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]