Book Review: The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Book Review: The Nine Lives of Pakistan

If there is one word that sustains the description of Pakistan throughout its political existence, it is FEUDAL. Read any book of note on Pakistan, Feudalism is always a visceral theme running through it. Ayesha Jalal, Faisal Devji, Tariq Ali, Akbar S. Ahmad, Ahmad Rashid, Hussain Haqqani, Aatish Taseer, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Fatima Bhutto – the writings of all of them, from politics to society to military to economy of Pakistan, manifest a complex interplay of feudal forces.
But this renders the narrative about the country flawed and repulsive, if the entirety of things isn’t taken into consideration. It can’t be that one can reduce a nation of 220 million people to such simplistic observations. While there is always an element of truth in such observations, Pakistan isn’t about medievalistic feudalism only – though it is present in everything that Pakistan has, from a trickle to a torrent. Despite all its contradictions and absurdities, the country is well alive and trundling forward. In the last four decades, the country has gradually shrivelled its horizons of progress, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is the most modern Muslim nation-state in the world. The country has been loathed, deprecated, condemned, demonised and dehumanised to almost an irredeemable extent.
There is that unique something about the country which appeals, bewitches and intrigues many a people. Sourav Ganguly, the former captain of Indian cricket, much to his credit, has said it often, even mentioned it in his book, ‘A Century isn’t enough’: “Pakistan has a certain ruggedness in it which makes it one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Every cricketer must visit the country at least once during his career.”
Declan Walsh’s book, ‘The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation’, documents the feudal society of Pakistan, besides the dimensions of tribalism, terrorism, sufism, salafism, red tapism, urbanism, ethnicism, elitism, povertarianism, regionalism and much more. Declan Walsh has covered Pakistan for over a decade for The New York Times and The Guardian and was expelled from the country in 2013 citing security sensitivities. The good thing is that the unceremonious expulsion hasn’t left the author bitter about the country. He has tried multiple times since to get his visa back to the country, but hasn’t succeeded yet. The book is a fluent read. The reporter’s eye of the author makes the book one of the best about the country in the last one decade and more. Walsh was in Pakistan in the most perilous times of the existence of that nation. Post-9/11, Pervez Musharraf allying with Bush in its ‘war on terror’ meant the country going into an abyss from forces within and without. But if the country has survived today, proving every doomsayer wrong, it indicates the resilience of its people.
The book consists of 11 chapters, encompassing literally every hue of the complex tapestry of the country that Pakistan is. The first chapter is very pointedly titled as, Insha’Allah Nation. Insha’Allah is an Arabic word which translates as ‘by the will of Allah’. It is almost a permanent leitmotif of any conversation across the Muslim lands in the world. It has also become quite fashionable in the politically correct statements of many a person who doesn’t profess Islam. Rightly so. But the word also signifies a certain detachment from the pragmatic hassles of life when in practice. It captures the belief of common people in the inability of humans to change the course of their lives. At many a place, the word is used to express blatant lies. The author has tried, and tried very beautifully, to denote acquiescence of mundane responsibilities like being aware, responsive to the pulls and pressures of the realities confronting them, holding an opinion about society and politics, murky corruption and subversion of its institutions at the hands of its landed gentry-turned-political class by the common Pakistani. It can effortlessly be termed as a serious Insha’Allah syndrome.
The second chapter is about the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident of 2007 in the heart of its capital, Islamabad. The incident made the elites of Pakistan realise that the danger of radicalism is hitting home, and there is no way out of it except to make it go kaput. The then President, military man Pervez Musharraf, finally acted because the relations with China were coming under strain after some Chinese citizens were attacked by the reluctant fundamentalists from Red Mosque madrassa. The usual litany of how Pakistan turned inwards from the free-market early riser in 1960s and 1970s to the start of its downward trajectory with the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq to becoming the source of a majority of bad news with the dawn of the new century is mockingly broached by almost every author and commentator on Pakistan. But what sets the book apart is that it mentions the Sufi commingling, mysticism and almost heretic practices of people, by the standards of puritanical Islam, visiting Sehwan Sharif, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (Usman Marwandi), in the Jomshoro District of Sindh province in the same chapter. It is only such contradictions which let the nations in South-Asia to be full of life. Pakistan being a case in point.
