Monday, November 29, 2004

It was after a long time that I went for a walk with MZ. We met in the parking lot of Rancho San Antonio Park. The sun was out, but it was still pretty cold. On our way to the Happy Hollow Farm MZ pulled a muscle in his right leg. Still, he insisted on carrying on with the hike. We took the same route we normally take: we go left from the farm and get on the narrow trail; we climb up all the way to the lookout point, and then loop back. It normally takes about two hours to do that hike. And two hours is a pretty good amount of time to talk about everything: from contemporary politics, to religions, to history, to analyses of societal currents. I’m not sure how we started talking about food, yesterday. I got MZ very excited when I put forth my thesis of the need for diversity in the food we eat. I told him that every food produces its own set of toxins in our bodies—broadly speaking each food is in a way a unique poison. If we frequently eat just one kind of food then we are stacking one type of poison in our bodies. We risk increasing that poison to a level of potency. The trick is to eat many different types of foods so that we get whole bunch of different poisons in minute amounts and none in the amount great enough to be detrimental to us. Most people’s diversity in food goes as far as rotating meat (beef, chicken, lamb, and goat) with vegetables. I believe we should go even farther. For example, why do we always eat chicken eggs? Why don’t we rotate chicken eggs with duck, ostrich, pigeon, and other bird’s eggs? When we eat beef we normally eat Hereford or Angus, why not other breeds? Why turkey only on the Thanksgiving? Have different types of turkeys all year round. Of course, this proposed food diversity is not readily available in common grocery stores. Popular grocery stores only stock food that has the most turnover, things that most people eat. You’d have to actively seek diverse food from groceries that stock exotic food. One way is to visit ethnic food stores and buy things that you don’t normally consume.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A Thought

A freedom fighter is a terrorist who wins.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Iraq Lessons

A.H. Cemendtaur

Allow me to put forth, in the spirit of perennial optimism, a few
valuable lessons we can all take from the Iraq debacle. And when I
say all of us I really mean all of us: the conquerors, the common
folks of the invading nation, the autocrats of the Third World, and
the masses living under despotic rules.

The lesson for the conquerors is very simple: That war is too risky an enterprise to have a predictable long-term result. That running over a smaller country may appear to be a cakewalk, but because of the intrinsicly chaotic nature of violence, this apparent runaway can easily go awry.

The populace of powerful nations should learn that in times of solicitude, con artists will try to fool them, and the tricksters have an excellent chance of getting away with it. That the way a nation can be duped into making unfavorable decisions when it is in a state of anxiety is not very different from the scenario when a pickpocket pushes you to make you lose your balance, making it easier for them to steal from you.

Whereas the idea of exporting democracy to the Middle East had been on the books for a long time, the tragedy of 9/11/2001 provided the necessary environment in which an ideological theory--blissfully accompanied by greed--could be put to the test. Americans were easily tricked by the Neocons into believing that Saddam Hussein was another face of Al Qaeda and that the invasion of Iraq was the only way to avoid the next 9/11. The Neocons, willingly duped by a group of Iraqi Americans, were sure that the Iraqis' gratitude for their liberators would be perpetual and
that during Iraq's transformation into the Japan of the Middle East, its oil will flow freely towards the West—-a win-win situation for all. Too bad the Iraqis refused to play along.

The lesson for the tyrants is obvious and they can see it on TV in the fate of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq fiasco must convince Third World dictators of their precarious hold on power. That they may fool themselves about their popularity and how they live in the hearts and minds of their countrymen, but only a popular vote through democracy is a true indicator of a nation's trust in its leader.

And the greatest Iraq lesson is for the people presently living under dictators and unrepresentative governments. Watching the misery of Iraqis, they need to understand that they have to be serious about their governments--they are responsible for the deeds of people governing them. That it is not OK for people to live a complacent life of neatly fitting in a niche, working one day at a time, and not worrying about the bigger system supporting them, their lives, their
jobs, and everything around them.

Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq descended into chaos because all the power had been concentrated in the deposed leader. A long dictatorship had left Iraqi society hollow. There were no strong institutions that could pull the whole society together in the absence of central authority. People living under dictators must apprehend this hollowness and must work to correct this situation. Institutions live longer than people. That is why there is great merit in building
strong institutions. It is easy to kill a man but very hard to destroy an institution. A strong institution is capable of replenishing its human resources.

It is understandable that in trying situations, self-appointed reformists, especially those with military power, will try to take over a country, but people must put up stiff resistance to such aberrations, knowing that such shortcuts could have disastrous results down the road.

A decentralized democratic government supported by a generally educated public and run by a tolerant secular administration espousing laissez faire has proven to be the best prescription for a country to gain strength. This is the medicine one is inclined to write for everyone, at least until someone comes up with a better idea and demonstrates a working model of their theory.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Koftay and Candy Bars

Let me be very honest about this. While I am very easy to get along most of the time, I do have my pet peeves. And what irks me most are people who are not tasteful with their speech; that is, people that mix languages, and especially those who mix English in Urdu. You know the kind of people I'm talking about. People who would say, "Main wahan jaa raha thaa keh all of a sudden I saw a big truck coming my way. Achha, us truck kee khas baat yeh thee keh it was full of old lumber," and so on. Ugghhhh! Man, Do I barf at that?! I know that it is very common for my countrymen to speak that way, but that doesn't stop me from despising this lingua spurious. I am from the school of thought that believes that when you speak one language, you should speak just that language--when you speak Urdu you must only speak Urdu, and when you speak English you must say everything in English. And my position on this issue is not based on some queer ideas about safeguarding the purity of languages. As a student of linguistics I know that languages are constantly evolving, and that when a language stops evolving it dies. I know that languages become stronger when they borrow words from other languages. I understand all that. I am not against borrowing foreign words into Urdu. My objection is on speech that is just loose-tongued; my annoyance are the people who bastardize Urdu with English without giving any thought to what they are doing.

Occasions to invent words come when people venture into the unknown. When brave souls course through uncharted waters they encounter new phenomena and new entities that need be named. Today, while the rest of the world is lagging behind and seems to be only interested in the innovations that take the developed form of consumer goods, it is the West and especially the English-speaking group of nations that is marching at full speed. From Physics to Astronomy to Genetic Engineering, they are the ones who are tackling the unknowns on a daily basis. They are the ones sending spacecrafts to various places in our solar system; they are the ones decoding human genes; they are the ones going to the depths of the seas and cataloging new species of fish. It is not surprising that outside of the West, linguistic groups, including Urdu speakers, don't have names for the recently discovered subatomic particles or the latest sports rages. We have no choice but to accept the terminology used by the pioneering nations. I am not thrilled when Urdu litterateurs come up with intimidating Arabic or Farsi (mostly Arabic these days) substitutes for English words, to be used in Urdu. To me the Arabization of new English words is a scheme to discredit the inventors: you may have discovered/invented it but we'll give it a name we like (insinuating credit for the discovery/invention). We must definitely use English words for which there is no easy replacement in Urdu. I am all for using words like 'quark', 'nebula', 'parasailing', 'bungee jumping', etc.

But to punctuate your Urdu sentence with 'and', 'therefore', 'but', 'because', 'I think', 'see', etc. is not very smart. Similarly, dovetailing Urdu and English fragments in one sentence smacks of intellectual deprivation. It is my observation that people who do such a hefty mixing of English in Urdu, are, most of the time, not proficient in either language.

I respect connoisseurs who see language as not only a tool for expression but as a vehicle whose intricate beauty should be appreciated; people who savor their own and others' speech; people who use words very consciously, with great taste and discernment; people who realize the power behind each word; people who know etymologies and can trace back the origins of words. These are the people who understand that the best way to enjoy the tastes of koftay and candy bars is to eat them separately. I might agree with that oddball who would argue that by thoroughly mixing koftay and candy bars in a blender you can come up with yet another dish that would have its very own unique taste--but most people who are casual with their language and use varying mixtures of Urdu-English don't seem to have that type of intellectual reasoning behind their action. They are fusing Urdu and English because they don't know any better. They neither have the taste for koftay nor for candy bars.

