Photo: Kelly Bedeian


The Burden of Belonging


I remember Rashid Rehman reciting an Urdu couplet by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib when a mutual friend asked him to be careful in these testing times. It was some months before Rehman’s death. He looked her in the eyes and said smilingly: Zamana sakht kum aazaar tha ba-jan-i-Asad / Wagarna hum to tawaqqo ziyada rakhtey thay (time has not tormented Asad’s soul as much / I had, in fact, expected a lot more). Rehman was a lawyer. He was shot dead in the city of Multan, Pakistan, for defending a young academic charged with blasphemy. Rehman was famous across the country for his pro bono representation of bonded labourers, landless peasants, distressed women and minority groups. In May 2014, when the news of his death arrived, I was sipping coffee and quietly humming to myself a line from the verse of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh.

Bakhsh was one of the foremost mystic poets of the Punjabi language and younger than Ghalib, but they were contemporaries for a good part of the nineteenth century. Bakhsh witnessed the fall of the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent, the decimation of the Sikh dynasty in his region of Punjab and Kashmir, the lost war of independence waged by the native Indian forces against the occupying British armies and, subsequently, the absolute ascendancy of British colonial rule in India after 1857. The turmoil of his age is comparable to the one we face today, in Pakistan and elsewhere. Except that in those times the contours of a new era being born were more evident to visionaries in our part of the world – like Ghalib, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Amir Ali – while today we witness a world falling apart without any sign of how the future will manifest itself. Even the best among us grope in the darkness of the present. In his Age of Anger (2017), Pankaj Mishra mentions the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who mocked the enthusiasts of Western civilisation during the Cold War era for their claims of the universality of their ideals. Mishra then shows how the long-held beliefs about the impending success of the Anglo-American institutions of the nation state and liberal democracy, rooted in the wish that other countries in the world will ape them, have been so vociferously contested. Besides, the very concepts of accountability, stability, rationality and secularism are disputed by so many people in so many places, largely as a consequence of the selective use of these concepts by the selfsame nations and global institutions that propounded the universality of these concepts in the first place.

Hence, there is no standard flowchart of history available to us anymore within a normative framework that would describe the next milestone for those who lag behind in modern knowledge, scientific achievement, cutting-edge technology and sophisticated ideas. It seems that chaos is engulfing humanity like never before. Or maybe this moment marks the end of denying diverse peoples their context in the name of universality, and the beginning of an appreciation for a contextualised discourse to understand the contemporary human condition wracked by death and destruction. The line I mentioned humming from one of Bakhsh’s epic poems goes dushman marey te khushi na karyo, sajnaan vi marjana (why rejoice the death of your enemy, for your friends will also die).

Life has to be a source of joy. But birth itself – the beginning of life – is purely accidental for the one who is born. The newborn child is indifferent to any joy or sorrow. The race, class, language, faith, location and age in which an individual human being comes to life – these all remain incidental until this person gains consciousness. Once grown up and exposed to the outside world, formally or informally educated and trained, having experienced an initial encounter with both the complexity and diversity in human life, this woman or man finds her or himself ‘condemned to be free’, to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s formulation. But that freedom remains hemmed in by the predetermined limits set by the circumstances of one’s birth. Therefore, within these circumstances, the individual is free to make choices that shape her view of the world, her passions and persuasions, aspirations and desires. If she finds an artistic streak in herself and turns into a creative writer, her aesthetic temperament and literary bent, diction and style, subjects and themes are shaped by her unique appreciation of human history and a critique of her culture and civilisation. Based on that appreciation and critique of the old, her views on contemporary politics and society are framed.

