Pakistan: A Personal History | Imran Khan
Will the real Imran Khan please stand up? In his new book, the charismatic Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician exudes a puritanical rectitude, far removed from the public image as a dashing sportsman and a ladies’ man, at ease at home and the world. Studying at Oxford in the swinging 1970s, he writes, he had a “huge culture shock”. He is appalled by Monty Python movies because they lampoon religion. “Our role models were Mick Jagger and David Bowie,” he writes, “while our intellectual thinking was defined by the then popular Marxist rejection of religion”.
The only hint of some good times in this moral wasteland arrives in a belated realization of the “feeling of emptiness I experienced in transitory relationships (which) far outweighed the moments of pleasure”, and of how he had “mistaken pleasure for happiness”. Khan makes it sound like a hormone-fuelled hell of a life. Or was it?
Pakistan—A Personal HistoryBantam Press, 390 pages, Rs 599.
“People said that having satiated myself with the life of fun,” he writes, “I had now turned religious.” He disagrees. With an odd certitude that marks most of the book, he writes that “people never have enough of a fun life, they just get more and more debauched in search of pleasure”.
Much of the memoirs will come as a disappointment for his cricket fans and those looking for prurient gossip. Rather, Khan appears to be seeking redemption for his youthful excesses: He portrays himself as a rare, clean leader in the bog of Pakistan’s politics. He does this through a familiar retelling of Pakistan’s troubled history and how he navigates it in his life as a star cricketer, successful social worker and struggling politician.
Khan comes across as a doughty fighter, an exceptional leader, a motivated social worker and a born-again Muslim. He also comes across as a confused man. The upper-class, private school and Oxford-educated cricket icon-turned-god-fearing conservative politician’s tiresome rants against Western values, clothes, music, elitism and materialism sound disingenuous. Khan belonged to a class which embraced similar values for the better part of his life, and many people who donated handsomely to his admirable causes also came from it.
For faith: denies his past for a political future. Allsport/Getty Images
But his heart is in the right place. Khan identifies Pakistan’s myriad failings—feudalism, dynastic and venal politics and neglect of ethnic groups. He appears to favour a “good” Islamic state, wedded to welfare, democracy and meritocracy. He talks about discovering his faith after a posh childhood and sparkling youth when, in the words of a writer, he gave cricket in the subcontinent “real sex appeal”. For inspiration, he turns to a prescient retired civil servant-turned-guide and the stirring poetry and philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal.
But Khan does not offer a deeper understanding of Pakistan’s structural problems. He writes that a “small minority of hard-core militants” do not portend a takeover of the state by religious fundamentalists. That the country’s Sufi influences will triumph over the militant ideologies. That Pakistan needs to work—and not fight—with its tribes to isolate militants. That it needs to remain neutral in the “insane” war on terror and disengage from it. All this is well meaning but embarrassingly simplistic. Did aid-dependent and geographically cursed Pakistan have the choice of remaining neutral?
Khan is at his eloquent best when he is writing about his personal struggles. But as the book nears its end, it begins reading more like a manifesto of his political ambitions. His party Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) has been in the opposition for 15 years and hasn’t made much of an impression. With Pakistan struggling and President Asif Ali Zardari’s feckless government in tatters, Khan believes his time has finally arrived. Citing two opinion polls conducted by US and UK pollsters, he writes that his party is the only one which can drag Pakistan out of its funk. For a West-baiting politician, this is curious evidence to present his case.
Soutik Biswas is India editor, BBC News Online. Write to email@example.com