Saturday, October 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, the Politician Imran Khan, The Biography / Author: Christopher Sandford

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 23, 2010

Someone recalls seeing the ‘legend’ from a distance once at a duck shoot. An Imran Khan sighting generally sent mortal men, women, children and tabloids into frenzy.

Not here.

As this chap sheepishly admitted, “a fighter pilot’s ego will rival that of a highly sought after cricketing legend.

And so Imran remained seated in the car seemingly oblivious to the trio while they stayed rooted to the spot pretending to gawk at the ducks.

No duck has stolen Khan’s thunder before or since.

Imran Khan’s popularity can be gauged by a passage that claims that dignitaries from other Commonwealth countries reportedly asked to see two things, one of which was our great Khan and the other was the Khyber Pass.

Over time, Imran Khan would go through several transformations, moving effortlessly between international phenomena, ‘dream catcher’, ‘good Samaritan’ and ‘King of hearts’. He would come to be recognised as one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of test cricket, “who led the national team to become the best and most bellicose side in the world notwithstanding its internecine rows.

The task of finding the real Khan has fallen to Christopher Sandford — biographer to the stars. He brings Pakistan’s chequered cricketing history to life in his ‘book of revelations’ by following a man who commanded the respect and adulation reserved for superstars; a man who has lived under the harsh glare of publicity without getting singed for nearly four decades. And a man accurately defined as the figure head of a sporting renaissance, which had direct and dramatic results on national self-confidence.

Sandford’s previous subjects have ranged from music stars like Sting, Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain to acclaimed directors like Roman Polanski. His decision to add “the unquestioned tsar of Pakistan cricket” comes at a time when Imran is re-sharpening his tools for political office.

Other self-portraits are available in the market such as The Autobiography and its sequel, All Round View, but biographers are not touch up artists. Although a word in the original title of this book that nicely summed up Khan’s off screen antics as a ‘player’ has been toned down to a more sedate ‘celebrity’, the content has not. Judging by the comments on the internet, the book has already created quite a stir by apparently hinting at a possible (brief) liaison between Pakistan’s — now deceased — female ex-premier and the cricketing giant while both were at Oxford. The writer, however, opines that the two were nothing more than “good friends.

Imran of yore, seen here, complacently sipping milk in a British pub while getting ready to ascend the rickety ladder to success, cuts a dashing figure. He was not only perceived as the sole architect of wins but also the chief cause of riots as the flamboyant front man of the Pakistani cricket team known for his colourful lifestyle who eclipsed his team-mates.

His friends and foes come forward to pay glowing tribute to “the world’s most creative and hardest working bowler who never stopped thinking about his game.” In Sandford’s words, he provided a firm hand on the tiller along with runs and wickets and put the steel in his team. On duty he is described as a “joyless, single-minded leader who expected one to live up to his own high standards.” Then there is the “benevolent dictator ”who “came to enjoy loyalty if not always the unbridled affection of his men in a way hitherto unknown in his country’s 30 years of test cricket.

When faced with match fixing charges, he wagered all the money from other conquests to ensure a win and would own up to at least one ball tampering charge, stubbornly arguing that “seam doctoring was an ancient technique” and that all great bowlers were guilty of sharp practices.

Revisiting Imran’s old stomping grounds with Sandford is a rare treat. He has a keen eye and a ready wit jumping in to correct misapprehensions or challenge Khan’s memory. He charts the meteoric career trajectory of the man by referencing all aspects of his life — from the good and the bad to the terribly awkward.

The book spends a fair amount of time on the field, which the cricket enthusiast will find invigorating. The rest will be distracted by the bits exposing the Pakistani domestic cricket scene as a world where cricket was far from being a ‘gentleman’s game’ given the “on field exchange of pleasantries with numerous references to the players parentage and to their female relatives.

The writer erroneously believes that Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup win might have catapulted Imran straight to the presidential office. Let us just say that the local political scene suffers from an inherent design flaw where the term ‘fair and free’ seldom goes with elections. Imran — the cricketing giant — emerged as a unifying symbol for his country once; his debut as a politician has many categorising him as a polarising figure. A lot has changed since the time he was dubbed a lady-killer to the moment he stood accused of sympathising with lady-killers. This Imran is busy dispelling the impression that he is a Taliban apologist. Neither Imran is controversy-free. Both are featured in the book.

