In Review Books

'Crimson Papers' is history through the lense of a poet

Updated Jun 01, 2017 08:25pm


Photo courtesy: Huma Choudhary
Photo courtesy: Huma Choudhary

This review needs to be prefaced with two disclaimers. First: I have known Harris Khalique for the last 34 years and we are close friends — as such, any claims to objectivity will be less than truthful. Second: Crimson Papers is written on the social and political history of Pakistan in particular, and that of the South Asian region in general, through the lens of a poet — I wonder at the wisdom of the Herald’s editors to have chosen me, a political economist, to review it.

In Harris’ own words, “poetry is the only constant thing” in his life. While this may be his own perception, having known him for more than three decades, I can verify that he underplays the intensely political nature of his being. It was bequeathed to him by his father, Ibrahim Khalique – a progressive thinker and littérateur in his own right – who also happens to be the greatest influence on his son’s life. That parental influence is a running theme in the book.

Harris has taken to this intellectual bequest in a way that very few heirs do. Since the first time I met him as a 16-year-old fellow student at D J Science College, Karachi, I have found the intensity of his political thought and knowledge the most endearing feature of his personality.

At no point in the last three decades has that intensity diminished even by an iota. A few years ago, he even dabbled in practical politics when he attempted to organise a left-oriented political party but, as his good fortune would have it, his comrades lacked the wisdom to value what he brought to the table.

Harris is also one of the most accomplished development practitioners in the country. In a relatively short span of time, he has headed two important non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Pakistan – one after the other – and is now heading a major advocacy initiative.

Given that his first degree was in mechanical engineering and that he thinks, breathes and feels poetry and politics, this goes to demonstrate the energy, commitment and diverse talents that he is made of.

Crimson Papers is an elegantly crafted book. The author brings his poetic and literary credentials to bear on virtually the entire gamut of social and political events and afflictions of mainly Pakistan, but tangentially also of the broader South Asian region.

The book is neatly divided into four parts – blood, sweat, tears and ink – to narrate and analyse historical events and assess their protagonists as well as their hapless victims.

After narrating the horrific bloodletting the two partitions brought about, Harris pins his hope for the future on the inherent pluralism of the people of South Asia

The creation of India and Pakistan as independent states forms the main theme in the chapter titled blood. To discuss the formation of Pakistan (or the partition of India) and its break-up (or the liberation of Bangladesh) contiguously is an important conceptual contribution the book aims to make. It should inform future historians and social scientists in assessing the underlying structural link between the two events.

After narrating the horrific bloodletting the two partitions brought about, Harris pins his hope for the future on the inherent pluralism of the people of South Asia. However, some analysis of the differing trajectories that the postcolonial state has taken in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would have added nuance to his writings in this part: pluralism is neither uniformly distributed across South Asia, nor is it similarly strong everywhere in the region.

India’s democracy, for instance, seems to have a higher probability of reversing Hindutva fascism than Pakistan’s fledgling democracy has of reversing religious extremism — at least in the short to medium run.

The chapter entitled sweat is about the hard-working and committed leftists who saw their dreams of a just and equitable social and economic structure, promised by socialism, shatter in their own lifetimes. Many of them – Dr Aizaz Nazeer, Fatehyab Ali Khan, Ahmad Bashir, Begum Majeed Malik, to name a few – were known well to Harris Khalique and he is personally familiar with their lives and ordeals.

While their political project did not succeed, their contributions in the fields of journalism, art and literature have inspired at least one generation of Pakistanis to think rationally and to empathise with the less privileged. Since very little enlightened literature is produced in Pakistan anymore, whatever little progressive thought is being bequeathed to the future generations is owed mainly to the efforts of the leftists profiled in this chapter.

Tears narrates the ordeals of those whom Harris Khalique calls victims of “historic decisions they were not part of”. The chapter chronicles the stories of the mother of a young Hazara who lost his life to sectarian violence in Quetta; Shabana, the dancer from Swat who was brutally murdered by the Taliban; Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who languishes in jail over blasphemy charges; and Sabeen Mahmud and Parveen Rehman, who lost their lives to conflicts to which they were not direct parties.

The narration of contemporary conflicts through their female victims is an evocative method to draw out the depths of depravity that the state and the society have sunk to.

I am in no position to comment on ink — the chapter devoted to poetry. In the preface, Harris Khalique states that it is “because of art and creativity in Pakistan that hope refuses to sink in the deluge of sorrow”. The hard-headed social scientist in me remains sceptical on this count for a variety of reasons. But then one has to clutch at all straws to keep hope aflame.

Crimson Papers is a must read mainly because it weaves sociopolitical subjects in a literary style and does it wonderfully well. It is accessible to the literati as well as to historians and social commentators. One also hopes that this effort on the part of Harris Khalique will be a precursor to more works in this genre.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue with the headline "The poetics of hope". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer holds a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge and is currently a director at the Collective of Social Sciences Research