‘The writer is a lawyer’

Published July 3, 2022
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.

READING these pages for the first time as a child, I was particularly fascinated by the kinds of people who wrote for them.

They all seemed very cool and intelligent; otherworldly beings descended to impart their wisdom on us mere mortals. Authors, economists, journalists, civil servants. But more often than any other, the description at the bottom of a column bore the five words at the top of this one. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If you were to look up the writer for more details, you’d quickly discover that they’re a senior partner at a successful firm, went to an Ivy League university, and famously won a case that made constitutional history and rescued an orphanage or something. But for now, the simple fact of their profession is all they’d like to convey.

Today, many of those otherworldly beings seem a lot more human. I sometimes write for these pages too, my description bearing a few extra words (mainly because I view my work as a writer to be wholly separate, rather than an extension of the day job). But a question remains: of all the professions in this country, why do the voices of lawyers tend to be the loudest in activism?

The world is cruel, but the justice system is crueller.

For a start, there’s a lot of them. Seemingly defying all logic, countless people every year take a deep dive into a job where the vast majority are underpaid, overworked, and (considering some recent events) not winning any popularity contests either. Starting out isn’t easy. You often see folks in their 50s referred to with utmost sincerity as ‘rising young lawyers’. One can only then assume that a fresh grad in their 20s is an unborn collection of bacteria, not yet worthy of the oxygen it consumes. But fear not, because it’s moulded in the most humbling of training grounds.

See, the world is cruel, but the justice system is crueller. And this is a job where you’re constantly exposed to everything corrupt and crooked about society. A typical workday can deal with decades-old disputes, familial betrayals and varieties of fraudulence as abundant and unique as flavours of ice cream.

Like a doctor might become desensitised to the sight of blood, so do lawyers to the painful reality of injustice. But of course, it changes you. For some, that can make them cold and ruthless in the face of ambition; or bitter and angry, fostering tribalistic tendencies (the kind that lead you to attack hospitals or beat up policemen).

But to others, it can remind them of why they got into this job in the first place — a sincere desire to make society better. That sincerity will be tested time and time again, and its proponents will need a crocodile-thick skin if they are to get anywhere.

After all, writing about what you believe in is an exercise in audacity (who am I to think I have anything worth saying?). And on most days, even the most simple, convincing arguments will (to quote Asad Rahim Khan), have “the effect of most columns, which is to say none”.

Nevertheless, the perseverant succeed. Asma Jahangir made this country a better place for its most vulnerable citizens by speaking out and following through with action. Her legacy lives on in countless lawyers struggling for the same goal. In Pakistan’s history there has been no other group as consistent in its opposition to dictators. A 1964 article in Time Magazine mentions president Ayub Khan deriding lawyers’ groups as ‘mischief mongers’ for supporting Fatima Jinnah’s struggle for democracy. That same mischief persists to this day. May it continue evermore.

Anthony Bourdain wrote a beautiful piece for the New Yorker in 1999 about being a chef in New York. He described it as “the science of pain”, deriving from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness.

And while I’m still a few decades short of enough experience to reflect on the profession, I’ll exercise some of that writers’ audacity and describe law in Pakistan as the science of the absurd. (The second half of Bourdain’s statement doesn’t differ too much here.) Laws will be flawed, judgements will be baffling, the game will be rigged, and there will be nothing you can do about it. So, you will find some solace in speaking your truth, even if it falls on deaf ears, does you more personal harm than good, and proves to be nothing more than a shout into the void.

But what if it isn’t? What if the words on these pages mean something, occasionally fall onto the right eyes, and make a tiny difference in the grand scheme of the absurd? After all, this country came into existence because of the dream of a poet and the efforts of a lawyer, right?

But Quaid-i-Azam dreamed of playing Romeo at the theatre, and Allama Iqbal was a barrister with a legal practice in Lahore. These are often presented as contrasting identities — the lawyer and the dreamer, the professional and the creative, the sacred and the profane — when really, they’re two sides of the same coin. Interwoven.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.
Twitter: @hkwattoo1

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2022

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