Language/Meaning / 14.05.2020

In his new book, Anjum Altaf revisits the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz The French essayist, poet and philosopher Paul Valéry once said of poems, that they are never finished, merely abandoned. If it were possible, a poet could spend an entire lifetime perfecting a poem. To some degree, poems do not provide the closure that prose can afford. Instead, they complicate the worlds that we inhabit to mirror our rich and complex lived realities. Anjum Altaf undertakes a gargantuan task in Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz by revisiting the work of one of the most celebrated revolutionary poets of South Asia. At the outset, he lays out the purpose of his work – his poems aren’t translations, instead, they are “transgressions” as the title quips – musings on Faiz’s verse, poems “borrowed and reworked as a tribute to a major poet of our times”....

Analysis / 05.05.2020

Whoever is advising the leadership on the Coronavirus epidemic is doing a poor job. The Prime Minister is reported as saying that the lockdown has been imposed by the uncaring “elites” because they feared the poor would carry the infection with them into the posh areas. However, he is said to have added that the outbreak has shown the disease does not discriminate; it affects everyone whether rich or poor implying that the “elites” are not just uncaring, they are also stupid.  Personally, one can agree that the “elites” (whoever they are) are uncaring and indifferent whenever anything outside their personal interests is involved. One can also agree that the lockdown, in the form it was implemented, was a bad decision; it was premature, driven by panic, and not sensitive to the specificities of local conditions. In particular, to the fact that, thanks to the “elites,” this...

Analysis / 02.05.2020

Pakistan, like many other countries, is flying dark in this Coronavirus pandemic. Very little is known for certain and what little is becoming known is not being factored into the decision-making. As a result, policies are are almost entirely reactive, based largely on fear, the happenings of the previous day, the push and pull of various influential lobbies. Given this muddle, the most blunt and expensive set of measures built around a country-wide lockdown have been imposed in the country in a knee-jerk mimicry of actions taken in countries like Italy where the virus spread with great rapidity.  There was not much contextual analysis of how feasible these set of measures might be in a country like Pakistan. To start with, a complete lockdown is an impossibility, a truth that can be confirmed by just venturing out to any market on any particular day. This is inevitable...

Analysis / 29.04.2020

A number of congratulatory articles have lauded the containment of the Covid epidemic in Pakistan based on the relatively smaller number of deaths to date (222) compared to those in the USA (47,973) and Italy (25,085). The authors have also offered a number of explanations for this difference ranging from outstanding management to contextual variations.  I would love these people to be right but would urge caution. The conclusion could be premature owing to a lack appreciation of the nature of exponential growth. Take a look at the number of Covid-related deaths in Pakistan. The first two were reported on March 18. Since then, the cumulative numbers at weekly intervals up to April 21 are as follows: 7, 26, 55, 96, 192. Ignoring the initial turbulence, the number of deaths are doubling roughly every seven days. The lockdown along with its associated measures went into effect on...

Leadership / 16.04.2020

  How one wishes there was a team competent modellers in Pakistan who could present the worst-case (do-nothing) scenario, the most likely response given the existing state of affairs, and the best-case outcome if appropriate measures were put in place.  I say this after the model run by London’s Imperial College became decisive in drastically changing public policy in the UK. Unfortunately, it is not the case, one to which we are addicted, that a foreign model can be imported and run here to determine our choice of public policies. Too many parameters are different and would need to be normalized to our circumstances. Take the most obvious one first. The degree of compliance with directives is much lower than in the UK -- I walked past a padlocked park where the ground staff were huddled together under one canopy sharing a cigarette. Citizens don’t trust the government...

Leadership / 11.04.2020

Every single person is at risk -- Prince Charles and Boris Johnson have tested positive -- which makes this a crisis unprecedented in living memory and a supreme test of leadership. No one will get everything right but no one can afford to get everything wrong. Where leaders come out on the spectrum will determine how many live or die in each country. And the number of days it takes to arrive at the right decisions will determine the quantum of avoidable deaths. Regimes can be characterised by a set of attributes -- integrity, transparency, competence, legitimacy, authority. An ideal regime would possess all -- it would be honest, transparent and competent, trusted by citizens and with the authority to get things done. In the real world we have to make do with some mix that allows countries to muddle through for better or worse in...

South Asia / 30.03.2020

Many South Asian men have been unable to come to terms with this slogan which is too bad for them. They are fighting a rearguard action because the arc of history has been bending towards equality. In the West, slaves have gained equality as have Jews while people of colour and women have made significant gains. In South Asia, Dalits continue to advance their rights. Contrary cases of infringement of minority rights invite universal condemnation. So, it is only a matter of time before women effectively obtain the rights that are guaranteed to them under most constitutions. Objections against the slogan raise interesting issues. Consider the men who protest their support for women but suggest more appropriate slogans. The irony in doing so is lost on them. This is precisely the suffocating embrace of patriarchy the women are contesting. By subjecting the modalities of struggle to...

Miscellaneous / 18.03.2020

  William Dalrymple is one of the foremost historians of colonial India, known for works such as White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Return of a King.  His latest work -- The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company (Bloomsbury 2019) -- continues in the tradition of popular history, telling the story of the East India Company’s conquest of India following  Lord Clive’s 1757 victory over Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. The book ends with the Company’s conquest of Delhi in 1803 and the defeat of the Marathas -- the last Indian power capable of resisting the British. The Company would rule India until the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when governance was transferred directly to the British Crown.  While we commonly speak of the “British conquest of India,” Dalrymple notes that it was not the British...

Language/Meaning / 23.02.2020

The Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been translated by many writers including Khalid Hasan, Victor Kiernan, Shiv Kumar and Daud Kamal, among others. The small volume under review, while coming under the rubric of translation, is much more than literal translation of the original. Each poem is identified by its original Urdu title, making it easier to find the poem in Faiz’s published poetic works. In addition the author, in the footnotes, gives the names of others who have translated the particular poem and mentions the trigger that prompted him to translate the poem. Title: Transgressions Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz Author: Anjum Altaf Pages: 80 pp Published by: LG Publishers Distributors, Delhi Price: Rs. 660.25 Anjum Altaf is a well-known Pakistani academic. He has served as Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and...