Picking up any piece of writing, engaging in any casual conversation in Pakistan, nostalgia is almost like the invisible additional presence in any conversation. Times are just not the same any more. Military people are not the same clipped (fake) goras as before. The classy bars in hotels and military messes were such hotbeds of social rest and they are not anymore. The peace and liberality that prevailed before don’t exist anymore. Women could walk unmolested in Karachi and they can’t anymore. Islamabad was a leafy village and Pindi a classy Anglo town and they are not anymore. Or in a more historical mode–how great were the Muslim empires and look where we are now. How we wish we could revert to our (fictitious) Arab = Muslim roots. The list of things that Pakistanis across the political spectrum can get nostalgic about from food, to roads, to religion or even the weather is just endless.
I feel lucky to be alive at the same time as one of the greatest Urdu satirists, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. As an academic who dabbles in intellectual gymnastics such as post-structuralism and historical materialism, I am in awe of Yusufi Sahib’s sophisticated mind and his ability to proffer the most complex and serious thoughts about the most mundane topics in an exquisite comedic wrapping. With due apologies for my temerity, to all discerning Urdu readers and writers I translate below a text on nostalgia from Yusufi sahib’s Urdu book ‘Aab-e-gum’ (p. 17-18).
When a person finds the past more attractive than the present, and the future becomes altogether invisible–one can be sure that the person has gone old. It must be remembered that this enervating (youth-sapping) attack of dotage can happen at any age, especially during the prime of youth. If opium or heroin is not available, the person can always find gratification in the last refuge of the tired and defeated–fantasies of the past. Just as some enterprising people can create their own future with their sagacity and hard work, these people can deploy their imagination to create their own past . . .
Sometime nations can impose past upon themselves as well. In fact, if one were to look closely, the real villain of the South Asian drama is the past. A nation’s level of moral, material and spiritual bankruptcy is typically in [direct geometric proportion] to its tendency to glorify and repeatedly recite its past. In every hour of difficulty and trial such a nation reverts to its past. And the past that it hearkens to is not the one that actually existed but the one that it has created and embellished as per its current biases and needs–an aspirational past! In this illusory context the peacock like dance of a bruised ego is spectacular–that the peacock does not just invent its dance but also the jungle in which it dances. And as it dances away there comes a magical moment when the entire jungle starts dancing itself and the peacock just looks on in stunned silence. Nostalgia is the tale of such a moment.
To add anything to the above would be sacrilege, beyond the one I have already committed by feigning to translate Yusufi sahib’s exquisite Urdu prose, but I will do it anyway.
Who are the purveyors of our aspirational past? Almost every non-academic Pakistani, especially of the right wing variety, echos the fantasy Islamic history by Naseem Hijazi. It is an article of faith with most Pakistanis that Muslim rule was always just, and glorious and Muslims were the receptacles of all the virtue and wisdom in the world. Muslim’s downfall came from softening of civilization and disunity, and in particular sexual indiscretions. This is generally the officially sanctioned perspective on Pakistan’s history. This perspective has on the one hand spawned almost an industry in nostalgia and on the other hand the pan-Islamic exertions of our defenders of the faith in the shape of Jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Philippines and Central Asia. But the jungle we created has started dancing itself–in the shape of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and fellow travelers. Stunned silence is in the face of this dance is not an option.