I remember Rashid Rehman reciting an Urdu couplet by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib when a mutual friend asked him to be careful in these testing times. It was some months before Rehman’s death. Helooked her in the eyes and said smilingly: “Zamana sakht kum aazaar tha ba-jan-i-Asad/Wagarna hum to tawaqqo ziyada rakhtey thay” (time has not tormented Asad’s soul as much/I had, in fact, expected a lot more). Rehman was a lawyer. He was shot dead in the city of Multan, Pakistan, for defending a young academic charged with blasphemy. Rehman was famous across the country for his pro bono representation in court cases on behalf of bonded labour, landless peasants, distressed women and minority groups. On 7 May 2014 when the news of his death arrived I was sipping coffee and quietly humming to myself one of the lines from the verse of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh. Bakhsh was one of the foremost mystic poets of the Punjabi language and younger to Ghalib but they were contemporaries for a good part of the nineteenth century. Bakhsh witnessed the fall of the Mughal Empire in the Indian Subcontinent, the decimation of the Sikh dynasty in his region of Punjab and Kashmir, the lost war of independence waged by the native Indian forces against the occupying British armies, and, subsequently, the absolute ascendancy of the British colonial rule in India after 1857. The turmoil of his age is comparable to the one we face today, in Pakistan and elsewhere. Except that in those times the contours of a new era being born were more evident to visionaries in our part of the world – like Ghalib, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Amir Ali – while today we witness a world falling apart without any sign of how future will manifest itself. Even the best among us grope in the darkness of the present. In his Age of Anger (2017) Pankaj Mishra mentions the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who mocked the enthusiasts of Western civilisation during the Cold War era for their claims of the universality of their ideals. Mishra then shows how the long-held beliefs about the impending success of the Anglo-American institutions of nation state and liberal democracy, rooted in the wish that other countries in the world will ape them, have been so vociferously contested. Besides, the very concepts of accountability, stability, rationality and secularism are disputed by so many people in so many places, largely as a consequence of the selective use of these concepts by the selfsame nations and global institutions who propounded the universality of these concepts in the first place. In Pakistan we have oscillated between the periods of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev — between blatant purges and constant coercion and times of soft pressure sugar-coated with the choice of co-option Hence, there is no standard flow chart of history available to us anymore within a normative framework which would describe the next milestone for those who lag behind in modern knowledge, scientific achievement, cutting-edge technology and sophisticated ideas. It seems that chaos is engulfing humanity like never before. Or maybe this moment marks the end of denying diverse peoples their context in the name of universality, and the beginning of an appreciation for a contextualised discourse to understand contemporary human condition wracked by death and destruction. The line I mentioned humming from one of Bakhsh’s epic poems goes; dushman marey te khushi na karyo, sajnaan vi marjana (why rejoice the death of your enemy, for your friends will also die). In Pakistan, at the time I was born, my parents and those around them who cherished art and creativity in the cultural realm and valued democracy and socialism as their political ideals, were subjected to tough, unpleasant existences. In order to survive, they had to make a choice every single moment – between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, amnesia and memory. Although I have no personal recollection of the first two successive military dictatorships I do have vivid memories, and possess lived experience of two more dictatorships. However, my sordid experience is not just limited to those military dictatorships. The ill-fated and short lived civilian interludes between martial rules ,or the period of democracy experienced since 2008, succeeded little in curbing a perpetual feeling of uncertainty, instability, coercion and fear among those who act, paint, sing or write. If an analogy can be drawn with the experience of free-thinking artists, poets, writers, and musicians of the Soviet Union, in Pakistan we have oscillated between the periods of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev – between blatant purges and constant coercion and times of soft pressure sugar-coated with the choice of co-option. Noncompliance is dangerous in either case. Therefore, albeit a little differently, the choice the previous generation had to make every moment has to be continually made by us as well. Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and human rights defender was shot dead in Multan for defending a young academic charged with blasphemy There is one significant difference between then and now. Our predecessors in Pakistan faced a visible opponent – the oppression of the state carried out through its coercive arms, which were marked and defined. Now we face multiple opponents, which are not always visible but live among us. They are intimate, and omnipresent. At times they are describable but never entirely explainable. They are polymorphous. Because the key challenge of our times is a society marred by bigotry and xenophobia from within. And, unlike in fascist Germany, there is no unifying force either that may coalesce, consolidate and elucidate these stark sentiments. This has caused a polycentric dispersion of authority, and a wide horizontal spread of the agency of violence. Even a compassionate analysis of the historic and political reasons for the emergence of an intolerant society can’t take away the imminent threat that such society poses to those who shake up the rigid linearity settled in the minds of people prone to bigotry and xenophobia. Since art and creativity pose a grave threat to linearity by the reliance on discursive categories and disruptive imagination, they make things complex. Therefore, art and creativity should, on such account, be censured and confined if not completely eliminated. The relationship between art and power – more precisely, if we speak of poets, between poetry and authority– has always remained tricky. There is a constant tension at play, a hide and seek, an interdependence coupled with an inherent subversion. When authority seeks submission and poetry refuses, the verse of Jafar Zatalli, an absurdist poet of Urdu in the Delhi of 17th and early 18th century, cost him his life: his poetry offered a melange of ridiculous and transcendent ideas, his truthfulness about their misdoings, injustices, decadence and corruption, wrapped in bitter satire, would choke in the throats of Mughal kings and princes. Finally, in 1713, emperor Farrukhsiyar sentenced Zatalli to death. Our predecessors in Pakistan faced a visible opponent – the oppression of the state carried out through its coercive arms, which were marked and defined. Now we face multiple opponents, which are not always visible but live among us In his Lectures on Russian Literature (1980), Vladimir Nabokov comments on how one of the greatest Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, would cause irritation to the Russian officialdom, particularly the Tsar himself. The reasons of disgust with poetry were clearly stated by the authority, and here I quote from Nabokov: “…instead of being a good servant of the state in the rank and file of the administration and extolling conventional virtues in his vocational writings (if write he must), [Pushkin] composed extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which a dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification, in the audacity of his sensual fancy, and in his propensity for making fun of major and minor tyrants.” In present times, many if not most of the poets and writers anywhere are troubled because the experience of living in this world is increasingly more upsetting. But poets and writers in excessively troubled societies like Pakistan are excessively troubled. The choice is not only to be made between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, and, amnesia and memory. There is an artistic choice that also needs to be made by a contemporary poet between absurdity and realism, rhapsody and gloom, sobriety and hedonism, and, indifference and compassion. Except in the case of choosing from either indifference or compassion, perhaps I end up making no clear choice and keep dangling in between. It is a continuous process of creating a space fringed by two options. It is about negotiating at various levels among and within both internal and external conflicts that emerge from the circumstances of birth– race, class, language, faith, location and age – and the consciousness gained over time through knowledge and experience. Over the course of my life, which includes this writing career, the artistic, intellectual, social and political choices I made represent the stresses within and without. These choices are at odds with my social class, linguistic preferences, cultural moorings, and religious identity. My writing upends the interests of the class I belong to. For it is my kith and kin, friends and acquaintances – the urban educated middle class – whose thinking and action remained the biggest hurdle in creating a just, democratic, peaceful and equitable society in Pakistan. This class is largely conservative, like its counterparts in some other countries, and constrained by the small size of a progressive element within it. It has little stake in democracy because of its small numbers, and because of its heightened sense of superiority over others—the result of modern education and some considerable new wealth it has acquired. It seeks managerial quick fixes to deep-seated political problems. A large segment belonging to this class favours the military generals or superior judiciary to reign in, clean, regulate and sanction the muddled politics and dirty politicians. Consequently, the weakening of democracy and political process marginalises majority of population and shrinks the public space for a critical cultural dialogue and political power sharing. This enables extremism and violence to take roots, grow, expand and