Resilience: to what end?

Published July 17, 2011

IN the wake of urban tragedies such as last week’s Mumbai bombings and political violence in Karachi, there is only one thing left to celebrate: resilience.

Barely had the dust settled at Zaveri Bazaar, Dadar and Opera House when newspaper headlines began to champion the resilience of Mumbai and its terrorism-inured Mumbaikars. As the city returned to work, the world raved about the capacity of its residents to ‘bounce back’ and preserve the ‘spirit’ of their hometown.

Similar things have been said about Karachiites, who live amidst senseless and savage ethno-political violence yet resolutely get on with their life once the shots subside and the shop shutters are raised. Over the years, I have heard Pakistanis try to speak about their country in positive terms; inevitably, they wax eloquent about the infinite resilience of the people, whether in the face of gun battles, floods, poverty, corruption or military operations that displace them from their homes.

Resilience is revered as a noble attribute, one that hovers in the liminal space between divinity and humility. Much like charisma, resilience is considered an elusive yet admirable quality — hard to define, but easy to recognise, and daunting in its power. Resilience is romanticised through headlines, eulogies, pop songs and speeches. It is the politician’s last resort given the realities of a crumbling security apparatus and widespread devastation.

Perversely, the residents of violent places come to pride their own resilience. Attending a wedding the day after dozens have died in political violence; meeting a work deadline despite a spate of terrorist attacks; sending children to school without the guarantee of security. These are the heroic acts of resilience that we have come to rely on after terror.

But leave aside the romance, and what is left to recommend resilience? To be blunt, resilience is exhibited only when there is a lack of options. After all, what can one do in the face of mounting horror except press on? Routine and a sense of responsibility become sanctuaries against the fear of an ever-worsening situation. For many, resilience is a trumped-up version of survival. During the recent turmoil in Karachi, children in Orangi Town and other parts of the city remained hungry and thirsty for days while violence raged around them. When their parents returned to work and to the shops, they did not do so out of resilience, but out of desperation.

Resilience is also a euphemism for a pervasive lack of faith in the state. Consider for a moment how a dearth of resilience would manifest on the streets of Karachi and Mumbai: through public protest against poor intelligence, inadequate security arrangements and hapless governance. Through rallies and petitions demanding more accountability and better policy planning on the part of the government and civilian law-enforcers. Through poetry and sloganeering designed to remind the world of the value of each precious life lost as a result of state neglect, violent politicking and organised crime.

In other words, people do not get on with their lives because they are resilient. They are resilient because they know that there is nothing to be gained from kicking up a fuss. Rather than waste their time and energy demanding anything better of their elected or imposed representatives, they go back to work. Resilience, then, is more akin to resignation to one’s fate.

In South Asia and other parts of the developing world, resilience is also a consequence of the fact that despite living in cities with populations of up to 20 million, most people inhabit small communities comprising an extended family network, a biraderi, a mosque or temple and a workplace. The ties that bind exist at the level of the alley, not the city. They require one to identify with kin, not urban geography. And these small networks of kinship and patronage define the parameters of urban existence — as long as one’s network remains intact after a horrifying event, resilience comes easy.

Speaking last week to India Today, one Mumbaikar confessed, “everyone just calls up their family and friends to check if they are safe and once this drill is over, people just forget about the innocent people who have been killed”. This ‘you’re-okay, I’m-okay’ system is often cited by anthropologists and sociologists as the underlying source of stability and durability in South Asian societies. During horrifying periods of violence, the rule certainly applies, as people who are not directly affected are easily able to get on with their daily lives. Given the sheer size of some of the cities in question, resilience then becomes a matter of statistics: if 18 people die in a city of over 18 million, how hard is it for the majority to adopt a resilient mien?

It is time to challenge the myth of resilience. The attribute implies that violence is acceptable, and that it can be absorbed and deflected as a matter of routine. Rather than celebrate resilience, the media should offer sustained, long-term coverage of those directly affected by violence to emphasise just how vulnerable we all really are, and to evoke empathy.

Without empathy, resilience is merely a polite term for selfishness. To work for overall prosperity and stability, people need to stop identifying with their circumscribed social networks and start investing in bigger ideas and institutions. They must see themselves not only as members of their families and kinship groups, but also in the broader context of the cities and social structures they inhabit. Only then will the dubious quality of resilience be replaced with the public outrage needed to hold flailing states accountable.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

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