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Book review: Challenging martial histories


This is a book review that was published in The Friday Times (June 19-25 2009 issue)

This was a hot May afternoon when I found myself at the book launch of Flight of the Falcon. I had no plans to be in Islamabad until the author informed me of the launch, an event to be remembered in the culturally stifling environs of Islamabad. I have known Air Commodore (retired) Sajad Haider for years. He is an exceptional man, able to connect across generations. The articulate and hospitable Haider can hold forth on any subject under the sun without cavil. As a young man, I had heard the delightful, adventurous and sometimes sad accounts of his stint with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). In many ways, the rise and fall of the PAF is a mirror image of Pakistan’s institutional trajectory, depicting how good we are at making a hash of things and persecuting our heroes.

Flight of the Falcon essentially sums up Haider’s grand story of valour, tribulations and commitment to the country. As he told me, this book “is my endeavour to fulfil my small responsibility towards my country. During the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, which I participated in as a commander leading the No 19 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force, and as head of the fighter tactical wing respectively, I was a witness to history in the making.” During the 1965 war, Haider had collected the best fighter pilots and put them under the “warriors” training regime. The results achieved by his squadron were spectacular: an unmatchable six Sitara-e-Jurats were bestowed on the pilots, including the fighter-author. The 19th Squadron carried out the most difficult missions of the 1965 war and these have been documented by British, Indian and Pakistani experts. Whilst most accounts recall the operational episodes narrated by second-hand sources, Flight of the Falcon attempts to provide a candid account of these two controversial wars from the cockpit of a fighter air craft. Interestingly the book challenges the conventional mantra of victory trumpeted by state histories: in both the wars, there was no clear winner, and the book chronicles that honestly.

Haider holds that after four decades, the truth about what happened must come out without any embarrassment. “We owe it to our future generations, particularly today’s young commanders and students of military history, to set the record straight,” he adds. Not surprisingly, reticence to carry out an honest analysis of the lessons of the wars against India is rooted in the effort to protect the incompetent and short-sighted leaders whose mistakes cost the lives of many gallant men, not to mention the tragic break up of Pakistan in 1971.

Flight of the Falcon is not just a dry historical account. It is an eminently readable autobiography as well. Sometimes, the episodes appear stranger than fiction, especially when Haider’s air chief framed him in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and charged him with treason and with inciting mutiny. We also learn how the Shahinshah of Iran, Raza Pahlavi, told Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to punish Haider for denigrating him. The sensational bits make the book impossible to put down. There is the incident where Zia ul Haq lectured the armed forces, trying to explain the reasons why he had carried out a military coup, and why the nation was not fit for democracy. The author retorted, “The pride with which I have worn this uniform and defended my country with my life has been denigrated to the point where I see contempt in the eyes of Pakistanis who had once adored the sight of this very uniform. As part of your constituency we are now the conquerors of Pakistan rather than its defenders.” Of course, Haider lost his career and Zia was reported to have said that he wanted to see Haider with a begging bowl in his hand! […]

September 6th, 2013|books, Pakistan, Published in The Friday Times|1 Comment

What do you read, my lord?

My book will be launched this Saturday. I can say that its going to be a big day in my quest to become a writer. Those in Delhi are invited. Click the image for the full picture and details.

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my […]

July 30th, 2013|books, Personal|1 Comment

Displacement & Discontent – Basti by Intizar Husain


THE publication of Basti’s translation is an important literary milestone. The author, Intizar Husain, is perhaps the greatest living Urdu writer and his genius rightly deserves a wider audience than just readers of Urdu or Hindi fiction. Intizar Sahib’s stories have been translated earlier and they showcased his taut, lyrical, hauntingly evocative prose to those who were not familiar with the world of Urdu. However, the novel as a genre and as a kaleidoscope of society conveys a discreet vision of the world. This is why Basti’s publication by New York Review Books is a landmark with respect to globalising the beauty and intricacy of Urdu literature.Basti

Earlier, Qurratulain Hyder had translated her own novels (Aag ka Darya and Aakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar among others); her many admirers had been quick to point out that in the English translations she had been unfair, above all, to herself. The original Urdu novels are far more majestic than their translations. Except a few other novels, such as Abdullah Hussain’s Weary Generations (Udas Naslain), there is little that the world knows about Urdu literature. The Urdu short story has had a better deal in terms of translations, but the Urdu novel has largely been ignored.

Basti, at the outset, is the tale of a reminiscing Zakir, the novel’s protagonist who is a professor of history and a migrant to his new homeland from across the border. The novel primarily relates the various stages of his life.

