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A contrapuntal archive

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Contemporary Pakistani English fiction is beginning to make an immense critical and contrapuntal contribution to the reality of Pakistani life and how it is perceived by outsiders. An emerging brand of Pakistani literary writers is responding to disastrous cultural distortions and is developing a collective consciousness based on a meaningful and peaceful Pakistani identity. I view their writings as an attempt to re-establish an alternative cultural background to the country.
Pakistan’s socio-economic and political conditions do not give us the luxury of sculpting happy endings, and now — through skilfully developed novels with time-sensitive theoretical debates disseminating a radical restructuring of society — prominent Pakistani writers are showing how socio-cultural delicacy and discernment around national and international issues affect them. Their words tease out questions of political and cultural rootedness. The political chaos, and dependence upon misleading religious interpretations that distort culture, have been a core concern of these writers. Worsening ethnic and religious tensions, and issues of gender and sexuality, human rights, religious and gang violence, feminist activism and blasphemy laws are the sharp edges that grab the attention of readers looking to understand contemporary Pakistan. All these themes have created an excellent backdrop for Pakistani English-language literary fiction, and there is a surfeit of rich material to explore.
Talented writers are producing novels grounded in theoretical debates, attracting readers in general and research scholars in academia in particular. Research, in turn, has made their works more accessible. The debates discoursed in these texts are helping researchers understand the personal and emotional sensibilities of Pakistanis, as well as the cultural, historical and political factors that shape our society. A substantial percentage of fiction readers appear as politically mobilised as the texts they read. It is heartening to witness the growth of the small community reading this new-wave fiction.
Our writers have reintroduced socio-political debates into society. By exploring cultural issues involving religion and politics, these creative critical literary writings are playing a vital part in reforming how both Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis perceive, conceive and respond to the country’s cultural challenges.
In academia, our novels are recognised as the agency of socio-political history, with distinct literary forms. I admire this imaginative collection of Pakistani history for the contextualisation of critical debates, which television, radio and mainstream political narratives have thus far failed to offer. The Pakistani novel provides unique insight into modern Pakistan’s cultural history. The legacy of Anglophone Pakistani writing about war on Pakistani soil has given rise to experimental narratives that can be categorised into emerging genres such as satire (Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes); comedy (Shazaf Fatima Haider’s How it Happened); crime (Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner); globalisation (Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia); war (KamilaShamsie’s Burnt Shadows); cli-fi (UzmaAslam Khan’s Trespassing) and the somewhat unexplored genres (Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth).
The rise in themes of globalisation since the 1990s has driven attention to pressing forces of diasporic, globalist and postcolonial theoretical deliberations throughout humanities. The embrace of this new dimension within the parameters of cultural discourse gives these works a rich interdisciplinary approach. According to MunazzaYaqoob, professor of English at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, in her article ‘Environmental Consciousness in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English’, a growing body of Pakistani writing set in metropolitan centres portrays and creates a narrative of a globalised Pakistan.
Similarly, the post-9/11 milieu has given readers a new perspective on negotiating terror narratives in the form of trauma writings (Shaila Abdullah’s Saffron Dreams, NadeemAslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist); empathetic tribal writings (Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon, UzmaAslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin); and understanding Islam (UzmaAslam Khan’s The Geometry of God, QaisraShahraz’s Typhoon). The diasporic and home contexts bring familiar tropes, including postmodern narratives of cityscapes, such as the New Weird (Bilal Tanweer’sThe Scatter Here is too Great) post-9/11 Pakistan and the world. These imagined narratives have brought real-world politics into our discussions as readers debate newer globalisations and the fluidity of borders and belongingness (KamilaShamsie’sKartography) or for defining and redefining home (H.M Naqvi’s Home Boy), which has become problematic.
