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By Hasan Altaf          The first time I heard the word “Gandhara” was when I was maybe eight or ten, and, driving from Islamabad to Peshawar with my father, brother, and grandparents, stopped in a town I’d never heard of to visit a museum that was equally unfamiliar. The little town was Taxila, and the museum was the Taxila Museum. I’m sure at the time someone, most likely my father, explained to me the significance, the historic and artistic value, of the objects presented there, but it seems I must have glazed over and ignored it. To the eight- or ten-year-old I was, none of the statues and relics, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, were particularly memorable. We left Taxila and continued our drive, leaving the museum behind, and until recently, I never thought about them again. Many of us who grow up outside Pakistan have Pakistan always in the back of our minds, but that Pakistan is an imagined one that is different for each of us, and mine, at least, did not encompass Gandhara.
By Anjum Altaf Is there an alternative to taking sides on the Anna Hazare controversy? Could one step back and gainfully employ an historical and institutional perspective to understand it better? Would it help to argue that the mismatch in speeds at which economic and political institutions have rooted themselves in Indian society is contributing to a disorienting disconnect between modern ends and pre-modern means? The supply and demand of goods and services is mediated through the economic market and Indians have been dragged into it whether they liked it or not; they had no choice. The theory of perfect and imperfect economic markets is well known. In brief, markets can exhibit friction, they can fail, and they can exclude large segments of the population without effective demand. In all such cases, the state has to step in thereby creating the interface between economics and politics.
By Hasan Altaf There is, I imagine, no one on earth whose understanding of the past is completely without bias, but this problem must be particularly acute when it comes to those who, once upon a time, were responsible for creating that past: those who could change, in ways however small, the course of events, who could, or imagined they could, control whatever forces were in play, who could and did shape history. Maybe it would be best to take their versions of events with not just a grain of salt but also a pinch of pity, because for them, the stakes of this game must be higher than they are for the rest of us. They made the world we have today; all we have to do is live in it.
By Anjum Altaf I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it. Tinderbox Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks:
By Dipankar Gupta If bribe giving is legalized will that ground the bribe taker for good? This suggestion was made recently by Kaushik Basu, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisor. Sadly, such low cost, budget one-liners invariably fail to fly. Eager to clean up the corporate sector, Narayana Murthy, of Infosys, initially endorsed this suggestion, but later found faults with it. The bribe giver could rat on the bribe taker, but it would not be worth the halo. Word would go around and that person would be singled out forever in the real world of give and take. Under current conditions, but for a handful of companies in IT, telecom and financial services, it is hard for business to play clean and be above board.
By Anjum Altaf Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately. As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu?
By Anjum Altaf A native Urdu speaker took a class in Portuguese and earned the following evaluation: “You were among the best students in the class but you speak like a robot.” Was it the student or was it Urdu? It is an intriguing thread to follow. The ensuing speculations, by one with no training in linguistics, are recorded in the hope that something of interest about the language might fall out as a result. There is little doubt that the delivery of what may be termed King’s Urdu (of which, more later) is flat in terms of stresses, inflections and intonations of speech. If tonal languages like Chinese, which rely on variations in pitch to convey meaning, are at one end of the spectrum, then Urdu, which seemingly does away with tonality altogether, must certainly be at the other.
By Anjum Altaf An intense discussion on foreign aid to Pakistan took place amongst a small group of individuals following the exchange on the subject between the Center for Global Development and The South Asian Idea (links to all the documents can be found at the end of this article). Here I wish to record the ideas presented in the discussion in order to refer to them at a later date. The almost universal acceptance of the extremely poor utilization of aid in Pakistan and its negative impacts on governance leave little need to repeat the evidence. This acceptance marks the starting point for the discussion under review and yields the two main topics that form the core of the debate: How can the utilization of aid be improved and how can the negative impacts of aid on governance be reversed?
By Anjum Altaf There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context. The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history.