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The real Pakistan

May 08, 2013

IT would seem that the sorrows of the subcontinent are neatly divided into two. On one side lie the shroud-covered bodies of terror’s victims.

On the other lie the failures of urban survival, the burnt bodies of men from one factory fire in Baldia Town, the crushed bodies of women from a fallen building in Bangladesh.

One set of tragedies is pinned to the dictates of ideology — the battles over the meaning of faith and life — and the other is determined by the wants of existence itself — the roof over the head, the cloth for the body.

These questions of life find, if a culture is lucky, a place in art. In the story, the play, the poem or the novel, these questions are presented in a way easy enough to be considered by the ordinary and the confused.

Is it economics and the droves of the urban poor eking out precarious livings in vast slums and crumbling factories that define the core of Pakistan’s predicament? Or is it the wars of ideology, the questions of faith that are the better descriptors of the rifts that rend Pakistan?

At a time when both Pakistanis and the rest of the world seem confounded by these questions, the work of author Mohsin Hamid presents an insightful translation of the quandary.

The film version of Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is currently being screened at movie theatres in the US, and the timing of its release could not be more apt.

As American news outlets pore and ponder over every detail of the Tsarnaev brothers’ lives and Iron Man 3 presents again the terrorist ogre as the ultimate villain, here comes a cinematically brilliant production presenting the complications of a country reduced too often in the world’s imagination to a singularly sinister place.

In exploring the dimensions of fundamentalism and civilisational conflict, The Reluctant Fundamentalist presents an ideological frame of looking at Pakistan and what ails it.

In Hamid’s story, now committed to screen by Mira Nair, Pakistan comes alive not as the flat, churlishly constructed backdrop of a CIA operation (remember Zero Dark Thirty?) but as a country with real people, their personal lives torn apart by the vagaries of civilisational conflict.

Changez, the hard-working immigrant son, is disillusioned after the Sept 11 attacks — the suspicion they breed stealing from him the level playing field that America is supposed to represent.

The young investment banker on his way to making a grand fortune in the glass-walled skyscrapers of New York finds himself reduced to a perennial terrorist suspect because of his Pakistani heritage, humiliated again and again by a racist and paranoid American political climate. He returns to Pakistan, and the narrative venue of the film is an interview with a foreign journalist, who promises to Changez that he will “listen to the whole story”.

The “whole story”, as presented in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is one of the complexities of ideology, of the questions money cannot answer and the allegiances money cannot buy. Changez leaves America, the land of capitalism and opportunity, to live a more ‘authentic’ existence in Pakistan, an exercise not without complications.

However, if The Reluctant Fundamentalist paid homage to that frame of divining what best defines the country, Hamid’s latest book, How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, presents another.

Here is life as seen through the eyes of a slum-dwelling kid, whose actions are dictated by the singular hunger of escaping poverty, whose relationships are as ruthless as his drive.

The unnamed protagonist lies, cheats, defrauds and does what he must to live. There is no question of faith here, no deep quandaries of ethics and no existential conflicts about authenticity. Unlike The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is specifically located in Lahore, presenting the city’s flair and flavour, How To Get Filthy Rich never reveals its location.

The difference is crucial; the inference is that while Pakistan’s ideological struggles make it unique, its economic realities make it just like any other developing country.

This then is the question before Pakistan as it stands to choose another leader. The frame that Pakistani voters consider more apt, the ideological or the economic, can determine the country’s future.

Is the country going to focus on solving the problems that it shares with all the countries in South Asia and the rest of the developing world in its erstwhile race to the bottom, remembering the factory fires, the urban slums and the precariousness of survival?

Or, is it going to decide its future and so its identity in relation to its ideological oppositions, the meddlesome intrusions of Western powers, the craving to return to an unseen, authentic past?

Is the real Pakistani the hardscrabble slum child who wants a school, a job, a chance to succeed? Or is the real Pakistani the disillusioned newly returned immigrant son who finds that neither the simplistic rhetoric of foreign opportunity nor the simple militarism of Islamism defines him?

As several post-colonial authors have noted, the possibilities of regional solidarity in South Asia depend on which of these two frames are chosen. If Pakistan decides to define itself by the pragmatic universalities of economics over ideology, it can choose to create a relationship with the world based on the problems it holds in common with them. If it chooses to focus on its ideological rifts and divisions, it may remain apart and hence isolated. The real Pakistan, in terms of truth, may lie between the two — caught in the midst of the complications of both ideology and economics, the questions of hunger and heaven, each to be asked and answered soon at the ballot box.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.