Our writers have also brought focus on the marginalisation of individuals and societies at the hands of corporate powers. Through these works, we can study silences and discover invisible, censored and tabooed identities. The role of minorities (Bina Shah’s Slum Child, Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti) as a fundamental part of culture is a significant feature in some of the works. The recurrent academic debate around a distorted interpretation of culture invites unnecessary censorship in literature too, including the representation of non-Muslim minorities as depicted in these novels. These works are questioning the unseen and contesting the less remembered and un-recorded identities by bringing back communities that have almost ceased to exist within the political discourse.
As cultural commentators and social theorists, our writers portray ongoing processes in society; they construct narratives as the basis for strong comparative studies in order to develop contrapuntal models. These models themselves sketch an analysis between two literary cross-cultural narratives by locating an essential interconnection — the socio-political discourses of nation and the global socio-economic criticism that grows out of the cultural concerns of more local systems.
The discourse on terrorism rose to become an important feature of contemporary Pakistani fiction in English, but audiences now are seeking more diversity. The Pakistani economic depression following 9/11 and class narratives should be reflected in our fiction if political themes are to still be part of our narratives. Eliminating poverty needs to become one of the serious concerns in the writings, linking poverty and hunger to political and corporate economic interests and power dynamics within contemporary discourse. Such debates can be brought to life through literature and the inculcation of grass-root realities for more than half of Pakistan’s population. Many of the themes mentioned above do have their point of departure set in the economic concerns, and poverty appears as a sub-theme in all of these discussions, but we need to emerge from abstraction; in a developing country, poverty should not be a rare theme in literature.
According to John Marsh, professor of English at Penn State University in his article ‘The Literature of Poverty, The Poverty of Literature Classes’, globally prominent themes that rely on capitalistic interventions lose their attractiveness when economic consequences for third world countries and communities are discussed as part of the narrative. The shallowness and alienation of modern life, the mystery of poverty and resultant inequality do inspire our writers, but perhaps it should consume and inspire them more.
Pakistani writers have produced impressively humane works of storytelling. Invisible people are emerging as visible to an international audience as they are to our fellow citizens. The rhetoric of invisibility should be there in the narrative unveilings of Pakistani fiction. If our literature has a didactic part to play, it can offer readers the chance to imagine a scene and develop a constructive opposition. The forceful rejection of an economic system of exploitation should dominate. Some writers touch on the fears, hopes and complexities of poor individuals and communities, attack the insane division of rich and poor, but remain forgetful about capitalism, corporate power and greed. A few novels that stand out for their portrayal of poverty — Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Slum Child, Trespassing and ShahbanoBilgrami’s Without Dreams — depict the dreadful toll of ethnic and social segregation: “If he doesn’t beg for his food, how will I feed him?’ … ‘Bhooka! Look at him. He’s starving. You can see his bones!’” (Without Dreams); “‘How about real miracles,’ asks Alice, ‘like the drains shall remain unclogged? Or the hungry shall be fed?’” (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti); “Can you believe it? While poor countries are punished for defending themselves, the strongest military power in the world comes up with excuses to keep building its weaponry.” (Trespassing).
While the cultural framing of our country seems to be conflicted, it would be refreshing if we moved on from terrorist narratives. I, along with many others, have become more demanding readers of other themes; Pakistan should not be “reducible to generals, jets and jihadis” as PriyamvardaGopal, professor of English at the University of Cambridge, wrote in her review in The Guardian titled ‘The Late Dictator’. I wish to see new novels stand out in their emphasis on romantic, local and indigenous aspects of the culture, and help us reshape Pakistani culture. How about rediscovering and reinventing romantic Pakistan (Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohar Tree)? Let us come out of underrepresentation and re-introduce our work with the rise of our own indigenous identity.
At the same time, I hope our novelists will build on and develop the rich political themes discussed earlier, and will continue to contribute to raising national and global consciousness and activism within the academy, in society at home and internationally. Let us combine these themes and present a nationally romantic identity in a global frame. Let us recognise the invisible — be it poor, non-Muslim, rural, differently-abled, in-between or even nonhuman — because literature is always dynamic, and introducing artistic experiments is an excellent way to enhance a culture.


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Opinion

Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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