The funny thing is that we all know it. Sooner or later, we find it out. Yet, most of us choose to close our eyes to it. Perhaps because our immense desire to find a paradise right here cons us into believing otherwise. But, deep down, we know it. That life is rarely how we want it to be. That it’s never perfect. That the true heroes in life usually look more like Anthony Quinn than Cary Grant or Rock Hudson, and that the villains are not always all evil and ugly-faced, and that the good guys don’t always win and the bad guys don’t always lose, and that crime often pays, and that the luring and delicious hate often helps more than the compromise we call forgiveness, and that love is not always rosy and selfless, rather, more often than not, it is a window-dressed mundane need, and that happiness is often treacherous, sorrow often faithful, justice often elusive and oppression often pervasive, and that ‘troubles don’t come in neatly labelled packages from which we can take our pick but in wholesale where we have to take what we get’, and that no matter how hard we pray, no matter how hard we try, no matter how innocent or deserving we are, we can still get hurt, and that life, with its strange and wicked sense of humour, has this sinister tendency of not only playing the practical joke of shattering our dreams just when we are about to realise them but also of backing on us just when we need it most, and that there are no absolute guarantees, and that in the end it’s every man for his own self, and that, finally, each one of us is alone in his fight, for there are so many feelings and thoughts we just can’t share with anyone, and that in the fight, we often lose even when we win, for the winner and the loser both die in the end, and life does not afford perfect happiness to either.
And yet, we continue to dream. Perhaps because in all the madness of this wild jungle, it is our dreams that keep us sane. They do serve a very useful purpose indeed. They give us a reason to love and forgive and help and hope and try. They give us a reason to move on, a reason to live. And a reason to be human. Three cheers for them dreams! And for those who dream good dreams, and spend their lives for them even when they know that only a few or perhaps none will be realised, for in their vision, and in their effort, and in their sacrifice, the way is paved and life is adorned with grace and sublimity.
These daring and courageous entrepreneurs of dreams are however quite different and apart from the tenacious money-lenders and the reckless and avaricious speculators. For it is one thing to live for dreams, and quite another to live in them. For one who spends his life for his dreams is not the same as one who wastes his or others’ for them.
For instance, to many religion still means abandoning life or at least the best it has to offer. That is one extreme. To others, it means beautifying life: embellishing it with the realisation of the dream. That is the other extreme. And then there are the struck-up, pseudo-intellectuals to whom life and survival entail abandoning religion itself: abandoning the ultimate dream. To them survival, comfort, progress, power, pleasure and satisfaction constitute the goal. To them life is the end in itself. Few are those to whom struggle itself is the goal – the struggle for truth, the struggle for realisation of the dream –, to whom life is a means to an end and not the end in itself, to whom achievement and realisation are at best by-products of having made the effort. To them religion does not mean either abandonment or achievement. It means service. It means being able to say in the end ‘Lord, I tried’. At best: ‘Lord, I tried as much as I could – with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul’, and at least, ‘Lord, though barely, I did try’. It is these few who are the truly successful. For to them success is not in success but in the endeavour. They are the ones who dream the true dream and make the true effort. They are the ones to whom God is the way as well as the destination; for with just the beginning of their endeavour, the goal is achieved; for their endeavour is their goal. They are the ones who win even when they achieve nothing; they are the ones who reach the destination even when their journey ends abruptly with just a few steps. They are the princes among men, for they are the servants of the Emperor of the worlds.
Yet these dreamers of true dreams are ‘dream-busters’ too. For in dreaming the true dream, they shatter the false ones. In striving for truth, they expose falsehood. In building a new world, they risk destruction of the old one. In spreading love, they encounter hate. In making and demanding sacrifice, they invite animosity. And, as time has often shown, their first foes are usually they of their own household.
And though these champions of truth never seek to be persecuted, just as they never seek to persecute, persecuted they are. And when they are, they do not falter: for they know that the ultimate test is neither in dreaming the dream nor in making some effort but in enduring till the end. Love after all is not for the faint of heart. Love is for the courageous. For those who have courage: the courage to seek the truth, to accept it, to submit to it, to defy the world for it, and to defy their own and their own selves for it. And in that search, in that acceptance, in that submission, in that defiance, often a man’s first foes are they of his own household.
