It is close to 4 a.m. in the middle of what we euphemistically call a working week. From almost midnight, our neighborhood has been subjected to a high-decibel assault of “devotional” bombardment. It is relentless. In its fourth hour, it shows no sign of slowing down or ending. A neighbour has “organised” this night of celestial rapture. During the day he is into slave trade of a dubious nature. The nights seem dedicated to a higher realm.
The group of singers have launched into their fourth repeat of “Mast Qalanadar ,” which was item three on their repertoire a little after midnight when proceedings started. The “singers,” for that is what one must call them, have hoarse and perpetually tuneless voices that grate through the night like a large gate needing oiling. Accompaniment is with instruments, jarring, broken and cracked like broken earthenware pitchers. Foghorns at sea would be more musical.
Overhead, a large jet wings over sleep-denied Lahore, the sound of its steady throbbing engines, almost soothing in its steady beat, but it is gone as suddenly as it appeared. I have closed the glass windows long ago and have also pulled the curtains. It is no match for the huge amplifier that thunders on through this dark night. The neighbourhood is supine, suffering in silence, not daring to protest because the kalam is religious and laced with piety. Since wearing your public piety on your sleeve is the norm, who can challenge this night of devotion?
Permissions from neighbours are unheard of. Who cares? This invasion of their privacy is commonplace and they might be suffering tonight but tomorrow they will be returning the assault in equal measure. In far away Bombay, all public concerts are over at midnight, not because guests are sleepy. The law, followed mercilessly, caters to the right of others to peace and quiet. Not here. There is no law, so to speak. There is no education either and even those “educated” display the kind of public behaviour that is crass, rude, inconsiderate and abusive. Are we disturbing the peace? So what? They will suffer on in silence muttering the unmentionable expletives whenever they can, but they will not come out and protest, other than a few times in their troubled, short–and now very violent–history.
The people made it through Ayub’s unending dictatorship, took a back seat as Miss Jinnah (she was Mr Jinnah’s sister, since you might have forgotten) was neatly sidelined out of an election, then weathered an interminable number of years as a ruthless and hypocritical general discovered that Pakistan was infested with Muslims who needed to be reformed. He dragged the country back to the Stone Age and introduced a culture of hypocrisy and public display of piety. And since you can never have enough of a good thing, another adventurer stepped off a flight from Sri Lanka, sacked and exiled the elected prime minister and shone the light of enlightenment for nine long years, allowing his friends, cronies and even enemies to have billions written off. And now there is another lot up there who seem singularly clueless.
But to quickly switch to this night. The drummer has produced a number of sheer ecstasy that has all but cracked the windows amidst shouts of pious screaming. Is this the finale? It is not, because these crescendos have come and gone many times tonight. The sixth rendering of “Mast Qalandar” assaults the night. Does this country’s musical repertoire remain forever confined within this melody or “Dil Dil Pakistan” (surely a heart surgeon’s handiwork)? It looks like it. The quality of singing has rendered all the tunes tuneless. There are strains of popular Indian numbers chucked in for good measure and when the “performers” start to show signs of fatigue, some gent with the vocal chords that could crack the ramparts of the Attock Fort in the NWFP, rents the night with naaras–chants and shouts that seem to spur the performers to belt out yet another piece, and another and another.
Pakistan is under multiple assaults. Most of these we know about, experience all the time and suffer in silence. Returning from Islamabad on the M-2 last evening, it was amazing to see how quickly one recognised the atmospheric smog that chokes Lahore. You can almost raise your hand and pluck it out of the murky skies that are now Lahore’s permanent legacy. No amount of rain showers from up above is ever going to wash away this environmental sin. Like Macbeth and his Lady, we are doomed.
In Islamabad everyone is tanking up on medicines. We are jostled in a chemist shop by dozens of families buying pain killers, anti-flu syrups, medicines for coughs, colds, breathing ailments, allergies that afflict 75 percent of “Islamabad the Beautiful.” A band of doctors, credentials unknown, antecedents unverified, positions unquestioned, are busy as bees in the “Cut Down the Mulberry Trees” campaign now in its God knows 12th season. They really don’t have to. The dreaded Zero Point (what an appropriate name) inaugurated by a prime minister who seemingly has a problem telling his left hand from his right, is subsequently cancelled by Minister Jan, but hundreds of trees are chopped already.
More massacres are planned as the Margalla Tunnel is starting to rear its ugly head. Up above Islamabad, the CDA, bless its soul, has seen nothing amiss in pouring truckloads of concrete into a Game Reserve to build more eateries for the people. Instead of paths and woods, we have chicken tikkas and fizzy drinks. How much junk food will it take to satisfy the insatiable appetites of the Pakis? But it goes on and on, and a few protest and are sometimes successful in preventing further degradation of our fast eroding natural habitat. What is it that drives us insane when we see magnificent, upright trees, I really do not know. The very sight seems to trigger off a deep-seated primal desire to cut it down. Is it a sense of inadequacy? There’s a genuine PhD in it for someone other than those who are into plagiarised and false Charba PhDs – the only degrees it seems that open the doors to fame and fortune here.
It is now about 5 a.m. and I think the lead singer has had a stroke because there is blessed silence. But only for a while, because the mosques are awake and shrill voices rent the air. Another holy onslaught is underway. Never mind loudspeakers are banned. No one takes that seriously. It is not a mystery to understand why everyone shouts here, why children cry nonstop without reason, why every conceivable audio-assault is hurled at thousands daily. Will it ever change? That is one answer we all know.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org