The third chapter is about the founding father of the Pakistan state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and how his vision of Pakistan being a Muslim majority secular state got shattered with a slew of riots after his death and the loss of its eastern limb, Bangladesh, in 1971. The usual stuff that he was a whiskey drinking, ham eating, cigar smoking Muslim, who had a stiffer upper lip than Earl and his cosmopolitan tastes, married to a Parsi, 24 years younger, has been written about umpteen number of times. Here the violence of partition and the genesis of the Kashmir dispute have been given lyrical brushes in eloquent prose.
The fourth chapter is about the tribes, tribalism, tribal wars, tribal hospitality and tribal justice in the northwestern parts of the country. The chapter can easily be called the marrow of the book. It sums up how the tribal conflicts resulted in the rise of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and its subsequent delocalisation across the whole of Pakistan. One likes the fact that the author hasn’t compressed the tribes of Pakistan to being antediluvian and out-dated in their lifestyle, timelessly lurking in the 18th century. The change of tribal life post-9/11 and rise of TTP is very interesting. The entrenched misogyny, poor educational and healthcare facilities, and the famished land, a characteristic recipe for disaster, is exploited by political musclemen.
The fifth and the sixth chapters are about the fight for democracy, the liberal spaces and priceless struggles waged by the civil society members, led by Asma Jahangir, (the fierce lawyer-cum-activist) fighting the well-scaffolded hypocrisies of the Pakistani society. The sixth chapter is about the infamous blasphemy laws of Pakistan, the persecution of minorities, Salman Taseer and the complete disconnect of the Pakistani rich with the downtrodden, raging, seething and ill-fed poor. The feudalism, but in a very lovely prose!
Chapter seven is very important from the perspective of how intelligence agencies work and their omnipresence, the spy wars, and how the dispensability of the low-level intelligence personnel is carried out in practice. It throws complete light on the origins of ISI (Inter-services Intelligence), it’s being the bugbear on the socioeconomic aspects of life in the country and its megalomaniacal impression of being well-organised and well-being in the perceptions of European countries and the United States. Pertinent to mention is the fact that its foundations were set by William Cawthorn, a British Army officer, who later went on to head the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. The sterling success of the agency in the Afghan war and putting Taliban in power in Kabul, it’s failures in 1965 and 1971 wars with India, and it’s reverses in the war against Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are all put in proper perspective. The author writes about how the agency makes any manoeuvre, bonafide and malafide, literally impossible, as has been well-documented by Mohammad Hanif in ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and Pankaj Mishra in ‘The temptations of the West’. The Osama bin Laden episode of 2011 has been given a refreshing light.
Often enough these days on YouTube and other sites, we find comparisons drawn between Mumbai and Karachi, the respective commercial capitals of India and Pakistan. The author has somewhat similarly named Chapter eight as ‘Minimum City’, having taken the cue from Suketu Mehta’s book, ‘Maximum City: Mumbai’. Karachi is home to around 2.0 crore people, almost none of whom are in a position to call the city their own. The chaos, target killings, murderous police, swanky cars, muhajirs (the refugees of partition), Altaf Hussain of MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), the port, crocodile shrine of Monghpir, money and well-aligned roads make the city of Karachi the hollering engine of Pakistan. It is the most liberal city in the country, which has witnessed more blood on its streets in the recent times than any city in Pakistan.
The chapters nine, ten and eleven are about the Baluchistan province, which with its cavernous slopes, rock defiles and mineral subterraneans is surely the quaintest of the provinces in Pakistan. The province constitutes about 44 per cent of the area of the country, with only 6 per cent of the population of the country inhabiting it. Its utter backwardness, the world of Bugti tribe and the reluctance by the rulers in Islamabad to make its populace the participants in any development measure, including the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), are mentioned. In the end chapters, the revoking of the visa of the author and his meeting with an ex-sleuth of ISI in Europe, all make the book a must read for anybody who is interested in knowing and understanding things about Pakistan.
My rating of the book is 4.8 out of 5.

—mohammeduzair27@gmail.com

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