• Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019
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No word of suns and worlds

  • Published at 06:05 pm January 14th, 2015

The memory of that horrid act on that school in Peshawar, and the psychological trauma the tragedy has engendered in the national psyche of Pakistan will be raw and sensitive for some time.

For those who lost loved ones, the emotional pain will endure for many years. These thoughts give me pause as to the wisdom of writing about the attack with such delay; I do not want to exacerbate the anguish that the families who suffered such heartbreaking losses must still feel, nor will anything I write lend anything new to the narrative that must be developing.

However, such horrid events always bring to my mind the two legends that I have written about before, both of which are almost perfect explanatory literary metaphors for the tragedy of December 16, and for almost all of the similar tragedies of the past decades in Pakistan.

The first of these legends is, of course, the one of Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein, according to an ancient legend of probably German origin, created from used body parts a living being which, though monstrous in appearance, became human in its feelings.

The monster, driven by jealousy, then turned on his master and by destroying those the doctor loved, ultimately destroyed the doctor himself.

Though this legend had been around central Europe for several hundred years, it was first written up for modern readers by Mary Shelley in 1818, at the age of 18. Subsequent editions were supposedly “improved” by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who became Mary Shelley’s husband after the first edition was published.

In modern treatments of this legend, Frankenstein is often the name given to the monster. I know that, as a young boy, I thought the monster was called Frankenstein. But in Mary Shelley’s work, the monster is always identified without a human name – “the creature,” “the monster,” “the fiend,” and the like.

But whatever the monster is called, the moral of the story is the same – the unintended consequences of uncontrolled experimentation in human and social engineering can be disastrous, and the disaster usually falls far wider than on just the person doing the experiment.

Of course, the parallels with Pakistan over the past decade or more are obvious, so obvious that many will object that they are a gross oversimplification. And that is true, no legend that has come down from 400-500 years ago can capture the complexities of modern life.

But it seems to me that more than any other of the many tragedies that have shattered Pakistani life in these last decades, the Peshawar attack captures the essence of the Frankenstein legend.

The Taliban, clearly creatures created by the army in 1994 as a proxy to serve its interests in Afghanistan, attacked in 2014 a school run by the army, attended by many children of army personnel. Clearly the monster has come back to attack its creator, and has taken the lives of many innocents in that attack.

I would argue that almost all of the atrocities that have taken place in the past 10-15 years, against Ahmadis, Christians, Shias, Sufi shrines, and other sectarian targets could be seen in the same light – monsters attacking the state, through its most vulnerable citizen groups.

The militants that Pakistan created to serve as its proxies in the struggle for Kashmir at the beginning, and against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1990s, have developed their own agendas, not unrelated to the agendas they were given at creation.

But those agendas have evolved, as has the agenda of the state, and now differ from that of the Pakistan state and most Pakistani citizens. Frankenstein’s monster grew to desire companionship, and toward the end he asked the doctor to create a female monster so he would not be lonely, and perhaps worse, so he could propagate. Frankenstein balked at that, so the monster killed his girlfriend.

According to Wikipedia, Frankenstein’s monster referred to himself as “the Adam of your labours,” when talking to the doctor, and then in a later conversation as someone who “would have” been “your Adam,” but is instead “your fallen angel.”

This leads me to the second legend that I think of often in relation to Pakistan – the legend of Faust, and of the Faustian Bargain that is at the center of Pakistan’s woes today.

It is an easy segue because one of the most interesting characters in the Faust legend is the fallen angel, Mephistopheles, also known in some works as Satan, or a worker for Satan, and who in some religions is the devil who leads man astray with temptation.

Faustian Bargains are a staple of politics everywhere, but are taken to a new level in South Asian politics; individuals, parties, or groups who do not share the same ideology, who may not even like each other, join together for a common goal, usually getting elected.

Some would say that coalitions are the basis of democratic politics, and they have a strong argument. My view may be idiosyncratic; it is that a Faustian Bargain differs from the coalition politics that characterises all democracies in that it pairs two individuals or parties with diametrically opposing ideologies who join together purely for tactical, and often cynical, political reasons.

But some Faustian Bargains are indeed pernicious. I have long regarded the cynical relationship that the Pakistan Army has had with its militant proxies as a form of Faustian Bargain. Faust sold his soul for power on earth, but found in the end the bargain to cost too much in the lives of people he loved.

The army, like Faust, thought it could control the bargain, getting what it wanted without paying the full price. It should have been clear 15 years ago, but certainly is now, that the bargain is out of its control completely, and the price has become outrageous.

Every statement I have seen from the government and the military declaims a no-holds-barred revenge for the Peshawar attack, but I wonder if hanging every terrorist in jail really shows an understanding of the conundrum the country faces.

The Taliban attackers wore suicide belts; they wanted to die to inflict hurt on the army. Threatening death to people who want to die doesn’t seem like a real deterrent to me. What about a realistic strategy for slow but sure extirpation of all militants and militancy?

I leave the last word to Mephistopheles. In the prologue to Faust he says:

“You’ll get no word of suns and worlds from me. How men torment themselves is all I see.”