BLF2020 | The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Neena Gopal, former editor of the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Chronicle, interviewed Declan Walsh, a foreign correspondent reporter who was formerly the Pakistan bureau chief for the New York Times. His book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan, is based on the people he had interacted with while reporting from Pakistan.

Neena Gopal begins by asking Declan Walsh about how he felt when he was ordered to leave Pakistan.

“The story started just before the elections in Islamabad” began Walsh, as he explained how he received a letter at midnight, that ordered him to leave the country. His visa was cancelled, and he was given just 12 hours to leave. Later, when he went to London, he attempted to come back to Pakistan. His inability to come back was the starting point of his book. He asked himself how he could narrate the story of what he’d seen- and came upon the inspiration of writing the book.

Neena went on to ask, “Did you feel like you’ve crossed a line?” in reference to his exile from Pakistan

Journalism, Walsh stated, had always been restricted in Pakistan. He reflected, in a detailed manner, on his adventures at Balochistan, and what he learnt about the culture of journalism there. Sensitive topics are often not covered by the local press and the publication of stories in world-renowned newspapers such as The Guardian, where Walsh previously worked, helped break the stigma surrounding these stories. He had never seen the expulsion coming. “They felt I’d overstayed my welcome.”

Neena proceeded to ask him about one of the chapters she’d found interesting- that of Azma Jahangir.

“Azma was undoubtedly impressive”. Azma Jahangir was one of the leading women in Pakistan, to raise her voice against the discriminations they faced. She led the resistance against the Pakistani restrictions. Walsh goes on to explain how Azma was particularly impressive as she used her privilege as a weapon. People viewed Azma as a traitor of her class and her place as a woman in society. Walsh chose to focus an entire chapter on Azma as he has considered her to be the best example. Azma Jahangir stood for diagnosing a problem when the state doesn’t act as neutral territory.

Neena Gopal, particularly interested in the relationship shared between Benazir Bhutto and Azma Jahangir, asked Walsh what his thoughts were about the same.

“Benazir and Azma had so much in common”, reflected Walsh very enthusiastically. Before Benazir Bhutto passed away, Azma Jahangir had a talk on a public forum, where she spoke about her relationship with Bhutto. Both Bhutto, as well as Azma, have criticised each other publicly and privately too. They shared a strange relationship that was bound by a common belief- a belief about what Pakistan would become. In the broader fight against the Pakistani military, Benazir had prepared to contest Musharraf. Azma, at the same time, was put behind bars by Musharraf. Their mutual relationship almost reached a full circle towards the end of their lives. The death of Bhutto, said Walsh in sombre tone, marked Azma very deeply. She used that moment to talk about the militants and called them “useless duffers”, laughed Walsh.

Neena Gopal brought the attention of the audience to another chapter she found interesting- to the one about Salman Wazir. She asked Walsh a very specific question- “Will the elite ever have a say in Pakistan?”

The debate is really between the ‘Progressive’ Pakistanis and the Extremists. The battle was about bringing a balance between these two approaches, and it was a battle that the likes of Azma Jahangir fought. “Blasphemy is an important problem and has gotten worse”, argued Walsh. He described the ‘institutionalization’ of blasphemy. In a rather hopeful attempt, Walsh felt that the youth of the Pakistani state have a very important role to play in voicing what the country should be like. Imran Khan, Walsh remembers, had based his election on young people, and has tried to tap into their ‘modern’ identity.

Walsh spoke about his interaction with Nawab Bakhtiyar. He was very impressed with the way the Nawab presented himself. He remembered how Nawab Bakhtiyar, or “Nawab Bakti”, as Walsh likes to call him, had even quoted Rabindranath Tagore’s prose to him. Walsh situated Baktiyar as a huge figure who had significant connections with the military. Baktiyar had come to Baluchistan due to a gas dispute but went on to become a part of a wider dispute. Walsh had found Baktiyar in exile, at Geneva. Even there, Baktiyar was leading armed groups in Pakistan. As a foreign correspondent journalist, Walsh thinks about the alarming ways and methods in which the Pakistanis prosecute their people.

When asked about the ISI and the Taliban. Walsh gave a brief history of the ISI and their growth since the 1980s. He thinks they are very good at manipulating the politics in Pakistan. Their involvement is strategic- and happens by supporting Islamist guerrilla organisations. He, however, finds many faults and criticisms concerning the ISI and points to their various disastrous attacks- “When you point to the failures of this spy agency, you see that at the strategic level, the chickens were coming home to roost at that point.”

