CHENNAI : It could be a mere coincidence that I have finished reading Rafia Zakaria’s ‘The Upstairs Wife - An Intimate History of Pakistan’ on the neighbouring country’s Independence Day and the eve of our own. Or it could mean more by way of signs.The book begins where the author’s Aunt Amina’s husband takes a second wife shocking the family for the act’s betrayal of custom. The story itself predates the partition, chronicling the dreams of a new land harboured in a family that decides to migrate to Pakistan. The personal narrative of the author’s family and the disgrace that it begets after the second marriage is interwoven intimately, staying true to its title, with Pakistan’s political narrative.
The rise of military dictatorship, the increase in militancy, the beginning of terrorist violence fill the pages revealing their impacts on families and their faith. If Aunt Amina whose marriage becomes half of the whole is the personal, then the chronicling of Benazir Bhutto, the only woman to have lead Pakistan’s parliament is the political. These parallel realms merge at the book’s very end with the assassination of ‘Pakistan’s freest woman’ and a prologue that notes ‘polygamy has come into the open and is even encouraged…’ telling of how conservatism stepping into the limelight has withdrawn women to the shadows.
Speaking of signs, there are far too many to count. But in a country that has a registry in process, that remains blind to but practises systemic discrimination, in which Muslims are being other-ed and the call for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is being echoed, in a time when history is being revised and the mouthpieces of it’s new versions are emboldened, when different nationalisms are being coerced into an acceptable one, when dissent is swiftly silenced but silence is maintained when it should not, when information is with held from citizens or remains compulsorily one sided, and people are claiming rights to cultures, practises and art forms, the signs are hard to miss. And therefore it is hard to deny, especially when ‘Sanskaari’ is a narrowly defined keyword and a norm expected of women, that the increasing conservatism will take a toll on this country’s women, much like it has on those in Pakistan.
Given that we can neither dismiss nor deny these signs, it may do well for us on this Independence Day to see that the aforementioned state of affairs are in fact slow bullets to a secularism that was hoped for, a crumbling of the democratic dream that the founders had and that we are making a regression that will be irreversible. So as we go about remembering fighters of the past and the present, let us begin by remembering that independence is not in the borders but in the boundaries of the mind, that it is a journey and not a destination, and celebrations are markers of milestones of how far we have come in that journey.
In our case, not very far, as the dream for melting pot of cultures is turning into a nightmare of a country of mob lynchings in front of us. So let us rise to the occasion, salute secularism, and fight on for democracy so we may each be free enough to follow our paths to individual independences. Till we do away with secretive governments, lying politicians, empty promises and conservatism of every kind, it’s too early for ‘Happy Independence Day!’