Notes from Punjab: People in search of a panacea for their problems – Journal

It is a sanctuary, darbar or mazar in the local language. The crowd is everywhere, men and women together and yet separated. They seem almost lost; some mumbling to themselves, others mumbling quietly.

Men usually pray to the dead saint to grant them the blessing; expanding business, large and small, jobs, preferably government ones, curing a family member whose family cannot afford medical treatment or the spectacle of their rivals (Shareek) biting the dust. And women? They want the death of their sons or their mothers-in-law, the violence of husbands tempered by compassion and the increase of the family income by hook or by crook.

They rather feel convinced to believe that the saint has miraculous power because his hagiography transmitted orally from generation to generation tells that for example their beloved saint as a child sat astride a wall and ordered him to run. Down and behold, the wall began to move as if it were a horse. If the saint could turn a wall into a trotting horse, why can’t he grant them what they want, according to spiritual logic.

It would actually be much easier for him to grant his devotee his wish as he asks for much simpler things involving much less use of the miraculous power at his disposal. Interestingly, the paradox is lost on all. The faithful firmly believe that their patron saint in his life had absolutely nothing to do with the worldliness of society, material possessions or social status. He was far above worldly existence. He lived purely in the rarefied world of spirituality. But what do they want from him? A little more than mundane and material things! The very things we think he was never in love with. In other words, they want grossly material things from a spiritual factory.

“A rustic plants an acacia and waits for the Bajaur raisins / And spins the wool and seeks to put on the silk robe,” says Baba Farid, the sage and pioneer of the Punjabi literary tradition.

There is a crowd in a circle. In the middle is a man, usually from the north of the country, with some herbs spread out on a sheet and some small bottles filled with weird stuff. A large, showy map with mountains and monkeys serves as a backdrop that looks out of place. It looks like it’s some sort of element of a vaudeville or some weird road show. The person in charge knows how to build the crescendo thing despite the fact that he knows practically no language; it uses a mixture of Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto. However, he gets his message across in his Urdu pidgin. Anyway, what is needed is communication, not eloquence. His curious wares make it easier for him to communicate with the entire male crowd from the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpen proletariat and the working class. The showman talks about the role of sex in a man’s life and how it can make his life heaven or hell. Gradually, his expression becomes mixed with jokes and risky laughter. His bawdy jokes paired with a clever salesmanship keep audiences on their toes. He climaxes when he starts speaking eloquently about what he thinks can surely cure impotence and erectile dysfunction. The remedy is the storax, salajit in his language, collected from the tops of high mountains with effort, a godsend for men weighed down by a difficult feeling of embarrassment and uselessness. The crowd, at least some of them, who are in dire need of healing don’t realize they are being passed over. They may have never heard of sexologists or don’t trust them. Better to buy storax from a seller without asking questions than to be subjected to questions of a private nature by a sex therapist who modestly asks not to be answered.

Living with a sexual disorder is preferable to seeking a medical cure by having the patient open up in terms deemed morally unacceptable.

Large sections of the middle and upper classes have recently become vocal in articulating their political ideals in their living rooms and to some extent on the streets. The United States of America, India and Pakistan are good examples to study. These classes in these countries, despite their visible differences, are defined by certain common traits such as religious nationalism, supremacist tendencies, intolerance and above all intellectual illiteracy.

As for the Pakistani middle and upper classes, they have recently come onto the political scene after having been dormant for decades. Their vision, still blinded, has been shaped by a massive dose of state propaganda and a sanitized and controlled education. Subsequently, they feel imbued with abstract and self-interested ideological imperatives. Their rallying point is their vaunted contempt for corruption by politicians. And their rallying cry is; tear down the old guard at all costs. In their naivety, it never occurs to them that corruption, especially of a financial nature, is embedded in the power structures under which we live. Take any specimen and you will detect the corruption buried in its innards.

Dictatorship, democracy, theocracy, fascism and monarchy are all oiled by corruption. A regime supported by holier middle classes than you will be as corrupt as any other, if not more so. It is a structural problem that cannot be solved by a display of piety. Since they cannot create their New Jerusalem, they seek a savior. If they can’t find one, they will invent one. The irony is that large segments of these classes who claim to be waging a crusade against corruption are actually beneficiaries of corruption if not a product of it. Almost all middle-class government employees brazenly indulge in financial corruption, and their families happily live off it. The state pays them not to do things and the unfortunate citizens pay them – under the table – to do things they are otherwise required to do. Businessmen, merchants and middle-class merchants do not pay taxes. They live in expensive houses, ride in new vehicles without paying a penny of income tax and yet make noise. The airy, fairytale mantra of corruption-free politics offers no magic solution.

A pragmatic approach would be to control corruption and cap it at some tolerable level as a necessary evil in the current system. The search for an ideal solution would be a sweet song full of oohs and aahs vaguely predicting the coming of a political messiah.

The regime of the political messiah, in the words of Waris Shah, would be a “paper boat rowed by a monkey”. — [email protected]

Posted in Dawn, April 18, 2022

Brandon D. James