Crimson Papers by Harris Khalique

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

There is a war waged against nuance, wit, complexity, subtlety, ambivalence and the very possibility of creating art.

“Crimson Papers” by Harris Khalique is a collection of four essays comprising of the author’s personal mediations on struggle, suffering and creativity in Pakistan. He infuses religion, politics, history and culture of Pakistan to put across an incredibly effective and tolerant viewpoint. His assessments of the country’s chaotic past and turbulent present are shorn of prejudice, biasness and skepticism. The reader can sense kindness in his voice as he tends to explain the present circumstances of Pakistan not through a myopic lens but with a liberal and indulgent tone.

I am conscious of both the isolation that has descended upon Pakistan in the imagination of other nations and the ripping existential stress Pakistan has been experiencing for the longest period of time.

My attempt at reviewing this book leans towards answering the two questions Khalique asks in the Preface “Why must I write about all this? More hauntingly, what difference will it make if any?”

Blood

When it comes to India, Pakistanis are either in love with the idea of a secular India, believing it has already materialized while their own country rots and decomposes, or they consider everything Indian as an open or disguised plot for absolute Hindu ascendancy aimed at destroying the great Pakistani state and its people.

The first essay titled “Blood” deals with issues of national, religious and political identity whilst delving in the history of Partition which brought about two grave problems to grapple with, the creation of Kashmir and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Innumerable sacrifices made by people of the subcontinent helped their posterity achieve two separate nations on account of differing identities but their martyrdom has gone in largely gone in vain given the present tribulations suffered by minorities on either side of the border.

Or they maintain their belligerent positions on the cold and barren Siachen Glacier, which happens to house the highest military posts in the world, proudly established by two of the poorest countries.

The essay starts off enumerating on the hatred both Pakistanis and Indians harbor for their neighbor. This animosity, perpetuated by the political, military and bureaucratic elite of both countries, has become deeply ingrained in our social psyche so much so that even the most disadvantaged and illiterate of us has strong notions of aversion for the neighboring country. The creation of Kashmir remains to this day the most conflicting matter of international importance, a perpetual threat to peace in South Asia.

Kashmir has become central to peace in South Asia whether that is a reality or not.

The creation of West and East Pakistan in 1947 also multiplied the misery of Pakistanis who were separated with thousands of miles between them, yet linked to the one idea of creation of Pakistan. The issue of language, Urdu or Bangla, became a seed of permanent discord between the two wings of Pakistan. Quaid’s famous speech in Dhaka which emphasized on Urdu being the national language was used by West Pakistanis as a final declaration of superiority of Urdu. Yet, they conveniently forgot that in the same speech Quaid categorically mentioned that each province had the right to choose their official language.

The Bangladeshi state also wishes to subsume small ethnic or political identities in the name of nationalism, like the Pakistani state wishes to subsume all different identities in the name of Islam.

The author elucidates on the plight of ordinary citizens during the ’71 war in which both pro-East and pro-West belligerents wreaked havoc on one another. Merely twenty-four years had passed since the Partition and the subcontinent was once again plummeted into raging fires caused by internal troubles which had been brewing for some time now.

It is shocking that people with such a limited understanding of human society and a warped sense of history have ruled Pakistan with impunity.

The author then links the two wars between Pakistan and India with identity crises experienced by Pakistanis. Military rule coupled with a failing democratic system has given rise to religious and nationalistic extremism. Certain political and social truths must be acknowledged before we, as a nation, can come into harmony with each other’s differences. Tolerance of divergent ideologies is the one value we must all embody in order to make our society more peaceful and accommodating.

But it is more of a cultivated social relationship between the same class of people, who at the same time may be benefiting from the economy of tension, insecurity, jingoism and war.

Sweat

The privileged in our society want everyone to conform.

The second essay “Sweat” traces the struggles and subsequent failures of many socialist movements in Pakistan. The forerunners of progressive ideology might have scattered in vain, their works all but vanished without a trace but their efforts continue to this day be ingrained in present day political discourse. The author was personally acquainted with many of these leaders and through recollection of their names and endeavors, he manages to keep their legacy alive. Humbling stories of Ahmed Bashir who was a government official as well as a social worker, Begum Majeed Malik who was a literary patron and many others elucidate on the nature of those who in troubling times were bold enough to summon progressive ideas and disseminate them among masses.

The only use of writers and filmmakers envisioned by the state was to promote and propagate the narrative of the incumbent government, particularly whenever there was a military ruler in power.

