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Review: Pakistan: A Personal History

books Updated: Jan 06, 2012 19:22 IST

Lalita Panicker, Hindustan Times
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Pakistan: A Personal History

Imran Khan

Random House

Rs 599 pp 389

Imran Khan’t was the pejorative used to refer to him when he began his career as a fast bowler. He went on to prove all his detractors wrong, becoming a legend in his lifetime. The same negativity accompanied his plunge into politics. But after 15 years as a marginal player in Pakistan’s politics, the man — who once famously wore a T-shirt with the legend ‘big boys play at night’ — seems to have come into full batting form with his party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf, actually being considered a serious contender to form the next government.

Those who were expecting that the Oxford-educated cricketer would bring about a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s politics are likely to be disappointed if they read his book Pakistan: A Personal History. First, it is less a personal history than a political manifesto. Almost as if to compensate for his former playboy image, he cannot emphasise his adherence to Islam enough. “…I find it strange that in Pakistan, people who stand up for Islamic values are called rightists. Islamic values actually have more in common with leftist ideologies in terms of social equality and welfare.” Could it have escaped his attention that the sort of Islam being pushed by the fundamentalists who applauded the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer would not know leftist ideology if it jumped up and bit them?

In many ways, throughout the book, it is clear that Imran is less influenced by the liberal values of the West where he spent many years and has confined himself to coming up with a similar version of the vision that Ayub Khan and later Zia-ul-Haq had for Pakistan. He is not immune from the Pakistani penchant to blame others for the problems the country faces. He sees conspiracies in many of the cataclysmic events in Pakistan’s troubled history. For example, he sees dark external forces responsible for the killing of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan and the mid-air explosion which killed Zia-ul-Haq. In some ways, Imran cannot be blamed for this. A degree of anti-Americanism, a vocal suspicion of the foreigner goes down well with the home crowd.

Imran rails against taking American aid, returning repeatedly to the theme that America’s war on terror has been at the cost of Pakistan’s honour. He is fulsome in his praise for Zia-ul-Haq as someone who protected Pakistan’s sovereignty and expresses great sympathy for the mujahideen who he says have fought the good fight to defend the national honour.

He reserves quite a bit of venom for General Pervez Musharraf, though the day may not be far when he may tie up with him politically. He is critical of Musharraf’s power-hungry behaviour and the craven manner in which he obeyed America’s dictates. Imran is largely contemptuous of politicians, he has few kind words for Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, both civilian prime ministers in a country dominated by military rule since its existence. He is dismissive of their lack of political expertise and their inability to come to grips with administrative matters. One wonders how much the former fast bowler will be different if he were to come to power.

He, of course, is in no doubt about his ability. His narrative is punctuated at frequent intervals with praise for himself and his ‘vision’ though after reading the book, we are hard put to understand what this might be. There are touching parts in the book in which he describes his failed marriage to heiress Jemima Goldsmith. Here Imran has been every bit the gentleman, explaining how his wife became the butt of a hate campaign and ultimately, he agreed that she should go back to a life and milieu she was familiar with. He speaks with pain and longing about being separated from his children, all of which lends a human touch to an otherwise sterile, cold narrative.

He finds relevance in the message of Allama Iqbal, a source of guidance when Pakistan came into being in 1947. He regrets that Iqbal’s prayer for children, “My wish comes to my lips as supplication — May my life be lilke a lighted candle, O God,” has been forgotten today.

It is a pity that though Imran appears to have understood all that has gone wrong with Pakistan, “a country that begs and borrows for its survival had to face such humiliation sooner or later”, he does not seem to have too many answers. Perhaps, like his predecessors, he will learn on the job. Whether Pakistan has the luxury of time is another matter. But, despite the many shortcomings in this book, we cannot help but be impressed by the tenacity of the great fast bowler, his refusal to leave the field even when things looked hopeless. This is the quality that made him an inimitable captain and perhaps, this will see him through the minefield of Pakistani politics in the future.