The Dawn: April 01, 2016

Punjab Notes: Lahore: nightmares and birds

Mushtaq Soofi 

What we see these days along the main roads of Lahore or at the kerbside is a little unusual; some strange looking guys holding white plastic bags in their hands which they wave at the motorists and motor cyclists, from a discreet distance of course. The bags have something red in them. You can glance at the shreds of meat? Don’t pay close attention while driving.

A big bird swooping close to your wind screen can startle you, causing you to lose control of the wheels for a moment. Don’t panic. If you are interested in solving this little mystery, pull up your vehicle. Ask the guy standing at the kerbside as to what’s he trying to sell? Pieces of meat! But why pieces, why here? The merchandise is meant to be some sort of offering (Sadqa) to be offered to the birds in a bid to ward off evil. Measuring by the number of people who offer the offerings one can infer that the city has the palpable presence of evil. Evil as we all know is traditionally associated with the dark. It usually nestles in the bed of night when the movement of the man-made world and that of natural world too slows down. Most of humans have their sleep at night. Why humans need sleep?

“….Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care” says Shakespeare articulating the generally held view. He may not be right in his answer. But hunger for answer has always been there. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1758: “Sleep is a natural state in which a great part of every life is passed…. Yet of this change so frequent, so great, and so necessary, no researcher has yet found either the efficient or final cause or can tell by what power the mind and body are thus chained down in irresistible stupefaction….”

Restorative theory seems to have been replaced by what Wilse B. Webb, an authority on Sleep, says, “the notion that sleep is an adoptive process that evolved out of a species-environment interaction”.


Whether or not we know the “efficient or final cause” of sleep, we do sleep. In Lahore at least this is what most of the people do every night. Oddly many of them in their sleep hear evil and see evil. Evil seems to be a nocturnal spectre that appears as something internal rather than external, subjective rather than objective because it comes assuming the diverse forms of nightmares. While in sleep many are lulled by dreams but many more are unhinged at emotional and psychological level by nightmares because of the very peculiar nature of the images they see against their will. If you ask a social scientist, he will tell you that the evil that stalks so many citizens of Lahore in the form of nightmares is embedded in the conditions created by ruling class, state institutions, clergy and international imperialist powers with geo-political interests in the region. Just have a look at how one is forced by circumstances beyond his control to spend his time in a broad daylight. No matter what they do, no matter where they go, they are constantly haunted by the things that are intangible but have threateningly concrete presence; fear and anxiety are their unwelcome but inseparable companions. They don’t know who among them is going to get hit by assassin’s bullet, which place is about to be blasted by improvised explosive device or where the brainwashed teenage suicide bomber may run amok with the intent of killing as many as possible. At the end of the day when night comes they are like Sylvia Plath’s “Insomniac”: “The night is only a sort of carbon paper, blue-black, with much poked periods of stars, letting in the light, like death, behind all things/ He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness, stretching its fine irritating sand in all directions”.

And if they fall asleep because of sheer exhaustion or because of a dose of pills with “poppy-sleepy colors”, they see with their shut eyes strangely frightening unconnected sequences of unintelligible images called nightmares. Nightmares, not interpreted or not interpretable, come to be perceived as handiwork of ghosts, apparitions and other wicked creatures which supposedly personify evil. Freud and Jung are for the academics. We have our own indigenous interpreters of nightmares; quasi-religious figures and expert magicians claiming arcane knowledge offer their mantras to get rid of the dreadful evil that is about to make the private world of the emotionally and psychologically afflicted persons topsy-turvy where they are sure of nothing. “Make an offering of meat to ward off the evil”, they advise. Meat is expensive. A goat or a lamb may not be affordable for most of the people.The pieces of meat are. They are to be thrown to the birds of prey which in Lahore invariably are kites. One can’t be sure about the disappearance of evil but one can be sure about the fast dwindling small beautiful birds as a result of feeding the predators whose ever increasing population mercilessly hunt sparrows, parrots, nightingales, doves, pigeons and scores of other species. The lords of the city don’t see as if they have their eyes gouged out. Late Taufiq Raffat, the finest Pakistani poet of English language, who was not a great optimist, hoped that in the coming horrors of this world “the sparrows will survive”. Looking at the guys with red plastic bags along our roads we can’t be sure that in a decade or so, we will be able to watch anything that flies and is not predator. —

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page