Posted by Mahim Maher
School would be out at 1:35pm in Karachi and by about 2pm I would wearily clamber out of the car with my book bag and trudge up to Aunty Parveen Maneckjee’s flat in Bath Island for tuitions. Her third-floor prison would hold me till 5pm. Aunty Parveen, a Parsi (Zoroastrian) lady, taught at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and was a childhood friend of my father’s from his days in Keamari, a small neighbourhood near the harbour. I would be entrusted in her care until my mother could pick me and take me home after work.
As Aunty Parveen was a primary school teacher and I was a grade 6 student, she would not actively tutor me as such. She would just make me learn up my coursework by heart while she tended to the younger group at the main dining table through the afternoon. I would be relegated to one of her sofas in the quiet parlour where I would start off by staring at the portraits of her dead relatives for about 10 minutes, imagine smashing all the porcelain figurines of dancing Jane Austen characters for another ten and then my eyelids would start to droop. From time to time she would call out sharply to ask if I was finished, and I would start and try to sober up. I tried everything, from pinching myself, to biting the side of my lip to stay awake.
What stands out in causing me the most misery was the course of ‘Pakistan Studies’, a sadistic combination of history and geography for high school students written in prose dry as styrofoam. The official timeline for Pakistan began, oddly enough around 700AD when a 17-year-old Arab solider, Mohammad bin Qasim, arrived at Debal, a port in Sindh (a southern province) of what was then India. As the textbook’s author led me to believe, the teenage conqueror so impressed the local Hindus, that they all converted to Islam and thus began a new chapter in history that would eventually come full circle with the exit of the British in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan – a state where Muslims would be able to practise their religion freely and not be oppressed by the wily Hindus.
It was only years later that I slowly began to learn that so much was left out – not just because high school students had to learn a glorified version of the Pakistani/Muslim history shot through with liberal amounts of rabid Nationalist sentiment but also because we had so many blind spots. Our levels of introspection seem to be inversely proportionate, I believe, to the degrees of failure of our Nation State. Indeed, commentators (the Samuel Huntington type) never hesitate to describe the Pakistan of today as a “failed state”.
They failed to mention, for example, how come a handful of British men managed to take over the sub-continent? At any given time there could not have been more than a few thousand Firangi (foreigners) in the country. Writing for the BBC, Chandrika Kaul, a lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, put the number of civil servants at 1,200. For argument’s sake, let’s put the number at a cautionary one million British officers in India at the peak of the Raj. That would still not explain how our colonial masters ruled 300 million people. Admittedly, history is far more complicated than just that. But experts such as well respected historian Ian Talbot will tell you, the Raj was made in part possible by the “natives” who collaborated with the British. (For more details see ‘Punjab and the Raj’ by Talbot).
But no one talks about this phenomenon. It is one of our blind spots. We tend not to be honest about our dirty business and prefer instead to focus on the perceived ‘enemy’ - or as Karachi protests will exemplify, the flavour of the month. (Last month it was Israel with the flotilla fiasco).
I was thinking about our blind spots for two reasons: over the last week or so, there was a slew of sectarian drive-by target killings in Karachi and; (at the same time) I was in London on vacation where I visited an exhibition ‘The Indian Portrait’ at the National Portrait Gallery.
BLIND TO MUSLIM-ON-MUSLIM VIOLENCE
Muslims are divided into several sects with Sunni and Shia being the two major ones (kind of like Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutheran etc.) Shias are a minority in Pakistan and have long been targeted by Sunni outfits. In the 1990s, many doctors fled Karachi after Shia doctors were being gunned down in the parking lots of government hospitals. Last week, the same violence reared its head and less than a month ago, different ethnic groups were clashing as well with Mohajirs killing Pathans and vice versa. But despite this blatant bloodshed, those Pakistanis who are angry with Western ‘imperial’ powers rate them as a bigger threat while they ignore the fact that Muslims kill Muslims just as much if not more. We choose not to admit to this dirty business in our own back yard. We too are complicit at some level. We too are ‘collaborators’ at some level.
UNTAINTED AND UNTOUCHED
I was thinking about this when I went to the National Portrait Gallery to visit the ‘Indian Portrait 1560-1860) exhibition of 60 works of mostly miniature paintings from the Mughal or pre-British era. The curators had chosen well and for the first time I learnt of how the court artists of the Mughal kings of Delhi began to pick up European techniques. For example, the Indian miniature subject’s face was traditionally in strict profile. It was only with the exposure to and influence of ‘White’ artists that the Indian masters began rendering their royal subjects in what I can only crudely describe as a two-thirds pose, or with the face at a different angle. This may be a small point, but as I moved along the walls and eventually saw how the Indian artists later experimented with larger, nearly full-length portraits, I began to think about how the lines begin to blur when the coloniser and colonised inhabit the same space. Towards the end of the exhibition there were some excellent examples of British officers who commissioned their own portraits in the local dress. Even more interesting were the works in which the British memsahib or lady of the house was captured by native artists. The exchange, the seepage, starts taking place at some point.
I may be wrong about these historical oddities and may have all my facts wrong or my arguments may be completely open to debate, but it does not seem logically possible to me that any country (nation/state) can ignore the crimes that its own people commit against each other and entirely blame the state they are in on someone else (the Other). But it is also perhaps fallacious to believe that violence or hatred directed at someone else (or oppressive action) will not affect us as well. As I was walking down Oxford Street in London, today, I laughed to myself as I saw all the brown faces pass by. I laughed because I’ll bet that the British never thought that once they left India that would be the last they saw of us. Sometimes I see it as a big inky stain, the kind they show in the movies to indicate the spread of an empire’s conquests. It seeps out of India and pools towards England just like when your watercolours don’t behave.
