Bantam, £20, 389pp £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Pakistan: A Personal History by Imran Khan
Surviving a sticky wicket
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Friday 23 September 2011
It may seem like sporting profanity now but Imran Khan's cricketing debut was so inauspicious that it earned him the humiliating nickname, Imran Khan't. Four decades on, and still viewed as a national treasure for leading Pakistan's cricket team to its only World Cup victory in 1992, Khan recalls the Khan't moment. He draws parallels between the slow-burn success of first career and the early disappointments of his second, in Pakistani politics.
This book, an intelligently written mix of Pakistan's history and his own autobiography, reflects on the challenges that Khan faced in cricket and later, in his humanitarian work. The lessons learnt in his previous incarnations gave momentum to his entry into politics.
Tahreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), the party he founded in 1996, has faced many humbling moments - winning no seats in the 1997 elections and one in 2002 - although it is now seen as a credible alternative to the government by many Pakistanis.
A mix of personal disclosure and political analysis, the book works surprisingly well on both counts. He reflects on his sporting achievements (the rigours of test cricket become a metaphor for life), his marriage to ex-wife Jemima Khan and the strain of the hate campaign that his opponents built around her, as well as the cancer hospital he set up in memory of his late mother, and his spiritual awakening.
There are quietly heroic moments, particularly in his descriptions of the courage shown by the poor while he fundraises for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, and also in the extraordinary determination he shows in 1992. He took his team to World Cup victory in spite of a secret injury that would have taken him out of the game, had he declared it.
There are candid reflections too, including a half-hearted attempt to join Pakistan's arranged marriage circuit before meeting Jemima, and later, Jemima's encounter with a mystic who becomes Khan's religious guide, Mian Bahir. She is left wide-eyed as Bahir displays his visionary skills.
The political material is just as engaging. Khan sets out his ideological stall in an earnest tone, even if he describes a Pakistan that is full of darkness. He traces the journey that led him to found his party 15 years ago, quoting the forgotten ideals of Pakistan's founding fathers Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal. His description of the avaricious cabal of "dollar addicted" ruling elites, a biddable judiciary and a political system saturated by corruption is not unfamiliar – Anatol Lieven reached similar conclusions in his book earlier this year. Like Lieven, there is a note of urgency to Khan's words, calling Pakistan not yet a failed state but failing. The musical chairs leadership of feudal families and military dictators has undermined any effort towards democracy. He proposes not just political overhaul but religious reappraisal, calling for an "enlightened Islam" that is not too afraid to take as its guide the best of Western democratic values as well as Quranic scripture.
The immensity of the problems Khan outlines for Pakistan seem at times too grave and insurmountable. Khan mentions Jemima Khan's moments of despair which, he suggests, can only be met in the same spirit of 1992 - by a do-or-die attitude and an unwavering idealism: She "used to ask me how long I would keep pursuing politics without succeeding, at what point would I decide it was futile. But I couldn't answer, simply because a dream has no time frame."
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