At first sight, Daam-i Khayal by Tariq Mahmud is a daunting volume: a doorstopper tome of 592 pages to plough through. The hawk-like look of the septuagenarian author in the back-cover photograph is equally intimidating but indicative of his keen eye for detail. Before plunging into the vast sea of prose, a foretaste is provided by the concise but comprehensive Foreword. By his friend and fellow bureaucrat for several decades Malik Akram, it is an insightful, feelingly written precis overflowing with prompts to savour the work.
And savour one does, its vast spread of offerings. Here, as in life, there is something for everyone. To expect the tidy structure of an autobiography is to miss the intention of the author. The loose organization often challenges coherence. The continuity is compromised with occasional lapses into repetition. The time frame and tenses shift from the past to the present and back. Not quite the “stream of consciousness” style. But close. Then within each chapter are self-contained sections that may be read independently. It is like dipping into a miscellany with cameos of colleagues, vivid thumbnail sketches of acquaintances, generous portraits of friends, and evocative descriptions of varied terrains and events that impressed, and occasionally even shaped, the author. He never disses anything or anyone. He records his objections like a gentleman.
The volume blends the recollections of a memoir with the novel’s sweep, the short story’s sharp specificity, the travelogue’s observations and ponderings, and the considered views of an official brief. Aural details and visual images provide an assembly of sense-memories of food, fruits, architecture, and ways of living (p.42), his boyhood friends (p.26), the tonga as a mode of inter-village and village-town transport (p. 22), the teenager observing gipsy women bathing (p.27), the 1965 War (pp.28-29) and teenage loves’ manifestations in dense lanes and around tandoors (pp.29-30), the hustle and bustle of Sialkot’s bazaar seen by a child (p. 21), travelling up the old Murree Road (p.22), life at the hill station (pp. 23-24), a train journey (p.134), the hawkers’ calls (p.170), birds’ nest in his office (p.171), a pot-belly shaking beneath a muslin kurta (p.263). Here a bygone world comes alive.
Nostalgia has myriad manners of pain and pleasing. Life on the East African farm of his expatriate maternal grandfather and uncles and aunts (pp. 24, 33-47), is seen as a happy safari adventure. And the love affair of the domestic help, Ramzan, is recounted like a tragic-comic story. The chapter on East Pakistan is a painful one (pp. 47-85). It becomes particularly poignant because the author spent some of his happiest times there as a college student, and then watched its bloody separation. The cultural and historical information provides the reader — not aware of the complexities of that political and armed debacle — with a needed perspective. Readers who lived through those dark days may re-live the same great sadness in this section. Years later he returns to it as Bangladesh. His Bengali friends and the zeitgeist have changed in subtle, barbed ways (pp.504-528). Memories of East Pakistan permeate this work like a strain of love. Even as he travels in remote areas of Baluchistan, interior Sindh, and the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan, like one’s first love, East Pakistan perfumes his narrative. Both his attachment to that part of united Pakistan and the tragic, political outfall remain a recurrent, disquieting, theme. It is not easy to see one’s country dismembered. And when the Fall of Dacca recalls the Fall of Granada, a vast tragedy echoes down the ages.
On joining Pakistan Television Corporation, the author enters practical life (pp. 92-106). The atmosphere of those early days at the Lahore station is deftly captured: the flurry of activity in the newsroom, the general elections of 1970, the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the exchange of prisoners of war at the Wagah border, something to which this reviewer was also witnessed, the goings-on at the press club (pp.110-113). The author provides a good deal of information about colleagues, their foibles and idiosyncrasies. The portrait of Rafiq Goraya (pp.106-110) is skilfully evocative of a bye-gone era, and written with the experience of a master storyteller, giving restrained room to shared moments and nostalgia. The recollection of sentimental moments is, subtly, unsentimental. Such a kaleidoscope of vignettes makes for absorbing reading.
The section on Anglo-Indians (pp.100-105) provides another kind of pain. The plight of these products of mixed marriages is empathetically depicted. This community, of natural dark skin but nurturing the aspirations of expatriate Europeans who begot them, was once the backbone of the railway system. With many migrating abroad or assimilating into the local Christian population, a whole way of life and a people have become extinct. It is sad and sobering. While the quandary of their existence was embedded in their identity, the tragic flaw lay in their presumptions. The author does not give his opinion. To do so is to judge. And being judicious by nature, he describes them, places them in the historical landscape and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions about gain and loss.
Life as a civil servant forms a large part of the book: the beginnings as a probationer and reaching the top of the power pyramid as a Federal Secretary. The multi-dimensional duties of the District Management Group, or the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), demonstrate that this cadre of civil services provides a most comprehensive experience of life. Posted to positions of privilege, an officer encounters a vast range of pressures, challenges, compromises and occasional successes. Training as a Revenue and Settlement officer, he begins to understand the onerous and convoluted responsibilities of the petty but powerful patwari. At one minute the officer is catering to the poorest of the poor, at another, interacting with the highest in the land. At one moment he is in the stimulating company of writers and intellectuals, poets and musicians, singers, music aficionados and local grandees or shooting wild boars (p.174). Next, he is involved with sapping court work, field inspections, dicey law and order situations, measures for Muharram, situations sparked by sectarian or political friction, corrupt officials (p. 137), handling floods and monsoon rains, shifting affectees to safety and provision of food (p.139). The occasional light shed on, and remarks about, our excruciatingly exhausting and dysfunctional judicial system seem straight out of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House of 1852. The many characters that people on these pages could well have emerged from the world of fiction. And yet they are real and eccentric. His courtier-like PA in Jhang, Allah Ditta (pp. 185-86) was once a class fellow of the Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salaam. He had earlier served another writer-Deputy Commissioner, Qudrat Ullah Shahab, who also mentioned him in his autobiography, Shahab Namah. Though almost incapacitated, this God-given individual, then aided by his young nephew, continued as this reviewer’s PA. His idiosyncrasies in both autobiographies have amusing Pickwickian affectations and prompt affection (pp. 176-195).
