Last Sunday, an autumn smoggy day, I travelled to a village near Sargodha, the city in Punjab where I spent the first sixteen years of my life. Accompanied by my sister and a first cousin, the day trip was for the dua for an uncle, one of my late mother’s brothers-in-law, who had passed a few days ago.
As we moved off the motorway down the narrow road leading to the destination, shaded by lush green trees punctuated with unripe oranges, my mind wandered to the endless summers and shadowy winters of my childhood in my mother’s village, Kolo Tarar. Most roads to villages and most villages themselves in central Punjab have a uniformity of time standing still. Not much changes while time continues its relentless march half-listening to its rhythmic monotone.
Not much changes in Punjab’s sparsely populated rural areas with their simple brick and mud houses, mostly not more than simple structures of two rooms and a courtyard; motorbikes and goats moving side by side on roads well-travelled going nowhere; men and women dressed in nondescript clothes that remain impervious to latest fashions as years pass them by without glancing backwards; noisy children, kohl lining their wide eyes, their mouths stretching in big lazy smiles; old people shuffling about noiselessly, histories of their lives and their village deeply lined on their time-beaten faces; stray dogs lolling in their sense of belonging to a place where humans don’t hate animals without collars, without fancy breed tags.
Villagers all over Pakistan, despite their varying geographical and seasonal and other material characteristics have a bleak similarity. That while lives of their landed gentry remain entrenched in various outward signs of prosperity and all-is-well robustness, the lives of the majority of the villagers remain unaltered. Despite their exposure to advancements in big cities through various means including the good old television and now internet in some places, their lives continue in ellipses.
And that is something that I always note during my increasingly infrequent trips to my own village or that of one of my many relatives. The unaltering reality of life for most of my compatriots. They don’t just exist in villages though. They are all over Pakistan.
In towns, small, congested, teeming with humans and vehicles so densely clustered it is hard to say where heartbeats end and machines hum. In cities, badly planned and haphazardly expanded, where so many people live in such dismal conditions it is a miracle they continue to carry on with the un-viewed theatre of their lives for as long as they do.
In more than seven decades of the existence of my beautiful country with its immense resources, its gifted and smart people, its multi-hued seasons, its lofty mountains, its historic rivers, its magnificent Sufis, its splendid writers and poets, its hardworking aam aadmi, its smart businessmen, its sturdy crop-growers, its brave soldiers, its valiant revolutionaries, its strong elderly, its remarkable young, there is the unaltered reality that is so dark it is almost invisible in its mundaneness: life of millions of those who struggle in a manner that strips life of every good thing attached to its name.
On November 15, 2020, as three of Pakistan’s biggest and most important political parties–the first time in power in the centre PTI, and the old and experienced PML-N and PPP–fight the election in Gilgit-Baltistan, promising to change the fate and the life choices of the inhabitants of the stunning region, I shake my head, a quiet sense of unease shadowing my almost irritating optimism that things will get better. All of them are asking the aam aadmi, the regular Pakistani, to vote for them.
As the Imran Khan-led PTI government struggles to fulfil its big promises and bigger rhetoric, I hear the promises of the leaders of the two old and experienced parties. Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the charismatic new leaders of their parties–Maryam has taken over her father’s party and Bilawal that of his mother’s –speak more than Imran Khan, and they promise much more too. There is just one problem. The system that they say has been made a mess of by Khan and that they now promise to change is the creation of the decades of the ideology, governance and government of their own parties, and that of General Pervez Musharraf.
Much is being said about the supremacy of democracy, sanctity of vote, transparency of the electoral system, demarcation of institutional domains, imperatives of non-interference of establishment in civilian matters. Much is being said about Khan’s government’s “ineptness”, its “inability” to make the life of the common man better, its failure to control inflation, its fatal blow to the economic growth of PML-N’s government of 2013-2018, its attacks on the huge strides made in the time of PPP in 2008-2013. Much is being said about the motorways and the steady dollar rate and the few hospitals and universities, some mega projects, some costly trains and buses. Much is being said about the “glorious” Pakistan that Khan inherited and “singlehandedly destroyed” in two years and three months.
Imran Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018.
No one talks about the reality of Pakistan circa 2008-2018. A decade. Ten years. The reality of the invisible Pakistani.
In those ten years, millions of dreams were dashed. Countless hearts broken, some so tiny they weren’t even aware of the shattering of their hearts. Too many lives in so much pain it didn’t matter how they ended. The aam aadmi, the regular Pakistani, whose vote is the difference between being in power and not being in power is the invisible being that is only seen in the time of an election. And forgotten quicker than a 5am dream.
In those ten years, 2008-2018…
In 2013, 24.3 percent of Pakistanis were living under the official poverty line.
In 2018 the number was 24 percent.
In 2013, more than 40 percent of Pakistanis did not have access to clean drinking water.
In 2018, 21 million Pakistanis did not have access to clean drinking water.
In 2013, Pakistan had 25 million out-of-school children.
In 2018, Pakistan had 22.8 million out-of-school children.
In 2013, 50 million people did not have access to grid electricity.
In 2018, the number was the same: 50 million
In 2013, 869 women were killed in the name of “honour.”
In 2018, 1,000 women were killed.
In 2013, maternal mortality rate was 161/100,000.
In 2018, it was 140/100,000.
A report in 2018 stated: 40 percent of the under-five children in Pakistan have stunted growth.
Where Pakistan stands after five years of Imran Khan’s government in 2023, time will be the best judge. The voter will decide. In the meantime: who is accountable for the hell of 2008-2018? Who is responsible for the misery of millions? The pain of the invisible Pakistani. The powerful powerless voter. Who is answerable? For the uneducated children. The gaunt humans dying of water-related diseases. The broken souls wailing in dark slums. The killed women with shards of dreams in their half-closed eyes. The unformed bodies of children with old people’s faces. The emaciated mothers in dimly lit rooms with their newborn babies crying in their dead arms.