That has always been the story. For as long as man-made love laws have been defied. ‘The laws that lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much’. Yet, there have always been men and women who have done it. For the sake of love and for the sake of truth. Men and women who have broken the long-standing rules. And have paid the price. For love is as cruel as it is beautiful. Aye, it is as fond of gore as it is of roses, for true love often entails sacrifice of every other love.
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I am come not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s first foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
The story is still the same. And as relevant today as it was when it first began. And more ironic in nations as ours when it involves someone in the upper strata of society. Someone from amongst the elite and affluent. For instance take a boy who is brought up by the gods on Mt. Olympus, and like all his brothers and cousins is supposed to join the big ones in Islamabad after taking his CSS exam or going abroad for higher studies or joining a foreign bank or setting up an industry. But he does nothing of the sort. He refuses to be among them. He refuses to be like them. He defies the laws of Olympus. He chooses to forsake his divinity for the sake of his love. For the sake of truth. He chooses to be mortal. He chooses to serve rather than to achieve. And to forsake all love for true love. And for that abomination, he is reviled and ridiculed and finally ostracised.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:11&12)
But sadly such is the frailty and failing of man, and such is the fabric of our neophobic society, and such is the malady of luxury and comfort to which our elite are addicted, and such has been the character of the people in this land of Indus that more often than not the boy, after fighting the waves for a while, ultimately succumbs. If not to the malediction and apathy, then to the weariness that life itself brings to a man with dreams. The menacing weariness with which the strong and muscular yet incongruously delicate arms, long accustomed to the respite of a comfy bed in an air-conditioned room after battling a storm, are ill-suited to grapple; for many a brave man, who is afraid of nothing, is nevertheless afraid of being nothing. It is not the tall, beefy monsters that scare a man but the uncountable creepy and malicious vermin in fighting which a man sees his life frittering away in insignificant trivia: the insolent, stubborn clerks in a government office; the exalted, out-of-reach, equable and unconscionable civil servants; the Labyrinth of a tax office and its Minotaurs of personnel with their salivating greed and malevolent smiles; and then, papers, papers and papers. ‘Bring this document, bring that document. Come tomorrow. Come the day after tomorrow. Come next week. And then the next. And then next year and the year after. Until you are old and decrepit and senile. And then go to the pension office. And bring another certificate. A certificate showing that you were alive a month ago. No, a certificate that you were alive a week ago won’t do. A month ago. Keep smiling. Be Pakistani and buy Pakistani’ while the unscrupulous scum of wise guys do the honours of buying Pakistan. And then the electricity bills, gas bills, telephone bills, income-tax, property-tax, wealth-tax – and detailed scrutiny. If you don’t work very hard and get rich, congratulations: see the second schedule. If you work hard and earn more, pay more tax. If you don’t earn more, even if you work harder, then say hello to detailed scrutiny in which a thorough gentleman will sniff all over you to find if anything is wrong with your financial anatomy and will continue to do so until you can prove yourself innocent. And then medical expenses, children’s school fees, new shoes for Junior, new dress for papa’s girl – thank God, no new mama for kids --, gifts for relatives, social visits, car repairs, that accursed inflation, which has even made simple love unaffordable, and that ghastly unemployment, the very thought of which turns blood cold, and then standards, standards, standards. Family standards, social standards, professional standards. ‘He was not here on my wedding. He was not here on my father’s Chehlam. He didn’t congratulate me on my baby’s teeth’. ‘He’s nice but he’s rather gauche, He doesn’t have finesse. He doesn’t have aplomb. He doesn’t have class. He’s honest, but he doesn’t know how to dress. God, he wears Bata shoes. Oh Lord, oh Lord, the Walimah reception was at his house, not at a five-star hotel. Oh Lord, oh Lord. The ring he gave her was so cheap, and you know what? He drives a second hand car. Oh Lord, oh Lord.’ ‘Look Mr whatever your name is, we want perfection. Our organisation is a paragon of perfection. Anything less than that is a sin here. We want supermen, not men. A master’s degree from a reputed American university with five years of experience at a multinational ab inito and excellent English. Alternatively, avuncular blessings from high places – not necessarily in Heaven – or no scruples. Or both. If you haven’t got the stuff, well try Zakat Fund or SMEDA or find a cave’.
