My Me Ours We Us Their They Them: By Prof Dr Waqas Khwaja
My Me Ours We Us Their They Them: By Prof Dr Waqas Khwaja
It is a truth perhaps not unacknowledged that though we can, and may, leave home, we never return to it. Yes. yes. we come back sometimes, even often, in some cases. But where is that home? What has become of it? Why doesn’t it feel the same anymore? Why don’t we recognize it as we remember it? What happened to it? What happened to the dear ones we left behind? To our parents. our siblings. our relations, the inhabitants of our household, our pets? That room that was ours, though its furniture looks more or less the same is not quite that intimate, private space it once was to us. The rooms and corridors. that clock above the mantelpiece, the shining dining table, the beds, the sofas and rugs. Same, but not the same. The kitchen, the pots, and the crockery, somewhat faded and fatigued. The garden still blooming with flowers as we left it, but why does it look a little stale, a little ordinary? The backyard and its fruit trees, still there, but helpless and bereft somehow.
And then it may hit us suddenly. It is we who have changed. Our orbit of experiences. our views, our perceptions. Where is that youth who skipped about without a care in the world, floated in and out of the house on whim, dashed through corridors and rooms, swerving past furniture and stands with dainty breakable displays, heady with laughter and delight? It is our childhood that is gone. And, with it, that childhood vision is no more. It is the innocence of youth too. that naïve, unsuspecting faith in the world, in the present as we had known it and the future that we imagined for ourselves with never a thought to the loved ones, as it’ they would never dwindle never decline that is lost. It is the young adult just corning into its own, seeing everything with that delicious wonder of a new and fabulous discovery, alight with expectation, who is gone. And everyone else has grown tip or aged a hit, the time of separation opening a window to their physical attributes and personality traits that wasn’t there before. In some strange way we have become strangers to those we left behind. In some equally strange way, those we left behind have become strangers to us.
But what do we do with memories? There everything is preserved just the same as it ever was. Now, perhaps. we realize. for the first time, that the world doesn’t ever stand still. People grow up. People grow old. People are fragile. They pass. Place and location do not remain the same. Distance has made everything dearer to us, but when we come back it is no longer as we remember it. Indeed. it is not just our perception of it. The world too has changed. But who are these. calling for attention from the dark borders of our memory?
What is it we have forgotten? Are there people missing from this picture of our past? People who have dutifully fallen back from what memory has preserved. People who would like you to remember them, but don’t expect it. People who would want you to notice them, but are hesitant to project themselves to your attention when you are so engaged and excited in meeting all those long lost relatives and friends? Look! They are still there. N nut poor relations. They too. perhaps, get delayed, and somewhat casual attention. Oh, it is our cooks and housemaids, our dusting boys and gardeners, our drivers and chowkidars, our sweepers and sweepresses, diligent, silent until addressed directly, and often invisible. Now, perhaps. we see them called to present themselves and say their salaams before being dismissed out of sight, except those that are expected to serve or provide food and other necessary services. Quite a cast of characters living in the shadows!
We notice, now, with some discomfort how brusquely, how imperiously, they are treated. If we were not already uneasy about this before we left home. This discernment too, probably, is the fruit of our “foreign” experience. They are expected to wait and languish silently in the background, alert, however, to any sign or word of need, while we enjoy your lavish repast, our deserts, our exotic refreshments, over an exchange of anecdotes and jokes, and the regulation after-dinner session of political wrangling.
We are abashed to see how they are treated as if they did not exist, that is, not until they are needed, and how their slightest hesitation or confusion is an occasion for ridicule and sneers, if not downright abuse. But our courage fails when we wish to protest against this treatment of the domestics. We have just arrived. Everyone is so happy to see us. We don’t want to spoil the atmosphere for everyone. And we remember, with a pang, an unpleasantness or two that might have occurred on such “fancy” issues of rights and respect a few years earlier, when we had not yet made our way out into the wide-open world across the oceans.
How shallow and artificial our world is, we think. How hypocritical! How safely cocooned in the security of family status, wealth, and entitlement! Even when we break away, we know we are still part of the system that favors those with family resources at the expense of millions who live but a life in name, ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-sheltered, debarred not only themselves from advancing their lot in life, but in imagining a life of dignity of education, a respectable opportunity to earn a living of adequate healthcare, comfort, even for their kids. They are all around us, but our kind, it strikes us, do not see them, do not notice them at all as we go about our daily indulgences and the routine of complaints about all that we desire but cannot have. How much do we know about them? How they live, or even where they live?
What they eat when they are in their own small room or hovel with their families? How their time is spent when they are not working in our homes? Do they have a second source of income? Do they double as peddlers selling ice-cream from pushcarts or balloons on a stick or potato chips from a bag slung on a shoulder? Do they work as cobblers in the evening or ply a rickshaw for someone or hire themselves out for petty services?
