Thursday, August 20, 2009

Short take: To Live or to Perish Forever

Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan is an accessible, often insightful book, but for me the reading experience was blemished somewhat by the overuse of homely analogies. A short sample: the muddy Indus is likened to cream of mushroom soup; Islamabad under gunfire sounds like a giant bag of popcorn; flies sit on the rim of a pitcher “like kids waiting to jump into the neighborhood pool”; women wear shuttle-cock-style burkhas; riot police are dressed like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Also, bizarrely, one Pakistani lady whom Schmidle meets “wore her hair short like a female golfer”. (Are those the only short-haired women he knows, I had to wonder.)

In such passages and a few others (e.g., a description of “crotch-scratching mullahs” uncertainly listening to a lecture that tries to reconcile Islam with modernity), Schmidle comes close to resembling the archetypal blustering American, shuffling awkwardly around an unfamiliar culture, trying without much success to make sense of what he sees. “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones” one feels like telling him at such times. But despite these occasional distractions, there is an honesty and courage in his efforts to understand the many layers of Pakistan, and his book combines the personal and the political to good effect – such as in the passage where he describes a pang of sadness he felt after the death of a pro-Taliban leader who had once been helpful and hospitable towards him. “I owed it to [Abdul Rashid] Ghazi – and to myself – to feel remorse. It didn’t mean that I supported his views. But he was a friend.” His attraction for Pakistan isn’t always easy to understand, but he makes you believe in it.

For me, speaking as a reader who doesn’t closely follow Pakistani politics (or any politics), one of the interesting things about To Live or to Perish Forever is that India is such a distant, quiet presence in it – on the periphery of things, much like in the Pakistan map included in the beginning. Even in a passage about Bangladesh attaining independence in 1971, the country gets only a passing mention. This is rare; much non-fiction writing about Pakistan tends to view it largely through the prism of its long and complex relationship with India.

For the relatively inexperienced reader, Schmidle handily sums up Pakistan’s internal problems – from the operations of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) to the complications of dealing with the Taliban presence in the North West Frontier Province. A lot happened during Schmidle’s two-year stay in the country as a foreign correspondent – President Musharraf fought a losing battle to retain power (and a sliver of dignity), there was a violent eight-day siege at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan after years and was assassinated within months – and he was there to record much of it. He met leaders of various groups, ranging from moderates to extremists, learnt about such internal conflicts as the one between the Sunnis and the Shiites, fuelled by events that took place 1,400 years ago. He had inevitable run-ins with the certainties 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 – but he also encountered poignant flashes of curiosity from people who sometimes found it within themselves to wonder about the workings of the outside world.

This book is probably best read as a collection of essays about the things that combine to make Pakistan such a volatile country; I’m not so sure it stands up as a flowing narrative. Incidentally, its title derives from a 1933 treatise titled “Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish For Ever?” written by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the name “Pakistan” - and who couldn't have guessed that more than 75 years later Pakistan would still be struggling with the question of how best to survive.

[Some related posts: outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English; Aatish Taseer on Islam's enclosed world; a chat with Daniyal Mueenuddin; Alice Albinia on the Indus and Pakistan; a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid]


  1. Yet another book on Pakistan !

    Read in The Hindu today that a new book The Al Qaeda Connection (Viking/Penguin), by senior Pakistani journalist Imitiaz Gul, will be releasing this Friday (Aug 21st). It is about troubled FATA region in Pakistan.

  2. Despite there being creditable evidence to support the contrary, most Westerners come across as barely subtle proponents of superiority of the West, who meander intrusively into matters pertaining to subcontinental issues with a rather condenscing approach.. Though my comment isin't exactly a reflection on Nicholas Schmidle, his frequent use of such analogies, as the author pointed out, betrays a lot of the inward thought process, and inherent conception, that of course, went a long way into the compilation of the book.. I believe it is a classic case of a lack of "similar footing", wherein the author tries to draw parallels with incidents that strike closer home! I daresay such occurances are serious drawbacks to the overall potent narration...

