When I was a boy, I had a ‘family teacher’ who came to our house. This gentleman taught several of my cousins, my siblings and me for years. He was a hard-working man, not sparing the rod (or electric wire for that matter) and taught us many things: learn by rote, regurgitate on paper. Don’t worry about understanding what the essay says or implies; memorise it. Reading storybooks is a waste of time better spent ‘rattafying’ blocks of text. Stories in magazines such as Bachon Ki Dunya, Bachon Ka Baagh and Jugnoo, or involving Amr Ayyar, Tarzan, Chan Changloo or Chaloosak Maloosak zipping off in their space ship to exciting new worlds are especially no-no.
Fantastic tales are stories for children, we were told. To be discarded as one grows up, if not before.
My parents supported my teacher’s methods because they thought he was right. I grew up in a joint family (read tribal) system, and our elders were (are) old-fashioned. Education must be instilled into our youth with a vengeance, as children are incapable of learning any other way, they believed. A bit of caning, a dash of slapping, a flourish of the chappal — and all would be well.
Of course, they were wrong.
Of the children my respected teacher taught – 20 or so – for more than a decade, hardly any put their education to use. Not one pursued a professional career: entrepreneurship, media, arts, civil service, education, public health or law — or if they did, it was at for-profit colleges to ‘get degreed’ for societal purposes. Nearly all of my cousins ended up joining their respective family businesses: garments, shoes, shopkeeping, construction or renting out farmland.
I expect many readers are familiar with such stories. How many years are wasted all over Pakistan studying everything but learning nothing? Why does it happen?
My answer: The students and my respected teacher had no imagination.
Lack of imagination meant they had no vision and no conviction. They weren’t even interested in the possibility that any of the three attributes might be useful.
Is it a shock to anyone that Pakistan has been in the grip of an existential crisis for the last 60-some years? Outlining the root causes and effects of it is outside the scope of this article, but I will take a moment here to make a (seemingly) preposterous claim: Encouraging science fiction, fantasy, and horror readership has the potential to alleviate or fix many of Pakistan’s problems.
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There are innumerable advantages to reading fiction, but my focus in this article is on speculative fiction, often understood to be science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Hereon, I will use science fiction as an umbrella term to include all aspects and sub-genres of speculative fiction, including hard and sociopolitical science fiction, fantasy of all sorts, magical realism, slipstream, surrealism, fabulism, the uncanny and horror).
The literary tradition of science fiction (or fantastika, using literary critic John Clute’s term) is ancient; some might say it goes all the way back to the Epic of Gilgameshwritten in The Land Between the Two Rivers (Mesopotamia). From more recent times – the last two thousand years – we can include Ovid’s Metamorphosis, quite a bit of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Dante’s Inferno and, from the Islamic world, Alif Laila Wa Laila (A Thousand and One Nights), Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Talism Hoshruba, Shahnameh by Firdousi, and so on, all the way to present day novels and short stories.
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I think most science fiction writers, readers and critics would agree with this: Science fiction is the literature that explores the boundaries of knowledge. While I won’t go into details here, that definition is mostly applicable to speculative fiction’s sub genres, including magical realism, fantasy and horror; it’s just the class of knowledge that changes within each.
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Except in the rarest of circumstances, no child is born without curiosity, hope and imagination. Much like self-preserving reflexes and instincts, these are evolutionarily designed to help the infant anticipate and respond to stimuli, seek out, learn, worry, and delight. We know from scientific studies that imagination and pretend-play aid in cognitive and social development. They not only arm the child to deal with the real world, but also play a part in establishing the identity of the child as separate from others, teaching them divergent thinking (a thought process that generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions), cognitive flexibility and self-regulation, which include reduced aggression, civility and empathy.
Any of those sound like a good idea to teach your average Pakistani?
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Mimetic fiction often reports much and resolves little. Science fiction in its imaginative glory seeks to report and resolve and recreate a world filled with possibility. It provides us with so many lenses to look at the world around us, lighting up minds with revelation — until one exclaims that they have had a vision of a brave new world, or another jumps up screaming eureka! and runs naked down the street, letting the sun of discovery and hope beat down on their naked shrivelled skin.
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We Pakistanis are living in a country that has become the perfect dystopian setting, and we are so visionless and inured to the grim dark that we simply do not care. Reading escapist, fabulist or symbolical fiction is one way to regain hope, mutual tolerance and empathy.