Podcast • August 25, 2011

Mohsin Hamid: on a “Pakistan-like” trend in America

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani ...

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani with a resumé a lot like Mohsin Hamid’s in America: he was a star on the Princeton campus, a cinch in the US business world. But 9.11 spins the fictional hero 180 degrees. Watching the Twin Towers burn up on television, he is intrigued to find himself smiling spontaneously at the symbolism of “this powerful country being humbled, slapped, paid back.” He decides after all that he’d been enlisted in a failing empire as it enters a tailspin of “crippling nostalgia” and self-pity. So the character, called Changez, soon comes to replant himself in native soil and political resistance.

Both Mohsin Hamid and his invention Changez have inhabited the American scene at its “best and brightest,” most competitive, most self-regarding pinnacle — and then left it all, without remorse. What was it for Changez, I am asking, or even for Mohsin Hamid himself, that isn’t working in the American elite?

What shocks me about America, about the way America is headed, is that in some ways it’s becoming increasingly Pakistan-like — in the sense that the American elite is becoming much, much richer compared to the rest of the population; and America’s great success, which was this enormous middle that had the bulk of political power, the bulk of economic resources, and the rest, is being crushed. This America where there were relatively high tax rates and there was a notion of shared service in the form of military service, for example — the draft in its way is a deeply socialistic notion, yet America bore that for decades; and in this time built up a system of very good public high schools and primary schools and very good infrastructure and excellent colleges, and you could see this evolution where every generation was better off than the previous. In my time in elite America, in the course of the last decade and a half, what I was struck by was how that system was basically collapsing. Friends of mine are earning insane amounts of money — those who stayed in the hedge fund world. Oftentimes it’s unclear what they’re actually contributing to society. And meanwhile the school system is collapsing, and the American middle class is being eviscerated. And all of this being done on the back of a certain demagogic tribalism. Here in Pakistan we’ve seen many of the same sorts of things — this combination of xenophobia, unwillingness to pay taxes, comfort with a powerful and entrenched elite that coopts the democratic process. I mean, that’s what we have here, and it isn’t great! I felt very comfortable in elite American circles because the same notions of hierarchy, of how an elite functions, were very easy for me as a Pakistani to understand. Some of my American friends when we first started out had more difficulty dealing with the corporate context than I did, because in Pakistan you learn very early, from infancy, how hierarchy works, and how you modulate the way you deal with people based on their relationship in the hierarchy — with somebody a bit older than you, a wealthy person, a poor person, a family elder, a this or that. And I think that is much better preparation for an American corporate elite social milieu than a liberal arts education which teaches you that everybody’s equal and you call everybody by their first names and just hang out… Underneath all that are millions of gradations of hierarchy which exist in American society, just as in Pakistani society. Except here the elite embraces that, uses it to oppress everybody and says: that is the expectation. In America the pretense is: it doesn’t exist, which makes it maybe even more effective, because people don’t see it.

Mohsin Hamid at home in Lahore with Chris Lydon, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • August 23, 2011

Ayesha Jalal, Part 2: What Would Manto Say?

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3) … One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

… One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, he dropped everything, climbed the nearest tree and installed himself on a branch, from which vantage point he spoke for two hours on the delicate problem of India and Pakistan. The guards asked him to get down; instead he went a branch higher, and when threatened with punishment, declared, ‘I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.’

From “Toba Tek Singh,” Manto’s masterpiece on the separation of lunatics — Hindus from Muslims — after Partition in 1947. In Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Penguin, 2008.
Ayesha Jalal, the historian, with Iqbal Hussain‘s painting of two ladies of the night in Lahore, cover art on a Penguin edition of Manto’s stories

LAHORE — Pakistan’s greatest prose writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, set his most famous story in the Lahore lunatic asylum, to render an immortal judgment on the Partition of India and Pakistan. As Ayesha Jalal (who chances to be Manto’s great-grand-niece) sums it up in conversation: to Manto it was clear that “the madness outside is greater than the madness within the asylum.”

The Partititon had in fact two still-astonishing chroniclers of the horror that displaced nearly 15 million people and killed about a million. One was Margaret Bourke-White, whose black-and-white photographs for LIFE magazine stared into the shrouded eyes of the living dead on the march. The other was Manto, whose stories don’t just drip with the cold sweat of rape, murder and unspeakable loss along the way; they also drill far into the absurdity of that vast project of separating neighbors. I am thinking of a Manto story, “The Last Salute,” about Rab Nawaz and Rab Singh — two soldiers who’d gone to the same primary school in a Punjab village, who’d joined the army on the same day and fought for the British 6/9 Jat Regiment in Italy, and in their final, fatal encounter are fighting for Pakistan and India in Kashmir — “the friends of yesterday… transformed into the enemies of today.” Manto writes realistic tales that brim with his own generous, forgiving embrace of sinners and saints, but incomprehension is the telling note of his Partition stories. As Ayesha Jalal is noting for us: “… he cannot understand why India is partitioned. He cannot understand the logic of it.” These are notes of incomprehension and absurdity that recur spontaneously to a visitor in Pakistan even now, 64 summers later.

Ayesha Jalal is writing a biographical and literary reflection on Manto, to be published on the centennial of his birth in March, 2012. She is reminding us that in his short career, abbreviated by alcoholism and death at 42, Manto wrote brilliant sketches, successful screenplays and radio scripts, and essays as well as fiction. His nine “Letters to Uncle Sam” from the early 1950s stand up as playful, pungent and prophetic.

For example:

21 February 1954

Dear Uncle,

I wrote to you only a few days ago and here I am writing again. My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan. I tell you I feel like writing a letter a day to you.

Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. They would also need American-made rosaries and prayer-mats, not to forget small stones that they used to soak up the after-drops following a call of nature. Cut-throat razors and scissors should be top of the list, as well as American hair-colour lotions. That should keep these fellows happy and in business…

I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and I know your moves. Everyone can now become a smart ass, thanks to your style of playing politics.

If this gang of mullahs is armed in the American style, the Soviet Union that hawks communism and socialism in our country will have to shut shop. I can visualize the mullahs, their hair trimmed with American scissors and their pajamas stitched by American machines in strict conformity with the Sharia. The stones they use for their after-drops of you-know-what will be American, untouched by human hand, and their prayer-mats would be American, too. Everyone will then become your camp follower, owing allegiance to you and no one else…

Your obedient nephew,

Saadat Hasan Manto

From “Letters to Uncle Sam,” No. 4. In Bitter Fruit. Penguin, 2008.