This is the story of Yoginder Sikand travelling through Pakistan over a period of one month as an individual. There is also a postscript about his second visit after a few years for a conference where the circumstances of his stay were absolutely different.
I had bought this book during the Sharjah Book Fair. Its cover and back page had attracted me. To be honest I had bought the book thinking that it will about the author’s discovery and search for the part of the family in Pakistan (though the back cover does not mention anything about that, so my bad). It was a tossup between this one and the other which was about a Pakistani in India!
The book starts with the background of the author’s family who were originally from Pakistan. They had escaped the horror of the massacre of partition but the scars and the longing for homeland remained. It travels with the author for his quest for a Pakistan visa (no easy task) and journeys from Lahore to Gujranwala to Hyderabad to Uderolal and Mohenjo-Daro.
It tries to portray Pakistan though the eyes of the author and his interactions with the people he comes in contact with. It tries to be an honest book and the author does try and write the way things are rather than sugar coat it.
The story starts with the young Mr.Sikand being told tales about Pakistan from his maternal grandmother who was born and brought up there but escaped the horrors of the partition as she was already married and living in Ooty by that time. The grandmother had escaped but it had affected her and even though she missed her birthplace the partition had filled her with intense dislike against Pakistan and Pakistanis. It was this dislike which she tried to fill her young grandson’s mind with. The said grandson however grew up to be a socialist and questioned his grandmother’s beliefs and wanted to find the truth himself.
For a north Indian Punjabi Pakistani side of Punjab has held a great allure for me to. Like the author I too feel that the people of the subcontinent are inexplicably tied to each other. The children in India are ingrained and educated to dislike and mistrust Pakistan (and vice versa too I am sure). And that is what this book is about. The author rebels against this mindset. Even though he and his friends have this idealistic view of visa free travel between the countries of subcontinent I do believe that is time both the countries moved on. Jingoistic words to drum up patriotic fervor have not done either of the countries any favour and they both need to focus more on their development.
The author is a socialist who has written a lot about religious conflict and communalism. Even though the book is portrayed as look into common Pakistanis the emphasis seems to be more on the poorest of the poor and also on the untouchables of Sindh. That story seems to be the same on both sides of the border (even though India has “reservations” the people who really need it are still languishing).
It is a beautifully descriptive book, the people and the places are described so wonderfully that you feel like you are a by-stander rather than just a reader. The conversations he has with random people, their stories, their aspirations move you, sometimes even too tears. Here I will make a special mention of the story of Khurshid Khan Kaim Khani, which proved humanity is still alive in this cruel world. The thread of longing for homeland runs through the book and strikes a chord.His descriptions of the shrines of Shahbaz Qalandar and the tomb of Jhooley Lal are so eloquent that you feel that you are there. You can almost hear the qawalis and feel the fervor of the people thronging it.
When he writes about the lack of sanitation in the cities you can almost smell the stench (read the passage about his train journey from Lahore to Hyderabad). You give a chuckle when you read his interview with the high commission officer for visa (same bureaucracy like in India). You feel his gratitude when Maulana’s family welcomes him and makes sure that he gets home-cooked vegetarian food throughout his stay in Gujranwala.
And the best part about the book it is not at all judgmental. It doesn’t sugarcoat the facts true but neither does it point fingers.
If I have to point out inadequacies in the book I would say that I would have loved t if he had tried to find out more or made more effort to contact the family members left behind. Also the end is a bit filmy and whimsical for my taste.
However one lesson I did learn from this book and that is to look ahead. History (my passion) is great but we need to learn from it, take lessons from it so that we don’t repeat the mistakes and look ahead.