Feisal Naqvi

Room jhoom kay

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2019 at 4:47 am

Room jhoom kay

Some months back, deep in the heart of June, I woke up early and went swimming. The pool where I swim is not particularly large but what it lacks in size, it makes up in coolness. There are trees on all sides and a massive old banyan tree, in particular, which looms over one end. The net result is that the pool is heavily shaded and gets little direct sunlight. It is therefore refreshingly cold even on the hottest of days. And if heat does intrude, it is easily enough mitigated by a chilled drink.

At 6.30 am though, there were no drinks available and no others to share the pool with. And while we were in the middle of the summer, the sky was overcast and the water was chilly. Half an hour or so later, I was done with my laps and the sky was now considerably darker. By the time I reached my office, it had begun to feel like nighttime and the rain had started.

There is a particular mystique to the summer rain, at least for Pakistanis. To understand that mystique and, more importantly, to understand the delight with which summer storms are greeted, one must first have suffered the heat which otherwise bakes the citizens of Lahore in the months of May and June, a heat so terrible that it led Kipling to title our benighted metropolis as “The city of dreadful night.”

Air-conditioners and modern conveniences have now reduced the trauma of the Lahori summer to bearable levels. Beyond a certain economic level, one travels from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned car and then back again in equally chilled comfort. But built into the DNA of even the most pampered Lahori remains a fondness for summer showers that can only be understood if one also appreciates the historical experience of heat baked into our collective ethos. A cool breeze on a hot day remains one of the archetypical joys of life. Even Faiz, Pakistan’s greatest poet of love and longing, compared the happiness of remembering a lover with the morning breeze blowing softly across a desert (jaisay sehra main holay say chalay baad e naseem).

As I watched the sky darken and the rain drops fall, the opening stanza of Amanat Ali Khan’s most beloved ghazal came to mind – “mausam badla, rut gadhrai, ahl-e-junoon bay-baak huay.

I love this performance for numerous reasons, most importantly because it is one of the few songs (along with Iqbal Bano’s dasht-e-tanhai) which makes my normally taciturn father shake his head dreamily and hum along to the maestro. Beyond that, there is a personal connection. My father was born in Patiala, home to the Patiala gharana of singers and Amanat Ali Khan. When my father’s family migrated from East Punjab, so did the gharana.

Many years later, my father was a young officer in the Ordnance factory at Wah. Amanat Ali Khan had been called to the club in Wah for a performance. When he saw my father, he stood up and said “Mian, salaam.” The reason for that courtesy was not anything done by my father. Instead, that recognition was based upon generations of patronage by my father’s family, a point which my normally very modest father delighted in telling us.

With the words fresh in my mind, I turned to the computer and hunted down a performance of the ghazal. Thanks to Youtube and Google, that was only a moment’s work. Soon enough, there was a blurry black and white video of the maestro playing, brilliantined hair, pencil moustache, chador carefully draped across his torso.

While listening, I drifted – as one does – to Facebook. And lo and behold, Facebook reminded me that five years ago, that very day, I had posted another homage to rain, a kajri called “barsan laagi badariyya room jhoom kay.” A kajri, as I then found out, is a semi-classical folk song from India (primarily Uttar Pradesh), often sung during the rainy season. The word “kajri” is supposed to be derived from “kajal” (kohl), the black cosmetic applied since antiquity by women to their eyes, and in turn refers to the darkness of monsoon clouds.

The version I had posted is a duet between Girija Devi and Ravi Kichlu and is very simple. The song consists, almost in its entirety, of that one line – barsan laagi badariyya room jhoom kay – sung over and over. I’m not entirely sure what “Barsan laagi badariyya” means. It means either that the clouds (badariyya) have brought (laagi) rain (barsan). Or it can mean that the clouds are raining (yes, the word “burst” comes from the same proto-Indian root “brs”, to burst, break, crack, split, separate). But what gives the line its sense of joy is what follows: room jhoom kay. “Jhoom” means to sway, as if drunk, or intoxicated by joy. “Room” is a nonsense word in this context, added only for poetic effect. Barsan laagi badariyya room jhoom kay therefore means not just that the clouds have brought rain, but they have brought rain joyously or deliriously. And so, when Girija Devi and Ravi Kichlu sing this song, the phrase they linger on is “room jhoom kay” because that is where the joy of the experience – the joy of rain on a hot summer day – is encapsulated.

