In March 1987, I sat for my final year Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) exams. Pakistan Studies was the last exam. I was a student at a state-owned college in Karachi where I had spent more time agitating against the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq than studying. Some of my friends believed I did not need to study because my ‘English was good.’ To them that’s all it took for one to get through. Their English, they lamented, was not good enough because, unlike me, they had all graduated from ‘Urdu-medium schools.’
Before college, I had studied at an expensive private school, established by the British in the 19th century. However, due to my father, a journalist, losing his job when he was ‘blacklisted’ by the Zia dictatorship, I had to attend a state-owned college in Karachi instead of going to the US or UK for higher studies like most students from my school often did. My parents couldn’t afford it. At state-owned educational institutions in Pakistan, there was the option of taking exams in the country’s national language, Urdu. A majority of my college colleagues opted to do just that. Except one. Usman. Usman was a wiry young man who came from a ‘lower-middle-class’ family in Karachi’s Nazimabad area. He insisted on taking the exams in English after convincing himself that I would help him. No, not before the exams, but during the exams! I did ‘help’ him in whatever manner I could.
On the day of the Pakistan Studies exam, he whisperingly asked me how he should answer the following question: ‘Define Pakistan’s culture in 100 words.’ I told him to write whatever he truly believed was Pakistan’s culture. After completing the exam, I asked him (in Urdu), what did he write? “Yaar, jo aya, likh diya” (I wrote whatever that came to mind), he replied. But then, after a pause, he told me exactly what he had written: “Maine likha (I wrote), my mother say give exam in English; father say give in Urdu; mullah of mosque say give in Arabic; my province say give in Sindhi, and forefather say give in Punjabi. This is Pakistan culture. This is what I say.”
I laughed, but thought what he had written was rather insightful. And I told him so, even though he flunked the exam. “English weak haina yaar” (It’s because my English is weak),” he later grumbled. What Usman wrote fascinates me to this day. He was a young man from a Punjabi-speaking family that, in the 1960s, had migrated from the Punjab province to the country’s economic hub, Karachi — a city that is the provincial capital of Sindh, but has an Urdu-speaking Mohajir majority. Usman was born in Karachi and lived in an area largely populated by the Mohajir. His parents were extremely religious, belonging to the Barelvi Sunni sub-sect. His father had sent him to a madrassa, before admitting him to a mainstream public school. But one of Usman’s (and also his mother’s) foremost ambitions was for him to become fluent in English, a language introduced in South Asia by British colonialists.
So, when he wrote, ‘my mother say give exam in English; father say give in Urdu; mullah of mosque say give in Arabic; my province say give in Sindhi; and forefather say give in Punjabi. This is Pakistan culture …,’ he was trying to come to terms with what he saw around him: ethnic, lingual and religious diversity, but one which the state of Pakistan was constantly undermining because it feared that this diversity might dismember the country. A country whose creation was based on the single idea of Muslim majoritarianism, in a region dominated by Hinduism.
The country constitutionally became ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ in 1956; but reverted to being just ‘Republic of Pakistan’ in 1958. It again became ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ in 1973. When Usman wrote, ‘this is what I say,’ he was expressing a desire to define Pakistani culture as a mixture or a fusion of various cultures. He did not want to be associated with any one specific component of this amalgamated culture. At least, that’s what I believe he meant.
He must have been in quite a fix. He could explain away his lie of being a Mohajir and probably be forgiven by the girl’s parents, but he was Sunni. The girl’s parents already knew that. Even Usman’s parents would never have agreed to such a union. The girl did not see this as an issue. But the question is, was she even thinking of marriage?
I met Usman just once after college. It was thirty years later in 2017 when we were now both in our forties. He contacted me after managing to get my email address from Dawn, Pakistan’s largest and oldest English language daily, and a newspaper that I have been associated with as a columnist since 2005. Usman did not continue his education after college. In an ironic twist, which was classic Usman, he joined the Mohajir nationalist party, the MQM as a common worker. The ironic bit is that he was Punjabi, an ethnic group that was despised by Mohajir nationalists in Karachi as usurpers. So when we finally met decades later, I asked him what on earth was he doing in the MQM (in the 1990s).
