Spare the cliches

March 1, 2015

A cliché insists that we continue to look at and react to new, unfamiliar things and events in the same old ‘time-honoured’ way

Spare the cliches

Zamir Niazi, the chronicler of the state and non-state curbs on the Pakistani press, once said to me that before leaving the world he wished to see the day when floods and heavy rains are reported in Urdu newspapers without the abuse of the following line from Mir’s poetry: 

Perhaps he thought that such an event would give him a sign of hope -- as the dove returning to Noah’s ark with a leaf in her beak did to its passengers; a hope that Pakistani journalism was going to come out of the high waters of verbosity, sentimentalism and inability to see and present things as they are.

Zamir Niazi died a disappointed man. The worldview ruling Pakistani citizens -- as shown by the workings of the country’s legislators, policy-makers, agitators, journalists, sports-managers, judges and others -- continues to move away from a realistic assessment of what is happening to us.

One of the devastating results of the turmoil is the unending series of incidents of mass and individual target-killing that everybody seems to have learned to take as an everyday occurrence. As a cliché is known as something which makes one’s vision hazy, I tend to classify this reality as such. I remember when a friend working in an Urdu evening newspaper used the catch-phrase ‘Qiamat-e-Sughra’ to describe one of the earlier incidents of mass killing in Karachi in the late 1980s. When the incident was followed the very next day by another such incident -- even bigger than the first one -- he was at a complete loss for a catchier phrase to adorn his headline.

That, incidentally, was the beginning of the new wave during the 1990s of swearing in and dismissal of weak, powerless -- clichéd -- democratic governments in Islamabad. These palace intrigues gave our journalists -- later TV anchors -- a practical excuse for ignoring the more sinister reality on the ground and an interesting pastime of continuously predicting the sacking of yet another ‘ruling’ clique in the capital, overusing another line from be-chara Mir:


Cliché is our collective refusal to countenance change. However, it is hardly effective in stopping the steady process of transformation at every level of our national life. The ever-increasing gap between reality and our perception thereof is producing chaos, anger and the resulting violence. A cliché insists that we continue to look at and react to new, unfamiliar things and events in the same old, ‘time-honoured’ way that our upbringing as individuals and groups has taught us. It is, to say the least, getting more and more difficult as time passes.

There was a time when one used to find the following ‘truism’ inscribed on the back of public coaches and trucks plying on the nation’s highways:


This beautifully rhymed piece of local wisdom expressed our age-old belief in a system of social hierarchy which put everyone in his place. It was considered a safely ingrained consensus that those coming from a high-caste background have a birthright to wield power and cannot possibly make a mistake, while those born to serve and be ruled are hardly ever obedient and faithful enough to satisfy their born masters. The encouraged currency of this popular saying was no doubt a masterly way to inculcate the desired values of obedience and faithfulness in those who were hopelessly prone to mistakes in their behaviour.

Also read: He said he said

The fact that one comes across the wise saying less frequently these days points to the possibility that truck artists -- and their clients -- may be losing their belief in the infallibility of rulers and decision-makers. The latter, on the other hand, seem to have become more solid in their traditional delusion that they are above making mistakes; they may have come to realise that to expect wafa from the wretched of the land was not a good idea after all.

For them, clichés provide comfortable excuses not to have to act as a situation demands.

If our neighbourhoods and cities are getting buried under the trash they regularly produce, it is generally considered sufficient to put a sign saying


next to a larger, more respectable-looking garbage dump and feel satisfied about the whole thing. Since adultery and promiscuity are haram according to the official religion, where is the need to find out if AIDS might be killing some in the Islamic Republic? This, of course, ignoring the stark fact that most citizens are deprived of a proper healthcare system and are forced to risk their lives, among other things, by the use of suspect syringes -- which is not considered haram, naturally.

This kind of diehard, clichéd thinking hopes to keep the womenfolk docile and well-behaved all their lives. Just as it desperately hopes to ‘jam the wheels’ of social and political change indefinitely.

Women, especially young women, are usually considered walking symbols of their male family members’ honour -- and hence more (or less, if you look at them from the other angle) than just human beings. In the case of a Pakistani actress or model deciding to be a bit bold in a movie scene or a photo shoot, or ordinary ghar ki izzat type young girls wanting to actively participate in a political demonstration, they immediately turn into deficient symbols of our national honour. This kind of diehard, clichéd thinking hopes to keep the womenfolk docile and well-behaved all their lives. Just as it desperately hopes to ‘jam the wheels’ of social and political change indefinitely. Whether this hope is going to be fulfilled, ‘only time will tell.’

It was in the same 1990s, when people of another part of the world, Bosnia Herzegovina, were going through the horrors of a much bloody ethnic conflict, that some enthusiastic nationalist declared on a wall in Sarajevo in bold, threatening letters: THIS IS SERBIA! The next morning someone else, probably a child, remarked under the graffiti in crooked, mocking handwriting: No, stupid, this is Post Office. The fight was on.

Spare the cliches