By Arif Ayaz Parrey
The television crackles and sputters as the joyless newsreader struggles to broadcast the daily quota of fibs — in Urdu. Bad signal keeps tossing his moustache to the four corners of the screen. He said it is high time Pakistan accepts that it is responsible for the perpetual power crisis in J&K. Had it agreed to the Kishanganga hydel – noise— height of other major dams to be increased, enough electricity could be produced to deal with the severe winter in the state. The Minister further – noise— stubbornness on part of Pakistani authorities should be another reminder of its nefarious designs for the people of J&K. The lies are so outrageous that even the TV is laughing at them. Outside, a strong wind is rousing the last leaves of autumn to drown the propaganda in their sloganeering rustle. The electricity goes out.
I turn to my friend, who had arrived while I was watching the news and joined me without a word, eyes fixed on the TV, in anticipation of some gentle comedy. I hand her my kãger. As her lover hands snake around it, I pour tea for her from the samavor. Her snow-kissed late morning cheeks soak in the light pink colour of the tea.
“You know, I’m amazed how absolutely idiotic they must think we are to subject us to such ridiculous propaganda.” She remarks, a shadow of anger passing over her eyes.
“Maybe because they want us to believe we are idiots.”
“Possible, quite possible. But why would they think we would buy that?”
“A desperate people will buy almost anything —that is what rulers bet on.”
“Not this, certainly not this.” She cries out, exasperated. “But, you know, I love the way they are sometimes caught up in the web of their own falsehood.”
“Do their lies ever suffocate them?” I express insincere disbelief to lead her on.
Her big black eyes brighten up. “Do you know the story of Sadiq?”
I shake my head.
So, just like that, she begins to narrate the story:
Sadiq was a short, thick-set guy who joined the University a few years ago as a master’s student of political science. From the very outset, he was marked for trouble because he took his subject a tad too seriously. Confrontation started the very first morning when Sadiq, answering an introductory question on the meaning and purpose of politics, quoted Rousseau: Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. The Professor dismissed it as juvenile sentiment. “Freedom results from power”, he thundered, “and man is born powerless.” He illustrated the point about power by disallowing a rejoinder from Sadiq. A couple of days later, another Professor admonished Sadiq for “throwing around the term genocide casually.” “Reminds me,” the mocking Professor continued, “of a Hindi song in which the heroine is threatening the hero: Main tumhara qatl-e-aam kardoungi.” The class laughed nervously. “Can a single life stopped, and mirrored in a million others, never constitute genocide?” Sadiq asked. The Professor shook his head.
It took Sadiq a few awkward weeks to realize that beneath a thin glaze of academic autonomy the entire University operated on the unwritten fundamental principle that it is the State which creates people, not the other way round. Students were meant to utilize their time at the University to figure out how to make the sum total of human knowledge subservient to this fundamental rule. Justice is a byproduct of an ordered system. The path to honour lies in the power to change the lives of others, for better or worse. Without material comfort as an end and, whenever possible, means, no struggle is worth undertaking. We cannot be so depraved as to wage a war against the same system which feeds us. Science has proved that men are animals programmed to make and become slaves. Islam does not allow a follower to wage war against a ruler, howsoever unjust. The tutors had an easy time. They could supply the students with a thousand and one examples every day to prove their thesis. The realism of status-quo is overwhelming.
Here my friend gives a pause which aspires to be meaningful. But now that she has said what she has said, my mind keeps returning to her earlier comment about we being subjects of such ridiculous propaganda. Peculiar thought. Why could she not say: Why don’t they tell the simple damn truth? She continues the story:
All reality breeds dreams. There were dreamers at the campus too, as there always will be, anywhere. It is hard to give an estimate of how many they were. Was the vice-chancellor’s dog, an Alsatian somewhat piquantly named Rinchin Shah, a dreamer? Who is to tell. Although, science has proved that dogs have dreams. But all reality also limits dreams. Rinchin Shah’s uncorroborated dreams could hardly be expected to transcend fracturing sheep femur. Dreams become challenging only when they congregate and arrange themselves into a durable staircase, soaring higher than the reality around them. In the solitary confinement of their own fears and doubts, most dreamers at the campus imagined their freedom, azadi, as an event.
