Have you thought as to how paradise and hell are described in the scriptures? Paradise is defined by the green, verdure, streams and bird songs. Hell is nothing other than unbearable heat and all-consuming fire. The former is a reward and the latter a punishment.

Greenery, trees and birds stand for pleasure and joy while heat and fire are metaphors of pain and misery. Affirmation and negation of life stand in stark contrast. The good would inherit the paradise and the bad the hell. It’s as simple as that, it is stated. Now look around and see whether we nowadays live in an earthly paradise or hell. The fact is that the world around us appears more like hell. If it isn’t already hell, it is fast turning into one. And paradise? Its image can be found either in religious books or in our fading collective memory of the ancient past. An image of places that resemble paradise is constantly evoked by the tourism industry to promote their business. The ruse works, however, transparent it may be because it hints at the primeval forests humans have come out of or they would love to inhabit in future. The profit-driven industry knows how to play with man’s primordial impulses. It does a roaring business simply because a large number of regions of the world have turned into some sort of hell. Hence the remaining ones, apparently pristine and uncontaminated by human ugliness, have become much sought after resorts.

One can infer that most of the people, given the choice, would move to places other than the ones they have been living in. They hardly imagine that if they continue with their old habits, the new habitats would become exactly like the places they left behind; uninhabitable.

Old habits are in fact not very old; they are products of machine age which doesn’t have a long history. Machine, when owned and employed by the powerful, exponentially enhanced their profit making ability premised on the notion of unlimited consumption. Such an historical situation created by Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in the West gave birth to the phenomenon of colonialism; a powerful outward thrust. Colonialism in the subcontinent had multiple effects on our society. It brought the sluggish Indian society out of what Marx calls stagnation born of self- reliant economy, broke its tradition-based intellectual monotony and introduced it to modern political, juridical and educational institutions which changed the subcontinent for all times to come. The result was visibly paradoxical; it ushered India into modern era but the structures built by colonialism to its advantages had alienating effect.

The Punjab, the last sovereign kingdom to fall, is an extreme example of negative impact of colonial intrusion. The education system established in the Punjab imposed two foreign languages, English and Urdu, and disallowed the teaching of people’s language i.e. Punjabi. The practice has continued even after the emergence of Pakistan as an independent state. It still continues confounding the mind of younger generation. If you deny students their mother language, you in reality deny them a unique world created by a particular social evolution.

Students in the Punjab who are taught in Urdu and English are horribly alienated from their surroundings and the ancient society they belong to. They don’t know the history, geography and topography of different regions of Punjab. Ask the students to name the flora and fauna, birds and rivers of the Punjab and the query would draw a blank. Teaching in alien languages pushes out from students’ mental landscape all the things their mother language is uniquely evolved receptacle of. And if young people aren’t made aware of what surrounds them as natural phenomenon, how are they going to keep their organic link intact with it and protect it for themselves and posterity. Such a situation if allowed to continue would wreak havoc not only on nature but also history. Let it be remembered we are a product of nature and history. The former is responsible for our physical being and the latter nurtures our intellectual being. And this combo makes us what are proudly claim to be; human.

If we destroy nature we trigger a process of our physical destruction and if we consign history to oblivion we invite intellectual self-destruction.

Poet Brecht in one of his poems succinctly describes the situation we and our children are almost in: “Still for instance the moon stands above the new buildings at night / Of the things made of copper it is the most useless /Already mothers tell stories of animals that drew cars, called horses / True, in the conversations of continents these no longer occur, nor their names: around the great new aerials nothing is known of old times”. Here on the one hand we have children who are being told stories of animals that drew cars called horses, oxen and camels and on the other we have suave sellers of “new tall buildings” called builders.

The movers and shakers of our part of the world want our children to disregard our long and rich history stunting their intellectual growth that would cause an appalling disconnect with natural and historical assets. That makes it easier for them to pillage historical assets and plunder natural resources. No one is there to sop them as none is aware of the value that is being looted.

Harappa, Tilla Jogian, Parhalad Mander, Suraj Kund, Katas Raj and Qila Rohtas, for example, are an ocular proof of what we have lost. New ‘tall buildings’ and newly developed housing societies share little with what ancestors built in the past. They have nothing organic; neither in their architectural designs nor in their open spaces and greenbelts. What one finds in the built area is blobs of concrete and in open spaces and green patches one comes across strange looking decorative plants and trees that scare the birds away. Indigenous bird friendly shady trees are treated as alien and thus kept at bay. Can a sane mind imagine a culture without nature and history? Nature creates physical features of a culture and history gives it social and intellectual dimension. We relentlessly distort and destroy both aspects of our culture. Our schooling has a disease called educator and our land has a disease called estate developer. The former distorts the mind and the latter vandalises nature. Who will save what’s left of our culture from the talons of educator and developer? Can killing a poet for his bad verses be a solution as a mob in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” feels? — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2021

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