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Kaleidoscope of an Islamic state going modern

Before arriving on the subcontinent, I was told by an American diplomat: ''You'll find the Indians a very difficult people to understand. . . . But, the Pakistanis . . . far simplier to understand. Islam is a black and white religion. Their leaders are military men. Yes, they're really very easy for an American to understand.''

Such cliches and generalizations underestimate the often-contradictory mosaic that is today's Pakistan. The kaleidoscope of this country, stretching 311,000 square miles from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, is stark in its many complexities, especially in the battle of fatalism with pragmaticism which emerges as the country faces the challenges of modernization.

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Pakistan has never had a social revolution. But it was a nation created, baptized in blood, out of a single conviction: the dream of a Muslim homeland, and an abiding faith in Islam. Yet, 35 years later, many Pakistanis continue to speak not of ''independence'' but of ''partition'' when referring to the time when the spoils of India were divided by the departing British Raj.

A laborer in the village of Kachcha Garhi, in the hot dusty stretches of the North-West Frontier, speaks with pride of how his family, with meager possessions squeezed in a tiny truck, arrived in Pakistan from the Hindu regions of British India 35 years ago. He skirted the communal violence that was widespread at the time.

''We came to found a nation,'' he says with nostalgia. . . . ''But, you Americans still look at us as an appendage . . . the backwater of modern India.''

Elsewhere, on the Pakistani coast, the breeze from Karachi Harbor is gentle, and the terraced lawn of the yacht club speaks of another time. The traditions of the British are much in evidence here.

A waiter in white gloves and plummage serves afternoon tea. ''For 30 years,'' says a prominent business figure, ''our country has been led by the bureaucracy. Nearly 80 percent of our politicians are landlords - reigning feudal lords. It's never been in their interests to industrialize the country, to give birth to a middle class. Because it is that very class that would threaten the feudal interests by demanding democracy.''

''Yes,'' conceded a top Pakistani editor, ''we don't have the foundations for establishing a firm system of democracy right now - but that does not mean we're ready to remain immune to a military dictatorship for long. Democracy . . . was the basis on which Pakistan was created. . . . We have a history of political action. Twice a ground-swell of popular resentment has overthrown unpopular regimes.''

As one approaches the Rawalpindi home of Pakistan's military leader, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, a driver cannot help but tell you, as we pass the nearby jail, ''This is where they hanged (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto.'' Pakistan's former prime minister, hanged by the martial law government following a show trial in 1979, is now legend. His own abuses forgotten, his name has reached mythic proportions today.

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Only a block away is the modest bungalow of General Zia. He is surrounded in his family quarters by the medals, badges, and trophies of a long military career. But, on one wall hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa, which he bought at the Louvre in Paris. He studies the Mona Lisa. It haunts him, now as then.

In the Punjab winter has arrived. Peasants wrapped in blankets against the blustering cold have begun planting next year's crop, in the background, the drumbeat of a distant monsoon. A wizened grandmother tells me proudly, ''God has given us good weather. We are self-sufficient in food.''

Men hunch around small fires, sprouting from baked mud streets, in the Punjabi village of Fatha Jung. They say that remittances from Saudi Arabia now permit them to send their children to school. Life is no longer so tenuous that a child is considered largely as two more hands in the field.

Bullock carts, cattle, and goats compete in a frenzy in Fatha Jung's labyrinthine streets. Inside the tiny market stalls one finds an abundance of consumer goods. Remittances from overseas Pakistani workers are changing the face, and perhaps the fatalism, of Fatha Jung.

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