On Saturday, Pakistanis will vote in historic general elections -- the first transition from one elected government to another in the country's tumultous history. For this and several other reasons, Mosharraf Zaidi argues in Foreign Policy that Pakistan is heading into this weekend's polls better off than you might think, despite the spate of violence that has preceded it. But Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria might beg to differ.
On Friday, she penned a blistering op-ed for Dawn, Pakistan's leading
English-language daily, on the state of the country. The column, entitled "The
great expectations of historic elections," invokes Miss
Havisham. For those of you who weren't paying attention in high school English class, she is
the withering old maid in Charles Dickens's Great
Expectations -- as Zakaria puts it, "a woman frozen in time."
Abandoned by her fiancé on the eve of
her wedding, Miss Havisham never quite recovers and, years later, still
wears her tattered wedding dress. As Zakaria sees it, she is a lot like Pakistan:
Like old Miss
Havisham who sat at her dressing table, refusing to let time enter, refusing to
change out of her wedding dress and refusing to see the horror of her
situation; Pakistanis weep for an injured cricketer and a dead white tiger and
forget the ordinary tragedies that surround them....
In the song singing, change
chanting moment, there is no room to talk about the pile of trash outside the
mosque, the outstanding IMF loans, the wedding dress worn for two decades, the
groom that never came, the frauds of elections past and the tragedies of dead
leaders. In Dickens's novel, Miss Havisham never really changes. Frayed and
yellowed, her nuptial garment catches fire and she and it are burned to death,
frozen still in their denials and beyond rescue by any hero.
It might seem odd for a Pakistani author
to employ Dickens in making sense of the challenges facing her country, but highlighting Pakistan's Dickensian side actually seems to be something of a trend. Here are just a few examples of how
the British titan of Victorian-era social
realism has been trotted out in the Pakistani op-eds of news cycles
Yousuf Nasim, in a scathing 2012
op-ed about Pakistan's judicial system, begins with an epigraph from Bleak House, Dickens's novel ridiculing England's
arcane legal system by chronicling a never-ending court case, Jarndyce v.
"The little plaintiff or defendant who was
promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has
grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other
world." - Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
Nasim goes on to write:
I have no hesitancy
in asserting that there are numerous cases currently pending in Karachi, which
would put to shame Dickens' dystopian portrayal in Bleak
House. Yet there persists a myopia which prevents legal
practitioners from seeing what is plain before their eyes: that the system is
broken. There is, effectively, no
access to justice for the vast majority of society. Public confidence in the
legal system as a means of resolving disputes is plummeting, and unless drastic
measures are taken to arrest this decline, the outcome for our society and our
polity will be alarming.
A Tale of Two Cities
In March, Dickens's masterpiece on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, made an appearance in an
op-ed blasting wealth inequality and patron-client relations in Pakistan. Titled, "A Tale of Two Cities," the article, written by columnist Aasin Sajjad Akhtar, states:
This lack of concern, as I have suggested, is
explained by the fact that those with power and influence actually have nothing
to gain from redressing the prevailing state of affairs.
Meanwhile, those who are taught not to ask
questions, to dutifully obey their superiors and then accept it all as divine
will continue to be an easy prey for the reactionary ideologues that thrive on
having a captive public to do their bidding.
If there is to be a happy ending in this tale of
two cities, we need first and foremost to empathise with the voiceless masses
that keep this country running in spite of, rather than because of, their self-absorbed,
slothful and subjugating masters.
In another Pakistani
English-language daily, The News,
Jamil Nasir, an economist based in Lahore, refers to the novel Hard Times in a column
about income inequality in Pakistan:
When a society
undergoes a metamorphosis from an agrarian to an industrial economy, there are
both losers and gainers. The industrialists and the middle class gains, while
in a world of ‘mechanisation and desperation', the labourers work only for
subsistence wages due to obvious reasons. They live in pitiable conditions as
depicted vividly by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Once industrialisation
becomes the predominant mode of economy, pressure mounts on the government for
redistribution due to heightened awareness of rights - and consequently
Any thoughts on why Dickens keeps cropping up in Pakistani political commentary? Leave them in the comments. And even if you can't turn to Dickens for the answers to all of Pakistan's troubles, at least now you know where to turn if you want to brush up on your British lit.
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