The chapter on Jhang also recounts his two meetings with the firebrand religious leader who created the Lashkar-i Jhangvi. He and his organisation of ordinary Deobandis stood up to the traditional, landed and influential Shias of the district. This challenging the old order precipitated the sectarian conflict. It was a turbulent period of a proxy war between the Saudi-supported Deobandis and Iran-backed and armed Shias. The author as Deputy Commissioner was witness to the early days of the conflict that lasted several years into the period when this reviewer occupied the same position. By then the founder had been murdered. Jhang’s old town was literally up in flames. The law-and-order situation was out of control. The immediate predecessor of this reviewer had fled to Faisalabad. The reviewer within a few months, through responsive administrative measures and a long-term initiative — the founding of Chenab College –, brought some modicum of sanity to this suffering city.
The author’s impressions of General Zia (pp.146-47) and Prime Minister Bhutto (p.146-150) are significant. The latter’s devastating nationalization of businesses and industries are graphically penned. The elections of 1977 and the ensuing public agitation, the role of the police, General Zia’s take-over and his devious claim to hold elections in 90 days, and the conduct of the judiciary in Bhutto’s conviction (pp. 152-165) are all observed by the civil officer. Sensitive issues like military and civil relations (p.242), the plight of Biharis at the hands of people smugglers and their confrontation with the border rangers (p.246), the referendum held by General Zia to perpetuate and legitimise himself by exploiting Islam (p. 252) and its undue pressures on the civil administration (pp. 251-54) are commented on. The Zia-Junejo rift, the dissolving of Assemblies (pp.416-19), Zia’s death by an explosion (p.421) and the power-politics within the bureaucracy and politicians, political intolerance (p.429), President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s reservations about Prime Minister Benazir’s government (p.432), change of several Prime Ministers, the Lal Masjid fiasco (pp. 495-96), international pressures (pp.498-500), action against Akbar Bugti (pp. 500-503), deprivations of Baluchistan, the politicisation of the civil services by political governments (p. 541), the exploitation by hereditary “Sufi” families, of the poor in exchange for peace of mind, are all mentioned meaningfully. So too are the manipulations and machinations of political and judiciary’s repeated controversial contribution, General Musharraf’s disastrous reforms and Referendum, and his Zia-like hankering for legitimacy. Interaction with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governors and Chief Ministers, comings and goings of military dictators, the fall-out on Pakistan of the Twin Tower destruction in New York, the Afghan war, Indian Prime Minister Bajpai’s poetic address at the Governor House, Lahore (p.400-01), attending the Jirga of the Afghan President Karzai and President Musharraf (pp. 449-50), are recalled with cutting clarity.
Occasional repartee (p.283-84; p.384) and the ridiculous pepper the text. The military staff’s insistence — that the lota provided for ablution should not be of plastic or aluminium, but of brass, for the top-most brass, General Zia — is straight out of the theatre of the absurd (pp. 290-91). Equally farcical is the insistence that the General would not sleep in the bed Prime Minister Junejo had slept in (pp.414-15); Zia listening, alone, repeatedly, to the Turkish military band (p.408); his attending a kabaddi match in Chichawatni with neither the Governor nor Chief Minister in attendance (p.412-13). Such were the priorities of those at the helm of national affairs. But then such are the whims of worthies and those perked by power. The stealing of donkeys (p.138), a plaque commemorating administrators removed and then replaced to curry favour (p.262), Dr Jigar’s shenanigan, comparing “heavy feet” of a pregnant woman to his own (p.199), Governor Makhdoom Qureshi’s wily, handling of a pushy Indian journalist (p. 407) are some of the more plebeian delights. The author’s remarks to his political bosses, scattered in the text, nevertheless, demonstrate decent scepticism.
The author travels the length and breadth of the country and provides depth to the journeys through insightful observations and historical particulars. Visits, official and private, to the UK, USA, the Far East, read like a travelogue of a reflective spectator. Indian appropriation of Pakistani culture and cuisine in Britain is remarked upon (p. 219). His facilitation – of the construction of the Press Club (pp.112-113), founding of The Nazaria Pakistan Trust (pp.113-115), establishing the Writers Welfare Fund (pp.117-118), and other public causes — is casually mentioned.
The penultimate chapter is pivotal. The author admires Singapore’s miraculous transformation, the strength of the system founded by its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his subjecting himself to it (pp. 529-541). Singapore’s success prompts the gathering of the author’s conclusions. A mirror is held up to Pakistan’s failing structures and ensconced power brokers. Such disillusionments are expressed without rancour and stated with stoic forbearance. This is an intelligent, incisive, illuminating work which gives resonance with Tariq Mahmud’s life:
So what is penned, is all that is re-lived.
A life not written is a life not lived.
(‘Sonnet CXXXVIII’, Twilight in the Soul)
M Athar Tahir (born 1956) is a Pakistani civil servant who is also a poet, author, translator, painter and calligrapher of some little talent. He studied at Lawrence College Ghora Gali Murree, Oxford University England, and the University of Pennsylvania, USA.
Awards for his works include the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for literature in 1998, the Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai Award in 1990, and the National Book Council Prize in 1991.