Spellbound by his grandmother’s Anglo-Indian heritage and the exuberant annual visits of her friend the Begum, Isambard Wilkinson became enthralled by Pakistan as an intrepid teenager, eventually working there as a foreign correspondent during the War on Terror. Seeking the land behind the headlines, Bard sets out to discover the essence of a country convulsed by Islamist violence. What of the old, mystical Pakistan has survived and what has been destroyed? We meet charismatic tribal chieftains making their last stand, hereditary saints blessing prostitutes, gangster bosses in violent slums and ecstatic Muslim pilgrims. Here is an enticing extract from the book's preamble.
Travels in a Dervish Cloak
by Isambard Wilkinson
Point of arrival
A gale was blowing from the north. Gusts of rain drummed down the chimney on to the smoking peat fire. From a window in my grandmother’s house, deep in hilly Irish countryside, I watched thickly fleeced sheep rampage across the wintry garden, searching for refuge among clumps of rhododendron. ‘Poor sods,’ I thought.
Soon I’d be out in the foul evening too, trudging down the bohreen with my bag to wait on the road for a lift that would take me from the hearth’s cosiness to Pakistan. God. All week my mood had trapezed between zeal and cowardice. Why on earth was I going back?
I was struggling with a quandary: on the one hand I wanted to become a ‘proper’ journalist, advance my career and lead an exciting, heroic life; on the other, the thought of returning to that part of the world summoned fearful images of falling fatally ill or of foul-breathed assassins kidnapping and beheading me. The paltry side of my nature wanted to reach old age, but my past – and a wavering professional ambition – had caught up with me. Over the past few years I’d asked my boss, the foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph, to move me from my comfortable billet in Madrid to somewhere more challenging. Now that he had offered me the job of correspondent in Islamabad, I could scarcely refuse.
It was January 2006, Washington’s so-called War on Terror was in full swing and Pakistan was its ‘frontline’. The millionaire Saudi fugitive, Osama bin Laden, who had masterminded cataclysmic attacks on America in 2001, was generally believed to be hiding in a cave in the Afghan–Pakistan borderlands, a sanctuary for Islamic militants waging global jihad and an insurgency that was beginning to overshadow the country.
‘Pakistan’ was on Western lips. Lavishly funded think-tanks recruited specialists who could locate it on a map; the American president slept with a book on the subject beside his bed; and London cabbies deemed it fit for nuclear destruction. Pakistan was News. Anyone who had a connection to the place might be useful to a newspaper. And I did.
My travels there began before I stepped on to its soil, in my childhood, in my grandmother’s camphor-perfumed, cramped old tower in Ireland, where every summer her Pakistani friend the Begum, Sajida Ali Khan, visited with her family. They didn’t adapt themselves to the house, it succumbed to them. Servants slept on floors outside bedroom doors, fridges overflowed with sticky sweets and pungent dishes. Gifts of embroidered cloth soon covered sofas, walls and even my grandmother. In the evenings, coiled in shawls to ward off the bone-devilling damp, they told stories about their travels together in Pakistan, conjuring a hot and turbaned land where carpet-flight and slippered sprites did not seem improbable to my young imagination.
My grandmother’s connection to that part of the world pre-dated her friendship with the Begum. Her family arrived in India from Europe, perhaps France or Belgium, in the 19th century, working as smalltime traders and marrying into Indian, Eurasian, British and Irish families in Mysore, Madras and Hyderabad, where, generations later, her father worked as a railway engineer. Jaunts up the line to hill stations and a verandah-ed playworld of ayahs, mongooses and cobras came to an end at the age of eighteen when she married a young British cavalry officer, my grandfather, whom she met as he made his way to fight in Burma during the Second World War. A few years later, India won its independence and, having tied her fate to my grandfather’s, she left her native land in the rush of imperial withdrawal. On the night before her departure on one of the last trains out, villages in the hills above her house were set alight as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs turned on each other in the chaos that accompanied the division of India and the creation of Pakistan. Embarking for England in a refugee ship, she sailed with her two babies – my mother and aunt – and an unfailing memory crammed with the chutneyed and chillied minutiae of Anglo-Indian life.
Her ties with the Subcontinent had not ended there for her friendship with the Begum had extended and deepened the Indianness of her life.
They had met at the last gasp of empire in 1950s Malaya and nearly every year since then my grandmother had visited Pakistan – a place she found more similar to the India she had known than its contemporary incarnation – until she reached her nineties.
