Here’s a book to pop your eyes. Cloaked in dust and petals it swirls through bedrooms, bazaars, bombings, palaces, shrines, caves and festivals. The pace is insistent and the tensions increasing.
Our guide is journalist Isambard Wilkinson. He takes us to Pakistan (2006 – 2009) and entices us to follow him from Baluchistan to the Khyber Pass, via a couple of pauses for kidney complications.
Isambard Wilkinson is linked to Pakistan through his grandmother and her friend who is referred to throughout as the Begum, a female title that used to imply some rank. Both ladies grew up in the region, with one, the Begum, still there. She, well-rooted and respected, enables his explorations.
It’s a wild ride, with a few key domestic characters pegged into position as reference points. The cast includes Allah Ditta, the driver, his entrepreneurial colleague, Basil the cook, and the visiting language teacher known as the Professor. Their influence and interactions paint Snapchat portraits of every day survival in Islamabad, and allow the author to come and go, to weave his dance between the many worlds of Pakistan.
The closely-packed layers have lives at every extreme and Isambard Wilkinson introduces us to quite a range. Early in the book there is a meeting with a warlord in his cave in Baluchistan, then a quick mix with the saints and citizens of Lahore and Islamabad, before we squeeze into a dervish festival on the edge of the Punjab.
It is a ‘wonderland of curiosities’ and we take it at pace, but by the end of 2007 the tension in the pages tightens.
Trips to Karachi, Sehwan Sharif and Larkana take place as political shadows thicken into the unexpected expulsion from Pakistan of Isambard Wilkinson and two other British journalists. Brief paragraphs cover this absence and include the news that, in December of the same year, Benazir Bhutto is assassinated.
The section sits like a muffled beat at the heart of the book, but by April 2008 another adventure in Pakistan is under way. This time it takes us to the clean air and legends of Chitral and the Hindu Kush. Calm fills the chapters … until the dervish cloak swirls again.
Tensions in the Khyber Pass, and cockroaches in Islamabad, highlight the danger and difficulties. Even the author’s enthusiasm, drained by ill health, drops down to dread. He ends a final dramatic excursion slumped on the floor in a damaged shrine in Buner. There, in the company of its traumatised caretaker, surrounded by the shrine’s clocks, many of them smashed recently by militants, he reaches his limit.
‘My entire journey here had been a long lesson in other people’s suffering …’
It’s a sombre, thoughtful place to finish.
I loved this story-filled book – informative, risk-ridden, colourful, and very human. It was my first visit to Pakistan.
First published in Great Britain by Eland Publishing Limited in 2017
(I asked Eland for a copy of the book to review. This piece is my own. I have not been paid to write it.)