Subcontinental Divide - 2020


The Existential Threat of Knowledge

By Ahsen Jillani

Sometimes your needle is stuck in one place repeating the same thought over and over. But that's another problem—some people reading this don't know what that means, because they have never seen a record player. Six months into solitary confinement and the ghosts of confusion and doubt are doing the waltz with me in the depths of the nights. What do you know? What does anyone know? Is there alien DNA in the atmosphere of Venus? Did Donald Trump hire someone to take his SAT exams, as his niece and sister are confirming? Am I on Earth-1 or Earth-2? Who owns America now?

My mother was a judgmental and prejudiced person. She lived her life as an aristocrat with a bad attitude. Nobody was from her clan. These were the physicians to the Mughal emperors. They knew the art of healing. They knew the art of living. They knew the enormous burden they carried to cure the royalty of TB, of hemorrhoids, of syphilis. The burden was indeed enormous, and they had to be tall, white, beautiful people who would inspire confidence in the royalty. They had to be elitist—because that related to the product they were selling: eternal life for the elite.

I grew up conflicted. I never woke up and thought I had saved an emperor's life. I was just an average looking Indian sort of guy, and in the mirror saw no reason to hold my head so high that it would give me whiplash. And then there was that other problem—my dad. This medium sized Indian looking man (as opposed to the tall, white, green-eyed Arabs from my mom's side) seemed to care nothing about caste or creed. As kids, we looked at him whenever a moral or ethical dilemma was blocking our lives. This chubby darkish Punjabi guy always had one answer—a smile.

To be honest, in the scheme of things, we lean toward what is fair, what is true, what is honest and what is pure; so, we kids were more influenced by the rare few daily moments with my dad, than the many hours with my very stern mom. We instinctively wanted to be in that ocean of unity where you feel soothed by the fellow human next to you; where you ask no questions, because you are naked under the gaze of the gods.

So, shadow dancing with ghosts in these nights, I saw my dad raising a glass of scotch toward me from some dark corner as global economies sink and we restructure on top of the restructure we just restructured two weeks before the previous month's restructure. So many people I know are having hours and years of zoom meetings with spouses passing naked behind them, dogs barking while they are threatening unemployed people with lawsuits for late bills, with people literally going to sleep in the middle of the meetings.

We are getting it. We are finally getting it. It's not about another 2-hour meeting. This pandemic may be finally hammering some sense into us. If the world around us collapses, we are then forced into this horrid existential dilemma about what we are; about what we can possibly do to put food on the table—protect our loved ones. Sleep again like cavemen after a successful hunt. Smile, at any spontaneous moment, because a smile, it is some surreal gift, and nobody has promised us that gift – it is a celebration of a moment in a life.

Over the years, I have had expansive discussions with people over blogs and social media—and I have scoured the online world to appear intelligent. You can now maintain an endless conversation with a top authority on any subject in the world (with a 2-minute time lapse) about anything you want. I mean, put me against a quantum physicist or even a top virologist and I can guarantee that Google will win against some gray-haired old man who got his degree in 1965 by just reading papers in a library (Library: An ancient building where people sat around reading stuff and taking notes. Died around 1992).

I'm numb now, six months into solitary. What does anything mean? What is disinformation or misinformation? What is information—period? What are media agendas, the political agendas, the billionaire agendas—what are the Putin agendas? And yes….what does it matter.

In 1985, 18 hours before going into bypass surgery in Washington, I asked my dad, “Why didn't you invest in the stock market? You would have been mega-rich now?"

“That's gambling for rich to get richer," he said, smiling. “You need people with skills to run an economy—not gamblers."

That has all come true and come to pass now. No stockbroker can look at my roof, or my car, or the rotting tree in my yard and say, “Yeah, let's put about 75 percent in Blue Chips and the remainder in startups recommended by the 25-year-olds fresh out of Ivy League schools." Somebody has the do the real work now. You know, “Skilled Labor."

Jobs. Knowledge. Depth. Smiles.

But maybe, that's passé.

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.