A Cliff’s Notes guide to Pakistan’s Dickensian side

A Cliff’s Notes guide to Pakistan’s Dickensian side

On Saturday, Pakistanis will vote in historic general elections — the first transition from one elected government to another in the country’s tumultous history. For this and several other reasons, Mosharraf Zaidi argues in Foreign Policy that Pakistan is heading into this weekend’s polls better off than you might think, despite the spate of violence that has preceded it. But Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria might beg to differ.

On Friday, she penned a blistering op-ed for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, on the state of the country. The column, entitled "The great expectations of historic elections," invokes Miss Havisham. For those of you who weren’t paying attention in high school English class, she is the withering old maid in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations — as Zakaria puts it, "a woman frozen in time."

Abandoned by her fiancé on the eve of her wedding, Miss Havisham never quite recovers and, years later, still wears her tattered wedding dress. As Zakaria sees it, she is a lot like Pakistan:

Like old Miss Havisham who sat at her dressing table, refusing to let time enter, refusing to change out of her wedding dress and refusing to see the horror of her situation; Pakistanis weep for an injured cricketer and a dead white tiger and forget the ordinary tragedies that surround them….

In the song singing, change chanting moment, there is no room to talk about the pile of trash outside the mosque, the outstanding IMF loans, the wedding dress worn for two decades, the groom that never came, the frauds of elections past and the tragedies of dead leaders. In Dickens’s novel, Miss Havisham never really changes. Frayed and yellowed, her nuptial garment catches fire and she and it are burned to death, frozen still in their denials and beyond rescue by any hero.

It might seem odd for a Pakistani author to employ Dickens in making sense of the challenges facing her country, but highlighting Pakistan’s Dickensian side actually seems to be something of a trend. Here are just a few examples of how the British titan of Victorian-era social realism has been trotted out in the Pakistani op-eds of news cycles past.  

Bleak House

Yousuf Nasim, in a scathing 2012 op-ed about Pakistan’s judicial system, begins with an epigraph from Bleak House, Dickens’s novel ridiculing England’s arcane legal system by chronicling a never-ending court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce:

"The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world." – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Nasim goes on to write:

I have no hesitancy in asserting that there are numerous cases currently pending in Karachi, which would put to shame Dickens’ dystopian portrayal in Bleak House. Yet there persists a myopia which prevents legal practitioners from seeing what is plain before their eyes: that the system is broken. There is, effectively, no access to justice for the vast majority of society. Public confidence in the legal system as a means of resolving disputes is plummeting, and unless drastic measures are taken to arrest this decline, the outcome for our society and our polity will be alarming.

A Tale of Two Cities

In March, Dickens’s masterpiece on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, made an appearance in an op-ed blasting wealth inequality and patron-client relations in Pakistan. Titled, "A Tale of Two Cities," the article, written by columnist Aasin Sajjad Akhtar, states:

This lack of concern, as I have suggested, is explained by the fact that those with power and influence actually have nothing to gain from redressing the prevailing state of affairs.

Meanwhile, those who are taught not to ask questions, to dutifully obey their superiors and then accept it all as divine will continue to be an easy prey for the reactionary ideologues that thrive on having a captive public to do their bidding.

If there is to be a happy ending in this tale of two cities, we need first and foremost to empathise with the voiceless masses that keep this country running in spite of, rather than because of, their self-absorbed, slothful and subjugating masters.

Hard Times

In another Pakistani English-language daily, The News, Jamil Nasir, an economist based in Lahore, refers to the novel Hard Times in a column about income inequality in Pakistan:

When a society undergoes a metamorphosis from an agrarian to an industrial economy, there are both losers and gainers. The industrialists and the middle class gains, while in a world of ‘mechanisation and desperation’, the labourers work only for subsistence wages due to obvious reasons. They live in pitiable conditions as depicted vividly by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Once industrialisation becomes the predominant mode of economy, pressure mounts on the government for redistribution due to heightened awareness of rights – and consequently inequality declines.

Any thoughts on why Dickens keeps cropping up in Pakistani political commentary? Leave them in the comments. And even if you can’t turn to Dickens for the answers to all of Pakistan’s troubles, at least now you know where to turn if you want to brush up on your British lit.