    I'd say, another significant shortcoming is the exterior, and often faulty, "prism" through which people view countries like Pakistan and India, borne of decades (and even centuries) of prejudice and heresay.. Obviously, this clouds the vision unnecessarily, adding or substracting hues where they are often improper.. This yields quite a lopsided picture, that far deviates from the actual scenario!

  3. Hello!
    I really like your blog and your insights. You make me ashamed of my "I liked it-I didn't like it" reviews. :-)
    You have reviewed many of the books that I have read recently or that I want to read in the near future.

    This book about Pakistan sounds interesting, in spite of all the "shuffling awkwardly around an unfamiliar culture". I wonder if I would make the same "homely analogies", as you call them, if I ever went to Pakistan or any other Asian country (I'm from Italy). For sure I would misunderstand a lot of things, as it often happens when you are in another country, especially one so profoundly different from yours. Making sense of what happens around you is one of the big challenges that you have to tackle when you are in a foreign country!

  4. Nice Jones reference, dude. All these books and books and books on our testy neighbour makes one wonder about that wise ass line in that "New York" forerunner "Khuda key Liye" : "Pakistan is at the centre of everything (or some such), its got India, China, Afghanistan and Iran on four sides! Imagine that!

  5. Read (I think) this same review in the Hindu over the weekend... the paras are shuffled around and all the minus points are hauled over to the end, plus the female golfer and some other bits completely chopped off.

    The positive references are placed up ahead, and I think the bit abt being "a collection of essays" isnt quite there.

    All in all, a very different read of mostly the same words from the same person... :-) an illuminating experience. Searching for the link will post it here if I can get it.


  6. Anon: yes, I wrote this post as an informal set of reflections on the book as I'd just finished reading it, and the Hindu review was written in a slightly more structured way. (Those subheads aren't mine btw, it's just something the paper does for every review.) But thanks for the close attention!

  7. oh welcome... the attention was actually due to the different reax I had. To me, your review in the paper came across as largely positive, and this post as overall a bit negative.

    Interesting effect, mostly from placement... of what I read *first* and I dont guard for it at all when I read stuff :-)

    Couldnt find a link online. will reread the hardcopy paper to try and figure it out.


  8. Jai,

    This is a sort-of-academic exercise at exploring how readers frame opinions, how stimuli are responded to by the reader - ie. me in this case. This may be of interest to some readers of this blog. If you feel this is irrelevant or off-topic do feel free to delete this comment.

    To wrap up my comment on the comparison:

    These stood out as sections that read positive in the review and arent in the web post.

    0. Head: Brave Passage and the summary "there's more to Pakistan..."

    1. The lead-in is a lot different. With mentions of Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and their fresh nuanced fiction, but non-fiction guys write Kashmir/India focused etc.

    The fresh nuance hung around in my mind and associated with Schmidle a bit :-)

    2. "there is more to the pakistan story...this book fills the gap"

    3. "it needed a non-subcontinental writer to pull this off"

    4. direct quote from Schmidle " humble attempt to explain many histories and identities"

    5. Further down, the authoritative policeman who concedes that Schmidle may know more abt Pakistan than he himself.

    6. Schmidle's writing is described as functional and quietly efficient, good reporting; this lukewarm positive leads in to the "tiresome analogies" section.

    Missing negative references:

    7. The Mister Jones is missing in the print review.

    8. "not sure it holds up as a flowing narrative"

    A 'positive' reference in the webpost that's missing in print:

    9. His personal eqn and sadness at Ghazi's death came across as +ve to me.

    Neutral, or no particular effect:

    10. Poignant mullahs wondering at WWE cheerleaders matrimonial status.

    11. 'volatile' pakistan is replaced by 'dangerous to itself and the world'.


  9. Jai_C: thanks. Will probably need to look at your points more closely when I have the time, but quickly: this sort of touches on a point I've made before, about how a structured, "holistic" review written for a print publication (especially a relatively serious publication like the Literary Review) can be very different from a blog post where I have the freedom to home in on an aspect of a book that I've been struck by (negatively or positively).

    In this case, my overall impression of the book was favourable (speaking from the perspective of a reader who hasn't read enough on this subject), so I didn't think it would be right to begin the Hindu review with the negative references to Schmidle's analogies.