Reading Camus In Pakistan: Are We Strangers To Ourselves?

Absurdism comes to mind, in thinking about how to cope with the reality of life in Pakistan

Reading Camus In Pakistan: Are We Strangers To Ourselves?

French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus wrote his famous novel The Stranger in 1942. Camus belonged to the Absurdist and Existentialist school of thought prevalent after the world wars in the 20th century. The novel explores the absurdist view of life through its protagonist, Meursault – a man in his thirties who receives the news of his mother’s death. 

He attends the funeral with a queer attitude and does not even see the face of his mother. He was busy smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while all the information about his mother’s last days was provided by the old home’s warden. Then he comes back to his town and lives as if nothing happened. He dates a girl just two days after the funeral. Everyone pays him condolences, but he seems awkward while receiving them. 

Then, his friend involves him in a personal dispute. They went to a beach to enjoy their weekend, and there, his friend’s enemy was also present. So, Meursault goes on a walk and shoots him five times – even after his body lay still after the first shot. Meursault is put on trial, but it focuses more on his mother’s funeral than the actual murder. Everyone is astounded that he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, and that even now he seems indifferent. He is called Monsieur Anti-Christ, as he is void of any spiritual emotion. He is repeatedly asked about general sensitivities and emotional sentiments. In the end, he is sentenced to death, but he is happy with his life, just like Sisyphus. He was waiting for the sentence peacefully as he knew that life carries no inherent meaning, which was the very theme of the novel. Apart from that, the famous quote in the novel carries the crux of the novel “Every man on earth was under the sentence of death.” 

The whole story can be applied to Pakistan, and here is how.

Pakistan emerged in 1947 yet it had deep roots in the South Asian Subcontinent and its history. But Pakistan seems a stranger to everything. The past and present circumstances are imbued with a sense of absurdity and alienation just as Camus has described in his novel. While Meursault believes that life has no meaning, Pakistan is adamant about adding a highly questionable meaning and biding time meaninglessly. The country and its citizens are strangers to themselves. They are unaware of who they are. Are they Pakistanis? Shall their history go back to the Mughals, Mohammed bin Qasim, or the Indus Valley Civilisation? Are Arabs and Muslims of other countries our brethren, and so, we must borrow their history? Shall we find identity in South Asian culture or in religion? Should we have democracy or Khilafat? Should there be a military dictatorship or a parliamentary system? All of these questions confuse Pakistani individuals and hence the identity crisis. 

But this identity crisis is identified by critical-minded individuals. The rest either belong to an elite bubble or those who are just enduring the daily grind to earn bread and butter. The economically challenged ones correspond to Meursault, in their indifference and incapacity to engage with so many sociopolitical issues, as these matters are out of their hands. The logic of their life begins and ends with this thought: “We should care about the afterlife as we would die one day. We cannot change the system hence we should live about as we are living now.” 

Most common people, regardless of gender, will present you with more or less the same goal train. “I am going to fulfill my parent's dream by becoming a (profession). I will serve my country. Then I’ll marry, then I’ll have kids, a big house, a car, plots, visit abroad, pilgrimage, death.” These are all personal goals, but it has a certain futility in it. The “serve my country” part carries the complete irony. 

Serve your country how? Let’s say you are a doctor and are providing medical services to patients. But you are charging them and not doing it for free. Nothing comes free. But then there is the complexity, ineffectiveness and corruption involved in the whole system, and amidst all this, you grind daily for some peanuts. If “lucky” enough, you’ll leave the country for the sake of survival.

Where does this leave a Pakistan that was founded to live till the end of the world? Pakistan, which united the Muslims of the Subcontinent, already lost its majority Muslim population in 1971, causing the tearing of the castle of “religious unity.” 

The conclusion is that generally speaking, in Pakistan, there is little to no consciousness about living your life. Most people will resort to a simplistic religious formula, and that is enough for them, and in their view, it ought to be enough for everyone. In that case, the world seems to progress and shift its trajectory over time. The conflict in Ukraine, India landing on the moon, BRICS and G7 – what do Pakistan and Pakistanis have to do with it? We have our medieval thought processes, rising terrorism and cyclical repetition of mistakes to bid our time. Like the jury of the novel, we are arrested for a crime we didn’t commit. 

We are already judged for our criticising the policymakers, not paying enough taxes and complaining about everything. Perhaps we should also come to terms with our condition and embrace our collective death. 

Meursault didn’t confess to the chaplain, or ask for Christ’s refuge.

But we Pakistanis have God. And yet, in Camus’ words, we can be said to have committed a “philosophical suicide.” Our condition suits us, then – after all, in the end, we all must die!