HarperCollins UK; Pp 384; Rs 795

Saturday, October 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Who Assassinated Benazir Bhutto / Author: Shakeel Anjum

Thank you Dost Publication for the review copy
First Published in Daily Times / 09 Oct 2010

Reviewed by - Afrah Jamal

It is not every day one finds the author of a book about murder himself implicated in a triple homicide. In our part of the world, however, it could simply mean that the ‘suspect’ was too snoopy for his/her own good or simply stepped on some VIP’s toes. Fortunately, it was the latter case here (he fell out with the Islamabad police) and an exonerated Shakeel Anjum shakes off the stigma of a murderer and dons the garb of a detective. He is, after all, a crime reporter who has been associated with a local English daily for a long time and has clocked 32 years in the arena. This provides him with the requisite credentials to dive into the deep end but it may not necessarily give him groundbreaking investigative journalistic powers to ferret out the truth about Benazir’s assassination. Yet, this is exactly what the author claims to have done.

The purpose of the book is ostensibly to unveil the ‘real’ culprits of a high profile political assassination caught on camera, by taking it apart — one frame at a time. It will revisit the scene of the crime from every conceivable (and some inconceivable) angle to determine what he calls the “causation of death”. At the time of the incident, the international media was rife with speculations; some wondered about a possible low-level military involvement, others looked towards the northwest, trying to pin down militant outfits. The local media mirrored the mood, adding a few spicy details of their own; but a good portion of their time slot was devoted to hypothesising about how the victim died (lever or gunshot). Though the militants topped the list of suspects while shadowy hands were a close second, the case was never satisfactorily resolved despite the intervention of foreign experts and swearing in of the deceased’s own party.

The primary controversy at the time centred on the ‘cause of death’. The writer leads with this line of inquiry, probably because of the contradictory statements issued by the authorities in charge. Scotland Yard ruled death by lever (head injury as a result of the explosion) and a local expert from the Joint Investigative Team, Major (retd) Shafqat discredited the theory while his team sided with the Yard. This gentleman (referred to here as an FIA forensic expert who has no parallel in the subcontinent) happily accuses Scotland Yard of ‘result fixing’, to match the government-sanctioned verdict.

Since the shooting preceded the bomb blast, covering up the possible existence of a bullet wound served no purpose and it did not impact the search for ‘who’. The presence of a concealed sniper could have justified the frenzy, but the shooter stood in plain sight. The book, however, frets about this ‘how’ and uses the controversy as a springboard to launch bizarre theories. The writer’s take on the lever/gun situation will confound many but his argument that creating such doubts was a ploy on the government’s part to hijack the PPP’s sympathy vote will floor all.

While he tries to arrange all facts meticulously, bravely declaring that “it is not hard to make a hypothetical conclusion that clearly indicates who was behind this bloody assassination”, he falters in his quest. All he really does is add to the list of suspects instead of whittling it down while accusing all three governments of being complicit in the cover-up; these include the PML-Q, the interim set-up, and the PPP.

Because the crime scene was compromised, suspects annihilated, an autopsy prevented and obvious security lapses witnessed on each side, many like him will hesitate before putting some obscure militant organisation on the stand. The writer is right to be concerned with the odd behaviour of the investigative bodies, but he has not mastered the art of objective reporting. Consequently, even if there is any idea worth pursuing here, it requires a salvage crew with the patience of a saint to retrieve it from under the pile of scrap.

It is probably the first time a sentence like “pulling cosmetic rabbits out of a grinning bag” will be seen anywhere and hopefully it will be the last time a CIA director is quoted saying words like “slain dead” with a straight face. It should also be the only time a book like this is allowed to assassinate the English language, what with its appalling grammar, absurd headings (‘Yarders findings disbelieve’), misspelling, poorly worded/incomplete sentences and repetitive paragraphs. But, in some later edition, even when all these horrific mistakes are corrected, a book that vacations in conspiracy theory land, backtracking to retrieve old ideas, retelecasting them ad infinitum, ad nauseam, brings on spatial disorientation.

The only relief comes in portions not concerned with crime solving that reproduce an interview with the deceased given at the Academy of Achievement (Washington DC), documents the global reaction to the murder and draws parallels with the Hariri assassination (the Lebanese prime minister).

In the end, the real culprits need not worry. There is a vacant lot next to two other high profile assassination cases: Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (1951) and President Ziaul Haq (1988). And they are still pending.

