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Confessions of a columnist

May 25, 2012

OVER many years of writing for this and other publications, I have been humoured by editors who have allowed me to explore a wide range of subjects.

Frankly, I find politics quite boring after a point, and have many other interests. Life would be dull indeed if one allowed oneself to be consumed by politics.

When I read or listen to the words of most of our politicians, I am deeply depressed by their inanity. But to stay in the public eye, they need the spotlight the media supplies. Sadly, even the most pedestrian among them is provided a platform by journalists wanting a sound bite, or some gibberish tarted up as political commentary.

Amazingly, there is a wide audience for these characters as they seem to spend all their time rushing from one chat show to the next. TV hosts let them expound loudly and at length until far too many programmes resemble shouting matches.

The question that most intrigues me is why so many people are fixated by these pompous nobodies. Having met several in my years of observing the political scene, I can say that apart from a few honourable exceptions, I have not been impressed by any. Indeed, I would hate to spend an evening with most of them.

Given this state of affairs, every once in a while I indulge myself and write about something offbeat. Readers of the paper edition of Dawn might be aware that I write two columns a week, one in this space on Saturdays, and one on Mondays for the foreign pages under the title of ‘letter from abroad’. However, this heading does not appear on the online version, so understandably, some readers assume this is also an op-ed piece.

The reason I have gone into these details is that their relevance became apparent when I devoted my ‘letter from abroad’ last Monday to food I had been eating and cooking recently. I was immediately attacked by indignant readers who asked what relevance this had in a country with so much poverty. Others said they read me for political analysis, not for gastronomy. Luckily, several readers seemed to have enjoyed the article as well.

Being a political animal and a news junkie, I habitually read newspapers from around the world. Often, I am struck by how editors abroad often devote their main headlines to entirely non-political news. A few days ago, for instance, nearly half the front page of the Guardian was devoted to lovely photos of entries to the Chelsea Flower Show. Human-interest stories make the front pages regularly.

But given our addiction to politics, this would be unusual in Pakistan. Some 20 years ago, when my late, much-missed friend Eqbal Ahmed returned to live permanently in Pakistan after decades in the United States, I asked him what he missed most about his life in the West. “I miss the conversation,” he replied. “Here, all the talk is about politics, and who has run what scam. Nobody talks about a recent book he has read, or a film he has seen.”

This struck me as a very sharp and damning observation that is much truer today than when Eqbal made it. The proliferation of private TV channels populated by politicians as well as retired generals, bureaucrats and diplomats hosted by anchors with dubious credentials, has fostered a voracious appetite for political news, gossip and half-baked analysis.

In this frenzied climate, anybody attempting to discuss other matters is either ignored or rebuked for being facetious. The truth is that most of the time, writing a political column is not very difficult: all you have to do is string together recent events, and run down the government of the day.

But I see the task of the columnist as somebody who makes readers consider possibilities other than the current narrative. To those who advise me to go with the flow, I say: “Only dead fish go with the flow.” Most of all, I think freelance columnists like me, unlike staff writers, have a duty not to echo the editorial stance of the publications they write for.

Over the years, labels like ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘imperialism’ have lost much of their meaning: while I side with the underdog, I am no longer constrained in my thinking by ideological dogma of any kind. I suppose with age comes a slaking of passions, and an increase in clarity and objectivity.

Writing a minimum of two columns a week is a bit like walking on a treadmill machine: as soon as I have finished one, I start thinking about what I’ll write next. Often, my wife accuses me of blanking out; actually, I’m thinking about my next piece. Ideas pop up at the oddest moment, but most often late at night when sleep eludes me.

When I was approached by my American publisher to write a book a couple of years ago, I wondered how I would manage to fit it in with my other writing commitments. Another problem was that I’m so used to developing my ideas within 1100 words that the thought of unlimited space to express myself in was almost frightening. In the event, I solved the problem by thinking of each chapter as an extended column.

In one sense, I consider myself very fortunate in having the small skill of being able to write concisely and clearly. Often, students wishing to become journalists ask me for advice. Invariably, I suggest they read as much as they can. But I fear that they get most of their entertainment and education off one screen or another.

I am also lucky in having a number of interests, including art, literature, history, theatre and culinary pursuits. I have a fairly large collection of books about food and cooking, and enjoy pottering around in the kitchen. Every once in a while, I indulge myself and write about food.

Currently, I am reading the memoirs of the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, first published in 1825, and never out of print ever since. Readers are warned I might write about him at some point. And no apologies to those who only read me for my political views: thankfully, life is about a lot more than politics.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.