Posts Tagged ‘Professor K. Husain’

Misplaced Moralities By NADEEM F. PARACHA

October 1st, 2017, posted in Ink On PAPER

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Famous Urdu poet, author and satirist, Ibn-i-Insha, once wrote that as he was coming out of a mosque, he saw a person from the shurfa tabqa (respectable middle-class) talk to a poor man who stood outside the mosque, seemingly praying. The shareef gentleman asked him what he was praying for.

The poor man said he was praying for shelter, some food and maybe even a job. Hearing this, the gentleman got slightly agitated and asked, “Why are you praying for these materialistic things?” The poor man replied with a question of his own: “What do you pray for, sahib?”

I pray for the strength of my faith,” the gentleman proudly responded. “Good,” said the poor man, “one often prays for things they do not have.

Why are we indifferent to terrorism, domestic violence and child abuse but applaud initiatives that make us feel morally superior?

This was Ibn-i-Insha satirising a particular mindset which has been prevalent in the country’s urban middle-classes. Some call it ‘middle class morality’. In fact Insha’s tragic fate too can shed some light on this mindset.

At the peak of his career in 1974, he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors in Pakistan believed that his cancer was treatable but only in a Western country.

On an appeal from Insha’s fans, the populist government of Z.A. Bhutto worked out an arrangement with him. Insha was to be given a salaried job in the cultural section of the Pakistan embassy in London where he could continue his career as a poet and writer and use his salary to pay for the treatment from British doctors. Insha agreed.

The treatment seemed to be working when three years later (in July 1977) Bhutto’s regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup. The military regime was headed by Gen Zia who wasn’t a fan of certain cultural activities and vocations which he believed to be ‘vulgar’.

Claiming that they were damaging Pakistan’ s ‘moral fabric’, the military regime blacklisted poets, intellectuals, painters, actors and actresses and eventually Zia ordered the termination of Insha’s employment at the embassy.

Insha’s treatment came to a halt and his condition began to deteriorate. Some friends shifted him to a public hospital where he slipped into despondency and passed away in 1978. As Zia would have it, instead of praying for money for his treatment, Insha should have prayed for his soul.

In his 1938 play Pygmalion, the proficient Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw explained middle class morality as a phenomenon in which freedom is replaced by fear. Shaw was lampooning British middle class mores in the first half of the 20th century. He explained this class morality as one which makes a person become overtly conscious about his economic and social status. But this person continuously feels insecure because he fears that even a slight downward trend in his status may put him in the league of folks from the classes below. This anxiety thus drives him to stridently exhibit certain mannerisms and beliefs that he imagines are more civilised and which distinguish him from those in the classes below.

Professor K. Husain, a popular teacher at the state-owned college that I attended in Karachi in the mid-1980s, once rather splendidly explained Shaw’s observations in the context of Pakistan.

In early 1985, after the police had raided our college to apprehend certain ‘subversive elements’ (read anti-Zia activists), a group of students and I visited the professor’s office. He was the Dean of Commerce and we wanted him to ask the principal to demand the release of the apprehended students.

After he had agreed to talk to the principal, we began talking politics with him. During the discussion, he asked us whether any of us had read Shaw’s Pygmalion. We hadn’t. He talked briefly about it and then asked, “Do you know why Bhutto fell (in July 1977)?” We all came up with our usual half-baked Marxist theories, until he interrupted, “Middle class morality!

We became silent. He smiled and continued. “Bhutto fell due to middle class morality. His populist demeanour started to make the middle and upper classes uncomfortable. They began to feel that the classes below them were being emboldened by Bhutto. This threatened their carefully cultivated economic and social standing in society. Why else do you think the majority of people who took part in the movement against Bhutto belonged to the middle-classes?

A student tentatively asked, “Because of his socialist policies?” “Nonsense!” the professor shot back. “There wasn’t a single socialist bone in Bhutto. But it was the perception that he created of empowering the poor which aggravated the middleclass!

The professor then asked us to recall the platform which Bhutto’s opponents used during the movement. “Morality and faith,” he answered himself.

The professor claimed that Bhutto’s opponents had little or no economic programme to speak of. He asked, “Have you ever read their manifesto [issued just before the March 1977 election]? All it says is that a theocratic state would produce a just and happy society. That’s all.

Then the professor sniggered. “So off they went, attacking liquor stores, clubs and cinemas … as if it were these which were empowering the poor and undermining the middle-classes!

I must add, the late professor detested Bhutto. He neither drank nor smoked. Heck, he even hated colas. But his words continue to echo in my head every time anyone (from the government, judiciary or media) suddenly decides to crib about certain activities which they deem immoral or going against the grain of ‘our culture’.

Take for instance the two gentlemen who recently submitted a petition at the Sindh High Court against liquor stores in Karachi. Alcohol was banned (for Muslims) in Pakistan in April 1977. The stores are there for non-Muslims, but, of course, many Muslims too manage to buy from there. Question is, how much have these sinister stores contributed to whatever has gone wrong in Pakistan ever since 1977? Do these stores produce terrorists and extremists? Truth is, curbs on alcohol have actually yielded mafias which produce dangerous and tainted alcoholic beverages (katchi sharaab). And as a friend recently quipped, “Ask a nazim or an MPA to give you water, electricity or a road, and he’ll tell you that he will gift you with something more noble — a ban on what he deems immoral. Easier done. Silly middle-class priorities. They’ll remain numb over issues such as terrorism and domestic violence, but applaud initiatives which make them feel morally superior.

The good professor, God bless him, also came to mind when a PTI MPA from Karachi and a petty government bureaucrat in Sindh had a problem with schools teaching dance to children. More than anything else, this was simply about idle minds trying to exercise middle class morality to justify their otherwise feeble political status.

And what about Jamshed Dasti, the MPA from Muzaffargarh who once raised such a huge hue and cry after allegedly discovering empty whisky bottles outside the parliamentary lodges in Islamabad?

In the context of the professor’s theory, his case becomes rather interesting. Dasti originally hails from a working-class background. Becoming an MNA created a perception in his mind that he was now from the shurfa class. He was thus obliged to exhibit some middle class morality, especially after he felt that his status was being relegated to that of an unschooled MNA.

In 1993 during a seminar on ‘youth and crime’ held by a large media group in Karachi, a working-class lad in the audience complained that his sisters were being harassed on the streets in his locality and the police refused to do anything about it. A middle-aged shurfa class member of the panel matter-of-factly replied, “Son, I am assuming your sisters do not wear hijabs?” Go figure.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 30th, 2016