Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Treatise on Grief

Is it like the ocean with its never-ending gray, blue waves, stretching as far as the eye can see, cresting and falling, persistent, enough to cover most of the globe?

Or does it run out, like water in a tap that’s been running for too long? Like puddles of rain drying up under the scorching summer sun?

Does one person have enough grief inside to mourn the loss of 3 people? What about the lives of 30? 3,000?  What about 5 lives every day of every month in a year? (That’s how many people died in terrorist-incidents in Pakistan in 2016 – see source at the end.)

Can grief peter out, like a stream in a drought-stricken village?

Or can we be more generous and dole it out as, when and where it’s needed? Does anyone really need your grief? Can you offer it like a tissue to wipe someone’s tears? Maybe cancel out a small part of their grief by showing them yours, like same signs in an equation?

When people point out that a tragedy somewhere is equally tragic as those occurring in other parts of the world, I wonder what that means.  How do we equate tragedy?  Is it the number of casualties?  Is it the age of the victims?  Is it the location – a market, a mosque, a festival, a bar, a concert arena, a street, a bridge?  What about frequency?  Isn’t is more tragic when one after another attack happens in the same 100 mile radius for days, weeks, months, years? 

Reality proves otherwise.  Theoretically, we might say that the latter is true, but we all live in the same world and we all know how our brains work.  It’s shameful but maybe we can blame god for creating the human brain in a way that makes us get used to anything.  It’s really like putting your foot into a tub of piping hot water – it burns for a few minutes and then you get used to the temperature.  And that’s how it is for me as a Pakistani – enough bombs and explosions, deaths and injuries, attacks and invasions and after a while, it starts to pinch a bit less each time.  It has to, of course, because otherwise we would have all died of grief long ago, bled out, hollow, unable to go on.

Is that the real tragedy? 

The phenomenon of becoming numb to pain, of seeing and hearing something so frequently that it becomes the norm, part of your everyday life, another headline you skim quickly over breakfast, sad, yes, but nothing to shatter your life, nothing that makes you give up what you’re doing, throw up your hands and sink into a pool of tears.

I remember I was in the US when the Boston marathon attack took place, and I remember watching scores of people in my university stricken with grief and horror, frozen in front of their televisions, and I remember how starkly I felt the difference.  The difference between people living in developed countries (whose governments simply attacked far-off countries or pointed accusatory fingers at their developing ‘allies’ to attack their neighbours, regardless of the ensuing mess that would wrap the latter’s region for years to come) and people like me who had to get used to grief, who had to teach themselves to devalue human life, to detach, to move away, to see casualties as numbers rather than individual persons with real lives and families that live on with broken minds and hurting hearts.

In the last few months, there have been a series of terrorist incidents in England and I remember thinking to myself, oh my god, it almost feels like things are as bad here as they were back home.  I remember looking up online to compare the tragedies in Pakistan to the ones in UK and feeling my heart shrivel up like paper burning in a fire, because in May, I had already forgotten about the attacks that killed 88 people in Sehwan at a shrine, and 14 people in Lahore at a protest in February.  I reread the articles with tears of shame and grief streaming down my face.  How could I have forgotten it?

But that is the ugly confession of a Pakistani.

When people are killed at that frequency, your mind starts to pick and choose – portioning out grief depending on the death toll – anything above 20 feels like a punch in your chest, anything above 50 chokes your throat.  And then there are cities and towns that have been showing up in the news for so long that the tragedies there have dulled for us – and the nails only dig deeper when a different target shows up – a shrine closer to the city where I grew up, a park in a city where I did my undergraduate degree, a market in the town where my family has moved to, a resort in a village where I thought things were improving.

It is such an ugly reality, but one that I have to live with.

After the attacks in the UK, I saw how communities here came together (exceptions always exist but the larger reaction was one of strength and harmony), the concert, One Love Manchester, such a beautiful show of solidarity and courage, with songs of hope and beauty being sung by thousands of people together, the memorials that sprung up in cities across the country, roses and candles and hugs and hands held together in strength and in prayer …

And I wondered if people who live here realize how lucky they are to live in a place where the value of a human life is so great, where people have enough grief to spread over all their pain and heal together.

And a part of my heart wrenches in pain, and in envy, wondering if there will ever come a time when it can be the same in my country.  A time when bombs and explosions are a thing of the past, an anomaly that shakes the entire country rather than something part of everyday reality that is swallowed like an inevitable bitter pill.  When the loss of even a single life can be felt, can be mourned, and grieved for, deeply, sincerely, by our politicians and our leaders, by our neighbours and our people, and by us.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Thank you, Pakistan!

It’s hard for other people to understand what a victory in cricket means to us.  Why there will be hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets of our cities and in the dirt lanes of our villages, dancing, celebrating, causing traffic jams and shouting their hearts out, why fans across the world glued to their 52 inch TVs or their cracked 14 inch laptops vacillated between high pitched screaming and cheering, and crying (tears of joy, of course) – I mean, great match and all, you might say, but aren’t these Pakistanis kind of going a bit overboard?