Friday, November 12, 2004

My Nephew's Martian Retreat

A.H. Cemendtaur

My nephew is a child of the electronic age. He knows how to work with the latest gizmos and his fingers move lightning fast on the keyboard. This precocious young man often dazzles me with his mature ideas on things. So it came to me as a surprise when his mother--i.e. my sister--complained to me about him. She told me her son didn't seem to have his heart in the studies, and was instead wasting a lot of time on the Internet. I decided to talk to my nephew about his mother's concerns. A couple of days ago I went to their home and found some private time to have a serious conversation with my nephew. As it turned out, what started as my intended sermon on the virtues of education quickly turned into an account of a young man's ideas on space exploration. I am producing that conversation here.

Uncle: Your mother says that you hardly ever touch your books, and instead glue yourself to the Internet. What's going on?

Nephew, with a hint of indignation: Ask your sister to give me some space.
And then, after a few moments of silence: It is just that when I get fed up with the ongoing farcical war on terror, I become a Mars recluse. Thanks to NASA for providing me precious a respite that helps me retain my sanity. Two rovers, hundreds of people working towards one goal; every operation depending on the previous one for its success, and yet everything working out as planned, in a neat sequence. The space vehicle took off, it traveled the whole 300 million miles, it entered the Mars orbit, the rover cocoon was dropped in the Martian atmosphere, the parachute opened, the speed reducing rocket was fired at the right moment, the air bags were deployed, the rover cocoon bounced on the cushion of those air bags, it came to rest without breaking its arms and legs, the lander (cocoon) opened its petals, the rover erected itself, the photovoltaic cells were charged with the solar energy, the rover moved out of its protective shell, and now two rovers are roaming the Martian surface, with all their scientific exploration instruments working just fine. If this is not the ultimate triumph of man’s genius, what is? I tell you, the world's scientific community has high regard for the NASA team. Can you see the contrast? One group of pugnacious Americans opening new war fronts and infuriating the whole world; the other group making you see the possibilities and humbling you with the grand prospects of space exploration.

Uncle: Do you agree with President Bush that we should first go to moon and should go to Mars from there?

Nephew: Whereas I may agree with the concept of having human colonies at various distances from here to Mars, I don’t see any reason to have one on the Moon. You must understand that my space vision is very different than Mr. Bush’s.

Uncle: What exactly is your space vision?

Nephew: My space vision relies heavily on robotics. I want us humans to polish our robot-making skills first. We should make robots that can carry the most complex operation: specialized robots that can do a variety of different things. These robots should be our precursors in space. I don't believe the time is ripe for humans to go anywhere outside this world. I wish to see more and more robots of greater and greater sophistication taking off from the Earth.

Uncle: What do you mean? What kind of robots? Kindly explain to me in layman’s terms.

Nephew: Well, If you ask me to build you a nice house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, would you expect me to take the building material from here, and then carry out the construction there? No. You would want me to go there with my construction skills and use the material available there to build you a house. That’s the concept we should be working on. We should make robots that can go to our destinations in space and utilize the natural resources there to make things for us. That’s the concept we should be working on. We should have metallurgist robots, machine-making robots, foundry-erecting robots, and other such kinds of robots. These robots should be the only things going into space at this time. They should go there and build habitable places for us. We should follow the robots only when they have set up livable structures with the right temperature, humidity, pressure, air composition, and only when these robots have started growing food for us at those places. We should go there when there is plenty of air for us to breathe, plenty of food to eat, and many vehicles for us to roam that new world. We should not go to new space frontiers with trepidation. We should go there with the assurance of taking possession of the extraterrestrial palaces built by the forerunner robots. And at each one of these places there should not be just one habitat, but many. If we don't like one we may move to another. You realize that we can get slave work out of our robots?

Uncle: Dear Nephew, you are getting a little carried away. It is not too intelligent to think that the robots we send from here can construct palaces for us. On Earth we work with a number of different metals and materials. Do you really believe all this working material is available to us everywhere we wish to go?

Nephew: Of course not. Hydrocarbon based materials e.g., polymers and plastics would be hard to find anywhere except on Earth because these materials are associated with life. But the building blocks for complex materials are the same throughout the universe. Specially designed robots can make complex material using the building blocks found in space. That’s why we first need to send the metallurgist robots. Once the metallurgist robots have thoroughly surveyed all the objects in our solar system, we devise a strategy to exploit the natural resources present out there. For example when we wish to make a base on Mars we may use our robots to fly materials from nearby places, from the moons of Jupiter and Mars, or from various asteroids.

Uncle: I am not sure what to think of your farfetched ideas. We are way behind in developing good robots, but very eager to go to new places.

Nephew: I would advise my fellow humans to exercise patience. To the best of our knowledge the planet Earth is the only place that can sustain life. We should be developing the best robots right here in the comfort of our home. Yes, making robots that perform complex tasks is not going to be easy. But it is definitely a lot cheaper and an efficient way to pave way for space exploration than to spend billions of dollars in sending humans to inhospitable places, places that we only take a giant step to and back.

Uncle: Your last statement is quite interesting. Why do you think we want to explore space?
Nephew: Well, yes, there is this quest for exploration, for the sake of exploration. But I believe a few selfish motives are present underneath. We would like to inhabit other planets to ensure the continuance of our race--if something happens on Earth and the whole human race is wiped out here, then we would like to make sure that the evolutionary marvels that developed here in billions of years are preserved elsewhere. And the space exploration is being carried to gain knowledge too: to know about our beginnings, about the end, about the changing characteristics of atmospheric bubbles around the heavenly bodies--and in seeking all this knowledge we would be making things that would make our life easier on Earth.

Uncle: So how should this process start?
Nephew: Well, first develop better and better robots right here on earth. We should do extensive testing on the robots we develop. Take them to the deserts, mountains, and other difficult terrain and watch them work on their own. Then start sending these robots to the various planets, moons, and asteroids and make them work there. And this robotics technology that we would be developing for space will benefit us greatly, here on Earth as well. Take for example the tedious task of picking fruits from trees. What a dull and utterly boring way to spend your eight hours of work! We should make dexterous robots with spiraling arms to do this job for us. Imagine robots digging up ores, melting metals, and constructing structures on other planets.

Uncle: You are not leaving any room for humans to achieve lustrous milestones in near future. When we go to Mars there is a date when we reach there. That's a landmark we celebrate later. God knows how long will it take us to make robots that would go out there and make habitable places for us, as your vision demands.

Nephew: I don't think this is a particularly a powerful argument. We can have our deadlines and milestones for the robots. We can set up a deadline when a robot we make will go to the deadliest volcano on our planet and build things there.

Uncle: You want your robots to collect building materials from various places. How are your robots flying from one celestial object to another?

Nephew: Now I got you thinking. Developing technology to harness potent energy outside Earth requires a lot of work. But we know there are options available out there. Getting energy for everyday operations is not that hard. Solar energy is available everywhere. We know about active volcanoes on other planets. Heck, there are such strong winds on Mars we can have windmills installed there. The greatest challenge is to harness energy that can be used to propel space shuttles. The good news is that the gravity of most of the heavenly objects is too weak. It is not that hard to break away from that pull. I see the challenge in finding appropriate 'rocket fuels' that can be gathered outside the planet Earth, but I believe we are fully capable of taking up this challenge.

Uncle: What kind of a station you see being built for the humans on Mars?
Nephew: I see us living in caves on Mars. I see each one of these stations having a greenhouse. This enclosed greenhouse would be connected via a duct to the mouth of the cave. Oxygen from the greenhouse would be pumped in the cave. Out in the Martian atmosphere there is plenty of Carbon Dioxide to feed the plants. And these various Martian stations will be connected to each other through pressurized glass corridors.

Uncle: What are your views on the International Space Station?

Nephew: I would like to see the International Space Station stay operational. But I want robots and not humans to keep it alive. Later, I would like to see the International Space Station moved closer to Mars. I would either park it at a Lagrangian point near Mars, or make it a Martian satellite. Then it would become our home away from home.

Uncle: And what about the Hubble? Is it OK to abandon that telescope?
Nephew: The Hubble telescope must be kept operational too. The world will go blind if we let that eye of ours go dark.

