Out of reach- By Masood Hasan

In school we had black slates and white chalks. Later, as technology progressed, there were coloured chalks! We could laboriously write out the alphabet on the slate and simply wipe off the mistakes with our elbows or palms and write again. But those were slates and that was school. A pity, then, that with Pakistan you cannot wipe away what has gone horribly wrong by simply rubbing it off. How many of us have wished so many times in our 60 uncertain years, if only we had a slate and could perhaps start all over again. We have made huge mistakes again and again that have brought us dangerously close to the edge of the fall. Some say we don’t have the advantage of being on the edge any more, that we are now plummeting swiftly to oblivion.

It is also a fact, heartbreaking as it may be, that there seems nothing remotely on the horizon which can prevent the fall. Too many small men and women have made too many mistakes blinded by personal ego, gain and absence of any nation-building sentiment. Hopelessness is Pakistan’s staple diet and, unlike electricity, flour or sugar, it is here in plenty. We are imploding like a black star self-destructing from within, and all the prayers, the intonations, the devout pilgrimages, the shrine-hopping dutifully enacted by the leaders of the day, have failed. We have all, collectively, wilfully or otherwise, actively or passively, ruined what was once a governable and viable land. Now we can’t even guess where we will be tomorrow. If ever there was a country without vision and with a self-destruct death wish, this one is it, citadel of Islam, or whatever plumage you wish to adorn this exotic bird with. There isn’t any writing on the wall any more. Someone broke the wall and ran off with the bricks. And that was a long time back.

The nation’s electronic channels are full of sermons delivered by a strange and motley collection of men and women. They pontificate and they drone on in flat monotones, boring the living daylights of anyone so unfortunate as to be at the other end. The channels have given generous opportunities to these armchair critics and soothsayers to sit and analyse, analyse and analyse. They have arrived from nowhere it seems, even termites emerging from rotten woodwork would look better, men and women whose names are just as unfamiliar as those lucky journalists and writers who win awards and prizes every year from the government for outstanding achievements in literature and journalism. Long, boring discussions on the state of the country leave most distressed viewers further distressed, and no one after hours of low-grade intellectual bombardment is any the wiser. To add to the tidal wave of confusion that already has brought down the electricity poles, turned cities into swamps and caused mayhem far and wide, the arrival of this hotchpotch army of philosophers adds more misery and clouds even on issues that, miraculously, still retain some distant clarity.

Truth has taken a big hit in all this. A few nights ago, a war image from besieged Hayatabad in Peshawar flashed across millions of homes in the country. It showed a steely-eyed jawan of the Bahadur Fauj staring dead ahead with a vicious looking machinegun keeping him company. Behind him, on a gaily painted road marking a section of a main Hayatabad boulevard, rumbled an ominous convoy of APCs and jeeps overflowing with armed-to-the-teeth commando types. The commentary said that things had returned to normal in Hayatabad! If this was normal, had Pakistan’s think tanks manufactured a new language, or was it the same old lies dressed up as second-hand truth? But wait, the Pakistan Army is not in Hayatabad, so say senior government functionaries – perhaps it was the prime minister who uttered this polished gem that is if he got some time off from laying floral wreaths at the mazaars of saints and dervishes. If it’s not the Pakistan Army in its many disguises, who is it? More confusion, more tearing of hair, more gnashing of teeth. This is a strange operation since all it seems to do is blow up empty and deserted homes with not a single piece of furniture or any evidence that these were indeed occupied at one time. If anything, they look like having been uninhabited since the time of Alexander. But maybe Mr Boucher is happy to count the demolished bricks and report success to DC. It is now an established fact that he arrives with more regularity than the sun rises in Islamabad, and when he does, we put on a song-and-dance extravaganza complete with fireworks and demolition handymen showing off their skills. When he is gone, the actors melt into the shadows, only to return when a new dance routine is to be presented.

For a country as poorly governed as Pakistan, the last four months have been simply amazing. Who is running Islamabad, ask bewildered citizens? For well over a year now, the worn out national hit has been croaking on and on. Judges to be restored, the president to be impeached, democracy to be ushered in. None of the three have happened and none are likely to happen. Nawaz Sahib is naraz and unhappy because he and Asif Zardari can’t get this judge caper sorted out. AZ is hardly here, flitting in shadowy flights across the land and well beyond it. First it was his children, now he is advising other countries. On what? The art of doing nothing? He and Nawaz Sahib have declared their solidarity so often that no one is buying this record any more. The Indo-Greek chorus with apologies to the Greeks, fills in the blank periods with verses that all indeed is well with the coalition, God is in his heaven and the sun is smiling on the land especially chosen by God himself. The president, who like Dr Nasim Ashraf simply refuses to budge, carries on regardless. He is not going anywhere, except for a game of presidential tennis. Most federal ministers have gone home, some rumours claim sneak in and rifle through the odd file or two. In normal times nothing ever gets done in Islamabad. What can be happening now cannot even be imagined. No wonder that the miserable sods, the Paki commoners, get shafted for Rs90 million because some dodo got the CNG price wrong. If it wasn’t so grim, it would be side-splittingly funny. In a sense, who can blame them? They are changing the prices so frequently that no one can quite recall which price was when. Given that only those blessed with the IQ that logs of wood are well known for, make it to the top echelons of the land, who should be surprised? But we are. In all this, making and unmaking alliances at the speed of light, the new Mr Fixitall, Mr Rehman Malik, who I am delighted to learn is after all from Sialkot – “hello birader” – is a man who can be at many places at the same time, including Karachi National Stadium where he moved in a phalanx of security men and fawning admirers, waving back to a bewildered crowd which had never waved any kind of welcome on the royal procession. Bring back Chaudhry Shujaat I say.

In college we read John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” where a youth chases a damsel through eternity because she is always out of reach. Although it would be downright insulting to a man of Keats’ sensibilities, it seems to me and many of us that for Pakistan peace, progress and prosperity will be just as elusive as that timeless Greek girl – there, but forever out of reach.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: masood66@gmail.com

The News, 6/7/2008

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