Friday, September 29, 2006

A Sudden Trip to Pakistan: A Book-Lover Sets Out for Pakistan

I have been invited to speak on the possibilities of a visa-free South Asia at a seminar in Lahore - chief city of Pakistan - on September 16, 2006. The train to the border-town of Amritsar will leave from New Delhi Railway Station on the evening of September 14.

Bothered about Books

It is yet undecided as to what books to take along. I was reading Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan — the Julia Child of Italian cuisine — but it is not clear if the cookbook could complement my short stay in Pakistan.

In that case, should I take V. S. Naipaul's twin books on travel - Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples? (The books should be read in this order only.)

Mr. Naipaul, in spite of having a Pakistani wife, had been extremely critical of the way Islam is practiced in the countries he traveled — that included Pakistan — and so perhaps it would not be wise to have the book in my shoulder bag.

However, there's a small comfort: when I traveled to Pakistan for the first time, earlier this year, I hardly found any good bookshop and worse, I failed to meet any Pakistani who was fond of books. So who will bother about Mr. Naipaul? But again, if the custom officer accidentally happens to be a literate fellow, fond of reading book reviews, if not books, and familiar with the views of Mr. Naipaul, than I could be turned back. It is a disturbing possibility.

No thanks.

Appeasing the Muslims

How about prominently displaying Martin Ling's Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources while crossing into the country? That is certain to make a good impression on both the pious and fundamentalist Muslims alike.

Mr. Lings was an acclaimed British scholar of Sufism who studied at Oxford, taught English at the University of Cairo, and concluded his career working in the British Library in London. In between, besides converting to Islam, he annually used to produce well-reviewed Shakespeare play editions. In fact, his biography of Muhammad reads like a delicately written novel, at times appearing like a melancholic Shakespearean drama.

Even for those who detest Muhammad, and there are many, this book remains a necessary read for the sinful purpose of pure pleasure alone.

But why I'm so inclined to take Martin Lings? Is it to please the Muslim Pakistanis? A Muhammad book for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? What next - a Talmud for Haifa? Isn't it circumscribing one's choices to the expectations of narrow-minded religious conservatives?

No, no Muhammad for me.

Of course, I need to pack Shame

Midnight's Children was not the only classic by Salman Rushdie. Shame, which has Pakistan as its principal theme, just as India was of Midnight's Children, is an equally exciting, entertaining, comical, daring, and depressing novel. The Pakistan of Shame could be Pakistan of Present - a failed nation, a broken society with hopes destroyed, future uncertain, and all of it made embarrassing by a heart-breaking comedy played by the country's rulers on its hapless subjects.

If I was a Pakistani, I would have died many times while reading the novel. But since I am an Indian, I had great fun.

Yes, I must certainly take Shame. But no! How could I be so stupid as to pack a Rushdie! Rushdie - the vile anti-Muslim author of the unholy The Satanic Verses!

It is likely that I could be slaughtered in Lahore if some mad mullah spotted me with a Rushdie. Unwise idea indeed!

So what books do I carry to Pakistan?

I do have the first edition of Daughter of the East, autobiography of Benazir Bhutto - Pakistan's first woman Prime Minister. It is a very handsome, US-published edition but unfortunately Benazir's ghost writer had a literary style slightly inelegant, tending to be a bit too melodramatic for a subtle taste. Besides, it is not good manners: Pervez Musharraf's government has given me distinction by awarding this rare visa, and he dislikes Ms Bhutto. I must be considerate to Mr. Musharraf's sentiments.

But there is a book that created a quiet stir in the post 9/11 world, at a time when General Musharraf's name had started getting popular in the American drawing rooms. It was Mary Anne Weaver's Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. Ms Weaver is a New Yorker magazine correspondent and, since she writes for such a great institution, her account is well-written and filled with fascinating anecdotes. Still, a feeling lurks that the book was a racy read that lacked in that higher level of literal achievement that would insist on a re-read.

However, there have been other books on Pakistan written by Americans, like The Idea of Pakistan by Stephen P. Cohen. Unfortunately, Mr Cohen concentrated all his attention on fueling the vapid imaginations of think-tank intellectuals and university professors, ignoring the common vulgar people in the process. Perhaps he does not think highly of lay readers like me, looking for some enjoyable hours.

Oh, I'm in a real danger of going bookless in Lahore. Were these the only Pakistani books I have? Is my library so poor? Is my collection, painstakingly built with much thought and care, so lacking in choice?

A Prostitute Mother and a Parsee Child Comes Handy

But wait - I must not be dejected. It so happens that few months back I read a book by a British writer who had lived with a family of sex workers in Heera Mandi - Lahore's red light district. Based on her intimate relationship with Maha, the fat and ageing prostitute, and her five children, Ms Louise Brown composed an affectionate, sensitive, at times extremely sentimental but never dramatic, account of the lives of prostitutes. She exercised her choice of words with so much dignity and understanding that it made the reader feel "normal" and at home with the dark lives of those unfortunate women.

The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District is one of the more beautiful books I was introduced to since the start of this year. It will be nice to smuggle it across the border. Once in Lahore, I will go for an excursion to Heera Mandi and will get the book inscribed by a prostitute - the older the better! (Maha the prostitute-mother was in her mid 30s.)

However, Red Light memento will present an incomplete picture of Lahore. If there are seedy lanes of Heera Mandi to explore, then there are also elegant addresses where rich, sophisticated, English-speaking Parsee people once used to live, laugh, and play bridge games.

The novel Cracking India, set on the eve of Indian partition, is the fiction memoirs of a privileged Parsee child, Lenny the lame girl, who goes on to describe her little world, even as the bigger world around her was gradually vanishing into oblivion.

Cracking India, which was later made into a film titled Earth by Deepa Mehta (the maker of Water), vividly captured a Lahore strictly belonging to a particularly momentous time in history when the sun had begun to set on Hindu-Muslim unity, giving eloquence to the anguish of a great city whose cosmopolitanism would be irreversibly destroyed due to religious divide. Lahore would never be the same again - and hence Cracking India would be a gentle reminder to the present-day Lahoris of what great elements their city was once made of.

So, on with The Dancing Girls of Lahore and Cracking India, on to Pakistan.

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