Sunday, August 23, 2009

From Disquietude to Madness


A little more on Peshawar’s madness. I called it disquietude in an earlier post, but it has now graduated to madness. Not the usual madness; not the endearing madness we sometimes call ordered chaos, or the untamed organics of a city that functions according to its own, unwritten rules, not, in a word, eccentricity. No, this madness is more clinical. It inspires pity, and maybe even a small amount of fear. It is not the madness of saints but the madness of kings.

I feel it, in the same way a person feels the sudden attack of cold diving into the sea, before his body adjusts to the new environment. I don’t want my mind to adjust; I’m struggling against it. I want to understand this madness, not share in it. Is that possible? Perhaps it’s inevitable that I’ll end up adopting some of it, slipping into insanity’s shell to protect me from reality.

And that reality is something to be feared: the reality of never-ending despair, of absolute hopelessness, of waiting, waiting, waiting…for something to happen, anything. The reality of prison life, stuck in this sordid place without even the hope of a fantasy of escape.

Yet, I’m not stuck here. I have a home, somewhere, multiple homes in fact, in Canada, Turkey, Costa Rica…I can leave, anytime I want. This is why my experience with this city’s madness will always remain externalized. I can’t adopt it as my own even if I wanted to because it doesn’t belong to me. I have no claim of ownership over it.

Peshawar’s madness is for Peshawaris, and I get the sense they are jealous of it, they guard their madness, hoard it for themselves. “You can never understand what it means to live in this city,” Aftab, my fixer, told me last night. “You are only a Peshawari when you cannot leave.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Heroes and Villains


Jaswant Singh’s written another book. I haven’t read it yet but I think I will. There’s so much controversy surrounding it already. He’s been kicked out of the BJP for it, vilified in the Indian press, and praised in the Pakistani press. Well, I mean, he did pick a pretty push button topic – Jinnah and Partition. I was speaking today about it with a colleague of mine at the Daily Times bureau here in Peshawar. “The BJP is just shooting itself in the foot by complaining about this so much,” he said.

I agree.

So a member of India’s nationalist party concludes, contrary to the official Indian narrative, that Partition was not Jinnah’s fault, that, in fact, if not for Nehru and Patel’s refusal to consider a decentralized Indian polity, Partition may never have happened. Naturally, this is a controversial thing to say in India, but to eject a senior member of your party from its ranks because of an academic book simply further cements the perception that the BJP has become more an ideological monster than a legitimate political movement. Their trouncing in the last elections should have set off a few alarms. Hold on, Indians don’t want a party whose basic premise is Hindustan for Hindus? So perhaps Indians would prefer a more plural society, based on the fundamental principles of democracy and human rights? Is it possible?

Certainly it is. Preferable. But the BJP, under the influence of the RSS has lost sight of what power in a democracy means. It is not a weapon to wield in the interest of rigid ideology (the Bush years taught the world that crucial lesson succinctly, and painfully). Power in a democracy evolves out of cooperation, in the ability of a government to respond to the needs of the people. “The opposition’s role in a democracy,” I said to my colleague, “is to keep the ruling party in line, to act as the conscience of the people, to ensure the rulers are abiding by the democratic compact: to serve the people.” The BJP has proven again that it is incapable of playing that role.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back in Pak


And so it is: Pakistan again. And still it feels new, changed, altered in a way that I can’t necessarily describe in words but exists nonetheless in a kind of shapeless form. Re-constituted, perhaps.

This re-constituted Pakistan smells less like war and more like disquietude. War is certain, factual, undeniable. War happens to people; disquietude happens in people. That inner world is making itself known, bursting through the surface of the communal corpus like a feverish sweat. It disorients; it fractures the consciousness, breaks it into jagged, unbridgeable fragments. Here, is the world of war; here, the world of peace; here, the world of dreams, of futures and possibilities; and here, alone, isolated, is the world that could have been, the lost world, the world of longing.

I landed in Peshawar at precisely 4:08 local time Saturday morning. The airplane touched down tentatively, bouncing twice off the tarmac before acquiescing to a pugilistic relationship with solid earth. It swayed and stammered to a stop and then rolled grudgingly to the terminal. In the chaos of the baggage reclamation point (that is, in fact, what they call it here), there was the first inkling of that disquietude, in the way the waiting passengers shifted their weight, from one foot to the other, their mounting frustrations, and in the heat, the unnatural thickness of it that seemed to emanate not only from the air but from the people themselves.

And on the streets, weaving through emptiness, past abandoned blast walls, skirting barricaded alleyways, the city itself oozed a venal malaise, an existential rot. Peshawar is collapsing in on itself, its superstructure weak and decayed. “There is nothing here anymore,” the taxi driver said, offering me a Morven cigarette. “We are like the city of the dead.”

“We are like” he said. There is no separation between the city and its people. It has become a single entity. When a bomb destroys a building, it also shatters a limb of the urban body. But my fixer tells me there hasn’t been a bomb blast in the city since the one in June at the Pearl Continental hotel. Peshawar should be healing.

And yet it’s not. Instead, like an injured man left behind at the scene of a grotesque accident, it bleeds slowly to death, wounds turning gangrenous. Has the world forgotten about Peshawar? Perhaps not, USAID has donated millions of dollars for the beautification of this seminal frontier metropolis. Can the locals look forward to a future of gardens and cafes? Will Peshawar transform into the Pashtun Paris? Or perhaps more importantly: is that what the people need?

After settling into my hotel, I’ve spent the past three days trying to re-construct Peshawar through my own frame of reference. Sadly, I am no surgeon so all of these severed limbs and bleeding arteries feel alien to me. A part of me wants to run, to escape the way this pitiful place begs you to do something: “Help me!” it screams. “Fix me!” Something elemental in me rejects the ploy, for that is what I believe it is – a trick, a scam, a trap designed to entangle me and prevent my eventual escape.

Peshawar is dying and it wants to take anyone it can with it.


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