A Student of Pakistan

Some years ago, when I was at university, I enrolled in a small class on South Asian history. The class was in fact tiny for such a large subject — only five students — and was the first stand-alone course on the history of the subcontinent ever taught at my school. That awkward and surprising fact aside (the year was 1989, the Berlin Wall would fall and declarations of the end of history would soon abound) the other odd nugget was that the course was taught jointly.  Two professors, B— and J—, one focusing on the history of India and the other on the creation of the nation called Pakistan. Even stranger, I learned that the pair of professors were connected. They shared a home and lascivious rumor had it that they were lovers.

My university attracted a sizable number of international students, and one of those who enrolled in the freshly launched course was a young Pakistani named I—-. Our classes took place on Tuesdays in the late morning and on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I—- rarely showed up for the Tuesday class. When he did he would appear late and out of breath and unkempt, odd bits of lint hanging about his pants and untucked shirt, his hair lightly gelled, hurried and askew.

As it turns out, I—-, missing his family and comfortable existence in Pakistan had been flying home to Lahore from Friday to Monday every other weekend. Professor J—- would speak to him after his late arrivals outside the room, sternly emphasizing priorities and education, but with the infinite compassion of a woman.  I would cast a glance at I—- as I passed.  His tears appeared to be the result of jet-lag and trying, somehow, to make it all work — the flights, the schedule, the passions.  I—- was not a stupid young man; he had strong opinions about political parties in Pakistan and a dismissive attitude toward individual politicians that indicated a family history of involvement in governmental affairs. Rather than sympathy, the thought of I—-‘s transglobal flights angered me.  Attending class was a basic choice and rather easy it seemed to me, but I was in part jealous. A twenty-two hour journey seemed to me an obscenity. Had I cared I would have called it such, but I was aware there was little moral high-ground for me to stand upon. I could barely summon the will to visit my parents, who were a mere 90-minute flight away. Neither was I, by nature, devoted to to the cause of Indian politics. Like many university students the truth was that I believed in precious few things, content to make sense of that teasing combination of freedom and limited responsibility offered by a four year education. While others were serious, shaping their lives and growing passionate about causes, I was not. My conflicts were internal, and they raged over questions of identity and emotion and fear in the face of an adulthood I was entirely unprepared for. The outside world wasn’t my business; education existed to do me a favor, and after four years I only hoped to be smarter and stronger and bigger than the person I used to know.

Of course, today Pakistan is everyone’s business. I am struck by the multitude of perspectives pouring forth. The literary journal Granta has jumped on the bandwagon too, and my first reaction was a deep sigh. I hoped, desperately hoped, that I would be surprised. It is a cultural tendency of recent decades to “discover” an issue, or a country that has existed for over sixty years, and allow it a “voice”. The term that has become vogue is “space”, as in we need space for these voices to flourish, or, capturing their own space within the unheard diaspora. The unremarkable irony being that the partition of the Subcontinent was in some ways about exactly that — space. I enjoyed the Granta issue, but found it to be much of what is already known to South Asians. Most enjoyable to me were Declan Walsh’s piece on Pashtuns, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s dash of silly poetry, and the melancholy of the former journalist writing about a life and culture lost.

Whether these writers become the new spokespersons for Pakistan or not, the impossible thing is undoing the breaking caused by partition. That remains the deepest and most torturesome aspect of the subcontinental psyche. That breaking. One wonders: if a thing has come undone, perhaps acceptance of the loss, of the erasure of the old, is the only true option for progress? The capacity for acceptance in South Asia at times seems extraordinary, but I am pessimistic.  It has instead become ever-comforting to consider over and over whether a thing once broken be reconstituted 1)without a further breaking elsewhere, and 2)back to an original form. There is no end in sight.

I—- did, in fact, fail to finish the course. He simply became absent, and after a few weeks even professor J—- stopped casting hopeful glances at the door when footsteps sounded in the hall outside. At first I believed I—- had gone back to his favored life in Pakistan for good, but I later spotted him around campus. Sometimes he was driving a sports car, and once, during our final year he came to an inaugural meeting of the South Asian Students Association (an effort bogged down immediately in arguments over the group’s name and questions of inclusiveness).  He seemed happy. No, I—- would complete his education and take his place in the rent fabric that is Pakistan.  He had long been destined to fulfill his father’s wishes and familial obligations to preserving the land, and the idea of Pakistan, which in essence is only an idea of family and tribe. Matters complicated enough for a young man, let alone a country.


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