Uncle, with a chuckle: Any concluding remarks.
Nephew: Don’t forget what the grand purpose is behind our space enterprise. Exploration titillates the mind like nothing else does. One day, the whole world would catch on the excitement of space exploration. We will all forget our squabbles and instead focus on space and on farther and farther travel. At that time we would realize we have too few people on Earth to survey all that real estate present out there.

Uncle: Oh, this reminds me of something else. When are you getting married? I want grandchildren, soon.

Nephew: I won’t get married till there is a sustainable human colony on Mars. I want my future wife to give birth to the first child born outside Earth.

Uncle: Good luck, young man. I believe I just heard a vow of celibacy.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Little things to talk about

Having traveled overland through Central America I have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. But when it comes to conveying elaborate ideas to D, we rely on written text. H has a Hispanic friend in college; she--R--translates into Spanish whatever H writes in English and wishes to be communicated to D. So, a couple of days ago when H noticed that two of her foot-cream tubes were missing, and one day Amman caught D curiously inspecting H's lipsticks, H decided to convey a stern warning to D. A short message was duly translated into Spanish, and yesterday afternoon Amman delivered H's translated message to D. D opened up the envelope, read the note and started bawling. Amman comforted her. D then sat down to write down her rejoinder. She wrote one paragraph and then got busy in her work; later she started crying again, and then wrote down one more paragraph. All that writing has gone with H to her college, to be translated into English.

I normally have brief encounters with D, in the morning--I'm about to leave for work when D shows up in the morning. This morning D brought up the issue with me. I decided to be political with it. I told her that there seems to be some misunderstanding between her and H, and that I don't consider the whole thing to be such a big deal.

All in all, I believe all of this happened for the best. D will not dare touch any of H's stuff anymore. D and us badly need each other: it won't be easy for D to find such a comfortable job, and we will have a hard time finding such a dedicated worker, in case she decides to leave.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Our ephemeral existence

There is so much to write and so little time to do all this writing. I found out about Major Z's ailment—there is something wrong with his system that makes the red blood cells. I called him to find out how he was feeling. He told me he felt enervated; he hardly has any energy to do anything. Our biological systems are so complex it isn’t very hard for something to go wrong. You can be OK one day and next day be down with a debilitating medical condition. Such thoughts are dreadful. I wonder if I’ll get time to bring out all the books that are wound up in my brain.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A thought

They say why do the Palestinians throw stones. Well for one because the West is giving guns only to the Israelis.

Monday, November 08, 2004


A.H. Cemendtaur

I looked at the clock. It was a little after eleven that Saturday night. I was at a party at a friend's place. We had been eating, drinking, and making merry since early in the evening. I decided to take leave. It was a beautiful Bay Area summer night, with its vintage chilly feel, and I loved coming out of the stuffy indoors. My car was parked on the street, some distance away from my friend's home. I started towards the car and, a few yards down the dimly lit sidewalk, noticed a man coming towards me. He wore baggy clothes and was walking his bicycle. His garb, combined with his disheveled long hair, identified him as a homeless person looking for a warm place to spend the night. As he walked past me, he said something; I replied with a genial hello.

When I reached the car and was about to open the door I sensed someone behind me. I turned to look back. It was the same homeless person.

"What did you call me?" he asked, with some fury.

What did I call him? I didn't call him anything. I just said hello. But I didn't want to reply to this obviously enraged dullard; didn't want to argue with him; didn't want to assure him that I didn't utter a word besides "hello"; that I didn't mean any harm to him; that I wasn't the reason he was homeless; that I hadn't taken away his job (if he ever had one); that I didn't make him insane and cause him to lose the things he grew up with, if he was indeed deranged. No, none of that. I could tell he wanted to pick a fight with me. I could see 'trouble' spray-painted in the air all around me, and I wanted to get the hell out of there.

I opened the car door, slipped in, and closed the door behind me. It was my first victory. I had successfully fortified myself. But fortification had its own perils--I was now constrained. He had come up behind me and was now standing where I was standing seconds earlier. Sitting low in the car with a glass window between me and a stooping, threatening man I was very vulnerable, may be even more than when I was out there in the open, standing on my own two feet—-out of the car I could run away from him. I thought about locking the door, but then decided on saving time. I was driving my wife's car, and the slight unfamiliarity with the machine was not working in my favor. My right hand fumbled to fit the key in the ignition while I kept looking at my tormentor, gauging his next move. The engine cranked up---another victory. My harasser also sensed the importance of my latest triumph. I was ready to escape and he didn't want to let go of me. He made his move, I made mine---for a split second I turned my head, looked at the gear stick, put the gear in drive, looked back at him and gunned the engine. I was quick, I didn't give him enough time to open the car door. All he could do was to throw his bicycle at my car while I managed to diagonally come out of the parking spot avoiding hitting the car parked in front of me. The handle of his bicycle hit the left rear of the car with a loud thump. But that was it. I was out--the final victory of the night. My heart was pumping really fast---all primordial responses raving my body; no fight that night, it was all about fleeing.

The next morning I surveyed the damage. As I looked at the dent the bicycle handle had impacted and the scratches rubbing metal had produced on the car, many what-ifs surfaced. What if I had talked to him? But then should I have talked to him before sitting in the car, or should I have rolled down the window after getting behind the wheel? Had he noticed a trace of fear on my face, and had that encouraged him to come after me? What if I had not been able to escape and he had attacked me? Was I ready to put up a fight? What if I had grabbed the Crook Lock and fought him? Had his encounter with me emboldened him and had he attacked someone else later that night? Did he later assault a lone woman coming out of the party I had attended?

Living in a civilized society I have let my guard down. I wasn't that way in Karachi. You can't afford to be that way in Karachi. You have to be alert. And this is how all of us were centuries ago: alert all the time, wary, distrustful of each other, doubtful of others' moves, animals. We could not expect benevolence from strangers. They all were there to harm us, to take advantage of us. And further back in history we were cannibals--food for each other; the weak were the meals for the strong. But all that changed with time. Progressively we learned to benefit from each other, we became respectful of our fellow human beings. We realized we could work with people and get something grand out of this cooperation; we made laws to protect the weak.

Still, at times our animal instincts surface. We take advantage of the weak. And it is terrible to feel weak--it sucks. I have felt for the weak caught in exploitive situations. And threatening situations there have been and are quite a few: being a Jew in the Nazi Germany, being a Muslim in Modi's Gujarat, being a Hindu/Christian/Qadyani/Shia in Pakistan, being a Caucasian farmer in present day Zimbabwe, being a South Asian in Idi Amin's Uganda, being wife and children of an Englishman during the war of 1857. I wonder if under the threat of rape, all the women feel a similar exploitation--weak and vulnerable in a world of beastly men.

Sunday was a slower day. Later in the evening I went to grocery shopping. As I parked the car I saw an old woman putting her shopping in her car trunk. A woman even older than her was sitting inside--must have been the mother. Older folks invoke a strange charity in me. I thought about asking the woman loading her grocery if she needed help, but I couldn't make up my mind about how to do it. I just kept looking in that direction. Then I noted that the woman in the car had taken notice of me. She was studying me with caution. Why was I looking at her daughter, she must have thought. Did she wonder if I was going to snatch her daughter's purse and run?

"Ma'am, I can take that cart. I need one." I said when the woman was done putting the groceries in the car. I wanted to save her the trip to the cart corral. She smiled and pushed the cart in my direction.

"It is crooked. It has a tendency to go sideways." She gave me a helpful hint.

"I'll take care of it." I told her and felt sorry for the brief moment of anxiety I caused the older woman sitting in the car.

Friday, November 05, 2004

That Julia Child Way of Dying (And Living)

A.H. Cemendtaur

Life's best lessons are often learned in the worst of times. Anytime I
am removed from books is a bad time for me and that summer, when I found myself in New York, was definitely one of the worst episodes of my life. Renting a room in Jersey City, I was working at a factory in Secaucus during the day and putting in evening hours at a Roy Rogers, as I tried to save money for school. My landlord had removed the bed from my room because, at the time of the rental agreement, I refused to pay the additional $25 a month for it. I slept on the floor. Late at night when I had turned off the light and lay on my sleeping bag, mice would come out of the various holes in the wall and scurry about around me. I remember my first night in that room, when the mysterious whisking sounds had me baffled. I couldn't figure out what it was. When I turned on the light, I caught a glimpse of a tail quickly disappearing in a hole. Rats! I debated with myself whether to pay the extra $25 a month for the bed, but then decided to test out the mice and see how brave they were. So I switched off the light and went to sleep. It turned out that the mice were pretty timid; they kept themselves at a distance from me. We set up our boundaries. The sleeping bag was my domain; every other place in the room belonged to the mice.

