Javed Amir’s selection of essays and reviews encapsulate his search for a worldview. His finding is that if the truth being pursued is narrow it flouts wisdom and breeds intolerance of truths found by others. He quotes Ghalib: don’t be deceived by existence; existence is but a loop in the web of thought. And then, respectfully disagrees with the premise that life is a deception. The result is fascinating, at least to me: he doesn’t hold orthodox views that earn you social or national acceptance. Equipped with the widest possible reading experience, he is smug in not being a part of the smug national consensus that gives most of us our confidence to live.
I first saw him in the Government College Lahore, a good-looking youth immersed in literature, writing short stories in the college magazine. He stood first in Masters in English in the province, then took the civil services exam and landed in the Foreign Service being and trained in Lahore’s prestigious Civil Services Academy. I was there too but he was far ahead of me in the order of merit.
Given his attractive presence, he quickly succumbed to match-making by his family, and the Academy saw a rare "dream wedding" in its lawns: he had married a well-known beauty Salma Agha, a singer and filmstar-to-be. His first tough lesson of life had started while he was still in his 20s.
A born writer, Javed explained the peripety of this long lesson in his novel Modern Soap about which late Ambassador Basit Haqqani produced the following revealing passage in his review:
"The tradition-bound parents are keen to arrange a match befitting their son’s newly acquired status. They are struck by the high-society profile of the Paro family while Shahid (sic!) is smitten by the beguiling beauty and deceptive vulnerability of the intended betrothed, Beenu.. In time, Shahid moves to Paris and the Paro family to London along with the jewels shifted concealed under the privilege of diplomatic immunity. This mission accomplished, the dark side of the Paro family begins closing on the son in law, Shahid. Inheritor of an age-old courtesan tradition, the matriarch spun a web of pretension and play on emotions to bind the household with girls often dreaming of glamour, show biz and film acting and plaint male members whirling around to provide a protective cover."
Javed changed his life. He left the foreign service and let the self-seeking wife go too. After a struggle that did not dehumanise him, he succeeded where most others would have failed. His mind was flexible enough to flit between literature and the stock exchange with ease, accompanied by his wise and understanding second wife Clemencia and his wonderfully talented children. When I visited him in Washington DC, he was living in a capacious house with a basement that served as his private domain populated with great literary and political classics.
What has he achieved? Apart from writing his books, more importantly, he has arrived at a wisdom he can live with. Can I say it in a sentence? I will quote from his Introduction:
"The beauty of existence is in its constant change and in its erotic energy. Lucretius’ immortal poem, which is obviously a tribute to the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, clearly begs us to balance a life devoted to the wisdom of thought with the wisdom of the senses."
Being a Pakistani and aware of how religion obsesses the Muslims of the world, he contemplates the idea of the sacred and tells us that it lies in the non-judgmental spheres of life, away from the certitudes that disfigure our souls.
The second essay talks of mythology, probably secretly aware of the blanket disapproval the Muslims who think they believe only because they have rejected the mysteries of the human soul. He quotes Jung:
"Jung said religion is a defense against the experience of god. By providing a preconceived notion of god, he said, you are denied a larger and deeper experience. Mythology, on the other hand, does not short circuit the transcendent. Mythology is like poetry and therefore flexible. Religion, on the other hand, is inflexible and rigid, the very antithesis of mythology."
There follow two essays on erotic love backed by the authority of Vatsayana and the semi-divine status of the hetaera accepted jointly by Greeks and classical India.
I read his essay on Toledo especially because I could boast of some knowledge after reading Simon Schama’s classic portrait of the city where once the Jews lived in harmony with the Muslim. After Christian "re-conquest" however both religions were forced to flee Spain and the Inquisition that later decimated the Jews was actually visited on the "converso" - the Jew that had become Christian.
Javed’s sketch of this "greatest city in Spain" is exquisite including the coda regretting how Muslims had become internecine with intolerance in the 21st century.
Like many of us, he is martyr to the magic of Marquez and sums up in a sentence what I have sought to express after reading the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist: "For someone who has lived both in Pakistan and Colombia, I find striking parallels in the histories of these two countries. There is an uncanny resemblance in the politics and numerous other details of the Gaitan and Liaquat Ali Khan assassinations in that cold war era."
The kind of "education" Javed has put himself through is no longer possible in today’s Islamic world where even the states founded as secular societies are relapsing into the medievalism of an "Arab spring".
Javed has an interesting insight to offer on Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that doesn’t say his hero is driven to violent fundamentalism only by the way he is treated in the United States; violence also comes from the indoctrination flowing out of the education received by him as a Muslim. Javed is passionate about attending book launches and when I was in Washington he took me to his favourite haunt, the Washington D.C. bookstore, Politics and Prose. He talks about the session the bookstore had with Mohsin Hamid, probably the Pakistani writer with the best-crafted prose in English. The short novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, went through six drafts. I agree with the comment Javed offered at the launch:
"The first question I asked him about his novel was whether he would agree that his characters of Erica and Chris were more allegorical than real persons because they were very thinly drawn sketches. Besides, Changez’s capricious love for America mirrored his affair with Erica."
Javed’s repertoire is full of books that would be considered anti-American in a conservative United States. I join his enthusiasm for Gore Vidal, arguably the best American essay-writer, and share his enthusiasm for the indictments issued by wise Americans of its rudderless capitalism, its hegemonic "empire" born out of its power-projection abroad. His longest essay is on this subject, apart from the insights Tariq Ali presented during one of his visits to DC. But there is much else that America teaches that should not be forgotten after the empire declines and disappears, tilting the world into an interim period of directionless chaos and great suffering. Every empire of the past has performed a "civilizing" function, and what America has taught to Javed is the freedom America’s founders posited in that most self-consciously intellectual fountainhead called The Federalist Papers.