By Ayaz Amir
February 03, 2015
I have a problem with my editors who despite being very bright and enlightened folk otherwise – certified champions of democracy, for one – in some respects still live in the Victorian age, when, amongst other things, it was not unusual for piano legs to be covered in cloth so as not to put unseemly thoughts in ladies’ minds.
Piano legs as sex objects would no doubt seem far-fetched today but outward standards of rectitude were strict then (never mind what went on behind closed doors or in the prurience of the repressed mind). There are bawdy scenes in Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel ‘Tom Jones’ but would anyone find a similar scene in the Victorian novel? I don’t think so.
But how are my editors of Victorian persuasion? For one they still take fright at the use of the word ‘screw’ in any context. From what I am able to make out, for them the word has only one meaning and that with a sexual connotation. My Oxford Dictionary is lying open before me. Almost two columns are devoted to the different meanings, and uses, of this word: “be screwed”…when someone is cheated or swindled and the example given is “if you do what they tell you, you’re screwed”. Two other variations can be cited: “screw up”…mishandle or mismanage something; and “screw someone up”…cause someone to be emotionally or mentally disturbed.
But as far as the op-ed page is concerned only one meaning seems to matter, to the exclusion of others. Tell me, pray, whose then is the dirtier mind…mine or theirs?
I can take on the army, I can say things about the ISI…all this is kosher. But I can’t say a word about Malik Riaz and his impressive real-estate endeavours. It’s no personal attack (why would I be interested in that?) but just expressing a point of view that turning Pakistan into some kind of Dubai may not be the answer to Pakistan’s problems.
But my editors get cold feet and axe the entire column. Funnily enough, Jang, which has a much larger circulation, carries the same piece, without anyone having a heart attack and Malik Riaz calls me up the next day to say that developing the real-estate sector can go a long way in addressing Pakistan’s unemployment problem. It’s a civil conversation we have and that’s it.
Don’t we all know that whiskey is consumed in prodigious quantities in the length and breadth of the Islamic Republic, especially in our favoured cities – Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi – where the supply of bootleg whiskey is a flourishing business? But, no, we can’t talk about the subject openly because people might be upset. So if I happen to mention it I must have recourse to such euphemisms as holy water, Scottish water, spiritual sustenance, etc. My bootleggers I call my spiritual counsellors. More liquor is downed in Prohibition Pakistan than it ever was in more sinful times, before this baleful restriction was introduced to appease the religious lobby and the right wing, the traditional guardians of public morality in this God-gifted republic.
There’s no such thing as the law here or at least none to properly safeguard the rights of the poor and the relatively deprived. But what a high horse of morality we mount all the time, to the extent where anyone looking at our frothing mouths would suppose that morality was invented here. Scratch the surface, however, and all our hypocrisy in all its glory oozes out: double standards are what we are good at and an unequal society is what we have created.
Sure, there’s inequality everywhere – it’s in the nature of human society, whatever cranks and idealists may say – but in other places where notions of sensible government prevail, you at least try to decrease the burden of inequality, you try to provide for equal opportunity. You invest in health and education and things like public transport.
Here the rich can have a jolly good time – expensive schools and hospitals, private entertainment, dance parties which the police dare not raid, not least because many police high-ups would figure in those same parties, liquor at prices that would be prohibitive anywhere else, Mujras, etc, etc. The regular full-page ads singing the praises of real estate in places like Dubai would be considered obscene in any other loan-begging, poverty-stricken country. But no one bats an eyelid here…it’s considered perfectly normal.
Most leaders have their loot or their property stashed away abroad…that too is perfectly normal. The down-at-heel meanwhile can look forward to salvation in the next world because this world belongs not to them.
Pleasure and the good life always had its gradations. There were some people who, in days gone by, could afford to stay at Faletti’s, then Lahore’s leading hotel. Other Shurafaa and Sufaidposh (‘respectables’) from the districts on a visit to Lahore would stay in Lahore Hotel on McLeod Road. Some stayed in still cheaper establishments around the Railway Station. But anyone looking for a good time had access to – now what should I call it? – holy water, and Heera Mandi catered to all walks of life, high and low. The gentry with money in their pockets patronised the higher establishments but there was something for everyone.
Not like now where pleasure has become a serious high-end pursuit. I can’t go into details because I have my editors to consider – they’ll screw this column, if not me, the last thing I want. Enough to say that everything – from hotels to holy water to the skin trade – is priced out of the reach of that idiot of all ages, the common man.
So should we wonder if young lads of spirit and a sense of derring-do turn to a life of crime to finance their fantasies? And when young who doesn’t have fantasies? Especially in this age of constant advertising when you are bombarded with images of the ‘good life’ – expensive clothes, attractive girls, flashy mobiles. Oh, the list is endless and to watch all this when you don’t have the means to satisfy the longings produced by this endless assault on your senses, wouldn’t you go mad or take to a life of petty if not major crime, purse snatching and the like?
Back in the late 1970s when I had resigned from the Foreign Service and was still finding my feet in journalism I seriously toyed with the idea of journeying to Beirut and joining the Palestinian freedom struggle…seriously. I know I wouldn’t have gone because I was not daring enough, living out my adventures only in the realm of the imagination. But the idea of forsaking my conventional existence and doing something else held an enormous appeal for me.
I sometimes think that if I were young today and had not the money to satisfy the immortals cravings of youth, I would be strongly tempted to flee to the mountains and join the Taliban, or become a dedicated fighter of the Lashkar-e-Taiba – leaving my helplessness behind and with a gun in my hand and a cap on my head at a rakish angle, my hair long (long hair a privilege of the Pakistani ‘Jihadi’), basking in a sense of power. Either that or I would steal my way across the frontiers and wash dishes or fry burgers in some distant land. What other prospect have we left the disenfranchised youth of Pakistan?
Extremism and terrorism cannot be fought with guns alone. A social reformation, things being turned upside down, something radical – something like Hezbollah in Lebanon, something like the Cuban revolution in its early days of glory – to my flip-flop mind this is necessary if we are to turn Pakistan around and get rid of the shadows of hypocrisy which have turned this into a paranoid land.