compel me to reckon with the thought that Pakistan is a sinking ship.

I sit down to clear my Oxford University inbox. It will expire in a few days this August, now that the PhD is over. I have to salvage important emails or lose them forever. I spend the night forwarding and labelling emails in a personal account. Amongst them, 57 special ones that I now recall bringing me relief during an especially trying period of the doctorate: emails from Pakistanis, Indians, and Kashmiris of varying ages, genders, classes, professions, and perspectives across the world. They were all written in gratitude, and with encouragement – responses to my 2015 post about the beauty of ordinary Pakistani citizens.

I realise I haven’t had time to return to these messages in two years. I was struggling with writing a dissertation, and living alone in England. All the while, Pakistanis everywhere, but especially back at home, were enduring continuous disappointment.

How is it that research that mattered most to me – a story of hardworking public school students eking out a sense of belonging in uncertain Pakistan – seems alien now? How have I lost so much faith and confidence in something I once saw as a very important question about my country?

Back in April, after a successful viva, my examiners suggested this was a natural consequence of a PhD – a kind of academic postpartum depression. My supervisors asked what was next. Friends suggested I travel, or get plenty of sleep. Instead, I worked on a project in London. Then my father asked me to come home, even if just for a while, so I did. Here I am, back in Lahore, having traded in Brexit and ISIS van drivers for The Adventures of Amir (ul Momineen – almost) Sharif.

* * *

At 10pm on 13th August, I beg my brother to take me out for an Independence-eve drive. I haven’t been in Lahore for the 14th in over five years. A part of me wants desperately to feel like the questions of Pakistani identity and belonging that I’ve been researching have a point, if only in the youthful grins of pillion riders on a Honda CD70. The other part of me wants to replace loud anchors on TV with loud children in green clothes, honking anything on which they can get their hands.

The floats of the past are gone. The Canal is now a silent purveyor of mud, shimmering at its banks in greens, purples, and reds. The lights strung along the corridors of the city lend themselves to fantastical photo opps of ‘Lahore tonight!’ by drones. They launch this ancient city into the Facebook and Twitter histories of this leader or that. I miss the papier-mâché Quaid’s Mausoleum. I’ll have to get to Karachi now to see its familiar shape. I think of how my new full-frame NikonD750 will capture the Mausoleum, and a drop of adrenaline infringes on my daily numbness.

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WAPDA’s done something really clever this year. They’ve used a few spotlights to enhance the cloth streamers lining their building. Another drop of adrenaline. If there’s anyone setting an example this year, it’s them. Don’t waste unnecessary electricity when you can use intelligent lighting to achieve the same effect.

Maybe that’s what’s happening at Minar-e-Pakistan because it’s 11:55pm, and we’ve disappointedly driven towards it only to find its lights are off. Why in the world are so many thousands clambering onto the Azadi Chowk bridge? We alight to investigate.

Midnight.

I’m pushing my camera through the metal grill cordoning off the Metro tracks from the road, when bursts of orange and yellow erupt from the lower levels of the Minar. An incredible fireworks display gains scale, and the crowd becomes a euphoric mass roaring deafeningly to voice both approval, and thirst. More. It wants more. It hasn’t given up on its happy, conflicted freedom yet.

Variously hued smoke draws us all into an Independence embrace – my family, my camera, me, and the thousands of joyous Pakistanis who have walked, scootered, motorbiked, run, driven, QingQi’d, dragged themselves, and even crawled into this moment.

Suddenly, the world around us shakes with terror. Worried eyes scan the area. People nervously walk away from the bridge. The crowds start to scatter. Our hearts pound with the familiarity of uncertainty. Sirens are ringing in the air. If another firework doesn’t go off soon, we will know the worst has happened and it’s time to run home. But it does go off, and the earlier boom was probably just a firework that exploded on the ground before taking flight.

The roars are back, cutting through the smoke that descends on our gleeful middle-class, working-class, every-class aspirations. The skies rain with cardboard shreds of containers that, seconds ago, escorted powder into the heights above Greater Iqbal Park and Badshahi Masjid; my brother pockets one, and I pocket another. We grin at each other. Forever after, these will be our fragments of the night Pakistan turned 70.

As we drive back home, I cannot forget the sounds of the crowds. I haven’t heard before such a unanimous, and thundering expression of joy – not at a New York pier on the 4th of July, not at midnight to ring in a new year in London.

Are we just many more people per square foot here in Pakistan? Have we got better lung volume? Was it an echo effect under a bridge? Are such massive displays of fireworks more aligned with our everyday operational frequencies? As my brother speeds along the Babu Sabu interchange – the easiest way home for us – I wonder about the most appropriate explanation to what we’ve just witnessed.

* * *

I’m a social scientist by training so it is habitual for me to keep wondering over the next few weeks about what I saw on the 14th. I may have seen a pocket of joy that night, but I don’t fully understand how Pakistanis rank as the happiest people in South Asia. It feels like a cruel joke an international body plays on us because happiness is not in the rains that devour North Karachi. Happy is not the face of the beautiful nine-year-old boy who sells fluorescent toys to any willing customer every evening just off M.M Alam Road. Happy are not the people who endlessly disagree over just how many Pakistanis live in Pakistan.

