Conversations

Published July 9, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

DRIP, drip, drip … the drops fall, big and small. There is a conversation here, an incident there. A snatched conversation with an acquaintance, a long chat with a friend. All of them quiet interactions, small, unnoticeable incidents unworthy of retelling. But the drops are unending; they are so many that they eventually become puddles left after the monsoon rains. Here, there and everywhere, some deep and some shallow, some deceptively deep while others can be skipped.

But there they are. And they are not going away.

A friend needs a visa, to somewhere in the glittery West. Well-travelled and well-educated and no stranger to the country in question — but there are no appointments to be had. She had travelled there more than once, as to other parts of the world. But visa appointments are not to be had. In hushed tones, it is whispered that visa appointments are being ‘sold’ for hundreds of thousands, as well as the approval or checking of documents. The amount of money changing hands varies greatly but such is the rush of people trying to leave the country that few are willing to dismiss the numbers as wild exaggerations.

During another casual conversation, a colleague says his relative paid 10 lakh rupees to try to get out. But, he says, in all seriousness, if someone asks, “officially, the bribery rate is only two”. What is official about the rate of bribery is beyond comprehension.

And now the drops are forming deep puddles of dirty water.

A visit to a medical centre turns into a painful exchange when a young doctor asks seriously if what happened over 70 years ago was really worth it. He stumbles over the question because it is so difficult to put into words, even though he is careful to wait until none of his colleagues are nearby when he shares this burden.

Another friend bemoans his lack of social life. There are hardly any people left to socialise with. What happened? Most of them have moved away in the past couple of years; they all left the country.

An old college friend from somewhere in Africa messages to ask about the American school because she has an application from a teacher who was employed at one in Pakistan. Is the school any good, she asks?

Asking a colleague to explain the intricacies of the economy leads to a conversation about how everyone appears to be in a bad mood. They are always ready for a fight and the tiniest of irritation leads to an argument or a loud exchange, at work or in public. I didn’t need to ask why and he didn’t need to explain further.

A WhatsApp message from a friend settled abroad reveals that he ran into a Pakistani waiting tables at a restaurant, who turned out to be PhD in engineering from south Punjab and had left a teaching job to migrate. The friend then added that in recent times, he has run into many educated Pakistani migrants in basic jobs.

These conversations are not recent. They happened over months and even years ago. And most of them, like a random drop of water, did not even register. They got brushed away, as one does when on a dry, clear day, suddenly, there is a tiny sensation of wetness on a hand or a bare arm.

All these happened before the latest budget, which has imposed new taxes on what a friend calls the moral backbone of society ie the salaried class, and indirect taxes on the poor, while everyone who had the power and access to get relief managed to do so, beginning with the civil and military bureaucracy, which will get plots from the state and sell them without paying the tax that ordinary civilians will have to do. The military also managed to delay pension reform for a year.

The parliamentarians increased their perks, while also ensuring fat chunks of development funds. The PML-N saved their voters in the trader class. As the phrase goes, everyone who was anyone got to wash their hands in the Ganges. But for the rest, there is the mantra of the difficult days. In India, the politicians promise ‘achay dinn’ while we have to settle for mushkil ones.

So many far better equipped at finance and the economy have explained this in detail in article after article and podcast after podcast.

And now the drops are forming deep puddles of dirty water.

Conversations among white-collar, ordinary people are about how not to pay taxes. Others have complicated conversations about establishing companies on foreign shores.

And the hopelessness afflicting the ordinary souls is creeping up.

A wealthy businessman speaks of family members who had left these lands long ago. They did the right thing, he said; I too should have moved and now I will. It was no longer possible to run a business in Pakistan, he added. He explains that over time whatever he has running in Pakistan might just slowly and steadily downsize and shut down.

Another one says friends have moved away not because they can’t afford to live comfortably in Pakistan but because life is less stressful elsewhere.

The conversations are endless. Neither are they new. But with each passing year and each political development, they become more desperate and more pessimistic. The budget is merely one such incident. It is so critical but there is so much more. The lack of tolerance and the lynchings; the unending blocking of X; the draconian laws; the enforced disappearances.

This sense of despair is not even recognised by those ruling us, who continue to talk down to the people, or rather at each other. For what else can one call the interminable conversations about the need for IMF programmes, the divisions between the judiciary or the parties (Fawad Chaudhry and Javed Latif got more attention in talk shows than the budget) and the vague promises of billions headed our way as investment? It is more than a disconnect; it’s a lack of respect for those who live in this country.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2024

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