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NON-FICTION: THE THORNS OF A LIFE

Updated July 30, 2017

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The author of Dil Mein Chubbhe Kaante, Shameem Akhtar, should have heeded her own advice and written her mother’s biography to emphasise the torment stateless individuals suffer. The author’s own sufferings fall into two categories: those that were — or perhaps still are — personal, and those that she had to endure for belonging to an Afghan family hounded out of the country. No wonder her mother’s tears were one of the sources — and a major one — of her misery, giving her at an early stage a pathos that, like Orhan Pamuk’s hüzün [melancholy], has continued to haunt her.

Today, with boats full of unwanted immigrants sinking in the Mediterranean, and this country itself hosting millions of Afghan refugees, the state of being stateless has been reduced to quotidian headlines that fail to convey the melancholy surrounding the life and death of those now in watery graves. Seldom does the community to which the author and I belong bother to uncover the hüzün that torments stateless individuals enjoying a false sense of security in host countries where eyes, if not lips, ask: why are you in this country? This is ours, not yours.

For Akhtar, her mother epitomised a stateless individual’s gloom, for her family had fled persecution by King Amanullah, the escape itself being an odyssey in which death was never far away. The family found refuge in British India — Kurram Agency to be precise — but she never forgot Afghanistan. Long after she had become Pakistani and a mother, she would look out the window to watch birds. She told Akhtar she looked at the birds because they came from Afghanistan. She often used to sing a Pashto song: “I look this way because the breeze that graces my face comes from my homeland.”

A former journalist pens a candid and brash autobiography

Their home in Peshawar was in a ‘Peshawarite’ neighbourhood, and ‘Pathans’ lived in the suburbs. Frankly, you have to be Mimi — Akhtar’s nickname — or rack your brains to know the difference. The neighbourhood was divided between the Red Shirts and Muslim Leaguers, and Mimi became a convert to the Pakistan idea at an early age when her brother and other boys paraded the streets with toy swords shouting “Pakistan zindabad!” as Independence neared.

Her mother, herself unschooled, was determined to give her children a good education and she succeeded, for one of her sons became the governor of what is today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Mimi herself rose to become an editor, author and art critic, writing for both Urdu and English newspapers, including Dawn.

Like her life itself, Akhtar’s memoir, Dil Mein Chubhhe Kaante, is a search for answers to questions that nagged her even as a child. For instance, she asks her mother why she gave birth to her without her permission, or when she sees her grandmother’s body in the traditional shroud and philosophises that if one comes to this world to die, why enter this world at all? These questions inevitably led to a master’s degree in philosophy, Emmanuel Kant being her favourite.

As was inevitable, when she took to writing and eventually became the editor of a popular Urdu weekly, one of her readers protested that all her articles dwelt on life and death. No wonder she was cynical when she should have been normal, as when being interviewed for a job or recruiting someone herself. Yet, astonishing as it sounds, in spite of these idiosyncrasies, Mimi has been able to live a fuller life, and be a good editor and an excellent wife of an intellectual, Irfan Husain, executive director of the Arts Council, a bookworm, and as good a husband as Mimi’s unpredictable mood swings and daily peccadilloes could allow him to be. “If I were Irfan,” she writes, “I would never marry a silly girl like me.” Both remained devoted to each other until his death in 2010.

The book portrays Mimi the way she is: sometimes radical, occasionally sarcastic, often contemptuous of society, contemptuous of her family, of her interlocutors and often of herself. She has her own brand of sangfroid and gets away with it because humour, written and spoken, is one of her major assets. The book makes good reading, littered as it is with accounts of banter, hilarious jokes and sitcoms. She is candid where women normally aren’t, such as when recounting her visit to Lahore’s red light area to watch a mujra, or the wedding night passed on a bed with a missing leg, or a wardrobe mix-up with a newspaper boss.

She asks her mother why she gave birth to her without her permission, or when she sees her grandmother’s body in the traditional shroud and philosophises that if one comes to this world to die, why enter this world at all?

One may differ with Mimi on her assessment of the variety of men and women she came across as a journalist, especially when she became editor of Akhbar-i-Khawateen, but one cannot but admire the originality of the comments, even if they border on the grotesque. As regimes in Pakistan’s volatile polity changed, as did the ownership of Mashriq, Mimi showed both conformism and a remarkable degree of defiance. Sinking newspapers are wracked by mutual suspicions, intrigues and personality clashes as bosses come and go, and, there is no doubt, the author gives us a vivid account of Hobbes’s state of nature, but still I believe the reader would not have failed to grasp the fuller picture if he had come across fewer and less-biting adjectives for some of her colleagues. As for TV rookies often mistaken for journalists, the book would have been better off without the sobriquets heaped on them on page 176.

The episode pertaining to Sajjad Zaheer needs to be corrected. It may not be the author’s intention, but the way she puts it implies that Hassan Abidi betrayed the communist leader’s whereabouts in Lahore. Those well-versed with the workings of the underground communist movement know that if a contact man didn’t meet the head of a given cell for three consecutive days, he should disappear. Zaheer, who by then had lost all hope of a communist revolution in Pakistan, failed to abide by this rule. In fact, as the late Ahmad Ali Khan, Dawn’s editor, who too was arrested, used to reminisce, when they reached Zaheer’s place he was buying vegetables from a pushcart. Abidi was tortured and led the police to Zaheer’s home a week after his arrest. In his book, Making Sense of It: My Years as a Journalist, Khan makes 23 references to Zaheer, but nowhere does his version of the episode imply that Abidi blew Zaheer’s cover.

On the whole the book is a valuable contribution to the meagre literature journalists have produced in Pakistan and will help scholars find valuable material for research about a cataclysmic period of Pakistan’s history stretching from the pre-Partition days to the second decade of the 21st century. Akhtar betrays profundity, even when she is flippant.

The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

Dil Mein Chubhhe Kaante
By Shameem Akhtar
Raheel Publications, Karachi
277pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 30th, 2017