IT is getting increasingly tough for the ordinary people in Pakistan. There is much to bemoan: an economy in tatters, an ever-depreciating rupee, and exponentially rising prices squeezing the people’s purchasing power. This, coupled with the political shenanigans causing one politico-constitutional crisis after another, in the backdrop of a debt trap and rising terrorism, are justifications enough to feel jaded. The young, losing hope, are understandably seeking avenues of escape to regions with comparative economic stability and well-being.
The people are feeling forsaken. The usual suspects at home have let us down yet again: the monarchical families, the wannabe saviours, an overbearing and imposing military, and a belligerent and divisive judiciary. Outside the country, the IMF cannot seem to restore its faith in Pakistan, and the otherwise friendly states, even the all-weather-friend types, are now extremely reluctant to extend a helping hand.
The dismal deaths of the completely downtrodden, the poorest of the nation, standing in line for hours on end for bags of flour, and then crushing each other to death for a chance to feed themselves and their children, is, at least, suggestive that the divine power above, our Maker, may have forsaken us as well. Nobody seems to be coming to our aid.
In Amor Towles’s recent The Lincoln Highway, Ulysses, a World War II veteran- turned-lonely traveller, recounts to a chance eight-year-old fellow companion, Billy, about the time Ulysses, during his travels, was confronted with a twister. The only help in sight, a farmer about to bolt himself underground, refuses to extend any help.
The people are feeling forsaken. Nobody seems to be coming to our aid.
Ulysses then relates to Billy that in the eye of the storm, when the winds were howling and dragging him back, he was struck with a realisation that he was totally abandoned. Ulysses then imparts a lesson that we, probably, as a nation, can benefit from: “the point of utter abandonment — the moment at which you realise that no one will be coming to your aid, not even your Maker — is the very moment in which you may discover the strength to carry on.” In other words, that feeling of complete and absolute abandonment, itself, may be a blessing from God to instil in a nation the strength to rediscover itself.
And it is probably this strength to carry on that we, as a nation, need to draw upon, in this moment when all the emperors of our land stand exposed. Their bellies are full, their coffers loaded, theirs and their children’s future are already secure in near and distant lands. And while their petty infighting for the tainted crowns occasionally causes them some angst, it is not the future of this nation that gives them any sleepless nights.
Ulysses, meanwhile, goes on to explain that “[t]he Good Lord does not call you to your feet with hymns from the cherubim and Gabriel blowing his horn [but] He calls you to your feet by making you feel alone and forgotten”. This theme has been explored by many before. That it is the trials, tribulations and suffering that provide an opportunity to mankind to rise to the occasion and develop the courage and resilience to confront hardship. Is it not from the ashes that the Phoenix arises?
This powerful idea, clichéd as it may be, is importantly different from the one presented in Yochi Brandes’s The Orchard. The famous Jewish legend goes like this: there were four rabbis who entered ‘the orchard’. Ben Zoma looked and died, Ben Azzai looked and lost his mind, Rabbi Elisha looked and became an apostate, while only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. Among other things, what was revealed by God to Rabbi Akiva is that “God no longer interferes in human affairs”, and while “[e]verything is foreseen, yet freewill is given”.
Amor Towles’s Ulysses, however, suggests that it is the Maker Himself, who, by his design, may make people feel forsaken, to make them rely on themselves. As Ulysses elaborates: “For only when you have seen that you are truly forsaken will you embrace the fact that what happens next rests in your hands, and your hands alone.”
While there is nothing wrong in emigrating for economic reasons, this aspiration of the young, ambitious people to leave makes us miss out on something important: a collective resilience of a critical mass of people, banded together for the long haul trying to recover the space ceded to the emperors with no clothes, while working towards the common-good and better collective future. After all, our hands alone will shape what comes next.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2023