In Pakistan, at the time I was born, my parents and those around them who cherished art and creativity in the cultural realm and valued democracy and socialism as their political ideals were subjected to a tough, unpleasant existence. In order to survive, they had to make a choice every single moment – between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, amnesia and memory. Although I have no personal recollection of the two successive military dictatorships (at the time of my birth and preschool years), I do have vivid memories and possess lived experiences of two more dictatorships in my adulthood. However, my sordid experience is not limited to just those military dictatorships. The ill-fated and short-lived civilian interludes between martial rules, or the period of democracy experienced since 2008, succeeded little in curbing a perpetual feeling of uncertainty, instability, coercion and fear among those who act, paint, sing or write. If an analogy can be drawn with the experience of freethinking artists, poets, writers and musicians of the Soviet Union, in Pakistan we have oscillated between the periods of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev – between blatant purges and constant coercion and times of soft pressure sugar-coated with the choice of co-option. Noncompliance is dangerous in either case. Therefore, albeit a little differently, the choice the previous generation had to make every moment has to be continually made by us as well – whether we write poetry, as I do, or create art in some other form.

There is one significant difference between then and now. Our predecessors in Pakistan faced a visible opponent – the oppression by the state carried out through its coercive arms, which were marked and defined. Now we face multiple opponents, which are not always visible but live among us. They are intimate, and omnipresent. At times they are describable but never entirely explainable. They are polymorphous. Because the key challenge of our times is a society marred by bigotry and xenophobia from within. And, unlike in fascist Germany, there is no unifying force that may coalesce, consolidate and elucidate these stark sentiments. This has caused a polycentric dispersion of authority and a wide horizontal spread of the agency of violence. Even a compassionate analysis of the historic and political reasons for the emergence of an intolerant society can’t take away the imminent threat that such a society poses to those who shake up the rigid linearity settled in the minds of people prone to bigotry and xenophobia. Since art and creativity pose a grave threat to linearity by their reliance on discursive categories and disruptive imagination, they make things complex. Therefore, art and creativity should, on such account, be censured and confined if not completely eliminated.

The relationship between art and power – more precisely, if we speak of poets, between poetry and authority – has always remained tricky. There is a constant tension at play, a hide-and-seek, an interdependence coupled with an inherent subversion. When authority sought submission and poetry refused, the verse of Jafar Zatalli, an absurdist poet of Urdu in the Delhi of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, cost him his life: his poetry offered a melange of ridiculous and transcendent ideas; his truthfulness about misdoings, injustices, decadence and corruption, wrapped in bitter satire, would choke in the throats of Mughal kings and princes. Finally, in 1713, Emperor Farrukhsiyar sentenced Zatalli to death.

In his Lectures on Russian Literature (1980), Vladimir Nabokov comments on how one of the greatest Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, would cause irritation to the Russian officialdom, particularly the Tsar himself. The reasons of disgust with poetry were clearly stated by the authority, and here I quote from Nabokov:

instead of being a good servant of the state in the rank and file of the administration and extolling conventional virtues in his vocational writings (if write he must), [Pushkin] composed extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which a dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification, in the audacity of his sensual fancy, and in his propensity for making fun of major and minor tyrants.

In present times, many if not most of the poets and writers anywhere are troubled because the experience of living in this world is increasingly more upsetting. But poets and writers in excessively troubled societies like the one I come from are excessively troubled. So the question ‘To what do I belong?’ is a hard question to answer. There is a deep internal pressure that makes me revolve around the axis of poetry and an immense external pressure that makes me rotate around the orb of politics. The choice is to be made not only between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, and amnesia and memory. There is an artistic choice that also needs to be made by a contemporary poet like myself between absurdity and realism, rhapsody and gloom, sobriety and hedonism, and indifference and compassion. Except in the case of choosing between indifference and compassion, perhaps I end up making no clear choice and keep dangling in between. It is a continuous process of creating a space fringed by two options. It is about negotiating at various levels among and within both internal and external conflicts that emerge from the circumstances of birth – race, class, language, faith, location and age – and the consciousness I gained over time through knowledge and experience.