prevail. Once these prevail, the cultural dialogue is muffled, the political discourse subdued. The faith I was born into has now been philosophically reduced to a linear expression of rigid belief and violent practice, by its champions and opponents alike. The discourse that surrounds it and the deeds committed in its name contradict the ideals and values I espouse. I find myself defying everything that is made out to describe the current dominant narrative of my faith by some powerful groups of its own practitioners – the obscurantism, the misogyny, the extremism, the violence. However, there is another reality that must not be disregarded. Since 9/11, every year we lose many more lives in Pakistan than the total number of people killed when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed. Across the Middle East and other parts of Africa and Asia, the numbers add up to millions. Since I have little in common with most practitioners of my faith I feel tempted to denounce them like some others in a similar situation would do, to detach completely and move on to pastures new. But they are my people, and I cannot cut them loose at the time when they are in trouble. Or if I put it differently, I cannot cut myself loose from them when we all are in trouble. The enormity and perpetuity of conflict and chaos, loot and plunder, extremism and violence, make people either indifferent or compassionate. Particularly in those human societies like Pakistan, which endure violence for longer periods of time, this dialectic of indifference and compassion becomes more intense. Indifference enables the perpetrators to beget more conflict and chaos, more economic dispossession and social discrimination, and inadvertently helps the cycle of brutality and suffering to continue. Compassion diminishes the lines drawn between the self and the other, ally and enemy, friend and foe, loyalist and traitor, supporter and defector, and with it the notion of ‘us’ being always right and ‘them’ being always wrong. This compassion in people, an outcome of continuous encounters with human suffering, brings them together to create a constituency of pain. A constituency that is all-embracing and all-encompassing. A constituency that diminishes the lines drawn between the ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ extending that ‘self’ to include those who are likeminded, and expanding the ‘other’ to include all who are different. It is a constituency that embraces and connects all who feel the loss and hurt, the agony and despair caused by the prevalent human condition. This is irrespective of where they were born and with whom they chose to stand with at some specific point in time in the past. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that those belonging to the constituency of pain are so altruistic that they consider none as their adversaries. They see their adversaries in two kinds of people: those who deliberately inflict pain on others, and those who remain indifferent. But their belonging to the constituency of pain makes them sensitive to the anxiety and distress of their adversaries, whether they are individuals or they operate in groups. While their adversaries dehumanise them and their associations, they humanise their adversaries by empathising with their angst, fury, alienation and emptiness. When their adversaries try to instil fear in their hearts through violence, and infuse helplessness in their minds through coercion, those belonging to the constituency of pain have the ability to feel pity for their oppressors. They can see the fear of extinction hidden in the bottom of the oppressor’s heart, and the uncertainty of fortune that lurks in the crevices of his mind. The choices made by poets and writers of my ilk bring us a lot of grief. Yet that feeling of grief is over come by an inherent sense of pride. This pride comes from the ability of a poet to challenge and ridicule powers that be – ranging from Western hegemony to Eastern orthodoxy and all that falls in between – through the sheer subversive force of art and creativity. I know well what Arundhati Roy once referred to as fighting on the side of people who have no place for us in their social imagination. But isn’t that the whole point in this battle – to create a possibility for everyone, us and them, to broaden our aesthetic horizons and stretch our social imagination? And, therefore, the winning of this battle rests for us in the diminishing of battle lines. May you rest in peace, Rashid Rehman. You were a lawyer and I am a poet. We both belong to the constituency of pain. If your killer is alive, you will not wish to see him suspended from a hangman’s noose. I know you as much. You will wish him to live in remorse, and prevent others from taking innocent lives. Dushman marey te khushi na karyo, sajnaan vi marjana (Why rejoice the death of your enemy, for your friends will also die). The writer is a leading poet of Urdu and English, essayist and columnist. He is the author of ‘Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering and Creativity in Pakistan’. This article is abridged from a long essay published in IWP Collections, University of Iowa, in April 2018, under the series ‘To what do I belong?: Traversing differences, Bridging narratives’) Published in Daily Times, August 18th 2018.