JAI ARJUN SINGH
There’s more to Pakistan than meets the mind of the not-too-well-informed reader.
To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan; Nicholas Schmidle; Random House India; Rs 299.
For an Indian reader, one of the interesting things about Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or to Perish Forever is that this book about contemporary Pakistan hardly ever looks at the country through the prism of its relationship with India. In fact, India is a quiet presence somewhere on the book’s periphery (much as it is in the Pakistan map included at the beginning) – even in a passage about Bangladesh attaining independence in 1971, it gets only a passing mention.
This is a rare thing. Though Pakistani fiction in English is reaching new heights thanks to writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohsin Hamid whose work gives us fresh, nuanced perspectives on life in a complex country, much non-fiction writing about Pakistan tends to view it primarily with reference to the Kashmir situation – or as a distorted mirror image of India. But while Pakistan’s strife-ridden history undoubtedly derives from the decision to partition the subcontinent in 1947, there is more to its story. There is a lot happening there today that the newspaper-browsing reader isn’t too well-informed about, and To Live or to Perish Forever fills this gap. Schmidle’s book is an accessible, firsthand look at the internal politics and dilemmas of modern Pakistan.
It probably needed someone with non-subcontinental origins to pull this off. The author is an American freelance journalist who lived and worked in Pakistan for two years between 2006 and early 2008, when he was abruptly asked to leave the country for nebulous reasons (he returned briefly later that year). His attraction for Pakistan isn’t always easy to understand, but he makes you believe in it. “This is – in part – my humble attempt to explain the many identities and histories that exist within Pakistan,” he says early on.
His book is probably best read as a collection of essays that, when taken together, illuminate the many things that combine to make Pakistan such a dangerous country, both for itself and for the rest of the world: among them, the operations of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), the strong Taliban presence in the North West Frontier Province and the inability of the country’s leaders to do anything about it, even under strong pressure from America. A lot happens during Schmidle’s stay in the country – President Musharraf fights a losing battle to retain power (and personal dignity), there is a violent eight-day day siege at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan after many years and is assassinated within months – and he is there to observe much of it.
He encounters the closed circle of hardline Islam, where the dictates of the Faith are the only things that have to be obeyed and where “manmade” concepts like democracy are irrelevant. And yet, in the midst of all the rigid certainties associated with the religion, there are poignant flashes of curiosity about the outside world. “Who are these women? Are they married?” a mullah asks Schmidle, referring to bikinied WWE cheerleaders. A Pakistani policeman, initially authoritative in tone, wonders if Schmidle, being a journalist, knows more about what is happening to the country than he himself does.
Schmidle’s writing is functional, quietly efficient in the style of a reporter with a good eye and ear, though some of his analogies are tiresome: the muddy Indus is likened to cream of mushroom soup, Islamabad under gunfire sounds like a giant bag of popcorn, flies sit around a pitcher like kids waiting to jump into the neighbourhood pool.
In such passages and a few others (such as a description of “crotch-scratching mullahs” uncertainly listening to a lecture that tries to reconcile Islam with modernity), he comes close to resembling the archetypal blustering American, shuffling awkwardly around an unfamiliar culture. But it’s difficult to sustain this impression when you consider the honesty and courage of his efforts to understand the many layers of Pakistan.
His book combines the personal and the political to good effect, such as in the brave passage where he describes his sadness about the death of a pro-Taliban leader who had been helpful and hospitable towards him. The title of Schmidle’s book derives from a 1933 treatise written by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, the man who coined the name “Pakistan”. As To Live or to Perish Forever makes clear, more than 75 years on, Pakistan is still struggling with the question of how best to survive.