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‘Memoir’ as a source of History

Reading Roedad Khan 21 years too late

‘Memoir’ as a source of History

virtually rued having made up my mind to finally read Roedad Khan’s memoirs entitled Pakistan — A Dream Gone Sour 21 years after its publication. Its first edition came out in 1997. All these years I kept ignoring that book, thinking it as a vain effort of a retired bureaucrat who has glorified the past when he was relevant to the contemporary power structure.

By writing such narratives after having passed their prime, political leaders or government officers write about themselves in a bid either to perpetuate their self-righteousness or to vindicate their stance. Not that the book in question is altogether absolved of such predilection. Confession of the wrong that every mortal is bound to commit does not find any space in the narratives of us Pakistanis.

Roedad Khan obviously is no exception to that general trend. But his book Pakistan — A Dream Gone Sour is worth giving a shot. In my case, a casual browsing of that book at a leisurely hour changed into fascination for it. I felt intellectually richer when done with it. The contents and the conclusion drawn at the end of the book revealed its pertinence with the current day power and politics of Pakistan. For anyone interested in Pakistan s politics and its chequered history, the insight, analysis and method of narrating the author’s own interaction with the top guys in Pakistan’s political spectrum are features that are discussed in the book, making it worth a read.

The book is written in a style that reminds of Stanley Lane Poole who was known for his ornate and embellished historical prose. The references abound both from European history and English literature and their co-relations with the ebb and flow of Pakistani politics point to the erudition and aesthetic taste of the author.TK-Sept 9-image

His analysis of personalities like Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq are based on a very close personal observation, revealing quite interesting dimensions of them, which belie the general perception(s) about them. The naivety and hedonistic nature of Yahya Khan notwithstanding, he was a simple man without any pretense. Bhutto was mercurial hence contradictory, but his brilliance could not be doubted. Zia was duplicitous, vindictive and retrogressive but yaran da yar, (friend of the friends) a social bane that is the utmost cause of our ruination.

All such facets of these people’s personal traits and dispositions are described in a prose that is delight to read.

Another dimension of that book is, I strongly feel, its status of a guide for the recently sworn in government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. Such themes like corruption, lack of character among those in the saddle and the erosion in the independence of state institutions are the main concerns the author has reflected upon with extraordinary zeal. The same were the electioneering slogans of Imran Khan. But that merely is a personal inference, which may not stand the test of authenticity. The fact that drew my attention was the dearth of the sources, which go on to constitute our knowledge about our own political past. Except Quaid-i-Azam and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hardly any credible biography has ever been attempted. Benazir Bhutto also falls in that rare category. Besides, Working with Zia by General K. M. Arif there is no objective study of Zia ul Haq’s personality or his rule, which had a lasting impact on our lives.

Arif’s book on Zia is much of hagiographical account with hardly any trace of impartiality. Thus, any dispassionate analysis of Zia’s rule is still awaited. But such people, responsible for galvanising the course of Pakistan’s political history like Malik Ghulam Muhammad, General Yahya Khan or Ghulam Ishaq Khan should be the subject(s) of incisive scholarly inquiry. I am not dismissing the mention of these personalities in various History books like the ones authored by Ian Talbot, Hamid Khan or Christophe Jaffrelot; they are mentioned just in passing.

Reading Roedad Khan’s memoirs gave an acute nudge to the realisation that older generation has failed to leave behind its legacy in a documented form, for the benefit of posterity. Memoirs comprising travellers accounts, autobiographies or biographical literature and, lastly, reminiscences are a valuable source of history, which also serves as a link in the continuum of tradition. We should be cognizant of the fact that the major intellectual dilemma besetting us as a nation is the break in our tradition caused by colonialism in the 18th-19th century.

Now I will embark on to academic unravelling of the ‘memoir’ as an important source of history which might be of interest to students of History.

First, I will turn my attention to Autobiographies, consisting generally of personal recollections of big events, written by those “whose fortune it was to be concerned in them”. Such recollections are immensely important because they usually contain information and facts which are not otherwise obtainable concerning the forces working beneath the surface of events. They reveal the secret history of important crises which the local historian is for some reason unable to shed light on. The historiographers advise extreme caution while employing them because these could be biased, despite their common parade of impartiality. At times autobiographical account is designed to exhibit the virtues of the writer and expose the vices of his opponent.

Surprisingly, Roedad Khan manages to steer clear of such a slip up. He is not even shy in criticising his friend philosopher and guide, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. However, sometimes the memoirs are nothing but special pleading, requiring a careful examination just like the speech of a counsel of defence.

Despite all these problems with autobiographies, their importance in the particular context of Pakistan cannot be balked at. Next column will be devoted to the travellers’ account as a source of history. Reminiscences as an instrument in the construction of historical narrative will also form the focus of next week’s write-up.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Roedad Khan associated with the military Generals during 1971 ‘Operation Searchlight’ (Bangladesh Genocide).

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