A little over two years ago, a manuscript appeared in my inbox, written by none other than Nadeem Farooq Paracha. At that time, I was working in publishing in New York and dozens of manuscripts passed my desk daily. Despite this, very few were by people known to me and fewer still were by Pakistanis. So naturally, knowing Paracha (or NFP, as he’s come to be called) to be a prominent Pakistani social critic and satirist, I paid attention.
A quick read of Paracha’s draft revealed it to be a coming-of-age story, set against Pakistan’s political climate in the 1970s and ’80s. I read through the attached pages with interest and began formulating a response in my head as I went along. Fascinating, I mused, but unsaleable. Fresh, I thought, but too broad.
Of course, I was reading with an eye for an audience in the US, where interest in books by Pakistani authors about security and politics in Pakistan is waning. Although circumstances conspired to ensure that I couldn’t pass my thoughts on to Paracha right then, my assessment is something that I stand by — even though I’m very glad to be proven wrong as far as saleability (in Pakistan) goes. In the time between now and then, Paracha’s book, titled End of the Past, found a home at Lahore-based publishing house Vanguard Books and is selling very well.
So why did I think what I did?
Nadeem Farooq Paracha draws on his experiences to depict the volatile social and political landscape of the 1970s and ’80s
End of the Past insists that it’s “not as much a nostalgic memoir” as an “analysis in the form of a narrative” that documents the “consequences of various ideological experiments over the last many decades in Pakistan.” I believe this isn’t exactly accurate. The book is a personal memoir, and it should’ve been sold as such.
In fact, I wouldn’t have minded at all if a more personal narrative had found its way into the book and some of the historical stuff had deferred to it. The way that the book has been positioned, then, undermines its strength — which is Paracha’s collection of unique experiences as a young man growing up in volatile Bhutto-and Zia era Pakistan: navigating extremism bubbling up at home, balancing his ambition with the constraints of his circumstances, entering the newspaper business only to find the industry mired in the same politics he thought he’d chosen to avoid.
Memoir is a terribly underrated genre in Pakistan — in the English press, at least. A reliance on memory to shape narrative is often dismissed as fluff. We, with our colonial hangover, seem to favour academia and academic writing over carefully curated experience, which explains why Paracha — even though he can clearly boast of enough intriguing anecdotes and observations to fill several books — might’ve felt the urge to ground his memoir in a historical and academic context (the book is heavily annotated).
This is problematic because, as Paracha himself points out at the book’s close: “There are many sides and versions of what is peddled as history in Pakistan. So one has to be careful about putting down something and then explaining that something as fact.” It also doesn’t make for the most exciting reading experience.
But let’s come back to what’s in the book, which I stubbornly continue to read as a personal memoir.
“It is also interesting to note that the use of deadly drugs such as heroin increased almost tenfold in Pakistan after the ban on liquor went into effect in 1977. For example, until 1979, there was only a single reported case of heroin addiction in Pakistan (reported at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi), but by 1985, Pakistan had the world’s second largest population of heroin addicts. Also startling is the fact that there has been little or almost no action by the country’s mainstream religious parties on the issue of heroin usage and sale.” — Excerpt from the book
Paracha kicks off with a chapter titled ‘The Faith Bait,’ wherein he reflects on the nature and origins of the Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan. He takes us back in time through Islam’s ideological development; while all of it is interesting, this is context we could’ve read in any book about Pakistan. Luckily, Paracha introduces us to his family right after, and that’s where the fun begins.
The Paracha clan is revealed to be the product of a hodgepodge of conflicting origin stories and beliefs. A few characters stand out, like Paracha’s father (to whom the book is dedicated), who stepped away from the family business as a young man to study the humanities, and eventually found his way to a newspaper job and political awakening. Paracha’s uncle is the loveable mischief-maker who chafes under his family’s increasing affection for the Tablighi Jamaat; he sneaks around for his bhang and ciggies even after he’s told they’re bad for his health — and, of course, young Paracha is his abettor.
Paracha has a good eye for detail and a finely tuned ear for conversation. Whoever he chooses to sketch out for us comes to life, and getting to know the people who populated his world is highly enjoyable. Through them we learn how, at the end of Bhutto’s tenure and under Gen Ziaul Haq, what unsettled a young Paracha most wasn’t new legislation or sweeping reforms — it was the subtle conservatism that encroached on his family life and social circle.
So we follow along, as Paracha finally decides to participate in student politics at his alma mater “St Pat’s”, where he helps launch the Socialist Students Federation (SPSSF). We watch as he begins to carry a weapon on him due to escalating conflict between student groups at Karachi University. We witness something of a turning point when, wary of the milieu he’s chosen, he seeks advice from his father, who tells him: “If you take a wrong turn, you will become a man of the gun. Such men don’t survive long. Throw it all away. It’s in the past.”
And so he does. Smack in the middle of End of the Past, Paracha enters another phase of his life — one dedicated to writing and journalism. This is where you’ll be treated to hilarious stories that’ll validate your nostalgia for Karachi’s ‘rollicking past’ if you’re so inclined, as Paracha dishes on how youngsters used to score alcohol and sex even when the city was at its driest. Paracha’s honesty is the book’s real selling point here. Personal details humanise the author in a way little else could; in our shame-based, sweep-it-under-the-rug society, they are a triumph. He doesn’t shy away from describing that for lack of other opportunity, he had his first sexual experience with a professional sex worker.
Refreshing also are Paracha’s insights into Pakistan’s leading newspapermen and the dailies they helm. He chronicles his departure (he was fired because he said he’d irked the Jamaat-i-Islami lobby at the paper) and then subsequent re-hiring at a newspaper group, and talks about how he flitted between advertising and print media for years. In doing so he illustrates the difficulty, even today, of sustaining oneself spiritually and financially as a career journalist in Pakistan.
The book winds down with some commentary on film and cricket, and also some musings about Paracha’s current station in life. He asserts that he’s arrived at a long-elusive point of stability which owes much to his marriage and he contrasts, without really meaning to, his journey with that of his friends: some of whom left the country as they felt threatened by religious extremism, some who became deeply religious themselves, some of whom died young and some who, like Paracha, still strive to create a narrative befitting a progressive Pakistan.
It is this interest in narrative that really drives End of the Past — narrative, and an insatiable desire to contextualise and extrapolate from the deeply individual recollections that comprise one’s own existence. In that way the book’s title is ironic: for a man who claims his past is behind him, Paracha is awfully obsessed with historical context. It’s no surprise, then, that Paracha dwells on his mentors, chief among them his father, whom he lists as his greatest influence. It is from him (and to a lesser degree, figures like Ayesha Jalal, Dr Mubarak Ali, K.K. Aziz) that Paracha says he learnt to graft solace from writing.
As the book closes we come to be glad for this gift, as Paracha’s frank observations continue to be a pleasure.
In all of this, however, one absence is striking: the absence of women.
Although I’m certain that Paracha has had dealings with a great many women during his life, there is precious little mention of them in the End of the Past’s pages. Though some part of this might be understandable — Paracha’s college days no doubt suffered from Zia-enforced conservative gender segregation — I find it odd he doesn’t have much to say of his contemporaries in the writing and journalism sphere who happen to be women (there are rather a lot of them).
The reviewer is culture editor at Dawn.com
End of the Past
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Vanguard Books, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 29th, 2016