A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian In Pakistan
Mumbai-based columnist Farzana Versey first travelled to Pakistan in 2001, as a curious sightseer, and to explore the country that, in so many ways, constantly thrust itself upon her life as an Indian Muslim. Her travelogue, A Journey Interrupted, draws from this and three subsequent trips across the border (the last being in 2007) and closes with a ‘Requiem’ at Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Versey’s forays into Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad are largely along the lines of what Indians have come to expect from the ‘gee-whiz-they’re-just-like-us’ school of magazine articles of a certain era. Like fellow scribes before her, Versey too trots out Pakistani prostitutes and whisky-quaffing army men, high society bashes, gay designers, liberals-turned-jehadis, and the mandatory heart-warming scene at a Sufi shrine.
It is when she strays off this beaten track that the writing picks up. Her experiences in Afghan refugee villages in Peshawar, and an encounter with a lovelorn hotel employee who weeps when she insists on paying her bill, for instance, are delightful vignettes. Such moments, however, are rather too few and far between, often just mentioned in passing before the writer goes off on a long descriptive trip.
The trouble with A Journey Interrupted is that it is a difficult book to get through, largely because of the writer’s tendency to lapse into florid description. Pakistani dancer Sheema Kirmani, for instance, enters the pages “like a story waiting to be told.” Her exit is equally dramatic: “I left her alone. Her eyes flashed embers.” This is pretty much the tone for most of the book, and while it makes for good drama, it is exhausting to read at length, and makes the characters seem less real.
Versey is much better when she leavens all that intensity with some humour, as when she describes a TV actress repeatedly muffing her one-line dialogue (‘Nahin!’). Her reflections on the complex relationship between Indian Muslims and Pakistan and the questions her travels raised about her own faith and feelings for her country are interesting and almost painfully honest. This unusual point of view and her undeniable grip on the issues that define our relationship with Pakistan could have made this book a valuable, unique one. Instead, it settles into being a mixed bag of impressions from our familiar-yet-different neighbour, mildly interesting but unlikely to stay with you after the last page is turned.