I have a 16 year old son who lives in Canada. His mother and I divorced some years back and both she and my children from that marriage now live in the vicinity of Toronto. Some months back he told me that he wants to become a politician. I said I was happy he wants to put down roots in his new homeland because I did not want him to become like so many other migrants, the equivalent of a “potted plant.”

Let me try and unpack my sentiments here. Many years ago, I was faced with the question that many other Pakistanis face, at least those Pakistanis lucky enough to be educated in the West: do I leave or do I stay? In my case, staying meant continuing on with the Wall Street law firm where I had already put in two years. Leaving meant coming back to Lahore and starting off at a grand salary of Rs. 17,000 per month.

I chose to come back because from what I could see, many of the men who decided to stay on were haunted by their choice. They lived dual lives, gora by day and desi by night. They were too scared to move back and yet too attached to their identities to move beyond them. And so they discussed Pakistani politics obsessively, discussed cricket obsessively and met only each other. They didn’t live in ghettoes. But they might as well have. They were like potted plants in the middle of a forest; alive and yet totally disconnected from their ecosystem.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted. But I was certainly sure of what I didn’t want. And what I didn’t want was to live my life as an exile, lonely in both my sorrows and my joys. I wanted connection, I wanted communion, and I was willing to pay the price for all that came along with that connection.

Has it been worth it? I really don’t know. I feel that it has been so but there may be others who would look at my life and see an opportunity wasted because I was not willing, as one well-wisher put it, to rid myself of my “chapati connection”. In any event, how do you measure the value of an engaged life? How do you compare it to a disengaged life? To make a comparison, one must first assume certain values as common. But the whole point of different choices is to reflect different values.

The value that I chose, I suppose, is congruence. By the time I had to pick between New York and Lahore, I had already accepted and adopted certain cultural tropes. There are things which make me happy and there are things which make me sad. There are ways in which I express my sorrows and my joys. And whether I like it or not, those things and ways are culturally grounded.

When I returned to Lahore, I got a job teaching a year-long jurisprudence course at a new law school which offered an external LLB from the University of London. I had taken a jurisprudence course at law school and it had done nothing for me. The professor who taught the course taught mostly Hart, Dworkin and Raz – the 20th century trinity of jurisprudential greats. And while I had dutifully studied and dutifully passed, I had emerged from immersion in jurisprudence not particularly wiser than before.

There is an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I don’t know if it applies to others but it certainly applied to me. My students – at least the first few years – were bright-eyed and eager. Since my institution was the first to offer an external LLB and since I was the first person to teach jurisprudence, I was treading on virgin territory, at least by local standards. Unlike earlier parts of their education, there was no locally grown ecosystem of tutors and cheat sheets. They had no option but to pay attention. Five or six years later, all of that changed. Ironically, what made it change the most was my own notes. They were handed down from class to class and by the time I got tired enough to quit teaching, most of the class had figured out they could pass the final without actually showing up to class or doing the reading.

For me, at least, teaching jurisprudence was fun. Most of my students had little or no exposure to critical thinking. And it was always a joy to watch the brighter ones react to having their preconceptions challenged by withdrawing into their mind and figuring out that yes, everything could be challenged and that there wasn’t one right way to answer a legal question.

My favourite thought experiment was to ask my students why the Shariah was the personal law of the Muslims in Pakistan. Every single year, every single student would answer that the Shariah was the personal law of the Muslims in Pakistan because that what God had ordained or that was the reason behind the creation of Pakistan. And every year, I found some measure of happiness in explaining to them that the personal law of the Muslims in Pakistan was the Shariah because the British conquerors of India had passed a law in 1938 making it so and because we had, till date, never changed that law.

But I digress. The philosopher whose work I grew to like the most was Ronald Dworkin, and in particular, Dworkin’s theory of law as integrity.

Dworkin’s theory of law is judge-centric. What he tries to explain, above all, is how judges decide. But to understand Dworkin, you must first understand what he is trying to correct.

Modern jurisprudence is predominantly about positivism. Positivism can, in turn, be defined as the idea that there is no necessary connection between law and morality, or more elaborately as the idea that law can be described in purely factual terms independent of any reference to personal or societal morality.

My jurisprudence course began with an introduction to the work of J. H. Austin, a legal philosopher whose thought has been summarized by decades of law students as the argument that “law is the command of a sovereign backed by a threat.” After that, students were expected to spend about half their year reading HLA Hart’s masterwork, “The Concept of Law.”

