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A half-life

August 09, 2012

I HAVE learned to live by the hour. Thanks to the on-off loadshedding policy of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and the Lahore Electric Supply Corporation (Lesco), I come alive on the hour, every alternate hour, for an hour.

It is like living a half-life. I suppose one should have become accustomed to the deprivation, just as a starving man reconciles to starvation — until he smells the aroma of food and then realises what he is missing.

Watching the London Olympics an hour at a time made me acutely aware of the difference between the developed haves and us developing have-nots. It is quite obvious, even in the dark, that we will never be able to host the Olympics, not in this century, not ever. After India’s recent and massive power outage, its chances could stand blighted. It may be many decades before it will be given the chance to repeat its success in hosting the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, which it hoped then would qualify it for the more prestigious Olympics.

Anyone who visited India in those days could sense the surge of self-confidence those Asian Games released. From the moment one landed at New Delhi airport (now named after Mrs Indira Gandhi, the prime mover behind those Games), one could see India’s pride advertised — whether in the tubular and colourful Rajasthani cloth hangings that brightened the arrival’s area or the ultra-modern six-lane expressways that barged their way through Delhi’s sleepy streets. India had arrived.

A generation later, the IT industry in Bangalore told the world that India was no more than a telephone call away from the modern world. Call centres outnumbered the gurus and the maharishis the West could turn to for help. But call centres, unlike gurus and maharishis, are dependent upon synthetic power. It cannot have been easy for an American customer to phone a paralysed call centre in India and to be put on hold for three days.

For countries such as ours, it is not the crisis that is the challenge; it is our ability (or inability) to manage it. We are so busy extricating ourselves from each pit of quicksand that we do not have the time or the foresight to anticipate the next one. We in Pakistan will never be anything because we have lost the will to become something.

You may argue that we can take pride in our hockey and cricket teams. Certainly, for they are the only team sport played at a national level. At the international level, though, cricket is not an Olympic sport, and in hockey we have not won a single Olympic Gold since 1984. Since 1992, for the past five Olympic Games, we have not won any medal of any colour. Looking at the pot-bellied official leading the Pakistani contingent in the opening ceremony recently, one could understand why. He personifies what has caused the rot.

For the British, the 2012 Olympic Games are a resurgence of their flagging national spirit. Coinciding with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Games have become an opportunity to wave the Union Jack and to remember the words of the national anthem. It does not matter whether Great Britain is lower in the medals table than China or the United States. As the host country, it will take the only gold for organising the Games with such precision and for its spectacular (if over-long) opening ceremony.

Had we hosted the Olympics, the opening ceremony would have been spread over seven hours, not three and a half. We would not have been able to make the complicated change-overs in time without tripping over each other. And we would not have been able to get the sheep out of the arena without calling in the butcher.

To those who regret not being able to watch the London Olympics in their entirety, one can offer a word of consolation. We have a substitute. Our equivalent of the Olympic Games is also held every four years, dependent though on the sighting of an electoral victory. The sportsmen and portswomen who intend to compete are in training at the moment in camps all over the country. Discus throwers are hurling insults at each other; archers are releasing poisoned barbs at their opponents; synchronised swimmers hold their noses with one hand and try to drown their fellow competitors with the other; sprinters aspire for the prime ministership. The gold medal of the marathon will go to the only contestant in that gruelling test of endurance — Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan.

Usually reliable sources have confirmed that orders for the medals have been placed. They will all be in gold, because no competitor in our Electoral Olympics is prepared to accept a silver or a bronze one.

True Olympians know that within every success lurks heartache. They spend years, if not a lifetime, training their bodies so that during that particular contest they should excel. Not for them the whine of defeat, the cringe of complaint, the disaffections of the disheartened. No excuses, no recriminations. The Olympics does not admit the blame game as a sport.

Our own national sport — politics — has gradually deteriorated to a level where it is no longer a contest between competitors hoping to secure the golden vote. It is a cemetery where policies have been buried under piles of invective, and priorities interred beneath mounds of self-interest.

Optimists who believe in a Day of Resurrection may be prepared to wait until then for their deliverance. Meanwhile, those with shorter fuses do what the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once exhorted, but in a different context. They will ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

The writer is a former principal of Aitchison College, Lahore.