And I’ll tell you, after I’ve wiped my red sniffling nose on my sleeve, that no, we are not.  This victory (in the ICC Champions Trophy FINAL, against INDIA who we never beat in finals, INDIA a team much better and more experienced than our fledgling one ranked the lowest at the start of the tournament) is not just about cricket. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Pakistanis love cricket.  There are many things that divide our nation – religion, politics, ethnicity, language – but our love for cricket falls in silky folds like a great green flag over these differences, covering the gaps, smoothing the creases and binding us together in shiny goodwill and patriotism. 

On my travels around the country for work, I spotted it everywhere: from the slightly terrifying games being played at the edge of mountains along narrow roads in Kashmir to the matches in the smooth green fields of Islamabad, from the slightly sacrilegious one I saw in Sialkot at the edge of a small cemetery to the ones that take place in the sewer-strewn grounds in slums in Karachi – you’ll find cricket everywhere.  It brings us together, and that’s no small thing for a country like ours where our political and religious leaders try very hard to do just the opposite. 

Today’s match, though, was not just about cricket.

It was much more than that, and if you listened to the Pakistani cricketers after the match, they said it quite simply, succinctly, sincerely – ‘our nation needed it’.

For Pakistani Muslims living in this era, pride in our identity isn’t something that is being handed around freely.  We’re constantly bombarded with negative news about who we are and where we’re from – every time there is a terrorist incident, our hearts constrict as we obsessively refresh the news pages and hope that it’s not a Muslim, and then when it inevitably is (because if the media brands it as terrorism then it is always Islamic extremism and if it’s some white guy then it’s not really terrorism and the news slides out from media focus very soon), and then we hope that there are no links, no matter how tenuous or old, to Pakistan, and then if there are, then we cringe and sigh and hope nobody starts yelling at us on a bus in London or some street in Philadelphia.  Every other month a confidence-boosting article comes up, telling us that our country is the fourth-worst in the world for tourists, the second worst passport to have, poor, corrupt, performing terribly on this indicator and even worse on that one.  A decade ago people had no idea where Pakistan is on the map – “middle east, right?” “oh, yeah, near India!”, and now they have a better idea about where the country is located but a much narrower perception of how it is – unsafe, primitive, poor, tragic.

And of course, it isn’t just the media.  I’m not an ostrich with my head stuck in the sand – there are many times when my heart weeps and bleeds at things that happen in my country – hate speech being spewed through the public speakers of mosques, virulent intolerance against any perceived or real difference in thoughts and beliefs, mass blind following of coldblooded murderers, corrupt laws that are abused to persecute minorities, and the list goes on …

So no, we’re a developing country and we have our problems – illiteracy, poverty, inequality, take your pick, and yes, sometimes the positives get drowned by the negatives, special thanks to internal and external media…

And then there comes a day like today, when millions of viewers are rewarded for their resilience, their will to survive and persist, to smile and exist, rewarded for their faith in the team (because while many of us try to delude ourselves before every cricket match – especially matches against archrivals India – that we don’t care, saying out loud nonchalantly, pessimistically, oh, we’ll probably lose anyways, in vain attempts to mentally prepare ourselves for heartbreak – deep down, all of us always believe, and fervently hope for our team’s success). 

I used to be a passionate cricket fan till the World Cup of 2003, in which Pakistan performed abysmally and I took it so personally that I pretty much stopped watching the sport.  I would see matches sporadically and every now and then, get invested in a series against my better judgment, but largely, I’ve managed to stay at the outskirts of true fandom, the periphery of passion.

Today was different.

I knew about three of the 11 players in our team but by the end of the match, I was in love with about 7 of them.  I have never been so proud of how we played.  Absolute perfection – I cannot remember a performance as flawless as this (in my less than impressive decade of following cricket).  We were so professional – combining the stereotypical raw talent of Pakistani players with the less familiar discipline, patience and calmness of great teams who stand firm through storms and blast their way forward, seizing every opportunity and creating it when it doesn’t quite appear.  And we played like a TEAM.  Rather than having one or two stars supporting a sagging midline batting order or atrocious fielders or haywire bowlers, absolutely each and every player put in their 110% and carried us through to a heartwarming, throat-burning, tear-jerking incredibly impressive victory.

And to top off the brilliant performance, at the end of the match all our prayers were so humble, crediting one another and their managers and coaches, displaying great sportsmanship, and fully recognizing the impact of their success on their country and their countrymen…

So really, hats off to you, Pakistan.  You gave us a fantastic game of cricket, a superb victory, and most importantly, you gave us something that’s hard to come by these days – you made us feel proud to be Pakistani. 

Photo source: Getty Images