Hart’s philosophy built on and yet differed from Austin. He adopted the positivism of Austin but he disagreed with two aspects: the concept of sanctions and the concept of the sovereign. His point with respect to Austin’s concept of the sovereign was that it imagined a single point source of all authority which did not exist in modern state structures divided into an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. Hart’s bigger problem though was the whole idea of law as something one was forced to do by the threat of a sanction or a punishment. In Hart’s view, law was better conceptualized as a set of rules internalized and accepted by a population without any immediate mental reference to the punishment which might follow if a rule was breached or not followed.

Dworkin, in turn, built his theory on what he perceived as the flaws with Hart’s construct. His point was that rules alone could not explain what judges do, that if all judges did was to apply rules then their job would be no more different than that of a computer program. As support for his argument, Dworkin referred to what he called “hard cases, actual cases where judges had decided directly contrary to rules on the basis of moral principles.

One of the cases that Dworkin refers to is Riggs v. Palmer, an 1889 case from the court of appeals of the state of New York. Briefly stated, the facts of the case are that a grandson finds out that his grandfather is planning to write him out of his will. Rather than accept his fate, the grandson murders the grandfather. The question before the court was whether the grandson still deserved to inherit, the will not having been changed prior to the grandfather’s death.

The minority opinion thought that the grandson did deserve to inherit because there was no rule to the effect that he shouldn’t. The majority disagreed. They conceded that there was no rule prohibiting the grandson from inheriting. But they also thought that there was a rule of equity to the effect that no one can benefit from his own wrong-doing.

One way to justify the majority decision is to say that they were only decided what the legislature would have decided had the legislature actually been confronted with these particular facts. But Dworkin argues that there is more to the majority’s decision than a simple attempt to divine the mind of lawmaker. What he argues is that along with rules, “law” consists of principles having a moral dimension which push judges, not always dispositively, to decide in a particular way.

In his later work, Dworkin expanded his examination of “Hard Cases” to come up with a broader theory. His argument was judges were custodians of social morality, and that when they wrote judgments, they had an obligation to ensure that their judgments were consistent not just with the rules as explicitly formulated but also with the moral principles generally accepted by that society. More importantly, Dworkin argued that society itself accepted “moral integrity” as a virtue.

Dworkin presents a thought experiment in support of his theory. Imagine, he says, a society which is equally divided on the question of abortion. One way of reconciling societal beliefs is to grant the right to an abortion only to those born in odd-numbered years. Such a “checkerboard statute” would be an exact reflection of the societal divide on abortion. But such a statute would be rejected by both pro- and anti-abortion forces because it would lack “integrity.”

A different analogy used by Dworkin to explain the concept of integrity is to view judges as storytellers – albeit with important constraints. Many chapters have been written before them and the personalities of the important characters have been delineated. Like novelists writing new chapters of a long novel, judges can develop the story of their society in new directions, kill off certain characters and develop new themes. But just like novelists constrained by the artistic integrity of their work, judges do not have unlimited discretion: instead, the demand of their office is that their judgments should both best “fit” and best “justify” the jurisprudence which already exists.

If I can circle back to where I started from, I guess what I’m trying to say is that my choice to return to Pakistan is a decision driven by that same desire for integrity, for congruence between my actions and my personal beliefs.

Let me just take a moment here to explain very very clearly that I am not accusing people who choose to stay in the West of a lack of integrity. Everybody’s beliefs are different and I am no one to say that my morals are better or superior. I’m just saying that my beliefs – repeat, MY beliefs – required my presence in Pakistan. I could not stay in the West without feeling like a hypocrite. And I did not want to feel like one.

Lest my quibbles be taken as more hypocrisy, let me try and say the same thing without making it a moral question. By the time the decision came to decide whether to leave or to stay in Pakistan, I had already imbibed too much of Pakistan to be anything except a Pakistani. My only choices were to be a Pakistani in Pakistan or to be a Pakistani elsewhere. I chose to be a Pakistani here.

Yes, you might ask, but exactly how does being a Pakistani require presence in Pakistan? What is so bad or so undesirable about being a Pakistani in New York? Is there not a whole spectrum available which spans the gamut from being a Pakistani in Pakistan to being a fully assimilated, deracinated and decultured migrant to the West? Why assume that it has to be one or the other?

Let me play devil’s advocate on this. To begin with, the three main countries that I might plausibly have settled down in – the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada – are all happily multicultural to one degree or another. In each of the three countries there are millions of Pakistani migrants living happily in different degrees of assimilation.

