I began reading Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s Points of Entry once I was sensibly strapped into the seat of my plane, expecting to take no longer than the length of my short flight to finish the slim book. I remember being rather pleased with myself that morning at having eked out this reading schedule. And I could not, of course, have been more wrong, or my timing more off the mark.
Points of Entry gives the impression of being a quick read. It is not. It is certainly though an easy one, with Paracha writing in a lucid, conversational way that draws the reader in immediately. This happens often with fiction (that one likes); non-fiction can take considerably longer. Not so the case with Points of Entry. For this perhaps intended effect, Paracha employs a clever trope—using personal anecdotes from his clearly full and interesting life, he later segues into little known narratives on Pakistan’s complex history. One comes for the storytelling, and stays for the factual chronicling, if you will. This begins with the timeline, a chronology of Pakistan’s history since 1947 that juxtaposes those elements that we are more familiar with, with socio-cultural developments that occurred at the same time. Minutes into the book, I was reaching for my diary and pen to note places, people and moments that I was not familiar with, and had to look up when my flight landed.
Paracha begins with his first encounter with the Khyber Pass, recounting a childhood journey with his mother and sister to Afghanistan, where his father, a journalist, was then based. This appears to be his earliest reckoning with questions of what it means to be a Pakistani, and indeed, who is a Pakistani. Rather precocious for a five year old, you would think. At roughly the same age many years later, I was most likely bawling in the decidedly more common pursuit of not meeting my hourly snack quota.
In my first year of college, Dr. Ashish Roy, a professor revered for his skilled teaching and loved for his old-man grumpiness, urged us to also consider the cover of a book and what it revealed about the pages that followed. This was a long ago lesson, and in retrospect, applies rather brilliantly to Points of Entry’s jacket cover as the first point of visual impact. In my hurry and naïveté, I had entirely disregarded the meaning of my unfamiliarity with most of the faces portrayed on it, or what the myriad colours used by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, the cartoonist and graphic novelist who designed the cover, foreshadowed.
Through the course of the book, Paracha takes us through historical narratives that consistently challenge the notion of the modern nation-state, subverting particularly the image of Pakistan as a monolith from which all its inhabitants derive a single identity. He does this using examples as varied in instance and time as Mohenjo-daro; Goan Christians who once dominated the country’s jazz and rock and roll scene until its demise; Macedonian King Alexander’s territorial forays; the Chinese who came to Pakistan in different waves through history and learned to speak Urdu as flawlessly as their own language, and who continue to run some of Pakistan’s best Chinese restaurants today; the short-lived spark that was the Pakistani pop music industry; and the Siddis, a community of ‘Afro-Americans’ who have lived in and around Karachi’s Lyari neighbourhood for over 200 years.
Without being didactic or constantly stating the obvious, Paracha manages quite successfully to demonstrate the many ways in which various peoples, cultures and geographies have adapted to Pakistan, and how Pakistan has been shaped by them: a country, therefore, that is much more than the sum of its parts. Among the many things that struck me, the several parallels with communities and cultures in India—whether it is Tangra Chinese cuisine in Calcutta, possibly the best in the country, or Goan club proprietors in what was then Bombay, or the Siddis that have called India their home for centuries—stood out prominently.
Points of Entry allows two distinct readings of Paracha himself: as a journalist and author of the book, and as one of the two primary protagonists, the other being Pakistan. As an author and journalist, he uses each of his chapters to investigate popular fallacies about Pakistan’s origins as propagated by the state and intended as exercises in nation-building. These include its so-called Arab-centric identity and the raising of an obscure Arab commander from the 8th century, Mohammad-bin-Qasim, as the architect and ‘first citizen of Pakistan’, who apparently introduced Islam to South Asia, or the deliberate identification of the shalwar kameez as the country’s ‘national dress’ on the basis of a dubiously linked affiliation with Islam, which eventually made its way even into school text-books.
As a reading of Paracha the protagonist, Points of Entry functions very much also as a bildungsroman. From beginning to end, we are witness to Paracha’s learning and unlearning, first as a child, then as a young adult, and later, as the man he now probably is. Each chapter is an unravelling of reductive interpretations of Pakistani politics, society and culture; instances that likely contributed to his own development and understanding of the many paradoxes that coexist within Pakistan and within himself. Paracha is careful in keeping the reader at a distance, and allowing her only a veiled peek at his own life. Towards the end of the book, he talks, much more intimately, about his disillusionment as a music journalist, his misgivings about music ushering in a cultural revolution in Pakistan, his experiences with substance abuse. This is told in far more emotional detail than the reader comes to be used to, and this change in tone appeared to me to be a culmination of his own journey as an eager young would-be revolutionary to an irreverent, if somewhat frayed adult, who has a more edified sense of his identity as a Pakistani. Points of Entry is thus as much the reader’s education as it is his own.
This part-memoir, part-history lesson is an essential departure from everything else about Pakistan that makes the news daily. Just as there are attempts within Pakistan, in some sort of grand unification project, to view the country and its people as a monolith despite its pluralism and diversity, those that are outside it are also guilty of viewing it through a single, monolithic perspective. This is certainly true of my own profession as a security and foreign policy analyst, where often the norm, at least where Pakistan is concerned, is through the very narrow lens of politics. Points of Entry reminds you of the importance of understanding a place and a people in their entirety, and the danger, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so succinctly summarized, of a single story.
Ruhee Neog is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi.