India Mirage and Reality

By Peter Schimad

Chapter 19
The Land of the Pure

WHY DO YOU EXIST AT ALL?” THIS ISSUE TOO Ayub Khan had tried to clarify.  In the official designation of Pakistan as ‘Islamic Republic’ he simply deleted the word ‘Islamic’ –and that reflected an entire Government programmme. It meant an avowal in favour of a secular, liberal state, where everybody was free to worship as or whom he shoes.  He thereby put a spoke in the wheel of the mullahs and other religious fanatics and demogogues who wanted to see Pakistan ruled by the clergy in accordance with the ancient laws of Islam. On my first visit I had had a conversation with the Pir of Manki, at that time one of the most dangerous powers behind the scenes. A close-buttoned man, both mentally and in his dealings with others, anything but brilliant, with a beard and immovable stonelike features and shouldering eyes, he had uttered, even through his interpreter, nothing beyond a few platitudes.   On my present visit to Lahore I visited another religious man, one whose education and open-mindedness put him in an entirely different category.  The Koran Research Centre, of which G. A. Parwez was the head, was accommodated on the ground floor of a house in the suburb of Gulberg, among the homes of film stars and other earthly creatures.   To judge by the mixture of domestic utensils and manuscripts, it did double duty as his office and bedroom.  The old gentleman, a former civil servant had a face lined by intensive study and sleep-less nights; his steel-framed glasses and white hair lent him an intellectual severity tempered to some extent by his dreamy eyes.  Piery to him clearly was not withdrawal from the world, but a deliberate attempt to change the world into the likeness a God.

            The country was at the time in the throes of a public discussion on the land reform. No private property was to exceed 500 acres in future.  Was that not very mild compared with the maximum of 30 acres envisaged in India?  The severe old gentleman nodded eagerly.   “Private ownership of the means of production ought to be abolished altogether,” he lectured.  “In accordance with the Holy Koran, all land is a gift of Allah, just as are air and sunshine, and should not be owned by any individual any more than air and sunshine should; it ought merely to be made available to everybody in accordance with his needs.  Your must understand that Islam is concerned not only with the future bliss of the believers, but also with their present earthly requirements.  In accordance with the Holy Koran, it is the responsibility of the state to see that every citizen has all his basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and education.  Yes: the responsibility of the state!  That is a tremendous task, and can be realized only if all the means of production are owned by the state.”  I was listening to the quiet, unemotional professorial lecture with growing astonishment. “Are you—I hope you don’t mind my asking—are you a Communist?” I asked cautiously.  He shook his head triumphantly.  “Many people ask me that question,” he said almost grimly. “Certainly a good many things demanded by the Holy Koran resemble the ideals of Communism. But the really essential thing—the ultimate aim—is fundamentally different. For if our state provides for each citizen all his basic needs, then this is not an end in itself: this liberation from hardship is designed to give him, his whole personality. Communism, on the other hand, thinks only of the satisfaction of a man’s physical needs at the expense of human individuality. But it is this fully developed individuality, made possible by the social order of the Koran, that survives death and marches forward to bring all latent possibilities to full fruition.” 

            The old man’s speech had turned into that prophetic rhetoric which rules out all discussion; arguments no longer penetrate into the magic circle within which the thoughts of the fanatic move about as in a cage.  “But how do you hope to realize this would mean in effect the establishment of a bureaucracy of hundreds of thousands—and after your country’s experience so far, surely you cannot assume that the practices of these bureaucrats would be very much in line with the Koran? Your programme could be realized only that Parawez had merely been waiting for such a generalized statement in order to avoid facing up to less fundamental but real problems. “Man is neither good nor bad by nature,” he interrupted. “It all depends on how he realizes himself, and the Koran helps him to choose the good.” I sighed. “Islam is the highest form of rationalism,” the old man went on. “Every individual must choose for himself. I quite understand that as a Christian you find it difficult has relieved you of your responsibility by his death!  What an immoral absurdity, that remission of sins of yours—to let some one else suffer for one’s own trespasses!” I endeavoured to get the conversation back to a more realistic basis again.  “How man y followers have you got?” I asked. “No mass following,” Parwez smiled. “I must expect opposition rather than approval for my ideas, opposition from both sides: from the modern unbelievers who want to turn Pakistan into a secular country like any other, and from the mullahs who have not even read the Koran correctly, and who are furiously defending a tradition which is neither holy nor viable.  My ideas are not for the masses, but my books are read by intellectuals, and through them much is translated into reality.” “And when may we expect to see the realization of the social order of the Koran?” the old man shook his head.   “I know that the world at the moments is imperfect, but I also know that my efforts to improve it will taken up and continued by hundreds of others.  Some day, in a hundred years, r perhaps in a thousands years, the kingdom of God will be realized.   If I can contribute to this end, however slightly, I am satisfied.”  