Criticism

Whilst the author has gone to great lengths in mentioning notable as well as discreet names, many references in terms of personalities, their works and general stories evaded me time and time again. Without exploring the struggles of many historic and social persons in detail, the names alluded to in the book remain just that – mere names one can flip through without giving them a second thought. I found myself quite annoyed by the author’s persistent nature of naming someone, describing their work in a mere general statement and going ahead with explaining in length how the author came to know personally the concerned individual. To me this seemed a little too self-indulgent, and even though I have resorted to searching for these names and their struggles, the book leaves me hollow on many occasions. I feel that this runs contrary to what the book aimed for and had the writer given little less space to his personal affiliations and wrote more about the nature of work these incredible people of the past and present were indulged in, the book would be more wholesome and true to its intentions.

Tears

There are physical, emotional, social and economic cogs a person coming the educated and affluent middle class has to bear when deciding to side with and work for the weaker segments of society.

The third essay titled “Tears” accounts for the myriad of sacrifices made by five Pakistani women out of which three had been assassinated, one suffered in prison and the other experienced profound loss of losing her loved ones in a bomb blast. These five narratives are woven within the tapestry of extremism, sectarianism, persecution of minorities, ethnic strife, provincial separatism and the ever shrinking space for intellectual and creative thought.

Internal struggles are waged in the underbelly of this collective journey.

This essay starts with a brilliant metaphor for different classes of Pakistan, all passengers of the same train, undertaking the same journey but segregated on account of their economic, religious and ethnic class. The elite occupy air conditioned parlors of the train whilst the upper and middle class occupy First and Economy class compartments. The lowest class are confined in the constricted and overcrowded bogies, the passengers wrestling one another to find “more elbow room”.

Still they want more leg space to stretch, not just for the body but for the imagination: the agency to reason, the possibility to question, the freedom to comment, and the ability to reject. They harbor the desire to know where this train is headed.

The essay further discusses the problem of bigotry and religious extremism which have wounded this nation from its very roots. Shabana, a singer and dancer from Swat Valley was killed by Taliban after refusing to surrender to their ideologies. Aasiya Noreen belonged to the Christian minority who was sent to jail on charges of blasphemy. Parween Rehman, a social worker helping people transform their lives through physical changes in their surroundings as well as mental and emotional changes in acknowledging their selves, was shot and killed. Sabeen Mahmud, patron of arts and literature and by extension, dissent, was killed as well. Saeeda Bibi of the Hazara community in Balochistan lost her son and son-in-law in a bomb blast which targeted the Shia minority.

How barren Pakistan and its society will become if the contribution of non-Sunnis to the collective civilization, culture, thinking, and sensibility is discounted.

Through these five exemplary women and their sacrifices, the author highlights many of our country’s problems. We are embroiled not only in an external war but an internal battle of intellect and reason. From Taliban’s rise in Pakistan’s north-west to the suppuration of Sunni-Shia conflict, from stifling voices asking for rights for minorities to openly silencing dissenters through “bombs, bullets, petty actions, or caustic words”, intolerance has been on the rise for many years now. General Zia’s era sowed the seeds of discord which to this day have plagued our nation’s quest for advancement and improvement.

There is a cost of speaking for the poor and writing for the oppressed in the face of an omnipotent system where elites and mafias collude to eliminate any difference, leave alone any challenge to their absolute authority.

Contradictory notions of what ideology of Pakistan maintains remains a perpetual thorn in our collective conscience. We are unable to reconcile the idea of an Islamic nation with that of a secular one. Western ideology propagates that Church be separate from the state, but it is inapplicable to our identity, first and foremost as Muslims and then as Pakistani Muslims. History books have long established the fact that concept of Partition grew out of the idea that Muslims and Hindus would not be able to live together once the British left. This evidently renders creation of Pakistan on basis of religion. But from the very beginning, our political and national constitution was based on the one British left behind. This confusion has bred many of the problems our nation faces today. We have allowed reactionary clerics to use religion to advance their own control of the country’s ideologies whilst the politicians have appeased to their every whim in order to maintain their political hegemony. Our leaders are hypocritical in manipulation of nationalistic as well as religious fervor, steering the masses from one end to another, which has resulted in widespread discontentment and confusion.

Criticism

The author says:

The elite perpetuate. In many other countries, the elite, even with all its contempt for the lumpen, would lead and take others along in the wagons behind them and know where they all are going. In Pakistan, the elite remain indifferent.

