Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to listen to a foreigner, a British working in Pakistan, talking about his book manuscript about his host country for the last five years, his Canadian wife’s childhood land, and their three young children born in Pakistan. Matthew Vaughan had set out to write a positive book about Pakistan, a counterweight to all the rest of articles and books, which hits the eye in the major bookshops in the country. “Just go to Saeed Book Bank or Mr Books in Islamabad, and you get a depressing number of book covers and book titles, explained the writer and teacher.

Matthew is right; the mostly negative books, some would telling reality as it is, are about politics in Pakistan, the changing of rulers from civilian to military over the decades after independence, authoritarian versus democracy. There are books about wars in the region, indeed in Afghanistan, especially after 9/11, often with focus on terrorism; there are books, or chapters in books, about the unresolved Kashmir issue; there are books about the sad India-Pakistan relations. On the other hand, most recent articles about the Pakistan-China relations are almost always positive.

True, I see fewer books than I would like about the huge class differences, documenting and analysing how the upper classes and the upper middle classes are amassing wealth and taking money out of the country, sending their youngsters abroad for education, and living on the shoulders of the working people of the land. More should also be written about the lack of good education and health for all, with the divided private-government systems. It also seems to be old-fashioned to focus on employment issues, labour unions, little upward class mobility, and other things that require political solutions, not just charity. But these issues should not be written about in propagandistic books and biased studies; they need systematic and sober work by professionals, civil society organisations and politicians – and a lot of popular newspaper and journal articles.

But now I must be careful, otherwise I fall in the same pitfall as Matthew Vaughan warned us against. My defence, though, would be that I am a social scientist, and then it is my duty to be critical, based on data and insight that I have, not on popular talk. Again, it is my duty to be constructive and fair. Also, it is my duty to write about positive initiatives and developments. That we social scientists often forget.

No, not everybody is kind, not in Pakistan or any other country. And I do think that the way we in the Nordic countries have managed to make kindness and fairness into practical politics, is essential. Charity is handouts from the rich to the poor, on the terms of the rich. Many countries can learn from the ‘Scandinavian model’. In Pakistan, we must never accept and get used to the huge inequalities we see. Indeed not in America, the world’s richest country, where they cannot even get around to having a fair health system, yet, spending more money on health per person than anyone else, but not distributing it equally. Alas, in the wealthy Europe, including the Nordic countries, inequalities are also growing – and renewed efforts of the labour unions and the left are needed. Often, refugees and immigrants do not do as well as those who start with more baggage and thicker wallets. But we like to talk about those who do well, forgetting those who don’t.

On that note, let me recall how kind many ordinary Pakistanis have been to Afghan refugees who have come and stayed here for decades. There is material for many positive books in the Afghan refugee history in Pakistan!

Matthew Vaughan read just a few of the fifteen stories in his book at the event last Sunday. He said he was continuing writing more stories from Pakistan, the land he and his family have come to love. It struck me and other members in the audience that many positive stories can best be told by fiction writers, not by writers of research reports and books by journalists cum specialists. Fiction writers’ books must also be based on facts; the more a writer knows, and the deeper compassion he or she has, the better the story.

It should also be added: reality is not one story; reality is hundreds of stories. Besides, a story is not just what is told; it is how it is told and how the readers can be inspired to feel with the characters in stories, yes, how we can invent our own stories and seek more information. When Mohsin Hamid in ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (2007) writes about Erica and Changez, we have to imagine details about them ourselves; the first-class writer only gives us the framework, based on deep knowledge, experience and reflection. A good writer helps us see the world around us. A positive man like Matthew Vaughan also uses his index finger and tells us in didactical ways what we should look for; we should try to see what he has seen. All writers do that, but it should be done indirectly.

And then, should knowledge, insight and compassion lead to action?

Not always, and what is action? But it is important that we learn and feel compassion with people around us, near and far away; it is a gift from God that we can do that. If we can, we can join organisations, interest groups, NGOs, maybe political parties, and so on, and help change conditions that are bad. We can speak and write about what we see even without trying to change things. Yet, it is important that we have our own attitudes and values right. Writing books is telling others what we think; and reading books, learning in general, is to get background for our own opinions. We grow as human beings, and we can use it in our everyday lives.

I thank Matthew for having told his stories, although thus far just a bit of all that he has noticed around him. I wait for more stories, and then I will learn from what he has seen – and I will write my own stories, too, if not in articles and books, then just in my heart and mind.