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A Book-Lover Sets Out for Pakistan

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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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About Mayank Austen Soofi

  • Nice piece, as always. Just to throw this into the mix for now or down the road: If you’re in the mood for a Naipaul anthology of essays, try “The Writer and the World”–I reviewed it a while back.

  • Moin Ansari

    Ms. Soofi:

    We thank you taking the trouble to visit Pakistan and write about the country. Just think about it. Underneath the suspicious skepticism, distrusting cynicism, and corny sarcasm, doesn’t your narrative shows some basic prejudice? In all honesty, you display blatant ingrate behavior, and abuse of the Pakistani hospitality!!!!

    I am amazed that you have wasted so much cyber-space in building a case against Pakistan and Pakistanis “it is a tale told like an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.

    It is amazing that among 150 million Pakistanis you could not find any book-readers. It is an absolutely astounding statement that perhaps reeks of some deep-rooted prejudice.

    There are entire areas of Lahore and Karachi dedicated to book publishing and commerce called Urdu bazaar. One can even find old and rare manuscripts there. Of course now there is amazon.com and a host of Pakistani websites that offer local and internationally published books. Karachi’s Clifton, Lahore’s defense, and Islamabad offers Western style of bookstores. One simply had to do a google search, but that would have been too much work for the author of this blog!

    Obviously, you tried to be humorous. Your corny humor, scorn for everything Pakistani and basic Pakistanphobia

    Here is a list of books you could have taken to Pakistan:
    Night Song by Michael Brook Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
    Festive Food of India and Pakistan by Louise Nicholson
    The Rough Guide to The Music of Pakistan (Rough Guide World Music CDs) by ROUGH GUIDES
    Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali by Regula Burckhardt Qureshi
    Pride and Passion: An Exhilarating Half Century of Cricket in Pakistan (The Jubilee Series) by Omar Noman
    Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
    Friends no Masters by Mohammad Ayub Khan (ex President of Pakistan)
    The Indus Saga by Aitzaz Ahsan
    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: A living legend by Ahmed Aqeel Ruby (Unknown Binding – 1992)
    Zulfi Bhutto by Stanley Wolpert
    Food for Pakistanis around the world by Raziuddin Shaikh
    The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture by Annemarie Schimmel
    Lonely Planet Pakistan & the Karakoram Highway (Lonely Planet Pakistan) by Sarina Singh, Lindsay Brown, Owen Bennett-Jones, and John Mock
    Jinnah by Stanley Wolpert
    Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies, 22) by Barbara Daly Metcalf
    Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War by Victoria Schofield
    The World of the “Untouchables”: Paraiyars of Tamil Nadu by Robert Deliege
    Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Oxford India Paperbacks)
    New Pakistan by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
    Qawwali, music of Islamic mysticism in Pakistan ([Asia Society. Performing Arts Program. Monographs on music, dance and theater in Asia ; v.4]) ([Asia Society. Performing Arts Program. Monographs on music, dance and theater in Asia ; v.4]) by Regula Qureshi
    History of God by Karen Armstrong
    “Unholy War” by Cooley
    The Arts and Crafts of India and Pakistan by Shanti
    Speeches and statements, July 1, 1972-September 30, 1972 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
    Social Movements and the State (Readings in Indian Government and Politics series) by Ghanshyam Shah
    Baluch Tigers by
    Khalistan: The only solution by Partap Singh
    A history of Farangi Mhal by Francis Robinson
    Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam by Barbara Daly Metcalf
    The Third World, new directions by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
    In Dravidian Land: Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu, 1995-2004 by S Viswanathan
    Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani
    A History of Islamic Societies by Ira M. Lapidus
    Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan by Kausar Niazi

  • Rana Singh

    So much prejudice in so small a space! Ms. Soofi, get a life. I visited Lahore and had one heck of a time among Pakistanis.

    Your dream was to go to a prostitute in Lahore?! IS this a fetish, if so you could neednt have wasted a trip to Pakistan, there are plenty of similar women available in a whorehouse near your own hometown. The misery of the women is the same!

  • Suzy Rosenberg

    I found this by accident and was so looking forward to a reasonable article. I found this nonsense. Absolutley amazing garbage. How could one person be so prejudiced against a group of people..

