THE WAY IT WAS: Two chairs for democracy! —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

In the good old days people on horses, elephants or palanquins used to be arrayed on one side and the commoners on foot huddled together on the opposite side. Everyone knew who was who, what was his station and where he stood. There was martial law or just the law. The generals were either in or out

A visitor to Delhi can buy miniature paintings for a paltry sum. They are skilfully executed but a jumble of images lifted from various regional schools. It is a bit like the dish that in the Indian cuisine is called Thali. The Thali consists of several small metal bowls on a circular platter. The bowls contain vegetables and lintels. Thali can be had with plain phulkas but is generally preferred with deep fried puri. It includes a bit of everything but nothing substantial that can be relished on its own. It is a bit like the Mixed Grill for the carnivorous breed.

The miniatures up for sale in the craft shops are cooked up in a similar vein. You may find on a single sheet of paper a Rajput prince with a royal Mughal turban, dallying with a Pahari lady from the Punjab hills while Deccani maidens from Golconda and Ahmednagar prance about. The motley cast of human characters is surrounded by palms and fruiting trees, flowering vines, exotic birds and animals, also taken from different regional schools. These miniatures may appear pleasing at an indifferent glance, like most well-crafted object sold at airports, but are devoid of any real substance to chew upon. Every human, bird, bush and beast must hate living in it.

The comparison may not be funny but I am afraid our country is beginning to resemble a miniature executed in the same spirit. Let us study its forms and colours. Our picture shows whimsical conceits arranged in an unbalanced composition. The assembly of characters picked by the artist makes little sense to a dispassionate observer — politically or aesthetically. They are a motley crowd of rakshasas. There is a long train of pilgrims on their way not to Chaucer’s Canterbury but the GHQ. There is confusion all round. The terrorists are being chased, rockets launched, neighbourhoods bombed, criminals deified, law defiled and the opposition exiled. In the good old days people on horses, elephants or palanquins used to be arrayed on one side and the commoners on foot huddled together on the opposite side. Everyone knew who was who, what was his station and where he stood. There was martial law or just the law. The generals were either in or out. Now everything has been hybridised. You have generals in the cabinet, generals in the Senate, generals as governors, generals as ambassadors, generals as vice chancellors and many more generals. There are generals refusing to retire.

At the same time the politicians throng the space as never before. Generals adore them; politicians suck up as never before. Jointly they have civilised, stabilised and democratised the system. We have the best of who and what we want. Making laws is like ordering drinks in a pub. To dispense with the annoying political parties, democracy has been established at the grassroots level. The politicians who can agree on a common symbol can now be entrusted with the real tasks of running democracy. Democracy and the country are no longer at risk.

Every thing is doing so well now. The Official Jester, reeking of bad breath, can of course dilate on these achievements better than I. If some natives are restless and beating war-drums in remote places it does not matter. The fact is the whole world is ours. So what if we are hungry or without a job or don’t have a footpath to sleep on? But to continue with what I was saying, we have a splendid system going. Take it or leave it. The Great Thumb is on people’s pulse, ninety-six percent of them. Those who usurped Q from the Quaid have already told us that the Quaid should have learnt to dress better. A well-pressed khaki shirt and trouser looks so much better than a shabby shalwar and achkan. Actually the Quaid had a fundamental drawback in that he was frail and a mere politician. The way the system has been put in place is amazing. The political parties are all out and Q has a majority in the Assembly.

Hazard a guess how would all this look in a painting? Hell of a jumble. Everything is so unpredictable. You can mouth a promise and because of the shifting shadows retract it the next hour. The only unambiguous element in the miniature is as to who should be seated in the centre chair. Seated, not in one but in two chairs; wearing not one but two robes; accompanied by three brides, one short and portly, the second slim and tall, the third prettiest of them all. What I fail to understand is why anyone should want to sit in two armed chairs? Sitting in two armless ones may have been at least less painful.

Talking of chairs reminds me of Prof Sirajuddin. He was principal of Government College, Lahore, when a visitor was ushered into his office and introduced himself as a former student. Prof Siraj was bending over a file at the moment, writing a note. Without lifting his head, he courteously asked the visitor to take a chair and continued writing. After a short pause the visitor, wondering why the principal had not taken better notice of him, added: “Sir, when I left College I took the CSS examination. I have now become a deputy commissioner”. At which, Professor Siraj, once again without looking up, rejoined: “In that case, please have another seat.” Those were the good days. Try saying that to a DCO today. He will ask for the third chair.

Presuming that the viewer is not a ‘pseudo- intellectual’ and willing to surrender his sense of disbelief there is a lot that a contemporary political picture can offer — like the Delhi miniatures — in terms of humour, tears and a sense of the ridiculous, as well as a gross sense of the romantic. There is this tall Sohni from Gujrat who in spite of passing the screen test couldn’t be cast in the movie because she mumbled and no one understood what she said. Now she is saying bad things about the fair Heer from Jhang. Wasn’t it Kaidu who was designated by the poet to spread rumours against her? In any case, what is Heer — who belongs to a different tale — doing with Sohni? Was it nice for Heer to so blatantly abandon her Ranjhan and succumb to her dark ‘interior’ longings? The silly Sohni, still carrying a kacha khaki pot on her head, will never learn.

There are many other characters worthy of mention. A Rao who looked so elegant riding a camel is lost from the view in the belly of a tank. There are men of notes and goats with bags of dollar notes, and magicians who forge politicians. Pirates who play with loaded dice and toss coins in the air with rules like Heads they win, Tails you lose. Play if you like, otherwise out you go. Before I sign off this painting let me talk of Sassi pining abroad, with her Punnu incarcerated by Islamabad. In the past Sassi was buried in sand; today, she may be reborn again.

Considering that Two Chairs may hurt and Two Shirts be too tight, why not make up with everybody and ask for a cushion and sit upright in a single chair? Failing that one can only say: “Two Chairs for Democracy!”

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and political activist