A Journey Interrupted:
By Murtaza Shibli
23 June, 2008
Being Muslim in India is a very hard job. Threatened and terrorised by the growing Hindu militant extremists and constantly looked at with suspicion and treated with a certain degree of caution, the Muslims are believed to harbour a certain desire to separate from the union and create a country of their own a la Pakistan that a modernist Jinnah created but has since been usurped by the dubious Islamist agenda. The suspicion is so institutionalised, that the Muslims are hardly represented in the country’s million plus armed forces and there is no Muslim officer in the country’s premier intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
This suspicion turns into contempt when an ‘Indian Muslim’ travels to Pakistan. In the popular Pakistani imagination, India is a country of Hindus and if at all there are any Muslims they are seen as Kafirs or infidels. Farzana Versey’s encounters in Pakistan are replete with her confrontations with such stereotypes. However, as her expedition of exploration furthers, she finds fascinating contours of a human society with diametric contradictions where ‘personal becomes political’. Reading Versey’s account it seems that the Indian Muslim faces more suspicion in Pakistan as they are not treated at par with the Indian Hindus in the country that is supposedly Muslim.
In ‘A Journey Interrupted’, Farzana Versey weaves a collage of her experiences that she acquired during her four visits to Pakistan in six years; a journey of exploration with continuous negotiations and constant reconciliation with her own identity of an Indian Muslim woman. 'When I was on the soil of the land of the pure, my impurity struck me. I was the emotional mulatto,' she writes. She travels through the cities of Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar and meets a vast array of people - from common chai wallahs to prostitutes and actors, poets and retired army men to find out strange and contrasting factors of Pakistani identity, if at all there is one. Despite dancing to the tunes of Bollywood films and replacing the peeling posters of Bin Laden with the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, being anti-Indian is an important part of Pakistani identity. And Kashmir fits perfectly in that quest for a national narrative that has been interrupted by Army dictatorships, political mismanagement and Islamist Jihadism. In order to sustain the rationale of a struggling identity, Versey writes that ‘every few years Pakistan writes a new fiction’. The book is ‘about Pakistan, but it is also about India. It is about Them and Us, Her/Him and Me’, the author contends.
Although not a ‘conventional’ travelogue, ‘A Journey Interrupted’ could not escape the trap of Kashmir - the place that defines the ‘convention’ between India and Pakistan. ‘Kashmir was like a shadow tailing me’, the author said to me. The reason is simple, she adds, ‘the Pakistani interest in India is centred on Kashmir. Not the Kashmiri people, mind you, but Kashmir as real estate, as a brownie point. And this will continue to be a hotbed because the most important thing is that this one state keeps the armies of both countries occupied’. She terms the ongoing peace process as ‘designer process’ observing that ‘political peace’ is not possible and will not happen. She calls her observation as ‘freedom from delusion’ but says that ‘it would suffice if the ordinary people kept up a semblance of civility and left politicians out of the peace process. When you want to sup with your neighbour you do not seek the permission of the landlord, do you?’, she poses back a question.
‘A Journey Interrupted’ is primarily from an Indian Muslim perspective that subtly tries to debunk a few stereotypes that exist about both Pakistanis and the Indian Muslim 'affiliation', a cause both the Hindu fundamentalist militants in India and Islamist extremists in Pakistan are wedded to. As India and Pakistan are trying to overcome the legacy of Partition and build new bridges, Versey while watching from the Pakistani side of border at Wagah feels unsettled by the ‘unsheathed anger and the charade of candlelit peace’ and finds ‘proximity’ and not the ‘distance’ as ‘disturbing’. A wonderfully written account, Farzana Versey uses terse language in effective idiom, imagery and poetic observation. ‘In these times of political and social unrest in Pakistan, this is a timely book - one that delves into the Pakistani mind and traces the chasms in its recent history’.
The talk of the Partition is prominently placed in your discourse. Is it still that powerful?
Can the present peace process between the two countries heal the wounds?
As I already said, we are not talking about those old wounds as much as new arrows being aimed blindly from both sides. Political peace is not possible and will not happen, ever. I am afraid if this is a pessimistic view…I would call it freedom from delusion. It would suffice if the ordinary people kept up a semblance of civility and left politicians out of the peace process. When you want to sup with your neighbour you do not seek the permission of the landlord, do you?
Was it possible to do a book without Kashmir in it?
I tried. But Kashmir was like a shadow tailing me. The reason is simple: The Pakistani interest in India is centred on Kashmir. Not the Kashmiri people, mind you, but Kashmir as real estate, as a brownie point. And this will continue to be a hotbed because the most important thing is that this one state keeps the armies of both countries occupied. It has probably become a symbol to judge how patriotic one is.
