‘Broadcast yourself’ into oblivion
By: Masud Alam
A survey conducted last year found Pakistan to be one of the two dullest nations in the world where only one third of shop assistants, bank clerks, public officials and transporters crack smiles when dealing with clients.
Last year was a time when people — at least those with access to computer and internet — could entertain themselves with YouTube. Imagine how depressingly dour we must be today, more than three months into a ban on the media sharing website. YouTube was the only means of inexpensive entertainment and the most convenient tool for creativity available to us. Without it, this country begins to feel like a Talib’s dream — a place where everyone enjoys equal opportunities to make others unhappy and frustrated, a place where everyone is as deprived of enjoyment as he is, a place so boring, ugly and stinking that one living in it cannot but hate ‘this’ life and wish for death that will open doors to the kingdom of happiness.
YouTube came about as just another digital idea that clicked and made its creators very rich. But it meant the world for us, here in Pakistan — a country brimming with noise and fury but ever suspicious of finer arts. Music, film, experimental and instructional videos, sports, politics … everything was within our reach, in sound and picture, at the click of a mouse, at the price of an internet connection.
Oh what pleasures were buried in its bosom waiting to be searched with a couple of key words. Type in ‘Tasawwar Khanum’ and it’ll start playing ‘wey sub taun sohnia’ with Rangeela as the unlikely recipient of this compliment. Type ‘Sharjah and Miandad and six’ and it’ll take you to the last over of the Australasia Cup final between Pakistan and India in 1986. In one of the most dramatic situations in one day cricket Javed Miandad hit a last ball six to win the match and the tournament. Having relived the thrill and excitement of decades ago, you could choose to lighten your mood by watching Bushra Ansari’s ‘Ik chakkey k Javed ko kayee lakh milen gey, Tauseef becharey ko …’
When friends met, they usually took turns to search for and play music that bound them together years ago, or that defines them in the present. There is a phenomenal amount of material that is not available on CD or even on websites dedicated to Indian or Pakistani music, but is easily accessible on YouTube, thanks to the generosity of strangers who have uploaded their personal collections. The more enthusiastic groups held karaoke parties where amateur singers performed to the music produced for the purpose and made available on the portal.
I am a fan of Russell Peters, the Canadian stand-up comedian of Indian descent. I have watched dozens of his shows, many times over, and always at the same venue. My son discovered him on YouTube and the whole family followed him on YouTube. For us he could be a fictional character that only existed in the virtual world.
YouTube empowered us in ways that were previously unimaginable. There were children who learnt to play musical instruments, women who learnt to wear saree the South Indian style, and men who learnt to speak English. Singer songwriter Adil Omar and Beghairat Brigade of ‘Aalu anday’ fame owe their early popularity to YouTube, and not to a recording company, publicity firm or a TV channel.
The real magic of the portal was its inherent quality of sharing. We could get a wealth of audio visual material easily because a large number of people, from all over the world, spend time and effort to make that material available to us. Some do it for popularity, some for commercial reasons, some to express themselves … and many do it for love, for happiness that comes with sharing, for pride in something or someone. We were part of a global sharing platform. We were sharing interests, information, and our persons. We were all happier for that.
I have used past tense for YouTube for a reason. For millions of users in Pakistan, the ban has meant employing cumbersome alternatives or getting used to a life without YouTube. It will be back sooner or later. But it won’t be the same. The innocence is gone from the relationship, with the knowledge that we can’t take even this universally shared service for granted. It can be taken away any time, for any length of time, by governments that have done absolutely nothing to facilitate the delivery of this or any other service of note for us, in the virtual or real world. And there is nothing we can do about it. Or is there?