Feisal Naqvi

Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

On a personal note

In Uncategorized on December 16, 2008 at 4:20 am
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My grandfather was a spoiled young man. His mother died during childbirth and he lost his father at the age of 12, leaving him heir to a sizable fortune. Abbaji, as I later came to call him, responded to privilege by getting thrown out of 6 different universities. I am told that he was asked to leave Bombay University after he emptied a full commode on top of I I Chundrigar’s head.

Partition and 1947 were not kind to Abbaji. My father remembers tense nights in Patiala waiting for Sikh raiders, rifle in hand. His instructions were to shoot his mother and sisters first.

When the time came to flee, they joined millions of others taking trains out of India. But when their train pulled into Lahore, Abbaji was so sick that he refused to get off, asking only to be left alone to die. He stayed on the train until it reached the final stop at Jhang where he was offloaded by coolies. My grandparents settled there.

Abbaji had been educated by an English governess. My father went to school in Jhang squatting in the dirt, writing on a takhti. Having finally figured out the value of education, Abbaji drove his children hard: my father made it to Government College in the year 1952. At that time, Abbaji’s entire income was Rs500 per month out of which he gave Rs300 to my father and his elder brother, both of whom were at GC.

In 1955, my father was one of seven Pakistanis to win an engineering scholarship to England. His first few years there were rough, but by the end he had figured things out. One night he was attending a function for new students when he heard a pretty young lady ask where the bridge club met. He offered to take her there, and that is how my parents met.

My mother was born in Vienna, also the privileged child of rich parents. That wealth and its attendant privileges disappeared over the course of World War II.

When the war ended, my mother’s family was sheltered in what is now Slovenia. As the Balkans descended into chaos, her family decided that they would be killed if they didn’t escape. On the day after Christmas, 1945, my mother and her family loaded a horse cart with their most prized possessions and made their way down to the Austrian border. The bridge which marked the border was guarded so they planned to simply make a dash for it and hope for the best. Luckily for them, the guards were too busy celebrating to notice and all of them survived. In 1947, my mother’s family moved to England, where my grandfather had contacts from his pre-war days who were willing to give him a job.

My parents married in 1959 and their first child, my eldest sister, was born in England in 1960. In 1962, they decided to move back. My father’s mother wanted to disown him for marrying a non-Syed, non-Shia, non-Muslim, non-Pakistani girl. Abbaji told her that she now had a new daughter.

After the move back came another 5 children, four of whom were born in Wah Cantonment where my father worked in the Ordinance Factory. In 1965, he had just moved to a better paying job when war broke out. He volunteered back the same day.

In 1969, my parents moved to Lahore which is where my younger brother arrived. In 1981, they moved overseas, finally returning to Lahore in 1993. A month later, my father’s sister was killed in a tragic road accident, leaving behind an orphaned son. My mother announced that henceforth he would be her seventh child.

I mention all of this personal history for two reasons. The first reason is that in a week’s time, my family and I will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my parents’ wedding.

Second, I cannot in all honesty say that I have faced anything like the tragedies and traumas which my parents confronted. I hope I never do. But the point is that humanity survives and thrives all the while. My parents are not public heroes, only private ones. Pakistan is full of people like them, people whose stories would be remarkable only if more people knew about them.

Our generation likes to feel that its problems are unique, and we are no different. Pakistan is full of merchants of doom these days, only too happy to believe that the end is nigh. I beg to differ. We spend so much time bemoaning our fate these days that we forget the resilience of the human spirit. Yes, times are tough, but the human race is tougher. I know that not just because my parents told me so. I know that because they showed me so.


Schizoid Nation

In Uncategorized on December 2, 2008 at 3:01 am

The people of Pakistan have been treated by their rulers for the past half-century with extreme suspicion, as if opening up the doors of this country to the rest of the world — especially India — would result in a mass exodus.My response: grow up

There are two ways to describe Pakistan for the geographically illiterate: we are either the country on the left of India. Or else, we are the country to the right of Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for us, both descriptions are equally true. We are a country which straddles a geographic and social fault line. On one side of the Indus, we find tribal societies who look westwards, people who think of the Durand Line as a historic betrayal and who are happier ignoring it. On the other side, we find settled agrarian societies which share thousands of years of history with their counterparts across the border in India.

In short, we are a schizoid nation. The problem is that the time has come for us to choose.

Before I explain my choice, let me first deal with the inevitable counter-argument: why pick a side? Are we not a proud nation of 170 million? Can we not be independent?

Well, duh.

Of course, we can be independent in political terms. But political independence and economic independence are two very different things. The United States is a politically independent country. But it is not economically independent. Neither is China. Or any other country we would want to be like.

Simply put, we cannot be economically successful while being cut off from the rest of the world. So far as I know, there is only one country which has fully embraced the idea that it should be entirely self-reliant in economic terms: North Korea. And between 1995 and 1997, up to 3 million North Koreans died as the result of a massive famine.

In short then, economic independence is not an option: the only reasonable choice is economic interdependence.

Ok, you may reply, but why does that require us to look eastwards?

The honest answer is that it does not. It is possible, in theory, for Pakistan to operate its economy in isolation from that of India’s. Indeed, we have been stubbornly trying that for more than sixty years. But there is a difference between stubborn and stupid and we crossed that line some time ago.

Right now, foreign investment into Pakistan has to fly in. Somebody sitting in New York or London or Dubai has to decide that he is going to take his money and risk it in Pakistan. And from wherever he is looking, that hypothetical investor has a vast array of international options available to him, most of which did not feature on the January 2008 cover of the Economist as “The Most Dangerous Place in the World”.

On the other hand, there is already a vast quantity of foreign investment sloshing around India. And if you, the foreigner, are already in Delhi, then extending your reach to Lahore is qualitatively different from building an investment there from scratch. Ditto for Karachi and Mumbai. You already have a ground operation in place: the only question is one of scale.

The issue is not just one of economics though but also of orientation. The people of Pakistan have been treated by their rulers for the past half-century with extreme suspicion, as if opening up the doors of this country to the rest of the world — especially India — would result in a mass exodus.

My response: grow up. Most of the people alive in this country were not alive at the time of Partition. Heck, most of them were not alive in 1971 either. All that they — and I, for that matter — have ever known is this country. We are here by choice and just because our rulers break into a cold sweat at the thought of open trade with India is not a good enough reason for them to mistrust the rest of us.

I realise that given the recent events in Mumbai, this is probably not the most appropriate time to be wishing for deeper links with India. But viewed from my admittedly privileged perch, it often seems as if there are now two kinds of people in Pakistan. There are the people who would be happy at a Rafi Peer performing arts festival. And there are the people who want to blow them up. Speaking as one of the festival-goers, I have a hell of a lot more in common with the people who just got attacked in Mumbai than the people who did the attacking. And I don’t think that our security establishment gets this basic point.

In the middle of all this anger and angst, today’s newspaper offers a ray of hope. At the time of the Mumbai massacre, there were more than 100 pilgrims visiting the Katasraj temple in Chakwal. As bullets began to fly back in India, they received call after call from their relatives, telling them to flee. They stayed, not just because they felt safe but because person after person, Pakistani after Pakistani, came up to them and commiserated with them. Those 108 pilgrims are going back saddened. But they are not going back infuriated with Pakistan. And they all say they want to come back.

Newsflash for the talking heads on TV: the people of Pakistan want peace with India. Get over it.