The Sin of Honesty

  • Some years ago my wife and I travelled to Europe. This was our first ever trip to my mother’s country of birth, Denmark. We had gotten married the year before and I was intent on showing my spouse “my other heritage”. My wife had never met my Danish family and i had not been back to visit them in nearly three years. Since I had always had a very close relationship with my maternal side, I felt it was important that my wife get to meet them. But what I didn’t realize was that this trip would in fact be the first time my wife would actually meet ME.

    Though we had known each other for nearly 5 years before I took her to Denmark, my wife was shocked to see the person I became in Denmark. The day after we arrived, over breakfast my wife turns to me and said “I’ve never seen you without your masks on”. As a person who believes firmly in complete honestly and transparency between spouses I couldn’t help getting a little agitated over this perceived assault on my integrity. After all, I had nothing to hide from the woman I would spend my life with.

    But as a thought about it deeper, I realized that my wife’s observation was spot on. She truly had never seen me without my masks. It’s just that after 3 consecutive years in Pakistan I had simply forgotten I was wearing them. You see in Pakistan one learns very early in life that it is every individual’s responsibility to make his or her personality palatable to whichever audience is before them. Parents, teachers, family, friends and colleagues all require the individual to present themselves in an acceptable way. And so a good Pakistani learns to create and wear the appropriate mask at all times.

    Once at the tender age of 14 I found myself in a discussion with an aunty friend of the family. We were discussing what the youth was up to and how we felt about it. As the discussion progressed the aunty asked me if I smoked. I had been raised to always tell the truth, so I responded honestly to the aunty that indeed I did. I didn’t realize what a sin I had committed. The very same aunty had later complained to my family that I was “badtameez” because I

    “should have respected my elders”.

    Looking back I realize that her reaction was neither unreasonable nor uncommon within the context of Pakistani culture. In Pakistan, revealing an unpleasant truth is often worse than the unpleasantness of the truth itself. In fact, like the aunty, Pakistanis consider it their right to condemn those who reveal these unpleasant facts.

    Pakistan’s history is awash with this sort of thinking. When the media started digging into the issue of faked degrees of various parliamentarians, many of them outright condemned the media for doing so. So too did the judiciary, when questions were raised about the perks and benefits they were receiving beyond those officially allocated to them. In both cases the reason for condemning the media was not that the reports were false, but rather that it was “bringing a bad name to the nation”. Rather that ascribing the embarrassment to the nation to the corruption and dishonesty of the judiciary and parliamentarians, all blame was placed on those who had the temerity to reveal the truth.

    Most recently, a journalist did a survey on the tax returns of parliamentarians. His survey revealed that only a small minority of parliamentarians actually pay taxes consummate with their incomes. Yet upon these revelations, many parliamentarians immediately insisted on an inquiry to find out how the journalist had acquired this data so the leak may be punished. That such dishonesty by elected officials, whose rhetoric never ceases to laud their own “integrity”, is unacceptable never seemed to cross anybody’s mind. The only sin that needed to be addressed in this situation was that of the person who had the audacity to reveal these facts.

    In Pakistan there is a very clear preference for form over function. It is more important that things look alright rather than being alright. And that is essentially what the aunty wanted from me. She wanted me to present to her a picture of a “wholesome” youth that fit in with her perception of how the youth should be. In fact by bursting her bubble and portraying a real picture of what the youth of the day was up to, I had overstepped a boundary that most Pakistanis take for given. I had spoken an unpleasant truth forcing the aunty to pull her head out of the sand and she certainly didn’t like it.

    Thankfully my parents appreciated the fact that I spoke the truth, but imagine how many kids in Pakistan have been told the opposite. I will never understand how anybody can expect our society to produce honest people when honesty is valued so little and fantasy so highly. We don’t even realize it but in Pakistan honesty is a sin, and in trying to operate in this society we slowly but surely discard honesty in favor of the correct mask. And eventually we not only lose the ability to speak the truth, but indeed to hear it and deal with it.

    I thank the stars that my wife saw me without my many masks. IT simplified our relationship and allowed her to deal with me rather than with my “husband mask”.

    Of course when we returned to Pakistan the masks came right back on. I do after all have to live and operate in this society. But I every day I pray that this society learns to accept itself for what it is rather than what it feels it ought to be so its people may reveal who they are rather than spending all their energies fooling the world, and most importantly themselves.

  • Dear Bajwa

    The trouble with a mask is it never changes

  • باجوہ جی

    آپکی خوبصورت تحریر سے مجھے یہ لگا کے پاکستانکے علاوہ باقی پوری دنیا میں انسان اپنے اصل روپ میں نظر آتے ہیں

  • اجھونس بھائی باجوہ صاحب کا دل توڑ رہے ہیں بڑی محنت سے ماسک اتروانے کی کوشش کی ہے ..لیکن ایسا لگ رہا ہے کسی نیے ماسک کے پیچھے چھپا بھی جا رہا ہے

  • @ ajhons

    Of course Pakistan is in no way unique in this matter. Nor have i claimed such in a thing in what i wrote.

    But not only is it pervasive in our society, it is in fact one of the factors that severely inhibit our nation's ability to progress.

    So while it may occur in many societies in the world, what difference does that make? DOes it make it any less true for Pakistan? Does it make it excusable? Does it mean that us pakistanis are any less responsible for acknowledging and treating it? I think not.

    Anyhow do you agree or disagree with the observations i have made?

  • Anyhow do you agree or disagree with the observations i have made?

    ١٠٠ فیصد مانتے ہیں ہم آپکی بات کو .

    میں خود جب صبح گھر سے نکلتا ہوں دفتر کے لیے تو ایک خول پہن لیتا ہوں جو شام پانچ بجے تک پہنے رہتا ہوں .کیا کریں مجبوری ہے اگر خول نا پہنیں تو لوگ کہتے ہیں

    "ارے یہ تو ننگا ہے "

  • HK Bajwa,

    Your post certainly has a lot to think about for people of conscious. Majority of people in my social circle of Pakistani origin, who now live in the West, would candidly admit that they used to lie more, back bite more and were jealous of others more when they were in Pakistan. I myself consider a batter human, a better Muslim even by a Mullah’s standard.

    But to give you an insinuation about the other side of the picture, the West has learned and in fact has instituted how to avoid the truth or lies if you want to show the same thing with a cloak. It is true that people will try to be quite on the first place to avoid the truth but even when they lie, it will be tremendously difficult for an ordinary person to figure out where the truth and lie is. Things will be muddled in the ambiguity of language and the art of artificial smiles so much that you have to accept the statement as a truth. Defense lawyers and insurance companies explicitly ask their client not say anything or admit fault. Pakistanis are far behind in learning this art. But off course I agree with what you say about Pakistani society at first.