But it was not living with the rats that bothered me; it was the loneliness that was tormenting. I was surrounded by people whose language I didn't speak. They would talk for hours and their conversations wouldn't go beyond their immediate materialistic needs: their cars, their clothes, their shoes. You could scour the whole neighborhood and you wouldn't find a book in any of the houses.

So there I was living in a city that I couldn't develop a friendship with, longing to go back where I had come from. But I could not escape. I had to put in my time.

One day I was on a train that was passing through the Bronx. A man got up from his seat and stood by the door to get off at the next station. The train pulled into the station, the door opened, and the man disappeared. I noticed that the departing passenger had left his New York Times at his seat. I got up, walked to his seat, and picked up the newspaper. I cursorily turned the pages until my eyes stopped, fixed at a column by Ann Landers. That day Ann Landers had quoted "The Station" by Bob Hastings. "Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream." Cherish today. The message was so simple and yet so profound that it moved me. It set me free like nothing else has, over the course of my life. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. Conveying Hastings' message to me, Landers had taken me from the abyssal pit of misery to the zenith of fulfillment where I could kiss God's forehead.

I felt emancipated. And in that moment of lightness, I constructed my own philosophy about life. I understood my incapacity to control the ticking of time--I am always taken to the next moment whether I plan for it or not. I realized the importance of setting goals; that milestones far off in the future that you want to reach, that shimmering pillars on the distant mountain give a purpose to the journey, your life. But I decided that the long-term goals shouldn't be the only places where, once you get there, you unwind and celebrate; that there should be short-term goals and that there should be daily celebration of the little joys of life. That living today to its fullest doesn't mean living foolishly. That rejoicing in the present means doing today what you wish to do when you'd retire one elusive day. That I need to pursue my heart's desire everyday and then one day just quietly die in my sleep. That's the Julia Child way of dying (and living).

Here is "The Station" by Bob Hastings that Ann Landers had copied in her column; savor its timeless wisdom and apply it in your life—just don’t eat too much ice cream.

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We're traveling by train and from the windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our minds is our final destination--for at a certain hour and on a given day our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true. So restlessly we pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead,
waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

"Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!" we promise ourselves. "When we're that promotion...put the last kid through that 450 SL Mercedes off the mortgage...have a nest egg for retirement."

From that day on we will all live happily ever after.

Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it constantly outdistances us. Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream. Yesterday belongs to history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset. Only today is there light enough to love and live.

So, gently close the door on yesterday and then throw the key away. It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad, but rather the regret over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow.

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Readymade identities, prepackaged burdens

A.H. Cemendtaur

One day when she was old enough to ask deeper questions, she came up with that ultimate inquiry. Who am I? She asked her father. And that question perturbed the father. What should he tell her who she was? What made him qualified to answer her question, he asked himself. She was born in New York of Pakistani parents who, at that time, were on student visas in the US. Both parents had Sunni backgrounds; husband spoke Urdu, his parents migrated to Pakistan from UP, India; wife spoke Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent because her Punjabi speaking parents, originally from Amratsar, India, only spoke Urdu with their children. The little girl, a US citizen, was now living in Jeddah. Considering her young age should she be given a short, quick answer that she was a Pakistani American living in Saudi Arabia? Or, should she be told the whole story, that monikers like American, Pakistani, Saudi, Sunni, Urdu, Punjabi, etc. not only lack sharp definitions, but are also entrapping and she would be better off avoiding them; that she needed to go and figure out for herself who she really was?

Or, should the little girl be first asked what her question really meant? What kind of classification, above that of being a human being, was she interested in? Who got her thinking in that direction--that she needed to fit neatly in a religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, or national pigeonhole?

Or, should she be assured that it did not quite matter what particular group she was born in? It mattered more who she was then and what she wanted to become. That she needed to come to terms with herself knowing that she was truly unique, that no one like her was ever born, nor would anyone like her ever come into being. That this uniqueness may give her a feeling of loneliness but it must also giver her confidence that she truly didn’t need to carry any burden of past that she was not part of--the kind of historical baggage that comes with belonging to a group.

Would she understand if she were told that brave people don’t put on the pre-tailored, readymade labels that are handed to them? These enticing prepackaged identities come complete with notions of proper ways of thinking: what should you revere, who is your enemy, and all. These garbs are meant to hide your true self from others. The world is eager to shove these garments to insecure people. Here, put on this shirt, this is your nationality, and you need to put it on because you were born in this land. Or, here, you really need to put on this trouser called so-and-so religion because you were born in a family that practices this religion. That confident people reject such offers of pre-tailored definitions; there is no identity crisis simmering in them propelling them to seek somebody else’s answers about who they are. They know that whereas imbeciles around them would try to squeeze them in some cubbyhole, in the end it is their choice to refuse to go in that narrow slot. These stalwarts define themselves in their own ways, not necessarily always rejecting everything burdened on them by history and by their special association to a certain group, but by taking a mental note of their historical baggage and then going beyond it. They understand that all these prepackaged definitions that appear divine at this time were coined by someone sometimes back in history—that they have the power to do the same.

By the time he was ready to give a detailed answer the child had already left.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Modern Life

A.H. Cemendtaur

A fast-moving boat lost control and started shooting up into the air, a balloon glided down in a gentle wind, an old man stopped to pick up the newspaper that had fallen from his hands. Then words started appearing randomly on a big white screen: Life;meaning;evaluation;confusion;destiny.

Slowly I got cognizant of my surroundings. The day had grown and matured. The sun was trying to pierce through the curtain. I lolled in the bed for a while still thinking of last night’s conversation. She had said she wanted to escape ‘all that.’ Escape all what, I had asked. “Escape all this,” she had repeated herself; this time fluttering her hands in the air. I watched her quivering fingers looking for a clue. I did not find one. What did she mean? Why was it so hard for her to put her finger on ‘that?’ Then, in the tradition of our times, I tried to pigeonhole her. I told her she was a nihilist; that she was trying to escape from modern life; I told her that a lot of people were trying to do that. They wanted to escape “all this.” But before you plan your escape you must understand what you are talking about.

The whole experience of settling down in communities and then gradually using technology to make our life easier, and then continuous improvement in the ways we do things thereby increasing our efficiency, has thrust us into this new lifestyle that to many appears a quagmire. Ostensibly we have been trying to make our life easier; it seems we end up making it more and more complicated. Every scientific breakthrough brings more consumer goods, more comfort in our lives, but still ends up complicating things.

The modern system we have spun around ourselves has acquired a life of its own. At times it looks as if we have become slaves of our own system. This beast pulsates when people are stuck in their places, when they work everyday: people pay taxes, highways get built, system gets renovated, more material things get invented and come in public use, more complexity ensues. And in the middle of all this you find yourself standing fixed, working like a machine. You toil, you make money and then you write checks to all these people maintaining the infrastructure that hosts your existence.

The powerful wave of time takes you along. The scheme of things baffles you, and sometimes you wish to run away from the genie that has been created by people like you. You ask about the meaning of life. Why are you here? What is the purpose of your existence?

It is not only the religion that has answers to this philosophical question about life. Atheists and agnostics have their own ideas. When Bertrand Russell was asked such a question, he quipped, “What is the meaning of meaning of life?” In essence, Russell was saying that the concept of “meaning of life” is our own creation. That thousands of years ago when we were roaming the land, collecting wild fruits, hunting, and often going hungry for days, the concept of “meaning of life” never occurred to us; survival was the only goal at that time, and that was all there was. No grand philosophical queries presented themselves. The quest for finding the ‘meaning of life’ came when we invented agriculture and animal husbandry, and living a long natural life became a certainty. We then got bored by the predictability and the monotony of life. The “meaning of life” trap stems from that boredom.