The scion of an old Lahori family, which had gradually sold off most of its lands and lived in a state of threadbare nobility, the Begum was in the traditional sense a ‘Begum’, a title meaning ‘Lady’ or ‘Princess’, but which increasingly now – much to her chagrin – also meant ‘Mrs’.
My grandmother’s diary of their journey in a Datsun Corolla from London to Pakistan in the 1970s left no doubt as to who was the dominant partner. Planting her teenage son in the driving seat, the Begum had commandeered every border official from Calais to Kandahar, fobbing off an Iranian policeman who had caught my infidel grandmother in a forbidden shrine with the tale that she was a Bosnian Muslim, and paying an angry Afghan petrol pump attendant with tea leaves when they’d run out of money.
My grandmother’s Indian roots and her friendship with the Begum had suffused my own boyhood with a heady, dusty fragrance. I grew up under the spell of nursery rhymes she sang in Hindi, her improvised curries, and stories about a pet monkey with a penchant for schoolgirls and picnics on tiger-infested lakes. A contrast to the tight England of my boarding-schooled youth, the idea of the Indian subcontinent created by my grandmother exerted a fascination upon me: in a curious way I found myself experiencing nostalgia for a place I’d never known.
But I’d no idea what a large role Pakistan would play in my life until I was 18 years old and my grandmother suggested that I go with her for the marriage of the Begum’s youngest son.
Pakistan in 1990 lived up to my imaginings. On landing at Lahore airport, my grandmother covered her hair with a scarf, and with our luggage bobbing on the heads of khaki-overalled porters we disappeared into a crowd of beards, turbans, frying samosas and inquisitive eyes. On the road to the Begum’s mansion, my grandmother pointed out fakirs – wandering mendicant Muslim holy men, a small nomad encampment and the house of a friend, a tribal chief, who, on her last visit, had been in a foul mood because his enemies had ambushed some of his men.
The Begum put me up in a room on the roof of her house. From there, surrounded by a constellation of minarets and domes and listening to the cries of street hawkers, I saw young boys tugging the strings of kites battling above television antennae, rickshaws puttering along tiny alleys and first heard the call to prayer. We had entered a place of enchantment.
The week of the wedding neared and I was entranced by its preparations: a jeweller sitting crosslegged on the floor of an upper gallery in a golden beam of light, threading pearls with the nonchalance of a widow darning a sock; a tailor stitching a crimson, bedizened and spangled garment, his needle flashing like whitebait under the tangles of his moustache; and dress rehearsals for dancing, turban-tying and cooking.
A new well had been dug in the garden for the occasion, huge brass pots of food cooked over fires and suits of clothes and jewels exchanged. Then came the surging momentum of the ceremonies that joined the two parties. The bride and her entourage of maidens, thickly tressed, bodies caparisoned in gem-encrusted robes and noses studded with gold, danced off against stamping and twirling men. Alcohol was served discreetly in corners, rationed out by plump jolly ‘uncles’, the groom’s entourage slipped me a few cookies loaded with hashish, and Qawwali, the meditative and ecstatic music of the Sufi mystics, was performed. The rituals of the marriage – joyous, tactile, intricate and layered – removed the last trace of any expectations, digested from Western newspapers, about a dour, depressed world of troubled Muslims.
After the wedding, at a Lahori tea party society ‘Aunties’ had offered prayers and then sipped tea and nibbled pakoras, welcoming me into their world of disputes, blessings, curses and polo matches, of feudal landlords, political skulduggery and black magic; and their openness and vivaciousness struck a chord with me, reminding me of my mother’s and grandmother’s own un-English emotional warmth.
And then I had struck out on my own. In the murk of polluted lanes outside the Begum’s house, as I weaved among mules, starvelings, men gobbing betel-nut juice against walls and clerks bent over battered typewriters, grubby hands motioned me into secluded, smoky temples where gods glittered and cloth-bound scriptures were carefully unwrapped. All these were strange and yet familiar, reminiscent of things picked up in stories and replayed outlandishly in dreams, and they summoned my foolish young blood.
One night, when I was travelling in a third-class, windowless railway carriage across a freezing desert from Karachi back to Lahore, my impoverished fellow passengers offered me food and bedded me down under a blanket with one of their children. Wherever I went people gave me shelter, refusing to take money and sending me on my way with transport and introductions to friends with whom they said I must stay at the next stage along the route. How long will you remain in Pakistan, they asked. As long as my money lasts, I replied. Then you will never leave Pakistan, they said.
© Isambard Wilkinson