I’ll admit that I really wanted to like this book, primarily because the author has been appreciative of my reviews. It’s obviously not a very valid place from where to judge a piece of text: there’s a reason I don’t like to review stuff by people I’m even casually acquainted with. But a friend had it lying around and I knew I would be reading it eventually, so I figured why not. I figured I’d try to be as impartial as possible.
Still, I hadn’t expected how very bored I would be. I mean, a book about Pakistan’s literature and subcontinental TV shows and South Asian music hypothetically sounded like a good bet. I might not be a fan of non-fiction but when the topic is captivating enough or relevant to things I love talking about, I’ve been known to take an active interest. Case in point, Rumi’s previous book Delhi By Heart, and one of the major reasons I decided to start his second book. Unfortunately, this time it seems all the charm has worn off. Completely.
There’s some major obvious reasons for why it didn’t work. First, given that the book is a collection of previously published articles, it’s highly outdated. Most of the articles in it were printed more than four or five years back, and talk about stuff that’s moved much forward in time and in context. It’s no fun reading a 2010 article about amazing women like Fahmida Riaz without the mention of her death in as recent a time as November of last year (and having worked with her as an editor of the stories she wrote for children, it somehow felt doubly offensive). It’s pointless reading about the pioneers of Pakistani pop like Alamgir without mentioning how musical platforms like Coke Studio are revolutionizing a new generation’s relationship with our country’s older music. And it’s frankly irritating to read articles from as far back as 2010 without the very acute awareness that the world has moved much ahead, and that the text could have done with much updating.
Even besides the fact that most of the content feels horribly obsolete, there’s also a certain lack of connection between the various topics being offered. Even though there’s been a clear effort at trying to arrange them under certain loosely defined categories (devotion, literature, and arts being what the editor and author seem to have wanted to focus on), the fact of the matter is that all these texts were written at different points in time, with the author wanting to focus on very different things in each speech or scholarly article he has chosen to share. What that leads to is a constant repetition of certain themes and sentences, especially in the introduction portion of each text, which quickly got boring. That, coupled with the fact that there seems to be no smooth transaction from one article to the next, and we’re very obviously left reading a bunch of loosely connected pieces of text.
But of course all of these things could have been forgiven if the content itself had been very fascinating. I’ve been known to forgive a multitude of problems in any text when faced with the prospect of a well written, heartfelt piece of non-fiction, but those words unfortunately don’t apply in this case. I mean, there’s some good stuff, and I stayed pretty captivated by certain texts, such as those that talked about Asim Butt’s fascinating activism, the amazing miniature artwork being produced by Shahzia Sikander, or how public architecture in Pakistan is intertwined with the religious and the political. Unfortunately, the good stuff is few and far between, and is the only reason the book managed to creep its way from a one to a two star rating.
There are definitely some people out there who could potentially really like this book, and I do believe there’s a market for titles such as these. Unfortunately, I’m not that reader, even though the blurb convinced me otherwise. While I’m all for encouraging a healthy and vigorous discussion about Pakistan’s culture, whether that be literature or music, music or TV shows, I need something with more nuance for it to captivate my attention. Given that I left this book lying on my side table while I finished two other books, I’m going to give this a very, very hesitant recommendation.