The World according to Zeeshan Khan

Zeeshan Khan’s travelogue has the potential to change not only the way we think about India, Pakistan and Iran, but also about history, travel, language and communities

Dhruba Basu Delhi 

“I spend the hours listening to music, reading and thinking about how skewed and incomplete an impression most of the world has about Iran. Far from revealing anything about the country, the stigma that gets slapped onto it actually reveals more about the redundancy of Western rhetoric, and tells you how little politicians really know about anything. There’s no denying that the Islamic Revolution brought with it many horrors and impinged upon things that people in many other countries enjoy as fundamental rights and civil liberties, but for the most part Iran is like any other functional country; in fact, in some ways it’s better.”

It would be misleading to suggest that the above passage embodies everything that Zeeshan Khan has set about trying to achieve in his first book. Most of his contemplations run much deeper in terms of their engagement with the cultures he comes into contact with on his journey through the cities, towns, deserts, and holy and historical sites of the lands in between Dhaka and Europe. What the passage does exemplify, however, is Khan’s deep commitment to authenticity and dialogue in representing peoples and places that share a long history of trade relations, cultural interactions and brutal conquest.

Right to Passage: Travels Through India, Pakistan and Iran is fundamentally a travelogue, a terrifically detailed, well-informed, and enthralling one. It is generously lathered with the writer’s personal musings, which strike a fine but never precarious balance between cosmopolitanism and cultural relativism. As they should, given that he is a Bangladeshi journalist with a British passport who studied in Australia and Canada, originally majoring in anthropology. But to leave it at that is to ignore something altogether more subversive about Khan’s project, something that can tentatively be described as a post-colonial undertone.

Follow Hardnews on Facebook and Twitter 

Among the many things that India, Pakistan and Iran share, perhaps the most significant one in this day and age is the fact that they are all historically victims of Western agenda. India and Pakistan were of course once a singular entity administered under the British Empire, bifurcated violently when an oscillating imperial policy of religious appeasement and demonisation reached its illogical conclusion. One is frequently touted as the world’s largest democracy and one of its fastest-growing economies, but is home to the largest number of poor people in the world; the other managed its first peaceful democratic transition in 2013, swinging between weak elected governments and repressive military dictatorships for 66 years before that. Both are plagued by corruption and riven by internal strife. To crudely approximate common perceptions of the two today, India is an undeservedly smug manufacturing plant for cheap IT professionals, spiritual and religious eccentrics of every hue and billionaires whose very existence is ironic, while Pakistan is quite simply a blast-a-minute hotbed of Islamic terrorism, an area cordoned off for American drones to carry out target practice exercises.

The reasons for Iran’s participation in this club are elaborated by Khan himself soon after the quoted passage, when he talks about how, starting in 1941, Britain, the Soviet Union and the US conspired in a series of political manoeuvres to destabilise its government in order to take control of its oil reserves and geostrategic position, which was directly responsible for the backlash that was the Iranian Revolution. America’s attempts to methodically suppress this information took its usual form in the economic sanctions that were finally lifted in 2015, after 36 years of marginalising and demonising the country for repressive sociopolitical structures whose establishment had been expedited by none other than Uncle Sam.

It is in the context of these synchronic narratives, constructed by the West to downplay their role in destroying economies and societies all over the world for their own ends that Right to Passage takes on a kind of special relevance. This is not to suggest that the book is overtly concerned with contemporary politics, notwithstanding expressions of annoyance at things like “hearing Obama go on about Iran with pompous, unfounded authority”. Rather, it is to highlight the implications of seeing a misrepresented world, and the continuities between the sometimes arbitrarily segmented parts of that world, through eyes that belong to it and make a sincere effort to look past the bullshit, to actually see that world and understand what belonging to it really means when you cannot be from all of it at once but cannot ignore the similarities either.

And better eyes than Khan’s could not have been asked for. At the very beginning of the book, as he passes through Bihar on the first leg of his journey, he visualises the armies of Jarasandha, the Pandavas, Ashoka, the Palas, Bakhityar Khilji, Sher Shah Suri and other kings, figures (like the Buddha) and empires of the past marching across its plains, and follows it up with a discussion of the demographic, anthropological, political, and spiritual moorings of a state that is today known mainly as a leading member of the BIMARU family. To displace Bihar with erudition from its contemporary associations with jungle raj, jugaad and civil service aspirants is itself a good start, but to condense so wide-ranging an array of topics into 15 compellingly readable pages that are also interspersed with personal experiences, interactions and gleanings is truly laudable.

In fact, he keeps this up for the next 358 pages, giving Delhi, Amritsar, Wagah, Lahore, Taxila, Islamabad, Peshawar, Multan, Quetta, Zahedan, Rayen, Mashhad, Neyshabur, Tus, Yazd, Esfahan, Kashan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Shush, Tehran and Tabriz the same kind of treatment. On the way, he sprinkles succinct histories of the ancient civilisations of Asia, the Mauryans, Greeks, Sikhs, Pathans, Bengalis, Persians, even the Aryans and Semitic peoples as a whole, throwing in theories about their origins and movements, rules of nomenclature, concise biographies of rulers, philosophers, writers and mystics, and ruminations about the characteristics that define them today. He recreates with equal ease landscapes, architectural details, conversations and debates (both historical ones and those he has with the people he meets on his journey), scrupulously avoiding the pitfalls of hasty conclusions throughout. At the same time, he does not compromise on honesty, a policy that comes out most clearly when he describes the attractive women he encounters. But there is nothing disrespectful in his attentions and it is hardly anything to launch a feminist critique over.

The miracle is that all of this is pulled off without the narrative becoming overbearing. The tone of the book is light and conversational in spite of its heavy-duty themes, and elegant without any pretensions. The complete absence of photos is disappointing, especially given that the writer is an avid photographer, but there is an explanation for that: he has had a photo essay published as well, titled The Old World.

Khan has stated in interviews that a journey across Eurasia had first occurred to him at the age of 20, but he had to shelve it until he had the means and maturity; Right to Passage is a testament to the fact that he has attained both. A second instalment is due, covering his continued travels through Turkey and into Europe.

Needless to say, this reader is breathlessly looking forward to it.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2016