            We have spoken of God and gods, of traditions and philosophical systems.   But how does the outsider, the visitors, experience the different atmosphere in India and Pakistan? To characterize this difference let me relate the story of my visit to the two famous hydro-enginnering projects which are springing up on the edge of the Himalayas. The Bhakra Nangal Dam, the second highest in the world, is being built on Indian territory to divert the water of the Sutlej river which flows into the basin of the Indus. The Warsak Dam, built with Canadian aids, spans a gorge near Peshawar, where the Kabul river enters the plain from Afghanistan.  Both projects have assumed for the native populations an almost magical significance.   Unending masses of people stream out of both building-sites. “Have you seen Bhakra Nangal?” I was asked throughout India, in much the same way as the traveler in Egypt is asked whether he has already seen the pyramids. In actual fact there is nothing very much to be seen at either building-site—apart form the vast mountains of cement, they are just rather depressing gorges.  But these heaps of cement embody great hopes, for they will provide elextric power for industry, water for the fields, and prosperity for the people.  In India excursions to the Bhakra Nangal site are simply and boldly described as ‘pilgrimages’: the dam has become something in the nature of a holy place, a temple of the new technical god of prosperity.            

Perhaps it is because of this strange and almost religious reverence which the Indians feel for their technical miracles that to take photographs is as strictly forbidden there as in the holy of holies in a temple.  Even when they are being built by foreign engineers—in the case of Bhakra Nangal, by Americans—and in accordance with foreign plans. 

When I entered the Public Relations Office there, brandishing my Press card and asking for a photograph permit, the officials looked very doubtful.  To do that, they declared, I ought to have brought a permit with me form Delhi!  Nonsense, I tried to laugh it off; surely a dam is no strategic objects? So what can there be secret about it?   The officials entrenched themselves behind their telephones. The Indian engineer-in-chief was not in his office.  The deputy engineer-in-chief declared himself unable to take a decision which only the engineer-in-chief was authorized to take; but he would do his best to track him down. Would I please wait?  A quarter of an hour later the telephone rang again. Sorry, but the engineer-chef could not be found any-where.  No photographs! 

At the Warsak Dam, on the other hand, I arrived without warning, and I did not eve have my Press card with me. This building-site is open to visitors only on Sundays because other-wise they might get in the way of the word; moreover, this site, strange as it may sound, really is a strategic job.  All along the surrounding hills stand fortress-like watch-towers. For the territory of the Pathan tribes begins almost within sight of the turbines, and their ancient customs area s yet unreconcild with hydro-power projects.  Not that a chieftain would be interested in a turbine, but there are other things, more easily stolen and carried away, at the building-site of a giant power-station. Hence the fortifications on the hill-tops. 

True, there are also legal ways for a warlike character to profit from a hydro-power project. Many Pathans have taken on jobs as pneumatic-drill operators or as watchmen to prevent their fierce fellow-tribesmen from thieving. The young man who stopped me at the barrier was clearly one of the latter. He was positively sparkling with gay vitality, and his way of treating me was clearly that of a free man. “Let’s see,” was his reply when I told him of my request. He snatched the telephone from the wall. No reply. “Public Relations aren’t there,” he said laconically. “Let’s try Security.” A surely voice came through the instrument. “He says NO,” the young man interpreted. “Sorry.” “Pity,” I said, “especially after I’ve come such a long way.” “Wait,” the young man said. “I’ll ring them again.” “Listen,” he said into the telephone, “ why can’t we let the foreign gentleman in?” A furious howling came through the telephone. The young man flung the receiver back on the cradle as if it were a piece of wood. “We’ll try the engineer-in-chief now.” The engineer-in-chief proved amenable. “Take no notice of Security; just drive on,” the young man advised me. Fifteen minutes later I stood at the roar of the concrete-mixers.

