M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images

By Anjum Altaf

I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it.


Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks:

A country like Pakistan is full of problems – that we can all agree on. And those problems must be solved. But I can’t believe the solutions will come out of think tanks, at least as they are now. Think about it this way: We built a house, without a foundation, out of the most flimsy and flammable materials we could find, and then stocked it with gunpowder. Every time I go to one of these talks, it sounds like I am being told to walk softly and carry a fire extinguisher. Maybe I’ll follow that advice and maybe I won’t, but the house is still a danger.

The Orient Express

Tinderbox is billed as a historical “whodunit” that traces the journey of an idea that divided India. I imagined an investigation aboard the Orient Express working through the clues to identify conclusively by the end the villain of the piece. But Tinderbox is not really a whodunit because the villain, the Muslim psyche, is identified almost as soon as the train pulls out of the station.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Rather, the book is more in the spirit of a chronicle of a death foretold in which one expects a taut tale of the inexorable unfolding of events driven by the compulsions of the Muslim psyche that lead first to the enormous release of 1947 and then continue to build the pressure anew as the future of Pakistan unravels.

Smelling the Flowers

It turns out to be far from a taut tale. Much like the Pakistani irregulars in Kashmir who in 1947 ‘wasted time in rape and plunder en route to a virtually defenceless Srinagar,’ the author dawdles and digresses at will. The book is full of anecdotes that inform and amuse but add nothing to the unfolding of the story. We learn, for example, that Robert Clive ‘was nineteen when he reached India in 1744, on a starting salary of five pounds a year (plus three pounds for candles and servants; accommodation was free)’; that Siraj ud Daulah escaped from Plassey ‘on a fast camel’; that in England, Jinnah ‘hired a British Chauffeur (Bradley) for his Bentley [and] kept two dogs (a black Doberman and a white West Highland Terrier)’; that when Gandhi was shifted on 11 January 1924 to Sassoon Hospital with acute appendicitis, one of the nurses was British who ‘chatted with him about her dogs.’

The Dog

In Sherlock Holmes the dog didn’t bark. In Tinderbox, it barked and barked and never bit. The author makes the chronology of discrete events rich in detail but shorn of salience. Discussing why Pakistan used amateurs instead of regular forces in the 1947 strike into Kashmir, Akbar writes: ‘On 27 October 1947, Jinnah called on Liaquat Ali Khan in Lahore. They met in Liaquat’s bedroom since the latter was indisposed (he had all his teeth removed).’ It almost felt as if fate of Kashmir might have been different had Liaquat’s teeth been in place.

The Dump

In the post-computer age, a dump refers to the transfer of the raw contents of electronic memory onto paper. Tinderbox is the transfer onto paper of the raw contents of M J Akbar’s memory that he has neglected to sort, organize or order. As a result, everything is there; every possible clue that one might think of is to be found somewhere in the pages of the book.

Tangled Threads

One result of the lack of order and organization is that the thread of the story gets entangled time and again. The narrative is overdetermined and one can pick and drop clues at will to tell the story that one wants. Many other stories could just as well be told depending upon the dots one wishes to connect. A centerpiece of Akbar’s account is a ‘theory of distance’ attributed to Shah Waliullah in the second quarter of the 18th Century, whose aim was to protect ‘Islamic purity’ from the ‘cultural power and military might of the infidel.’ This theory weaves and bobs its way throughout the text. By the first quarter of the 20th Century ‘The theory of distance evaporated, as if it had never existed. It reappeared only after Gandhi accepted in February 1922, that his [Khilafat] movement had been a failure.’

The Train, Again

Picking through the narrative and the clues, I thought of the anecdote about the marvels of technology: Two passengers get into a train at Mathura and occupy the upper and lower bunks, respectively. On discovering that one is destined for Agra and the other for Delhi, they wax eloquent over the technological advances that enable the upper and lower bunks to travel in opposite directions.

Akbar’s narrative and the clues tell different stories quite independent of each other. We find that Deoband, the seminary established by Waliullahs’s successors, ‘sought Muslim space within a shared Hindu-Muslim India’ while it were the modernists of Aligarh University, founded by Syed Ahmad Khan, who led the drive for a separate country; that the place where the seeds of Pakistan were sown by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi in the mid-nineteenth century and the present-day abode of the Taliban, the North West Frontier Province, was also the only place the Muslim League failed to win in 1946. Akbar himself remarks: ‘There is a notable anomaly in the partition drama… The man who had little religion divided India in the name of religion…while the ‘true maulana’ [Azad], who ‘lived, breathed and practiced Islam’ opposed Pakistan.

