A Historical Appetizer
Title: The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History. Edited by: Ayesha Jalal Publisher: Oxford University Press, Pakistan (February 2012) Pages: 558, Hardback Price: PKR 1500 ISBN: 9780195475784
The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History is a timely and welcome addition to the social sciences literature on Pakistan. As a reference work, it deals with people, places, events, movements, trends and ideas, bringing together the expertise of academics and practitioners. The effort that has clearly gone into the editing and compiling is commendable and the editor has performed a great service to the study of Pakistan’s past. The finished product is a fine introduction to Pakistan and a worthy jumping off point for both researchers and general readers.
Arguably, the greatest strength of The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History is that it embraces a diversity of viewpoints rather than trying to hammer different perspectives into conformity or simply ignoring whatever is contrary to the desired worldview. This is not, therefore, a friendly companion for any ideological perspective on Pakistan’s past nor does it seek to rationalize the behavior of regimes, leaders and movements. The contributors have clearly had the freedom to express themselves as they see fit albeit without the polemical emphasis of popular debates. The tone, is thus, sober, while no attempt is made to fix a timeframe on Pakistani history or limit it spatially or intellectually to the territorial frontiers of contemporary Pakistan.
Although there is no central- izing theme, reading The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History gives one a sense of the diversity, tragedy, and upheavals that have forged the present. The Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Delhi Sultans, Mughals, British, and many others are covered in multiple entries. For the post-1947 section, sub-national movements are provided space, their achievements, programs and struggles, placed alongside entries that cover Pakistan’s military, civil service, and foreign policy. Reference the Freedom Movement, the Pakistan Movement and postindependence politics, political leaders get a substantial number of entries. While there isn’t as much on Pakistani sportsmen, scholars, artists, academicians, and eminent citizens as perhaps there ought to be, there are, however, wonderfully informative entries on cities, such as Lahore, and sports, such as squash.
The best way to read The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History is slowly and deliberately. As it is organized alphabetically, trying to read too much in one go can exhaust the reader’s patience. The reader is advised to read a few entries at a time, or skip to topics using the Subject Index, that they find most interesting. The read-
ing experience, however, is quite rewarding for the quality of the entries ranges from superb to competent. As can be expected, entries on topics that are familiar might not be as impressive or detailed as one wants, while those on topics where the familiarity level is lower might appear to be better.
It is vital that potential readers understand that The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History is not a detailed history of everything. The entries should be taken as appetizers that stimulate the curiosity of the reader. In the event that some- thing or someone has been missed in the present edition, the best thing to do is to inform the editor and the publisher so that the gap can be addressed in later editions. One hopes that these editions do keep coming at regular intervals after revision and updating.
Overall, The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History is an es- sential reference work that provides useful information about Pakistan’s past from multiple perspectives. The editing is solid and the contributors have done well to convey complex topics, issues and personalities, in a concise and readable manner. While the Pakistan release can be expected to find its way to libraries around the world it may be advisable for an online version of The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History to be prepared as well – it would be a considerable improvement to existing online resources about Pakistan and will have far greater creditability. Ilhan Niaz is the author of ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008’ and ‘An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent.’ He teaches history at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.