Living In Narratives


I do not believe, as so many do, that we are a people given by nature to deliberate close-mindedness, malicious falsehoods and injurious self-deceit.

But I do believe we have allowed stories to seep into our very blood.

We are a people of storytellers. The oral tradition flows strong in the veins of our society and traditions. It is a wonderful gift, with a terrible hidden darkness.

Stories are not only alive, but immortal. Anything can happen in their generous ambit, and yet they comfort us with their familiar conventions in which heroes and villains stand divided by a wonderfully strict line. They are more pleasing, in their monochrome, than the frenzied colors of the real world. But the same conventions that are so comforting, so familiar, can and do blind us.

Just as the princess always gets her prince, politicians are always corrupt and unworthy. Just as the hero is always unjustly accused, the world is ever victimising Pakistan and Muslims. Just as the grand vizier always turns to treachery, India and the CIAs hidden hand is in every Pakistani misfortune.

No appeal to logic will induce people to think otherwise, because stories exist lawlessly, perched outside the dominion of reason. Where rationality has no sway, our imaginations soar. But the idea that most appeals to our imagination is the grandest and most dangerous fiction of all: that what feels like the truth must, in fact, be true.

The power of slick narrative is far more compelling than the dry prose of carefully argued evidence. It is why we are so timid and unsure in our dealings with the extremists in our backyard, why we are so impatient with our short lived forays into democracy. For decades, we have been drip-fed the narrative of the heroic mujahideen freedom fighters-fully supported by the United States-and the Pakistan army, the one true dependable institution that stands like a bright line between us and the darkness of India, cast always in the role of defenders of the faith.

The power of this narrative is awe-inspiring. It has emboldened dictators and caused too many of us to question how the country can take up arms against groups that don the mantle of Jihad; they have become the princes of our narrative, infallible by virtue of their role. Only through the story have they found apologists for their hideous actions.

To turn our gaze outwards: our proximity to India offers staggering possibilities for trade and mutual benefit. But no proposals or projections (and there have been many) will ever dent the faith in the trusted narrative: that India is not only the villain, but a storybook villain. Their gains are our losses and vice versa. It is a simple and deadly narrative device. Consequently, mutual benefit is an idea that most Pakistanis cannot, in their heart of hearts, grasp in terms of India.

Perhaps someone could argue that even with our prided nuclear deterrence, even with Indias new position in the eyes of the world, even with the security provided by trade, India would still be an aggressor nation. The problem with the supremacy of narrative is not that such an argument could be made, but that it leaves no room for reasoned debate whatsoever. For the story to go on, India must always be our cardboard villain, by virtue of being India, and so our true enemies, those who would destroy us like a cancer in our hearts, are spared the fullness of our righteous fury.

We are not the only ones so afflicted. The power of narrative in the Unites States, for example, is at least equally staggering. The fiction of WMDs in Iraq was so great that it silenced every proof. After 9/11, Republicans convinced a frightened polity that they must sacrifice their liberties for their freedom, and no one picked up a thesaurus. No doubt India, too, believes in a narrative that is the mirror of our own: inverted, and equally untrue.

It is irrelevant: we cannot judge ourselves by the failings of others, but by the successes we aspire to.

What makes the best stories truly powerful is the proverbial grain of truth. US foreign policy has often acted against our interests. Some in India do truly wish us terrible harm. Democracy is indeed a chaotic mess that can take decades to evolve. But we must parse the grain from the chaff, a task as thankless and unromantic as it is necessary.

The worlds complexities are made up of more shades than we can imagine. To be open-minded makes many of us profoundly uncomfortable. It means letting go of the story, our place in it, and becoming adrift in a chaotic world where right and wrong are woven into an incomprehensible tapestry.

I am no purist; if the truth were of no practical help I would be content to let it rot. But if we are blind to the awkward and messy truths of the world we will stumble forever, never knowing the way forward.