Published in Daily Times (Saturday, October 09, 2010)under the title: A collection of whodunits

Dost Publication; Pp 290; Rs 495

Saturday, October 2, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music/ Compiled & Edited by Asif Noorani

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 02, 2010 / under the title: National Treasure

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

(Thanks to Asif Noorani Sahib for the words of encouragement & Liberty Books for the signed copy)

13 June 2012: Rest in Peace Mehdi Hasan (1927-2012)

A quick perusal of Mehdi Hasan’s life will reveal that he was anointed the ‘Emperor of Ghazals’ and ensured that the earliest foundations of Pakistani music would also be the strongest, that his voice easily broke through the cultural barrier and that he was a mechanic before he was a legend. Anyone desirous of taking a closer look at the musical maestro who dominated radio, television and film and ruled the local airwaves for several decades would have been disappointed.

One man, however, will lament the fact that “no book, good, bad or indifferent, on the greatest exponent of ghazal gayeki (singing) of the late 20th century is available in Pakistan or elsewhere”, before setting out to correct this grave oversight.

Those lining up for a proper biography of our national treasure can settle for the next best thing in the form of a quick sketch heavily tinctured with nostalgia. Mehdi Hasan’s extraordinary career has now been transferred to canvas with a few masterstrokes in Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music.

Asif Noorani pays homage to a living legend in a now familiar format that invites members of the Mehdi Hasan fan club (contemporaries, journalists, actors, composers, writers, etc, from both sides of the divide) to come and reminisce with him about an exceptional artist and his phenomenal legacy. He adds rare images, a letter from the former Indian prime minister, a poem and excerpts of old interviews, along with a list of Hasan’s best known work to make this exercise more enticing.

Trying to fit a mega star’s extensive achievements into a petite little volume can be challenging. But this is the second time such a technique has been used. An insouciant approach — first tried with a cricketing legend (Shahid Afridi) — still manages to capture the essence of the subject.

Over the years, Mehdi Hasan’s music has dazzled the subcontinent, constituting an important pillar of the cultural bridge. He quietly conquered the Pakistani music scene with a steady flow of musical hits from the 1950s till the late 1990s and can be credited with hundreds of film songs and ghazals. Incidentally, Noorani sahib disagrees with the singer’s royal sobriquet and points out that his contributions have not been restricted to just one genre (ghazal) and he has explored both classical and semi-classical sides, including kaafis, film and folk music.

Praised for precision and lauded for professionalism, some try to explain the inexplicable effect the singer’s voice appears to have on those ignorant of the language but who were still carried away. One reasons that this may be because of a “voice that transports them to a world where meaning becomes subservient to the magic of the words”, adding that this voice comes as close as it is possible to a state of sama (trance). Another raves about his exceptional abilities and incredible range.

Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music relives the glorious days while dwelling on his craft; how he would compose in real time and frequently improvise in front of a live audience; how he could manipulate the meaning of the verses by knowing which word to stress and possessed a deep understanding of Urdu poetry; why he never sounds monotonous (because of extensive training and drawing inspiration from other ragas) when others of his generation do.

The sentimental journey into Mehdi Hasan land comes with two audio CDs, one of which features ghazals (live versions) as the compiler is convinced that Mehdi Hasan is best heard when ‘live’. Asif Noorani had the unenviable task of selecting a few stellar performances from many outstanding numbers but he also has the privilege of preserving the precious legacy. He explains that only six tracks could be included to retain the integrity of the ghazals (he refused to snip away originals) while 14 film numbers, a kaafi, an Urdu translation of Heer and a thumri are crammed in the second disc. Noorani sahib has recently compiled/edited a coffee table book on Shahid Afridi (Boom Boom Shahid Afridi) and previously co-authored Tales of Two Cities with Kuldip Nayar.

There are instances where the book lapses into Urdu and it would be helpful to include translations. Snippets of information provided within offer tantalising glimpses of a gifted boy who once performed for the Maharaja of Baroda while inches away from earning a title of his own, a singing sensation at the apex of his career, and an ailing man who is done playing national hero and suffers like the rest of his subjects at the hands of the KESC. Mehdi Hasan may have been silent for a decade but the subcontinent continues to reverberate with the exquisite sounds from a bygone era.

Available at Liberty Books; Pp 80; Rs 695

Can be ordered from Desi Store