Isambard Wilkinson’s ‘Travels in a Dervish Cloak’ is a fine example of why colonisers will continue to misunderstand the post-colonial world – because they cannot bring themselves to see those they once ruled as their equals.
I began Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak with more than a little excitement, and began reading it with much joy. I put it away in disappointment and anger. These reactions are interlinked. Wilkinson’s book – a reporter’s view of living and working in Pakistan – is emotional, beautifully written, well-researched and empathetic. These fine attributes highlight the failure of imagination, and an imperial nostalgia that is central to the writing, painting a damning portrait of how foreign reporters ignore critical questions. The fact that the book, as it says on its cover, is a “Spectator, Daily Mail, and Evening Standard Book of the Year” only serves to show how badly these major newspapers misread and mislead their audiences about important countries like Pakistan.
To begin with, though, the book is all sorts of good. Wilkinson himself is no stranger to Pakistan, parachuted in. He has a history there, and a lineage that includes South Asian ancestry. He is returning to a country he knows, not just arriving as a journalist from a developed country. He has a host of memories, and connections, including with the redoubtable Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti of Balochistan, who was then leading his last fight against the forces of Musharraf. Wilkinson also has a compelling personal history, with not just his South Asian roots, but a personal loss of freedom as his kidneys had failed due to an auto-immune disorder. Surviving on a transplant and drugs, Pakistan is an adventure. Lastly, he writes wonderfully, with a sense of self-deprecating humour matched by a keen eye for detail.
This is showcased wonderfully as he and another foreign journalist, Carlotta (Gall, one presumes, though he does not mention her last name), are with Bugti in his hideout. Taking a break from the presence of the combative, though aged, Nawab, Wilkinson thinks to himself:
My mother would have loved to see me in these mountains. Living life. It was in the high places on days like these remote from everyday things and a little nearer to notions of death and heaven that I felt close to her; I remembered her voice and face more clearly than, as the days passed, I otherwise did.
I heard a strange, bird-like trilling carried on the air above me. During this chat with myself I’d lowered my shalwar to have a purge. There, standing on a ridge, a barelegged shepherd-boy was laughing and biting the collar of his knee-length grubby shirt.
At another instance, travelling with his brother, Chev, they are offered the most interesting fare.
A dish of the most putrid brain rolled in stomach intestine was placed with great ceremony before me…
‘I’m sorry,’ I explained to my host, ‘I am a vegetarian. But my brother… he is very hungry.’
In keeping with staunch character, Chev sighed and picked up the knife, saying, ‘No man who has eaten British school food can be appalled by the fodder of another nation.’
It is these personal vignettes, with their humour and humanism, that are the best part of the book, but unfortunately, they are not the whole of it, as the people he observes – the Pakistanis do not get to be as fully human as him. Part of this comes from what Wilkinson self-consciously sets out to do – which is to see and understand the role of shrines and saints in Pakistan.
This has the possibility of a great exploration. Popular religious figures and movements are far more representative than ‘official’ ones. One can learn far more about the culture of Delhi from the life stories of Amir Khusrau, Jafar Zatalli, or Mir Taqi Mir, than the biographies of stale emperors.
The title of the book comes from a treatise titled, Kashf Al-Mahjub (‘Revelation of the Veiled’) by the 11th-century Sufi saint Abul Hasan Ali ibn Uthman al-Jullabi al-Hujwari al Ghaznawai, more popularly known as Data Ganjbaksh. In the treatise, the saint speaks of the cloak of dervish, in which all sorts of contradictory things are contained. Wilkinson sees this as an allegory of Pakistan, and possibly a bridge between Sufism and Sunni orthodoxy, and much of the book is his exploration of saints, tombs and practices.
Unfortunately, Wilkinson’s exploration does not go very deep. He goes to shrines, meets modern-day saints, describes them, but does little or no work in describing the role they play in the politico-socio-economic fabric of the country. This leads to a description of dancing and drugs, but little insight.
One stray passage is different, and because it is the only one, it highlights just how much has been missed. The secretary of a pir, or saint, explains the intersection between the state and his master by saying, ‘The saint is friendly with politicians because he can tell his disciples how to vote in elections, and so politicians come to him… In turn he can then ask politicians to support his followers or to help them. It is a holy safarish (network of patronage).”
As Wilkinson himself remarks, “Not for the first time it was obvious why with such unscrupulous representatives of Sufi Islam, more austere reformist forms of faith might have a sort of Lutheran appeal.”
Wilkinson could easily have gone on to note that Europe had no shortage of saints in its time, but this has changed as states have become more robust and ‘holy safarish’ networks now have little place. But this would require seeing Pakistanis and people from developed countries as equals, something that Wilkinson seems to have great difficulty in doing. It is striking that none of the Pakistanis he writes about in length are his equals, friends or peers. Instead, he spends a great amount of time writing on his servants and they are exactly the scheming, superstitious and illiterate lot one would find in a book by Kipling. A kindly professor is mentioned, and there are a couple of paramours (both, oddly, women abused by men) – though anyone barely speaks English. Strikingly, not one Pakistani journalist is mentioned.
This disheartening way of seeing is revealed in full form in a paean of praise to a retired British soldier who has become a schoolteacher, “I observed how Pakistanis dutifully looked after him… To my mind, they saw something of a golden past in him, as well as something of their better selves. He represented not only the self-vaunted, often breached, values of the Raj – decency, honesty, loyalty, etc – but also their own aspirations to these qualities; he was of the Old Pakistan.”
The fact that I did not fling the book off my balcony is evidence of Indian self-restraint, I presume, but this type of Orientalist tripe is precisely why the British imagine that the former Empire might still be their playground. Even the Americans would have told Wilkinson that the “values of the Raj” were more “taxation without representation” than anything else. As for the ‘coloured people’ with our history of massacres, famines and subjugation under the boot heel of Empire, let’s say the “values of the Raj” are something else altogether.
In the end, I would recommend this book, both for its fine writing, as well as an example of the blind spots foreign correspondents come bearing with them. It is only by reading such works that we understand why the colonisers will continue to misunderstand the post-colonial world, because they cannot bring themselves to see those they once ruled as their equals.
Omair Ahmad is an author. His last novel, Jimmy the Terrorist, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and won the Crossword Award. His last book was a political history of Bhutan and the eastern Himalayan region. Twitter: @omairtahmad.