Isn’t that woman roasting gram and corn on that small roadside oven of dried clay the Mehtrani who sweeps our floors in the mornings? We don’t know. And we don’t care. It is not for us to worry what these people do or how they survive. or what their needs are? We know that our cook isn’t one of them for he or she, is on duty with us twenty-four hours a day and gets to lodge in our servant quarters in recompense. We know that the housemaid is well provided for with a room of her own in the servant quarters. for she too is needed 29/7. But we are not responsible for the whole world.
Now if we emerge out of our bourgeois angst (or is it anomie?) for a few minutes, can we visualize how someone from the province of the people in the shadows feels about leaving home and coming hack to it? Do they have the same narcissistic thoughts and feelings that we have about loss of innocence and the loss of home, the passage of time and the ravages it leaves in its wake? They are the ones, for example, recall whom we are so contemptuous of when we travel on that last stretch of our journey to Pakistan. passenger the plane picks up from transit stations like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and the like. They with those huge. out-of-date. portable three-in-one audio systems, rolled beddings corded with hemp twine or plain cotton rope, battered suitcases, and a miscellany of toys and knickknacks in hands or in plastic bags teetering in the aisle as they go about trying to find a suitable storage bin for their assorted luggage. And we turn up our noses at the way they talk, the way they carry themselves, the outlandishly garish clothing they wear, at how those of them who have women in tow have them all covered up in burqas or chadors, but all extravagantly painted and made up underneath.
They too have family and friends waiting for them at home. They have kids too who are growing up in their absence, without the immediacy of their love and protection. And spouses left behind, expected just to take the jibes of in-laws. neighbors. friends and strangers alike as they patiently wait for their return. These hardy souls voyaging out to seek a living. to improve their economic condition. may come back to harrowing changes as well-the sickness or death of a child, parents in anguish over insufficient resources suffering extreme deterioration of health or mental breakdown, families turned out of a two-room flat simply because they could be thrown out, simply because they had no one to look out for them, a spouse gone astray, Unable to cope. or lost to the unrelenting mists of black depression. Loaded with their cheap toys and battered suitcases stuffed with bargain clothing and other inexpensive gift items, how do they feel when they arrive home? Do they tell their family how they slaved 20 hours a day to bring this little bounty of cheap stuff for them? Or how they were despised and mistreated by the people they work for by the people of the country they work in? Do they describe to them their shabby living quarters. where they share a I2x14 room with fifteen people, all sleeping on the floor. all using the only closet bathroom available to them? Will it help if they said how they had been abused and betrayed year after year, generation after generation, age after age. for as long as they or their ancestors can remember? Who is interested in their plight? Are we? It is as if there were two separate nations within a “nation”, the haves and the have-nots, the prosperous and the destitute. Between them there is no understanding. Not just their vocabularies, their languages are different.
So no one writes the histories of the dispossessed and the marginalized. It is inscribed only on the skin of their bodies and in the invisible intricacies of their brain cells. and such inscriptions are easily obliterated. We may set’ people on fire and bum them to death. We may shoot them with a gun. Blow them up with a homemade bomb. We may chop off their head. Or we may shut them up in a prison cell and just forget about them. There are many ways of getting rid of people we may consider undesirable. And there are many pretexts to find people as offensive and expendable. An expression may be too bold. A gesture may upset us. Someone’s religion may not be quite acceptable. Even the wrong denomination may ignite our ire. But poverty and helplessness, this is particularly odious. and it generates in us an incredible sense of empowerment, for in such a condition we can disfigure and destroy with impunity, without fear of consequences. Our spirit rages with some primordial urge to crush and pulverize the poor and the powerless. It is there blood,’ sweat. and tears that ensure our prosperity. This is the social value we have inherited from our ancestors. This is the economic system we swear by. This is our political philosophy irrespective of our form of government. civilian or military.
And we who have turned our face from this commonplace crowd of people find in them the source of all evil. They are the unregenerate. the misguided, the most retrograde. It little bothers us that they comprise over 90% of the country’s population, and if they could organize and plan an uprising, they could sweep our paltry sense of security away in an instant. We are fortunate. though. in that, this huge mass of people is divided naturally by language and cultural differentials. We have our controls firmly in place. Power resides, first and foremost, with the English-speaking elite class that believes it has inherited the mantle of the departing British colonial administration. The next level of defense is the imposition of Urdu as the national language of the country and all that this necessitates in terms of investment of resources in maintaining that status and promoting it as the medium of education for the populace generally. Only after space, resources, and precedence is ceded to these two privileged languages do the “provincial” or “regional” languages come into play. Although the perils of such an approach were clearly demonstrated in the breaking away of the country’s eastern wing to form the independent State of Bangladesh, we have not learned much from it, for we continue to pursue it even as the hazards of this policy grow daily in depth, scope, and complexity.
