Topsy-turvy Pakistan

Vaqar Ahmed sees theatre of the absurd everywhere he looks

Topsy-turvy Pakistan
For anyone who has a taste for the theatre of the absurd, Pakistan is a perfect place to live. There is no need to dish out money for a ticket to a play by absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) or Eugene Ionesco (1909 – 1994). From the august institutions of the Pakistani state at the very highest levels, all the way down to the mundane telephone companies, hospitals, and airports, the theatre of the absurd is playing. It is a free-for-all: enjoy it or despair, as you please.

Let us begin with a common absurdity that we experience in everyday life. To observe it, you just have to step out onto a busy road – on foot or in a vehicle. Whether there is a traffic jam or not, everyone has their hand on the horn. Would the horn make the car in front dissolve into thin air, or turn it into a vertical take-off plane that will lift off from between the two cars it is sandwiched between?

Honking wildly to untangle traffic jams, however, may seem perfectly rational when compared to the public services in Pakistan. To interact with them is to observe all logic and reason turned on its head. Take for example the Pakistan Telecommunications Company (PTCL). They have one of the most bizarre service complaint systems. When you call to lodge a complaint – which is quite frequent – a human operator picks up and takes down the details of the problem politely and gives you a complaint number for future reference and follow-up. So far so good and you are quite impressed. Two hours later, the phone rings. An automated voice says that your problem is fixed and gives you the choice of pressing 1 to confirm that the problem has been resolved and 2 if that is not the case. Since the problem is never fixed so quickly, of course, you press 2. Next time the phone rings in the middle of the night! Same question, same answer. This drama repeats a dozen times and you are now frothing at the mouth and cursing away at the recorded voice. Eventually, you get so fed up that you press 1 to say that the problem is fixed. You now call the human operator again and complain. The operator says, “But sir, you accepted that the problem was fixed!” Touché!
My brother's hand was swollen to double its usual size and seemed badly infected. The attendant in the emergency looked at it and asked us what we wanted to do about it

There is, of course, a much more bothersome, serious, and potentially tragic aspect of the absurdities that pervade our institutions. Recently, I took my brother to a hospital. His hand was swollen to double its usual size and seemed badly infected. The attendant in the emergency looked at it and asked us what we wanted to do about it. Puzzled, we asked him what he meant. “I mean, do you want to see a doctor?”he responded, quite calmly. I wanted to scream: “No, we are here become someone told us it was a great picnic spot!”

A far more tragic example of such medical absurdity is the sight of beds after beds of patients in private quack clinics, receiving glucose drips for everything from the common cold to ‘chickungunya’ and cancer.

My favourite tale of absurdity is that of the wife of our gardener. She had given birth to seven children, nine months apart. My wife noticed that the harassed woman seemed pregnant again and asked her if that was the case. She replied wistfully, “No, I am not expecting. What happened was that I gave birth to the first six kids at home, but the seventh was born in a hospital. There was a fan running full blast right over my bed in the delivery room. The nurses left me in the room after I delivered the baby. During this time the darned air got into my tummy and has stayed there ever since…”

The absurdities experienced in the healthcare system can take a tragic turn for many Pakistanis

Encounters with any kind of authority in Pakistan are sure to lead to absurd situations. Last year I was travelling from Karachi to Toronto. I happen to be a dual Canadian and Pakistani citizen. I showed my valid Canadian passport at the airline counter. They also wanted to see my Pakistani passport. Turned out it had expired two days ago. The airline staff referred the matter to the immigration officials, who said that I could not travel as my Pakistani passport had expired. “But I am going to Canada and my Canadian passport is valid!” I argued. “That is true, but you are in Pakistan illegally, as your passport has expired!” came the answer. “By that definition, anyone who does not have a passport, or has an expired one, is in the country illegally. That will be about 150 million people as a rough estimate.” I persisted. The argument fell flat. “But not to worry, for a small fee we will give you two days Pakistani visa retroactively”. Needless to say, I took that option, and barely made my flight.

Then there is what I call observational absurdity. I took a cab from the Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) campus in Islamabad to Rawalpindi. On the way the taxi driver declared with complete conviction that 100% of the girls of the university drank alcohol and 90% took drugs. “Moreover there are worse things happening!”he added in a grave tone. “Go to Jinnah Super Market and you find that 50% are running around naked.” Having lived close to this scandalous location for two years I felt puzzled that I missed such sightings. Maybe a visit to an optometrist was overdue; or maybe there are much more interesting parallel universes to which I do not have access – but the average Pakistani critic of ‘declining morals’ does!

Some new categories of absurdity have been created recently. For instance there exists what I call ‘judicial absurdities’. This is a subject into which I dare not delve too far, for fear of being dragged before a court in chains – or something along those lines.

Passengers can have some fairly absurd experiences at Pakistani airports

And I would definitely avoid discussing the absurdity of the idea of seeking ‘strategic depth’ when, apparently, we have ammunition and fuel for fighting for no more than a month.

All these matters, from the everyday absurdity to the strategic, remain a mystery to a rational mind. But living in Pakistan I have accepted that rationality can be very, very relative. Maybe it is more rational not to stop at a red light if there is no traffic coming from the other side; or it is perfectly fine to drive along the wrong side of the road to save a few drops of precious fuel. Maybe glucose cures cancer, and drunken people are indeed prancing about naked in the streets of Islamabad.

Maybe I am the one who is irrational. And since I can’t blow my brains out, might I have some coffee please?