There’s nothing like interacting with parents to realize what is shaping the next generation. I used to teach creative writing and English literature to ninth graders, and when the time came for them to choose their O Level subjects, there they were: the inevitable parents of bright children who just couldn’t see why their daughters needed to continue reading English. What use will it be? they would ask, genuinely puzzled. How will reading ‘storybooks’ equate to a dependable career? How is literature or history anything more than a lark, a pleasant little traipse through the academic garden before ending up at the ponderous gate of science and mathematics? For years people would ask if my literature degree meant I read ‘storybooks’ – I keep putting that in inverted commas because I cannot seriously equate an epic work of art to a ‘storybook’; the former is life-changing and magnificent and the latter is Tales from the Faraway Tree. No, I didn’t read storybooks. I didn’t spend a very long time writing papers and exams on Matilda, I spent it trying to understand life through the lens of art and beauty. For many well-meaning but limited parents, this basically means I was killing time before I got married.

In Pakistan at least, it is a constant struggle to have the arts taken seriously. When I say arts I mean a broad spectrum of disciplines and include subjects like history and literature, photography, theatre, music etcetera. Architecture is still taken more seriously because it involves maths and one can make a perfectly respectable living from it. But what we desperately need as a nation is more art. There are more lawyers than we could ever need and I’m pretty sure there are really too many accountants and telecom engineers floating about. We all know someone—or are that person— who could have been a wonderful design artist or absolutely brilliant actor but ended up becoming an engineer or a doctor with that mendacious assurance that one can always do ‘these things’ on the side. We all know how many times that happens, and so our pool of creative energy dwindles, and is considered to be a frivolous and foolish thing to pursue.

The saddest part of all of this is that the humanities are named that for a reason. Without literature or music our lives would be one-dimensional. Happily enough, they would be much less technologically advanced too, because creative thinking isn’t the sole realm of ‘art’; it is the reason why innovation exists. Art helps us to look at our lives from new eyes and from a perspective that might unnerve and confuse but ultimately uplift. It takes us out of ourselves. It civilizes us because it humbles us. A ghazal sung just right can move you to tears, and in allowing that to happen one opens oneself to the power of things we can’t explain—gut reactions, something instinctive and visceral that moves us deep inside our bones.

It suits many people to control art, because liberation is a messy, sprawling, inclusive beast. It makes people unpredictable and uninhibited, and to many this is utter and complete insanity. If our society weren’t so repressed, if we were a people who danced more and sang more and laughed more maybe we wouldn’t be on the brink of violence all the time. We wouldn’t be the kind of people who lynch young men and women in public, who take their shoes off and beat policemen and henchmen and reckless drivers into a pulp. And we would perhaps be gentler, because we would understand how history works. How a poem can give words to your sadness or joy that you never knew existed. How music needs nothing but itself to speak to you, or a dance performance more language than the fluid grace of the human form. Instead, we continue to be made to feel embarrassed by our emotions, our imaginations controlled and our movement restricted because at best it’s all quite silly and at worst it is immoral.

This is all quite abstract, I recognize. But we are still that nation of people that knows some poetry or the other, who loves music (even if it is of the Indian film song variety) and who do still break into spontaneous shoulder-shimmies watching cricket. There is hope, but it’s a long and arduous road for the people trying to make it. We live in such terrible times that on the one hand the argument is always that making art is an exercise in futility—people are dying and we are in a state of war, wither theatre productions and art exhibitions? What that argument forgets is that without art we are without history. Without the poets who wrote about their war experiences we wouldn’t ever fully understand the horror of the World Wars. Without Iqbal, the entire movement for Independence wouldn’t have had the fire it did. Without photographers the ravages of famine, disease and oppression would dim in our memories. We need art to remind us what it means to be human. At the end of it, all human experience boils down to one thing: to connect, and art is the only language we have.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com