I somehow disagree with this statement since it takes a very xenocentric stance. The poor languish in misery everywhere in the world, irrespective of the economic status the country enjoys. Hunger is hunger, disease is disease no matter where one resides. Similarly, the Wall Street elite of USA are no different in their mercenary motivations than the political elite of Pakistan in their power-wielding incentives. Granted on surface, one controls the economy and the other has hold of a nation’s political structure, but politics and economy are inextricably linked. The innate nature of greed and self-interest knows no geographical boundaries nor identifies one’s color. Evil is evil, its indifference to humanity similar in all forms.

Ink

As events impact nations, words impact individuals.

The fourth and last essay of the book is aptly titled “Ink” in which the author delves into the creative spirit of Pakistani poets and writers who have upheld the truest philosophy of social and political dynamics of Pakistan. Khalique mentions different creators whose works have imbibed nature of revolution, stirring emotions in their listeners and readers. Where politics and bureaucracy failed, arts and literature held the reins of social sanity, drawing in people from all fields of life to unite in their vision and perspective. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Qurutulain Haider, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sarmad Sehbai, Fahmida Riaz and Munir Niazi are just some of the names he mentions who have been pioneers of literary enlightenment in the subcontinent.

Art has the power to subvert and the power to heal, sometimes separately and sometimes collectively.

The essay starts off with the duality of language that harasses our understanding of what it means to be a Pakistani. Urdu is our mother tongue but widespread usage of English, especially in official context, has lent disorder to our society. This mayhem is further proliferated on grounds of provincialism and anti-Western sentiments. Whilst the author acknowledges that “English is the language that brings power, prosperity, privilege, and prestige” he also notes that “selective promotion of English is not directed at culturally modernizing Pakistan and expediting its intellectual development…but it is there to ensure the exclusion of the majority of people from participating in making decisions that affect their lives.”

Next the author offers his opinion on the perennial debate of prose versus poetry and which genre best epitomizes consciousness and is truest to life and nature. For Khalique, the premise of this argument is moot since art as a whole “functions as a free-floating signified. Utilitarian motives kill it. Art is feared because it is subversive.” Thus to differentiate and categorize art in order of objectivity is ridiculous. He advocates the genre of poetry as being as dominant and effective as prose.

Poetry is wonder and power structures evaporate in the wonderment of poetry.

Many critics of poetry are of the opinion that this genre largely falls short of providing rational tools for struggle. It may evoke and stir, induce people to action but its maximum potential is reached merely with raising slogans. Khalique defends poetry and offers to not relegate it under prose since “both are equally important to understand nature, humanity, society, and our collective perpetual quest for a more meaningful existence.” Each genre has its own subjective manifestations of thought and expression where brevity and elucidation are both necessary for critical thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

It is because of art and creativity in Pakistan that hope refuses to sink in the deluge of sorrow.

To the question Khalique asks in the Preface regarding what difference this book can make, I have a simple answer. The author’s kind consideration with which he deals with sensitive matters without making anyone a scapegoat or vilifying opposing thoughts is a lesson to be learnt in exercising opinion-formation. Although I did not agree with a few of his statements, they did not offend me. Rather, they invited me to contemplate on their nature. And even though the writer did not indulge in the efforts made by many personalities mentioned in the book, I am now aware of their names on which I can research on my own time.


Aphorisms and Quotes

(Some quotes are paraphrased)

  • We live in an age where fiction is written in haste and sold in abundance
  • The idea of any country is as worthwhile as its citizens consider it to be. Being part of a state is about consensus while citizenship is about belonging.
  • “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” – Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot
  • Putting anger into context can make you sympathize with the one who is angry.
  • “A myth cannot be challenged once the majority begins to accept it as the eternal truth.” – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
  • Even if the atrocities were much smaller in magnitude…the truth has to be established.
  • I am one of those who subscribe to the idea that battles can be won and lost, but no one wins or loses a war.
  • It is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual development of any society if it decides to look the other way, or become selective with facts.
  • In any person, character is more important than ideology.
  • The desire for power and domination can make bedfellows out of strangers.
  • “Power, to be effective, must inscribe itself on the senses” – Terry Eagleton
  • “It is highly rational for a nation always in a state of war to elect combatants as its leaders.” – David Grossman. The fact that combatants are the nation’s leaders decrees that the nation remains in a constant state of war.
  • “Mediocrity is promoted by creating a ‘conspiracy of noise’ in its favor and genius is suppressed by hatching a ‘conspiracy of silence’ against it.” – Jean Cocteau
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