But aside from the philosophical argument, what many find depressing about modern life is its mechanical aspect--when things become routine and everyday is similar to every other day, for years after years. It is this life of working fixed hours every workday, doing the same thing over and over again that annoys you. Many fall into the trap; they run the race to gather the most toys, collect consumer goods. The victims constantly compare themselves with others, and believe that whoever lives in a bigger house and drives a bigger car than them is “better off” than them. These rat-race runners are most likely to stop in their tracks one day and question the basic premise of their living. They long to find meaning in their lives. Drugs, religions, alternate lifestyles, all prescribe their own medicine.

And the idea of escape from the drudgery appears very romantic. Fed up with modern life some plan a big escape, something like what Alaska hiker Chris McCandless did (beautifully described by Jon Krakauer in “Into the Wild”). Others find nirvana in short periods of solitude. It is what made Henry David Thoreau live a solitary, contemplative life at the Walden Pond for two years.

I believe escape is a mental exercise and can be achieved while staying in the system. There is no need to go anywhere. Nirvana can be found right here in the midst of the cacophony. Inner peace can be found by understanding the game, recognizing its hollowness, and refusing to be compliant; by stopping to compare yourself with others; by wanting to live the life by your own rules.

And the emancipated modern life starts with the moment when you truly understand the economic system you live in. To relieve yourself from bondage to the system you need to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck rut. Evaluate yourself. What skills you have that can be used to make money? How can you market those skills in the most efficient way? It is almost certain that you will have to make compromises; there will be situations when you will be working for money all the while wanting to do something else. Your triumph lies in making these episodes fewer and the duration of such compromises short. It helps to decide about a date when your compromise would end, expire. No matter how busy you get in life, every few days stop yourself and take time to see which way you are headed. Do you really want to go that way? Ask yourself if that is the shortest path to your long-term goals.

It also helps to have a very good handle on the concepts of cash flow, burn rate, and an estimation of time period you can survive if the source of your primary income is cut off today. By being financially secured you find room in your life to manipulate things in your favor. The sooner it happens the better, because financial stability marks the beginning of your real life. And financial stability doesn’t mean a very big balance in your bank account; you reach stability when you find a balance. The adage, ‘Happiness is positive cash flow’ comes to mind.

But what do you do when you have mastered the survival techniques? When you have understood the game, when you can clearly see the diapers in the beginning and diapers in the end, and the whole drama of life in between, from childhood to death? What do you do to not be bored? How not to be inwardly consumed by the frivolous reality of life?

The meaning of life is in living it. The base of your existence is like quicksand. You are better off keeping walking. Keep moving lest you start sinking under the weight of your own pondering.

You can relieve ennui by doing new things all the time, by refusing to be predictable, by taking risks, by finding causes to fight for, by lending a helping hand. If two consecutive days of your life are alike and if this happens over a long period of time then a change is badly needed.

Look at the safety network the modern society has laid out for you. There is no reason to dread the fall. The network is there to catch you. It is not like yonder years when taking risks could prove perilous; if you failed there was a good chance that you’d die of hunger. That fear is not there anymore. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen when you take a risk. You may lose a few things. On the other hand, think of the diversity of life that you enjoy by taking the risks.

And how do you know if you are being daring enough? It is said that if your life is free of failures, then you are not taking enough risks. In taking risks listen to Admiral Grace Hopper’s prophetic advice: "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things."

And you can enjoy life by learning new things. There is so much to experience and learn. Look at the vast universe. It is begging to be explored. And this is probably what human beings will be doing far in the future. Having total mastery on all mundane activities of life, they will perpetually be involved in the exploration of the cosmos.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Bomb
Ali Hasan Cemendtaur
Translated from Urdu by
Shahab Riazi

This story was first read at a gathering in Karachi that was organized as a part of the series of events arranged for the “Remembering Hiroshima” day in 1998. It is important to note that this was the same year marred by events in both India and Pakistan that lead both countries to perform their nuclear tests just weeks before the day.

I feel rather strange right now. Reverberant dark shadows leap back and forth in my head from time to time. It feels like I am wandering in the chasm between reality and meaningless horrors all the while blindfolded. But my pen keeps moving, spewing words of a story on a piece of paper torn off of a bag of cement. I want to tell this story to the world.

I am a journalist and I work for a newspaper in Karachi, “Waqt Ki Awaaz” (Call of Time). In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I was a journalist and worked for the above named newspaper in Karachi.

After finishing my Bachelor’s in Journalism from Karachi University, I worked in a major newspaper, “Jung” (War), for a while. I left that newspaper due to some personal reasons only to join “Waqt Ki Awaz.” I remember everyday being a grind. Living was expensive, especially for working class folks like us but I had certain advantages. I was an only child and my father had left me the house that I lived in with my wife, Maha, and two beautiful kids, Sadia and Asad. We had rented out the lower portion of the house, the rent from which alongwith my modest salary helped Maha in not only the running of the house but also to save some money at the end of each month. It was a credit to Maha’s discipline with expenses, more than anything else, that allowed us to buy a car, after she put her personal savings together with some money from a mutual savings scheme she participated in from time to time. Since I could not afford to bear the expenses of using the car for my daily commute to the office, the use of the car was relegated to occasions such as weddings or weekend outings. This was our life. It was not a terribly exciting life but we had no complaints.

Maha was my best friend in the entire world. We met at Karachi University where we took part in the activities of an organization called, “Peace Tribe.” My father had passed away only months after I joined the University. This proved to be a terrible blow for my mother who remained sick off and on and while I was in my senior year insisted that I should get married before the inevitable, her death, takes her away from me. I decided to propose to Maha and we got married shortly. Tragically, yet not so unexpectedly my mother succumbed to her age and died just a few months later.
Casting aside the occasional disagreements or arguments that are a part of any marriage, I was very happy with my overall connubial. After a little while, my daughter Sadia joined us and later on we completed our family with Asad who was born in the eleventh year of our matrimony. We wanted to raise our kids providing them with ample time and attention and opted to stop having kids after that.
If someone were to ask me what three things I enjoyed in Maha the most, I would have admit that I found a solace of sorts in her maturity and the wisdom she possessed that was clearly beyond her years. The fact that she always had a smile on her face may appear second in the list but it was by no means any less important than the first quality I mentioned. Her smile was infectious and it surpassed in beauty only slightly when compared to my third favorite thing about her, the tiny mole, that she had on the tip of her nose. I positively adored it.
We had both graduated from Karachi University years ago but we were still in touch with the people who were part of the “Peace Tribe” at Karachi University with us. As it is evident from the name, the members of the “Peace Tribe,” are peaceniks. We hated organized and random violence equally and whenever we could vociferously. The people in the group aspired to see the populations of different countries striving to improve their general living conditions instead of worrying about how to best exterminate each other.

Late at nights, Maha and I used to talk about different aspects of Pak-India relations. We were always surprised at the intensity of the war hysteria on both sides of the border. Who are these people who decide on the designation of another country as their enemy. How do they conclude that they must kill and maim the people who are their perceived rivals and to what end? How can anyone be heartless and insensitive enough to make decisions about annihilating women, children, the young and old, whom they have never met, seen or known? Do these decision-makers not feel any love for their own brothers, sisters, children and relatives, or are they mentally handicapped to an extent where they do not realize that others must have loved ones like they do.

We used to talk about the time when both India and Pakistan flaunted each other’s nuclear manhood, one deciding to outdo the other in an internationally watched pissing contest. For weeks, the contents of the newspapers in both the countries were as harrowingly depraved as that act itself. Leaders of both Pakistan and India threatened to erase each other and its people from the face of the planet. Both of us agreed that we despised this game of brinkmanship between the two nations. The storm seemed to die down after a little while yet the tensions remained and in fact they kept increasing as time passed.

For the past two weeks, five to ten Hindu farmers were being killed on a daily basis in the Indian controlled Kashmir. India alleged that this was a manifestation of cross border terrorism exported into India via Pakistan. Pakistan contended that this was an uprising based entirely in the disputed region of Kashmir and that the people killed were being punished by the freedom fighters for spying on behalf of the Indian government.

