Published in two parts in Dateline Islamabad as an Op-Ed on 12 and 13 August 2011
AUGUST 7 was the 70th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, and I remember his Nobel winning poetry which begins thus:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Incidentally, I found myself reading something similar in the spirit of this poem — Kamran Rehmat’s eloquent piece Meeting Jens Stoltenberg on the simplicity of Norwegian PM’s life and the minimal security he keeps (Dateline Islamabad, July 28). His rendezvous led me to the memory of the news in 1986, when Olof Palme was murdered while walking back from a cinema at night in Sweden.
“Prime Ministers walk back home?” — that was my instant reaction, then.
There is a reason why Nordic countries are considered the safest places to live. (I wonder if the recent Norwegian episode and its root cause will change that, but that’s beside the point here)
Reading through, one instantly compares them to the traffic standstills or detours one has to face when our politicians are passing.
The instant pop-up in my Third World mindset is — “Come on, those are developed nations and we are merely ‘developing’.”
It takes me back to what I gleaned from the movie The Last Emperor, in 1990, where they showed when the king passed through the streets of ancient China, the common man was asked to turn away their gaze because their poor eyes weren’t worthy of seeing the emperor.
Perhaps, our politicians in power, too, are emperors in their own right, who live not in forts or castles by name — but their abodes are bedecked no less than castles and protected no less than fortresses. And the feet of the poor common man aren’t worthy
of treading the same street when the emperors pass through it.
But hold on.
I have two personal experiences from this very Third World where the high and mighty navigated with the same freedom and minimal security as the Norwegian or Swedish premiers.
One of them is none other than Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia. (You might say that Malaysia is not much of a developing country but the reason why they have surged ahead is because of this very man about whom I will narrate a personal
My family had been visiting Malaysia as tourists in 2002. This is during the last days of Ramadan and we chose to travel to Malaysia to see how their
Muslims celebrated Eid.
On the day of the festival, we went to the Central Mosque in Kuala Lumpur for prayers. Not sure of the timings, we reached the mosque way early and my husband and son sat in the very first row, right behind the imam.
Meanwhile, I settled with my daughter in the first row of women’s area — ensuring that our men folk were well in sight.
After an hour or so, when the mosque had been reasonably full — no mad rush, mind you — a few men walked up to the front rows and some others started to make way for them. My husband was asked to move a little to the side, which he did. But to his utter surprise, the man for whom his space was being vacated was none other than President Mahathir Mohammed.
Having seen that my husband gave space to him, Mahathir smiled at him. My husband stepped forward, shook hands with him and introduced himself as a Pakistani, who had come to see Eid festivities in Malaysia.
After the prayers, he again turned to my husband and invited him to visit Putrajaya (president’s residence) and partake the open feast which the president hosted each year for his compatriots.
Our joy had no bounds — we almost thought that we were invited to a personal lunch with the president.
After a few hours of strolling in the Eid bazaars in Bukit Bintang (street), listening to the beautiful melodies of Salamat Hariraya (Malaysian Eid greeting), we dressed in our best and headed for Putrajaya.
It was a huge congregation, with tents put up and thousands of Malaysians, of all ethnicities, in a picnic mood and enjoying the ethnic food the Malays serve
on Eid. (To continue)
Part 2 :
MY family and I arrived at the Putrajaya (president’s house) and were told by someone that this was the last time the open Eid feast, which enabled the commoners to meet the president, would be held as Mahathir Mohammed had announced to step down.
We saw what looked like a hopelessly long queue on one side of the tent, leading to a door. We were told this was for those who would like to meet the first couple and give their Eid wishes to them. We joined the queue.
My husband told one of the guards that we were from Pakistan and President Mahathir himself had invited us, in an attempt to jump the queue. But the policeman just gave a hospitable smile and no more, which was signal enough for us to stay in the queue. It was a two-hour wait and my kids used it to make a small card out of some paper envelope, with a blue ball point sketching a flag of Pakistan and an Eid greeting.
Finally, our turn came. We shook hands with the first couple and to our utter surprise, he himself told his wife, “They are Pakistanis and have come to see our Eid.”
My kids gave them the card. We hugged them, Pakistani-style and were handed a plastic Tiffin on top of which was inscribed “Thanks from Putrajaya” with traditional Malaysian sweets inside. We got exactly the same box as everyone else and approximately, the same two or three minutes of chat as other locals.
To cut a long story short, in a fortnight’s stay in Malaysia, we happened to meet their president twice, and that, too, without much difficulty.
The second incident was in Kolkata (then- Calcutta), in late 1979, when I had been visiting the city with my parents, who were attending some conference. My parents chose to commute in bus as that was the most convenient mode to travel in the overcrowded metropolis.
In the middle of one journey, my father turned our attention towards a lean and thin dhoti-clad man who had climbed the bus. That man was Jyoti Basu, who had become the chief minister of West Bengal, just a year or so ago.
My father mentioned it to some of his friends but they weren’t surprised, for it was common knowledge that Basu sometimes boarded buses just to stay connected with hoi polloi.
Basu continued to win the people’s confidence for the next two decades (from 1977 to 2000). A CPI(M) member, he went on to introduce land reforms, giving opportunity to the poor to have their own lands. He brought political stability to the state to the extent when the whole of India was burning— once after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 following the Operation Blue Star, and the other at the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, his administration did not allow any rioting in his state.
Hence, it was not just a coincidence that we saw these men roaming free in public — years of commitment for the common man had made them fearless.
With this chain of thoughts, my mind shifts to the recent switch on-and-off that goes on in the killing fields of Karachi. It does not need a vision of 6/6 to see who all are behind these killing fields.
By all I mean ALL — none is above it. I wonder, with this track record and with the mess that the stake holders of ‘peace’ create, can they have the courage to sail freely among their own public like Mahathir and Basu?
No wonder our streets from Islamabad to Karachi come to a standstill when they sail fearfully on them.
And tragically, it is the common man, who gets labeled as hateful, narrow-minded and divided on ethnic and sectarian lines.
In conclusion, I want to revert to the closing lines of Tagore’s poem, which may serve as a prayer to us:
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
The writer is a gynecologist, health activist,
and m-Health entrepreneur, of Indian origin,
married to a Pakistani