Pakistan, I am of you, from you, and no matter where I am, inseparable from you
Once when I was six years old I sneaked out of my grandmother’s house in Lahore’s old Mozang neighbourhood and headed for the nearby Mozang Bazaar, a large market of red-brick shops over a hundred years old. The shops there fascinated me to no end and I was determined to discover kites – my main attraction – of every shape and size. Getting there was no problem as my grandmother’s laane ended in the bazaar itself.
Once there though, I lost track of time and my curiosity led me to explore the entire bazaar. At some point I realised I was lost. After wandering around for a while and seeing nothing familiar, I started to cry. A vegetable vendor saw me and asked me what was wrong. On learning I was lost he asked me where I lived and I informed him that I was staying with my grandmother and did not know her address, other than that it was on Temple Road. He asked a passer-by to watch his cart for a while and led me to one shopkeeper after another, asking each if they were familiar with my grandmother. Finally one replied in the affirmative. On the vendor’s request the shopkeeper left the shop to his assistant, took my hand and led me to my grandmother’s house. On the way I saw my mother, aunt and grandmother walking hurriedly in our direction. Several scoldings and many hugs followed. The shopkeeper was thanked.
I wish I knew his name and the name of the vendor. It seems important somehow. I wish I could thank them right now.
During one of my clinical rotations at medical school in Karachi, a man brought his wife to the emergency room. She had Hepatitis C and suffered acute liver failure. He had taken her to the two major public hospitals in Karachi only to be turned away since he could not afford the charges required in advance for someone needing admission.
We were a free teaching hospital but did not have any beds available in the critical care unit where she needed to be. The man started beseeching us for a bed and to save his wife’s life. He told us he was from Waziristan (an impoverished part of the Pashtun tribal belt), had three young children, dug roads (roads are dug for renovation with large pick mattocks in Pakistan) for a living and could not afford to take her anywhere else.
Our medical director gave this some thought and after some discussion beds were moved around in the intensive care unit (a large single room with movable partitions) till ultimately room for another bed was created.
The man’s wife died that night but both, the plight of the couple as well as what we had done in attempting to help them is as clear and emotionally raw in my mind as it was that day.
For two years, before I moved to America, I worked at a free mental health clinic operated by the Pakistan Association of Mental Health. Never before or since then have I worked with a team possessing more compassion and dedication to help those afflicted with mental illness.
The housekeeping staff included a Christian and a Hindu. For the last six months we had lunch together almost every working day, something that I will always cherish. The sense of shared purpose – helping people with mental illness who could not afford treatment – brought us all together in more ways than one.
In those lunch hours, there was no Muslim, Shia, Sunni, Hindu, Christian, Punjabi, Sindhi, Mohajir, Baloch or Pashtun in the room. We were a team, doing something we passionately believed in for people that we deeply cared for.
I have been a frequent critic of Pakistan’s leadership and aspects of her society and will continue to be. I believe however, that criticism alone is not going to fix anything. The singular stance of shaming, that many well-meaning writers and social activists have adopted, is achieving next to nothing. There is enough guilt and shame rampant in Pakistani society as it is. Both these emotions serve an important psychological function in making one more empathic and unlikely to be malicious to others, but in excess they merely entrench received beliefs and prejudices as people tend to escape them by seeking even more absolute answers to life.
There has also been a recent surge of blogs and articles questioning the very existence of Pakistan and the wisdom of its creation. There is talk of a ‘united India’ that might have been or that one day could be. I respect the well-meaning intentions of such writers but I would remind them that there never was such a thing as a united India. Never in the history of the subcontinent has there been a unified or even loosely allied collection of peoples that identified as one. The closest thing to such an entity was under the yoke of colonialism.
I have no doubt about the tremendous good that Pakistan and Pakistanis are capable of. I am aware that I experienced Pakistan as a member of the religious and ethnic majority – a Punjabi Sunni Muslim – from a middle class family, which is not the same reality that a religious or ethnic minority experiences. Yet, I also know that we are capable of transcending the divisions we have inherited and which have been imposed upon us. I have lived this, witnessed it and benefited from it.
A nation can have both a healthy amount of pride as well as the ability to accept flaws and criticism. Allowing only one to the complete exclusion of the other only widens the gates to division, strife and violence under the tutelage of demagogues.
Pakistan needs something to unify it. Something that everyone can agree on cherishing, protecting and developing. Enforced religiosity, jingoistic nationalism and military rule are not the answers and never will be. They in fact have been the chief instruments of destruction in the hands of our irredeemably corrupt and incompetent leadership.
Perhaps two things can suffice if we recognise how precious they are and how inextricably connected with them we are: Pakistan and Pakistanis. We can and must learn to care more about each other and the country we so fervently profess to adore. Strip away the labels with which we alienate each other. Use code and creed to heal and reconcile, not to alienate and diminish. Tolerate differences, accept diversity of belief and opinion. Transmute these leaden grudges and antagonism into the gold of brotherhood we all believed in once. Once, when we were children. Once, when we had not yet been taught to hate. Once, when we were taught to love.
Pakistan, I was lost and you found me.
I have felt your pain and been taught by you that it can be mitigated.
I can no more deny your presence in me than I can deny my own presence.
I am off you, from you, and no matter where I am, inseparable from you.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.