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Exotica in Pakistan

Book review of Travels in a Dervish Cloak: Adventures in Pakistan

Vikram Johri 

Vikram Johri

Travels in a Dervish Cloak: Adventures in Pakistan Isambard Wilkinson Bloomsbury 243 pages; Rs 499 When Isambard Wilkinson, the writer of the book under review, went to Pakistan in 2006 as the Daily Telegraph’s Islamabad correspondent, he was initially looking to retrace the journey he had made to the country in the 1990s with his brother. The first of those earlier trips was occasioned by the wedding of the youngest son of the Begum, a formidable Punjabi woman and a close friend of Wilkinson’s Irish grandmother. In these accounts, Mr Wilkinson fills the role of the overzealous foreigner gamely taking in the sights and sounds of the exotic east. “Khaki-overalled porters”, “frying samosas” and “inquisitive eyes” all make an appearance before quickly dissolving into the background of Mr Wilkinson’s flickering eagerness. To his credit, Mr Wilkinson, along with his brother Chev, undertook trips into the “heart” of Pakistan: Punjab, Sindh, and most fruitfully, Balochistan, where he met and enjoyed the hospitality of Akbar Bugti, a fierce leader who struggled all his life to achieve greater autonomy for Balochistan. (Incidentally, Bugti passed away shortly after Mr Wilkinson returned as a foreign correspondent when the Pakistan Army, under the command of General Musharraf, set off an explosion in his hideout near Quetta.) Most of the book, which describes Mr Wilkinson’s Islamabad stint, reads like a travelogue, as the journalist searches for remnants of a Pakistan already disappearing at the beginning of the 21st century. While the country’s ruling establishment has always been rabidly anti-India, until recently Pakistan could at least boast of a rich Sufi tradition divorced from the Wahabi strain of Saudi Islam. That is no longer the case. Mr Wilkinson writes nostalgically of a Sufi festival at Sehwan Sharif in Sindh whose participants identify neither as Shia nor Sunni nor Barelvi, but as Qalandari, followers of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a mystic synonymous with intoxicated revelry. Mr Wilkinson’s descriptions here are dream-like, showcasing a motley group of “matted-haired fakirs”, “wandering mendicant holy men”, “dancing transvestites”, and “merry eunuchs” cavort in frenzy. The book gives little indication of Mr Wilkinson’s work as a journalist. Momentous events, such as the Lal Masjid siege or the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan — both of which took place in 2007 — are given short shrift in favour of breathless descriptions of Pakistani high society. One chapter describing Mr Wilkinson’s interaction with Zeenat, an advertising executive with fingers in several pies, stands out. They met at a party, which Zeenat instantly deemed “sucking” and took Mr Wilkinson and Chev to an international hotel. In one of the several rooms booked in her name, she entertained the requests of what Wilkinson describes as her “disciples”, men who knew Zeenat’s contacts would get their work done.

From here, Mr Wilkinson and Zeenat together attended several parties — the book, it can be said, would not have been possible without Wilkinson’s presence at sundry parties — that read so similar to Delhi weddings that I had to remind myself that this was Lahore. Daler Mehndi hits were played, liquor was served and drunken poems about love and honour recited. Zeenat revealed that she was separated from her husband and she and Mr Wilkinson kissed. While he is no conventional journalist, it is in these segments that Ms Wilkinson displays his skills as a chronicler. Among the party-goers, he maintains a coolly detached eye. Comfortably partaking in the merriment, he acts as the benevolent anthropologist seeing a less advanced society go to ruin. He tch-tch-es at the elite living luxuriously in their bubbles in a country racked by poverty, entirely oblivious to the fact that his position as a foreigner ensconces him deep into this pool. When his unconsummated relationship with Zeenat ends, Mr Wilkinson muses: “For all her rebelliousness and kicking against the elite, she was an anachronism, a creature of Old Pakistan… She had Pakistan’s energy, restlessness. But her wildness made her vulnerable.” I found something off about this tendency to essentialise close encounters under the garb of a larger story. It was as if the great Western experiment in the east — the search for oneself — would remain unfulfilled until it could pin down at least one person who represents, as it that were possible, the nation’s essence. Mr Wilkinson returned to Pakistan in search of the magical land of his youth and of his grandmother’s stories. What he found was a place filled with memory but too eager, in his view, to implode. Subsequent events have borne out the truth of his testimony, as we witness a state sinking under the weight of its generals’ megalomaniacal designs at domination.

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First Published: Wed, June 13 2018. 06:56 IST
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