75 and tottering

Published August 21, 2022
The writer is the co-author of Thinking with Ghalib, Folio/Roli Books 2021.
The writer is the co-author of Thinking with Ghalib, Folio/Roli Books 2021.

AMPUTATED at 25, Pakistan is tottering at 75. Every institution is wobbling and governance has descended into a farce. The veils that had papered reality now lie on the floor in disarray. It is time to pay attention to Ghalib’s divaan that begins with the prophetic couplet:

(of whose vagaries should the painting complain/the robe of every figure in the picture is made of paper).

None of this registers where it should — planes still fly around and do their acrobatic loops on Aug 14 although ordinary people are kept away because of the chronic insecurity. The media trumpet the josh-o-kharosh (excitement) and the sab achha (all is good) is sounded by VIPs. But the paper robes, now in tatters and revealing an unappetising reality, can no longer be refuted. What happened? is a question on many bitter lips and anguished Twitter feeds.

Has Pakistan failed, or, to be gentle, not succeeded, or, for the most sensitive, just been left behind? However one might put it, the truth is just a click away — pick any international index and Pakistan would be close to the bottom unless something noxious was being measured in which case the country would be vying for the lead.

The truth is just a click away.

There are some painful statistics to examine on poverty, mortality, malnutrition, discrimination, pollution, and corruption. But these have long been available and our governments have found ways to ignore, challenge, deny and dispute them with the tools at their disposal. I prefer to look at a measure of human potential that is more mundane and unambiguous. Pakistan participated in the Asian Games for the first time in 1954 and was ranked fourth, winning four gold and five silver medals. That was the country’s best performance ever. At the most recent 2018 games it ranked 33rd with just four bronze medals.

Can this tell a story which, at its most generous, would be one of falling behind? I believe so because I am old enough to have witnessed Abdul Khaliq who was the fastest man in Asia, Hashim Khan who ruled world squash, Gama who was a wrestler of global renown, Brojan Das who swam the English Channel, and a dominant hockey team. Add to these Roshan Ara and Nazakat-Salamat in music, Faiz and Rashid in poetry, and Abdus Salam in science. Pakistan inherited a lot of talent but allowed it to dissipate even as it celebrated its achievements. It was not reproduced. Where are the successors who can claim equal recognition?

This begs the bigger question. Why did Pakistan fail to nurture and enhance its human potential? Why did it get left behind? There are many answers to this question that holds the clue to Pakistan’s stagnation. I too have an explanation which I will refrain from offering because we live in times when contrary opinions are no longer respected or tolerated. People much wiser than me have knocked their heads against this wall of invincible beliefs. How that wall has arisen and contributed to the stagnation is a related story that bears investigation.

And yet, answers must be found for there to be hope that Pakistan at 100 is more liveable than it is at 75. One recourse is to get a sense of all the answers having currency to see if there are any dominant narratives that can be discussed openly in greater detail. These answers could be canvassed through an exercise in which school, college and university students record why they think Pakistan has slipped behind so badly. What these students, the citizens of tomorrow, think of the past would yield clues to what they propose for the future. The views would also capture possible inter-generational differences yielding a sense of how opinions might be evolving and why. A process of reflection needs to begin and all voices should be heard and consulted because messiahs promising salvation and sages proposing remedies have failed repeatedly. Three Ghalib couplets suggest an ethos of rethinking to guide this endeavour:

(is it a given that all will get the same response / come let us also take a stroll around Mount Tuur);

(it is not necessary that we follow in the footsteps of Khizr/we consider that we have a venerable elder as a fellow traveller);

(I go along with every swift walker/I do not yet recognise the guide).

The writer is the co-author of Thinking with Ghalib, Folio/Roli Books 2021.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2022

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