It seems hard to imagine now, considering all we've learned over the past decade, that Pakistan was once an optimistic country.
Drunk on defeating a superpower—at least in their minds—in the 1980s, and an earlier adherent to the globalist doctrine than other countries in the neighbourhood, Pakistan still appeared to believe that the best was yet to come. The late ’80s and early ’90s thus became an era of restless optimism.
That’s not to say Pakistan was some sort of utopia, but it’s only when we look at the history of the country as a whole is it made evident just how anomalous that period was.
For those of us who grew up in that era, Pakistan’s success was the norm. The hockey team reclaimed their world title in 1994, and international squash remained pretty much the property of Pakistani athletes. But more than anything else, that enthusiasm for a positive evolution was best represented by the nascent music industry, and the most talented cricket team the nation has ever had.
Headlining the latter was Mozang's favourite son, Wasim Akram. Just a couple of miles north-east of Mozang in Lahore stands the University of Engineering and Technology. And it was there that the man who was Wasim's equivalent in music, Junaid Jamshed, found his voice.
JJ, born in Karachi, was a student at the university—a budding engineer like every respectable desi boy. And whatever it was in the waters of that small area in Lahore in the early ’80s is something that Pakistan has never been able to replicate.
Both the music industry and the cricket team, you could argue, ended up being hoisted by their own petards. But for a period of time, as democracy tried to become part of the national fabric, idealism reigned.
The start of the new century, though, was a wake-up call. By the time the cable TV boom took place, the music industry of the early ’90s had splintered.
Some, like Junoon and Adnan Sami, had found success across the border—often encouraged, if not forced, thanks to the policies of the Pakistani government in the late ’90s; others had quit the industry altogether—the financial rewards there had rarely matched the ambition of the artists – Strings, for instance, remained inactive from 1992 to 1999.
But the cable boom provided the platform for a new generation to shine: a generation that birthed the likes of Atif Aslam, Fawad Khan and Shafqat Amanat Ali, took their place; but their greatest successes were in their subsequent solo careers, and not with the advancement of Pakistani music.
The industry would never be able to recover its glory years of the early ’90s, although the early 2000s would create amirage that seemed to promise that it would.
Meanwhile, the cricket team went to Australia in 1999-2000 and were mostly humiliated by one of the greatest sides ever—for once, falling short even without infighting and underperformance.
In hindsight, that tour and those months were the remaking of the Pakistani cricket team. Just a fortnight before Pakistan’s first match of that tour, the military high command overthrew the democratic government in the latest of the nation’s coups d’etat.
Around the same time, the first rumblings of Junaid Jamshed’s turn towards religion became public too. One could argue that over the course of that one season, the Pakistan that had existed during the previous decade died without anyone really mourning it.
It’s not particularly easy to draw an analogy for what JJ—who died in a plane crash en route to Islamabad on 7 December—was to Pakistani pop culture before and after the turn of the century.
You could call him the Wasim of music, but even Wasim had Imran Khan to look up to; JJ had no equivalent. JJ was Elvis, if only Elvis appealed to 50-year-old aunties as much as he did to rebelling 15-year-olds. He was Michael Jackson, if only Michael had become a national icon for singing patriotic ditties in a nationalistic country.
In the late ’80s, as a brutal conservative military dictatorship gave way to democracy, JJ was the face of that rise—and what a face it was. He was youthful, exuberant, extraordinarily talented and exuded charisma.
Vital Signs, the band he was the vocalist of, became the biggest thing outside of the cricket team—and JJ filled the niche the cricketers couldn't.
As the optimism of those years gave way pessimism by the late ’90s, his works reflected that. Of course, it wasn't just him—by the time it all ends, another member of Vital Signs might end up doing more for Pakistani pop culture, but in those years even the band was defined by him.
In the new century, as the state allegedly promoted a neoliberal, supposedly culturally progressive agenda, the middle class fought back with its revival of conservatism. Pakistan in this century, as evidenced even by its cricket team, has been undeniably conservative. And JJ was the face of this uprising too.
In the noughties, when celebrity sermons became a thing, cricketers were the greatest draw, but only as long as JJ wasn't there. This, of course, was a better era, when sportsmen and musicians were celebrities, people who actually contributed to society, rather than politicians and TV talking heads.
JJ's passion for cricket was obvious, his friendships with cricketers legendary. Over the past few days, as the reality of what happened has begun to sink in—a shock even in a country where national tragedies are more common than conspiracy theories—have people begun to realize how big a hole he leaves behind.
There are those who would much rather focus on the second half of his adult life, when he became something of a televangelist and his work was based around religion, and fair play to them, but personal biases force me to always turn towards the first half. That, after all, was when he was, for a decade, the biggest name in Pakistani pop music.
He wasn't conventionally edgy or rebellious, as evidenced by the fact that every album of his always featured at least one patriotic song. But despite that, he was the living embodiment of another Pakistan—where you could aim for modernity yet still not be accused of being a traitor who forsook his culture.
There was a part of Pakistan which wanted to march confidently into the 21st century, without being judged by a society that treats everything alien or new as dangerous. And for that Pakistan, JJ was the messiah.
I only ever truly met him once, incidentally at a domestic cricket tournament his clothing line, J. (pronounced J dot), had sponsored. Even in his final avatar, as his principles and outlook changed, his passion and support for cricket rarely dimmed.
That day, in a room with less than a dozen people—with over 800 international wickets between them—he held court. He was the centre of attention, radiating the charisma that’s forever hard to define but always easy to spot. The knowledge of cricket he displayed made him overqualified to be a pundit on Pakistani TV.
It was discomforting to see great cricketers turn into regular fanboys in front of him. It wasn't just that he was the voice of our youth; he was the voice of our cricket. With the obvious exception of Intikhab Alam, no one has been more relevant to Pakistani cricket fans of the past couple of generations without ever taking the field in front of them.
He was there, parading with the cricket heroes, in every Pepsi ad that made them gods. He was the lone public figure who could proclaim that he was bigger than any cricketer after Imran Khan and not be laughed out of town for saying that.
It’s difficult to imagine what Pakistani cricket would be without him. A generation of fans who have grown up seeing cricket as part of the sociopolitical spectrum rather than something that exists in a vacuum have him to thank. Every cricketer that starred in an ad headlined by him has him to thank. Every stadium DJ or chant leader who has nothing else to say has him to thank for introducing the world to the phrase “DilDil Pakistan”.
For three decades now, that song has been the unofficial anthem of Pakistan and its cricket. Every major Pakistani victory has been serenaded by those words. But as we mourned his passing, I realized how much of his oeuvre could apply to the national team.
Aitbaar is the song every Pakistani captaincy candidate must sing to the cricket board. Aankhon ko Aankhon really ought to be what the fans sing to the team before every World Cup. Na Tu Ayegi is pretty much the precursor to Mauqa, Mauqa as far as Pakistan's World Cup exploits against India are concerned.
Then there's Us Rah Par, the song that really should be anthem for Pakistan cricket rather than DilDil Pakistan. After all, the chorus quite simply asks: “Why should we walk upon the path that everyone walks on? Why not choose the path that’s never been traversed before?”
It may have been corny, but he had the habit of making corny cool. If not that, what defines Pakistan’s cricket is Gore Rang Kazamana and its sequel Sanwali Saloni—the latter a response to the former. Together they combine to represent Pakistan culture: fiercely proud of what it is, and yet forever longing for what it isn’t.
That, you imagine, will be the legacy of his generation. They tried to reform a country before losing hope and becoming the establishment. But their inability to change the country ended up leading to their demise and another chapter in the never ending book of national tragedies.
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