A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable fact was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name.
This is not the only parallel between the political history of Bangladesh and post-1971 Pakistan.
Both successor states of United Pakistan started with larger-than-life charismatic leaders, whose rules ended in tragic denouement inconceivable in 1972. Both giants found governance to be much harder than populist rhetoric, both resorted to un-democracy, and both ended up meeting cruel ends at the hand of their trusted guards. Both countries succumbed to dictatorships in the 1980s, although the extent and mechanism varied. In both countries democratic opposition developed. In both countries, some form of democratic politics came into practice by the 1990s.
Apropos nothing, let me talk about alternate history — you know, those fantastic tales where this or that even had or had not happened, leading to a very, or not so very, different history.
As the regular readers would know, there are at least two such series, perhaps three, running in this blog where Bengal, or India, had never been partitioned, or where partition had meant a different kind of Pakistan. There was even a post about had there been a battle in Plassey. But when it comes to the subcontinent, the big alternative history subject is about Mughal Empire continuing on beyond the 17th century. Since the Empire exhausted itself during Aurangzeb’s reign, perhaps had his brother Dara Shikoh had been the emperor, things might have been different?
The tale of brave Alvarez
Young man, what’s your age? Twenty-two? When you were just a toddler, back in 1889, that’s when my story begins. I was prospecting for gold beyond the forest and the ranges to the north of the Cape Colony. I was young then, and cared for no danger.
I started from Bulawayo, alone, with two donkeys carrying my luggage. I crossed the Zambezi, beyond which the maps were marked with the words ‘unknown region’. I’d cross rolling hills, tall grasses, small Bantu villages. Then eventually Bantu villages became less frequent. I had reached a place that was never before visited by a white man.
Wherever I saw a river or creek, or a hill, I looked for gold. How many had become rich in the southern part of Africa with gold or diamond? I had heard those tales since when I was a little boy. That’s what I came to Africa for. But I found nothing in two years of roaming around. Two years of hardship, and nothing to show for it. Actually, once I came very close.