With twenty-four hours in a day, two hands, a broken heart and a shattered mind, a guy succumbs. Yep, No man can serve two Masters. A fortiori, more than two.
In the case of an Olympian girl, the story is somewhat of the same nature. If in the boy’s case it begins with ‘Tut, tut, the poor father. He worked so hard for his son’s future. And look, the stupid, no good bum does not want to become a CSP. He wants to study religion and be a teacher or a writer or a research scholar. What a scare! And the mother, the poor dear, what dreams she had! The unfortunate little thing. Oh what a pity! Oh what a pity! Her sisters have been so lucky really. Now look at that nephew of hers. He’s doing so well. So what if the father-in-law has an unsavoury past. He’s so rich and powerful. And he says he has repented of his sins after Hajj this year. And the boy too, he has become so good. No longer chases after girls. And the other nephew, you know, is in a foreign bank. Draws such a huge salary and has excellent perks. And personally dear, I don’t believe interest has been forbidden by the Qur’an. It’s usury instead. And this boy, he so nice. All his friends drink, but his mother says she’s sure he doesn’t. And what has this boy become? A fanatic, fundamentalist mullah. Oh Lord, oh Lord.’ ‘Now listen son, a piece of advice from your father. Don’t throw away your life for these dreams. Alright, it’s good to dream these dreams once a while. But honestly son, they are picnic stuff, not your daily dinner and lunch. And look at your mama. She’ll never be able to hold her head up high. What will she tell her friends? That her son is an insignificant nothing? She’ll die of a heart attack’, and so on, in the girl’s case, it is something like ‘Oh Lord, oh Lord, as if it wasn’t enough to have looks of that kind, and now this Hijab. Do you want to look like a MaI? Don’t you want to look like Kate Winslet or Michelle Pfeiffer? [Yeah, don’t you ever try looking like ‘Aishah or Khadijah or Fatimah (rta)]. No one will marry you. You’ll die an old maid. No one will take care of you when your Mama dies [despite the obvious intention of Mama not to die anytime in the near future]. Do you want to marry a mullah in the mosque with a large beard, a belly to match and a large repertoire of unintelligible, guttural, anathematising sounds?
The rest of the story is almost the same. Troubles, troubles, troubles. Standards, standards, standards. Lofty ideals and lofty dreams: All sacrificed at the altar of the god of petty things.
So what’s the moral of the story? And besides, who cares! Yeah, who cares? Life goes on. A new tranche of loans has been promised. The rich are still rich, the poor still poor. Everything is alright. Yes sir, everything is just alright.
Except that your sister was raped a few days ago. And your mother was sneered at by lecherous punks. And your old and helpless father just watched as the cold hearted hoodlums beat your brother to death in their cold hubris. And you did nothing. You were busy. Busy in petty things. In solving petty problems. In meeting petty standards. In worshipping the god of petty things. In Kashmir, in Kosovo, and in many other places, this did happen. And you did nothing. You were in your office, at a wedding party, in a meeting, at a Chehlam, in a hotel, in a seminar, in a restaurant, in your bed – sound asleep.
You did nothing.
Because you didn’t care.
Yes, you made many verbose speeches, attended many splendid seminars, staged many vociferous rallies, wrote scholarly dissertations and incendiary articles, grovelled before your ex-masters known as the international community, and won accolade from your cronies and patrons for your ceaseless lachrymal garrulity.
But you did nothing. Because you really didn’t care.
And so nothing happened. Nothing changed.
For change requires love or fear. And you had neither.
You had petty problems.
