A split screen - Ghazi Salahuddin Sunday, March 18, 2012

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-98294-A-split-screen


In the evening of the afternoon when there was an armed robbery in my younger brother’s house, I was at a dinner party that was attended by some distinguished and successful individuals. For me, the highlight of the evening was a passionate argument by one of them that at this time, Pakistan is making good progress s and we have reasons to be cheerful about its bright prospects.

I must admit that he seemed fairly credible in those highly secure and tastefully affluent surroundings. Look at the stock market. We are mending fences with India, particularly in the domain of trade. There is so much else, including the domination of our male singers in Bollywood and, of course, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Please put your hands together.

I could have added another name to celebrate, that of Shad Begum – a social activist from Lower Dir who received the International Women of Courage Award in Washington on March 8 by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, with a regret that she had somehow not been appropriately applauded in our media.

Now, I have learnt to not immediately contest such assertions of optimism. I also recognise the emotional need to ward off this surge of gloom that is dispensed by events and opinions projected in the media, though I also plead guilty of belonging to the depressed lot. In fact, I do sometimes struggle in my mind to break out of this rather claustrophobic feeling of despair about the national drift.

There is another reason why I find it interesting to listen to the people who reject the common perception that we are surrounded by disarray, though, alas, they are rather hard to find. You just let them go on and on and eventually they begin to show signs of anxiety about the prevailing state of affairs.

This is so because there is certainly a seamy side of whatever hope we can locate in any given situation. The problem here is to draw realistic and reliable conclusions that are also informed by your personal experiences and observations. And, to be sure, much would depend on one’s own circumstances and place in the order of things.

In that sense, we may all have our separate image of Pakistan and where it is going. At the same time, this image – a mosaic of a million fragments, perhaps – has to have some coherence and a meaning that has relevance to the lives of the ordinary citizens of Pakistan. We should be able to measure the quality of, say, the law and order and such vital facilities as schools, hospitals, transport and housing.

Coming back to the evening to which I refer at the outset, I confess that I was a bit confused at that time. Just a couple of hours before that encounter, I was at my brother’s house in Gulshan and had heard the harrowing details of the robbery. The material loss, in spite of its value for a middle-class household, is quite bearable but the trauma that my sister-in-law and niece had to suffer is something else.

There is no point in dilating on this outrage because such experiences are now shared by many families. So much more frequent are instances of hold-ups in public places at gun point, resulting in the loss of cell phones and wallets. What I need to report is that while listening to those glad tidings, another stream of thought ran through my mind. I was quite like a split screen, showing opposite faces of reality.

This metaphor of a split screen, I think, is better than that cliché of the glass being half full Рor half empty. Besides, I always wonder why this half-and-half assumption is made when a rational and a reality-based analysis of any situation is bound to tilt in one or the other direction. And do we know what the glass is half full with?

On Wednesday, I read the report of Hillary Clinton’s address to the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference held in Washington. She said: “There are multiple overlapping worlds in Pakistan and we have to deal with all of them”. Irrespective of how America deals with the complexity of Pakistan, we have a more formidable task ahead of us. We live in these overlapping worlds. We must not only comprehend the manifold realities but also change them. No one will say that this is an easy task.

In most societies, the very rich and the very poor live in their separate worlds. Ironical it is that even in the professedly egalitarian systems, economic progress has made the rich richer at the cost of the vast majority. It will be instructive to study the Occupy Wall Street campaign launched in New York in September last year.

What was their slogan? “We are the 99 percent”. So, if there are valid reasons to rise against social and economic inequality in the only superpower of this world, the justification for the poor to demand justice in an exceptionally deprived country is very obvious. But there are no signs of an organised and coherent struggle for political, social and economic emancipation in Pakistan. Our leaders, who almost ritualistically cry out for change, seem more confused about the multiple realities of Pakistan than their followers.

As a journalist, I have some experience of drifting in and out of the separate worlds that coexist in Pakistan. A peep through the corridors of power can be as heartbreaking as a stroll across a poor settlement in the city. There are those who live in a medieval era – and drive unregistered SUVs. There is a sprawling world inhabited by religious fanatics. And there are well-guarded islands of prosperity.

Finally, there are the streets and bazaars of the big cities where these different worlds sometimes fleetingly mingle to create a shrill symphony of disorder. What we have are mobs swirling across the landscape without any sense of discipline or direction. They seem angry and intolerant and impatient. You have to perhaps ignore this pulsating reality and retreat to a private world, fortified by high walls and armed guards, to nurture hope for a Pakistan that is civilised and literate and productive.

In any case, the real issue is to interpret the reality of Pakistan, with all its burdens and all its prospects. My prescription for young people, whenever I interact with them, is to make their own portrait of Pakistan on the basis of facts and perceptions that they collect on their own. They would need to look at the rising stock market and the glory of our singers and the exploits of the modern Pakistani woman.

But can these threads of scarlet be stretched long enough to cover the entire canvas of the lives of the 99 percent?

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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