Talagang town is the headquarter of Talagang Tehsil, district Chakwal. Surrounded by barren, limestone hills of the Salt Range, this town of around 70,000 odd residents is located roughly half an hour off Balkasar interchange on the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway. Two months ago, during a trip to Mianwali, I had the chance to pass through the town, which like most others in Punjab, was populated on either side of a major road. There were shops, and banks, and Katrina Kaif billboards. There were schools, colleges, and, eerily enough, a gaudily decorated private hospital. There were mosques - plenty of them, of all denominations and sizes, and advertising hoardings, preaching the wonders of calling your ‘friends’ after mid-night. There was a lot of hustle and bustle (11 am on a Friday), and intermittent indication that the 80-year-old road was fighting a losing battle with 4 wheeled modernity.
The other end of town was marked by an enormous board that read ‘Welcome to New Talagang Housing Society’, ‘A modern housing society with all amenities for a comfortable living’. On one side of the board, a smiling couple was pointing, one assumes, in the general direction of this suburban sanctuary.
Welcome to small-town Punjab – 21st century edition.
You see, the thing is that gated communities are the norm in a fast-suburbanizing city like Lahore. With 10 million people, and a population growth plus migration rate refusing to wane, more and more people want security, wider roads, and a neighborhood park that would raise the value of their 500 square yard corner-plot.
But you’d think that’s Lahore, not a Tehsil headquarter of an arid, barren district like Chakwal.
Each time the final rites of Pakistan are written - and they are almost every other day - the story of the mobile phone vendor in Talagang town will almost inevitably get missed. Pakistan’s story is about crisis, about instability, about high-political intrigue, and remote controlled drones. About terrorists, and ‘jihadis’, Islamists, and Khakis, venal politicians, and self-serving bureaucrats.
Hollywood stuff on a country that’s often presented as the pesky third child the world really didn’t want to have.
The humanizing flip side, which is more often than not an articulation of misguided optimism, is almost always based on some vague notion of persistence and resilience in the Pakistani polity. ‘Oh, but they’ve survived so much and yet they still have the courage to host fashion shows’. As one friend, after reading another such account of the ‘other’ Pakistan caustically said, ‘making efforts to survive and subsist are basic human traits, not a unique virtue’.
Pakistan as a whole, and Punjab specifically has been grappling with modernization, urbanization, and growth for the last 60 odd years. The unfortunate thing here is that this engagement of society with itself is terribly boring. Who wants to write about the three generations it took for the family of a postal clerk from Jhang to build a house in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority? Or the two generations it took for the family of a migrant worker in Dubai to open a shop in Chakwal and settle in New Talagang Housing Society?
The fact of the matter is that these things are more pervasive than the barbaric ‘Talibans’ or the underground house music scene in Lahore. There are multiple stories being written across the province, and in a wider sense, across the country that all give indication of a society finally becoming comfortable with a consumption lifestyle. Talagang, and one simply can’t stress this enough, is just one small town out of literally hundreds. There are Katrina Kaif billboards, schools, colleges, bank branches, and mobile phone vendors in each one of them.
Pakistan has seen urbanization rise from a paltry 14 percent to 35 percent officially, and according to some, 40-45 percent unofficially. Contribution of manufacturing and urban services to the GDP stand at around 74 percent, and the corresponding labor force statistic is around 63 percent. The urban consuming class, much discussed, rarely measured, now stands at around 15-20 million by the most conservative estimates. And another large segment of urbanized consumers will be joining their ranks in the next 10 to 15 years.
If it wasn’t clear already, this really isn’t an attempt to ‘set the record straight’ as far as Pakistan’s imagery is concerned. Frankly speaking, what is said and written in the international media makes little difference to the vast, and mostly godforsaken, majority. What, however, is worrying is the parroting of Pakistan’s tottering condition by the domestic metropolitan class, who ostensibly, have every chance to observe society for themselves. Flitting between the ‘this state has collapsed’ to the ‘Talibans are coming’ polemic, they’re amplifying the distress to a point where the metronomic mundaneness making things tick in this country is completely forgotten. This is further exacberated by an understanding of politics that focuses almost solely on ‘corruption’, ‘bad governance’ and a perceived disconnect between ‘feudal’ politicians and the common man (whoever that is).
The truth is that this disconnect exists only for a small portion of the public, i.e. people like us. The entire political economy of this country is run on the basis of patronage networks that start from a local bigwig MNA, to the local trader and shopkeeper, right down to the daily-wage laborer who works at some construction site. At each level, there are all-pervasive linkages being formed between actors on a daily basis. Yes, the people lower down in the food chain get a rough deal out of this, and yes, the elite is unresponsiveness to the working classes, but there is a system in place, and that system is entrenched in a very dynamic society.
Akbar Zaidi, a man who we should all pay attention to, writing in 1991 said that ‘feudalism’ as a mode of production ended in Pakistan after the Green Revolution. People had unprecedent opportunities for mobility, whether it was because of a metaled road being built, or by the advent of television, or, as was the case for many, by the migration of a family member to the Gulf and beyond. It is the same mobility that has led to the growth of Talagang town as a complete urban center, with linkages to all parts of the country. Provincial differences aside, no place in Pakistan has remained stuck in the 18th or 19th century. Each and every village has been touched by modernization, consumerism, and some manner of change.
While the world become increasingly convinced of the ‘wilderness’ outside a few islands (Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad), the rest of the country is busy charting its way through the mess, away from the blinkered eyes of the western press and its peddlers in Pakistan. As architect and social observer Arif Hasan puts it, there is an unplanned revolution taking place across cities and small towns in Pakistan, and the future of this country rests on how well we understand and harness the potential on offer.
Originally published in The Review (Pakistan Today) on 25/09/2011