“Boss, it was love story,” he smiled. Apparently, Usman was in love with a girl who was in our class at college. But I had no clue, and maybe neither did she. He never spoke about her. Or to her. The other thing I didn’t know was that the girl lived in the same area that he did, even though they were not neighbors. She was a Mohajir. Usman befriended two of her brothers by playing cricket with them on the streets. He pretended that he too was Mohajir, because being born and raised in Karachi, he was able to speak fluent Urdu, without a Punjabi accent. He told me that the brothers would often invite him to their house for tea after cricket and he became friendly with their parents. He told them his family had migrated from Ahmadabad in India in 1947 just as the girl’s family had done. He also became friendly with the girl. The girl knew him from college but didn’t know anything else about him other than that his name was Usman.
One day, he secretly handed her a note in which he declared that he had been in love with her since college. The next day he nervously went to meet her brothers, not knowing how the girl had reacted to the note. He was delighted when the response was a note from the girl in which she wrote that she liked him too. Though he had no job and was being supported by his father who owned a hardware store, Usman began to plot marriage with the girl. But, apart from the fact that he had lied to her family about his ethnicity, there was another slight problem: She was Shia. In Pakistan, inter-ethnic marriages are common. But inter-religious and inter-sectarian are not, even though they are not impossible.
He must have been in quite a fix. He could explain away his lie of being a Mohajir and probably be forgiven by the girl’s parents, but he was Sunni. The girl’s parents already knew that. Even Usman’s parents would never have agreed to such a union. The girl did not see this as an issue. But the question is, was she even thinking of marriage? This he could never get to know because by then he had agreed to join the MQM because the girl’s brothers had, and her father was a supporter of the party. Usman’s father, on the other hand, hated the MQM. He saw it as a party of wayward youth and scoundrels (ghunde) who wanted to eliminate all other ethnic groups in Karachi.
Just a year after joining MQM, Usman was arrested by the military in 1992 during an operation against ‘MQM militants’ in Sindh, especially in Karachi and Hyderabad. Usman was not a militant. The girl’s brothers were. They had become extremely violent and were charged by the police for committing violence against opponents and policemen. Usman was bailed out by his father and elder brother. The girl’s brothers remained in jail till 1996.
Usman, after getting out on bail in 1993, almost immediately visited the girl’s grief-stricken parents. But the moment the girl’s father saw him, he began to curse and abuse him, accusing him of ‘reporting’ his sons to the police and getting them arrested on ‘false charges.’ Usman was shocked. The father had been told (Usman didn’t say by who) that Usman was a Punjabi and an ‘agent of the Intelligence Bureau (IB),’ and that he was ordered to ‘infiltrate’ and spy on young supporters of MQM in the area.
But even before he could see his dream of spending his life with the woman that he loved shatter, the fear of being hunted down by MQM militants for allegedly being an undercover IB agent gripped him. On his elder brother’s advice, he packed his bags and left Karachi for his ancestral village in Punjab where his paternal and maternal grandparents still lived. He stayed in the village for a year and then moved to Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. There, with the help of his sister’s husband, he got a job as an insurance salesman. He remained in Lahore till 2000. He worked his way up and became a manager at the insurance company. In 2001, again with some assistance from his brother-in-law, he managed to land a job in a British-run insurance company in Bahrain.
When Usman met me in 2017, he was still working for the company and had married a Nepalese woman who he had met in Dubai. The couple had three children and all of them studied in a British school in Bahrain. Usman’s father had passed away but the mother was still alive. I asked him what happened to the girl and her brothers. He became sad. He said that both the brothers were killed (in a ‘police encounter’) in 1996 soon after they were bailed out by their father. The father died of shock and the mother lost her senses. The girl was taken in by one of her aunts and remained unmarried.
