[Reader-list] Book Review and Interview: A journery interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan
kashaffairs at yahoo.co.uk
Mon Jun 23 17:10:35 IST 2008
Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan by Farzana Versey
Collins India; Rupees 295, Pages 279]
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’.
This was your fourth trip to Pakistan in last six years and now a book. Why
The more appropriate question would be: why not Pakistan for all these
years and why now? I have spoken about the fear of visiting that country and
being stuck there in the event of a war. That fear remained. In some ways the
first trip was to purge that fear; the subsequent visits were to understand the
hurt of the statement I begin my Prologue with when the retired army general
said, “You need to be deported”. I sensed a deep resentment in his voice and
tone. And it was directed not against India, but against the Indian Muslim. He
was hitting out at my identity.
The talk of the Partition is prominently placed in your discourse. Is it
still that powerful?
I would say the Partition resonating in the book is more psychological. I
have compared the attitude of the pre-partition generation, which has now taken
on a soft-focus, let us forget it all and get over it attitude, with our
generation and even more importantly the younger generation. We are, as I
wrote, living contemporary history. The youngsters are finding absolutely no
connection with us. The geographical partition, however gruesome it was, at
least had the advantage of bloodshed. The suspicion the Indian Muslim faces
both at home and in Pakistan is without this benefit of catharsis. The fissures
now get fossilised with every stereotype.
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,
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
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 Commercial 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
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?
The intellectuals are not of one stripe, as they ought not to be, so there
are differing versions of democracy. An Ahmed Faraz has a vastly different take
from a Sheema Kirmani. Faraz is attached to his passport, Sheema does not even
believe in the concept of nationalism. The section on dissenters was mainly to
question them about the Pakistani identity and many felt there was none. I
would like to add here that it is easy to term liberals as dissenters, but I
have included the Jamia Hafsa women because in many ways they set the tone of
the current crisis of rebelling against the system. I find this most interesting
because in an Islamic society you have bunch of Muslims, women at that, going
around with sticks. We really need to broaden our way of looking at the idea of
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
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