Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review: A splash of civilizations

Book Review: A splash of civilizations
By Dr. Mohammad Taqi

Title: A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents - A Pakistani View
Author: Dr. Syed Akhtar Ehtisham; Publication date: September 12, 2008; Publisher: Algora Publishing NY; ISBN-10: 0875866336

Dr. Ehtisham’s chronicle of the events he witnessed and became part of, in his life lived on three continents, is not a roller-coaster ride. It is however, a fast-paced train journey that takes the reader from the villages of northern India, all the way to upstate New York. The peek out of the window on to Ehtisham’s canvas, arouses a curiosity to read and discover more about the tumultuous and epoch-making happenings narrated by this orthopedic surgeon who is not shy to hide the indelible Marxist imprint, received in his formative years in Karachi, from reflecting in his approach to issues such as the collapse of housing market in the USA.

The police retaliated by opening fire on a group of students in front of Paradise Cinema in Saddar. Twenty-six students were killed. Nainsuk Lal, a boy-scout helping an injured striker, was the first fatal casualty. Several flags got soaked in blood. The public joined in the protest. The city was paralyzed and life came to a halt. All leaders of the opposition, trade unions and student groups condemned the police brutality ……. Writes Ehtisham in his account of the early days of the student movement in what was then the West-Pakistan. The venue was Karachi, the capital of Pakistan, and the protests were organized by the two year old Democratic Students Federation (DSF). Chapter 8 of the book highlights, and indeed dedicates the whole work to, the students’ movement in Pakistan. Ehtisham himself was intimately involved in founding and organization of another earliest politically aware students’ outfit in Pakistan National Students Federation (NSF) .

These student groups were to provide, in due course of time, some of the key ideologues and leaders of the political parties like the left-wing National Awami Party and the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party. Indeed the DSF would have among its ranks student leaders like Comrade Nazir Abbasi, who would be charged with “anti-state” activities by the civil-military bureaucracy of Pakistan and sent to gallows, thus making it the only students’ group in the history of Pakistan whose members were sentenced to death.

Ehtisham’s account of those heady days is incisive and absorbing but one finds it somewhat confined to the events in southern Pakistan. For example a statement that the student-wing of the Khudai Khidmatgar’s (Red-shirts) of the NWFP had been discredited post-independence is somewhat moot. There really wasn’t a student wing of the Red-shirts as such and their activities among the youth were organized under the aegis of Pakhtun Zalmay (The Young Pashtuns – compare and contrast with Komsomol). Pakhtun Students Federation on the campuses was a much later phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the details of the inception of the leftist student outfits are corroborated by other activists of the day such as Dr. S. Haroon Ahmed, Saleem Asmi and Mairaj Muhammad Khan. The fact that stands out about the DSF, when compared to other political movements before and after it, in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, is that it is the only group founded by medical doctors. Almost all other political groupings were started by lawyers or religious leaders.

A native Urdu-speaker himself, Ehtisham highlights the struggle of the Bengali students for the mother-language against a rather colonialist imposition of Urdu upon East-Pakistan. He notes with great pain but with obvious pride, the ultimate sacrifice by the Bengali students, including those from Dhaka Medical College, when twenty-five of them were killed by the Pakistani army on February 21, 1952. That day, is now observed as the International Mother Language Day throughout the world.

The book is a journey through four different civilizations and an analysis of three political economic systems. It is an engrossing story of the ancient civilization of India, forced to live side by side with a Turko-Persian and Arab Muslim civilization, and then reborn by way of vivisection as two modern nation-states. Ehtisham introduces his readers to the minimalistic culture of Indian village life mixed with the complexities involved, in the followers of two religions living live side by side. He takes us from the days of relative communal harmony and acceptance of diversity in the united India, through the British colonial policy of divide et impera to the culmination of religious fundamentalist indoctrination on September 11, 2001.

In providing the audience with a superb distillation of his lifetime's learning, Ehtisham evaluates the post-1947 nation-states struggling for their political, cultural and economic identity. As a doctor he makes acute observations about the impact of economic system of a country on its healthcare system and whether healthcare is a social service or a commodity.

Whereas it cannot be said that Ehtisham forewarned about the collapse of the US stock-market, he certainly did make the right observations – recorded no later than obviously the publication date of this work - about the bloodbath in the world financial markets and the writing on the Wall Street.

One must note that an occasional typographical error needs to be corrected in the future editions. For example, the number of students killed in Karachi was six, not twenty-six, the Dhaka students protest was fired upon on February 21 and not February 22, or that Shab e Bara’t is closer to Diwali, not Holi in its sub-continental character. Barring such minor omissions or the lack of a phonetic system for non-English words such as Na’na,da’da or Ashra’f , the book is a pleasantly easy read.

In a fast-paced style typical of the person Ehtisham talking to his disciples and colleagues, the author Ehtisham also keeps the readers trotting along through the pages packed with information, which a discerning eye might also find in the very informative footnotes. The book is a beginners’ guide to the Indo-Pakistani history, politics, religions and economics. Most, with some background in the Indo-Pakistani matters would hit the ground running, while for the western and the US readers it provides an opportunity to absorb the pointers given by Ehtisham and graduate to a more detailed reading of the subjects that interest them.

This examination by the medical doctor in a way is a rendition in prose, of Allama Iqbal’s poem “Iblees ke majlis e shura”, in which Lucifer juxtaposes different socio-economic systems like Socialism, Islam and Capitalism, and discusses the merits and de-merits of each , with his cohorts and advisers. Just as it is clear in the poem that Iqbal would make Islam come out on the top, it is fairly obvious that for Ehtisham the fall of neo-liberal capitalism is a foregone conclusion.

After following the author on his journeys through three continents, it is hard not to think of this verse by the poet-philosopher Mirza Abdul Qadir Baydil:

Har kuja raftam ghubar e zindagi derpaish bood

Ya rab een khaak e pareeshaan az kuja bardashtam

ہر کجا رفتم غبار زندگی درپيش بود
يا رب ايں خاک پريشاں ازکجا برداشتم

(Author teaches and practices Medicine at the University of Florida and can be reached at

No comments: