May Issue 2019
Book review: A Person of Pakistani Origins by Ziauddin Sardar
At the heart of Ziauddin Sardar’s attempt to define what it means to be A Person of Pakistani Origins, lies the wisdom of his eccentric uncle, Waheed Mammu, that “there is more than one way to travel through the complexities of being human.” This, arguably, serves as a basis for Sardar’s rejection of an illusory sense of identity, what he describes as a “false” and “truncated” Pakistani “Self,” which is “a product of the colonial mindset… self-inflicted on a beguiled body of opinion as a panacea to purge all the ills of colonialism and its history.” According to the author, to be Pakistani – or Indian for that matter – essentially means to identify with the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of an Undivided India. What makes Sardar’s argument unique is the paths that lead him to this conclusion. The devil is in the details. His memoir is an important read for anyone who has ties with South Asia.
Sardar, a British citizen, was born in Dipalpur, in Punjab’s Okara district and migrated to East London with his parents in the 1950s. He would not visit Pakistan until the 1970s and managed to make frequent trips thereafter. According to him, the most memorable part of his visits to the motherland as a young man was the time spent with Waheed Mammu, a goofy character who was particularly popular with the children in the family. “Slowly, we all began to realise that Waheed Mammu had a special vocation; a strange mystical aura that surrounded his very being,” writes Sardar.
Waheed’s mystique was heightened by the fact that he would randomly disappear in the middle of a conversation, like Christopher Nolan’s Batman, only to reappear later. If the family was travelling from A to B, they would usually find that he had arrived at the destination long before them. Similarly, when the author’s wedding party boarded the train from Karachi to Bahawalnagar, Waheed, who had been forcefully confined in a windowless quarter at home to look after Nani Jan, was already on the train and had found a berth for the groom. He would reappear at different stations throughout the 27-hour journey, “once with a tray of barfi, once with a basket of oranges.”
A school dropout unable to hold down a job and who had little interest in monetary gain or getting married, Waheed’s mantra was “there is more than one way to travel.” Later, when the author discovers that he is “part of an invisible network of mystics and social workers who moved through the city as one,” his respect for his uncle deepens. Over time, he comes to view Waheed as the epitome of a person of Pakistani origins, largely owing to the fact that he did not mindlessly conform to established practices and found his own way in which to “travel” through life.
One of the keys to reclaiming the Subcontinent’s lost sense of identity, according to Sardar, is striking a genuine balance between tradition and modernity. While tradition must be questioned and oppressive social mores disposed of, South Asians must be careful not to be alienated by an imported modernity they do not understand, he argues.
Classical Indian cinema and Pakistani television shows, old and new, have been a strong influence on the author’s intellectual development and sense of identity. For the British Asian community, cinema houses in London in the 1960s showing Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt films served as a melting pot for the exchange of ideas between a multitude of ethnic and religious groups hailing from the subcontinent. Every Sunday, his family, led by his mother and accompanied by friends, would ritualistically go to watch Indian films in the cinema. That was, of course until Amitabh Bachchan and the “post-Amitabh” films of the 1970s came along and turned Indian cinema into “an empty vessel for the outpouring of cheap emotions.”
Pakistani television plays, however, did not witness a similar fall from grace, according to Sardar, and continue to produce intellectually stimulating material with nuanced, three-dimensional characters. The most interesting one described is a television drama from the 1980s titled Airport, in one episode of which, a Pakistani girl visiting from the US meets a roster of suitors keen on marrying her. She takes a liking to the man who shows little or no interest – an agricultural scientist based in the rural areas. He rejects her westernised persona; “Modernity and tradition are not clothes, he tells her,” according to the author, “that one can change into at the sleight of hand…. The quest for modernity begins here… in the rural enclaves of Pakistan.” Sardar points out that “many of the plays of Pakistani television are written by established women writers.”
A large part of the memoir focuses on film and television and there is a tendency to repetition. Published by Hurst, the book contains a shocking number of editorial errors. Its strength lies in the overturning of cliches through accounts of the author’s personal experiences. The foremost among these is that of Auntie Rashida, who thrusts upon him a book titled Bahishti Zewar, by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi Hanafi. Through it, Sardar discovers the Mirat ul-Uroos (The Bride’s Mirror), a work “claimed by many to be the first Urdu novel.” After he has read the two books, Auntie Rashida commands him: “Now go out… reinvent tradition.”
The writer is a staffer at Newsline Magazine. His website is at: www.alibhutto.com