Paper cuts deep

Published February 28, 2024
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana

PAKISTAN, Palestine, and South Africa have much in common. The Indian subcontinent’s division, which gave birth to Pakistan, was not meant to occur until a year later. Why our ‘freedom’ was advanced by a year is a subject for another piece. We could be the precedent that paved the way for the creation of Israel in 1948.

All three countries constantly face existential threats. In South Africa’s case, it was the sagacity of Madiba, as Nelson Mandela is lovingly referred to by his countrymen, that prevented the country from sliding into chaos. Throughout their existence, it is mainly the US-led Western ‘support’ that props up Pakistan and Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians in the latter’s case.

The biases of Pakistan Studies notwithstanding, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an icon of the Freedom Movement, had his start in South Africa. Jinnah and Gandhi were lawyers and both wore peculiar spectacles; the similarity comes to a halt there. Nelson Mandela and Gandhi both spent considerable time in colonialists’ jails. Pakistan and Israel are the only two countries founded and, dare one say, floundering on ideology.

Among their legacies, important public figures leave behind papers and personal effects. We are not referring to the parchment made of wooden pulp per se or heirlooms valued for material reasons. Today, the Cambridge system generation’s first encounter with ‘papers’ comes with the prefix ‘past’. In the 1980s, the Matric brigade blamed every flunked subject, sometimes an entire academic year, on A.U. Khan’s ‘Guess Papers’ for miserably failing to live up to the promise in the title.

Researchers and biographers have their work cut out for them.

My first encounter with a more serious side to papers, which usually constitute unpublished musings and private missives, concerned Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s papers. A very bushy-browed and nattily attired Zawwar Zaidi was their editor. Yes, the same person who, as an octogenarian, was thrown out of his official residence as the powers that be had decided to jettison all the gravitas associated with the founder, including, of course, the editor of his papers. Dr Zaidi had given up his lifelong career at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, to edit the Jinnah Papers. Ironically, SOAS retained his office for as long as he lived.

Universities, libraries, think tanks, museums, and private trusts the world over vie with each other to attain and share the contents of famous personalities’ papers with the public. Most authors and public figures entrust their papers to these entities way before their careers plateau. Governments allow generous tax breaks in return. Franklin Roosevelt caused a rethink in the Internal Revenue Service as he claimed a tax break running into millions of dollars in return for the rights to his papers to a university. Since then, the amount for tax breaks has been capped. The role of the printed word and papers in the lives of public office holders is again a topic for another day; in our part of the world, it is unfortunately restricted to cheque books and controlling newsprint.

Primarily driven by poverty and illiteracy, research, writing, and reading have not caught the nation’s fantasy. Publications that are considered commercial successes and boast of running the 20th edition have sold only 10,000 copies, as each print run is only 500 copies. Some publishers now run editions of 300 copies only.

In the age of AI and digitisation, when hardly anyone puts the proverbial pen to paper, researchers and biographers have their work cut out for them. From Benazir Bhutto’s BlackBerrys to Imran Khan’s smartphones, not even the state sleuths could find them, let alone lesser mortals like gumshoe hacks. One must, however, give the devil its due, for we would not have the likes of the Panama Papers if it were not for technological advancement. As one former prime minister can attest, paper cuts can be deep.

Going back to the trio of the subcontinent, Palestine, and South Africa, of late, Makaziwe Mandela, Madiba’s daughter, has been trying to auction off his personal effects to construct a memorial park near his burial site. A South African court initially issued an injunction against it, but later, the high court in Pretoria allowed it. If the auction goes ahead, the next best thing would be for a wealthy individual or a foundation to buy and gift the great man’s effects to the people of Palestine. South Africa is the only country to have shown the courage to take Israel to the International Court of Justice over genocide in Gaza.

The Palestinians can return Madiba’s effects to the South Africans as a gesture of gratitude. This will merge Mandela’s legacy and the Palestinians’ indomitable spirit forever.

The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.

shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2024

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