Why did you choose Indian Muslim identity to set the narrative?
It happens to be my identity. And this book is about the identity question in large measure - my identity, the Pakistani identities. You forgot to add the ‘woman’ identity too. This was crucial because a female perspective put me in the real conflict with the terrain…given that Pakistani society is considered misogynistic; I got to see it in action in my encounters with men from different strata. I do not think a man would ever write about Peshawar the way it has been written…and I do believe I have shown the women of the frontier province as I saw them without wearing blinkers. If I saw an amazingly courageous rebel in a village here, I saw the complete helplessness of the so-called liberated woman in a big city too. There cannot be fixed ideas. Incidentally, Peshawar was the only place where my religion was of no consequence, as opposed to other cities.
Despite placing your Muslim identity at core, you are seen as a Kafir Musalman'?
The ‘kafir Mussalman’ must be seen in the context of my various fractured selves that came along as baggage. I do tend to travel heavy! I referred to feeling like an emotional mulatto in the land of the pure where my supposed impurity hit me. This personal aspect was to take off on other ‘marginals’.
You are using a limited set of people to comment on the society. How exhaustive can this be?
I am not a bird, so there was no sense in giving a bird’s eye-view. I had not set out to write the definitive book on Pakistan society, with a title that had every word in caps and footnotes that ran into pages. Interestingly, while researching some aspects it would take me to many of my earlier articles, so a bibliography would have ended up as an exercise in vanity that I can ill-afford beyond a point. To answer your question, it may not be exhaustive, which is why it is not exhausting. However, it is most certainly relevant because those people are an intrinsic part of the country, they are its voices. Mores and norms are formed by lived experiences not pontification. A Bengali Muslim talking about Bangladesh makes more sense to me than my quoting ten experts. That information is available from any search engine. And will anyone be able to replicate the sheer anguish of people’s personal lives by not empathising with it? I could have written a nice sensational chapter on Heera Mandi but as I stated I am not a western sociologist ‘doing’ a place; my sensitivity is different; not better or worse, just different. I have a background in working among children of Casual Sex Workers so I cannot take those images away. What I have instead is a more touching account about a real person who is hiding her past. We again come to the identity question. What is hidden is often more potent.
How would you compare Indian and Pakistan identity?
I called Pakistan an amputated nation; some would see it as trashing…I see it with anguish. Therefore Pakistan, as I believe and several people there do, is restructuring its identity to deny its roots. This is a tough call. The Indian identity is about the memory of what has been taken away. India does act like Big Brother but it is surprisingly insecure about the loss. The constant sloganeering about India Shining is really an attempt to gloss over that.
The current struggle for democracy in Pakistan is generally seen as intellectual. Do the intellectuals and the civil society feel trapped in the milieu that has shaped the country?
What kind of India lives in the public memory of Pakistan?
The India they can still conquer! Besides Indian films and soaps, Pakistanis think India is a Hindu nation. Perhaps they are trying to justify their Islamic nation call. This was my major grouse as an Indian Muslim.
Your interaction with gays and minorities is interesting. How do they cope in the supposed harsh Islamist settings?
The gays are doing fine as long as they stick to their groups. Let us not forget that homosexuality is illegal in India, in Pakistan there is no such law. It is against sodomy. So you can feel up a guy and no law can do a thing, unless someone is there to watch you in the act. The more touching aspect is about gay women, and they do exist. Religious minorities have their own problems, but they have found canny ways to deal with it. Say Allah hafiz and all is well with the world.
Your book is wanting for any interactions with Islamists/ISI/Army/Al-Qaeda or Taliban. You didn’t try to meet any?
If by Islamist you mean the totems that have made it their vocation, then no, I did not attempt to meet any. The very idea about debunking stereotypes is to first understand them. My understanding is being an Islamist is not a profession. Therefore, if you look carefully there are traces of all the types you mentioned. I cannot identify some for obvious reasons. For me the genesis is more important, and I found it in the person who joined the Tablighi movement or the atheist who completely changed. What prompts those changes? That leaves more room for exploration.
Is there any difference in pre and post 9/11 Pakistan?
If there is anything that should tell Pakistan that it is not an Arab country, it is this. Before 9/11 the bookshop owner was not enthusiastic about selling Osama’s biography to me…this in Peshawar. Post 9/11 Osama was lionized, posters everywhere…and in 2007, my past trip, his posters were peeling and no one cared for him but anti-Americanism is perhaps more prominent as indeed are American accents. A society full of contradictions...
As Indian Muslim, how different did you feel from the cousins of your extended family in Pakistan?
Completely different. Mainly because unlike the pre-1947 elders, like my mother here and aunt there, we do not share any memories. And memories make all the difference.
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