Monday, August 17, 2009




    It is quite natural to be sceptical about yet another book on Pakistan based on the experiences of an American, or for that matter any Western journalist. Much of the writing by this tribe is second-hand and therefore second rate – they tend take a detached, almost supercilious, view of events, lack even a modicum of understanding of the people and the place, and generally have very limited exposure. Nicholas Schmidle however doesn't belong to this tribe. He has lived Pakistan in the true sense of the term and travelled to all the 'wrong' places (Swat, Balochistan, the districts bordering South Waziristan, being stranded on a bandit infested road in Sindh) and met all the 'wrong' people. Not surprisingly, his efforts made him a target of the infamous 'agencies' – he was first deported and on a subsequent visit barely escaped becoming another Daniel Pearl. In the process, he experienced first-hand the intimidation and fear that the 'state within a state' invokes in people.

    Schmidle reports what he sees and hears and avoids passing judgements or pontificating. For someone who knew next to nothing about Pakistan when he went to that country, he is incisive and insightful in his description of a deeply troubled country. The reason he has been able to do this is because unlike most foreign journalists who meet the usual suspects and spin doctors in Lahore and Islamabad and on this basis form their mostly ill-informed opinions about Pakistan, Schmidle uses his reporters instinct and his remarkable power of observation to make the effort to go to the heart of every major problem and issue afflicting Pakistan and tries to understand the undercurrents that are propelling Pakistan towards an unending chaos. As he quite correctly writes: "there were plenty of things that I would have never found in a book, and would have to learn on my own."

Reading Schmidle's account of Pakistan, it is difficult not to notice the huge disconnect in the attitude of the people who are friendly, welcoming and communicative and the 'establishment' which is hostile, haughty, repressive and paranoid. Nowhere does this insensitive and abrasive attitude of the predominantly Punjabi 'establishment' come out more blatantly than in the troubled province of Balochistan. The frustration, anger, alienation and bitterness in the Baloch is reflected in the indignation of a Baloch companion of Schmidle who after being repeatedly questioned by soldiers at a checkpoint in Gwadar snaps "F...g Punjabis! Who are they to ask me where I am going? I am Baloch. This is my city". In a single sentence Schmidle sums up the military operation in Balochistan and writes: "while the Pakistan army struggled and was ineffective in any fights against India, it has displayed a penchant for ruthlessly crushing domestic rivals."

The growing power of Taliban in Pakistan doesn't surprise Schmidle. He writes: "The more I looked around, the more I realized that everyone, everywhere in Pakistan, seemed to be offering some help. The military's intelligence agencies played a double game, taking money from the Americans and still aiding the Taliban. Pakistanis on the street praised the Taliban as humble, pious servants of Allah." The ambivalence towards the Taliban among ordinary Pakistanis is illustrated by two quotes. A young man from South Waziristan tells Schmidle: "The Taliban's only problem is coercion. Otherwise they are doing a good job." And then there is the journalist from Bannu who says that the Taliban are projected wrongly and that "if they come to Bannu and don't hurt anyone, then there won't be any objections".

Talking of Bannu, Schmidle describes a 'famed tradition' of that city, one that would warm the hearts of those who support the scrapping of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Apparently, every evening the males leave their wives at home and congregate in the Bannu bazaar, draped in jasmine necklaces, which they would loop around the neck of any attractive boy to signal that he was 'taken'!

Schmidle's book makes for very compelling reading and is a must read for anyone who doesn't know anything about Pakistan but also for those who think they know everything about the place. But perhaps it is his prognosis of Pakistan's future that is most interesting. According to Schmidle "the political, social, economic and religious dynamics embedded in Pakistan seemed to become more and more complicated – and volatile – with time, and less and less solvable". But he doesn't subscribe to the view that Pakistan will breakup. Instead, he writes, it is "more likely that Pakistan will continue to exist in a perpetual state of frenzied dysfunction; alive, but always appearing to be on the verge of perishing".

TO LIVE OR PERISH FOREVER by Nicholas Schmidle

Pages: 271; Price: Rs. 299; Publisher: Random House India


    <775 Words>                        8th August, 2009



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home