f 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. Ayesha Jalal, Faisal Devji, Tariq Ali, Akbar S. Ahmed, Ahmed Rashid, Hussain Haqqani, Aatish Taseer, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Fatima Bhutto, the writings of all of them on politics to society to military to economy to education of Pakistan manifest a complex interplay of feudal forces.
But it renders the narrative about the country flawed and repulsive if the entirety of things is not taken into consideration. It cannot be that one can reduce a nation of 220 million people to such simplistic individual observations. While there is always an element of truth in such observations, Pakistan is not about medievalistic feudalism only, though its soling is present in everything that Pakistan has, trickle to torrent.
Despite all its contradictions and absurdities, the country is well alive and trundling forward. Though in the last four decades, the country’s horizons of progress have gradually shrivelled up, 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. But 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 and even mentioned it in his book, A Century is Not 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.
Walsh has covered Pakistan for about 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 has not left the author bitter about the country. He has tried multiple times since to get his visa to the country back but has not succeeded yet.
The book is a fluent read. The reporter’s eye of the author makes the book near-best about the country in the last decade or more. He has been in Pakistan in the most perilous times of the nation’s existence. Post-9/11, Pervez Musharraf allying with George W. Bush in the ‘War on Terror’ meant the country going into an abyss by forces within and without. But if the country survives today, proving every doomsayer wrong, it indicates the resilience of its people.
The book consists of eleven 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 do not 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. With it, the author has tried, and tried very beautifully, to denote the acquiescence to not-so-rocketry responsibilities — like being aware of and reactive to the pulls and pressures of the realities confronting him/her, 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 a 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 — that made the elites of Pakistan realise that the danger of ‘radicalism’ is hitting home, and there is no way but to make it go kaput — and the then President, military man Pervez Musharraf, finally acting because the relations with China were coming under strain after some Chinese citizens were attacked by the reluctant ‘fundamentalists’ from the Jamia Hafsa madrassa.
The usual litany of how Pakistan turned inwards from the free-market early riser in the 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 about 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 Jamshoro District of Sindh province in the same chapter. It is only such contradictions that let the nations in South Asia be full of life. Pakistan is 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-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 before as well. Here the violence of the Indian Partition and the genesis of the Kashmir dispute has been given lyrical brushes in the eloquent prose.
The fourth chapter is about the tribes, tribalism, tribal wars, tribal hospitality and tribal justice in the north-western 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 Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its subsequent delocalisation across the whole of Pakistan. One likes the fact that the author has not compressed the tribes of Pakistan to being antediluvian and outdated in their lifestyle, timelessly lurking in the 18th century. The change of tribal life post-9/11 and the 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 the political musclemen.
The fifth and the sixth chapters are about the fight for democracy, the liberal spaces and the 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 — simply about feudalism, but in very lovely prose.
Chapter seven is very important from the perspective of how intelligence agencies work with 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 the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), its bugbear on the socio-economic aspects of life in the country and its megalomaniacal impression of being well-organized and well-being in Europe and the United States. Pertinent to mention is the fact that its foundations were set by Walter Cawthorn, an Australian soldier-diplomat, who later went on to head the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). The sterling success of the agency in the Afghan War and putting Taliban in power in Kabul, its failures in 1965 and 1971 wars with India and its reverses in the war against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been put in proper perspective. The author writes about how the agency makes any manoeuvre — bona fide or mala fide — literally impossible, as has been well-documented by Mohammed Hanif in A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Pankaj Mishra in 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 a cue from Suketu Mehta’s book, Maximum City: Mumbai Lost and Found.
Karachi is home to around 2 crore people but almost none of them in a position to call the city his/her own. The chaos, target killings, murderous police, swanky cars, Muhajirs (the refugees of partition), Altaf Hussain of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the port, the crocodile shrine of Manghopir, money and well-aligned roads make the city the hollering engine of Pakistan. It is the most liberal city in the country, which has witnessed more blood on its streets in recent times than any city in Pakistan.
Chapters nine, ten and eleven are about the Balochistan province which, with its cavernous slopes, rock defiles and mineral subterranea, is surely the quaintest of the provinces in Pakistan. The thinly populated province — constituting around 44 per cent of the area of Pakistan but only 6 per cent of the country’s population inhabiting it — is known for its utter backwardness, the world of the 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).
In the end chapters, the revoking of the author’s visa and his meeting with the ex-ISI sleuth in Europe make the book a must-read for anyone interested in knowing and understanding things about Pakistan.
There are at least a thousand things that make the book one of the most important reads on Pakistan. The narrative is in no way repulsive.
My rating of the book is 4.8 out of 5.