Today, I will talk about a Pakistani, not an Indian. Since the past month, I’m busy gifting my friends in Delhi a unique book on Pakistan. This thick paperback will hopefully make them aware of another side of your country, which is not about terrorism, ISI and Zardari. Chances are that even you Pakistanis might not have heard of this book. I chanced upon it at Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market. It’s not new – it was first published in 2002 – but it’s the most amazing book I’ve ever read on Pakistan. Do not judge it by the staid title: Pakistan – Traveller’s Companion (528 pages). Its claims are more ambitious.
“All that you want to know. All that you expect to see. All that you want to enjoy. This book covers all – The only book which provides A to Z information on all aspects of your travels in Pakistan. The only book which you required and desired so much. The book is fully illustrated with scores of colour pictures and maps etc.”
Printed in Rawalpindi and published by an Islamabad-based publisher – optimistically named Best Books – the guidebook, written and photographed by a certain M. Hanif Raza, is striking in its endearing amateurishness. The language is pompous, and the descriptions politically insensitive. Sample this:
“The people of Gilgit are proverbially peaceful, law-abiding and hospitable. They are neither sharp like the people of Kashmir Valley nor aggressive like the Pathans.”
However, Raza really blossoms when it comes to flowery phrases. This breath-taking gem is from the book’s introduction:
“The country offers alarming mountains, charming vistas, sprawling glaciers, marching sand dunes, farming plains, barking bucks, fasting buddhas, dancing horses, talking parrots, dazzling deserts, shimmering lakes, singing streams, and sparkling snowy heights.”
Perhaps, Raza forgot to hire an editor, which, as it turns out, was a very good thing. Here is one of the numerous snippets – with a deadly ending – that fills up the book.
“Shah Jahan was the biggest spender of all the Mughals. He lavished millions on Jewel encrusted palaces & mosques blowing at least one million pounds sterling on emeralds, rubies & sapphires which were embedded in the Naulakha Pavillion (900, 000 pieces). How sad everything was plundered by the Sikhs.”
No, the author is not biased against any religious community. The book has glorious descriptions of various holy places – not holy to Islam alone. Other than being an historian, Raza is also a sharp-eyed social commentator.
“Illicit love is the backbone of the Punjab romance – and the lovers are always doomed.”
The big appeal of this guidebook is its innocence. Superficially a Pakistani version of Lonely Planet, it gives us a peek into the unfiltered (and unedited) mind of its author – his prejudices and partialities. In a world where so much emphasis is laid on being politically correct that books (or films, plays, etc.) run the risk of becoming sterile, the honesty of Pakistan – Traveller’s Companion is refreshing. Sample Raza’s tip on sightseeing in Gwadar:
“It is the 2nd largest town of Balochistan today. It could be developed as a great port but there are hundreds of rumours about its future.”
When it comes to comparing Pakistan with India, Raza is a true patriot:
“Beggars are less common in Pakistan than in India.”
Or check this:
“A major difference between hotel accommodation in Pakistan and India is that, almost without fail, even the cheapest hotel in Pakistan has attached toilet and bath facilities.”
Raza also doesn’t spare cities of his own country:
“Sibi has no other remarkable landmark except its jail. Shela Bagh, located at the mouth of Kojak Pass, is charming and looks neat from a distance at least.”
Raza reminds me so much of the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin. This man should write more guidebooks. The note on excursions in Neelam Valley, Azad Kashmir, is hilarious:
“This approach route is dangerous because Indian army keeps on shelling this area without any reason.”
I only wish Raza was a little more guarded with his impressions of fellow beings:
“At Rumbur (in Kalash Valley) there is a two-room basic hotel where the food is limited and the people of the hotel look dirty.”
The book is undoubtedly a little dated. For instance, it doesn’t warn the prospective traveller about the Taliban. But it does offer some general warning:
“But, may be, by the time you come here things and situations may be slightly different in some ways that I have portrayed. It is a developing country and here the prices change – temperatures drop or rise, shops move – hotels expand, restaurants get better or worse – even disappear – telephone number change, addresses change even the governments change and all that happens too suddenly and too frequently. Things and situation also change though not that much. Better keep all these points in mind while travelling and enjoy your trip and I am sure that you will not be disappointed.”
This is Pakistan at its funniest. “Suddenly the book’s sale has picked up,” says Bahrison’s Mithilesh Singh. Raza, if you are reading this column, let me tell you that thanks to me, you have suddenly acquired quite a few Indian fans. Send me my commission.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.