Prose

Dear Baba

Dear Baba,

A million years ago — as they sat by their little campfire — a father pointed out the constellations to his son. And the infinite night sky didn’t seem as intimidating anymore.

It’s the stories we grow up with that whisper the loudest within our hearts; they are the framework for our dreams; they pulse with the rhythm of our short, bright lives.

Thank you for giving me the stories that have made me who I am today. (Here is one of them.) Stories of social justice and dignity and equality. Stories of a divine love that is greater than the stars. And stories of who I was, who I am, and who I will be.

They are stories that will last a lifetime and I shall never tire of telling them.

Love you, forever and always.

Your son,

Shahzéb

Standard
Prose

Iskandar’s Stars

Days I have held,

Days I have lost…

Derek Walcott, Midsummer, Tobago

ISKANDAR sipped at the warm coffee. The dim lights of the bridge bathed his blue uniform in a soft glow. He sat before the vast view screen and contemplated the sprawl of stars spread out before him. He listened to the quiet hum of the ship’s engines and took another sip of the coffee and closed his weary eyes.

Sir?”

“Hmm?”

“Sir, shouldn’t you be asleep?” Iskandar half turned and raised an eyebrow at the silhouette that framed the doorway. He watched as she walked past the sleek consoles with their darkened screens and took a seat beside him. She reached for his coffee, plucked it out of his grip and took a long, long gulp.

“There isn’t any sugar,” she said. Iskandar grunted and turned back to the view screen.

“Iskandar,” she said. “It’s October.”

“I know.”

“No,” she said. “You don’t know. It’s October and the crisp wind from the desert is just beginning to blow across Karachi and the nights are cold and crisp and dusty but the dust doesn’t block out the stars and you can see Rigel and Arcturus and Capella from the roof of your parents’ house and we could huddle up in a blanket just like we used to and watch the lights on the Ferris wheel at Hill Park fade into the night and we’d have warm cups of coffee with lots and lots of sugar and — ”

Enough, Zara!” His fist hit the top of the desk beside them and the thud ricocheted through the empty bridge. She met his stare coolly and he found that he could not hold her gaze. They sat like that for a while and then Zara stood up and made for the door.

“Wait. Please.” She stopped but didn’t turn around. He moved towards her and touched her shoulder and she trembled and turned away. He reached for her hand and their fingers intertwined. She turned, then, and looked up at him and he saw tears glittering in her dark eyes and cursed himself. He whispered apologies in her curly locks and she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down and he kissed her soft and deep just like the first time in that lonely football field behind the old school as Sol set on another day in the city by the sea.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

He held her close and they walked like that, arms intertwined, back to the view screen and they sat like that, arms intertwined, before the infinite array of constellations.

“You don’t have to do this. You’ve done enough. You’ve done more than any of them.”

“I have done nothing.” He was quiet, but firm. “A universe lies before me, Zara. Destiny lies before me. How can you not understand? How can you not understand?”

Zara pursed her lips.

“Iskandar, do you know how the ancient Greeks saw time?”

“How?”

“They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind as they stood watching the past recede before them.”

“I do not understand.”

Think, Iskandar. One day you and I will die. You will lie there, watching your past recede before you. Is this what you want? Is this the past you wish to look upon?”

“Zara, there is nothing for me there. They are dogs who tear at each other for scraps and whether we return or not, they shall always be dogs.”

She pulled away and said nothing and his voice softened and he reached for her hand.

“Listen. Listen to me. Don’t you remember when we were kids? Don’t you remember how we’d sit on the dusty roof of your apartment and watch the rockets from Port Qasim lift off at dusk. They were leaving behind the grime and the grit of Karachi for new vistas. They were leaving it behind for adventure, Zara. For glory.”

“And can’t you remember college? Can’t you remember how we fought for freedom against that bitch of a government? You’re the one who led the fight, Iskandar. And when they locked you up — ” She bit back a sob and he moved to close the distance between them but she held out a hand.

“No, listen. I’m fine. Listen. You led the fight and they locked you up but we did it. We broke them. Together.”

“I remember,” he said. “I could hear the crowds from my cell.”

“You’re a hero, Iskandar. And now they need us at home.”