Zakir lives in a dynamic, conflictual and contradictory world. There is no Hardyesque feeling of an individual pitted against the larger forces at work. Instead, throughout the novel, there are threads of nostalgia, displacement and ruptured continuities. The Partition of India in 1947 is the centre of the novel’s sombre, impressionistic landscape. That year turns everything topsy-turvy, and more so, it transforms the fate of the basti (settlement). Unlike other Partition literature, Basti avoids direct, graphic reportage on the psychological and physical violence inherent to Partition. The political chaos at one level is also interiorised by Zakir. There is, then, an intense feeling of alienation and emptiness that Zakir, as a migrant in a new country, feels. It should be remembered that Husain, now considered a torchbearer of progressive thought in Urdu language and literature, was never a firebrand revolutionary in the way that other luminaries in Urdu are known as. In fact, Zakir’s ambivalence towards politics and resistance is partly reflective of Intizar Sahib’s ideological moorings in the new discourse on jadeediyat or modernism.

Basti was criticised when it was first published in Urdu. Critics, often driven by ideological imperatives, considered it to be a lesser novel for its evident refusal to apportion blame or affix responsibility. However, the novel has proved to be a formidable work of art. Almost like “rocks beneath” (to borrow a phrase from Emily Bronte), it is a narrative that is neither noisy, nor voluminous or polemical. Its melancholy mood, layered plot and composite portrayal of human emotion ensure its timelessness and universal appeal. […]

March 6th, 2013|books, India-Pakistan History, Pakistan, published in DAWN|1 Comment

The dream that was not mine – Harris Khalique’s poetry

khud pe kia taari use
woh khwab jo apna na tha

(I let the dream take over me/ The dream that was not mine)

Harris Khalique is a poet of myriad sensibilities. Like his cosmopolitanism his poetry encompasses tradition and modernity; the urbane consciousness as well as snippets of the folk wisdom. As a bilingual poet, Khalique is even more important in a country partitioned between the two literary worlds: the native vernacular and the hip, well cut out English domain. A few months ago, I attended the launch of his new collection of poems, Melay Mein and heard the poet recite these poems. Reading and listening to poetry are two separate and distinct experiences. I re-read the slim volume, eight in his oeuvre and realized that Khalique had actually moved on.

The earlier bohemian and carefree Khalique, as he was a decade and a half ago when I first met him, is a different person in this collection. A more anguished soul can be detected under the layers of verse and rhyme. There is evidently a greater reconnection with the past as Khalique invokes the folk, the subliminal as well as the perennial metaphors of our consciousness such as Imam Husain (AS).

The poem that inspires the title is instructive. Melay Mein talks of a mother’s concerns whose child is lost in the maze of life. The pain in this poem is universal and so is the metaphor. Of losing the creativity and the fear of loss. Note the power of these lines:‘jiss ka bacha/ jahan-e baazi giraa’n ke melay mein/ kho gaya hai”. The world is cruel and uncertain and full of charlatans and this is what Khalique’s other poems in this collection also convey. In another poem Ghao, there is mention of dark worlds and demons: […]

Book review: An ambitious undertaking

Pankaj Mishra’s new book is an ambitious undertaking. “From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals who Remade Asia” traces the lives and works of three Asian intellectuals who were at the forefront of several resistance movements in times when colonists had occupied countries and exercised almost absolute intellectual power.

It is a fascinating narrative, which challenges the Eurocentric version of ‘the truth’ and claims “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of Asian and European empires”. Mishra focuses on Jamal-al-din al-Afghani (1838-1897), a renaissance figure who was a formidable critic of the Western intellectual ascendancy, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a thinking journalist who was a proponent of Confucian ideals, and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), an epitome of the great Bengali renaissance and the awakening of Indian consciousness.

Thus Mishra constructs a powerful account of how white men once “conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible”. Mishra’s personal identity has gradually espoused the cause of internationalism. He lives in the West and travels to the East as an ‘insider’ thereby picking up the threads of societies in transition which most Western writers are unable to fathom. Al-Afghani, for example, argued for intellectual resistance to the hegemony of the West, which unfortunately has been distorted to the extent that today rationalized use of violence has entered the battle of ideas. The Muslim world has a lot to learn from al-Afghani, whose legacy has been squandered over time. In a way, Mishra’s book comes as a major source of reviving the public debate on today’s ‘Muslims versus West’ real and imagined conflict. […]

December 19th, 2012|books, History, Published in The Friday Times|0 Comments

Book Review: Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change

It has taken me some time to finish reading the assemblage book entitled Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change. An overly long reading list has been haunting me for the past few months, but I was slow and self-indulgent as I read and re-read many sections of this insightful book which is path breaking in many ways. First, it is a unique collection which emanated from intense thinking and collaborative action; and second, given the fairly recent rise of Indian mass media (also applicable to South Asia in general) this is quite a seminal work of its kind.

