Book launch: Pakistan finally finds a ‘companion’ for history

Published: February 13, 2012
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Jalal herself seemed cautious as she spoke about the book.  “It was an extraordinarily difficult task because there is no agreement on the contours of Pakistani history,” she said. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

Jalal herself seemed cautious as she spoke about the book. “It was an extraordinarily difficult task because there is no agreement on the contours of Pakistani history,” she said. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

KARACHI: At the book launch of ‘The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History,’ Hameed Haroon spoke like a man in love. Referring to Dr Ayesha Jalal as a “divine editor and fabulous writer,” he spoke as much about the historian as of the book itself.

“With Ayesha’s books you can’t even skip the footnotes,” said the CEO of Dawn Media Group.

As he showered the editor with compliments, Dr Jalal raised her eyebrows, smiling modestly. It was her moment at the Karachi Literature Festival and she seemed to have enjoyed it much.

However, Haroon criticised the book on several counts, insisting that the name should have been a ‘modern history of Pakistan.’ In his heavily accented English, he bemoaned that the book did not give Pakistani music its due and was particularly critical of the omission of late artists Nisar Bazmi and Khawaja Khurshid Anwar.

The book has been six years in the making.

Jalal herself seemed cautious as she spoke about the book.  “It was an extraordinarily difficult task because there is no agreement on the contours of Pakistani history,” she said. “We can’t even debate where our history begins and ends.”

But for all its flaws, we have our first companion, she said, reiterating the need for such a book in a country where ‘history is not even taught.’ Dr Jalal added that the book should not be seen as an “encyclopaedia” for Pakistan. It is her “service to Pakistan and history itself.”

“Many people in Pakistan do not even know what historiography [is], while India has a wonderfully well-developed historiography. We are putting Pakistani history on the map and hope to do better in the future,” said Jalal. “We have finally managed to bring out a volume [in which] we did not have to censor ourselves.”

As with most English publications, the inevitable debate about Urdu translations ensued. OUP’s Ameena Saiyid categorically said the book will not be translated in Urdu or any regional languages because they simply do not sell. “The market for Urdu is so distinct. Poetry sells in Urdu, but I find it difficult to sell serious academic work in the language. The books barely pay for themselves.” For example, they spent around 10 years working on an English-Sindhi dictionary, but no one bought it. To this, the moderator, historian Jaffar Ahmed replied: “You were trying to teach English-medium people Sindhi, but they do not need to learn anything. If it were the other way round [Sindhi to English], it would have sold.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.

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