By Rafia Zakaria
July 15th, 2015
RAMAZAN of 1947 also fell in the long and thirsty days of the sub continental summer. Some 68 years ago, the same sun beat down on fasting, parched throats, refusing to promise any respite from its unceasing intensity. The altered rhythms of the fasting period were, in those anticipation-filled days, imbued with particular portents. The collective act of fasting paralleled at the time the collective act of waiting, the patient longing for dusk, a metaphor for the collective longing for a country, for the creation of Pakistan.
In practical terms, it was a dangerous time, especially for those Muslims who would migrate and who lived until then in portions of the subcontinent that would be allotted to India. Curfew reigned in the streets during much of the day and night, and courage was required to venture out to collect the repast that would make up the meals of dawn and dusk.
Beneath the silence, there was the growing current of anticipation and preparation for a country whose existence had seemed, until then, tinged with uncertainty and doubt. In the larger cities, riots routinely broke the silence and filled fasting hearts with terror, the chosen abstinence from food and drink a physical parallel to the more abstract absence of peace.
The end of that first Ramazan was joyous as Pakistan was created and Eid came close on the heels of the country’s birth.
The end of Ramazan was joyous; Pakistan was created and the first Eid happily came close on the heels of the country’s birth. A grainy black and white video shows the already frail Quaid-i-Azam bowing and praying at the first Eid prayers held in the country. In his address to the infant Pakistan, he said: “This is our first Eid immediately following in the heralding of free independent sovereign Pakistan having been established. This day of rejoicing throughout the Muslim world so aptly comes immediately in the wake of our national state being established, and therefore, it is a matter of special significance and happiness to us all.”
He hoped that the future would “make us all worthy of our past and hoary history”.
The Quaid-i-Azam concluded that first Eid address with a rousing call to action: “The time for real solid work has now arrived, and I have no doubt in my mind that the Muslim genius will put its shoulder to the wheel and conquer all obstacles in our way on the road, which may appear uphill.”
Sixty-eight years later, in another sweltering Ramazan, his words linger ominously in the ears of any Pakistani who finds his or her way back to them. What was the thought behind the founder’s hope of a nation being worthy of its history and what precisely was the “Muslim genius” he hoped would meet the challenge of building the nation to which a country had just been granted?
The Quaid himself would be gone long before he had the opportunity to know the answers or to suggest better meanings. The struggle for Pakistan had been erected on the memories of Muslim supremacy in the subcontinent, belief in the idea that a united India could not be fair to the subcontinent’s Muslims. To those who had mourned the demise of the Mughal Empire, whose end marked the concomitant decline of Muslims, Pakistan was perhaps an opportunity to regain that lost glory.
There are different scales on which to judge the promises of history. If the chosen scale of human evolution is vast enough, contained in the millennial epochs that mark the finding of the first tool, the intentional sowing of the first seed, then 68 years is a paltry pause in which to assess any progress. The bare space of 60-something years, possibly smaller even than the span of a single human life, can be discarded as a valuable vantage point to assess the distance travelled from that first Eid, that Ramazan whose final days culminated in the birth of Pakistan to the one whose end will soon be marked by festivities.
When faced by the conundrums of history, it is best, especially in our now existing Pakistan, to fortify oneself with the solace of low expectations. Somewhere in the interim of six decades passing, the Muslim genius that was called upon during that first Eid prayer was translated to mean ‘Islamic bomb’, the nuclear capability to destroy deftly taken to mean the reclamation of the glory of empires past.
Similarly, the euphoria Muslims felt at being able to fast without fear and with the support of their now Muslim state wore off. Its remnants were conscripted into a new meaning: that a properly fasting country was one that required all to fast, that prohibited any public consumption of food and water as an expression of that belief.
Assessing the quality of a translation from the original requires the knowledge of two languages, the past and the present. Whether or not the distance from that first Ramazan to this present one matters, those who spoke both languages are ever rare. Those who are only conversant in the language of now can perceive this as some small liberation, a permission to the present to look better without the past to poke and prod at its inadequacies.
Freed hence, a handshake between a Pakistani prime minister and an Indian one can be a cause for celebration; a bomb can be the realisation of genius; and a teeming city plunged again and again into a powerless darkness a mere hiccup in the scale of national realisation. The end of Ramazan in 1947 saw the creation of a nation, a realisation of much anticipation; those fasting this Ramazan in 2015 have learned over six decades to temper their expectations. Their hopes are not pinned on history but on getting some electricity, a little water and a few days off.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015).