Friday, February 15, 2013

The New Religion

Anybody who remembers the scene from PTV’s Taleem-e-Balighaan about the three gharray (clay pots) titled Ittehad, Tanzeem and Yaqeen-e-Mohkam (Unity, Discipline and Faith) may remember that students had already destroyed Ittehad and Tanzeem, and only Yaqeen-e-Mohkam survived. Maulvi Sahab reported in his letter to the inspector “Le de ke aik Yaqeen-e-Mohkam reh gaya hai, jiss par kaam chaloo hai. Agar ab bhi ittehad aur tanzeem se sabaq na liya gaya, tou ye qaum yaqeen-e-mohqam ka bhi wohi hashar kar degi”. (In the end, only Faith is left, which allows us to function. If we still do not learn from Unity and Discipline, these people will ensure Faith meets the same fate).
*Reference video below will work if Youtube ever does.

These words, prophetic as they were, did not predict the next step we are about to embark upon.
Certain facts have now been firmly established. The constitution is sacred, and, like all sacred scripture, it is now to be selectively quoted and interpreted as the situation demands. We also now ‘believe’ in democracy, a belief dangerously edging towards faith.
Like all faiths, it has priests and shamans. These are the people who have a special understanding of Democracy. Some even claim they have a special relationship with it, being able to communicate directly with, and interpret the will of Democracy. These are the people who have, in all humility, accepted the burden of acting as Democracy’s representatives in Pakistan.
The overall aim and philosophy of Democracy seems not to make themselves apparent to its staunchest adherents. Most ardent followers restrict themselves to belief in the power of the cyclical ritual of elections. They believe them to have the dual effect of cleansing both their own souls and those of their sectarian leaders. Many conservative believers, having a strong fundamentalist belief in the omnipotence of Democracy see any attempts to regulate or check its will as both innovation and blasphemy. This belief is further strengthened by certain high-priests who not only espouse this view, but have also decreed their own infallibility. As a result, an affront to these priests is an affront to Democracy itself.
There have been more than one pioneer who brought the word of Democracy to the common people. Most of them died for our sins. Even today, Democracy demands sacrifices, though now they are mostly financial. These financial sacrifices are mostly borne by the state the year round, however there is increased fervor around the festival of the election. 
The measure of a good believer is, not surprisingly, his ability to believe. The most pious of these are the ones who accepted Democracy early on, and have never since allowed any sort of doubt to enter their hearts or minds. These are the ones who shall be held in highest esteem upon the establishment of the glorious kingdom of Democracy.
Less pious, and consequently less fortunate, are those who believe, but occasionally falter. Their failure to appreciate that Democracy works in mysterious ways is what often leads them to sin by despair. They sin by doubting the omnipotence of Democracy or by allowing themselves to be tempted into the new-fangled ways of false democracies.
The unbelievers are to be pitied. Their constricted hearts will never truly allow them to understand the magic of the invisible hand of Democracy. They will never see enlightenment or the golden hereafter. In fact, if it was up to them, no one would see it.
Sectarianism in the new faith is somewhat worrying. Since the establishment of Democracy, its adherents have, over time, been divided into several factions. Each accuses the others of straying from the true path and misleading followers in the process. Many hard line followers believe this to be the result of mischief by the unbelievers, meant to divide the true following.
Though conversion rates for Democracy have historically fluctuated in the country, true, hard-line adherents have only recently found a strong base in Pakistan. Whether this upswing continues or whether it will make its way back remains to be seen. One result of this somewhat limited strength is the absence of preaching and crusading. Pakistani believers, unlike some of their first-world counterparts, at the moment simply lack the strength and the resources to bring the good word of Democracy to the heathen parts of the world!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Political Performances

Five years of democracy and the free media have had their ups and downs. There was lots of drama, and occasionally some substance. Politicians had returned from the wilderness into a completely changed world and had to adapt quickly. New phrases, techniques and protocols had to be developed and adopted. On most occasions the result, apart from tragedy, was hilarity! Here are a few of the best trends that caught on in the Pakistani media.

“Dekhein ghaltian tou sab se hui hein” (We’ve all made mistakes)

The best of the trends came right at the start. Several politicians were stepping out of the darkness and back into the light under the protection of the NRO. As they emerged, blinking, trying to adjust to this fresh new world, they pledged their support to this new reconciliation. Whatever had happened, had happened. It was time to start over. And when the issue of corruption came up, they said, “Well, we all make mistakes”.
I never quite got over this phrase (as you can see!) to describe the act of corruption. I, too, have made several mistakes in my life. I can say to a certainty that none of them resulted in my bank balance being pushed up a few million rupees. In fact, most of my mistakes have been detrimental to me. There was the time I failed to estimate the speed of an oncoming car when driving into a busy intersection - that cost me a pretty penny and an earful from my father. There was the time I accidentally converted bytes to bits by multiplying by a thousand (rather than eight, if you don’t know!) in an exam - no million rupees there. There was the time I missed a miscalculation on an Excel sheet at work – the company still did not hand over the million rupees.
These politicians have to be the luckiest bastards alive! They make a mistake, and as luck would have it, they turn out richer for it. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways. You’ve got to love the image of a politician sitting in front of an illegal deal with a pen, signing it, and going “O dammit, I’ve done it again! I really should be more careful next time.” Or maybe just stuffing his pockets with bank notes, “What am I like?! Here I’ve done it again, o well!” In the background, a cash register goes ka-ching! Alas, like the NRO, this line was not to last.