Over the course of my life, which includes this writing career, the artistic, intellectual, social and political choices I made represent the pressures within and without. These choices are at odds with my social class, linguistic preferences, cultural moorings and religious identity. I am considered advantaged in a society that remains inherently classist and unjust – though not by way of accumulated wealth and possession of assets but because the path my father chose to tread delinked him from a privileged past and allowed him to imagine an egalitarian future for all and sundry. My privilege persists owing to continuous access to higher education for generations, and in the ability to reach the corridors of power if there were any such aspirations. But my writing upends the interests of the class I belong to. For it is my kith and kin, friends and acquaintances – the affluent, urban, educated middle class – whose thinking and action remain the biggest hurdle in creating a just, democratic, peaceful and equitable society in Pakistan. This class is largely conservative, like its counterparts in some other countries, and constrained by the small size of a progressive element within it. It has little stake in democracy because of its small numbers, and because of its heightened sense of superiority over others – the result of modern education and some considerable new wealth it has acquired. It seeks managerial quick fixes to deep-seated political problems. A large segment belonging to this class favours the military generals or superior judiciary to reign in, clean, regulate and sanction the muddled politics and dirty politicians. Consequently, the weakening of democracy and political processes marginalises a majority of the population and shrinks the public space for a critical cultural dialogue and political power-sharing. This enables extremism and violence to take root, grow, expand and prevail. Once these prevail, the cultural dialogue is muffled, the political discourse subdued.

My linguistic preferences are both a function and a result of the languages spoken at home and in school during my childhood. I primarily speak, read and write in Urdu and English. I speak and occasionally write in Punjabi also and have some basic knowledge of a few other languages. But for all intents and purposes, Urdu is my first language and English a close second. If prose is included, I write more in English than in Urdu. That said, Urdu has a rich cultural and literary heritage. On the one hand, in political terms, it was divisive for Pakistan to declare Urdu the sole national language in a linguistically diverse country, thus making speakers of other languages fractious. On the other hand, it has unified us through a shared cultural expression and, through journalism, performing arts, poetry and fiction, chronicled our collective suffering. Even after seventy years of independence from colonial rule, English continues to be the language of power and prestige. Undoubtedly, there is an upside because the English language connects us with ideas and knowledge from the rest of the world. But it is spoken and understood by only a fraction of our population.

English and Urdu also have an internal hierarchical relationship, which is meant to perpetuate the gripping authority of the minority English speakers over the domains of policy and practice across our state and society. But knowing either, or both, of these languages brings greater economic and social opportunities compared to knowing other native languages spoken in Pakistan. My grounding in Urdu and English does not prevent me from campaigning for other languages that are disadvantaged: I find no other choice but to confront this decadent haughtiness, borne out of a colonial hangover as the new master begins to mimic the old master. It is disappointing that the notions of linguistic hierarchy have permeated our culture at the behest of its longstanding custodians. Nevertheless, the paradox remains that the aesthetic refinement and the intellectual disposition that mould my sensibilities come from the vast literary experience and cognitive traditions of both Urdu and English.

My emotional and psychological makeup emanates from the secular and plural strand of the broad South Asian Muslim culture and polity. This culture and polity evolved in the Indo-Gangetic plains, which is spread across the basins of the two great rivers, the Indus and the Ganges, and their tributaries, and it is a product of the fusion of two vibrant and powerful civilisations of the recent past – the Vedic and the Persio-Arabic. Later on, the arrival of the British grafted the scion of Western civilisation onto our rootstock, already formed by the synthesis of two civilisations. My paternal ancestors in Kashmir had converted to Islam from Hinduism before moving to the city of Lucknow, the capital of the state of Awadh in northern India and a high seat of learning and art. They imbibed the Awadhi culture and blended their Kashmiri customs and cuisine, outlook and demeanour with those of Lucknow. From there, they spread to other parts of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. My maternal ancestors, hailing from the city of Amritsar in Punjab, lived across Punjab, Delhi and the city of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh but fell in the same category of South Asian Muslims as my paternal forebears. For two centuries, occasional interfaith marriages and the casual presence of atheists and agnostics in my larger family had a limited impact on its overall South Asian Muslim cultural character, deeply influenced by the plural mystic tradition. But the Western graft has also turned this culture into a hybrid, and the character of someone like me is best portrayed by the leading twentieth-century Urdu poet Meeraji when he says about himself that his poetic temperament is conditioned as much by the East as by the West.

