Things fall apart
By Feryal Ali Gauhar
„Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The Falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.‟
— W.B. Yeats,
“The Second Coming”
IT IS desolate here; fissures in the earth mark the landscape like the lacerations of unhealed wounds. The remains of a once vibrant town lie scattered on the broken jaw of this lost kingdom, and silence slips quietly into the dark crevices of memory, pulling the mind’s eye shut.
This is Balakot, one year after the terrible devastation wrought by the earthquake which struck this part of our beloved country. This was the epicentre of that destruction, the boiling core of the tragedy which spilled unchecked from the belly of the earth to its rivers and its valleys and its many pristine peaks.
Here one saw the total annihilation of an urban centre; it was here that the earth registered its strongest protest. It is here that things fell apart, and it is here that we can learn our lessons, if only we could insert sanity through the many fissures which mark the rot eating into our lives, into the hearts of our people.
A year has passed, and many promises have remained unfulfilled. Children still grapple with the ghosts of dead parents; parents still hear the cries of dying children. At ground zero in Islamabad, relatives of the dead shall mourn for them while others shall insist that the discourse on urban safety be made loud and clear.
In the valley of Maira, amputees fitted with prosthesis in Havana, Cuba, shall huddle together around the evening fire and talk about the doctors who came from a little island in an ocean of killer sharks to save their limbs and their lives. In Battagram, the child who was born amidst despair and devastation shall celebrate its first birthday, and in Lodhiabad a father shall cherish the few remaining bits of his daughters’ lives snuffed out in an instant.
In the distance, the hollow sound of promises is just a faint echo ricocheting against the crumbling sides of mountains split apart in anger. Otherwise there is only silence here —
silence and the rustle of dead leaves as autumn slips into winter and hope gives way to the deepest despair. A year has passed, and things around the country continue to fall apart. In Murree, ugly multi-storied buildings continue to rise and fall, burying their owners as well as common sense beneath the debris. In Lahore’s walled city, concrete monstrosities continue to loom over the remaining vestiges of a past cynically ignored.
Along the canal, thousands of trees sheltering citizens from the sun and the toxins which are pumped into the air relentlessly face the chopping block. Evacuee Trust Property left behind by philanthropists who gave us our hospitals and schools and libraries have been earmarked for obscene edifices which shall emerge on the horizon like a pestilence.
In Nathiagali colonial era rest houses are to be replaced by some architectural wonder which keeps neither the ecology of the area in view nor the vista itself. In Abbottabad, the last remnants of a colonial heritage are pulled down, making way for steel and chrome plazas which will house the dreams of merchants intent on cashing in on a rapidly consumerised society.
Across the country, these merchants have joined hands with the powerful in turning our landscape into a bizarre semblance of a nightmare from which there seems to be no awakening. The unholy collusion of tinker, tailor, beggar man and thief has stitched up our fate with the thread of avarice guiding them on their diabolical path. Real estate, including state land, has been bought and then sold to the highest bidder, the blue-print of some bewildered notion of development etching itself across the eyelids of the greedy and the unscrupulous.
In cities where there are no roads worth the name, high rises and luxury housing emerge along the edges, defying logic and denying reality. In a country where there is hardly any semblance of competent management and no vision for a sustainable and healthy future, we are rapidly turning over our workforce to international hoteliers who shall rejoice at the vast number of unemployed men and women, all resigned to serve as butlers and chambermaids.
In a land where forests stand depleted to a mere three per cent of the total land mass, cities sprawl like unchecked epidemics, children die for want of clean drinking water, and the timber mafia fattens itself on its malevolent harvest.
A year ago, standing at the edge of the devastation of Balakot and the valleys beyond, we pronounced in our infinite wisdom that we shall turn tragedy into opportunity. Before the dust settled, we saw visions of Swiss Chalets and Alpine ski slopes dotting the scarred landscape of Kashmir and the Frontier. We saw moderation and enlightenment, those twins separated at birth, walk side by side along tarred roads, we saw social justice emerge out of the abyss, bringing to our people access to the political process — access
to justice, to meaningful livelihoods, to basic services, to human rights. And when we turned our backs to celebrate this technicoloured vision, we did not see the pallor on the faces of the children whose lives had broken apart like the rocks on which their homes had stood. We did not see the hopelessness on the faces of mothers whose children never returned from the schools which became their graves, and we did not see the grief in the eyes of the men whose bodies were cleaved in half, leaving them to live half-lives with amputated limbs as a constant reminder of the time death nearly claimed them.
Much has happened since then, much that should have woken us up to the catastrophe which is unfolding before our eyes. Perhaps the detentions, deaths and disappearances of
countless journalists across the country should have served as a wake-up call to reassess our claims to having liberated the media. Perhaps the brutal, wilful elimination of political opponents replacing the painstaking process of political dialogue should have jolted us out of our slumber. Or maybe the images of cities drowning in effluence while the custodians of governance renegotiate power in the capital should have made us read the writing on the wall.
Perhaps the death of the young son of a former judge of the Shariat Court at the hands of gun-wielding bandits could have gotten us to sit up and take note of the disarray of our cities, our lives. Perhaps the games played out in parliament to protect and alternately vilify women should have warned us that all was not well, that all was not as we were being made to believe.
But perhaps none of this shall impact our lives. We are, after all, a nation with a short memory and shorter attention span. We who disregard the past have no inclination or talent to foresee the future. We, in our collective state of inaction, are responsible for the decay and the degradation of our cities and our lives. We are responsible for the deforestation which most certainly led to the unimaginable destruction of the earthquake hit zones of Kashmir and the Frontier. We are responsible for the piles of refuse and the heaps of garbage strewn liberally outside our homes. We are responsible for the lack of accountability when powerful people sell our dreams and make a fat profit.
We are accountable for the humiliation and brutalisation of our daughters and mothers. We are the ones who have allowed our sons to wander the streets in search of jobs. We are the ones who have subverted the judicial process; we are the ones who support the tyrants, who applaud the corrupt, who honour those who have manipulated the truth. We are the ones who have created an uncertain future for our children, and we are the ones who shall be remembered for what we did not do when we should have.
A year has passed since the quake disaster of October 8. Many truths have been undone, many untruths have done us in. We, who gloat at what we consider are our successes, have been blinded by the mote in our own eyes. The children of Balakot and Battagram still stand on the edge of a precipice, while we, in our comfort, lull ourselves to sleep with recollections of a glory which is not ours to claim. And for those of us who have dared, who have defied notions of acceptability, there will be no laurels, even if we have put ourselves in the line of fire, earning the wrath of powers who have forgotten that nothing shall last, not even the myths we choose to create with words which are not our own.