This was a hard book for me to read, let alone review. Of The Nine Lives of Pakistan, Declan Walsh’s portrait of the country he describes as a “multi-ringed circus of violence,” one of them is my father’s.
My father was governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, when he was assassinated, in 2011, by his own bodyguard. His crime was seeking a mercy petition for a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, which, as Walsh writes, had “become a deadly weapon of the strong against the weak,” namely a Muslim majority of 97 percent pitted against a tiny Christian population. My father, as Walsh indicates, was no model of rectitude. He was a crook, a philanderer, a bad father, a bad husband. His great love of democracy did not prevent him from cozying up to dictators. He was a holocaust denier and vehemently bigoted against Hindus, Jews, and homosexuals. So his defense of this poor Christian mother of five, despite the grave danger to himself, was not merely uncharacteristic; it may well have been the only good thing he ever did in his life. And for that he died a dog’s death in Pakistan.
The indoctrinated fanatic who killed him instantly became a religious hero, and my father, a blasphemer—a symbol of Western depravity and decadence. At his killer’s trial, my first book, Stranger to History, which deals with my estrangement from my father, was used, Walsh tells us, “to portray Taseer as a fallen Muslim,” while after his execution “in Islamabad devotees still flocked to the glittering tomb where Taseer’s assassin lay buried.” This is the moral dystopia, in which flawed men and women perform occasional acts of courage and evil comes to the party dressed as religious piety, that Walsh brings alive in these pages.
Walsh, who spent nine years in Pakistan, first with The Guardian, then later with The New York Times, is not your ordinary foreign correspondent. Along with Ellen Barry and David D. Kirkpatrick, he may well be among the finest journalists of his generation. He has a nose for dramatizing what Octavio Paz describes as “the inner controversy” of a society. In 2013, Walsh was unceremoniously ejected from Pakistan by its Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I., one of the world’s most formidable and sinister intelligence agencies. He had crossed “a red line,” though nobody could tell him what it was. The mystery of why Walsh was thrown out of the Islamic Republic runs like a MacGuffin through the pages of this jagged and multifaceted portrait of “one of the handful of countries—the other notable example is Israel—whose borders were drawn by faith.”
Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 as a homeland for India’s Muslims. It was unfeasible from the get-go, with two wings, East and West, separated by the entire 1,000-mile expanse of India in between. In 1971, the eastern wing fell away to form Bangladesh. “The land of broken maps,” as Walsh describes it, succumbed almost immediately to military coups, assassinations, the execution of a sitting prime minister, fanaticism, sectarianism, and genocide. “More concept than country, Pakistan strained under the centrifugal forces of history, identity and faith. Could it hold?”
A moral dystopia in which flawed men and women perform occasional acts of courage and evil comes to the party dressed as religious piety.
In chapter after chapter, Walsh teases out the moral schizophrenia of a place “with layered complex identities that often looked different in public or in private.” We meet the Oxford-educated chieftain who, in between making grand pronouncements—“What more is there to life than love and warfare?”—and quoting John Donne, enforces primitive tribal customs, such as the trial by fire, in which men prove their innocence by walking over a bed of burning coals. We have one of the architects of the Afghan jihad die at the hands of the fanatical progeny he helped create. We follow the brave policeman whose fight against the Taliban ends, as his own prophecy predicted, with his shalwar kameez, the tunic men in Pakistan wear, becoming his shroud. All the while a decaying elite deploys the language of freedom in order to maintain its stranglehold over the country while also consuming vast quantities of alcohol (banned in 1977 by the country’s hard-drinking prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) and shoveling small hillocks of cocaine up its nostrils.
Futility, above all, is Walsh’s theme. “Tired and disillusioned with a country that just cannot pull itself together in any way,” writes a Karachi columnist and one of the book’s most charming characters, “I have decided to call it a day.” Walsh sees that the crisis of Pakistan goes back to its very founding. “Although Pakistan was built on faith,” he writes, “Islam offered an incomplete identity. Negation of India filled the void.” Today both countries, like two panels in a diptych, are engulfed in a symmetrical and poisonous religious nationalism, revisiting the wounds of their 1947 Partition, in which an estimated one million died and one of the world’s greatest transfers of population occurred.
Many have fixated on whether Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, will survive. But perhaps that is not the right question. Walsh’s book is a reminder of a fate worse than disintegration. As the late V. S. Naipaul once told me in relation to the future of the Islamic Republic, “Countries don’t really end. They just rot away slowly.”
Aatish Taseer is, most recently, the author of The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges. His documentary In Search of India’s Soul was released earlier this year