As Sadiq was settling into university life, he discovered an ancient cast-iron board behind one of the suspicious huts at the far corner of the campus. Beneath the verses
Guar kar æ nawjawaan buar panun chhui gobaan
d̪uari zamaan chhui hyvaan sakht̪ kudur imt̪ihaan
nindri t̪ulan waali chaani paanai gamt̪i mast̪ khaab
inqalaab an inqalaab inqalaab an inqalaab
was a signature of the students’ union, a sign from another era. Thus began a series of extended conversations with fellow students and the few University employees who had a reputation of being unwise and eccentric. They shared a vocabulary of dreams and made quick progress. They asked the DSW for permission to hold a students’ meeting honoring the work done by the VC during his tenure. Permission was duly granted. An unexpectedly large number of students gathered and when a sea of silence spread as the VC got up for his speech, somebody spouted the words: Students’ Union Zindabad! into it. The long-standing demand to allow students’ politics in the University and constitute a students’ union was energetically renewed. The administration vehemently opposed the demands but eventually caved in. It is said that the VC was convinced by Sadiq’s irrefutable argument that having a union with a few students as its chair-holders would grant the administration an opportunity to concentrate on those few and control the otherwise insurmountable student community through them. A handle always opens the door.
Except the door let out more power than it ushered in. This nettled the VC. At length, Sadiq was summoned, indignantly, orally. He refused to entertain the order, asking for a written notice. The VC, furious by this time, rang up his friends in the military.
Three years passed. The local channel of the State television launched a soap a sub-plot of which dealt with students’ politics. The villain of this set piece was a young drug-addict who had come into contact with “foreign elements” and had been brainwashed by them. Subsequently, they had sent him to the University to “disrupt the normal function of the campus and create law and order problems by instigating students to indulge in politics.” The name of the villain was Shahid.
Around the same time, a prominent colonial party launched its own student union in the university. It was given ostentatious media coverage and celebrated as a new chapter in the politics of the place. Its president was the son of a prominent member of the colonial party obviously preparing to embed the next generation in power. In the order of things, the son was fittingly named Shahid.
In this moment of catharsis, my eyes are locked with my friend’s. Her eyes are so overflowing with the joy of hope that it fills mine as well. I beckon her to continue:
The soap became as much of an embarrassment for the union as the union became an obstruction for the soap. The State needed to act. In accordance with the precise logic it follows, the writer and the director of the soap went scot-free. A sound engineer was dismissed from service and a make-up artist was whisked off by unidentified gunmen. The indignant producer was quoted in a local newspaper saying that the particular character in the serial was based on one Sadiq and had nothing to do with Shahid.
The demand for Sadiq’s whereabouts resurfaced and intensified. So did another wave of general anguish over the practice of enforced disappearances. Memory crawled out of rat holes and resumed its work on the watchtowers of politics.
Now that my friend has finished her story with a characteristic flourish, I take the opportunity to ask her why she had limited herself to criticizing us being subject to propaganda, why did she not demand that truth be told.
“Well, the newsreader was telling the truth of sorts, you know. The Minister must have said all that stuff.”
“But the Minister was lying big time.”
“The newsreader possible cannot say that, now can he. It is no news to say: The Minister, continuing his lies, said…”
“It is an osmotic membrane. The State calculates that such brazen lies will tire more people and bring them to its side than it will infuriate people on its side to cross over.”
“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” I repeat.
She nods and takes my hands in hers.
As I reread these haphazardly composed pages, I wonder if the conclusions could be any different had the manifest political reality been inversed. If the place had already achieved azadi, could the onscreen and off screen versions of the soap opera still sum up as such an absurdity. It would if people were denied what the denying desired for themselves. It would if agency, volition, will were distributable rather than being inherent. It would if it was assumed that there could be a human being without politics. Even if both parties endorsed such conditions. Yes, my friend and I do live in a place and a time where there is no truth because there are no rules, but about all this I have no doubt.
For Saaqib Amin Parray