And what about Pakistan? Why believe so strongly in a Pakistani identity when the country itself is a recent invention? Neither of my parents was born in Pakistan. My mother is Austrian and studied in London before moving to Pakistan. My father’s family is from East Punjab and migrated from Patiala at the time of Partition. I myself may have grown up in Pakistan but I left when I was 15. If I have roots in Pakistan, if I have an unshakeable connection to this benighted place, it is a connection that I may have inherited in part but also one that I have mostly grown and bolstered on my own. How ironic is it for me to believe that my identity is immutable when I am living proof of the fact that one can be assimilated into a different culture?

I don’t have answers to all that. Or indeed, any of that. All I know is that this is the place that I care about.  And that I cannot change that.

At the same time, let me also clarify that this article is not an argument for a Pakistani identity. Being Pakistani works for me. I make no claim that it will work for anybody else. My only argument is that it is important to have an identity, that one have ancestors to acknowledge and honour, and that once one has identified the stories to which one belongs one should then proceed, as per Dworkin, to live a life which best fits and best justifies those stories.

There is a short passage in Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” which reads as follows:

“Personal density,” Kurt Mondaugen in his Peenemunde office not too many steps from here, enunciating the Law which will one day bear his name, “is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”

“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now… The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth.

I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow. I know it begins with the phrase “A screaming comes across the sky” and that Pynchon has not been seen in public for many decades. But a year ago, Edward Mendelson wrote a brilliant piece in the New York Review of Books examining the acceleration of life in the age of the smartphone. And he cited this very passage for the argument that, as per Mondaugen’s law, “You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming ‘more tenuous.’”

Mendelson cites and discusses Pynchon in the context of the modern, digital self – the self that we construct through our status updates and tweets. His point, in effect, is that the digital world with its instantaneous micro-hits of adrenaline and exaltation is the opposite of the contemplative world, the world created through deep introspection and study, and that if we want to live substantial lives (i.e., lives with “temporal bandwidth”), we need to live less in the digital now.

My issue here isn’t the disconnectedness of digitized modernity; that’s a secondary issue. My point is that the exile or the alienated migrant lives an equally tenuous existence, one whose “temporal bandwidth” is limited to survival or, at best, expanded to include some degree of hedonism. If you want to increase your “personal density” and live a life of “integrity”, you need to engage with the past and worry about the future: you need to write not only your own story but consider how it best fits and justifies the stories of those who came before you as well as those who come after you.

What about me? Have I succeeded in living a life of integrity? The honest answer is that I don’t know. What I can say, in the words of Eliot Ness, is that “I have become what I have beheld. And I am content.” And that when the summer rains come to my doorstep, they come room jhoom kay.



Let them come home

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2017 at 6:52 am

Every Independence Day, we are told stories of horror and terror, of how friend turned on friend and how neighbour slaughtered neighbour. We hear stories of loss, of how people fled just steps ahead of ravening mobs, sometimes with a suitcase, sometimes with nothing. And every year we hear the odd story of redemption and rediscovery, of how someone frail and elderly has retraced the steps back to their old house and been welcomed with open arms.

Everybody who was alive at the time of Partition is at least seventy years today. Seventy years is a long time to live. It is long enough to forgive and forget. But for those who miss their homes, it is seventy years of pain.

And so I say, let them come home. Let them all come home. Let us throw our borders open to every person who left a home behind on Partition. Let us tell them that even if they have migrated, that even if they have moved and put down new roots in strange places, that they will always have a home here.  Let us tell them that we know the pain of losing a home and that while we cannot make the past whole, we can try to heal the wounds which remain.

Perhaps you find the above to be idealistic nonsense of the kind that gets people slammed as RAW agents by the usual assortment of slavering anchors, just another utopian scheme destined to fail. If so, let me ask why? Why the scepticism? What do we have to lose?

People who are seventy plus now enjoy much healthier lives than they did in the past. More of them are now more active than they have ever been before in human history.  But even with all that modern science has to offer, there are precious few seventy year olds who are capable of posing a physical threat to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

But what about retired military officers, you might say? Well, what about them? Retired military officers are no less immune to the pain of a lost home than others. And those who are won’t be lining up at Wagah anyway.

What’s in it for us, you might ask? Ah, now that is a better question.

In 1994, the small nation of Rwanda went literally insane. That country is divided between two different ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. And for some strange reason, the majority Hutus decided that they simply could not live with Tutsis any more. Between April and July of 1994, Hutu militias killed around a million people, including almost three-quarters of the Tutsi population.

