CHAT M.J. Akbar on questions of identity

M . J. Akbar's engaging book, “Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan”, has raced to the bestseller list within a few weeks of its launch. This is not a surprise as Akbar's great strength as a popular author lies in his rigour as a scholar and his felicity as a writer. Evident since his first book, “India: A Siege Within”, and all through his career as a journalist and editor, his riveting prose and epigrammatic style have ensured that his works are widely read even if much has been written on the theme already. In “Tinderbox” Akbar argues that the formation of Pakistan was the “culmination of a search for what might be called ‘Muslim space' that began during the decline of the Mughal Empire, by a north Indian elite “driven by fear of the future and pride in the past”. His rhetoric is powerful and his language eloquent as he ventures ahead with this thesis, which is novel in some ways, as it differs from the major historical narratives of the formation of Pakistan.

For Akbar, the seminal date was 1739 when Nadir Shah massacred the population of Delhi and looted it. This, for him, marks the beginning of a search for Muslim political space.

“I make the point very strongly that when the community was deprived of all the structures of power it is only the ulema that stood by it,” he says on being asked whether he thinks the Muslim theologians were part of the Muslim elite.

“I'm really not here to defend any version. I'm here to define what I think is right. I don't believe in Right and Left versions. That's nonsense. This kind of thinking is weak and tepid and is utterly irrational,” Akbar responds on being asked whether his book is endorsing a partisan version of history.

In the gazebo restaurant at the ITC Royal Gardenia, where we sit and chat, he laughs loudly and waves to acquaintances. Our discussion plonks along on the little islands inhabited by his current work but I'm easily distracted by larger questions of identity, of India and Pakistan, and of writing. And he answers all of them in short staccato bursts as our time was running out.

On his identity and whether this affects his work he says: “I'm an Indian and I am a Muslim and I'm extremely proud of both identities. How can we distinguish ourselves from our outer selves? But whatever we do, we have to be honest to ourselves.”

On India and Pakistan: “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian, and the idea of Pakistan has proved weaker than the Pakistani.” On writing: “Writing is a means of communication. If you haven't reached the other, then your purpose is not achieved.”

When asked what he thought about Mani Shankar Aiyar's provocative review of his book a mischievous smile with a hint of sarcasm dallied briefly on his lips while he replied: “Mani is a friend of mine and just as I have a viewpoint, he has a viewpoint. We still meet each other, enjoy each other's company but you mustn't think with your heart.”

In his career as a journalist and writer, which Akbar began in 1971, he has been associated with nine separate media organisations (many of which he started) and written seven books.

An interlude as a Member of Parliament also adds some richness to his CV. Is he restless? “No. I believe I have only one life and I maximise the opportunities. In Delhi, it is even simpler; you can either go to parties or write books.”