I finally finished I am Malala. Initially, the book seemed a lot like a Ruskin Bond novel, describing an idyllic little village and simple pleasures of a bucolic life. That post is here.
Yet, Malala’s life is far from simple. Every child deserves a safe, happy environment to study, learn and grow. The Taliban almost made that impossible in Swat.
The Russian invasion transformed Zia from an international pariah to the great defender of freedom in the Cold War. The Americans became friends with us once again, as in those days Russia was their main enemy. Next door to us the Shah of Iran had been overthrown in a revolution a few months earlier so the CIA had lost their main base in the region. Pakistan took its place. Billions of dollars flowed into our exchequer from the United States and other Western countries, as well as weapons to
help the ISI train the Afghans to fight the communist Red Army… He [Zia] made Afghanistan a rallying point not only for the West, which wanted to stop the spread of communism from the Soviet Union, but also for Muslims from Sudan to Tajikistan, who saw it as a fellow Islamic country under attack from infidels. Money poured in from all over the Arab
world, particularly Saudi Arabia, which matched whatever the US sent, and volunteer fighters too, including a Saudi millionaire called Osama bin Laden.
We Pashtuns are split between Pakistan and Afghanistan and don’t really recognise the border that the British drew more than 100 years ago. So our blood boiled over the Soviet invasion for both religious and nationalist reasons. The clerics of the mosques would often talk about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in their sermons, condemning the Russians as infidels and urging people to join the jihad, saying it was their duty as good Muslims. It was as if under Zia jihad had become the
sixth pillar of our religion on top of the five we grow up to learn… My father says that in our part of the world this idea of jihad was very much encouraged by the CIA. Children in the refugee camps were even given school textbooks produced by an American university which taught basic arithmetic through fighting. They had examples like, ‘If out
of 10 Russian infidels, 5 are killed by one Muslim, 5 would be left’ or ’15 bullets – 10 bullets = 5 bullets’.
This passage highlights several important themes for me.
- A deeper understanding of the world.
To me the Taliban was a crazy extremist group advocating the harshest, most conservative interpretation of Islam. For the first time, I have got a real, human perspective on the Taliban. I understand the masses being swayed by holy men who claim that following certain edicts laid down by them are the way to heaven, the “right” way to practice a certain religion. In India this problem has manifested in systematic corruption and abuse of power and fear, in Pakistan it was using guns. Violence is an intolerable offense but I do have a tiny glimmer of pity for the irredeemable brainwashed monsters that the Taliban and ISIS have created.
- Human connection.
Countries may have lines that divide them, but people do not adhere to these borders. They are sometimes more deeply affected by what happens in another country than their own. The parts of India that were affected by The Partition like Punjab and West Bengal and of course, the much disputed Kashmir still have very strong opinions about Pakistan and vice-versa. Even Malala describes it as “our great enemy, India”. Why do two countries born of the same land, sharing the same culture, traditions, food, clothing and language harbour so much hatred? Does the fact that I wasn’t born in these border states play a role in my comity and their animosity? Perhaps I was looking for the answers to these questions when I decided to start with Pakistan – it’s closer to my heart than I know.
- A plan.
I finished reading The Kite Runner (Afghanistan) before I got around to this post. It was interesting to continue to read about Pashtuns, Pashtuni traditions and how living with the Taliban has changed lives from a different perspective. While Pakistan seemed like India from an alternate universe (a Muslim majority instead of Hindu, calling the language Urdu instead of Hindi*, same prevaricating politicians), I was genuinely surprised to find similarities between India and Afghanistan. I made a list of Persian words that were common to Hindi and the list was too long to replicate here (bas, naan, tanhaii). There were also words like nang that was used by Malala too, but I’ll take that up in the Afghanistan post.
Anyway, the plan is to continue to tug at this common thread that runs through these and theoretically, all the countries in the world and base my reading on where the books take me. I drew my first connections map:
- More than a book.
My curiosity about a country cannot be sated with just one book. When I moved on to Kite Runner, I couldn’t help but feel that I hadn’t done justice to Pakistan.
I had read about one tiny province of Swat, which by Malala’s own admission
I was born a proud daughter of Pakistan, though like all Swatis I thought of myself first as Swati and then Pashtun, before Pakistani.
There has to be more to a country than that!
I want to go beyond a single book and perhaps even watch some movies, listen to some music and read about the news from the other countries that I visit during my travels through ink and paper.
The next stop for Pakistan is Jinnah vs Gandhi.
I have always thought of the India/Pakistan partition as a colossal mistake. India is far from perfect, but it’s a pretty great liberal, secular place to live in. As I understand it, Pakistan was created because Jinnah was afraid that the Hindu majority would overpower the Muslim minority in a democracy. For the most part Muslims are equals in India – our superstars are Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman Khan, our President was Abdul Kalam, Muslims are represented in areas as far flung as sports, art and rocket science; though my father would point out the statistics that indicate a systemic discrimination. I feel that some of these tensions are born out of a thinking that is along the lines of “The Muslims got Pakistan and they want to stay in India too, so the Hindus end up with nothing”. This disgruntled feeling wouldn’t exist if the country hadn’t been divided and the blood bath that followed could have been averted.
That being said, for the most part Indians have a harmonious, heterogenous existence, playing with fireworks during Diwali, eating biryani for Eid, exchanging gifts on Christmas… So what could the Pakistanis possibly have been afraid of?
From the tone of Malala’s book in the way Jinnah is praised, I believe that Pakistanis must have an entirely different view on the same event. I look forward to understanding it better.
*The spoken languages are the same but the scripts are different. An article on Hindustani is in the offing.