The seer of Pakistan


In the south of Pakistan, where Hindus have lately been kidnapped for ransom and their daughters forcibly converted to Islam, Hindu families have started fleeing to India in trains. As they waved to their relatives from train windows, possibly for the last time, many Hindu girls contorted their faces and wept. To the north, near an industrial city, policemen poured paint over Koranic verses inscribed on Ahmadi graves. This is because Ahmadis have no right to Koranic verses in Pakistan: the law classifies them as non-Muslims and the media regularly portrays them as treacherous deviants from the faith. Still higher up, in a scenic mountain valley, Shias were pulled out of buses, lined up and shot dead by gunmen who may or may not belong to one of Pakistan’s many banned sectarian outfits. And just two weeks ago, not far from the pristine capital, a mob of a hundred and fifty Muslims ran after a mentally handicapped, low-caste Christian girl, wanting to burn her alive for having held in her hand—this was the rumor in her neighborhood—a singed Islamic manual.

In the rest of the country, the end of Ramadan was celebrated with the usual fanfare, show of color, and generosity of spirit.

The hysterical synchronicity of these happenings is typical of the Pakistan encountered nowadays in the news. It is also Manto-esque, which is to say that it feels like it could have been imagined, in exactly these tones, with just such a flatly ironic counterpoint for an ending, more than fifty years ago by a man called Saadat Hassan Manto, the writer whose centennial is being marked this year in Lahore amid an unshakeable and vaguely shaming sense of déjà vu.

In May, for instance, in a darkened auditorium in Lahore, two actors stood on a spotlit stage and read out Manto’s “Dekh Kabira Roya” (“Kabir Saw and Wept”), a story he wrote soon after Pakistan’s creation. It shows the medieval Indian poet Kabir, a sayer of contrary things, freakishly transplanted in the streets of a “newly independent state.” Kabir is still in the Indian subcontinent (people have castes here), though it is now the middle of the twentieth century (intellectuals are arguing about Stalin). All around him citizens are excitedly going about the implementation of new laws. Only Kabir is “grief-stricken”; he bursts into tears when he sees, on the top of a building, a desecrated statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi (it has been bound up in jute fiber because the religion in the new state forbids idolatry), and again when he hears a general urging his troops to “fight the enemy on empty stomachs.” Elsewhere in the new state, people are listening to sermons about the importance of beards and veils, while prostitutes with “ravaged and anxiety-ridden faces” ponder a new law that requires them to find husbands in thirty days.

Kabir moves between these scenes, crying all the while.

A religious leader says to him, ‘Why do you weep, my good man?’

Kabir—his medieval contrariness has been transformed in these circumstances into a kind of innocence—wants to know how the prostitutes will ever find husbands.

And the religious leader, who is a creature of the state and has a working knowledge of its laws, laughs because “it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.”

Around me in the darkened auditorium I heard sighs and whispers and even a few gasps. They expressed several things at once: the audience’s mortified recognition of the “newly independent state”; a wearied familiarity with the weeping Kabir; and amazement that Manto, writing all those years ago, had pointed out the very features—the warlike generals and fire-breathing mullahs and rampaging vigilantes—that have come to stand for the sorry state of Pakistan.

On my way out I heard a bewildered man say to his companion, “But it was like he could see the future….”

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