Social amnesia

17 Nov 2019


The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

A SCHOOL headmaster in Pilibhit in the Indian state of UP is facing disciplinary action because he asked his pupils to recite ‘Lab pey aati hai dua ban key tamana meri’ by Allama Iqbal. The teacher is accused of encouraging the students to recite a ‘religious’ poem. Throw in a fair bit of RSS brand Hindutva, and the poor soul could have been playing with fire given the heightened distrust between Pakistan and India lately.

Before we start castigating the ‘narrow-minded Hindu bigots’, who could not see the beauty of this children’s poem written in 1902 without filtering it through the prism of hate, can we muster the courage to do some introspection? Do we have any counterparts of Furqan Ali, the headmaster in the Pilibhit school, who could show the same courage or even display a similar sense of history? Can we even imagine, let us say, teacher Ram Das over here ask his pupils to recite Tagore without the risk of getting lynched by some mob?

Let us go a bit deeper into the issue of creating and demonising the ‘other’ because we do not know how else to define ourselves. Those objecting to the teacher’s choice of poem, and more so the poet, failed to appreciate that Iqbal, in the very beginning of this poem used khudaya, an inclusive term to refer to the Creator. In Pakistan there has been a systematic and petrodollar-sponsored push to reinvent cultural moorings to the extent that the traditional farewell khuda hafiz is now frowned upon and its Arabic version is trotted out as the preferred parting compliment.

Some people may take issue with the parallels being drawn here. In addition to the everlasting tensions between the two countries that discourage cultural pluralism, they may contend that Tagore is not recited here because Bangla is hardly understood in Pakistan. But that raises two related questions, ie whose fault is it that we don’t have even a rudimentary knowledge of a language that was spoken by the majority of Pakistanis when the country was created? The second, more pertinent question is, how many of us are proficient today in Persian or even Arabic? So, should we then stop reciting the national anthem written almost entirely in Farsi or the holy scriptures in Arabic? Of course not.

Rejection of what is held dear by the ‘other’ needs to stop.

The answer is to find a good translation to get the gist of the meaning and learn the language for deeper understanding and scholarly pursuit. Introduction of Urdu translations of Gitanjali, that famous collection of poems by Tagore, in the curriculum can be a good beginning for the youth to get to know this great cultural icon.

This out-of-hand rejection of what is held dear by the ‘other’ needs to stop. What would readers in Pakistan say if told that as a result of the systematic erasure of history and common culture, politicians and senior bureaucrats on the other side of the border do not know who Allama Iqbal was? The reactions are most likely to range between the indignant ‘how can that be?’, to hiding behind some moral equivalence. Whether such imbeciles exist is unfortunately not a mere academic debate. This scribe has the misfortune of knowing a senior Pakistani bureaucrat who confesses to having never heard of Tagore. But even if this is — horror of horrors — true, and there are others like him on both sides, it is not the worst-case scenario. What if they only feign ignorance out of fear or in the belief that some entity, some force out there is likely to reward this outright rejection of the ‘other’? The cultivated reversal of progress and evolution is the real catastrophe.

Going back to the Pilibhit school and its headmaster, Karachi has two locales that are its namesake, ie Pilibhit oil depot in Liaquatabad aka Lalukhet, and Pilibhit Cooperative Housing Society in Gulshan-i-Iqbal near the Karachi-Hyderabad Super­highway exit. Isn’t it surreal? Furqan Ali, headmaster, is accused of being unpatriotic in Pilibhit, a city in the Rohilkhand division of UP. Karachi’s Pilibhit Society also borders Gwalior Society, a namesake of a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, famous for the khayal style of classical singing and a grand fortress that houses the Sas-Bahu Mandir. The temple is so named as the 11th-century royal ladies resolved their stand-off by agreeing to place both their preferred deities in it.

Listen to any interview by famous poet Munir Niazi. He longingly talks of Khanpur, a Pathan village in Hoshiarpur district of East Punjab. Indian lyricist Gulzar does not stop talking of his birthplace Dina in Pakistani Punjab’s Jhelum district. Pakistani culture and history are as incomplete without Tagore as India’s is without Iqbal. Let us at least show some maturity if humanity is too much to ask for.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2019