Fiction and War
Looking for Pakistan's Looking-Glass
Uzma Aslam Khan
Can memory be measured?
Pakistan's former military despot general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq militarised his country.
Without memory, we would be like the earliest life-forms, single-celled creatures inhabiting the dark recesses of a watery world. Or ghostly figures in a looking-glass, leaving no footsteps.
Without memory, we would be stuck in time. We would keep seeing the same picture, taking the same step, making the same mistake, and we wouldn't even know why. Memory is learning why.
For the generations that have succeeded and will continue to succeed the Partition generation, what does Pakistan's looking-glass reveal, and where and when can it be found?
In the summer of 1998, I looked in the mirror and the ghosts of history looked back. I'd just moved back to Pakistan from three years in Morocco and eight in the United States. I resettled not in Karachi, the city where I grew up, but in Lahore, the city to which my parents migrated from India. The city where I was born. I arrived with a complete but unpublished first novel and was two years into writing a second. It was the summer of the nuclear tests. India the place, the idea, the counteridea was omnipresent. The fear was that it would soon be omnipotent. Hence, according to supporters, the tests were justified.
I did not know which side I was on.
Throughout my years in America, I'd heard the press, academics, and the general public criticise the weapons of the 'third world' without once looking in their looking-glass. Questions that to the rest of the world were old and bitter like chewed tobacco Which is the only country to have actually dropped an atom bomb? ('But that was defensive,' would come the quick defense.) To have the highest defense budget in the world? ('But we can afford it.') To have conducted the most nuclear tests? ('Routine procedure.') To ignore the weapons of predominantly Christian and Jewish nations while criticising those of Communists and Muslims? ('Can't trust blacks.') To sell the most arms to the 'third world'? ('Free market, honey') in America were either never tasted, or swiftly spit out.
How does one explain vulnerability to those who believe, with an almost religious fervour, in their own immunity from blame? In America, I never succeeded in finding a way.
That 1998 summer in Lahore, as the nuclear powers growled at Pakistan, their hypocrisy chafed. But so did the roundabouts, once ringed with lilies and petunias, now planted with fiber-glass replicas of the nuclear test site. So did the public support, which crossed socioeconomic borders. As teachers, shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers took to the street to publicise their pride in the tests (though not in the numbers the Western media reported), when asked to explain a nuclear war, their response was 'the same as a conventional war, only bigger.' Few considered the likelihood of their own death, or of radioactivity, or permanent damage to the gene pool. In some grotesquely orchestrated way, these Pakistanis had imbibed the very same attitude of the policy-makers, the arms dealers, and Empire-builders who consider them expendable if not invisible: they thought they were immune.
Uzma Aslam Khan
They could not see winds tossing the explosion back at them. They could not feel a storm of fire. If they saw it, they thought God would pick them out from the rubble of dismembered Hindus. And there were those who felt that if their death signaled the death of an Indian, then it was worth it. They would be expendable.
News from across the border told of a similar euphoria infused with bloodlust. Journalists took sides. Here they argued that India did it first. There they argued that even before the May tests, in April, Pakistan had tested a missile named Ghauri. Flinging the fire back, here they retorted, Yes, but even before that, you tested Prithvi, and before Prithvi, Agni.
The names only enflamed the debate. Prithvi means 'earth' and Agni 'fire' but Prithvi was also the name of a 12th century Hindu king who defeated the Afghan invader, Ghauri, till the latter finally defeated him to establish the first Muslim kingdom in North India. So, eight hundred years later, India tested Prithvi and Pakistan answered with Ghauri, and so on.
It is difficult to fathom this degree of hate even when you are witness to it, or especially when you are witness to it.
At the human atomic level, scientists have discovered enzyme 'repressors' that slide down the spiral of our DNA, silencing the genes they stroke, igniting those they miss, thus shaping our response to the moment. And thus shaping the future looking-glass of memory. That summer of the nuclear tests, I remembered three previous episodes in my life when I felt a part of me being turned off, physically, in order to save me mentally.
The first was in upstate New York in 1991, during the euphoria accompanying the return of victorious American troops from Iraq. It was my first experience with gloating en masse, of a sea of glee in the face of another people's suffering and humiliation, and I didn't know how to react. I think I looked at pictures of Africa in the National Geographic.