Among others, the Indian Defense Minister took pains to point out that the terrorists killing innocent Kashmiris were rogue fighters from around the world whose purpose in life is reduced to killing and pillaging. He remarked that after terrorizing the populace in Afghanistan and spreading devastation there, these groups and individuals were now directing their attention to Kashmir. The Indian government made it a point to assemble the Islamic scholars based in India and after extracting an edict (fatwa) from them against killing innocent people during Jihad, publicized it heavily in the far and wide regions of the country. This act was countered by the groups fighting the Indian government, with claims that the people targeted by them are not innocent. India also exhorted the world opinion against Pakistan by claiming that Pakistan was not only harboring these terrorists but was also providing them with training in camps specially built for that purpose in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. India had threatened to take action against these camps across the line of control. The Indian Government, on several occasions had also tried to seal their border with Pakistan but due to a battery of reasons, this was never successfully accomplished. In Pakistan, there were groups and political parties that openly expressed their despair with any process of negotiations with India and prophesized “Jihad” to be the only way in which Kashmir could be liberated from the clutches of the Government of India. These groups openly recruited impressionable youth from all areas of Pakistan for the purpose of Jihad. No one knew where these young men were headed and what became of them, once they joined these radical groups and parties. We were watching all of this unfold, with bewilderment.

Maha and I agreed that the logical end to any spark of war between Pakistan and India would be a nuclear exchange. We would argue hours on in about the details of what death would be like in the event of a nuclear holocaust. People had told us that like other sudden accidental deaths, an atomic explosion would also be a stunning and quick death. I disagreed with the analogy of an accident because in an accident such as a car accident, for instance, there is some level of personal control that exists and that can be attributed to the people involved in that accident. Death as a result of a nuclear explosion did not have that emblematic hook on which any part of the responsibility for the “accident” could be hanged. The people in this case, in my opinion, bearing the consequences, had no control over the circumstances leading up to the “accident.” Maha would vehemently disagree with the basis of my dispute concerning the original argument and most of the time immediately argued that we have chosen to live among the people who do not have any sense of proportion when it comes to their ignorance and hatred for each other. She would pointedly inquire about why we don’t pack up and leave to look for a life elsewhere. I argued that a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be a result of a few hateful and narrow-minded people taking the vast populations of both countries hostage, and a billion people cannot be blamed for that. We always remained entangled in these discussions and could never find a way out of these confabulations.

I am 43 years old. After much contemplation, I had decided to accept death in the heart of my hearts. Yes, A day will come when I will cease to exist. My thoughts, my vision, my senses, would be switched off. However, having accepted that reality, I also wished to avoid death in a war that wasn’t mine. Someone, from thousands of miles away somewhere pushes a button deciding effectively to end my life was not how I wanted to go. I love Maha, Sadia and Asad. I loved life. I wanted to keep this love alive for as long as I could.

Maha and I had decided that if a war in fact was launched by either of the countries, we would leave Karachi and head north since the big cities in both India and Pakistan were at higher risk of being targeted in the event of a nuclear exchange. We had informed some of our relatives of our decision who chose to do or say no more than scoff at our plans.

There were some questions that went begging for answers though, such as when should one leave the city? What should be the specific occurrence for us to initiate that sequence? We were sure of a singular thing: If either of the armies crossed the border, then that would signal the beginning of a major conflict which could inadvertently reach the only logical end, a nuclear conflagration, and that is when we decided we would leave the city. There was the possibility of us ending up looking like fools running away due to what may turn out to be a false alarm. There was always going to be a chance, however minute, of any conflict involving the breach of borders from either sides ending without the involvement of nuclear arms, but being safe than dead seemed more appealing than any possibility of loss of face.
Maha and I had felt a sense of contentment after hammering out the details of our great escape. Nobody knows what the future may hold yet some sense of preparation for that unknown, uncharted tomorrow does allow some breathing room to life today. Wait, is that not the idea running the engines behind one of the biggest industries of the world. Insurance, it does not save lives yet saves life! right.
Just yesterday, before my usual breakfast I stepped I stepped out onto the terrace of my house where I noticed a few new flowers among the white lilly flowerpots. I bent over to smell them and their beautiful musk met me half way. It was almost like they, in their generosity, were eager to give away everything they had to eventually loose themselves in their surroundings through the dissipation of their aroma. It was a beautiful cloudy day and the skies seemed ready to shower their love onto all creation in sight. All of these seemed like good omens. I headed to the office only to find a tense newsroom slowly being fed on news of rising tensions at the control line. I think I arrived at the office around 9 AM, yet, the news about the situation at the border was being relayed over wires at such a quick pace that I entirely lost my sense of time for that part of the day. Before I knew it the clock had struck one and that is when I had some lunch followed by a customary cup of tea. Around 1:30 PM we learnt that the Indian forces had crossed the control line and were now engaged directly with their Pakistani counterparts in the Neelum Valley. This was verified shortly by another news source. It was evident that this was the beginning of the scenario Maha and I had discussed several times. I found myself debating my options that were not very diverse. Whether I should leave the office and do what we had agreed to do earlier in a case such as this? Or should I stick around here as apparently many others had decided to do. At exactly 2 ‘o’ clock, I made my decision and informed my boss that I would like to go home since I was not feeling well. He offered me his help in the form of a doctor’s visit at the office but I insisted that I would feel better having gone home. After taking leave from him, I arrived at home to find Maha busy with her daily chores and kids back from school. Upon my explanation of returning home early and the declaration of my intent to follow through with our decision of leaving the city in case of war, Maha gave me the most incredulous of looks. It is one thing to make plans in response to hypothetical scenarios and quite another, upon coming across any of the set of possibilities for which such contingency plans are made, to execute them in real life. After quelling Maha’s fears and questions we picked up the kids and some other things that we thought were important. Maha picked up her jewelry box and I gathered all of my paper work, which included my unfinished novels and stories that trumpeted the ideals of peace, brotherhood and love. At that moment, those ideals and everything about them seemed conceptually out of reach and meaningless, yet this was my all. After locking the house behind us we made our way through the city towards the National Highway. Sadia and Asad, in keeping with the reputation their peers had gained of being very perceptive were quiet and had probably deduced from the earlier conversations between Maha and myself about such an event, that we were running away from something terrible. I was heading towards Thatta, which is at a good distance from both Hyderabad and Karachi, the two big urban centers of Sind. I was convinced that I would be able to find accommodation in Thatta even though I did not know anyone there. I had started noticing an increase in traffic. It seemed that there were a lot of people who wanted to leave the city thinking about the same fears that I had thought about. After one of the outlying suburbs of the city, traffic on the highway came to a virtual stand still. People waited for a few minutes but then decided to throw caution to the wind, driving their cars ahead off the road. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. It felt like thousands of flashguns going off at the same time. A horrendous explosion followed it immediately. Panic was now setting its claws deep into us but keeping myself together I sheepishly looked in the rear view mirror to see a mushroom cloud rising above eager to meet the heavens. Maha and I did not exchange a single word. I don’t think we knew what to say or how to react. Were we supposed to be happy at saving our own lives or should we lament the loss of life and the destruction of the city, which until recently was brimming with people, their dreams and aspirations. It was no more than smoke and dust now.