Four comrades at the School of Oriental and African Sciences (SOAS) conceived this book around a collective they called Sacred Media Cow to make sense of the rising Indian mass media and its ubiquitous nature, its articulation of a middle class vision, and how through this process Indian nationalism was being redefined.

The four editors – Somnath Batabyal, Angad Chowdhry, Meenu Gaur and Matti Pohjoen – are also contributors to this volume; and have assembled an impressive array of essays which move from mass media, news channels, to mainstream and regional cinema arriving at the rise of digital cultures of India. Through the book, we view the reimagining of India as a ‘shining’ middle class dream using the popular media lens, which are both powerful and trans-national. That is why the last essay, a poignant piece by Naresh Fernandes, The Uncomfortable Truth behind the Corporate Media’s Imagination of India closes in the various debates.

Fernandes makes an unpopular (and increasingly ‘unpatriotic’) conclusion: that despite the shining India narratives, India remains a poor, developing country with myriad problems. Using the stories of a reputed journalist P Sainath, this essay looks at the ‘other’ India which the ‘hyperreal’ media has rendered invisible to provide a more palatable vision for its key corporate target – the middle classes. The conclusion of the essay is haunting as it cites the infamous TV commercial where the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan indirectly blames the poor for “preventing India from realizing its true potential”. Pohjonen’s introduction also cites this memorable line from Sainath: “Evading reality helps no one…a society that does not know itself cannot cope.” […]

February 29th, 2012|books, India, media, Published in The Friday Times|4 Comments

Book review: “Lahore -Topohilia of Space and Place”

There is no city like Lahore/ Everything that is wrong is set right here

It is a mystery as to how a layered city such as Lahore has attracted little scholarship in the past few decades. This is why Anna Suvorova’s book “Lahore -Topohilia of Space and Place” is a major book of our times. Suvorova is a distinguished scholar and currently heads the Department of Asian Literatures at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Her earlier works on Urdu, Sufism and numerous translations of Urdu prose works are well known. This book, while a work of formidable scholarship is distinctive for its personal dimension. Like countless others, Suvorova is an ardent admirer of Lahore and tells us why Lahore has survived historical vicissitudes and also why its memory is so lovingly remembered, invoked and reproduced.

Lahore – Topohilia of Space and Place
Anna Suvorova
Hardback, Nov 2011
Price: Rs.925.00
Oxford University Press, Pakistan

LahorebookSuvorova begins the book following the style of an oracle and explains why she chose to explore the topophilia, literally ‘love for a place’. This apparently simple term, as we finish the first very chapter, becomes a kaleidoscope to view the boundless affection that many across the globe experience vis a vis Lahore. Suvorova is one of such Lahore-philes, if one can be excused for inventing such a term. Her fascination for Lahore, as it emerges in her book, is evident throughout the narrative as she takes the reader into the labyrinth of history, cultural memory, urban geography, and sociology of the city.

This affinity for an intriguing city therefore places Suvorova in a unique position as she documents Lahore’s myriad facets, not as an orientalist outsider, but asan enchanted scholar and a traveller who has developed an uncanny empathy with the topophilia that defines Lahore as a construct of memory and consciousness. Thus follows an eclectic narrative employing an interdisciplinary approach, which successfully attempts to undo the academic tone while avoiding populist, market driven cliches that comprise many contemporary travel accounts. She describes this rather well: “When we visit Oslo, Dublin, Paris, or Lahore it is difficult, at first, to separate the living images of the new places from the “mental maps” that we have drawn up in the footsteps, and along the routes, of literary characters…It is topophilia that overcomes our eternal fear of space, and emotion dumbness and gives us a living feeling of longing to a place- the sense of city.”

The book is divided into eight chapters, which tread on the various cultural nodes of Lahore’s past and present. The epilogue entitled Lahore vs. Lucknow, is an outstanding inquiry on these two cities famed for their topophilia. Suvorova tells us how Lahore’s topophilia is different from Lucknow. She is also quick to note the similarities between these two great cities, but she admits that she fell inlove with Lahore in 1997 during her first visit despite her intense familiarity with Lucknow. […]

February 25th, 2012|Arts & Culture, books, Lahore, Published in The Friday Times|13 Comments