Travels in a Dervish Cloak: Author Isambard Wilkinson on his memoir of time in Pakistan

A psychotherapist had once suggested that Isambard Wilkinson’s fixation with travel was an artificial compensation for an essential ingredient missing from his life. “I preferred the deduction reached in my final school report, which said simply that I was ‘internationally curious,” writes Wilkinson in Travels in a Dervish Cloak, the memoir of his time spent in Pakistan.

As a child, Wilkinson’s summers in Ireland were spent listening to Hindi nursery rhymes and stories of his Anglo-Indian grandmother’s travel adventures in Pakistan. She grew up in undivided India – her family had arrived from Europe in the 19th century – and left with her British cavalry husband after Independence. Along with her best friend, the Begum, a feisty Pakistani lady she had befriended in 1950s Malaya, she visited Pakistan nearly every year till she reached her nineties. The idea of the subcontinent fascinated Wilkinson greatly, presenting a contrast to his austere boarding school years in England.

He was 18 when he first visited Pakistan in 1990, for the wedding of the Begum’s youngest son. He made frequent trips to the country in subsequent years with his brother Chev, travelling through the hinterlands in Sindh, Baluchistan, Punjab and North-West Frontier Province, until he was diagnosed with kidney failure at 27. Wilkinson returned to the country in the midst of a tense political climate in 2006, as the Daily Telegraph’s Islamabad correspondent and stayed till 2009. From viewing the country through the prism of a kind of boyish wonder in his past travels, confronting it as a foreign correspondent meant dealing with conflict and violence. He witnessed the final years of Pervez Musharraf’s presidency, the siege of the Red Mosque and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Isambard Wilkinson on his way to meet the late tribal chieftain Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in his cave-out when he was fighting against Pakistani forces in Baluchistan province. Image credit: Scott Eels

Isambard Wilkinson on his way to meet the late tribal chieftain Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in his cave-out when he was fighting against Pakistani forces in Baluchistan province. Image credit: Scott Eels

Below are the edited excerpts from an interview with the Hong Kong-based journalist.

You had an impulse to travel since you were seven, as you looked out beyond the bounds of your Victorian school.

It was a bizarre establishment run by a family who switched with alarming unpredictability between jocular affection and Dickensian cruelty. In the “Bell Hall”, where one was sent to be beaten, there was a framed placard inscribed with the words “God first, others next, self last” — a hollow dictum that underscored the sense of anachronism enveloping a place which tried to produce pupils for an age that had already passed. I longed to escape it and did so by immersing myself in cricket and dreaming about reaching the railway tracks beyond its boundary fence and walking hundreds of miles home. It contributed to my sense of being something of an outsider in my own country and a desire to belong to something more than England.

Your grandmother and the Begum had a beautifully adventurous relationship. What was your relationship with her like, and how did it influence your subsequent travels to Pakistan?

My grandmother was a creative, unorthodox soul. She made life such fun with her spontaneity — “I thought we’d have a picnic on the roof today” — and the vast range of her friends on whom she bestowed endless high teas. We grew really very close during the years I spent convalescing at her house. She was a brilliant raconteur with the memory, wit and originality of phrase required for that role.

Her friendship with the Begum opened the door to Pakistan for me. We visited many parts of the country together over years of travels there. It was her and the Begum’s insights and sense of adventure that fueled my curiosity. They insisted that I read this book, visit that place so I understand what made Pakistan tick.

What made you want to discover Pakistan's “quiddity — its world of mystics, tribal chiefs and feudal lords?”

I was curious because they are key to much of Pakistan’s old networks of power. Hereditary saints hold sway over a portion of the electorate, and feudal lords and tribal chiefs rule vast swathes of the country. This is diminishing to a degree, and there are of course other crucial aspects – the army, the middle class, industrialists, etc, but they are key to understanding where Pakistan’s coming from – in a way that you might understand a good deal about power in England if you examine the residual influence of its old landed families and institutions like the monarchy, the church and the House of Lords.

When you were asked by an influential tribal chief’s young fighter if you'd like to stay back and fight, you wrestled with the thought before refusing. Did encountering the country as a foreign correspondent come with a renewed sense of responsibility and risk?

That decision was influenced by being older, more cowardly, more cynical and apart from anything I would be a liability in the field as a kidney transplant patient and someone unversed in martial ways. Also, yes, as a foreign correspondent, it was not my job to fight and it was not my war. It would have ended my career as a correspondent. As a journalist one has responsibilities to adhere to a code of conduct and one has to calculate appropriate levels of risk. For example, if one went deep into tribal areas off-limits to foreigners and got expelled from the country, that would be a costly mistake to have to explain to your boss.

Travels in a Dervish Cloak, by Isambard Wilkinson

Travels in a Dervish Cloak, by Isambard Wilkinson

You interacted with Benazir Bhutto a few times. Tell us about your most vivid memories.

Benazir’s story is a tragic one, from her family history and the unrealised promise of her leadership to her assassination. My most vivid memories of her are during an election campaign in the 1990s on a journey through Sindh. She was by turns flirtatious, flattering and conspiratorial, paranoid. At one point she asked me if I was the reincarnation of her grandfather’s English lover. On that journey, she was engaged in the tricky business of negotiating political allegiance from local Sufi landowners and feudals – a devilishly tricky task, made even more difficult by being the only woman in rooms full of men. She embodied the entitlement of dynastic power, and yet there was a very vulnerable, naïve side to her. And she was brave.

Writings about Pakistan in the West are quite often exoticised or feature the political-religious rhetoric. Were you particularly conscious of this when writing the book?

One of my book’s aims was to counter the narrative of Pakistan as a den of Islamist fanatics, by highlighting Sufism and its traditions of tolerance. I hope I met with some success on that count. I was aware of the dangers of exoticising a place. Again, I hope I avoided committing such a sin and that readers don’t confuse Orientalism and an interest in things that are distinctive to an outsider.

You have an interesting take on the "concept of purity in the Land of the Pure", as you speak of internal borders, language differences and caste.

Pakistan is ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. One of the catastrophes of Partition was that areas that were once bound by mixed, syncretic cultures were torn asunder and in parts completely purged along religious lines. Unfortunately, over the years that process has continued when bouts of Islamicisation or violence have prompted Sikhs, Christians and Hindus to flee the country. Pakistan has long tangled with an identity crisis hinging on the question of how Islamic it should or should not be, with conservative nationalists espousing a misguided notion of “purity”, which has been mirrored by Hindu nationalists in India under the BJP. Instead of recognising and respecting the reality of human diversity, these ideologies promote intolerance and hatred. I only ever heard intelligent Pakistanis referring to the Land of the Pure with irony.

Were there compelling stories or characters that didn't make it to the book?

My greatest regret is that purely for reasons of narrative I had to cut a section on Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Also, for reasons of brevity I cut sections on Sufism and Mughal history. I would have liked to include more about other people from Karachi, including a Parsi who delighted in writing newspaper columns goading the army about rigging elections, and an impoverished, benighted Hindu community who revered a Muslim saint among other deities.

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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 14:22:59 IST

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