Something is just not right. It’s that gnawing feeling in the deep and dark recesses of your being; a dull ache that pulsates with a rhythmic beat every waking hour of every single day.
Something is just not right.
Nothing has really changed in that typically fundamental way. There is a certain method to Pakistan; a certain predictable unfolding of life day after day that has not altered in decades. Years have layered upon each other like sediments on a rocky shore, but essentially life here, now, is pretty much the same as life here was back then.
Yes, this means we are shuffling past milestones that lost significance a while back. Nearly seven decades on, that’s not a story you want to tell your grandchildren. That’s not a story you want to tell anyone. Period.
So you desperately look for feel-good signs. Back then we did not have elections. Now we do. Oh joy. Back then unrepresentative leadership represented villainous chicanery. Now it doesn’t. Praise the Lord. Back then we were in the pits because we had been flung there by tinpot dictators. Now we are still in the pits, but disagree on who kicked us in.
Still, we’re better off, right? There’s freedom all around you lapping gently like sea waves on a calm sunny day. There’s political choice and judicial munificence; there’s provincial autonomy and economic revitalisation; there’s even the resolve to fight the really bad guys. So you see, are we not better off now, than back then when tinpot dictators strutted across this land like imperious roosters?
But wait. There’s that dull ache again. It’s like a hammer going thud, thud, thud inside your head. What is it? Why doesn’t it go away?
You are told we are on the right track; that we have finally turned the corner; that given time and a greater dose of representative democracy, all shall be well. You are assured that good things come to those who wait (and endure); that there are no shortcuts in life and in wealth-creation (really?); that as long as the provinces get their NFC, and the Centre gets the tax system right, we have enough money to buy ourselves a glorious future.
And oh, look at the unfolding love story of the Civ and the Mil. Beautiful. Dancing fairies and pretty daffodils all around. Go ahead, wipe that tear of joy. You deserve it, after all those nasty years. Aren’t you the lucky one!
Thud, thud, thud. It just does not go away.
You look at Lahore and you feel good. Real good. There’s some serious project-based governance happening here, and to an extent in the province. The roads are shiny and the bridges are aesthetically curvaceous. Traffic is orderly and the Metro runs on time. Emergency services like 1122 do actually work. Tales of rapacious corruption are few, and a semblance of work does get done — normally — in government offices. The Chief Minister is a hurricane on two legs. And you think to yourself: what a wonderful world.
You look at Peshawar and you feel good. Fairly good. There’s some governance that can be detected. The government is responsive and reforms have shown promising results. Accountability is a huge achievement evidenced by the arrest of a minister. You look at this political grandee being dragged in courts and you feel a pang of delicious vindication: this too can happen in my country. And you think to yourself: what a wonderful world.
You look at Karachi and Sindh, and you vomit. What sins did this province commit to be burdened with the rot disguised as governance? Oh well, at least you have Punjab and K-P. You look at Balochistan and you see a land frozen in time, ravaged by wave after wave of disastrous policy and archaic tradition. Social evolution, it appears, bypassed this part of our country. What did the proud people of this harshly beautiful land do to deserve this fate?
And yet this country is on the march. Right? You see the armed forces battling our existential war that should have been fought a decade ago, and you silently mouth the words, ‘Thank God’. You see the political parties ganging up to save the system against all external shocks, and you whisper a prayer. You see millions of common citizens helping the less fortunate ones through billions of rupees in charity, and you bless them for their generosity and their sense of social and religious duty. You look around you and you see boys and girls going to schools and colleges drenched with hope for a better tomorrow. And you think to yourself: what a wonderful world.
And then you involuntarily rub your temples with your thumbs to ease the discomfort. And finally ask yourself: where am I headed? Where are they taking me? I am climbing a ladder, but is the ladder leaning against the right tree? Is my life, and the life of my children, and their children, defined by the priorities of those who are guilty of the unpardonable crime of not educating Pakistan in nearly seven decades? These flashes of sporadic governance that I see, do these actually sculpt my tomorrow? What’s the best that I can aspire to? Why has no one defined that best for me, so I could define it for my children, and they for theirs?
Yes, yes, I know the list parroted every day: improved finances, stronger economy, wider tax net, high-class infrastructure, clean drinking water and better health facilities, electronic FIRs and one-window service delivery. This is good. But this good is not good enough. You know why? Because it shows me pieces but not the picture; a few strokes on a larger canvass, but not the painting? What’s my tomorrowland? What am I aspiring to? Everybody is obsessed with the journey; no one spells out the destination.
So tell me the outer limits of your thinking. What comes after the list? What do we struggle for? Strive for? Fight for? What should consume us? Obsess us? Possess us? What is the scale of our ambition above and beyond the banality of project-based governance?
“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
I dare you to show me the shimmering lights of Tomorrowland. Or do you not know what that is?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2015.
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