Emma Duncan is the Deputy Editor of The Economist. She is the magazine’s chief reporter, writer and editor on climate change. She has also held several other posts on the paper, including Britain Editor and Asia Editor.
In 1988-89, she wrote “Breaking the Curfew” (Michael Joseph), a book on politics, culture and society in the troubled state of Pakistan.
Following are a few excerpts from her wonderful book on Pakistan.
“Pakistan is a forty two year old country of about 100 million people between Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, with a coastline that stretches from just east of the Strait of Hormuz, the mouth of the Gulf, to India. It has a gross domestic product per head of $350, which puts it between Haiti and Lesotho, and $60 above India. It exports cotton, heroin, labor and a favorable geopolitical attitude to the West, which do not quite pay for its imports of consumer goods and machinery. It has four provinces, Punjab, Sind, the North western Frontier Province and Baluchistan, as well as some Tribal Areas, the Northern Areas and Free (Azad) Kashmir, from which Pakistani soldiers shoot at Indian soldiers in Occupied Kashmir.
No Briton is quite free of the romance of the Raj. Although India has acquired a monopoly on imperial nostalgia, at the time it was the area that is now Pakistan which stirred the British imagination and won their respect. Kipling represented a Raj prejudice, not just in favor of the pugnacious Muslims against the educated Hindu traders and lawyers but also for the hills and mountains of the north against the endless, dry plains of Central India and the soggy luxuriance of the south. His patch ran from Lahore, home of the Zam-zammah gun that Kim plays on as the story starts, and centre of the shady dealings that drive the book’s plot, to the northern borders where lonely, embattled political agents in his stories made war and friendships amongst the Pathan tribes. Real-life civil servants considered it a privilege to get one of those jobs-to be allowed to leave your wife and family and risk your life in the remotest, most dangerous part of the Empire.
Kipling’s admiration for the area is partly to do with the effect of hardship, danger and responsibility on the green young men who either grew up fast or died. But the root of his passion, it seems to me, is sensual. He loved the rich texture of the place, over-loaded with smells and colors and small dark mysteries glimpsed n veiled windows: India was a rich fruit-cake heavy with spices, to England’s bland Victorian sponge.
The country is hot, bright and intensely varied. I carry a mental album of images that give me pleasure. On Manora Island, Pakistan’s Brighton, the beach-donkeys are camels, laboring up and down the beach with their peculiar loping grace and permanent weary smiles, carrying whole families on their bright saddle-cloths embroidered with bells and bits of mirror. The water is pale turquoise, breaking into white near shore. Further out, rocks and seaweed are mapped in dark blue. The beach stretched away, turning as white as the waves with distance and disappearing round a corner, a couple of miles on.
Arid Baluchistan has oases with date palms to the south and orchards around Quetta where the cold sweetens the apples and apricots and hardens the nuts. But those are blobs of relief in a range of colors that varies from grey to sharp pale yellow to ochre to brown, flattened into desert or creased up into folds and ridges of chiseled mountains. In fertile Punjab there is a rich softness to the landscape that is best at evening when the sky has gone pale, the tractors have ground their way home down the straight tarmac roads, and smoke from the villages rests, in perfectly horizontal strands, over the cotton, the sugar-cane and the maize. Going north, hills harden into yellow mountains. Swat valley, its slopes striped with terraces of luminous rice and persimmon trees, is their soft centre. At the top of the northern areas, on the Chinese border, is the climax of Pakistan: K2, the second highest mountain in the world, a neat black and white marbled pyramid, dusted with thin cloud, set against the eye-wrinkling brightness of the blue.
History is central to the richness. In the interior of Sind, you drive past neglected tombs left by the Arab invaders in the eleventh century. The Hindu temples are mostly-nervously-tended. In Lahore, the Sikhs’ second holiest city after Amritsar, a gold-roofed Sikh shrine stands beside the Emperor’s mosque, whose three white marble domes are silk against the rough tweed of its red sandstone again, with green parrots streaking among the gardens and marble rooms and courtyards laid out on top of it. Lahore has looked after its Moghul wonders well; more surprisingly, the white neo-classical grandeur of the best the British built has been glisteningly restored.
The Buildings are old, but the country is new. Pakistan, like Israel, was an idea, born in the mind of an eccentric student at Cambridge, and taken up by a cold legal genius whose brilliant oratory turned the fear and confusion among Indian Muslims into a demand for land, and founded a country. That, to me, is its initial oddness. Where I come from, companies, social clubs, intellectual movements are founded; countries are the accidental results of rivers, seas, mountains and the squabbles of forgotten kings. Like families, nobody asks for them they’re just there-to be loved or ignored, defended or betrayed.
Pakistan’s strange origins have given it a tendency to national self-analysis which initially attracted me to the place. A country based on an ideal has an idea, however confused it may be; at least different people in it will have some sort of ideal that the place is supposed to be living up to. I have no ideal vision of Britain, so the country does not disappoint me; but too many Pakistanis I talked to seem disappointed. It was not just disappointment that they were not as rich as they should be or that their children were finding it difficult to get jobs; it was a wider sense of betrayal, of having been cheated on a grand scale. The Army blamed the politicians, the politicians the Army; the businessmen blamed the civil servants, the civil servants the politicians, everybody blamed the landlords and the foreigners, and the left and the religious fundamentalists blamed everybody except the masses.
More than anywhere I have been-much more than India-its people worry about the state of their country. They wonder what went wrong; they fear for the future. The condemn it; they pray for it. They are involved in the nation’s public life as passionately as in their small private dilemmas. I did a small experiment with an English friend who does not believe that politics matter much to people. A chatty hotel waiter sat down with us to share a bottle of local whisky. My friend asked him questions about his family; I, about the dead president. I won hands down. My friend got monosyllabic answers, and I got florid, threatening images of the vengeance which mistreated children wreak on a dictatorial father. To a political journalist, a politicized country is thrilling. You begin to believe what you are writing matters not just to a small coterie of heavy-lunching politicians and journalists but to everybody who lives there.”