    Ms. Soofi, learn to live

  • Chan Akya

    The author seems to think that India is a paradise. Ask the Dalits, Kashmiris, Muslims, Tamils, Nadus, Bihiaris, Benglalis and generally the poor.

    I could present a long list of books that denegrate India, but why bother!

  • Kuldip Nayyer

    We need to develop good relations between India nad Pakistan, and this surely does not help

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

    And I do think some of the commenters here should note the tone – I read this as firmly tongue-in-cheek and playful. And it promotes some excellent books.

  • I thank everyone for their comments. I particularly offer my thanks to Mr Moin Ansari for listing books that we all could find informative and entertaining. I regret if my piece has hurt the sensibilities of my readers. But I would not like to change it. I’m back from my Pakistan trip and intend to write a series of articles dealing with my stay there.

  • Why would a prejudiced author visit Pakistan, if all she wanted to do was to berate the host country.

    If I visited Palestine and put everything Palestinain down, would I be any better than the fringe of Palestinain society that we all abhor.

  • Please read some of the books listed, and kindly take them with you next time you visit the country that you hate.

    Maybe you can enjoy the wonderful cradle of the Gandhara civilization, the center of the Indus valley Civilization, the heart of Sikhism, and the epicenter of the Soofi Muslims who are revered in India and Pakistan.

    Late is more popular in Pakistan than any Pakitani singer. Many Indian movies now start with Pakistani music, and one of the lead singers in India is Adnana Sami Khan. These are the prophets of our common heritage.

    it is hard to build bridges of harmony, and easy to fan fires of hate.

    Music, Language, fashions, food…there are so many wonderful things that Indians and Pakistanis can share….

  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    Mr. Moin Ansari,
    I agree completely with you. It is easy to fan fire but difficult to build bridges of brotherhood. Pakistan is a fabulous nation. Did you read my articles following my Pakistan visit? Also, please visit my new blog Pakistan Paindabad (pakistanpaindabad.blogspot.com) which I have started to present a more appealing aspect of your country which foreigners (including Indians) are usually not familiar with. Can you please send a private e-mail to me? I’ll like to sort out few queries about Pakistan with you. You will see my contact mail id in my blogs. Thanks for writing again.

    Susan, thanks for your comments. By the way this ‘prejudiced author’ is a ‘he’, not ‘she’!

  • Shadow

    Mr. Soofi,
    I do like the flow in your articles and how you can weave a comic caper around admittedly routine mundane tasks. A day in your life, your visit to a city etc. Reading a bunch of your recent posts it is apparent that you like books. I mean you like books. Seriously, you need to start liking things other than books. Don’t you think ? When I have a book on my lap when I butterfly press in a gym, to me I need to get a life or I’m just vain. Same about your Pakistan visit. Did you ever think of going out and meeting people and not wasting time with books while there? Savoring new cuisine, or talking to strangers. It definitely would have given you more material than just books !. I’m scared your next posts will be about what books you take to places you have not ventured yet in your posts blog. Let me suggest you a book you seem to need “Go Get a Life for Dummies”…

    You should write more about other stuff. A la “Run Away Bride and Groom….”

  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    Thanks for showing so much concern. No, I mean it. But I did not read books while in Pakistan. I went to Heera Mandi – a red light district. I drove around in Lahore. I attended lunches and dinners. i went to cafes. Perhaps you haven’t read my travelogues which I wrote following my Pakistan visit..

    By the way, today am reading ‘War & Peace’ and enjoying it.

  • Dear MR Soofi, I came upon this by accident but thought to respond briefly. I grew up in NWFP India/Pakistan and still consider it my first home, Urdu my second language. Next time while travelling try taking along a new novel, ONE WAY TO PAKISTAN by Harold Bergsma . See Amazon Books for readers comments and reviews especially the comments of Mc Mahon, Manley and Jarchow on the book’s cover. I agree with Moin Ansari, Pakistan is a fabulous country, its people wonderfully hospitable, its culture one of the oldest.

  • Several years ago I had an opportunity to interview several Pakistani businessmen and Government officials over telephone in connection with a market research of Industrial Plastics that a consulting firm in Singapore was conducting. I received very warm response from them. Therefore I agree with comments of Moin Ansari and Harold Bergsma above.