Personal and the Political

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 24 June 2017

In conversation with mechanical engineer and now author, Omar Zafarullah about his new book, A Hundred Journeys.

Omar Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys — Stories of My Fatherland is a sane commentary on Pakistan and consequently India too. Born in 1971, the watershed year in Pakistan’s political history, Zafarullah has written about his country, warts and all, for his children to understand where they come from.

A part memoir and part living manual, the book traces his family’s history, its migration from Ropar in Punjab, British India in 1910, to Gojra in the present-day Pakistan.  

Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys, brought out by Rupa, is an ode to the author’s father and also recalls the indomitable spirit of his grandmother, Maaji, and the British India’s policies, which gave his family a chance to lift themselves out of poverty.  Excerpts from an email chat...  

Does the title A Hundred Journeys have any reference to Quran? And, why the ‘Stories of my Fatherland?’ 
The story traces the history of my father’s family; a major incentive for me was to explain better to my kids about my father whom they have never seen; I felt this was something they needed to know in order to complete their perception of who they are.  This book is really an indirect ode to my father.  Hence, Fatherland. 

The title has nothing to do with the Quran. The book has nothing to do with it either.  I travel a lot. There is also a chapter called a Hundred Journeys in the book. And there is a line in the book that ‘a hundred journeys began’ towards Gojra when news of my father’s death spread. That is its genesis. 

It began as a working title. In the end, Rupa did not give me any time to think of something better and they thought it was fine — so that is that.

In the book, you have said that many of your friends and relatives don’t want to listen to the argument that Taliban is the cause of the nation’s woes. How do you think the book will be received in Pakistan?
Most people had decided that the woes in our country are the result of a grand Western plan to destabilise the world’s only Muslim nuclear power and the Taliban are only a small symptom of this larger disease. So, for most of my friends, the US is the cause of all our woes. I want to know what they will have to say on the book. I have not discussed it with them yet.  

I have no idea how the book will be received in Pakistan. I am just as curious as you are about this. I have told my family to be prepared for any outcome. I touch upon some foundational issues which are ingrained in our patriotism. But these are artificial constructs which cannot sustain themselves against the forces of common sense; which will eventually prevail. 

Pakistan is in flux. We are constantly trying to figure a way out of our morass.  And we will find our way out.  This book will be received well when we have figured this out. But that is the future. Today, will this book be received well or will it be disparaged as yet another Western ploy?  I cannot tell.     

Have your kids, Hyder and Maya, read the book? What’s their feedback?
Maya has read the first page and the dedication. She is seven. She wants me to tell her how my father died. Hyder is reading it now.  He is 13. He says he has read about a third and he feels the quality of my writing is up to his standards; if I tried, I could be as good as Rick Riordan, he says. He has given me a small thumbs up for encouragement.  

Since these subjects are discussed quite often in our home, I think he has a good idea where the book is going. I will ask him again after he finishes it. 

Have you been to Ropar with Hyder and Maya to learn more about your roots? 
Nope. I came to Chandigarh for the semi final of the 1996 World Cup of Cricket. My sister has been to Amritsar a few times, but travel to India has dried up in the past decade or so.

The book is about your family’s history in the changing landscape of Pakistan. But there are no pictures of the family or the city/country. Was that deliberate?
Yes it was, now that you mention it. It is quite perceptive of you to bring this out.  No photos can quite capture the pictures in the mind; the light and the shadow of memories in the dark.

What is your dream for Pakistan? How do you want it to be for the kids to live in?
Safe. Equal. Free. Jazzy. Confident. Cool.

Would India be of any aid to Pakistan’s well-being?
Of course. Good question. We are fighting India’s fight on its Western borders; A buffer state keeping the insecurity of the Middle East and of Central Asia at bay. India can help Pakistan by ratcheting down its rhetoric; by working jointly on fixing Afghanistan; by affording our politicians the room to negotiate an honourable peace; by allowing democratic Pakistani voices to be heard in Indian cities; by playing Pakistani dramas and music on its media; by allowing more travel. The costs of these moves are small; the gains are manifold.

The author can be followed on Twitter @riceandpickle

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