In your petty problems, you had forgotten that freedom, leadership and honour are not granted; they are won. With valour and sacrifice. Ever since the valour and sacrifice of your forbears won you your freedom, you had been becoming more and more a slave of luxury and comfort and false pride. Inebriated with ease of existence and bloated with your vain vanity, you lost the ability and the desire to achieve or lose and the will and the audacity to make the effort. You had become content with just ‘being’. And in that contentment and in that complacency, you, as an individual, imperilled your own salvation and, as a people, lost your glory and your place in the comity of nations.
But I should have forgiven you for all these failings and overlooked all your mistakes, had it not been for one unforgivable wrong you did to me.
You did not goad me on. You did not let me go.
Even though I was your last chance. Even though I was your future.
And though you wanted it to be bright and comfortable, you did not let it be glorious. Though you wanted to embellish it, you did not let it become beautiful. For to make it glorious, I needed to be dauntless, and, in fearing for me, you gave me fear of small things. To make it beautiful, I needed to love, and, in loving me with possessiveness, you did not let me love with abandon. In giving me everything, you took away everything. And this you had no right to do. For though it was you who brought me up amongst the gods on Olympus, I was not just your son. I was not just your daughter. I was amongst the sons and daughters of the Ummah. It is for that reason I damn and curse Olympus despite all the privileges it has afforded me. There is not doubt that I needed those privileges. And I still need them: the language, the manners, the facilities, the connections, the protection and the opportunities – all are blessings that I am grateful to God and to your for, for though God, who knows our weaknesses and frailties well, has made ‘effort’ our target, yet He, in His infinite and unfathomable mercy, has targeted our effort towards achievement. The lacuna, however, was the support, the moral encouragement, the pat on the back that I needed from you to live out the true meaning of my creed. Instead, I received opposition of all kinds. Yes, you passed on the dream to me – through your lip-service and token respect – which too are fast becoming extinct –, but, not only did you never really support me in actually living my life for realisation of the dream, you also did your best to muffle my call with your love and your consternation. If you had backed me, I might have moved mountains and vanquished all mine enemies. But you became my first foe. And with your success in stifling the flame in my bosom, or at least in containing it, you failed me.
Yet, I concede that the fault was not all yours. For in the final analysis, it is every man for himself. Each one us has to fight his own fight. And much to my dismay, I soon discovered that it was I who was my greatest foe.
‘First melted off hope of youth
Then fancy’s rainbow fast withdrew
And then experience told me truth
Ay, mortal bosoms never grew
‘T was grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere
But worst to trust my own mind
And find the same corruption there.’
I know it is my own frailty that has militated against my success more than anything else. If I had overcome my shortcomings, if I had been able to reign over my own self, nothing else would have mattered.
So I say this: I shall not blame anyone for my failures anymore. Not my forbears or my parents or my wife and children or my society or the state. I shall blame my own self. I shall accept the responsibility and shall try to make amends. In that endeavour, my children shall be my hope. I shall endeavour to pass on the dream to them, but I shall not pass on the petty fears. I shall try to enhance their understanding but shall not strive to shape it. I shall give them my love but shall not harness them with it.
And though I shall also try to arm them with all the magic of Olympus, I shall never impose its standards on them. I shall never force them to worship false gods.
I shall not wage a war of attrition against them for my personal gain or my false pride. I shall not let them succumb. And in doing all this, I hope I shall be able to rekindle the light in my own bosom and ensure me my salvation. And though I have most certainly been unable to be a good member of the Prophet’s Ummah, in doing all this, I hope at least my children, in their endeavours to earn God’s pleasure and in their struggles in His way, will find that those of their own household are not their first foes but their first stepping-stone.
The courage to be weak,
To see himself,
And to accept it
In front of everyone
The strength to change,
To move on
Against the tide – all alone
The strength to demolish
That which he had built
In many long years
With his own hands
In great pain and with great love
And the strength to dream
The strength to build again,
To demolish again
And to dream – yet again
The ambition to achieve
The ambition to make the effort
And the heart to see that
The courage to lose
And to see that
The courage to bear
And the power to take revenge
The gift of giving
Without letting anyone know
And of smiling -- alone
(Smiling Alone, Asif Iftikhar)