Six years later, the civil war wracking the country came to an end with the victory of Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front. As noted by Jonathan Tepperman in his recent book, ‘The Fix’, Kagame faced an impossible task. The country had no running water and almost no electricity. The destruction of civil society was so complete that out of the 800 judges who had been in office before the war, only 50 survived.

But beyond the physical destruction, there was a larger problem. Rwanda was still divided between Hutus and and Tutsis. And memories were both sharp and extremely bitter. How was a country to be united when so many of them had been involved in murdering each other?

Kagame’s attempt to put the past behind relied in large part on an indigenous Rwandan mechanism for dispute resolution called ‘gacaca’. From what I can figure out, these are the rough equivalent of our panchayats and jirgas. In any event, more than 12,000 village level tribunals were set up with limited powers of punishment. The tribunals were staffed not by lawyers and judges but by respected locals given a few days of training.

Since 2002, the ‘gacaca’ courts have heard more than two million cases. And while there have been numerous criticisms of them, the fact remains that the conversations they initiated and formalised between victims and victimisers have been incredibly beneficial in making Rwanda the success story that it is today.

I’m not suggesting that Pakistan should set up village level panchayats to deal with Partition. But the fact remains that trying to brush our traumas under the rug of history hasn’t worked that well either. There doesn’t need to be a reckoning: it is too late for that now. But the ghosts of Partition still need to be exorcised. There needs to be a catharsis of some sort, some national conversation with the past and with the others who either fled or were driven away.

I cannot forgive the past. Because while I have inherited it, it is not mine to forgive. I am also lucky to be the son of a father who worked out his demons many years ago.

When I was a child, the stories my father told me were the usual ones, of loved ones killed, of treasures lost, of homes abandoned. But later my father worked as an expatriate in Singapore. Over there, he started playing bridge with an Indian diplomat. That diplomat later became one of my father’s closest friends. And somewhere in between the golf and the bridge, the anger melted. My father still told me stories about Partition. But they were no longer angry stories.

A decade further and my father managed to get a visa to visit Patiala. Our haveli was still there, if considerably battered. But what touched him the most was that the graves of our ancestors had been turned into a shrine with regular Thursday night qawwalis.

Obviously, not every visitor from across the border will be as lucky. But let them at least come. People in India still talk about the reception they got when they visited Lahore in 2004 to watch India and Pakistan play cricket. Lahoris are still the same as they were back then and the rest of the country is no less hospitable.

And so I repeat, let them all come home. Let us open our borders to every person who was resident in Pakistan 70 years ago. Let us welcome them back. Let us show them their old homes. Let us help them find what peace they can.

There is another aspect as well worth considering. We have spent much of the last 70 years in a defensive crouch. Yes, that posture was justified. Pakistan was given very little chance of survival at birth and that fact that we are now still together 70 years later is a hell of a thing. But that time has passed. We need not be afraid. Certainly not of 70 year old Indians.

Opening our borders to all people born here before Partition sends a message to the world that we have moved on as a country. It tells them that we are confident enough to deal with our past, that we are open enough to talk about it. Above all, it tells them that we are ready to welcome everybody who has ever called this place home.

This column was first published in The News on 15 August 2017. I have made a few minor editorial changes from the earlier publication.

That which works is good

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2017 at 11:46 am

Ten seconds. That’s how long it took Xiaodong Wu, a Chinese mixed martial arts fighter, to beat a bona-fide living legend tai chi master into submission. Watch the fight if you want on YouTube. It’s about as embarrassing as it sounds.

The point to note is that this is no longer the China of old. Yes, the Shaolin monks and their kung fu skills still rule the silver screen. But out in the real world, what wins is not Pai Mei’s five-point-palm exploding heart technique but hard-scrabble mongrel fighting styles which take the best from every discipline.

And it’s not only China and the world of combat which has changed. China is just the most prominent convert to the ethos of capitalism.

But what exactly is the ethos of capitalism? The belief that the invisible hand of a competitive market will guide society to the best of all possible worlds? Gordon Gekko’s famous phrase that “Greed is good”. Hedonism?

So far as I’m concerned, the essence of capitalism is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s famous observation that “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” In simple terms, that which works is good. Or to put it in desi terms, “chalti ka naam gaari”.

This week’s musings about the meaning of capitalism are prompted by ‘Chaos Monkeys’, a book written by a former Facebook employee called Anthony Garcia Marquez. The book is a chronicle of his time in the maelstrom of Silicon Valley.

