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THE HERALD, February 1998


Publisher's Devil

Twenty-one years ago an international publishing group took out a memorable book about the land, history and people of Pakistan. The book was widely acclaimed for its lush photographs and well-written essays, mostly by prominent personalities. As part of its golden jubilee package, the Oxford University Press, Pakistan, has brought out the second edition of this well-known book.

Published by arrangement with Stacey International, London, Pakistan is an attractive coffee table book that attempts to fill a vacuum. While several books of its kind have been published over the past decade, they have mostly focused either on a photographic representation of this country or dealt with information primarily of interest to tourists. The book under review, like its first edition, attempts to go beyond this somewhat skimpy approach. The contents page lists such putatively weight topics as ‘History’, ‘The Land and the People’, ‘The Economy’, ‘Culture’ and ‘Pakistan’s Place in the World’.

The essays on these topics are a mix of new and old. Some of the authors from the first edition, such as Faiz, A.H. Dani and Percival Spear, appear in the new edition, side by side with writers from the younger generation. The quality of writing varies from author to author. The best pieces, such as the ones on economy, environment and post-1947 literature (by Rukhsana Shah, Talat Aslam and Asif Aslam Farrukhi, respectively) demonstrate a combination of information and lucidity of style that is just right for this type of book. Together with well-selected photographs (again, a blend of new and old), these essays bring to the book a richness that should make the discerning reader include a copy of Pakistan in their collection.

These high points aside, the disappointments in the book are too many for an endeavour that bears the name of two publishers of international repute. To begin with, the list of principal contributors describes Fatima Jinnah as “(d. 1967)” but fails to mention that other writers, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, have also died since the first edition was published. Meanwhile, the note at the end of the list is even more confusing. In fact, it is downright irritating: “Contributors held these roles at the time of writing,” the publishers inform us. But they fail to explain that some of this writing was done in 1976 while other articles were written more that 20 years later. Since the publishers do not deign to mention which pieces were written when, the reader is left wondering whether, for instance, the entry for I. A. Rehman, telling us that he is Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was true in 1976 or in 1997. Of course, the ambiguity could well have been intentional, to penalize a reader for not knowing that the Human Rights Commission did not exist in 1976.

Then there are the essays which are simply too poor to merit publication. For instance, the piece by Sarwat Ali on the performing arts could have been written by an average college student sitting in an examination hall without permission to refer to any sources.

Apart from problems with the quality of information provided, it is also surprising to find cinema being included under category of the performing arts whereas, by any definition of the celluloid trade, cinema is a visual art. In fact, this is the first thing they teach in any foundation course on filmmaking. Meanwhile, whatever little is written about cinema in this section is itself in keeping with the fundamental mistake of the editor. Of a total of 208 large pages in this book, the entire film history of Pakistan gets approximately 230 words, without mention of a single film or the name of a single artist or other person related to the cinema industry. It might be said that our films are not at par with the best in the world, but then, neither is our politics, which receives much more attention in this book. As such, it is not a question of superior aesthetics but simply superficial knowledge to dismiss in some 200 extempore words an art industry that has produced many thousands of films in the last 50 years, has a history that begins well before the birth of this country and has produced thousands of memorable songs, many of which have become metaphors in our everyday discourse and a part of our collective memory.

In other areas as well, it is not as if the book has managed to maintain even the minimum standard required for average efforts in the local publishing milieu. Typos, for instance, are usually viewed lightly while judging a book, unless they become so numerous that they begin to cast considerable doubts on the professional competence of the people responsible for the production. Pakistan, unfortunately, is a classic example of this phenomenon.

The very first error occurs in the second line of the first full-text page, where “Pakistani’s English … press” appears instead of “Pakistan’s English … press.” But this is by no means all. Throughout the text, in fact, the reader is compelled to navigate through a labyrinth of such devilish errors: “Iqbal Bane” (read: Iqbal Bano), and “Zahoor-e-Ajam” instead of Zaboor-e-Ajam, full-stops in the middle of a sentence, and so on. This nuisance persists right up to the second-last page of the book where the index features one of the strangest typos. While the notation, “see also”, appears italicized in all other entries, it is curiously underlined in the entry on the Mughal Empire. This, by the way, is a double mistake, because the notation for this particular entry should have been “see”.

Pakistan is proof, if proof was needed, that foreign names involved in a project are no guarantee of its quality. The fact, however, remains that only big publishers can venture to produce books of this scale. As such, Pakistan will probably remain near the top of the list of coffee table books about this part of the world.

The best pieces, such as the ones on economy, environment and post-1947 literature (by Rukhsana Shah, Talat Aslam and Asif Aslam Farrukhi, respectively) demonstrate a combination of information and lucidity of style that is just right for this type of book.

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