Talking of Pakistan’s relationship with India, Declan said he knew a lot of people who came to India for business. With the cricket diplomacy that Musharraf and Manmohan Singh tried to establish, the relationship between Indians and Pakistanis were becoming better. The cultural desires of the people, however, had become hostage to politics. He sees how on both sides of the border, there is a yearning and desire for cultural linkages. He added, “To respond to your question on my relationship with the country, I think it would be cliché of me to say that it was warm. But what drew me to Pakistan were the people, and how they were open, to be frank about their lives, in terms of what was going on with them. As a reporter, that was incredibly gratifying”

Neena found it wonderful that, despite being thrown out of the country, Walsh went on to write a book about his journey in Pakistan. The session ended with Neena Gopal congratulating Declan Walsh on his fabulous book, and recommended it to everyone to read.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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Edgy, Brilliant, and Complex: Salman Rushdie’s Shame Injects a Fairytale Into Politics

Can you live somewhere without knowing its name? Can you breathe its polity and travel its landscape only relying on letters? Can you grow up in a sealed fortress, watching snow capped mountains and discovering new rooms every night? Can you accept a narrative of a woman so ashamed that it stunts her mental growth until she becomes a monster, ripping apart men and turkeys? It all sounds gibberish until you allow Salman Rushdie’s Shame to consume you. Just like the crippling embarrassment that consumes the life of every tragic character in the novel, Rushdie swallows the reader into an abyss of words, history, allusions, illusions and magic. Open your mind, and Rushdie’s genius will engulf you exactly how Harry fell into the Pensieve and experienced memories that didn’t belong to him.

Shame is about many things that constitute life. Families. Marriages. Children. Affairs. Religion. Politics. Dictators. Governments. Rebellions. Scandals. It is about interconnected families against the backdrop of an unnamed, phantasmagoric country and the upheavals in its polity. The book’s family tree will immediately remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. In fact, Rushdie and Marquez share substantial similarities in writing style and elaborate imagination. The worlds they create are brimming with strangeness. Even the tiniest thing is ornate. Whether it is the bitter almonds in Love in the Time of Cholera or the elevator in Shame built to transport goods and commit murder, nothing is ordinary. Yet, all of it is true.

Shame is tough to summarise, but for protocol’s sake, it must be done. Who started Shame? Omar Khayyam Shakil. His matrilineal lineage is questionable. He was born to three mothers, who replicated a pregnancy. Apart from Rushdie, no one knows who among the three Shakil sisters was Omar’s mother. After spending his childhood in a suffocating fortress designed to prohibit human interaction, Omar leaves his home at 12. Eventually, he becomes a debauch but famed doctor before marrying a ridiculously young patient called Sufiya Zinobia.

Sufiya is a symbol of purity and the axis on which shame and shamelessness revolve. Born to a mother who craved a son, she embodied the book’s central philosophy: Shame begets Violence and Violence begets Shame. Suffering from stunted mental growth, Sufiya grows up unloved and prone to constant blushing on account of internalising her family’s dishonour. Her parents are General Raza Hyder and Bilquis Hyder. Raza is a politician par excellence, masking his shrewd barbarism under the well-pressed suits. The second bloc in Shame is General Raza’s political opponent, Iskander Harappa. Once known for his indulgent personality and many affairs, he marries the simple Rani Harappa whose quiet tolerance of her husband’s ways finds expression in the delicate shawls she embroiders. His daughter is Arjumand. Known as Virgin Ironpants for her attempts to suppress her sexuality and reject potential suitors, she is Iskander’s secret weapon. A political mastermind, Arjumand stands by her father throughout his career and even after his execution. Many more characters are crucial. They come and go as per the story’s requirements. 

Shame reads like a secret. It is whispered so often that everyone has a vague idea of what it is hinting at but cannot be brash and say it aloud. A significant portion of Shame’s geographical and psychological landscape may go unnamed, but it has been broadly agreed that Shame is Pakistan’s story. As a writer, the Indian Independence, Partition and Pakistan are very close to Rushdie. Whether he is exploring them full throttle like in Midnights Children or incorporating the zeitgeist of the time in The Ground Beneath her Feet, the two nations’ political health always had a bearing on his characters. With Shame, he delves into the political class of Pakistan and gives us a fairytale.

Scholars (and readers who are tempted to explore the history of Pakistan even at a tertiary level after reading Shame) have found the following, significant allusions:

  • The unnamed city of Q – Quetta
  • Raza Hyder – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
  • Iskandar Harappa – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
  • Arjumand Harappa – Benazir Bhutto

Shame is so layered that you will find hundreds of papers and dissertations, so many different themes explored in the novel; such as nationalism, violence, religion, marriage, motherhood, magical realism, political identity, post-colonialist writing and modernism. Which one will I address? The question puts me in a pickle.

Salman Rushdie’s vision for Shame is far ahead of his times. The observations he made in 1983 through dark humour and fictional situations hold their ground in 2021. For example, Maulana Dawood’s character. He is a fanatic and General Raza’s advisor. His influence steadily draws Raza towards establishing a theocracy. The narrative about faith being rammed into politics and those poisonous politics being forced down people’s throats will resonate today. Shame even answers why the rhetoric of faith is such a fit in governance. It’s because faith as a language is too complicated to oppose. It comes with respect. So much of it that it hushes everybody.

Shame does a great job of reminding us that no matter how much despotism is shrouded with sweet words and mysticism, the masses will rise. In the end, General Raza, his wife and Omar flee the city and take shelter in Omar’s childhood home. The intimidating fortress, a symbol of tyranny, is where they are brutally murdered. Ultimately, commoners storm the house. What can be more symbolic than that?

