The Past is Another Country
By Imran Sheikh
The book is a slim volume of autobiographical episodes penned by Imran Sheikh, a civil engineer with a long and eventful career, but, as one discovers as one reads, he is a master of so many other things also.
His brisk and witty narrative features adventures of all types. We travel from Karachi to Murree, from the bustling halls of Government College to the high flying clubs of London, the desert dunes of Libya and the indigo blue waters of Seychelles. The pulse of the book can be gauged from the comment on its back cover: “If you have picked this book up looking for good advice, or wisdom of any kind, put it down immediately. It offers none.”
The story is told in two distinct modes. For the most part it is a random walk through the sprawling expanse of the author’s life. Every chapter encapsulates a specific period. We read about his childhood bond with his sister, schoolyard fights and tree-climbing adventures. In school, there is a flirtation with art — where he passes off a Colin David painting as his own piece of work. There are glimpses of life in Karachi, a completely different city from the one that we see today.
The author spent his summer holidays in Murree, again a very different and idyllic Murree, with mountain streams and bushes with wild strawberries, jazz bands, matinee shows, and roller-skating performances. A riotous visit by the Beatles kicks off an obsession with music and much ensuing comedy.
A book of autobiographical episodes is a brisk and witty narrative about adventures of all types, that leaves the reader craving for more
All of that is followed by his proceeding to England for undergraduate studies. We get a snapshot of life there also, of bland food and escapades to Indian restaurants. Mr Sheikh recounts frequenting posh clubs and casinos. This makes for one of the most interesting chapters in the book — we see firsthand the perils of gambling, the indiscriminate threat of addiction, which affects not just the people in his own circle but also the high and mighty of British society. Sir Hugh Fraser, who got into the habit thanks to a nice touch of beginner’s luck, ended up years later selling the famous Harrods to pay his debts.
The writing has an irresistible charm. It brims with humour and sizzles with a crackling energy, veering close to farce one moment, and a grim seriousness the next. We get fuzzy pictures, broad outlines and vivid colours — like an impressionist painting.
In some chapters, the second mode kicks in. Things come together in a single story, zooming in with razor-sharp focus on a specific event. These include episodes of rollicking hilarity. There is the case when Mr Sheikh and his friends decide to invest in a car to improve their romantic prospects. They purchase one from a Chinese chef but it reeks of chop suey, which they cannot get rid of. In a cross country drive with much family drama, its steering wheel pops off and they drive off a cliff of sorts — a 10-foot high ridge — resulting in minor injuries, broken glasses, a lost set of false teeth, and a bathroom accident.
Another time they rear-end a Daimler. They try to get rid of the car but the scrap dealer wants five pounds to take it off their hands. The story culminates with the group filing off the serial numbers and abandoning the car under a bridge late at night. Even thieves refuse to touch it.
At other times, we encounter grand adventure and high stakes. On a surveying mission in Libya, the author and his team get lost in the endless desert. Driving in circles, traversing sand dunes and escaping flash floods, their spirits near breaking point, they stumble upon a jeep with two skeletons in it. Their drinking water runs out before they are miraculously saved.
In another chilling episode, which reads like vintage Somerset Maugham, on a hillside village in Pakistan, a dark drama unfolds of a native villager beaten to death by a sadistic British traveller, who is then avenged by the gods. There are encounters with celebrities, with diplomats and crooks, even adventures with the paranormal.
Some parts of the book were easy to relate to. I also have fond memories of childhood summers in Murree, strolling in the evenings on the promenade of the Mall, and also that sense of utter disappointment at what Murree has now become. Card games with grown-ups and hot chocolate treats were standard fare in the evenings before TV and computers reconfigured our lives entirely. I grew up next door to Hill Park in Karachi, where Mr Sheikh tries, unsuccessfully, to set up a water park. I spent a few early years in London myself and a recent two-year stint in Newcastle upon Tyne.
But on the other hand, there is that pronounced disconnect — hinted at somewhat in the title of the book — much of what Mr Sheikh describes truly does feel like another country. Distant and inaccessible, this a bygone era encountered in old magazines and family stories, an age of jazz, silver screen, socialism and what-not. Life seems a lot less rushed then, more sane, more idyllic.
Reading between the lines, there is a veritable philosophy of life here also — like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse story — there is humour in most situations, and tragedy is real but sporadic. One should conduct oneself with elegance and wit. Everything eventually works out. It is a rare soul indeed that sees the world this way, and rarer still the talent that can convey this worldview to a reader. Consider the wonderfully pithy opening of the book:
“A Persian proverb, roughly translated, says: ‘It is better to be a dog than a younger brother.’ My sister had both.”
As a reviewer, I have two complaints. The first is minor and more of a suggestion that this book may benefit from photographs to complement the narrative. Perhaps an opportunity to include some might arise in a later edition.
The second complaint is more serious. The book only has a little over a hundred pages. It gets over in the blink of an eye and the reader is left wanting, in fact craving, more. I would strongly second Zubayr Soomro’s call in the foreword for a follow-up.
The reviewer teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Islamabad.
He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2023