What The Eagles Of Pakistan Tell Us

Minutes after landing in Karachi, my cousin heard the calls of eagles and saw hundreds flying in convocations at all hours of the day - but there was something different

What The Eagles Of Pakistan Tell Us

A little over seven decades ago and at the stroke of midnight, British India (also referred to as the Subcontinent and Crown/Direct Rule in India – amongst other names) ceased to exist and a fifth of the then world’s population found themselves living in one of two new nation-states: the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. It was an incredibly painful twin birth.

Anyone from that era will give you the lividest of narratives of their movement (and everything involved) from the Subcontinent to whichever of the newly born nations they eventually settled in. A Boundary Commission was set up to demarcate the borders; these were formally announced on 17 August 1947 and came to be famously known as the Radcliffe Line. Pakistan and India, however, came into being on the 14th and 15th of August in 1947 (respectively), and people from across the then British India made their way to their new countries – before the official borders were formally announced. Amidst the ensuing riots and chaos, the world witnessed a massive human migration and/or displacement – the level and extent of which, has yet to be superseded. The plight of these refugees seeped into the social memory and national consciousness of both Pakistan and India and their stories have trickled down through personal narratives in families and popular culture.

In my mind, anyone directly involved in this Partition would have prayed that their new land was fertile enough for their ‘nascent’ roots to take hold. But the land itself was equally ‘nascent’ and, hence, needed just as much tending. For these people, then, the concept of Pakistan took on a more nurturing, intimate, and idealistic shape – like how they would treat a loved one. The land would shape them, just as they shaped it and as the relationship matured, an identity formed. These were the first Pakistanis, protective and fervent advocates of the soil where their roots were taking hold. 

But the coming decades would test this love intensively. 

Most of Pakistan’s independence thus far, have been observed under military rule. As per the Constitution of Pakistan, the country’s Prime Ministers (PM) are elected for renewable five-year terms. Since 1947 and prior to our current incumbent PM, Pakistan has had over 20 PMs in office: two of whom have had several tenures and none of whom have ever completed a full term. 

In this chaos, there is an emergent pattern: us knowing that Pakistan is primarily a parliamentary nation-state that somehow ends up dealing with dictatorships and/or military coups: clearly, the signs of a country unsure of itself. Adding fuel to this blazing equation, other “everyday issues” include insecurity, corruption, incompetence, avarice, poverty, illiteracy and cronyism. And as if all of this weren’t enough, civil discourse regularly takes a back seat to infighting and partisan bickering. Given just how pervasive and extensive these ills are, notice that (as a nation) there is a lack of hope that tomorrow will be better than today, resigning the most vulnerable amongst us to lives devoid of dignity.

While writing this piece, I came across something on The Guardian, “Partition, 70 years on: Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie and Other Writers Reflect.” This is a compilation of reflections on the 70th anniversary of the Pakistan/India Independence. And here, an Indian, Mr Pankaj Mishra put Pakistan’s predicament very eloquently: 

“Pakistan, where regional differences serve to check a ruthlessly homogenising nationalism (and Islamism), and no single ideological movement is able to colonise all key institutions of the state and civil society.”

Despite the said article being outdated as we speak, this one line somehow still holds true – when Pakistan turns 76 years old on the 14th of August 2023. In one line, he simultaneously and very subtly touched upon Pakistan’s oscillation between democratic and military rule and its vacillation between cultural extremes. Maybe Mishra’s central argument is this: that often, Pakistan has been its own worst enemy. And I would agree.

In contrast to the sentiments that my grandparents and parents probably hold for Pakistan, my own sense of Pakistaniyat is still at grassroot level – where I currently know my country from a distance and am in the process of exploring and discovering it. I know its history and keep up with its current events. I could write volumes about the cultural influences that the Mughals had on Pakistan; I can give you audio and visual accounts of how class dynamics play across the country; and I can probably also give you the optimal batting order for the national cricket team in their next game. But these discourses pale in comparison to the simpler things we do in Pakistan. Think: a walk back from Khalifa Bakery in Old Lahore, a trip to the Weekly Bazaar in Karachi, exchanging perspectives with your neighbourhood mochi (cobbler), or taking the road (literally) less travelled in Balochistan and seeing nature in its rawest, most unadulterated form from up close. 

And if there is something my elders and I do connect upon: it is that Pakistan is a vibe that can be felt solely by firsthand experience. Shared (read: told) accounts somehow don’t make the cut. 

As I finish writing this piece, a cousin visiting from the US perches herself on my bed – over which, my laptop and I are already sprawled. Together, she and I addressed grammatical punches I’d pulled and tie any loose ends that she thought I’d let go while writing. And only after our final versioning and proofreading do we notice this random eagle sitting on my window sill, seemingly listening in on our conversation. 

This is when my cousin shared a particular observation that she mentioned was constantly resonating with her. As an American, she lives in a culture that believes in the majesty of eagles: birds that rarely make an appearance in their daily life and whose sightings are generally reserved to photographs. However, minutes after landing in Karachi, she heard the calls of eagles and saw hundreds flying in convocations at all hours of the day. But what got to her was that in Pakistan, these eagles did not even remotely look like the apex predators that are revered in the US. Rather, they were scavengers: searching for food amongst random rubbish dumps to survive. 

In her words, “it’s harrowing to witness something so spectacular to be resigned to such indignity and it’s especially haunting when you know of its otherwise potential.” For a split second, replace that mighty eagle with our nation: Pakistan and detect the irony.

Pakistan has been continually crippled by economic crisis over the past many years and has now started facing an increased brain-drain that was initially attributed to better education and working opportunities. This is now being connected to the State’s inability to provide necessities and security:  both physical and economic, which can translate into sustained prosperity. Added to this equation, is a very volatile, coercive, and unstable political climate. 

So: every time Pakistan makes it to global headlines for all the wrong reasons and has the eyes of the world turn towards itself, the eagle and Pakistan analogy either makes sense or can be used as a sign. 

One more sign: that the love that Pakistan is to us needs to be tended to, again.