Salman Rashid is a historian and the only Pakistani to have seen the North Face of K-2. He also has the unique privilege of calling himself the late VS Naipaul’s friend. Today, he sits adjacent to me in a cacophonic coffee shop in Lahore, sipping overpriced coffee. He strains his ear to make sense of what I ask him but gives up, shaking his head as we drag our chairs outside, away from the clutter.
“Restaurants here are set up in a way where you can’t even converse,” he says.
Our coffees start to look like muddied water.
Salman Rashid started writing about travel and history in 1983, when ‘nobody else was doing it’. He is part of the Royal Geographical Society and distinguishes himself as one of the few authorities on Alexander the Great’s Indian expedition.
In conversation with The Correspondent, he delves into travel documentaries and writing in Pakistan, why they have historically failed in the country and how important prior research and knowledge are to the entire process.
The Correspondent: When did you start writing about travel? What do you think of Pakistan’s travel writers?
Salman Rashid: I started writing in 1983, when nobody else was doing it. Even now, except maybe for leisure, nobody does it professionally. I can’t think of too many travel writers or documentary makers in Pakistan. FS Aijazuddin is one of the few writers who knows what he’s doing. There’s a lot of research that goes into his work. I can’t say that for too many Pakistani writers.
The Correspondent: You hosted a travel documentary series on PTV in the 1990’s. How did network producers then react to such a concept? Did you manage to sustain an audience?
Salman Rashid: In 1998 I hosted the travel show ’Nagri Nagri Ghoom Musafir’ on PTV. People would come up to me to tell me how much they loved the series. They were especially drawn to the episode I did on Rohtas. I realized this was because I was telling a story and not just narrating historical facts. Storytelling in history is very important.
When I pitched my idea for a travel documentary series on Skardu’s Deosai to PTV in the 90’s, the producer was stunned.
‘What are you talking about? A 30 minute episode? That can’t be. It can’t exceed 5-10 minutes. What is there in Deosai anyway that is worth 30 minutes? Just take a long shot of the water and that’s that.
I left after a while. I didn’t even go back to collect my pay cheque. How much of difference would it have made anyway? I was to get paid Rs.800.
This was around the same time BBC had come out with a 3 part series on Ancient Egypt. The storytelling was unbelievable. They told stories through graffiti, through hieroglyphs. They identified its meaning, dissected it on the spot. Imagine that. And then compare it with what we were doing.
The Correspondent: You say storytelling is crucial to history. Where did you learn storytelling and do you think travel related writing and documentaries have suffered here because there’s no such concept to them?
Salman Rashid: I learned storytelling from Obaidullah Baig. He was my guide and mentor. I would say he was Pakistan’s premium, the best storyteller. Storytelling in both travel writing and documentaries is dead here now. All we have is a relaying of historic facts. Nobody’s interested in that. This is why people here aren’t drawn to it. You have to tell them a story.
I was watching a local travel show the other day where the host points to a monument, looks to the camera and asks ‘Do you know what this is?’
‘No? Well that’s a coincidence because neither do I.’
It’s almost comical now.
Why can’t we do a travel show like Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days? Yes, it is essentially about travel but it will tell you a great deal about geography and culture. The problem here is that nobody reads.
The Correspondent: How hard is it for travel filmmakers and writers in Pakistan? Are they financially compensated for the amount of effort that goes into their field? Do they have adequate creative autonomy?
Salman Rashid: Every big TV network had approached me to work for them as a travel historian. They expected me to work for free because they believed getting me on television would be enough and that this alone was my one true dream. The ones doing it for free weren’t true historians. They just wanted a little fame on television. Nothing more. That is what their shows reflected too.
It wasn’t until Muneeza Hashmi was the general manager of PTV in 1998 that I reconnected with my initial travel series.
‘What do you want?’ Muneeza would ask me.
‘Just don’t give me any man to work with. Except for a cameraman,’ I said.
Finally ‘Nagri Nagri Ghoom Musafir’ aired on PTV in the late 1990’s. I now had enough creative freedom to execute my long awaited project. We still weren’t getting paid enough though. I earned Rs. 4000 per episode. It was still more than 800 but the effort I was putting in was immense.
Pakistan is stuck in the endless paradox of wanting achievement but blocking any avenue that guarantees it. It is ironic that in a country where history and culture are the main contingents of national pride, writers and documentarians that work to showcase it are enormously shunned. In conditions like these, it is hardly surprising that the art of travel related writing and film continues to suffer.