September 2, 2011

general-zia-ul-haq“Obey or Depart,” reads the headline of an article in Newsline about the job of Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

My whole generation faced this choice.

We are the Children of Zia. We are Pakistan’s “Gen X” – give or take five years.

And faced with that choice, a lot of us – the bulk of my “mates,” to borrow the Australian word – voted with our feet.

Which is not to take anything away from those that stayed and struggled to keep on keeping on and yet be as true to themselves as they could. It wasn’t easy for them. Some days I think they paid the higher price.

Other days, I think we did.

It hasn’t been easy. For people such as the State Bank governors and others that stayed and the even fewer that worked within the system, or stayed and heckled the system from the outside (Nadeem Farooq Paracha comes to mind), they did what they could, when they could. And they took the flak, the mental, social and professional hits. Often those hits were to their reputations and their sanity.

Not exactly from our generation, but in the first category, Husain Haqqani and Asma Jahangir come to mind. Ask any “aam” Pakistani about those two and you will hear what I mean. Or you might have those same reactions yourself and not need to ask. And, to use another example, NFP is in a category all on his own; both his struggles and his heckling have been very public. As a person of faith, I say God bless him. He did what the rest of us didn’t.

Looked at more personally, I have only two or three close friends from my graduating class that are still in Pakistan. One stayed, got an MBA, went into the finance industry and today heads up a bank in Central Asia. Another is in the army, trying to live the life of a conscientious, actively true-to-his-service-oath public servant that my father and a multitude of others of his generation led. But that’s it. One. (And maybe one or two other not-so-close contemporaries I could find out about.) All the rest of our fathers made sure we earned “professional” degrees and then found pastures where the grass was green, and not as hard to find in terms of availability, as well as morality.

But there are others. They are struggling on. And that’s the word. From where I sit, I see a struggle. And I salute them; whatever the choices they made. They are in there, mixing it up and doing what we didn’t do. And as my generation hits 40, and is hit with the introspection that comes with this phase of life (before we get back into the saddle and buy the mid-life-crisis vehicle – mine’s a sporty bicycle), I have also been thinking whether what we did was the moral choice.

Yes, we did well. I have friends, seniors and juniors from my engineering university that are now worth tens of millions of dollars personally – sikka ra’ijul waqth. And yes a lot of them give to charity. Boy do they give in charity! They support scholarships, they help build schools, they fund healthcare for the less privileged. Sometimes they even get organized enough to set up alumni organizations and do all of the above en masse.

And we feel very moral and clean. When Newsline asked me to write a “Speaker’s Corner” in 1994 (the one place for non-journalists to opine in those pre-blog days), I related very haughtily how, when asked if I wasn’t just “deserting” (“Tum bhi bhag rahay ho?“), I retorted with a list of activist engagements I had had till then and the expectation that I would continue from afar – and truth be told, I have as best I could.

Others have made other contributions to nation and society. I am thinking, for example, of Musharraf Ali Farooqui, who has spent a number of years as a starving artist in that Great Desi City of The North, Toronto, and has emerged as a major contributor to culture in our generation.

But I do wonder, how can I sit with my iced tea on a beach in Hawaii (we’re still middle class-bred Pakistanis, y’know?) and judge, for example, Buland Akhtar Rana for holding passports from two different countries? Do I not remember when, in our desperation to stay in North America, almost every one of my peers that lived in the US applied for “Landed Immigrant Status” in Canada while not really, well, landing there for long?