I heard a shriek. Maha started crying as did the kids who did not know any better than to imitate their mother. She turned around and pulled Sadia and Asad to her chest. People had started to step out of their cars wanting to know what had happened. I could tell that nobody had any answers. I did not have a radio in my car. It took every bit of my strength left in me to drive us to Thatta after that. Upon reaching our destination we saw people in the streets looking for cars and people coming from the general direction of Karachi. I had wanted to stop and ask someone about what was being reported on TV and radio if anything. But then decided to look for a place to stay before doing that. Unfortunately I could not find a place for us to stay there and after some thought decided to keep travelling farther towards Tundo Allah Yaar. Night was setting in fast when I put my car on the road towards our new destination where I also knew an old friend from my school days. Highway beyond the city limits of Thatta seemed deserted. Darkness and the scarcity of cars on the road was not a very comforting combination. After driving for a while I noticed that the road ahead was not clear. There were a couple of cars parked awkwardly on the road almost blocking it. My first assumption was that there might have been an accident, however, as we neared the spot, I realized that this was a roadblock probably set up by dacoits. I weighted my options that were terribly limited to begin with and eventually had to stop the car. As soon as the car stopped two men with Klashinkovs in their hands accosted us and demanded that we step out of the vehicle immediately. I tried to keep my calm all the while trying to talk to them in a soft tone, attempting to reason my way out of the situation. One of them stepped forward and slapped me across my face. I gathered myself and stepped out of the car. They pulled Asad out of the car too and at that moment Maha started wailing and crying. The other man aimed his gun at her bidding her to stop. I was praying for somebody to show up and rescue us. Evidently, God had other very important things to attend to hundreds of Kilometers south of where we were standing at that moment. The two men pulled me and Asad to a side, searched us, grabbed our valuables and proceeded to tie us up. I kept imploring them in whatever little of the local language I knew, to let us go and to have mercy. I realized that they had left us and were heading back to the cars. They had blindfolded us so I could not tell what they had intended to do until I heard the roar of my car starting and heading in the other direction. It was then that I realized what was being done to me. They were kidnapping my wife and daughter. I ran towards the fading sound of my car only to take a nasty fall at the side of the road. I had lost all sensation by then except the warmth of my tears on my face. I remember crying for a long time until I heard Asad calling out my name. I quickly got up and headed in his direction. Upon finding him on the grounds close by I untied his hands by pulling on the ropes with my teeth. He pulled his blindfold off immediately freeing me from my bonds. I pulled him in my arms like I was possessed. We did not know what to say to each other. Life! How intricately connected we are to our loved ones and how paralyzed life can be without them. We stood at the roadside under the roof of a sky filled with hundreds of nuclear explosions everywhere among the stars. All we were able to see of those explosions was a ray of light and a miniscule glittering of the star itself. I had no idea of how I can reasonably explain away the entire sequence of events that had occurred since this morning. We were just there, standing, barely clinging to life, disconnected from our past and with nothing more than a void to peer into as our future. I heard a distant sound of an approaching car on the road and stepped onto the road gesturing with both my arms for it to stop.

Apparently, the driver decided to speed up and he would have ran me over had I not jumped out of his way at the last minute. After a while, a truck appeared and I threw myself at its mercy the same way. Eventually, the truck stopped and when I told the driver of that truck the whole story, he generously offered us a ride to his next stop. We arrived there at 2 AM. I found out from some people upon arriving in Tundo Muhammad Khan that an atom bomb had also been dropped at Hyderabad. I was certain that with Hyderabad as close as it was we could not have escaped the radiation from that bomb. My head was spinning with whirlwinds of words from all sorts of statements from political and military leaders. I remembered how there were celebrations on the street after Pakistan’s successful nuclear test. And how the leaders had predicted that we would win a nuclear war within a day and a half. How we would not hesitate from using our nuclear strength to free Kashmir. Can someone now make a gift of Kashmir to the millions who are dead? Perhaps, the life giving, life reviving valley and waters of beautiful Kashmir can resurrect all these dead people.

I was not hungry but hunger was not very selective when it came to choosing its victims. Asad was desperate to eat. Nobody had anything to offer. Nothing was available anywhere. I found a garbage can sitting at a corner of a street. There were some old decaying loaves of bread sitting at the side. I washed them with water and gave them to Asad. He ate a full loaf without any complaints.

Sun was now making its way through the horizon. I looked at it with eyes full of hopeful tears. Millions of miles away, nuclear explosions on the sun provide us with life giving light and warmth, yet if these same explosions come closer and are manifestations of our hatred for each other then they kill everyone and everything in their path. I heard a radio crackling nearby. It was beaming the voice of All India Radio. There were details of what had conspired the day before. According to the news, the Indian Army had crossed the control line to destroy the terrorist training camps that they had cited as schools established by the Pakistan government for the recruitment and training of young zealots who were consequently being sent into Indian controlled Kashmir for terrorist operations. The whole operation was supposed to take four hours. However, before the Indian Army could finish their mission, the Indian government learnt that Pakistan was readying itself for a nuclear attack. As a preemptive measure India tried to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear installations. They were unsuccessful in taking them out fully and Pakistan in retaliation launched nuclear attacks against Delhi and Bombay. All India Radio was reporting the death toll on the Indian side to be more than 8 million with hundreds of thousands injured and missing. I found out later that Pakistan’s central Radio station was now working from Quetta. The story over there was entirely different. Pakistan Radio contended that India crossed the control line and launched a nuclear attack in tandem and not one after the other. India had targeted Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, and Hyderabad. The Security Council had passed an immediate resolution calling for a cease-fire. Both the stories may appear to have differences but I was sure that the results and consequences were the same on both sides of the border. I was standing next to a major road with Asad thinking about my next step when a Jeep pulled up next to me with some Army personnel in it.

“Are you Salim,” One of them asked.
“Yes,” I replied, making an effort to recognize the officer who had addressed me.
“I am Captain Faraz. We met at a recent wedding,” he said.
I recognized him as soon as he got done saying that. I had long discussions with him, during that and subsequent other gatherings, about what was going on in the military and how nuclearization of South Asia factored into the paradigm of Indo-Pak relations. He had attempted to suppress my fears or atleast tried to allay them by emphasizing how seriously the upper cache of the military officers took this situation. How they have made sure that a situation resembling a nuclear holocaust never comes to pass between the two countries. He informed me that they have planned out all details of all possible scenarios that can occur. I did not have the energy to remind him of those exchanges between us and taking his offered hand I shook it vigorously. I started to tell him about what had happened and before I could realize it I had started sobbing with tears hurrying down my face.
“Can you help me find them, please?” I asked.
He thought for a minute and glanced at his watch.
“How do you think we should start looking for them?” he asked.
“Take me to the place where they stopped us,” I offered, “We will figure out which police station to go to for help from there.”

He took us to the spot. I looked around and could not find any sign of either Maha or Sadia. Faraz offered to take us to the nearest police station and we got back in the Jeep after which it took a side road off the highway on its way to the police station. I was looking out with my arm around Asad. Suddenly I saw something that looked familiar. What I had seen a glimpse of turned out to be a piece of clothing. I jumped out of the Jeep after it had stopped close to the bushes and ran towards them. Yes! A sudden descending milieu filled equally with calm and panic took me over at the time for a brief, very brief moment. I had found them, but where were they? I ran in circles trying to see if any one of the two were close by. A few hundred yards ahead, I saw pieces of coal and what appeared to be charred wood that was still smoldering. I walked up to them, fell on my knees and hung my head with the seeming weight of the entire world of grief upon me. The robbers had burnt their bodies beyond recognition for anyone but me.

The nuclear bomb had not only destroyed the place it struck. It had in fact managed to strew the dead bodies hundreds of miles away from that point. I have nothing left now. Maha and Sadia were my all, my life,… my Kashmir.

Friday, September 03, 2004

The Dream of a Crime-Free Society

He seemed agonized. I asked him what was wrong. He had called hisfolks in Karachi and learnt about a robbery next door to where theylive. I was relieved that it had happened next door and not at hisfolks' place. He didn't share my equanimity. He told me the robberyhad greatly disturbed his folks. His brother was especially anguished. In the middle of the day when his recently-marriedbrother's wife was leaving for college, she saw five men coming out ofthe neighbors'house. A few of them had in their hands what in Pakistan are called "TT"s (one of a variety of handguns known by the abbreviation for"Tula Tokarev"). She immediately drove away.

Later, his folks learnt the details of what had happened. It started when the neighbors' driver was outside working on their car. A whiteToyota stopped in front of their house and five men jumped out of thecar. One of them put a gun to the driver's head and asked him to leadthem into the house. The robbers went in with the driver, held upeverybody present in the house and demanded that all jewelry and cashbe given to them right away. The owners complied and the robbers left.

Why was this robbery so worrisome to his brother, I asked him. Well,first of all because of the demeanor of the robbers, including thefact that two of them spoke Punjabi whereas the other three spokeKarachi Urdu--something that suggested that they were policemen.Obviously, you can now exclude the Police from solving this case.Secondly, the fact that the neighbors had drawn Rs. 50,000 from thebank that morning and had taken the jewelry out of their safe deposit the street --had been watching the neighborhood. [I wonder why in the face of prevailing lawlessness Karachiyays keep dealing in big wads of cash.] So, whoever had been observing the neighborhood to look for patterns and opportunities will have also noticed that his brother's beautiful young wife leaves for college at 12 Noon everyday. Shouldn't his brother worry that the same people can now pull a carjacking and take his wife along? I tried to comfort him with the argument that a kidnapping is a much more involved enterprise than robbery. He didn't buy that. Criminals in Karachi act with impunity; the fact that they are almost never apprehended has emboldened them further, he told me. They would rob, kidnap, kill, and everything in\between, depending on their disposition that day, he thought.