The Scatterplot

Looking at the multitude of clues made me think of a scatterplot with all the data points located on it. The mind sought the line of best fit and failed to find it. The dots don’t connect the way Akbar wants them to; there are other lines that seem to promise a much better explanation. Akbar puts these explanations in other people’s mouths and ignores them himself. Thus he has B R Nanda explain Partition with the line ‘Hindu politicians were incapable of generosity and Muslim politicians were incapable of trust’; Sumit Sarkar pronounce, ‘Not for the first or last time, Hindu communalism had significantly weakened the national anti-imperialist cause at a critical moment’; Francis Robinson note, ‘By the late 1920s Hindu Mahasabha influence over Congress “High Command” reached its peak, raising Congress demands to an unrealistic level as it negotiated with Muslim organizations over the future distribution of power’; and Nirad Chaudhuri conclude that Partition was made ‘possible by a combination of three factors – Hindu stupidity in the first instance and Hindu cowardice afterwards, British opportunism, and Muslim fanaticism.’

The Juggler

After all the tangled lines and dropped clues I couldn’t help think of the juggler who is great with one ball in the air and hopeless with two. Spliced apart as 150 separate columns, Tinderbox would have had its value. Each column would have informed, amused and provided an opinion for discussion. Bound together, the opinions repeatedly contradict each other and the author is unable or unwilling to resolve the contradictions. The whole is decidedly less than the sum of the parts.

The Mughal Court

Tinderbox’s narrative reminded me of the style of history popular in the days of emperors – chronological recordings of the day-to-day events without the burden of separating the insignificant from the salient or of tying cause to effect. Thus, on 9 April 1917 Gandhi reached Patna; on 18 April thousands gathered to witness his trial; on 20 April the case was withdrawn; on 30 April Gandhi wrote a letter to the Viceroy; and so on.

The Cup of Irony

Akbar disappoints by avoiding any guesses about Pakistan’s future despite the promise of the book’s subtitle. Instead, on the last page, he reproduces Maulana Azad’s 1946 predictions about the yet-to-be-born Pakistan. Surprisingly, he fails to note that not a single one of the eight predictions has to do with the Muslim psyche or with a religious theory of distance; rather, they are all related to the unfolding of the political economy of the new country. It is the culminating irony in a book replete with ironies that a religious scholar relies on political economy for analysis while a secular modernist places his faith in a religious explanation.

The Feint

On finishing the book I continued to be puzzled and racked by doubts. Was there a method to the madness? Was there a mystery within a mystery? Was Tinderbox a whodunit after all? Had M J Akbar pulled a fast one on the reader by setting him off on a false trail artfully locating clues all the way for the astute reader to pick up the real scent? If that was indeed the case, Akbar had pulled it off brilliantly – a feat worthy of a master.


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2 Responses to “M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images”

  1. Owaise Saadat Says:

    I found the book a fascinating narration of the events leading to the split of India. My take way was a poignant one: Mulsims had ruled India for such a long time that they were just not ready mentally to accept anything less than a separate homeland….they would never accept serving under a Hindu dominated government. Congress leaders created the right conditions for Jinnah to ride on the crest of Muslim aspirations and to get Pakistan.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Owaise: That is indeed Akbar’s thesis but it is belied by the chronology he has recorded. That, in my view, was the major weakness of the book. In the formal review I wrote for Himal Magazine, I pointed this out explicitly:

      “The contradictions are too numerous to list, but Akbar’s thesis is undermined almost entirely in a chapter entitled ‘Breaking point’. Picking up from an account of the incredible efforts at forging a common national struggle (itself a contradiction of the theory of distance), the chapter begins with the sentence: ‘There were five “swivel” moments in Congress-Muslim relations before the formation of Pakistan.’ If one interprets a ‘swivel moment’ as one at which the outcome could have gone either way, this does away at one stroke with any notion of the inevitability of the division of India.

      Even more surprising is the fact that at three of these swivel moments, the author assigns responsibility for the eventual turn taken to the Congress, not to the proponents of Pakistan. Thus, ‘the fifth, and most tantalizing, chance appeared at the very last minute, in 1946, when the Congress and the League accepted the British Cabinet Plan to retain a united India, but the Congress, fearful of Balkanization, reversed its decision.’ It was only ‘after this [that] their separate paths became irreversible’ – and the author drives a nail into his own thesis.”

      My takeaway was the following: “What survives is not a chronicle of what made Pakistan inevitable but merely an account of how Pakistan came into being.” A convincing account of what made Pakistan inevitable still remains to be written. I don’t think it will rest on the premise that Muslims were not ready to accept anything less than a separate homeland or that such was the Muslim aspiration. How would this account for the League’s acceptance of the 1946 Cabinet Plan or the fact that more Muslims stayed on in India than left for the separate homeland? Also, one would have to assert that every Muslim who was a resident of areas outside the borders of today’s India desired a separate homeland which was clearly not the case. Quite apart from the fact that the electoral franchise was limited at the time, there is the glaring exception of the Frontier Province on record.

      The irony is that many Muslims who were arguing from religious and not political perspectives were decisively against a separate homeland. The really fascinating book to read is Barbara Metcalfe’s Hussain Ahmad Madani which records the vernacular voices and arguments that we never get to hear in the discourse dominated by secular English-speaking individuals.

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