In a series of steps announced last night by the prime minister of Pakistan at a special session of the National Assembly – steps that have taken the world by storm and raised Pakistan’s image manifold – the new airport at Multan has been named Dr Abdus Salam Airport to honour Pakistan’s first and only Nobel Prize winner. The prime minister observed that “for too long we have neglected this great human being because of views held by people who spread hate and intolerance.”
He added amidst thunderous applause that a new stamp was being issued on 29 January to mark Dr Salam’s birthday and declared it a public holiday. He said that steps had already been taken to preserve the small house he grew up in and the school he attended in Jhang. Both places, he added, were national monuments and would be suitably honoured. The prime minister’s speech was continuously interrupted by cries of “Well done!” “Bravo!” and “Pakistan Zindabad!” and one could see how visibly he was moved. He said that a man who had dedicated his life and work for the greater glory of Muslims everywhere, and in particular Pakistan, deserved to be a national hero. He announced that major roads in all cities would be named after the great scientist, thousands of scholarships in Dr Salam’s name would be given to outstanding students and researchers and international seminars would henceforth be held in his memory.
The prime minister added that as Dr Salam was the founding director of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), and establishment of the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), all three institutions would herewith carry Dr Salam’s name. Government College, Punjab University, the Institute of Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University and the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (Pinstech) at Nilore, Islamabad, would rename their physics departments, erect statues of the learned doctor and convene special meetings, programmes, workshops and seminars to inspire new students to follow in his footsteps. He said he was inspired by a decision taken in 1997 when the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, set up by Dr Salam in 1964, became Dr Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. The prime minister concluded that henceforth Dr Salam’s life and achievements would be part of the regular curriculum in all institutions, and that these were just a handful of measures that were being taken to give Dr Salam an honourable place that he so richly deserved. He assured the cheering house that more such steps were already being planned.
The prime minister’s government fell within 24 hours of announcing these measures.
Ah, what a scenario. Like a fairytale. It’s nice to “dream on,” as the saying goes, but the reality is painfully different. We know far too well that this is not a bridge we have yet to cross but a bridge we already have crossed. In our hate-filled, hell-fire vision of life, there is no room for the likes of Dr Salam. But I do think that after all the anger and frustration has been taken out of your system – if indeed this is possible – you should feel nothing but pity for this land we live in. You have to think that surely we must be amongst the most unfortunate people who in this new century don’t even have the basic necessities and whose people lead miserable lives. And yet, if all that is not bad enough, we are torn apart, end to end, by prejudice, hatred, venom, hypocrisy and intolerance. There is not a day in our lives when the fires of hate are not stoked and the macabre dance of death not played out.
One of the enduring things about mankind is the human spirit, the ability to rise above the ordinary, to view life on this blue planet with childlike innocence. But, sadly, those who see such visions are few. Most of us are in the vortex, tossed and thrown about. We really have no one to blame but ourselves. We can’t even pin this on the Americans. Impotent Pakistanis can only curse the system. They are incapable of finding solutions. They feel powerless to change things because nothing they say or do can outgun the forces of evil which are stronger than ever before.
And thus, to Dr Salam. If you surf the internet and type the words “Dr Abdus Salam” you are swamped with the work of an amazing man, who achieved distinctions beyond our imagination – an absolutely brilliant scientist and administrator, a great teacher and a man of great humility and decency. A true lover of the land that betrayed him, Pakistan.
Abdus Salam’s love for Pakistan was like a consuming passion. He longed to be here when circumstances forced him out of the country and he was never happy separated from the soil of the land where he was born. His abiding love for Pakistan remained within him and he did everything possible to improve things, particularly in his phenomenal scientific work that garnered him award after award, culminating in 1979 in the Nobel Prize in Physics. There were even more honours which seemed to trail him wherever he went and whatever he did. He was celebrated across the world which held him in awe. We denied him and exiled him but we could not force Dr Salam to let go of Pakistan. This country and its future was his guiding light – that and a faith that never shook or wavered.
When in 1996 death brought him back to his native land, the state stayed away, creating unnecessary hurdles while over 30,000 mourners paid silent homage to this great son of Pakistan. As in the case of an ordinary person, his body was bundled off quickly to Rabwah (now bizarrely called Chenabnagar), and there he was laid to rest close to the graves of his parents. Not content, we then defiled his simple grave in that small cemetery. A nameless magistrate’s orders obliterated the word “Muslim” from his headstone. The apt epitaph, “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” became the meaningless “First Nobel Laureate.” More madness on display, but hardly anyone spoke up. It’s a miracle we haven’t thought of bulldozing his grave, but who knows we might, should our piety drive us to Chenabnagar.
The pity is we will never see a man like Dr Salam in our midst. Not in a very long time, and, given the quality of those we see on the horizon, perhaps never. The world knows that. We don’t and we are the losers. Abdus Salam was always above our petty ways. If you look at his life, rising from the squalor of a small dusty village deep in middle Punjab to a place of global eminence, you might get an idea of this unique and amazing man’s achievements. The first Muslim and first Pakistani Nobel Laureate is admired by the world and forsaken by us. Tragic?
During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Physics in Norway in 1979, Dr Salam quoted from the Quran: “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection. Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure? Then return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.” He then said: “This, in effect, is the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze.”
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org