Published in The Express Tribune
‘Suddenly,’ went the first lines of Pervez Musharraf’s book, ‘there was a huge explosion, and my car was airborne. I was face-to-face with terror.’ It’s a risky opening gambit: the President of Pakistan’s memoir beginning like a bad Tom Clancy thriller. But the good offices of Simon & Schuster knew exactly what they were doing, and the book sold well. In fact, it pretty much sold like General Musharraf – compulsory for locals, written for foreigners, and losing most of its shelf value after May ’07.
Yes, In the Line of Fire is written in the subject’s voice…at times to a fault. Typos are all over the place. Bodybuilders hail the general’s physique. An invite to the PM House prompts him to strap on his Glock. Considering George Bush’s as-crude Decision Points, it seems 9/11 tough guys were best served packaging themselves in cowhide.
For all its tics though, a sitting president put his thoughts to paper and did us all a service — for history as compelling as ours, few write about it. Even fewer read what’s written. And in what’s written, little stems from the men and women that made history in the first place. It doesn’t help that the country in question is big, messy and impossible to make sense of on the best of days.
A roll call of heads of state proves as much. The founding fathers have no published memoirs to their name. The gents that manhandled the ’50s are as mysterious. Iskander Mirza breathes only through an impossible-to-find biography and a family history his son threw together. His friend, the field marshal, is slightly better understood. Sandhurst English peppers Ayub Khan’s diaries (‘That old fox, Bhashani!’), and Friends, Not Masters is a victory salvo that reads scarily like General Musharraf 40 years early.
Part of this is because history rhymes: both strongmen tell us how they saved the economy, encouraged the liberals and freed the press. The other part might be the ghostwriting Gauhars; Mr. Humayun Gauhar edited the general’s work, his late father co-wrote the field marshal’s.
Besides the odd interview where he compared his hair to Samson’s, next to nothing was put forward by Yahya. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote angrily and prolifically, but his death sentence cut short a growing portfolio. If I Am Assassinated, smuggled out of his prison cell, is a last hint of what might have been written. General Zia wrote no memoirs either — the closest thing is a collection of tributes called Shaheed-ul-Islam, in which the PM contributes.
Benazir Bhutto’s martial law memoir, Daughter of the East, lays claim to being Pakistan’s best known, but both the revised edition and Reconciliation only glance over her time in office. Nawaz Sharif is at his most open in Sohail Warraich’s Ghaddar Kaun, but it’s less biography than longish interview. Party bosses Imran Khan and Altaf Hussain have published partial life journeys; the full story is yet to be written.
None of this, of course, begins to touch on the wonderful Pakistanis who owe it to the rest of us to pen their life lessons down. Some, like Rahimullah Yousafzai, may yet. Others have already passed, like Meraj Khalid and Mahmud Husain, and taken their wisdom with them.
But a lack of first-hand material isn’t all that’s wrong with our history. Our research remains awful. In a nation of speechwriters, we have no historians. With a climate this compromised, they’re just too hard to raise. Critical thinking has to be encouraged in children, rather than drummed out by their own teachers. Universities require refocusing on the humanities and bucking the trend towards harder sciences. Culture needs to begin respecting intellectual inquisitiveness before designer bags and bad restaurants.
Because nothing’s stopped outsiders from drawing colourful pictures of the country by themselves. A line of British writers have explored Pakistan long after the Raj and delved deeper than many a local. Emma Duncan and Christina Lamb combine good journalism with great writing. Duncan walked in while the ‘80s junta held sway. Lamb saw the aftermath, as the murky I.J.I. mud-wrestled the Peoples Party. By the time Owen Bennett-Jones’s book rolled around, 9/11 had hit, the neocons were running wild and Pakistan was back on the B.B.C. ticker. Things got worse in Anatol Lieven’s controversial, masterful Hard Country and yet, he argued, the place still worked.
No doubt quality history can be produced at home, but that doesn’t mean Pakistan Studies. The state must realise that allowing (and encouraging) diversity of opinion makes for richer history. Despite doing justice to the single most underrated man of the 20th century, Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Jinnah sahib was banned in the country he created. The state may have had a case if it disagreed with his premise, the quality of his research, perhaps even how many grammatical errors there were. Jinnah of Pakistan instead got the chop for personal tidbits that Mr. Wolpert consciously kept in ‘because the truth about great men needs to be discussed.’ He’s right, and the Quaid-i-Azam is no less greater for it.
The greyness of state-sponsored history reaches across the border as well and from the looks of it, is about as tiresome. Jaswant Singh was flung out of the B.J.P. for waxing vaguely positive on the Quaid. For Pratap Banu Mehta, this proved the criticisms that the Janata Party was ‘founded on endless resentment’. To honour Mr. Mehta’s words some more, Modi’s Gujarat argued Mr. Singh’s book on Partition defamed Sardar Patel as well, and culled it from the state.
But India is also the country of Ramachandra Guha, whose India After Gandhi (despite its jaundiced take on Pakistan) is a milestone of South Asian scholarship. Guha was aware that ‘the gaps in our knowledge are colossal’, but said he was driven ‘by the wish to understand, rather than the desire to pass judgment’. In that one sentence lies our salvation. ‘Any fool can make history,’ thought Oscar Wilde, ‘but it takes a genius to write it.’