Chronicles of our recent past

10 July 2015

FS Aijazuddin’s new book is an erudite and introspective account of a turbulent decade


The past decade in Pakistan has been cataclysmic. Political upheavals and assassinations, the menace of terrorism that cost us more than 80,000 lives and over $100 billion; and a time warped foreign policy kept pushing the country into a vortex. All of this reproduced the curse of endemic political instability that has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s trajectory. Much has been written on this decade especially by foreign commentators given our global relevance as an American ally in the War on Terror. Within Pakistan, a handful of commentators and analysts have articulated more grounded, organic narratives; and FS Aijazuddin is one of the chosen few. His new book The Morning After is a collection of articles, essays and speeches he delivered in various capacities during the years 2006 and 2014. As the author tells us, the book is a fourth in the series of such compilations. The last one – When Bush Comes to Shove and other writings – was published in 2006.

Such compilations can be tricky for a reader as often the contents respond to time-bound events and explore topics that run the risk of losing relevance overtime. Given the structural constraints of Pakistani state and society, the issues covered in The Morning After appear relevant even in 2015. Take the case of a column entitled ‘Making Cartoons of Ourselves’ on the global outrage against Danish Cartoons. It is hauntingly familiar and newsy. In 2012, there were countrywide protests against a film made on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and last year 14 staffers of a French magazine – Charlie Hebdo – were killed by fanatics in Paris. Aijazuddin’s conclusion is spot-on: “We are not the caricatures stencilled by the western press, nor the cartoons extremists make of themselves and of us by their aberrant behaviour.” (more…)

Manto’s women

13 February 2015

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists


Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.


A definitive history of Pakistan

13 January 2015

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. (more…)

Citizen of the world

26 November 2014

He wanted variety and could not confine himself to a uni-dimensional career or vocation. Other than being a rare blend of East and West, Patras exemplified the modern man – searching for new meanings in life and experimenting with experiences


This December witnessed a literary landmark of post-internet Pakistan.A dedicated website –– on Patras Bokhari, a towering literary figure, was launched at the Government College University, Lahore. It is well-known that the GC produced world-famous personalities while it was the leading educational institution in this part of the subcontinent, but its stature as a hub of education, culture and literary regeneration declined over the years. Some observers hold, however, that the recently increased autonomy and elevation of GC to the status of a university will reverse the decline. It was the glorious tradition of this institution that produced giants such as Patras, Faiz and Iqbal, amongst many others.

Prof Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari (1898-1958) is most famous through his penname “Patras” Bokhari. While he was a first-rate educationist, broadcaster and diplomat, perhaps his lasting fame is the result of his stature as an inimitable essayist and humourist – a rare trait amongst the mourning and elegy-prone South Asian creed. Patras Ke Mazameen , immortal as they are, set the standard for high quality, incisive satire and humour. Unlike the medieval mores of literature being the preserve of the courts and its courtiers, these essays reach out to everyone, encompassing a modern sensibility that makes them pertinent and attractive even today. There is a distinct universality in these writings that perhaps had to do with the humane and cosmopolitan side of Patras himself. The compelling evidence of this aspect was his huge success as a diplomat when he served as Pakistan’s permanent envoy at the United Nations in the early 1950s, enabling him to be titled ‘a citizen of the world.’


The legend’s shadow

25 November 2014

Forays into analysis give resonance to Dilip Kumar’s recollections that are occasionally derailed by Saira Banu’s looming shadow, I wrote in this review of the legendary actor’s autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow.


The three legends of Indian cinema: Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan and Dilip Kumar

‘Yousuf Khan is scared of Dilip Kumar. Only Allah knows who Dilip Kumar is and what all he can do.’

Dilip Kumar will always be the touchstone by which Indian actors will be judged. His recently published book – The Substance and the Shadow – An Autobiography – gives much insight into his life and career. Known as the tragic hero of Indian cinema, Dilip ruled the hearts of millions. His expression and screen persona inspired dozens of actors in the subcontinent. Pakistan too has a claim on him.

Yousuf, the real name of Dilip Kumar was born in 1922 in Peshawar. There has to be something unique about the city – now in tatters and under the grip of extremist ideologies – which produced so many legends including Raj Kapoor. Even Shahrukh Khan’s family has a Peshawar connection. In the mid 1930s the family migrated to Bombay and settled at Deolali where Yousuf studied in Barnes School and Khalsa College. Like other boys of his age, Yousuf played soccer and read the works of European authors and Urdu writers. We are told that his father wanted Yousuf to one day earn the title of Order of the British Empire. But he surpassed that expectation and proved his mettle in the film world and earned countless laurels. (more…)

Conspiracy Theories as ‘History’

29 October 2014

Pakistan’s official historian in a book on education has to say this about 1971 tragedy when we lost half of our country. I don’t blame the minds who cite ‘external’ conspiracy at the drop of the hat because this is what we have popularized. Overlook the failings and crimes of Pakistani state and blame it on everyone else. Three generations have internalized this and I guess this is enough time to shape norms and ‘truths’. ‪History‬ and its teaching is farce. It would have been funny had it not resulted in such disastrous consequences for a populace esp the young minds.

Image via Manan Ahmad, a professor at ‪Columbia‬ University.


Raza Rumi on Hospitality

14 October 2014

Raza-Rumi 1

A Tidings conversation about hospitality, friendship and loyalty with Raza Rumi, a Pakistani journalist, blogger, author of Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani traveller and follower of Sufi thought. The subject of hospitality holds a certain irony for Raza who is now in exile, forced to flee from his country after narrowly missing an assassination attempt on his life in Lahore which tragically killed his driver.

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