(For the Pakistanis and Indians who gloated in May '98, it was, so to speak, a premature ejaculation. No one had been reamed yet. At such times you find yourself asking ludicrous questions, like, What's worse, rejoicing before or after the blood pours?)
The second incident was a near-car accident in Karachi, in 1986. I don't know the speed my friend was driving at; the speedometer had passed 100km/hour long before what happened next. He swerved to overtake a car. His began to fishtail. There was a drain to the left of the road, cars flying by to the right. The steering zigzagged violently, the driver laughed man acally, another friend screamed, the rest of us froze. I doubt I even blinked. My eyes were fixed on a steering wheel possessed by spirits that nimbly dodged the culvert and the traffic. I could not imagine such precision at such speed though I saw it. It was, of all things, thrilling. At the same time, something murmured, 'Shh!' Miraculously, when the car finally stopped, neither it nor the passengers were even scratched.
The third is less an episode and more an ongoing reality: Karachi. Cosmopolitan, unpredictable, violent, vibrant, resilient, bleeding. Though I grew up in the city, I, the generation of General Zia, did not know how to fully understand the context of my time till much later. For me, later arrived in the summer of the nuclear tests. I remembered the Sindhi-muhajir riots and all the zealous animosity of the two groups that had, till the mid-80s, lived together in harmony. I remembered the war in Afghanistan. I remembered the Islamisation of thought, dress, law, and speech. I remembered how people were describing the mayhem of the 80s as 'another Partition.' I remembered snippets of those narratives, of muhajir women being ambushed by Sindhi men in their homes the way they were ambushed by Hindus and Sikhs in their Indian homes, and in refugee camps. Of having to flee. Of losing relatives. I remembered their own conceit: how they prided themselves on being 'cultured,' and 'Syed,' while calling the Sindhis 'infidels' and 'Hindus'. But most of all, I remembered how everyone around me was bemoaning having to start again.
In the summer of 1998, I was starting again, but reliving the 80s. I came to Lahore to move forward and yet I was moving back. I haven't reacted yet. I don't know how to react. I felt silenced by the euphoria of the nuclear tests, by the Zia years, and back, even further, by the very origins of this country. I realised that if there is one thing I can say about myself as a South Asian it is this: I come from a place where linear time does not exist.
And I realised that for my generation of writers, the first generation to be born in Pakistan, finding Pakistan's looking-glass and the slippery ghosts of our history was a question of life and death of our souls and our work, and the generations to succeed us.
I dug into history books, hoping to find stored and conveyed our earliest beginnings, our nation's genes. All I found were texts that transmitted a glorified, jingoistic past, to match the missiles. To breed soldiers. Not learners. Texts that push Pakistan's foundations back to the 8th century, and the arrival of Muhammad Bin Qasim in Sindh. But my three years in Morocco had taught me this: Pakistan may claim its history began with the Arabs, but no Pakistani is considered Arab by Arabs themselves. They are conquerors, we the conquered. In Arabizing the past and burying the many layers of our pre-Islamic legacy, our textbook genes are teaching us to forget, ensuring that we stay stuck in time, take the same steps, make the same mistakes. And we won't even know why, because without memory, we can't learn why.
Pakistan has wedged itself between Arab and Indian but as long as it denies the multireligious and multicultural skeleton of its peculiar limb, it will limp.
In the summer of 1998, driving by newly-erected Ghauri sculptures, despairing of the history texts disseminated in public schools, I wondered about my own private-school conditioning. At St. Joseph's Convent in Karachi, I learned about Moenjodaro and Harappa, then Arabs, Afghans and Turks, and a little about the British. But I do not remember learning a thing about Hindus, and all I learned of Sikhs was that they plundered Mughal monuments. The period between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the arrival of the Arabs was left blank. At school, I would march between the Islamic flag and the icon of Mary and the Infant Jesus on Independence Day, but my footsteps would leave no trace. I would grow to know more Western European history than South Asian.
Uzma Aslam Khan was born in Lahore in 1969, and grew up in Karachi. Her first novel, The Story of Noble Rot, was published by Penguin India in 2001. Her second novel, Trespassing, was published by Flamingo/HarperCollins UK in 2003, has been translated into 13 languages, and was nominated for the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia). She lives in Lahore, where she is currently at work on a third novel.
(Continued on next week)
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