Re-imagining Pakistan

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Various readings of Pakistan as a country in the light of its portrayal in Rushdie’s novels.

Midnight’s Diaspora, Edited by Daniel Herwitz and Ashutosh Varshney, Viking,

Rs. 399.

Midnight’s Diaspora is a compilation of socio-political essays by noted Indian, Pakistani and European intellectuals based on the works of Salman Rushdie. This book, as the title suggests, is a book by, of and for Midnight’s diaspora as all the contributors are post Midnight’s children, settled abroad with a rich experience of diasporic hybridity. This is not a book of literary criticism as all the writers have used Rushdie’s books as a peg to hang their own ideas on India, Pakistan, Mumbai, and national identities.

The book is divided into three parts: the first and the third are Rushdie-speak while the six essays comprising the middle focus on Pakistan as a nation glued by its religious identity. Though Rushdie has to his credit more than 16 novels besides collections of short stories and essays, the contributors to Midnight’s Diaspora refer mainly to Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Satanic Verses to express their own views on Pakistan, taking their cue from Rushdie’s description of Pakistan as “a place… insufficiently imagined”.

Rushdie’s interviews and response reflect his rich diasporic experience of cultural cross-dressing, so characteristic of all his writings. The two interviews with Ashutosh Varshney and Gauri Viswanathan are “paeans to the art of free speech”. For Rushdie, freedom of expression is closely intertwined with the freedom to offend. His strong attack on Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind” and his acknowledgement of The Satanic Verses as a serious inquiry into Islam to widen the doors of perception are a defence of the freedom of speech.

Exploring identities

These free-wheeling views of Rushdie are the starting point for the other writers to analyse how and why Pakistan had become a failed State. Varshney says that the core of Pakistan’s national identity at the time of its birth was cultural and not religious. Pakistan was born as a Muslim State and not as an Islamic one. Jinnah favoured Partition, as he feared that Muslims, as a distinct cultural community, would suffer as minorities in India with a Hindu majority. But Muslim community itself was so riven with internal divisions that Jinnah had to recourse to Islam to glue the diverse communities of Indian Muslims into an imagined nation. The absence of pluralism and syncretism, that mark India’s social and religious identities, did not help Pakistan to overcome its internal fissures. The further incision of Pakistan to form Bangladesh with the Bengali Muslims refusing to surrender their distinct cultural identities proved the inadequacy of imagining a nation on religious commonality.

Husain Haqqani also discusses the threat posed by a deeply flawed, nuclear-armed Islamic State of Pakistan, citing references from Midnight’s Children and Shame. The first has the backdrop of the Partition of India that led to the creation of Pakistan while the second deals with Pakistan as a failed State ruled mainly by authoritarian military leaders and occasionally by corrupt and incompetent civil politicians. Both endorse Rushdie’s view that “the creation of Pakistan has been an unnatural birth”. Hence the two articles look at the possibility of re-imagining Pakistan that will result in a more positive picture. These articles as well as the other four remaining articles question the adequacy of a darkly imagined national fantasy. The survival of Pakistan and the restoration of peace in the sub-continent demand a positive re-imagining of Pakistan minus its negative religious hatred and anti-Indianism. The change is not impossible, a view affirmed by Thomas Hansen. He cites Rushdie’s critique of Mumbai as a city currently engaged in re-inventing itself after its wide open split between the old, classical Bombay and the boorish Mumbai of the1990s. If Mumbai is able to look for its lost innocence and seek restoration of its pristine glory, there is hope for Pakistan to re-write a new chapter.

A contemporary’s praise

Shashi Tharoor has high praise for Rushdie’s portrayal of India as an eclectic, hybridised nation saying, ‘the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural”. India, a land “emerging from ancient civilisation, united by a shared history , sustained by plurlist democracy” is Rushdie’s India, his intellectual heritage. Tharoor’s essay is a peroration of the idea of India celebrated in Rushdie’s writings. Though Tharoor does not make specific reference to Pakistan, his article tracing the idea of India to its roots celebrates India’s unity in diversity as a contrast to Pakistan’s “blinkered monoculture”.

Midnight’s Diaspora seems more of an attempt at crystal gazing to re-imagine Pakistan using Rushdie’s lens. The book raises the question whether a new Pakistan will remain framed in imagination or will it step out of the frame to become a reality.

Midnight’s Diaspora, Edited by Daniel Herwitz and Ashutosh Varshney, Viking,

Rs. 399.



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