Published:  12:26 AM, 11 July 2019

Writing to a long dead Fatima Jinnah

Writing to a long dead Fatima Jinnah Fatima Jinnah

Some years ago, the authorities in the Pakistani city of Karachi served notice on Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, about a non-payment of bills relating to utilities provided to her. She was warned that unless she cleared the amount, coming to nearly three hundred thousand rupees, a warrant of arrest would be issued against her.

The authorities were surely doing the right thing. No one, no matter how highly placed or how privileged, should be allowed to get away with a commission of manifest wrong. If Ms. Jinnah had done anything wrong, she would pay for it.

But then you remember that Fatima Jinnah has been dead for ages. She passed away in 1967, twenty years after her brother created the state of Pakistan. Two years before her death, she was the presidential candidate of the Combined Opposition Parties in the election against Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in January 1965.

She lost the election. Or, given that the right of franchise at that point of time belonged only to 80,000 Basic Democrats under a system put in place by Ayub, the election was engineered in a way that would have Ms. Jinnah lose. But during the campaign, especially in East Pakistan, the venerable lady did indeed give Ayub Khan a fright. Many people thought that Ayub's own system would defeat him. They were mistaken, of course.

The bigger point now is why the Karachi authorities did what they did a few years ago. Did no one among those utility people remember Fatima Jinnah? Did no one care to recall that she had been long dead and gone? Or did the name Jinnah did not ring any bells for them?

That reminds me of the time when a few of us were dwelling on the life and career of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy here in Dhaka on a quiet evening. One of the people in the group, a typical businessman in his gaudy attire, suddenly asked a very loaded question: What was it that Mr. Suhrawardy did by way of a profession?

You can well imagine the embarrassment which followed. He was given a cold, matter-of-fact, piranha-like response: Nothing much. He was once, and merely, prime minister of Pakistan.

Ignorance is never bliss. Whoever coined that phrase deserves public condemnation, even if that condemnation must come in posthumous terms. But, yes, ignorance can often lead to some of the most hilarious moments in life.

Think of the naïve young man who, having intently listened to some other men whose company he happened to be part of discuss Mozart and the music he composed, asked rather foolishly: 'What is Mr. Mozart composing these days?' Pat came the answer from someone who was clearly irritated with the questioner's colossal naiveté: 'He is not composing anything. As a matter of fact, he is decomposing.'

Not very many years ago, a retired Bangladeshi diplomat (who has since died) went reminiscing on his role in international diplomacy in an article for a journal. He happily recalled that in the 1980s, as a senior official at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), he travelled to Pakistan, where at a certain spot and a certain time, he came upon Ayub Khan.

As he put it, there was no sign of the old, brave and energetic Ayub Khan in that bent, aged figure tottering up to the lawn. Our diplomat was making a mistake. He surely must have seen somebody, but it could not have been Ayub Khan. Pakistan's first military ruler had died in April 1974. How then could he be leading a quiet, superannuated life in the 1980s?

Loss of memory is, of course understandable. But when individuals simply do not remember what they have seen or heard in their lifetime, it is appalling. People do have amnesia.

That is a different thing altogether. And there are men who, having served in public life, come down with Alzheimer's. For millions of Americans, Ronald Reagan remains an epitome of a resurgent America --- after Vietnam, after Watergate, after Jimmy Carter's 'malaise' speech.

Within years of leaving the White House, though, he fell prey to Alzheimer's, so much so that he did not remember that he was once America's president. Invited to the White House by the Clintons, Reagan was taken to the Oval Office and told that he had worked in that room as president for eight years.

Reagan looked surprised, disbelieving. When James Baker, once his secretary of state, went visiting him in California, he had a hard time remembering who he was. As Baker conversed with Nancy Reagan, the former president asked one of his attendants, 'Who is that young man talking to my wife?'

The men who sent Fatima Jinnah that notice are truly a personification of ignorance. And Reagan was without question an ailing man. But what do you do with men and women who carefully and studiously forget their past, their history? There are scores upon scores of people in Bangladesh who went to war for liberty in 1971, singing paeans to Bangabandhu and struggling for a secular republic. Sometime after August 1975, they lost their way.

Or they succumbed to opportunism. In their new, sinister political rebirth, they chose not to remember that they had once fought in Bangabandhu's name, that they had once been on the fields of battle to create a state for every single individual, for believers of every faith and creed.Life, you must admit, is forever a strange experience. You don't quite know what to make of it.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age

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