Continuing Stories: Social Action and Change – Ruqaiya Hasan

Michael Halliday, Ruqaiya Hasan, Dr M. Sarwar and Zakia Sarwar, Karachi 1970's

By Ruqaiya Hasan

At the heart of every story are individuals – real or fashioned by imagination, crafted by inevitably evaluating memories, and mythologised by history.  At the heart of the story being told here today is also an individual, a Dr Mohammad Sarwar, very real to me, dear as a brother, and always present to my mind though no longer laughing and talking among us. When I first met him in 1964 on a visit to Pakistan, he was to me just a likeable young man, a newly acquired relative – the husband of my sister, Zakia.  He seemed full of fun and easy going, with a gentle sense of humour – so gentle you could miss it if you were not an attentive listener.  It did not take long to find behind this relaxed carefree demeanour, the reflective Sarwar, with a strong social conscience.
This Sarwar was more than just a pleasant kin: he was someone you could discuss serious issues with – for example, the socio-political situations on both the national and international fronts, apparently changing all the time and yet staying the same underneath in their hegemonic designs, the relations between socio-political convictions and practical actions, and the difference between ethical values embedded in the world’s many religions and the fetishization of those religions as a set of rituals.

We did not always see eye to eye, Sarwar and I; but those differences were immaterial to the value of these friendly discourses – a learning experience for me who visited Pakistan not very frequently.  I developed a great respect for his sharp analysis of the dynamics of the international moves by foreign nations and their potential impact on the future of Pakistan.  I still hear him saying once in the ’80s: “You know, this Mujahedeen movement, it’s going to boomerang one day!”, and later: “Some of us are one day going to have to cry many tears over the support being given now to the Taliban!”.   Pakistan’s lack of political wisdom, its short-sighted policies – if one can dignify the positions taken by successive governments by the  term ‘policies’! – have cost the country innumerable lives and a social, economic upheaval the end of which still hangs in the balance.

1989 presented a critical moment in history when those with socio-political awareness had to stand up to be counted by reference to their interpretations of such hitherto unimaginable events as the ‘massacre’ at Tiananmen Square, soon followed by the dissolution of the U S S R, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the so-called ‘victory of freedom, progress and capitalism’.  Sarwar saw through this whole charade: with his long standing socio-political convictions, he had no problem in distinguishing the veneer of progress from the real thing itself.  Far from celebrating these events as the harbingers of human progress, he mistrusted the ability of ‘compassionate capitalism’ to exercise compassion where it was most needed.  So he shunned the compromises made by many in the name of ‘practical commonsense’ – because for him commonsense was synonymous with safeguarding the common good, not with creating corporate monopolies.  It is my perception that the last decades of the last century stole from Sarwar a good deal of his fun-loving, carefree cheerfulness.  But by then Sarwar’s health was insistently giving him notice: cancer grew inside almost as a metaphor for the cancer outside.  This is the Sarwar I knew, so real and so present to me even today.  This is the Sarwar I shall always think of with love and respect.

It may seem strange to some that in the story I am telling there is no mention of those other remarkable events that Beena and many of Sarwar’s closest friends have been recording so admirably for the present occasion. This too is indicative of the quality of the man: Sarwar and I often discussed the efficacy of planned political action in bringing about social change, and I knew of course that Sarwar had been a leader as a young student.  But humble and unassuming by nature, he never recounted any details about the events in which he had played such a remarkable role.  I want to emphasize here that dear as my own personal memories are to me, the memories revived in the PMA House by way of celebrating Sarwar’s life constitute a story of a different order: my story lives at a private level; its potential to create social change is considerably limited.  By contrast, the memories revived at the PMA House in celebrating Sarwar’s life, and now being recorded by many today in collaboration with Beena Sarwar, form a significantly different story, whose potential to create change is unlimited: being recorded by many, being heard and understood by many, being discussed by many, this story could form the continuation of the one begun by Sarwar, his colleagues and friends – it could become the catalyst of a movement leading to active thought on why Pakistan is where it is.

Essay written especially for the Jan 9, 2010 Event Book by Dr Ruqaiya Hasan, a prominent linguist and Dr Sarwar’s sister-in-law based in Australia

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One Response

  1. […] Annabelle says Khala Ammi had woken up asking if she dreamt I was coming. I’m delighted to see her looking much better than I’d expected. When I comment on the rattle in her breath, she says, “You’ve heard it before” — an oblique reference to my late father Dr Sarwar’s last illness (read her essay about him here). […]

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