I tried to be philosophical about the situation arguing with him that the Karachi chaos has no pattern to it and hence no predictions can be made--better to take your mind off it so that it won't take a toll on\your sanity. It is like worrying that a meteor will hit you on the head when you are outdoors--knowing that out of the thousands of meteors that continuously collide with Earth's atmosphere, a few make it to Earth's surface intact. (My emphasis in that analogy being on the unpredictability rather than the frequency of the phenomenon.) I told him that most developing countries are going through similar law and order situations, and that things are even worse for people in Iraq and Afghanistan. That in a country where assassination attempts on high-ranking officials are common, what better treatment should ordinary citizens expect? These arguments didn't comfort him at all. He told me that a few months back his brother had tried to gather neighbors and initiate measures that would increase the security and the hygienic conditions of the locality; very few responded positively: their non-cooperation suggesting either a mistrust on any formal organization, or the neighbors' belief that their nawafils and ayat-ul-kursis alone can halt all evils at their doors.

He told me that such incidents affecting his folks happen with great frequency. Every few months they are terrorized; reminded that they are living in a failing society. Every time they begin to relax and start forgetting the last incident they are hit by a new misfortune--their only apparent remedy being to buy more Lexotanils from the neighborhood pharmacy.

He asked me if he should advise his folks to move somewhere decent within Karachi? I asked him which neighborhood of Karachi he considered decent (which I took to mean safer).
"Are robbers keeping out of Defense?"
He wasn't sure.
Should he suggest that they move to Islamabad, he asked me. What's so special about Islamabad, I asked. There was a time when Islamabad was a few miles outside of Pakistan, but not any more. The capital is now as filthy and unsafe as any other place in Pakistan. There is no "decent" place to live in Pakistan, period. Are his folks interested in applying for Canadian immigration, I asked. Probably not, they had lived there all their lives. Well, then there is not much choice, I rested my case. Recognize that it has been two generations since anyone did any serious comprehensive work to improve that system.

We drifted to related topics. We wondered if taxpaying citizens of Pakistan should sue the government for the decrepit law and order situation. We talked about the joblessness, the lack of opportunities, and the absence of hope in our motherland. We recognized that crime has two distinct facets: extempore and premeditated. In tightly controlled traditional societies where everybody knows everybody else, most of the crime must be extempore--when somebody just loses it. We guessed that in large urban centers such as Karachi 99% of all crime is premeditated--the impetus for this type of crime being the ability to hide, to get away with the crime.

We recognized that crime has a much higher cost than the apparent value of things stolen or the physical and psychological injuries sustained. The whole uncertainty, the constant fear of the prospect of crime affects the psyche of every member of the society. There is no need for this. We have the technology to eradicate premeditated crime.

We dreamt of a society where all public places are made free of crime. The public places are constantly watched--not by people but by a multitude of surveillance cameras. These cameras cover every portion of the space. We dreamt of a society where all vehicles have barcodes and roadside barcode-readers constantly register the movement of these cars. The cameras and the barcode recorders are continuously archiving this data without any human scrutiny of that information. These recordings will only be used when a crime actually takes place. After the incident of a crime we play back the cameras and interpret the barcode-reader archive to see what really happened. There is no getting away with crime in that society. Imagine what a relief every member of the community would feel when they don't have to worry about being robbed, assaulted, or violated in any form.

Yes, such an elaborate system of surveillance is very expensive, but look at the cost crime and its fear extract. See what human potential we are suppressing by allowing the possibility of crime. The fulfillment of living in a crime-free society is far more valuable than the cost of the system that would buy it--it is as if the security of your home has grown, and spread outdoors and all around you. Imagine the money such a society will be saving in policing the streets, and the time the much smaller police force would have to spend to solve any crime--all that is needed to be done is to play back the cameras!

Yes, we are dealing with the very sensitive issue of privacy. The privacy issue needs to be addressed on both the personal and the societal levels. On the personal level it would be this knowledge that you are being constantly watched. Why should anyone know who you meet and how you interact with them? Well, imagine the public place surveillance system to be your new social contract with the society: just as you have to obey society's norms outside your home, in the crime-free society you would have this one more inconvenience of having your movement constantly monitored in public places.

On a larger scale the fear would be that someone or a group of people could misuse that system; that the public place surveillance system might be used to target specific people and to spy on their activities; that it would be the Soviet Union all over again. Well, not quite. We have evolved beyond that. In a democratic society people collectively choose a few representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Similarly, the democratic system will rotate the few who will be made responsible to monitor the public surveillance system.

In short, our ideal crime free society is not willing to set the criminals free under the notion of privacy in public places. Citizens are welcome to enjoy all the privacy in the comfort of their homes, but when they go out they will be watched.

My dear friend Sabahat Ashraf, on reviewing this article, noted:
"So you think that we have evolved to a point where our elected and democratic leaders--like John Ashcroft, for example--can be trusted with this?"
[Of course my friend knows that Attorney Generals are never democratically elected.]

Arguing that we should not have a comprehensive public surveillance system because it might be abused is like saying that we should not employ democracy because the Nazis in Germany came to power through democratic means.

Long time ago when humans practiced cannibalism, one of our greatest fears was that a fellow human being would eat us. Having abandoned cannibalism long time ago, we no longer carry that fear. Similarly, eradicating crime, the fear of being violated too, one day, will become a quondam memory.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Separate Destinies?


Pakistani bureaucracy has the elemental capability to shock you at regular intervals. Monday, February 16's Daily Dawn reported the Pakistan Election Commission’s reversion of their decision on separate electorates for Muslim and Non-Muslim citizens. With that fatuous announcement, the clock was turned back two years--the courageous resolution of joint electorate districts i.e., to see all citizens through the same democratic lens, was only made in 2002.

This disappointing news conjured up a vivid image in my mind. It is that of a car stuck in mud. The wheels are spinning very fast, but the car is not going anywhere. Then helpful people come to the rescue. They push the car with all their strength and manage to get it almost out of the slippery groove. And just when they think the revving engine can pull the car out, they let go their force and the wheels slide back into the mud. This is exactly how I feel about Pakistan, spinning its wheels in the bane of hollow religiosity. It took years, if not decades, of hard work on the part of the well-wishers of the country to convince the Pakistani administration that separate electorates are not a hot idea, and just when they thought the battle was won, the country slid back into the past.

Why is everybody except for the religious parties in favor of joint electorates? Because people living in a precinct—-no matter what their religious affiliation is—-share the same problems together. If there is no water, they all suffer together. If the power supply is in shambles, they all hurt. If their schools are in bad shape, they all feel the same pain. With their destinies conjoined, they want to influence the elected leadership together, on issues affecting all the voters of the locality. The system of separate electoral
districts will force the Christians of Multan and the Hindus of Jacobabad to vote for a person who may not even know the geography of either Multan or Jacobabad, let alone have an understanding of the local issues.

A sham argument that having separate electoral districts is in the benefit of the non-Muslims is presented by the religious parties, the force-majeur behind the farce. Real nonsense! Don’t you think that whoever is benefiting from this proposal should be enthusiastic about it? I don't see Christian, Hindu, Qadiani, and other religious minorities showering the Election Commission with confetti on this announcement. I can hear them boo.

Let's not fool ourselves. The only purpose of having separate electoral districts for religious minorities is to miff them; to highlight their existence; to antagonize them; and to convince them that the country they were born in, and feel an innate love for, wants to disown them. To minorities, it is an invitation to hatred: hate Pakistan because Pakistan hates you.

A cursory look at Pakistan's tumultuous history indicates that our country’s present courtship with the USA won't last too long. And when the going gets tough, you want the nation to be united behind the country’s leadership and not have livid citizens looking for opportunities to get even with you on past scores.

Save Pakistan, press the Government for joint electoral districts!