There are two aspects of a good travel book. One, that towards the end it makes me a bit sad that it is going to be over — I actually read slower and slower near the end. Second, that it makes me want to leave everything and go travelling where the author has been. The bonus is that it draws chuckles.
Isambard — ‘Bard’ to his friends — Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak succeeds on all counts.
It was in 1984 that Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote his beautifully witty To the Frontier, which was billed by Ayaz Amir as a “very sympathetic account” of Pakistan. Moorhouse’s journey through Pakistan took place in 1982 when the country was just beginning to break loose from its moorings under the cockeyed version of a dictator’s sham piety. Back then, society still maintained its original charm and beauty and it was easy for Moorhouse to show us an original Pakistan. There was more beauty, fewer warts.
A journalist’s travels through Pakistan to reinstil faith in and hope for the country
Now — in the early years of the 21st century with the country in the eye of the terrorism storm — Wilkinson has a harder job of writing a sympathetic account of Pakistan. Yet he does it with the brilliant panache of the journalist that he is. In two stints in Pakistan as a reporter for The Telegraph, the author clearly fell in love with this country. He shows us the ugliness of world-hating psychopaths such as the retired general Hamid Gul with his “villainous Hedley Lamarr” look. All Pakistan’s ills, according to that man, were attributable to Israel’s Mossad. During an interview with Wilkinson on the Afghan jihad, mullahism and Osama bin Laden, he suddenly segues to tell the writer that Westerners have puny noses. Compared to those, we apparently have large noses with character. The man clearly appeared to have become unhinged in his last years:
Then there is the formidable yet absolutely loveable Sajida Ali Khan, who knew the author’s grandmother when the latter lived in India during the years straddling Partition and with whom she still maintains a very close friendship. Clearly, Wilkinson is like a surrogate grandson to the Begum, as he calls her — he prefers to keep her veiled; this is not her real name, even her place of residence is not revealed. She lives in an old Lahore mansion with staff forever running off and returning to beg forgiveness. The Begum forever frets that Wilkinson is getting on in years (even in his 30s) and should be wed off forthwith. But then she concludes that no decent girl would wish to be hitched to an “impoverished gora” and Wilkinson’s best chance is to find his mate in nearby Hira Mandi.
At a dizzyingly fast clip, Wilkinson flies the reader on his magic carpet from Lahore to Choti in Dera Ghazi Khan where Jaffar Leghari’s political activities leave the reader breathless. As Leghari prepares to leave for a postprandial meeting, the journalist wryly notes that in Pakistan, people “work at all hours except the morning.”
In Sindh — that he terms a “place of dreams, reverie” — he visits the Bhutto family cemetery and recalls an earlier visit with Benazir Bhutto on her election tour. It was not because of the name ‘Bhutto’ that people were obsessed with her, she had told Wilkinson. It was because of herself. “People are interested in me,” (original emphasis) she had said. The perceptive eye of the journalist, however, senses that BB’s “personal faith was primarily a tool to further her political gains.” Wilkinson could easily have said the same about everyone else in public life here.
And then there is the “Demi-Monde of Zeenat”, the girl he met at a Lahore party, whose cherry-red lips, painted nails, cigarette and whisky breath leap out of the pages as she takes Wilkinson and his brother Chev to society parties where her friends greet each other with Punjabi abuse. Equally masterfully, she steers them around the wrestling akhaaras of the old city and through the human press of the tomb of Data Ganj Baksh. Wilkinson does not wish to reveal her identity. Once again the name is not real — the woman is, though, and I can tell you Wilkinson’s description of her is superior!
Wilkinson captures the beauty of Pakistan in little anecdotes: in an economy class compartment on a train journey from Karachi to Lahore, a poor family feeds the man and, when he is cold, tucks him in with their small child. Total strangers take him home and when he says he will continue to travel in Pakistan as long as his money lasts, he is told in that case he will never leave Pakistan. That truly is the spirit of the common people of this wonderful land.
In Chitral, Wilkinson meets Geoffrey Langlands, then 91 years old and teaching in a school he established in the mountain town. An ex-special forces major from the Second World War, Langlands came to Pakistan after retirement to be a teacher. He never married and never wanted to live anywhere else but this country. The author expects him to be a “hearty, minor-public-school type or an irascible colonial like Tusker in Staying On.” He is neither. He turns out to be a “sticklerish schoolmaster” who comes to dinner with his hair neatly parted “like a schoolboy.”
The prize in Chitral is the grand old man Khushwaqt ul Mulk, (sadly now no more), the last ruler, whose eyes and voice protest “the present with a memory of a kindlier past.”
The Peshawar of Wilkinson’s visit smells of cordite with militant influence infecting its heart and blowing up its Sufi shrines. He reminds us that in the 1970s this was an altogether different country, where travel writer Paul Theroux wanted to settle down to “grow old watching sunsets in the Khyber Pass.” Now it is the country where replicas of nuclear missiles, the “rather absurd totem pole” named after a Turkish invader make “a monument to an identity crisis.”
Wilkinson has a special relationship with the subcontinent where his mother’s ancestors lived for more than a century and a half until Partition divided the land. From his grandmother he heard stories that conjured images of “a hot and turbaned land where carpet-flight and slippered sprites did not seem improbable.”
With a sympathy stemming from those tales, Wilkinson scrapes off the warty ugliness of Pakistan that is today seen by most outsiders. He shows that it is not even skin-deep; it is merely a thin veneer. Under it lies the deep soul of the real people: kind, generous, hospitable, bawdy, manufacturing S&M equipment, having fun and, above all, utterly devoid of xenophobia. People who throng its Sufi shrines from Karachi to Buner and where old shamanistic beliefs still persevere unmolested and people in its bazaars and villages are the real Pakistan. Again and again one sees through the writer’s eyes a society struggling to regain its “kindlier past.”
The prose is lively with similes: the dewlap of a bull becomes like a silk curtain spilling from a pelmet and the inward sloping domelets of a Multan mausoleum are as relatives gathered around a deathbed. From Wilkinson’s keyboard Pakistan unfolds at a fast clip. So fast, in fact, it seems almost surreal.
Travels in a Dervish Cloak is the book to read to regain faith in Pakistan. It rekindles hope.
The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel
Travels in a
By Isambard Wilkinson
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 1st, 2018