Then Eid-ul-Azha comes knocking at our door. For the first time ever, our neighbourhood mosque allocates pristine, air-conditioned space within its boundaries so that women – not just the men – can start their day with Eid namaaz. Eid takes my hand, and guides me through the lives and warmth of my extended family as my brother and I spend the day delivering the family’s 1/3rd portion of our sacrificial meat.

It reads 7:59pm on his car’s clock, as my brother successfully negotiates a very tight street in the outskirts of Lahore Township. This is where the children, and widow, of my parents’ uncle live. They are ten siblings, and for as long as I can remember, this part of our family has lived in extraordinary poverty. My uncle was killed in an accident, when a Baloch Number 20 flattened the lower half of his body on Lytton Road over a decade ago.

That was the route I used to take to and from university when I was an undergraduate student, and I remember narrowly missing being run over a few times myself as I would run to jump into the women’s section. The accident was never investigated; the family never compensated. My family’s men went to Services Hospital, identified our great-uncle, and lowered him into the ground. This is what I remember every single time I meet his children. I remember a lack of closure.

This is not what they remember. They remember me, and are overjoyed I am back from England. Each of them pulls me in a different direction to tell me about their kids or their jobs or to offer me some Coca Cola. They ask how it feels to be back. It feels awful, I want to tell them honestly, but I find myself unable to say this out loudly. I realise it is so nice to see them, and how their lives are getting on, even though I am overwhelmed by the noise and competition for my attention.

They show me one of the children’s two fingers that suffer from some form of elephantiasis; the boy looks at me shyly with his baffled eyes from under long eyelashes, but doesn’t pull away. The ten-year-old girl in the corner peering at me with amusement is, I suspect, some kind of my niece by cousin association. I assume she’s cut her hair like Sinead O Connor’s, but they tell me she had a skin condition that required it all to be shaved off. Then they present me with an old picture of her with long, thick waves, and the girl smiles and shrugs.

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House after house I visit that day is bursting with laughter or gratitude. It is bari Eid, after all, marked by the previous day’s blessing of Hajj. The social scientist in me can’t stop reflecting on the peculiarities of class structure that mark my family’s Eid day: some of us have only recently become able to afford their own sacrificial goats after years of struggling to make ends meet. Inevitably this has been because every parent in my entire family has resiliently educated the children, with or without the state’s assistance.

These are happy people, and they’re in my own family. There must be hundreds, thousands – no, millions – of such people around Pakistan who find a way to enjoy such moments despite the odds, who find a way to trust despite injustice, and who have reason to believe in a better future despite an uncertain present.

I sense that if I had a month of such visits, I would be able to find the Pakistanis who put this country at the top of the happiness index for this region. I would be able to find the Pakistanis who keep so much faith in what they know, no matter how little, that they miraculously keep life going here.

* * *

Amidst all of these events and reflections, one day I consider applying to an institution I respect, where I can help work on curriculum and research strategy. I struggle with my mixed feelings. I want the chance to contribute to research-backed policy for Pakistan, but more importantly, I want it to matter.

I still battle my inner demons: will I commit to very hard work on the prospective education of young Pakistanis as I did with my PhD, and be rewarded again with the thankless gift of despondency? Will the legitimate educational struggles of our next generation once more be overshadowed by the sound and fury of violence, terrorism, democracy games, and the need to ‘defend’ the borders?

I think about the upcoming Defence Day – another important day I haven’t experienced in Pakistan in many years – and the persistent tension between our country’s defence and education budgets. How trivial the word ‘defence’ has now become, though, largely bringing to mind housing societies across the country.

I wonder whether that could ever have been the thought dominating the last few moments of 20-year-old Rashid Minhas. I wonder how the term motivated our men’s cricket team to give the world the performance of a decade on the 18th of June, 2017.

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I know I wonder too much about everything, but especially about Pakistan. It’s a hard country, after all. If summer in Pakistan is meant to end with a reflection on what it means to defend ourselves, this is mine. It isn’t the weapons, camouflage or nostalgia of success alone that explains how people learn to ‘take care’ of themselves.

I admit that I never miss a chance to watch an air show, and I proudly wore a Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder polo shirt throughout my years at Oxford. I’m a huge fan of aviation and shipping technology, and I love reading about what the army, navy, and air force are getting up to.

But if being a country is about being citizens within our borders first, my small commitment to citizenship starts with helping young Pakistanis learn to think for themselves.

My fog hasn’t lifted entirely. Yet if the summer has taught me one thing, it is that Doubt may be my oldest friend, but not my best one. My best friend is probably Chance, the one that introduces me to the amazing world built through the lives of everyday Pakistanis.

I know most of us don’t have the language to debate grandiose justifications of life or terms like Partition or Freedom or Independence or its history. I know most of us can’t read a full paragraph of English, let alone blog in it.

But I also know most of us Pakistanis seem to be getting it fairly right: we claim this time as ours; this country as ours; we cherish it in whatever way we can. And I know all of that is worth being happy about.


What is it about Pakistan that makes your faith bounce back? Write to us at blog@dawn.com