NON-FICTION: HISTORIES OF THE SELF

Nov 19 2017

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The metalworker, the ship-breaker, the jeep driver — and all of us who have faith in God
The metalworker, the ship-breaker, the jeep driver — and all of us who have faith in God

Initially intended as a family memoir that developed into a political and public comment — probably after the realisation that, as Ernest Hemingway said, no human being can make a separate peace — Omar Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys: Stories of My Fatherland is no tell-all insider account designed merely to capture literary attention. It is addressed to the author’s son Hyder, whom Zafarullah feels must know the history his father has lived through. Writing with a disarming finality, the author, a Yale-educated mechanical engineer and executive in a Fortune 500 company, tells his son, “We are at war. But we were not always at war. We have stumbled, but others have stumbled before us and recovered. Do not despair. We, too, shall recover. And when we do, these words will tell you who we were and how you got here.” From surveying a landscape beset by everything from personal aggrandisement to political turmoil, to detailing the effect of public policy on personal life, the book is a wonderfully homely read for it comes straight from the heart.

Making it all the more poignant is the fact that this is history which nobody mentions in school textbooks, for textbooks are not always written to tell the truth. It is also a personal catharsis: whether it is the family background necessitating a harking back to past generations, or a trajectory of Pakistan and the many socio-political conundrums it has weathered, we all have tales to tell, but often there is nobody to listen to them. Writing stories down is a safe bet; even if nobody reads them, one would have at least shed a burden. For Zafarullah, the burden has been seeing how the country transformed around him — an ordinary citizen — and the need to share a manual for weathering the changes.

The author begins by referring to a significant policy decision made by the British in undivided India. The policy constituted British investment in barrages, dams and canals, as a result of which water that originated a hundred kilometres away could irrigate an acre of commanded land within the hour. Farmers could grow two crops a year using less energy. That policy brought in its wake migrants from less productive areas, birthed new habitations that make up the heartland of today’s rural Pakistan and helped countless families rise out of poverty.

A personal record that gives a glimpse into those aspects of Pakistan’s history on which authorised texts tend to remain silent

For Zafarullah’s family the policy was a boon. Maaji, the matriarch and his great-grandmother, directed future fortunes by becoming an avid tiller of the family’s new holding. Leaving home early in the morning to work in the fields, marshalling sons, nephews and nieces to stick together when her husband died prematurely, there she stood, wooden stick in hand, hollering away in a black ghagra and billowing shirt with a scarf tied around her head, challenging the notion that Jat — Zafarullah’s clan — women were to remain lesser citizens on grounds of religion.

A century later it was yet another policy — or, rather, lack of it — that would have a significant impact on Zafarullah and his kin. It revolved around a wind turbine energy project that Zafarullah and a mentor designed in faraway America to benefit Pakistan, and which failed to materialise because, here, policies are routinely assigned to government departments where they end up never to see the light of day. Ruefully, a similar project being planned at the same time in Indian Gujarat now creates 3,000 megawatts of energy for that state alone.

In between these two policies, the author is lured into nostalgia meant essentially for Hyder, but which is nevertheless entertaining given that the interesting pen-sketches of his family members may resonate with readers.

By the third section onwards — at this point he has moved on in the world — the author is wise enough to fashion a mandate for living, starting with rule number one: “Do not trust anyone east of the Hindukush!” Thereafter are weathered what the author calls his “hundred journeys” that cover his American education, the uses and disuses of a mysterious khandaani [heirloom] coat, well-meaning attempts by the family in quest of a bride for the Yale-returned young man and a final discourse on God and love. In between is an account of a miserably failed business venture that entailed downloading voice files for transcription then reloading them to servers to reach the originating country in record time. This last journey ends amidst much unsuccessful sleuthing when the entire lot of computers in the business office is stolen over a weekend.

Zafarullah was born the same year that Bangladesh was born. That was also when Pakistan experienced its first taste of democracy, which unfortunately led to the dismemberment of Quaid-i-Azam’s architecture of Pakistan. Growing up with elected leaders in the two wings of the country founding their own fiefdoms, Zafarullah’s generation has tossed and turned in the aftermath of those times: the turf wars between the good and the bad Taliban and the trying period when Gen Musharraf’s chief justice struck out on his own, resulting in the judges of the highest court being tested on moral grounds.

Zafarullah’s opinion of this situation — since his father was one of the many judges who took oath under the new order wherein some men in uniform had all the say — is, “the military fought with phantoms and the phantoms fought with us, we all began to look for patterns in the shadows.”

Zafarullah’s book is short, yet packed with action that moves from the past into the future and then back to the past again. Not all the action is military, though the military has ample space in the discourse. There is mention of events and activities on which school history books are silent — perhaps because the writers of that history themselves have little clue of what went wrong where. Pakistan has become a melting point of all sorts of policy overstepping more policy, so it is best that individual writers take upon themselves the task of passing down history. However, in the case of A Hundred Journeys, readers will have to bear with personal comment that can, at times, be rather too subjective.

Zafarullah’s comments on personal experiences have a raw appeal of their own. As he recounts his struggles to make a living on the basis of a foreign education and intersperses them with the political shenanigans of the day, he comes across as somewhat heroic. But when it comes to public comment, the author’s heroism is not without fault for he can be called guilty of seeing things through his own lens. Nevertheless, the last two pages are a heartening read as Zafarullah makes us all proud of our country: “Pakistan and its people are the skill of the metalworker in Gujranwala and of the ship-breaker in Gadani, the nerve of the jeep driver manoeuvring a refurbished vehicle over the northern roads, and best of all we, who have faith in God!”

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development

A Hundred Journeys: Stories Of
My Fatherland
By Omar Zafarullah
Rupa Publications, India
ISBN: 978-8129147394
221pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2017