One of the most poignant and famous lines in Shame is, Beauty and the Beast is simply the tale of arranged marriage. This sentence alone captures the sadness that permeates every marriage in the book, making the reader acutely aware of the feminist discourse underlying the outwardly masculine narrative of men fighting it for power, women, and legitimacy. On the surface, it is all about men. Hyder, Harappa, Omar, Maulana, Babar and Talvar Ulhaq claw and scratch to climb society’s ladders. By the time it ends, the women stand out.

Shame is often overshadowed by the sparkle of The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. However, it must not be missed. Even if one doesn’t enjoy political critique, it can be appreciated as a fairytale about warring families. The book does have drawbacks. For example, those who are not aware of Pakistan’s history may initially miss some of its flavours. It is quite detailed, so you forget portions of initial happenings when the author revisits in the middle of the book. Some amount of going back and forth and googling may be essential.

Shame, just like the emotion itself, is warped and multifaceted. It is about disgrace and as well as its antithesis: shamelessness. Together, they form the basis of violence. As Rushdie says, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

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Imran Khan: In the Hot Seat

The recent political change in Pakistan has been a hot topic of discussion at the Bangalore Literature Festival. Farzana Shaik was in conversation with Max Rodenbeck and the discussion was more about the current economic crisis of Pakistan, Imran,’s promise for a new Pakistan, and his leadership as such.

According to Farzana, although the current outlook is great for Pakistan, Imran’s stance in various socio-political issues is not encouraging. It’s rather disturbing. Earlier, his party had strongly opposed the provincial laws for women empowerment. Imran himself had said that supporting those legislations which protect women from domestic violence and abuse would mean breaking the family set up in Pakistan. Imran has also been extremely silent on what his government intends to do with the terrorism sponsored from Pakistani borders, the Jihadi movements or even the greylisting of Pakistan for economic assistance, thanks to its inaction.

Given that Imran is strongly backed by the army, one cannot expect too much of a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Also since the military had a tough time when their blue-eyed boy Nawaz Sheriff turned rogue, they are going to have a closer watch over Imran. Going by the past record, there is a chronic circularity about the individuals who became the Prime Ministers of Pakistan. So there might be no room for bigger changes especially since the constitutional clauses that were used against Nawaz are still very much in place.

Imran promised 5million in homes and 10 million in jobs during his campaign. But it is going to be extremely difficult thanks to the debts. One cannot deny that there is popular support for Imran in Pakistan. His political discourse does chime with a lot of people in Pakistan. However, the by-polls indicate how the Pakistanis are already disenchanted with his party even in areas which were considered his strongholds.

Its been three months since he came to power but he still conducts himself like an opposition leader. His politics is not distinguishable from container politics and he still continues the vindictive politics. He hasn’t evolved into a statesman, as one would expect of him.

Speaking of Imran’s approach towards India, Farzana says supporters of Imran might point out that he was open towards India. Imran even said that if India took one step forward, Pakistan would take two. However, historically, any government that had an independent policy towards India always paid the price for it. Farzana also insisted that the Indian government should not stick to the ‘no talk until terrorism ends’ policy but continue the diplomatic talks with Pakistan.

Perilous Interventions – The Use of Force and the Continuing Chaos

“India’s aspirations to become a permanent member of the UN security council is realistic and doable”, says, Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs during his conversation with Ambassador P.S. Raghavan at the Bangalore Literature Festival. The session was on the back drop of his book ‘Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos’. Having had a 40 years long momentous career in diplomacy, the Minister spoke about his time in the UN Security council as representative of India and India’s diplomatic relationship with major countries across the globe. Continue reading “Perilous Interventions – The Use of Force and the Continuing Chaos”

China bans Islamic names

China has banned the usage of a few Islamic names in the Xinjiang province. This is a Muslim majority province and such an action is supposed to impact children who would be named Imam, Hajj, Islam, Quran, Saddam, Medina etc. These names are supposedly heavily loaded with religious extremism and must not be considered by families for their children if they are to get hukou (household registration) and other state services.

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हम इस हमले की कड़ी निंदा करते हैं। (कड़ी निंदा सन्देश )

लांस नायक राघव यादव आतंकवाद के शिकार हो गए। कश्मीर में ड्यूटी पर कोई उन्नीस बीस साल के लौंडे ने गोलियों से छलनी कर दिया। बन्दूक उनके पास भी थी, पर उसको चलाने पर पाबंदी थी सरकार की तरफ से। इस से पहले कि ये समझ पाते कि सरकार जाये भाँड़ में, बन्दूक निकालो और गोली मारो, लड़के ने गोली चला दी थी। शहीद हो गए ।
सलामी के बाद शव को परिवार वालों को सौंप दिया गया। साथ में एक चिट्ठी भी थी जिसमें कुछ ऐसा लिखा था –

Continue reading “हम इस हमले की कड़ी निंदा करते हैं। (कड़ी निंदा सन्देश )”