“Mein inn ki bohot izzat karta hoon” (I have great respect for him/her)

This is another brilliant phrase that caught like wildfire, and is alive and well today. Somehow, protocol of the Pakistani talk show now requires participants to assure each other, the host, and the audience of their great respect for, and maybe even reverence to, their opposition. This little bit of etiquette might have been effective, if this line wasn’t usually sandwiched on both sides by streams of accusations and abuse. As it stands, all participants come out looking like complete idiots!
Here’s how it goes, Politician A accuses Politician B and his party of rampant corruption, mismanagement, theft, coupled with whatever is the soup of the day (be it the Asghar Khan case or the Baloch situation). Politician A then goes on to say “Ye mere bhai/meri behn hein, mein inn ki bohot izzat karta hoon”. The effect, of course, is that a simple-minded viewer such as myself is left wondering exactly which he respects; Politician B’s presumably advanced techniques of corruption, mismanagement or theft. The whole scenario gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “honour among thieves”.

“Waqt aane pe bayaan karoonga” (I shall reveal it when the time comes)

We have all been assured a climactic moment, when the nation shall be gathered in the old library, and in the dim lights, all shall be revealed. Presumably, this moment will have to last a good number of weeks because the revealing will have to be done by so many people and on so many diverse topics. Hercule Zardari will probably get the ball rolling with the revelation on who actually killed his wife. Then perhaps Lt. Rehman Columbo will get up in his crumpled raincoat, cigar in hand complete his predecessors story, before moving on the encyclopaedia of juicy titbits he’s been storing up. (These will include, but by no means be limited to, the case of the disgruntled WAGs of Karachi surreptitiously financed by foreign hands to carry out target killing through the medium of internet videos).
Of course, once the politicians got started with this tantalising phrase, everyone joined in. Even the ex-wicket-keeper Zulqarnain Haider got into the act with his “conclusive evidence” against Kamran Akmal. The TTP also decided to show some statesmanship when they stated they weren’t exactly sure about how they regarded Imran Khan. They, too, would only reveal their stance on him “when the time comes”. So now, anyone and everyone gets up, makes a statement and promises evidence to be delivered “when the time comes”.
I for one, can’t wait to find out if I am right. Was it actually Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with a Candlestick? Any day now, we’ll find out. Actually, come to think of it, we might even find out what really did happen at Tashkent!


The talking over everyone else part is, of course, old hat and not very interesting. The occasional name-calling or ‘gaali-galoch’ is interesting, but not where the real entertainment lies. The fun parts are the politicians’ somewhat vain attempts to appear respectable and cultured. These involve excessively peppering their sentences with phrases like “guzarish ye hai” and “ghaliban”, they also involve accusing other participants of having worse manners. These tactics seem spectacularly out of place in the political royal rumble that is the Pakistani talk show, and make their users come across like the inmate at the asylum who insists on wearing a top-hat with his tattered vest.
Special mention here for the woman who has epitomised the adaption to television, Miss Sharmila Farooqi. She couples these last two techniques with the deftness of an Olympic gymnast and the subtlety of a wrecking ball. After she’s done talking over everyone else, if anyone manages to get a word in, she immediately switches gears and accuses him of lacking the required etiquette when addressing a “lady”. She then proceeds to ignore his point on that account! Brilliant!

The Maulvi's Dilemma

I almost forgot one of the most amusing things we see on TV, the holy man's catch 22. This one has nothing to do with poltics. I think the most famous example of this was Veena Malik. Ever so often a "religious scholar" of some sort will entangle himself in a battle against obscenity. Some show will be denounced for its supposed low moral standards and the scholar and the defender of the show will lock horns. The arguments will fly back and forth, covering Islam, piety, social responsibility, until suddenly, the defender of said offending show will drop the bomb. He/she will innocently ask, "Kya aap ne show dekha hai?" (Have you seen the show?). Mr. Maulvi is now well and truly ensnared; thereon it's mate in two! He has two possible answers, "Yes, I am a despicable lech who enjoys the same things he is denouncing!" or "No, I have no idea what I'm talking about and have just come to rail on about things I know nothing about." Poor Mr. Maulvi will struggle against the current, trying to create a third possibility, "I have heard about it from other people." but all such efforts are rendered useless when this new possibility is quickly lumped into option 2 by both the host and the defender. "Ah, so you haven't seen it yourself, you have been shamefully misguided. Please come back when you know what you're talking about."

The past five years have in fact thrown up much more than this. The media ensured that we saw and heard every single absurdity that took place in the corridors of power, and, to be fair, in every remote corner of the country. I suspect they also ensured that we were too engrossed in the show to actually take things seriously; no mean feat! The performances have been truly exquisite and all involved should take this time to come in front of the curtain and take a well-deserved bow.