The faith I was born into has now been philosophically reduced to a linear expression of rigid belief and violent practice, by its champions and opponents alike. The discourse that surrounds it and the deeds committed in its name contradict the ideals and values I espouse. I find myself defying everything that is made out to describe the current dominant narrative of my faith by some powerful groups of its own practitioners – the obscurantism, the misogyny, the extremism, the violence. However, there is another reality that must not be disregarded. Since 9/11, every year we lose many more lives to terrorism in Pakistan than the total number of people killed when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. In the last sixteen years, the victims of terrorism who were killed or maimed, wounded or incapacitated are more than a hundred thousand – women and men, soldiers and citizens. Across the Middle East and other parts of Africa and Asia, the numbers add up to millions. Since I have little in common with most practitioners of my faith, I feel tempted to denounce them like some others in a similar situation would do, to detach completely and move on to new pastures. But they are my people, and I cannot cut them loose at the time when they are in trouble. Or if I put it differently, I cannot cut myself loose from them when we all are in trouble.

The enormity and perpetuity of conflict and chaos, loot and plunder, extremism and violence, make people either indifferent or compassionate. Particularly in those human societies like Pakistan, which has endured violence for longer periods of time, this dialectic of indifference and compassion becomes more intense. Indifference enables the perpetrators to beget more conflict and chaos, leads to more economic dispossession and social discrimination, and inadvertently helps the cycle of brutality and suffering to continue. Compassion diminishes the lines drawn between the self and the other, ally and enemy, friend and foe, loyalist and traitor, supporter and defector, and with it the notion of ‘us’ being always right and ‘them’ being always wrong.

This compassion, an outcome of continuous encounters with human suffering, brings people together to create a constituency of pain. A constituency that is all-embracing and all-encompassing. A constituency that diminishes the lines drawn between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, extending that ‘self’ to include those who are likeminded and expanding the ‘other’ to include all who are different. It is a constituency that embraces and connects all who feel the loss and hurt, the agony and despair caused by the prevalent human condition. This is irrespective of where they were born and with whom they chose to stand with at some specific point in time in the past.

However, this should not be interpreted to mean that those belonging to the constituency of pain are so altruistic that they consider none as their adversaries. They see their adversaries in two kinds of people: those who deliberately inflict pain on others and those who remain indifferent. But their belonging to the constituency of pain makes them sensitive to the anxiety and distress of their adversaries, whether they are individuals or they operate in groups. While their adversaries dehumanise them and their associations, they humanise their adversaries by empathising with their angst, fury, alienation and emptiness. When their adversaries try to instil fear in their hearts through violence and infuse helplessness in their minds through coercion, those belonging to the constituency of pain have the ability to feel pity for their oppressors. They can see the fear of extinction hidden at the bottom of the oppressor’s heart and the uncertainty of fortune that lurks in the crevices of his mind.

The choices made by poets and writers of my ilk bring us a lot of grief. Yet that feeling of grief is overcome by an inherent sense of pride. This pride comes from the ability of a poet to challenge and ridicule the powers that be – ranging from Western hegemony to Eastern orthodoxy and all that falls in between – through the sheer subversive force of art and creativity. I know well what Arundhati Roy once referred to as fighting on the side of people who have no place for us in their social imagination. But isn’t that the whole point in this battle – to create a possibility for everyone, us and them, to broaden our aesthetic horizons and to stretch our social imagination? And, therefore, the winning of this battle rests for us in the diminishing of battle lines.

May you rest in peace, Rashid Rehman. You were a lawyer, and I am a poet. We both belong to the constituency of pain. If your killer is alive, you will not wish to see him suspended from a hangman’s noose. I know you as much. You will wish him to live in remorse, and prevent others from taking innocent lives. Dushman marey te khushi na karyo, sajnaan vi marjana (Why rejoice the death of your enemy, for your friends will also die).


Harris KHALIQUE is the author of eight poetry collections, including Between You and Your Love (2004), Ishq ki taqveem mein (2006) and Melay mein (2012), which won the 2013 UBL Literary Excellence Award for Urdu poetry. His poems have been anthologized internationally. His collection of essays, Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering and Creativity in Pakistan, appeared in 2017. A campaigner for workers’, women’s, and minority rights in Pakistan and abroad, Khalique contributes regularly to national and international news publications. He lives in Islamabad.