By Fareeha Qayoom
dropped by at a friend’s workplace the other day for a cup of tea and bit of socializing. It was three pm in the afternoon. It was hot. I had been on the road all day driving my sister to and fro. I sandwiched this visit between her visits. I had to go back and collect her but in the meantime I was all set to kill some time and look up a friend at the same time. The visit was like an oasis in the middle of desert.
I hate small talk so we straightaway plunged into talking about serious stuff, you know, his family, news of our mutual friends, the state of economy, the exorbitant utility bills, the weird security checks at his workplace; basically, life as we know it in Pakistan. At one point, I asked him, so what do you think? Who is in charge of our country? He pondered for a bit and then said, “Allah.” I asked him again, “Yes, I agree, he is always in charge but on paper – who do you think is in charge?” He couldn’t come up with an answer. I wasn’t sure either. (We keep coming back to this odd refrain, “sub kuch Allah par chor do,” [translation: leave everything to God] to quote Shahzad Roy’s song, Lagga Reh! He struck a chord when he sang that song.)
Is it our government? Is it the TTP? Is it the prime minister? Is it the president? Is it the Army? Is it the people? Or is it the government utility companies like LESCO (WAPDA) or Sui Gas? Or is it the producers or the consumers? Is it the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank? Who the heck is in charge? “There are three A’s running Pakistan – Allah, Army and America!” said one guest on a TV talk show recently (forgot the names unfortunately – sorry). He struck another chord.
My sister (the one who is on visit from USA after a long absence) thinks it’s all a smokescreen. We should be blaming ourselves for all our problems. We shouldn’t blame USA or Afghanistan or India or our government or lack of education or our population explosion or our poverty and ignorance or our brain drain or lack of opportunities or rampant unemployment, bankruptcies, lack of governance on external sources. We should blame ourselves. Americans apparently do not take too much interest in their country like we do. They pay their taxes and they choose their leaders and they forget about the governance issues. They do not talk to death the invariable problems that might litter their days because happily for them, they are not littered with so many problems anyway.
According to my sister, living in Pakistan is hard because dealing with load-shedding, traffic on the roads, noise pollution, people’s general inconsideration for their fellow man, unprofessional and whiny behavior of most vendors and high prices (she’s trying to get her art catalog printed from Pakistan, after this experience she’d rather deal with China next time!) adds at least six hours of hard work on top of an average day. It’s a pressure cooker high stress situation that would drive anybody around the bend and she’d rather not deal with it if she can help it, thank you very much! It might be politically incorrect but she hardly misses Pakistan. Apparently, all she misses is her family and friends from Pakistan, and may be basant but since spring is no longer celebrated in Lahore anyway, she can live without her native country if given a choice.
We visited a cousin who lives in GOR 1 the other day. We had to go through the aggravation of going through a road block, two security checks, constantly being interrupted by impatient honking drivers in big cars while conversing with the policeman, having to move the car forwards and backwards and then being finally allowed to move; (for those of you who don’t know if you haven’t visited Lahore, GOR 1 is a well planned green residential district for the snooty government officials – the minute you cross over, you are transported into another country as it were)…according to my sister, the rest of the city is for the riff-raff and this is the place for people who really matter…the contrast is truly amazing. She wasn’t joking when she said this. She repeated her observation to our cousin too. She was quick to retort, “You live in Defence too!” “It’s hardly the same,” my sister quickly retorted back.
Looking through my sister’s objective eyes at today’s Pakistan was a unique experience for me. Social injustice at up close and personal is not attractive. We might call ourselves Muslims but we hardily practice our religion. We sold out long time ago, we just never realized it. Might is right in all spheres of life. Be that on the road, dealing with shop keepers, at home or at the workplace. “Playing humble in Pakistan doesn’t work,” as one cousin (based in Karachi) advised my sister. Apparently, you have to be somebody ‘real important,’ otherwise lie like crazy and create a facade! (My sister might be considered a big shot in Pakistani terms, an artist with loads of solo art showings under her belt, dual citizenship, an enviable lifestyle, a brand new career in academics, a couple of nice degrees, a distinguished successful corporate career that she left behind in Pakistan but she doesn’t take herself seriously enough and is unnecessarily humble in our cousin’s opinion!)
Life in Pakistan is about creating visions of grandeur (while the unprivileged around you are forced to beg, borrow or steal or simply die of poverty and deprivation!). If you don’t want to indulge in this behavior, be prepared to be trampled on by anyone and everyone higher on top of this particular food chain. Buy the biggest car you can afford. Hog the road. Eat at the best restaurants, wear designer labels, talk like certified legally blonde only interested in spending money left, right and center, parties and designer lifestyle, flash your money, your four Kanal house in a posh neighborhood, your influential and powerful friends and family, your acres of land in some far-away village, etc, etc. and yes you need at least 250-300K per month minimum to maintain such a fancy lifestyle to be able to say to your peers – “hello, I exist and I matter in the bigger scheme of things!” Sigh. Most Pakistanis are living a life of quiet desperation. Her slant on an average middle class household (or is it an upper middle class?) reminded me of the popular soap opera, “Desperate Housewives!” Things might look normal from distance but underneath it all, a virtual volcano is smoldering which might erupt any minute. The residents of Wisteria Lane live lives of quiet desperation too.
This brings me full circle – who is really in charge of Pakistan? Can order be restored anytime soon?