To be more precise, the book is an account of about five years in the life of Mr Marquez, from 2008 to 2013, starting from his arrival in California and initial employment by an existing company, continuing on to his departure and founding of a new company, the sale of that new company to Twitter and then two years of employment by Facebook.

Before I explain why this book matters, let me first take a moment to deal with the naysayers lining up to tell me that a book about capitalism run amok in California is hardly relevant to the average Pakistan.

To begin with, you – the reader – are not an average Pakistani.

Pakistan has about 200 million people. At present, about 60 percent of them are optimistically considered to be literate. Out of those literate masses, perhaps a million read newspapers in English at least once a week (and that is fantastically optimistic, but bear with me). Out of those English readers, The News claims (cough, cough) a readership of around 120,000.

In short, if you are reading this column (via dead tree or electronically), you are presumptively educated, affluent and interested in Pakistan. Let me further presume that you are interested in the economic development of Pakistan. Hence my conclusion that you should read what Garcia has to say.

Here are the two things that you need to learn from ‘Chaos Monkeys’.

The first point is that Silicon Valley is now the world’s greatest marketplace for ideas. What I mean by that is two very different things. The first is that Silicon Valley is now where you go to find ideas. The second is that Silicon Valley is where you go to sell ideas.

Take a look at Marquez’s journey. After abandoning his quest for a physics PhD at Berkeley, he joined a company called Adchemy which was trying to figure out, like many other companies, how to make money via internet advertising. After two (largely wasted) years at Adchemy, Marquez and two fellow engineers came up with a new idea and put in a pitch for induction at Y Combinator, the premier startup incubator in Silicon Valley and, by definition, the rest of the world.

By the time Marquez and his cohort ‘graduated’ from Y Combinator, had polished their original rough idea into a saleable pitch, had investors lined up and had a working valuation of about $4 million.

Let’s rewind here a bit. Marquez and his two buddies were not the second coming of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the duo who founded Google. They had not been struck with Newtonesque levels of inspiration. They were just reasonably intelligent people who had lucked into the world’s greatest startup factory and who had then been driven enough to come up with a saleable product. And yet, within a few months of finishing at Y Combinator, they had an offer from Twitter to buy their product for $10 million.

Why doesn’t something like this happen in Pakistan?

Well, you might say, it does happen. Only less frequently.

The only problem with that answer is that it’s bogus. There is a difference between generating electricity via an understanding of electromagnetic theory and waiting to get hit by lightning. Pakistan gets hit by lightning every once in a while. But it doesn’t know how to make sparks fly on a regular basis.

The technical reasons for this sad situation are manifold, starting with the difficulty in creating ‘sweat equity’. But let’s leave the technical reasons aside for a while. The real reason why IT startups remain not just on the fringe in Pakistan, but on the fringes of the fringe, is because we still don’t really respect such entrepreneurs. Our economic wizards remain entranced by a world of five-year plans and miraculously profitable steel mills. They are the tai-chi masters of Pakistan. And they are getting whupped by the MMA fighters of the world.

Let me now get back to the second half of Marquez’s book – his time at Facebook. Remember how I mentioned that Pakistan has perhaps a million newspaper readers (in English). Well, Facebook has 25 million users in Pakistan. The question is: how did it get there?

The short answer is that the people at Facebook try everything that works and they try it maniacally. ‘Make an impact’. ‘Fortune favours the bold’. ‘Move fast and break things’. Those were the exhortations that Mark Zuckerberg had pasted all over the Facebook campus.

Here in Pakistan, we don’t have exhortations posted on our walls. But if we did, the most likely candidate for a national slogan would be the Noori song, “Hore vi neevan ho”.

This is a country obsessed with avoiding risk. We obsess and we obsess and we then obsess some more about the one theoretical option that might, just possibly, in some ideal world have produced an optimal result.

Unfortunately, the old saying that “the best is the enemy of the good” remains as true today as it was yesterday. If you know that tomorrow      you will be judged and possibly punished with reference to some theoretical ideal, you will not take any risks. Instead, you will lay out all your requirements for the ideal and entirely unrealistic result in triplicate and when no action is taken, you will report to your bureaucratic superiors that nothing could be done about the fact that nothing was done.

We cannot afford to continue this way. If we do not embrace risk and if we do not accept the occasional misfire, we will continue to inch along at the petty pace we have mastered. We will continue with our elegant tai chi. And we will continue getting hammered into submission within seconds.

This column appeared in The News on 31 May 2017.