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Many who have kept their eyes shut for a long time may not wish to open them now


Those who wish to fathom what is going on in our land need to wake up for real and pay heed to Ghalib:

ہے غیبِ غیب جس کو سمجھتے ہیں ہم شہود

ہیں خواب میں ہنوز جو جاگے ہیں خواب میں

(What we consider presence is the ‘absence of absence’

When we wake in a dream, we are still in a dream)

Of course, many who have kept their eyes shut for a long time may not wish to open them now. Or if they do, they might prefer spending time praying for a miracle or a saviour who would fix everything so that they could go back to sleep. They might have to wait a long time. Ghalib again:

تا پھر نہ انتظار میں نیند آئے عمر بھر

آنے کا عہد کر گئے آئے جو خواب میں

(So that, in waiting, one would never sleep again

The one who came in a dream promised to return)

I am reminded of the story, surely apocryphal, of a hockey match between our team, one-time world champions, and an upstart South Korea, a new entrant in the sport. On the morning of the contest, a reporter asked the captains of both teams how they had spent the night. The South Koreans had watched videos of all of our team’s previous games; our players had spent the entire night praying.

A backdrop image is of boots and bootlickers, all exhausted in the service of nation, risking their lives in the process, dodging stray balls on illegally acquired golf courses as they walk all over everyone and everything

Or team lost. Prayers can only take one so far though that is no reason to lose faith. There was our cricket captain who after every loss insisted that the boys played very well but Lord Almighty did not wish them to win that particular game. Nevertheless, there still were lessons the team would take away for the next encounter although it was not clear how they would interact with the Lord’s will. He was by no means ungrateful like Mir Taqi Mir:

نا حق ہم مجبوروں پر یہ تہمت ہے مختاری کی

چاہتے ہیں سو آپ کریں ہیں ہم کو عبث بد نام کیا

(It’s unfair that those without choice are blamed for free will

He does what he wants while we incur infamy for no reason at all)

One can get to appreciate what Ghalib might have meant by the ‘absence of absence.’

Setting the prayer beads aside, what is a faithful representation likely to reveal?

نہیں کچھ سبحہ و زنّار کے پھندے میں گیرائی

وفاداری میں شیخ و برہمن کی آزمائش ہے

(There is no grip in the snare of prayer beads and sacred thread

In faithfulness is the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin)

Some images come to mind:

  1. Favela

One could visualize a stylized but vivid picture of the favelas of Rio each of them contested by rival gangs vying for domination. Coming to terms with a favela requires seeing its reality for what it is. One would go horribly wrong thinking of it as a small democratic republic. When the state sends a representative with a warrant to a gang leader’s home, there is little chance he would be received politely. More likely, he would be met by fierce resistance, often with gun fire.

Deciding which gang would rule the favela by means of an election, even if mandated by the Supreme Court of the country, would strike the residents as bizarre. Which gang would take its loss lying down and accept it as fair? Only the completely deluded could think along these lines.

  1. Robin Hood

An image that comes to mind is that of Robin Hood and his gang all standing on their heads. Robin Hood and his merry men were robbers alright but they, so it is said, robbed the rich to benefit the poor. Their modern-day avatars are robbing the poor to benefit the rich and themselves most of all. How amazing that they can do so for so long a time without a loss of consciousness.

  1. Nero

On to Nero who at least had the aesthetic sense to make music while Rome burned. Or Wajid Ali Shah who left pieces of enduring beauty as his kingdom was being lost. A century and half later, all we have in our land, while the lights go out, are people grubbing around in the royal gift depositary for Rolex watches and pearl necklaces.

Meanwhile, in between breaks from grubbing, the grubbers keep enacting laws to elevate themselves above the law.

شرع و آئین پر مدار سہی

ایسے قاتل کا کیا کرے کوئی

(Even on the basis of religious and secular law

What can anyone do with such a killer?)

4: Adam and Eve

Imagine Adam and Eve having had to check-in their fig-leaves before they left. Now everyone is naked in the Shahi Hamam.

نکلنا خلد سے آدم کا سنتے آئے ہیں لیکن

بہت بے آبرو ہو کر ترے کوچے سے ہم نکلے

(We have heard of the exit of Adam from Paradise

We emerged very disgraced from your street)

  1. Chickens

This image, entirely hypothetical, is that of chickens running around with their heads cut off. Over here, the chickens, heads very much in place, are running around trying to reimagine the country quite oblivious of the fact that their imaginations are as chicken-sized as when they were part of Grubbers & Sons, Daughters, Uncles, Aunts, Brother-in-Laws, Cousins, etc., etc.

بچتے نہیں مواخذۂ روزِ حشر سے

قاتل اگر رقیب ہے تو تم گواہ ہو

(There is no escape from the reckoning of the Day of Judgment

If the rival is a murderer, you are a witness too)

6: Boots

A backdrop image is of boots and bootlickers, all exhausted in the service of nation, risking their lives in the process, dodging stray balls on illegally acquired golf courses as they walk all over everyone and everything. Surely, they deserve to be rewarded handsomely in the here-in and the here-after.

One is reminded of the Czech sailor who was marooned on a tiny island. After many years alone, he sees a mermaid approaching. As she emerges out of the water, he grasps her in desperation and pleads: “Do you have a beer?” We don’t drink here so we will take plots. Houris can wait.

ہیں کواکب کچھ نظر آتے ہیں کچھ

دیتے ہیں دھوکہ یہ بازی گر کھلا

(The stars are one thing and appear another

These tricksters fool us openly)


About the Author

0-Anjum-Altaf-1Dr. Anjum Altaf earned his PhD from Stanford University. He was Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He is the author of Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction and What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, both published by Folio Books, Lahore, in 2022. Anjum Altaf is also the co-author (with Amit Basole) of Thinking with Ghalib: Poetry for a New Generation, Folio Books Lahore, Roli Books Delhi (2019).

Courtesy: Anjum Altaf/The South Asian Idea (Posted on March 25, 2023)


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