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June 14, 2010 | 5:33 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
At the premiere for ‘Bhutto’ at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, I swivel around from my back-row seat and squint to try and make out the Pakistanis who have turned up. The room is dark but at the slightly ajar entrance doorway, half illuminated, stands a man in a light linen suit. He removes his glasses as if to wipe them clean but then reaches with the back of his hand to dismiss some tears. I realise I am looking at none other than Benazir Bhutto’s close friend Mark Siegel. He had the email in which she named her killers.
You cannot be a Pakistani without having a relationship with the Bhuttos and their legacy. You may hate them for their alleged corruption or love them for introducing democracy to the poorest of villages. You may be too young to have ever seen them in a rally or you may be old enough to have gone to jail for them. As with all things Pakistani, there is only fluidity and liminality – nothing is fixed, permanent or explicable. But no matter who you are, the Bhuttos are such an overwhelming part of our historical fabric, that they will inexorably be a part of us.
As the movie plays I am reminded of the three major events that my team and I were drawn in to as journalists in our small Daily Times newsroom in 2007. As I watch footage of the twin bomb attacks on her homecoming rally and the Rawalpindi gun-and-bomb assault, I marvel at how easily I forget how close I have been. But unlike Mark Siegel, I do not weep at the part where we know she is dead.
My eyes fill with tears when they show the crowds. The thousands and thousands of people who turned up for her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (ZAB) rallies and later to receive her in 2007 when she returned home to campaign for the elections that General Musharraf agreed to. When I was growing up in Pakistan (1984 onwards) it was the time of General Zia-ul Haq, the military dictator with the Pakistani version of Hitler’s moustache. Television used to just be the state-run PTV and then STN, that fed us a soft diet of The Fresh Prince of Belair – if you were growing up then, you would have not had any idea of how much the Bhuttos were loved because none of that footage would have ever made it on air. Even when I was at college, the political scene was quiet as Benazir was in self-imposed exile. But when I became metropolitan or city editor at Daily Times in Karachi, that is when I received my first lesson in Bhutto mania.
Karachi city is no stranger to political rallies – it is almost as if people crave them so they can get out and have a good time. But by God, I had never seen such a sea of humanity before this one. For weeks people were arriving in Karachi from all over the country to receive her. We did story after story of these people. I had dispatched nearly the entire team to hit the streets on October 18 when her plane touched down. I kept wondering, what is it about the Bhuttos?
When she was killed in the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi during another rally a few months later, my province Sindh, down south, shut down. I had decided to go into work late that day, around 7pm. And as I hit the gridlock downtown towards my office on II Chundrigar Road, I realised something was wrong. A friend texted me the news. People in cars next to mine, were weeping. Maddened political activists ran screaming through the street. I left my car in the jam and ran to work. By the time our team tried to go home together in a van, buildings were on fire. To this day, I regret we didn’t stop and put out a small one we saw in the ATM booth of a corner bank in Clifton near Dellawalla’s mall. The next day, as I drove to work I saw that it had burned down. There were at least 15 apartments on the top floors.
The rioting and arson continued for days after, by which time people were trying to get to Larkana, her hometown, for the burial. Gas had run out in the city and the Pathans, who owned a lot of the petrol pumps, closed down because people were burning everything in sight. I took two reporters, Shahzad Shah Jillani and Qazi Asif, and we hit the highway in my dad’s old blue Nissan. Close to the toll plaza was a petrol pump where in order to persuade them to let us fill the tank, I had to pretend to be a UK party secretariat worker of the Pakistan Peoples Party (scarf on head, heavy sunglasses to hide puffy eyes). We stuck a PPP flag on the bonnet and headed for Naudero, six hours away. We counted nearly 200 oil tankers, trucks and goods carriers on fire along the way.
In Naudero, Larkana, I saw how people loved her. Not the politicians and their hangers-on who were trying to chum it up with Zardari as the political vacuum expanded and contracted. This was the people on the street, the old women who just sat there and prayed rosary bead upon rosary bead for her. We met a young man who had once been a student wing body guard for her. His grief was indescribable.
And so, at the screening, when I saw the crowds again in the footage, my eyes filled. I felt an ache for them – the Pakistani millions. They had such faith in these people. And yet, at the end of the day, no one has been able to address even the most basic of their needs. They have always been gyped. I do not know what to even call this phenomenon, the blind love for Shaheed Rani (the martyred princess) as they call her, that devotion to these Bhuttos that is for the most part unrequited.
When I asked my father, who is a Sindhi like the Bhuttos, what exactly is this thing, he gave me one explanation that I try to use to fill the gap of incomprehension. Before Bhutto came with his slogan of Roti, Kapra aur Makan (Food, clothing and shelter), none of the rulers of Pakistan (mostly military) had ever told its people that they had rights – the right to vote, the right to elect a government and hold it accountable. That is what Bhutto gave them.
During the question-answer session afterwards, I asked the filmmakers, and especially Siegel, how he felt that Zardari had fared as president so far. Indeed, if he completes his five years in office, he will have been the first civilian to have done so in the history of Pakistan (since 1947). Siegel reminded me that he had, in a historic act, repealed the laws that allowed a president to dissolve parliament. Indeed, this was important as military dictators had summarily dismissed Benazir’s and other democratically elected governments using these laws.
As we walked out of the club, I started humming ‘Dila Teer Bijan’, which is the signature election or party song for Benazir’s PPP. Jeay, jeay, jeay Bhutto Benazir, sang Shazia Noshi. Long live, Benazir.
Benazir. Be Nazeer. As in, without comparison. Incomparable. She was just that.