Mom!! When was my thinking nourished?

Students in our society are never given freedom to think and decide. 

This article was first published in Dawn 21st September, 2011

The transformed private sphere

EVERY Pakistani child hailing from a family of modest but respectable means knows that he or she must get serious about a career around the age of 11 or 12.

As these children prepare for secondary school, important decisions have to be made regarding whether they wish to be an engineer or a doctor, aim for an MBA or a degree in computer science.
At the threshold of youth, the practical must cast aside their indulgent affection for literature or art and develop an aptitude for mathematics. Memorisation must begin as they go about building the arsenal of pragmatism that will (if all goes well) enable another generation to carve out a middle-class existence.

So begins our initiation into the cold, steely world of doing the needful, a motif that is repeated with recurring regularity in life.In 10 years, a similar selection must be made of a prospective wife or husband; a similarly careful calculation based on income potential, family support and compatibility with the rest of the household must be tabulated to ensure the desired outcome. A few years following marriage, children must appear to ensure the continuation of this cycle into the next generation. The value of marital arrangements and career choices must be based on the sensible and rational rather than the tumultuous and sensational. In the recipe book of a Pakistani middle-class existence there is little room for the vagaries of feeling.

But if the realm of the private is the arena of stoicism and compromise, where brides are selected based on their ability to tolerate a grumpy mother-in-law and careers pursued on the basis of an uncle’s business contacts, no such calculations permeate the public realm.
Out in the world, a middle manager and father of four, husband of the second cousin and most favoured by his father, abandons all restraint. Again and again, he invites the young secretary into his office for cup after cup of tea steeped in leering and innuendo.

A carload of students, all studious sorts, gang up to beat a fruit vendor for brushing their car with his cart. A school teacher inexplicably fails a student because she doesn’t like his mother and a group of girls organises a school-wide boycott of a classmate who refused to pitch in for a farewell present for their favourite teacher.

This random selection of unconnected incidents is culled from the everyday sagas of Pakistani life taking place in offices and streets beyond the invisibility of the home and family.Their visible arithmetic of easy opportunism, unchecked emotion and aversion to reason reveal a public realm where restraint and logic are absent. There are no connections between them, no explanation as to why a woman feels secret gratification at dumping a bag of trash on her neighbour’s doorstep, or a teacher experiences vengeful glee at punishing a child for his mother’s pretensions.

There is no larger pattern, no bigger picture, no scheme of construction except their persistence, daily, weekly and visibly, and some feeble attempts to attach them to other familiar problems — sexual harassment, ignorance, illiteracy, a cornucopia of the usual suspects.
The staple of familiar ills undoubtedly contributes to random acts of public unkindness. For who can absolve those continuing curses from their part in tragedies? And yet, the dynamics between private compromises and public liberties in contemporary Pakistani society suggests a more drastic social subversion.

In most cultures, the private world of hearth, home and family is the arena of the emotional and the felt, where the intangibles of love can be negotiated and some respite provided against the demands of the public realm. In a Pakistan stuck between a patchy and haphazard modernisation this division seems to have become deeply distorted.

Duty and obligation were always the lubrication of vast families, but under the pressure of urbanisation and migration, their old offerings of security and reassurance remain no more. So even while marriages may still be arranged in keeping with old equations of family ties, the appendages of upward mobility or income potential are also piled on top.

If the choice of profession used to be based on the ability of a father or brother to initiate a novice into a profession, it now evolves from the consciousness of other paths foregone and fulfilment sacrificed.
If grandchildren are produced to please sets of eager grandparents, those same beaming elders are no longer available to babysit their children’s progeny, leaving an incomplete cycle of reciprocity and much unarticulated resentment and seething tensions that are directed out of the home and into the public.

The transformed private sphere with its half-hearted dalliance with modernity has preserved old limitations and expectations and also added new burdens and constructions. The result is a dysfunctional system — a system that is no longer able to provide emotional sustenance or familial security.

The new Pakistani private sphere is thus the worst of both worlds. It combines the modern individualist baggage of having to fend for oneself and find one’s own job with holding on to the traditional collectivist burdens of keeping extended families appeased, following age-old trajectories of education, marriage and child rearing — but with none of the insurance provided by a large coddling clan.
The expectations of old are in this manner combined with the challenges of the new, and digested whole simply to retain the perception that change has been avoided and tradition upheld — that no new freedoms are needed to allay the burdens of newfound pressures.When a space of refuge becomes a wasteland of obligation and duty, it is perhaps unsurprising that its unattended cares manifest themselves in acts of random unkindness.Orphaned emotions, homeless repositories of feeling that cannot be accommodated where they belong, emerge instead in barbs and jibes; unthinking acts of victimisation small and large bear witness to the silent transformation of the private sphere.


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