Going home sometime tomorrow

The PM’s latest departure is for medical reasons, but he is familiar with reasons otherwise


Asad Rahim Khan May 30, 2016
The writer is a barrister and columnist. The views expressed are his own

“As the plane lifted off from Logan Airport, I strained to catch my last glimpse of the Boston skyline. Shopping at Filene’s Basement. Eating at the communal tables at Durgin Park. Going to the Casablanca to forget our hockey loss to Boston University […] With the lyrics to a Peter, Paul, and Mary song — ‘I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again’ — running through my mind, I flew home to Pakistan.”

So wrote Benazir Bhutto in 1973, the first of many dramatic returns. Her writing is nostalgic in the proper sense of the word: ‘nostalgia’ comes from Greek, meaning pain resulting from a desire to return home — one that may no longer exist.

For Shaheed Mohtarma, each Pakistan she came back to was unrecognisable from the last. She returned in ’73, at the dawn of Bhutto. She returned in ’86, to a junta that defined itself against Bhutto. And she returned in ’07, to a broken mess that had outrun Bhutto, and would take the life of his daughter.

Roberto Bolano once wrote, “All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.” Ms Bhutto was 19 on that jet plane, and many jet planes — and years of exile — were to follow.

As the press covers the prime minister’s heart surgery in London, as well-wishers pray for his health and happiness, as bureaucrats feverishly consult the Rules of Business, Pakistan lies in wait. Some say the premier may be out with two weeks’ bed-rest; some, like the song goes, don’t know when he’ll be back again.

The PM’s latest departure is for medical reasons, but he is familiar with reasons otherwise. Exile — forced or unforced — has a rich history here. Even the Quaid, depressed by the Congress’s ‘Ram Rajya’ hocus-pocus, left for London in the ‘30s. He could be seen handsomely fuming on West Heath Road, and practising law in the Privy Council. “I seem,” he told Durga Das, “to have reached a dead end.”

These are the wilderness years: the road to doubt, dismay, and, if one’s lucky, resurrection. We now know that was not Mr Jinnah’s dead end. Nor were the sands of Jeddah Mr Sharif’s.

The PM does not, perhaps, agree with the Greeks — that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. But there have been moments of rare reflection in exile.

“I thought to myself, Allah, you know better,” he told Mira Sethi. “For what mistake am I getting this punishment? Tu mujhe itna bata zaroor yey kis cheez ki saza hai. Takeh mein ainda repeat na karoun (Please tell me exactly for what I am being punished, for so I don’t repeat my mistake). Whatever has been done, Allah tou hee behtar jaanta hai (Allah knows best). As prime minister I did a lot of good things, but I also did bad things, perhaps. Tou uski shaid mujhe punishment mil rahi hai (Perhaps I am being punished for that).”

Rebirth isn’t a conceit limited to Pakistan: after months of rotting in French prison, Voltaire too escaped to London, where he came up with his masterpiece Letters Concerning the English Nation. Hugo had to flee to England itself to finish his finest work. And Hemingway penned The Sun Also Rises in self-exile, which best captures the essence of the ex-pat: “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you […] You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

But these are gents that, more or less, returned to the soil refreshed and revived. For millions of Pakistanis, that’s no longer the case. If anything, the opposite applies: zinda bhaag is the new mantra here.

Millions are leaving the country: from students that never come back, to professionals that leave for greener pastures, to state employees on scholarships that disappear into the ether.

Yet the state would much rather inhale billions in remittances, than make a home for its most talented. When told a fifth of the masses would much rather make a run for it, who can forget ex-PM Yousaf Raza Gilani going for a zinger. “Why don’t they just leave then?” asked YRG. “Who’s stopping them?”

But for a twenty-something embassy official with the world’s worst job, sir, no one’s stopping them, and they’re leaving in droves.

We have the (dubious) distinction of the seventh-largest diaspora in the world, and its exploding outwards. Not that there’s much alternative: were they all to return tomorrow, the state does not have a fraction of the economy to absorb them. As Tufail Hussain Malik quoted in another paper, brain-drain is better than a brain in the drain.

Worse still is what the diaspora is coming to feel: that the land they left is a pit of violence and wickedness — Pakistan’s image problem abroad is just as dangerous as its opportunity problem at home.

There are plenty of ideas for reversing the flow. During his time at the HEC, Dr Attaur Rehman piloted a scheme for expat professionals to return to public universities, and impart what they’ve learned. Examples range from India all the way to New Zealand — aimed at more jobs and bringing its best back home — and it’s time we took notice.

Mr Sharif will return to lead one of the world’s most populous nations, while the population tries its best to join other nations. And Pakistan is ever-changing.

When she touched down in 2007, Shaheed Mohtarma didn’t understand the past is another country. One can only wish that the prime minister, when he recovers and returns, will have understood. Ms Bhutto had ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ on her mind, far removed from another anthem on migration:

Going home without my sorrow

Going home sometime tomorrow

Going home to where it’s better

Than before

For millions of Pakistanis, tomorrow’s a long way from home.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2016.

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COMMENTS (6)

Rex Minor | 5 years ago | Reply Mr Sharif will return to lead one of the world’s most populous nations, while the population tries its best to join other nations. And Pakistan is ever-changing. What is it that the barrister author is trying to convey to the readers? That the one who murders and kills usualy long for and returns to the scene or the one who loves his or her home when compelled into exile and returns just to breath the air that gave him life or the one whose DNA does not properly functions in a land which is not reconcilable with the place of his birth? Mr Sharif will be a fool to return after recalling the fate of those who previously returned. But then the guy has never claimed to be a bright guy anyway.. Rex Minor
Anjum Niaz | 5 years ago | Reply Beautiful piece of writing. It certainly stirred feelings normally stacked away some place in the heart. Yes, Pakistan is our country and we love it, but when we see the moral decay i.e corruption, bribery, cheating and various other ills blatantly practiced by some 'respectable' people in their daily life, hope disappears.
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