We now discover that we are not just two nations but many within the country or State that we call one, that the lines of division are not just of class, the inequitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and resources, but of linguistic and cultural differentiations as well. Thus, whereas, the rich do not speak or understand the language of the poor, provincial boundaries further multiply the demographic and linguistic diversity. This should have prompted a policy of flexibility and inclusiveness. However, the reverse has come to pass. Like the British in India, the center (the Federal government) has imposed its linguistic writ on the country has a whole. The provinces have thus been deprived of their linguistic recognition and identity. The poor, needless to say. have been totally ignored.
Would it really harm our commitment to a single State if all the country’s spoken languages were officially given parity, an equal chance to develop and grow? Many studies have argued that it would advance the literacy rate and quality of life in all the provinces of the country. What is the harm in recognizing all these languages, Sindhi, Pashto, Baluchi, Punjabi, Urdu, and English, as “national languages?” Isn’t our multilingual, multicultural heritage something to be proud of something to hold on to and embrace? It was the imperial British regime that silenced and disempowered the populations of the subcontinent by imposing on them the regime of a foreign tongue and rendering their languages peripheral and irrelevant. It was a deliberate attempt to kill the spirit and pride of the people by killing their language. That is how the development of several of these languages was arrested. Now that the British have left, should not such policies of theirs that were detrimental to local cultures and languages be also dismissed? Or was the so-called independence only gained to replace the authority of the gora sahib with the brown and continue the colonial practice of hegemonic exploitation unabated?
Our English-language writers, having in the past few years made a bit of a name for themselves in Europe and the United States, have come to believe, and of course their Western reviewers and scholars have encouraged this view, that they alone “represent” the country, that theirs is the “authentic” and “objective” rendering of the state of its society. Yet only two to three per cent of Pakistan’s total population, perhaps, is able to read the books by these much-touted celebrities. Their actual readership is indeed a modicum of that percentage. Isn’t there something odd in that claim of representation then? For all the effort that some foreign publishers are putting into promoting/marketing the work of these writers in Pakistan through literary festivals. the fact remains that only a very small and select crowd. that belongs pretty much to a certain privileged elite, attends these events. and commends and compliments it in writing. The local languages. except to an extent Urdu. continue in the subsidiary position they were relegated to during the times of the British in India. Urdu. however, for whatever this information is worth. enjoyed a special status tinder the British colonial rule too. for the British made a special effort to popularize it as a link language for the commonality all across India.
And here is my cue to enter this piece of writing in person. I have nothing at all against any language. All languages. I feel. are effective. efficient, and beautiful for the people who speak them. I just don’t think that any tongue in a richly multilingual country can lay claim to representing or speaking for all the linguistic groups in that country. Or. for the various groups and classes that exist within a society. And if it makes that claim. it is doing so by taking away the power from the people to speak for themselves in their own language or idiom. or a language of their choice. ip their own way. This is such an obvious fact. that it does not need any iteration whatsoever. The question of who represents whom. and to what extent, if at all. is entirely related to the troublesome issue of identity. individual as much as collective identity (if there is. in a definitive sense, any such thing). and language. one’s mother tongue. one’s natural mode of communication, even the vernacular or patois. is intimately connected to what individuals and communities experience as their identity. a perpetually evolving and dynamic concept. by no means static and unchanging at all. But not until the sense of this spontaneously evolving identity is threatened or perplexed. does the need arise to recover and define it in some specific and conclusive way. which. ironically. is a self-defeating exercise, since it tries to give static shape and contours to something that is vital and dynamic.
Yet, in marginalizing a language. or imposing one from the center, precisely that threat or befuddlement is created which provokes people to disaffection. protest. and calls for autonomy. with the insistent pressure and provocation to define their distinctiveness in some final or absolute way. Without the freedom to use one’s own language as a matter of course. the right to education in it. and the opportunity to make a living based on that education there is no self-esteem. no pride of identity or ownership of place. no sense of home, for a person. If anything. this was the promise implicit in the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Each citizen of a free country should. in real terms, and as a matter of course. have the opportunity to experience the fulfilment of this promise. of self-fulfilment. if you will. on one’s own terms, as long as it does not encroach upon or abbreviate similar rights of others irrespective of gender. class, race, religion, color, or creed. There can be no home or homeland where this promise is ignored or betrayed. Unfortunately. the culture of privileged communities. of language. class, gender. religion. ethnic origin, tribal or clan loyalty. elitist affiliation (military or civilian), and the like, does exactly this. It is a culture based on exclusion. exclusion, exclusion. A home is not a home unless it is inclusive. a source of strength, security. and reassurance for all who live under its roof.