This is just one example of the easier accessibility of people in Pakistan. I could quote many more. With a little observation and experience you can tell a person’s religion a sight, so clearly is the different mental attitude of Moslems and Hindus reflected in their features.  The Moslem is simple, reasonable, and unambiguous.  Allah, like the Christian God, is a being that tone can talk to.  From this dialogue relationship arises the possibility and necessity of decision. The Moslem’s eyes are always flashing—sometimes with aggressiveness.  His speech is yea and nay, and even though he frequently is a rascal his rascally deeds are some-how predictable and calculable.  But with the Hindu you cannot even look properly into his eyes: there is something bottomless in them, and if you immerse yourself in them you enter a realm that is both eerie and wonderful. Oh, the endless trouble of getting a concrete grasp of a Hindu, intellectually or spiritually! “Sometimes I nearly go out of my mind,” a German architect who is employed by the Government in Delhi confessed to me. “I feel as though I were in a world of Kafka’s.  There is a new project that I am to take over, so I demand to see the preliminary studies. Nothing, blank looks, vacant stares, among superiors and subordinates: nobody knows anything about them. Like a madman, I get down to the job: I calculate and design everything from scratch; and when I then submit my plans after working day and night for a fortnight the departmental head will look up with a smile: ‘Oh, but we’ve had these plans here in our filing cabinet for ages!’ I don’t know if the people are so thoughtless or if they are committing secret sabotage, or if the two are intermingled in their unconscious mind. Certainly, a white man wrecks his nerves here completely.” I can confirm his experience.  Whenever I arrived in an Indian town and called on officials or colleagues—there were always the same strange, absent unfathomable looks, as equivocal as Shiva with her many arms, as the whole mythological jumble that fills the Hindu temples and can be unraveled only by a scholar.  I know that this world of gods represents, as it were, the entire universe, and that the multiplicity of this universe can never be framed in a monotheistic system or reduced to a simple logical principle. But what does a man want the whole universe for in everyday practical life? How can he shape a personality if contrast become one, if everything indeterminate appears as supreme wisdom and anything definite as unphilosophical philistinism? To return to my own position as an inquiring author: only on the rarest of acting spontaneously. Sometimes I would read in the papers that a particular city where I had looked for this feature or that did in fact posses this feature in its most typical form—but nobody ever told me.  Nor did it often emerge form casual conversation: dialogue with a Hindu is like a game of tennis in a fog. You demand precise details and facts: the Hindu will evade them by lengthy general disquisitions.  As fundamental and as imprecise as possible. Trying to nail him down, you feel like a police officer questioning a delinquent.  But where everything merges in the All-One the separate things all become equally relevant and hence irrelevant.  Our Western concept of ‘interesting’ is alien to most Indians; they lack a sense of psychology.

I do not want to imply that the Pakistanis altogether lack the unpredictability and vagueness of the Hindus—witness my conversation with Parwez.  After all, they have sprung from the same soil.  But they are more fathomable for our probing spirit, and in one’s human relations with them one is more likely to achieve results.  It is no accident that Pakistan has concluded an alliance with the west.  Islam belongs within the emanation of the Mediterranean. As well as do—and that determines its affinity. Pakistan makes sense even to such extrovert people as the Americans; in Delhi they are at sea.  In India, as I have said, the white man becomes a nervous wreck: in Karachi he will only get bored, for responsible people are not interesting. May be this is the reason why most Westerners tend to side with Pakistan in the quarrel between the two warring brothers.  As if world history were written by reason! For that it is far too interesting.