“I returned to Karachi in 2001 after eight years because I had to take a flight to Bahrain from here,” Usman told me (in Urdu). “My parents used to come to Lahore to visit me. They refused to let me return to Karachi because they were sure MQM people would kill me. I quietly returned to take my flight, but the evening before, I could not help but visit the house where the girl lived. I did all this secretly. The house looked deserted. It was falling apart. The paint, the bricks … and a beat-up car was parked outside. I recognized the car. 1990 model of Toyota Carola that the girl’s father had so proudly bought. But now its tiers were flat and it was rusting. I was told about the tragedies that had destroyed her family. I never saw the girl.”
Usman went quiet. So I changed the topic. I reminded him of the answer that he wrote in the Pakistan Studies exams. This made him laugh: “Boss, meri angrezi abhi bhi kamzor hai” (boss, my English is still weak). I told him he was actually quite right the manner in which he had he explained Pakistani culture. Switching to Punjabi, he replied: “Yara, kaira culture?” (What culture, friend?). Then continuing in Punjabi, he told me that his Iranian colleagues in Bahrain say that Pakistanis pretend to be like Arabs and his Arab workmates say Pakistanis are fake Persians. Switching to English, Usman said: “I tell them, what Arabi, what Irani? I am human and they should be too!” He laughed again.
Then he continued, but now in Urdu: “These Saudi and Irani bastards use our land and our people to fight their battles and then tell us we are fake this and fake that? Even my 5-year-old boy has more intelligence than them. I am human … what is this Shia, Sunni, Arab, and Persian …?”
“ … And you are a good human” I interjected. We shook hands and said our good byes. Usman still lives in Bahrain, and in a 2019 email he mentioned that he was planning to move to Australia. ‘For my children’s sake,’ he wrote. Then cheekily added, ‘Boss, they now speak English better than you.’
As a young man from a family that had strong rural roots in the Punjab, Usman seemed comfortable with this as well as with his urban upbringing in cosmopolitan Karachi. But was it really comfort? He never hid his family’s rural background nor his immediate ‘lower middle-class’ reality. By this I mean, he didn’t seem uncomfortable with both. However, he was clearly uncomfortable with what the state was insisting him to become. First a Muslim, then a Pakistani, then a Punjabi, then a person who resided in the capital city of Sindh. The first two were more important to the state, of course.
But he wanted to be able to speak and write fluently in English. He never could, but was now making sure that his children did. Did he have a complex of any sort? No, he did not. His whole demeanor was of a man who was comfortable with whatever he had, but somewhat perturbed by certain identity markers which he believed he was being forced to adopt. But why English, one might ask. My assumption is that he had developed an appreciation of diversity and plurality but just couldn’t find the language to express it. Couldn’t he have done this through Urdu or Punjabi? Apparently not. He was never into reading, but every now and then, he would bring a book to college, give it to me to read so I could then tell him what it was all about. In Urdu.
This had begun to irritate me a bit, so once when I asked him to read a book himself, he nonchalantly answered, “boss, kitab parne se mere sar mein dard ho jata hai” (reading books gives me a terrible headache). Indeed, Usman did occasionally suffer from migraines. Since I did too, I would empathize with him but tried to convince him that the headaches had nothing to do with reading books. But to no avail. He would give me books by/on Marx, Mao, Maududi and other known scholars, thinkers, leaders (all in English) and then wanted me to explain them to him over endless cups of tea and Gold Leaf cigarettes in the college canteen. He would attentively listen, but never ask any questions.
I called him ‘the great absorber.’ A ‘sponge.’ It showed in his worldview. He never called himself leftist, rightist, secular, religious or anything other than human. And I am trying my best not to romanticize this. Or how a person such as he could so seamlessly transcendent the impact of the ideological bombardments – nationalist, ethnic, religious – that most Pakistanis suffer on a daily basis through textbooks and the media, in places of worship and even in their own homes. The lack of having any consolidated ideology, other than his own idea of humanism, did not make him feel anchorless. His desire to see his children become what he couldn’t was all that mattered to him now.
But he was embarrassed by his frequent laments about his inability to become fluent in English. Yet, his reaction to this was not anti-English or ‘anti-colonial‘ tirades. Because he is still at it. And I won’t be surprised if he is now asking his children to teach him the language.
Note:This is an extract from NFP’s book The Reluctant Republic: Ethos and Mythos of Pakistan, published in 2021 by Vanguard Books