“But Zara what shall we do, then? We go back and we fight and we win — it’s just a matter of time until they do it again. It’s a cycle. It’s history. But there,” he pointed to the stars, “there is hope for a new world.”

“And what sort of world shall that be if it’s built on this — on us running from our colleagues, our friends, our families? On us running from home?”

“So you will not come with me?”

She smiled at him sadly.

“You idiot,” she pointed at the badge that glinted on her uniform. “I’m your lieutenant. And your wife. I’ll go wherever you go. I just don’t want you to make a decision you’ll regret. I’ll be waiting for your announcement, sir.” She mock saluted him and he shook his head and smiled as she left the bridge.

Iskandar closed his eyes. He fell into a fitful sleep and dreamt that he stood in a shallow river on the dark plains of the Punjab at the dawn of civilization and in the dark before him stood mighty war elephants and in the dark behind him stood the fractious tribes of his motherland. And, as he watched, the rains of time poured forth and the river began to swell until it reached his knee and then his waist and then his chest and mighty Iskandar, lord of the known world, closed his eyes and dived into the water and firmly struck out towards one of the banks.

IMG_3978.JPG

Standard
Politics

Of Students, Politics and Student-Politics

Those who refuse to participate in politics are destined to be ruled by their inferiors.

Plato

A YOUNG boy stands on the roof of his house and watches with wide eyes as an astonishing scene unfolds below him. A large group of students barricade the gates of Islamia College, Karachi. The students stand in lines, chests bared. Opposite them, a contingent of army personnel are arranged, guns cocked and pointed straight at the young, defiant students. A line stretches between them and a magistrate sternly warns the students of dire consequences if they cross it. In response, those courageous youth bare their chests to the guns and move forward. They cross the line shouting, “How many will you kill? How many?”

That young boy was my father and he vividly remembers the student protests against General Ayub Khan’s increase in sugar prices. The students were instrumental in overthrowing his regime and many sacrificed their lives for the sake of justice and freedom.

And this has always been so. Students have traditionally been at the forefront of revolutions. They played a monumental role in the creation of Pakistan. Without the young, passionate, idealistic graduates of Aligarh, it is doubtful that Pakistan would ever have been achieved.

Today, the youth of Pakistan are disillusioned. Their hearts are broken and they do not know how to achieve their forefathers dreams of a vibrant Pakistan. They complain that politics is dirty and that we lack capable leaders. And in the same breath most refuse to contemplate ever joining politics. What they fail to see is the negative feedback loop created by such thinking.

General ‘Generous’ Zia gave us many gifts. Two exemplary examples would be extremism and the Kalashnikov culture. But there is another present he gave us which, perhaps, is worse than the other two combined. This was his ban on student unions in 1984. By doing so, he deprived Pakistan of a generation of new leaders.

Why are student unions so essential? Well, where else will you get leaders from? General Zia’s measure was akin to demolishing all medical colleges in the country and then crying over the fact that we lack capable doctors.

Student unions would hold debates between students from opposing parties. This helped create tolerance for differing viewpoints and helped students learn the ‘agree to disagree’ approach. Regular elections would be held that would teach students how to campaign and build a support base. Often, coalitions would be formed between groups from different parties. This taught compromise. Students learnt the power of a vote and leaders learnt that they must be humble or face a rout in the next election. The youth is the future of Pakistan. If they do not learn these basics of mature politics, how can you expect politicians of calibre to appear?

An article published in the New York Times (Aug 28, 2010) talks about how politics has remained the domain of a few members of the landed class. This is again thanks to the ban on student unions! When you stop a whole generation from entering the political arena, who will fill that gaping void? Sons of feudal landlords come to mind. This is how the tradition of dynastic politics begins.

A frequent question asked by students is how will we get rid of dictatorial heads of political parties? How will we change the corrupt system?

Pakistan’s biggest problem is that we want a knight in shining armour to whisk away all our problems with the wave of a wand. Instead of a top down approach, why not begin from the grassroots? Once the foundations are changed, it is easy to change the head.

When passionate, determined students enter politics, they can change the system. Most importantly, they can take charge of Pakistan and with the help of an independent judiciary and a free media, help Pakistan face all her problems in a mature, solution-oriented way.

Pakistan Zindabad!

Standard