Pakistan is on my mind. My family, relatives and friends in Pakistan are on my mind. The poor are on my mind, since the hangama on the streets will obviously wreak more havoc in their lives than anyone else’s. Average people aren’t able to find petrol/gas to get to work. The fear of demonstrations and police crackdowns will infest the homes of all and sundry.
To borrow from Lawrence’s post about Benazir (he calls her “Possibility”), I always look upon Pakistan as a pressure cooker – but a pressure cooker bubbling with passionate potential. You never know what it’s going to come up with.
It will be unpredictable, frustratingly unpredictable to those who want to plan the futures of millions. You could plunder the treasury for years and make your millions off the starving masses, and suddenly you are stopped in your tracks. The same masses could lift a cricket player on their shoulders, hoping he might be their knight in shining armor. They call for change, for affordable meat and lentils, for decent schools, for values, for security, for jobs. They tolerate even plunderers of the nation’s wealth, hoping for a different tomorrow. Their demands are not complicated. They don’t ask for much. They just want to be able to live lives of tolerable dignity, with food, water and clothing. They want safety in their lives and their honor. They want some protection from invaders, from the exploitation of the wealthy classes and from the ruling classes.
When people ask me what Pakistan is like, I’m stumped. I have to explain that Pakistan is two things. Pakistan is the place where people can buy foreign products – Levi’s jeans, Skechers shoes, Body Shop cosmetics right in the middle of Gulberg – and eat in foreign restaurants. Pakistan is the place where the price of onions and lentils goes up so high that the poor can barely afford to eat. Pakistan is the place where people can spend thousands of rupees a night, amusing themselves in private parties and restaurants. Pakistan is the place where power outages are common, in the middle of the summer. Pakistan is where some people have airconditioners throughout their homes so that they never even experience the weather, and it is the place where some have barely a table fan to cool off.
So which Pakistan do you want to know? Which Pakistan do you want to experience? Depending on how much money you have, you can get your pick. You can have a good time, and you can come back swearing about how nasty, brutish and short the lives of “those people” are. I know Pakistanis who can trip back and forth across the globe, easily living lives of inexpressible comfort in both Pakistan and the US. I know people in Lahore who have doctors in the family yet can just barely manage to make ends meet.
Immigrants like me are shaken and traumatized by the events and the changes in Pakistan. I remember the curfews after Bhutto’s execution. I remember Zia’s violent death in the plane crash. I remember the undisguised corruption of politicians and rulers. I remember the endless unanswered questions, the frustration of average Pakistanis who wanted to live with basic dignity.
Naziraan, our maid, looked over a one rupee coin with the image of Quaid-e-Azam on it and said wistfully, “eh haunda te ennee mehngaai na haundee” (If he was alive, there wouldn’t be so much inflation.) Naziraan wanted a TV: she didn’t want to have to go to neighbours’ homes to watch movies. Naziraan wanted a fan for the home. There was always a glimmer of hope in some hero/ine. Bhutto would fix it. Zia might fix it. Benazir might do some good. Nawaz Sharif might be different. Heck, even Musharraf might surprise us. And so we wait.
While Naziraan waited for a fan, our friends shipped over American SUVs as gifts for family members. Others scraped together money earned in Dubai to pay for their daughters’ weddings. They worked, day after day, in the desert heat, far away from their loved ones, hoping to reconstruct their children’s lives. “So that they might have something better than us.” My father worked all his life and forgot how to relax and enjoy himself, forgot how to take vacations, working both morning and evening and coming home tired and bored, so that he could save enough money for us, so that he could put us in the best private schools. And then I got in a plane and left, taking with me the investment of years.
I watched and wondered if there might be a way for me to go back, to make some contribution, to raise my child there, to live a life of real contact with real people who spoke my language. And my brother said to me, “Why would you come back? Make your life there.” So I stay here, and my heart remains split in two. It lives half in the Pakistan of the 1980s and half in the US of today. I am divided between two spaces and two times.
But this isn’t about me. This is about the lives that are being crushed under the military boot, the lives being moved around by great invisible hands over a chess-board.
The helplessness of average people is palpable when you land there. They watch you as you exit from International Arrivals, hoping you might take their cab, or allow them to carry your suitcases full of unknown goodies. The hunger is unending. The frustration has been building up for years. The pressure cooker has been bubbling for years, and no one lifts the lid. Promises, laws, bans, curfews, policies and empty words. No one listens.
And then foreign viewers of CNN wonder what is wrong with the angry faces burning tires on Mall Road in the Lahore. They watch the contorted faces with uncomprehending fear, hoping those faces stay right where they are, with their funny languages, their strange religion, and their swarthy complexions. Surely they must be calling for something strange and outlandish, like some barbaric laws or death and destruction … – when truly, some peace, security, a bit of food and drink, and some honor and dignity might really work just as well.