October 12, 2005

Alive and well

My review for Time Out Mumbai (Oct 7-20) of Ethan Casey's Alive and Well in Pakistan (Penguin India, pp 269, Rs 275).


Say it up front: Ethan Casey's book is a disappointment. I read it in the hope of learning how Pakistan is different from every other country out there. I did learn something, but not very much. This is essentially the detailed diary of a man who keeps his eyes open in the foreign country and takes copious notes on everything around him. Of course, that's a very good recipe for an insightful book. Except that somewhere between recipe and this finished product, the insight got left out.

So this book remains the detailed diary. Being so, you run into detail again and again that says nothing. What do we learn about Pakistan when a father describes his kids and Casey reports: "The younger one, he beats up the older one, and the older one cries and runs away"? I mean, I'm all for that old journalistic adage, "Don't come back without the name of the dog!" But there's such a thing as too many names of dogs. Too many little vignettes like this. You get the feeling Casey has just cut and pasted from his copious notes, without much of an attempt to streamline it all with some analysis, the reflection that those notes deserve.

And that impression only gets beefed up with the errors; at times as if someone was typing furiously from handwritten notes. What else might explain "caring chicken tikka" where I suspect Casey meant "eating chicken tikka"? Or "black beard and bait" rather than "black beard and hair"? Why didn't an editor catch these?

There are plenty of characters in this book, ranging from tennis partners to motorcycle riders to a German woman who is married to a Pakistani. Casey relates his encounters and conversations with them at length, so much so that the book is arguably a long series of conversations. Yet the characters don't become characters, if you know what I mean. Casey does "plunge into Pakistan", as Ahmed Rashid is quoted as saying on the cover. Yet I'm left wondering, why?

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