I returned from Pakistan less than two days ago, which means I’m in the state of deep melancholy that awaits me every time I leave home, in which I feel both empty and cavernous, suddenly bereft of a place where every street has meaning, and saturated with memories of the visit. I’m a bit of a puddle right now, so here is a scattershot view of some things I’ve been thinking about:
Zora Neale Hurston said that there are years that ask questions and years that answer, and I’m trying to make 2023 a year for answers. Twitter, discourse, and the constant “what about” of social media has led to so much critique and questioning. Some of it has purpose, I suppose, but I’m trying to have a year in which I build upon things, even if that means tunnel vision.
Every time I go home, I’m struck by the starkness of inequality, and how much guilt any act of consumption or indulgence can bring. I have to remind myself that in richer countries, a lot of those inequalities have either been absorbed and institutionalized or then exported outside the union. Living with constant reminders of inequality requires a different set of nerves. I’m reminded of a line from Sontag that once irrevocably, substantially shifted my mind. “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists,” she writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.”
There is so much conversation in the US about representation and its ills, but one facet is often ignored. “One nation under God,” the pledge of allegiance says, and indeed, everyone’s convinced there really is just one nation under God. It strikes me that every time my book / writing earns any minor accolade, my grandmother calls me to say that “tum ne Pakistan ka naam roshan kardiya hay.” (I have brought honor to Pakistan). Fredric Jameson very controversially stated that all Third World literature is national allegory, and there’s a lot of very exciting debate around that, but what is true is that to be a smaller nation on the world stage today means that everything that happens inside your boundaries is viewed in terms of its representation abroad. Take the Qatar World Cup, the Ms. Marvel episode on Partition, or even the conversation around Joyland. (My friend, Harris Zahoor Gondal, has written a fantastic, and much more lucid, essay on this theme here). Perhaps the most glorious, meme-generating video in the history of the Pakistani nation has been the “wow, grape” video, and indeed, so much cultural conversation seems to start and end with the question of whether or not you will sacrifice your life for Pakistan.
This will have to be short, on account of two jet-lagged offspring. A Happy New Year to all, and please do reach out / comment if you have thoughts.
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As someone living in Pakistan the disparity is hard to forget. And as you say every act of consumption, every comfort and luxury is laden with guilt and seems almost unfair. I have often thought that moving would rid me of this guilt, make life more ‘pleasant’ but I remind myself that that is another form of luxury. It doesn’t change the inequity of the world. I can avoid witnessing this suffering but it will carry on. And perhaps the least we can do is acknowledge it, recognise it and what it teaches us about ourselves instead of living in an illusion.
I do have conflicted thoughts about what this does long term- and often wonder if exposure to such suffering makes us better or more hardened and insensitive..
Ah, being in NY now seems to me to always being exposed to inequality too, and this Sontag quote really moved me. Will be thinking about it for quite some time. Thank you for sharing!