Overcoming Hard Times
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
Outlaws they were, as is well known/ And men of noble blood,/ And often was their valor shown/ In the forests of Merrysherwood ...
Once too often school-day rhymes play pranks on one’s mind and rekindle childhood fancies. Robinhood was truly a daring character! He still is, with perhaps an added appeal for yesteryear youth, the grownup white-collared academics of today.
Irked constantly by the price spiral one is prone to trifle with fanciful thoughts. A show of valor in one of the glittering malls - centers of affluence - might provide the much-needed respite, a facelift at home and a more congenial equation with the better-half.
For men of `noble blood’, the facelift is a compelling yet vexatious proposition. The furniture-turned-antique in posh surroundings relays many subtle messages. The defaced refrigerator moans and whines as if with exhaustion. The rickety contrivance called the `family car’ is perched listlessly in the garage. Like an irate household maid, it hisses and rattles moodily and is seldom road-borne.
The bedroom setting is reminiscent of the Dickensian world, portraying little Dorrit’s privations and young Copperfield’s haunted surroundings. A broken mirror embellishing the dressing table projects a split image, reflecting the split personality syndrome - a distracted mind torn between the conflicting urges of worldliness and the nobler science of values and learning.
Mentally, the academic is not disposed to revel in a scholarly pursuit or conditioned to pride on a research accomplishment. A paper published in UNESCO’s prestigious multilingual journal from eight capitals of the world! No mean achievement, yet, the financial gains, if any, are too miniscule and they are all that seem to matter.
The mind is overborne with the more trivial though pressing obsessions of work-a-day life: the constant badgering at the hands of the butcher where Sahib apologetically advances the order for 2 kg of mutton to the admonitory grunt of the qasai, the exasperating grocery bills which raise the pulse beat to a new high, and the unpalatable proposition of choosing between an English and Urdu daily.
The children’s prattle and precocious wisdom at the dining table is particularly disquieting. “Ammi, for a change, could we have prawns and fish steaks in the evening?” enquires the youngest who claims resemblance with Superman Christopher Reeve as he treats the carbohydrate-rich dishes with disdain. “I need to build my muscles,” he innocently explains. “Carbohydrates are also needed by your body system, beta,” Sahib meekly explains.
“Milk and eggs should do for proteins,” he vainly argues. “And so also a regular shot of vitamins - fruits and salad - for proper nutrition. He is already short-sighted,” snappishly interjects the irate Begum, casting a look of remonstrance at the subdued Sahib whose mind is overborne with April’s exasperating callings.
March, April bring evil tidings. To invest or not to invest is the pressing question agitating his mind as he works out different permutations and combinations. The school challans, inopportunely timed, seem to upset all calculations. Sahib is piqued.
Disbursement of the hefty monthly fees is a tall order at the critical period of the year. One does realize, though belatedly, the wisdom of the kam bacchae khushal gharana jingle.
On the domestic front, Begum continues with her constant rattle: the long cherished dream of buying a new pair of karas.
Thirty-five years have gone by, yet, hope, the energizing force, has not eluded the energetic better-half.
The Sahib too has his eccentricities. His obsessions are of a peculiar nature. He does not crave for a Lamborghini or a mansion in Beverly Hills. For years in Pakistan he trudged his way to Thomas and Thomas and Pak American and now visits the glittering American bookshop Barnes and Noble in Anaheim. The acquisition of a personal set of Encyclopedia Brittanica has been a long-cherished dream. The paperbacks have come to cost appreciably more than the video films. You can watch 4-5 video films for the price of one paperback. Easy trading! Psychologically, the price hike takes its toll. The academic loses in confidence, his vision blurs, the thought process suffers.
And this happens particularly in the Pakistani setting. Didn’t Jane Austen say so wisely that resource-limitation leads to contraction of ideas? What was true for her times is true for ours.
Perhaps more, for we unabashedly talk of ethnic groupings, confirming an age-old maxim: small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas.
But are we people with small minds, the followers of Rakhman Baba who detested factionalism and kept to his line of peace and pacification; of Baba Bulhey Shah, the mystic, who went to Lahore in search of peace of the soul; of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, whose poetry had a message to strive for justice, equality, fraternity and dignity of man; and of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who opened the portals of the Aligarh University to Muslims of the subcontinent irrespective of their cultural or ethnic background?
The answer is a definite no. In the words of the late Professor Abdus Salam, the Nobel Laureate, “Ours is a numerous - potentially a great - nation. Our tragedy is that we do not seem to realize this; we act in a narrow manner only befitting a small nation ... Our people have a natural endowment of first-class talent in science once it is developed. I am not saying this as a starry-eyed patriot. I know this from experience after a lifetime of supervising researchers of many nationalities. Likewise there is no question that we have a great talent in technology... Could a people who can write a whole surah of the Holy Book on a grain of rice not succeed equally when it comes to microelectronics?” Salam, a man of ideas, went on to win the Nobel Prize.
The past too serves us with many shining examples. The era of ideas was an era of prosperity. According to Purnell’s Concise Encyclopedia of World History, London (page 139), “For a century and a half, under Mughal rulers, South Asia with 100 million inhabitants had a standard of living slightly higher than contemporary Europe.” The region “flourished: The arts and crafts boomed. Persian influence led to the development of a new Mughal school of miniature paintings and to a new architectural style...”
In an earlier period, to quote Hugh Thomas (A History of the World): “While Europe slept and America lived a dream of innocence free almost both of disease and physicians, Islam was at work.” The universities of Cordova and Toledo in Muslim Spain formed the hub of scientific enquiry where scholars from the rich East - Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan - to name a few, dabbled in science and prospective researchers from the poor West looked askance when told to go back to clipping sheep because their teachers “doubted the wisdom and value of training them for advanced scientific research” (Nature, London, December 1979).
The decline in Spain and the subcontinent set in when social and academic strivings shifted from ideas to ordinary events and commonplace people. Group vilification became the order of the day like the current confrontations blighting the national and community scene.
The economist is better poised to rescue the academic. He will. But his prescription might provide only short-term relief.
The long-term panacea lies in fostering genuine scientific enquiry, in promoting education and science on a broad scale to generate ideas, opportunities, jobs, and a vibrant, dynamic society receptive to change. At the beginning of the 21st century let’s turn a new leaf and act on Sir Syed’s advise: “Hamarae daen hath maen Qur’an ho, Baen hath maen Science, Aur peshani par Kalima La Ilaha Illallah.” Science, education and the Holy Book would see us through.