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Manufacturing happiness

November 02, 2011

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THE grass is always greener on the other side, so it is said. Crises also assume a more horrific image when viewed from a distance, especially when the media is there to beat the drums. But when you get closer to the scene of action in both situations you find that things are not always what they appear to be.

On returning to Karachi after an extended holiday with my family, I had braced myself for landing in a country on the brink.

But the Jinnah International Airport did not give that air. Not that Pakistan is prospering or the economy has not been in the doldrums or that the violence and crime graph has not been shooting up. The situation is pretty grim. But hasn’t it been so for a long time now? Yet the country survives and people continue to lead a life as close to normality as whatever their normal is.

We are told that depression is on the rise and many find it difficult to function normally so struck are they by anxiety, fear and pessimism. Television continues to spew out stories of impending disaster. A young intelligent woman who has made it to the top in banking (she is the MD of a foreign bank) complains that the media is always so negative that we can never hope to pull ourselves out of this morass.

She is right in a way. The media does not have to suppress facts, but it can temper tragedies with inspiring stories of success of people with a social conscience. It is they who keep Pakistan afloat. I remembered what my friend Durriya Kazi — an artist with a heart of gold — had once suggested to me a number of years ago. Being disheartened by the negativity of the media, she had asked me, “Why doesn’t your newspaper have at least one page titled ‘Good News’ carrying write-ups on the positive work people are doing? It would bring cheer to many readers.”

Durriya is herself busy spreading happiness around her. As the chairperson of the University of Karachi’s Visual Studies department that she helped found in 1999, Durriya speaks of the changes she has seen coming. With 400 students from lower- and middle-income groups on her rolls, she has facilitated the blossoming of their potential by giving them the skills for artistic expression.

Describing the university as a cosmopolitan institution, she says her students interact with youth of all cultural backgrounds and classes while the ongoing dialogue between them has a humanising impact. The first lesson they learn as art students is that three different artists will draw a picture of the same object in markedly different ways with each being equally good aesthetically. That is the power of perception. Perspectives may vary but you just have to look for the good in others and see how that can help society.

This is the secret of Durriya’s popularity as a teacher — her deep sense of social responsibility which she feels all of us must have. For her it is a matter of providing opportunities to her students and thus giving them the confidence they lack. That paves the way for the transformation she is looking forward to very keenly. She says change is inevitable and those who have a privileged lifestyle cannot live for long in a bubble of their own. Privileged are those who spread happiness and derive immense satisfaction from it.

One doesn’t really need massive resources to be in the happiness business. Many activists who work to provide opportunities to people who would otherwise be denied them are not millionaires. Be it Durriya Kazi herself — her email ID is a sweet-sounding ‘meetha pani’ — or the numerous others she spoke about, it is their work that cheers people. Instead of constantly complaining about corruption, poor governance and so on they just go forward to try to change people’s lives. There is Farida Zuberi whose young workers in Teach for Pakistan go to villages to educate children.

Ghaffar Billoo, the doctor who made a name for himself as a paediatrician, is now busy empowering people through an NGO called HANDS which works for human development through health and nutrition. A lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, takes up pro bono cases — he has worked with WAR (War Against Rape) to bring justice to rape survivors and is best known for his victory in the SITE toxic waste-dumping case that had led to the death of a child and the disabling of another.

Although they work with the less privileged, these good Samaritans are not dejected even in the worst of times. They are motivated and involved. Most of them are not wealthy either. What matters is their spirit. Many people are generous in donating to charity. According to Anatol Lieven, the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country Pakistan generates philanthropy worth five per cent of its GDP. But how many give time, humanity and a smile to change lives?

Even if each of us were to adopt one family in need to provide it moral support and cheer, how much social capital would be generated to break the prevailing inertia and set into motion the momentum for change that Durriya wants. The efforts so far are fragmented at best, she admits. She is hopeful that a time will come when these efforts will coalesce. Only if the media would see this as a worthy cause.

www.zubeidamustafa.com