Generation Mass Hysteria

Published in The Express Tribune

Ever hear about the meowing nuns? If a book from 1844 is to be believed, a nun in a French convent started meowing like, well, a cat. It wasn’t long before the other nuns began joining in. Soon enough, all the nuns were meowing in this choir from hell.

This being the Middle Ages, and cats considered close to the Devil, panic hit. The army (who else) was brought in to ‘save the sanctity’ of the convent. This they did — with rods and whips — and the nuns swore to meow no more.

When it comes to diagnosing mass hysteria in 2014, science beats Satan. But where we live, Satan is winning. Wave after wave after wave of bombs and death, this is terror on steroids.

But it seems, at long last, like this might be it. The end of the line, fight or flight, if one excuses three clichés a paragraph. Because it was always bad…it was just never like this.

Policemen and polio workers in KarachiTemple guards in Peshawar. A playwright in Lahore. All in the same week.

Everyone wants to save the country; no one wants to own the rescue.

For a nation of 190 million, governance means six guys from Lahore cutting ribbons in Islamabad. The only opposition is cancelling polio drives in K.-P. The Only National Party is putting up a song-and-dance show in Sindh: ageless civilization marketed via Superman logo (inked by a Cleveland comic book artist in 1938).

Might Maulana Fazl save the day? As of January 25, he’s still blaming The Jews. The K.-P. government just pretends to blame them, eye-rolls Fazl.

The lunatics are at the gate, but the nuns are in parliament, making ungodly noises about anything except the cancer staring it in the face. As with the French convent, the army itches to shut them up and fight it out, or so we’re told.

Yes, hysteria abounds.

But between talking and bombing, there’s a few other kinks to be worked out — like how sectarian outfits are setting up multinationals in Southern Punjab, not North Waziristan.

Then the even littler things: the fact that Karachi and Quetta and Peshawar are burning. That urban terror is fought with cops, not troops. That counter-terror doesn’t mean Rehman Malik buying bracelets from secret slush funds. Pick your poison.

All of it stopped making sense a long time ago. And since no one knows what’s going to happen next, it may be best to explore what all of this has turned us into already. How its affected a whole generation coming up, one that never saw a Pakistan before war.

Is this war? Yes.

Is it civil war? Yes.

Have we ever seen anything like this before? No.

Our novelists used to write about eccentric Parsi families, not ex-pats grappling with 9/11.

Kids still say they want to grow up to be pilots and doctors and star batsmen; by their mid-20s, they’re émigrés. Or security analysts…that’s the next big thing.

Even Pak Studies has no answers to give Generation Y. For Generation X, the Bad Guy was Indira in India, the commies in Kabul, Senator Pressler and his stupid aid-cutting amendments. It was never us, or at least, never of us.

The Good Guys stood out even starker. There were the Nishan-i-Haiders, not Major General Bilal Omer Shaheed, who fought the men bent on suicide-bombing his mosque with his bare hands. There was M.M. Alam, the war hero downing attacker planes, not Muhammad Khalil, who saved the Sri Lankan cricket team while his bus was riddled with 25 bullet holes.

But rather than accept this new, awful world — a new cast with new good guys and new bad guys and a far darker storyline — it seems better to pretend none of this is happening at all, to discuss Misbah instead.

In his book Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen tries to convey a sense of the ’70s, when it seemed all Britain was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Such was the commonness of chaos, Tony Benn’s 1973 diary entry reads, “Three more IRA bombs in London. I tidied the office and wrapped Christmas gifts.”

Sounds familiar? If we’re to overcome the times we live in, it may be time to embrace them. And time, again, will take care of the rest.

A beautiful passage on Partition by Feisal Naqvi reads,

Traumas diminish with every generation. My father was told by his father to shoot the women and children first if the walls of their house were breached, an episode which he has obviously never forgotten. I was told that story by my father and while I am unlikely to forget it, it is also normally not something I think about. My son, too, has heard the story but what happened to his Dada six decades ago belongs in some distant prehistory when dinosaurs also roamed the earth. They say time heals all wounds. Let’s see what it does in the case of Partition.

Let’s see, in the same spirit, what it does to Pakistan’s war with itself today. There will never come a time when we tell the next generation about a 15-year-old schoolboy from Hangu, without feeling a pang of pain. But we can do everything to make sure they tell their kids no such story firsthand. As Aitzaz Hasan proved so well, Pakistan’s too beautiful not to fight for.